Over the chicken wire, under the fence post, across the field towards the huddle of trees in the distance. My heart flutters as I follow, because I’m following her. There is a still hum to the field as bugs hang in the air. The grass is as high as my waist, and when I see her almost to the trees I rush too much and fall. My hand is scraped and little beads of blood sprout at the base of the palm. I stop for a moment in the lee of the grass where it is cool and even quieter.
When I get up she is gone. I resume my run, ashamed and cautious and heart fluttering heavier than before.
I move from the dry fields to the dark wet woods that smell of rotting leaves and earth, and I look for her. She would not invite me to see this place and then abandon me. But then maybe she would. There was no telling what cruelty a girl might think up. Even if grandma said she was “sweet” and “a darling.” I have to agree that she is “a pretty little thing,” even if she is taller than me.
“Who goes there?” Her voice is both stern and playful. I turn around but she isn’t there, and I trip on a root backing up. Her laugh sounds above me and I look up to see her sitting on a limb, a look of unabashed joy on her face.
“I knew you were in the tree,” I mumble pathetically.
“Of course you did. Come on up!”
“What did you want to show me?”
“It’s in the trees. You have to climb up to find out.” She sounds like a schoolteacher tutoring a dull student. I look at the tree and at first can’t see a good way up. “That knob right there,” she says, pointing. It’s a little higher than is comfortable for me, and that’s where she has the advantage with her long legs. But I reach it and she says, “Attaboy.” A warmth flows through me. She is “a darling.”
I make it up to her branch, and she says, “Now do exactly what I do.” She turns and points to me in warning. “And don’t fall off.”
I blush, because I’ve just fallen twice in the past few minutes. “Yeah, okay.”
She gets up on a higher branch and begins moving out to where it’s alarmingly thin. From there she is able to reach a branch on a neighboring tree. She swings, hooks a leg over a branch on the other tree, and inches her hands along until she’s perched comfortably. She pauses a moment to watch my progress. I can’t quite reach the branch. “Jump,” she suggests, but I’m afraid. She moves out a little on the branch, bending it down until I can just reach it. “Now wait a sec while I get out of the way,” she says and scrambles to a different branch.
The ground looks a long way down. I feel my courage failing, but my alternative to going forward is to let go of the branch, which seems even riskier. So I swing, let out a scream, and hook my leg onto the tree.
“Yay,” she cheers. “You rock!”
The path continues through several more trees, sometimes going higher, sometimes lower, but with a general upward trend, until we make it to a collection of generous branches on a very tall, very old tree. It is perfect: perfect for sitting, perfect for looking across the field at grandma’s house, perfect for shouting, perfect for dreaming. She doesn’t have to say so when we get there. I know this is what she brought me to see.
After we are there for a few minutes, she says, “You’re the first person that made it up here besides me.”
“Yeah. There were two other kids I was going to show it to, but none of them made it. None of them could climb. You’re a really good climber for a little kid.” She can see the weird combination of pride and hurt in my eyes. “You’re not a little kid. I mean it’s easier if you’re taller. That’s all.” She looks over the field. The sun is low enough to start making the sky orange.
“It took me all last summer to figure it out,” she said suddenly. “The path through the trees. I wish you were here last summer. It was boring.”
I have a sudden thought that makes me panic. “We better get back before it gets dark. How will we find our way?”
“There’s time, you worry wart.” I’m crouching on a branch, and she pulls my arm to make me sit down next to her.
“I stayed up here all night once. Last year. I came up to watch the sun set. It was so beautiful, and I watched while the red faded and faded, and the stars started coming out on the other side of the sky. And I leaned back and just let it get dark. I wasn’t smart like you. I didn’t think about getting down. When it started to get cold, that’s when I realized.”
She starts picking at the bark of the tree and kicking the next branch with the toe of her sneaker. “I thought, ‘how bad could it be?’ so I just stayed up here, laid across these three branches here and looked at the stars. Every once in a while I got up and slapped my legs and rubbed my arms. It wasn’t too bad, but I didn’t sleep.”
“Man,” I say. “Didn’t anybody come looking for you. Didn’t your mom know you were down here?”
She looks at me and smiles, but then bites her lip. “No, nobody noticed. I just walked in at dawn and made myself some cornflakes. And when mom came in it was just a normal morning. She sipped her coffee and looked out the window. Sip. Sip. Sip. Like always.”
We can just see the roof of her house, a TV antenna poking up like a praying mantis. I’ve never been over there. She’s always stopping by my grandma’s, suggesting she help with the chores, playing with Rascal, the dog. I never asked why.
She takes my hand. She holds it lightly, cautiously. She looks at our hands together and says, “You’re a good friend.” She beams at me for a moment, and then looks back at the setting sun.
“You’re a good friend too,” I parrot back, but really I’m thinking, “I love you.” I am so sure of this, I have never been more sure of anything. And I see our lives of love stretching out before us like a field of summer grass and a sunset, and a starry sky, and a dawn.
We are both quiet as we make our way down in the fading light. I have decided that I will kiss her when we say goodnight. But when we get to the ground we look at each other for only a second before she turns and starts back home at a trot. Any words that I might have said stuck in my throat. There are bats fluttering erratically over the field catching bugs, and I watch them for a long time, until they have either left or have become indistinguishable from the night sky.
[Part of a series: Grandma’s House]