S&R Fiction

S&R Fiction: “The Treehouse,” by Aimee Stahlberg

I was nine the first time Tommy gave me butterflies. Mother had just made welts so big on my sister Jackie’s and my behinds that I thought neither of us would be able to wear a bathing suit the whole rest of summer. Her face turned pink as a pomegranate when she saw our soggy, wet crescent moons of mud scattered across her freshly washed kitchen floor–our footprints–from a sneak-attack water war launched on us by the boys.

My hair didn’t even have time to unclump out of the earthwormy tendrils before I started rolling clothes inside of my Barbie pink sleeping bag. I was ready to stomp down the street to what would be my new home.

By the time I got to Tommy’s house, I expected the battle scene to seem like a distant memory. The balloons that had popped on our bodies and left their skins flailed across the ground would have been scooped into a pile, ready to be placed into a big, black trash bag and tossed out with the rest of Thursday’s refuse. Instead, as I climbed the slats nailed crookedly into the trunk of the tree–something surprising to know was the craftsmanship of Mr. Alamonti–I could see pieces of exploded rubber hanging everywhere. And the floorboards of the treehouse were still so soaked that they were swollen. It was as though they should have squished with every step that I took like a cushiony sponge.

Still, I sprawled my sleeping bag wide over the floor, keeping my clothes on top, neatly piled into the corner. I ran my hands quickly over the fabric, causing ripples and waves in it until it was a perfect rectangle. I knew I had to stay there; it was the only place I felt safe.

The moment it became straight and even, I heard creaking coming from just below the trap door. It had to be Tommy. He was never quiet when he approached, whether he was sniggering, or hiccuping, or chewing on some candy that he’d stolen from a neighbor kid; he’d never learned to be sneaky.

He stopped two rungs from the top, his messy tuft of sun-bleached hair peeking just above the floorboards.

“Who goes there!?”

I didn’t realize I’d made the floorboards squeak when I moved to set my rump on the balls of my feet, squatting so he couldn’t see the handprint that I knew was sticking out the bottom of my shorts.

“Get up here, you nimrod!” I whispered so loudly the whole neighborhood should have heard, but lucky for me, the birds were tweeting wildly that day.

“Whitney!?” His naked feet finished climbing fast, and he pulled himself fully into the treehouse.

He was only in his blue swim trunks, his stomach and legs stained green and brown from sliding into puddles the boys had created in the grass. His cheeks were kissed pink by the sun, and so was the tip of his nose. His eyes were sparkly and green, contrasting intensely with his newly reddening skin.

“What’re you doing here?” He slanted his body, pressing his back against the window-frame of the treehouse, leaning and folding his arms across his chest as he smiled at me. He was starting to realize that his quickly growing, nine-year-old body was becoming too tall for the ceiling so he always adjusted his position accordingly.

I pulled my feet forward and out from under my butt and tucked them under my knees to sit Indian style, then interlaced my fingers in my lap.

“I’m moving in to the treehouse,” I told him.

He hugged his stomach, pinching his own skin, hunching himself forward, and laughed.

“I. Am. Not. Joking.” I said this slowly, wanting to make sure that he got every word, but he continued to laugh. “I am moving in whether you like it or not.” I unfolded my hands and put them on my hips. “You can come in here if you want, but I’m gonna make one thing clear: I’m the boss of this house now, and nothing’s gonna happen in this place, or even in this yard, if I don’t want it to, even if that means not growing up.” I kept watching his face; it didn’t seem like he understood the level of trust that I was putting in him, the level of protection I felt when I was with him.

He stuck his tongue in his cheek and swelled it up like a Blow-Pop.

“Whatever you say, Whit. Whatever you say.” He let me stay.

I should have made him pinky promise that day that nothing would ever be forced upon me in the treehouse, but I didn’t. The fact that he let me stay until my mom called all of the parents in the neighborhood and then marched door to door searching for me gave me enough faith that I should just be able to trust him. Sometimes, it’s easy to confuse protection for love, the kind that gives you butterflies.

