By Alex Schee
When I was thirteen years old, three days before the start of seventh grade, I carved his name on a branch of the tree in our front yard. After the funeral, I carved it with a pocket knife my father had given me a few weeks before. The green leaves around me shook with the breath of a summer wind, the air getting cooler. A stray branch dug into my side as I carved each letter of his name deeply into the flesh of the tree, poking me just enough to make me realize I wasn’t completely alone up there.
There was something so satisfying seeing that name embedded like a scar into the arm of the tree.
The summer heat had been unbearable. My father pulled out the kiddie pool, which my siblings and I were all getting too old to use, into the center of the manicured lawn. He would leave me to turn off the hose when the pool was filled. When I started to see heat rising from the pavement, I would go sit in the cool water of the kiddie pool—sometimes with my clothes still on. My t-shirt would cling to my skin when I finally got out, and I would go inside my roasting house dripping water on the tile floor, reaching inside the refrigerator for some lemonade.
I played baseball with the boys on the block. They tolerated me fairly well, mostly because I had a mean fastball. We were at that age where I could still get away with playing ball together without too much grief, but I knew those days were limited. I was emerging on a time in my life where there would be school dances with ruffled dresses and terrible music echoing hauntingly throughout the gym. Where boys were judged not on how many cooties they had, but how many girls had a crush on them. And where girls like me were judged in general.
It terrified my mother that I refused to take my young adulthood seriously.
“Anne,” she said, squeezing the juice out of the lemons until I could smell them on my person. “You’re not a child, anymore. You start seventh grade in the fall. My mother would have never let me run around with the neighborhood boys when I was nearly a young lady.”
But I loved the feeling of the baseball smacking my mitt, and the soreness in my arm after a game. I loved the protests of a wrong call. I loved the feeling of the bat on my shoulder as I walked home, the coolness of the water in the kiddie pool after a long game. It was hard to believe that I would ever have to attend the seventh grade, that I would ever have to hear the metallic sound of lockers closing and heavy footsteps as students shuffled off to class.
“There’s a time when we all need to grow up,” my mother said, wiping her hands on her apron. “And you need to learn to accept it.”
Her face was always so resolved, her lips pressed tightly together.
We went to neighborhood barbeques, the hot, sticky smells of the grill mixing with the summer air. I was always forced to wear a dress chosen by my mother. The white lace scratched my arms and I could feel myself sweating, my hair sticking to my brow. Younger children called to each other in a game of tag, their voices sounding so distant.
I could feel Andrew Branson’s eyes on me as I fidgeted in my red, plastic chair. We played baseball together sometimes. He hit the ball squarely and long if you gave him the chance. He played first base, usually. Even when we played against each other we sometimes chatted while I had one foot on the sand bag. We were in the same grade, and I could hear the whispers of the other girls resounding throughout homeroom about how cute he was, though I couldn’t really see it.
He gave me a sideways grin.
My own eyes went to my plate, where uneaten slices of apples and shiny cherries remained.
He got up out of his chair and asked me to play catch with him in his family’s yard—as perfectly preened and lush as our own. We gently lobbed a baseball back and forth, my fingertips grateful for the feeling of the red laces, my feet sunken deep into the soft grass.
We didn’t speak much. We just tossed the ball back and forth without the encumbrance of a heavy leather mitt.
“You have a good arm,” he finally said. The hot sun was starting to disappear over his white fence now, and I could feel where it had left me with a parting burn on my shoulders.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Don’t be offended, but I’ve never met a girl who could toss a ball like that.” He, in turn, tossed the ball to me in a perfect arch.
I shrugged, my hands stinging just a little when I caught it.
“I’m not offended.”
We sneaked out of the yard when the adults weren’t looking and walked the neighborhood streets. I tied my shoelaces, the pavement was still hot to the touch, the pastel colors of a sunset now touching the tops of the trees, highlighting each leaf like a watercolor painting. He still held the baseball in his hand, and he bounced it in his palm as we walked.
“You know,” he admitted. “I see you sitting in that kiddie pool from my window sometimes.”
“That’s kind of weird that you watch me.”
“I don’t watch you.” He ruffled his hair and then stuck his hand in his pocket. “I’ve just seen you is all.”
We stopped at the local park. Night was starting to emerge, and one by one the surrounding houses started turning on their lights indoors. Voices from other barbeques or family gatherings started to die down until I could hear the crickets hiding in the grass start singing. We sat under an apple tree, the blossoms which always promised fruit still hadn’t appeared.
