. . .
He stopped next to the big pine that marked the edge of the woods and scowled his frustration. He had meticulously searched every inch of the two vast properties. Behind tool sheds and gazebos, under the porches, beneath shrubs. Even the inside of the never occupied dog house. He momentarily wondered if she had entered the woods. It was strictly forbidden, but it wouldn't be the first time she had broken the rules. He debated the possibility. A few needles and twigs drifted down from the sprawling pine, nesting in his coppery hair. Giggles followed them. He looked up, the scowl deepening. “That's not fair, Beth. You were supposed to hide on the ground.” “No such rule”, she retorted. “Come on up.” The sulky expression faded and was replaced by puzzlement. There was at least 10 feet between the ground and the first branch. Beth grinned. “Look on the back side, Rick.” He headed around and found a series of wooden slats nailed to the trunk, creating a ladder to the first branch. He started the climb. Beyond the first branch, the tree provided a natural ladder. He negotiated several branches, arriving at the spot where Bethany sat on a small wooden platform. “How long has this been here?” “Just a few days. Don't tell anyone. Gran built it for me while our parents were away last week.” “Your parents and my dad”, he corrected. “You know my mother never goes anywhere.” “Of course, she does. I saw her at Findlan's Grocery yesterday.” As if on cue, Miss Pauline's shrill voice carried through the air. “Richard. Richard, where are you?” He turned to leave. “Back after lunch. Wait for me.” He hurried down the tree, detouring through brush before emerging on the far side of a tool shed. “Coming, Mom.”
Bethany reached into a small hollow formed by the branches and retrieved the sack lunch and book she had left there earlier in the day. She loved the prospect of having lunch in the trees and wished that Rick could join her. Not that it was likely. His mother stuck to a firm schedule and a concept of the right way to do things. Usually a very boring way, she reflected. Any deviation was viewed with dismay. Eating in a tree raised the possibility of insects or dirt coming in contact with the food. For Miss Pauline, that was unthinkable. Unlike Rick's mother, her own mother never came looking for her. If Beth asked her for lunch, she would make it. If she wanted to go to the movies, Amanda Hollister would take her. She couldn't remember the last time her mother had said no to a request. Or a time when she had initiated anything. Although she was only eight, Bethany had been aware of her mother's indifference for a long time. Her father's attitude made her mother's appear caring. Business trips took them away for several days each week. Sometimes longer. Her friend, Jenny, had parents who traveled frequently. They called each evening to hear about her day. Their returns were marked by generous presents and time spent together. Schedules were arranged to insure their presence for birthdays and holidays. When Beth's parents left the house, they seemed to disappear. When they returned, her father greeted her. If Beth initiated it, he would return a perfunctory hug, then walk from the room. “So what have you been doing?” her mother always asked, as if she had memorized the question. Bethany had learned to keep her answers short. Amanda became restless quickly. Once when Beth's enthusiasm for a school play caused her to forget this unwritten rule, Amanda interrupted the tale at it's highpoint, saying she had to make an important phone call. She left the room and didn't return. Never requested to hear the rest of Bethany's story. With a child's flexibility, she accepted the situation. Her parents became casual participants on the fringe of her life. Rick and Gran were the core.
That afternoon was the first of many enjoyable ones spent in the tree. Although they had other friends, this special spot remained unshared . They talked, played games, read books. Both were bright students who read at levels far exceeding their peers. Beth loved stories about animals and nature. Rick favored action and mystery. They'd stretch out on the platform side by side and hours would fly by unaware. Cocooned in the branches, sheltered from her parents' indifference and his mother's over-protectiveness, they forged a bond that would last. Until that day.
The bus hit a crack in the pavement. Beth became aware of her surroundings. She noticed with relief that her queasiness had subsided. Her body was readjusting quickly. You don't forget some things, she thought. Like riding a bike. She smiled as she remembered the day she had learned. She'd sat on the grass by the edge of Rick's driveway, watching as his father patiently balanced Rick on his new bike. Running along with him. Up the driveway and back down. Over and over. Each time his father tried to let go, the bike would sway and start to fall. The moment when rhythm and balance flow without thought never happened. After one topple, Rick rubbed his eyes and tried not to cry. “Why don't you let Beth try it, Dad?” “Come on, Beth”, Mr. John called, “Let's give it a try.” On the third trip down the drive, she pulled away from his guiding hands. The slight sway quickly corrected as she continued on her own. Soon she was able to start and turn without assistance. “Awesome, Beth. I've never seen anyone learn that quickly.” Beth glowed under his approval. But suddenly concerned, she glanced to the spot where Rick had sat. He was no longer sitting. A grin spread across his freckled face as he jumped up and down, filled with excitement for her success.
Without a watch, she was unsure how much time had been spent lost in memories. But when she ventured to look out again, she saw that the countryside had begun to give way to civilization. The queasiness caused by the ride was replaced by a new one. This wasn't going to be easy. Would she be able to do it? She knew that her life depended on it.
I hope you've enjoyed this week's installment. Check back next Saturday for more.
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