Ashling Welsh was bored – unbearably bored. Like most boys of eleven, he dreamed of adventure, action, and anything at all that was not tied too closely to reality. The reality for Ashling, unfortunately, was that he lived more than a mile away from his nearest neighbor, who, to make matters worse, was just a crotchety old woman, who would yell incoherently at him if he wandered too close. Ashling was an innately friendly boy and was not without friends during the school months, but distance will drive a wedge between nearly any two people, no matter how close the friendship. His one really good friend had visited him once at the beginning of summer, but that had been the extent of his social life for over a month now.
The TV was on, but Ashling wasn’t really watching. He had only turned it on to pass the time, which wasn’t passing much faster despite his efforts. The stairs coming up from the basement creaked and Morgan Welsh’s wavy auburn hair came into view. “Hey Mom,” Ashling called. “When’s Dad coming back?”
“I don’t know, Ash. He should be back within a few hours,” Morgan said as she walked into the room. Ashling slumped down further on the sofa. Ashling’s father had promised him a trip into town today, and this uncharacteristic working on Saturday wasn’t very considerate. Ashling continued to feel sorry for himself. “Why don’t you go outside and play for a while,” his mother suggested. Obviously she hadn’t looked out the window. Ashling took another look for himself and could still see the heat waves rising from the pavement. Mrs. Welsh took Ashling’s look through the window as a gesture of interest, and so pressed the issue. “Go. Go play for a while. It’s not good to stay inside all day.”
Easy for you to say, Ashling thought to himself while still rising to obey. “Where are my shoes?”
“Right where you took them off yesterday. Next to your bed.” Morgan Welsh pointed toward the half-open bedroom door directly behind the sofa.
Standing now, Ashling could clearly see his bunk bed with his shoes on the floor where he had dropped them the previous night. Mrs. Welsh, helpful as always, went into his room and picked up his shoes and then brought them to him. “Thanks, Mom.” Ashling tried to keep the sarcasm from being obvious. Morgan raised her eyebrows while locking eyes with Ashling as if asking if there were something else he wanted to say. Ashling wisely kept his mouth shut and began putting on his shoes.
Two minutes later, Ashling was standing on the back porch looking out into their lousy excuse for a yard. It wasn’t the size of the yard that made it unpleasant. It was quite extensive since they didn’t have any neighbors to contend with and there was no need for a fence. The plot of land that the Welsh family considered to be their backyard was completely overrun with weeds. It wasn’t smooth at all like a normal yard ought to be either, but was instead bumpy to such a degree that Ashling believed it must have been done on purpose.
Ashling was unaware that it was actually his fault to some small degree that the yard was the way it was. Morgan had once tried to plant a garden there and had taken a lot of time to shape the land into furrows to make watering it easier. She had had to abandon it later when she had become unexpectedly pregnant with Ashling and lacked the energy that it required to keep it taken care of. Why it was still in that condition nearly twelve years later, Morgan never said to anyone, but only attributed the condition of her yard to her pregnancy with Ashling.
As a result of playing in that yard for all of his life, Ashling had learned to be quite nimble and skilled at avoiding twisting an ankle or worse. Gophers had added to the danger by burrowing beneath the yard, but Ashling had managed to avoid any serious injury. Mr. and Mrs. Welsh avoided the yard altogether, just sending Ashling out to play by himself, but never joining with him.
With possibly several hours still to kill, Ashling headed to the large tree on the far end of the yard. There were trees all around the edges of the yard (which was really the only way to tell where the yard ended), but the one tree he always headed for was much grander than all the rest. It was a large oak tree with branches that spread out in all directions. Ashling loved it as the perfect climbing tree, but it was less liked by his mother who had to mend his many ripped articles of clothing, torn on the rough bark of the tree.
