It would be a long way to fall. The tree had perfect placement, leaning slightly over the pond so we could be sure to miss the rocky bank when the water was low. Ben, Matt, and I had rushed back to my farm immediately after school, and were still in our school dress; khakis and a blue polo shirt. Matt had spotted the tree first and the three of us began inspecting it. “Branches look sturdy, I guess,” I said, “and it’s perfect how it leans out over the pond a little.” “Well,” Ben said, “how’re we going to get the rope tied up on the branch that goes out over the pond? It’s pretty high.” Matt was circling the tree with a smile on his face, rubbing his hands together in anticipation of another of his plans coming to fruition. He quickly took off his polo shirt and tossed it to me. “You still have your undershirt on, Matt,” Ben said. “I know.” “Well, then, what’s the point in taking off your school shirt?” “I’m not taking it off for the extra comfort, I took it off so it wouldn’t get dirty.” I frowned at Ben and threw the shirt in his face. He tossed it over a nearby bush. “Well, hang on, Matt, we don’t even know which branch to use. Plus, wouldn’t it be easier to just throw the rope over the branch?” Matt shook his head. “Nah. Not enough rope for that. Not unless you want to have a tire swing with a really short ride.” Ben and I glanced at each other. We didn’t want that. “Well, alright,” I said, “but which branch?” The tree was thick and expansive. The light brown trunk looked as if it had been sanded round and smooth like a walking stick. The branches reached out from the trunk like veins. Their paths were random, and it looked like at least three branches grew from each larger branch. The tree was barren of leaves, so it must have been dead, but it looked alive to me at that moment. It pulsed in the afternoon heat. Ben squinted and pointed at a branch 10 feet from the bottom of the tree. “That one looks good.” Matt brushed his blond hair out of his eyes and frowned. “No way. That’s way too low. The tire would drag in the water as we swung down unless we cut the rope. And if we cut the rope, we’d have a tire swing with a really short ride.” Ben and I glanced at each other. We didn’t want that. Matt pointed to a branch about fifteen feet higher. “That’s the one,” he said, “give me a boost you guys.” The branch extended over the pond far enough that we’d be able to get a very high and very long ride to the water. It also looked sturdy enough that we wouldn’t have to worry about the branch bouncing or shaking while we swung. “Well, okay,” Ben said, “but that’s a ways up there. Don’t fall.” Matt looked at me and rolled his eyes. I grabbed the rope and walked to the bottom of the trunk. “If I fall while I’m shimmying out on the branch, I’ll just go for a swim. No big deal. C’mon, give me a boost.” “Go for a swim?” Ben said. “The pond is, like, 3 feet deep around that spot.” “Ben! Boost!” Ben and I bent down and clasped our hands together as a foot hold for Matt, and lifted him up to the closest branch. “Toss me the rope.” I threw him the rope, and he wound it into a tight circle around his shoulder. He looked up the tree for a moment, as if to plan his route, and began climbing. “Yeah, this should be easy,” I said, “it’s the perfect climbing tree. Might take him a minute to get up to that high one” Ben nodded. He was always one to worry more than the rest of us, but he needed someone like Matt. Otherwise, he’d be home all day sewing with his mother. I wasn’t too young to realize that he needed some masculinity in his life. “How come Matt always does the exciting stuff?” he asked. I laughed. “You wanna go try it? You’re afraid of heights. Want me to give you a boost?” “No, I mean, he’s the only one of us who ever does anything. He gets an idea and he starts rubbing his hands and getting all restless, and we go out and do it with him.” “Ben, you got any ideas for fun things to do around here? We don’t exactly live in Disney World. The tire swing was my idea anyways.” “No, I don’t mean like that. I mean, he’s the only one who ever finishes anything. Like with our tree fort. At some point, every kid has a great idea for a tree fort with all kinds of pullies and elevators and stuff, but how many kids do you know that follow through on something like that? Usually, they get their dads to buy some wood at the yard and hammer together a box in a tree.” I stopped watching Matt and looked at Ben. “What is your point? It’s not like all this stuff is just Matt. It’s the three of us. We have the coolest tree fort ever. It’s not as if Matt put a gun to our heads to build it with him.” “I don’t know. I sometimes just feel like everything always fades in my mind. Like, I get some great idea and I’ll be all excited about it, but then the next day I’m a little less excited, and the day after that I forget all about it because I realize how much work it’s going to be.” “What are we inventors here? We’re just teenagers. Recent teenagers. We’re not Thomas Edison. