Tuesday, 15 December 2015 16:49

The Tree House by E. M. Eastick

THE TREE HOUSE by E. M. EastickThe mango tree crowds the corner of two yards. The trunk is gnarled with sap, and the roots bulge like bruises through the ground ivy and fishbone ferns. In the deep green of the canopy, the leaves fold around the skeleton of a tree house: slabs of weather-worn pine mucky with bat shit; swollen boards of compressed fiber; wooden dowels snapped like chicken bones and dangling from rusty nails.

I hated moving to Darwin. The heat, the mosquitoes, the storms that last for days add to the torment of starting at a new school. Even in my air-conditioned room, the tropical nightmare continues after every sunset. Flying foxes scream from the corner of the yard and keep the whole family awake. Possums gallop across the tin roof and launch themselves into the mahogany tree, which threatens to flatten the house each time the wind blows.

 

Every night since we moved in a month ago, I've sat in the dark, my fingers edging apart the vertical blinds, and gazed out my bedroom window to study how the phases of the moon transform the massive tree with the decrepit tree house. On overcast evenings when the wind is high, the tree is a shadowy giant lumbering to a distant battle-field, shoulders like aircraft hangars, and hands like helicopters. On a still night with a waning moon, the corner of the yard is a black-hole, sometimes deathly quiet, and sometimes alive with the scream of flying foxes, their monstrous wings swooping at the night like windmills. Sometimes over breakfast, my father promises to talk to Frank, next door, about chopping the tree down. Any excuse for wielding the chainsaw, I’m guessing.

Tonight is the first time I've watched with a full moon overhead. The bark glows silver like fish scales. The tree house looks almost new in the light. The boards that form the platform are white and flat, and the shadows around it could be walls and a roof if I hadn’t seen the disrepair in full sunlight. And then my eye is drawn to a flutter of movement in the leaves.

The door opens behind me and my sister, Ella, trips into the room, her cell-phone pressed to the side of her head. She sniggers into the handset and flicks on the light. "I’m going to tell him." As I turn, my mind stacks words like tiny cannonballs, ready to fire, but Ella’s too quick.

"Janie thinks you’re cute." She giggles into the phone, and then turns and walks out, her thirteen-year old reality spinning like a whirlwind out the door. Although Ella and her friends are two years younger than me, and almost as annoying as the bats, I can’t help but smile. I think Janie’s pretty cute, too.

I close the door quietly, flip the light off, and return to my seat at the window, prying the blinds apart and focusing on the thing moving in the leaves. There's a dark curtain swaying in a non-existent breeze. It hangs from a length of dowel that I swear was snapped in two in daylight. The curtain jerks open, and two piercing red specks catch me watching, and they blink. The blinds clatter shut when I pull my hand back. Bats, I figure, or a possum, or perhaps even a cat.

Pushing the blinds apart slowly, I peek through the gap. The red eyes glow brighter and bigger. A bat shrieks, and the eyes are flying through the night like a zip-line, and then I see teeth, long and stained black, racing towards me. The screaming gets louder, and when the face is so close I can see the black speck in the center of each eye and smell its breath like rancid meat, I drop the blinds. Something thuds against the window, the howling stops, and I’m alone, panting and sweating in the dark.

Saturday morning is drizzly. Through my window, the tree house is broken-down rubble drowning in gloom. The rain stops but the clouds stay, and my father asks if I want to join him next door to ask Frank about cutting down the mango tree. "Have you met his son? He’s about your age. I think his name’s Paul."

I’ve seen the tall, skinny kid with spotty skin and square glasses going out with his parents when I’ve been riding past on my bike, but he attends a different school, and we’ve never spoken. He looks like a geek to me. Ella is on the phone again. She looks at me and giggles into the handset. After a second of considering my options, I yell after Dad as he crosses the lawn. "Wait up."

We meet Frank in his driveway. He’s about to leave for golf and appears surprised about the flying foxes. "We don’t hear a thing," he says. "But if you want to cut it down, be my guest." He flutters his hand like a street performer. "I’ve noticed there’s an old tree house up there. Perhaps the boys could pull out the old timber."

Dad thinks that’s a great idea. I’m not so sure, but Frank hollers to Paul, and the kid appears in the driveway and stands beside us with the grace of a stick-insect on crutches.

"This is Andy," says Dad like I’m still three. At least he’s trying. He knows I don’t make friends easily. Ella’s folded effortlessly into her new environment, but Dad knows how much I hated moving. "It’d be great if you boys could check out the old tree house in the mango tree before I chop it down," Dad continues to jabber to no one in particular.

