The Quest of Nine Days

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sf_wk4“It is me, or does it look like it’s breathing?”

Raj placed a hand on his pointed cap to keep it from falling off as he looked up the trunk of the most immense tree he had ever seen in his life. It would probably take fifty kids to stand around it and hold hands to surround the trunk. He gulped. Meg was right. It did look like it was breathing. Maybe it was just because of how big it was. Looking up at it was dizzying. That might have been what was making the tree look like it was breathing. At least, Raj hoped so.

The canopy was so impossibly far up and so thick that they couldn’t see beyond the layers of leaves and branches, especially from so far down. Raj looked down and turned to his left. Meg was gazing up at the tree too.

“How tall do you think it is?” she asked.

“We don’t have to climb it, do we?” Frankie asked. He was standing to Meg’s left and had reminded them several times as they approached the tree that he was afraid of heights.

“Maybe you just have to touch the trunk and make your wish,” Raj said.

Meg sighed. “I don’t think it’s that easy.”

“We’ve walked around the tree,” Raj said. “There aren’t any lower branches and the bark is super smooth.”

Meg crossed her arms and peered at the tree. “We’ll need to go get some gear. Like mountain-climbing stuff.”

Frankie took a few deep breaths. “Guys, give me a minute. I’m afraid of heights.”

“We’re all afraid of that height, Frankie,” Raj said

Meg put a hand on Frankie’s shoulder. “It’s okay. You two can stay down here. I’ll climb. That way if something goes wrong, you guys can go for help.”

Frankie shook his head. “All together or none at all. That’s our motto. We’ve got to live by it.”

Raj felt a surge of fear in his gut, but he looked firmly at Meg and nodded.

“Okay,” Meg said. “But we’re telling you gran—“

“Guys,” Frankie said, “something is happening.” He was still gazing up. Raj and Meg followed his gaze.

Something was coming down toward them, floating down.

***

Despite the pointed cap he wore whenever he was with his friends, Raj was no real wizard.  He had no real magic.  But he believed magic was real.  To stave off the fear of having found that tree, the fear of not knowing what challenge was to come next, he reminded himself of why they were in the heart of a forest searching for a tree that could grant wishes.  Raj had known Meg and her older brother, Al, for almost a third of his life.

Al was sick, the incurable kind of sick. Raj didn’t just want to help because Meg was one of his best friends.  Before he met Meg, he had met Al. Al was the one who introduced Raj and Meg, walking Raj into the playroom where Meg and Frankie were building something called a “fortress of knowledge” out of Legos and paperback books. Al was the one who silently walked up behind Raj when he was being picked on the first week of school, and who made the bullies scatter without a word. So Raj would have done anything, he would have climbed all the way up to the moon and beyond if it meant saving Al.

Not long after Meg, Raj, and Frankie began playing together, Raj confided in his friends about feeling like a weirdo at school because of all the hundreds of things, both big and small, that made him different, even his name.

That’s when Meg had smiled and told him that her name wasn’t short for Megan. Her full name was Omega. And Al’s full named was Alpha. Her parents were both nuts about the Greek language and culture. They’d met on a school trip to Greece when they were both in high school. They knew it would cause their kids some grief to have the names they had, for hundreds of reasons, both big and small. But they also figured that the names could be shortened to normal-sounding nicknames.

“Is this why we’re all friends?” Frankie had asked then. “Because our names suck?”

“I like my name,” Raj had said. “I like your names too.”

Frankie peered at him incredulously. “You like ‘Frances’?”

Raj’s eyes had widened. “Uh…”

Meg had burst out laughing.

Raj braced himself with those memories of happier times.  The three of them still laughed, but less and less since Al got sick.  Meg’s parents were trying everything they could with doctors and medicines. Meg, being a kid, and feeling helpless, did the only thing she could, the thing she was best at. She went to the library every day after school, and she tried to read every story, myth, legend, fable, and tale about the ways that people could be healed. One day, she found a story about something called a “thaumadendro,” a tree that could make wonders, a wish-making tree.

