I can do it. Take a deep breath. Reach forward. I am almost there. I can do it. I am not a wimp. I’ll prove you all wrong. Just don’t look down.
The human’s calloused fingers were slick with sweat as he clung to the branch of the pine tree. The boy could barely feel his legs any more for they had fallen asleep from immobility. He had come so close to the top, but then the reality of his situation had set in. The wind had begun to pick up and to ripple through his black hair. A gust of pine needles had blown into his eyes and in that moment he had made the irreversible mistake of looking down. How long had I been stuck in this position? And now I am talking to myself again. Of course, who would I be talking to. The boy closed his moist eyes and tried to slow his heart beating. He listened to each dull sound, counting as they pulsated in his chest. There was something about the repetitive numbers circling through his brain that calmed him. Fuck Billy, and Zach, and even Tiffany, too. The others were long gone by now. But he, he was still stuck here.
They had dared him into taking the climb. They told him he was just a loser and wimp. “If you want any friends, you’ll have to prove it,” Billy had taunted. Climb, piggy, climb. Zach’s words echoed through his mind. My Tiffany, sweet pretty Tiffany. Even she had turned to him and said, “I am embarrassed by you.” So he had climbed, despite his terrible fear of heights. For that first time he had seen Tiffany had changed his life forever and he did what ever she said.
Tiffany had moved into the neighborhood about a month ago, and he had met her that first time by the beach. He was a loner. Just watching the tide clash against the sand as he talked to himself. He did that a lot. So, of course, who would I be talking to now.
She had approach him that afternoon. She had been watching her sister play in the sand, and now her sister had lost a charm bracelet. She needed help. So, of course, he had helped her look for it like an idiot. Stupid, charm bracelet. Stupid, Tiffany. Hours passed by and she told him he could stop. “It didn’t really matter that much,” she told him. It was just a stupid, charm bracelet. But he didn’t mind looking. She had light brown hair, which glistened in the dimming sunlight. She had the tiniest freckles on her cheeks. She had eyes that were the deepest shade of blue that he could just dive into as if were an ocean. She was the cutest thing he had ever seen.
She was standing before him in her bathing suit, fiddling with her yellow shirt and tying it into a knot. Without thinking, he had let his eyes wander from his search through the sand to her bare torso. He must have been staring for when he snapped back into awareness she was giving him a stern look. Her eyebrows were ajar in a disapproving way. And then he could feel the blood rushing to his cheeks. “You embarrass me,” she had remarked as she turned away. She was just joking. He knew it. The sternest in her eyes couldn’t conceal the smile on her lips. You would think that would be a cue to shut up. Idiot. You idiot. She was facing away from him as he continued to rake through the sand like her servant. This time he was careful to just steal mischievous glimpses at her back and to not get caught. But then he saw it. The faint symbols that seemed to cut through her skin in the crease of her back bone above her butt.
He wanted to punch himself as soon as the words blurted out. Idiot. You idiot. She never let him live that down.
But still, she spent time with him. Her and her little gang of buddies, Billy and Zach.
They had dared him into taking the climb, but he could only blame himself. Well, himself and that damned charm bracelet. He tightened his grip onto the branch. He could feel the sap of the tree growing firm like glue as it mixed with his sweat. She treated him like shit, but he let her. It was better to be a loner. He let go of the tree with his left hand. The blood was flowing back to his legs and he wrapped them tightly against the tree to gain support. He reached down into the pocket of his shirt and felt it against his fingertips. It was cold and smooth and it glimmered in the rays of light. Yeah, I had found it after all. Tiffany had given up and taken her sister back home. He had stayed behind and as the sun finally disappeared beneath the rolling, rising tide he spotted that stupid charm bracelet. He held it in his trembling hand now. He thought about dropping it. Tiffany you can have it!
But she was gone already. Her and the boys had run out of patience waiting for him to climb. As he clung near the top of the tree paralyzed in fear, they had spewed some final taunts. Then their voices had faded away and he had seen their ant-sized forms walk off. Maybe they never intended to stay anyway. It was just a trick to ditch him. They certainly didn’t believe in him. They probably thought he’d get injured in the process. He clutched the charm bracelet and then tucked it back into his shirt pocket.
I can do it.
He reached forward and grabbed onto the next branch of the tree. He shook it a little making sure it would hold. I can do it. He lifted himself upward and onward. Another grab and then another and then he was finally there. His head poked out through the canopy of the leaves and into the fresh air. I did it.
If only they could see me now. They wouldn’t laugh. Tiffany, maybe she would make me her boyfriend. There was a sea gull gliding in the distance through the puffy clouds. There was an unending expanse of blue sky. He could taste the bitter salt against his lips as the ocean water was carried toward him by the wind. Far below, he could see the whole world stretching and stretching. There were the lights of the village and smoke from the factory buildings. There were the high cliffs of Dolphin’s Gap. It looked so small from up here. There was the beach where he met Tiffany. He let go of the branch and balanced himself using just his legs. As the wind hurled around him, it seemed to take his fear with it. His legs had grown steady, overwhelmed by the beauty of the view. He let a loud howl, like a dog beckoning to the moon. A smile took over his face and he had never felt so happy and alive. Who could have imagined this was what the Eastern Factory looked like?