And that wasn’t the last time he protected me either. Growing up, he would tell people to leave me alone on those days that girls would qualify as “bad” when there’s nothing more wrong than a hair out of place or a slip of the mascara wand. He protected me when we’d walk home from football games and it was rainy and I didn’t have my umbrella, sheltering me under his sweatshirt, taking the brunt of the wind and hail for me.

Then, there was the time when I dated one of his friends, Zack. Our relationship lasted for the first three years of high school. Even though Tommy had always been around–and don’t get me wrong, was something special–we’d always said, even during Zack’s and my relationship, that we were too good of friends to ever try dating.

By the time Zack and I fell apart, though, Tommy found me huddled in the corner of his treehouse, a bruise shadowing the left side of my jaw. I’d told Zack at a party that I didn’t like the way he acted when he drank, the way he pushed me up against walls, the way he shoved his tongue into my mouth, the way he didn’t want to use a condom, the way he always thought he was sober enough to drive.

Tommy sided with me and stopped talking to Zack; he helped me to break all ties with him, freeing me from the situation. He helped to make me stronger.

We sat in his treehouse on New Years Eve just before we both turned 19 while our parents were in his house watching the ball drop. We were both listing all the things we were looking for in a potential mate.

“I want someone who can make me laugh,” I said, watching him pull the hairs that hung over his forehead forward over and over again, as if his fingers were a flat-iron.

“And I want someone who knows what she wants, who knows how to stand up for herself.” He was still staring at the hair between his fingers.

“And I want someone who is understanding that you don’t push someone into something they don’t want to do.”

“I’d never do that.” He let go of his hair and gazed at me, smiling. He was rocking back and forth on his knees.

“If we ever dated, you’d have to understand that we couldn’t get physical until both of us are ready,” I started.

“Of course,” he responded before I even finished.

“I mean it,” I continued. “We’d both have to be ready to do anything before we did it, even things we’ve done before. If not, we’ll ruin everything we have.”

“Of course.” He was scooting closer to me, as if he was about to kiss me.

I pressed my hand to his chest, keeping him at an arm’s distance. “So, we’ll discuss things before taking things to another level physically, you know, like sex?”

“Of course,” he said, again. His understanding made the butterflies flap their wings even harder.

A year later, when we celebrated our anniversary, he told me that he had big plans for Valentine’s Day. He told me not to even try planning anything because he wanted to make it magical.

My heels clip-clopped to his house between patches of ice that hadn’t melted off of the sidewalk yet. I wrapped my thin, leather jacket tightly around my waist, hugging myself, trying to shield my body from the cold. Thank God he only lives five houses down, I thought.

But as soon as I got to the driveway and saw a bobbing glow reflecting off the trees and house coming from the backyard, I knew I was severely underdressed for the occasion. Heels and a cocktail dress with a fashion jacket are by no means the right attire for a bonfire. I didn’t realize that a night at home was what he had in mind when he told me to wear my sexiest outfit, something he could show me off in at a dance club.

As soon as I realized there was a fire on my boyfriend’s patio, I froze in my tracks. I let go of my jacket, feeling my hands begin to tremble as I thought about my sister, Jackie, and how her friend, Brian, had committed suicide by lighting himself on fire a few weeks back. Seeing the flickering light, I wondered if I was in the wrong place, if I should have been with my sister instead. The typically level-headed girl had been doing things that were so out of character for her, I’d started growing afraid that she might do something crazy on a whim to try to ease her pain, maybe something irreversible. Seeing that fire made me paranoid that I never do really know what’s going on in other people’s heads.

But if I’ve learned anything from the relationships I’ve been in, you take care of your “personal” business on your own time. If a man is expecting you, it’s best not to keep him waiting.

So, I took a deep breath, letting the bitter February air sting my lungs, and ran my ever-shaking hands over my clothes to smooth them out one last time before heading for the stone walkway that snaked between the pine trees hugging the sides of the two-story house.

Rock salt glittered and crunched beneath my feet, and for a moment, I was reminded of all the little gestures he’d done that would be so telling of how well he knew me: leaving a straw by my cup when we would sip lemonade because sugar hurt my teeth, though he never asked why; always leaving a flashlight in the treehouse for those times when I needed a place just to get away. And now, he knew that in seeing that glow, I wouldn’t even bother with walking to the front door; there wasn’t any salt leading that way.

