“Your shirt is tucked wrong.”
Lois blinks. “Sorry?”
“Your shirt is tucked in wrong. Look, it should be smoothed out more,” Lois is informed on the first day of class by the girl sitting in front of her. The girl has hair so dark it’s almost blue, and her eyes are very slightly narrowed.
“I mean- I suppose that’s true,” Lois says, bewildered. She tucks her shirt further into her skirt’s waistband, and the girl turns back around again.
Lois finds out five minutes later that the girl is named Catherine when she announces it at the first opportunity.
Catherine usually knows better than you, and when she does she always points it out.
“It’s not pronounced like that-”
“That’s the wrong line-”
“If you want to do it right, then you should do it like this-”
“You don’t know how to climb a tree?”
Lois stares dumbly at Catherine, bristling slightly. “Well- no. Never tried.” Catherine just rolls her eyes.
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
Catherine picks a tree and climbs it like it’s easy as pie, and Catherine knows things but no one said she was a very good teacher because she just sits on a branch and shouts directions at Lois below. Somehow it ends up succeeding.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Catherine says bluntly (not even a question, almost like a demand that Lois admit it wasn’t very hard) once they’re on the same branch together. Catherine is leaning casually against the trunk while Lois is clinging for any handhold she can find, but as time goes on her grip slightly loosens.
Catherine still jumps straight down without waiting for Lois, and walks away without even giving directions this time.
And the thing is- Catherine is a know-it-all, but she knows.
It hits Lois slightly like a shock when she first figures it out. She can’t believe she didn’t see it before, after Catherine makes three corrections to Lois’s homework unprompted and all three of the suggested (demanded) answers turn out to be correct.
The next day Lois is spinning her pen in her hand, trying to puzzle through a math problem that could be written in Greek (or Latin) for all she understands it. She looks up and sees Catherine reading a book she doesn’t recognize- it’s definitely not for class, though.
“Hey,” Lois starts, testing. “Do you understand this?”
Catherine looks up and frowns, eyes scanning over Lois’s page. “We just learned that in class. Were you not paying attention?”
Lois shrugs, and after a moment Catherine sighs and puts her book away roughly, still open with the pages down in the exact way Ms. Wright keeps telling her not to do. She sits down at the table Lois is at, and Lois scoots to make room for her.
“Alright look, it works like this-”
Lois looks at the tree that Catherine climbed with her, sometimes, as she’s walking around. Catherine had started climbing like it was nothing, like she had no fear whatsoever.
Catherine’s like that. When she knows, she knows, and she’ll tell you.
Lois passes it a few times on a meandering walk around the school before she finally looks right and left and around for anyone passing by, and then goes to stand on the first branch low to the ground. It’s not really so very hard- Catherine was shouting the directions last time, but she never physically helped Lois up. She did all the actual climbing herself.
She’s just nocked her foot on the second branch when she hears voices from around the corner, and she hurriedly jumps off and runs away.
Lois hates Latin.
It’s so confusing and no one even speaks it in real life so it’s pointless to learn. She would never tell Ms. Wright this because she likes Ms. Wright, but it’s what she thinks when it’s late at night and she’s sleepy but she just keeps rereading her notes like maybe it’ll stick this time.
Catherine is good at Latin. Studying with Catherine is nicer than studying alone, and Lois is pretty sure she gets more done anyway.
“You pronounce stuff really well,” Lois says one day without thinking, not exactly sure what she’s trying to say. Catherine gives her a withering look, like she’s just said something obvious.
“Well, of course I do.” And they go back to studying.
And Lois doesn’t really know how to say that that’s not quite it. That- that Ms. Wright can pronounce the words just as well too, but Lois doesn’t like listening to Ms. Wright as much as she likes listening to Catherine.
Listening to Catherine read out the words is about the only time when Lois thinks Latin sounds beautiful.
She doesn’t know where Catherine learned to climb trees or when she does it, because Lois has been at this school for more than a year now and she’s never seen Catherine do it besides the one time. Lois assumed that Catherine climbed trees often, but maybe she doesn’t; maybe she was just confident because she knows she knows.
