Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Jake, Arthur The Boy in the Trees
Jake woke to see scratch marks all over his bedpost. He'd had the nightmares again.
He took his feet out of bed and stomped onto the carpet, eyes still heavy from sleep. Rubbing a hand through his dirty blond hair he found that it was drenched in cold sweat - a reminder of the night before. The dreams had been bothered him almost every night. It was as if his brain was reminding him of a memory that was just out of reach, but every time he tried to grasp it the thought fleeted in an instant, and he couldn’t comprehend what was bothering him.
He glanced at his alarm clock. Five forty-five. Too early to get ready, too late to catch some more sleep. He put on some relaxed clothes and wearily descended the stairs, lit by the orange glow of the sun streaming through the windows. He turned to the kitchen, only to find his uncle Lawrence had made it there first, gazing out the window at the bleeding sky that covered their overgrown, colourless excuse of a garden.
Lawrence turned, his eyes widening. ‘You’re up.’
Jake nodded. ‘Likewise. Bad dreams?’
His uncle looked back outside. ‘Uh huh. You too?’
Jake walked over to the kitchen counter and pulled a bowl out from the cabinet. ‘Third time this week. Billionth time this month.’ He opened another cabinet and pulled out a box of oats. ‘Cereal?’
‘Nah, I’m good.’ He shook his head and tutted. ‘I did tell you not to watch that film, didn’t I?’
Jake got himself a spoon and a jug of milk and sat at the table. ‘Which one? Carrie?’
‘No, the other one. The one about the wolf guy.’
Jake laughed. ‘American Werewolf in London? You do realise that was a comedy, right?’
Lawrence approached the breakfast table. ‘Yeah, well, the subject matter isn’t. You think it’s a coincidence that your wolf dreams started the night you watched that?’
Jake lifted his spoon in protest. ‘The wolf dreams started the night after. What’s so serious about werewolves, anyway? Even if they were real, the last place they’d come to is Coldharbour.’
His uncle remained silent.
Jake copied his silence, keeping his eyes fixed to his cereal bowl . Finally, his uncle spoke again.
‘You still not gonna tell me what they’re about?’
Jake glanced up, confused.
‘The dreams, smiley.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Does it matter?’
Uncle Lawrence stood up. ‘Of course, it matters! If these dreams persist, we ought to see someone about it. Maybe check you haven’t experienced any trauma or-’
‘Lawrence, I’m fine, they’re just dreams.’
‘Alright, alright. I just care that’s all.’
Jake shook his head silently and stood up, bringing his empty bowl to the sink. In reality, he wasn’t telling his uncle because he didn’t have the heart. Yes, the dream had in fact included a wolf, (nothing like the one in that tacky old movie) but it had also involved Jake’s family. From what he’d been told, his mother - Lawrence’s little sister - and father - a Ukrainian man she’d met on a trip to the Altai mountains – had been ruthlessly murdered by their neighbour following a vicious dispute. One of his mother’s friends had managed to whisk Jake away from the fight and bring him to his uncle, but Jake’s baby brother had not been so lucky. Jake had hardly remembered that night – he was only three when it happened after all – until last night, when for the first time in a while he’d seen glimpses into some strange malformation of a memory, distorted as one would typically expect from a dream. In the dream there was a wolf - a huge, muscular, bipedal wolf – with teeth of knives, and eyes darker than a tunnel to hell. Crimson coloured saliva was dripping in large frothy globules from its almost grinning jaws, and its hands and feet were decorated with razor-sharp talons. It would be waiting outside the house, peering through the window, and Jake would be crying. For whatever reason, he couldn’t see his father or baby brother.
‘It’s okay,’ his mother would tell him, stroking his hair. ‘We just need to wait until sunrise. The monster will be gone, and daddy will come back and help us!’
The wolf then pounded at the door.
Peculiar, as dreams went. Yet every night it felt increasingly more familiar, as if some repressed thought was trying to wriggle its way to the surface of his mind. He hadn’t told his uncle yet – simply because Lawrence had never quite overcome the grief of losing his sister, Jake’s mother to that psychopathic neighbour all those years ago. Perhaps that was why he struggled so much to connect with Jake. The poor man tried his best; but in the end, Jake would always be just another reminder of the sister Lawrence had lost.
