I hang upside down on the park swing set; my oversized hoodie pulled down by gravity. Blood rushes to my head as my arms swing limply beside me, growing number by the second. I’m caught in a temperature battle as the cool, fall wind brushes against the sliver of my waist not covered, causing goose bumps to spread across my skin, only to be overrun by heat as the sun beats down on me. I listen to the dead leaves rustle by, reminding me it’s October.
I relax, closing my eyes. I inhale the smell of freshly cut grass and evaporating rainwater from the night before, giving hints that it’s still Summer, but it’s technically not anymore. The overwhelming scent of stale popcorn, undoubtedly coming from Movie Matinee (the theater that should have been foreclosed long ago for health violations), passes by as I listen to someone walking towards the slides. A gust of wind throws another familiar scent my way; vanilla spice cologne. There’s only one person I know who wears that. My eyes snap open.
Looking around the playground is the most gorgeous man to ever roam the earth. His short, brown hair sits upon a face that could only have been sculpted by higher beings. His lips are soft enough to be felt from feet away and his body screams that of a Roman Emperor. His green eyes that sparkle in the sun look my way, seeming to notice me for the first time. He walks up, feet crunching on the woodchips, “Hey Daren.”
I grab the rusted bar above me and pull up. My legs fall past me in a sort of split before I let go, dropping to the ground. I turn around to face the marble statue that broke creation’s mold, “What’s up, Carter?”
“You, a second ago,” he laughs, taking the swing next to me. I don‘t think he notices that the seat is damp as he leans into it, rocking back and forth, “I’ve been trying to call, but you never answered.”
“You have?” I pull out my flip phone, noticing for the first time that I really did miss several calls and texts from him. I turn up the volume and stuff it back in my pocket.
“Yeah,” he smiles, starting a decent swing, “Somehow I knew you’d be here.”
“I’m always here,” I laugh. I take the dry swing next to him, happy to finally spend some alone time with my best friend. No sports games, no getting ready for the school musical, just me and him. Together again. I push harder than he does, getting a good rhythm started.
“I didn’t see you at school. Have you been here all day?” he asks. I shrug, knowing full well that I’ve been here since dawn. I had another nightmare and needed to get out of the house. I figured the park would be empty, giving me plenty of space to let loose. Suffice to say, going to school didn‘t seem as amazing as being alone for a few hours. “Still coming to the game Friday?”
“Yeah, shouldn’t you be getting ready for that?” I ask, gaining a few inches in height on him. Carter is the quarterback of the Midtown Sharks - our high school football team. He’s the youngest member to ever be nominated as team captain because he received it as a Sophomore last year. My swing creaks above me, reminding me it’s old and could break any minute. “Isn’t there, like, I don’t know, practice?”
“Not ’til later,” he shakes his head, catching up to my speed, “And you still haven’t answered.”
“Of course I’m going, Carter,” I laugh, leaning back, “I always go to your games.”
The sun warms my skin as the wind breezes through my long brown hair. I close my eyes, listening to everything around me. Ignoring the creak of my swing, I take note of the ice cream truck turning the far corner out of the park; the high pitched tune getting swept away in the organized honks and rumbles of traveling cars on the main road. Kids roll by on skateboards, their wheels bumping on each crack as they argue about who can go faster. A new sound enters the playing field as I realize that Carter has started swinging. Each kick of his legs causes a strain on the old, rusted chains making for a rhythmic squeak.
I smile, looking over. The sun beats down on him, causing his calm demeanor to glow that much more. The back of his shirt lifts with every ascend giving the slightest glimpse of the smooth, unblemished skin beneath. His amazingly toned muscles bulge with every descend, begging to be strength tested. I find that I’ve stopped swinging completely, just watching him go back and forth. He notices, looking over, “What?”
I quickly shake my head, continuing to swing, “Nothing.”
“Yeah, whatever,” he smiles that darn cute smile. I laugh, catching up to his speed, “So? How about it?”
