Joel returned to start over. Seeing his best friend’s house for sale felt like fate. A new job. A house he remembered from childhood. Even the old treehouse remained.
Almost as if time stayed still here. As if everything had waited for him.
You never forget your first loss. On either side.
For Joel the yellow ranch house represented a homecoming, and yet not, at the same time. The house itself hadn’t changed much since the summer days he had spent here playing with AJ. It was still that same sunflower yellow with the bright green trim. Obviously it had been repainted because it looked just like he remembered it. The stone-walled flower beds out front hadn’t changed at all either, but the satellite dish perched owl-like on the corner of the house was new. Standing on the wood porch everything felt askew and out-of-proportion. He was too big for the porch, and it was empty of the worn nylon patio furniture that AJ’s parents had kept on the porch. Even stranger was looking across the street at his old house, hardly recognizable, with piles of junk and several rusted cars decaying on what strands of grass remained.
Joel knocked his fingers against the sturdy white post beside the steps, just to assure himself that it was real. He was back, in the town that he had never expected to return to, owning his best friend’s old house. He knocked once more on the post and went inside, feeling like a visitor in his own house, to confront the piles of boxes scattered around the house. Kitchen first, he wanted the coffee maker, coffee and his thermos. Fuel for the rest of the day.
Not having to report to work at his new teaching job until Monday, Joel spent the day unpacking and putting away his few belongings. One of the bedrooms became his office with his computer desk in the corner, the glass surface actually having made the move without getting broken. He set up his two computers, monitors side by side flanked by the scanner and the printer. From his tan microsuede chair he could lean back and look out the window at trees across the brown backyard. Surprisingly the treehouse where he had spent so much time with AJ still looked intact despite all of the years. Others must have kept it up in the years since AJ’s parents had moved away. When night fell Joel made himself a plate of spaghetti, with a spicy Italian sausage sauce from a jar, and carried it into the office. He put it down on the clear glass in front of the monitors while he pulled up his latest project on the right computer. TweetDeck filled the screen on the second computer, the constant stream of tweets giving him a sense that he wasn’t entirely alone.
At about nine, long after the sun had set, a light flickering in the window pulled Joel’s attention away from the article he was writing. He leaned back in his chair and looked out the window. A blue light flickered in the distance. It was so dark at first he couldn’t even decide how far away the light was, but then he realized that it was coming from the treehouse. A bolt of fear shot through his nerves. If local kids were playing in the treehouse they could get hurt —
He pushed back from the desk and ran out of the room. The house was dark but he flicked on the light switches as he advanced through the house. First the hallway, then the kitchen and dining room, and last off all the light above the back deck. Joel unlatched the slider and stepped out into the yellow circle of light cast by the fixture above.
Cold air slipped through his t-shirt and across his chest. A loud chorus of frogs filled the night air with their music. Thanks to the bright moon didn’t look as dark outside as it had through the window. The porch light didn’t carry far past the deck but he could see the long overgrown back lawn, the flower beds marking the edge of the lawn, the large square of the garden filled with dried remains of plants and past that the field that was the main part of his property. Across the field stood the trees where he and AJ had built the treehouse.
The blue light flickered and bobbed within the treehouse, shining out of the single window facing the house. Clearly someone was there. Joel rubbed his jaw, stubble rough against his hand. He didn’t want to scare them, but just the thought of kids up in the treehouse made him feel queasy. He walked across the deck, skipped down the few steps to the lawn and started across. He’d have to get out there and tear it down. The treehouse shouldn’t have been left up all this time.
His eyes adjusted as he made his way across the lawn. He saw his faint shadow moving ahead as he reached the edge of the lawn and stepped off into the wilder field beyond. Dry tall grass tickled his elbows. He picked his way through the field, stumbling at times on the uneven ground. The blue light flickered and moved, reminding him of a candle, but what candles gave off that sort of light? Probably wasn’t a candle at all, but some sort of glow stick that the kids were holding.
