That was the summer that Tim had a left hand full of broken bones. His index and middle fingers were broken in two spots each, and his ring finger was fractured at the tip. We were twelve years old that summer—sixth grade or, actually, on the way out of sixth grade. School had just finished the week before, and now the summer stretched out in front of us so long and full of promise that we didn’t even know where to start with what we should do.
So, we sat around. That afternoon Tim and I were goofing off in his basement-slash-bedroom, me playing Sonic the Hedgehog while Tim sat at his desk and used his cast to smash his old Matchbox cars.
“See you in hell, Volkswagen Beetle,” he said, bringing down his cast like a hammer. The car crumpled, its tiny plastic windows buckling, wheels splaying out. One of them popped off the pin of its axil and landed near my foot. I was sitting on the floor beside the desk.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” I said, never looking away from the video game, a world of tunnels and loops and dips that weaved through a gray-green blur of industrial towers and smokestacks.
“Nah,” Tim said. “Feels fine.” With his good hand, he swept the wreckage of the Beetle off his desk. Then he set another car in place. “Feels more than fine,” he added. “I can’t really feel a thing.”
“Bullshit,” I said.
“You’re bullshit,” Tim told me, and without missing a beat he continued with his task. “Adios, Mustang,” he said, and another thump was followed by the skittering sound of broken plastic.
I never asked him why he was doing this. He just did it, destruction for the sake of sheer boredom, and that much I understood right away. Tim and I were lifelong friends, neighbors, schoolmates, everything—everything except for what my parents thought we were. The two of us, after all, were the quintessential boy-girl neighbors destined for love, destined for marriage, destined for destiny itself. We were Archie and Betty. We were Kevin and Winnie.
Only, we weren’t. Twelve years old and I just didn’t give a damn about boys, not in any way that I cared to admit, not yet, and least of all Tim. I was a tough girl. An alternative girl. I wore baggy jeans with holes ripped in the knees. Gaudy silver bracelets jangled on my wrists, and tight black necklaces squeezed at my neck. I sported green and blue flannel shirts and, beneath that, t-shirts emblazoned with the logos of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Hole. This was 1995, and Tim and I had lived our entire lives on the outskirts of Bothell, Washington, a town about fifteen miles north of Seattle. We were too young to have actually taken part in the grunge scene already fading away, but we followed that scene fiercely nonetheless.
And, somehow, that was why I’d never thought of Tim as anything more than a friend. A good friend, a best friend, but nothing more than that. Of course I was starting to have feelings for boys, even if that wasn’t the case for Tim in particular. All the same, if only for that brief stretch of my life, that vague year between elementary school and junior high, I did my best to act as if I had no feelings at all. I was just too motherfucking cool for that, and I was much too cool to wonder what exactly was happening in Tim’s head.
“So, what do you want to do?” I said. I tossed the controller to the floor and watched my character slow from a run to a walk, only to tip over the edge of a cliff and down into an abyss hopping with red-eyed robot fish. I had died. “This is boring as fuck,” I said, trying to ignore the artificial sound of that last word. “Let’s do something.”
Tim smiled. “I’m having fun,” he said, and with a crash he brought down his cast again. The sleek yellow form of a Corvette collapsed beneath it. The cast did look imposing—and well- insulated. Red and thick and rough to the touch, it reminded me of a firecracker. The cast went halfway up Tim’s left arm, stopping just a few inches below the elbow. Though his three broken fingers were set and hidden within the cast’s stiff mold, his pinky and thumb stuck out on either side, fleshy and pink as shrimp. Surf’s up, he had told me when I first saw the cast. Then he held up his broken hand, wiggling it for effect, smiling at his own joke.
But really, there wasn’t anything funny about it. Tim’s broken bones were an ongoing mystery. He refused to tell even me how he had hurt himself. I just did it around the house, he’d said. It was an accident, and somehow, I knew that I shouldn’t press him about it.
“Well, we have to do something,” I said, leaning back, supporting myself with both hands. “I’m not going to sit here all day and watch you smash shit.”
Tim chuckled. “You’re such a bitch,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Let’s do something outside,” I said. “Let’s go to the lake.”
After setting another car in place, Tim paused. He turned his head and looked out the window, a half window, one at the level of the ground outside. Daffodils and grass covered it almost completely, but the sun still shined through. The haze of the outside world shimmered like a mirage.