Apathetically, Paul glances to the corner of the yard. He shows none of the energy of his father, and I wonder if he's adopted.

Frank jitters beside us, gathering his golf clubs, wiggling them into the trunk of his Audi, and fidgeting with his keys. "I’ve got to dash, guys." His voice drops in apology, and then soars again when he reassures my father that he can do whatever he wants with the tree.

"Great," replies Dad with equal enthusiasm. "I guess we’ll leave the boys to dismantle the tree house then."

The two men wave farewells, and I’m left with Paul in his driveway.

"So do you want to go take a look?" he says in a monotonous mumble.

"Yeah, I guess."

Paul wears flip-flops; I’m barefoot. We stop at the edge of the undergrowth and look up at the formidable trunk and the forest of leaves overhead.       

"That’s a big tree," I say and then regret how stupid I sound.

"Yep," replies Paul, the first hint of a smile rising on his scabby lips. He wades into the vegetation, steps onto a bulging root close to the trunk, and rests a hand on the bark. "She’s a bitch, all right. She’ll be hard to fell."

I follow the flattened patches from Paul’s footfall through the ferns and ivy and stand on another engorged root. "How are we going to get up there?" We circle the trunk and my t-shirt catches on a stake jutting from the bark about three feet from the ground. There’s another stake further up, and then another, spiraling around the trunk. "Are these, like, steps?"

Paul tugs on the lower rung, and the stake holds. He folds one lanky leg into his chest and hooks his foot onto the wood, sprawls his arms around the bark and hauls himself up. He transfers his weight and repeats the move, from one rung to the next until he is fifteen feet in the air, his hands curling around the first massive bough extending over the back neighbor’s chain-link fence. He clambers up until he’s sitting astride the branch. "It’s awesome up here, dude. Come up."

"Be careful." I hear a trace of my sister’s whiney voice and clear my throat. "There could be, like—" no bats at this time of day, "snakes and stuff."

Paul doesn’t hear me. He disappears into the core of the tree, the mango leaves folding behind him like a superhero's cape. The bark feels like a rasp against my hands, and the muscles in my legs burn as I heave myself onto the first rung.

I reach the first branch and straddle it. Paul is standing on the edge of the same black platform that appears white from my bedroom window under a full moon. His hands rest on his hips as he surveys the dereliction, his head level with the scraps of timber that once served as a roof. The leaves hang over the broken framework and shroud the splintering dowel and plywood. If there’s a curtain in there somewhere, I can’t see it from where I sit.

The platform comprises two thick sheets of plywood with mitered corners resting against the main trunk and secondary limbs. There’s something not quite right about it. There's a small square of wood embedded in one of the sheets, newer and smoother than the surrounding material. My eyes scan the branches, the rusty nails, the shards of woods clinging to them, and then I see it, sharp and straight, no larger than a dart, pointing at Paul’s neck.

He steps forward onto the square of wood, and I yell "No!", but he springs the trap, and the arrow zips through the air just as Paul turns. The thing catches him in the earlobe, and sticks there like some bizarre body piercing. His scream is higher and louder than the flying foxes, and the blood oozes onto his t-shirt and down his forearm when he grabs at the side of his head and his fingers twiddle the barb stuck in his ear.

He sinks down, whimpering like a puppy, eyes electric with fear.

With welling panic, I grab his shirt. "Come on, let’s get out of here." When Paul doesn’t budge, I yank him again. "Let’s go." He scuttles across the board on hands and knees and follows me down the tree. Blood drips onto my shoulder. Horrified, I try to brush it off, but it smears into my shirt. My foot slips, my hands drag down the bark, and I’m in the ferns, trying to breathe, trying to stay calm. Paul collapses next to me, his chin shaking, the dart protruding from his ear like a magic trick.

"A booby trap?" My voice crackles.

Gingerly, Paul touches the thing in his earlobe. "It could have killed me."

The stupid question dribbles off my chin. "Does it hurt?"

He shrugs. "Stings a bit. Can you get it out?"

I don’t want to touch it, especially now the bleeding has stopped, but somebody has to take charge, and so I crouch beside him, grab the tiny spear on either side of the earlobe, and the stick snaps easily. I pull it through the hole, and a fresh flow of blood drips onto Paul’s shoulder. "My sister just got her ears pierced." I sound braver than I feel. "She says the hole closes up pretty quick if you take the earring out."

Paul looks at me doubtfully, and then he looks up at the canopy. "We’ve been here for two years. I’ve never seen anyone over here." He picks up the bloody shards and touches his finger to the point. "I can’t believe that trap has been set all this time. I mean, look at this." The barb is clean wood and the honed tip, sticky with blood, is as sharp as broken glass.

