Once upon a time, on a cloudless day, a cloud appeared over the pine tree in the yard. It wasn't smoke or steam. It wasn't mist. It wasn't fog. A cloud rested on the tree like an impossible halo of tinsel. It was not a dark cloud full of thunder, but more like cotton candy.
Stop chewing your pencil and take the stairs two at a time. Leave your shoes as they are by the door. It doesn't matter if the pine needles make your toes wince a little.
You grasp the Y of the first branches and kick off clinging needles. Sap sticks to your palms. All you can smell is the sharp scent of pine. The bark combs white lines on your bare arms as you swing yourself up to the first nook.
Now arch back and and watch branches disappear as the cloud seeps through the branches.
The cloud's wild edges are a pair of churning tractor wheels that change into a bag of pistachios that become witch fingers and veils, waterfalls and hippogryphs.
It's the kind of moment that Greazus said you can't let pass. Can't let one go or go on they all will, he'd say while picking out a shell and setting it in that old rusty metal nutcracker. He held out every other almond to you, perfect or caved-in, in those knob-knuckled hands.
The cloud drifts down and soon streams past your limbs. The ground stirs like beach sand with the tide rushing over. For a crazy moment the tree is the one that's moving, through space or maybe time.
The cloud's swirling shapes settle into sheer blank white.
The branches are sturdy, but no longer familiar. They fade out in all directions like dark roads in headlights. The branches hold you, swaying. Every dip erases the world a little more.
You crouch close to the trunk, push needles aside, and grip the next highest branch. After a few of these, you come to rest on a perch of crossed elbows and nestle in, rubbing your gooseflesh.
The cloud is everywhere. The branches of the tree extend into nothing. There's a light patch when you look straight up, so that's what you aim for when you start up again. The tree forks. You choose the trunk that will take you higher.
Imagine the thrill of poking your head out of a cloud and feeling the sun on your face. What if, when you break through, others have done the same. You'll see the Cobbler twins, Elmer, baby Megan, and for sure Geoffrey Spines all in trees of their own.
The branches are smaller now and dip under your weight. It's impossible to tell how far from the ground you are, but the air is sweet and smooth and tells you that you are way up. The light patch beckons. It's close.
You climb slowly, finding your balance again every time you move. Up here, no one branch will hold you, even two isn't enough.
You spread your weight across as many branches as you can, but still they bend. It's as high as the tree goes. It doesn't feel like the top though, because you can't see anything from here. The light patch in the clouds hasn't come any closer. An illusion.
Your head is damp and cold. You'll never see above the cloud unless, perhaps, you are patient enough and the cloud goes lower.
You lean into the boughs to wait.
You dream about lightning. Greazus cracks a shell but there's no almond inside. He keeps wanting to go for a walk, which isn't right because he has a wheelchair. You are annoyed; you're not here to dream. The dream is a fraud. You are climbing a tree and need to get back to the business of reaching the top. At once you realize your mistake: you must have taken the lesser of the two trunks. You're not as high as you can go after all. If you climb a bit back down and take the other way up, you might reach through the cloud. This new plan is just what you need. The excitement of it warms you. You struggle to awaken, this is no place to nap. There are too many needles in your face.
Push them away.
You open your eyes to whiteness, not the cloud's formless whiteness but the hard white of a white room. It isn't pine needles in your face. It's tubes.
You raise your hand to brush them aside, but the hand that comes up is not yours; it can't be. This one is veined and spotted, wrinkled and pale. It's Greazus's hand, but without the oil stains and Navy tattoos. The fingernails are yellow. Yet, at your command, the fingers pull out the tubes one by one. You push yourself up on shaky elbows.
Machines bleat and buzz on either side, drumming, flashing. You rub the stubble on your head. There are other tubes to disconnect--one in each arm, something in your side.
You wear a faded blue gown that ends in two twiggy legs. The toes move when you ask them to. It feels like being inside of a puppet.
You swing your feet over and touch cold tile.
You're tilting over, so you grip a machine that crashes over in a shower of sparks. You grab hold of another machine and don't let go.
When they find you, you haven't gone far. You're staring at the bathroom mirror. It is an old face, but you recognize the eyes.
They enter the room in a slow haste and watch you practice smiling and frowning. A nurse takes your hand. You study your face a minute more, but can't hold it in any longer. You laugh long and hard.
Doctors and nurses laugh with you and snap selfies. A nurse won't let go of your hand. Someone runs out of the room.
A doctor with olive skin and a brisk, dark mustache takes your arm and sends the nurse away. Her feet echo in the hall.
"You must have a lot of questions," the doctor says.
"Why?" Your voice is scratchy--thick and lean at the same time. "Why should I have questions?"
The doctor smiles. It makes his mustache flex. "You struck your head falling from a tree. When your brain swelled—"
You trace the veins on your hands. "All this time . . . why'd you keep me alive?"
