The Higher We Rise, The Further We Fall
Melissa R. Mendelson
Kicking at the dirt and leaves in front of him, Tommy trailed behind his friends, Billy and David. He paused for a moment to look back at the town. The laughter of his friends pulled him forward. He kicked at the ground again as he listened to their meaningless talk, their laughter at senseless jokes. His friends thought that they had all the time in the world, but they were starting the eleventh grade, the first to last year, where they would be together. They don’t seem to realize that, but he did.
Next week, Tommy would ride the bus and wait for his friends to board and try to sit with him. They would joke around and say stupid things, but maybe, it was time to grow up. Maybe, their games in the woods should end. They wasted too much time here, chasing each other around or hanging out by the wooden bridge over the stream. They were too old to be playing swordfights with long, jagged branches. Now, his friends wanted to build a fort. What were they? Twelve?
“You okay?” Billy stopped walking to look at him.
“Yeah, Tommy. You’re too quiet.”
“Just thinking, David.”
“About what, and don’t say school.” Billy sighed loudly. “No school talk especially when we’re here in the woods.”
“This is a good spot to build a fort.” David looked around them. “Let’s start building,” and he clapped his hands together.
Tommy turned away from his friends. He looked over at an old oak tree. The birds overhead seemed to avoid it, landing on other trees. Even the squirrels carried their nuts away from it. What was wrong with the old oak tree? As he stared at the tree, he was seized with an impulse to climb it.
“I know, Billy. Now, who’s being a child?” David picked up a long branch nearby.
He didn’t care what Billy and David said. He continued to climb. He didn’t know why he was doing it, but he felt free. He felt like he could do anything, almost anything because he couldn’t fly. Then, he noticed a large, deep crack running through the top of the tree and almost all the way down to the bottom. He stuck his foot into the crack, and a piece of bark fell toward the ground. It missed his friends, and they looked up at him.
He took a moment to look into the tree, into the deep crack that ran through it. It seemed like water was running through the tree, but it wasn’t water. He touched the liquid. It felt sticky like syrup, and it was pretty heavy. It wrapped around his finger, but before he could panic, it peeled off. It fell downward like a dead leaf. When he looked again into the deep crack, a face stared out at him.
“Oh my gosh! You guys won’t believe this,” but his friends were building their fort and not paying attention to him. “Hey, guys. There’s something in this tree, and there’s a face too. It looks like mine except for a scar under his eye.”
“Stop playing around, Tommy. I want to build this fort before it gets dark.” Billy picked up a few branches. “How about you help us?”
“If we come back late, my father will yell at me, and I don’t need him yelling at me. Jesus. You’re nearly at the top. How about you get down from there before you fall?”
“Oh, poor David. Your father’s going to yell at you. My father hardly speaks to me, but fine. I’m coming down.”
As he climbed downward, the other him followed. He looked into the tree, and his other self stared back at him. He even smiled, and Tommy knew that he was not smiling. This was not a reflection, but he still shrugged it off. And another part of the tree broke loose. This time, it landed close to his friends and their fort.
“Come on!” Billy ducked for cover.
“Really?” David pushed a strand of hair out of his face. “You’re doing that deliberately.”
“It’s not my fault that the tree is so old. It’s even got something running through it.”
“He peed on the tree,” David said, and Billy laughed.
“I didn’t pee on the tree.”
“You coming down or not?”
“Yes, Billy. I’m coming down.”
Before he could finish the climb down, a hand reached out through the deep crack of the tree and locked onto his shirt. Nails dug into his skin, and the hand pulled back, surprising him with such strength. He tried to scream for his friends, but his scream was cut short. He was covered in that substance, and it hardened over him, sealing both his mouth and eyes. Then, the substance peeled off like it did before, and he opened his mouth to breathe. He lost his grip and crashed to the ground.
Tommy sat up on the ground. The leaves underneath him broke his fall. He felt disoriented, but nothing seemed broken. He looked around for his friends, but he didn’t see them or their fort. Suddenly, they appeared walking toward him, but they were not his friends. They looked like them, but they had scars on their cheeks. And he thought about his other self.
“I don’t belong here.”
“You’re not our Tommy.” Billy did not bother to help him stand up. “What do we do, David? They’re looking for him.”
He tried to stand, but David pushed him back down. “Well, I guess he found a way out. He was always the clever one.” David touched the scar on his face. “For us to survive, we have to give them… Him.”
“What?” Now, he was back on his feet. “You’re supposed to be my friends,” and they laughed harshly at his words.
“Friends,” Billy spat back at him.
“Sure, we’re friends,” but he did not like the look on David’s face. “Let’s go.”
“No, thanks,” and he tried to run. But he didn’t see the piece of bark from the old oak tree, and he tripped and fell to the ground, injuring his knee. He yelled out in pain, and the other boys laughed as they grabbed him by the arms and hauled him to his feet.
“Let me go. I’ll bring the other Tommy back. Please, I just want to go home. I don’t belong here. Let me go!” His words were ignored as those he once called friends dragged him out of the woods.