With rising adrenalin, I tell him about the curtain, the eyes, the fangs, the screaming, and the thud against my bedroom window.

"Let’s go up again." He speaks quickly, the flat tone gone from his voice.

"You can’t be serious?"

"We’ll know to be more careful this time."

I don’t want to be outdone by the geek, but I want to be prepared, and so I run home and return a minute later with runners, gloves, two steak knives, and a plastic crate to stand on.

Paul laughs like a dork. "Thanks for bringing me something for my ear."

I smile sheepishly at my oversight. He laughs again, takes a knife from me, and hauls himself up the tree. I position the crate, pull the gardening gloves on over stinging red hands, loop the knife into my shoelaces, and lug myself up the trunk to where Paul is swinging his legs and watching me with obvious amusement. "You’re like my grandma," he says.

We sit and scan the branches, but the old wood is mute with secrets. "It looks like there’s another board further up the trunk," Paul says as he steps onto the platform and cranes his neck around a clump of leaves.

Squinting at the vegetation above us, I see the board and haul myself up onto the first platform. "How do we get to it?" Paul is already on the other side of the main trunk, clawing up to a second level, and then he disappears into the greenery. "Be careful." My voice is so soft I wonder if it’s me I’m talking to.

Paul screams. "Get it off me! Get it off me!" He dances out from behind the trunk, grabbing at the back of his shirt and ruffling his hair with frantic fingers. "It’s got me! Get it off!"

It's the thing with the red eyes, it has to be. I regard my escape route, but then Paul is beside me, hopping from foot to foot and pulling off his t-shirt. He throws the shirt down and it squirms with life, but not the life I expected.

Paul's voice is crazily calm. "Shit," he says. "Green ants." Plump green bums and a million orange legs infest the t-shirt.

"Are they poisonous?"

Paul laughs and pinches an ant off his bare shoulder. "The Aborigines eat them, so no. But they’re extremely annoying." He blushes. "Obviously."

"Did you see a curtain?"

"Nope. Nothing. Just leaves and that one sheet of ply higher up. Maybe the moon was playing tricks on you."

Dejected, we make our way down the tree and sit on the roots.

"Maybe we should come back tonight," Paul suggests.

My mouth is dry, but I vaguely recall Ella saying she was having a friend over for the night, and it only takes an instant to decide on the lesser evil. "Okay."

We agree to meet at eight if the sky clears. I sit in my bedroom after lunch watching the tree house from my window, praying for the clouds to thicken and open their floodgates, but by seven o'clock, the clouds have thinned to wisps of cotton candy, and Ella and her friend are giggling through the wall.

After dinner, I meet Paul at the edge of the scrubby back corner, our grey shadows stretching like crocodiles across the silvery lawn. He hands me a flashlight and shines his own on his face, making his nostrils red and his glasses shine. His ear looks like it’s been injected with grape juice. "Have you seen the eyes yet?"

I swallow at the ‘yet’ and shake my head. Paul claps the flashlight between his hands, and I notice he’s wearing gardening gloves and runners, just like me, but this time, he carries a hunting knife in a sheath attached to a leather belt threaded through the top of his shorts. I’d swapped my steak knife for Dad’s Leatherman, which seems suddenly inadequate.

Paul trudges through the undergrowth, his movement gangly and fearless in the moonlight, until he's lost in the shadows at the base of the trunk, the circle of torch light swinging back to the lawn, back to where I'm still standing. "Come on, Andy. What are you waiting for?"

What am I waiting for? The squeal of a flying fox? The dart of a booby trap? The sting of green ants on my neck? I take the Leatherman from my pocket, fold out the blade, and thread it into my shoelaces for easy access.

Paul has already clambered up the trunk, and I hear him gasp. "What the . . .?" I launch myself from the plastic crate and scuttle up behind him, and then I see what he sees. It’s a half-size door, bright red, glossy and new and smelling like fresh paint, speckled with moonlight filtering through the leaves. It's the entrance to a proper tree house, with solid walls and a roof almost as tall as Paul. It looks like it was built that day, but of course, I saw it last night from across the lawn, and saw it again as a wreck this morning.

Paul pushes the door open and sweeps his flashlight around the interior. The far wall extends round the main trunk, like a hallway or a tunnel, and I see the edge of the curtain waving to us from around the corner. We creep across the platform on hands and knees, and the curtain on the other side of the trunk reveals itself. It seems to separate the main room from another room, or perhaps a way up to the second platform. "This is amazing," says Paul with a touch of his father’s spark, and I guess he isn’t adopted after all.

