"Here we are then," said Mother happily, at the same time tipping the cab, hoisting our luggage out of the trunk, and brushing her hair aside impatiently. "Go on in and set yourself up, darling . . . I'll be a minute."
I nodded, then skipped up to the door; it looked about to fall off its rusting hinges. Pausing for a minute, I grasped the cool metal doorknob as I glanced hurriedly around. The grass was a pleasant shade of green, patched in some places with a prairie yellow. To the far left, I spotted a small creek, chuckling as though sharing a private joke with itself. There were bushes lining our new home, if you could call it new. The white paint was peeling, and most windows had only one green shutter (I wondered idly where the others were). And then there were the trees. Scattered haphazardly among flower beds and grasses, they seemed so energetic and alive I expected them to pull up their roots and run joyously down the twisting, dusty dirt path.
Shaking myself, I turned the doorknob and stepped into the damp, refreshing air of the house. The wooden boards underfoot creaked as I moved slowly to my new bedroom. The bed had been made up in lavender sheets; in the far corner stood a sturdy desk and, next to it, an empty bookshelf. A slight breeze ruffled the drapes by the window, and I turned my attention to it. Walking over, I leaned over the windowsill and found myself . . . staring into the eyes of a boy. For some reason, I was not in the least surprised, and could not tear my gaze away from his eyes. They were wild, and mischievous, glowing greener than a thousand emeralds. His black hair was askew, flying in all directions, but somehow managing to leave his ears sticking straight out from his head, in plain sight. Quite unexpectedly, he grinned at me, wrinkling his already hilarious features into an absurd expression. I found myself grinning back—for some reason I liked him.
"What's your name?" he asked abruptly.
"Patricia," I replied. "OK, Patch," he said, grinning again.
"Well, what's your name?" I asked him, a little put out at my new nickname.
For no reason at all, we both broke into giggles, laughing so hard that Robbie almost fell off the windowsill. I laughed harder.
When at last we had quieted down, I asked him why he had been at my window.
"I heard tell someone was movin' in; I'm the curious type" . . . here he blushed . . . "so I thought I'd, y'know, check it out." I nodded slowly, accepting his explanation. We were quiet for a moment, until he said mischievously, "Y'know, if you push the window up more, you could jump out real easy. Not far to the ground." I caught his hint, smiled slowly, went up to the window and vaulted straight out, landing with a thud in some grass. Robbie laughed as I got up and brushed myself off; I scowled at him, and he tried to turn the laugh into a cough.
"Well, what now, Patch?" he asked.
"I dunno. I'm new here. Why don't you show me around?"
"Follow me," he replied, and dashed off toward the woods. I sighed, picked up my skirts, and hurried after.
* * *
By the end of the day, I was a complete mess. I had sap on my hands from climbing numerous trees, grass-stained knees, twigs and leaves in my hair from crawling through a secret passage of bushes Robbie had made, smudges on my skirt and bruises everywhere. It was painful to walk, even.
Mother took one look at me and started filling the bathtub with water. As I was attempting (unsuccessfully) to rub the grass stains off, I told her about my day. When I was finished, she nodded, then disappeared into the hallway. Presently she returned, holding a beaten-up pair of pants.
"I think it would be best, Patricia . . ."
"Patch," I corrected automatically.
"All right then, Patch. I believe it would be best for you to wear these" . . . holding up the pants . . . "from now on." She ruefully gazed at my ripped dress.
"OK, Mother," I said happily, wrapping a towel around myself and skipping off to my room. Quickly, I put on my favorite pajamas with clouds on them, then ran into the kitchen for a hurried dinner. Soon after I was in bed, with Mother kissing me goodnight.
"See you in the morning . . . Patch," she whispered.
I giggled as she left the room. Today had been the best day of my entire life. I had done so many things I never even knew I could do—but, more than that, I had made a true friend. In the city, I can't count on anyone for anything. But I knew I could trust Robbie.
* * *
I awoke the next morning to a .1. world wreathed in rosy shadows. I slipped out of bed, shivered in the cold air once or twice, and then practically jumped into my new pants. Not wanting to wake Mother, I lowered myself cautiously out of the window and then tiptoed away to meet Robbie at the creek.
When I arrived, he was making boats out of weeds and grass, then sending them on their way along the twisting water.
" 'ello," he greeted me, jumping to his feet, and before I could say anything, he ran off, yelling over his shoulder, "C'mere. I wanna show you something." Smiling to myself, I dashed after him.
It wasn't far. Just beyond the first few lines of trees, past an abandoned flower bed, and around three berry bushes was a very tall tree. Lichen covered it (along with ivy) from head to toe, and many branches were broken, or, if they were not, launching themselves in completely different directions.
Robbie turned to make sure I was still behind him, then began scrambling up the tree. I followed, grasping ivy and finding footholds on tufts of lichen. Soon I reached the top, and as I rubbed the sweat out of my eyes, my breath caught in my throat.
I was standing in a tree house! I could see no wooden boards, for ivy carpeted the entire floor.
Robbie turned and asked hopefully, "Do you like it?"
I giggled. "Robbie—I love it!" I exclaimed. Robbie grinned, blushing deep crimson. "I love it," I repeated.
* * *
From that day on, Robbie and I spent nearly all of our time in the tree house. We devised outrageous plans that never would have worked, we played games like Dragons and Goblins, or we pretended we were monkeys; during the night, I would sometimes sneak out of the house to help Robbie catch fireflies, and most days I came home soaked from water fights. But wherever we were, we felt drawn to the tree house. There was something about its leafy silence that always made us feel secure.
One day, when I came home (wet as usual—we had been trying to catch frogs in the creek), I noticed Mother packing her suitcase. Curious, I walked over and asked, "What are you doing?"
"I'm packing," she replied. "We leave tomorrow."
"What?" I gasped.
"This has been a nice vacation, but honey, we can't stay here forever. It's time we returned to the city."
"But . . ." I choked on a sob. Whirling, I ran to my room and threw myself on my bed, crying helplessly. Memories flashed behind my closed eyelids. Sunshine . . . tree house . . . Robbie. . . firefly. . . creek . . . forest . . . trees . . . Robbie. I finally cried myself to sleep.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of rain slipping down the windowpane. Unhappily, I dragged myself out of bed. Walking dejectedly over to the window, I leaned against it, my hands on the sill. Suddenly, I felt something under my thumb. Lifting up a small package, I carefully took the letter out from under the string. Opening it, I felt tears prick my eyes as I read these words:
Good-bye. I hope to see you soon. In the package is a ring I made for you. I hope you like it.
I ripped the tissue paper away from a small box, then carefully lifted the ring out. The band was made of ivy stems (probably from the tree house), and set in the top, glued on with sap, was a small purple pebble from the creek.
I let my tears fall again as I clutched the ring in my hand. How did Robbie know I would be leaving?
* * *
The train ride had been long and depressing. All I could think about was how much I was going to miss Robbie. He was the best friend I'd ever had—funny, thoughtful, generous, kind, trustworthy. I didn't know anyone like him, and I knew I never would.
The train whirred to a stop. Mother picked up her suitcase and started down the corridor toward the door. I followed, but as I stepped off the train I paused.
"Mother," I said.
"Yes, dear?" she replied.
"Can we go . . . back . . . sometime?"
"Of course, darling," she said, grinning. And I felt like the sun was shining and the birds were flying and the clouds were drifting—my heart seemed to laugh, and I felt happy for the first time that day. Smiling back at Mother, I slipped Robbie's ring onto my finger.
I'll be back, Robbie.
I'll be back.