Contest #50 shortlist ⭐️

Portrait of Time, Personified

Submitted into Contest #50 in response to: Write a story about a summer afternoon spent in a treehouse.... view prompt

4 comments

Drama Romance

Brian was already inside, mocking me from the doorway. He had to duck to even fit. Below him, I was trying to inch my way to the top. Every step I took seemed to send the rope ladder swinging.


“Come on, old man!” he shouted from up above. I could practically hear the grin in his voice.


“If I remember correctly, you’re older than me,” I panted in between steps. “By three months.”


His laughter was swept away by the summer breeze. “Shame your memory’s not as good as your legs.” 


I eventually made it to the top. Brian scooted further inside to make room, ducking his head. Meanwhile, I could just barely stand upright against the low ceilings. I always was the shortest among the three of us, even after my growth spurt.


Dust covered every square inch of the treehouse. Fallen leaves were scattered here and there. On the floor were cushions and pillows and even a stray mattress; things we smuggled past our sleeping parents. Brian sat down on the mattress, sending dust through the air. Beside him was a portable cooler that I remembered to have once been bright red. Above him was what we called a window, but was really nothing more than a misshapen hole carved in the wood. The sun was beginning its slow descent, taking its time, bathing the entire treehouse in a pale orange glow, illuminating Brian’s mahogany skin.


It was a beautiful day, and our best friend had just been laid to rest six feet underground.


I sat down on some cushions on the other side of the treehouse, next to a stack of shoeboxes we used for storage. Pictures were pinned on the wall next to me: me, Brian, and Henry at summer camp, sunburned and squinting; the three of us at someone’s birthday party, arms around each other, Brian making a silly face at the camera; the three of us at high school graduation, tossing our caps into the air.


There were only two of us now. Old and big as we both were, it still felt like we took less space in the treehouse than when all three of us were here as kids.


I hadn’t seen Brian properly in years. There was a tiredness to him now, the result of long hours and hard labor. His dark wavy hair was graying at the sides. Despite this, there was still that same boyishness, that same levity that showed itself through each half-smile and through the familiar glint in his eyes.


We were sweating in our funeral suits. Brian took off his jacket and tossed it aside. He rolled his sleeves up to his elbows. The treehouse was so small, there were only a couple of feet between us.


He grinned at me. “Home sweet home, huh, Lou?”


No one had called me that in years. To my students, I was Mr. Ramirez. To my colleagues, I was Louis. To Brian--and Henry--I would always be Lou.


“This is barely any smaller than the apartment I live in now,” I joked. 


“I just don’t understand,” Brian said, shaking his head. “I don’t understand how a man your age still willingly lives in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a shady neighborhood.”


“It’s not that shady,” I said, though in truth it was. “And I live alone, so I don’t really need the space.”


Everyone needs ample space,” Brain said with half a smile. “Trust me; I would know. It’s been psychologically proven, too. I’ll look up the studies for you next time since I just know you’re still a nerd.”


I smiled back; an old joke. I looked around at the treehouse. The old posters taped on the walls were peeling at the edges, faded and bleached by the sun. A baseball bat was propped against a corner, discolored with age. Despite everything, the treehouse was still standing.


“Haven’t been back here in over thirty years,” I said.


“Has it been that long already?” Brian said. “What have we even done in all that time?”


“Well, from what I hear, you’re very successful,” I replied. I heard all about him and his successful construction company from our mutual friends. 


“No need to sound so surprised.” He was smiling, but I knew him well enough to know that he was slightly hurt.


“I’m not,” I clarified. “Not at all. We--Henry and I always knew you’d go on achieving great things. It all started with this treehouse, right?”


Brian grinned at the memory. I could still remember it, too. By the age of eleven, we had all decided we were done living under our parents’ rules. We needed to separate ourselves. In our eleven-year-old-minds, that could only be done through building our own house.

Brian led the project, drawing plans up on notebook paper. We gathered the materials over the course of several weeks; rooting through dumpsites for spare pieces of wood, asking from our neighbors, and scavenging in the nearby forest. The result was a misshapen treehouse made from about twelve different shades of brown. It was a nightmare during the rare rainy nights and cold winter days. In summer, overripe fruit would fall against the roof, scaring the three of us half to death. We loved it more than anything.


