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If it weren't for the fact that we'd be going back to school in about a week and a half, it would have been an ideal afternoon. The weather was warm, but not hot, we had some great food to eat, a bunch of old books to explore, and a tree house to lie around in.
That had been the deal. The three of us (Gemma Davis, my best friend; Mchael Parlo, my genius younger brother; and 1, Jonathan Parlo) had spent the morning cleaning out the attic of Gemma's house. Gemma's dad's family had lived there since the 1920's when the house was built, and over the years, they had accumulated some neat stuff-toys, games, adventure books, and big heavy flat phonograph records of weird sizes, with different kinds of holes in them. I don't think I'd ever known anyone who had the kind of machine it would take to play them.
Mr. Davis had grown up to be a science fiction writer.I don't know if growing up in that house, with the kind of people who accumulated that kind of stuff had had anything to do with it, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had.
Anyway, the tree house was a lot younger than the house itself. Gemma's mom had built it in the beginning of the summer. She'd had minimal help from Gemma and me, and Michael fetched and carried as well as he could. Michael is seven, and Gemma and I are twelve, so we did what we could.
Gemma's mom didn't need much help, anyway. She owns a store downtown, typewriter, computer, and copier sales and repairs (she met Mr. Davis when he came in to copy his manuscripts) and she's really good at building and fixing anything.
And so she built the tree house.
Actually, it's a platform about nine feet off theground that bends around the tree like big pieces of pie. In the middle, there's a trapdoor strong enough to stand or sit on, and a double railing all around the outside.
She built a nifty metal ladder into the side of the tree, and gave us an incredible length of knotted rope. You could rig a basket to it and haul things up, or it could be used as an emergency exit. So there we were, up in the tree house. We'd hauled up some books and other things from the attic. The stuff was faded a little with age, but was otherwise in great shape.
The book I was reading, for instance-it was called Don Sturdy Captured By Head Hunters by Victor Appleton, all about a kid who gets stranded on a jungle island and chased by everything scary known to kids in 1924-didn't smell at all like an old book, and the pages didn't flake when you turned them.
Gemma, in the meantime, was making soft, tinkly music, like music from a music box, only muffled.
That's nice," Michael said. "What is it?"
Gemma held it up for him to see. It was a box made Of unvarnished wood, a little bigger and fatter than a videocassette with a hole cut in the top, and little prongs of metal screwed into the wood so they'd stick out over the hole.
"Says on it it's an African thumb harp," she said. "You pluck the prongs with your thumbs and-"
She brought the music back.
"How can you Play it already? You've never seen one like it before, have you?"
"No," she said, "but it's simple. A lot easier than a guitar."
"Oh," I said. "Of course."
Gemma played guitar, piano and flute. So far. And now, African thumb harp. I probably couldn't make a guitar go twang if I dropped it out a window.
Michael had something I knew something about-a stereopticon. I'd seen one in the museum at the state university when Mom took us there one day. It had a little scope and a wooden slide with a handle. A bunch Of double photographs (black-and-white) mounted on cardboard went into the slide, and you adjusted it until you got a 3-D image. The neat thing about it was that a lot of the pictures were about real news of the day. Michael, for instance, was looking at pictures of the Spanish-American War, which took place more than twenty years before the house was built-but you get the idea. History is my department, if you can say I have one.
I told Michael I- would like to see that sometime later, and he said sure and asked if he could read my books.
Now, when I said before that Michael was a genius, I meant it. He has special science stuff to study that this big professor at Princeton University sends to him, and he does it, usually within three days of the time the envelope gets to our house.
Right now, in fact, as he looked at the stereopticon, he was already muttering stuff like "Focal length should be proportional ... mmm hmmm ... curvature of the eyeball can be ignored . . . "
I don't even know if he knows he does it.
But for all of that, he's still a seven-year-old kid. There's nothing about dinosaurs he doesn't , t know (okay, not so unusual-but he knows it in Latin), but he also scares himself to death on those rare occasions when he gets to see The X-Files.
Michael loves Indiana Jones and The Three Stooges and ... and ... he's a seven-year-old kid, that's all.
But the book, the slides, and the thumb harp had been put away now, because Gemma's mother had raised lunch for us in the basket. We had a Sicilian pizza from Tino's plus an orange and a couple of sodas each.
Cleaning out the attic had been fun, but it had also made us hungry. And thirsty. So for the next few minutes the noises were mostly chewing and gulping. It was a lot more noise, I've got to -admit, than there would have been if we'd been sitting at a table with grownups, but what's the sense of being a kid if you can't act like kids when you're alone together?
After awhile, the hunger didn't cut so badly, so we did some talking as well. I looked up at the sky through the trees, enjoying the chewiness of the pizza and the....