I met Tom and Brian at school by the oak tree. It’s the largest tree at our school, so we fashioned it into a sort of beacon where we can always find each other. We meet here everyday before class. We have been doing this as a ritual for the last two years.

We all share the same homeroom with Mr. Grogh and have most of the other classes together. Tom and I are more the science nerds considering our robot project for Physics 2.0 won the region’s coveted Engineering Award. Brian, on the other hand, is a big football jock. I kind of envy his strength and the way the crowds cheer him and his teammates. Although we had a huge turnout for the engineering competition, it was nothing compared to how many people turn out to their games every week during the season. But, Brian has remained very close friends with us even though Hollywood movies would lead you to think that we’re crossing some sacred prepubescent “clique” lines by being friends. We have never cared for that.

I walk up to them. Brian is in his letterman jacket, leaning against the tree, with his book bag thrown aside on the grass. Tom is wearing his button up shirt and jeans with a square book bag centred on his back. They look like a personified yin and yang. As I get closer they both turn and wave. I’m about to say something when the bell rings and we rush to get to our classroom.

The day goes by as usual, it’s way too long, I learn nothing, and I’m restless during the last half hour before the closing bell rings. I hate the sound it makes in the morning or between classes, but at the end it completely metamorphosizes into something wonderful. Instead of seeming as the oppressor, it suddenly becomes the liberator.

I rush to my locker and throw everything inside. I only stop to unceremoniously stuff my homework notebooks inside my backpack and I’m running out the front door. I meet up with Brian who is already waiting at the Oak. I could never understand how he got there first, but I never ask. I know his grades are slipping so I don’t want to sound like his mom and as if he even went to any of his classes today.

“Hey!” I shout as I continue running towards him. “Where’s Tom?” I ask.

“Hey man,” he replies slowly, as is his way. “I’m not sure. Thought I saw him talking to Mr. Wolter.” He says with a shrug.

“Oh,” I reply. “I think he wanted to ask about individualizing his essay for history. He didn’t like the topics that Mr. Wolter chose.” I finish.

“That kid’s insane,” Brian replies. “Do you want to go hiking at the Birch Trail tonight?” He asks.

I can tell by the way he changes his pitch that he would really like to go. And again I want to ask him if he has homework to finish first or a project to work on but, again, I don’t want to sound like his mom. I think to myself that we can help him focus and cram for exams when football season ends in two weeks.

“Sure, yeah, sounds like a plan,” I say, trying to match his enthusiasm to cover my concern. Just as we start making plans about where to meet before we set out on the hike, Tom joins us at the tree.

“Hey, you up for a hike tonight—we’re meeting at six by the Birch Trail?” Brian asks Tom.

Tom looks a little confused and concerned, just like I was, but he isn’t as good at hiding it. Even when he says “sure,” after I raise my brows at him to hint at my study plans, he says it unconvincingly as if he’s asking a question.

“Great!” Brian adds. “I need some air, you know. I’ll meet up with you later. See ya.” He says as he leaves.

“What was that about?” Tom asks.

“Look, I know exactly what you’re thinking but we can help him pull his grades up after football season finishes,” I plead, trying to argue away my guilt.

“I understand that… but we don’t really know how… poorly he’s doing,” Tom whispers slowly like he’s saying something inappropriate. “Maybe we won’t even be able to help him if it’s really bad,” he concludes.

“It’ll be fine. I’ll see you later, OK,” I reassure him as I leave.

At six that evening, I head over to the Birch Trail on my bike. When I get there Tom and Brian are already there and are sitting idly on their bikes. We enter the trail and decide to leave our bikes in a heavy brush so that we can walk a little into the forest. We often travel up to the waterfall where an old rusted bridge leads to a thicker wood. The city has long stopped maintaining it. We ignore the “no entry” sign and head over.  The bridge makes grinding sounds like those of a rusted chain on a bike or weather worn chain swings. We don’t worry about the bridge’s age or its condition. To us it’s wonderful because it’s abandoned and forbidden. Brian was the first to ever cross over a year ago. He talked us into going with him once to see the other side.

