Axl gripped the branches of the fifty foot pine tree, grasping the rough bark harder and harder as he ascended further. Fear threatened to paralyze his muscles and stop his climb, but Axl managed to ignore the clenching terror. Laren was probably already at the top of her tree, waiting for Axl to come into view so she could taunt him with her rejoicing.
It’s okay, Axl told himself, sometimes you have to let girls win. Especially if they’re your friends.
Axl looked down, and the distance between him and the ground gaped, bigger than he had thought possible. A knot was growing in his throat, and he gulped to make it disappear. Why had he let Laren convince him to climb these trees?
He realized that he had frozen, and resumed his climb, tentatively moving higher as the branches grew thinner. Painstakingly aware of his trembling knees, Axl tried to slow his rapid breathing. He could do this.
At last he reached the top of the tree, hugging the now-thin trunk in relief. He had made it. Looking around, Axl realized that he had been wrong: Laren wasn’t rubbing her triumph in his face. He hadn’t gotten to the top first, had he? Which of the surrounding trees was Laren’s? Nervousness crawled uncomfortably in his belly, mixing with his vertigo to make an unpleasant mess of fear.
With a flush of relief Axl spotted her at the top of another tree, sitting with her back turned toward him.
“Laren?” His voice trembled and he said it quietly. He was going to try to say it louder, but Laren turned and beamed at him.
“Isn’t this fun?” She gestured at all the trees around them.
Climbing the trees? No, this had never been fun. Axl shook his head.
A gust of wind brushed over the forest, shaking the leaves on the trees. Axl hugged the trunk with renewed fear.
“I—” Axl swallowed. “I want to get down.” This time he managed to speak louder.
Laren looked at him like he was crazy.
“Get down? We’ve only been up here for a couple minutes. Besides, we haven’t found the tallest tree yet.”
Oh, yeah. That was why she had made him climb trees with her. Observing the height of his tree, he compared it to Laren’s. His was taller.
“Mine is taller. Can we climb down now?”
Laren compared their trees.
“Curses,” she said. “So it is.” Her eyes wandered to the tops of all the trees nearby. She bounced in her tree, shaking the top branches, and Axl cringed. She pointed to another tree, almost squealing in her excitement.
“That one is huge!”
Axl looked where she was pointing. It was a huge tree.
Laren was already analyzing the path up the giant tree, making sure the branches were close enough for her to climb. It met her approval, and she bounced in the branches again.
“I’ll race you down!” Laren slid off the branch, sliding down through the dense pine before Axl could even start his descent. Shaking his head, Axl started climbing down, careful to find solid footing on each branch before trusting his weight to it.
“I’m only ten,” Axl muttered to himself. “I don’t want to die falling from a tree.”
The climb down was faster, and relief filled Axl as his feet landed on the soft soil of the forest floor. Laren stood at the foot of the tall tree, looking at the lowest branches.
Half of the pine tree looked dead, thin brown branches drooping leafless from the stocky trunk. The other half looked normal, with normal bunches of normal needles
Laren jumped, swinging for a moment as her feet kicked and scraped at the rough trunk. Her shoes found purchase and she carefully balanced on a branch as she turned to speak.
“This one isn't a race,” she said lightly. “I just want to see the sunset from the top of the tallest tree.” She smiled, and the annoyance he had felt towards her faded.
“Okay,” Axl consented.
She reached a hand down and braced herself against the branch as she pulled him up. They started climbing up, and Axl found that he wasn't as nervous climbing with Laren.
These branches were much closer than the other tree's, which made him feel more secure. Maybe if he fell the branches would catch him. This tree was older and taller, though Axl couldn't tell from inside how tall it really was. Sap clung to his fingers and clothes as they brushed against the sticky branches. The peeling bark pricked Axl’s palms, but he had known Laren long enough to be used to bark. She climbed trees all the time.
Laren was silent as they climbed, except for an occasional grunt or mutter, which was only ever the case when she was in trees. As Axl looked at her, he saw a clump of sap tangling her hair. He combed a hand through his hair self-consciously, regretting it as his hand caught in multiple sappy gnarls. Laren was the one with long hair and she was climbing ahead of Axl. How had her hair stayed so clean?
Axl looked down. Vertigo swept through him, and the world tilted. Shaken, Axl turned his gaze upwards and forced himself to follow Laren, grabbing the same branches as her, always avoiding the dead side where the wood was brittle. It was a good thing they weren't racing, because Laren would have been winning. Again.
The branches started thinning, growing more wiry. Eventually Laren stopped to make herself comfortable. Axl moved up next to her, and she moved aside, shifting to sit on a dead branch. It was a thicker branch, holding her weight. It was straight like all the other branches, but it didn't have the flexibility of the others, the wet greenness of a living plant. It didn't seem comfortable, and Axl felt slightly guilty for letting her sit there. A little twinge.
She looked happy, though, and Laren always looked comfortable in a tree, so Axl let the guilt sink to the back of his thoughts. The sun was just starting to fall behind the tree-covered hills, and the sky was a shade of purple with shreds of red and pink pasted across the horizon. There were no clouds, and Axl was a little disappointed, but he knew Laren liked cloudless skies.
