Tree Climbing

By Shaun Phauh


     One hand on the thick branch. Put one foot on the other. Pull myself up, search for another branch.

     Pull up.

     Look for a good foothold,

     step up.

     The smell of pine on my hands is strong, like concentrated pine ointment or something of the sort.

     Pull up, look for a good foothold.

     At this height, when the wind hits, you can feel the tree swinging slightly. It sends a burst of adrenaline through you. Your body thinks it’s in danger. Thinks death is coming.

     Look for a nice, thick branch.

     Now make yourself comfortable.

     Elvis is just a little bit below me. “How do you climb so fast? You climb like a monkey!” I hear branches snap as he climbs. Looking down, I see his hands are covered in dark green sap, too. His hands are gripping so tightly to the branches that his knuckles have turned white. He’s got black, curly hair. His skin is a dark brown colour, and his eyes look alike.

    I just laugh. “Come on man, just a little bit more. There’s a good branch here.” I say, lightly tapping a branch close to mine.

     It takes him awhile, but with a grunt here and there, he finally makes it to the branch. He looks down and laughs.

     Nervousness, excitement, and happiness, all mixed together in a single, “Hah.”

     “Up here, nothing can get you,” I tell him, staring out at the sight before us. We’re probably two stories high. In front of us is a huge lake, and you can almost hear the small waves trying to get to shore.

     “Well…unless you fall,” Elvis objects.

      Up here, the sky couldn’t seem more blue.

     “Well, yeah. But that’s only if you’re stupid.” I push lightly at the branch he’s on and he instantly ropes his arms around the thickest branch he can find.

     “Dude! Don’t fucking do that!” he screams.

     I just laugh. “What I meant was that up here, not even responsibility can get you. If someone’s down there yelling at us, telling us to get a job, to pay rent, we wouldn’t be able to hear them.”

     Up here, the only thing you need to worry about is a grey cloud.

     Elvis nods his head. “Yeah… I think I get you. How often do you come up here?” He asks, scratching at a piece of loose bark.

     “Every evening. Or whenever it’s not raining, basically.”

     “Ever fallen asleep here?”

     “All the time.”

     “Ever worried you’ll fall off?”

     “No. Just a little bit disappointed I don’t.” I laugh, giving him the “I’m joking” look.


     “Jesus, man…sometimes you worry me a little.” He’s scratched off the piece of bark completely now. It looks like a very large scab in his hands.

     “Nothing to worry about.”

     Elvis stares up through the tree branches and leaves. “There’s still a lot of tree left to go up.”

     “Yeah, but shit starts getting shaky up there.”

     He looks up then back down again. Then he makes eye contact again, and I can see a sort of determination in his eyes. “Pussy.”

     He stands up on the branch he’s on, and I can see his knees are shaking with the fear of climbing. But he puts one hand up and grabs onto a branch.


     Elvis does not enjoy the life he has. I don’t think he was ever ready to turn eighteen. His parents threw him out of their home. He’s had to work jobs he never thought he’d be working.

     Elvis doesn’t enjoy working at a call centre.

     Elvis has slept on my couch before.

     When he turned eighteen, the age hit him like a speeding car, and Elvis did not look left or right when crossing the street.

     Elvis didn’t realise alcohol could be so addicting.

     Elvis isn’t going to college.

     Elvis is now nineteen.

     Elvis starts climbing. Hand on thick branch, leg on another branch. He was keeping steady as he went.

     “Dude, don’t go too high up, man. The wind really starts to shake the tree up high,” I tell him.

     “Up here, nothing can get you,” he replies, looking down at me with a smile for the briefest of moments.

     I sigh, shaking my head. And I start climbing, too. One hand on thick branch, foot on thick branch. Keep steady.


     I am in a different situation from Elvis.

     I am not going to be homeless.

     I do not need to get a job yet.

     I am going away to college in a few months. A place in America.

     I was born with enough money.

