I still have dreams I’m up there. Sitting atop the platform, looking out over the forest. It’s night in my dream. The skies are clear. The air is cool, and the wind tickles the boards and branches beneath me. There’s a tap on my shoulder, and I turn, and I wake, and I remember.
I was eleven that summer. The last summer I was an only child — my sister was born that fall. I did my chores, didn’t mouth off to my parents, and held a B average. Not far off being a model kid. At school we played chess in the computer lab and I fell in love with it. I wasn't any good, but I liked the characters. I liked how it portrayed medieval power structures, and period war strategy. I could imagine the king and queen giving orders to the pawns, rooks and bishops. I played at home on the family computer, I played after class with other kids. Sometimes I even won.
School let out two or three weeks earlier and I’d spent the time conservatively: sleeping in and doing nothing but what my parents required of me, reading chess books and lazing about up in a tree somewhere. One of these afternoons I met Jeremy.
Below me, a kid was diving out from behind bushes, shooting at imaginary enemies. He wore a mask and had two toy guns.
One in his hand, one in his holster.
I jumped down out of the tree, walked up and asked if I could play. He gave me a once-over, tossed me one of his toy guns and we became instant friends.
We hung around my house mostly, him throwing his weight around, me following him, seeing what he wanted to do. He was so…so free. He did what he wanted when he wanted, and I loved him for it. He was my hero.
Our play took us into the woods on the weekends, where we’d look for sticks and lay them against some tree’s low branch to construct a temporary fort. When it started to get dark we’d bust the fort up and race each other home.
One day we found a tree Jeremy wanted to climb. He pointed to the top of it and said, “Let’s build the next fort on the top of that tree.”
This tree was tucked in the woods behind the local middle school, a ten minute walk along a path from the baseball field. It was a dark pine; bigger around than a monster truck tire and taller than anything I'd climbed. It went straight up, no limbs to speak of, like they’d been pruned as it grew. The only green I saw came from occasionally visible sprigs of green needles among the hundreds of sapped-over knobs.
At the top, there was a flat space created by the outward spiral of a few missed branches—the oldest ones, and the branches above it, that coalesced to a point like a Christmas tree. “We’ll chop the top off but leave the surrounding branches,” Jeremy said, “then we’ll put boards down, make a platform. Add walls.”
“Like a lookout tower,” I said. Jeremy shrugged. “Sure.”
“But how do we get up there?”
“Does your dad have two-by-fours in the garage? Or a firewood pile?”
“Yeah, there’s a whole stack of warped boards in the shed.”
“Cut them into lengths, twenty inches or so, then bring them in your backpack. Make as many as you can, and nails, and a hammer. We’ll nail them on the tree until we make it to the top.”
So the next week, I went into the garage in the middle of the night and cut two or three pieces of wood, and stuffed them in my backpack. By the end of the week I had fifteen twenty-inch planks.
Saturday morning Jeremy met me in my driveway and we walked to the tree. Jeremy had sandwiches and rope, as well as boards of his own. The tone was different between us this time; we were no longer children playing in the woods but builders, carpenters with a single focus.
Jeremy did the hammering, free arm hugging the slippery bark, feet spread apart on the lower step for leverage.
I usually kept a few rungs below him, handing him pieces of wood tied in a bundle attached to my belt. I was extremely careful. If ever I stopped I made sure I was grabbing the sides of the board above me. Jeremy didn’t have that option.
We kept our balance most of the time, but every so often a gust of wind would swing the tree side to side, rocking us with it. We’d drop our tools and hold tight around the tree. A few times I was certain one or both of us would fall, slip off the boards we stood on, drop like stones to the forest floor, but by some miracle of reflex or finger strength we managed to hang on.
The second weekend a woman walking through the woods with her dog, a golden retriever, stopped and started to yell at us from where she stood.
“You boys have permission to do that?”
Her voice seemed to come from nowhere, biting across the pounding of hammer against nail, and made me flinch. I almost let go.
Jeremy stopped hammering. “Go and talk to her, I’ll be down after I finish this board.”
I didn’t want to talk to the woman, but I started back down the ladder, heart thumping in my chest.
“Hold on, one minute,” I yelled weakly, glancing down. I saw a maroon coat, dark hair. I didn’t get much more of a look than that.
Then I was down. The woman was taller than me. She carried her energy with an aggressive stance--like she owned the place.
“Hello, uh, what’s the problem?”
She sniffed. “That kid up there, and you, what are you doing?”
“We’re…we’re just building a ladder. Then we’re going to make a platform.”
“And you have permission to do that?”
I didn’t know what to say, but Jeremy had finished his board and climbed down. He dropped to the dirt beside me.
