This story is by Erik Colthirst-Reid and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The first night he arrived, he wasn’t letting go of his brother’s hand for anything. Gripping with such marked resilience. Maarko was afraid.
It was a rainy spring night when the boys arrived at SOS Maple Valley Children’s Home. A steady pitter patter on the awning of the front door could be heard all evening.
“At this time of night, who could it be?”
Julia curiously approached the door, squinting to better see through the glass who it might be. Seeing the policeman’s hat, and, upon closer inspection, two young children at his side, she opened the door.
“Excuse me, Ms. Julia, is it?”
She smiled softly, “Yes, good evening, Officer. May I help you?”
“Well,” the man shifted his cap and sighed, “I’m here to check these boys in – is it too late in the evening for that?”
“We normally ask that advance notice is provided, especially for late check-ins, as you are likely aware.” Julia glanced down at the boys. The younger boy’s head was down. His left hand tightly gripping the older one’s right. In stark contrast, the older boy met her glance with sharp desperate eyes. Julia paused only for a moment. “ Com’on in boys.”
“It’s going to be alright, Maarko.” Aaron smiled and squeezed his brother’s hand. Maarko lifted his eyes to meet his brother’s. He squeezed back with renewed courage. Suddenly, Aaron’s eyes winced with a chest convulsion. Coughing, he buried his face in his opposite arm.
In that moment, Aaron broke eye contact briefly with Maarko.
Worried, but hopeful, Maarko squeezed his brother’s hand again. Aaron, relieved from his coughing fit, returned that gripping pulse of life back to Maarko. They followed inside.
It wasn’t long before Maarko was without his brother too. The effect of acute pneumonia on a boy with unbeknownst asthma issues was not something SOS Maple Valley could have prepared for. And it struck fast.
Maarko, of course was the most devastated. Julia often saw him sitting alone, staring blankly, or stacking blocks quietly. Most often, Maarko sat picking grass and peeling the tree bark under the lone Maple tree in the center of Maple Valley’s fenced yard.
Julia met with children on a weekly basis for counselling; more aptly, a psychological review and guidance session. Without parents,the other children weren’t that much different from Maarko – different stories, more used to it… but not that different. Maarko was 8, and only a month in at SOS Maple.
One week without Aaron.
Julia observed Maarko’s fidgeting at simple questions. The trauma and anxiety was palpable.
He needs hope again, Julia thought.
For Maarko, these feelings came as darkness in the night without hope of morning. He pulled his legs into his chest and remained motionless.. Tears ran down his cheeks.
“Aaron’s dead, Ms. Julia.”
“And so are my parents. They’re gone!” Realizing he raised his voice, Maarko buried his face into his knees.
Julia exhaled. Feeling the tension swelling in her chest, she opened her mouth to speak, “Wel–”
“Why am I even here?” Maarko sputtered between sobs, his face still hidden. “No one knows me. No one wants me. Will I be here forever?”
Slowly, Julia rose from her chair and took the seat on the couch next to Maarko. She held him gently.
She cares, Maarko thought.
Julia often asked the other children why they didn’t try to invite Maarko to play. The responses were the same, “We ask and he doesn’t say nothing most times.’” Others felt, “He’d rather be under his tree. So why bother?”
Julia saw reason to bother.
It was his tree. One boy changed that.
The sky was clear that day. Maarko ran his hand over the bark and looked up at the first branch, when a boy called out, “Hey!”, from behind Maarko while running over.
“Mighty fine climbin’ tree you got there!” the boy flashed a toothy grin to Maarko. Didn’t brush much, Maarko thought.
“ Not unless you can reach the first branch.”
“That’s not how you tell a good climbing tree from the next. That’s just cause ‘a our height. How good it is, ain’t got nothin’ to do with that.” The boy lectured Maarko, chin up.
“Okay, but what good is it, if you can’t actually climb it?” Maarko retorted, getting frustrated. Who was this kid anyway?
“Well, if you’re alone – it’d be tough. But we sure as shoot can – there’s two of us. Come on, lemme give you a boost.” The boy clasped his open hands together palms up.
“You’ve climbed before, right? I’ll hold ya, I promise.” The boy had a habit of speaking fast. He kept his hands out. He could see Maarko begin to tense up. Blood rushing to his face, tears started to well up in Maarko’s eyes.
The boy straightened up. “Hey,” he said calmly, “you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I think you’ll like it. Climbin’ is fun.”
“My name’s Berdy. I love trees. Born to live in ‘em I always say. They’re shade on a hot day, fun to climb, and strong, they’re wise, they smell good – might say, they’re a bit like me! Ha!” Berdy let out a boisterous laugh.
Maarko chuckled a bit too.
“Nice to meetchya, Maarko! Come on, lemme give you a boost.”
Berdy ran to the other side of Maarko, close to the lowest branch, and held out his hands. Without hesitation, Maarko took hold of Berdy’s shoulders and put his foot in Berdy’s hands to push off. Maarko grabbed the first branch, now at chest level, and squirmed his way onto the branch with Berdy’s help.
The branch was smooth but not slippery, Maarko thought.
“It’s a great climbing tree!” Maarko let burst out.