“Let’s go climbing,” Tim said, and he stood up.
“Climbing?” I said. “We can’t.”
What he meant was climbing trees, a favorite pastime of ours for as long as I could remember. But make no mistake: This wasn’t normal climbing, and these weren’t normal trees, not by most definitions. Tim and I would ride our bikes to a forest on the edge of town, and there we’d search for inviting cedars and Douglas-firs to scale. Sometimes, we’d climbed a hundred feet or more into the air, high enough to feel the tree swaying in the wind, high enough to feel that strange stir of terror and joy mixing together. Adding a broken hand into the equation didn’t seem like a good idea.
“You can’t climb with your cast,” I said, and I smiled. “You already suck at climbing. A cast is only going to make you worse.”
“Screw that,” Tim said. “I want to go climbing, so let’s go climbing. It’s time for an adventure. That’s an order. Here, here,” and his cast tore through the air, coming down like a gavel, crushing the Jeep that was already waiting for it.
I called my mother and said I’d be home a little later, perhaps around five.
“We’re going to the woods,” I told her, and I left it at that.
My mother knew what forest I was talking about: Thrashers Forest, a swath of public land near the northeast corner of Bothell. On a map, the forest looked like a thumb, its borders neatly curving, narrow in the middle but bulbous at the tip. A winding creek cut through it and, sometimes, Tim and I would fish out rocks that caught our fancy: dark blue stones speckled with quartz, black stones with gray belts wrapped around them, each rock slightly different than the next, all of them as slick and smooth as the tops of fingernails. I can only assume that this was everything my mother thought we did in the forest—splashed in the creek, tromped through the underbrush, nothing more than that. I had never told her about our climbing, and I had never felt the need to.
“Have fun,” my mother said, and we told each other goodbye.
My parents weren’t especially strict. They trusted me to stay out of trouble and, more often than not, I did just that. I got good grades at school, and I helped my mother clean up after dinner without her having to ask. Still, my parents weren’t afraid to ground me if I fell out of line, and I remember my father once berating me when I received a ‘C’ in math, haranguing me at the dinner table as my mother looked on. I was an only child, and that meant that my parents sometimes wavered fast between leniency and overreaction. It was leniency most of the time, but I knew well enough that my parents were keeping an eye on me.
That certainly wasn’t the case when it came to Tim’s father. Tim’s father didn’t keep an eye on much of anything at all. The two of them lived alone; Tim’s older brother was away at Eastern Washington University, and their mother had died from ovarian cancer when Tim was only seven. His father worked from home, and he worked day and night. I had never understood the specifics of his job, but I knew it had something to do with computer equipment. Years ago, he had invented a type of motion sensor—one of those little black screens that automatically flush public toilets—and now he worked part-time for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, a dozen others. Whatever work it was, it involved Tim’s father being on the phone or the computer at all hours of the day. In fifth grade, when our class had held a bring-your-child-to-work day, Tim had just stayed at home.
“What did you do?” I had asked him, fresh off my time at my father’s law firm. “Did he include you on a phone call? Did he teach you about lasers?”
“No,” Tim had said. “I just played video games all day. I sat in the basement.”
And despite my exclamations about how awesome that sounded, even then I understood how sad that day must have been for him—how disappointing, how wasted.
But it definitely wasn’t surprising. Even when he wasn’t on the phone or the computer, Tim’s father rarely seemed to give his son a second thought. What little free time he had was spent working on his wooden figurines: fist-sized sculptures that he whittled out of chunks of driftwood from the Olympic Peninsula. A knuckle of cedar might morph into a lion’s head. A gnarled piece of pine might become the paw of a bear, claws in the midst of a slashing attack. Over the years, Tim had collected dozens of these sculptures; his father would unceremoniously pass one off the same minute he completed it. When he was younger, Tim had loved those carvings. Now he tossed them into a pile in his closet.
Tim’s father was working on one of those sculptures when we walked upstairs that afternoon. Their living room was his office—his desk and computer were next to the couch—but today he sat in the big beige recliner beside the television, a chair with its sides ripped to tatters by the cat. Tim’s father sat with his feet propped up, one hand churning a knife against a small piece of timber he held in the other. Curls of wood scattered across his lap and the room smelled faintly of fresh-cut pine, a scent that I breathed in deep just as Tim’s father looked up at us.
“How’s it going?” he said.
