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Read an excerpt from “The Last Apple Tree” by Claudia Mills

When feuding neighbors Sonnet and Zeke come together for a class project, they uncover a secret that could uproot Sonnet’s family—or finally help them heal and grow.

Curious? Then read on to find out the synopsis and an excerpt from Claudia Mills’ The last apple treewhich has now been published.

Twelve-year-old Sonnet’s family has just moved across the country to live with her grandfather after her grandmother died. Grandpa’s once-impressive apple orchard has been razed to the ground for a housing project, leaving only a single old tree. Sonnet doesn’t want to think about how Grandpa and his tree will grow old – she just wants everything to be OK.

Sonnet is not gets along with her neighbor Zeke, a boy her age who gets on her nerves and stays that way when he tries to select her grandfather for an interview for an oral history assignment. Zeke annoys Sonnet with his prying questions, bringing out the sad side of Grandpa that she’d rather not see. Meanwhile, Sonnet joins the Green Club at school and, without talking to Zeke about it, asks his father, an activist, to speak at the Arbor Day assembly – a clash of worlds that Zeke wanted to avoid more than anything.

But when the interviews reveal a buried tragedy involving Sonnet’s mother and an emergency forces Sonnet and Zeke to work together again, Sonnet not only learns to accept Zeke as he is, but also that sometimes forgetting is not the solution – even when remembering seems harder.

Award-winning author Claudia Mills brings tremendous compassion and depth to this novel about unusual friendship and generational memories.

1. Sonnet

Moo-Moo had disappeared and Sonnet didn’t know what to do.

Well, she knew she had to find him. That much was obvious. And she knew she couldn’t let Grandpa know he was missing. That was even more obvious. How could she possibly tell him that the cat that Grandma loved so much had somehow disappeared, and that maybe it was her fault for not closing the back door all the way, but more likely it was his fault because he was the one who had left the door ajar the other day?

Sonnet had already searched Moo-Moo’s favorite places: the laundry basket, the fire pit next to the wood stove, the pillow on Grandpa’s bed on the side where Grandma always slept. He must have sneaked out of the house, so Sonnet had sneaked outside too, where a cold wind was blowing thick, wet snowflakes through the frosty air, as if the sky had forgotten that it was the last day of March, the last day of spring break, and much too late for this weather.

“Moo-moo!” she called, even though he had never responded to anyone calling his name before. The only sounds that summoned him were the pop of the lid on a can of Fancy Feast or the sound of a door opening… and then not closing again. “It’s me, Sonnet! Your friend, Sonnet!”

No cat responded to this summons.

She tried a different tactic. “Something could eat you! Do you want to be a hungry coyote’s dinner?”

Were there coyotes in Indiana like there were in Colorado?

But she knew that the greater danger for a lost cat at Grandpa’s was being hit by a car. The cars that passed in front of the farmhouse went by so fast, and the road would be slippery with snow.

Sonnet glanced left and right as she continued through the orchard behind the farmhouse. Grandpa and Granny had lived there all their long lives together until Granny had a heart attack, and she, Mum and her little sister Villie had lived there since Christmas.

When they arrived at the funeral, Grandpa himself had looked half dead. He had sat slumped on the sofa, Moo-Moo on his lap, his hair uncombed, his clothes soiled with food, and his face twisted into a grimace that was worse than tears. But there had been many tears in that terrible week.

Moo-Moo was a black and white cat. She was named after the black and white cows Sonnet had seen in nursery rhyme books. But when she saw what might have been Moo-Moo squatting on the ground, it turned out to be a white tea towel that Villie had dropped on the dark, trampled leaves the previous autumn while playing a game of her own making.

“Moo-Moo!” Sonnet cried again, her voice catching with sobs. If Moo-Moo never came home again, what would Grandpa do? Would he be the broken old man again, crying silently on the sofa like he did last fall, only this time without a comforting cat by his side?

“Please come home! Moo-moo! Moo-MOO!”

In the distance, she heard the squeal of a brake on the bend next to the farmhouse. Was it the sound of someone swerving to avoid a cat? Or someone braking too late?

“Moo-MOO!” Sonnet moaned, as if that would change anything about what might have happened.

Then she saw someone coming through where the fence had fallen down at the back of the orchard. The orchard wasn’t really an orchard – just a patch of trampled grass with an old apple tree. Most people would just call it the backyard. But Grandpa always called it the orchard, so everyone else did too.

The house across the fence belonged to a family with a boy her age who was in one of her classes at Wakefield Middle School. The person who approached her was the right size to be Zeke. She didn’t know him very well. He always seemed sullen and bored, and everything he said in class sounded superior or sarcastic.

Zeke must have heard her scream “Moo-MOO!”

She hoped he hadn’t heard how close she was to tears. Well, he would be crying too if his cat had been hit by a speeding car.

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What was he doing in her orchard anyway?

Then she heard a frantic meow and saw a black and white object wriggling in his arms.

“That’s your cat, isn’t it?” Zeke said as she ran to him, her heart bursting with relief and gratitude. Moo-Moo hadn’t been hit by a car! Moo-Moo was alive! Moo-Moo was going home to Grandpa!

Zeke had never seemed friendly at school, but this was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for her, or at least the preferably That was the thing she wanted more in the world. She almost wanted to hug him, but seventh grade girls didn’t hug seventh grade boys, and Zeke didn’t look like someone who wanted to be hugged by anyone anyway.

“Yes! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you for bringing him home!”

Moo – Moo let her take him in her arms and still meowed (he wasn’t the kind of cat that wanted to be hugged by anyone either), but not as loudly as before.

“Did you know that domestic cats have a billion Songbirds every single Year” Zeke said coldly, instead of saying “You’re welcome” or “No problem” like a normal person. “Maybe keep that in mind the next time you let your cat roam free.”

Sonnet felt like he had punched her in the face, even though in real life no one had ever hit her or even pushed her. But that was how Zeke’s nasty comment felt. What a horrible comment to make to someone who was desperately looking for her cat and thought her cat was dead. How could he believe that she had let Moo-Moo out on purpose? Or was he just being spiteful out of hatred?

Nevertheless, Moo-Moo was found and that was the most important thing now.

She cradled Moo-Moo in her arms and turned toward the house without another word.

She wouldn’t have to tell Grandpa that Moo-Moo was lost.

And that the rudest person she had ever met had brought him back.

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