Neil noticed the tree house a month ago. He saw it while sitting in the back seat of the Bonneville as his parents drove down Willard Street on the way to their new home. The magnificent tree house sat among lengthy branches of a large sycamore in the backyard of a shabby, two-story, dark green house in red trim. The backyard was spacious but the grass uncut and disheveled. The tree house was the biggest Neil had ever seen.
It was always Neil’s dream to have such a tree house. He turned fourteen five months ago and asked his father if they could build one in the back yard for his birthday. The answer was no, the answer was always no. The reason this time was because Neil’s father acquired a new job so they had to move. It wouldn’t be smart to build a tree house only to leave it behind.
But this tree house, the one in the back yard of the dark green house on Willard Street, was exactly what Neil imagined the perfect tree house would be: the glass windows, the slanted roof lined with shingles, everything. Too bad Neil and his family weren’t moving into the house on Willard. There was a for sale sign on the scraggly, over grown grass of the front lawn. Neil’s new house wasn’t too far away though, five blocks to be exact.
During his first week in town and still not quite settled in, Neil rode his Huffy bike around the neighborhood. Every now and then he’d stop at the front gate of the dark green house on Willard, the for sale sign still on the front lawn, and gaze into the back yard at the striking architecture in the sycamore.
No matter how attractive the tree house was, there was something unsettling about the empty house for sale. So unsettling, Neil made quite an effort to not even look at the damn thing. Instead he focused on the tree house, imagining what it looked like inside.
For the next two weeks Neil visited the tree house every other day and dreamed about it.
One day on his way to Willard Street, Neil made an unusual turn down Trenton. It was then he saw her for the first time; a pretty blonde girl around his age, playing catch with a nine year old on the front lawn of a plain white ranch style house. She noticed him as well and smiled. Peddling by, Neil returned the grin, in silent awe of her. He glanced back to have a final look but she didn’t do the same. Tossing the softball through the air kept her occupied.
Neil maintained along Trenton, turned right on Willard and stopped in front of the old house to peer once more in the back yard. The more he stopped to gaze at the tree house, the more he wanted it, needed it. Neil yearned to get a good look, close up this time.
He opened the front gate and walked his bike into the front yard. The foreboding home, with its chipped paint, caused him to pause. The house was watching him. No, of course it wasn’t. It was just an ugly old house. Perhaps it was the hideous shade of green that unsettled him? Neil buried the anxiety within him and headed for the backyard.
“Nice tree house there, huh kid?” said a gruff voice. Neil turned around and there on the sidewalk stood a man with a head of thick gray hair and a pot belly. “I’m Walter,” he said. “I live across the street. I’ve noticed you’ve been stopping by every so often checking out that tree house. It’s been there as long as the house has. At least they were both there when I moved in over twenty years ago.”
“Who used to live here?” Neil asked.
“A couple, they only had one kid, a boy about your age. Weird people; they didn’t talk to anybody in the neighborhood, kept to themselves mostly.”
“So what happened to them?”
“They had some problems and moved out almost two years ago; house has been empty ever since. Real nice tree house though. You know kid, that’s private property. You might want to stay away from there.”
Walter said nothing else, sauntered across the street and entered his small blue home.
A week went by. Neil lay in bed almost every night, thinking about the tree house, fantasizing actually. It appeared Neil would never own a tree house like that. There wasn’t even a tree in his back yard. If he planted one, he’d be old by the time it was big enough to build a club house in its branches
Neil speculated what the inside of the tree house looked like. Did it have many rooms or just one large one? Was there furniture? He’d never know, unless he looked inside. And why shouldn’t he have a peek? He’d never have one of his own. He knew he was on private property the day he met Walter but he wasn’t hurting anything. That settled it; he would pay a visit to the tree house when his parents went to sleep.
Although excited, Neil was troubled. The dark green house; he didn’t like it but didn’t know why. Regardless, he put the house out of his head and lay in bed waiting, lights out. Around 2:30 a.m. Neil got up, left his room and silently crept down the dark hall to check on his parents. They were asleep; at least his father was for sure; loud snoring came blaring through the closed door. Thank God they weren’t fighting or they’d be up all night.
Neil tip toed down the hall back to his room and got dressed. He grabbed a flashlight, opened his bedroom window then climbed out into his backyard. He walked his bike from the back yard to the front of his house and hopped on. Seconds later he whizzed through the dark, quiet neighborhood streets as his face was struck with cool breeze.
Within minutes Neil reached Willard Street and stood over the frame of his Huffy staring at the tree house which was cast in shadow from the branches and leaves of sycamore. Neil did his best not to look at the house for sale.
