Meadow Math: one large foot plus one knobby root equals sprawling body. Eric’s navy blue backpack came flying at me and I dodged sideways, the missile landing inches from my toes.
“Are you okay?” I asked, frowning at Eric’s shaking shoulders.
He rolled onto his back, laughing and shaking his head. “Oh yeah – fine. At least I tripped over something solid. It’s way more embarrassing when it’s the painted lines on the gym floor.”
I snorted. He grinned. Then the two of us lost it completely, our riotous laughter drowning out the noisy blue jays.
“How’d you get here?” I asked, finally catching my breath.
I hate one-word answers. “You mean you live around here? But we don’t even ride the same bus!”
“We live on different roads, but my house is just over that ridge,” he said, pointing back the way he’d come. “Not far at all, as the crow flies.”
Eric grinned. “Anyway, I heard someone laughing and decided to see what was up. By the way, what IS up?”
“Tilly,” I replied, enjoying my one-word revenge.
“Is that an insider, city-girl joke?” asked Eric.
“No, goofball. Tilly,” I said, pointing where my pink friend was patiently waiting to be rescued.
“Why’d you go and put her up there?” asked Eric.
“That’s not important,” I said hastily, hoping Eric had missed my temper tantrum. “How am I gonna get her down?”
“It’s not like she’s in mortal danger, or anything,” said Eric reasonably.
“Yeah, but she’s all alone and…”
“Oh, I can fix that,” said Eric. With that he unzipped his backpack, pulled out a stuffed gorilla and flung him in the tree.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I wailed. Eric might not care about his animals, but I’d gotten kind of attached to mine lately.
“Now she’s not alone any more. And gorillas are good climbers… unlike rabbits,” he winked.
“Oh, so he’s just going to grab Tilly and carry her to safety, huh?” I asked, using the tone I saved for stubborn two-year-olds in the church nursery.
“No – we are,” said Eric.
I thought of my clever, fool-proof plans (none of which had worked) and grimaced. “And just how are we going to do that? I’ve already tried everything I can think of.”
“With something you didn’t think of,” said Eric. He walked over to the base of the tree, bent over and laced his fingers together on top of his knee. “Here – I’ll give you a boost.”
I put my small foot in his large hands and balanced myself against the trunk. Not even close.
“I still can’t reach,” I said, trying not to sound too “I told you so.”
Eric was undaunted. “Sit on my shoulders, then,” he said, squatting down.
It sounded like a good idea at first, so I scrambled up. Eric stood up and teetered over to the tree. I swayed alarmingly, like a skinny pine tree in a high wind.
“Hey!” he protested. “That stuff’s supposed to stay attached, you know.”
I relaxed my grip on Eric’s light brown hair. “Well, if you didn’t wobble so much I wouldn’t need to. And anyway, I still can’t reach.”
“Well then, stand up,” said Eric.
“You heard me, stand up!”
“There’s no way I’m gonna…”
“Do you want your Tilly back or not?”
Eric was right, but I wasn’t about to admit it. All I could think about were his big, clumsy feet – and how they turned painted lines into trip hazards.
“Well?” asked Eric. “Tilly says she’s tired of waiting and wishes you’d hurry up.”
Tilly would never say something so rude, but I wasn’t in a position to argue. Instead, I looked up. Long branches, like lacy arms, stretched across a bright blue sky.
What was that Bible verse about hinds’ feet in high places?
Using the trunk for balance, I stood up. Eric wobbled. I squinched my eyes shut, fighting panic. When I finally got the courage to look around, one low-hanging branch was a whole lot closer than I ever thought it would be. I grabbed it with both hands and swung myself up into the tree.
“Heads up, here I come!”
Eric took what for him was a fair-sized leap and swung up beside me.
“See,” he said, grinning. “No problem.”
I was starting to hate tall people.
“Grab your rabbit and let’s go,” said Eric.
“Go?” I asked, my eyebrows in my hairline. I hadn’t even had time for a Wahoo! “I just climbed the biggest tree I’ve ever seen and you want me to get down?”
Eric quirked an eyebrow at me. I’d practiced in front of the mirror, but hadn’t mastered that trick yet.
Now I’m really starting to hate him.
“I can get you back up any time you want,” said Eric. “What’s the big deal?”
I climbed over to Tilly’s perch and plucked her from the branch like a ripe Georgia peach. The big deal was I’d just completed Adventure 2, with emergency Tilly rescue thrown in for good measure, and I wanted to enjoy it for a minute! Eric wasn’t about to let me.
I sighed. “So if you don’t want to hang out in the most amazing tree ever, what do you want to do?”
“I dunno. What is there to do?”
I hugged Tilly to my chest, my chin resting on her silky pink ears. “Well, there are trails and a creek and…”
“The creek runs through your place?” asked Eric excitedly, already scrambling down. “It misses mine completely. C’mon! What’re you waiting for?”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” I asked slyly, my eyes slanting skyward. “I mean, you said your gorilla was a good climber, but it looks like he could use a little help. See ya on the ground, slowpoke!”
Down’s gotta be easier than up, right? Gravity, and all that.
I stepped down on a branch I’d easily climbed up, the ground swaying beneath me. My stomach lurched. People always say, “Don’t look down!” But how can you look up and climb down? That gravity stuff wasn’t helping either. Instead of being my friend, it was the enemy – an enemy bent on splatting me on the ground. Eric clambered down like he was part ape, dropping the last few feet to the ground with ease. It was several long minutes before I joined him.
“I thought city folks moved fast,” said Eric. “And what did you say about slowpokes?”
I felt my face turn red. “Well, Tarzan, some of us didn’t get a whole lot of climbing practice in the concrete jungle,” I snapped.
Eric beat his chest with his fists and threw his head back, wailing an off-key Tarzan imitation almost curled my hair. I laughed in spite of myself.
“The creek’s this way, oh mighty king of the apes,” I said, pointing to a narrow gap in the trees.
We tucked our animals in our packs and scrambled down the same bank I’d climbed up earlier that morning. As we wound our way along the snaky trail, the sound of rushing water grew stronger. Before long we were standing on the rocky creek bank. Swollen with melting snow and spring rain, the creek whooshed noisily past us. Farther downstream it widened into a shallow pool where the water drifted back on itself, wandering in lazy circles until a steep waterfall flung it out of sight.
I pointed upstream. “It’s drier up that way. I’ll show you the bridge.”
But Eric was gone, nimbly hopping from rock to rock like the icy, churning creek was a bed of rose petals. When he got to the far side, he looked back at me, that one eyebrow raised.
No one that clumsy on dry land has any right to walk on water that way. The swirling stream raced by, swollen and angry.
“Aren’t you coming?” asked Eric, folding his arms across his chest.
“Yea-uh,” I said, drawing the word out slowly. “It’s just that the rocks I usually jump on are under water so I have to plan a new route.”
“There are still plenty left,” said Eric. “And you don’t need to plan – you need to move. When you stop, you fall.”
I frowned. I liked to plan each jump, land solidly and, well, stop before I tried the next one. But I usually got wet too. I shook my head, exhaling noisily. “Here goes.”