As Grim pulled up in front of his house he saw Benji Andrus standing beside the sycamore tree that dominated the front lawn of the Magnússon’s home. At Benji’s side stood another boy, about the same age as Benji.
This could mean only one thing. Something was stuck in the tree.
This was a game that Grim and Benji played on a regular basis. Benji would lob some object into the high branches of the sycamore and it was Grim’s job to retrieve it. Grim was like a trained, tree-climbing pet monkey that Benji liked to show off whenever he had visitors.
“Hello, Benji,” Grim said as he got out of the car. “Who’s your friend?”
“He’s my cousin, Benji” Benji replied.
“Your cousin, Benji?” Grim repeated, not quite sure that he’d heard correctly.
“Yeah, my cousin, Benji.”
“You two are cousins and you’re both named Benji?” he asked incredulously, and was reflecting on the odd naming habits of some people’s parents when his reflections were interrupted by Cousin Benji.
“What’s your name?”
“Touché,” said Grim, acknowledging the hit.
“Your name is ‘Tushy?’ ”
“No, sorry…it’s Grim. My name is Grim. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Cousin Benji,” he said, shaking Cousin Benji’s small hand.
Grim looked up into the tree.
“So, what is it this time?” he asked.
“A Nerf football,” Benji replied.
“The bright green one?”
“Where is it?”
Benji pointed to a spot in the tree slightly more than halfway up.
Grim looked at Cousin Benji. “How many times did Benji have to throw it into the tree before it got stuck?”
Cousin Benji blinked twice and looked nervously at Benji. “I don’t know. About 20, I guess.”
“OK,” said Grim, taking a deep breath. “Time me!”
And with that, Benji lifted the stopwatch he was holding in his right hand and tapped the button on the top.
A few months earlier, Benji had become enamored with his father’s stopwatch. He carried it everywhere, timing everyone, doing everything. Benji’s father, a coach at the junior high school, had eventually grown tired of having to search for his stopwatch every time he left for work, so he used that as an excuse to buy himself a new, sleek digital stopwatch and relinquished the old one to Benji.
As Benji started the stopwatch, Grim took two quick steps toward the tree, leapt up, placing his foot on a large knot about three feet off the ground and kicked off, launching himself up into the tree. He grabbed the lowest branch, which was about nine feet off the ground, and used his upward momentum to swing up, grab a second branch, and disappear into the canopy. He did this with such speed that Cousin Benji, who had been looking down at the stopwatch, missed it completely.
“Where’d he go?” asked Cousin Benji.
Benji pointed to the tree, following Grim’s upward progress with his finger. The Magnússon’s sycamore was an ideal climbing tree, with a thick central trunk and large branches radiating out from the center. The branches were almost perfectly spaced, too -- not too dense, not too sparse -- so once you cleared that second branch you could easily climb the interior branches as if you were climbing a ladder. There was a gap about halfway up on the east side which required a jump across to the south, but from there it was a straight shot to the top.
As Grim passed the halfway point he looked around and spotted the Nerf football wedged into the crook of one of the larger branches about 12 feet out from the trunk. He grabbed a smaller branch about eight feet above the one that held the football and swung his legs up. Then, hanging upside-down, he made his way, sloth-like — hand over hand, leg over leg — toward the football.
The further he climbed out on the branch, the more it bent under his weight, so by the time he was directly above the football he only had to reach down about a foot and a half to grab it. The two Benjis were directly below him, so Grim took aim like a bombardier and let the football go. It was a perfect hit, bouncing off Benji’s head and landing at Cousin Benji’s feet.
“Hey!” Benji yelled, rubbing the top of his head.
“Oops, sorry about that!” Grim shouted less-than-sincerely. “What was my time?”
Benji glanced at the stopwatch. “15.2 seconds!” he shouted back.
“I must be getting old,” Grim muttered as he made his way back down the tree, swinging down from the last branch and dropping the final distance to the ground.
“Now, Benji, try not to get anything stuck up there while I’m gone. I don’t want to come home and find a hundred miscellaneous household items stuck in the tree.”
“OK,” Benji promised vaguely and ran off with the Nerf football in one hand and the stopwatch in the other, Cousin Benji following close behind.
Grim glanced at his watch and, realizing the late hour, dashed through the front door and up the stairs to his room where he stripped, showered, ran his fingers through his short, choppy hair (which represented the extent of his normal grooming routine), and threw on a fresh pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Then he dashed out to the car, unhitched the trailer, and drove the few blocks into town.
As he pulled into the parking lot of Ruffles Drive-In, he saw Tim’s and Brent’s cars already parked outside. He walked in and headed toward their customary booth.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “I had to get something out of the tree.”