Jake approached the front door, slipped on his boots and grabbed his black anorak. It was going to be a wet day. He had no idea how he knew that, other than the old rhyme about red skies at morning, but he could feel it within him like some deep-rooted instinct and his feelings weren’t often wrong.
‘Where d’you think you’re going?’ his uncle asked from the kitchen doorway.
Jake turned slowly as he opened the front door a crack. ‘Out. For a walk in the forest. It’s early so…’
‘So long as you’re back by nine,’ his uncle laughed. ‘That coat’s still huge on you! I remember when your father used to wear it.’
‘Yeah, well I guess it must have suited him better,’ Jake remarked. ‘I’ll be back by nine, I promise!’ He pulled up his hood and ran outside into the early morning drizzle.
‘And don’t forget to brush your teeth when you return!’ his uncle called.
Jake grinned as he felt drops of icy rainwater fly across his face and the forest started to loom above him. He began to ascend the first incline into the trees, twigs snapping under his feet as he climbed. As he got higher, the light behind him began to dim, and soon the familiar rustling of the local wildlife became apparent. Squirrels scuttled in the treetops in search of food following a long hibernation; pheasants stupidly plodded about the area, ignorant to the fact that they would likely be killed soon, either by hunters or vehicles; and, somewhere in the distance, a doe and her calf were drinking water from a small pond. Jake knew their sounds and scents well – it was one of his strengths – and he would make a habit of identifying them each and every time he took a walk into the woods.
The journey continued for a good half hour until Jake was deep into the forests of Leith Hill where the trees would stretch so high that they were almost scraping the sky – and it was here that he had made his den.
He pulled off the hood of his anorak and craned his head up to the tip of one treetop, where he squinted through the drizzle to see the edge of a wooden decking. There would be a dozen organisations that would have been furious if they’d known about his hideout, but Jake figured they had enough on their hands to worry about without the knowledge of a treehouse in their public walking space. He approached the trunk slowly, wiping his hands on his tracksuit bottoms as he did so. He then took off his trainers and socks, and placed his hands on the bark, fingers curling deep into grooves in its side. Without a moment of hesitation, he scrambled his way up.
Higher and higher he went, fingers and toes slotting into ridges and balancing on twigs in a pattern he’d repeated so frequently that it had become second nature to him. At last, when he was high enough that a fall would result in a broken bone for most kids, his hand rested on the makeshift decking, and he lurched himself onto the sturdy platform.
The den was reasonably cosy, just big enough to fit a party of three (not that he’d ever known anybody to invite), with a secure wooden base made of bundles of sticks and a makeshift railing from the trunk of a once fallen tree. On one side was a small wooden table (the parts of which had taken Jake an hour to try to get up and even longer to assemble), littered with numerous household items that he’d hidden here. There were pens, pencils, a wad of paper, some dirty mugs, a torch and a photograph frame. Jake approached the makeshift table and lifted the frame closer, smiling to see the familiar image of his mother and father with grinning faces holding him. The more he looked, the more miserable he felt, so he dropped the picture and approached the bundle of faux-fur blankets on the other side.
Lying on the pile was a single blue book titled “Tales of Terror: a History of the World’s Most Hideous Beasts, Volume #2.” The words were printed in gold, and the silhouette of a werewolf against a full moon was printed underneath. Since he’d started having the wolf dreams, Jake had been fascinated by tales of strange creatures in legends, especially those that could disguise themselves as human– from the savage, gory werewolves, to cunning, malicious vampires. Then there were the werecats, a little between, who seemed to retain the strength of tigers while having some form of wit about them, and many other favourites among swamp things, yetis, boogeymen and body-snatchers. It gave Jake something to do between brain numbing lessons with his uncle, who’d insisted that he’d be home-schooled since he “wouldn’t mix well with the others.”
Jake opened the book and flicked to the middle. Here he found the facts on werewolves - where they were found, what they ate, their strengths and their weaknesses. It said that a werewolf could be killed either by silver - in the form of a bullet or an arrow – witchcraft, or by regular methods if in their human form. Other accounts had suggested high concentrations of sunlight would achieve such a task, while some suggested that this was an absurd notion, as moonlight was reflected sunlight itself. It was all a load of make-believe, but Jake found a strange pleasure in it, as if he were some kind of monster hunter himself, ready to find that wolf currently haunting his dreams. Perhaps it was stupid for a fifteen-year-old to be fantasising about such things, but Jake didn’t know any other fifteen-year-olds to compare himself with.
