In the Trees

We were raised on the same street. We were within a few years of one another. We were a true family; more like brothers than cousins — a united front growing side by side. Valentine Street was our Kennedy Compound. We competed with each other constantly, developing into battle-tested monsters. By the time we all reached double digits — myself being the youngest at ten, my cousin David the oldest at fifteen — we’d perfected our terroristic-tactics.
In the middle of the age bracket was Tommy, eleven, and brothers Mikey and Georgie, thirteen and fourteen, respectively. That winter was one of the best of my life, and if I had to guess, one of the worst for any of the poor souls who crossed our boot-trampled paths.
We would emerge into the white of winter bundled and ready. Thin gloves hugged our hands. Thick gloves were warmer, but their bulk was cumbersome. We could be seen trooping through the streets and yards of the neighborhood, the pompoms on our hats bouncing as we bopped along. We would hide behind fences and ambush anyone passing through our compound, trouncing them with snowballs. We were marksmen. David even picked a pigeon off a telephone wire once, first throw.
Down the street from our compound was a community college, complete with a sprawling campus that often served as our playground. We would play ice hockey on its pond, snowboard on its hills and build igloos on its fields. The lights used to come on at night, but Georgie and Mikey shot them out over the spring with BB guns. Now, instead of continuing our self entertainment after dark, we were forced to drift back out toward the streetlights.
On many a night those orange lights illuminated our trek. They gave us sight in the snowy darkness; vision in the early falling nights of winter. They were welcomed companions until the night they gave us all away.
We slogged back toward the lights as the sun set, heading for a well organized circle of tall pine trees. We traversed the campus like a pack of wolves, all with one thing on our minds; pelting cars.
At the corner of the campus just beside the busy street sat the pines — six of them arranged neatly in a circle to form what looked like one massive tree. In the center of this landscaped-illusion was a hollow space, cavernous and carpeted with pine needles and dark-red mulch. The smell of pine filled the air. That was our den.
We would sit outside the trees for a few minutes, collecting our ammunition, before squeezing through the branches like sharp pins through green fabric, regrouping in the vacant center. There we would wait, listening for the sounds of approaching cars.
After much experience we learned exactly when to strike. Like soldiers we would assemble, delicately balanced shoulder to shoulder in formation. As an engine hum grew louder we would sink into complete silence, concentrating on our pack leader and forming solid snowballs in our gloved hands.
Tonight, and on most nights, the leader was David.
He would raise up a fist with three fingers in the air. Slowly they would sink into his palm, one at a time, and when they were all gone, we would strike, emerging from the trees like bees from a hive.
We got so good at this timing and formation that we would be back in the trees by the time the fifth snowball hit the target, and after so much practice, it almost always hit the target. Tonight was no exception.
I saw the first two strike the silver Volvo, hitting the passenger side mirror and door. The final three, including my own, I could only hear.
POP!
POP!
POP!
Back in the safety of the trees we laughed like a pride of hyena having notched another successful strike on our belts. As we chuckled we scooped up our next round, picking off bits of mulch and pine as we reformed them in our hands. After a few seconds the familiar hum could be heard again. This time, I took the lead.
My heart thumped as I raised my hand, listening intently to the approaching target.
I dropped my ring finger, then my middle, clenching the snowball in my right hand. Taking a deep breath, my index finger sank and we emerged, armed and ready.
I’d mistimed it.
A green Ford Expedition was still about thirty feet away but there was no time for readjustment. We launched.
I watched my snowball explode on the windshield, Tommy’s following immediately after, thudding off the roof.
As I turned back into the trees I could hear the third one hit…
POP!
…then the four…
POP!
…but the fifth was overwhelmed by the sound of screeching tires.
There we stood in the trees, eyes locked upon one another, the sound of the car coming to a stop on the nearby street. We all knew our mistake.
“Shit, that was my dad,” said Tommy, having recognized the car as well as all of us had.
A former police officer, Tommy’s dad, my Uncle Tom, was a large and serious figure; the prototype of man not to worth messing with. We were terrified.
“We’ll act like it was a joke,” returned David. “Let’s go out there laughing. He won’t be mad.”
“Good plan,” I said, hoping for forgiveness.
Mikey was the first back out, followed by Georgie. Next crossed David, then Tommy, disappearing into the thick bristle of the pines. A car door slammed closed as I poked my hand through the branches.
Tommy’s head swung back around and collided with mine. “It’s not my dad,” he said.
“They’re in the trees,” yelled a man’s voice. “Lets fuck them up.”
Two more doors slammed and, with a burst, I turned and sprung through the back of the trees, snow crunching beneath my boots as I sprinted away from the street and toward a patch of nearby woods.

(To Be Continued…)

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