by Alex Koplow
On the first day of the climb Eli Jessup couldn’t make it higher than the evergreen’s lowest clump of branches. The stones were too heavy. He had swallowed too many stones.
Stuck in the large pine a few streets away from his parents’ new house, Eli was swelling, slowly boiling in the summer’s smog. The number of rocks inside him was forgotten. They came from the stream Eli passed when he walked home from school. Squatting in the ditch of the creek, he combed through the Virginia red clay in search of the stones.
The clearer the rock, the easier he imagined it was to swallow, and on the first day Eli found five toothy, nearly translucent pebbles. He stuffed the rocks in the pocket of his jeans with his inhaler and hurried home.
Locked in his bedroom after dinner, Eli emptied most of a bottle of water into his mouth and pushed the glassy stones past his braces one at a time. The rocks were little nothings, Eli told himself, pirate restaurant popcorn shrimp.
After the first week of taking five a day, he could swallow the pill-sized pebbles with barely a grimace. So he hunted for the skippable stones embedded in the middle of the stream to reopen the pain. Those were the sacred ones that added quick chunks of weight.
But the rocks had plugged him up. The water wasn’t leaving, splashing against his stomach’s bloated walls. He grew lopsided, constantly tilting forward like he was trying to smell something. Once school finished for summer, he could hide his immobility from his parents by staying in his room, but Eli knew the climb would be slow. He’d have to wait until his mom was out of town for business. She’d be furious that he wasn’t responding to her texts, but it would still be at least a day before his dad worried about where he was.
By the time he was ready to begin the climb, Eli had gotten good enough and drinking was painful enough that he could swallow most of the rocks without water. Like muffling a thick burp, he placed a stone on the back of his tongue and forced it inside of him.
The big pine where Eli crouched had barely missed becoming part of the cul-de-sac when the neighborhood was built a year earlier. It capped the bottom of the perfectly straight, thermometer dead end. He chose that tree because half of the branches slanted over the street. From the spot where he wanted to land, there was a clear path through the thick needles to the tree’s top.
Fifteen feet off the ground with the one o’clock clouds feigning relief, Eli scanned the street that connected around to his house. The sidewalks were strewn with squirrels and purebred housecats looking for extra food. The gravely pavement below him warped from the heat. Eli hid his sweaty, attic-black hair under his hood.
“What are you doing?”
Eli snapped his head down, shattering pain through his stomach, and saw an older girl looking up at him through the pine needles. Her stubby fingers pinned a cigarette to her lips.
“Huh? Nothing. Just climbing up here.”
“Yeah? What the hell for?”
Eli cradled his stomach, holding the reason.
“I, uh, just wanted to sit up here.”
The girl spat out smoke. Blinking at the glare of the sun, he looked down past his untied shoelace and could see nothing but a large mole on her plump left breast.
It was the type of mole normally wedged between an oily nose and fat cheek. Underneath the tree, coated with sweat and Light cigarette smoke, the brown mole kept slipping out from her too small tank top.
“You’ve been up there all day.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw the tree moving a while ago, and I was like ‘what the hell’s that?’ I thought you might have been a bear or something. I saw you out the window in my house. I’m staying with my grandma in that house over there.”
Eli shrunk from her stare. He was afraid he was caught.
“If you thought I was a bear,” he wiped sap on his jeans, “then why did you come out here?”
“Because God, it couldn’t get any worse than being in that house. My grandma’s sick, so my mom brought me and her boyfriend down here. Mom’s going crazy, trying to hand out the right pills at the right time and everything. She keeps freaking out when I smoke in the house, even though I know my grandma is hiding packs of her own in the bathroom.”
“Your grandma is sick?”
“Cancer. She’s not even that bad, so I dunno why my mom was so annoying about coming down here. Now she’s trying to make me stay here the whole summer.”
Ten feet below Eli, she paced, waddling between the tree and the curb. She pinched the cigarette from her lips and tapped the ashes into the grass.
“It sucks, you know, I just wanted to stay in Chicago this summer and get ready for college.”
“Is that where you’re from?”
