From atop a towering redwood tree, seventeen-year-old Jesse can see beyond the difficult reality of his life on the ground. Homeless, Jesse camps in the forest with his drug-addicted mom and little sister. Diligent about showering, laundry, and school work, Jesse is determined to keep his circumstances a secret. But one girl cares enough to find out the truth.
JESSE rolled from under the damp blankets into the duff. He pulled on his shoes and, like a dog after a swim, shook his body to shed any redwood needles and dirt that had accumulated on his clothes during the night. He’d slept in his sweatshirt and jacket but still felt cold. Lizzie looked cold too, huddled in blankets on the ground next to their mother. At least she was asleep. Jesse didn’t want to disrupt his sister before he needed to. He checked his watch. There wasn’t much time before he had to get Lizzie to school. He’d be quick, he thought as he tugged off the hood of his sweatshirt and started running the forest trail to the crest, sluggishly at first, then faster, trying to throw off a lingering dream.
At the top of the hill, Jesse wound his way through a cluster of ferns to the base of a small, familiar redwood. The lowest branch was an easy reach, and from there he climbed the tree, limb after limb, to the spindly crown. It was always a rush, straddling the wispy branches and then making the blind leap to a thick sturdy branch of the massive, neighboring tree.
“Keep three points attached to the tree at all times,” Jesse was advised when he first learned to climb. “And don’t look down.”
Jesse moved up the big tree, climbing hand, foot, hand, through the maze of coarse, barky limbs. He reached the top and wrapped his legs monkey-style around two branches. His mother always warned, “Don’t climb all the way up, Jess, it’s not safe.” He ignored her voice in his head. Why shouldn’t he? She ignored him. He was sure that swaying in the wind at the top of a redwood was safer than what she was doing on the ground.
Everything was so clear to him from this lofty precipice, not just the view, which was vast and crisp. His thoughts and dreams seemed clearer—almost attainable—from this vantage. Even the line of fog in the distance seemed defined. Beyond the forest was the small college town of Arcata. Orderly streets and cottage-style houses lined the roads down to the marsh. Beyond the marsh, Humboldt Bay spread out wide and smooth to the blue line of ocean.
From his perch in the tree branches, Jesse liked to imagine walking into any one of those cottages and calling it home. He pictured Lizzie there too, working at a puzzle on the floor. Sometimes he went as far as to imagine furniture. The hardest thing to conjure up was his mom. He could place her in the house somewhere, maybe passed out on a bed or ratty couch. He’d get a glimpse of her making dinner in an imaginary kitchen, but when he zoomed in, there would be a needle or a bottle of booze, or something else, to shatter his vision. This tree was shelter his mother couldn’t spoil or take away, the way she’d sabotaged every home they’d had since he was a toddler.
The scratchy tree bark and the musty dirt smell of the forest always sparked memories of climbing with Redwood Jack, Lizzie’s dad. He could hear Jack’s voice in his head.
“Hold on tight, Jess!’
“Check out this beetle, Jess!”
“Look there, Jess, a red-tailed hawk!”
And then, like the hawk, Jack had vanished, leaving Jesse to climb alone and his mom tired and pregnant with Lizzie. Jesse was seventeen now. In a few months his mom wouldn’t have any say in what he did. She didn’t really have any say now; she only noticed him when she wasn’t high, and lately it seemed like she was high most of the time. If Jack were still around, Jesse might have the nerve to leave his mom and Lizzie, but there was no one else to watch Lizzie when their mom was completely lit or off sleeping with some guy. He couldn’t leave. Not without Lizzie, and she still needed their mother, at least for now.