Editor’s note: The name in the byline is the author’s pen name.
“Can I come up there, too?”
I swing my feet to the other side of the branch to let Isla get a better grip. I’m sitting on the highest branch of the apple tree. Its thick branches provide me with a sturdy perch from which I can observe the whole camp. Through the bright green leaves and tiny, long-stemmed red crabapples, I can see the older kids playing soccer on the field and the little ones by the barn, giggling as counsellors rub sunscreen on their shoulders.
Below me, Isla is making her way up. She uses the stooping low limbs of the tree to give herself a boost. She hikes her long skirt up with one hand to help get her footing. We have matching scabby knees and red blistering cheeks. We have dirt under our fingernails.
“You don’t wanna play capture the flag?” she puffs as she hoists herself onto the branch beside mine.
“I wanted to be by myself.”
“Well, that’s no fun,” she says. She doesn’t leave.
We sit in silence, kicking our feet. The tree is in the middle of the camp. It’s a popular spot during snack time — the abundance of shade and branches so close to the ground make it both an adventure and a sanctuary — but not so much when there are games going on. I come up here all the time: when I feel my cheeks getting hot, when my skin feels too tight, or when the boys laugh at me. That’s why I am up here now. I can feel the wind on my face. I can hear everyone laughing and playing from a distance. I can breathe again.
Isla pulls a damp plastic bag out of the waistband of her skirt. Sunflower seeds.
“You want some?”
Together, we crack open the shells in our mouths. We chew the seeds and spit the hollow pieces onto the grass until a small mountain of shells piles up by the trunk of the tree.
“Why weren’t you at church this weekend?” She peers over at me wide-eyed, her head tilted away from me.
Isla and I go to the same church, so I often see her family in the pews. She has four brothers and an older sister; they sit at the front. I heard her say once in Sunday school that they go on Thursday nights, too. I’ve never talked to her at church. She is nine and I’m only eight. She spends most of her free time at Sunday school looking through the illustrated New Testament. I preoccupy myself with capturing the ladybugs on the windowsill.
“My mom took us to the beach instead.”
She stares at me incredulously, “Lucky, my mom would never let us skip. ”
The next day at camp, Isla corners me in the barn. She’s a few inches taller than me. Her long brown hair that started in a neat bun has started to fall down. Strands dance around her shoulders. Her blue eyes stare me down and I can feel my face getting warm; my heart pounds. I suddenly remember that she is bigger than me, older. She grabs my hand, hard, and shoves a crumpled piece of paper into my palm. She gives me a look that makes me freeze. I know I’m not supposed to tell anyone. Meet me at the tree during craft time. I look up from the note as she heads out the door.
When I get to the crabapple tree, Isla is already waiting for me. I grab the lowest branch and start to climb up.
“Wait, don’t come up, let’s go somewhere else.”
Without waiting for me to respond she jumps down from her branch, steps towards me and looks me in the eyes. She grabs my hand once more, this time slowly, lacing our fingers together. I stare at her.
Wordlessly, I oblige. She pulls me through the field, past the shed marking the boundaries for capture the flag, into the tall grass. The reeds rustle as we make our way through. If she were not holding onto my hand, I would only be able to follow her by watching her dark bun weave through the tall yellow maze. Isla sits down, so do I. She loosens her grip on my hand but doesn’t let go. It is quiet. The only sounds are the breeze through the grass and our soft breathing. Somewhere nearby, a chickadee is whistling. We are alone.
“Can I braid your hair? I’m good at it, my sister taught me how.”
She runs her fingers through my hair and starts to braid. It tickles. I feel like my whole body just ate Pop Rocks. I want to run away, I want to cry, laugh, hide. I stay still. When Isla is done braiding, she sits back down in front of me and takes my face into her hands, she smiles at me.
“You look very pretty.”
“You, um … you look very nice too.” I try not to blush too hard.
Isla puts an arm around me and we lie back in the grass, watching the clouds pass. The sun beats down, time slows.
“My sister is getting married,” she says suddenly.
“Oh, that’s good.”
“Do you want to get married?”
“Wha- Um…right now?”
“No you crazy,” she laughs “When you’re a grown-up, to a man.”
“Oh. Um, I guess.”
She pauses for a moment. “Is that a real thing? Girls who marry girls?”
“I have a girl cousin who married a girl.”
She sits up, her eyes gleaming, “That’s awesome! Like having sleepovers every day. I’m gonna tell my sister she could just do that instead.” She grins at me.
We head back to the tree for music time and pickup. We sit in the shade tracing pictures on each other’s backs, taking turns guessing what we drew. Her dad comes to get her before my parents do. He pushes through the branches of the tree, causing several crabapples to fall onto the ground. He is very tall, he has thick eyebrows and a big smile.
“Isla, kiddo, time to go!”
Isla jumps down from the tree and runs to hug her dad.
“Okay! Oh! Daddy, this is Sarah, she told me today that girls can marry each other, like her cousin married a girl! Isn’t that really cool, Sophie should just do that instead!” She smiles up at him, pulling on the sleeve of his button-up. His eyes find mine, he stops smiling. I freeze.
“Let’s talk about this later, Isla, let’s go.”
He puts his hands on her shoulders and turns her to leave. Isla looks behind her and waves at me.
“See you tomorrow.”
* * * * *
During the morning running games, I wait for Isla in the tree. It’s the last day of camp. I have a bag of sunflower seeds and pass it between my hands, so I am not sweating onto the plastic.
Isla appears below me. Her feet shuffle in the grass, she kicks absentmindedly at the graveyard of seeds we have built up over the week, scattering the shells over the base of the trunk. Her eyes are glued firmly on her shoes.
“My dad says we can’t be friends anymore.”
Her voice sounds hollow. “I’m sorry.” Before I can say anything she turns on her heel and sprints out from under the tree, into the field. Her skirt dances around her ankles.
I didn’t see her all day. During craft time, I went back to the grass to see if she was waiting for me. There was only a clearing of squished grass where we had sat the day before. I looked for her in the barn and at music time, but I couldn’t find her. I was back to being alone. I sat under the tree, eating sunflower seeds alone until my mom came to get me.
“Mom, can we go to church on Sunday?”
“Of course, I was planning on it. Did you miss it when we skipped last weekend?”
* * * * *
At Sunday school, I stared at Isla the whole time. She volunteered to be a reader for the children’s prayer. She got to light the candles. She didn’t look at me. Her messy bun from camp was slick and neat. The dirt under her nails was clean. I stared down at mine. I could feel my skin getting too tight. My cheeks felt hot. I hated the dirt under my nails; I could feel it pinching me. My eyes filled with tears and my chest heaved. I ran to the bathroom.
I was sitting on the floor for a few minutes before the door swung open. Isla quietly walks over and sits beside me, stroking my shoulder. She picks up my hand, fishes something out of her pocket and places it in my palm, closing my fingers around it. She stands up slowly and opens the door.
“See you next week?”
She slipped out, the door shut softly behind her.
Catching my breath, I stretched out my fingers. In the palm of my hand was a small knotted bracelet made from crabapple stems.
Cover photo: Unsplash