RYAN IS STUCK UP THE TREE AGAIN, AND MOM WON’T COME OUT OF HER BEDROOM. I pick my way across the tiny living room toward the phone. So much junk I can’t see any of the stained, thin carpet. Spilled cereal boxes, the once-colorful fruit shapes now grayed with grunge. Toys that have been broken as long as I can remember. Maybe before we even got them. Broken glass next to the wooden stool next to the TV. I remind myself to clean that up later. And dog piss everywhere. In the corners. On the middle couch cushion. One huge spot two feet from the room Ryan and I share. I avoid everything like a complicated game of hot lava, where you have to walk around on the furniture for fear of a fiery carpet death.
_____ “Department of Public Safety. How can I help you?” A woman’s bored voice comes over the receiver.
_____ The phone’s cord used to be curly like a crazy pig’s tail. Or the ringlets some girls wear in their hair at school. Now it’s almost as straight as my own hair. I finger the grimy layer of cigarette smoke, dirt, and tears that coats the entire phone.
_____ “Olivia Peterson. My brother’s in the tree again.”
_____ “We’ll be there to get him as soon as we can.” The woman hangs up without saying good-bye. I can picture her in robin’s egg pants that come up under her tatties and a V-neck from the bargain store. Hair like the white head on a dandelion. Face the color of a cement wall.
_____ The window is small and round, like a porthole on a ship I saw in a movie once. Almost like someone forgot to put a window in at all, but had a cookie cutter big enough to cut through the house’s papery walls. In fact, dough of some kind would probably keep in more warm air. I move aside the small red curtain. Grease from hundreds of boxed dinners sticks to and slides on my fingers. Out the porthole, instead of miles of salty sea depths and fish as colorful as gumballs, I see Ryan. He’s wailing now, his big mouth open so wide I could count his teeth and fit a loaf of bread in sideways. Sounds more like a siren than a little boy. His voices goes high and low without stopping for breath. High. Now low. High. Low. He’s stuck mid-climb, his right arm and leg up, the left down. Between two branches, I can see his knobby knees are scratched and scabbed over from climbing all summer. Candy wrappers make his pocket bulge, the clear plastic that peeks out a constant reminder of his low blood sugar.
_____ One lonely tree in our front yard. Mom says a White Oak. A countryside leftover from where town crept in, then stopped, abrupt, at our house. They ended the road here, too.
Ryan first climbed the tree at the beginning of the summer. I lied underneath and watched him climb up and up and up into the forked branches. His shorts from last summer pinched at his baby fat still around his waist, and slid down his buttcrack.
_____ “Aren’t you wearing underpants?” I sat up to get a better look.
_____ He was up high already, and the leaves hid his head, but I could still see the blue band-aid on his knee and the warts on the soles of his feet.
_____ “Yes.” His voice sounded like part of the leaves shaking with the breeze.
_____ “Liar. I’m gonna tell Mom,” I said.
_____ “No you won’t,” he called down.
_____ “Then I’ll come up after you.” But I just lied back down. We both knew I never would. The height would make me sick before I got both feet off the ground. When I couldn’t see Ryan anymore, I let a line of ants make their way over my pointer finger. Their tiny legs sent shivers down my arm and raise goosebumps, but I didn’t move.
_____ Then the wailing.
_____ I jumped up, ants still crawling on my hand. “What’s wrong?”
_____ “I can’t get down!” His cries got louder. From his seat in the tree, he sounded louder than the neighborhood tornado alarm. I worried he would wake up Mom.
_____ I ran inside. I tripped over pizza boxes with dried cheese sticking to the cardboard and Dog. I grabbed the countertop to keep my balance as I slid to the phone. Something slippery against my hand, warm and wet and putrid as Dog’s tongue. Blood. From hamburger Mom had thawed for lunch. Or maybe last night. Still not dry anyway. I reminded myself to clean that up later.
This is the fourteenth time Ryan has climbed the tree. And the fourteenth time I’ve called the fire station. And the fourteenth time they will come and get him down. This time, like every time since the first, I pull on my ragged tennis shoes and take off.
