Between the Trees


1st Place in EnspireMe: Passion Project’s Short Story Contest

Joseph McPherson ran out of his house and into the dense forest behind his neighborhood. His father chased after him calling his name.

“Joe! Joseph! Come back! I’m sorry!” His father’s voice trailed off as Joseph’s steps sped up and the trees surrounding him turned into a blur. He jumped across a weak stream of water that was twisting between the trees. The Northern California summer was fierce with no rain and had been harder still with his older brother, Brian, moving away. Brian and Joseph decided to build this treehouse just after their mom passed away since there was a period of time where they needed to keep busy. They figured that they would construct a place where they could get away from all of the things that made them sad and lonely.

Joseph found the lengthy stick that they used to bring down the rope-ladder and pulled it down. As he climbed up the ladder, he could hear his father’s voice once again.

“Joe,” his father said, “I know you worked hard on that painting and I’m so proud that you were able to be a part of that art fair but work kept me late and I just…”

Joseph blocked out his voice. His father was going through a hard time ever since mom died. There was endless nights in his study. The work never seemed to stop. Joseph wanted his father to be around often. He wanted him to come to his Sunday baseball games, to come to his choir performances at church. Joseph tried to understand that sometimes things just don’t work out that way. There were no hard feelings that Joseph had. He just wanted to be alone for a while. He needed to unwind.

As Joseph walked around the treehouse he remembered that there was little refuge he could find except inside there. Joseph and his brother built this place together when Joseph was eight years old. He was eleven now but the treehouse still stood strong for those three years. He moved around in the treehouse and sat down in the raggedy old bean bag chairs that were brought up.

The treehouse had posters of movies and bands that Brian liked. Brian was a great big brother. He was there for Joseph when his father couldn’t be. Brian drove him around the small town of Brooksdale. There wasn’t much to do inside the town anyway. They would take trips after school to get ice cream at the local shops and walk around the forest, talking about girls or how Dad was doing lately. Sometimes Brian tried to get Joseph to watch some of the movies on a beat up television and DVD player that they brought up and tried to get him to listen to some of the music on an old record player that their dad gave them, but Joseph couldn’t really get into them. Joseph instead was fascinated with books and kept some of his most favorite stories in the treehouse.

There was a shelf in the corner that held some classic novels as well as some contemporary series’. Joseph walked over to the worn out shelf and ran his fingers along the spines of The Odyssey, The Iliad, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Count of Monte Cristo and various other adventure books. On a separate shelf, The Bible Story volumes sat in a league of their own. His mother gave him those books and remembered her reading them to him in his earlier childhood. The memories were faint, but Joseph could recall his mother sitting on the couch with him, a fire burning in the fireplace and his brother roasting marshmallows in the middle of the winter. Joseph’s father would make the time to sit in his reclining chair and listen to the stories that were being told. Joseph’s favorite story was about the Prodigal Son. When his mom would tell that story, she would have Joseph stand up and hug him tight to let him know that he was safe and sound.

When she got sick, it was Brian who took over the job of being the master storyteller. He remembered sitting in the treehouse while his brother read him those stories until he was old enough to start reading them himself. Brian would stand in front of him and try his best to mimic their mom when she would read the novels. Joseph remembered the way he felt when Brian acted those stories out, but he always missed his mother.

Towards the end of the row of books that he was tracing, sat an old handheld two way radio that heavily resembled a walkie talkie. He picked up the device. Click. Static. The old walkie talkie, Joseph remembered, was used when he and his brother would play hide and seek in the forest or when Joseph would stay in the treehouse while Brian would stay in the house working on some school projects.  

The walkie talkie’s other half was taken by Brian before he left at the end of the summer. His brother had gotten a full paid scholarship to study abroad in Europe. They talked about it as a family and they knew that it would be hard with Brian being gone for a long time.

Brian was a “self- proclaimed artist.” He would spend most of the nights in his bedroom sketching ideas for paintings that he would one day want to work on. It was Brian’s dedication to his craft that very much inspired Joseph. With all of Brian’s bags and books stacked high in the backseat of his car, Joseph ran out to him as he was loading his dirty laundry basket and desktop lamp and various sketchbooks and drawings in the passenger seat.