In ancient times and many lands in the world, wish-making trees existed in almost every village, every town. But they had faded from use, then from memory, then from the world altogether. If anyone needed one after that, the wisher had to be pure of intention and had to summon the tree through will and ritual. Once it appeared, the tree would grant a wish, or many wishes. Details differed because there were many different kinds of wish trees.

Meg told Raj and Frankie about the tree and the ritual, which seemed fairly simple, and required no gruesome sacrifices, but an earnest chant spoken to the four cardinal directions. They performed it, and not knowing what to expect next, Raj and Frankie went home.

The next morning, Meg called them to her place again. She said she’d found what looked like an infestation of weird-looking ants in her room, crawling in through her bedroom window. The ants were swarming all over what looked like a huge rolled up leaf. Meg was afraid to get near the ants, knowing that some species had painful stings and bites. She used her paintbrush to brush them off the leaf and unrolled it carefully to find writing inside. The writing was in cursive script and was clearly in English. It described a tree and spoke of wishes. Meg had examined the ant trail and it seemed to go down the south side of the street, straight toward the forest at the edge of town.

Luckily it wasn’t a school day, so the three were able to take off first thing after breakfast. They followed the trail of the strange-looking ants. They were clear but iridescent and many-colored in the sun, like soap bubbles. The ants led them to the tree.

It wasn’t that deep into the forest. It wasn’t that far from a trail that all three of them had hiked and ridden their bikes on many times. But they had never before seen the tree. No one else seemed to have seen it either.

***

It was taking a while for the thing that was floating down to reach the ground.  Meg stood with one hand shading her eyes gazing up at it. Raj and Frankie sat at the tree’s base discussing why there wasn’t a crowd of onlookers, military guys, and scientists gathered around a tree that towered so far above the rest of the forest, that it could surely be seen all the way from the town center.

“Maybe only the summoners can see it,” Frankie suggested.

Raj marveled. “I wonder how that works. And I wonder how the tree knew we were summoning it.”

“I’ll bet that ritual wasn’t even necessary,” Meg said, still staring up. “The tree must have been here all along. Maybe it has some really sophisticated camouflage in its bark and leaves. It probably sends those ants out to scout, but not for food. They must have heard us talking about wishes, specifically about the wish-maker tree. So the tree had them send that first page.”

“And they understand human speech?”

“These aren’t ordinary ants, Frankie.”

Raj widened his eyes. “Guys, what if none of the ants in the world are ordinary?”

“Is it the tree that’s intelligent? Or is there a spirit living in the tree?” Frankie pondered.

“It’s here,” Meg said. “I see it. It’s a flower.”

They let the flower fall gently to the ground, a flower with nine black pointed petals.

***

After a brief discussion of whether or not the flower was safe to touch, Meg pulled out some faux leather gloves she had brought along, despite the warm weather, and picked up the flower.

All three then sat at the base of the tree and discussed what the flower could mean. Maybe nine petals meant nine wishes. Raj pulled out his notebook and pen and began writing. They discussed testing it out by first wishing that Al would be healed for good. They argued about the wording, though they all agreed it was important to be careful about the wording of the wishes. They had read enough stories, watched enough movies and shows, and played enough games where some mishap in wording caused a wish to be wasted or to somehow go wrong. They talked about making a list of all the important wishes they must make for humanity’s sake to end hunger, poverty, war, cruelty, and all the other ills.

Meg and Frankie paced as Raj sat and wrote. Then Meg spotted more activity on the tree. The ants were carrying something down. It was another one of those page-sized leaves. Meg received it and began reading it.

Unlike the somewhat vague first page, this page addressed their questions directly.

“It says the wisher must find the fruit that came from the flower and then the wish would come true,” Meg said.

Frankie groaned. “So we do have to climb up.”

“Will you have to eat this fruit?” Raj asked. “Or will Al have to eat it?”

“I don’t know, but Al’s off solid foods right now.” Meg frowned with worry.

