Later in the day, Lily had to leave for her final show. Ms. Hartley said we could stay at her house for as long as we wanted, but Connie spoke for all of us and declined. I don’t think any of us were comfortable working in a home without a host. Except for Payton, they could be comfortable anywhere. They definitely were at ease in the boughs of the tree we ended up in an hour later.
It was fairly warm for the time of the year, but still too cold to sit on the solid dirt that seeped the warmth out of your bones.
The girls were below, picking their way across rocks and throwing the frozen acorns of autumn at each other. As my eyes followed them, I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. A mouse, russet-furred and bug-eyed, had scurried up the tree and clung to the branch beside me, pressed flat against the bark. I watched it, for a moment, then held out my hand. It sniffed me, but jerked back when I jumped as something hard hit the back of my head. I leaned aside, and something flew past me and clacked against the mouse’s branch, and it ran and scurried down. I peered over my shoulder and saw Jace leaning well out of the way of Payton, whose hand was still extended in the aftermath of a throw. Their other hand was in the oddly bulbous pocket of their hoodie. They saw me looking, and slipped another acorn out of their pocket with a flourish.
“Took these from the girls,” they smirked. “I had to get that mouse away from you. You could have gotten the plague.”
“That was rats, Payton,” Jace sighed. They bickered on while my eyes were drawn back to where the mouse had been sitting. I noticed something on the branch below. The mouse was there, still watching me. I looked back to my friends. In my subconscious, the inky-black eyes scratched at the inside of my skull in a way that struck resonance with the thin wire of the sculpting rake that I was currently removing from its home in a repurposed leather pencil case.
Payton saw the small tool, and their eyes lit up. “Ashton, would that be sharp enough to cut into the bark?”
“You should carve our initials into the tree,” Payton babbled on, “all of them. Just the first and last names, though, not the middle. Or maybe we could go bigger. Write all of us little mottos, like those ones they carve into gravestones-”“Epitaphs,” Jace mumbled, already paging through his book. It looked like a horror novel. I didn’t think I had seen him read one of those before.
“Sure, those,” Payton continued. “Mine would say ‘Payton Ververs, the funniest kid who ever lived in the whole world, and also the hottest. Because of this fact, they had night after night of wild sex with your mom…’” They babbled on and on, and from the familiar haze on Jace’s face I knew he had tuned them out. Their words fell to the back of my mind, not necessarily understood but churning like some inhernal wheel, this oddball thing they wanted me to do. The sentences fell into line with the thoughts that had crowded into my head when my mother had urged me not to go to the hospital and. When I had caught her eyes, they had all vacated, and I had not gone. But now both narratives fell into cycle together, lighting a dim memory of me as a kid, brushing long hair over my shoulders and pressing my nose flat against the glass top of the washing machine, watching the clothes spin until the glass became clouded with steam.
Cycling around like dirty laundry were the things people wanted me to do, and the compliance and apathy that shot through me in response. I resented that urge, hated the way time slipped through my fingers as loosely and unshapable as sand. And in that moment, something in my snapped and splintered in away that would have ruined a sculpture if I had been one.
“No.” I said.
Payton started, cut off mid-sentence after talking over my single word. “Hm?”
“I’m not carving into the trees. It would dull my tools and hurt the tree. No.”
Payton’s tongue worked against their upper teeth. I hoped I hadn’t seemed angry, but the dim in Payton’s vibrancy told me that I had.
“Sorry man,” they said, words chased away by the girls’ laughter coming from underneath us. They looked down and tilted their sweatshirt pocket, sending a small stream of acorns down. Cries of humor and anger echoed through our branches from below. Payton looked back at me, their usually fluffy hair hanging limp in their eyes. “I’m heading down. See you guys in the car.” They swung through the branches with an adeptness learned over the past few weeks, shouting something I chose not to hear in favor of the rustling leaves and the soft thump of Jace’s book closing.
He sidled to sit on the branch across from me.
“What was that about?” he asked, pushing his dark hair out of his face to reveal the concerned blue eyes, still chasing away the mist of reading.
I knitted my eyebrows. “Got mad.”
“Ashton, you don’t get mad-”
“How do you know what I do and don’t do?” I snapped. Jace looked hurt this time, but he didn’t look away.
“Ashton, do you want to talk about what’s wrong?”
I sighed. “Yes. I mean, no. I mean… I don’t think I even know what’s wrong.”
“Then we can just sit.” Jace’s smile was sharp enough to cut mist, but in an impossibly gentle way. “Let me know if you figure it out... If you want of course.”
“I will.” I smiled, and Jace opened his book again, hanging his legs loosely enough to swing and brush loosely against mine. I sat in thought, drinking in the sound of Jace turning pages and the feel of his warmth bleeding through black denim that fought off the cold of the afternoon.
But at the end of the day, I came up empty when Addison sounded for us to come to her car. Jace did not ask me about our earlier conversation. He just squeezed my knee with a glint in his eye to match the one lighting up his silver ring. He suddenly leapt forward and threaded between branches toward the forest floor. I knew him well enough to see the unspoken challenge to a race in his speed. I picked my way down carefully and slowly, letting Jace win by a long shot. I spent the car ride to my house still silently lost in musings.