It was the summer after eighth grade and we were bored. The afternoon’s heavy air kept us from working on our tree fort, which was made of wooden boards that we stole from a construction sight down the road with my father’s wheelbarrow. New houses were being built in the neighborhood, and we didn’t want them there anyway. All the places we played manhunt or paintball in on the weekends and in the summers were being replaced with fancy homes and long driveways. It only made sense to slow down the process by stealing the workers’ slabs of wood when they went to grab lunch from the deli around the corner. Every day they went at the same time, like clockwork, and we were teenage geniuses.
Our tree fort leaned against a thick tree trunk, tucked in the middle of the green woods behind my house in the suburbs outside of New York City. It was the only woods left in our little town, from what I could see. We sat, sweating on the crooked benches made from slabs of wood. My twin brother Cory, and our neighbors, Evan and Rachel, who were siblings, spoke about the upcoming school year as I doodled on the uneven walls around us with a black marker. Like me, Cory and Evan were going into ninth grade, and Rachel was going into seventh.
Evan glanced over at me a few times before shouting, “What are you doing?” He folded his fat arms and his lips grew into a smirk.
I slammed a hand over my creation. “You can’t see it yet.”
“You know I’m just going to scribble over it like I did to the rest of your stupid drawings,” Cory said. We locked eyes of the same shade of brown. “You’re making the fort look stupid.”
“I bet it’s another drawing of Dylan.” Rachel grinned at me as she tied her frizzy hair up with a rubber band.
“No!” I threw my hands into the air, revealing my masterpiece.
“What did I tell you?” Rachel said proudly.
“I don’t get why you like that kid anyway,” Evan laughed. “He doesn’t shower.”
“I don’t like him!” I stamped a sneaker into the dirt.
“Just admit it,” Cory said.
“Just say it, Leah. Then you can stop drawing all of your Dylan fantasies all over the fort,” my brother said, wiping his forehead.
“It’s not a Dylan drawing this time! And the only reason I drew Dylan before is because he’s fun to draw.”
Evan began making kissing sounds and I felt the color of embarrassment make its way across my face.
I did like Dylan. I liked him too much. He lived on our block and he usually hung out with us, but that day he wasn’t home when the four of us rode our bikes to his house. His father told us that he was out shopping with his mother. On the ride back to the woods, Evan made jokes that they were shopping for clothes. Dylan often wore the same outfits regularly, and it was well known around school that he “didn’t shower.” I cherished every moment with him, though. We had the same sense of humor and when we were together, it was difficult to talk because we couldn’t stop laughing. I adored him, but kept it to myself because I didn’t want to be made fun of by the entire junior high school.
“Let’s do something. I’m bored,” Cory said as he got to his feet.
“Yeah!” I agreed, wanting to change the subject.
“We should go on a bike ride to the drug store. I need to pick up some pictures from my graduation anyway,” Rachel said as she slipped her chunky feet into her orange flip flops.
“Better than sitting around here talking about Dylan,” Evan said.
Evan and I bickered about Dylan. I told him that I had no feelings for him, and he nodded his brown, shaved head and repeated, “Sure you don’t.” We continued our argument as we followed Cory and Rachel out of the fort and down the path to fetch our bikes from my driveway.
We rode our bikes down the sidewalk. Cory and Evan in front, Rachel and I behind them. Rachel told me all about her sixth grade graduation and how she wished her hair was longer like mine was. Evan and Cory rambled on about how girls have pointless conversations, turning their heads back once in a while to make faces at us.
We waited at the corner, lined up beside one another for the traffic light to turn red. I noticed that we were in height order by looking at our shadows on the concrete. Cory, Evan, me, Rachel. We saw the cars slow down, so we followed Cory into the street, over the yellow dashes, and onto the sidewalk that led to the shopping center.
We placed our bikes against the brick wall splattered with graffiti and made our way inside the drug store. We were welcomed by a flush of cool air, the smell of plastic pool floats, and an advertisement on the radio about the importance of sunblock. Evan and Cory made their way down the stationary aisle, laughing about something they wouldn’t tell me and Rachel, who were headed to the photo counter.
After paying for the pictures, three of the dollars being made up of quarters, Rachel and I walked slowly down an aisle as we focused on the images of her graduation. We talked about how nice her dress was and how awkward Evan looked in the pictures that he was in. When we heard the obnoxious laughter of our brothers in the distance, Rachel slid her photos back into the envelope and we went to investigate.
We discovered them in aisle 11, standing in front of a wall of laxatives. Evan held a blue and white box of maximum strength ex-lax in his sticky hands and was reading aloud what was printed on the box. Cory was laughing so hard that he was bent over, unable to stand up straight. Rachel and I exchanged smiles and began laughing too.
“For gentle, dependable overnight relief.” Evan gasped for air.
“We have to do it, Evan, we have to,” Cory said as he bent over in the aisle, palms cupping his knobby knees.
“Do what?” I asked, grabbing a box of ex-lax myself to read what else was written on the back.
