Sarah Spellings & The Followers of The Grove

The Boy in The Branches

“You’re covered in mud. Did you slide down the cliff?”

Levvy looked fresh and alert, her orange toque peeking out from under the hood of a bright yellow rain jacket, blue waterproof pants tucked into red rubber boots. Sarah looked down at her own sodden, dirt-streaked rain suit.

“Well don’t just stand there—get out of the storm.”

Sarah joined Levvy beside the spruce’s broad trunk. It was a sanctuary; a thick spread of branches sheltered them from pelting rain and gale-force gusts, and the forest muffled wind and caught moisture. It was eerily quiet in the woods, almost calm.

“I’ve been here for hours,” said Levvy. “I got here before the storm started. I saw it coming in a vision. I wanted to warn you, but my parents wouldn’t let me.”

“Our house is gone,” Sarah said, her voice trembling. “It washed right over the cliff.”

“Oh, Sarah—I’m sorry. What about your dad and Sammy?”

“We got out before the house slid away, but somehow I got lost. Or they did.”

“Don’t freak out. They’re probably okay. I’m not sure exactly where my parents are, either. They were going to harvest what they could from the garden. We’re supposed to rendezvous at the Big Maple, after the storm passes.”

“The Big Maple?” Sarah sniffed, and shook her head.

“You must know the Big Maple,” Levvy said impatiently. “The enormous tree you can see from your bedroom window? It’s kind of famous. You know the one I mean—kids climb it all the time.”

“I’m not allowed to cross the ravine.”

“Technically I’m not supposed to either. Naturally I do, in the spirit of exploration. Anyway, here we are, across the ravine, and the Big Maple is just over there.” Levvy pointed.

“How did you get down the cliff?”

“I followed Murdock’s tire tracks. His trail goes along the ridge, and then switches back. Getting down is easy. It’s climbing back up that’s tricky.”

“So how do we get back up?” Sarah asked, feeling stupid. How often had she watched Murdock careen down the Highbury embankment, and ride over rubble into the forest?

“Scrambling up the slide is possible, but dangerous. Murdock follows the ravine that way,” Levvy pointed east. “He told me there’s a kind of natural bridge over there. Some big rocks, like stepping stones, and a gentler slope.”

Sarah pondered this information with a twinge of envy: Levvy and Murdock had heaps more freedom and independence than she did. “Did you really see the storm in a vision?” she asked, wiping away evidence of tears with her cuffs.

“Of course. Why else would I be here?”

Sarah felt as if the world had tilted, and her life lay scattered on the ground. Levvy Dwight, awkward bookworm, was secretly a bold adventure seeker. Her psychic visions, which Sarah had assumed were inventions, were real, or at least partly accurate.

“Unbelievable,” said Sarah.

“Well, believe it,” Levvy said crossly. “I find it a stretch that you’ve never climbed the Big Maple. Hey,” she said, brightening, “we could climb it now—you can see for miles in every direction from the branches—maybe we can spot your dad and Sammy.”

For a moment Sarah was willing. But a strong gust of wind rushed through the trees, followed by a blast of cold rain, and her shoulders sagged. “It’s still dark,” she said meekly, ashamed of her fear. “I mean, we should probably wait until the storm is over, and visibility is better.”

Levvy clapped a hand on Sarah’s muddy shoulder. “Right. What was I thinking? You must be exhausted, and I’m tired, too. I know the perfect place for us to sleep. In the morning we’ll go to the Big Maple, and meet my parents. Bet you anything they’ll know where your Dad and Sammy are.”

Levvy strode into the forest, and Sarah rushed to keep up. They halted under an old-growth cedar surrounded by layers of bright green and rusty red boughs, a springy, natural mattress. The tree’s shaggy bark was aromatic and comforting. Sarah inhaled, cedar perfume loosening tight bands around her chest. It wasn’t completely dry; the occasional drip found its way through the canopy, so they snugged up their waterproof jackets, and huddled together for warmth. As her eyes adjusted to murky shadows, Sarah saw the forest was more beautiful than she had guessed; majestic trees protected lush, intricate underbrush, giant ferns and delicate white-berried shrubs. She lulled herself to sleep by imagining her father scooping up Sammy and whisking him to safety, away from mudslide and ravine.

