Back To Nature

By @Anonymous_Llama
Back To Nature

Four high school friends decide to have a fun day out—which can only mean that something terrible is going to happen, am I right?

Chapter 1

“Okay, then. How about the lake?”

Gunveer looked hagridden by the prospect of having to make a decision. However, as usual, he stayed silent.

The rest of us were raring to go. It was a rare cool day in the middle of the summer—for once, the weather was even somewhat bearable. Then again, winter is my favorite season—or would be, were it not for the cold and flu season.

There was just one problem.

JoLee said it first. “Who here owns a boat?”

A sharp pang echoed through the video call. Nobody quite knew what to make of that defeated idea.

That is, until Gunveer surprisingly spoke up.

“Isn’t there a boat that’s always sitting there lakeside?”

I shrugged. “I haven’t been to the lake in a while. Dunno.”

Micheal, however, jumped up eagerly.

“There is. That’s why I was suggesting that. There’s that old rowboat that’s always sitting there. How ’bout we use that?”

I nodded, unsure of what else we could do with this afternoon. “Sure, man. Let’s go check it out.”

“Why not?” JoLee, too, looked rather excited. Even Gunveer didn’t look at all put-off by the idea.

“Alright, then,” Micheal said, “We’ve got a plan.”

JoLee rolled her eyes. “For once.”

⬥  ⬥  ⬥

“Well, whaddaya know?” Micheal seemed very proud of himself. “A boat!”

The boat looked barely seaworthy. It was old and worn and had nearly none of its original turquoise paint on it. Hell, it was made of wood. Old wood, too. The oars looked like they’d been used nearly a thousand times. The boat looked as though it dated back to the 1800s.

JoLee looked queasy as soon as she saw the boat.

“That thing? I’m sorry, boys, but that thing does not look seaworthy.”

“It’ll be alright,” Micheal said.

Gunveer was already preparing the boat. He quickly got the oars and sat down, readying himself to row.

“You sure you wanna row?” Micheal said as he noticed. “I can help.”

Gunveer shook his head. “It’s all good.”

JoLee shrugged and climbed into the boat. She looked slightly concerned, but seemed to be trying her best to shrug it off. Micheal jumped in next, rather eagerly. Finally, I, usually the cautious one, climbed in last.

Micheal stared as I got in. “I thought you were gonna push us off, Kayleigh!”

I stared right back at him. “Micheal, you know I’ve got literally no strength. Twig arms. Why don’t you do it?”

Micheal rolled his eyes, but got out to push. “Maybe your delicate touch would work better for this delicate boat.”

“Dumbass,” JoLee whispered under her breath.

Micheal pushed us off before jumping back into the boat. CREAK. Of course. The sound was worrisome, but frankly expected.

Gunveer rowed towards the notorious island in the middle of the lake. Well, nobody was quite sure why it was so notorious, but we all knew it had something to do with an incident that happened in the 1950s. It was probably fine. Just some overreacting people who needed to go learn to act in Hollywood or something. Nothing bad would happen.

Strangely enough, the rowing must’ve brought Gunveer’s energy up, because he began to chat. Something he had never really done before.

“Man, I’m kinda pissed at my brother.”

We were all so surprised by the fact that he had spoken about something other than the necessary that we forgot to answer like normal human beings. It stayed silent for about five seconds before JoLee finally got over it.

“Yeah? Why?”

Gunveer’s eyes narrowed. “My brother Paramdeep. He’s a freshman right now, you know? He was gonna go into freshman year in August. But no. He’s such a fucking genius, he applied to some super-prestigious early college thing in Germany. Like, fifty international students get in per year. And guess what? He got in. And they prioritize kids who would be going into senior year, and they’re very public about it. This fucking genius kid already skipped two fucking grades, and he fucking got into an early college program in Germany. To be clear, Paramdeep was one of the last people who would’ve gotten in. They generally prioritize lower-income or underrepresented kids who would be going into their senior year, not an Indian kid who wants to go into CS or mathematics or robotics or whatever shit he said he wanted to do who’s already two grades ahead and going into his freshman year. I mean, yeah, at least he won’t be around to annoy me with his fucking genius brain anymore, but it’s still annoying. I can’t even live up to that. Not even close. The kid is brilliant. I get no attention in my house anymore. My mom and dad will probably be sending a fucking postcard to him every week saying they miss him, and they’ll be spending all their time on that instead of helping me apply for college. Look at me. I’m going to college after my little brother. He’s gonna be the Class of 2024 at this place. I’ll be the Class of 2025 wherever I end up going. I dunno. Maybe I’m just too competitive or some shit. But he’s my goddamn brother. How the fuck did all the genius skip me?”

By the end, I think all of us were kind of laughing.

“Hey, man, I think I’d be pissed if that were my little brother, too,” JoLee replied, “Except I’m the youngest sibling. I’ve got an older sister, and that’s it.”

“I have a little brother,” I said, “And I think I’d also be pissed if that was him. But my brother’s into sports. I’d still be annoyed if he went into some sort of elite sports training program, though.”

