Brianna slouched in her seat, staring out the window, the worksheet on her desk forgotten. There were hundreds of things she could think of to do on a beautiful May afternoon, and none of them involved the circumference. Recess had been interrupted by a short but fierce thunderstorm, but now the sun was shining and all Brianna wanted to do was escape from yet another boring day of fourth grade.
She'd thought of a few ways: ask to go to the bathroom and never return, pretend something bad was happening outside and slip away while everyone else was looking out the window, or just leap out of her seat and run for the door.
Or, she could climb that tree.
There was a huge pine that grew outside Miss Ramirez's classroom, its branches almost touching the window. Brianna could see the branches waving in the breeze, as if inviting her to climb out and play. And if the stupid windows hadn't been rusted shut, Brianna might have tried. There was one-
A sour-smelling breeze ruffled Brianna's hair. She turned and looked up into the unsmiling face of Miss Ramirez.
"Do you see something interesting out there, Miss Simmons?"
There was a giggle from the other side of the room. That was Jessica, of course. Brianna hated being called Miss Simmons, like she was thirty, but all she wanted right now was for Miss Ramirez to go away. "No, Miss Ramirez."
"Well, then you should get on with your work." Miss Ramirez tapped the doodle on Brianna's worksheet with one long, bony finger. "Which doesn't involve unicorns."
More giggles. Miss Ramirez glided away, but her stink remained. Brianna raised one hand and aimed her middle finger at Miss Ramirez's skinny back. It was a pointless act of rebellion, but one that Brianna felt needed to be made.
"Miss Ramirez!" Jessica squealed. "Brianna's giving you the finger!"
Miss Ramirez spun around. Brianna's hand dropped, but not quickly enough. Miss Ramirez bared her yellow teeth in what Brianna thought of as her vampire smile.
"Miss Simmons. One hundred repetitions of 'I will not make rude gestures', on my desk, first thing tomorrow."
Copying lines. Brianna knew a way to make it easier, but it still meant being Stuck Inside. She should have made her getaway when she'd had the chance.
Scowling, she picked up her pencil and tried to focus on the assignment. These circumference problems wouldn't be so bad, she thought, if Miss Ramirez would let them say that pi equals three. Or three point one, or even three point one four. Instead, they had to use three point one four one five nine, and write out every single step.
Brianna sighed and looked up at the clock. Three o'clock was a long way off.
Brianna watched the clock, counting down the seconds.
Three, two, one..
The bell rang. Brianna grabbed her backpack and bolted, nearly knocking over Allison and Dylan in her rush to escape. She could hear Miss Ramirez yelling something, but Brianna didn't care. She charged down the hallway, down the stairs, and out into the fresh air.
She made her way around the side of the building to the side entrance, looking up at the trees as she went. After months of nothing but bare branches it seemed like everything had gotten green all at once. Color had returned to the world – but it was still another month until summer vacation. One more month of being trapped by those dirty white walls.
The door opened and a swarm of second-graders poured out, squinting in the bright May sunshine. Roger wasn't at the head of the pack. That probably meant he'd gotten in trouble again. Brianna stood on tiptoe, trying to catch a glimpse of her brother. There he was, towards the back of the swarm.
He plodded up to her and stopped, not looking up from the sidewalk. "Hi, Bree." He walked on without saying more – a sure sign that he was in trouble. Normally he liked to tell her about his day during the walk home, especially if something gross had happened.
They rounded the corner, crossed the parking lot, and made their way across the playground.
Brianna stopped to look at the red tree.
There were three paths near the playground: one near the swings, one by the baseball field, and one way in the back, near the art room. She and Roger were heading towards a fourth path, the gravel one leading to Willow Street, but she'd never seen anyone use the three by the playground. At recess a curious kid (usually Brianna) might try to peek inside – only to get yelled at by a teacher.
The entrance to the nearest path, the one by the swings, was marked by a huge, gnarled tree with red leaves and pale gray bark – a maple, Brianna thought. The red tree looked exactly like one she'd seen in an illustration in a story book once. There had been a magical spring growing at its roots, one with healing powers. The hero had to bring back some of the water. There had been a lady in a gown made from leaves with ivy in her hair, and a minotaur that asked tricky questions... that was all she could remember.
Maybe it was just because she'd been stuck inside all day, but the path was calling to her today. She didn't want to head straight home and do homework and copy lines, she wanted to explore.
She nodded towards the path. "What do you think's in there?"
Roger was quiet for a moment, thinking. "Ogres." He kept walking.
Brianna frowned. Ogres? She looked back at the path again. Now that she thought about it, the green darkness just beyond the red tree did look a little creepy.
But just a little. Brianna could handle it.
"Come on, Brianna."
Brianna trailed after him like his larger, grumpier shadow. There had to be more to this day than boring arithmetic and stuffy classrooms. She wanted to do something fun.
For a while, there was no sound except the sound of the gravel crunching beneath their sneakers and the occasional scuffle whenever Roger kicked a rock aside.