_____ She will come. I know she will. So I sit and wait. Our clubhouse is bigger than my house. To get here from there, you have to go a cross the field, over the creek, and behind a thick line of forest. Even then, you have to look carefully. But I won’t tell the secret landmark. We swore to secrecy, made slits in our skin with a steak knife stolen from her mom’s kitchen, and rubbed our bloody palms together. I lie down on the ground. Mostly dirt with some broken boards around. Beer cans and ashes from high school parties. Boards gape around me like Jack O Lantern teeth. Moss grows on the wall above my head. Bullet holes are scattered all over. Somebody at target practice. What’s left of the roof is in jagged edges. The sky is so blue today it hurts to look directly at it. Far away, I can hear a combine going over a field of corn. And the whine of a fire truck siren, growing closer as it moves out from the center of town.
_____ I jump up so fast my head spins and I have to lower myself back down to the cool dirt. Kris laughs and throws her bag on the ground, making the place smell like dusty booze. Or boozy dust. I sneeze.
_____ “Bless you. Ryan in the tree again?” She wipes her rusty bangs out of her eyes. They immediately fall back where they were.
_____ I nod.
_____ “Mom stuffing muffins in the walls again?” She pulls a roll of drawing paper out of her bag. Then a package of every color marker imaginable.
_____ “Shut up.” There’s a small piece of shade in the opposite corner. I may have to move in a minute. Mardi gras-sized beads of sweat roll down my neck and soak the back of my tank top.
_____ Kris smirks. “Just wondering.”
_____ I notice a pepperoni stuck to the right cuff of my jeans and pick it off.
_____ “Eat it,” Kris says. She comes near and peers at the meat in my hand. She eclipses me. From outside the building looking in, you’d never know I was standing behind her.
_____ I sniff the pepperoni. Its spicy smell has been replaced by something more like dog treats. “No.”
_____ “Do it.”
_____ “No. It’s from our living room floor. Who knows how long it’s been there.”
_____ “Do it.” Kris’ eyes gleam. I know that wet look and inch away from her.
_____ She rushes toward me and shoves me against the wall. Rips the slimy pepperoni out of my fingers. Pins me with one arm. Her muscles twitch on top of mine. I press my lips together until I feel like my teeth will break through and touch.
_____ “What are you, chickenshit? It’s only going to get worse if you don’t eat it,” Kris says. She doesn’t have to tell me. I know.
_____ Still I glare back. I push against her, but she’s a boulder, a wall, a building. Unmovable.
_____ She sighs. “Okay then. Your way it is.” She opens her mouth and puts the pepperoni in. “Eat it off my tongue.” Her words don’t have many consonants, but I understand them. Her slick, wet tongue bounces with each syllable.
_____ I shake my head so fast that its pounding gets as fast as my heart.
_____ Kris sighs and plugs my nose with her thumb and middle finger.
_____ I hold my breath for as long as I can. The hot sun beats down and heats the top of my head. When the world starts swimming, I open my mouth and lean forward to make her think I’m taking the pepperoni. My nose slides it a little on her tongue toward her throat but she’s ahead of me. Her tongue is on mine, gives it two quick rubs, and the pepperoni is transferred and sliding down my throat whole before I can lift a hand to react.
_____ On the floor, I clutch my throat and even though I can breathe fine, I feel like gasping for air.
_____ “Don’t be such a chickenshit,” she says, and pulls a long slim bottle out. The clear vodka inside sloshes around behind little mirrors of condensation. “Here.” She tips the cap end toward me. “To friends?”
_____ I snatch the bottle out of her hand. “To friends.” I take a huge gulp. Feel a tinge of worry when I don’t feel the sting of it going down.
Water has been running in the kitchen for twenty minutes now. I’ve been listening to liquid hit metal like small thunder. I put down my scale book and giant pencil with permanent marker circles I’ve been using as a makeshift flute and trudge out of the bedroom to see what kind of mess Ryan’s made now.
_____ Soap rises from the sink, like the top of a cake over its pan. Dishes float and bob against the running water: yellow plastic plates, clear fat cups, white lids to our small pots and pans.