Raj snapped his fingers. “Maybe we could make a juice out of it for him.”

“First we have to figure out how to climb up,” Frankie said. “None of us knows how to use mountain-climbing gear.”

“Maybe there’s another way,” Meg said, peering ahead at the bark. “Follow the ants.”

They got up and followed the trail of ants that had brought down the second leaf. Raj spotted a leaf insect and a twig insect crawling up the bark as well and he thought about what other creatures might be hiding in the canopy. Snakes, lizards, and big hungry cats.

***

The ant trail split in two. One branching trail went straight up the trunk and was of no help to them. But the other spiraled around and down the trunk until it turned in to one of the giant roots. Meg stepped closer. There was a space between two roots that led into an opening in the tree.

“That’s not at all creepy,” Frankie said as he handed Meg a flashlight. She stepped between the roots and seemed to vanish into them.  Raj held his breath for a moment. But she reappeared right away, grinning. She waved them in and they followed.

The roots were hiding an opening tall and wide enough for even an adult to enter without stooping. Right at the opening was a stairwell, carved, it seemed from the inner bark of the tree itself. Meg climbed a few steps, shining the flashlight up.

“I can’t see the top,” she said. “But it widens out. I think the core might even be hollow. So weird. Can trees be hollow in the middle and still be alive?”

“We can’t go up now,” Raj said. It was late afternoon already and there was no telling how long it would take them to climb up the stairs.

They emerged from the tree’s roots and Meg pointed to the second leaf that the ants had brought her.

“According to this, the nine petals on the flower don’t represent nine wishes, but nine days. We are on a clock now, guys. We have nine days to find the fruit. But Raj is right, we can’t go now.”

“We can’t just disappear for nine days,” Frankie said.

“Who says it has to take that long,” Meg said. “That’s just how long we’re allowed.”

“Will time pass the same way once we’re in the tree?” Raj asked.

Frankie shook his pointed finger at him, smiling. “Good thinking.”

Meg looked at the leaf and shook her head. “It doesn’t say anything about—oh wait. Crap, I almost missed it.” She looked up at them, her eyes wide. “We won’t be missing for nine days. This says that time moves faster inside the tree. Each day in there will be an hour out here. The clock will start when the flower’s petals turn white. They’re still black, so we’re good. I’ll read this more carefully when we get home guys, I promise.” She scanned the leaf again. “But it doesn’t say anything about the nine days being the time we have to find the fruit, or the time we have to get the fruit and get out of the tree.”

“To be safe, we should assume it’s the time we have to get in and out of the tree,” Frankie said.

Raj nodded. “So, we’ll still have to figure out how long it will take us just to get up there. And we’ll need more supplies, food, water, lanterns…”

Frankie frowned. “And baggies and jars…for when we need to go to the bathroom.”

“I hope it’s still here in the morning,” Meg said.

***

As they trudged home, they realized they now only had one wish. Their grand plans of ending hunger, poverty, and war, of making the world peaceful and safe so everyone could have fun and do what they wanted and live long and happy lives were gone. Still, they discussed how they could use that one wish to save not only Al but others. Meg could wish that everyone in the world now living and yet to come would experience good health for the rest of their lives. But people might still be hurt in accidents. They tried to tweak the wording of the wish.

They talked about the fruit too. The tree didn’t know what the wish would be, so it was most likely that the fruit had to be eaten by the wisher and then the wish was made. So they wouldn’t have to worry about figuring out a way to get Al to consume the fruit. They argued about the wisdom of eating a strange fruit from a magical tree inhabited by ghostly shimmering ants.

Meg poured over the second leaf that the ants had handed her, but she found no further wisdom or knowledge in it. She was most worried about what the cost of the wish would be. Frankie assured her that her ant friends would probably bring her more leafy pages while she was sleeping, but Meg didn’t want to rely on chance. There were still books she had checked out that she hadn’t gotten to.

“Leave it to you to hit the books on a Saturday night,” Frankie said. “I’m going to eat junk food and play video games…just in case.”

