Eric glanced over his shoulder wishing the trees here were more dense. The rear grounds of St. Mary Catholic High School abutted woods he and Steve played in all their lives. There wasn’t a rabbit run or honeysuckle thicket they were not intimately familiar with. So when Kevin Murphy described the old sycamore tree near the school’s fence line they knew exactly which one he meant.
“Remember,” Kevin told them, “You have to get all the way up to the third big limb, then shinny out on it five or six feet. It forks there, so it’s easy to sit up.”
Eric licked his lips out of nervousness and glanced up at his friend. “Hurry up.”
Steve finally managed to haul himself up onto the first big bough. He never would have reached it without a boost from Eric. It had been a long time since he last climbed a tree, and his center of gravity had shifted substantially south since his younger days. Once he managed to haul himself onto the limb he laid there, hugging it, trying to force down his fear of heights.
Eric, always the taller and more wiry of the two, called up after his friend. “Dude, get going.”
Steve waved him off with one hand, but at last managed to sit up and shinny out onto the limb.
“I’ll let you pass me,” he called down. “You’re a better climber than me. I’ll just slow you down.”
The bell announcing the end of 5th period gym class rang, lending Eric a new sense of urgency. He leapt up, cupped his right hand into a hollow about eight feet off the ground, and began scrabbling with both feet. He managed to work himself upward until he was able to throw his left hand into the crook of the branch Steve sat upon. When he shifted his full weight to that arm so he could throw the right arm up the tendons in his wrists and forearm stretched so taut as to cause real pain. He failed to grab the branch and nearly fell but managed to hook it with a second Herculean effort. Then, to his surprise, he felt hands grab him just below the elbow and haul him upward. Somehow Steve had managed to turn himself around and lend a hand.
“Thanks man.” Eric sat in the crotch of the tree limb and caught his breath for a moment. “I almost fell.” Steve did not reply, still gasping from his efforts.
“I’m heading up. You’re coming, right?”
“I’m coming,” Steve assured him. “Go ahead, before it’s too late.”
“It’s easier from here on,” Eric encouraged. Once past the first high bough the limbs of the sycamore came out in a most obliging pattern.
“I know. Go on.”
Kevin told them that on warm days, like this one, the louvered windows of the old building were cranked wide open for ventilation. This afforded a young man perched in the third tier of the ancient sycamore a clear shot into the shower room of the all-girl high school. He said that’s why he was not at school last Wednesday – he had climbed the tree himself to check out the validity of the rumors. “It was so worth it.” Kevin winked, then sauntered off. 5th period on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays was when Carla Ferguson, the best stacked girl in all Montgomery County, had gym class.
Eric hurried upward.
The third major branch shot out directly toward the high school gymnasium. Eric paused there and glanced down at his friend. Steve was making slow but steady progress upward. He briefly considered waiting, but chucked that idea with the thought of Carla Ferguson taking off for 6th period before he even got a peek. He started shinnying out, mentally noting that the fork Kevin told them about was more like ten or twelve feet out. He worried about Steve making it all the way out there.
His heart skipped a beat when a small limb he grabbed for leverage broke off in his hand. He let out a long slow breath and let the thing drop to the ground. “Don’t grab the little branches,” he called back to Steve. He formed a circle with his thumb and forefinger. “Make sure they’re at least this big.”
Eric worked his way out by tucking his legs under the branch and scooting forward by using his hands. When he reached the fork he looked up with great expectations. The bell for 6th period still had not rung. As Kevin promised the louvers were fully open.
His eyes widened in horror. Instead of the girls shower room he was looking straight down into the office of Sister Karen Thomas. She still wore a referee whistle around her neck. His movement must have caught her eye for she looked up and spotted him before he could duck down. Then she lifted the receiver of the phone that sat on her desk.
“May Day, May Day!” Eric called out as loud as he dare. He began scooting backwards and bumped into Steve’s head.”
“Abort! Abort! We’re dead man. She’s calling the cops.”
“No, not Carla. Sister Karen Thomas. Go on, get down.”
“Just go.” Oh god, how they’d been set up. He was going to kill Kevin Murphy.
Steve ever so slowly worked his way back down the branch toward the tree trunk. Eric kept urging him on, which only made him more nervous, which in turn made him more cautious – and slower. Cold sweat was soaking Eric’s tee. His old man would kill him, ground him for a month, maybe two.
They were about half way down the tree when they heard footsteps in the leaf litter below. Officer Johnson, youth liaison officer at the public high school, stepped up to the bole of the tree and peered up, a smirk playing across his lips. “Good afternoon, boys.”
At the back entrance to the high school a group of nuns and girls stood, pointing and laughing. To his dismay Eric spotted Carla Ferguson among them, snickering behind her hand.
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.