Copyright is held by the author.
ANDY WAS nine when he decided to run away from home. It was a bright October morning when he placed his belongings in a pillow case and tied it to the end of a stick. The pillow case contained the essentials; two Hot Wheels cars, a few of his favourite hockey cards, a pocket flashlight, a Spider-Man comic book, a small fleece blanket, and a folding pocket knife his uncle had given him after making sure the blade was sufficiently dull.
Crawling out of his basement bedroom window, he wiped the tears from his cheeks and walked out of the backyard only looking back twice. The stick with the pillowcase rested across his shoulder just as he had seen it done once in a cartoon.
He hated his father for the way he had yelled at him and was mad at his mother for not coming to his defence. As he trudged through the tall weeds, his tears occasionally blurred his vision but he was fine by the time he reached the access road that bordered the property. The road was seldom used and consisted of two ruts in the ground that stretched out as far as he could see. It was overgrown with weeds. The trees that had once fringed its edges had come together over time to form a leafy canopy that was a great refuge during hot summer afternoons. What autumn leaves still remained were now a faded yellow and orange. Andy kicked the dead leaves at his feet into an ever increasing pile as he went.
The furnace fan was broken and Andy had been volunteered by his mother to be the helper. At first, his father had him hold the flashlight so that he could see into the cramped space. Andy tried holding the light in place, however, it soon strayed off target.
“Point it here,” his father said in a stern voice. “Pay attention. It won’t do me any good pointing at your feet.”
Andy righted the beam of light to where his father had indicated. Soon enough, the light moved again. His father’s large hand reached up, grabbed Andy’s wrist, and adjusted the angle of the light.
“Here. Keep it here,” he said impatiently.
Andy managed to keep the light on target for a few more minutes before his father snatched the flashlight from his hands and propped it up on the floor to the desired angle.
“Get me the Robertson screwdriver from the toolbox,” his father said.
Andy peered into the toolbox at the myriad drivers, wrenches, and grips. He did not know which was the Robertson and was now too nervous to ask lest he disappoint again.
“It’s got a red handle with a square tip to it,” his father added after waiting a few moments.
Andy looked but could not see a red screwdriver anywhere. He dug through the toolbox aware that he was taking too long and was courting disaster.
“It’s the only one that’s red,” barked his father from the cramped quarters beside the furnace.
“I can’t. I can’t see it,” said Andy anxiously. “I’m trying but . . .”
His patience gone, Andy’s father moved to the toolbox and took no more than two seconds to locate the red driver that was hidden in plain sight.
“Of course, it was staring you in the face,” he said abruptly to Andy as he returned to the furnace.
There was silence between them for a moment before his father said; “Go see your mother.”
Andy backed away and felt his cheeks getting warm. Tears came as he made his way up the stairs.
His mother was watching television. She hesitated when she saw him crying and was back to looking at the program when she asked with half-hearted interest; “Oh, what happened dear?”
“He doesn’t want me to help him.”
“It’s okay. It’ll be lunch time soon,” came her reply.
He did not know what she meant by that. She was not paying attention to him and obviously did not care.
Andy kept walking, lost in thought. The road was straight and dipped gently in the offing. The horizon was not any nearer than it had been when he first set out. He was running away to town — away from the countryside. He hated living out here. He had no friends nearby. There was no one his own age. There was no one for miles around. He was lonely and his parents no longer loved him. Once he reached town, he would start a new life.
A clearing came into view up ahead. When he got there, he was amazed to see a large elm tree off to the right and a tree house tucked in among its branches. Dropping his bundle to the ground, he moved to the base of the tree. He was enthralled with his discovery. As he was about to climb up, a voice called out; “Hey! Where are you going?”
Andy turned to see a boy his age walking up to him. The boy’s black hair was tousled every which way. He had bell bottomed jeans on with a red Adidas track suit jacket.
“This is my tree house,” said the boy. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Andy,” he said, startled. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Phillip. Nice to meet you,” came the reply as he shook Andy’s hand.