“How about what?” I kick my legs out, not really paying attention. He’s got this hypnotic hold over me that I can’t really control. I’ve had this crush on him since I don’t know when, and it’s killing me inside because I know that he will never like me the same way. I want him to be more than my best friend. More than my ‘brother,’ but how do I tell him something like that without ruining everything? It’d crumble my world. The only thing that could possibly be worse would be if he were to actually like me back.
“Were you even listening?” he laughs.
I shake my head, staying honest, “Not really.”
He sighs, “I asked if anyone had invited you to Sadie Hawkins yet.”
I look over at him like he’s nuts, “Why on earth would any girl ask me to Sadie Hawkins?” The slight turn forces my swing to turn with me, but I compensate and readjust.
“Because you’re a catch?” he laughs.
I snicker, letting go of the chains to hold my stomach. I almost fall out of the swing. He looks at me confused so I giggle, “Now that’s saying something.”
He noticeably slows down, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Never mind,” I quickly shrug it off, picking up my lost pace. Carter hesitates, but catches up to me. Gaining a few inches on him, he figures out what I’m doing. He smirks, getting the tiniest bit higher than me; game on.
We each push as hard as we can, going higher and higher until I begin to lift from my seat and the chains on his swing start to turn. I give him an evil look knowing how I can win. As he struggles to get control over his swing, I fly forward.
I let go of the chains, the seat falling away from me. Suspended in the air, the ground approaching fast, I lean into my shoulder. Just before I collide with the woodchips, I roll forward, popping up onto my feet with a little jump. I smile wide at the good landing.
Brushing a hand through my long brown hair, I hear the scuff of shoes on woodchip. I turn to see Carter’s eyes bugging out of his skull as he struggles to stop the swing. Running up to me, he grabs my arms, holding them out and looking me over, “Oh my gosh, are you okay? What happened?”
“I jumped,” I laugh, tugging my arms from his hold before he can pull up my sleeves.
“You what!” he shouts, letting my arms fall. A few kids look over, not sure if we’re starting a fight or just messing around. I wave at them and they go back to their own business.
“Ouch,” I mutter, putting my foot down on a sharp woodchip. I realize that my shoe apparently fell off at some point. I reach down for it, giggling, “Looks like I win.” I place my sock only right foot on the top of my left as I undo the laces.
“Are you insane!” he grabs my shoulders, “You could have gotten hurt or-”
“I didn’t,” I smile, bending over, shoe untied.
“But you could have,” he protests, bending down to see my face. He lifts it up to him, continuing to look me over, making it difficult to put my shoe back on.
I insist, pointing my finger at him, “But I didn’t.” I take a step back to release my face from his hold. I shove my foot in the shoe and use my knee as a surface as I wobble for balance, tying the laces.
He shakes his head, astonished, “You’re nuts.”
“I prefer bananas,” I laugh, placing my foot on the ground. Wiggling my toes, I stretch the gray, faded fabric of my tennis shoes.
“Never do that again,” he warns.
I smirk, looking into the abyss of his eyes, “Or what?”
“You want to find out?” he laughs, grabbing me around the waist. He pulls me close and lifts me; his boney shoulder digs into my chest. I look down at the ground beneath me, my legs and arms squirming to find something to hold onto. His arm wraps around my knees and my hands find their way to his waistband, keeping me from tipping over.
I groan, “Okay, okay, I get it. I won’t do it again!”
“Good,” he laughs, setting me down. I take a step back and punch his shoulder, adjusting my hoodie. He laughs harder.
“You’re mean,” I glare, crossing my arms.
“No, I’m bigger,” he taunts, rubbing the top of my hair.
I swat at his hand as he walks away, “It’s the same thing.” I follow him as we walk to the jungle gym. Bigger doesn’t just mean in size; he’s older, too. He’s seventeen while I’m the lowly fifteen-year-old who skipped a grade so we could hang together. Man, is that a story and a half.
See, Carter has been my best friend since before I was born. Literally. The first picture he has of me is my sonogram. He was even at the hospital the day I was born, though he was, like, three so he hardly remembers it. Our moms grew up together and I guess we followed their example. Not that I had much of a choice. It’s hard not to be friends with the coolest guy in existence.
