“Jack! Please come down from there! Please!”
Jack looked down from the branch. Beth stared up at him, her hair whipped by another strong gust from the east. It wasn’t raining just yet, but the storm clouds were gathered in a long gray line, like knights lining up to charge.
“We’ve done this a hundred times, Beth. You’re missing the show. You can see the lightning clear across in the other county. There goes another one! I’m going higher!”
“Jack! Please, not today. Come down! We’ll… we’ll get in trouble if we come home soaking wet again!”
Higher in the tree, Jack laughed. “We’ll get hot cocoa and muffins from your mother, that’s what we’ll get. You have to see this, Beth!”
But she had seen it, in her dreams, three nights in a row, nearly a month ago. The storm, billowing in from the east, spitting lightning and thunder and hail. She wasn’t worried about the lightning, even though Jack was even now swinging onto the highest branch he could reach.
It would be the hail, falling swift and savage, stinging his face and arms and causing him to lose his balance and to fall.
Beth hiked up her skirts, set her feet on the gnarled trunk of the great old tree. It had already been struck by lightning once before, partially splitting the tree. Somehow, bits survived on either side of the blast, and the tree had grown into something gnarled and twisted. In the fall, when the tree lost its leaves, the outstretched branches resembled bat-like wings, while others had twined to form some sort of alligator’s maw.
The split trunk of the tree made for easy climbing, and she hoisted herself up onto the branch just as a roar of thunder crashed overhead. Jack’s knights were making their charge.
I just have to get up there before the hail, she told herself, reaching for another branch. It was still dry. It hadn’t started raining. She would make it. She would prove the dreams wrong.
The sky flared, heat washing over them from overhead as a trailer of lightning leapt along the bottom of the clouds before diving for the earth.
Jack let go of the branch, sitting up, his legs still wrapped around it, lifting his hands in a cheer.
Beth was nearly there. She was on the branches below him when the first pellet of hail stung her fingertips. Another skipped off her shoulder, spraying her cheek with icy shards.
“Jack, get down! Get down and hold on!”
He looked down at her, his eyes sparkling with excitement, the same stupid grin on his face that had been there in her dreams.
The hail fell. Beth reached for Jack. She saw his mouth, opened in a scream, but the sound was lost in the thunder. She felt the wet wool of his shirt as it slid through her fingers.
Jack fell, just as he had in her dreams three nights in a row last month.
Jack forced himself awake before the sickening feeling of falling could reach its conclusion.
His pajamas clung to him, and the bedsheets clung to those, and he had to kick and struggle to get free of the tangle. Even though Jack’s room was in the attic, and it was summertime, the nights were cool, and a breeze wafted in through his open window. He still felt as though he’d been sleeping under his winter comforter. While running full tilt. His heart beat painfully in his chest, and his legs felt oddly weak.
The sky was deep blue above a warming orange of dawn. He closed his eyes, and saw the swirling of the branches again, as the world went topsy-turvy. He opened his eyes quickly, and sat up very slowly, making sure the floor was where it was supposed to be.
He scrubbed a hand through his sweat-damp hair. What was that? He’d never watched a storm from the top of a tree, never worn a scratchy woolen shirt with mismatched buttons. He’d never even seen a tree so oddly…..
Jack went to his desk, tripping the catch that unlocked the bottom drawer. He rifled through the collection of sketchbooks, organized by date, until he found the one from nearly five years ago.
Keeping the sketchbooks and dating them had been his mother’s idea. Most of them he had in his closet, in big cardboard file boxes. The drawings of Beth, though, he kept secreted in his desk drawer. That had been his idea.
He slipped the sketchpad out, began turning pages.
There it was, halfway through: the freakiest looking tree or the brownest dragon Charlotte had ever seen.
* * * * *
Jack looked up from elbowing shut the mailbox. Beth was on her way down from the house. She wore the knee-length khaki vest, today, over a painfully yellow tank top. The legs of her jeans were rolled up nearly to her knees, and she wore bright pink tennis shoes with green socks.
“Hey, yourself,” Jack said. “I really hope you learn some fashion sense before school starts. I could sell you a sister who gives pretty good advice.”
“I’ve seen Charlotte’s closet,” Beth said. “I think I’ll pass.”
“I meant Hannah.”
“Who wants to dress like a school teacher?” Beth fished a few letters from her own mailbox, and they walked slowly back up the gravel drive.
“It’s the socks. I didn’t have any clean ones left. Blame the Professor, he bought them.”
“You remember how the washing machine works, right?”
“Your mother gave me Charlotte’s checklist.”
Jack still had a pair of those pink and blue and purple plotched socks tucked away in a drawer.
“So how’s the unpacking going?”
Beth shrugged. “Mostly done. The Professor won’t let me touch any of his books, but I’m done with all of my boxes.”
“And today’s project?”
“Doors,” she said. “Yours?”
“Patching up the side of the greenhouse.”
“Lunch? The Professor is making something called a ‘grilled cheese.’”
Jack nodded. “Yeah. You’ll like it, trust me.”
Beth made a face. “How do you keep it from dripping all over the coals?”
“Trust me!” Jack called, as he jogged to the porch.