“Yep. Well, Glen Ellyn. It’s like just outside, but my boyfriend just got an apartment in the city, so I coulda been downtown every night. It’s the best city in the world. I can’t wait to move there.”
With her back against the tree, she watched the sun set behind her grandmother’s house. Eli stared between his thighs at the penny-sized mole she had forgotten.
“Nice to meet you, bear boy, but I’m outta cigs.”
“My name is Eli.”
“I’m Tera. Enjoy your tree. I gotta get back to getting screamed at.”
She flicked the butt into the street and wiped her hands above the back pockets of her shorts. In her white khakis, Tera had the too wide ass of a flight attendant.
The wind flapped the REDUCED placard against the white FOR SALE sign in the yard below Eli. The fanned out rectangle of unmowed grass slowly vibrated. Frenzied chunks of bumble bees hovered, dipping and dancing on the white-tipped clover. Past the trees and the dying honeysuckle, over the rock-bearing stream was a small Korean church with a familiar bell.
Gongy and automated, the bells chimed every fifteen minutes. Eli anticipated the caressing rhythm until it was all he could focus on. At the end of every measured hour a hovering eight note melody rang out, and Eli droned the chant he made about the day.
Bells, Bees, Grass, Trees.
Mole, Rock, Girl, Talk.
His head bounced with each word. The streetlamps buzzed on and painted overlapping shadows on the street, hiding the spot where Eli focused.
A patch of fresh asphalt, close to the manhole cover, that’s where he wanted to land. He envisioned an Eli-shaped slab of pavement that he’d hit after jumping off one of the branches above him. He gazed at the spot with dreamy eagerness.
He thought he might die when he landed. But Eli still had a video game sense of death. Respawning was easy, and your effects were still felt. All he really wanted was a disruption, some sort of legacy. He wanted to create the first pothole that new road would ever know.
Ramming his shoulders against the bark, imagining the beds in the new houses around him, he tried to turn the tree’s trunk into a pillow. Tired and dry, Eli wondered if there was a time when the bells stopped telling time.
After hours of clutching his bulging stomach, cradling the pain and exhaustion, something pulled him into a quick sleep.
The second day of the climb, the highest Eli would get, began with several failed attempts at standing. His rigid sleep tricked him into thinking he had enough energy to climb right up to the next set of limbs. The remonstrative pain when he raised his leg made him collapse against the branch, buckled and broken.
Hours later Eli managed to stretch his hands up to a warm, sticky branch above him. Fully extended, he let himself dead hang until he swung against the solid trunk, clawing at the bark with his new tennis shoes.
Scraping up the tree with borrowed strength, Eli reached a basket of limbs nearly thirty feet above the wavy pavement. Panting, he wondered if his dad would be proud. He’d never been able to climb the knotted rope hanging off the deck as part of the backyard gym. Eli’s dad was convinced he could exercise the illness out of his son. But Eli never had the energy.
At that height the tree split like a cactus into two thin pillars of trunk. Underneath a blanket of brown needles was a bottle of water and two Ziploc bags from the same jumbo box his mom used to pack his lunches for school. Weeks earlier he hid those provisions up there when he wasn’t so tired. One bag had a thin sandwich. The other bag was rocks. Flat, shimmering stones he’d saved for the climb. A month’s worth of pain-clouded anticipation spiked inside of him.
Eli dreaded the water. Every drop from the past month was still puddled inside of him, stagnating and drowning his insides. He swirled a quick gulp around his mouth, soaking every white spot. Forcing it down, Eli howled as it pierced his chest and clapped against the old water.
The lettuce from his sandwich had bled through the bread. The green was everywhere. Eli separated the top of the bag, and the rotted humidity smacked him. The bag slipped from his hand. Eli halted his labored blinking to watch the bag fall, studying the way it twisted before bellyflopping against the pavement.
“What the hell, man!”
“I’m sorry. I’m… I didn’t see you down there.”
The words coughed through his zippered throat. Eli maintained his crouch while staring at Tera, struggling to process something other than the tree. She had another cigarette and another shirt, one that covered her breasts and the raisiny mole.
“Whatever. Back up in that tree, huh, bear boy?”
“No, what? I never –”
“Have you seen a cat running by here?”