Micheal swung his head side to side. “True.”

Gunveer chuckled. “But on the bright side, at least that means we have a reason to randomly go to Germany at the end of summer break. We’re gonna go early so we can go be tourists for a bit. I think it’ll be cool. I’ve never been to Germany before. So I guess that’s one good thing that came out of it.”

I smiled. I had gone to Germany the summer before. And I did have to admit, it was amazing. Not to mention, my family had had quite the terrifying experience in a fake mine at the Deutsches Museum, an incident in which we had gone into the mine and started worrying that we’d never come out, so we just ended up going back the way we’d come. Oh, and my grandfather had decided to try and scare my family by clapping while it was dark and quiet. Of course. And my grandmother had nearly pissed her pants. Of course. That museum was where I’d discovered my extreme fear of mines. I mean, there’s nothing to like about them, especially when you happen to be claustrophobic, paranoid, and afraid of the dark, like I am. But other than that one mine incident (and another where I was terrified by a gigantic electric generator at the same museum), there wasn’t much that had been too worrisome during that trip. It had otherwise been amazing.

Micheal pointed at me. “You’ve been to Germany, right?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Last summer. It was great. Gunveer, I think you’ll really enjoy it, honestly. Just don’t go to too many castles. They’ll all start to blend together after a while. Oh, and if you’re going to Munich, check out the Deutsches Museum. Just…don’t go into the mine.”

Gunveer laughed. “Yeah. I think Paramdeep wanted to go there. He does his research. Unlike me. And why shouldn’t you go into the mine?”

“It’s a long story. Basically, it’ll seem like it never ends. And it’s some creepy shit.”

JoLee shuddered. “Well, I think I’d hate mines anyway. They’re just too creepy. Ever seen October Sky?”

Nobody responded.

“Nevermind, then.”

“Well, lucky you, Gunveer, getting to go to Germany,” Micheal said.

I nodded. “Yeah. You’re pretty lucky to be going.”

When we reached the island, the conversation had become nearly entirely about Germany. As we’d been talking, Gunveer had gotten more and more excited about going. I think he didn’t quite resent his brother for being accepted into that early college program now.

“Well,” said JoLee, “Here we are.”

The island was quiet, and a little dark. But it wasn’t creepy in any way. Just peaceful.

Gunveer hopped out of the boat and pushed it to shore. Micheal climbed out first, with JoLee and I following. Gunveer brought up the rear.

“I wonder who was the last person to come here?” JoLee asked quietly.

Nobody responded.

As we walked onto the island, we noticed that we were walking on a trail. Like someone had been here very recently.

Creepy.

“Maybe recently, huh?” Micheal replied.

“Yeah,” I said, “These trails look pretty recent.”

We continued on the trail, unsure of what else to do.

“Maybe someone lives here,” Micheal said quietly.

I shuddered. If that was true, we were trespassing. Which I really didn’t want to be doing.

When we reached the heart of the island, the foresty backdrop suddenly changed to be a tree-shaded clearing.

That is, with the exception of one massive tree that held a wooden house off the ground.

“A fucking treehouse,” Gunveer said, “This is like some kind of movie or something. Creepy.”

“Looks abandoned,” said Micheal, “There’s no ladder.”

True. No ladder extended up to the house at the top.

JoLee shook. “Why’d we decide to do this again?”

Nobody answered.

But Micheal was intrigued.

“We discovered an abandoned treehouse! This is super cool! Let’s go check it out!”

“Uh…not sure I would do that if I were you,” I said.

But Micheal wasn’t in any mood to listen to us. Instead, he made a beeline for the tree.

“Guys! There’s a ladder carved into the side of the tree!”

We saw him begin to scale the tree.

“Micheal, I wouldn’t do that!” JoLee shouted.

“It’s abandoned! No one’s here anyways!” Micheal shouted back.

“Dammit, Micheal, that’s really stupid!” I replied.

But he didn’t listen. And before long, he was at the top of the ladder.

“Dude, that’s kinda crass if you ask me!” shouted Gunveer, “You could be trespassing! Seems like someone’s been here recently!”

“Don’t go in!” I yelled.

But Micheal didn’t listen. Again. And he went in.

He didn’t leave the treehouse for five minutes. I began to get worried.

“I hope nothing’s happened to him.”

Ten minutes. JoLee started to worry.

Fifteen minutes. JoLee and I were nearly holding onto each other for dear life.

Twenty minutes. Gunveer started freaking out.

“I hope he’s not hurt,” JoLee said.

“Me neither,” I replied, “God knows, though.”

“Stay out here to keep watch,” said Gunveer, “I’ll go see if he’s okay.”

“No!” I replied, but it was too late. Gunveer was already going to save Micheal.

He scaled the ladder at breakneck speed. Hoping. Worrying.

“Micheal!” I heard him shout.

Suddenly, I heard a loud whistling straight past my ear.

THUNK!

I turned to see an arrow in the tree trunk behind me.

JoLee grabbed my arm.