They dispersed for the night, agreeing to meet up the next morning an hour after dawn.

The next morning, they met at Raj’s house. He left a note for his grandmother, and a map leading straight to the tree. His parents might have stopped them. They preferred Raj and his friends to play closer to home. But his grandmother wouldn’t balk at the children playing in the forest and climbing some tree, especially since they all had phones. They could count on her not saying anything unless the three of them didn’t come home by the time Raj marked on the note.

***

They were silent and somber on their way to the tree. Raj was both relieved and scared to see it still there. They had wondered if it would vanish on them.

They were all dressed and equipped for a long hike. They checked their packs and prepared to find the stairwell again, when Meg stopped them.

“I was hoping one of you would ask, but you didn’t,” she said.

Frankie and Raj exchanged a glance.

“About the price of the wish,” Meg said. “I know what it is.”

She had read and read deep into the night until the words started spinning around and she felt dizzy from the need to rest and sleep. But she had found what she was looking for. She had found the real reason why the trees stopped being used. The ancient peoples, their ancestors, had discovered that the price of making wishes—even seemingly selfless wishes—was the manifestation of the worst things that existed in world, monsters.  Worse still, the bigger the wish and the more people it affected, the bigger the manifestation. Some legends had it that the many underworlds that existed in the various myths and legends of the world were created when some well-meaning person wished for something much like what the children had wanted to wish for. An end to suffering on the earth.

“Then, you can’t wish for everyone to be healed,” Raj said. “Or else you might create another underworld.”

“I can only wish for Al to get better.” Meg creased her brow. “It doesn’t seem right.”

Only Meg would have felt guilty for thinking only of her brother and not all the other sick kids in the world, and sick grown-ups, sick animals, even the sick trees and plants.

Frankie frowned. “But…even just wishing for Al to be healed, that’ll make a monster, right?”

Meg nodded. “Yes, but it should be contained in the tree. Up there.” She pointed to the canopy. “It won’t be able to hurt anyone in the real world. At least, I think so.”

Frankie gulped. “Isn’t ‘up there’ where we’re going?”

Meg shook her head. “I’m going. You two are keeping watch down here.”

Raj folded his arms. “I thought we already had this conversation.”

Frankie sighed. It was a worried sigh, but also a determined sigh. “All together,” he said. “Or none at all.”

***

The first part of the stairwell felt cramped and suffocating. Even with three bright lanterns they couldn’t see much more than a few feet above or below. Then after what Raj thought felt like a few flights, the space seemed to open up. It was still dark, but if felt more airy. At about the same time, Meg alerted them that the flower had turned white. She had it propped up in a jar. They also started to encounter landings. That meant they would be able to lay down and rest and eat at the landings. They also started to notice cracks and crevices in the bark. Insects crawled in and out, so they had to be careful where they put their hands, even though they were all wearing gloves, just in case. Meg was right, the core of the trunk seemed to be hollow. They couldn’t see all the way around at once, but Frankie threw a stone across and it didn’t hit anything.

After what seemed to be several hours, they began to see things that slowed them down, that would have made them turn back if they didn’t keep reminding themselves what was at stake. Crammed into crevices and scattered on the landings were the skulls of small animals and entire skeletons of humans, wishers, probably, who had failed to reach the tree’s deadline. There was scrawling on the inside walls, but none of them could make sense of it. It seemed to be in many different languages and the writings were on top of each other, so they could only discern the odd word or letter.

On one level, they were rejoined by the ants, and all three were heartened to see the insects that had so far done no harm and seemed to be benign at least and actively friendly at most. The ants lead Meg to a particular crevice where she found a book. She realized that the pages she’d been receiving from the ants weren’t leaves at all, they were pages from that very book. The book was faded and tattered. The cover was gone. It seemed to be a journal or diary. It was damp from being inside the tree.