Joel remembered another time, coming out here on a hot summer night with his sleeping bag tucked under his arm and his heart hammering a thousand beats per minute. The air hadn’t felt so cold that night, but it was cooler at least than his room. It was AJ’s idea that they sneak out to the treehouse and camp out for the night. Of course he couldn’t ask his parents if it was okay, his mom wouldn’t have thought it proper for him to camp out in a treehouse with a girl. At the time he both knew that his parents disapproval had something to do with kissing, and he thought the whole thing was weird because it was AJ. They always hung out together. But camping out together was something new, and exciting because they were sneaking out.
Now, as he got closer to the treehouse Joel still couldn’t make out anyone in the treehouse, just the blue glow coming from the window. The light flickered, dimmed and then brightened. Sort of like what he’d expect from an electronic device. A video game? But the light stayed a deep blue color and didn’t change. About ten feet from the trees Joel heard whispering. He stopped and listened. He heard the incessant croaking of the frogs, the wind rustling through the grass, and in the far distance the sound of a car. Nothing more from the treehouse.
Joel walked closer, almost to the first trees in the clump that held the treehouse. “Hey! In the treehouse! Come on down from there!”
The light winked out.
Joel put his hands on his hips and wished he had gotten a flashlight. “Come on, I need you to get down from there.”
Nothing. Nothing but the frogs and the cold wind that cut through his t-shirt. Bright stars and the moon lit everything clearly, and nobody came out of the treehouse. With the blue glow gone the window was a inky well of darkness. Boards nailed across the curved tree trunks made a ladder up to a trapdoor in the base of the treehouse. He could go around to the other side, there were windows in each wall, but he probably wouldn’t be able to see anything else. He couldn’t tell but they might have hung curtains in the window. It sure didn’t seem like the moonlight was getting inside.
“Listen,” Joel called. “That treehouse is very old. You could get hurt. Come out now, or I’m going to have to call the police.”
He crossed his arms and waited for the creak of the trapdoor opening, but nothing happened. The seconds passed and he started getting pissed. Maybe these kids were used to playing in the treehouse but they had no business being up there. This was his place now, and he and AJ had built the damned treehouse. They had no right to it. Even if they called his bluff about the police he was going to tear it down. He couldn’t have kids up there.
“Last chance, I’m warning you. Come on out now!”
A spark of blue appeared in the window. It flickered and danced but didn’t look quite like a flame. Then it spread out in all directions and thinned. The blue light poured almost like a liquid, tracing cheeks and a nose, swirled around dark eyes and poured over parted lips. She looked out the window at him with eyes that reflected back the moonlight.
Joel’s breath caught in his chest. He thought his heart might simply stop beating.
That face, he knew it, the delicate features insubstantially traced in that blue glow, shifting almost like a candle flame, that was AJ. He took one step back and suddenly could move again. He turned and ran across the field toward the distant yellow porch light of the house. He tripped on a clump of grass and sprawled face down in the field. He scrambled up and ran again.
Joel reached the lawn, crossed it in a few strides and sprang up onto the deck. He yanked open the door and stepped inside. Only as he slid it closed did he look back.
The treehouse was dark again. No blue lights. No sign of AJ.
Joel groped for one of the dining room chairs and sat down. He put his elbows on the table and clasped his hands to stop them from shaking. His head hung as he focused on breathing. In and out, just the breath flowing past his lips. When he felt steadier he raised his head and looked out the sliding glass door, dreading what he might see. The treehouse was dark. The porch light cast a yellow circle of light on the red-stained boards of the deck. Superimposed over it all was his own ghostly reflection. A man on the verge of forty with extra pounds showing in his face and around his waist, his sandy brown hair buzzed close to his scalp. Hardly the skinny boy of thirty years ago with a mop of hair always in his eyes.
Slowly, feeling his years, Joel stood up and turned off the porch light. He went back through the house, turning off the lights as he went until he got to his office. There he sat down in front of the computer and with a few clicks opened his pictures folder. He scrolled through and opened the folder with his childhood photos. It took a few minutes to find the one that he wanted, but then he saw it and opened it in the picture viewer.
Two grinning, tanned kids stood waving on a bright summer day in front of the treehouse. AJ looked like a forest sprite with tiny daisies braided into her hair. Her nose had a small wrinkle between her eyes as she smiled, and there was a spray of freckles across her cheeks and nose. It was definitely her that he’d seen in the treehouse. He had hoped that somehow he was mistaken, that his memory was tricking him, but that was her. The picture was taken only a couple weeks before she died.
