I climb up the ladder nailed to the old tree in my parents’ backyard. The nails hang out of the wood and I give them a worried glance, wondering if they will give way or hold my weight. I’ve put on quite a few pounds since I was last here. The golden treehouse - that we built as a family years ago - towers over me, blocking the sun from stinging my eyes. As I scale the few rungs that it takes to reach the top, the memories of bounding up this same ladder as a 7-year-old girl with pigtails and striped bows flash before me. It brings a smile to my face, remembering those days.
The treehouse is damp and carries the smell of soaked wood. Moss grows in the corners and caterpillars fill their stomachs with the leaves that drift in through the open window. I bend over and cup a caterpillar in my hands, studying it as it investigates the creases of my palms. One by one, I pick up the bugs and set them on a branch poking into the small hideout.
It’s been so long since I’ve been here. The last time I touched this ladder was my final day of high school some 10 years ago. As I grab the broom in the corner and sweep up the fallen leaves, I run my fingers over the names and flowers carved into the bark. A small word by the door grasps my attention and I rest the broom against the wall to take a closer look.
Ignite. I stop by it and wonder where it came from. I can’t remember creating this. Not here. Reaching my hand out to touch it, something whizzes in from the window and almost nicks my ear. A chunk of my hair falls to the floor beside my foot and I stare at it, confusion clouding my expression.
Again, something flies toward me, and I slam my body to the ground to avoid being hit. Raising my head up just enough to sneak a glance at the projectile before me. An arrow. Two arrows. That’s no mistake. Another barrage of arrows strikes the ground around me, and I’m certain one will find me. But in a moment the arrows stop flying, and a woman swings in through the window, gripping the top of the window frame and landing in the center of the treehouse, feet first.
Frightened, I whimper and curl up in the corner, my eyes running over her figure. She stands tall and has her hair tied up in a ponytail. Her wide, sea-blue eyes comfort me in a way I’ve somehow felt before, and she extends a hand to me. “Kaitlyn?” she asks, though she already seems sure of herself.
Frozen in fear, I don’t answer. Instead, I stare blankly as she smiles and plants both her hands on her hips. “Don’t you recognize me?”
The question sets me off on a spree to confirm if I really don’t know her. She certainly knows me.
Slowly, she raises an eyebrow and tilts her head up. “You don’t remember what we were?” Hurt plays out in her eyes and I can’t bear to watch as disappointment shadows her spirit. Something about the arrows and her swooping in through the window tickles my memory, but I can’t put a finger on it, so I look down and say nothing.
Dropping her hands to her sides, she plasters a weak smile on her face. “It’s Annabel. Annabel Li. I've wanted to talk to you, but I couldn't track you down.”
The name rings various bells in my head, and the gates holding back the memories break open. She was my best friend, just before we lost each other after my first year at Yale. I think back to why it took so long for me to place her.
I was skating on that Sunday morning with a few girls from my soccer team, not far from campus. We rounded a corner and the car came out of nowhere. Slammed into my legs. Knocked me to the ground. My head hit the road first and bled onto the scorching pavement until the ambulance arrived, sirens wailing. The throbbing pain at the back of my head was unbearable. I passed out.
By the time I came to, I was lying in an ICU bed with a drip in my arm and a heart rate monitor beeping beside me. A nurse appeared by my side and told me that I had Traumatic Brain Injury and needed surgery.
I couldn’t wrap my head around it. TBI? Surgery? The nurse’s voice was fuzzy as she pushed clipboards and pens towards me to sign. Absentmindedly, I took the pen and signed right above the indicated blank line.
Soon they wheeled me into a separate room, one with blue walls and surgeons wearing scrubs and gloves of the same color. A different nurse walked up to me, tapping the side of a needle. She pushes it into my arm and the room spins around me. Slowly, I black out again.
After a few more days of stale crackers and tasteless gravy, I was discharged from the hospital. My mom told me that a friend from high school came to visit. She never elaborated. I never asked. I didn’t have many friends in high school, though. It must have been Annabel.
When we were younger, we used to roast marshmallows in her backyard firepit. The arrows were the signal that she was dropping into the treehouse. Most times it was just to say hi or discuss test results, but every now and then she would come down and explore my yard.
In a quiet, nostalgic whisper, I answer her. “I remember now.”
She grins and offers me her hand again. This time, I take it and drag her down to the corner where I’ve now stretched out my legs and relaxed.
"I've gotten better at swinging in here, you know. They taught me," she says proudly, puffing out her chest. I don't understand what she's talking about.
"Who?" I ask, but she just smiles, as if she has a secret I don't know.
I pull her into my lap, and she giggles, just the same way she did in kindergarten when we agreed to be best friends forever. She’s always fit right in my lap. Like the younger sister I never had but always needed.
“I remember us, Annabel,” I say, clutching her to my chest. Now, I’m certain I will always remember this treehouse. I will always remember my best friend.
“I remember what we used to be.”