Along the way, they found more and more pages. Meg began to reassemble the book.  Raj chronicled their journey in his own notebook, though he stopped taking it out as they kept going farther up. Meg found the cover of the tattered journal strewn in a cob-webbed corner of what seemed to be the hundredth landing they had stopped at. The cover was made of leather and embossed with some sort of crest under a crust of dirt and grime. Meg flipped through the book, checking for guidance or help on their journey.

They all checked wristwatches, but the times had started drifting from each other some while ago. They had hoped the watches would continue working consistently within the tree. But after what seemed like several hours had passed, one of the petals on the nine-petaled flower fell off. Meg consulted the journal and realized that the falling petal meant that a day has passed.

But they didn’t feel hunger, thirst, or the urge to go to the bathroom. They needed rest every now and then to relieve their feet and muscles, but they weren’t nearly as sore and tired as they would have been after a day of hiking. And none of them felt sleepy. They tried to nap, but as soon as they closed their eyes, they only saw visions and dreams of shadows and monsters moving through the branches of the canopy. It wasn’t restful at all. So they continued on, but the environment seemed to change yet again. The landings became cleaner. There were no more skulls or skeletons, no cobwebs or creepy crawling things, and no cracks and crevices in the inner wall. The stairs too seemed to get smoother and less dilapidated.

The ants kept bringing them leaves containing some liquid. At first the children wouldn’t drink, but then Meg read in the journal she was gathering that the liquid was meant to sustain them. Even though they didn’t feel thirst, hunger, or fatigue while inside the tree, their bodies would immediately collapse if they were to step outside the tree. So unless they wanted to remain forever in the tree, they needed to drink. The nourishment that the ants provided produced no waste, so they still wouldn’t have to worry about the restroom situation.

“I just hope the stuff isn’t drugged,” Frankie said as he enjoyed his third leaf-full.

***

As they moved farther and farther up, they started hearing muffled and distant sounds, echoes. The sounds grew louder as the petals fell and as they approached the canopy. The sounds were familiar. Chirps, screeches, and roars. The sounds of animals. It grew brighter as well, and after the fifth petal fell, they began to see it. The canopy was just above. They were close.

Meg was mildly disappointed that she hadn’t gathered all the pages of the book. Though it was someone’s journal, the pages were all numbered, so she knew that several were still missing. But she was as glad to see the canopy as Raj and Frankie, until they all remembered what awaited them inside the canopy. Not just wild animals. But monsters.

They climbed up into the canopy and discovered that it was so thick and dense, they could walk on it as they would walk on the forest floor. It was as bright as a misty morning up there with a strange yellow light tinged with green. It was bright enough that they didn’t need their lanterns. They set the lanterns down near the landing to the stairwell. Raj pulled out a paper bag full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that he had made for them but that they hadn’t needed. He wasn’t particularly religious, but he was at times superstitious.  He set the sandwiches down, making an offering to the monkey god for protection. They were only several steps away when he heard something behind them, and turned to see that the sandwiches were gone. He wondered, too late, if it was foolish to have wasted rations that they might still need. Just because they hadn’t needed to eat while they were in the trunk didn’t mean the same would hold true in the canopy.

Frankie tapped him on the shoulder and held up a couple of candy bars. Raj gave him a thumbs up. Meg was reading more of the tattered journal to figure out how she could possibly locate the fruit that was connected to the blossom. She took the flower out of the jar, or rather the remnants of the flower. It had only three petals left. She held it up as if it would start glowing like a tracking beacon.

There were strange cross breezes moving through the canopy, chilly enough to make them take out their windbreakers and hoodies. The trunk by contrast had been warm and humid. They couldn’t see the sky, only more canopy. Meg read that the canopy was broken down into several layers. They were on the bottom-most one, hoping they wouldn’t have to climb. There was no more stairwell. If they needed to go up now, they would have to climb branches.

They spotted through the corners of their eyes, shapes and shadows whipping through the canopy around them and over them. They felt eyes watching them, eyes that flashed through the strange light that illuminated the canopy. That light seemed to be coming from the leaves. They soon realized that the breezes seemed to be coming from the leaves too.