Crouched on my haunches, I survey the room with my flashlight, turning to scan our passage. My stomach cramps when I see the little red door has shut behind us. I’m certain I left it open.

"Andy?" The sing-song voice of my sister is muffled and distant. "Are you up there?"

"Go home, Ella," I yell. But she calls my name again, as if she hasn’t heard me.

Paul’s heels disappear around the trunk, and I reach back to open the door, but it doesn’t budge. There are no latches or clasps or locks, just a single round knob that I yank on desperately, but the door remains sealed.

The scream is the same one I heard last night, high and thrill, and I clap my hands over my ears. "Paul?" He scampers across the platform like a cockroach, his face twisted in terror. The red eyes, large and bright like radioactive raspberries in a face of black, are behind him. The stench of dead meat pulses across my face with a rush of breath. The door’s shut tight. We're trapped.

"Andy?" calls my sister. "Janie and I are coming up."

"No!" I yell. "Go get Dad." But I hear her giggles in between the howls. Can’t she hear it, too?

The high-pitched screaming stops. "Andy, help." Paul is flat on his stomach, scrambling to get away, grappling for his knife, but it’s swung around his waist and hugs his lower back, out of reach. I grab at my shoelaces, but the Leatherman is gone. Damn, I must have dropped it on the way up the tree.

"Help me, Andy." The floorboards are turning red with blood. Paul’s flashlight waves round the room like a strobe light as he’s dragged to the end of the platform, teeth like stalactites clamped around his ankles. I lunge forward and grab Paul’s hands as they claw at the wood, but the thing is too strong, and I'm losing balance.

The door bursts open behind me. "Dad would kill you if you lost his Leatherman." Ella drops the tool, the blade refolded, onto the platform, and screams at the anarchy before her.

I wriggle my hands from Paul’s desperate grip, and swoop on the Leatherman, prying the blade out with my teeth. "Go get Dad!" I shout, but then I grab my sister’s shoulder and tell her more calmly, "Stay here and keep the door open."

The tiny blade is like a mini saber in my hand as I shuffle forward on my knees through the slick of blood. And then Paul slumps as the teeth drop his leg, and the eyes, burning red and black like coals, fix on me. The shriek is deafening, a furious threat, but I can't leave Paul, not like this. Edging forward, I try to shield my face and reach for Paul at the same time.

The thing flies forward, over Paul's head, and latches onto my arm. Panicked, I stab and stab, my eyes closed and my throat sore from yelling. The blood is hot and metallic as it splashes my cheeks and lips and pecks my skin like raindrops. The teeth drop their hold, and I’m stabbing air.

It's a strange quiet that follows, disturbed only by the thudding of my heart. The sharp smell of blood is fresh and clean and not unlike the smell of raw beef just before Dad throws steak on the barbeque. The red eyes are dull and black amid a tangle of fur matted with blood. The teeth have shrunken back into a foxlike snout, and only the delicate canines peep out from between the thin, black lips.

Frozen and pale, my sister and her friend cling to the branch outside the door. Paul sits up and pokes at his leg, and then smiles at me from behind his glasses. With a gawky grin, he insists on hobbling home by himself. I take Ella and Janie home, their adoring eyes following my every move, their coos over my punctured arm like a healing balm.

Early Sunday morning, we meet back at the base of the tree, Ella, Janie, Paul and I, red-eyed from lack of sleep and wounds neatly bandaged, but not by our mothers. The stakes leading up the trunk are snapped or missing and my plastic crate is the only indication that access was recently possible. The tree house is back to its daytime state of disrepair.

"Last night was awesome, dude," says Paul, bumping my shoulder with his. "And thanks, by the way."

"Do you think whatever it was has friends?" asks Ella quietly.

A buzz of adrenalin pulses through me as I shrug off the possibility.

A branch snaps in the undergrowth behind us, and the four of us spin, poised, alert.

"What’s up, guys?" Dad’s smile drops when he sees us, and his voice is stern. "Is everything all right?"

I let out a sigh. "Actually, we were wondering if we could help you cut the mango tree down, like, starting today?"

Dad surveys our faces, and then lights up, and I can see he already has the chainsaw in his hands, revving and ready. "Had enough of those noisy bats, eh? Okay, then. Let's do it. If we start now, we should be done before sundown."

"Let's hope so." I allow myself a tiny smirk when Paul grins at me. "Those bats are out of control."

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: E. M. Eastick was born and raised in the tropical part of Australia, far from her current, non-tropical home in Colorado. She is a retired environmental manager, avid traveler, and writer of no-fixed genre, whose creative efforts can be found in Mad Scientist Journal, Alimentum, and Ember.