* * * * *
He was finished with the greenhouse in about an hour. His father had bought and measured the fiberglass, but left it to Jack to cut it to size, strip away the broken pieces of the existing paneling and fit it all together.
He checked in with his mom, who thanked him for the work. She sent him over to help Beth, which he would have done anyway.
She had two of the doors from upstairs laid out across some sawhorses, and was busy sanding away at one of them.
“You know,” Jack said, “my dad has an electric sander. We could be done with all the doors by the end of the day.”
Beth turned the block of wood, started working with the fresh sheet of sandpaper attached to that side.
“I heard you.”
“If you want to help, the sandpaper is in the box.” Beth nodded her head towards the back porch.
“I’m just saying, it would go a lot quicker if—“
Beth ran the sandpaper up as far as she could reach, and stopped. “Why does it have to be done quickly?”
“That just means I have to find something else to start on.”
Jack sat on the porch, rifling through the various grades of paper, fishing out the one he was looking for.
“This kind of work helps me not to think,” the girl said.
“Not to— why wouldn’t you want to think?”
“Not all of us had a childhood like Ellie,” Beth said. “This place reminds me of things I really don’t like remembering. This helps.” She began scrubbing with the sandpaper again. “Wear away the old to make way for the new.”
* * * * *
As Jack promised, Beth did indeed like grilled cheese. So much so that she had two and a half sandwiches and then didn’t feel like finishing the work they’d begun on the doors.
They lay on the back porch, staring up at the sky. A few high clouds drifted overhead, thin and wispy.
“You’re staring,” Beth said, her eyes fixed on the sky.
Jack blinked, turned his eyes upward.
“Yes, I’m real,” she said. “As real as you are. As real as this house.” She reached over and pinched Jack’s arm, knocked on one of the planks of the back porch. She sighed. “As real as that old church.”
“About that,” Jack said. “You don’t have to—“
“No. I do.” She sat up, took Jack’s hand in hers. “Come on. Get up. We’re going for another walk.”
Jack sat up, brushing off the back of his shirt. “Can I use your phone? I promised my mom I’d ask about this kind of stuff.”
They went inside, and Beth watched with interest as Jack dialed. It was an old rotary phone, one of the things Beth’s Grandfather had shipped to the house.
Jack’s conversation was brief, and he nodded as he hung up the phone. “Just have me back before dinner. In one piece.”
Beth smiled. “It shouldn’t take that long.”
The Professor had left after lunch to take care of business in town, and Beth rifled through his desk, opening drawers, closing them one after another.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, and dashed up stairs. She came back down several minutes later with an oblong wooden box carved with a wave motif. The detail work on the pewter hinges was also done up to look like waves. Jack looked on as she set the box down on the larger of the Professor’s desks and opened it carefully.
Inside, it contained a large wide-bottomed black jar and several long feathers.
Jack blinked. No, the jar wasn’t black, it would have been an almost-clear blue-green glass, had it not been stained by years of holding ink. It still held some, the blackness inside wavering as Beth unstoppered the bottle.
The feathers looked to’ve been from some sort of sea bird, something with long, broad feathers. The tips were carefully cut and split. Jack had seen the sort of cuttings in several art books.
From the top of the box, Beth withdrew a folded sheet of thick paper, laying it flat on the desk. She thought for a moment, then dipped the quill in the ink, and began writing.
The quill pen made a fine scratching noise as she drew it across the paper, and Jack watched, amazed, as a beautiful, flowing script unraveled as Beth wrote.
“Professor: Took Jack for a walk. Back before sundown. Thank you for lunch.”
“You make it seem like I’m the family pet,” Jack said.
Beth gave him a bright smile and patted his head. She carefully wiped the pen’s tip against the rim of the inkwell, and then re-stoppered it, closing the box.
“There. Now neither of our guardians will worry.”
“There were plenty of pens in the drawers, you know,” Jack said, as they ran across the yard.
* * * * *
“That was the turn to go to the church,” Jack said, pointing towards the twin-twined trees as they veered off to the left of the landmark.
“Yes, it was.”
“I guess we’re not going there.”
It would have been a relaxing walk, were it not for the pace that Beth set, and the fact that she seemed to take all the more-overgrown of the splits in the trails. More than once, they had to hold aside branches and what seemed like half of a shrub and wiggle through what served as an opening. Jack had to untangle Beth’s vest from three different briars, but she refused to take it off.
The trees grew closer, thicker, the shadows along the paths deepening.
“My parents said we weren’t ever supposed to go this far into the woods,” Jack said.
“We’re okay, Jack. I know where we are.” She stopped, staring right and left as the trail forked yet again. “Now, which way was it…?”
“If you’re going to joke like that, at least keep a straight face,” Jack said.
She frowned. “I was!”
“Your eyes were doing that ‘twinkling’ thing. Never play cards against Charlotte.”
Beth tugged at his hand. “Come on, we’re almost there. She took the lefthand fork.
It meandered through several gaps in the bigger trees, one of which required some climbing to get through, and then Jack found himself being led into large, round clearing.
He stopped, staring up at the tree growing in the center: a bent, twisted, gnarled thing, that looked like some ancient dragon, curled around some long forgotten treasure.
It was the tree from his dream.
It seemed like another lifetime ago that he’d put the tree down in crayon in one of his sketchbooks.