The beach house was on a small rise, overlooking the bay. A long lawn flowed down from the wooden porch, finishing at the beach and our jetty, jutting into the sea. Pohutakawa trees fringed the beach, huge and old, their twisted limbs reaching toward the ocean. If we went to the beach house early, around Christmas time, the trees would be covered with delicate red flowers, filament-like fronds dropping to the sand like strands of scarlet hair and draping across the mussel-encrusted rocks. I collected handfuls of the stuff, making crimson nests for whatever treasures I uncovered on the beach, leaving soft beds for the crickets and mice to sleep in.
That summer we did not get there in time for the flowers, and the beach was no longer littered with the bright red strings. As we wandered the tide-line, digging with our feet for pipis buried in the sand, I could see my brothers studying the line of thick branches that stretched above us.
“There,” Danny, the oldest said, pointing towards a huge tree with a stick he’d been using like a cane. “That would be the place. You see how there are two branches that run almost parallel?”
“They’re not too far apart, are they?” Luke squinted up at the tree Danny indicated. They were almost the same height that year, the two years between Danny’s eighteen and Luke’s sixteen no longer obvious.
“Naw. It’ll be easy. Just as long as we get big enough boards.” Danny climbed onto the bank and clambered along the knotty trunk of the tree until he reached the place he’d shown us, standing with one foot on each branch as he measured the distance between them.
Shaun and Marty, easily bored when not actually doing something, turned away and returned to the water, the pipi bucket between them as they dug for the shellfish. I stayed with the older boys and glanced toward the others each time I heard a shout or giggle coming from their direction.
“You see,” Danny explained, gesturing with his hands. “We can lay the boards here. “ He pulled a felt-tip pen from the pocket of his cut-offs and marked the places with a thick black line. On the dark bark it barely showed, but I knew it was enough for him.
“Will that be big enough?” Luke reached up and grabbed the branch Danny stood on, swinging himself up so that he stood next to him. “And will the branches be strong enough to hold that kind of weight?” I stood beneath the leafy limbs, staring up at my brothers in admiration. I wanted to be tall enough to touch the arching branches, strong enough to swing myself into the foliage as Luke had done.
“Here.” Luke saw me watching and leaned down, stretching his arm out to me. I grasped his hand and allowed him to pull me up into the canopy.
It was a different world up there. The leaves were thick, reducing the sunlight to a dappled glow. The sea spread before us in a patchwork design, this square green, the next sparkling sapphire blue. I could see Shaun and Marty, fighting now, rolling in the packed sand by the water’s edge, the red plastic bucket tilted sideways, the pipis already digging themselves back into their sandy beds.
“Hey!” I called. “You’re losing our dinner!” Shaun, who had managed to pin Marty to the ground, looked up, squinting into the trees to find me. I felt a thrill of excitement when I realized he couldn’t.
The next morning all five of us were in the garage. Danny and Luke had already dragged a pile of boards down to the beach and we were trawling my father’s workbench for nails and tools.
“Are these big enough?” Marty asked, holding up a jar of tacks with thick, heavy heads.
“Dumbass!” Shaun snorted. Since turning thirteen two weeks earlier, he had lorded his superiority over Marty who would not be twelve for another three months. “Look at them! Do they look big enough to get through one of those boards?”
Marty opened the jar and pulled one out, measuring it against his thumb. “I guess not. But I’m not a dumbass, you dick-weed!” He gave Shaun a shove, taking him by surprise so he stumbled back into the gardening tools hanging from hooks on the wall. A spade fell to the ground with a clang.
“Cut it out, dinks!” Danny whirled around with a murderous look in his eyes. “If you can’t be nice, you’re not going to be a part of this, okay? Now, put that shovel back where it came from. We don’t want Dad to know we’ve been in here.”
By the time we found everything we thought we might need, the sun was climbing in the sky. I felt sweat trickling between my shoulder blades as we made our way to the beach. The tide was in, the beach a mere strip of sand beneath the overhanging canopy of trees.
“Okay.” Danny stopped by the pile of lumber and studied us like a general surveying his troops. “Luke, you go into the tree. I’ll pass the boards up to you. Shaun, you go up too and help him lay them straight. Marty, I’ll need you to help me down here. Some of these boards are pretty heavy.”
“What about me?” I asked as they all started moving into their designated positions. “What do I do?”
“Stay out of the way?” Shaun said hopefully.