In minutes, Ashling was half way up the tree, pulling himself from branch to branch, working himself quickly toward the top. When he reached a point about three fourths of the way toward the top, he stopped and settled in between two conveniently positioned branches. They were positioned such that he could sit quite comfortably on one, while leaning back against the other, the higher branch having a very well-located bend in the middle so that it came back over the lower. Ashling could sit and relax with little fear of falling.
From this vantage point, high above the ground and high above most everything else as well, Ashling could see for miles around, at least toward the north and west. To the south and east, the land continued to slope upwards and the trees were more numerous as well. To the north and west, the land gently sloped downwards. The grassy terrain only interrupted occasionally by the odd tree. The Welsh family lived on a border of sorts, between forested foothills and grassy meadows. Ashling loved the land, but wished he had some friends to share it with.
Gazing out to the west, Ashling imagined that he could see some trees and rooftops in the town, some five miles away. He couldn’t really see anything at all since the town was just the other side of a rapid decline in altitude, but Ashling liked to imagine that he could. Beyond the town, the land would continue to slope down, but that was too far down for Ashling to see from his backyard oak tree. All he could see was the blue of the sky meeting the farmland on the hills above the town. Looking north, he saw cows grazing, and that was about it. The land continued to slope down until it eventually flattened out into a vast plain that continued as far as he could see. The occasional cow helped give some indication to how far he was really seeing.
Looking back again toward the west, Ashling settled back to relax. It was a hot day, but the slight breeze coming down the hill behind him and the shade of the tree lulled him gently to sleep. Usually, when we dream, we aren’t aware that we are dreaming, and this was the case with Ashling as well, but maybe not for the same reasons. As Ashling faded off to sleep, he awoke in his dream in the same place in the same tree, without realizing that he was asleep. He still knew he was waiting for his father to return home and he could still feel that gentle breeze and the pleasant shade.
One thing, however, was different. And as is often the case with dreams, he didn’t realize that this one difference was anything unusual. As he looked off to the west, his sight was much better than it had been. He could clearly see the place where the land dipped down and the town was hidden from view. His sight seemed to be so good in fact, that he felt as though he were there at that very place and that if he just looked down a little, he would actually be able to see the town situated there. Being a dream, he tried just that and was not surprised to see the town, right where it should be. The only thing that felt odd to him at this point is that he had never been able to see it before.
From this somewhat new vantage point (although he knew he was still in the same place as he could feel the branch against his back), Ashling could see the grounds of his elementary school on the north end of the town. He tried to focus more and was only a little surprised to find that he could indeed see more clearly the more he focused on any point. He zoomed in on the school, but was disappointed to see that nobody was there. Well, it was summer and who would want to be at school now anyway. By lessening his focus, Ashling seemed to zoom out to where he could see the whole town again.
Just outside of town, to the north of the school, Ashling saw the small creek where he had played a year or so back. Thinking that he saw some people there beneath the trees by the creek bank, he zoomed in again. He should have thought it strange that the trees and vegetation hiding the people from view seemed to disappear as he zoomed in, but being a dream, he didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. There were two boys talking. One of them, Ashling knew from school, but the other looked a bit older and probably attended the middle school, another fifteen miles down the road.
The older addressed the younger, “Come on Keith. No one will ever know. Just try it!” The older boy was holding a bottle of something out toward the younger boy, Keith, who had backed up against a tree along the bank. The older boy was standing directly in front of him with each foot on a different rock, their bases in the water.
“I don’t want to. You said you were going to show me something cool. What were you going to show me?” Keith whined.
“Just try it and then you’ll see,” the older boy waved the bottle in front of Keith’s face. “Don’t be a wimp.”
“I’m going home, Derek. This isn’t fun.” Keith stepped down from the root that extended out for a few feet before dropping into the creek water.
“Come on, Keith. Don’t be like that. I thought you were cool.”