We practically grew up as brothers; birthdays, holidays, family vacations. Back when Carter was about to graduate from fifth grade and go to middle school, leaving me in stupid elementary, we found out we wouldn’t get to see each other every day. It almost killed us. That summer, Carter spent the whole time tutoring me so I could test out of all my classes and move up to sixth grade with him. Even when he was supposed to go off to baseball camp. I spent the three-hour car ride to Tennessee stuffed in his smelly gym bag on the car seat beside him, silently going over my times tables with a glow in the dark calculator, desperately trying not to pee my pants. We’d made the whole trip before anyone found out.
Our parents weren’t too happy, especially my dad, but my mom got the money together so I could stay at camp with him. I learned absolutely nothing about baseball, but by the time school finally rolled around, I was ready for the tests.
Carter takes a seat on the bottom rung of the jungle gym while I climb to the top and hang upside down, again. “Don’t you get dizzy doing that?” he asks, not looking at me. He doesn’t have to. I figured out a long time ago that the guy has a psychic third eye for knowing what I’m doing. That, or I’m just predictable.
“Nah,” I shrug, staring at the back of his head. I swing ever so slightly, getting the familiar numb feeling in my upper half, “Think you guys’ll win the championship?”
“Don‘t get ahead of yourself. We still have to win this week’s game. And yeah, I mean, we always win,” he smirks, leaning back to look at me, “Especially now that I’m the quarterback.”
“Modest much?” I scoff sarcastically. I run my hand through my hanging hair. It all hangs down in a brown waterfall, making like a soft, ticklish fabric.
“Can’t afford to be,” he shrugs, “If I don’t believe I’m good enough, neither will the team.”
“Makes sense,” I nod, feeling slightly dizzy. I’m not used to hanging upside down with my eyes open, so I close them.
“Kenzie is throwing a party after the championship,” he adds.
I nod my head, knowing it’s the typical thing to do at our school. There seems to be some new party going on every weekend. Though, I’ve never actually been to one, “You going?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugs, “I guess I’ll go if we win. Still, I need someone to go with.”
“Um,” I laugh, “Why don’t you take Kenzie? She’s your girlfriend.” It’s the typical high school relationship; the football quarterback dates the head cheerleader. I don’t think it helps that she’s blonde and he’s buff. And hot.
“Didn’t I tell you?” he asks, “We broke up.”
“Oh,” I nod; this thing happens all the time. I don’t think he’s actually had a girlfriend for more than a month before, “So…who are you dating now?”
“No one,” he states. He adds in a whisper that I almost miss, “Yet.” My eyes snap open, watching him shake his head, turning to lean on the bar so we face each other, “I have a feeling this year is going to be the best one yet.”
“And why’s that?” I swing forward and back, letting my arms hang down below me.
“Well,” he rubs his hand through his hair. It’s what he does when he’s nervous, “It’s a secret.”
“Come on,” I place my hands together, “Please tell me? Please, please, please?” I don’t actually care, but I know it takes major begging to make the guy do anything. He hesitates, and I get the feeling what he wants to tell me is serious. I reach up my left hand and tilt my head to look at him right side up, “Carter?”
“Um,” he shrugs, “If you really want to know, we’ll have to meet at The Tree.”
The Tree is our secret spot; our fortress of solitude. It sits at the end of a path we made somewhere in the middle of the forest next to the park. We only go when one of us is in grave danger or there is a super top secret, secret to be told. Nine times out of ten, it’s the latter. I quickly reach my other arm up and flip down to stand on the ground, “Are you okay? Is it serious? Should I be worried?”
“No - I mean yes - I mean, would you just-” he grabs my arm and pulls me closer to the bar so I can climb through as I laugh at his nervousness. He gives me one last look, and I can tell he’s considering backing out. It must be serious. The typical things discussed at The Tree usually involve our biggest fears, our guilty pleasures, or the incident that shall never be spoken of. That’s why I’m so nervous, and I’m not even the one spilling my guts.