It was getting dark now and he would have to begin the tentative descent back to the ground. He glanced back up at the greying sky and spotted the sea gull again. As it darted through the clouds, there was a sudden flicker of light. It wasn’t lightening though. He rubbed his eyes. I must be seeing things. He was tired and thirsty and it was late at night. There was another flicker and it seemed as if the sky itself, for just one second, had turned to a wall of static. He rubbed his eyes again and a cold tingle crept up his spine. The sea gull had suddenly disappeared. Not behind a cloud, but just out of thin air. And now he thought back to what that crazy man had told him. Things here weren’t what they seemed.
The sea gull was back and flying above his head.
But why was there a hole in its stomach?
He began to descend the tree. He was no longer thinking about Billy or Zach or even Tiffany. One step after the next, he traversed rapidly. He just wanted to get home to his mother and his little sister and to tell them what he’d seen. His father, who worked at the factories, would be there later too. They would never believe him. But they had too. Maybe Joseph wasn’t just a mad man?
A branch from the tree tore through his cheek like the claw of a beast. But he brushed it off and continued downward, undeterred. He could see that the ground was close and he let go now, jumping to the grass. He stumbled as he landed, but picked himself up quickly. It was hard to see now as the warmth of the daytime had been invaded by the night. How would he find his way back? Damn Tiffany. He hated all of them but now he wished they were here. He tried to retrace their journey through his brain. Left and then right and then straight down the trail then at the fork did they go left? Or was it right? Shit. He was panicking again. Those panic attacks always happened at the worse times. Maybe he was just a chicken like Billy had said.
What was that?
He heard a crackle of movement nearby. It sounded like the crunching of twigs and the tumbling rattle of dislodged rocks. “Billy, is that you?” he called out. Assholes must be trying to scare him. “Zach, cut it out,” he spat with anger. The sounds had stopped. He must be imagining things. Could be just the wind. He was talking to himself again. Maybe he was going crazy like that those people.
He let his feet do the thinking and he followed his instincts. He had taken this path several times before and it should be like muscle memory, if he didn’t let his worrying interfere. He raced through the brush and soon he found himself at the fork in the path. He paused to catch his breath and was just about to head onward when he heard it again. The faintest rattle of movement. This time though it sounds almost like footsteps. A coldness took over his body. He couldn’t see anyone, but he could feel it in his bones. He was being followed. “Tiffany, come on now. I’m sick of your games,” he yelled. He didn’t really believe it was her. He was just hoping. Her aroma was always very distinctive. Damn you, Tiffany. He started walking again, trying not to let his fear get the best of him. Was it left or right? He took a right and could feel his feet sinking into the slog of moist mud.
It was a familiar muck and he was going in the correct direction. In the distance, he could finally make out the glint of lights. It was their little hut at the edge of the village. He had always been embarrassed by his home. It was very modest to put it kindly. His father labored in the factory everyday. Came home with soot on his hands and grime on his face. His father was a hardworking man, but then hard work didn’t lead to the best pay. It showed in where they lived and in how they ate. He didn’t want to show Tiffany his home. She had insisted on coming by, and actually, to his surprise, she didn’t look down on it at all. That day, out of the blue, she had actually pecked him with a kiss on his cheek.
When he asked what that was for, she told him it was for helping her at the beach. He thought about giving her that charm bracelet then, but he didn’t. Why did he hang on to it anyway? Those were good memories. He tried to cling to those memories as he walked briskly toward home. He hated his rundown little home, but there was nowhere else he wanted to be more right now.
The front porch lights flickered as he made it to the steps. He grabbed the door handle and scrambled inside. He took a depth breath, shut the door, and could smell the familiar aroma of his mom’s cooking. Somehow he had made it back safely.
“Is that you?” his mom called out from the kitchen. “Where have you been all this time? I was getting worried.”
“Sorry, I was just hanging out with some kids,” he replied as he took off his muddy shoes and tossed them to the side.
“Not, Tiffany again?” his mom quickly responded. “I never liked that girl.”
“She’s not that bad,” he said back. Why was I still defending her? He walked down the hallway and could see that his sister was already sitting by the table as his mom cooked some type of stew. “I was over by the beach… She asked me to…”
“Yeah, what was it this time?” his mom said without looking at him. “You do another errand for that girl. Don’t forget young man you have a sister here who could use your attention.” His mom was cranking up the heat on the stove and now stirring into the pot with vigor. “And this girl isn’t always asking you for favors.”
“I know, mom,” he replied, too tired to deal with another lecture. He knew he’d been acting strangely around his family recently. They didn’t like his new crew and why should they. “I have to tell you something, mom.”
“Wash up first,” she replied as she looked at his dirty face and scuffed up clothes. “Be quick about it too, because dinner is almost done.” She smiled at him with warmth. “I made something special. I know you will like it.”
“Thanks,” he replied with relief as he looked over at his sister. ”Sorry, to make you worried. I love you all,” he muttered. As he watched his sister, he could see that she was spinning her fingers through her curly hair. And she was sucking on her thumb. His sister only did that when she was nervous.
“Mummy,” his sister said with curiosity as she took her thumb gingerly from her mouth. “Why does that man have three arms?”
His mother was shaking now and her hands knocked over the pot of boiling stew. Flames danced from off the stovetop. He could feel a burning heat rush up his spine. In the reflection of the clattering metal pot, he could see the face of a being. It’s green skin. It’s sharp teeth. It’s three arms and the flickering electricity coming from the prod in one of its hands.
“Elijah…behind you!” his mother screamed as the whole room turned to light and then to a cold darkness.