By the time I got to the back of the house, the bright orange firelight was pulsing, leaving the lawn furniture, the treehouse, Tommy, and everything else in the backyard as nothing more than a negative, their images just shadows on the shivering background.

My feet scraped against the patio, and Tommy whipped his head around, and jolted, as if he’d been caught in the middle of some act I wasn’t supposed to see, his hair sticking up awkwardly in all directions. The only other time I’d seen him behave like this was when he was drawing on a make-your-own puzzle kit to ask me to senior prom, right after Zack and I broke up. He peeked over the back of the love-seat, letting only his squinted eyes pop above the top as he hid a huge grin behind the wicker.

I ran my shaking hands over my outfit again, tugging at the fabric, hoping I could get it to lie flatter. And as I saw Tommy leaping over the lawn furniture like a track runner’s hurdles, I suddenly felt lucky that it was so cold. I knew the minute that our bodies embraced he would feel my shaking and want to know the reason for it; I didn’t have any excuse good enough for him. Since Brian’s death, he’d become clingy and needy, always wanting proof that I loved him. It wasn’t like him; it scared me. But telling him that he’d been worrying me lately would leave him less than thrilled.

He strutted toward me with his arms outstretched and called my name slowly, dreamily, as though we hadn’t seen each other in years. In reality, we hadn’t seen each other in maybe twenty-four hours. His fingers were splayed wide, which could have seemed magical, like maybe an ice skater gliding to their partner, ready to pick them up and twirl them in the air, but with everything else that was surrounding us, he appeared more like a scarecrow.

My eyes darted all around him as I smiled, patting my hair.

“You’re beautiful!” he said and wrapped his arms lightly around my waist before pulling me close to kiss me, gently, a peck. It was almost romantic. He even blushed, and his eyes glittered when he pulled away. It was the face of someone in love. For a second, I believed that maybe I actually was beautiful.

I pushed his body off of mine, though, thinking about the way my bones must feel pressing against his body, or whether I’d brushed my teeth well enough to get the smell of regurgitated food off my breath. I’d hid it for this long, but still, you couldn’t ever be too careful. And those kinds of things always make me nervous.

“What’s all this?” I asked him, quickly. I used my arm to reach underneath his and lift it off my body, then shoved it farther away.

I swept my arm in a broad arc, and as if my hand had the ability to paint things technicolor, I noticed how the backyard was actually arranged for the evening. The love-seat was scooted close to the fire, with the outdoor coffee table right in front of it, a bottle of champagne chilling in a recycled margarine container sitting on its top. The shrubs that sat in ceramic pots on either side of the fire pit were wrapped in flickering, white Christmas lights. And the fire was so bright, glowing hot with a stack of logs piled way too high to burn out even within the next couple of hours.

“What do you mean?” He stepped to my side, turning around to admire what he perceived to be a masterpiece. He again set his hand on my body and slid it down until it rested at the small of my back. “Don’t you like it?”

“Well, it’s a little much, dontchya think? I mean, all of this really wasn’t necessary.” I rolled my shoulders back, realizing that for the first time since I’d known him, practically my entire life, I was uncomfortable with him touching me.

“Nothing’s too much for my girl.” I didn’t even have to look at him to know that he was staring at me with that dopey, crooked grin that he always wore when he said something that he thought was going to make me blush.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of the champagne bottle, though. Did he even think about the memories alcohol and a man might bring back for me?

He pushed gently on my back, nudging me toward the love-seat and the fire pit, giving me less than a choice but to sit down.

“Don’t you like it?” he asked as he cozied up next to me.

I patted my hair, feeling the blond locks still tethered neatly into the braid, and smiled, avoiding eye contact. I really didn’t like any of it, so I didn’t answer the question. Instead, I changed the subject.

