Eighteen-year-old Vera Dietz is struggling to finish her senior year in high school while working forty hours a week as a pizza deliverer. Vera's dad, a recovering alcoholic, is in Vera's words "parsimonious," or frugal. Intent upon making sure his daughter does not make the same mistakes in life that he and his wife did, he constantly pushes her to work and save so that she can pay her way through college. Vera's mother, who gave birth to Vera as a teenager and was employed as a stripper for a time to make ends meet, ran away with another man six years ago. Her mother "doesn't visit, doesn't call." Vera fears that she will one day indeed become like her parents, estimating wryly that she will turn out to be "a drunk, pregnant, dropout stripper any day now." Ironically, even as she tries to evade her "destiny," Vera drinks surreptitiously in an effort to cope. She wonders if, despite her efforts, she is even now taking the same "baby-steps to loserdom" that her parents did when they were her age.
In addition to all the other pressures in her life, Vera is haunted by the ghost(s) of her erstwhile best friend, Charlie Kahn, who died under sordid circumstances a few months earlier. Actually, Charlie had "screwed [Vera] over" back in April, and at the time of his death in August, the two had barely been speaking, but the lifelong bond between them somehow still remains. Charlie appears to Vera at the most random and inopportune moments in multiple, ethereal versions of himself—"a thousand Charlies." Charlie wants Vera to unearth the secrets he has left hidden for only her to find; he wants her to clear his name.
Vera Dietz and Charlie Kahn grew up next door to each other, their houses separated by a short stretch of woodland. Over the years, the Dietz family often heard loud arguing coming from the Kahns' house. It was evident that Mr. Kahn regularly beat and abused his wife. Vera frequently begged her father to intervene, but Mr. Dietz told her to simply ignore the sounds of violence coming from next door. Charlie, at least when he was younger, seemed to "adore" his father, who often took him hunting and taught him to shoot a gun.
Charlie and Vera spent much of their childhoods playing together, climbing trees, and hiking on trails. One day, when they were eleven, they were accosted by a man driving a "white, boxy Chrysler." The man, obviously a pervert, admired Vera's "pretty blond pigtails" and told the children he would give them ten dollars if they would let him take pictures of them. Vera ran, and Charlie followed soon after. Later, Charlie told Vera that the pervert had increased his offer to twenty dollars after she had fled. Disturbed, Charlie and Vera climbed the "Master Oak," their "sacred tree," to talk about what had just happened. There, in Charlie's mind at least, the "spirit of the Great Hunter," a mythical, God-like entity about whom he had learned from his father, would protect them.
Halfway between his place and Vera's, Charlie built a tree house when they were twelve. It was an elaborate construction, with screens, shutters, and eventually electricity. When it was finished, Charlie moved into his construction to escape the violence in his home. Once, he invited Vera to spend the night with him in the tree house, and Vera's father reluctantly let her, after she argued that they were still only twelve and that Charlie was "about as interested in [her] as he [was] in combing his hair." The two children stayed up late that night, eating popcorn and talking about "stupid stuff" like the best friends they were, then they snuggled into their respective sleeping bags and said good-night. At midnight, a car came up the hill and stopped nearby. Charlie quietly left the tree house and did not return until dawn.
Charlie and Vera never had another sleepover. When they were thirteen, Vera's father made it clear that, even though Vera thought Charlie was "the most exciting boy [she] had ever met," because of his family background, the two of them could never date. By the time Charlie was fourteen, he was addicted to nicotine. Vera idly wondered where he got the money for all the cigarettes he smoked. In May of that year, Charlie was forced to go to the doctor by his mother, who was worried about his colon because he always threw his underwear away. Charlie did not return to school for a week. Vera, having heard more yelling than usual coming from his house, heartbrokenly concluded that Mr. Kahn must have beaten him. Wanting desperately to help her friend, Vera appealed to her father, but predictably, Mr. Dietz told her that if they got involved, they would undoubtedly make things worse. Vera, interpreting his reluctance to act as apathy and laziness, angrily vowed "never to become a heartless, blind-eye hypocrite" like him.
Charlie let Vera in on a secret when he saw her again: he had been selling his dirty underwear to a "rich guy," the pervert who had admired Vera's pigtails when they were eleven. When Vera asked Charlie specifically about his doctor's appointment, he responded cryptically, saying, "I know what I'm doing. It's not illegal." Charlie laughed about his relationship with the pervert, whose name was John, insisting that it was "harmless," but while talking about it, he would not look Vera in the eye. Although she did not fully understand the true nature of Charlie's situation, Vera sensed that it was sinister and unsavory, and wondered how a boy from such a dysfunctional family, "who'[d] witnessed what Charlie [had] witnessed...[could] discern right from wrong."
When they started high school, Charlie and Vera still saw each other occasionally, but for the most part, they lived their separate lives. Vera, whose primary objective was to distance herself from her family's history and "slip through [school] quietly without letting anyone know she was an ex-stripper's daughter," was placed in a college-preparatory program, and did volunteer work at Zimmerman's Pet Store. Charlie, having been convinced that he was a "blue collar guy" like his father, took vocational classes. He received a motor bike from his dad as a reward for pursuing a trade rather than higher...
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