This is a serialized work of fiction, written and illustrated by JJ Lee. You can find the first part here. These originally appeared in our print editions in June and August.
“I wasn’t sure if you were dead or alive.”
Oscar struggled through the haze. He focused and saw bits of yellow flecked in grey-green eyes. The girl with the red hair leaned over him, so close one of her braids fell down and brushed against his nose and lips. He swatted at the tail.
The girl stepped back and repeated herself.
“I wasn’t sure if you were dead or alive.”
Oscar was sprawled on his back in the tall grass. Morning had come. He must have been lying there for hours. He tried to sit up. His vision blurred. Instead of seeing two of his feet in white sneakers, he saw four. A wave of nausea swelled inside him.
“It’s better if you don’t look down or back.”
The girl offered a hand.
He did not take it but staggered to his feet on his own.
“What’s your name?” said the girl.
He remembered seeing her the night before from his bedroom window. She had beckoned. He had snuck out and crossed the meadow to her. He remembered the blue light of the moon and how he thought he saw her floating above the grass. He ran, afraid, and stumbled and fell head over heels. Now, here she was standing in front of him in broad daylight still wearing the yellow dress. He noticed how crumpled and ragged it looked. Soot covered her from forehead to ankle. Her hair was haphazardly braided, more like two tangled clumps that fell roughly to the sides of her head. She looked like she lived outside. He had thought the girl was a ghost. Now he thought she needed a bath. He imagined how much Simon would have laughed at him. He felt horrible.
“What’s your name?” Again, she repeated herself.
He shook her extended hand. Despite the morning summer heat, her fingers felt icy. Her touch made the hairs on the back of Oscar’s neck prickle. He wanted to get away from her. Oscar glanced down the hill. He thought of going home. Willa must have read his mind.
“You don’t want to go back home now. Trust me.”
He let go of her and put his hands into the pockets of his housecoat. He realized how odd he too must have appeared in his pyjamas, outside, in broad daylight, not that this girl would even notice.
Yes, Oscar did want to go home. He started to retreat from her but Willa thrust her arm into the loop of his and gave a gentle tug.
“I want to show you a tree.”
What Willa said to Oscar, as far as he was concerned, did not make all that much sense. When do perfect strangers want to show you a tree? Why would they? And who would follow them? Not any person with any good sense. However, her words sent Oscar’s brain reeling. It did what his mother called the ‘Oscar Effect.’ It was when his mind thought more things than he could actually handle. His mind rushed with the thought of going home, the thought he hadn’t had breakfast. But he did not feel hungry. He should change what he was wearing. But who would be there to see him in this lonely, near-abandoned neighbourhood? The girl was a weirdo. But she smelled like fresh-cut grass and he kind of liked that. Oscar thought of his mother and his father. He thought of Simon. He thought of trees. He loved trees…but should he? He thought of everything and like a bunch of clowns trying to fit through a door, his jumbled thoughts prevented him from making up his mind. Willa tugged his arm one more time and he let her decide for him. He relented and walked with her.
When she was sure that he would follow Willa dropped her arm and led Oscar along what may have been an old deer path. It wound up the hill, through the grass, into the woods. It did not take long for the brush to thicken and the trail to fade. Willa slipped through the branches and leaves without a problem. She seemed to glide through it all like a doe. Every stick and nettle seemed to catch on Oscar. He more or less crashed through.
At the point where the bramble grew so thick and Oscar, tired of being stung and slapped, was about to turn back, he plunged through a final green curtain and emerged in a sizable meadow drenched in soft golden sunlight. At its centre rose a massive oak tree. It possessed a great trunk that split into two giant masts that soared upwards.
Before Oscar had become sick, before he had met Simon (who early in their friendship had told Oscar that tree climbing “was for babies”), Oscar was an expert tree climber. His father was not the sporty type and playing catch was out of the question. Instead, they had taken up tree climbing as their mutual hobby, their father-son activity. As a result, it was with the eye of a connaisseur that Oscar admired the dual spiral of branches that rose into the sky like a pair of staircases.
Willa said, “C’mon.”
He needed no further urging. Oscar raced up the tree. It was easy, practically effortless. Still, Willa was faster. She flew, barely touching a branch before she flitted up to the next one. They climbed and climbed. Oscar puzzled over how the tree did not thin out as they went higher. It was if he were ascending a castle tower. How tall was this tree? Oscar guessed they were six floors up when Willa stopped.
“Isn’t it incredible?”
“Yes, but have you ever reached the top?”
Willa shook her head. “No, it just goes on.”
“What do you mean?”
Willa moved out onto a branch and sat down. “Just try. I’ll be here when you get back. Then I’ll show you the view.”
“I’ll see it when I get to the top.”
“No, you won’t,” said Willa.
Oscar climbed. She was an odd girl. He wondered if she lived in the tree. It was big enough. He looked down every so often to gauge his progress. Eventually, he lost sight of the ground. Then it was Willa who was falling out of sight. By the time Oscar stopped ascending, she was a mere yellow dot half lost in the confusing weave of spoking branches, leaves, and shadows. He climbed ten more feet and lost sight of her. He lost his nerve and started down.
“Now you understand?” she said.
“The tree doesn’t look so tall from the ground.”
“Nothing is quite what it seems.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing. Let me show you the view.”
Willa started to work her way out along the branch. So great was its girth, they could stride along it as if they were walking a pirate’s plank.
When the limb started to bend, she said, “Grab the branch above you and pull it down, if you can.”
“Excellent. Yes, as much as you can.”
All the way up Oscar had seen bits and pieces of what lay below but when their heads popped out of the crown, through the awning of leaves, Oscar gasped. A great vista lay before him. He could now see how the meadow sat near the top of Havenholm. He saw other patches of grass throughout the woods and the ruins of houses. Then he saw the road that ringed the hill and the three occupied houses on the other side.
“That one’s my house.”
Oscar watched his mother come out of the house, cross the road, and begin searching through the tall grass. He could see her so clearly, freakishly so. A few strands of her hair slipped out of the kerchief she used to wrap her head when she was, as she would say, “a hot mess.” Her face held a grave look. She called for him.
Each time she said his name, an edge of alarm grew wider in her voice. Oscar wanted to scramble down and run to her. He thought how nice it would be to have Saturday morning pancakes or read the funnies out loud to his father. He thought how she still read to him at bedtime even though he was perfectly able to read quite lengthy novels all on his own and how he still loved it when she did. He watched his mother’s hand rise to her mouth. She ran to the spot where he fell the night before. She went down to her knees and started sobbing. She screamed out, “Louis.”
Louis was his father’s name. She said it again and again, louder and louder, until her voice grew hoarse. She stood up and sprinted to the house.
“It’s Oscar. He isn’t moving. Call an ambulance.”
In the tall grass, where he had fallen the night before, Oscar saw, half-hidden behind the bent and broken stalks, a pair of feet in white sneakers.
“I told you not to look down.”