The path ended at a dead-end street. Theirs was the second house on the left. As they made their way up the front walk, Brianna could hear Mom's voice through an open window – she was already shouting at someone.
Brianna and Roger exchanged nervous looks.
They tiptoed inside, slipping off their shoes and setting them beside the door. Brianna could hear Mom pacing back and forth in the kitchen – she must be on the phone. Maybe they could sneak past her...
But Roger was already inching towards her. "Mom?"
His voice was a mouse's squeak beside Mom's roar. She ignored him, still clutching the phone to her ear. "It doesn't matter. I'll go down there tomorrow and-"
"Mom?" Roger looked like he was about to get a flu shot.
Mom covered the mouthpiece and looked down at him. "Roger, sweetie, what's wrong?"
Roger mumbled a reply. Brianna was only able to make out the words "store" and "poster."
"Sure, we can go pick up some art supplies this weekend." Mom uncovered the phone.
Roger spoke a little louder this time. "It was due today."
A vein pulsed in Mom's forehead. "Can I call you back, Linda? I've got to go." She hung up the phone, her face slowly turning from red to purple. She advanced on Roger like an angry tiger, teeth bared. "Get in the car. NOW."
Roger made a funny noise and scurried out the door.
"NO! Get back here and put your shoes on!"
Roger ran back inside, his eyes wide with terror. Mom snatched up her purse, stomped into her shoes, and marched out the door, slamming it behind her.
Brianna remained standing perfectly still, staring at the kitchen table. Mom's house keys were still sitting there, beside a stack of old magazines.
She heard the tires squeal out of the driveway.
Mom must have had her car keys in her purse. But she hadn't even-
Brianna listened carefully. A faint snore was coming from the living room sofa. She crept up the stairs and peeked around the corner, to where a hand-lettered sign on the door read AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. The door was shut and probably locked. Mom was gone, Roger was gone, Dad wouldn't be back until next week, and neither of her older brothers was about to interfere.
She was free to do whatever she wanted.
A little voice at the back of her head told her she should use this quiet time to get her homework done, and to copy out those hundred lines – what was it Miss Ramirez wanted again? "I will not" something...
But it was a nice day. And no one was around to stop her.
Brianna picked up the keys and slipped them into her pocket. They made a faint jingle as they dropped, and Brianna held her breath. The snores from the living room continued and the door upstairs stayed shut. She slid into her shoes, eased open the door, and slipped out into the sunshine.
She locked the door behind her, half expecting one of her brothers to stick his head out the window and ask her where she was sneaking off to. But she heard nothing, except for the roar of a distant lawn mower.
Brianna made her way down the sidewalk and the gravel path, heading back towards school. I'm probably the first kid to sneak into school. The thought almost made her giggle. Between school, softball, and three brothers, she barely had any time to herself.
She could hear voices now - other kids, by the playground. But why-
Brianna groaned. She'd forgotten all about the latchkey kids. That meant there would be teachers by the playground, teachers who would ask her what she was doing back at school and wouldn't let her sneak off into the woods.
She inched closer and peeked around a large tree. She could see two teachers standing near the edge of the playground, deep in conversation and facing away from the gravel path. The kids were scattered across the playground, mostly in clumps of two or three. Two of them were on the swings, right by the path.
There was nothing but wide open space between her and the path. If she got caught she would have nowhere to hide. She stayed hidden behind the tree, watching and waiting. What she needed was a distraction, something to keep all eyes away from the path for a few minutes.
None appeared. It seemed that luck would only carry her this far.
She waited. And waited. Brianna began to worry – how much time did she have? It would take Mom half an hour to get to the store and another half hour to get back. And if she came back and found Brianna gone...
The two kids on the swings leaped off, one after the other, and wandered off towards the huge metal slide. That was the best she could hope for. She stepped out from behind the tree – nothing happened. There was no call for a teacher, no one shouting "What are you doing here?"
Brianna set off across the field at a walk – not a run, that would signal that something was out of the ordinary, something was wrong. A drop of sweat that had nothing to do with the warm weather trickled down the back of her neck.
The tree drew closer, closer, until Brianna could almost touch it. She took a look at the playground-
She froze. Allison was looking right at her from the top of the slide.
Brianna raised a finger to her lips, signaling for her to keep quiet. Allison wasn't like Jessica, but Brianna didn't know her all that well. Could she be trusted?
Allison looked away and went down the slide.
She reached out and touched the tree. It felt right somehow, like knocking on a door before opening it. She took one last look at the playground, where the two teachers were still yakking away, and slipped past the tree.
The path became a narrow dirt track just past the red tree, lined with purple wildflowers and plants that she could not name. Brianna reached out and touched one, her hand tracing the delicate lines on the bottom of the green leaf. This wasn't the sort of forest where you found ogres. This was the sort of place where you would find unicorns and magic healing springs.
She broke into a run. Something about the path made her want to run – not in fear, but towards freedom. Here was a world with no walls and no adults, no one telling you to sit up straight, do your homework, clean your room.
Somewhere in the distance, she could hear rushing water.
She laughed and rushed on, the world behind forgotten.