“First house I ever made,” Brian remarked, sweeping his palm across the uneven floor, where a nail or two stuck out. 


“First of many, I hear,” I said. 


He smiled, half his mouth turning up. “Guess dropping out of college was worth it after all.”

When Brian dropped out, Henry and I thought he'd lost his mind. The two of us always were the more bookish, academic ones. Now what did we have to show for it? I barely got by on my teacher’s salary, and Henry was, well…


“At least one of us was able to pursue his dreams,” I said as Brian stood up and stomped around the treehouse again, his head ducked. He found what he was looking for: his old guitar, hidden behind stacks of comic books and board games. He sat back down again on the other side of the house and began tuning it. Brian and his guitar--a familiar sight.


“Come on now, Lou, it’s never too late,” he said. “My daughter tells me Monet didn’t start getting recognized until he was in his 40s.” 


“I’m no Monet,” I said. As a kid I had drawn practically every minute of every day. My hands were forever smeared with charcoal and graphite. I drew anything I could think of, anything I could see. But I never really even allowed myself to think about pursuing art as a career. It was out of the question, growing up in a low-income household. I had to be practical.

I didn’t think I regretted it, not until I heard the news about Henry’s car accident. He pursued the sensible world of IT instead of following his passion for writing. He would make up so many stories when we were kids, writing them down and reading them aloud to Brian and me on our many sleepovers together. Now, Henry was dead without a single book published in his name. 


Ever since then I’ve been wondering if I’ve made the right choice. On several things.


Brian shook his head, dismissing my comment. “Draw me. Draw me a portrait.”


“What? Right now?” I sputtered.


“Yes,” he said. “I’ll pose for you.”


I felt my face heat up for no reason at all. I was silent for a moment, but Brian was looking right at me. There was that familiar glint in his eye. He was serious.


Sighing, I dug through the old shoeboxes beside me, where I knew I kept some of my drawing materials. I found an old sketchpad, a couple of sticks of charcoal and graphite, and an eraser. I flipped through drawings of cars and trees and birds, but most of the pages were of Henry and Brian. Henry and Brian talking to each other animatedly. Henry reading out loud from a book. Brian hugging his guitar. Brian when his front tooth fell out. Brian surrounded by messy blueprints. The way Brian looked when he was explaining his plans of building this treehouse. Brian laughing out loud, mouth wide, eyes barely open.


I quickly flipped to a blank page, my fingers curled around a stick of charcoal. I looked up at Brian. He had that half-smile on his face.


“What pose do you want me in?” he said. For some reason, I felt bashful. I coughed and looked down at the sketchbook on my lap.


“Um,” I said. “Maybe with the guitar. You can pretend to play.”


“How about I actually play?” he said earnestly, eyes bright.


“Whatever you want,” was my response. I forced myself to look at him. He plucked the guitar strings experimentally, the same look of concentration on his face as the one in my drawings. It’s funny; I can still see him as a kid even through the wrinkles, even through the years. As I started outlining his figure, I found my fingers moving swiftly and confidently even though I haven’t properly drawn a portrait in years. He was so familiar, I could see him with my eyes closed.


Brian began strumming a tune. I recognized it immediately--it was one of those songs Brian’s family used to always sing at block parties and family reunions. He sang in Spanish, but I understood them all the same:


I’m an ordinary man

from the place where the palms grow

I’m an ordinary man

from the place where the palms grow

And before I die I want

to sing out the verses of my soul…


Sitting in this treehouse and hearing those lyrics sung by Brian after all these years opened up something in me. Why did we all drift apart? Why couldn’t we stay in touch through the years? Henry had tried all the time, always inviting us for dinner or for drinks, but it never worked out.


I filled in the shadows on Brian’s guitar. I wished I had something to color with: paint, colored pencils, anything. It was unfair to draw him like this. Brian didn’t belong in black and white.


He finished the song with a flourish and smiled at me. “Good, right?”


I nodded. “I’ve missed you,” I said quietly, shrugging a little. “Henry, too.”


He got very quiet. His gaze stayed on me, a look on his face that I couldn’t read. His head was tilted like a bird’s. How was it that he was both so familiar yet so foreign?