"Because," The doctor purses his lips and opens them. "Well, we could."
"Is anyone else here?"
"You'll mean friends and family?"
"I bet baby Megan isn't so little anymore."
"It can be quite a shock."
"Who's president? When's the Superbowl? Eddie's pup must be huge."
"We have an excellent psychologist."
"Someone to talk to."
"To talk to."
The nurse returns and takes your hand again. "Doctor, the effective mental age is still eight."
Your legs are shaking from the effort of standing, but you don't dare sit down on the bed. There's a dent from your body in the mattress the shape of a coffin. You lean more and more on the nurse. She doesn't seem to mind.
She says, "Would you like lunch?"
Heads peek in from the hallway. A crowd is growing out there.
"Hi everybody," you say. Apple juice goes great with a cookie. "I'm okay in here."
The doctor whispers to the nurse about the therapist.
"What I'd like," you tell him. "Is exercise. I want to build up my muscles."
"Physical therapy." The doctor nodded. "Yes. All right."
For weeks you walk on tread mills and lift one-pound weights. They take measurements, but you stop them when they explain the details. Those details don't matter. The doctor approves of your progress. He likes to say, "The body knows." It irritates you. So do their attempts to give you history lessons. They don't bother with that anymore.
After three months you have made what they keep calling a miraculous recovery. You don't see what else there was to do.
The day comes. They applaud as you do a round of push ups and squats and jog around the rec room. A photographer snaps a picture, but you don't agree to an interview, even though the crew came all the way from the capitol. He asks you his question anyway, "Did you dream?"
You wave him off.
There is some money, not much. A bank account, something from the state. The nurse hugs you and the doctor shakes your hand. A follow-up appointment is made. The receptionist says, "When are you free for your next visit?"
"Any day is good," you say.
They hail you a cab and set a bag of groceries beside you in the back seat.
"It's a group home," the nurse says, "May I visit?"
In your hand is a prescription form with your new address written on the back. As the cab pulls away you crumple the paper and let it fall to the floor.
You tell the driver your address.
He whisks you along increasingly busy streets. It's a thrill to go so fast. But none of this looks right. The cab pulls up outside a row of rundown houses. The colors have faded. Men lounge on the steps, strong on the outside, broken within. A van on cinder blocks and the hood up is parked where Greazus used to work on his Harley.
"You sure about this, old timer?" The driver leans back. "Let me see that paper."
You give him the crumpled paper and step out of the cab.
"Hey," the driver says. "This isn't it."
The house seems too small, but this is the place all right. The nurse said that it had been sold long back, but you still feel the urge to go up to the door and push it open without knocking.
The driver rustles the food bag in his arms. "Where d'you want this?"
"You can keep it."
He insists and follows you to the curb. He sets the bag of groceries on the sidewalk when it becomes clear that you won't take it. You don't mean to be rude, but you want to save your strength. He shakes his head and drives off, but at the end of the street he pulls a u-turn and comes back, pulls up slowly and stops two houses away, watching.
It's a cloudless day, and hot. You are already sweating. There is probably something to drink in that grocery bag, but, to heck with that, you think. Let's get on with it.
The neighbors are a different kind of people. But all people are the same to you now: strangers. You smile at them and they let you pass.
The tree is much bigger. It crowds the houses on either side and a limb has been cut. Unlike the rest of the world which has shrunk, this tree is even bigger than you remember it.
The bark is rough and sticky.
The neighbors talk to you in a rolling, liquid accent. A mixture of jokes and concern. You don't really hear them. Don't want to anyway.
You take off your shoes and socks and position yourself just so. The knot is still there. You pull until your arms tremble. It takes all your might, but you make it up to the first a branch and pause for breath. A child smiles up at you and makes as if to follow, but the mother pulls her back. A man approaches with a ladder.
You climb another branch and then another. It's getting easier. Up ahead you see where you went wrong. An easy mistake to make. The trunk branches in two directions. Up to the left a broad avenue of branches and opportunities stretches into the sky. To the right the tree is stunted.
You take the left trunk this time. Your arms are flecked with scratches and your hands are raw and sappy. It's the best feeling you've ever had. You breathe a moment and climb on. This is definitely the better way to go.
By the time you are at the top, you are panting and have to wrap your arms around the boughs as your hands are too tired to grip. Your muscles shake.
There is a commotion in the street: a crowd, a police car, an ambulance, a fire truck. The fire truck's ladder extends like a salute.
You scan the horizon for other trees. There are few this tall. It's all roofs and wires. A few streets away another pine stands above the buildings. Its branches are empty. Above, a tall grey anvil floats. You feel a drop of rain.
At the snap of a twig you look down.
Far below, but higher than her mother can reach, climbs a grinning child.