When we’ve walked about an hour into the forest, we stop under the willows that run along the brown river. This is our favourite spot because in the summer we take dips in the water or we swim across to the other side where a swing was fashioned from old truck tires. I can’t imagine how long ago it was abandoned because although it looks old and about to give out, it can hold all three of us at once. We’ve been coming to this creek since we were probably too young to go alone—we always lied to our parents that we were at each other’s home, but made our way here secretly.

“Here’s a fry spot,” Tom calls from the left. “We can set up a little fire here,” he says.

“That’s great,” Brian calls back behind me. “Look what I found,” he adds, holding up driftwood he gathered.

“I didn’t know we were picnicking,” I start, but Brian cuts me off.

“Oh it’s not much. Tom and I got some marshmallows from the corner store when we ran into each other on our way to the Trail,” he says defensively.

“I thought we could make a little fire to sit around and talk and, Brian suggested a snack,” Tom adds and gives me a brow raise.

I can tell by the way he lifts his brows that he wants to take this opportunity to talk to Brian about school. I don’t know if making a school intervention in the creek is the best idea. I know how much Brian loves coming here and I don’t want to sour this place for him too. He avoids school because he feels like he doesn’t fit in, like he’s afraid to fail.

We start a small fire and begin roasting the marshmallows. I keep quiet because I’m afraid to start this discussion, but I can tell by the way Tom is biting his lip that he’s just planning his own words before he speaks. Meanwhile, Brian, clearly unsuspecting, keeps talking about the recent sports stats. When the conversation dies down Tom gives me a little look and begins talking.

“Brian?” he starts and pauses.

“Yeah,” Brian says calmly.

“Mark and I were thinking…” he pauses again. I really wish he wouldn’t include me in this when he didn’t tell me anything he was about to say. “We were thinking of coming here after school to do homework at the old tree house. We just want to see if you’d like to join,” he says confidently.

“Oh?” Brian looks stunned. At any mention of school he gets uncomfortable. I can’t imagine how he feels when he wakes up every morning. “Why are you doing school work here?” he asks.

“Well, we’ll be working on biology projects and, since the spring has come, we can work outside. What do you say?” Tom makes up a quick lie. We had biology last semester.

“OK I guess… but I don’t know,” Brian replies, still confused.

“Look Brian,” I begin, “we want to help you with your school work.” I decide on telling the truth.

“Oh,” Brian mutters, turning bright red.

“Look Brian, we know you’re struggling a little. We want to help. We want you to graduate with us,” Tom says. “And, if you get that scholarship to play football at a university we want you to be able to go.”

“Thanks guys,” Brian starts, still stunned and embarrassed, “university recruiters have already come down and talked to me, but I’m just a sophomore,” he finishes.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a sophomore or a senior. We want you to graduate with us,” Tom pleads.

“Please, Brian. Let us help you. You’re smart. We helped you throughout middle school so we know you can learn what you need to—you just need more one-on-one attention,” I say, shaking his shoulder.

“Yeah. I know. It meant a lot to me that you guys helped,” he says.

“So what do you say?” Tom asks, brimming with excitement. “We can make that old tree house into a party-study hall. One hour of study, one hour of fun!”

“Alright, alright,” Brian laughs, “help me pass.”

We finish our marshmallows and put out the fire with sand from the riverbank. We continue joking and laughing as we head back across the bridge to find our bikes. Tom looks very pleased with himself. He even gives me a sly wink when we’re back at the river. Brian, if I’m not imagining it, seems to be walking taller already—more confident in himself or, I guess he can relax because he knows we haven’t abandoned him and that we’re looking out for him.

We agree to clean up the tree house tomorrow after school and start our study sessions over the weekend. Brian and I wave Tom away as he turns onto his street and rides away. Brian and I continue a little further to his street.

“Thank you,” he says looking at the pavement with a shy blush covering his face. “I want to graduate with you guys too. I don’t want to fail and lose my chance at playing for a varsity team.”

“See you tomorrow,” I say, giving him a friendly punch on the arm. He pushes me back and shakes his head. He laughs at his own embarrassment and, as I peddle away, I think I see a heavy burden lift from his shoulders.

by Tihana Skoric
image: Friends via Shutterstock