“Brian!” Joseph called out, “I want you to bring this with you to college. Just in case I ever need to talk to you.” He took out the walkie talkie and handed it to his big brother.

“But you know the signal won’t reach all the way out there,” His brother responded.

“I know that! I just want you to keep it to remind you of me you know? In case you ever forget! Or feel a little sad…” Joseph’s voice broke.

“Thanks bud. If there’s ever a day when I feel a little lonely, I’ll be sure to pick up the radio and talk to you for a bit.”

“I think I’ll do the same thing. It would feel kind of weird though wouldn’t it? Talking to someone but not getting an answer back?”

“That’s true. But I think it helps with the feeling of being alone. Knowing that your words are meant to be heard by someone and having you speak them out loud can be a comfort. Even if you think your voice isn’t heard, I’ll know that you’ll still be connected to me and that I will be connected to you.”

“You’re so smart,” Joseph looked up at his brother with tears in his eyes.

They hugged for a while before releasing their embrace. Small tear stains wet the bottom half of Brian’s shirt and Joseph wiped the leftover tears from his face before looking up and speaking again.

“I love you. I’m going to miss you a lot while you’re gone.”

“I love you too and it’ll be okay, I think. One day, I hope you’ll understand.”

“Okay,” Joseph said.

Brian got in his old 1997 Honda Civic and turned the key. The engine was rough sounding and the muffler on the end looked like it was just about to fall off but somehow never did. Brian backed out into the street and waved at his younger brother before driving off towards the airport.

Joseph stood in the treehouse with that walkie talkie in his hand for what seemed like an eternity. He heard his father’s voice once more at the base of the tree but couldn’t distinguish the words. He caught some fragments like, “alone now” and “in the house” and “dinner ready soon.”

Click. Static.

I miss you now more than ever Brian. Dad has been trying his best but he just never understood me like you did. Please come back soon.

Joseph sat in the beanbag in the corner of the treehouse and fell asleep.

He was awoken a few minutes before dusk by one of his closest friends from school, Lila Cafferty. The sounds of sticks and rocks hitting the walls of the treehouse frightened him for a second before hearing his name being called out from below.  He felt at ease again when he looked down and saw her.

“Joe! Your dad said you were up there! Come down! Or can I come up at least? I know the rules say’ No Girls Allowed’ but you could let your best friend in right? Just this one time?” Her shrill voice could be heard from miles away.

“I have to get down anyway! It’s about to get dark out,” Joseph called back. He packed his backpack and placed the walkie talkie inside it. He got up and found the rope ladder and opened the door on the bottom of the floor and threw it down. The rope ladder swung around and also hit Lila in the face.

“Hey! Watch out!” She said.

Joseph climbed down the rope and stood face to face with her.

“Now what’s so important?” He said.

“I just wanted to bring home your painting. We were looking for you after the fair but nobody could find you! You won first place you know?” She took out the small sixteen by twenty inch canvas from her backpack. Joseph reached out and reflected on the painting for a moment.

In the beginning of the school year, Ms. Jameson- the art teacher, told them they would be working on a project for a few weeks before Thanksgiving break. The guidelines were simple enough, illustrate something that is the most important thing in your life. She said it could be anything they wanted it to be, a childhood trinket “to symbolize the innocence of youth” or some portrait of food to “help convey the importance of nutrition in today’s society.” It was challenging for a few students to work out the details of what they wanted to paint. Some of them did a painting on trinkets like ballerina music boxes or snow globes. Joseph chose something different though. His picture portrayed the forest surrounding his treehouse. Although the painting was small, it was easy for him to fit some striking details onto the canvas. The painting showed the density of the forest towards the top of the canvas whereas towards the forefront was a tree that brought depth and perspective to the painting. Essences of green, yellow, and brown littered the painting. A lone tree, in the middle of the picture, stood with a sturdy portrayal of the treehouse. The sun was setting in the background of the picture with deep blues and reds smeared across with different shades of pinks and grays on the horizon.

It was heavenly.

He held onto the painting carefully as they walked through the woods towards their adjacent houses. The street lamps were already on as they reached the point where the soil met the asphalt.

“Thanks,” Joseph said.

“Hey, if I worked that hard on something, I wouldn’t want to forget about it,” Lila said.