“Someone’s shooting at us!”

Gunveer poked his head out of a window in the treehouse.

“Someone’s shooting at you?!”

“Get down here now! We’ve gotta get out of here!”

Without further hesitation, I took off back the way we’d come. JoLee followed me. Gunveer climbed down the ladder, skipping the last two rungs, and took off after us.

When we reached the boat, JoLee and I climbed in. Gunveer came back seconds later. He pushed the boat into the water and leapt in, grabbing the paddles and rowing frantically.

“Go, go, go!”

The lake was big. Not ideal. But Gunveer rowed for our lives. Meanwhile, I kept my head low while we were in the boat, hoping that no one would try to shoot at us.

When we did reach the shore, all three of us were relieved, but still panicked.

“Keep running!” I instructed.

We continued running for our lives until finally, we reached my house. The closest, other than Micheal’s.

I slammed the door to the garage with decision.

We were panting by now. Terrified.

And then, JoLee said the words that all of us were avoiding.

“I hope Micheal’s okay.”

All of our adrenaline began to pump again. In our fear for our lives, we’d left Micheal behind.

“I didn’t see him in the treehouse while I was in there. But then, I wasn’t in there for long. I only made my way into the entry room for a tiny little bit.”

“Wait,” JoLee interrupted, “There was an entrance room?”

“Yeah. There were a bunch of rooms. It was huge, man. Huge. There was a kitchen and everything.”

“That’s crazy,” I said, “Inside a treehouse? On a basically deserted island?”

“There was no way that place was deserted,” said Gunveer, “There was a baby marionette that looked quite new.”

“A baby marionette? So you think they’re raising a baby?”

Gunveer nodded. “Why else would it be there?”

“That’s true. So that means there’s probably a whole family living there.”

JoLee shuddered. “On an island by themselves. Creepy.”

⬥  ⬥  ⬥

I hid inside the bedroom, under the rickety old bed. I really hoped it wouldn’t collapse on me.

The steps were getting louder and louder.

Gunveer had gone a long time ago. I’d heard shouts from outside. They’d probably left me here.

I heard a shout.

“Anthony!”

A deep male voice replied. “Yes?”

My heart pounded. Whoever Anthony was, I hoped he wouldn’t find me.

“Can you check on Leigh for me?”

“Sure, Eleanor!”

“Remember, she’s just been adopted. She still might be wary of you.”

The footsteps died away.

I continued to wait. There was no way anyone was coming for me. I’d have to reveal myself sooner than later. I was lost, and there was nobody who would come for me. Why not just try and join this weird treehouse family?

As the minutes ticked by, I started to think that just revealing myself would be the best option. After all, I was starting to get hungry, and they had a kitchen, so of course they had food. And considering they had just said that some girl Leigh had just been adopted, I figured they’d be willing to take on kids who weren’t part of their biological family.

My heart pounded as I pondered the decision. It was a terrifying one. Would they really accept me? What if they shot me on the spot when some random kid came waltzing out of their bedroom? 

I shook as I climbed out from under the bed, and then I crept quietly down the hallway to the kitchen, where a woman was working.

“Uhhh…excuse me?”

The woman jumped and turned around to face me. I held up my hands.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am, but, uh…I’m from the city. My friends and I came here earlier, but my friends left me behind.”

“I can’t take you back.”

“No, ma’am, that’s not what I’m asking. I’m…uh, my name is Micheal O’Riordain, and I’d…uh, I’m wondering if I can stay with you.”

The woman seemed surprised by this. But she seemed pleasantly surprised. 

She smiled. “Oh, that is fine. You can stay with us. My name is Ms. Eleanor, but you can call me Ma. Micheal, right?”

I nodded. “Yes. Micheal, spelled with the ‘e’ before the ‘a.’”

Ma’s smile widened. “Okay, Micheal. I’ll have to have some of the other children teach you how to hunt. Or you can choose to take care of the younger children if you’d like. We could always use someone to fill that role. So far, everyone wants to hunt when they come here. They always leave me with cleaning up the mess.”

I turned the options over in my head. Ma did need help caring for the children, but that just didn’t seem like my cup of tea. Hunting, too, seemed a little too hardcore for me.

“Uh…are there any other options?”

Ma’s smile faded a little bit, but she nodded. “You can do other jobs too, of course. You can learn to cook—I’ll have to teach you that. You can clean—although you don’t seem like that type. You can garden, too, tend the garden. You can repair the house when it needs repairing. You can be a lookout—oh, sorry, nevermind, Xzavier’s already got that job. Or you can help my husband with going out into the world beyond this place and making money in case we need it. You’d also have to buy things while you’re out. But that’s probably not what you’d like to do. I also don’t think it’s a good idea. If you wouldn’t like to return to your family, then that’s not a good option because you may be found.”

I rocked back and forth on my feet as I pondered the decision. Cooking just seemed like something I wasn’t interested in. And Ma was right—I hated cleaning. Going out and having a job and buying things just wasn’t my thing, either. And I had no intention of being scolded. Or getting JoLee, Kayleigh, and Gunveer in trouble for leaving me behind. I could see why they’d done it.