Making up his mind, he turns without a word and walks towards our secret path. I shrug and follow close behind. As we get closer to the forest, the ground gets squishier with mud. The woodchips start to show through the grass less and less, replaced by odd colored pebbles. I trip slightly, as we step onto the path, scuffing up dirt.
The first marker on our path is a tree with a spray painted ’X’. It had been scheduled for removal some years ago when the town was planning on putting a mall where the park is. Carter taps it twice for good luck. I approach it, two steps behind, doing the same. We walk a little further, turning when we get to the Bear Claw Bush. Back when we were younger, we’d been playing hide and seek and Carter fell out of a tree - right into the bush. He’d been so embarrassed about his scrapes that when we went to school the next day, he told everyone that a bear attacked him. Sad thing is that everyone believed him.
I watch him walking in front of me, his butt swaying slightly. As spotty sun rays pass over him, it reminds me of a music video my mom did back in the day. Several small, moving spotlights would shine down on her as she belted out those amazingly beautiful notes. Those are the exact things that Carter makes me think of; amazing, beautiful, shining.
We step over a log barrier and the forest gets instantly darker. The tall trees block out the sun with green leaves. Multicolored, dying orange ones peek through the canopy, reminding me that Halloween is on its way. A shiver runs down my spine as the wind blows harder. Colder. I hear a twig snap and jump. “Hey, you’re not secretly a serial killer are you?” I ask, stepping over a very large rock, “Because that’s the vibe I always get whenever we come out here.”
“Dude…shut up,” he laughs, walking around the boulder that looks like Abe Lincolns head, “And stay on the path. I don’t need you getting poison ivy.”
“There’s no poison ivy out here,” I counter, “Only poison oak.”
“Same difference,” he shrugs.
I scoff, “Um, big difference. Ivy is a vine and Oak is a plant.”
“Oh,” he says sarcastically, “Excuse me.”
“You’re excused,” I smile. I hold my hand out to step over a large rock as we pass Beer Keg Cave - the spot where Carter and I first tried beer. I’d stolen one from my dad - the admitted alcoholic - and brought it here where we got drunk after two sips back in the seventh grade. “Can you tell me what this is all about, already?”
“What’s rule number four of the bro code?” he asks, without answering.
I huff, repeating our made up rules, “Don’t ask until we’re at The Tree.”
“And what did you just do?” he asks.
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” I shrug, pretending that I didn’t actually ask. The forest gets sunnier and shinier as I catch up to him at the clearing over Minnow Creak. That’s actually what it’s called, by the way. It’s on the forest map and everything. Apparently, some teenager got killed out here by a druggie with a knife and the police had to map the whole place out. Don’t worry, we never come out here alone.
Carter hesitates in front of the narrow, unsteady log we have to cross over the creek. I roll my eyes, edging in front of him, “Come on, hot shot. You’re the one who wanted to come out here. Why is that, by the way?”
“Seriously?” he laughs, “You just broke rule number four twice in less than a minute.”
I smile, “A new record,” before stepping onto the log and walking across like it’s nothing. Because, to me, it is. I shove my hands in my pockets and spin around onto the log to face him, knowing my balance will tick him off, “You coming or what?” I spin back around, hearing him sigh, before wobbly following behind. I can’t help but smile.
It’s my turn to slow down as we reach the last landmark. Carter and I made it the week after my mom died when I was ten. We got a video cassette of her favorite movie - Gone With the Wind - and unraveled the tape. We’d decorated a cherry bush with the homemade streamers and placed a small wood carving in front of it that Carter made after he took shop in ninth grade. It says, “Terra Nova: Singer, Actor, Mother.” I take a deep breath and walk past it.
Finally, we reach our hideaway. In the middle of a small clearing, next to a boy made water hole, sit’s a very large tree. After a year at survival camp - at which I broke a record for dying the most times in one day - we learned how to make a canopy and step ladder so we could get to a platform we made. It’s basically a giant tree house stockpiled with expired canned food, two sleeping bags, and a rusted can opener. It‘s our own little tree house where we can be anything, say anything, and do anything we want without any judgments. We kept going back and forth between naming it ‘Caron’ or ‘Darter’. We ultimately decided on ‘The Tree’.
