Stevie dropped his bike on the lawn and ambled over to the porch, plopping his skinny butt down next to me. "What's up, Toph?"
"Exactly nothing! Two days into summer vacation and I'm so bored it hurts. What you been doin'?"
"Me? I'm dodging my mom. She's been after me to clean up the garage. Have you seen that thing? The only way that place is ever gonna get clean is with some gasoline and a match."
"Yeah? I dare you."
"Har, Har! Get real! I'm too young to lose my cherry to a bunch of horny convicts with tattoos on their dicks."
"Hey, who knows, you might like it."
The strident, fingernails-on-the-blackboard voice of my sister came through the screen door, "Topher, Mom's looking for you!"
"Come on, Stevie, let's find someplace else to be." We headed around the side of the house and sprinted toward the wood that began at the end of our yard. We settled on the far side of a huge old oak where we couldn't be seen.
I'd always wondered how old that tree was; the trunk had to be at least five feet in diameter. I'd climbed it so often I believe I could do it blindfolded. I was leaning my head back looking up along the trunk and spotted the three branches extending straight out about twenty feet up and remembered that when I was eight or nine I asked my dad if I could build a tree house on them. He put the kibosh on that plan saying I was too young and the branches were too high up.
"Hey! That's it!"
Stevie jumped up and looked around. "What?"
"Something to do. Come on!" We trotted along the edge of the wood toward town. Ten minutes later we walked into Dad's hardware store. He was shuffling along the far wall with a clipboard inventorying tools.
"Toph, Stevie, what's up guys?"
"Dad, remember a long time ago I asked if I could build a tree house in that big oak out back?"
"Yeah, I think I remember something about that. Why?"
"Well, you said I was too small then. I'm nearly sixteen now and I'd still like to build it."
He looked at me with a kneejerk 'No' about to come out of his mouth but I guess he had a change of heart. "Do you have any idea how much work you're talking about? And the lumber isn't going to be cheap."
"I think I can round up enough scrap lumber to do it. Come on, Dad. Look at it from a parent's point of view. It'll keep me off the streets and out of trouble."
He chuckled, "I wonder. Tell you what, you draw up a design for me with proper measurements and a list of supplies and tools. If I think it's a good plan, I'll ask Jed Wilson over at the lumberyard to see if he can't make you a deal on some odds and ends pieces."
"Great! Thanks, Dad! I'll work on a plan this afternoon." Stevie and I had turned and headed out the door when Dad hollered, "Hey! I'm serious, Toph. If you build this thing, it has to be structurally sound. I'm not going to buy off on twenty or thirty boards nailed to a couple of branches."
"Not to worry, Dad. I'll come up with a good design."
As soon as we were outside, I pointed down the street. "Lets go to the library. I need a computer."
"Toph, there must be at least three computers in your house. Why do you need to go to the library?"
"If I go home, I'm going to be locked up with chores all day. Come on."
We were amazed! When I googled 'tree houses', I quickly had literally dozens of designs right in front of me. Of course, most of them were professionally built, way beyond my carpentry skills, but I found three that I was pretty sure I could handle and compared to what I originally had in mind, these were castles in the air. I printed off what info there was about them and we headed back to the tree to do some measuring. By the time Dad got home that evening, I'd cobbled together my own design using parts of all three downloaded plans. I included a list of materials and tools and even had an estimate of expenses. He was impressed.
"OK, Toph. This is pretty ambitious but it's got my seal of approval. Do you want my help building it?'
"Maybe some advice if I get stuck on a problem but I'd really like to build it myself. Well, Stevie said he'd help."
"That works for me but I hope you're not counting too much on your friend. He's not exactly the epitome of reliability. Go talk to Jed Wilson tomorrow and see what kind of a deal he can make you on some lumber. I'll give him a call in the morning. Hell, he might even deliver."
When I called Stevie the next morning to get started he found a way to weasel out of it. It's pretty much what I expected considering he's absolutely phobic about anything that looks like work. I don't think I've ever seen him actually carry out anything he said he was going to do. Well, one thing; he told me he was going to fail tenth grade and he did. A lot of his time was going to be taken up with summer school.
