Connor and Megan Moore, Briana Arnault, Liz and Philip Blake, Kenny Jackson and Freddy Cross had been friends since before any of them had started school, and still are, though most of them have come to the end of their school years.
From the time they were very young, whenever they got together, which was as often as they could, they played games, all except Connor. Though he sometimes joined in the games, he often did not, because Connor was not very interested in games. It had nothing to do with the others. He would sometimes watch the others play and enjoyed seeing their fun and hearing their laughter, but often there was something more interesting to him that he would go off and do.
One of the few games Connor did like was one that did not even have a name. The game was very simple. Someone would suggest some task or feat as a challenge that anyone could accept, and the challenge could be anything from some physical thing, like jumping over a stump, or guessing what someone had in mind from some simple clues.
What made the game interesting was that a penalty or forfeit would be attached to the challenge. If someone accepted the challenge and failed, they would pay the penalty, but if they did accomplish the challenge, the one that made the challenge had to pay the forfeit.
As the children grew older both the challenges and forfeits became more interesting. One time some other children, Briana's older sister Brittany, and Philip's older sister Trish and Kenny's younger sister Nancy had joined the others. Freddy Cross made a challenge to solve a particular algebra problem. Freddy was very bright and no doubt already knew the solution and no one was expected to accept the challenge.
The penalty Freddy specified was to kiss Brittany, (if it was a boy) or to kiss Philip, (if it was a girl). Philip might not have been keen on being someone's penalty, but Brittany didn't mind at all.
To everyone's surprise, Connor immediately accepted the challenge. "The solution is 22," he said.
"Wrong," Everyone said.
"I lost," Connor said, and immediately walked over to Brittany, hugged her and gave her huge buss on the lips. Everybody gasped and laughed, except Brittany, who hadn't quite caught her breath.
No one blamed Connor, not even Brittany's sister Briana, who happened to be very fond of Connor, because her older sister Britanny was the prettiest girl any of them had ever seen. And Connor just happened to be one of those boys no girl minded being kissed by.
It was another challenge, also made by Freddy, though some time later, that is actually the beginning of this story. The challenge was to climb Stove Pipe Hill. Freddy frequently made challenges he knew no one would take. The penalty for failure would be to buy everyone ice cream.
"I'll take that challenge," Connor said.
Stove Pipe Hill was a very large hill on the outskirts of Plembertone. It was a little further east than the black quarry where the entrance to the ChildIsle tunnel is, and has the same kind of sheer cliffs surrounding it, including one side going down to the ocean. Unlike the black quarry, there is no way to the top of Stove Pipe Hill. It is called Stove Pipe Hill because it resembles an upside down stove pipe hat. All of the top of the hill is several feet out from the face of the cliff, making it virtually impossible to climb.
"Looks like we're all going to have ice cream," Kenny said.
"Maybe," Connor said.
Only Briana seemed concerned about Connor's intention to climb the impossible hill.
"You don't have to do it," she said to him. "Just say you won't and I'll give you a kiss," she teased. Then more seriously, "I'll even buy the ice cream."
"Connor looked at Briana and saw something he'd never seen before."
"I'll be alright, Briana. Please don't worry. If I weren't sure, I wouldn't do it."
"Alright," Briana said. "But if anything happens to you, I'll never forgive you."
What no one knew was that Connor had been studying Stove Pipe Hill for a long time. He had already made it his personal challenge to discover what was there, if anything. He spent many hours walking around the hill with binoculars hoping to find a crack or way to get through the overhanging rock that seemed to make reaching the top nearly impossible.
He read books on mountain climbing, and learned there were methods for climbing overhangs, even a horizontal one called a "roof" like many of those surrounding the top of Stove Pipe Hill. He knew he could eventually master those techniques, but he did not want to be a mountain climber, he only wanted to see the top of the hill.
He had been working for a long time on his own scheme for reaching the summit of that hill, and was nearly ready to try it when he accepted the challenge.
Connor and Briana both took courses at the Arnault's Science Academy. Connor was finished with his classes for the day and was walking toward the parking lot. Briana came skipping around a corner and nearly bumped into him.
"Don't you ever walk?" Connor asked.
"Sometimes," she said. "What do you care?"
"Suppose I wanted to walk with you and hold your hand?"
"Do you?" Briana asked wide-eyed.
"It's a rhetorical question," he said.
"We could try it and find out," Briana said.
"Your very forward."
"And your very coward," she said.
Connor laughed out loud.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Chem lab," she said.
Connor took her hand and said, "C'mon, I'll walk you there."
"Let's walk slow," Briana said. "I don't want this to end."
They did walk slow and after a few minutes Briana said, "I wish you wouldn't make that climb, but I'd never try to stop you."
"You could help me," Connor said.
"How could I help you? I'm not sure I want to help you do something I wish you wouldn't do."
"To quote you, 'what do you care?'"
"You don't know." She said it, but it was a question.
"I don't." he said. "You're very popular and you're always surrounded by friends and even when I'm there, you never seem to notice me. I don't mind, because I love seeing you so happy, and I know you enjoy the attention all the boys pay you. There would be something wrong with you if you didn't."