“My grandma can’t find her cat. She’s having one of her angry, senile days. It’s hilarious. She’s storming around the house, ramming her oxygen tank into the cabinets and knocking over the piles of laundry my mom’s folded. She keeps screaming, ‘Spaghetti!’ That’s the cat’s name. But my mom’s boyfriend thinks she’s hungry, so he keeps boiling water. Man, it’s better than normal in there today.”
“What kind of cat is it?”
“Spaghetti? I dunno. It’s small and white. Red collar.”
“Sorry, I haven’t seen any cats.”
Tera inched the toe of her dirty sandal toward the moldy bag that almost hit her. She kicked it into the storm drain and tossed her cigarette in after. Steeped in boredom, she stared up at Eli with removed disgust, like he was the ugliest goat at a petting zoo.
“Well, if you see a white cat from your perch up there, will you just come and let me know?”
“Aren’t you sweating like crazy? It’s like Iraq out here.”
Studying her choreographed impatience, Eli got the urge to show someone else what he’d been doing. He took the smallest rock from the bag and popped it into his mouth. He nearly burst from overstimulation as he flicked the rock around his mouth, rattling it against his braces. Watching the large circles of her bug eyed sunglasses, Eli swallowed the rock, doubling his Adam’s apple.
The fabric in Tera’s fat armpit grew dark. She squinted and scratched at the heat. He was furious that she didn’t respond to his display.
“You don’t need to come back out, OK? I’ll look for your stupid cat.”
The pine needles blocked his embarrassed nodding. As she shrugged him off and retreated through her grandmother’s front yard, Eli could hear the meaty smack of her sandals separating from her feet. With Tera gone, Eli quickly scanned the unsold lot for cats until he heard the church bell.
Bells, Bees, Grass, Trees.
Mole, Rock, Girl, Talk.
He selected a smooth rock from the bag and was desperate to add its weight. About as wide as a cell phone, he placed the stone on his outstretched tongue. The warm, dull taste reminded him of duct tape. He wouldn’t use water for the last ones. He cherished the gags and clunks of manually pushing the rocks down. Entranced by the pain, he kept imagining the bells, until there was nothing on his tongue but the stone’s salty leftovers.
He refilled his mouth, two rocks that time, rejecting his stomach’s throbbing plea. The agony wasn’t from the rocks. It wasn’t even the water, Eli grew to decide. It was the chalky, grey drink the doctors made him take before entering the tube for the scans. That liquid Eeyore that was supposed to show what was wrong and where it was spreading. The machines were burning the drink into his lungs. Eli knew it was keeping him sick. It had been more than two years, since he was eleven, that they’d been pumping him full of the grey stuff. How much longer he’d have to do it, how much longer he’d be alive, he didn’t know. He just needed to leave behind more than the stacks of flat, grey scans.
Bells, Bees, Grass, Trees.
Mole, Rock, Girl, Talk.
He pulled an Africa-shaped rock from his mouth in order to acknowledge the bells and do his chant. He returned the rock to his tongue and stumbled through swallowing it. The bag was finally empty, all the stones packed inside of him like ammunition. Eli thought he needed one more day to climb to the top of the tree. He’d need the bells to know when it was the next day.
Pale and fevered, his eyes grasped for something they could process. The tree bulged. The big branch hovering over the pavement was another eight feet above him and getting higher. His panic swirled, and he ripped handfuls of pine needles off the closest branch.
Craning his neck to find where to go, the next branch felt more than fifteen feet away. The distance made him whimper and tuck himself around the gourd of his stomach. Standing, moving, falling, all felt impossible. The grey inside of him was becoming cement. The entire climb would fail, Eli was sure. He’d disappear forever into that wiry tree.
But then the bells came. The end of the hour. Eli could sing his song and count the time. The bells brought him the sunset and the reassurance that tomorrow would come. The noxious pain abated. Eli dug his cracked finger into his nose and played with his pale snot.
Looking through the tree’s growing skeleton, Eli tried to connect the hazy stars. The grey clouds quickly spread across the horizon, turning the whole sky into spent charcoal. The constellations, the dots, all the structures were hidden. For Eli the night was indecipherable.
