School had started nearly a month ago, but the desert wasn’t ready to give up its heat. It was Saturday morning, and I was supposed to meet my friend under the Palo Verde tree. I couldn’t see her yet, but that didn’t mean anything. Growing right beside the gully that way, the tree slurped up lots of water during the rains. It was so big that the limbs hung down almost to the ground. Sabrina and I had cleaned out the area between the trunk and the drooping limbs to make a room. Sabrina brought her toy kitchen range, and I had some dishes and a little rocking chair. It was a cool place to play.
The only problem was, if we didn’t get there early, Seth and Jeremy would be there ahead of us. Even though Sabrina and I had fixed it up, they called it their fort.
A lizard raced across the ground ahead of me. I laughed aloud at the way he ran, holding his belly as far as he could from the hot sand like that. Jeremy would try to catch it if he were here. Jeremy tried to catch everything - even sidewinders. I shuddered.
I shaded my eyes with one hand and squinted into the heat waves. Two acres separated our house from the one where Seth and Jeremy lived. Across the dirt road from our house, and three empty lots down, was where Sabrina lived. I didn’t see her, either.
I skipped around an Ocotillo bush and headed for the Palo Verde tree. The warm dirt felt good on my bare feet. All the while, I kept an eye on the catclaw trees along the wash. The boys liked to sneak up on us from there and scare us with all sorts of animals and insects.
When I reached the Palo Verde tree, I called for Sabrina. No one answered. The only sound was a cicada up in the tree. I sat down in the rocking chair and waited. I didn’t want the boys taking our place.
It was a long time before I heard voices, and by that time I was pretty tired of being out there by myself. I sat real still, so when Seth and Jeremy got to the tree, they didn’t know I was there. I leaped out at them, screaming like a panther.
Jeremy leaped back, and his eyes got huge and round. Seth jumped, but he didn’t act like it scared him much. I started laughing at the way Jeremy looked, and he took out after me. I was laughing so hard that I could barely run. He caught up with me and started pulling on my ponytail.
“Stop it,” I yelled.
Jeremy shoved me to the ground. “It isn’t funny.”
I made a face. “Then how come you think it’s so funny when you scare us?”
He turned around and ran back to Seth. “Come on. Let’s pretend she’s the enemy and we have to keep her out of the fort.”
I came off the ground like a dust devil. “I was here first. Sabrina’s supposed to be here in a few minutes.”
“Tough luck,” Jeremy said. “Now we have the fort.”
“It isn’t a fort!” I yelled. “And Sabrina and I made it, not you.”
Jeremy laughed. “You didn’t make that tree, and it isn’t on your property.”
“I was here first,” I repeated.
Jeremy laughed again. “Yeah, but I’m bigger.”
Seth winked at Jeremy. “Why don’t we let her stay. She could be one of our prisoners.”
I glared at him. “I don’t want to be a stupid prisoner.”
Seth shrugged. “Then what can you be?”
I stared at him. Was he actually inviting me to play with them, or was he setting me up for another joke? “I could be the scout,” I suggested.
Jeremy threw his head back and laughed like a braying mule. “Scout? You wouldn’t know a prairie dog print from a sidewinder’s trail.”
“Let her try,” Seth said as he ducked under the limbs of the Palo Verde tree.
Jeremy looked at me and then at Seth. He couldn’t figure out why Seth was inviting me to play with them. I couldn’t either.
“What about Sabrina?” I asked.
Seth turned around. “Didn’t your mom tell you?”
I put my hands on my hips and faced him. “What does Mom have to do with this?”
Seth made a face. “She was supposed to tell you that Sabrina had to go to California this weekend. Her grandfather died.”
I stared at him. Mom hadn’t told me a thing. Maybe she forgot, or maybe she was waiting for the right time to tell me. Last summer I had gone with Sabrina and her family to visit her grandparents. They were cool people and we had a good time. Poor Sabrina. I could feel my eyes burning, but I wasn’t about to cry in front of Seth and Jeremy.
Seth looked away, but Jeremy kept staring at me. I think he was waiting for me to start blubbering. I stared at the ground while I drew a circle in the dirt with my toe. “She didn’t tell me.” I said in a voice that didn’t sound like mine.
“I’m sorry,” Seth said.
“Is that why you invited me to play with you?” I asked, hoping he’d say no.
He shrugged. “Not really. It just seems like we’re always fighting over this fort. Seeing you here alone made me think. Why can’t we all use the fort at the same time?”
“Because it’s not a fort,” I said. “It’s a house.”
“Well,” Jeremy said. “Forts have houses in them.”
We played the rest of the day, and when Sabrina returned, we all played together. The fort-house got bigger and better. I have to admit that Seth was right. Sometimes we argued about what we were going to play, but we all spent more time under the Palo Verde tree after that. It was a lot more fun sharing the tree than taking turns. Of course, we all still tried to be the first ones to get to the tree on Saturday morning. Only after that, it wasn’t boys against girls. It was a contest to see who was the fastest. Sabrina usually won all the foot races, but nobody could beat Jeremy when it came to catching pets. I didn’t make a bad scout after all, and Seth always seemed to find a way to solve our disagreements. We made a great team.
This story can be purchased in the collection of short youth stories "YOUTH YARNS."