Joel rubbed his eyes. Had he really seen her ghost out there tonight? That’s what it seemed like, but that couldn’t be, could it? He stared at the picture. He hardly recognized himself, but AJ, she looked mostly the same. More vibrant and alive in the picture, of course. Not made of glowing blue smoke or whatever that was that he had seen, but it didn’t matter. He knew he had seen her.
He shook his head and hit the keystrokes to turn off the computer. Then he turned to the other computer and shut it down too.
Maybe he had seen her ghost. Maybe she came back because he moved into the house. He didn’t know and it didn’t matter, tomorrow he’d work on tearing down the treehouse. It should have happened a long time ago.
Joel turned out the light switch as he left the room. He hesitated and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Gradually he could make out the moonlit field and the dark shape of the tree in the distance. Nothing else.
He went to bed.
The sun was almost straight overhead before Joel put aside the latest flattened cardboard box and admitted to himself that he was avoiding go out in the back yard. Even on this bright sunny, but cold, day, he didn’t want to face the treehouse again. But if he put off tearing it down would AJ come back again tonight?
He didn’t want that. He couldn’t face it again. Joel went over to the garage wall were he had been hanging his tools. He took down the long crowbar and headed out the back door into the yard.
The treehouse looked less frightening beneath a clear, sunny sky. The frogs were quiet. A few crows clung to the branches above the treehouse. Joel started across the lawn and the crows took off, flying out across the field toward the woods that ran along the back fence. Joel knew this whole area, which had managed to remain mostly unchanged despite the years. Part of that was the creek that snaked along the west side of the property, causing most of the property to fall under wetland buffer laws. It had kept this area from being developed the way the neighborhoods had taken over the other side of the street where he had lived as a kid. Not that he and AJ ever spent much time at his house. Why would they, when he only had a small yard and AJ had acres to explore? Plus the woods, which seemed to stretch on forever.
His first day back in town he had driven by the houses just to see what the places looked like and he had seen the for sale sign in front of AJ’s old house. It felt like fate when he called the realtor. Now he clutched the crowbar and looked at the treehouse and wondered if he had made the right decision. Maybe he should have stuck to places across town, it would have been closer to work, instead of acting on impulse and buying this place. But the price had been good and most of his memories were positive. All except the end.
Joel tromped through the last of the grass in front of the trees and came right up under the treehouse. The trapdoor was closed. He lowered the crowbar and then leaned it up against the trunk. Before he could question what he was doing he grabbed the boards that made up the ladder and hoisted himself up onto the trunk. It didn’t go up all that high but just being off the ground made him feel slightly dizzy. He looked up at the trapdoor and climbed up, carefully testing each board for any weakness before he trusted his weight to it. He wasn’t a skinny kid anymore.
At the top he reached up for the trapdoor and felt sticky spider webs on his fingers. He jerked back and looked closer. Webbing stretched across the trapdoor and old webs dangled, moving slightly in the faint breeze. A fat spider crouched in one corner, watching the web. Tiny mummified corpses hung from other strands.
Joel swallowed. Clearly no one had been inside the treehouse in a while. But then a ghost wouldn’t need to disturb the webs, would she? He grimaced and reached through the webs to the latch on the door. It had rusted and didn’t move easily but he pried at it until it popped loose and hung free. Then he pushed up, half expecting the latch inside to be fastened as well but the trapdoor lifted, hinges squealing and webs breaking. The spider scurried for safety across the bottom of the treehouse.
With a thud the trapdoor dropped back into the treehouse, shaking loose dirt and debris that rained down on Joel. The smell of dust and mildew filled his nose and he sneezed. He shook his head, wiped his face on his sleeve and peered up at the opening. He could almost hear AJ’s voice telling him to come on up, but there wasn’t really anything except one of the crows calling in the distance. His back ached from clinging to the boards. Up or down, he had to decide.