“You know, I think I would be fine with every season being summer,” he said.
“Should we get back?” I asked.
“Relax. They probably haven’t even noticed we’re gone. You know what the best part of summer is? You’re frozen in this middle place. In-between the old and the new. You’re just smack dab in-between.”
“I don’t know if I could always stay that way,” I said. I realized my hair had escaped from the braid my mother had taken the time to give me. I tucked a stray strand behind my ear. “Nothing would ever happen.”
He sighed, and I could tell he was thinking by the way he squinted. The grass was drier here—it wasn’t constantly watered by suburban fathers. It tickled my skin.
He lay down on the ground. I tried to figure out what the other girls thought was so attractive about him. He had nice teeth, I guessed. And dark eyes, almost as dark as the night was now. I propped myself up with my arms behind me and tilted my head to the side.
It was a few moments before he answered me.
“Nothing would ever happen, but you could always be frozen in a wonderful moment. Does that sound so bad?”
Andrew Branson had played baseball on the school’s sixth grade team. He played various other sports when they were in season, too, but his best sport was baseball by far. A solid batting average, a good arm. I spent more time with him, our faces turning a dark color after playing ball in the afternoon sun. We would visit the park often with a bag full of cherries, seeing how far we could spit the pits and staining our t-shirts lying in the grass. We talked of everything and nothing and something. And over time, I was almost convinced that maybe he was right. That to be frozen in some moments was all anyone ever wanted.
We would walk across the train tracks that ran across, balancing on either side with our arms outstretched. I would pretend as though I was flying, as though I was far above the ground and that I would never have to come down.
I knew Andrew wasn’t happy at home. He never talked about it, even when I asked. He avoided my questions like they were a wild pitch. He side-stepped them and waited for me to throw a question at him that he liked. His voice was always soft when he answered the door. He never hollered into the house that he was leaving. He never let his mother know where he was going to.
“Adults don’t get it,” he said as we walked across town one day, following the train tracks. He kicked an empty can and it clattered against the metal track. “They say they do, but they don’t. How could they know what we’re feeling?”
“My parents try,” I admitted before I kicked the can back to him. “I think my mother is afraid I will never grow up.”
“But that’s the thing. What is growing up? What does that even mean?”
He ran a hand through his hair, growing long and starting to curl around his ears. He sighed heavily, like he was much older than the thirteen years everyone gave him credit for. He felt older to me.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said.
Some evenings when I went to Andrew’s door—painted a red color like a sunburn—I could hear his parents screaming on the other side. I could hear their cries and Andrew’s hurried footsteps as he rushed to greet me. The sounds from the other side made me want to cry. It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach and I needed to lean over and breathe for a while.
Andrew would close the door quickly behind him with his baseball bat in hand, shutting out the terrible screaming. He would take my hand and drag me to the empty field, mumbling all the way.
“Pitch it to me hard, Reynolds,” he would say.
I stood on the mound, running over the laces with my thumb. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t really want to talk about it with him, either. So I would throw the ball for hours right in his sweet spot—the sunlight fading on the grass and dirt pathways leading to the bases—just so he could hit it and so we didn’t have to say anything to each other about the terrible things in the world.
My father got rid of the kiddie pool mid-August. Where it had been was a dry, brown spot that looked almost sacred in the middle of a green lawn. I stood in the middle of it, missing the coolness of the water, missing that I had place where Andrew could find me if he needed to. I walked the edges of the perimeter, thinking about how anyone could ever really measure when things ended and when they began. The wind played with my hair softly, and the thought that I would be back in school in two weeks terrified me. I kept walking inside the circle the pool had made, the dead grass crackling under my shoes.
My father gave me the pocket knife when going through some old things in the garage. We stood together, going through his old things covered with a heavy layer of dust. I blew some off an old Billy Joel album, The Stranger, the dust flying through the air like a drift of dirtied snow. I always liked vinyl records better than cassette tapes. Somehow, the circularity of the black vinyl made me feel like the album could go on and on forever if you just let it play.
“Are you getting rid of this?” I asked him.
My father shrugged. “I think so. Records are obsolete now.”
I bit my lower lip and scratched a mosquito bite on my leg. I watched my father sort through his things, placing them in a box to keep or a box to give away.
