“Can I … join?” Billy huffed as he bounded across the glade.
“Go home, Billy!” I shouted.
“But you … promised!” Billy was panting after his high-speed romp, “You said … if I found … your secret hide … hideout I could … join!”
“Get out of here you little twit!” Paul growled as he grabbed the scruff of Billy’s shirt, “We don’t want you here.”
Billy’s eyes welled up, “But, but …” the tears began to roll, leaving clean streaks across his dust covered cheeks.
“Crybabies aren’t allowed in our club,” Paul pushed Billy causing him to fall to the ground. “Just go home!”
“Yeah, no crybabies!” Eric laughed. Soon Paul, Sam and I were laughing, too.
Billy stood up and tried to wipe the grass stain from his new jeans. Dejection scrawled across his face as he turned to leave. “You didn’t need to be so rough with him,” I said. I didn’t feel like laughing anymore.
"Don't go soft on me, Rob." Paul muttered as he and Sam walked into cluster of trees near the center of the clearing.
"You should've never told him about the club!" Eric hissed as he jabbed his finger into my chest. We followed the others to the makeshift clubhouse.
The guys and I had hung out together in the group of trees for years, adding items as needed or more often as they became available. Soon it somewhat resembled a clubhouse, a veritable teenager's sanctuary. We had shared many happy times amongst the trees, but now I had betrayed my friends' trust.
My mother was rocking on the porch with her knitting when I got home later that afternoon, "Your brother is heartbroken." The scowl that crept over the top rim of her glasses stopped me dead in my tracks, "What happened?"
"Paul was just joshin'. Billy tried to get away and fell," my mind was whirring in high gear.
"I can launder the jeans," she folded her knitting into her lap. "A young boy's feelings aren't quite so easy."
"But Maw, he's such a pain!" I flailed my arms in exasperation; "Me 'n the guys just need a place to ourselves. Is that too much to ask?"
"Billy wants some time with his older brother. Is that too much to ask?" The sincerity of her voice sent a wave of guilt through my body, "You have a choice to make. What is really important to you?"
The next day Paul and the guys were already waiting by the trees when Billy and I strolled up. "What's he doin' here?" Paul barked.
"How 'bout we make him like an honorary member or somethin'?" I queried. The glower on the guys' faces gave me my answer. I walked Paul away from the group, "We got-a let him in or I won't be able to come here any more."
Paul glared at me for a moment, a depraved smile smeared crossed his face, "Let's have a little initiation." He turned and walked to Billy, "You want to join the club, right?" Billy nodded. "All you got-a do is climb that tree," he chuckled as he pointed to a tall maple.
Billy looked at me, his face wrenched with fear. "You don't have to do this, Billy," I told him as he trudged past me. He began to cry as he started his ascent. It took intense effort for him to reach a large branch about 25 feet up. He clung onto the branch, now sobbing uncontrollably, “C’mon, Paul! That’s high enough!” I lunged and grabbed Paul by the shoulder, “Can’t you see he’s scared!”
Paul swung his elbow and hit me in the nose, “Back off Rob! This is my club! … All the way, Billy … To the top!”
“No!” Anger coursed through my veins. I tackled Paul and pinned him, "Let him stop!" That’s when we heard it, a rustling of leaves and the horrible scream. I looked up as Billy hit the ground. "No! … Oh no, oh no, oh no, no, no!" I scrambled to my brother. The other boys stood and stared, "Go get help, please! … Hang in there, baby bro!" Sam turned and ran away from the trees. The fear and confusion on Billy's face faded into a blank gaze. Tears flooded down my face, "No, no, no! What did I do!"
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