Derek continued to wave the bottle in front of Keith who appeared to be getting quite frustrated. “Ugh. Quit it!” Keith, despite being the smaller by nearly a foot, lashed out with his arm, hitting Derek’s arm. The bottle was jolted out of Derek’s hand and fell to the rocks, shattering into hundreds of pieces, dark red liquid staining the rocks at his feet.
“Now look what you did!” Derek yelled. “That wasn’t so easy to get, you know!”
“Whatever. I don’t care.” Keith turned his back on Derek and walked away up the slope toward the school.
It was about that time that Ashling began to suspect that he was dreaming. There’s no way that he could actually hear a conversation happening five miles away. Besides that, he couldn’t really imagine shy, gullible Keith getting angry or physical. It just seemed too much out of character to be real. Once you realize you’re dreaming, you’re usually almost awake. Ashling still wasn’t quite awake though, so he took his time zooming back out to the tree. The foliage began to close in again, blocking Ashling’s sight of Derek still standing there on the rocks. Moments later, Ashling could see Keith, walking quickly around the school toward the town and probably towards his house. Soon, the town slipped from sight altogether as the angle shifted and there was no longer a direct line of sight. Fields of various crops zipped by as his sight became more and more what it would be if he were awake. Finally, he could see his own feet in front of him as he relaxed in the tree.
That was majorly weird, he thought. But cool! He shifted a little in his seat and saw that his father’s car was in the driveway. I guess that’s what woke me up, he realized. He was nearing the base of the tree when he realized a startling fact – he could still feel the tree branch against his back. “I’m still asleep!” he yelled in shock. His shock became even greater, however, when he looked up to see himself sleeping soundly near the top of the tree.
Somehow, his favorite place in the tree didn’t look so safe anymore as he watched himself sleeping. If he shifted just a little to one side as he slept, he would have a very unpleasant awakening. “Wake up!” he yelled. It felt a little strange to be yelling at himself in this way, but Ashling was just a little frightened at the moment. He had always felt perfectly safe there while he was awake, but Ashling knew that he had a tendency to roll in his sleep, and that made him a bit nervous. But what can I do? I’m asleep. He felt quite wakeful at the moment for being lost in sleep and that was really making him feel confused.
Ashling’s dream self, who was still several feet above the ground, wrapped his arms around the tree as far as they could reach, leaned his chest against the trunk, and closed his eyes to think. He tried to concentrate on the feeling of the branch behind his back and to block out all other dream sensations, which were much too real today. He couldn’t ever remember having such vivid feelings in his dreams before. He could see, hear, smell, and feel by touch. Just to be sure that all his senses were working, Ashling stuck out his tongue to touch it to the tree bark. And taste, he concluded. I feel more awake now than when I’m really awake!
Determined to wake from what was becoming a nightmare of sorts, Ashling pushed himself away from the trunk, turned sideways on the branch he had been standing on, and jumped. Unfortunately for him, Ashling’s real self was shocked into semi-wakefulness as his dream self leapt from the tree. Although not usually scared of heights, the distance that Ashling’s dream self had jumped from was still higher than he was comfortable with. He flung his arms out to grab back onto the trunk, which was of course, no longer where it had been. Eyes wide open then and coming close to full wakefulness, Ashling realized his mistake. He was falling for real now; there was no comforting pressure of a branch behind his back.
To his great relief, this wonderful tree was crooked, and he slammed back into the trunk with a thud. His relief ended quickly though when he realized that he was slipping and couldn’t get a grip on any branches. It was never a good idea to hug the trunk of that tree too tightly as the bark was rough beyond that of most other trees. Usually, Ashling avoided the trunk altogether while climbing and instead stuck to the branches which were smoother by far.
Too late now. Gravity was pulling him toward the underside of the crooked trunk. For just a moment, he imagined his mother’s face when she saw later what he was doing to his clothes. He could feel the bark digging directly into the skin of his chest. When had that gotten ripped? Fortunately, just as he felt that he couldn’t hold on any longer, his foot felt the support of a branch beneath him. Finally, he was back into familiar territory. Awake, and on solid ground – well, sort of.