“Fine,” Tim told him, still headed for the kitchen and, beyond that, the garage and our bikes. I followed close behind him.
“How’s the hand feeling?” his father said, a little dreamily, working at his sculpture again.
At that Tim came to a stop, sudden enough that I nearly bumped into him. My chest grazed the backpack he had put on just moments before, standing at the foot of the basement staircase. Supplies, he had said, bouncing his eyebrows, and then he had bounded away. Tim now turned to his father.
“My hand,” Tim said, “feels like it’s in a cast.”
“A fascinating observation,” his father said, still working with his knife, a wood-handled blade that curved downward at its tip. Then he glanced up at us again, his face suddenly long, suddenly curious. “Where you headed?” he said.
“Out,” Tim told him. “We’re just headed out.”
His father nodded. “Out is nice. Care to be more specific, though?”
I couldn’t remember the last time he had pressed us so insistently. I nearly answered him—The woods, I would have said—plainly out of habit, a child’s twitch reaction to a parent asking questions. Tim spoke before I had the chance.
“We’re going to the lake,” he said, and he bounced his shoulder to indicate the backpack. He looked at me for just a fraction of a second, enough to assure me about the lie, enough to tell me, Just go with it. Just be quiet. Whatever scheming was afoot had been lost on me—and the same went for Tim’s father.
“Sounds like a plan,” he said, turning once more to his carving. The piece of wood had yet to take its form. For now, it was nothing more than a shapely mass: five corners, one of them longer than the others. A person? A flower? I could only guess. “Make sure you keep your cast dry,” Tim’s father said, and then we were off again.
In the garage, as Tim hit the button that raised the door, I moved a little closer to him. His father was well out of earshot but I spoke softly all the same, almost whispering.
“Why didn’t you just tell him where we were going?” I said. “Why didn’t you tell him the truth? He wouldn’t have cared.”
Tim watched the door rise, the brightness of the sun slowly creeping into the darkness of the garage. Then he turned to me and smiled, front teeth flashing. They did that sometimes. His front two teeth were fake—they had simply never developed, never grown to replace his baby teeth—and in certain light Tim’s fake incisors gave his whole face a look of mischief. There was something cunning about those teeth, even if you could tell there was something missing as well.
“Like I said,” Tim told me, “today is an adventure, and that’s why I had to lie. Because adventures need secrets. They always need secrets.”
As we rode, Tim was in typical form. Never slowing down, he shuffled and shifted all over his bike, striking one death-defying pose after another, Evel Knievel meets suburbia. He could balance both feet on one pedal; recline and rest his ankles on the handlebars; stand up straight with his feet poised on the frame, ass in the air and head hanging low, ready to topple at any moment. His latest trick was shifting halfway around and riding sidesaddle, a pose that he had learned after watching a television program about the Royal Family.
“I’m her majesty the queen!” Tim shouted now, slipping into a whiny British accent. “Do my bidding, my royal subjects!”
We were coasting down a hill, the world whizzing past us, Tim wiggling both feet as he held them suspended in the air. It was quite a sight to see, but that didn’t stop me from playing my part as well, reacting to his stunts in the same way I always did: by feigning disappointment.
“You can do better,” I said. “Come on. My grandma can do that. Shape up, Milloy. Grow some balls.”
Shaking his head, Tim shifted around and sat normally again, just as the hill bottomed out and our bikes began to lose their speed.
“Christ,” Tim said, “you yanks are so hard to impress,” and in spite of the silly accent, in spite of the silly situation, there was something in the way he spoke that seemed serious, a hint of sagging defeat in his voice. I’m just playing around, I almost said, but then the moment passed. Tim smiled a little and zipped suddenly forward, outpacing me with ease, the contents of his backpack clacking and clattering as he went.
Thrashers Forest lay about three miles away from our block, but we never had to leave the neighborhood to get there. Bothell was, and is, a ticky-tacky maze that sprawled for miles on end, each of its homes more or less the same, blue and red and grass-green bungalows now flickering around us in a blur. Outwardly, I hated Bothell, wishing I’d been born in Portland or Los Angeles or Seattle itself, preferably near Pioneer Square. But in truth I felt nothing but comfort in our neighborhood, a contentment so complete that I didn’t even recognize it, not as a child, least of all a child who chose to be cynical about the world around her, a grunge-rock kid. Yes, outwardly, I hated my town, hated the world, hated my entire fucking life, but inwardly the truth was this: I was happy, healthy, at ease, and I could only assume that the same went for Tim. We didn’t have many friends, but the two of us didn’t need many friends. We had Bothell, and we had Thrashers Forest.