Neil scanned the area to see if anyone was out or watching. He gazed at Walter’s house across the street; the lights were off. No one was around and the coast clear. Neil entered through the front gate and guided his bike through the grassy backyard. On the way he side stepped a large stone on the lawn. It was the size and shape of a football about six feet from the tree.
Neil leaned his bike against the tree’s trunk and looked up at the wooden floor of the club house above him. The large edifice over shadowed him. There was a hatch in the floor and wooden bars, neatly nailed horizontally into the tree’s trunk, ran from the ground all the way up to the floor of the house. Neil climbed up, stopped at the trap door and shined his light. A pad lock was attached to the door keeping him out. There had to be another way inside.
Neil climbed down, ready to search for another way in. Something caught his eye: movement near the dark green house which looked charcoal gray in the night. He wasn’t sure if the movement was outside near the home or coming from inside through one of the windows. He aimed his light toward the house. He saw nothing but three windows in a row along the back wall of the house.
Neil stepped over the football shaped stone, walked over to the empty home and peered into first of the windows. He was looking into a bare bathroom, no shower curtains or any signs that it had been used in a while. He moved to the next window which belonged to an empty kitchen save for the stove and refrigerator still intact. The last window belonged to a bedroom void of furniture, except for a twin sized bed against the far wall.
Movement again came from his left peripheral, accompanied by noise, near the tree house this time. He shined his light near the trunk and saw nothing unusual until he walked closer. Something was different. The rock on the grass was in a different position. “What the hell?” Neil said. He was sure the pointed ends of the rock faced the other direction.
Neil aimed his light on the stone. It looked as if it had been moved. The flat imprint where the rock had been previously was on the grass. In fact, the grass of the imprint was brown and withered. And there lying on the flattened dead grass was a small silver key.
The rock had to have been that in that position when Neil first got there the first time, he just didn’t notice before. It was dark; things look different in the dark. There was no other explanation. What mattered was that there was a key. Neil snatched it up, climbed up the tree trunk ladder, and tried the pad lock: perfect fit. The lock came off; Neil opened the hatch inward and climbed into the tree house.
He walked on the hardwood floors, shinning his light about. It was one large room along with a smaller one, a closet. The inside of the tree house was fantastic! There was so much space and although dark, Neil saw the small sofa, table, and other furniture. He plopped himself down on the sofa and sank in. Yes, this would be perfect.
Two weeks later:
Neil adjusted nicely at Boynton Middle school. He made a few friends and the blonde he saw playing catch a few weeks ago, Melissa, was in his home room. He hadn’t really spoken with her since school started but he would today. When the bell rang Neil made sure he would walk with her out of the class room. He waited nervously until 2:40 p.m. When the bell rang he got out of his seat and caught up with Melissa.
“Hey, was that your little brother I sawing you playing catch with a couple of weeks ago?” Neil asked as they stepped into the bustling hall filled with sounds of slamming lockers.
“Yeah, that’s Bobby. My dad makes me play catch with him,” Melissa answered. “I thought that was you. You rode by on the bike. So, where did you move here from?”
“We’re from Vermont. My dad got a job here so we…”
“Hey, Melissa!” a red headed girl shouted as she approached them in the hall. “Come on, the student council meeting starts in a few minutes! They’re going to count the votes!
She grabbed Melissa’s arm and pulled her through the crowded middle school hall. “Sorry, I have to go. Maybe we can talk later. See ya,” Melissa said and disappeared within the mob.
“By the way, I’m Neil,” he uttered. Melissa didn’t hear him.
Neil hung out in the tree house that night and every other night after. He brought the flashlight but kept the beam low so no one could see the light from outside, especially Walter from across the street.
It was the perfect get away, especially when his parents fought, which was occurring more often. He couldn’t stand the screaming and so much cursing. Even though Neil didn’t like the empty home for sale on Willard, the tree house was his refuge. It’s where he listened to music, read magazines, and often thought about Melissa at school. When she smiled at him the day he first saw her, he fell for her. But Neil didn’t know how to let her know. Surely he didn’t want to end up in the friend zone.
The sun went down and the street lights came on. Neil wanted to make it home for dinner, if mom bothered to cook that night. He climbed down the tree trunk and retrieved his bike from its hiding spot in the backyard bushes then headed out from the front gate.
“Hey kid.” Neil looked across the street, Walter walked toward him. “Wait up. I want to talk to you for a second.” Neil froze and Walter stepped on the sidewalk next to him. “I noticed you’ve been going up in that tree house that past few weeks.”
“Yeah, umm, I’ve just been hanging out, doing homework and stuff.”
“I’m not bothering anybody. I’m just hanging out, that’s all.”