Another petal from Meg’s blossom fell. They only had two days remaining. They had intended to get the fruit and get out of the tree before nine days passed. They still weren’t sure if the nine days was for getting the fruit, or if they only had nine days to both get the fruit and get out of the tree. The question no longer mattered. They probably wouldn’t get out within nine days, but they might get the fruit before then. If they got the fruit before then, maybe it wouldn’t be too late.  Maybe acquiring the fruit would buy them some more time to get out of the tree.

They noticed that the fallen petal was being carried by the breezes, and they decided to follow it. Frankie let out a spool of bright embroidery thread so they could follow it back the way they came. He’d brought dozens of spools, just in case. They were led upward, but there were thick branches and vines everywhere and it was not difficult to climb. So they climbed and climbed until they reached what they though was the third level of the canopy. By then another petal fell, and both petals lead them to a patch of the canopy where many different fruits were growing from branches below, above, and all around them. Apples of every variety hung from above. Pears poked out of the “ground” of the third level. Sunset-colored mangoes lay as if lounging along the vines that cupped the third canopy level. Many other fruits, both familiar and unfamiliar grew all around over.

All the fruits seemed ripe and ready for picking. They had to watch their steps to keep from crushing any of the fruit as they followed the floating petals. It was growing darker, perhaps because the leaves were being covered by the abundance of fruit. The fresh and sugary scent was overwhelming. Frankie, in an uncharacteristic fit of recklessness, reached down to pick and eat one, but Raj and Meg stopped him, warning that they didn’t know what would happen if they ate fruit that wasn’t meant for them. They reminded him of the monsters that came from wishes and that each of the fruits was probably a potential wish. Frankie thanked them for snapping him out of it and pulled out a candy bar to stave off the temptation of the fruit.

***

At last, the petals landed on top of something that looked like a blue pear speckled with yellow. Both petals stuck to the pear. Meg let out a breath and reached for the pear just as they heard the hoot of a monkey, then another.

“Now or never, Meg,” Frankie said.

She gripped the blue pear and she plucked it. The branch it was hanging from shriveled and fell off the main branch before their eyes. The hoots and hollers around them grew louder and they decided it was time to run. They tried to follow the embroidery thread that Frankie had lain down to mark their way, but as they retraced their steps, they were confronted by eyes just behind the vines and branches they needed to climb down.  Something growled at them. They turned back. They knew they had to climb down to the first canopy level, so they descended from another point, hoping they could find the string or better yet the stairwell, or at least get somewhere safe so Meg could consult the journal and guide them out. They dropped down right in front of a monkey who was halfway through a banana. He scrambled out of the way, seemingly frightened. Rushing down from second canopy level, they came face to face with a snake that reared up and shook its rattle, but as they back away slowly, the snake plunged back into the vines and slithered away.

“I think those were just regular animals,” Meg said, climbing down.

Raj felt the branches scratching his face and hands. “As opposed to?”

“Those screaming monkey things from level three. Those are something else. We have to get away from those.”

“I’m with you on that,” Frankie said. Just as he spoke, they heard the screams of one of the monkey-like things.

“Look!” Raj pointed. There was a bright orange string several feet away on the canopy floor. “But which way?”

They ran toward it and Meg pointed at the string. There were ants marching along it. “That way,” she said, pointing in the direction of their marching.

They ran in a straight line, Meg leading and Raj bringing up the rear, until they spotted their lanterns about a hundred yards away.  Raj had placed the lanterns right at the entrance to the stairwell.

Suddenly, Raj heard a shrieking scream just behind his ear and he went tumbling to the ground. He felt a heavy weight on top of him and saw his friends getting farther away.

“Frankie!” he cried out.