“I don’t think I could ever forget about this honestly.” Joseph replied while looking down at the asphalt.

They hugged and parted ways for night. Joseph made his way into the house where his dad was cooking dinner. The house was a mess. In his father’s study was a mountainous pile of papers and projects scattered across his desk. A dirty pile of laundry was strewn across the stairs to his upstairs bedroom. Joseph would help clean the house occasionally but lately he had been too preoccupied with school.

He worried about his father. He’s not a bad dad. He thought. I get it. He’s busy. I can see it. I know he is tired. I just wish he wasn’t so tired that he could spend some time with me. He walked into the dining room and placed the painting down on the dining room table and made his way over to where his dad stood over the stovetop stirring spaghetti noodles. Again?

“Hey dad. I didn’t mean to ignore you earlier today. I just needed some time alone. I’m sorry,” Joseph spoke as he went up to hug him.

“It’s okay son, I get it. I was there once too. I always told myself that I wouldn’t be like my own father but here I am. I’m trying to be better though, trust me,” his dad said. He scruffed up the top of Joseph’s head to show some affection.

“Can I still see it though? The painting?” He asked.

Joseph shrugged and nodded as he turned to grab the painting on the table.

“It’s beautiful son. I’m so proud of you. I know your mother would be too,” He said.

“I wish she was here to see it. Brian too.”

“I miss both of them so much.”

They hugged in the kitchen for a few moments before sitting down to eat. After they had finished, Joseph’s father hung the painting in his study. As Joseph went upstairs into his room he took out the walkie talkie from his bag.

Click. Static.

Hey Brian. It’s me again. I just wanted to tell you that I won the art fair contest I was telling you about a few weeks ago. The painting is great and Dad said he really liked it. I wish you and mom were here to see it. I hope you come back soon. I can’t wait to see you again.

He placed the walkie talkie on his nightstand and turned off the lights as he went to sleep.

The years came and went and came and went. Time had traced the face of his father as he was now plagued with grey hair and wrinkles around his eyes. A peculiar cough had developed in him that worried Joseph. The combination of his father’s cough and the dementia had caught up to his father only a few weeks after he had been accepted into the local college.

He had to move his father into the Pinewood hospice facility a few miles away from the school he was going to. They had to pack up the house and all of their things. The treehouse contents were packed up too. They had to leave the neighborhood and area and had to leave behind a lot of the things they knew. The treehouse itself still stood strong between the trees.

Joseph had just gotten into college with his high school sweetheart. Everyone told them that they wouldn’t last but he knew that Lila was different when he made the decision to get engaged. They talked often about where they’ve been and where they were going. They talked about Brian and how much Joseph had missed him as they looked through the letters he had been sending.

The letters that Brian sent every year helped with the thought of missing him but Joseph just wished he could come home. The letters read, “Hey guys. I miss you too. There was some complications with the university over here. I have to pay some past due balances before I can graduate. In the meantime, I found a job as a teaching assistant for elementary kids. I think things will work out. I’ll talk to you later. Much Love, Brian.” That was the last letter that they had gotten in a few years.

Joseph’s dad knew that he was working hard over there but he also had a suspicion that he may not want to come back just yet. Brian’s relationship was rocky which was one of the reasons that he had to leave. There were some wounds that couldn’t be healed and Brian figured that he would have to go away for a while.

Now that Joseph was older, he could understand. At the time, he couldn’t quite grasp why Brian had to go away. Joseph remembered the long night when Brian and his father would sit at the dining room table. They were always talking about the future and how his father wanted him to be successful and to be close to home. Brian thought that there was no future for him in this small town. They spent hours discussing the options but Brian had made him his mind.

Joseph still had the walkie talkie though. It sat in one of the drawers of his desk and he would often take it out and place it near him. He hadn’t pressed the button to turn it on in years.

Click. No Static.

The emptiness of the white noise made Joseph’s stomach drop. He felt sad and nostalgic over the memories that were shared. Time doesn’t stop, I guess, he thought to himself. Lila would be coming soon. They were going to be working on a presentation together for a literature class. He had looked over none of the materials and handout papers. Sure enough, Lila knocked on the door of his dorm room. He got up to open the door and saw her standing with her hands behind her back.

