“Abby, why can’t we just play checkers or something? Why do we have to crawl around an insect-infested tree?”
His panting breaths irritated me. “I told you I’d play chess with you.” I shrugged and stretched up to the next branch.
He snorted. “No, you cheat. You say the king isn’t important and I must capture the queen.”
A smile sneaked across my face. “He is only the prince regent.” I glanced down. “And hurry up, we are almost there.” I straightened and got hold of the next branch, dangling with just my toes on the lower limb.
“Let go, you oaf,” I squeaked out. My finger muscles screamed and panic rose.
“Can’t,” he yelled, “I’ll fall.”
“I can’t hold us,” I puffed. Flecks of brown bark floated down into my mouth. The cough came automatically and my fingers slipped off. My screech dropped into the air along with my body until it snapped to a halt.
My hands flew to his and tried to pry his hand away. “Let go,
“Can’t. You’ll drop like a stone.” He sounded breathless, like he was in pain. His hand tightened over my chest. Little tingles of sensation shivered through my body. I gritted my teeth. “Well move your hand, will you, for crying out loud?”
He groaned. “Just shut it and don’t move, Abby, I beg you.” He shifted under me. “I’m lucky I’m not talking like a girl. Just wait until the pain goes away.”
Against my better judgment, I held still, pressed against him with his hand clutching where no boy should clutch without my express permission. We both panted through our fear and I remembered when my little brother fell on the bar of his bike, straddling it like a bucking bronco. He cried.
After a couple minutes his hand moved, cupping me. Suspended twenty feet in the air, it felt curiously nice, not that I’d ever tell him that. He felt warm and solid behind me, like the trunk of the tree, only not rough. He probably didn’t know where his hand was because of his pain, so I didn’t say anything. And then he nuzzled my ear and his warm breath disturbed my hair. “Maybe you aren’t so bad after all, Abby.”
I drove my elbow back and nailed him in the side, twisting my body enough to latch onto the branch as he dropped me. “Don’t even think about it
But as I caught hold of the lower branch, I wondered if he wasn’t so bad either.