“Are you from the school?” he asked the woman. She seemed surprised to be asked a question.
“No, but I’m hiking through and it doesn’t seem like you kids should be doing that.”
“Well, this is property owned by the school. We’re doing an independent study. The school knows about it. If you want, though, you cam go by there on Monday and let them know you have a complaint.”
I could see the woman looking back and forth between us with suspicion.
“I know who owns this property,” she said, “and he lives over that way.” She pointed back past us, up a hill. “Maybe I’ll take a walk over there right now instead.”
I froze again. We were caught. Or I thought so, but Jeremy simply waved her off. “Go ahead, but like I told you, this is school property.”
Her mouth turned down. She twitched the leash, and the dog started down the trail again.
“It better be, and you better not ruin that tree.”
A few moments later the woman was gone, the back of her maroon coat disappearing into the greenery down the path.
“Is that true," I asked Jeremy, "what you said about the school? You think she really knows the owner of this tree?”
“Who cares? Probably not. Come on, we’ll lose time worrying about that.” Jeremy grabbed up some boards, tied them to his belt, and bounded back up the tree.
“What’s the rush?” I asked, but he was already too far up to hear.
By the third weekend, the going was harder. Materials were scarce, and the tree was more of an obstacle.
Two things happened as we built higher up the tree: the trunk got skinnier, which was good (you could hold on easier), and the wind made it harder to go higher, which was bad.
We got there the fourth weekend; we climbed to the top of it. We brought a saw, tied to a rope.
Waiting for us was a circle of branches about ten feet in diameter; by the end of the weekend it would be a circular platform with a hole where the ladder was, two feet wide because we had to cut some of the branches off with the saw to be able to get up there.
Jeremy sawed a wedged groove into each side of the trunk.
“Anybody looking? Can you see anyone?”
I looked back down, mistake. The distance was harrowing. I scanned around for motion, for color. I didn’t see anyone.
“No, we’re clear.”
He sawed through the rest of the trunk, the saw squeaking as he huffed, his cheeks red as he separated the crown of the tree from its body.
The crown, a piece almost as tall as me, free-fell toward the forest floor, rotating and shrinking until it hit the ground and lay there in a heap, quivering.
The area atop the tree clear, we positioned ourselves among the only branches left, a wagon wheel of branches without siblings.
We sat beside each other cross-legged, basking in our accomplishment.
The view was majestic. It took my breath. Nothing like that type of view. I remember being giddy, unable to believe I could see so far.
“We could be sentinels up here,” I said. “Watch over our neighborhoods.”
Every instinct I had said I was in danger but I hadn’t fallen and my whole being was jazzed. I was high on the paradoxical confluence of humility and power.
“We’ll have to cut one of these branches off,” Jeremy said, “so there’s a place to climb up from the ladder once the boards are down.”
That was the first time I noticed something wasn’t right with Jeremy. He didn’t seem to care about the milestone, he only wanted to get to the next step. He didn't smile. He didn’t flinch at gusts of wind. When I asked him what was wrong, he shrugged. The look he gave me told me I couldn’t pry. If he wanted to tell me, he would.
I was late for dinner that day, and my parents asked me where I’d been.
“Playing with Jeremy,” I said. They looked at each other, and told me not to let it happen again, that they liked knowing where I was and what I was doing. “And you can let Jeremy know he can come over for dinner any time. We’d like to meet him.”
“Okay, but he won’t want to.”
Now that we’d reached the top, construction began on the platform, Jeremy and I climbing up the tree with bundles of boards hanging from our belts. Climbing to the platform I felt Death’s icy hand around my heart, waiting for me to make a mistake so he could squeeze.
Each time went up the ladder I did it slowly, so as to make sure I didn’t miss a step and fall, or misplace my hand and slip off. Jeremy, on the other hand, raced up the thing like a speed climber, hammering fiendishly above me on the platform. By the time I got there he would already be finished, waiting for me to come up so he could go back down for more boards. I was as slow at hammering as I was at climbing, and I rarely got through three boards before he was poking his head up again.
He still hadn’t told me what was the matter, why he was so depressed. That’s what I think it was. He manifested his depression through action, working his heart out and avoiding interacting with anyone but me. When he talked to people it was usually sarcastic. Therapists may have looked at him and seen anger, but I saw sadness. I saw a boy who couldn't handle his life, and needed change. A boy working toward something.
“Did I ever tell you what was wrong?” Jeremy asked me as we sat there. I said no. Of course he hadn't.
“My family. They’re splitting up.” Jeremy paused, then struggled on. “No, more than a split. A divorce.” His voice cracked. I wondered if I should put my hand on his shoulder. I didn’t. “My dad was having an affair and the lady he was doing it with was married too. He doesn’t even like the lady.”
