By Lucia Kan-Sperling
Something about the hazy suede summer heat made you want to explore. The way every object wore a thick coat of sun and when this cloak was left on too long, metal would burn the bottoms of your toes and make you want to jump and run and be wild. Henry and Leslie felt that way, two boys in the warm, melting air who wanted nothing more than to escape, if only to their backyards.
That’s how it all started - one fading afternoon while avoiding his mother’s call to come inside for his four o’clock bath, Henry decided to run away. His ninth birthday had just passed, signaling it was time for a rebellion, and with his profound new sense of self-importance that came with the arrival of a shiny new number, he packed an olive-green rucksack with twelve stolen ginger snap cookies and was on his way.
Not wishing to reveal his ingenious escape to anyone unnecessary, Henry dove through the bushes and over the white picket fence while the gardener wasn’t looking, landing in Leslie’s mother’s stiff purple petunias. He endured a few scrapes, but those were nothing compared to the heroism he felt as he chucked a pebble at his best friend’s window.
Luckily, Leslie was in, spending the afternoon poring over his world atlas and learning the names of all the countries in West Africa. Henry’s wild gestures and attempts at mouthing the plot points of his plan were understood immediately. The skinny blonde boy disappeared momentarily to pack his things; then, in an act of determination that left Henry in sheer disbelief, Leslie threw open the second story window and promptly jumped out, atlas first.
It was on this quiet afternoon that the two boys found the tree house in the woods behind their houses. It was not, in reality, an actual tree house, but christened as such because at first glance, it just looked like a tangled mass of branches and shrubbery against some sort of rock formation. However, upon further inspection, it was revealed that behind the ivy and dirty leaves was an opening to a small cave, damp and utterly perfect. Henry and Leslie were at first speechless at their luck, open-mouthed in wonder as they tested their way into their otherworldly discovery. Feet first, then grass-stained knobby knees, then shining faces, blissful with awe. They noticed everything - the moss on the smooth rocks dyed several shades of prehistoric brown and grey, the darkness, the musty smell that seemed miles away from the antiseptic, floral odor of their mothers’ kitchens and four o’clock baths.
Carefully wrapped cookies and an old atlas lay forgotten as, in the sparkle of their own shadows and the fresh yellow of exploration, two boys found a best reality.
It was the kind of day where if you sat still for too long, when you got up you felt like an insect caught in molasses. The sky was low-bearing grey felt that sat on your shoulders and fuzzed up your brain so all you could clearly remember was how sleepy you were.
Henry’s limbs felt heavy as he looked out his bedroom window, arms resting on the sill and back hunched. Each finger felt dipped in syrup as he lifted his left hand to rub his eyes. Reaching for the polished window latch with the other, he soon realized that outside was even more claustrophobic than in. He found himself taking in air in short, shallow breaths. Still, he kept his head out the window, listening to the creeping chirps of crickets and cicadas, as he was convinced that any discomfort couldn’t be worse than what was happening inside his manicured home.
Not more than an hour into Henry’s twelfth birthday brunch had utter chaos taken over the large, proper living room his mother had hired a decorator to furnish. Propelled by the glass of brandy he had insisted upon having to “wake himself up”, Uncle Charles had launched into a fourteen minute, one-sided argument insisting that if Henry had an ambition at all, he would have asked for a set of neckties and a Businessman’s Almanac rather than a chess set and a book of poems by Edgar Allen Poe (neither of which he had received anyway). While his aunts started a shrill, passive aggressive discussion about how much his mother should pay her cleaning lady, Henry’s father loudly ushered him to a corner where he explained to him that, as Henry was to be starting secondary school in the fall, he would have to leave behind his “fluffy hobbies” and start focusing on a future. After all, he was soon to become a man, and it was time to start preparing to take over the business. Henry had slipped upstairs unnoticed a couple minutes later, leaving his relatives and the sickly-sweet birthday cake with orange icing.
Hearing a loud rapping noise, Henry was torn out of his heat-induced reverie. Looking over, he saw a blonde head poking out through a window with blue trim. Leslie and Henry’s bedrooms were both on the second-story back wall of their respective houses, so that if Henry craned his neck far enough out his window and looked right and Leslie did the same but turned his head left, they could see each other and have conversations without leaving their rooms.
Henry smiled as he saluted his best friend, blocking out the high pitched cackles coming from his family below. With a matching grin, Leslie jerked his head in the direction of the trees, then disappeared back into his room. Meeting by the petunias, which drooped and sagged under the weight of rain coming, the two boys greeted each other quickly and hurried, almost ran, across the lawn (so green it looked artificial) as they had done so many times before. Here the air was clear and cool. They spray paint grass had faded to give way to the welcoming summer color of the trees and Henry felt as though he were walking through the emerald city he had read about when he was younger. The familiar shrubbery and dirt that hid their secret refuge was pushed aside and the dark welcomed them, freedom.
“Here.” Leslie grinned, unfolding his arms to reveal not an atlas this time but a gift clumsily wrapped in newspaper and wax paper stolen from his kitchen. It was a chessboard, with pieces carved in shapes of knights and queens that looked like a fairytale.