I headed down to the lumberyard to see Mr. Wilson and beg for what I needed. He looked at the list and shook his head, "Must be some tree house you're building, Toph. I don't have near enough scrap around here to meet your needs but I might make a deal with you."
I'm always leery of adults making 'deals' with me but I bit anyway. "What kind of a deal?"
"If you give me five good days of work cleaning out the shop out back I'll provide all the lumber, nails and screws you need and bring it over."
I couldn't ask for more than that. "You've got a deal! Uh, when do you want me to start?"
"You pick the days but I'd appreciate it if you could squeeze them in over the next three weeks. I'm moving some new machinery in and I'll need the space. I'll have Larry load the stuff up today and bring it over. I'm relying on you to keep your word. I don't think your dad would appreciate getting a bill from me."
"Thanks, Mr. Wilson. I'll be here at eight sharp next Monday."
When the truck arrived later that morning, I helped Mr. Wilson's hired man, Larry unload and carry the stuff across the back yard to the tree. I covered it with a plastic tarp to keep it dry. I'd also need about two hundred feet of extension cord for the power tools and a couple of saw horses. I figured I'd get started right after lunch. When I turned to head into the house, I almost ran right into Fran, a girl in my class who lives a couple of houses down.
"Hey Toph, what are you gonna build with all that lumber?"
Fran was the class nerd. You know the type; straight A's, scholarship awards, that kind of stuff. She was nice enough but she wasn't the kind of person you wanted to be seen hanging out with. She was always dressed like a guy in jeans, T-shirt and sneakers. Sometimes I wondered if she even owned any other clothes. The only thing that had changed about the way she dressed since the first grade was the addition of a bra, although she wasn't all that big and probably didn't need one very bad. I'd heard rumors that she preferred girls to boys but then none of the guys I knew had ever even asked her for a date so how would they know? She definitely wasn't the kind of girl I'd expect to see on the cheerleading squad.
"It's going to be a tree house." I pointed to the plans lying near the lumber.
She picked them up and looked them over. Shaking her head, she said, "Huston, we have a problem."
"It won't work."
"And just what would you know about building a tree house?" She could be so irritating when she rolled her eyes and got that 'I'm talking to a dumbass' look on her face.
"I'd know enough not to anchor the floor to three separate tree limbs. The first high wind and it'll just rip apart."
"No way! Look at the size of those limbs," I said, pointing up into the tree.
"You're anchors are six feet out from the trunk. Look, Einstein, you're fixing something rigid onto three different things that move independently. Jeez, they'd only have to move an inch or so. You can rest the floor on the limbs but you can't anchor to them. You have to anchor to the trunk."
I saw that she had a point but damned if I was going to admit it. "Fran, why don't you go build you own tree house and let me worry about mine, OK?"
"Sure thing, cowboy. Your funeral if you just happen to be in it on a windy day. Seeya!"
I went to the house and brought back some sandwiches and water. Sitting under the tree, I munched a PB&J and looked over the plans again. The more I thought about what Fran said the more I knew she was right. Then I began to wonder what other little screw-ups I'd committed. I really didn't want this project to look like something slapped together by the Our Gang Comedy kids. Eating crow wasn't my long suit but it was better than having to do everything twice. I walked over to Fran's house and knocked on the door.
She answered, of course. Fran was the only child of a single mom who was a nurse at a doctor's office so she was pretty much always home alone on weekdays. "Toph?"
"Uh, Fran, sorry I was such a butt. Would you be interested in helping me build it?"
She thought about it a bit before she answered. "I might, but only if I can be half owner."
"How do you figure that? I'm the one who has to pay for all the materials and besides, it's my idea!"
"First of all, your idea is flawed and secondly, I'd be doing half of the work as well as being your design consultant."
"What do you mean flawed? What's flawed besides the thing with the limbs?"
"Look, Toph, your design is basically good but it's got a lot of bugs in it. I'd be happy to sit down with you and rework it. That is, IF I can be an equal partner."
.... There is more of this story ...