Irene tapped her pencil on the desk, consciously keeping a slow tempo as her impatience mounted. She watched as Mrs. Gorgesom handed out homework assignments, then shoved everything in her bag as the bell rang. Racing out the back of the school, she entered the tunnels in less than two minutes.
Haily still beat her. Breathless, Irene dropped her books in front of the doors.
“How did you beat me?” she gasped.
“Study hall,”Haily smiled smugly. “I ducked out early. Went to the bathroom and never came back.”
Irene shook her head. Haily never failed to surprise her, even after being friends since grade school. Hearing footsteps, she looked up, expecting to see Frankie. Instead, Greg was coming down the tunnel.
Irene and Haily immediately jumped up and ran to meet him. It was Haily that neatly turned him before he got to the doors, scolding him for ruining a perfectly good prank they were playing on Frankie. Irene followed them back up the tunnel; nodding when necessary and hiding her smile. No one could out-talk Haily.
Frankie met them near the entrance. “Sorry, class ran late. What’s this?”
“Greg met us down in the tunnel,” Haily announced. “Irene and I had a joke for you, but I guess that is over now.”
“Sorry,” Greg said, “although, maybe you should be thanking me, Frankie. I can’t imagine any prank Haily planned would be that fun for you!”
“Good point,” Frankie agreed. “I guess we might as well head out.”
“Hey, Irene, my dad saw your mom–” Greg started.
“Oh! I left my back pack in the tunnel,” Irene broke in before turning and darting back.
When she got to the doors, she bypassed her bag and picked up the oblong stone Frankie had designated as the door-stop. Pushing the lintel stone on cherry-pink door, she went through.
Frankie and Haily found her sitting on a hillside.
Irene was tucked in on herself, arms wrapped on her shins and her head on her knees as she stared out on the vivid canopy in front of her. They sat down, bracketing her. Haily put an arm around her while Frankie leaned against her. They all sat looking out at the autumn leaves spread before them.
“I wonder where we are,” Haily finally said, reaching for her phone. Irene held out a hand to stop her.
“I don’t want to know,” she said. Haily stared at her, but put the phone away.
Irene knew she couldn’t explain it, but she just wanted to sit in this moment. The strong edges of pinecones adding structure to the waving grass, the leaves drifting down to carpet all with reds, yellows and oranges. Her dad was probably laying under just such a canopy of leaves, somewhere in the world, she thought. She’d like to know where. Frankie would understand, she knew, he would understand the mournful beauty of the bright decaying leaves covering the acorns that would seed new growth.
Haily hopped up, unable to sit still that long. “How is it fall here? It’s spring at home. I guess it must be around the world, opposite seasons. Or is it always fall here?”
Irene shrugged. “I would love it to be fall here always. I could come and sit whenever I wanted.”
Haily frowned, Irene’s answer not satisfying her. “Hey Frankie, is Lizzy still after you?”
Irene felt Frankie tense next to her.
“Could you believe it, Frankie and Lizzy? Lizzy and Frankie? I mean, what is she thinking?” Haily wondered as she moved down the hill to inspect the trees.
“You should tell her,” Irene murmured.
Frankie hunched a shoulder. “I know.”
“She wouldn’t care.”
“Are you kidding?” Frankie whispered, “she would build me the largest damn float ever and put it in the parade! I don’t think I am ready for that.”
Irene burst out laughing, the truth of his description melting the last of her depression. “I do love you, Frankie!”
Haily came back to see what the laughter was about. “You love Frankie?” she gasped. “Is that why he doesn’t like Lizzy?”
Irene rolled over, clutching her belly, giggling helplessly. “No, n-no,” she hiccupped. “I l-love you both!! You are my best friends ever!”
She caught her breath and sat up, extending her hands to Haily. “I think I am ready to go home now.”