It’s late but Benny and I are sipping Dewar’s and celebrating Dad’s 65th birthday on the deck that overlooks the backyard.
“Yeah, I remember ‘Levels’ and the tree,” Benny says, eyeing the dark space where the willow tree once stood. “I kind of remember Kelly, too.”
“Levels” was a childhood game that began with my then five-year-old brother, Benny, our seven-year-old neighbor, Kelly, whose parents I would learn much later in life were embroiled in a hostile divorce, and eight-year-old me each placing a hand on the gritty trunk of the willow tree, which we called Level 1, our favorite level. Under its canopy we swatted at the wispy hanging branches with outstretched arms and imagined the thin leaves as a spider web we desperately tried to escape. Wiffleball bats were swords and our guns were plastic hockey sticks tucked into our armpits. If the spider got too close, Kelly would flip her eyelids inside out and chase Benny and me while screaming, “I need medicine!” When the spider got to me, I’d close my eyes, the bright sun’s kaleidoscopic reds and oranges consuming my vision, and then submit myself. With dirtied palms, I pressed on my eyes until the permeating color faded beneath rippling blackness. I loved that.
“Do you think Kelly’s eyelids ever got stuck?”
“Don’t you remember that?”
There had been other levels, each one an escape from a monster that never caught us. Level 2 was the shed that housed our lawnmower. We would peek through the windows and whisper about “the thing.” However, once Benny got stung by a nearby hornet, we weren’t allowed to play there anymore.
One afternoon, perhaps in the midst of Level 3 or 4, Benny came bounding toward Kelly and me yelling, “Come see! Come see!” with something cupped in his hands.
Benny’s excitement was a common occurrence. He admired everything, each new discovery was a celebration. I assumed he had another rock for his rapidly growing collection on the deck banister.
“Come see! Come see!” he repeated.
He thrust his closed hands just inches from my face, opened them, and revealed a light blue egg about the size of a quarter.
“Benny, where’d you find that?” I asked.
He pointed to the deck.
“Benny, it’s an egg.”
“Give it to me. Gently.”
“Will it hatch?” he asked, placing the egg in my hand.
It felt so warm. I held it between my thumb and forefinger.
“I think we should put it back,” Kelly said.
“Benny, show us where you found it.”
We followed him to a crawlspace beneath the deck. Benny skipped into the air, landed on his hands and knees, and scuttled into the shadows thatched by sunlight creeping through the decking. Kelly and I crouched and walked bowlegged behind Benny until he stopped and pointed.
“Right there,” he said as we squinted through the darkness.
An upside-down bird nest leaned on one of the concrete blocks upon which the deck stood. I had never seen a nest up close before. I prodded it with a finger and found it softer than expected.
“You didn’t touch it, did you?” I asked.
Benny shook his head.
“You sure?” Kelly added.
Kelly scooped the nest from the ground and set it on one of the support beams. She looked at me and said, “Now what do we do?”
Cupping my hands together, I funneled the egg into the concave of the nest along the crease where my pinky fingers met. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the blue oval, but Benny, moments ago enthralled by his discovery, had already grown bored and crawled back to the yard, leaving Kelly and me behind.
“Do you think the mother is around?” I asked.
Kelly had found the dry, blue shell fragments in the dirt. They were small, brittle like thin ice over puddles on a cold night, and whatever nascent creatures were once inside them, their fate was obvious. A cloud obscured the sunlight which darkened our place beneath the deck. Kelly thought we could take care of the remaining egg and wait for it to hatch—maybe she did go back for it later—but looking back at it now, neither of us had the patience for something like that. We were kids. So, we went back to the willow tree and left it all behind.
There were other animals, too. Our “Levels” escapades yielded caterpillars we had collected inside plastic cups filled with small twigs and hand-plucked blades of grass. We covered our cups with strips of cardboard and admired our homemade terrariums until we forgot them in the hot sun. Kelly and I ran our cups to the woods, closed our eyes, and poured them where Dad dumped lawn clippings.
“Levels” consumed us that summer. We recycled levels and replayed our favorites. Time of day and weather occasionally influenced our routine but we played almost daily as a full trio. Some mornings, Kelly would wait for Benny and me on the bottom step of the deck where she sat, watched the willow tree, and tied long strips of grass into knots.
Kelly moved away once her parents’ divorce was finalized later that summer. I remember the moving boxes and their screen door slamming. It all happened quickly. That morning, as Benny and I found her waiting for us in her usual spot on our deck, she curtly stated she was moving. Benny was oblivious and had already taken off at a sprint, dewy greenery clinging to his clothes.
“Why?” I asked her.
“We leave tomorrow.”
“But can’t we do something?”
“Let’s just play.”
I’m not sure why she didn’t answer my questions. At the time, I didn’t really think much of it. We played Level 1 but it was different. Kelly didn’t flip her eyelids inside out when the spider came and when I submitted myself, I pressed on my eyes until I felt wetness in my palms.
I’m uncertain if Kelly and I spoke after that. I don’t remember the end of our final game of “Levels”, or even the precise moment Kelly left for good. There’s no scene of Benny and I watching a moving truck drive away, no tearful childhood promises with Kelly that we would still be friends. We stopped playing. We lost touch. Children’s friendships are maintained by proximity more than anything. In the ensuing days, I recall Benny asking about “Levels” but quickly moving on, his young imagination spawning some new adventure.
When the Ice Storm of ’98 hit—I was in middle school and “Levels” had been long-abandoned—branches from the willow tree splintered away like cleaved body parts. Eventually, Dad hired someone to take down what was left. Today, all that remains of the willow tree is the hardened stump clinging to the earth like a scab.
It’s getting even later now as Benny and I lounge on the deck. I’m saturated with fragmented memories. I ask Benny about the robin’s egg, the monster in the shed, the thrill of navigating the driveway, the morning Kelly moved away, or even if he wanted to know what happened to the caterpillars.
“How do you remember all this?” Benny interjects. I’m telling him about Level 2 and pointing at the shed.
“Well, you must remember getting stung,” I say.
In the night, the shed looks exactly as it did years ago.
“Yeah, right there,” I said pointing again. “There was a hornet’s nest under the eaves.”
He shrugs. “I was five. I don’t remember much.”
It’s so dark now, so late. I can see the willow tree in the blackness, its silhouette looming in the backyard. I want to reach out, trace its branches with my fingers.
“Don’t you remember—?”
When I get home days later, I will press and press on my eyes until darkness comes. I will think about what brought me home and what will happen to these memories if I’m not there to salvage them. I will press until my eyes hurt if I have to.