“Whatever you do, no climbing any trees while I’m gone,” my mother had said before she left the house to go shopping. The simple warning had slipped out of her mouth, fallen to the floor, wiggled through the carpet, squeezed behind the TV set, crawled up the wall, wafted over my head out the window, and caught up with me thirty minutes later as I was shimmying up the largest oak tree in my neighborhood.
Dressed in my Spiderman suit—which were really pajamas with sleeves that no longer reached my wrists and tattered bottoms that extended just beyond my knees—I stopped just as I reached a broad, upwardly expanding limb. I watched in wonderment as Steven carefully eased himself away from the trunk, avoiding prickly branches as he neared the end of the limb. His Superman suit fit him perfectly, and the falling sun cast a phosphorescent glow on the red cape tied neatly around his neck.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be climbing trees,” I called out as I made the critical mistake of looking down.
Steven remained focused on the branch supporting his broad chest. “You don’t have to. I just want to see how high I can get. I’m Superman, remember?”
I looked up. We weren’t even halfway to the top, but we were higher than I had ever climbed. I timidly followed my friend out onto the limb, hugging it securely and ignoring the pricks on my forearms and ankles.
I had a sinking feeling. With our combined weight the branch bent until it was nearly horizontal. But it didn’t break. Steven sat upright and flung his cape proudly over his shoulder. He watched with compassionate concern as my fragile frame inched closer to him. A semi-circle grin rounded out my elated face, and I was beginning to maneuver myself upright, to sit beside greatness, when I heard the crack. The geometry on my face reversed itself as I whipped my head around to see what had happened. The limb remained securely attached to its trunk, but my reaction had been too abrupt, and I lost my balance. The world flipped as I swung around the limb, my arms flailing but catching nothing but empty air. My legs, though quivering, held strong, and I hung upside down staring at the hard ground that awaited my head. I cried out in fear.
“Grab my hand,” said Steven. I strained my neck to find his silhouette framed in a flare of sunlight. Reaching out my arm, I swung it until I found his hand. My fingers wrapped around his, and I sighed in relief as I began to be pulled upright.
What happened next was one of those rare unexplainables, like biting into a salad fork or poking an eye while putting on a t-shirt. My feet suddenly lost their grip, and though I tried to hang on to Steven’s hand, I flew—miraculously feet first—toward the ground. Impact sent a violent shock throughout my entire body. Pain had no identity, but it overtook me. I squeezed my eyes and rolled on the ground in anguish. I needed my mother to absorb my pitiful groans. Burying my head in the ground, I let the tears puddle beneath the bridge of my nose. It was my own fault. I couldn’t let Steven see this—my defeat.
Even as I suppressed my barking breaths, they lingered, orbiting around my head. After what must have been almost a minute, I took a deep breath and held it, but the gasps continued. I realized they weren’t my own. I cautiously lifted my head, and my eyes climbed the tree and followed the limb to the red cape firmly in the grasp of prickly branches. Dangling several feet below, his head in the noose of the cape, was Steven. His strong fingers struggled to untie the knot around his neck. His legs thrashed the air as raspy whimpers escaped his throat. My tears hardened as I watched in horror. I was going be in trouble if my mom found out where I’d been.
Months later, standing on the stage in front of my classmates, I accepted the wooden, shield-shaped plaque amidst the chorus of cheers. My mom had taken off work to be there for that day, and my eyes teared when I saw her smiling proudly at me from the back of the auditorium.
I stood uncomfortably beside the principal of our school as he gave my little hand a firm shake. He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke into the microphone. “Steven Keller wanted to fly like Superman, and for a brief time he did. He was a model student and this award, in his memory, is given to a student who best exhibits exemplary behavior. You should be very proud, son.” He handed me the award and pushed me forward to the front of the stage to accept the applause.
I didn’t know what “exemplary” meant at the time, but in my mind it was something horrid. My refusal to speak since Steven’s accident had been mistaken for good behavior. Exemplary behavior.
But to this day, every time I hear the word, I remember the scared little kid who ran home and cowered in his bedroom while his friend dangled from a tree.