_____ I look around for Ryan. I catch a glimpse of him through the porthole. He’s in the yard, picking a scab off his knee.
_____ Something sharp and hard jabs me in the rubs. I screech, feel my throat tighten and grind against itself to produce the noise. My feet leave the floor and slam back down. Hard.
_____ I whip around, try to keep balance.
_____ My mother has on the biggest grin I’ve seen in a long time. Every straight tooth from her fronts to her molars is visible. Some are stained by countless cups of coffee and glasses of wine and bottles of Coke, but every one is straight as the British guards in my history book.
_____ “Olivia! I was just doing dishes and decided to dry them outside. It’s so beautiful out there today.”
_____ She pushes up the sleeves of her old flannel shirt. It smells like sweat and mildew, the boys’ locker room when I sneaked in once at school. Her fingernails are uncut, and the salmon paint ends in cracks and edges halfway up her nail.
_____ The day is just as hot and wet blanket humid as the week before it, but I just give her a quick hug and head out the front door. I hear her start a song about heartache and beer as I walk out, a country oldie.
_____ In the street is a gutter. Next to the gutter is a rectangular sewer drain. On the drain is a grate. In the grate are the clean plates. Each one is placed and slanted just right so it stays in its slot and doesn’t drop down to the sewer below. Bowls, silverware, mugs, two black spatulas, and a melted plastic stirring spoon are stacked, haphazard, next to the grate.
_____ I pick the plates out and gather them up in the bottom of my shirt, not caring if the neighbors see me or my training bra.
_____ In the kitchen, I set the dishes down on a cleaner-looking portion of counter and smooth down my shirt. It’s pulled out at the bottom and looks more like a potato sack than a tank top now.
_____“Mom.” I grab a towel from under the sink. “I’ll dry.”
_____ Later, Mom gets up from watching TV next to me on the couch and heads toward her bedroom. “It’s late. I’ll see you kids in the morning,” she says. It’s 7:00. I hear her lock click closed. No telling the next time we’ll see her.
_____ I clear a spot and move down to the floor with Dog.
_____ “Mind if Simon stops by?” Kris asks.
_____ “Who’s that?” We’re sitting just outside our rundown shack and I’m getting a piece of grass ready to whistle.
_____ “Guy from school.” She presses a dandelion head against her finger with her thumbnail. Flexes the bright yellow head. Flexes it again. Again. Pops it off.
_____ “Sure, whatever. Why’s he want to come here?”
_____ Kris didn’t answer, just rubbed a yellow stain into the palm of her hand. Now the pads of her fingers.
_____ “You didn’t tell him the landmark?” I try my grass whistle. I get a wet farting noise from the spit on my lips, and flapping rustle from the blade. Looking at it, I can see it’s not flat enough. Toss that one aside, try again.
_____ “Nope, I’ll go get him.” She smears some yellow guts on my bare knee.
_____ “How will you know he’s here?” This blade whistles a little. I keep after it for a minute, trying for loud and long.
_____“I’ll know. Will you cut that out?”
_____ I drop the blade on the ground. “Yeah, but how will you know?”
_____ “I just will, okay?”
_____ I stretch out on my stomach and peer into the grass to watch the bugs move through it. Reminds me of the time Ryan had lice. He came in, scratching his head so it bled. I took a chopstick from an old Chinese takeout bag and combed through his hair with it. I could see the brown spots moving through the strands of hair, like these bugs crawling through the grass.
_____ Far away, I can hear the sirens as they come to get Ryan out of the tree again. And now another noise, closer but softer, like a pig oinking.
_____ “Do you hear that?” I ask Kris, but she’s already up and jogging over past our landmark. I can see a shock of wavy blonde hair hovering over some bushes and know it’s Simon.
_____ Kris and Simon come back holding hands. He’s even bigger than she is, and wears the same kind of backpack she always has around.
_____“Simon, this is Olivia, the girl I was telling you about,” Kris says.
_____I nod and wave a hand at him from my spot on the ground.
_____ “She okay with it?” Simon keeps shuffling his feet, kicking up dust. He twitches his head around in quick, short motions. Like someone might be coming from behind a tree or dart at us from under a bush at any minute.