"I always notice you, Connor. You have no idea how many times I've wanted you to say, 'Briana, let's go someplace else,' and I would have gone in a heart beat. But you just walk away. You always have something else to do."
"I usually do. Yesterday I was going fishing and didn't have time to stand around talking."
"I would have gone with you if you had asked, but I guess you didn't want a girl in the way."
"It isn't that at all. I would have loved your company, but you were obviously having such a good time. I didn't want to interfere."
"You're right, I do enjoy my friends, but I'd leave them all in an instant to be with you."
"Well I'm asking you now to help me with the climb. It won't be easy."
"Do you know me at all, Connor? When have I ever wanted what was easy? Talk about what is not easy, do you know how difficult you are?"
"No!" he said.
"Did you like kissing my sister?" Briana suddenly asked.
"You remeber that? Well I did." he said. "I like kissing girls. Is there something wrong with that?"
"Of course not," she said. "But I guess you haven't noticed I'm a girl."
"I've noticed," he said. "I guess I should have shown you a long time ago."
Connor stopped and gently hugged and kissed her, not the way he kissed Brittany, but very tenderly."
Briana sighed. "It's about time, Connor Moore," she said hugging him.
After that day one seldom saw Briana or Connor without the other. Connor took her fishing. He took her to Uncle Anthony's library to do some more climbing research. He took her with him when he went to have a final look at Stove Pipe Hill with the binoculars.
A few weeks later, Connor and Briana were walking back to Briana's house, when Briana said, "I love being with you, Connor. It's like a dream come true for me. It's not because your the best looking boy I've ever seen. You are, but it would be the same for me if you weren't.
"When we first met at the Blake's farm, there was always something different about you. It fascinated me. You never did anything just because everyone else was doing it. I remember one day we were all joking about something, and what you said was funnier than anything anyone else said, then you suddenly stopped. You got up and walked away. I followed you. You went into Uncle Eddy's library and found a book, put it down on the desk, and started reading. I was right in the doorway and you never noticed me. There was another world for you none of the rest of us shared, and I wanted more than anything else to discover that world and share it with you.
"But I know I'm just another girl you like to kiss. I really don't understand why you want to spend all your time with me."
"I'm sorry Briana. It's my fault. Some things just seem so obvious to me, I just assume they are obvious to everyone else. Your different too, you know... well, maybe you don't. I did see you that day. I knew that you followed me. I wanted to say something but I didn't know what to say. I was sorry when you turned around and left.
"You remember laughing at what I said, but what you don't remember is that you were the only one that laughed at most of the things I said. You were the only one who understood. You were the only one that followed me. You're still the only one who understands me."
"But I don't, Connor. I love that you want me to be with you all the time, but I still don't know what your secret world is."
Connor laughed. "You've been in my 'secret world' all these weeks and you still don't know? It's really not a secret at all. You said once that I always had something to do when I walked away. Those things are my world and now you are living in my world and see what I do and what I love doing. There's no secret. I just love reality, learning what it is, how it works, and what can be done with it and now I love it more than ever, because you're a part of it."
Briana just looked at Connor saying nothing.
"Did I say something to upset you?"
"No," she said. "Just the opposite. You've just made me the happiest girl in the world. I love being part of your world, Connor. I don't care to ever be part of any other."
Briana did help Connor prepare for his climb. Kenny, Liz, and Freddy helped too, and they were all at the Moores most afternoons working on what Freddy called, "the contraption."
"My father says you're just like your father, always designing and building things," Kenny said to Connor.
"My father says you're just like your mother because you won't let anything stop you from doing what you decide to do," Liz said.
"Well, I'm glad everyone has me all figured out," Connor said. "I guess you all spend all your time talking about me."
"Not that much, really," Freddy said. "You're not really that interesting."
Briana laughed at that with all the others, but then said seriously, "he's only interesting if you really know him."
"You mean if you really love him," Liz said bluntly.
"It's the same thing," Briana said.
"Help me straighten this thing out," Connor suddenly interrupted.
The "contraption," Connor had designed was how he planned to reach the top of Stove Pipe Hill.
He had discovered a crack in the protruding rim of Stove Pipe Hill, that from the ground was almost invisible, but with his binoculars he could see it was nearly a foot wide. It also happened to be where one could climb to without too much difficulty.
He would never have been able to fit through the crack, but he could throw something through it, and what he planned to throw through it were boat anchors. Since he didn't know what was on the surface of the hill, he had two different kinds of boat anchors, hoping that at least one would catch on something.
To the ropes attached to the anchors, Connor had built a kind of rope ladder, which was really just big knots tied into the rope, which he would use to climb over the cliff's overhang.
The evening before the climb, when everyone else had left, Connor hugged Briana and said, "Thank you!"
"For what?" she asked.
"For doing the hard thing and helping me."
"It's your world, my dear Connor, and no matter how much I hate what your going to do, I have to be part of it," she said, and kissed him.