“I couldn’t find Edgar Allen Poe,” the blonde boy murmured and handed over a small book sneaked from his mother’s library.
“My mom says Mary Oliver is boring, so I thought she wouldn’t mind.”
Henry met his friend’s eyes. Brown on blue. And smiled wide in response.
Soon, chess instructions and foreign words replaced the Businessman’s Almanac and the blurriness in Henry’s head slowly started to wipe and wear away. It had started to drizzle outside, warm.
n the dark, thick water pooled on every surface. Even inside you could feel the moisture, the dampness in the air that adhered itself to your skin and clothes. It was warm, heavy rain; the kind that, if you stood in it with your eyes completely closed, felt so familiar after a while that it became part of you. You barely noticed how the rhythmic drumbeat of raindrops on your head coincided with your heartbeat. The trickling water felt like a layer of your skin.
There were no lights on in Henry’s room as he watched each drop hurl itself against his windowpane, blurring his view to the outside. He had planned to sleep for a while but had also known he wasn’t going to. He knew himself too well. The moon gave a dull light that made everything one shade lighter than black and kept him awake.
Out of the corner of his eye, Henry caught something moving outside his window. Through the sheet of water he saw a boy whose blonde hair seemed illuminated in the dark; his hand was blocking rain out of his eyes, peering up to where the second story window was. Quickly, Henry slid out of his desk chair, shelved away the book of Mary Oliver poems on which he had been failing to concentrate, and flicked his overhead light on, then off again. His footsteps were a whisper, almost inaudible as he slipped out of his bedroom, down the stairs and through the front door.
Outside, the rain was louder than he’d imagined. Engulfing his ears and soaking his eyelashes. He blinked twice, three times, adjusting to the scene. The petunias on either sides of the fence were drowning, struggling to swim in little warm rivers.
“Hey,” Leslie said, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. “I thought you were sleeping, your lights were off.”
Henry looked up at his window as if he’d just noticed. “Oh, yeah ... no, I wasn’t.” His awkwardness was lost on Leslie and they started off across the lawn, now squishy and loud with their footsteps.
“I invited some other people, I hope you don’t mind.” Leslie smiled. “Man, I need to unwind - this year has been crazy.”
Henry nodded in silent agreement. They had just finished their freshman year of high school, and he’d tried to explain to his parents that two A’s, one A minus and three B pluses were the best he could do. Unsurprisingly, they had brutally rebuffed this statement, deciding he would take summer tutoring until he was “up to standard”.
Slowly their footsteps became softer and the sound of rain was beginning to thin - or maybe Henry had just gotten used to it. Tree branches hung low, weighed down by the water, and it was dark, dark and darker as they neared their destination. Leslie switched on a rusty flashlight with one hand as his other fumbled to find the entrance, fingers getting caught among the leaves. Finally they were inside the small cave, hands slick in old pine needles and dirt and hair cold, plastered to the side of their faces from the rain. The flashlight and its dull yellow glare shone the on the chessboard that was still sitting in the back corner, pieces knocked over and rolling slightly on the checkered wood.
“Damn, this place is getting small,” Leslie muttered as, without hesitation, he started placing his pawns in their correct spots - he always played white.
“Yeah, crazy,” Henry murmured, rescuing the black queen from a puddle.
“I gave the others directions so they could find us.” Leslie moved a white pawn two spaces forward. Then he laughed a little. “We should also probably stop calling it ‘the treehouse’, by the way - they were pretty confused when I was telling them about it.”
Henry, lost in thought, was slow on the uptake. “Oh. Haha. Okay, cool,” he nodded, advancing his knight.
They played in wide open silence, groaning whenever a piece was taken.
“Dude, my queen is eviscerating your half of the board,” Leslie grinned, the little figurine knocking over Henry’s second black bishop.
Henry laughed a little. Then he paused, glancing upwards, eyes wandering around the dark corners and soft moss irradiated by Leslie’s flashlight.
“Remember when we found this place?” Henry’s eyes met Leslie’s. A pause.
“Yeah.” Leslie said quietly, smiling. “Best day ever.”
Their faces were also illuminated eerily by the yellow glow of the flashlight as they looked at each other amidst the hypnotic sounds of summer rain.
“In a couple years we’re gonna have to leave for college,” the blonde boy’s voice echoed softly between the rocks.
“Yeah.” Henry looked down. “I’m going to miss it.” Then again their eyes met, noses bare inches apart. Leslie’s face was half shadow. An infinity of deafening silence, then -
“Checkmate,” Leslie murmured. His hand slid his queen to a square directly adjacent to the black king with a thud. Closer. Henry’s dad had always said if you got a girl this close, something good was bound to happen.
The space between them grew infinite within a second, both turning quickly to see three teenagers pushing their way through the entrance to the small cave.
“Dude, this place was impossible to find,” one boy said as another came in, feet knocking over some chess pieces as he sat down next to Leslie clumsily.
“Haha. Sorry, man,” Leslie grinned, hand punching his shoulder in greeting. “Did you bring it?”