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Ben pointed back up in the tree. “I’m talking about him. Some people are satisfied with where they are. And satisfied with a lame box tree fort. And I think we might be too if it weren’t for Matt.” I sighed heavily and watched Matt pull himself up to the next branch. “I guess I just feel like you or I might grow up to be normal people like our dads. You could be a farmer. I could be a mailman. But, you can just feel that Matt has a spark in there that makes it so he wouldn’t ever settle for being normal. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have a dad to grow into.” I turned quickly to Ben. “That’s probably the stupidest thing you’ve ever said. If Matt has a “spark” or something like that it’s not because he didn’t have a dad. He’d trade all of the spark there is to have a dad, and you know it. If you’re asking me to agree with you that Matt’s special, I will, but stop with all the dumb Matt’s-going-to-be-President-because-he-can-build-cool-tree-forts bullshit.” “No, you’re right, but I feel like some people just have things easier. I don’t mean like they’re better at sports or something like that, but, like, they never trip in front of a girl. They never get sick on bus rides. They’re not allergic to anything. Little stuff like that that makes me a normal person.” “Are you jealous of Matt or something? I mean, yeah, he’s popular and doesn’t get embarrassed all that often, but he doesn’t care about all that, so why should we? He’s always been our friend first. We’re better than normal to him. I don’t know what that makes us to anyone else, but I’m fine with it.” Ben started to say something, then turned back to watching Matt. He had reached the branch for the tire swing. He stood up on the branch and began using a higher branch to steady himself as he walked across. “Matt,” I yelled, “why don’t you try sitting down on the branch and moving-“ My words were stopped short with the sound of a large crack. Usually people say that these kinds of moments seem to happen in slow motion, but for me it was quick. The only thing that was in slow motion was the rope. I watched it spiral down after Matt as I ran toward him. It seemed to gently lay itself around his body in the water. My mind processed the fall as I was running to the pond. Top branch cracks. Matt falls. The top half of him hits the bank, and he flops into the pond like a ridiculous rag doll. The horrible grunt he made as his stomach hit the ridge of the bank will forever visit me in times of quiet. Ben and I reached him as his head went beneath the water. Ben pulled Matt’s head out of the water and I put my knees gently under his back to allow him to float. Matt’s face looked almost like a sneer, and he was moaning slowly. I put my hand on top of Ben’s beneath Matt’s head. Ben had been strangely
silent after the initial gasp. “Get the hell out of here!” I yelled, “Get my dad or someone. Get anybody. Or j-just call the cops or ambulance or something.” Ben jumped out of the pond and ran toward the house. It would take him two or three minutes to get there. I looked at the bank to see if I could move Matt out of the pond, but the grass was about a foot above the water and there were rocks speckled around the bank. I noticed blood on one of the rocks and felt my stomach clench. “You okay, man? You okay? Think you just got the wind knocked out of you is all.” He breathed short and he exhaled in spurts of nnkih. I saw red spreading from the center of his t-shirt and felt the panic that one feels when horror is realized. “Oh God Oh God. Oh God.” I said, looking up to the sky, but focusing on the branch. Matt grabbed my arm and squeezed hard. We both groaned loudly. I looked down at Matt with tears streaming down my face. His eyes were afraid, but everything soon became blurred with tears. Matt left me as a vague mirage. The funeral was the next day. His mother didn’t want us at the service, but Father Liggio allowed us to have a private viewing. Ben said he didn’t need to go, and gave Father Liggio a ring that Matt had given him to put in the casket. As I entered the room, I saw Matt’s profile in the casket immediately. He looked differently than I had ever seen him, although I had heard people commenting on how the undertaker had made him “look so good.” He was not smiling or frowning or sleeping. He had the plastic expression that death brings with it, covered over with some pancake makeup and blush. I’d like to say that I approached the casket and said some soft words of closure that I had dreamt about years after. Instead, I stood where I was for a moment and left, not because I was afraid, but because Matt wasn’t there. I walked back to the pond and tree later that day, still dressed in my school clothes. The quiet of the moment and the stillness of the water were surreal when I thought of the day before. I walked slowly into the water and turned toward the bank. The rock on the bank was still stained. I cupped my hands and poured water over the rock, but the stain remained and seemingly grew more prominent as I tried to wash it off. I laid back into the pond and floated, closing my eyes and thinking of what he might have thought after the branch snapped. The initial surprise. The tumbling. The grunt. All kids have a sense of surprise that lacks real concern when they crash a bike or slip on rocks in a river. I wondered if Matt still had that kind of surprise when he hit the ground. I opened my eyes and looked up to the sky, but I could focus only on the branch.