A lot of the jobs just seemed very manual. There wasn’t much room for intellect, which is what I’d prefer to do something with. After all, Mom had always said, “You never know how long your body’s gonna last. Get a job with your brain, and it’ll last forever.”

Except, that is, for caring for the children. While, yes, I would have to watch them all the time, at least I’d be keeping kids entertained, and not just doing manual labor. Besides, it would take a job off Ma’s back. 

“Actually, I think I’ll take care of kids.”

Ma’s entire body seemed to perk up with pride and happiness. “Excellent! I’ll get you started once I teach you what to do. Other than the essential tasks like changing diapers and things like that, it really is all up to you.”

Right. I’d forgotten about the diapers. But I supposed it would be okay. All the moms I knew said they got used to it after a while (at least, that’s what I overheard from moms’ conversations). 

“How many kids are there?” I asked.

“For you to take care of? Well, there’s Leigh, in the marionette over there. And then there’s Milo—he’s about five and a bit of a handful. He’s my daughter Stella’s son. Age twelve is when we start preparing the children for their roles in the future. And there’s Free—she’s eight. She’s Stella’s girl. And we have Timnes—he’s six, and he’s my daughter Sky’s boy. Those are all.”

“Why can’t Stella and Sky take care of their children?” I asked, probably a bit insensitively.

“Stella’s a hunter, so she’s always out hunting nowadays. I told her I’d take care of her kids. She’s in her thirties now. And Sky decided to leave this place to marry a boy. She left Timnes behind, even though that boy was his father, because he was being kept secret.”

Jeez.

Ma brightened right back up after that little tangent.

“So I suppose you’ll start tomorrow afternoon, now, is that okay?”

“Okay.”

As I sat down at the rickety old table near the kitchen, I wondered how in the world there could be animals to hunt on an island, let alone to feed three generations of a family, plus probably more. I mean, yeah, there were ducks on that lake, but surely there wasn’t enough in this area to feed so many people. 

At dinner, however, I found out. The hunters had returned from their hunt and had multiple ducks and three fish with them. Surprisingly. I hadn’t even known there were fish in this lake. Ma had introduced them to me, and to my surprise, they all took to me quite well. Stella was by far the oldest of the hunters, being around thirty-five. The youngest was Harley, who had run away to the island at eleven and was now fourteen. And there were a lot of hunters. There was no doubt what the most popular job people wanted was. Soon afterwards Xzavier, the lookout, came down to join us for dinner. He was sixteen and had run away to the island just a year prior. Then came the other children—Free, Timnes, and Milo. And last but not least came Anthony, or rather Pa. He had been repairing a hole in one of the bedrooms and couldn’t be in the great room as he normally was, according to Xzavier, before dinner.

There were so many people that I wondered how in the world everyone was going to be able to sit down and eat. As soon as the hunters went to wash off, though, I found out how, once Ma waved me over to a spot on the floor of the treehouse. It was near the bay window in the great room, which was a cool view. 

When the hunters returned, dinner was served. Because I was new, they served me first. Unlike with Mom and Dad, who insisted that everyone had to be at the table before we could eat, they told me to start eating right away. They fed the young children next, in order of youngest to oldest, with the exception of Leigh, who needed to be fed. Ma insisted that this was her job, and that I wouldn’t take it on until the next baby came along. Then the hunters were served, then Xzavier, and finally Ma and Pa served themselves and went to go feed Leigh.

The mood around the place was joking. Quite different from when I ate with Mom and Dad. Usually, Mom and Dad ate and left, and there was barely any talking because the TV was always on. Instead, here, everyone was talking and laughing in a raucous manner. The hunters were joking about the hunt that day, while Ma and Pa were sharing jokes with the children and Xzavier. Which meant that I felt a little left out.

“Hey, man.” To my surprise, Xzavier came over to speak with me.

“Uh…hey.” I wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Sit with Ma and Pa and me. And the kids. Ma says you’re gonna be taking care of the kids, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Come sit with us, man. Might as well get to know them. And besides, the hunters aren’t gonna be too inclined to talk to you. They’re all wrapped up in their hunting stuff. They’re just gonna talk about the hunt, and they’ll exclude you. I learned that lesson the hard way.”

“Okay. Sure.”

So I scooted over to sit with Xzavier, Ma, Pa, and the kids. Ma was busy feeding Leigh, but Pa and Free were chattering up a storm.

“Ah, Micheal!” Pa thundered suddenly.

“Uh…hi?”

“A shy one, ah?”

“I guess.”

“That’s okay. You’ll fit in in no time. The kids are rather delighted to have a new playmate who’s closer to them in age than Ma.”

I chuckled nervously and tried to eat my dinner. Unfortunately, for someone used to eating Hamburger Helper and similar meal kits nearly every single night, the food that they’d served—which appeared to be some sort of fish and vegetable stew—did not look very appealing. According to what I’d heard from Ma, the duck and fish that had been caught today would be part of tomorrow’s dinner, so at least I didn’t have to deal with duck yet.