“Phillip. That’s my dad’s name.”
“Oh yeah? Phillip’s a good name to have. Where you from?”
“Up that road. Not far from the nine mile corner.”
“I know where that is. Never heard of you before. What’s in the bag?”
“Some stuff of mine. I’m running away from home.”
“What for?” asked Phillip as he moved to the pillowcase.
“My parents don’t care if I’m around or not.”
“They beat you? Curse you out?”
“Not really. No.”
“You’re lucky then. That’s why I ran away from home.”
“You ran away too?”
“Yep. I live in this tree house.”
“You built this place? That’s amazing.”
“Not really. I didn’t really build it myself.”
“Terry did. He’s up there now. He comes and goes a lot but this place is his.”
“Can I go up and see it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t mind if you do, but I better check with Terry first just in case. He gets sore sometimes if nobody checks with him first.”
“How old is he?” asked Andy.
“He’s my age,” replied Phillip as he climbed up the tree and disappeared inside the tree house.
Andy could hear him talking to someone. After a while, Phillip emerged and climbed down to Andy’s side.
“He said he doesn’t want to see you.”
“I’m not here to see him. I just wanted to have a look at the tree house.”
“It’s not a tree house,” came the voice from above them. “It’s a fort.”
A boy stepped out to the edge of the platform and looked down at Andy and Phillip.
“Who are you?” he asked with a scowl.
“I’m Andy. Who are you?”
“I’m the Captain. My name’s Terry and this is my fort. I’ll defend it from any attacker. What are you doing here? Are you a spy?”
“I was passing by when I noticed your fort. Can I have a look inside?”
“How do I know you can be trusted?”
“Trusted with what?”
“Never mind. What’s in the bag?” asked Terry as he made his way down to the ground. His hands were large and calloused, for a kid. He wore an old cap and kept it angled to one side atop his head. He had on thick wool pants held up with suspenders and his shoes were brown leather. He looked like a shoeshine kid out of a 1940s train station.
Andy looked at Terry and Phillip and thought them strange in appearance.
“Just some of my stuff,” said Andy, as he picked up the pillowcase and untied it from the stick.
“Let’s have a look see,” said Phillip, as the boys crowded around.
Andy turned the pillowcase over and let its contents spill to the ground. Terry picked up the Spider-Man comic book and examined it carefully.
“Who’s this guy?” he asked.
“Who? Spider-Man? You know Spider-Man,” replied Andy thinking that Terry was trying to be funny.
“I like the pictures. I don’t read though,” said Terry as he leafed through the pages.
“I know Spider-Man, but I don’t know any of these hockey players,” said Phillip, examining the trading cards. “Are these NHL teams?”
“Of course,” said Andy. He picked up one of the cards and showed it to Phillip. “This one’s from Gretzky’s rookie year with the Oilers.”
“Never heard of him,” replied Phillip flatly.
Andy’s smile faded when he realized Phillip wasn’t kidding.
“You’ve never heard of Gretzky?” he asked Phillip and then turned to Terry. “And you’ve never heard of Spider-Man?”
Neither Terry nor Phillip thought it was odd. They began looking at the other items that had fallen from the pillowcase. Andy pocketed his folding knife as this was the one thing he was not willing to share with anyone.
“What was that you just put in your pocket?” asked Terry, curious.
“It’s a pocket knife. My uncle Ray gave it to me.”
“My brother’s name is Ray,” said Phillip.
“That’s funny,” said Andy. “My dad’s name is Phillip like you. Your brother’s name is Ray like my uncle, and my grandpa’s name is Terrence, which is pretty close to Terry.”
“My dad’s name is Terrence,” replied Phillip.
“Terrence is my name. Everybody just calls me Terry. I like it better.”
“Did you run away from home too?” asked Andy.
“Not really. My dad would hide me if he ever found me here. He sends me out to the fields all day. When I get bored I come here for fun.”
“This is the most people that’s ever been here at the same time,” said Phillip.
