“You’re an idiot!”
The three of them glared at each other, breathing hard. Jackson was their uncle even though he was, at 12, only a few years older than the sisters, Poppy and Lily. They were 8 and 9, both dark haired and hot tempered and less than a year apart. Their mom was the oldest child in her family and Jackson had been born not long before she married and began having children of her own. The trio could have been close, but Jackson wielded his generational superiority like a club and neither of the girls were willing to yield power to any boy so close to their own age, even an uncle.
This latest fight had begun when Jackson told the sisters that girls couldn’t climb trees. The sisters scoffed, as one, and said they could climb any tree he could climb. Arguing led to insults which led to name calling and now they were at a stalemate.
Jackson looked around his backyard. Other than his mother’s vegetable garden and a small shade tree, he could see nothing worthy of the challenge.
“How about that one?” Lily asked, her tone sharp with scorn.
He looked where she was pointing and saw a neighbor’s tree. It was enormous, easily the largest in the neighborhood, towering over the low-slung ranch houses like a giant. He shivered and started to shake his head, but the girls were staring at him. Poppy, especially, had this knack for looking down her nose at him, despite his greater height.
“I could climb it, but it’s in the neighbor’s yard. They probably wouldn’t like it.”
“They’re not home,” Poppy said, eyes narrowing. “You said so earlier, remember? You’re just afraid. You can admit it, you’re too scared.”
Jackson glared at her, “I’m not scared. But, if I climb it, you have to admit I’m better than you are. Better, stronger, smarter…”
She laughed and it hardly sounded like a young girl’s laugh, it was so full of scorn and even a little menace. “If you can climb it, sure, I’ll give you all of the respect you deserve.”
“You’d better not try it,” Lily said, her voice dark. “You’ll fall out and break your back.”
“Yeah, she’s right,” Poppy said, her own voice light and airy, “you’ll fall and break your back. Might as well admit you can’t do it.”
Jackson felt a shiver run down his spine. There was something about the too-innocent looks the sisters wore that made him nervous. Maybe he shouldn’t do this. Then he looked at the knowing smirks they shared and he straightened his shoulders.
“I’ll do it, just you wait.”
He climbed the fence between his yard and the neighbor’s. The house next door belonged to an old couple with no kids and he knew they wouldn’t want him in their yard. Every time a ball went over the fence, old Mr. Anselmo would stick a knife in it and throw it out. They weren’t fond of Jackson’s large, loud family living next door and definitely wouldn’t approve of one of them climbing their tree. Unfortunately, he knew they were out of town for the weekend so he couldn’t use them for an excuse.
He looked at the tree and gulped. It was even bigger than he had remembered and for a minute he thought he would have to concede defeat. There didn’t seem to be any way to reach the lowest branch.
“There’s a ladder over by the house,” Poppy called out. She and Lily were perched on top of the wooden fence, legs swinging as they watched.
He turned and saw the ladder and bit back a curse that would get his mouth washed out with soap if his mother heard him. He grabbed the ladder and pulled it under the tree. With its help he could easily pull himself up onto the lowest branch. It was late fall so the sun was clear and warm through the leafless branches, but not scorching like it had been in summer. The lack of leaves made it easier to see what he was doing and also let his nieces see his triumph.
Once he was in the tree, it turned out to be almost easy to climb. The branches were sturdy and thickly placed so that it wasn’t far between one limb and another. He found himself enjoying the exercise and, focused on his next hand- and foot-hold he lost track of time. Suddenly, he realized that the branches were thinning out and he paused to look back. The two girls on the fence looked tiny down below. He looked out and realized he could see the entire Las Vegas valley. Nearby, to the east, was Sunrise mountain, red against the blue of the sky. To the west was Mount Charleston with long stretches of desert at its base. He could see the Vegas Strip, the only buildings of any size in the valley, and thought how amazing it would be to see it from up here at night, when all of the lights were blazing.
“You’re too high!” one of the girls called, and he thought it was Lily.
“You’re going to fall and break your back!” the other sister yelled, and this time he was sure it was Poppy.
“Yeah, you’re going to fall and break your back!”
“You’re just jealous,” he called back. He rested a few more minutes, enjoying the view, then started back down. He didn’t know what happened, but a branch he reached for wasn’t where he thought it was and he felt himself slip. He reached wildly for another, but it seemed to sway out of his reach. He hit several branches on his way down, scraping skin from his side and bending his arm painfully as he grabbed frantically for something, anything to stop his fall. He thought he had saved himself, but he couldn’t keep his grip and fell, back first, onto a branch below. He heard a hollow crunch before he hit his head and passed out.
He spent the next six months on the couch, recovering. The doctors told him he was lucky to survive; he could have been killed or paralyzed. If the break had been just a little higher, he would have spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. The neighbor had the tree cut down long before Jackson’s back healed, not that he would have tried to climb it again. He wasn’t sure he would ever climb another tree.
His brother in law, the father of Poppy and Lily, got transferred out of state soon after the accident. Before they left, the girls came for one last visit. While his parents walked his older sister and her husband out to the car with the younger kids, Poppy and Lily stood over him where he lay on the couch.
“I told you not to climb it,” Poppy said, her face inscrutable.
“We warned you,” Lily agreed.
Poppy leaned over him, adjusting his pillow, and looked into his eyes. Hers were a pale blue with a ring of yellow at the center. How had he never noticed that before? She studied him for a long moment and then whispered in his ear.
“Never call me an idiot again.”
She smiled and he shivered, his broken back stiffening.
She gave him a swift kiss on the forehead and she was gone, Lily trailing behind her.
He never crossed them again.
This is a very fictionalized version of a true story. My two older sisters saw my uncle, who was just a few years older than they were, climbing the neighbor’s tree. They told him to climb down or he’d fall out and break his back. He did fall and he did break his back and he spent the next six months or so flat on his family’s couch, recovering.
I don’t think my actual sisters goaded him into it and I’m relatively sure they didn’t use any witchy powers to cause the fall, but the story always gave me a bit of a shiver, and I wanted to share that with you.