Her legs were dangling above my head, as if she was dipping her feet in the rays of sun.
My dad had never condoned tardiness, and as a result, I was always on time to any appointment. I was never late to school, I never overslept, never let my friends wait for me. Except, of course, Jane. Jane and I had known each other forever, and even after her mom moved the two of them to the outskirts of the town after her dad had died, we’d still meet up in our tree house. And I’d always arrive after her. You see, I was hoping to see her undies one of those days when she’d let her legs dangle off the side of the platform. I’d never tell my father, of course. I’d never tell a soul. We were just kids, and trust me, years after that day I had felt deep shame whenever I thought about Jane.
But that day, I still looked up and squinted before she asked me for the secret word to climb up. I was a kid. And kids say and think the darndest things.
We shared a bottle of coke. Back then, no one mentioned cooties–nor anything worse, for that matter–and if anyone did, I wouldn’t have cared. Jane was poor, yes–I think most kids knew the inherent difference between those who lived in nice houses and those who had to move to the outskirts of the town–but she was also pretty, and for the 12-year-old me, she was the prettiest girl I’d ever laid my eyes on. She was just a year older than myself, which meant she was somehow cooler and more special than other girls.
It also meant she had started to develop somewhat, and back then, trust me, that was a big deal.
At first, we just sat and enjoyed the sun. There was no one around us; it was summer, and most kids were out by the lake, or helping their parents with summer chores, or hanging out with their relatives. I had her, and she had me. We had that lukewarm coke and the song of the birds, and I thought that was as perfect as it got.
“Do you think there’s something more?” I asked, and if you didn’t know me, you’d think that’s an odd question for a 12-year-old to ask, but my dad was a strict man and I had learned to pretend I know how to ask interesting questions. That, and I watched oldies with him, and more often than not, some weird guy would ask that question, and my dad would nod approvingly at the screen.
“What do you mean?” she asked. The bottle glinted in the sun between us, our fingerprints sticky on the sides. A bee was buzzing around us, searching for the source of the sweet scent of caramel.
I shrugged. “I dunno. I guess... Like, is there something out there.” I pointed at the horizon, somewhere over the hills in the distance. Back then, I thought heaven was a place you could reach in a day or two, a place just beyond the hills.
“Depends”, she said curtly, and for the first time in our million years of friendship, I felt coldness from her. “Depends on who you ask. For some people there’s nothing.”
“Whaddya mean?” I asked. She evaded my gaze for a second or two and then met my eyes.
“Well my father for example.”
We didn’t speak for a while. I gulped the coke and once I finished it, I felt shame that I didn’t leave anything for her. But she didn’t seem to notice.
“He’s in a better place now”, I said, remembering, again, something from the movies I watched with dad. I wondered if she watched movies since her dad wasn’t around anymore.
“Do you think... even bad people go to a better place?” she asked suddenly.
“Father Michael says that they do if they repent”, I responded carefully. I wasn’t sure if I really believed that, but that’s what I heard every Sunday, so I guess it had to be true.
“What about those who don’t repent?”
I shrugged again. “I guess... I don’t know. They maybe don’t. But I think most people do. Jesus loves us all.”
“Even those who are bad?”
She didn’t say anything for a while. She seemed displeased with my words.
“I mean... you’re not bad, you know?” I said.
She giggled and shook her head. It was an empty, shallow laugh, and I felt that coldness from her again.
“My dad said I was”, she said suddenly. “He said I was too young to have breasts, and that made me bad.”
I blushed, remembering her legs dangling off the platform. I said nothing.
“And I don’t think he went to a better place.”
“I’m sure he did–”
But she cut me off. “Sometimes he comes back. At night. He sits on my bed, at night, and tells me, again, how I’m bad because I have breasts. He pinches. That’s how I know he’s there. You know how when you pinch someone, they’d have to wake up?”
I nodded noncommittally. My throat suddenly felt very dry.
“Well he pinches and tells me to stop crying, and that I’m a horrible, horrible wench. A temptress. That’s what he says.”
I didn’t know what a wench was, and I’d heard the word temptress in church, but I wasn’t sure of the meaning. I thought it could be something bad. So I said nothing. She looked at me and asked, “Do you believe me, Mattie?”
I shrugged. “I guess.”
“I thought he wouldn’t find us after we moved, but he did. I wish he’d just stop pinching me. He did it before, whenever I was ‘bad’, and now he does it in my room after dark. Mom is always asleep. Before, he told me not to tell a soul, so I didn’t. But I guess that now he’s dead, I can tell someone.”
I nodded. My dad never touched me. He belted me when I misbehaved, but he never pinched me. I wasn’t sure where he pinched her, and I didn’t want to know.
She sighed and closed her eyes.
“I think I am bad, though. I didn’t cry when he died. I was relieved. I was so happy. I just wanted him to stop pinching me. If he died, I thought, he couldn’t come up to my room anymore and he couldn’t pinch me. But then he found us after we moved.”
I think it was at that moment I noticed her dress was slightly bigger on her than at the beginning of the summer. She was always skinny and frail, but never that much. I remembered how my mom had whispered to my dad how Mr. Gillian had fallen down the stairs and broken his neck “in drunken stupor”, whatever that meant, and I figured that must have hurt. I don’t know if it had hurt more than pinches, but it seemed logical.
“But... after you die, you go to... to heaven... or hell. To a better place if you repented”, I clarified. “He can’t come back, can he?”
She sighed again and pulled her skirt up her thighs. Her skin was pale everywhere above the knees, her thighs milky white, and in that whiteness I could see big blue bruises right next to where her legs meet her panties. My eyes went wide.
“I have more on my... my breasts. But I can’t show you that”, she said apologetically. I nodded. She pulled her skirt back down.
We sat in silence for a bit. The birds went away, and instead of their noise, I could only hear the wind in the trees. That was a summer that would go on to have bad storms, but that day it was just slightly windy and very warm.
“I think you’re not bad, and you’ll definitely go to a better place unlike him”, I said finally, intent on making it right. I didn’t know what else to say. I wasn’t even sure if I believed that, but I thought it was the right thing to say.
“Thank you, Mattie”, she replied. Her head went down and she started petting her skirt. “You’re a good friend.”
I smiled. She smiled back, but she averted her eyes, and never met mine after that.
I don’t know what else we talked about, or if we even talked further. I thought a bit about her thighs, and then I’d remember the bruises and I’d force myself to think of something else. Of birds. Of the lukewarm coke and how that summer was great because I had her, and she had me. Even the birds came back, and I might have mentioned at least them, but I don’t remember.
I remember telling her I had to go home earlier, and I swear I didn’t look up when I climbed down the tree. I didn’t want to see her bruises again.
I never went back to the tree house. My parents never let me go back. It was years before I did, years after I had overheard my mom tell my dad how “Poor Mrs. Gillian now lost her only child too, and isn’t that horrible after what happened to Mr. Gillian”. The rest of that summer the town talked about the “accident”, and in the end, it was decided that the tree was to be cut down. So that no other kids would ever climb to the tree house and fall down and be labeled as an “accidental death”.
I wasn’t sure it was an accident. Even when I was a kid, I really thought it wasn’t an accident. I couldn’t say anything, though. As that show said, kids say the darndest things.
I only came back to see the stump, hoping I might see Jane too. Sometimes they come back, you know. But she never did, and I’m only hoping she managed to get to that better place.
And I’m hoping the bruises healed up.