“You’re right, you’re not be bothering anyone. But this is not your house, its still for sale.”
“I don’t ever go into the house for sale, just the tree house.”
“You know, I usually mind my own business,” Walter said. “But I have to tell you, it might be a good idea to stop going into that yard. That house has a lot of bad mojo if you know what I mean, it’s not safe.”
“It’s just a house,” Neil said.
“No, it’s not just a house. There’s something really wrong with it. Bad things have happened there, real bad. If I were you I’d stay away.”
“Are you going to tell anybody that I’ve been going in the tree house?”
“I will, if you keep it up. I’m just giving a warning kid: for your own good, stay out of that tree house.”
Walter said not one more word and crossed the street. Neil peddled away back home. What the hell did that old guy know? He never set a foot in that stupid house. Neil didn’t see a problem and as long as nobody lived there he would continue to visit the tree house. He needed it.
After bland frozen dinners with his family, Neil played video games in his room until bed time. He fell asleep easily that night but the fighting started at 3:00 in the morning. The shouting and insults traveled down the hall to his room.
“If you keep this up,” Neil’s mom screamed, “I’m leaving!”
“What the hell are you going to do? Leave me and Neil? You got no where to go! Even your own mom doesn’t want you over at her place!”
“Anywhere’s better than living here with your drunk ass! You stay with the Neil, I don’t care! I’ve got a damn life of my own and don’t need anyone!”
Did mom just say what I thought, Neil wondered. Would she leave her own son?
“You ain’t going nowhere!” Neil’s dad shrieked.
Neil had enough; if his own mother didn’t want him then he’d leave himself. Neil quickly got dressed, opened the window and took his bike down to the tree house to think. He had to plan something out.
Neil entered the backyard of the Willard house from the front gate as usual. Surely nosey Walter across the street would be sleeping by now. He hid the bike in the bushes and went up into his tree house.
Neil sat on the soft couch in the dark, thinking about where to go, what to do, who he could live with. He had and aunt on his dad’s side in Texas. Perhaps he should catch a Gray Hound bus down there? If his aunt would have him.
A flash of light glimmered from of the corner of Neil’s eye out in the yard. It took him out of his train of thought. He got up from the sofa and looked out of the tree house window at the ugly house for sale. A dim light was coming from one of the windows, the very last window at back of the house, the bedroom.
Neil kept low and kept his eyes on the dimly lit window. There was movement inside the room. Something dark shifted back and forth in front of the window. He could tell it was a person by the shape. Finally the figure stopped dead center in the window. Neil saw the silhouette of a female, thin and shapely with long hair. Neil looked to the front lawn; the for sale sign still there. Who was in the house this late at night?
The person moved closer to the window, pressing her hands on the glass and peered out into the yard. Neil recognized her immediately, Melissa was in the house. She looked dead at the tree house and made eye contact with Neil. A small Mona Lisa like smile appeared across her gentle face.
Melissa must have known that he was spending time in the tree house. She must have followed him there; she only lived around the corner. Melissa raised her right hand. She made a “come hither” movement with her right forefinger. She then silently moved backward into the room, transforming into a silhouette once more.
Neil climbed down the hatch and tree trunk then walked toward the window. Melissa stood there alone in the room, only her dark figure visible in the dim light. A few feet before Neil reached the window, Melissa raised her thin arm, pointing toward the front of the house. She wanted him to go to the front door.
“Okay,” Neil said then changed direction to the front of the house. He climbed the front steps and found the door to the enclosed porch unlocked. He spied across the street to see if Walter was watching out his window. Nothing, the shades were drawn. Neil walked into the porch and headed toward the front door of the house.
The door opened inward by itself before Neil had a chance to grasp the doorknob. Neil could see nothing but the pitch darkness of the empty living room. Neil expected to see Melissa standing somewhere inside but she was absent.
Neil’s eyes adjusted and he could make out the layout of the living room. The dining room was right next to it and a shadowy hallway led toward the back of the house. “Melissa?” Neil called out, keeping himself on the front porch. A small feminine giggle came out of the darkness from the hallway. The wooden floor creaked as Neil stepped into the living room. “Melissa?” The door behind Neil slammed shut with a bang causing him to jump. He quickly turned around to see no one there.
Neil reached for the knob but the door was locked. Neil struggled with the door but it wouldn’t budge. “Melissa, what’s going on?” Neil said in a quivering voice. He stood alone in the shadows and it instantly grew cold, his breath became visible.
Footsteps came from the back of the house toward the living room and became louder with each creaking step. Something stepped into the living room from the hall but it wasn’t Melissa. Not a soul heard Neil’s scream or cry for help, not even Walter from across the street.
Copyright © Abel Ramirez