“No,” Luke, always my saviour, broke in. “You come up and help us. You can hold the boards together while we nail them down.”
“Great!” I heard Marty mutter as I allowed Luke to drag me into the tree. “It’s going to be a complete disaster now.” I made a face, sticking my tongue out at him through the leafy veil that hid me from view.
It took longer than we expected to haul the boards into the tree. Within half an hour all my brothers had taken their shirts off and hung them from the ends of branches to flutter like irregular flags. I perched in the v-shaped croft between two thick limbs and watched them work. Occasionally Luke called me down to weight an uncooperative board, but for the most part, I was left alone.
“That’s enough,” Luke called, pulling a long board from Danny’s shoulders. Muscles corded his forearms as he struggled to get it over a knot in the branch. Shaun leaned across and wiggled the end until it came free.
“Good work!” Danny pulled himself into the tree and inspected what we’d done, jumping on the uneven platform we’d nailed together. “Take a break, everyone.”
We sprawled across the splintery boards, sweaty and tired from the morning’s hard labour. Yet there was something satisfying about lying there, knowing that we were only able to be there by virtue of the work we’d done.
“After lunch, let’s see what we can do about walls!” Danny’s enthusiasm was infectious, and despite our exhaustion, we all knew we’d be back in the afternoon for more.
It took almost a week for the tree house to be finished. By the third day Shaun and Marty lost interest in the project and drifted away to fish off the jetty or play on the beach. They returned sporadically to see the progress we’d made, sometimes pitching in for an hour or so before running off to do their own thing.
“We don’t need them,” Luke told me as I held the boards for him to saw to the right size for the roof. “And when it’s done, it’ll be our place, not theirs.” I wanted to believe him, but had seen too many times how those two could take over things I thought were my own.
“When we’re done,” Danny added, “let’s spend the night out here. We can bring sleeping bags and camp.”
“Me too?” My neck almost broke from my head whipping this way and that, trying to see each of them at the same time.
“You too,” Luke agreed. “You haven’t disappeared off to go fishing while we do all the work, have you?” I felt a smile spread across my face then, a warm feeling digging all the way into my gut.
We nailed the final board in place on Thursday afternoon. It was a hot and windless day and all three of us dripped sweat by the time we dropped from the branches to the sand below.
“Last one in is a rotten egg!” Danny yelled, hurling himself down the beach and plunging into the sea. Luke and I followed, not even pausing as the cold sent shocks up our legs. I belly-flopped into the water next to Danny, sending a tidal wave of spray into his face. He had barely recovered from this assault when Luke dove in next to him, grabbing his legs and dragging him under. Danny was bigger than Luke though, and managed to struggle his way back to the surface. He grasped Luke by the shoulders and ducked him, holding him under until he squirmed. On the dock, Shaun and Marty saw us playing and dropped their fishing things, leaping from the end of the jetty to swim over and join in.
We talked about our plans over dinner, deciding what we needed to take with us.
“Cool,” Shaun said.
“You’re not coming!” I blurted out. “Just me and Luke and Danny!”
“That’s not fair!” Marty cried. “We helped too! I’m gonna tell Dad if you don’t let us…”
“It’ll be squishy, but there’s enough room for everyone,” Luke said, placating them. I scowled at Luke. Being allowed to do something with just him and Danny was a privilege, and one I was rarely afforded. I’d been looking forward to it. And here were Shaun and Marty, barging in as usual. I hated them then, the hatred tasting hot and coppery in my throat.
In the calm twilight we traipsed down to the beach, sleeping bags, torches and supplies tucked under our arms. I was still sulking, furious that Shaun and Marty were being included. But once we got to the tree house and began settling ourselves for the night, my black mood lifted. It was hard to be grumpy in that place. The five sleeping bags just fit across the floor. I wriggled into mine, between Luke and Shaun, and sat up. Through the doorway we could see the bay, a full moon rising up over the water like a giant buttery balloon. For a long time nobody spoke, all five of us mesmerized by the beauty of the night sky.
We played cards by torchlight, gorged ourselves on chocolate biscuits Danny had pilfered from the pantry and, as the moon reached its high point in the sky, we settled down in our sleeping bags and listened to the endless slapping of the waves against the shore. I felt content as I lay there, warm and snug, Luke’s back pressed against mine. Shaun and Marty whispered ghost stories into the darkness, each one trying to scare the other, neither remembering the other didn’t have the sense to be scared. I ignored them and curled up to go to sleep.