I tried my hardest to lift my fork to my mouth. 

At first, the stew was a little unappetizing. I had never eaten fish in my entire life, and while some people loved it, apparently, I had just never seen the appeal. And the taste was a little gross. But luckily, whatever vegetable they had put into it didn’t taste so bad. Surprisingly. Especially for me, because I normally hate vegetables. I couldn’t tell what it was—maybe something I’ve never eaten before. But it was strangely delicious.

Eventually, I forced all of the fish down my throat. And as for the vegetables, I finished them all fairly easily.

And that’s when I noticed that everyone was sipping on the brothy part of the stew like it was a milkshake. A little queasy at the thought, I tried to do the same, but ended up coming up with a mouthful of fishy-tasting syrupy stuff. Nervously (and praying for my health), I finished it. Forcefully.

After dinner, nearly everyone sat right back down and waited while chatting excitedly.

Xzavier leaned close to me.

“K’aunté’s gonna get out the guitar and play something. That’s why everyone’s so excited.”

I later learned that K’aunté had been left on the island at age five after some sort of disaster had befallen his family, and his parents could no longer take care of him. Knowing that there was a family living on the island, they took him to the island and handed him over, with Ma and Pa promising to take care of him. He was actually one of the first kids adopted by the family. K’aunté was now nineteen and one of the hunters, but he said he was thinking of switching to being a repairman for the house. He also played a mean guitar.

He sat down with a decrepit old guitar, which I’m assuming the family had had forever. With a quick strum, he began to play a song, which everyone else instantly recognized, but I didn’t know. 

I’m assuming I had a blank stare on my face, because Xzavier whispered to me, “The song is ‘Stuck In The Middle With You.’”

Everyone was singing along, and I didn’t know a single word. But I at least clapped along with the others and tried to get in the mood. I then realized that I would probably be the only one who didn’t know the lyrics for the next while onwards. I could at least pick up, “‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.‘”

The whole scene struck me as oddly movie-like. A family, living in the woods with no electricity, in a gigantic treehouse, who lived off the land and adopted basically any kid who came to the island as their own. Who ate stew and sang old songs to pass the time. And all of a sudden, I was part of it. It seemed so odd. Surreal, almost. It confused me, and yet it was a little awe-inspiring to see it. 

And it was in that moment that I realized I never wanted to go back.

⬥  ⬥  ⬥

The case was closed at the police station. 

Gunveer had returned angrily, his head in his hands.

“Case closed,” I said, “That means they found him, right?”

“Yeah!” Gunveer barked angrily, “And he’s living with that fucking family in the woods that lives in that treehouse! They say that family ran away during the eighties and decided to build a treehouse on that island and live off the land and all. The problem is, Micheal doesn’t want to come back.”

I stared. “Excuse me? How could he not want to come back?”

“Apparently he really enjoys life there. He doesn’t want to readjust to the ‘modern world,’ as the cops said. Fucking shit. He just probably wants to sit with them and get high in their hippie house or something.”

“And what about the O’Riordains?”

Gunveer threw his hands up in the air.

“That’s the worst part. Frankly, I’m more upset that we lost a friend than anything. If he were just gonna go to that fucking island on his own will, then I’d be okay with it. It makes me more angry to think that we fucking left him there, and that’s why he’s even there in the first place. Now he’s all happy while we have to struggle on with college apps and stress and life, while he can just avoid it all! But I mean, that’s secondary to the fact that I’ll never get over the guilt of leaving him there.”

He adjusted the blue bandana he wore his hair in.

“But what’s fucking shit about the whole thing is his parents! Look, the kid seems happy enough, I’ll give him that. Go and fucking have that shit if you want to. Maybe he’s a nature type. But his goddamn parents! It’s like they don’t even care about him! Look, man, it was us who went down to the police station and fucking told the police that our friend Micheal may or may not have been dead. But his parents? They didn’t even seem to care! They didn’t even fucking care when the cops went down and knocked on their fucking door and said, ‘Hey, your kid’s been found.’ They were just like, ‘Oh, yeah, okay.’ At least, that’s what Officer Carson said.”

“Hold it,” JoLee said, “Officer Carson? As in Leeshawn Carson, the guy we talked to when we went over there?”

“Yep, that was the guy.”

“Damn. He’s not exactly the lying type. At first I thought the cop you talked to might be full of it.”

“Nope, Carson’s not the kind to lie. And he fucking said that the O’Riordains, like, didn’t even care! They were all like—and this is what fucking got me—they were all like, ‘So do we have to take him back?’ And then Carson was, like, ‘No, he doesn’t want to come back.’ And then—you’ll never believe this—Mrs. O’Riordain was like, ‘Oh, good. Maybe now we can chase that thing that we wanted to do, John.’” Gunveer threw up his hands again. “Like, what kind of mom does that?”

“Jeez,” I said, “That seems…a little rude.”