Ashling was still half way up the tree, but getting down wouldn’t be any problem from here, except for that awful pain that he suddenly began to notice. “Owwww!” he cried out loud. He wasn’t the type of kid to cry regularly, but one quick yell seemed appropriate at that point. Looking down through the holes in what was left of his white t-shirt, he could see a few spots of blood where the skin had been rubbed raw, intermixed with the brown and gray of tree bark.
Five minutes later, Ashling tried to sneak into his house where he could attempt to clean up in the bathroom without his Mom seeing. This day, however, was not his lucky day. Just as he opened the back door to the house, Morgan Welsh was coming up the stairs from the basement with a basket half full of laundry in her arms. Ashling ducked his head and tried to turn back around, but it was too late.
“What happened?” Morgan yelled. “Are you okay? How did this happen?” She said loudly with a worried motherly tone.
“Uh, I slipped?” Ashling said, not sure it would be accepted.
Morgan put the laundry basket down where she stood and instead took Ashling by the shoulder. “You’re usually so careful, Ashling. What happened today?” Mrs. Welsh, still clasping onto Ashling’s shoulder, steered him toward the stairs. “Come on,” she directed.
“I’m sorry,” Ashling pleaded as he headed down the stairs in front of his mother. “I’m okay.”
“You’re lucky you are,” Morgan said following the statement with a sigh.
What’s that supposed to mean, Ashling wondered.
Seconds later, mother and son reached the bottom of the stairs and entered the large room. This was Morgan’s everything room. In one corner was where she did laundry. In another, sewing. Shelves of canned and other dry foods decorated the opposite wall. Next to the washing machine was a large basin for washing things that couldn’t be washed the regular way.
“Alright. Off with it.” Mrs. Welsh commanded. Ashling peeled the torn shirt off and gave it to his mother. Mrs. Welsh took the shirt and with a single fluid motion, tossed it in the trash container beneath the water basin. Then, she reached up and took down a first aid kit that she stored in a cupboard above the dryer. Carefully, she cleaned the bark out of Ashling’s broken skin. Morgan took some rubbing alcohol out of the first aid kit.
“Oh no. Not that,” Ashling pleaded. “That’s gonna hurt.”
“Well, don’t slip down any more trees and I won’t have to do this again,” she said as she began to apply the alcohol to Ashling’s open wounds. Ashling winced as the alcohol touched his skin and it began to sting.
Two minutes later, it was all over and Ashling was heading upstairs to get a fresh shirt from the laundry basket his mother had brought up earlier. “Hey, Ash,” a tall, balding man said to him as he came up.
“Hi, Dad,” Ashling responded. “We’re still going to town soon, right?”
“As soon as you’re ready, Ash. I just need to get the shopping list from your Mom.”
“She’s downstairs. I’ll be ready before you get back up.” Ashling reached into the laundry basket and pulled out another white t-shirt. He had a lot of those. His mother didn’t like to buy nicer shirts on account of his destroying them so often, though rarely as thoroughly as he had today.
“Whoa! What did you do?” Ashling’s father asked as he saw the bandages covering several different spots on his front.
“It’s nothing. I just slipped a bit when I was climbing down the tree. That’s all.”
“That’s all? You’d better be more careful. You’re lucky it’s not any worse.
“Yeah, I know.” Ashling pulled the clean t-shirt over his head, hiding the bandages. “So, I’m ready already. How ‘bout you?”
“Watch it Ash. I can still change my mind, you know.” Mr. Welsh gave a small smile to show he wasn’t serious, and headed downstairs. Ashling knew it would still be awhile, so he sat down in front of the TV. They would probably talk for a while about what happened in the tree. Good thing they don’t really know what happened in the tree, he thought. I’d probably be on my way to see a psychologist or something.