“Can I have a look inside now?” asked Andy.
“Yeah. Come up. I’ll show you around,” said Terry.
Andy followed the boys up into the fort. He was disappointed to find it empty. There was nothing but bare wood floors and walls.
“Where do you guys sit?” asked Andy.
“On the floor, obviously. What does it look like? It’s a fort — not a castle.”
Phillip was quiet. He was eyeing Terry for a while before he asked; “Terry. What do you do in the fields all day?”
“Depends. Milk the cows. Clean the pens. We finished turning up the soil and my job’s to follow behind the tiller and collect all the rocks and sticks. It’s the most boring thing I’ve ever done. That’s why I come out here every chance I get.”
Phillip was silent for a moment. “My dad, Terrence, tells me the same stories from when he was a kid.”
Terry asked: “What other stories does he tell you?”
“He told me his little brother lost a thumb when he was four because he stuck his hand in a winch. He told me about two men who hid in these woods because they didn’t want to be sent off to war. But when the Mounties came looking for them they ended up dying by gunshots anyway.”
“Who are you?” said Terry, his face white with fear.
“What year is it, Terry?” asked Andy.
“What year is it, Phillip?”
Andy looked at both of them. “It’s actually 1994.”
Terry sat down and was soon followed by Andy and Phillip. They sat cross-legged in a circle facing each other.
“You’re my dad, Phillip, at age nine,” said Andy.
“Terry, you’re my dad at age nine,” added Phillip.
“You think I’m your dad and your grampa? You guys are off your rocker.”
“No. Just me. I’m the crazy one,” said Andy. “I must be dreaming. This is one of my dreams.”
“Why would you be dreaming of us as nine year olds?” asked Phillip.
“I don’t know. Maybe that’s the only way I can talk to you. I can talk to other kids but I always get nervous talking to you.”
“Nervous? Why would you ever get nervous of me?” Phillip laughed.
“Because you scare me. You yell at me. You make me feel stupid all the time.”
“That’s how I feel about my dad,” replied Phillip.
“I scare you?” asked Terry.
“You hit me sometimes. You yell at me. You grab me by the shoulders and it hurts.”
“My old man cuffs me all the time. You don’t hear me complaining about it.”
“Do you like it?” asked Phillip.
“Of course not, but that’s how it is. He doesn’t have time for excuses.”
“Why do you hide out here if it doesn’t bother you that much?” asked Andy.
“I don’t know. Probably because he won’t find me here.”
“That’s why I come here,” confessed Phillip. “I’m always careful around you. I never know what will set you off. One minute you’re okay. The next, you’re yelling at me.”
“That’s how I feel around you, Phillip,” said Andy. “You don’t have any patience for me and I don’t know how to tell you that I’m trying really hard. I want to do my best. I want you to be proud of me. I don’t know if you really love me.”
“That’s what you need to tell him in person, Andy,” said Terry. “Not just in your dream, but man to man.”
“He would never listen to this kind of talk.”
“Why not? I’m listening to you now. My heart is good, Andy. I will listen to you,” said Phillip. “I know how you’re feeling. And I do love you. I just wasn’t brought up to tell you, that’s all. I was brought up different.”
“He’s right, Andy. You need to be honest with him or you’ll end up doing the same thing to your son.”
“I’m never having kids,” said Andy. “I know I wouldn’t be a good father. I know I wouldn’t have the patience.”
“You’re taking the first step now, but you don’t realize it,” said Terry.
“Andy, you have to believe me. I do love you. Forgive me. Can you forgive me?” asked Phillip.
Andy opened his eyes. He was sitting cross-legged on the living room carpet. There were tears in his eyes. He exhaled deeply. He did not want to move. He wanted the moment to last. He wanted to feel his father’s love for him a while longer.
It was late. The room was dark. His wife was waiting in bed upstairs. He went to her and lay at her side. She was six months pregnant with their first child. He placed his hand on her belly and saw her smile. He kissed her cheek and made a silent promise to the future generation.