“I’ve noticed you’ve been with Andrew more lately,” he said, leafing through some old, faded photographs. In them, my mother was smiling broadly. She looked young, her hair black and wild around her face.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said.
My father looked over at me through his glasses. “I think it’s a good thing. You know his parents don’t get along, right?”
I nodded. Like Andrew, I didn’t really want to talk about it. I didn’t want to admit that sometimes I wondered where the bruises on his arms came from. That sometimes I wanted to touch them. I ran my fingers along the top of the box of Christmas decorations, my mother’s perfect handwriting declaring what was inside the dusty cardboard.
My father waited for me to give an answer, but eventually accepted my silence. His eyes studied me for a moment before he spoke. “Watch over him, okay? Make sure he’s alright. I think he needs a friend. A real friend.”
I nodded again, but this time I looked my father in the eyes. I could tell he knew the truth. That I was scared. Scared for the summer to end, scared for Andrew, scared for myself.
His hands lingered on a small knife. His fingers played with it before he handed it over to me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“My first pocket knife,” he replied, returning to the things that needed to be sorted. “You should have it. You’re old enough not to cut yourself.”
I was buried deep in the tree one day when Andrew stopped by my house. He called up to me. The leaves of the tree rattled and it was hard to hear him. I lowered myself from branch to branch before meeting him on the ground. He looked terrible, the dark circles under his eyes made me realize he hadn’t slept in weeks. His face looked fragile, like if I touched him it would break apart. I couldn’t help thinking about those old, clay jars that sat on bookcases. The kind children make for their parents in elementary school and procure a layer of dust over years of staying in one place.
We sat down on my front porch steps.
“School starts soon,” I said.
“I know,” he replied.
“Are you ready for it?” I found myself searching his face.
He looked so breakable and I knew nothing I would say would change it. I wanted to. I wanted to make things better. But I was a child…and what could I do?
He closed his eyes and shook his head.
My mother came out with lemonade and apple slices and smiled at me knowingly before closing the screen door behind her. It closed so definitively. I shook my head and rolled my eyes before taking a bite of a red apple.
“What was that smile for?” he asked.
“She probably thinks we’re dating.”
I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could, but I could feel my heart starting to race. It was like I was playing shortstop and the ball would not stop coming to me.
His dark eyes evaluated me, looking over my face. His lips were a bit sticky when he kissed me on the lips. He smelled like the combination of lemonade and apples, and maybe a bit of grass and dirt.
I felt myself freeze.
He gave me a sideways smile. “Feel anything?” he asked.
“No,” I lied.
His smile moved to the other side. “I didn’t think you would.”
When I heard about the accident about a week later, I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t feel anything. I only heard my mother and father’s voices whispering underneath my door.
Train tracks. Andrew. Suicide.
The words sounded so foreign. Like I was too young to hear them. Too young to have to deal with them. I sat on my bed, my legs curled up underneath me so I was a ball. I was self contained. My knees dug into my chest as I held myself together.
When my father knocked on the door, asking me to please come out, my mother silenced him. Her whispers were muffled by the barrier of the white door.
Let her be. Give her some space.
My mother didn’t need to ask me to wear a dress to the funeral. I wore one because I needed to.
When it was over, and I had endured the silent car ride home, I climbed the tree in the front yard. I held my pocket knife in my hand as I climbed as high as I could. I felt like I did when I balanced on the train tracks. Like there was no weight that could really hold me to this earth I didn’t want to be a part of anymore. I could see my house through the leaves. They were starting to turn new colors. Golds and deeper greens and oranges. A few fell from the branch where I started to carve his name deeply into the tree’s flesh. I carved it so I knew it would always be there.
Ten years later, when I came back the summer after college graduation, I found my father had cut the tree down. It had grown sick after so many years of guarding our home and holding the weight of Andrew’s name. Where it once had stood tall and stable there was now a stump, left to be uprooted at a later date. I remember sitting next to it, getting grass stains on my new summer dress, and running my forefinger along the perimeter—knowing that there was no beginning or end to anything.
Alex has always wanted to be a writer. She loves the smell of the bookstore, because nothing in the world smells exactly like it. She currently spends her days traveling the world and drinking too much coffee, and she’ll always love dancing in the Montana rain. Her first novel was released April 2012. Connect with on her website at thewayfaringvoyager.com, as well as on Twitter and Instagram.