Ten minutes later, they were finally on their way to the town. Although it had been a full month since Ashling had been down this way, somehow, the scenery all seemed a bit too familiar. His experience falling from the branch had pushed out immediate thoughts of his dream, but heading into town was bringing it all back to him. He knew exactly where he wanted to go as soon as he was given some freedom to run about. Even now, that dream seemed all too real. As he thought back on what had happened, he was still able to remember it clearly. It was completely unlike any dream he had ever had before.
The town was small with only a couple thousand people living there. Many of the residents were farmers, but most worked in the city another fifteen miles down the road. That was where Ashling’s father worked as well. Ashling just wished they didn’t have to live so far away from everything. There was something about open air and mountains that drew Ashling’s parents away from the city. Ashling vowed that when he grew up, he would live in the city, in the center of everything.
“Okay, when we get there, you’ll have about two hours to play, and then I want you back at the car and ready to go. Got it?”
Ashling nodded. Two hours seemed like a long time. Hopefully it would be enough to last him until the next time he could come to town. During the next school year, he would get the phone numbers of all his friends so that during the following summer, he could call them before coming to town. This time, Ashling didn’t even know where his friends lived since he had only ever spent time with them at school. It didn’t much matter now, though. Ashling had just one thought on his mind and that thought wasn’t going away. A minute later, Mr. Welsh pulled up in front of the school and stopped briefly.
“Don’t forget – two hours,” Mr. Welsh reminded him. “Oh, and somehow I forgot lunch, so I’ll give you some money in case you get hungry before we go back home.” Ashling’s father pulled out a crisp five dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to him.
Free at last, Ashling made a beeline for the place by the creek that he had seen in his dream. Although he knew it had been a dream, it had felt so real that Ashling was certain that the place would appear just as it had when he had seen it from the tree in his dream.
As Ashling made his way to the back side of the school, a raven flew overhead. The raven circled around, once, twice, and then flew on. It was as if the raven could sense that there was something different about this boy. The boy was too big and too much alive to make a good meal though, so the bird lost interest. But as the bird flew away, it had a thought that was quite unbirdlike. The raven saw an image in its mind of the boy below, superimposed upon the image of a raven leading or being followed by a countless number of ravens, so numerous that the sky appeared black and ominous as if a terrible storm were about to strike. The raven flew on with that image in its head, looking for a nice tree to rest in. It really was too hot to be flying much today.
Meanwhile, Ashling closed in on the place he had seen in dream. He knew right where to enter the trees to be in the exact location where he had seen the confrontation between his classmate, Keith, and the slightly older boy, Derek – that is, if it had been more than just a dream.
Following the narrow path through the foliage, Ashling saw the tree from his dream with its roots angling out and then down into the slow moving water. As he drew closer, he was unsurprised to see the white rocks upon which Derek had been standing. As Ashling went to stand upon the rocks, he looked down to see what he knew would be there, glass from a broken bottle and the now dried residue of a liquid Keith hadn’t wanted to drink. What he didn’t expect to see, however, was a pair of shoes, jeans, and a t-shirt, dropped at the base of the tree.
“Hey!” a voice called out.
Startled, Ashling looked up quickly, as though he had just been caught doing something he shouldn’t have. Out in the middle of the creek, Ashling saw the source of the voice.
“Don’t touch my stuff!” the voice called out again.
“I…I wasn’t,” Ashling stammered.
“Then what are you doing?” the boy in the water asked testily, whom Ashling now recognized to be Derek, from his dream. The blond haired boy, whose hair seemed quite a bit darker when wet, was treading water, – and without much difficulty, Ashling noticed.
“I just get to visit town for a couple hours. I didn’t think anyone would be here,” Ashling answered truthfully. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think you looked familiar. You go to school here?” Derek’s tone had become less threatening and Ashling tried to relax. His memory of his dream, however, kept him a little wary.
“Yeah. I’ve still got one more year.”
“Cool,” Derek said. “You’re two years behind me. SO I Bet you know my cousin then…Keith.”