     I suffer from depression, which, at this point, sounds a lot more like some lame excuse to have something exciting happen in my life, compared to what’s happening to Elvis.

     I suffer from bouts of depression, but I think that’s a good thing because now, at least there’s something for me to complain about.

     I don’t really even know if I have depression.

     Elvis is going to be homeless.

     I am not.

    Elvis has spent all of his life running out of luck.

     I have spent all of my life trying to throw my luck away. I have always wanted something to complain about.


     Elvis and I were sitting in school, and he was showing me a balisong. This knife had three fluidly moving parts, and you could do all sorts of tricks with this thing that could cut your hand open.

     We had started practicing with these knives, and after awhile, we had gotten very dextrous with them. We would go off to the side of the school library and show off our expertise, often ditching a class to do so. But just like anything else, a teacher caught onto us.

     The knives were taken away.

     School rules, of course.

     The next day, it was the end of school. We snuck up to the teacher’s door.

     Elvis pulled out a key from his pocket.

     “Where the hell did you get that from?” I asked, not believing that he had actually managed to grab it.

     “He always leaves his key on the desk. I just took it while I was showing him my homework.”

     “You motherfucker. That’s amazing.”

     He slid the key into the lock and in a second, we were in the room. Elvis walked over to the desk while I quietly closed the door behind me.

     “Found it!” I heard him whisper a shout. And he was holding the balisong over his head triumphantly. We were like spies. Secret agents. The James Bonds of the school.

     Then he looked down in the desk drawer and he gasped, his eyes going wide. “Oh shit…” he breathed.

     “What is it?” And I ran over to him and I gasped too.

     Weed in a ziplock bag.

     And I thought we were infringing on school rules.

     Next to the ziplock bag was some cash.

     We grabbed both.

     Back in the secluded spot of the park back home, we pulled the weed out. Elvis took out a twenty dollar bill that he took from the desk. He rolled the weed into it. And with a smile he burned the end of it and started smoking. “Money’s the only reason we do anything anymore. I’m just helping us all out.”

     I did the same.

     And then, after he had gone through three quarters of the joint, he started tearing up. In a second, he was sobbing so hard he couldn’t talk straight.

     I asked him about it.

    And he said he was crying because he realised he hadn’t been this happy in years. And he hated the realisation.


     Elvis climbs higher and higher.

     Hand on medium-sized branch. Foot on branch I would not trust.

     I climb higher.

     Hand on medium-sized branch, I lose footing for a second.

     Gasp. Tighten hands, and quickly regain composure.

     Up here, nothing down there can get you.

     “Dude!” I scream up, “I think that you’re going a little too high up now!”

     “Don’t be such a fucking pussy, man!” he screams down,“You’ll only die if you’re being stupid!”

     I shake my head again. My heart is pumping blood through my veins faster now. Adrenaline courses through me. My knees are starting to shake. Palms are sweaty. The smell of pine is so strong.

     Elvis drinks too much and knows it.

     I enjoy bragging about how drunk I get.

     Elvis and I have been friends since the start of memory.

     The wind blows against the tree, and I can feel the whole thing shaking. Our combined weight at this height is making the tree unstable. My hands are starting to go a little bit numb from the cold. My hands are starting to close and open more slowly now.

     “Dude!” I scream up at him, “I think we should get down now!”

     But he doesn’t seem to hear me, and he just keeps going up higher and higher. Hand on thin branch, leg on dead branch. He’s climbing with a certain kind of recklessness now. I shake my head, and keep going up. But now I’m starting to get a little bit cautious, making sure I can grab onto the thickest branch I can find. Look for strong looking branch. Leg on branch that’s not dead.

     Elvis hates me for going away to college.

     I’ll be leaving him.

     He knows I’ll be leaving him, and then there won’t be anyone to talk to anymore.

     I said I’d go through everything with him.

     I said I’d be his friend through anything.

     I was on Skype with him the other day, and we were playing a video game. We were having fun shooting zombies, blood splattering on our virtual eyes.