Something rough and warm tickled her cheek. Sarah opened her eyes to a furry face and pink tongue hovering centimetres from her nose. She startled awake, and pushed herself hurriedly to sitting. The creature leapt into her lap, stood on its hind legs, and batted her gently with leathery paw pads. Sarah exhaled with relief, and rubbed the dog’s thick, familiar fur.

“Rumpus, what are you doing here?”

“Are you expecting him to answer? Because he’s a dog, you know. And not just any dog. You are currently having a conversation with Mister Nickel‘s dog.”

Sarah gave Rumpus an affectionate pat. “Sure, okay. But does Rumpus seem like he belongs with Mister Nickel? I mean—look at him.”

Levvy considered the terrier. “Oh, I agree completely,” she said. “Rumpus doesn’t have the right energy for that slimeball. But that argument wouldn’t hold up in a court of law.”

“So, good thing there’s no courts of law anymore,” said Sarah, and Levvy raised an impressed eyebrow. “My father says possession is nine-tenths of the law,” she continued. “and Rumpus is kind of my dog. He likes me better than Mister Nickel, and he followed me here on his own.”

“He’s only here because you feed him,” said Levvy drily.

Sarah stuck out her chin defiantly. She was overcome with a rush of love for Rumpus, and felt a stubborn desire to keep him. She had coveted the dog for years; it seemed like both fate and good luck that the animal had sought her out. “I’m sure Mister Nickel feeds Rumpus, but he likes my food better. He eats carrots, you know.”

At the thought of food, Sarah’s stomach growled. She rummaged in her backpack, produced a paper fold of nuts and dried apples, and offered its contents to Levvy.

“Blessings,” said Levvy, with a slight bow.

Blessings was the polite way to accept food. A long time ago, Sarah’s father said, food had been plentiful, and easy to obtain. But people back then weren’t grateful for abundance; they ate casually, often choosing factory-made snacks over fresh, healthy options. “Nowadays we can’t afford to be picky” her father had explained. “We have to be grateful for anything we can get.”

Chewing nuts and apples, Sarah felt her strength return. A seagull shrieked overhead, and Sarah looked up to see bands of pale blue stretching between clouds.

“Storm’s over,” said Levvy. “Big Maple time.”

Water dripped from canopy to forest floor. They jogged between trees, brushing up against enormous fern fronds that soaked their rain suits. Rumpus bounded along cheerfully beside Sarah. Levvy skidded to a sudden stop, held up a warning hand, and nodded at the ground. Clumps of mushrooms had sprouted overnight: small bright yellow ones that seemed to glow; flat brown ones as wide as dinner plates; jagged white ones like daggers thrusting up from the earth, and red ones with white spots, like illustrations in a children’s book. Levvy pulled a notebook from her satchel and flipped through ragged pages, muttering the taxonomic name of each species as she identified it.

“Can we eat them?” Sarah asked.

“Maybe,” said Levvy. “But some inedible fungi species have medicinal properties. And you never know when a deadly poison might come in handy.”

Sarah gulped, wondering if she had gravely underestimated her friend.

As they approached the ravine the sky brightened, and the air became less humid. Pushing through branches, Sarah saw a wall of dirt, stretching all the way up to Wailsmouth Street. Levvy paced, surveying the trees. She clucked her tongue, scratched her orange toque, and muttered under her breath. “More bad luck,” she said. “The Big Maple is gone.”

Sarah whipped around, searching for emerald green, outsized, pointy maple leaves. “It can’t be gone,” she said. “It’s a tree. Where would it go?”

They emerged from the forest, and climbed over the embankment. Sarah gasped; the wreckage-strewn ravine had vanished, and in its place was a torrential, rushing river. Greenery and debris bobbed along, propelled by churning rapids. In the centre of this new waterway two large maple branches waved, like the arms of a drowning swimmer signalling for help. A hand squeezed Sarah’s heart, and hope of being reunited with her family dwindled.

Levvy stared at the powerful new river. “My parents should be here by now,” she mused. “But oh well—so much for Plan A.” She slipped off her satchel, removed a leather case from a side pocket, and fumbled with a brass catch. Inside the case was a shiny pair of brass binoculars. Levvy pressed them to her eyes, and aimed them at the top of the cliff.

“Do you see anyone?” Sarah asked anxiously.