“I guess I just don’t understand what you think we’re going to be doing right here for several hours.” I used both of my hands to point at the ground, as if he wouldn’t understand which “here” I was talking about. But I regretted it the very instant that I saw both hands trembling in mid-air, their shadows bouncing helplessly against my body.

He assumed I was cold and scooted his body closer to mine, so close that our hips touched. He stroked his hand up and down my side and pulled my head onto his shoulder.

“You leave that to me,” he said. He ran his tongue over his chapping lips. “I’ve got the whole night planned.” He leaned us both back in the seat, the way we would’ve sat when we were cuddling up to watch a movie. He ran his tongue over his lips again and sucked his teeth. “Listen, we’re gonna start the night off by sitting down here, enjoying the fire–us, the stars, a little champagne, and a toast to a relationship that knowns no boundaries.” His arm was moving in small circles, slowly, like a fortune teller.

The champagne bottle was burning itself into my eyes, its round head throbbing in the glowing background, taunting me, laughing at me.

“Then,” he went on, “once we’re nice and toasty down here, I thought you might spend the night.” He squeezed me tighter to him, raising his eyebrows. “I’ve cleaned the treehouse and made it more private. Do you see the paper-towel I stapled in the window?” His fingertips touched the back of my head, and I gazed upward, seeing a flowered sheet blowing in the wind. “I even zipped my G.I. Joe and Transformers sleeping bags together, so if you get cold–which with me here I don’t see how you’d even have an excuse–we could lie together in them.” I swallowed hard, realizing that since we started dating I rarely even came to his house when his parents weren’t home; I didn’t know what gave him the idea that I’d spend the night.

His hand was making mini pirouettes in my hair, and I knew he had that glassy, glittery, magical look in his eyes that he would get when he imagined something big. I realized that my butterflies were flapping so hard that I was getting nauseous now; the idea that sometimes people confuse lust for love frightened me.

“But why do all of this now? What if I’m not ready to do all of this now?” And the roar of the fire seemed to quiet into nothing more than pops as little sparks shot off of the pieces of golden, glowing wood. My voice seemed way too loud for this backyard.

He laughed as he spoke, but found nothing about what I said funny. “It’s Valentine’s Day, Whit. And my parents are out of town. That’s why we are going to do this now.”

I lifted my head off of his shoulder. He wasn’t understanding what I was saying, just like he didn’t understand that I didn’t appreciate being compared to movie stars, or how he didn’t understand that having my waist squeezed and prodded at in his attempt at tickling wasn’t something that I found funny. He didn’t understand that sex in a backyard wasn’t something I found romantic and wanted to do. He didn’t understand that I was still struggling with being physical with him because it really would change the friendship that we’d had before we got romantic.

“But why start with the champagne and the fires and the sleepovers now?” I turned my body to face him without even realizing it. “Why not when we’re both ready?”

He straightened his back to sit up tall. His eyebrows crawled toward each other, leaving his forehead wrinkly and his eyes squinty, but instead of keeping his eyes on me, he glanced down at the sleeves of his shirt and started rolling them to the center of his forearms. He shook his head hard, his hair fluttering back and forth.

“You never can seem to make up your mind. You tell me you want a romantic date, so I deliver and you’re not happy with it. Every time you tell me you want something and I try to give you it, you just can’t be happy.” He kept shaking his head. His tone dropped as he spoke again. “And I shouldn’t even need to mention that it’s not like it’s your first time.” Sometimes it’s easy to confuse a person’s present relationship with their past ones.

I opened and closed my mouth repeatedly as I reached for his arm, noticing that for the first time all night it was his hands that were shaking instead of mine, so instead I pulled mine back. I scooted away from him and rested my elbows on my knees, allowing the heat of the fire to lick my face, the pops happening in quick succession as the sparks shot off of the wood like fireflies. But when I rubbed my hands over my face, frustrated, I couldn’t tell if the heat on my skin was from the fire or my face flushing from the irritation I was feeling.