     Three loud knocks came through the Skype call. A door opened, and I heard Elvis dropping the headset.

    “What are you doing?” A deep, bassy voice. His dad’s.

    “I’m playing a game with my friend.”

    “What are you doing back home?” His dad’s voice was stern.

     “What do you mean?”

     “I thought you said you were looking for a job.”

     “I am.” And I heard a tenseness in Elvis’ voice.

      “No! You’re not! You’re in here playing games!” His dad’s voice exploded and for a moment, I pondered ending the Skype call, but out of curiosity, I decided to continue listening anyway.

    “I am looking for a job!”

     “You were just fired! You were fired from a phone service company!”

     “I wasn’t fired. I quit,” Elvis said, trying to fight his dad’s aggressive tone.

    “You couldn’t hold onto the job. You couldn’t —”

     “Why don’t you believe I can do these things?! Why don’t you believe in the fact that I can do these things for myself? I can find a job. No problem. You want me to be responsible, then why don’t you let me do things on my own?”

      “I’m the one putting food on your plate. You aren’t doing shit for yourself. You wanna be responsible? Pack your bags and get the fuck out of my house.” I heard the sound of footsteps moving away from the computer. A door slammed like thunder.

     I ended the call.


     Elvis is climbing higher now. He’s nearly to the top of the tree.

     I take a moment to look around me, and I’ve never noticed how tall this tree is. I can see all around me. The endless lake, my house. The wind up here bites into me, but I can ignore it. I’m stunned for a second with how blue the sky is, and how it’s reflected in the water.

     A broken branch hits me on the head.

     Elvis is climbing so close to the top, I can feel the whole tree starting to bend.

    “Stop! Elvis! Stop!” I scream at him, all the air escaping my lungs.

     He finally stares back down at me. “No! I’m here now, and nothing down there can get me! I am who I want to be. Up here, no one can judge me! No one can fucking tell me that I need to pay rent. No one up here can tell me I’m fired! No one up here can tell me I’m not good enough! For the first time in my life, I am above everyone else!” he screams. And he’s not just screaming this down at me. He’s shouting at the world.

     “Man…” He laughs, holding onto the thin branches. I can barely believe he’s still hanging on. “I’ve never been this alive.”

     “We’ve gotta get down, man, this is stupid!”

     “No! Being stupid is going to work every day wishing you were dead.”


     “Max, up here, responsibility does not exist.”

    And a gush of wind comes in.

     The whole tree shakes violently, and I start screaming.

     I have always wanted something to complain about. I have always wanted drama in my life.

     The thin branch my hand is grabbing onto snaps.

     My heart jumps in my body. I know I’m going to fall.

     Look for another branch.

     Hand shoots out, searches for another branch.

     Does not find one.

     I’m falling backwards.

     This high up, nothing can get you.

     “MAX!” Elvis’ eyes widen in shock. He’s hugging the tree so tightly that his brain isn’t processing this fast enough and he does not try to grab me.

     Feet no longer on branches.

     I open my mouth to say something. My famous last words. A call for help. A scream. But nothing comes out of my mouth. I want to say I’m sorry for leaving you.

    This is like when you feel your heart jump in your chest when you’re trying to fall asleep. You’re in bed, but the sensation of falling is there. This is just like that, only I’m not in bed.

     I can’t hear anything but the wind.

     The smell of pine sap is overwhelming.

     I have always wanted something to complain about.

     Nothing can get you while you’re falling.

    Responsibility will not catch up with me.


Shaun Phuah is a sophomore at Interlochen Arts Academy, where he majors in creative writing. He is from the burning hot and humid land of Malaysia, where “at least the food is good.” He is the winner of three Silver Keys from Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for his poetry and prose. His work has been published in the Red Wheelbarrow. When he writes, he enjoys listening to copious amounts of Nirvana and FIDLAR, and drinks copious amounts of coffee. In his free time, he writes music and makes shirt designs. And then gets to work on something that has a deadline in about twenty minutes.