He cried. I decided to put my hand on his shoulder after all.
“It’s not your fault,” I told him, “parents are just regular people. People make bad choices sometimes. I'm sure they both still love you.” Soon he stopped crying and wiped his eyes. He seemed so tired.
After a minute he stood up. The sky was starting to get dark. The wind gusted and the tree started to sway.
“Sit down, Jeremy,” I pleaded.
He wouldn’t. His lips trembled and he wouldn’t look at me.
“Sometimes I want to die. Why would he do something like that to us, to my mom? Sometimes I think it's my fault, even if you tell me it isn’t. Why would he not want to be here? If I had been a better…been a better son, at times along the way, it wouldn't have happened. They'd still be happy. Or if I'd never been born.”
“I haven't heard so much misguided wisdom in anyone,” I said to him, “least of all a twelve-year-old kid.”
“I don't know if it's wisdom. Is it worth it? I ask myself when I’m up here, I ask myself, 'Could I do it? How easy would it be to jump, leave all this behind, forget my parents and their filthy problems?' You're not going to like the answer. It would be real easy.”
He looked out over the neighborhoods and was quiet.
“Let's go down,” he said after a bit. “I have an idea. I'm hungry. Let's get slices and go home. Tomorrow though?”
“What? Tomorrow's the idea?”
“You bring your board, and pieces. We'll play chess on the platform.”
It was easier to make the climb the next day. The sky was calm, the day was blue, and I had a chess set in my backpack.
We sat on the platform, ate our sandwiches, and I set up the board while Jeremy tiptoed around the edge.
“You know, I thought I was going to want to immediately put up walls, but now I don't know if I want to. Too constraining. I'd feel trapped with walls surrounding me. Now that I've felt this, I don't know if I can go back. What do you think?”
“I think I want to live long enough to see what happens to me when I grow up.”
Jeremy laughed and sat down across from me.
“It's been a long time since I played chess.”
“Oh, I used to do it for school. I was okay. Who'd you play with?”
“He thought it would help me with my long-term thinking, so that I could span the gap emotionally as well, get out of my hopelessness surrounding my parents.”
“Did it work?”
“Hell, no. If learning a board game was all anyone had to do to get over something, why do we need therapists?”
We played the game and ate our sandwiches, and laughed as we alternated captured pieces.
When it was checkmate Jeremy chucked my King off the platform. The black piece pinwheeled out of sight.
“Hey, now we can’t play again!”
He grinned at me, then stood up. “You should have won the first time.”
“Hey, Jeremy, sit down.”
“No, I don’t think I will. You know, last night I decided something. And after I decided to do it, I slept so well. Don’t try to stop me. If you care.”
He had a wild look in his eye, like a beaten dog ready to bite. I had no time to think. My body buzzed with adrenaline. He took a step toward the edge and I jumped to my feet to lunge at him. He flung himself backward to avoid me, over the edge of the platform.
I dove to the edge, reaching, looking over. I didn’t see him. I hadn’t heard him land, and I waited, my heart pounding in my ears.
I heard sobbing beneath the platform.
I leaned over the edge a bit more and saw him hanging by his shoelace on one of the nubs of pruned branches. He'd swung down backwards into the tree. His head was bleeding.
I scurried to the opening in the platform to the ladder and lowered myself through it. There he was, on the other side of the tree. I was going to have to stretch to reach him.
“God never leaves me alone, I can never do what I want. Leave me alone you big busybody,” Jeremey muttered to himself. Then his shoelace broke and he fell.
I caught him, somehow, by the ankle. By some miracle stretch, I still held onto the top rung of the ladder with my other hand. My shoes slipped from the boards I stood on.
I grasped the top rung with one hand, Jeremy’s ankle with the other. I used all my might to pull one leg back onto the board closest to my feet, then got the other one on.
“Grab on, Jeremy,” I said, panicking. “You’re not supposed to go, you’re supposed to stay here, even if it’s hard.”
But he wouldn't grab on. He hung there, limp.
“Drop me. Let go. Or you leave too.”
“I…can’t,” I said through gritted teeth. My arms were numb.
He was falling before I knew I'd let go. You know how in the movies when they show someone falling it’s so incredibly slow you’re surprised they aren’t swimming back up? Lies.
I heard the WHUMP of his impact with the ground and don’t remember seeing him fall at all.
“Help!” I shouted, “help!” but I was alone.
Back on the ground, Jeremy wasn't breathing. His neck was bent, oddly angled. I tried not to look at his face, but I couldn't help but see.
His open eyes were fixated on the tree.
