Chapter 18: Land, sea, air

Myra saw the clearing coming up, but it was subtle. She knew to watch for an absence instead of a presence, so she spotted the treehouse before everyone else did.
When they got a bit farther up and rounded the next curve, the girls recognized the spot. “We’re here!” Grace sang.
“Where?” Luke said.
“The treehouse,” she said, her voice hushed.
The giant tree stump towered over them, but it was cut short. The original tree had been split in two by a lightning strike, and nearly its entire length had fallen horizontally, supported by neighboring trees. The remaining base of the trunk had been hollowed out by the lightning, the tree’s desiccation, animals, weathering over time. Each force had played its part, although it was unclear which had contributed the greatest effect. The resulting combination of attacks had left a fractured shell of a tree, its core vacant and its outer bark dry and brittle, its charred roof colonized by lush plants and fuzzy moss.
The girls raced into the chamber, lowering their heads to get through the opening but straightening back up once they were inside. They immediately took up make-believe games. They started off with their favorite from last year: oceanographers. Cassie took the imaginary ship’s wheel, Caitlin stood next to her as the first mate, Zoey peered out a knothole-porthole, and Grace stood on tiptoes in the center as the lookout in the birds’ nest.
The boys looked on in fascination that soured into jealousy as the girls were clearly enjoying themselves on their own.
Joey was the first boy to climb aboard the girls’ ship. “Sailor reporting for duty,” he said, stepping inside the small nook and saluting Cassie. “What can I do, captainess?”
Cassie glanced back and frowned at Joey before quickly looking forward at the wall again. “I don’t have time for this!” she barked. “I need to keep my eyes on the water in case I spot a promising specimen. And there are no ‘sailors’ aboard this ship,” she corrected. “We’re oceanographers.”
“Yeah, oceanographers,” Caitlin repeated.
“Oh yeah, I knew that,” Joey said. “Well, can I…oceanographicize…with you?”
“Sorry, land person,” Cassie said. “Our ship is full. Find your own ship.”
“But—” Joey started.
“We’re full!” Zoey interrupted.
“Fine!” Joey shouted. “I didn’t want to be on your stupid boat anyway.” He stomped out and said to the other boys, “Come on, let’s go somewhere else.”
“Wait a second,” Myra said. “Let me talk to the girls. We’ll share.”
She ducked inside the treehouse. She had to crouch inside so her head didn’t hit the low ceiling.
“One more aboard,” she announced. “We’ve got four citizens outside waiting for their turn to contribute to the mission.”
“Myra, no,” Caitlin groaned. “Do we have to?”
Still balancing on her tiptoes, Grace turned and said soberly, “Really, Myra. We’re about to collect samples that could prove the existence of the sponge-spined frog fish. Imagine the scientific damage Joey could do if he contamoraded our data.”
“If he contaminated them?” Myra said.
“Exactly,” Grace said, nodding sagely.
“That’s settled, then,” Cassie said.
“It’s actually not,” Myra sighed.
“Okay, okay,” Cassie said. She swung around to face Myra. The imaginary wheel moved with her. “We’ll finish our mission, and then the boys can do theirs.”
The space really was tiny. And the boys certainly wouldn’t respect the girls’ elaborately constructed scenario. “All right,” Myra conceded.
The girls cheered and resumed their normal oceanographic responsibilities as Myra bowed out.
“Let’s find somewhere else fun to play,” she told the boys, “and in ten minutes you can trade places with the girls.”
“I didn’t want to play with them anyway,” Joey said. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Stay with the girls,” Myra told Alex. “But leave them alone.”
Alex grinned. “A counselor at his best,” he said.
She gripped his wrist, keeping his attention. “I’m not kidding,” she said.
“You never are,” he said.
She released him and ventured out with the boys. They found a spot underneath the fallen trunk. Weeds had grown up around the trunk, but it shaded the ground below, leaving a tunnel of relatively bare earth surrounded by leafy walls of foliage. Myra and the boys climbed in and crouched in a line with the trunk raised horizontally above them like a narrow ceiling over their hiding place. Aldo reached up to feel the rough bark, but Joey lay down on his belly. “We’re in the trenches,” Joey said. “Hiding from the enemy.”
Percy also dropped to his stomach. “They’re everywhere,” he whispered. “Quick, get down!”
Aldo followed suit, and Luke reluctantly sat cross-legged until Percy tugged him down farther. Myra cooperated, and the five of them lay flat on the ground. They spent the next twenty minutes evading the enemy and engaging in their own counter-subterfuge. But once they had obtained the desired intelligence and saved the world, they wanted to play in the treehouse.
The girls grumbled a little but they cleared out.
“It’s okay,” Grace said generously. “We proved the sponge-spined frog fish plus the nickel-plated tamarac.”
“Wow, stellar oceanography,” Myra praised.
The girls exited and the boys entered. When Alex and Myra crossed paths, he smiled and said, “So far, so good.” She didn’t answer, just passed by and ducked her head to avoid banging her forehead on the entrance.
Joey and Aldo were ahead of her, and Luke followed her in, but Percy hung back outside.
