“Come down from there,” Galen called up into the tree.
High above him, the skinny youth made no reply. Perched on the junction of bare branch and trunk, he hugged himself to the smallest he could.
“Best fucking mates?” Galen gave a snort intended to be heard. “You won’t even answer me. I’m freezing my bloody balls off here for you, y’hear? This ain’t my favourite pastime of a Sunday morning.”
No answer, though maybe there was a small rustle of movement.
“My tea’s getting cold indoors.” Galen darted a gaze around the base of the tree, wondering how hard the ground was, this time of a cold winter morning. “And Paula’s worried about you. She’s crying all over the breakfast table.” He gave a short, harsh laugh. “Never been keen on salty cereal, me.”
Yes. There was a soft sound from above. A snigger, maybe, then a creak from the branch as overwhelming misery resettled the boy’s body. Galen had been there, done that. And you didn’t stop trying, right?
“Allan.” He was wheedling now. Didn’t like that sound from him, but it often worked. “C’mon, man. What’s the problem?”
A cough. Kid must be frozen up there, nothing on but T-shirt and sleep shorts. What’d spooked him this morning?
As opposed to any other bloody morning.
A shift in the air, and a large crow landed on the branch below Allan. Galen held his breath.
The bird shook itself, dipped its beak and fluffed its wings like some glossy diva porn star.
It raised itself, eyes bright as beads in the misty morning. Galen swore it looked right at him.
“Allan…” he started to whisper.
The bird took flight suddenly, the branch bouncing lightly in its wake.
Galen had hoisted himself up to the lowest branch before he even thought about it. He scrabbled in his haste. The bark scraped his bare ankles, exposed below his too-short hand-me-down jeans, and he lost a trainer to the ground. Served him right for never fastening his laces. “Allan?” He huffed hoarsely through the effort. Been a while since his fastest tree-climbing days. “Hang on in there, man. I’m coming to get you.”
The branch above creaked again.
He was too slow, fuck it. It’d be like last time, when Allan took flight as well. When he followed the bird—or tried to—and fell like a bag of spuds. Broke his arm that time. Or before that, when he got caught on a lower branch and near wrenched his shoulder out of its socket.
The hospital reported everything to Social Services, too. Paula was trying so hard to make this a proper home for the kids. Galen would be fucking angry with Allan, rip him a new one for playing this melodrama almost every week… if he didn’t care.
Fucking did that, too.
He’d been Allan’s age, not so long ago. Now Paula let him help out with the younger ones, because Galen knew what it felt like. The clothes may be handed down or charity-shopped, but the emotional chaos was fresh every time. House was like an episode of Eastenders some weeks—yelling, crying, laughing, traffic in and out of the rooms like the local Tube station. He’d been here since he was taken into care at eight. It was all he remembered, really.
It was home.
His throat hurt, like being squeezed. Allan hadn’t come tumbling down in front of him. Not yet. He reached up to the next handhold: ripped off a fingernail. Felt like he’d torn the sleeve of his T-shirt.
He’d never liked that band anyway.
Still no reply, but no stupid-assed leap from the tree either.
He hauled his way up another level and wedged himself into a fork of the tree. He was close to Allan: he could hear him crying softly above. Thank fuck, at least he was conscious. Galen’s own breathing was strained for a while. If he reached up, maybe he could grab Allan’s ankle.
“You ok?” he croaked.
A low, soft snort. “Are you?”
Cheeky git. Yet Allan had never joked with him before: at least, not on one of these tree hopping businesses.
“Why?” Galen let the question slip out without thinking. “Why do you do this, Allan? You know you can’t really fly, right?”
No reply. The crying seemed to have stopped.
“All you do is scare the shit out of us all. Break Paula’s heart. Piss me off. Confuse me.” He sighed. “Ruin my T-shirts.”
“That’s not why.”
He speaks? Galen was on full alert. “I know, man. I know you don’t mean all that shit. So let us help you, right?”
“I heard it call.” Allan’s voice was so thin, so gentle, Galen thought he felt it descend onto his cheek. “I want to go with it. Fly away.”
“Fly away,” Galen repeated, wonderingly. He bit back any scorn or protest. Instead, he said, “I know.”
A moment’s silence. The wind whipped past him. Distant voices lifted high in distress from inside the house.
“Yeah.” Galen felt a suspicious prickling in his eyes which, at sixteen-years-old, should know better. “We all feel that, man.”
A deep, slow sob. “I want to go home.”
And Galen just knew Allen didn’t mean the shithole he’d been found in, when his mum went AWOL on heroin. He didn’t mean hospital, his granny’s until she died, or the foster home.
He meant inside him.
Galen’s chest ached.
“I know,” he repeated. “You will, one day. You’re halfway there already. With Paula. With the other mixed-up kids here, even if they eat all the jam and forget to clean the toilet.” And wake everyone with the night terrors, when they first arrive.
Galen loved them all. Hated living with ’em sometimes, but… still.
“Best mates?” So hesitant, but hopeful.
“Yeah, of course, you tosser. You’re with me, too.” He lifted a hand now, hoping Allan would see it: take hold.
“Come down. Come back home.”
written for the picfor1000 challenge 2017
Picture reference: Alone, by Ghaith AL Ajmi