I hadn’t seen him for days. The seat next to me on the bus to San Fernando Junior High stayed empty. There were rumors: a fiery car crash, a crippling polio attack, the Russians kidnapping his whole family. The Sanders’ Studebaker was missing from their driveway. My mind conjured fantastic tales. But on Saturday afternoon, something bounced against my bedroom window and I saw him climbing our walnut tree.
“Aaron, where’ve you been? I was worried.”
“Sorry, Akela. I didn’t have time to tell ya.”
“Tell me what?”
“My parents dropped me at Aunt Barbara’s in Newport Beach. No big deal.”
“Why’d they do that?”
Aaron hesitated. “Don’t know. Pop said somethin’ about a job in LA.”
“But why’d your mother have ta –”
“Hey, I don’ know. Okay?” Aaron scowled.
“Probably more secret spy stuff, huh?”
“You got a screwy mind, Akela, ya know that?”
“Mother says I have a vivid imagination…going to be a writer, or maybe an artist.”
“Yeah, well before ya do, ya gotta help me.”
“We’ve got all tomorrow to do homework.”
“Not that,” he said, impatiently. “Come on.”
Following my normal parent-avoidance procedure, I climbed out the window and shinnied down. It was easier to just disappear than explain everything to Mother. Ever since my first period she wanted to track my every move…as if the neighborhood coyotes could smell me.
We slipped out the back gate into the rolling hills that surrounded our row of pink and green tract homes. Aaron headed upslope toward a grove of trees. I struggled to keep up, inhaling the scent of wild oats and sage. At the top, I was dripping, my T-shirt wet between my tiny breasts.
“Come on, let’s climb her.” He grasped the trunk of a huge oak, its gray bark patterned like alligator hide. Aaron climbed like a trapeze artist ascending to his high platform. My own technique involved bear hugging the tree and scooting upward, losing skin and some pride along the way.
Halfway up, the trunk divided into three massive limbs. I straddled one, Aaron balanced easily on another. The wind whistled through the brittle leaves. The branches rolled slowly beneath us.
“See the way they twist in the wind?” he asked.
“When we lay the floor, we can’t nail it to anything. The tree would tear it apart.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Our house…ya know, our very own house.”
Even before our family moved to California from Hawaii, Mother had warned me about haole boys who wanted to play “house,” a variation of the “Doctors and Patients” game, only with more serious consequences. But this was different. What did building a tree house have to do with anything? Why was Aaron acting so creepy? The week before, he’d sleepwalked his way around school, followed me like a stray dog, and stayed late at my place to finish homework.
My puzzled look must have made him mad because he bolted into the treetop.
“Aaron, come down. Tell me about your… your house thing.”
He stood on a limb no thicker than my wrist and bounced up and down, his slender arms holding onto almost nothing. The wind whipped black hair into my face and I struggled to scrape it away. When I did, he was poised on the branch next to me.
“What da ya think of my idea?”
“Why do you want to build a tree house?”
His face darkened. “Don’ know. Just thought it’d be, ya know, fun.”
“But we’ve never built –”
“If ya don’ wanna do it, JUS’ TELL ME.”
“You don’t have to yell.” I looked away.
“Sorry. I…I just thought it’d be…be our own hideout…away from….”
“But a tree house is a big job…we’ll need to use your father’s tools and – ”
“I’m not touchin’ none of his stuff, ” he growled.
“You in trouble with your Pop?”
“Him and Mom were yelling at each other. I…I can’t stand that…told him to…to SHUT THE HELL UP. But he wouldn’t…kept calling her a…a…” Aaron swiped at his eyes and looked away.
“Jeez, Aaron.” I watched his whole body shudder, like the time I had the shakes from chicken pox. Gradually, he quieted. I reached forward and touched his arm. “Hey look, building a tree house could be really cool. But my family doesn’t have anything to build it with.”
The only object my father owned that might be considered a tool was the slide rule he used to teach math.
Aaron sniffed and wiped his face on his T-shirt. “Jus’ let me worry about tools.”
“But where are we gonna get wood?”
“Those houses they’re building down the street. There’s always stuff layin’ around, and we can take –”
“You want me to steal?”
Aaron smiled weakly. “They don’t use half of what they got. They’ll never miss it.”
I stared into the valley at our postage stamp homes, at Aaron’s father, lying face down on a lawn chair in their back yard. His parents liked to sunbathe…they were darker than me. I couldn’t see his mother.
“But how we gonna get the stuff up here?” I asked. “It won’t be much of a secret if we drag it through the weeds.”
“We can do it at night, take it up the hill in back of the Writson’s, then across the top.”
“You’ve got this all figured out, don’t you?”
“Yeah…sort of. Come on, Akela. It’ll be…be just for us.”
Aaron scrambled to the end of the limb, face flushed, eyes wide. He reached for an overhead branch, pulled himself up, and circled the treetop before rejoining me. Leaning forward, he kissed my lips, his nose leaving a smudge on my glasses. His breath smelled of Juicy Fruit. It was better than our first time. I felt his eyes boring through me. Shivering, I kissed him back.