“Well, what do we have here,” Tim said, slowing to a stop as we approached the bridge that led into the forest. A small ravine skirted the southern edge of the woods. The chasm yawned about fifty feet from one side to the next, its valley filled with tangles of underbrush and stones the size of basketballs. Beside the bridge, someone had laid a rusty steel beam across the length of the ravine, a narrow plank shaped like a lowercase ‘n.’ It reminded me of a massive strip of staples.
“What in the fuck,” I said, coming to a stop and straddling my bike. “That’s fucking weird,” but really, it wasn’t. Thrashers Forest was a hotspot for mischief—beer cans and cigarette butts dotted the forest floor, graffiti crawled up dozens of trees, shopping carts and tires and broken bicycle parts were strewn everywhere, left to be enveloped by weeds. Once, Tim and I had found a rusted-out horse from a merry-go-round, its body still impaled on its pole, its head forever rearing in wild excitement. All things considered, a mysterious beam bridging the ravine wasn’t surprising, but it certainly caught Tim’s attention. He hopped off his bike and walked to the edge of the gully, studying the beam with a sharp, narrow gaze.
“I’m going to ride across it,” he said, looking up at me.
I was quiet for a beat. “That’s cute,” I said, playing along, playing my part, all in spite of the thing already gnawing at my stomach. “Fucking anyone could do that.”
Tim smiled at me. Then he stepped to the side and lifted his bike’s front tire, setting it on the lip of the beam.
“Wait a second,” I said. “You’re not really going to ride across that.”
“Damn right I am,” Tim said, and he set his back tire on the beam, holding the bike steady with his right hand, his good hand, gripping the seat. Then he balanced one foot on the beam and set the other on the right pedal.
“Stop,” I said, and to my surprise, he did. I stepped off my bike and walked to the edge of the ravine, staring down. Although it wasn’t very wide, the ravine was deep—forty feet, maybe more. It cut into the earth like a scar, its sides so steep that they were nearly cliffs. The bottom of the ravine glimmered in the afternoon sun. Poking through the weeds, the gully’s stones glowed like white-hot embers. If you fell straight down, your landing wouldn’t be a soft one. That much was certain. “You’re an idiot,” I said, looking up at Tim. I made myself smile. “Come on. Let’s find a tree and do this.”
I moved toward the bridge, hoping to usher him along, but Tim didn’t move.
“What’s wrong?” he said. With his bike leaned against his leg, he reached up to his shoulder and gripped one strap of his backpack. “You really don’t think I can do this?”
“No,” I said, and I meant it, but I knew right away that this had been the wrong thing to say. “I mean, sure, maybe,” I added, speaking a little faster now, “but I think it’s a dumb thing to do.” I was quiet for a moment, watching him. “Come on,” I said, and again I moved toward the bridge.
Tim still didn’t move. He looked up at me, smiling a little, just enough for me to see his front teeth, those flashing white teeth. “I’m going to do it,” he said.
“Don’t,” I told him.
“Because you could fall.”
“Of course I could,” Tim said, and he smiled even wider. “That’s why I should do it.”
No, I wanted to say, but then I didn’t. Somewhere, something inside me snapped. I stood straighter, all the muscles in my neck pulling tight. My teeth clenched together, and I squeezed my thumbs inside my fists. “Fine,” I said, and my voice surprised even me. I spoke sharply, angrily, a tone that wasn’t altogether genuine but wasn’t altogether false. “Fucking do it then,” I said. “If you want to kill yourself, go ahead and kill yourself. What do I fucking care?”
Something scrabbled through the branches overhead and, for a moment, Tim and I were quiet. I stared straight at him, waiting for his reaction, but Tim simply stood there, motionless, poker-faced. I can still see him like that: clutching his bike by the seat, one foot waiting on the pedals, wide expanse of the woods behind him, sunlight cutting through the branches in bright, stiff shafts. Then Tim sighed and shook his head, lowering his eyes.
“Anna,” he said, “sometimes I think you don’t love me at all.”