Cowering from glowing clouds, he needed the bells to ring one more time. It had been hours since a chime, he thought. He grew certain that another one wouldn’t come. With the moon and stars pulsing like the blinking lights of a modem, he knew he had to trick the bells into ringing.
Bells, Bark, Bees, Trees.
Bells, Girl, Cat, Bells.
Humming the words twisted his face into a grin. Midnight’s bargain bin humidity pushed its bland heat at Eli. He turned sideways and spread his torso across three uneven limbs. Coiled with pain, he spent the night staring past the streetlight’s orange noise at Tera’s swaying house.
It was more than an hour after he woke up the next morning before Eli realized he had pissed himself. He touched the wet diamond around his crotch, leaving his hand there as he tried to figure out when it happened. Time had grown silent.
The clouds retreated behind the trees, exposing the early morning sun. The FOR SALE sign and its red REDUCED tag sat dead in the hushed air. The stillness of the grass reminded Eli of a song. He mumbled all he could remember.
Bells, Bells, Bells.
Where are the bells?
Sunburned and smelling of dried piss, Eli tried to get to his feet. He inched his legs out to support his growing weight, but he couldn’t get off his knees and collapsed into the tree’s narrow center. A woolen dryness swarmed inside his mouth. He bit into his tongue, chewing it like worn out gum.
A Sunday breeze floated towards Eli and the empty lot. The wind brushed his face and made him blink. His teeth dropped his tongue, and all around him the pine needles shook.
Low to the pavement, in the middle of the street, a bit of white slowly stuttered toward him. He realized, he remembered, that it must be Tera’s cat, that Spaghetti cat she had asked about. Eli found a thin channel of attention to focus on the scattered movement. Blind to the rest of the street, Eli called the cat’s name. It moved to the side, slinking toward the gutter, but it wouldn’t look up. Minutes later it moved again, jumping into the air and twisting backwards.
The wind led the cat straight to the tree, reviving Eli. The white spot spun below him. Was it even a cat, he wondered. Eli swung around, his head near the center of the tree and his legs splayed out on two bending branches behind him. When the wind stopped, Eli hollered again.
But still no acknowledgment from Spaghetti. Eli banged against the limbs to get the cat to come up in the tree. There was a slight stirring, like the cat was floating. He removed his hands from their wet shield around his stomach and reached to save the cat.
Eli was unaware that he was falling until he was more than halfway to the ground.
Unhinged from the tree, he was suddenly overwhelmed with flexibility, balleting with his split feet leading the way. In the tree Eli had dreamed of a cannonball jump led by his swollen stomach. The biggest stones were supposed to be the first things to smash into the pavement.
But it was his left leg, instantly snapping, that first hit the street. The ground didn’t crack. Blood puddled on the manhole cover. Clouds idled on the horizon, waiting to unfurl. The bees attacked the clover. Wrinkled but rigid, a white carryout bag with its red lettering from Wendy’s flopped against the curb from the wind, no longer enticing the delirious boy.
Lumped on the asphalt, emptying wretched water, Eli heard the bells ring three times. Then two ambulances came. The cops had been searching since the day before when Eli’s dad reported him missing. The EMTs separated Eli from the ground and sirened him to the hospital. A group of surgeons operated on his leg, reconstructing it with metal. The next day they discovered the rocks and carefully extracted every single one. Nurses placed them on a small table next to Eli’s opened stomach and then dumped them into a white trash bag.
The following evening a summer storm washed most of what was left into the sewer drains. The blood, the cigarettes, and the trash floated far away from the cul-de-sac. Quickly the story popped up between neighbors all over the development, down every dead end.
Eli’s fall went the other way, through the bees and over the stream. It headed down the street from the Korean church and its measured bells. It grew around town at office buildings, grocery stores, and baseball games. Months later the story was overdramatized in Glen Ellyn, never making it to Chicago. Eli returned to the doctors, taking scans and pills, filling his pockets with inhalers, and hobbling on crutches. Spaghetti disappeared.
ALEX KOPLOW is a writer from Virginia. Recently his fiction has appeared in Thieves Jargon, The Georgetown Voice, Thunderclap! Press, and Short, Fast, and Deadly.