Thanksgiving passed before we finished collecting the materials: timbers, planks, two-by-fours, rope, bolts and nails, and an old carpet from our garage. Hauling sheets of plywood was the toughest. We stumbled uphill in the darkness, the moon reflecting off high clouds, while my parents camped in front of the television, believing I was upstairs with Aaron, doing homework.
On New Year’s morning we climbed the hill. It had rained the night before and my jeans got soaked in the wet grass. But our supplies were dry, under a tarp that used to cover the old boat in back of the Foley’s house. Aaron wouldn’t tell me where he got the tools.
He pulled folded sheets of binder paper from his pocket and spread them on the ground. “See, I figure we can build it like this. My Pop made me learn how to sketch things, like when he builds cabinets.”
“Those look great. But…but do you think we can do it?”
“Yeah, sure. You can help with measuring and lifting…and I’ll do the… the rest.”
We spent that morning measuring distances between the limbs with a long tape. At first, it was hard for me to balance. I almost fell and Aaron grabbed my braid to steady me. But after a while I lost my fear and could concentrate on the work and not the height. By the end of the first week we had the floor beams cut and positioned. The frame balanced on the three main limbs, lashed with ropes, moved as the tree moved.
As the days grew warmer Aaron became more angry or sad, I couldn’t figure out which. We hardly talked. He quit the baseball team a week after making the cut. During our homework sessions he didn’t try kissing me or anything. The only time his face lit up was when we worked on the tree house. It was almost summer before we finished it, a single large room with a window facing the valley, slanted roof, and a ladder leading to a padlocked side door. Inside the swaying house, we sat in silence, his arm wrapped around my shoulders. I felt a strange vibration going through him.
“Are you all right, Aaron?”
“What’s going on? You’ve been, ya know, weird.”
“Just stuff.” He began pounding the carpeted floor with his fist.
“Is your Pop yelling again? Maybe I can – ”
“You can’t help. It’s all screwed up…all blown apart.”
“I was just trying – ”
We sat not touching. Boards creaked. Finally, he took my hand. “We could, ya know, live here, just you and me, away from all –.”
“What? Here? You crazy hoale boy…we could never… my Mother…”
Aaron scrambled up, his face bent into a grotesque mask I’d never seen before. The ladder shook and rattled as he plunged downward. I sat frozen, watching him tear across the hilltop, running madly through the waist-high weeds, his red-blond hair blasted like flames by the wind. The oak’s limbs bucked and tossed, the tree house moaning its pain.
After that day, Aaron wouldn’t sit next to me on the bus. When school let out for the summer, he all but vanished. Mother must have noticed. I was eating lunch when she started in with her third degree.
“How is your boyfriend, Aaron?” she asked, smirking.
“Why? What do you mean?” I played innocent, ignoring the boyfriend dig.
“He seems…seems troubled, and he hasn’t come around.”
“Did you two have a fight?”
“I should talk with his father.”
“Please, just stay out of it,” I whined. Why would she want to talk with his father when she’s a good friend with his mom?
“Something’s not right,” Mother continued, “spending too much time in that tree house.”
“You know about the…”
“Of course we do. What kind of parents would we be if we didn’t?”
“Don’t tell Aaron you know, okay?”
“I won’t. But I really should talk with Howard.”
“Why…why not talk with his mom?”
Mother stared at me, wide-eyed. “Oh Lord, Aaron didn’t tell you?”
“What? Tell me what?”
Her bottom lip trembled, cheeks paled. “Aaron’s mom, ah…left a few weeks back.”
“What do you mean, left?”
“Well…Betty fell…fell in love with another man and…”
“How could she do that?”
“It happens, Akela. The heart will have its own way.”
A dull pain surged through my chest. “Aaron should have just told me.”
“It was probably too awkward. But I really need to talk with Howard and – ”
“He hates his father. I’m the only one…left.”
The summer heat suddenly made our house suffocating. I bolted from the table and ran outside and up the slope. I was mad at Aaron for not telling me, angry with myself for being stupid. I had so little experience with love and betrayal. But I knew what it would feel like if my own mother left. Just the thought made my heart hurt.
Halfway up the hill I looked downslope. Mother stood in our backyard, hands on mountainous hips, watching. I whirled and continued climbing to the grove of trees. Something seemed out of place, the branches weren’t arranged right, or something new had been added. Creeping into the shade of our oak, I stared at jagged pieces of the tree house scattered on the ground. I gazed upward. High above me, Aaron swayed stiffly from a thick rope, his eyes open, mouth gaping, swollen tongue sticking out.
The sound of my scream shook me. It went on and on. I dashed to the edge of the hill. Mother charged toward me through the weeds, her green muumuu billowing in the afternoon wind. I sobbed and stared into the valley, at lines of houses snaking their way into every crease. My body felt beaten, pummeled, and I waited for Mother to fold me into her soft embrace. But I knew even then that she could never take the ache away.