_____ “It’ll be fine,” Kris says.
_____ My heart beats a little faster. Kris has that crazy wet look in her eye again. I stand up.
_____ “This will be fun, Olivia.” Kris steps toward me, backs me into the shack. Simon follows her.
_____ “Kris, if she’s not okay with it—”
_____ “Simon, she’s always okay with it. She’s up for anything you want. It’s what friends do for each other. Right, Olivia?” Her voice isn’t harsh, not the cheese grater as usual. It’s soft like the underside of Dog’s belly.
_____ “No,” I say. None of the gaps in the boards are wide enough for me to break through. I think about the chances of breaking through and outrunning them. Not good.
_____ “Sure you do. You ate pepperoni off my tongue yesterday. We talk, we drink, we have our own clubhouse. We’re friends.”
_____ “No.” I try to break through, hope a burst of speed will help.
_____ Kris pushes me back against the wall, cracks my head on a rotting board.
_____ Through my hazy grog, I can see Kris kneel in front of Simon and take his zipper between her thumb and the side of her middle finger. The beheaded dandelion snaps back into my head.
_____ I close my eyes, press them tight and pretend they’re sealed together with glue like the edges of the envelopes we made in art class. I can’t block out the little sounds Kris and Simon make, almost like they’re moving something heavy, but very slowly.
_____ I take off and break through.
_____ Kris screeches in shock. Simon yells in pain.
Ryan wails from the top of the tree as I run into our yard.
_____I stand under the tree and scream up. “Didn’t they just get you down from there?”
_____He breaks his siren pattern to answer me. “No.” Then back to wailing.
_____“Liar. Hold on, I’ll call them again.”
_____Just then, the smoke pricks my nose and makes my eyes water.
_____“Hurry.” Ryan wipes his nose and eyes on his hands.
_____I hear the sirens start up and get closer. But I know they’re headed toward the smoke.
_____“Sorry, kiddo. They won’t be able to get you for a while.” I head toward the house. My throat is dry tinder.
_____“I feel dizzy!”
_____I wander back to the tree. “So eat some of your candy.”
_____“I forgot it in the—” His voice trails off into wails again.
_____The screen door slams hard behind me. I run through the living room, don’t worry about what might be on the floor, the counter, the wall for me to clean later. Across the living room. Over to the second door. Mom’s room. Pound on the door. No answer. “Mom!” Still no answer. “Ryan needs you!” Silence.
_____I scan the living room for his candy. Not there. The kitchen. Not there. Bedroom. There. Large hard candies wrapped in clear cellophane that rasps and crackles when you untwist it.
_____Out at the tree, I throw the first candy up as far as I can. It doesn’t even reach his foot. I try again, underhand this time. Hits the trunk and bounces down the branches to the ground. Piece after piece falls short, hits a branch or the trunk, or comes back and lands in my face. One hits his shoe. One lands in a bird’s nest.
_____“You have to come up, Olivia.” He’s stopped wailing in order to watch and laugh at my throwing arm.
_____“I can’t, Ryan, you know that.” I toss a yellow-wrappered butterscotch and run to catch it when it comes back down.
_____“You have to. I’m nauseous.”
_____My breathing speeds up and gets shallow. I try for one deep breath. A beheaded dandelion flashes in my mind’s eye.
_____“The tree is just a big dandelion. The tree is just a big dandelion. The tree is just a big dandelion.” I get a rhythm, chant it over and over as I step up to the bark and run my palm across it. I hang a hand off the lowest branch.
_____“Olivia!” My name melts into renewed wails from the top of the tree.
_____“I’m coming,” I whisper.
_____I pull myself into the tree. Up two branches. Now hold for a minute. Up one more. Now hold. Up two. Hold. My foot slips. Breath stops. Heart stops. When rhythm returns, I chant again and keep climbing.
_____A trembling hand digs in my pocket and hands Ryan his candy. The other grips the tree with all its strength. I am higher than the rooftops. Higher than the rundown shack I can almost make out on the horizon. And, from here, I am higher than the gutter, where I can see I missed a plastic bowl that has rolled to a standstill at the gravelly end of our street.