“What was it this time?” Brent asked.
“A Nerf football,” Grim replied.
“Where was it?”
“A little over halfway up.”
“What was your time?”
“You must be getting old,” Brent said. “You used to be able to do that in 12.”
“Give me break! It’s been a long day,” Grim said as he headed to the counter, ordered a Fresh Lime (a concoction for which Ruffles was understandably famous, consisting of two fresh lime halves, simple syrup, and soda water over pebble ice), and took it back with him to the booth.
“What time do you leave in the morning?” Brent asked as Grim flopped into the booth.
“Five o’clock. I fly from Idaho Falls to Salt Lake, then to New York, and then on to London.”
“This is your first time flying, isn’t it?” Tim asked.
“Yep,” Grim replied.
“You’ll love it,” declared Tim, the man of the world, having flown to California twice.
“I hope so. I’m going to be doing it for 18 hours.”
“They give you free peanuts, you know,” said Tim.
“Not anymore,” said Brent. “You have to pay for them now.”
“Really?” asked Tim, slightly deflated. “That takes some of the magic out of it, doesn’t it? I mean, what is this country coming to when a man can’t eat complimentary nuts at high altitude?”
“I keep forgetting the name of the castle where you’re working,” said Brent, trying to get the conversation back on track. “What’s it called? Wicker…Wicked…Wikipedia…?”
“Wickham! It’s called Wickham Castle,” Grim replied.
“Never heard of it.”
“Neither had I. It’s one of the Royal Family’s…” Grim searched for the right word, “…‘backup’ castles.”
“So it’s a secondary Wickham?”
“It could be a tertiary Wickham, for all I know.”
“I had a tertiary Wickham once,” Tim interjected, “but my doctor gave me some ointment for it and it cleared right up.”
“Are you going to be handling the grounds all by yourself?” Brent asked.
“No, no…I think they have about half a dozen people on staff. I’ll be like an intern, doing all the grunt work, presumedly.”
“And will a grunt like you get to meet any members of the Royal Family while you’re there?” Tim asked, raising his eyebrows knowingly.
“Why are you raising your eyebrows knowingly?” asked Grim, but getting no response from Tim (other than the knowingly raised eyebrows) he turned to Brent, “Why is he raising his eyebrows knowingly?”
“You know…” Brent said, also raising his eyebrows knowingly. “Will you get to meet any members of the Royal Family?”
“I have no idea what you two are talking about. Is that code for something?”
“Princess Victoria, you idiot!” sputtered Tim. “We’re talking about Princess Victoria!”
“No! No, of course not! Other than the occasional tour group, the place is pretty much vacant.”
“Too bad,” Tim said.
“Why do you say that?” asked Grim.
“I say that because Princess Victoria is a hot!”
“ ‘Hot?’ Did you just say she was ‘hot?’ ”
“What? Is she not hot?’ ” Tim asked. “I mean, sure, she’s a mess, but she is, as they say, a hot mess. And with those lips…” he added, staring off into the middle distance for a second. “…you know she’s got to be a great kisser.”
“I’ll let you know,” Grim said blithely.
“Yeah, right!” Brent said, punching Grim playfully on the arm. “You said yourself that she’s not even going to be there. Besides, you wouldn’t know a great kisser if you kissed one!”
“At least I’ve had some experience in that area!” Grim insisted.
“ ‘Some experience in that area?’ Talk about padding your résumé! It was one lousy kiss! One lousy kiss does not qualify as ‘some experience in that area,’ ” Brent countered.
“What ‘area’ are we talking about exactly?” Tim asked.
“Never mind!” Grim said, hoping to end the discussion before someone brought up the inevitable.
“ ‘I forgot something!’ ” Brent quoted, bringing up the inevitable.
“Cut it out,” Grim objected. “Yes, it was just one kiss, but that’s one more than both of you losers combined!”
“Well, I’m saving myself,” Brent said demurely.
“For what?” Tim asked. “Your 40th birthday? I’m not saving myself. I’m just a math geek, and based on the evidence so far, calculus and kissing seem to be mutually exclusive.”
“The outlook isn’t much better for English nerds,” said Brent.
“Who knows,” Grim offered. “Maybe we’ll all get lucky this summer.” But his words lacked conviction. If his subtle charms were lost on the girls of St. Albans, he held little hope that they would be any more effective half a world away.
They stared out the window for a few seconds and then let out a long, comically-dramatic, mutual sigh.
“ ‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast,’ ” quoted the English nerd.
“ ‘Man never is, and never will be, kissed,’ ” misquoted the math geek.