And with that he straddled his bike and set out across the beam, moving so steadily and straight that it seemed to take just a second—one solitary second—for him to cross the ravine and arrive safely on the other side.
“It was like I was flying,” Tim told me. “It was like I wasn’t even riding my bike.”
We were trudging through the underbrush, scouting for trees. Of course, there were trees all around us, trees that shot into the air like skyscrapers, so tall that they seemed to warp and bend when you stood beneath them. But not every tree we passed was fit for climbing. Hardly any trees were fit for climbing. The trick was finding one with branches low enough to grab, low enough but thick enough to start your ascent. Finding a tree like that was no easy task; the branches almost always began fifteen or twenty feet in the air, the base of the trunk marked only with the tough, narrow knuckles of branches long ago starved away. Sometimes, those knuckles were enough to lightly grip, but scaling a tree like a bear was a thing you could do for only so many feet. Finding the right tree took some effort, but today Tim didn’t seem very dedicated, at least for the time.
“It was awesome,” he said, and now he turned his head and looked at me, eyes wide with amazement. “Did it look like I was flying to you? Is that what it looked like?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Kind of. I guess.”
The front wheel of Tim’s bike caught on something in the underbrush, and he struggled with it for a moment, grunting and yanking at his handlebars. Just walking through the forest had its own difficulties. The woods were overgrown with ferns and ivy and tangles of thorny plants I couldn’t identify. Sometimes it was easiest just to carry your bike. As Tim struggled with his wheel, I scanned the area around us, but my attention wasn’t much more focused than his, not after the ravine, not after what he had said. It had been a strange thing to hear; that word love still rang in my ears like an echo. I didn’t know what to make of that sentence, and I didn’t know what to make of Tim riding across the ravine like that. I knew only that both of those things made me feel a little sick to my stomach, though I couldn’t exactly say why.
“But aren’t you going to tell me how stupid I looked?” Tim said, and he finally pulled his bike free. “Aren’t you going to say that you could do the same thing? That I should do better?”
“No,” I said, and I made my voice as flat as possible. “It was amazing. You’re my hero. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen,” but then I thought again and I realized that, maybe, in a way, it had been.
“I’m glad I entertain you,” Tim said. “I’m glad I’m good at that.”
“You’re not so good at finding trees,” I told him, and I shifted my weight from one hip to the other. “Didn’t we come here to climb? Isn’t that what you ordered?”
“Sure, sure,” Tim said. “So let’s go climbing.”
I looked around. “Where?” I said, holding out my hands.
Turning side-to-side, Tim surveyed the woods. A mosquito bumbled and bounced against my face, and I waved it away with one hand.
“How about that one?” Tim said, and he moved to our left, walking through the weeds with tall, halting steps. I followed him to a Douglas-fir as wide around as a bus. It stood in a clearing atop a short hill, its branches so mossy and long that they sagged at their tips. The entire tree seemed to frown.
“This one?” I said. “We can’t climb this one,” and I felt almost certain that this was true. The lowest branch was at least twenty feet above us, and the trunk was too wide to hug by itself. The bark was thick and layered like scales, but I didn’t see any footholds. I knew that climbing a tree like that would be as difficult as scaling a flat wall.
But Tim wasn’t convinced. Laying his bike on its side, he stepped closer to the tree and began to walk around it. His right hand skimmed along the bark as if he was searching for the switch to a hidden door. With his thumb hooked through one strap, his injured hand idly tugged at his backpack. Faintly, I could hear the hollow sound of objects rattling around inside of it.
“What’s in there?” I said, squinting a little, but Tim didn’t seem to hear me.
“There we go,” he said, his voice full of pop. He was almost halfway around the tree. Stepping even closer to it, he braced his cast against the trunk and reached up with his free hand, taking hold of something. “Told you this would be a good one,” he said.
“Why?” I asked, but soon I saw what he meant. I set down my bike and paced around the tree, the western side of which was spiked with a dozen spindly, brittle branches. They jutted out from the tree like arrows stuck in a shield, leading an easy path to the thicker branches overhead. Tim had already started climbing.
“Onward and upward,” he said.
“Are those strong enough to hold you?” I asked, and as if on cue, one of the branches snapped beneath Tim’s right foot. A mix of dirt and bark rained to the ground.
“Most of them are fine,” he said, hugging the tree a little tighter, searching for another foothold. He was four or five feet off the ground. “You just have to climb fast,” he added, and he set his foot on another branch. “That’s the trick. That’s all there is to it.”