Frankie stopped and turned, his eyes wide when he saw Raj and whatever was on top of Raj. But then Frankie’s eyes narrowed. His expression turned angry. He ran toward Raj, roaring and furious. He jumped over Raj and hit something with a hard thump. The weight was lifted from Raj and he rolled out of the way. As he rose, he glanced around at the ground for something to throw and saw one of Frankie’s candy bars. He picked it up and turned just as Frankie got up. He had knocked the monkey-thing off Raj and the thing rolled over and got to its feet.

Raj threw the candy bar at it with as much force as he could muster. The candy bar, aimed with accidental perfection, hit the monkey-thing in the eye, but the creature swiped out blindly and its claws raked Frankie through his upper right arm as he turned to run.

“I hope this doesn’t mean I’m going to turn into one of those things,” Frankie lamented, holding his arm, while Raj grabbed him and pulled him forward. They fell halfway to where Meg was by the stairwell entrance, and she ran out to join them. Raj pulled the hoodie off Frankie and gasped at the deep inflamed gashes on his friend’s arm. Frankie was sweating profusely. His skin was turning red all over. He cried out suddenly as ants began to crawl over him. Raj grabbed Frankie’s hand before he could brush the ants away. The ants were wrapping Frankie’s wounds with leaves and some material that looked like corn silk. They were biting the leaves to make them ooze something.

“Is it helping?” Meg asked.

Frankie nodded through gasping breaths.  “Hurts less.”

Meg and Raj lifted him up and wrapped his arms over their shoulders. They ran as one toward the stairwell entrance.

But the sound of howling and shrieking was too close behind them. The rest of the monkey-things were upon them. Suddenly, a monkey popped out of the foliage in front of them, right beside the stairwell.

The three of them stopped, certain they were doomed. But Raj saw that the monkey in front of them was different. He looked like the one they encountered earlier, who had been eating a banana. There was a smear of what looked like peanut butter in his whiskers. As Raj watched, dozens of other monkeys emerged from the vines and branches around them. They leapt over Raj and his friends and attacked the false monkey-things. Raj, Meg, and Frankie ran for the stairwell.

They hopped down to the first landing and ran down the stairs to the next landing before checking on Frankie.

“We should be okay now,” Meg said, huffing. “They shouldn’t be able to get through the canopy.”

Raj watched as the last petal on the blossom that Meg was carrying fell off. They looked upwards. The canopy was beginning to vanish. They began to run down the stairs, Frankie seeming to have recovered and regained a second wind. At the core of the trunk, air was rushing up from below.

“We can’t run down fast enough,” Meg yelled up to them. “We’ll have to jump.”

“Are you crazy?” Raj and Frankie both said.

She pointed and they saw that an ant trail had formed leading from the stairwell toward the core of the trunk.  The trail was floating in the middle of the air. The ants were crawling downward in a spiral, as if leading them.

“We’re a lot heavier than ants,” Frankie said.

“They’re showing us the way,” Meg said. “I’ll go first.” She handed her pack to Raj. “If I die—“

“I’ll go first,” Raj said. “Your parents can’t lose both their kids. Mine still have my two sisters.”

“Why do you guys always forget!” Frankie cried. “All together or none at all.”

They jumped and Frankie was right. They were too heavy to float in the air like the ants. They fell, but Meg was right too. It was the way down. They fell slowly enough that they landed without injury. But the tree was still vanishing around them. They sprinted to the stairwell exit and tumbled out. They rose and made a tripping dash away from the roots.

In minutes, the tree, the wish-maker, was gone.

***

Meg sighed. She was still tired and Frankie was still hurt, and they were still in the forest far from home. And it was growing dark. But Meg had read in that journal she found that the fruit once plucked and removed from the tree would begin to rot with every blink and with every heartbeat. She had to eat the whole thing, and she had to make her wish right then and there.

“You’ve got the right words ready?” Frankie said.

She nodded. She licked her lips and bit into the blue pear.

***

“Okay, so we’ll watch you for a few days to make sure you don’t turn into a monster from eating a wish fruit,” Frankie said to Meg as they approached the gate to Raj’s front yard.

“What about you?” Raj said. “We’ll have to watch you to make sure you don’t turn into an evil monkey.”