I couldn’t help letting out an audible sigh before I spoke. “I don’t know what to say. I mean, this isn’t what I asked for, Tom.” I held my hands out in front of my face as if I was holding a platter. “I mean, come on, we’re twenty years old. We’re not thirty trying to rekindle some dying relationship. We’ve been together a year. We don’t need to rush things and spoil them; we don’t need to grow up this quickly. Our relationship has plenty of life ahead of it and lots of time to develop. There is absolutely no reason to do things before both of us are ready and destroy it in the process.”

He ran his fingers through his hair, making the roots a shade darker than the rest of his ashy, blond hair. It was standing on end even more now than it had been before. The strands were sticking up every which way.

Tommy scooted toward me, our knees knocking against one another so hard that I expected them to clink. He wrapped his hands around my wrists, forcing my elbows up off of my knees and my whole body back into the armrest. Bits of foam sprayed from between clenched teeth as he began to talk.

“I don’t get what you don’t see about how I was trying to do something nice for you, that I was just trying to show you that maybe I could see us being together forever. I was hoping you could show me that you really feel the same way back tonight. Instead, you have to make tonight miserable, just like always.” His grip tightened around me, and I could feel fingerprint bruises starting to form, dotting up my arm. I tried to push back against his weight, but he kept pushing, kept squeezing. “Who are you to talk about growing up too fast when you’ve already done all this before? Who are you to talk about growing up too fast when none of us know how much time we’ve got left? Who are you to push me away when all I’ve ever tried to do is make you happy?” Veins bulged in his neck, and his eyes flickered like the lights that were wrapped so tightly around the potted shrubs.

My hands balled into bony fists, partially from the pain of his squeezing and partially from anger at him for hiding that he’d been this miserable; we’d never fought like this before and he’d never brought up wanting more, physically. Tears welled in my eyes.

“I don’t know what kind of world you live in, but in my world, hurting someone doesn’t make them happy,” I said. And like that, his grip on my wrists suddenly loosened, his fingers spread apart, his hands still shaking. He surveyed them incredulously. The nails had been chewed away so far that they were red.

He swallowed so hard that his Adam’s apple bounced before he tried to speak.

“Whit…” he said.

But I stood up. “I need to go.” My ankles wobbled from the unevenness of the salt sticking to the soles of my shoes. I watched the way he stared at his hands. We shared the disbelief that he was capable of doing that with those normally beautiful hands, the ones that always seemed to be protecting. “I really ought to be with my sister right now,” I said. “She’s taking this whole Brian thing really hard.”

And as I started to walk away, I could hear my shoes and the wind and the fire popping and the sound of my breath as I hyperventilated. Tommy mumbled something that I wished I would have heard that night, that he was taking Brian’s death hard, too. I think most of us on the block were, but I knew I had to bottle it up for the sake of my sister; I needed her to feel some sense of normalcy somewhere.

The last loud thing that Tommy said to me was that he had something for me. He ran toward me again, and it was as though we’d rewound to the beginning of the evening. He wrapped his arm around the small of my back again and pulled a sloppily made valentine out of his shirt pocket–crayon, glitter, and an uneven heart all under the words “I love you!”

I held it between two fingers as I let my hand fall to my side. I stared into his eyes, searching for the person that I’d thought I’d known all that time. I realized then that this wasn’t the first time I’d been in his backyard with angry handprints on my skin from someone that I thought I could trust, that I loved and thought should love me enough not to hurt me.

The day I claimed the treehouse as my new home after mother punished Jackie and me, and the night I stood up to Zack at the party, sure Tommy had been sweet to me, but I still ended up in the same position I was in now, hugging myself for comfort. And now, I was running away from this yard with handprints.

I swallowed hard, still searching his eyes for the right words to say. The only ones that could come out of my mouth were, “I really hope this card isn’t the last good thing I can remember about you.”

I dragged my feet toward the stone walkway, wanting the salt off my shoes, and sad that this place no longer felt safe. Tommy stared at me, not moving anymore than to shift his arms to hug himself.

I felt the valentine vibrating as the wind blew against it, but this time I didn’t feel cold. I didn’t feel like wrapping my jacket around my waist. There weren’t butterflies knocking against my insides anymore. Instead, I felt as if I had actually done something right, and, maybe, this time I knew better than to run back to that treehouse.

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