“Leah!” Evan pointed his blue and white box at me, smiling so much that his chunky cheeks engulfed his eyes. “You don’t like Dylan, right?”
I rolled my eyes. “No, Evan.”
“Do you want to prove it?”
“I already told you!”
“But you gotta prove it,” Cory said as he stood up and wiped his eyes.
“What would you like me to do that will prove that I don’t like him?”
“When we hang out with him later, you’re putting some of this in his drink,” Evan said.
The boys howled with laughter. The store’s assistant manager circled around the aisle with his hands tied behind his back and he glared at us from behind his thin rimmed glasses.
I stared at the box in Evan’s hand. In an effort to save myself, I said, “Fine, I’ll do it.”
Evan and Cory looked at each other, then tilted their heads back and laughed.
“I gotta see this,” Rachel said, her blue and yellow braces glimmered.
We all pitched in for the eight dollar box of ex-lax and cackled the entire ride home as we imitated what Dylan would look like when the laxatives took effect.
The colors of the sky twisted into each other as the sun fell into the clouds. The crickets chattered and the lightning bugs swayed through the humidity. Cory, Evan, Rachel, and I sat around the fire pit in the dirt a few feet in front of the tree fort as we waited for Dylan to show up. I was becoming anxious as I sat there scratching at my moist legs, waiting to get the deed over with. The cups of soda were set up in my kitchen, and Cory put a pen mark on Dylan’s plastic cup so that we knew which was the one that contained a handful of crushed ex-lax pills. It was my job to offer the drinks and get them a few minutes after Dylan arrived, and it was his favorite. Orange soda. Dylan never turned down orange soda.
I was the first one to see Dylan walking around the sappy trees in the distance. When the others realized, they all smirked at each other. I knew what was about to happen was wrong. There were too many pills in there. I would feel horrible if I let it happen. But I wanted to protect my 14-year-old self from humiliation. Nobody needed to know that I was in love with the kid who didn’t shower.
“Dylan!” I said and waved at him. He looked down at me in his navy blue sweatshirt with yellow interior, the one he always wore when it was chilly outside.
“Hey Leah.” He looked around. “What’s up, Evan? Hey Rachel, hey Cory,” he said. He fist-bumped everyone but me before sitting down.
The next couple of minutes we spoke about how strange it was because it was so chilly out for a July night. The boys talked about baseball and for a few seconds I hoped they might have forgotten about what was supposed to occur that night. Then I saw Evan smile at me. Without meaning to, I shook my head while mouthing “no.” His jaw dropped and he held his hands out. I shook my head again. Rachel began to giggle. Dylan’s eyes wandered over to us from his and Cory’s baseball conversation. Cory kept a straight face and tried his best to keep him focused on him and not us.
Rachel and I started laughing uncontrollably, mainly because of how pissed off Evan looked. Dylan arched his eyebrows and turned to us, hands in his sweatshirt’s front pocket.
“What are you losers laughing at?”
“You’re gonna be the loser soon,” Rachel said.
“Rachel!” Evan shouted.
“What are you guys doing?” Dylan asked as he looked from me to Rachel.
“You never laugh out of nowhere?” I tried to cover up our mistake.
“Who’s thirsty?” Evan asked.
“I am,” Cory answered. “Anyone else want something to drink?”
Cory and Evan stood up.
“Yeah, get me some orange soda,” Rachel said as she bit her lip in an attempt to hide her smile.
“Leah?” Evan’s eyes met mine.
I stared at him for a few seconds before I responded. “Nah.”
Evan turned to Dylan. “We’re gonna go get something to drink. Want anything?”
Dylan shrugged. “Hey, you said orange soda.”
Cory, Evan, and Rachel laughed. Dylan thought they were laughing with him.
Evan and Cory whispered and stumbled around in the dark woods as they made their way back to my house.
Dylan, Rachel, and I talked about the stars and thought we found the Little Dipper as we waited for Evan and Cory’s return.
I got to my feet when I heard the back gate shut.
Rachel turned her head away from Evan and Cory when she saw them through the trees so that she wouldn’t crack up. When they came close enough, I could see the pen mark on the plastic cup in Evan’s hand.
“This orange soda tastes weird, but it’s a good weird,” Evan said after a gulp of his drink. He handed a cup to Dylan. “Maybe it’s going flat.”
“Yo, there’s no such thing as bad orange soda,” Dylan said. He looked inside his cup.
Cory sat next to Rachel, and the two of them drank from their cups.
Cory swished his soda around in his mouth before he swallowed. “It’s fine.”
Rachel looked at the liquid that floated in the plastic cup in her hands. “This does taste different. Wow. Maybe it’s just us?” She looked at each of us. “Try it, Dyl.” She knew to play along with the guys.
Before Dylan raised the cup to his lips, I leaned over and swatted at it, spilling it in his lap. Rachel had a laughing fit, Evan’s jaw hung open, and Cory stared, surprised.
Dylan leaped up. His angry hazel eyes pierced into mine. “The hell did you do that for?”
I rested my chin in the palm of my hand and shrugged. “Just saving your ass.”