“It’s up to you, Raj,” Meg said. “To protect the world from us, and us from the world.”

Frankie nodded solemnly. “Don’t let the world forget who we once were. Tell our story.”

Raj laughed. He slapped his friend on his unwounded shoulder. “You’re my hero, Frances.”

They stopped at the gate. Meg was just next door, so Raj would see her getting home, and he made Frankie promise to stay with him that night, so he could check on the leafy dressings that the ants had put on his wounds. They seemed to be healing quickly, but he would probably have some cool-looking scars.

Meg’s smile faded. She took a shivering breath. “What if it doesn’t work?”

“It’ll work,” Raj said.

Frankie nodded. “It’ll work.”

*****

“It’s always been here. We just couldn’t see it.” Meg delicately flipped the book of the journal. Raj, Meg, and Frankie were sitting on the picnic bench in her back yard.

“Well, that’s a pretty weird coincidence,” Frankie said, picking at the last of the scabs on his arm.

“Not a coincidence. Remember? We went over this before. There are trees like this everywhere, in every town. Every village. But they got forgotten, so they disappeared.” She pointed a finger at the page she had turned to. “Only, they didn’t get forgotten. They were banished on purpose because of all the damage the wishes were doing. They were made into…jails to contain the monsters that their wishes created. In ancient times, people even sent warriors up into the canopy to try to kill the monsters.”

“Kill? I don’t want to kill anything,” Frankie said.

Raj frowned. “Even a monster?”

“Frankie is right. There has to be some other way for us to help the tree. First we have to figure out how it all went wrong in the first place. Like, where did these trees even come from? Why are they granting wishes? What’s in it for them?”

“Maybe nothing went wrong,” Frankie suggested.  “All wishes are selfish if you really get down to it.  So maybe that was always the deal.”

“You could be right, but maybe we could still change that and help the trees, our tree anyway.”

“How can we help the tree if it only appears when someone needs a wish?” Raj asked.

Meg straightened her shoulders. “That’s what we’re going to find out. We have time.”

“What are you guys talking about?”

They all turned. They’d been too involved in their discussion to notice that Al had quietly walked out into the back yard. He didn’t have a crutch or even a cane. And he wasn’t wearing a robe or pajamas. It had been a long time since they’d seen him in normal clothes. He walked over slowly, as if he were tired, but he didn’t limp or stoop. He just seemed a bit sore. He sat down on the bench beside his sister and gazed down at the book.

“Whoa. Is that a library book? You didn’t find that in the trash did you? If so, you’d better wear gloves or something.”

They all looked at him, stared at him. His face was flush and starting to tan a bit. The whites of his eyes were clear and white, all trace of sickly yellow-green was gone. His cheeks were still a bit sunken, but that was because he had a lot of eating to do to get them filled out again. The large sunken bags that once hung under his eyes were almost gone. The shadow of hair on his scalp was turning into the beginning of a buzz cut.

He smirked at them. “What are you guys staring at?”

“Nothing,” Meg said.

Frankie glanced down at his sandwich.

Raj continued staring at Al, who winked at him. Raj grinned. He glanced at Meg. She was biting her lip, her brows raised. She had cried. They had all cried for days. Out of relief, fear that it hadn’t really worked, fear that it wasn’t real when they heard Al was recovering, and joy that the wish came true.

Meg claimed with no shame and as warning to her friends that she would probably keep crying every now and then for a while, just out of the blue. But since the day Al came home, not a single tear had dripped from her eye. Since Al came home, the calm of watching had washed over her, over all three of them.

“Tell me,” Al said.

“You won’t believe us,” Raj said.

Frankie nodded. “Yeah, I dare you to believe us.”

Raj shook his head. “He won’t take that dare.”

Al peered at them. “Try me.”

Meg glanced at Raj and Frankie. She turned slightly toward her brother and flipped to the front of the book.

 

Copyright © 2016. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Thaumadendro” by Sanjay Patel.

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