Levvy passed the binoculars to Sarah. “I don’t see my parents, or your dad, or Sammy. But there’s someone up there alright.”

Sarah adjusted the binoculars. Mister Nickel stared directly back at her, looking furious. He was shouting and gesticulating, and it was easy to guess why: Rumpus sat faithfully at Sarah’s feet, the little black triangle of his nose flaring, his tail wagging, showing no sign of wanting to rejoin his master. Two tall, broad-shouldered men in matching black jackets came to stand beside Mr. Nickel.

“Mister Nickel has some, uh, people with him,” said Sarah. “And I think maybe we should go back in the forest.”

“I’m not going anywhere, said Levvy indignantly. “I promised to wait here for my parents.”

“Can you, um, look into the future, or whatever, and see where they are?”

“Visions don’t work like that,” Levvy snapped. “I don’t control them—they’re like nightmares, basically. They just happen.”

Sarah passed the binoculars back. “Well, check these guys out. I get the feeling Mister Nickel really wants his dog back.”

With her naked eyes, Sarah watched as the two large men eased themselves backward over the cliff. As they leaned, their jackets slid up, revealing climbing harnesses strapped around their hips and thighs, secured to lengths of thick red rope stretched taut. When their bodies were perpendicular to the muddy wall, the men zipped down the cliff like outsized spiders.

“They’re rappelling,” said Sarah.

“But they can’t cross the ravine,” said Levvy, sounding doubtful.

When the men were halfway down, Sarah’s instincts told her to run. “I’m not waiting around to find out,” she said, scrambling toward the treeline.

“Hey, wait for me,” said Levvy, jamming the binoculars back in their case.

Sarah waded into the forest, and jogged through the undergrowth with Rumpus at her heels. Panting with effort, Levvy caught up.

“Wait up, Sarah—we have to stick together! The furthest I’ve been in the forest is where we slept last night. I don’t want to get lost.”

Strangely, her friend’s worry gave Sarah a boost of courage. She set her jaw defiantly, determined to be brave, even though she was running away. From behind them, over the sound of rushing water, came the boom of deep male voices. She tried to run faster, concentrating on not tripping over thick roots, but the further they went the thicker the undergrowth became, and she stumbled again and again. Thorns snagged and ripped her rain pants. Rumpus raced along, his tongue lolling. Was that pounding in ears her heart, beating against her ribs, or the rhythmic thumps of heavy feet, gaining on them from behind? Levvy wheezed, trying to keep up. Wild with excitement and adrenaline, Sarah somehow registered the beauty of the forest as she ran. Sun was slanting through the trees, and sparkling on wet leaves. Spiderwebs strung between branches refracted light into rainbows.

All at once, Sarah recalled her father’s stories of kidnappings in these woods. Children stolen and sold into slavery, her father said; rumours of murderers, even cannibals, living in lawless places like this. A leafy tree on the far side of a clearing caught Sarah’s eye; there was a wooden platform in its branches. She ran towards it, and saw three hemp ropes hanging down, two ending in knots and the third tied to a large bucket. At the same moment, Sarah became aware of flowering wild strawberry plants growing among grass and shrubs. Not now, she scolded herself.

Reaching the tree with the platform, Sarah scooped up Rumpus and popped him in the bucket. Guided by a strong impulse, she dropped to her knees, thrust her hands into the earth, and uprooted a strawberry plant. She pushed the plant into the bucket beside the dog.

“Are you nuts?” Levvy hissed.

It was a fair question, but gruff voices kept Sarah in motion. The tree trunk was angled like a ramp. Grasping a rope with both hands, Sarah hauled herself up the trunk. The other rope went taut, and Levvy’s boots scrabbled against tree bark. Reaching the platform, they brought the loose ropes up behind them, and Sarah hauled up the bucket. Rumpus tilted his scruffy head, bemused, but content to ride in the little round kennel. They stretched out on their bellies, shielded by leaves.

Just in time.

The men stomped into the clearing, climbing harnesses still strapped around their thighs, pants water-stained to the knees. Their heads rotated, jerking left and right on thick necks, like sharks hunting wounded fish. Sarah held her breath. An elbow poked her ribs, and she followed Levvy’s horrified stare to an upper branch.

Pale blue eyes in a dirty, freckled face, framed by an untidy mop of blonde hair.

A boy was crouched above them, and he was hiding, too.

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