The second boy nodded, gesturing to a girl Henry didn’t know. She was just entering, smiling and carrying a glass bottle of what looked like water but Henry knew wasn’t.
He felt hot and his head was fuzzy. All of a sudden he didn’t want to be there; he wanted to be out and swallowed by the rain and away. What did he do?
Henry felt like he was spinning and he hadn’t drank a sip. Outside, thunder broke in his ears.
The heat was wild. It was a day that wrapped itself around you, cracked eggshells on your head as you sweat. The sun infiltrated your eyelids and filled your mouth; it splashed down your neck and crawled under your fingernails. If you couldn’t find shade, your head would soon start to pulse, feeling as though it were expanding under each ray of sun it absorbed.
Henry was lying in his room again. He was on the floor, his back on the ground and eyes examining a fixed point above. Every once in a while they’d close; blink once, two, three times and then return to staring.
He was looking at his ceiling fan. The way it moved so fast - a blur, the way it whirred hypnotically, almost making him forget everything. Almost.
The house wasn’t air conditioned and the sun outside had slowly wormed its way in, filling up Henry’s room drop by drop, until his black cap and gown felt like they weighed tons. He had closed his eyes again now, covering his face with his hands to ensure darkness. Unfortunately, even without the sunlight tinting his vision, he still couldn’t block it out, and couldn’t understand himself.
That morning at graduation, Henry had told his parents he was deferring college. He couldn’t figure out why. He didn’t know what had made him blurt it out in front of his whole family and he didn’t understand how he’d known in that second that it was what he wanted. He wasn’t even entirely sure anymore it was what he wanted.
The look on his father’s face had made Henry turn around, leave because in that moment he didn’t know what else to do.
Henry didn’t get it. He’d spent the last four years, hell - his entire life studying; being taught, tutored and spending every spare minute he had trying to make them happy. Them - everyone. Why stop now?
Henry sighed, sitting up. He felt dizzy, having moved too quickly.
He didn’t know who he was kidding - no matter how hard he tried, he would never be what they wanted him to be, and it wasn’t for him to decide. Henry couldn’t help that he’d lost his brand-new Businessman’s Almanac the day after he’d gotten it for his fourteenth birthday. He couldn’t help that when his parents had sat him down and asked why he didn’t have a girlfriend yet, he just stared out the window blankly. And he couldn’t help that after every time he and his best friend got closer and closer and closer than his parents would ever know, Leslie would laugh and pretend it hadn’t happened but Henry wouldn’t be able to focus on anything for the next week.
He stood up, breathing hard. He’d forced himself to stop thinking about it for too long and he couldn’t help it now. Beads of sweat adorning his face let on that the fan was doing nothing to cool him down or blow away his thoughts.
With a swift, desperate motion, Henry knocked his graduation cap to the ground, rubbing his tired eyes. Now at least his parents would understand why he hadn’t wanted to write the name of his soon-to-be college on the hat.
He pushed open his bedroom window. He was hot, too hot, hotter but he didn’t take off his gown. Sticking his head out of the window, Henry felt his breathing slow as a breeze stole through his hair. Looking to the right, he wasn’t surprised not to see a familiar blonde head poking out to meet him; he hadn’t spoken to Leslie in four months. He’d told himself it was because of finals and college but even Henry, master of self-deception, couldn’t fool himself.
Suddenly he heard his front door open downstairs, his father’s voice echoing through the foyer. Without thinking, Henry pushed himself through the window; arms, then shaking knees, then feet as he fell to the ground.
His landing wasn’t awful but it wasn’t good either, and as he stood up in the bed of brown, dead petunias, he felt a sharp pain in his shoulder.
He entertained no second thoughts as he ran across the dried-up lawn his mother had been watering daily, to no avail. Finally Henry was among the trees and closed his eyes as he walked, feeling breeze and dark green shade. He neared the rocks much faster than he expected, though he supposed he wasn’t surprised; he knew the path better than he knew anything.
Henry noticed a thick brush of ivy that had taken over the entrance to the cave. Without thinking he tore at it, hands desperate for comfort and solitude, and was so invested in the task that he didn’t notice the two people in the familiar hideout until he was almost completely inside.
Two blonde heads pulled apart and he saw him, Leslie, Leslie with a girl Henry had known too well ever since he’d seen her for the first time in the summer after freshman year, her and the bottle, ever since his chessboard had been cleared out of the cave for more ‘interesting’ ways to pass time.
For a minute the two boys just stared at each other. Brown eyes on blue. And Henry couldn’t register anything else. They tried desperately to read each other’s minds, to figure it out, but as was the case all too often, Henry couldn’t understand. Until he heard a girl clear her throat and a blonde boy cry, “What the …, man? Get out.”
Henry’s limbs unfroze, then melted; they were on fire as he ran out and away, trees bending apart to let sunlight engulf his body and blur his vision with wetness. Everything sparkled, glittered.
He had slowed down to a walk now, gasping for breath. The air around him was silent. It was soundless. It was quiet, dry paper heat drowning everything away.
The sky was blue.
Lucia Kan-Sperling is 15 years old and lives in Northampton. She likes writing because it takes her mind off of everything else.
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