He snapped the book shut and walked to the other side of the deck. There, from a branch of the tree, hung a medium-sized black punchbag, covered in cracks from previous use. When Jake wasn’t reading at the den, he’d be training – so hard that he’d tend to push himself to exhaustion and would end up collapsing onto the deck. From the age of twelve, Jake had only possessed one goal in his head: that when he was old enough to leave home, he would hunt down the man who killed his parents and would finally bring justice for the ones who had raised him. Every day, with that goal in mind, he had come out here to train so that eventually, he told himself, he would be strong enough to snap a bone with a single hit. Then he would be ready.
Jake hit the bag repeatedly, his fists feeling nothing as he did so. Eventually his punches became snappier, until the edges of his hands were no longer distinguishable as they morphed into a blur. Whenever his arms became tired, he just pictured meeting that killer out in the open with nobody to stop him from doing what needed to be done. Every thought of tearing that man apart gave Jake a sort of strength, a rage that blazed within him hotter than the core of a star. He hit the bag one last time, and the branch holding it snapped, sending the bag soaring far into the forest. Jake cursed, bending over to catch his breath, and looked down at his bare fists. There wasn’t a single mark of damage on them.
He climbed down the tree with care, pondering on his strength as he did so. His uncle had told him that it was normal to be so strong – but from the few rare moments Jake had been granted to use the internet, and from the rare occasions he had met other kids his age in secret, Jake had worked out he was far from ordinary. Lawrence had always seemed to be hiding something from him, some strange ability he had that the other kids didn’t possess. Perhaps that was why he’d been locked away from society for almost all his life.
Or perhaps he was looking into things too deeply. In any case, the only thing that mattered now was finding his punchbag. He ventured in the direction he saw the bag fall, using sight and smell to try to locate the black leather cylinder as birds around him sang songs of the early spring.
A branch rustled on a tree behind him. There was a faint trace of deodorant and sweat in the air, as well as the murmur of a human heartbeat.
Jake picked up the nearest rock and turned, ready to hurl it at whatever his senses were alerting him to. But when he looked, he saw nothing but a vast array of trees and forests plants. Somebody had been there; he had felt it. Cautiously he turned back around again and continued on his journey, the rock heavy in his hand, his senses keen.
Whatever was following him did not leave but appeared to stay with him for the rest of the walk – lurking in the trees every time Jake turned to take a look at it. Oddly enough, although Jake could hear its pulse, the breeze through its hair, the shakiness of its breath, he was completely incapable of registering the sound of its footsteps against the ground. There wasn’t a person on earth that could walk that quietly, especially in a forest like this.
Finally, there was a beating noise and a gust of wind, and the figure seemed to disappear. Jake surveyed his surroundings but saw no evidence of anybody following and kept walking. Clearly, he was still tired, and his mind was playing tricks on him.
Finally, he found the bag lying in a ditch, covered in dirt and leaves - a fist-sized indent on its side. Jake lifted it with ease and carried it back to his den, glancing over his shoulder one last time to make sure he was truly alone.
*** At the height of the trees, his hair-covered, black wings folded shut against his back, Arthur watched Jake carry the punchbag back to the treehouse. A kid of his age only had this kind of brute strength if he was a special type of person – Arthur’s type of person – and given Jake Milton’s parentage, it would only be natural. His bosses were correct.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his communications device. ‘Sir, can you hear me?’ he whispered, his accent almost American save for a slight European twang. There was a moment of silence, before a deep British voice on the other end came through. ‘You have some information for us, Creznich?’
Arthur nodded. ‘You were right. About the address, and about him. He’s one of us all right.’ The voice paused before replying. ‘Good. We’ll have a word with his uncle tomorrow and will send a team to take the boy. It’s his right to come to us should he want to. Until then… have a brief chat with Milton. I want him to know that we mean no harm and only want what’s best for him. He deserves to know the truth about his life. Goodness knows how long his uncle’s been keeping it from him.’
Arthur smiled. ‘Talk to the target. Got it, sir. Over and out.’ He opened his wings and stretched, feeling the breeze against their underside. Arthur disliked how warm this spring was becoming. A vampire needed to stay cool after all. ***
Photo by Marita Kavelashvili
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