And he was right. Although the branches bent beneath his feet, Tim moved so quickly that they never had a chance to break completely. He climbed with his shoes turned sideways, as flush against the tree as possible, and he hugged the trunk so tightly that the branches did only part of the work in holding him up. His cast didn’t seem to hinder him at all. I copied Tim as closely as I could, following the same path, stepping on the same branches, squeezing the tree so hard that the bark left indentations in my arms, jagged little valleys that looked like scars. In a minute flat, Tim and I were standing beside each other on two fat branches twenty feet above the ground.
“Shall we?” Tim said, and he swept his hand through the air as if he was asking me to dance.
From there, the climb was steady but slow, not as easy as it usually was. I knew that this was probably the oldest tree we had ever climbed—it already seemed to be tallest, but even more than that the tree was wide, its branches thick and healthy but sometimes distantly spaced. We had to explore the tree as much as climb it, circling around the trunk, searching for the best route up. Long and dense with needles, the branches of the tree and the other trees around it formed a kind of canopy; the world beyond us was suddenly concealed by a thick, green wall. Below, the earth soon disappeared. The sky was swallowed up. We spoke very little. There was only the tree in front of us—the tree and swirls of sunlit dust, a haze that settled on our clothes like a shadow. Ten minutes passed, fifteen, then twenty. It was difficult to tell how high we were climbing, but the farther we went, the farther I wanted to go. My palms already burned from climbing and my arms already ached, but I didn’t let that slow me down. It was Tim who finally came to a stop.
“Can we take a break?” he said, his voice a bit slow, a bit winded.
“Why?” I said. “No, let’s keep going.”
Tim smiled. It was darker here inside the tree, and angling shadows cut across his face. “We’ll keep going in a minute,” he said. “Right now, I’ve got some business to address.”
We were standing on two different branches, Tim to my right, perpendicular. We had reached a little clearing, an area where it was easier to move around, albeit carefully. Slowly, Tim pivoted in place and turned away from the tree, bending at the knees and sitting down on the branch with his right hip against the trunk. Then he started slipping off his backpack.
“You jacked some beer from you dad,” I said, and now I turned as well, half-smiling, my back against the tree. “I’m guessing that’s what your business is.”
“Not exactly,” Tim said, setting his backpack on his lap. He unzipped it and reached inside, grinning wide all the while, though his eyes looked strange to me, glassy and distant, eyes that seemed to grimace more than grin. “I’ve got something better than booze,” he said. “I’ve got these,” and he lifted up one of his father’s wooden figurines, a carving of an owl. A firecracker was taped around its middle.
“Hey,” I said, as if Tim had simply forgotten something, “your dad made that.”
“Sure did,” Tim said, and now he was holding a lighter with his right hand, setting the fuse, the firecracker hissing white light. Tim tossed it away. He threw a little awkwardly, grasping the figurine between his left pinky and thumb, the only two fingers still free on his injured hand. No matter. The figurine sailed away from us and exploded seconds later, the sound of it like a gunshot. I jolted. A burst of chips and splinters fell to the forest floor.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“Celebrating,” Tim told me.
Tim was quiet for a second, frowning. “Everything,” he said. “The whole fucking world.” He reached inside his backpack again, retrieving another figurine. This one was a carving of a cobra’s head, its hood as carefully shaped as a saucer, its teeth as thin as needles. Like the owl, the cobra had a firecracker taped around it—a thing the size of a thumb held on by red duct tape. As Tim lit the fuse, I sank to the branch, taking a seat.
“Ciao,” Tim said, and he hucked the cobra so hard that he almost fell forward. It flew for a while and then bang, more debris, more wreckage raining to the earth.
“Shit,” I said, and I couldn’t help but wince, turning my head, shielding my eyes.
“You want to light one?” Tim said. He was already fishing around in his backpack again. He lifted up a carving of a guitar, holding it out for me to take. “Go ahead,” he said. “Let ’er rip.”
But I held up my hands, shaking my head. “No,” I said. “No, thanks.”
Tim raised his eyebrows. “Why not?”
“Because it’s mean,” I told him. “Your dad made those for you.”
“Fuck that guy,” Tim said, and with a smile he lit the fuse on the guitar. Raising his hand, he hurled it down through the branches beneath us. The guitar erupted a moment later, the sound of it bellowing through the woods all around us. I covered my ears.