Catherine doesn’t always know everything. Catherine will raise her hand in class and answer the question (or just speak up unprompted) if she does, but that just makes the silence every now and then more obvious.
Lois doesn’t know if anyone else notices it when Catherine pulls back. Any silence is usually loudly followed, and Catherine never makes a production of whining when she doesn’t understand something like some of the other girls do. Lois can tell that it grates on Catherine though, not understanding something- whenever she leaves class with that annoyed look in her eyes, Lois makes sure to steer clear until Catherine’s looked at the problem every which way and finally made the dots connect. It can take hours, sometimes- Catherine doesn’t give up until she succeeds.
Sometimes, Catherine will have to turn right around in the span of five minutes and explain to Lois what she just figured out herself. And Catherine will snap and roll her eyes as usual as if this concept is the easiest thing in the world, like it’s a tall tree and climbing it is nothing.
Lois just listens while Catherine lays out the understanding that she fought to get. It’s okay, she knows the truth.
Lois makes it farther and farther up the tree. There are others around the school that would probably be better or more convenient or less likely to come in sight of someone on a walk, but Lois always ends up walking to this one. Somehow it wouldn’t feel right to climb another one before she’s gotten this one down.
She makes it farther up, branch by branch. It becomes such a habit that one day after a frustrating hour of studying her feet just find the path to that tree without even thinking about it, and she jumps onto it nearly at a run.
It’s a good tree for beginners, she can tell now. Lots of branches, no huge gaps. And climbing it is like- like solving a puzzle, relaxing, no right or wrong answers just pulling yourself higher one branch at a time. When she gets high enough it’s like there’s something so relieving about it, like she’s left all her problems at the base of the trunk.
And one day without even thinking about it, she finds herself standing on the branch that she and Catherine sat on all that while ago. She feels a kind of pride swell through her, and she wants to run and show Catherine just like she does when she gets a good score on a Latin exam but she’s not sure how.
She runs her hands over the bark like there should be some trace of Catherine there somehow, though of course there aren’t. Then hesitantly, she looks up and plants her foot on the next branch.
“Ferebamus, ferebatis, fere, fere-”
Peggy and Catherine keep reading out Shakespeare. Catherine never misses a word, and it strikes Lois that maybe Catherine can just make anything sound nice.
“Will you help me with this after class is over?”
“I helped you with it last week, what’s the matter with you?”
That’s not a no. Catherine only means no when she actually tells you what she wants to do and is going to do instead; otherwise, it means she’ll grumble now but come over and drop her bag next to Lois later and say, “Alright, what do you need help with now ?”
And that’s exactly how it happens. Lois doesn’t even need to look up when Catherine sits down next to her because she already knows who it is.
“Alright, what do you need help with now?”
And that night, of course, is when it falls apart.
They’re at dinner, discussing whether Mary really fainted or not and if she actually walked home or maybe got eaten by bears when one of the parents comes to pick up their daughter. And it’s sort of strange but Lois doesn’t think super much about it until a different woman comes and says Catherine needs to leave.
Catherine glances at Lois for a second on the way out but doesn’t do anything else. And it feels- wrong, so wrong, immediately , for Catherine to not be here and all conversation breaks down into whispers about what’s going on.
Neither Ms. Dobie or Ms. Wright seem to know what’s happening, and more people come to pull out Evelyn and Helen and Rosalie, and Catherine’s not there to explain anything that Lois doesn’t understand like she usually is. Her empty seat is like a hole in the room, all of their seats are, and she just sits there because she doesn’t know what to do.
And eventually, someone comes to pick up Lois too.
Her mother’s in the car. Ms. Wright makes one last attempt, desperately, to ask why she’s doing this, but her mother just snaps at Lois to leave quickly and Lois follows because she doesn’t know what else to do. Ms. Wright whirls away to comfort Ms. Dobie and something sickly settles in her chest.
She studies out of her Latin book in the backseat. She doesn’t know what else to do.