“Yeah, I know him. But not very well. He’s got other friends he hangs out with.”
Derek’s tone became dark again, but just for a moment, “I know who he hangs out with.” His next sentence was the exact opposite, bright and cheery. “Hey. You wanna come swimming? It’s really warm today.”
Ashling thought back on his dream and remembered the brief confrontation between his classmate and this stranger in front of him. Then he thought about the off and on quality of Derek’s friendly tone. He couldn’t really say why, but Ashling had a hard time trusting this strange kid. Of course, Ashling agreed with Derek on the likeable qualities of Keith’s friends. Ashling liked Keith well enough, but his friends were a different story.
“Well?” Derek asked, reminding Ashling that he had been asked a question.
“Um…I don’t have a swimsuit,” Ashling replied. “And I don’t really know how to swim anyway.”
“That’s nothing to worry about,” Derek said. “It’s only deep right where I’m standing. It’s pretty shallow all around me.” Derek moved closer by less than a couple feet to demonstrate his point. Half his chest came out of the water as he stood in the shallower water.
“I still don’t have a suit,” Ashling said.
“What? You think I have a swimsuit either? Come on! There’s no one else here,” Derek said. Ashling imagined that he could detect a whining quality to Derek’s voice. Ashling looked at the water and noticed its somewhat muddy appearance. It looked quite inviting actually and since Ashling wasn’t really that shy anyway, he agreed.
As the two boys played, Ashling quickly forgot his initial distrust of Derek. He even managed to learn to tread water well enough that he didn’t need to fear that deep spot in the middle. That dark side of Derek that Ashling had sensed from the beginning did not resurface again for the duration of his time there in the creek, and Ashling began to believe that he had made a new friend. All too soon, Ashling decided that he would have to head back to meet his father or he might not be allowed to visit town again before summer’s end.
When he got back to the front of the school, his father was waiting for him. Ashling was not worried because he knew he had arrived on time, but in the back of his mind, he had the nagging suspicion that everything wasn’t as it should be, though he couldn’t begin to guess what was wrong at the moment.
As Ashling and his father walked in the front door of their house, Mrs. Welsh greeted them. “Did you get what I asked for?” she asked her husband. “Did you have fun?” she asked Ashling. And then, before either of them could answer, “how did your jeans get all wet, Ashling?” Ashling looked down to see that his jeans were indeed wet, but not overly so.
“Oh, well, I went swimming,” he confessed.
“In your underwear?” Morgan exclaimed. “That’s not right.”
“There weren’t any girls there,” Ashling defended himself. “What does it matter?”
Mrs. Welsh rolled her eyes. Mr. Welsh tried to hide his smile. “Well, go change your clothes anyway. Are you hungry?”
Ashling, relieved that she chose not to dwell on the subject, moved happily onto the subject of food. “Yeah, a little.” Actually, he was quite hungry, he realized suddenly. It was mid-afternoon already and he hadn’t had a bite since the breakfast he had grabbed for himself.
“Andrew. I thought you were going to get some food for him,” she chastised her husband. “Have you eaten anything?” she asked Ashling.
“I gave him money to buy some food,” Mr. Welsh defended himself. “What did you do with the money I gave you, Ash?”
Ashling reached into his pocket, but found nothing more than lint. He checked his other pocket and didn’t even find lint. “Uh, I think I’m gonna go change now,” he tried to divert their attention – unsuccessfully.
“You lost the money Dad gave you?!” Morgan exclaimed. “Ashling! You already got hurt this morning for not being careful, and now you’ve done it again. I’m getting a bit tired of all this carelessness.”
Somewhat unoriginally, Andrew Welsh remarked with a smile, “boys will be boys.”
Mrs. Welsh rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Go change your clothes Ash. I’ll go make something for you to eat.”
Ashling scampered away quickly, before any more incriminating questions could be asked. Where had that five dollar bill gone to?