“You’re fucking telling me! But really, I’m just more mad about Micheal’s parents being dicks about the whole thing. But lemme tell you this—it really does seem like Micheal is happy where he is. And honestly, thinking about it now, man, that’s probably a good thing. At least he doesn’t have to deal with his shitty parents anymore. Maybe that’s why he’s so happy.”

Strangely enough, I agreed with that. Whenever we’d been over, Micheal’s parents had never seemed like the nice type. Their house was decorated like a model home—all perfect, but with no personal pictures. No trophies, no pictures of Micheal as a little kid, no nothing. And even his room was sparse—again, no pictures, no personal artwork. Just a big abstract painting above his bed, like in a hotel room. Even the sheets that I’d seen peeking out under his plain white comforter had no personality—no color, just white. And all of his furniture had been very generic as well. I remembered Mrs. O’Riordain putting Three Cheese Hamburger Helper on the stove, which seemed strange to someone like me whose family almost always cooked fresh-made meals. The house had seemed strange in a way, almost wrong. Now I knew what made it so horrible: it lacked love.

Gunveer slumped on the couch. “Well, fuck it. Micheal probably deserves living on that island more than he does living with his own parents. I suppose some parents are that way. Sad as it is.”

A week later, the O’Riordains’ house went up for sale. I never heard of Micheal’s parents again. As for Micheal himself, I never heard from him again, either. 

But soon enough, school began again. Gunveer had returned from Germany a few days early so he could start school. His father had stayed in Germany so he could send off Paramdeep, Gunveer’s brother. 

But when school began, we noticed another absence.

“Where’s Anshul?” JoLee asked us during first period.

It was a legitimate question. We happened to all have Ms. Coimbra for first period AP Government and Politics (otherwise known as AP Gov). She had called out Anshul Patil’s name multiple times, but there had been no answer. We’d looked around, but Anshul wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

What happened next was all too familiar—yet surprising. The cops searched. And soon enough, they uncovered the truth—Anshul Patil and his fifteen-year-old brother Vinay had run away to the same island that we had accidentally left Micheal on. While the Patils, quite unlike the O’Riordains, begged for their sons to come back, both Anshul and Vinay outright refused. They even tried to go to the island to reclaim the boys, but both boys refused to return. It was after that that the Patils decided that it was no use—after all, they now had easy access to weapons, and they were very clearly stubborn about the whole situation.

But school progressed onwards. Throughout the year, luckily, there were no more incidents of runaways. By the end, we were all headed off to college.

The school year ended on a warm June day. We walked the football field wearing our caps and gowns and listened to speeches from our classmates before heading home for the last time.

At 2:30PM, though, my doorbell rang. Looking out the peephole, I noticed Gunveer with a pair of empty crates that were each open at the top in his arms, with each side painted a different color.

I opened the door, a little suspicious.

“What’re those for?” I asked.

He grinned. “I wanted to give Micheal and his whole new family a present. I’m assuming they have little kids.”

I stared. “Maybe?”

“And anyways, it’s gotta be fucking lonely in that treehouse all alone. Even if they don’t have little kids, I think it’d be a damn good idea to give away some old shit we don’t need anymore.”

“What? You mean like toys?”

“Exactly. I already left a crate down at that island at about noon. It had some of Paramdeep’s stuff in it, too, but he wrote us saying he’s never coming back to the States. One of his professors is housing him. But I asked him if I could donate away his game of Ticket To Ride anyways. It’s not like he ever played it, but sure.”

“I could, like, give away some of my stuffed animals. I’ve got a ton of those. And maybe a few pens, and a notebook, too. I don’t have many toys anymore.”

So I went to our house’s stuffed animal boxes, full of toys that we hadn’t used in years. I carefully extracted a teddy bear I’d named “Daisey,” a different teddy bear named “Luke,” and a stuffed husky toy that my brother and I had named “Banjo Eddie.” Then I grabbed an aqua blue notebook from our office supplies area and hooked two simple (ie cheap) black pens onto the front. I then took a blue pen—this one was fancier, but I had five others identical to it—and hooked it onto the cover as well. Then I took three of my horse models (which I’d bought from Michael’s as an elementary school kid) and put them in the crate on top of the notebooks. And then, last but not least, I placed a wooden toy car that I’d made in seventh grade woodshop in the crate. I had been displaying that car on my dresser for years, but I’d never really liked it. It might as well go to someone who could actually use it.

Then I wrote a handwritten note on some scratch paper.

Dear Micheal,

I am writing to you to make contact for the first time in nearly a year. I have graduated from high school, and I am headed to UCLA (!!). I wanted to let you know that we do not disrespect your decision to leave society. I also wanted to let you know something a bit sadder – your parents have moved away. Perhaps Anshul and Vinay have already told you this. But I wanted to make sure that you knew. 

These toys were mine. One is a wooden toy car that I made in seventh grade woodshop. I have never used it, other than as a display piece. If your family has children, they can play with it. The same goes with the horse toys and the stuffed animals. The notebook and the pen, you and your family can use however they want. But I think these toys deserve a new life, and I think your family can give them that. I hope you appreciate these gifts. Now that I am going off to college, I want at least some remnants of my childhood to live on through these toys and whoever ends up playing with them.