Joel sighed and climbed up the next couple steps. He put his hands on the floor on either side of the opening, wet slick leaves slipped beneath his fingers. He stood up and was in the treehouse at chest height. It didn’t look like anyone had been in the treehouse in a long time. The leaves piled in drifts in the corners and were matted down against the boards. Small plants had sprung up from the litter, including a small tree growing near the center of the treehouse. There was a gap in the moss-covered roof above. Spider webs hung thick across the underside of the roof, and stretched across the open windows. Up close the treehouse didn’t look all that safe. The boards could easily have rotted so much that they wouldn’t hold his weight.
But his plan had been to climb up inside and start by dismantling the roof first, and work his way down the walls, removing the floor and the ladder last. If he couldn’t stand inside then he was going to have to rethink his plans and get a tall ladder or something so that he could work from the outside. He reached out and pounded on the floor with his fist. Leaves squished beneath his hand but the floor felt solid and strong.
Joel braced his hands on both sides of the trapdoor and boosted himself up. Already into the movement he felt a sharp pain on the right side of his chest and in his right shoulder. He almost collapsed and dropped through the hole, but managed to sort of topple over onto his left side into the treehouse. The floor didn’t crumble beneath him. It felt strong and solid. Joel groaned and sat up, scooting back so that only his legs dangled through the open trapdoor. The boards seem secure enough, but his shoulder burned with pain. He must have pulled a muscle. He cradled his right arm in his lap and shook his head.
So stupid! He was supposed to start work on Monday and now he had hurt his arm. He had to go into work, he couldn’t afford to jeopardize this job. If he minimized writing on the chalkboard he might make it through okay.
Despite the debris and signs of age the treehouse looked very much like he remembered. With the trapdoor closed there had just been enough room for him and AJ to roll out their sleeping bags.
“I wish the ceiling opened up,” AJ said. “Then we could see the stars.”
Joel didn’t move, he didn’t turn to look at her. He cradled his arm and looked down between his feet. From here it looked like a lot farther down, but not too high, just high enough. One slip, and AJ had fallen, her arms spreading out like wings. Then she was on the ground, lying flat on her back looking up at the treehouse. Joel had expected her to move, to roll over, cry, groan or laugh. He kept waiting for her to do something but she didn’t do anything. A freak accident, his parents called it later. If she had fallen an inch or two to the right the fall might have knocked the wind out of her, but there was the branch and she just didn’t move.
“Don’t you wish we could see the stars?”
Then he turned his head enough to see her sitting on the opposite side of the treehouse with her legs drawn up against her chest, her arms wrapped easily around her knees. She was hard to see, the blue light she was made of was washed out by the daylight coming through the windows. She was like a faint blue flame on the verge of being blown out, but he could still recognize her.
“It’s daytime,” Joel said. “We can’t see the stars at all.”
“Oh.” AJ cocked her head at him and squinted. “You don’t look the same.”
Joel nodded, surprised at how calmly he was taking her presence. “Right back at you, kid.”
She laughed, her voice faint and high.
“What are you doing here, AJ?”
“Waiting for you, like always. You’re so slow.”
A shiver ran up his arms and Joel winced.
“Did you hurt yourself?”
“It’ll be okay. I’ll ice it at home.”
“I think we should go see the stars now, why wait?”
“But the stars are always there.” AJ sprang to her feet and held out a faint hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”
Joel reached out with his own hand, also blue and faint in the sunlight. He turned his arm, marveling at the way he could see right through to the sapling growing at the heart of the treehouse.
AJ took his hand and, despite the fact that both of their hands looked insubstantial, he felt her warm grip in his. Not only that but his hand matched hers in size. He stood and looked down, realizing that he had changed. His body was his as he remembered the last time he was with AJ, a young boy playing in the summertime.
Far down below he lay on his back beneath the treehouse, looking up with wide open eyes. Joel couldn’t see the crowbar but he knew it was there too, beneath him. A freak accident, people would say. He must have been climbing up to tear down the old treehouse and fell, landing on the crowbar.
Joel looked into AJ’s clear blue eyes that he had missed for so long. “Let’s go look at the stars.”
And they did.
This story is the 70th weekly short story release, written in March 2011. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Placer Crime.