“What’s that?” Joseph said.

“What’s what? Lila said. She flashed her smile across her face and laughed a little bit. Joseph tried to reach back behind her to see what she was holding. She took a step back every time he tried to reach for it.

“Okay, Okay. Can you show me please?”

“Close your eyes then,” She responded. Joseph obeyed her directions reluctantly and closed his eyes and put his hands over them to insure proper covering.

“Okay. You can open them now,” Lila said.

Joseph opened his eyes and looked at the painting that was in front of him. He could faintly remember how hard he worked on it so many years ago. The color was faded.

“I found it when I was visiting your dad in Pinewood,” She said.

He held the painting in his hands. The treehouse looked as it did when he painted it all those years ago. “We should go back there,” Joseph said, “We should go back and bring dad with us.”

“Do you think they’d let us?”

“I think so. He deserves to get out for a bit and breathe some fresh air.”

They made their way to Pinewood and asked to see Mr. McPherson. They walked through the hallways and saw other visitors with their grandparents and parents. Joseph could hear stories being read to them in their rooms and had a great idea to read to his father too just before they disembarked.  “Hey Dad,” Joseph said as the nurse opened the door to his room, “We wanted to surprise you.”

“Brian? Is that you?” His Dad’s voice was a little weak and his eyes were distant. “Is your mom with you?”

“Dad, it’s me. Joseph. I’m with Lila. You remember her right? You were there when we got engaged.”

“Ah, yes. My son, come here. Step into the light so I can have a better look at you.” Joseph and Lila stepped closer to the bed and into the lamplight so that he could see their faces better. The light shone on their faces and they smiled down at him.

“I’m sorry for not being a better father.”

Joseph sat on the edge of the bed and took his father’s hand.

“We just wanted to bring you somewhere. So you could see the green of the forest again and get some fresh air. Is that okay?”

“Anything sounds better than being in here, but what do you have in the backpack?”

Joseph sat with his father for a little while and unpacked the books that his mom had given him when he was a child. He unpacked the painting too and stood it up on his father’s bedside. His father took a look at it and smiled. There were tears in his eyes as he held it in his hands.

“Who painted this picture?” He said, “It’s beautiful.”

“I did Dad, when I was a kid.” Joseph replied.

Joseph’s father tried hard to remember seeing the painting in the past but had to give up on it eventually. Joseph understood and decided to read the stories to his father while his father listened intently and gladly remembered how they ended. Joseph decided to read the story of the Prodigal Son one more time. He hugged his father hard in the same way that he imagined the father in the story would hug his long lost son.

When the time came, Lila, Joseph, and his dad got up and walked out of Pinewood and managed to get him in their car. They drove through the rural neighborhoods of California and made their way to that familiar spot.

A new family had moved into their old house but that was okay, Joseph thought. He moved his father out of the car and stood him up. Joseph and Lila went underneath Mr. McPherson’s arms and helped him walk into the woods. They made their way from the car to where the asphalt met the soil and where the woods began.

As they walked through the woods, they came to the stream to find that a newer and more sturdy bridge had been made to achieve easier access to the denser part of the forest. They made their way across and only a few feet away, stood the treehouse. The trees were colored with green and red, brown and orange. Autumn had come for the forest and the forest had no choice but to let it.

From afar, the treehouse looked as it did in Joseph’s childhood. As he took a few more steps closer, he could see that there were planks missing from the floor of the treehouse, and that the rope ladder was at the base of the tree after all these years. It looked like it had been left alone for the longest time.  Lila called for Joseph and Joseph ran back to her and his father.

“He’s having an episode,” Lila said. Joseph looked at his father who looked confused to be standing in the middle of the forest. He took his dad and hugged him tight.

“Hey, it’s okay Dad. Don’t worry,” he said. He led his father to the base of the tree. His father looked around him and looked up at the old treehouse. He looked back towards Lila and saw her smiling and ushering him closer towards the base of the tree. Sunshine could be seen flowing through the cracks of the wooden base.

“Where are we?” his father said. A moment of clarity tried to shine in his eyes as the words left his mouth. Joseph spoke.

“We’re home.”


Jered Mabaquiao is the first place winner of EnspireMe: Passion Project 2019 in the short story category.