“You coming in, Perce?” Myra called.
“I don’t think so,” Percy replied.
Myra sidled around the other three in the tight space, working her way to the doorway. “Why not?” she asked, concerned. “Are you all right?”
“I don’t like being in small spaces with other people,” he explained. “I need room to breathe. I’m squish-phobic.”
“I see,” Myra said. “No worries. Want to go play with your sister and the others?”
Percy nodded. With Myra’s permission he trekked around the tree to meet up with the other group.
Under the boys’ reign, the treehouse became an espionage control center. The boys were tracking numerous individuals, tuning in to various bugs they had planted. Their cameras and microphones gave them essential information, and they debated these clues to determine the best course of action to recommend directly to the President.
Joey was relaying the current situation over the phone to a partner in the FBI, Aldo was flipping switches to decrypt a coded message, and Luke was reprogramming a camera disguised as a button. They’d assigned Myra to monitor the TV screens for the appearance of their #1 enemy. As she stared at the rough bark walls and imagined massive flat-screens displaying suit-clad operatives, she felt a sudden tickle on the crown of her head. She put her hand to her hair and the tickle migrated to her fingers. As she lowered her hand to inspect it, the treehouse trembled and the tickle touched her neck and her arm. It was a slight fluttering that drifted irregularly, feather-like, over patches of her skin. She brought her hand in front of her face to see in the dim light. A dark splotch hovered over the back of her hand. Its legs were like thick hairs, eight bent hairs affixed to its lint ball of a body.
The black spider raced up her forearm. She cried out and swept the creature off her arm. The tickle was crawling over her, and when the treehouse shook again, more spiders rained down.
Aldo realized soon after Myra, and in the next instant they all bolted outside. “Get off, get off!” Aldo cried. When Joey and Luke saw the spiders on each other and themselves, they screamed too.
Fighting off instinctive panic, Myra told the boys to stand still and raise their arms. They did, crying and shivering, and she searched their bodies for spiders. Every time she spotted one, she brushed it off with a swift glancing slap.
She removed a dozen or so total before she stopped finding them. Then she turned to herself, stretching out her arms and bending to inspect her legs. She found and expelled half a dozen on herself. Then she lifted her hair and asked the boys, “Do you see any on my back?”
“Yes, there,” Luke cringed, pointing vaguely.
“Get it off, please!” Myra cried.
All three boys looked on in horror as the spider scurried across Myra’s back. Finally Aldo rushed forward and slapped at the small of her back, shrieking as he touched the spider. “It’s gone,” he gasped.
“Thanks,” Myra panted. “Okay,” she whispered, trying to recover. The boys were shaken too, and she thought to suggest sitting in the grass to catch their breath, but the idea of bringing her body in contact with the ground that was crawling with spiders made her gag.
As they huddled together, anxiously brushing away phantom tickles, a giggling shriek from above startled them all. They looked up to see Cassie and Caitlin capering on the mossy crest of the giant stump that formed the treehouse’s rooftop. They skipped and jumped in a spontaneous dance, their movements surely enough to agitate whatever insects were living in the usually undisturbed stump.
Alex and Cassie were standing at the other end of the tree trunk, which would have been its peak if it were alive and vertical instead of dead and horizontal. The fallen tree stretched out between the two pairs of people, and walking heel-to-toe across the trunk like a gymnast on a balance beam was Grace. Her arms were extended for stability, and her gaze was locked straight ahead. She was already most of the way across, and Myra held her breath as she completed the final steps.
After a few heart-pounding seconds, Grace was standing on the solid stump. Zoey and Caitlin reached out to envelop her in a group hug, and she clung to them.
“Enough!” Myra ordered. “Everyone come down.”
The girls and Alex looked down at her, weighing their options. Percy was already on the ground, watching the girls’ antics from below. He was probably frightened of heights in addition to being claustrophobic, or maybe he was simply the only one of the group (Alex included) with the good sense not to traverse a rotting tree trunk suspended above the ground.
Cassie’s gaze flickered from Myra to the three other girls embracing at the other end of the trunk. She was the only girl who hadn’t crossed yet. Myra read Cassie’s exact thought process and intent. She shouted, “Cassie, no!” at the same moment that Cassie took off.
The trunk was fairly thick, and Grace had been steady enough as she inched along. But Cassie was practically running across the curved surface. Momentum carried her nearly halfway, but her speed made her vulnerable to the slightest redirection. Her foot landed on a curled sheet of bark, twisting her ankle out to the side. Her arms pinwheeled as she teetered, almost frozen for a second. Then she fell crookedly forward off the trunk. She plunged through the air down toward a panicking Percy. He looked up in horror at his sister tumbling through space. His arms drifted up instinctively, as if he planned to catch her.
“Percy, move!” Myra cried as she sprinted over, but everything was already in motion, nothing could be stopped, Cassie was hurtling down and Percy was absolutely paralyzed below her. Cassie landed in Percy’s outstretched arms and knocked him down with the force of a wrecking ball colliding with a dandelion. She smashed him to the ground. His limbs stuck out from under her as they both lay in a motionless heap.