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “How many of those do you have?”
Peering down, Tim opened his backpack wider. “A lot,” he said. “All of them.” He reached inside the bag and started pulling out figurines at random, casually tossing them over his shoulder. “Not all of them have firecrackers, though,” he said. I could see that. The ones falling to the ground were free of tape, free of bombs. They ricocheted off the branches, tumbling down like fallen pinecones.
Tim went on like that for some time—tossing two figurines, detonating the next, tossing three more—and I sat there and watched him in silence. Each explosion seemed louder than the last, noise so loud that I could feel it rattling deep inside me, shaking my bones. Tim didn’t seem to mind it at all. He never flinched, not once, not even when he tossed one figurine straight above his head, the firecracker bursting just one or two feet away from his face.
“Fuck—be careful,” I said, though I hated to say those words, hated to sound like a drag, like a bitch, like a parent. But Tim never scolded me, never snapped back. He only sighed.
“No,” he said, “I won’t.” And, somehow, as he said that, his voice didn’t sound defiant in the least. He wasn’t annoyed. He just sounded tired, those words as plain and passionless as the way that someone speaks his own name. After a moment, Tim reached inside his bag once more, holding it open as wide as it could stretch, and I saw that there was only one carving left. He picked it up.
This one was a sculpture of a rose, and right away I could tell that it was different from the others. It was better, more intricately carved, its petals so numerous and detailed that it looked almost real. It was smoother than the others, too; the wood around its edges actually shined, polished by age, polished by touch. Compared to the rest of his collection, it seemed like a strange thing for Tim to have, and immediately I knew that it wasn’t really his at all.
But that didn’t matter. The rose was fitted with a firecracker like all the rest. Tim lit the fuse but, for a second, for a couple of seconds, he didn’t let it go. He just held it in the palm of his injured hand, watching the rose as if it was something he had found. An arrowhead. A fossil. Something strange and unfamiliar.
“Sometimes,” Tim said, the fuse still burning, “I like to see how long I can hold these before they go off.” Then he tipped his hand and the rose fell away, shattering to pieces half a second later.
This time, I didn’t jolt. I wasn’t startled. I opened my lips to speak, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was only a child, just a child, and though I knew in my core that Tim was in trouble, on the surface of it all I had no reaction to give, not then, not a single word to offer. So, I was silent. I stared down at the branches we had climbed only moments before, limbs that now looked as small and insubstantial as toothpicks.
“You want to keep going?” Tim finally said, raising his eyes, looking up at the rest of the tree.
No, I wanted to tell him. I don’t, but for the life of me, I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s go.”
So, we started climbing, and soon the tree began to shrink, narrowing to its final point like the end of a spear. Gradually, the branches grew slimmer and slimmer, and I could tell that we were getting closer to the top. With every step we took, the tree swayed side-to-side, a thing that usually scared me, though now I felt nothing at all. I simply climbed, my eyes trained on the trunk in front of me. I climbed ahead of Tim—nine or ten feet above him—so, when the branches finally thinned away and the canopy opened up, I was the one who first saw the view.
The world stretched out in every direction, the hills as billowing and blue as ocean waves. The Cascade Mountains stood in the distance, tall and sharp, their peaks still capped with snow. Knots of clouds were floating past the sun, and the streets of Bothell were awash in tawny light. I had lived in the same town my entire life. I had seen this all before. But today the view looked different. It was new. It was beautiful. But, more than anything, all the way up here, the sight was also terrifying—deeply, strangely terrifying.
“What’s it like?” Tim said, farther down the trunk, his view still obscured. “Anna, tell me what it looks like.”
But I couldn’t, so I didn’t. I was quiet, speechless, still. And, when Tim called out to me again—Lean down, he said. Grab my hand, help me up—I knew at once that this was impossible, that the fledgling branches beneath me were much too weak to support us both.
“Sometimes I Think You Don’t Love Me At All” by Raymond Fleischmann appeared in Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Raymond Fleischmann’s short stories have previously appeared in The Iowa Review, Cimarron Review, Permafrost, River Styx, The Pinch, and The Los Angeles Review, among many others. He recently completed a yearlong fellowship at Richard Hugo House in Seattle and has served as a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He received his MFA from Ohio State University and now lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where he’s completing his first novel.