She was just sitting there, staring at the brilliant sun.
The birds were quiet, and there was no wind to make Axl nervous. Their tree was shrouded in a wonderful stillness with just the two of them. Axl felt giddy, though it could have been his fear of heights making his stomach flutter. In the moment, the height hardly bothered Axl.
Next to him, Laren spoke, filling the stillness with quiet words.
“This is the tallest tree.” She looked perfectly content.
Axl looked around again, and he could see trees that probably reached higher than theirs, but he didn't see a reason to point them out.
“Axl, why are you so afraid of heights?”
The question took him by surprise.
“I—I think it's that if I fall, I can't catch myself. My light isn't grown yet—I can't fly.”
Laren nodded, understanding.
“I'm more afraid of flying than climbing trees.” She said it like a confession. “Here there are things to grab, physical things to save me, and I don't really need wings to go places. To be up here.”
Axl didn't relate, and the idea of being scared of flying whirled through his head as he tried to comprehend it.
“I'm a little scared to learn to fly.” Laren sounded so small, and when Axl looked she seemed small, frightened. Axl didn’t know what to say so he didn’t say anything.
“More than a little, I guess.” Her voice trembled as she released a tense breath. Axl felt a pang of sympathy.
“Remember, we’re the same age,” Axl said comfortingly, “I’ll be there when you’re learning.”
Laren met his eyes and he saw hope in them.
“I promise.” Axl looked over the trees at the horizon, staring at the brilliant smudge that was the sun. “We’ll learn to fly together.”
They sat there and watched the sun set. A shadow fell over the forest, replacing warmth with a shivering, uneasy chill. Axl wanted to get home. Gripping a branch above him, he slid down to one of the thicker branches. Looking down, Axl saw that there were too many branches to let him fall very far. A boost of confidence shot through him.
“Laren,” Axl said quickly, “Race you down!”
Axl sped his descent, going faster than he ever had before. His normal fear was dimmer, for some reason, and he slid down through the top branches faster than Laren. Maybe he could beat her this time!
A crack sounded in the evening, like dead wood splitting.
Laren’s scream split the air.
Axl’s world changed.
The darkness of Axl's bedroom matched the worry crawling in his stomach. It was like a living creature, coiling tighter and tighter, making Axl sick. He wished he could disappear, vanishing into a place where he could forget the terror of Laren's scream, the snapping of the brittle branches as she fell—
Laren had been carried away, bloody and unconscious, as soon as Axl had found help. She had looked dead in the man’s arms, bloody scratches covering her face, one arm bent at an impossible angle.
Axl had been in shock, and once his mother had managed to calm him, he let her put him in his bed. He had given up on sleep after laying there for what felt like an eternity. He couldn't forget.
The longer he lay awake, the more his mind screamed at him, guilt and pain and horror. It’s your fault!
It was true. If Axl hadn't started a race she might not be lying half-dead aboard a train headed for a city with better healers. She might be at her home, in her bed, sleeping. Then waking up to another day—a normal day! She could climb more trees and they would never race again.
But she was gone.
Raw pain twisted in Axl’s gut, pricking his eyes with tears of frustration and guilt. He gasped in pain, and a quiet sob sounded in the silent room.
Axl's throat burned, and his swollen eyes made his head ache. He needed water. Maybe water would help him sleep.
Axl slid his feet out of here bed, feeling the grain of the wooden floor under his skin. He walked to his door, trying to open it twice before remembering that he had locked it earlier, to keep anyone from trying to talk to him. He unlocked the door.
As Axl made his way to the kitchen, he heard voices coming from the dark kitchen.
“—he deserves to know.” It was his mother talking, probably sitting at the table.
“And we’ll tell him.” Axl’s father. “In a week or so. Once the pain has faded.”
The pain will never fade.
“I think he should know the full extent of her injuries, that way there won’t be any more pain than necessary.” There was a long pause. “Let’s just get it over with. Tomorrow morning?”
His father sighed.
“But how will he take it? Her light is fractured, that’s not something healers can fix easily—if at all.”
Her light was broken? Axl closed his eyes and felt for his own. Whenever he closed his eyes and felt, he could see it in the darkness of his closed eyelids: A pinprick of green light. He imagined Laren’s golden light, broken and scattered around in the darkness.
Axl felt tears well up in his closed eyes, and he suppressed another sob. From the kitchen, his mother spoke.
“I don’t know how he’ll take it, but she was his best friend. The sooner we tell him the sooner he will heal.” She was pleading now, Axl could hear it in her voice.
She was his best friend.
Axl’s parents didn’t say any more.
Axl returned to his room, ignoring his thirst as he climbed into his bed.
Again, Axl turned inward, looking at his bright little prick of light. It was the right size for his age, but it would grow bigger, until it gave him wings to fly.
Right now flying was the last thing he wanted to do.
Author Notes: PLEASE, if you can, leave a review. Rate this if you liked it, that way more people can read it. I love feedback, even negative feedback! Also, critique my art if you want.