“So,” I ask, turning to face him, “We’re here. Now, will you tell me?” He takes my arms and leads me to the secret telling spot; a dirt patch against the tree where grass doesn‘t seem to grow. I roll my eyes, crossing my arms, “I, Daredevil Nova, hereby promise to make no judgments or hateful remarks about your secrets.”
He takes a deep breath, “And I, Carter Topps, hereby promise to tell the truth and not blow what I’m saying out of proportion.”
I sigh, letting my arms down. We smack the palms of our hands, the back of our hands, snap twice, and hit our chests two times before we each place our right hands on The Tree. I don’t turn around as I let my arm fall to my side, placing it on the bark behind me. Carter leans in, inches from me, placing his hand on the tree next to my face. He doesn’t back away. I gulp.
He takes up my entire field of vision. Nothing but perfection stands in front of me and I can’t help but swoon at how close he is. I have to breathe through my mouth so as not to smell his body spray of vanilla spice that happens to be doing a good job of turning me on. I clear my throat, edging back a half step only to bump into the tree. I can tell my face is heating up, so I look to the ground.
I fiddle with my sweater hem, giving my hands something to do; he is making this very difficult. “I have a crush,” he states.
My heart tears to shreds. This is usually what he brings me here for; telling me his new fling. It’s happened three times over the past five weeks and it’s starting to get on my nerves. So what he’s got a crush on some girl? He’s always got a crush on some girl. Still, the bro code states that I can’t judge or make hateful remarks. I sigh, “Yeah? Who is she?”
“Um…well,” he rubs the back of his neck, “It’s complicated.”
“What is it this time?” I say with a little too much annoyance than I mean to have. I clear my head, trying to get a focus, “Does she like you back?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugs, “It’s hard to tell. We know each other really well. Like really, really well, but if they don’t like me back then…I don’t know what I’d do. I really like…this person.”
“Well,” I shrug, having heard all of this before from the past three secret crushes. They‘ve all started out with; I‘m really good friends with this person, we don‘t spend as much time together as we used to, they’re super hot but don‘t seem to see it like I do - I don‘t know if they‘re ready for a relationship yet. Yet all three girls he’s named have been the complete opposite of what he describes. I roll my eyes, “Obviously there’s no rule saying you have to take my advice, but I’d say just tell her. Any girl would be lucky to have you. I mean, in case you forgot, you’re kind of the most popular guy in school.”
“Right, but,” he shrugs, “I really don’t want to ruin what I’ve got with this person.”
“I told you what I think,” I shrug, “Four times in fact. If you want her, go get her.”
“You’re sure?” he asks.
I nod my head, crossing my arms again. I look to the ground, not wanting to see his beautiful eyes when he crushes my heart telling me it’s another cheerleader. I ask, “So who is it anyway?” at the exact same time he states, “I like you.”
I look up, not entirely sure I’d heard right. He gives me that darn cute smile and I smile back, catching on, “Yeah, I like you, too. Cause you’re my best friend. So, come on, you can tell me. Who is it?”
“No-I mean-” he stammers, smile fading. He looks down to the ground, still not backing away. I stay patient. The longer he takes, the more I realize that this is very serious to him. Our biggest secrets are the hardest to tell; I should know that better than anyone. I start to wonder if this girl has a mental issue or something and that’s why he won’t date her. I don’t mean like she’s slow - Carter is sweet not to care about things like that. No, I mean if she’s crazy or a womanizer - but for boys.
I watch as his hand turns to a fist by my face. I bite my lip; if there is one absolute truth about Carter, it’s that when he gets frustrated, he might as well be mad because he tends to punch stuff. Not really wanting to be in the way when that happens, I lift my hand to touch his and say, “It’s okay, just take your time and-”
He interrupts by kissing me.