“I bet it is!” Berdy affirmed. “Make some space, I’m coming right where you are!”
Berdy was a bit taller than Maarko, but not by much. He took a couple steps back and ran at the tree and with a step off the tree, he jumped and caught hold of the branch. Swinging, he brought his legs up and pulled his torso above the branch. It wasn’t his first rodeo.
On the same branch now, Berdy stared jubilantly at Maarko and laughed. The tree was their oyster. Nowhere to go, but up. Maarko smiled right back. The distance from the branch to the ground wasn’t much, but boy did it feel different!
Julia looked on from her office window smiling. One encounter could make such a difference.
Berdy, still excited, looked up and then faced Maarko, “Now, like the mark of any good climbing tree, there’s more than one way up!” With that, Berdy was off!
Maarko started the opposite way around the trunk. With Berdy, just a row higher, their paths overlapped as they climbed, but no one’s path was blocked. Berdy eventually slowed down once the branches got too thin and steep. Maarko stopped a few branches below. Satisfied, though a bit out of breath, Maarko smiled and looked out from the tree. Berdy did the same. The two boys felt the warm whooosh of a breeze pass by and listened to the calming rustle of the leaves. They could see the roof of the orphanage straight on and the houses outside the fence of Maple Valley.
Berdy breathed a sigh of relief, “It’s not much, but it sure feels great. Makes me feel tall, small, king of the world, n’ maybe best of all, king of nothin’, all at the same time.”
Maarko nodded, “I hadn’t thought all that, but it does feel nice. Reminds me of… home.”
“Yeah?” Berdy replied.
“Yeah…,” Maarko said quietly, growing pensive. Feelings of guilt started to rush in, Is this allowed to feel like home?
“Hey, Maarko. I dunno what home was for you or what it was like, but I think you should know, it’s okay for somethin’ to remind you of home sometimes – especially if it’s good memories. I hold onto mine. Ya know…”
Interested, Maarko responded, “What, Berdy?”
“I wanna new home one day, so I can make more memories. I never thought I would. I was afraid I would be replacing those memories or my family… but that’s not true. No.” Pausing, Berdy breathed in. Maarko waited.
Gaining conviction in the thoughts that were gaining hold, Berdy finished, “And ya know, I would rather make more memories, and make new friends rather than pout about those I don’t have anymore… even if I lose them too.”
“Let’s get adopted together one day. Okay, Maarko?”
Maarko and Berdy continued like this together for the summer, climbing the tree and enjoying the freedom and certainty it gave. Julia grew to care deeply for the two boys and saw their friendship grow daily. And it all happened around Maarko’s tree.
Until one day, Berdy was adopted.
“Ms. Julia, why didn’t we get adopted together?” Maarko desperately asked.
Maarko was different now. Clearly upset, but more able to vocalize his feelings in his weekly counselling sessions.
“I tried, Maarko. More than you might think.” Julia explained,“It’s not always easy for adopting parents to adopt two children, especially when they’re looking for only one. And when they’re willing to adopt one, and the fit is right, and, and… they’re good people, it becomes a question… Are we holding Berdy back from a good family and a good life?”
Exasperated, Julia paused.
“You understand, Maarko?”
“I guess..” Maarko agreed, “But, who’s my brother or friend now? I have no one.. except you, Ms. Julia.”
“And I’m here, Maarko.” Julia assured him. Maarko was hesitant to trust that assurance, knowing it was only temporary.
Julia went on, “Now, what I’m about to ask you, Maarko – you don’t have to say yes. You don’t even have to respond right now.”
Julia waited for Maarko to nod.
“I’ve seen you grow a lot over the last 6 months or so,” Maarko started to shift in his chair, suppressing hopeful expectation, “but I’ve gained approval to ask…”
“Just ask, Ms. Julia!” Maarko blurted out in impatience.
“How would you like to come live with me.. as my adopted son?”
Maarko sprung off the couch and threw his arms around her.
“Of course!” Maarko’s eyes filled with tears of gratitude, “Thank you, Ms. Julia!”
It was a warm day in September when Maarko first saw his new home.
The grass was lush and full. There was an evergreen tree in the front and a path with daisies on either side.
Julia opened the front door, “This is your new home, Maarko.”
Maarko took off his shoes and slowly walked through the entryway into the hall. The living room was bright and open – light shone in through a glass door at the back of the house.
“Wow! What a backyard, Ms. Julia! It’s… it’s just like my old backyard, there’s even a tree…” His excitement waned as memories threatened to flood in.
“Go check it out, Maarko. It’s a good climbin’ tree or so I’ve been told, by a friend.” Julia said, winking.
Maarko walked outside to the tree and felt its bark. It was his to climb.
He took two steps back, and ran at the tree, jumping off the trunk to grab the first branch he could reach. Getting his grip, he swung his legs up and pulled his torso over and on top of the branch.
“You sure got nice and good at that, huh Maarko?”
Maarko looked around, but only saw Ms. Julia. She met his eyes, then pointed over the fence.
In the neighbour’s yard, in another tree, a few branches up..
“The first branch is always the toughest,” said Berdy. “But, I can tell ya, that tree right there is a great climbin’ tree. There’s many ways up from there!”