I awoke with a start, unsure where I was. Pale moonlight filtered through the chinks in the boards, painting stripes across my brothers’ sleeping faces. I needed to pee. I slid out of my sleeping bag and climbed to my feet, taking care not to step on Shaun who was sprawled out next to me. As I stepped onto the branches that spread over the beach and hunted for the knotted rope we’d tied on for a ladder, something flew out of the tree above me. It screeched as it flapped by, the sound loud and haunting. I stepped back, away from the wind that whistled by my head from its wings, and stumbled on the dew-slick bark. I struggled to keep my balance, but couldn’t, my feet skidding out from beneath me. As I fell, I tried to scream, but my voice seemed trapped in my throat.
The beach flew up at me. I tried again to cry out, but there wasn’t time. I found myself lying on the sand, half draped across one of the mussel-furred rocks that dotted this end of the beach. For a long moment I thought I was okay, but then the moon slid out from behind a cloud and I caught sight of my leg, twisted at an impossible angle over the rock.
The pain hit me, huge and overwhelming.
My voice came back from wherever it had been hiding and I screamed, a ragged sound that shattered the peace of the night. I heard scrambling from above me and looked up to see Luke peering down at me, his eyes wide and frightened.
“Oh, Jesus!” he breathed. “Danny! Guys! Come quickly!” He leaped down from the tree and was by my side in a second. The moon was swept behind a cloud again, plunging us into oppressive darkness.
“Danny!” Luke cried again. “Get down here. Now!” Tears ran down my face, pooling in my ears and trickling down my neck under the collar of my t-shirt. I could hear a strange moaning sound and realized it was me. Luke lifted my head so it rested on his knees, his hand huge and gentle on my head as he stroked my hair.
Danny slid out of the tree just as the moon slipped out from behind the cloud. He stared at me in the cold light, Shaun and Marty right behind him.
“Ewww. Gross!” I heard Shaun exclaim. “Is that bone?” Danny turned and ran up to the house. I raised my head to look at my leg in the moonlight, at the dull gleam of bone poking from my shin. Blood ran down in rivulets, sticky and warm against my thigh. I could hear my breath coming in short gasps, each one sending the pain ratcheting further through me until I thought there was no way I could bear it.
Luke shifted in the sand and the bolt of pain that shot through me made everything go grey for a while. I could hear what was going on, just at a distance, as if I were underwater. I was aware of people running around me, of voices, some shouting, some talking in a more normal tone. And through it all, I was aware of Luke’s hand on my head. Even when the grey faded to black.
It was still there when I woke up, red lights whirling around the edges of my vision. I blinked, unable to understand what had happened, where I was. Luke crouched beside me, his hand still resting on my head. His eyes were huge in his too-pale face.
“You’re going to be okay,” he assured me, the smile he tried to give me ghastly in his cheese-coloured face.
“You’re going to be okay,” was a constant refrain the rest of that summer, repeated after the surgeries that put my leg back together with a network of plates and pins; repeated again during the three weeks of traction.
“Just think,” Luke said, sitting by me when I woke from the first operation. “You’ve got a bionic leg now. It’ll be way stronger than a regular one.” I tried to smile, the painkillers making me feel thick and heavy. They did little to mask the agony that burned through my leg, but made my tongue leaden so I couldn’t complain about it.
When I was finally released from the hospital, I spent the rest of the summer trapped in the house, the cast on my leg making the beach impossible. My brothers took turns staying with me, playing endless card games while they threw longing looks at the sun dancing on the water below. I hated their pity, the way their eyes slid across my cast as they ran out into the fresh air. I listened to them talking about their days, jealousy seething within my chest as I heard about fishing and climbing on the rocks, of hiding out in the cool leafy privacy of the tree house.
By the next summer, the tree house was gone. A storm had ripped the branches it rested on away. I trailed after Danny as we made our way down the beach, waiting for him to suggest a place to build another. But that next summer had its own theme, something completely different. I stood beneath the place our tree house had been, seeing the scarred mark where the branches had splintered away, still obvious but fading now, dulling to the same shade as the surrounding trees. I rubbed at the scar on my leg, long and puckered but faded from its initial angry red and felt an affinity with it. The tree house had left its mark on us both. Yet we were still standing. Scarred survivors.