School was good this year. It was a little long at times, and it was hard at times, but in the end, I can finally walk out of those red-bricked buildings with a diploma. So it was all worth it. Today I graduated, and I found the graduation ceremony itself a little tedious, but I have heard that college will be much better. 

I hope you are doing well also. I hope that your life has improved significantly from when we saw you last. 

This will most likely be the last thing I ever say to you. But know this: Whatever your new life brings you, I hope you enjoy it and bask in it all.

Sincerely,

Kayleigh

I folded up the note and placed it in the crate. Then, Gunveer and I walked over to JoLee’s house together, where we asked her to do the same thing with the second crate. She dropped in a total of thirty-eight rubber duckies, a copy of The Cat In The Hat, a cat-ears headband, a “face with heart eyes” emoji pillow, and multiple dog plushies of a variety of different breeds. She, too, wrote a note after I told her that I had. 

“The duckies were my collection,” she said, “But I stopped collecting them after junior year of high school. Same thing with the dog plushies, except I stopped collecting them in middle school. I’m keeping a few of each, though. And the rest are just random toys I don’t think I want or need anymore.”

So together, we walked down to the lake and climbed into the boat. I set the crates near the middle of the old rowboat. Gunveer climbed in and took the oars once more. JoLee and I worked to push the boat out together. Then, we climbed in as the boat left the shore.

After a bit of rowing, Gunveer finally reached the island and pushed us on shore with the oars. Climbing out, he took the crates and handed them to each of us as we, too, left the boat.

We walked down the trail, the same trail that we had taken almost a year ago. When we left Micheal behind. We walked until we reached the treehouse, and then, we pushed beyond where we’d left off before. We placed the crates right next to the ladder carved into the tree. And as we went there, Gunveer made an observation.

“Huh,” he said, “I guess they came out and got it. The crate I left is gone.”

And then, before we were shot at again, we hustled down the trail and back to the boat.

⬥  ⬥  ⬥

I showed the children the contents of the crate excitedly.

“Look!” I said, “Look at this!”

Timnes was all over the HotWheels cars, despite the fact that he’d never seen a real car in his life. They rolled and they sparkled and they did interesting things.

“It’s so shiny!” he said in awe.

Meanwhile, Free was excited about the board game. Ticket To Ride, which I’d never seen in my entire life, but it looked interesting.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“It’s a game,” I said, “I’m not sure how to play, but I’ll figure it out and teach you all.”

But Milo was more interested in the little fake bow and arrow that Amelie, one of the hunters, had made for him. He pretended to shoot it all the time now, throwing the fake arrow all around. Once or twice it fell out the open doorway at the front of the house, and I had to go down and fetch it. And Leigh…well, Leigh didn’t seem interested in any of the toys at all. Well, maybe she would’ve been had Gunveer packed in a stuffed animal or something. Unfortunately, he had mostly packed HotWheels cars and toy boats and die-cast planes.

“Pow!”

Milo tossed his fake arrow. And then, once again, the arrow fell out of the doorway.

I ruffled his shaggy hair.

“Milo! What did I tell you?”

I neared the doorway and climbed down the long drop.

The arrow had landed beside the tree.

Which now had two more crates sitting beside them.

I picked up the first crate. It was full of rubber duckies and stuffed dog toys. 

And then I saw the note in the crate. With that handwriting, it had to be JoLee.

Smiling, I placed the arrow in the crate and hoisted it into my arms. Then, very carefully, I climbed back up the ladder. I had become an expert at climbing up and down the ladder with both hands full. It was a common task for all of us.

This time, the kids swarmed me instantly. They had witnessed their first crate of fun, and now they were getting a second one. 

I set the crate down and climbed back into the treehouse. Then I took the crate over to where we had been playing before.

Milo lifted one of the rubber duckies out of the crate in delight.

“A duck! Now I can shoot ducks like the hunters! I can be a hunter now!”

I laughed and handed him every single duckie, one by one.

Timnes lifted out the cat ear headband that JoLee had packed in.

“What do I do with this?”

I laughed and placed it on my own head to demonstrate.

“Like this,” I said.

He grinned and said, “You look like an animal!” Then he grabbed it off my head with his chubby seven-year-old fingers and placed it on his head. Then he started to dance around.

Free pointed at the book.

“What’s that?”

I smiled and lifted out nearly every kid in America’s very first book. Remembering that the kids had never learned how to read (why would you, living in a treehouse in the middle of the woods with no school and a future of living off the land?), I opened the book and said, “It’s a book. It’s how we learn how to read. You see, there’s a way to put how we speak onto a paper. That’s writing. And looking at writing and knowing what the person was trying to say is called reading. A bunch of writing together is called a book. And that’s what this is. It’s a book.”

Free seemed interested, but slightly confused. Meanwhile, Timnes pranced around with his cat ears on.