It’s silent in the car because her mother won’t answer her questions, but once they get home she discusses with Lois’ father and the other girl’s mothers on the phone, and they finally sit Lois down and tell her this: that they had to pull her out of the school very fast because they didn’t know it before but Ms. Wright and Ms. Dobie have something wrong with them, and it’s dangerous to let kids be around those kinds of people who have things wrong with them.
She’s muddled and asks if it’s a kind of disease, wondering if Catherine knows about any diseases that still make the person seem perfectly fine on the outside, and they discuss some more in hurried whispers and then tell her that the problem is that- they felt in unnatural ways towards each other.
They wanted to be close to each other. In the romantic way- you know how Mummy and Daddy are married to each other? You know how people in the movies and stories- yes, like Cleopatra- want to hug and kiss each other and tell each other that they’re beautiful? Yes, like- like that. What Ms. Wright and Dr. Cardin pretended to have. Do you understand, Lois?
And Lois sits there and her heart starts to pound.
The school closes. There’s a trial. Information flourishes through the grapevine, but her parents try to block her from learning anything. Lois misses the school. She misses her tree and she misses Latin and she misses Catherine’s voice telling her how to pronounce things.
She misses- she misses-
She climbs another tree one day when it all gets too much. It’s a good tree for beginners, lots of branches, but she forgets that she doesn’t know this tree as well as the other one and can’t just go on autopilot while she’s climbing it, and she’s only a bit above the ground when she slips and nearly falls. Luckily she was holding onto another branch tight and her legs kick out and find another foothold, but she climbs down anyway and just sits at the base.
Catherine would kick the tree and then try again. Lois isn’t sure if she’s that kind of person.
But is she? Is she that kind of person? Is that what she was-
Ms. Dobie dies. It was all a mistake, apparently.
She sees Catherine in the store when they go into town and it’s like a tidal wave of relief crashes through her. Catherine’s- back. In her life. She wasn’t dead (like Ms. Dobie) but somehow-
Lois feels like a string is yanking her back and forth, towards Catherine and away. She’s not- not one of those kinds of people. Or is she?
She’s not. It’s okay, she’s not. She decides this while turning the corner to fetch something her mother asked for, and she bumps straight into Catherine. Catherine blinks and for half a second an expression passes over her face that Lois can’t decipher.
Then it’s gone. “Oh, it’s you. How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m, um, well,” Lois replies.
They make small talk and it’s horribly awkward. Something’s- missing. All the ways they talked before, the topics and the methods, the coding of Catherine saying things and Lois reading in between the lines and sometimes the other way around all feels like it disappeared like smoke.
It’s difficult to talk about school when they’re not going to go to the same one anymore. And it’s difficult to reminisce about their old school when one of the teachers is dead.
Catherine almost looks disappointed too, even though Lois can’t quite understand why. She doesn’t know what to do, and Catherine is usually the one who’s sharp and brilliant and knows everything, and Catherine’s the one who knows how to climb trees.
Except Catherine never tries something in front of others if she doesn’t think she knows how.
And before she knows it Catherine is turning away and saying goodbye and Lois just squeezes her eyes shut and kicks out for a foothold herself.
“Can you help me climb a tree?”
Catherine stops. Then she turns around, confused. “A tree?”
“Yeah,” Lois nods, her heart going a million miles an hour. “You showed me how to climb that tree that one time. And I’m, um, I’ve been practicing. But there’s a tree near my house that’s harder and could you come and teach me how to climb that one too?”
Catherine tilts her head and Lois barrels on. “And there’s some Latin too if you’d rather do that. I don’t, um, understand the conjugations for some words. Could you help me?”
It’s silent for a few moments and Lois can’t even look at Catherine, and she keeps twisting her hands together. Then Catherine speaks and her head shoots up.
“Sure. I’d- um,” Catherine starts, then cuts off and shifts to a more teasing tone of voice. Their same old game. “Sure, I’ll help you. God knows you probably need it.”
Lois snorts slightly and Catherine smiles for half a second before hiding it, and they agree on a place to meet.
And for a second, everything feels right again.