I couldn't think of what to do. Jeremy would have known what to do. I remember wanting to go to the school, to tell someone there, but school was out and it was a weekend besides.
I remembered the woman, how she'd pointed in the direction up a hill, and said that was where the owner of the property lived. I walked that way, and eventually came to a line of houses.
I knocked on doors until one of the homeowners, a woman who reminded me of my grandmother, let me in so I could use her phone. I started to cry, babbling on the phone and the woman took it from me gently and spoke to the dispatcher on my behalf.
"It seems there's been an accident, and this young man's friend has fallen from a great height, and needs urgent assistance."
I wiped my eyes, and looked out the back window, a ball of hurt collecting in the back of my throat. When the fire truck and ambulance got to the woman's house I led the paramedics into the woods, where they collected his body.
The next time I saw it was at his visitation at the funeral home. I didn't spend much time looking at the waxy thing in the box. Its eyes were closed. Jeremy’s solemn parents stood by the door, accepting condolences from those arriving and departing the visitation hall—they were how I’d imagine Jeremy would be, sad but not willing to cry in front of strangers.
When I looked at his dad I wanted him to feel the pain, to suffer. It was his fault my friend was gone. But their son had died in an accident, not killed himself, and if I said anything to them I knew I'd make a scene. I said nothing, they said nothing to me, so I sat in a chair looking at a Reader's Digest and listening to the visitors murmur about a young man’s wasted potential until it was time to leave.
The funeral home was only a few minutes walk from the school, so I went that way. There was a group of older kids playing kickball, shouting and laughing and they had a case of beer with them.
I wandered past them and into the woods. Soon I saw our platform, above the trees, and for a moment thought I saw the huddled shape of someone sitting up there.
It made no sense but I felt it must be Jeremy.
I ran to the tree, dodging roots and fell branches on the forest floor. I climbed up, somehow certain that as I mounted the platform, I would see Jeremy one last time. More alive than he'd been in the box, smiling at me, ready to shake me, wake me from this dream.
The platform was empty but for a scattered chess set. I sat there for a long time, listening to the wind whistle, swaying in the atmosphere on the boards, a plate balanced on the tip of a rod.
My friend, who had always been in motion, who'd been so alive in every moment, would never move, never speak again. Not to me, not to anyone. It didn't seem possible.
At some point I climbed down. There was still a smattering of tools near the base of the tree, so I took a hammer and pulled the nails out of the bottom ten or so boards, and chucked them into the bushes. I didn't want anyone else to climb it.
I walked around picking flowers off bushes, dandelions and blossoms, until I had a handful. I left it at the base of the tree.
A breeze picked up and I looked for sticks, then jammed them into the ground near the flowers.
Something tapped me on the shoulder. I gasped, jumping, whirling, expecting to see someone there. Maybe the woman with the maroon coat and the golden retriever.
There was nobody, but on the ground in front of me was a chess piece. White. A rook. One of the pieces I'd captured during our last game. I picked it up and put it next to my makeshift memorial for Jeremy.
I walked home.
For years, instead of being able to sleep, my thoughts and emotions would attack me, and I’d feel waves of sweaty, regretful anger. At myself for letting my vision of Jeremy live his life through me, at Jeremy for not grabbing the ladder. For leaving me with the trauma. Regret for failing to recognize the platform was his way out, and for helping him build it.
That summer altered me. My parents were sympathetic, but my sister was born a few months later and she became the focus of the family. Trees and books no longer held the same magic for me. My grades dropped, my work ethic suffered. I was no longer the model kid.
I coasted through school, before dropping out my Junior year. I wasn’t going to college and I didn’t have the grades to graduate. A friend of my dad’s got me a job in a shipping warehouse and I put myself to it for years, moving boxes off trucks, onto shelves, off shelves, and onto trucks. There was an order to it, and the people I worked with all realized their lives were about as good as they were going to ever get. They were okay with it. I was okay with it. After work I’d come home, eat what was left of dinner in the fridge and and while my parents watched television I’d sit in my room, waiting to fall asleep.
One night I was sitting up reading and there was a knock on my bedroom door. My sister. She had a chess set with her, a box filled with hollow plastic pieces and a checkered board.
“We learned chess at school, but mom and dad won’t play with me. Do you know how to play?”
“I…yeah, I remember.”
We set it up on the floor in her room, and I made moves, pointing out to her where she might be walking into a trap, nudging her when she became too single-minded, chasing a queen or racing to capture pieces without thinking of the endgame.
When she lost, her face would scrunch up with frustration and she’d scan the board, looking for some way she’d managed to beat me, but checkmate was checkmate. The more she lost, the more she wanted to play, and the more she improved.
Sometimes she even won.