Finally, Leigh seemed excited. She looked at the stuffed dog toys and grabbed the dachshund one. Then, she squeezed it and started shaking it around. Her eyes were bright with excitement.

And then, I said, “Hold on. There’s another toy crate downstairs. I need to go get it.”

More?” Timnes cried.

I nodded and smiled. “They’re from my old friends. From before.”

“Friends?”

It was at that moment that I remembered that the kids didn’t actually know what friends were. While they weren’t necessarily all related, they had been raised as siblings.

“Friends are people you treat like brothers and sisters, but they’re not part of your family. Here, we only have one family, so friends aren’t really possible. Where I was before, there were a lot of families. I had three friends. Each one of them gave us these crates.”

“That’s weird!”

I nodded. “Yeah. Hold on. I have to go get the last crate.”

Hurriedly, I headed back down the ladder to pick up what was clearly a crate from Kayleigh. I noticed teddy bears, toy horses, a stuffed dog, a notebook, some pens, and most touchingly of all, a wooden toy car. I knew that car rather well. It had been sitting on Kayleigh’s dresser every time we had gone to her house. She had told me that she’d made it herself. And here she was, giving it away. Amazing. But not nearly what I nor any of the children deserved.

I hoisted up the crate and scaled the ladder again. And this time, I knew better. I set it on the floor in front of me and climbed in before the kids could swarm me. Then I brought the crate over to the children as quickly as I could before they could realize that I was back.

Once again, Leigh was excited mostly by the toy dog. She took it out of the crate and rolled back and forth holding it. Timnes took mostly to the toy horses. I was soon peddled by questions asking what they were.

“They’re horses,” I said, “A type of animal. They’re strong, so people use them to ride on, and a long time ago, they used them to pull carts and wagons and carriages.”

I soon learned that the notebook could be very useful. All of a sudden, I could draw things and teach the kids about different things. Like cats and horses.

To my surprise, however, it was Milo who took mostly to the toy car. While Timnes had been fascinated by the HotWheels cars because they were shiny, I guess Milo was drawn to the wooden one. As time went on, he would sit around for hours and play with it. Especially the wheels, which fascinated him. And, to my surprise, he ended up becoming more interested in the book than Free, who was bored of me reading it to her and then teaching her how to read it after a while. “There’s only one,” she said at about age ten, “What’s the use? I can’t read anything else.” So I asked Pa to go and buy some other Dr. Seuss books. He obliged, but Free read through those books even more quickly. I had realized at this point that Free got bored easily and was quick to pick up on things. At least she could read. Soon enough, with the notebook barely used, I taught her how to write. She picked up on that fairly quickly. At age twelve, she decided to become the family recordkeeper, being one of the few of us who not only could write, but was also interested in doing so. 

I wouldn’t know any of these things at the time. Instead, I just watched as the children played that afternoon. They asked me questions some of the time—like what was this and what was that. More than once I had to explain the dogs and the different dog breeds. 

Soon enough, though, the hunters came in from the hunt. As usual, they talked to Milo over dinner and left Free, Timnes, and Leigh, who were all not quite so interested in the hunt, alone with Ma, Pa, Xzavier, and myself. As Milo described the toys, some of the hunters thought about those things that they hadn’t seen in many years. But most weren’t too bothered by it. This was just a six-year-old kid being excited about his new toys. Even Ma and Pa were interested in the toys, remarking over how nice my friends were, and about how little some things had changed since they’d last seen society. I learned that before leaving society, Pa had been a car guy, and so it was interesting seeing if he could guess the older models of cars that Gunveer had donated.

And then Milo noticed the notebook as he came back over to us.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I told Free earlier that putting words onto pages is called writing. This is a notebook. It’s what you write in. My friend Kayleigh gave this to us.”

I opened it to the first page and began to draw. I wasn’t very good, but I did my best to draw the best rendition of Milo that I could.

I showed it to him.

“That’s you!”

He laughed. “That doesn’t look like me!”

“It’s not bad,” said Pa, “You seem to be doing a great job. I’m so glad you’re doing what you’re doing.”

I nodded. “Thank you. It’s all good, Pa. I’m doing the best I can.”

And then Xzavier piped up.

“We should teach them how to play soccer. We’ve got a big clearing area to do it. That’s really the only thing I miss, being on the soccer team.”

And all of a sudden, I remembered something. Two years earlier, there had been a case of a missing teenage boy named…Xzavier Anceton. I now realized that this was the same Xzavier. The same, come to think of it, was probably true for all the missing child cases in the county. There hadn’t been too many in recent years. It wasn’t that the kids had died or anything. It was simply a case of not being satisfied with life in the present. They just wanted to go back to an earlier mentality—back to nature.

I made up my mind quickly.

“Yeah, Pa, how about it? Maybe we should buy a soccer ball.”

“I think that’s a great idea. It’s a way to get the kids used to the outside.”

I nodded. “Seems like it.”

“What’s soccer?” Free asked suddenly.

And so we began to explain the rules to the most popular sport in the world, but that they had never known of.

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