“Move in with me,” he said suddenly. 


I stopped shading the folds of his shirt. “What?”


“Move in with me,” he said again, shrugging. “You said you live in a cramp, shabby apartment. I have a house big enough for both of us.”


“But--your daughter--” I said. He couldn’t seriously be asking me this. 


“--Lives with her mother on the other side of the country,” he finished. “I see her about three times a year.”


I was silent. I focused on finishing up his portrait instead. For the first time in years, my fingers were smeared with charcoal again.


Did he know what he was asking me? Really asking me?


“You keep complaining about your apartment,” Brian said after a beat. “I have a perfectly good house. Why not? Come on, it’ll be like college. You know, before I dropped out.”


I still didn’t answer, looking down at my sketchbook.


“Or you can live with me first while I build you your own house,” he suggested amiably, as if this wasn’t such a ludicrous idea. Wasn’t it? I didn’t know anyone my age who lived with friends instead of with their families or even just on their own. 


But Brian was more than a friend. Being back here reminded me of that.


“Brian, I can’t do that,” I said. “That’s--it’s too much. I could never let you do that for me.”


“Why not?” he said. He was smiling now.


“Well, for one thing, I don’t have the money,” I said. “I’m barely getting by as it is. I live where I live because it’s the only place I can afford.”


“I wouldn’t make you pay for it,” he said as if it was obvious, as if I was the weird one for even suggesting it. “You’re Lou.”


I was silent again, turning the piece of charcoal in my hands. I let myself imagine what it would be like, living with Brian after all this time. Would it be like when we were kids, playing house up here in the trees? Would we feel as happy as we did back then, or would Henry’s absence forever haunt us? 


Brian had a knowing look in his eye. He knew what was going on in my head. He always has, I think. The thought terrified and thrilled me all the same.


“I want you to be close to me,” he said simply. “All those times that Henry invited us out for drinks or for lunch...I regret not coming to those. I wish I could have spent more time with him.”


“Me too,” I said, looking at him. Henry’s death had rattled both of us deeply; had reminded us of our own mortality. Time was running out whether we were aware of it or not.


“You’re the best part of me, Lou,” Brian said. He looked directly at me. His dark eyes, the sweep of his hair, his half smile--so familiar even after all this time. “Always have been.”


My breath hitched in my throat. I looked down again, at the mostly finished portrait.


“It would take me an extra forty minutes to drive to the school,” I said, but it was futile. We both knew by then that I would do it.


He grinned at me. “I’ll drive you. Sleep in the car all you want.”


I scoffed at him and grinned back. We both stood up, dusting off our pants. Outside, the sun was about to set, leaving behind only wisps of orange and gold. I handed him the portrait and we both looked at it.


In it, he was sitting cross-legged on the floor, guitar in his lap. He was looking at some point past the viewer, mouth half-open as he crooned the words to the song. Light poured in from behind him, casting him in harsh shadows. The Brian in the drawing was both the Brian I saw again today after so long, and the Brian I grew up with. He was such a big part of my life, him and Henry both.

I didn’t want to waste any more time.  


Another unreadable expression crossed over Brian’s face, like clouds blocking the sun. 


“I told you I’m no Monet,” I said, shrugging.


Brian smiled at last. A real, full smile. He looked at me, and I knew his bittersweet expression matched my own. We both missed Henry. We both missed that part of our lives, but we were both determined to make up for lost time. I held his gaze for as much as I could even as my heart pounded in my chest like a schoolboy’s, exactly the way it did when we were kids, all those years ago.


“This would look great in the living room,” he smiled even wider. “You’ll see.”


July 17, 2020 06:36

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4 comments

Shea K
00:48 Aug 26, 2020

Great story! The dialogue flows very well.

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Aidrielle R.
04:24 Aug 26, 2020

Thank you!!

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Misswriter 978
09:15 Jul 25, 2020

Hello! I am misswriter from the critique circle. I liked-, no, LOVED reading your story. I especially love the way you describe the characters' surroundings, and the storyline is simple yet deep. I feel you're writing is perfect as it is, but I am not such a great writer myself so I wouldn't know... Keep writing!!! -misswriter978

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Aidrielle R.
13:31 Jul 25, 2020

aaa thank you very much!! <3

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