Jack was seven years old when he took his first climb. This was particularly impressive because he was branded “developmentally delayed” by an occupational therapist during his preschool years. His father thought he was different. Delayed, sure. But nothing time wouldn’t sort out.
The boy’s mom had a very different interpretation. One that caused her to smother. She would applaud with each of his steps. And stairs? You’d think she won first prize in the local tractor pull. Her husband’s eyes would roll; sometimes he’d leave the room. If he managed to stay without losing his temper, he might offer, “It’s not a fucking parade, Louise. Relax.”
She ignored him if possible, not allowing herself to be moved by his reproach. She didn’t stop believing in Jack. She thought encouragement was the most direct, meaningful way to express love.
By the time Jack turned six, he grew frustrated by his mother’s applause. He played hopscotch and jumped rope with the boys in the neighborhood. Jack never wanted to play in his own driveway. Not because it was cracked and scarred with potholes, but because he knew his mother would watch him from the window.
When the kids did play at Jack’s house, they’d use the backyard. The house was built in front of a hillock that would have obstructed the view from indoors. His mother, wholly lacking subtlety, watched the boys from the top of the hillock. She’d smile and wipe droplets from her eyes. “Can you believe it? They told us he’d never be normal. They said this wasn’t—”
“It doesn’t matter what they said. He’s fine. I can’t believe you doubted him in the first place. What do those doctors know anyway?”
“They weren’t doctors. They were physical therapists. Occupational therapists.”
“Same difference.” He headed for the house, turning his back on his wife and the boys in the yard. “Stop watching him. You’re going to make him hate you.”
Though Jack didn’t grow to hate his mom, he was embarrassed by her overbearing nature. He stopped inviting friends. Often, there was arguing inside the house; outside, needless supervision.
The boy developed a number of hobbies, most of which included his imaginary friend, Movo. Jack, an only child, believed Movo was his brother. When his mother would watch them playing tag or wrestling or kicking around a ball, Jack and Movo would commiserate together. “Mom’s being a weirdo again,” Movo would say.
Jack would look up the hillock. “She should get a life!” They’d laugh together.
Movo became Jack’s protector. Whenever his parents would scream, Jack knew that Movo too was scared, but Jack, emulating his brother, channeled Movo’s bravery. The two were stronger with each other. Hiding under their bed, door locked, Movo whispered to Jack, “No matter how bad things get, I’ll always be with you.” Jack cried, holding an index finger to his lips like a librarian.
The fights were few, though. Occasional spikes in familial tension. Most of their interactions were more mundane. They consisted of watching Spongebob in the winter and playing in the yard in the summer.
The summer before second grade, Jack turned seven. Movo suggested they celebrate Jack’s becoming older, becoming a man. Jack laughed at Movo. He beat his chest and said, “I’ve always been a man.” He proved his maturity through a nimble climb up the solitary tree in the yard.
This was the first of many adventures up the tree. The great oak, Movo frequently commented, was beautiful. He pointed out the thirty-seven leafy limbs. The twelve hollows for squirrels and birds to burrow their young. Knotholes for fingertips. Falling acorns for an additional challenge. The tree was their home.
Jack nodded when Movo spoke. He internalized his peer’s observation, admired his wisdom. But after years of hearing Movo repeat the same spiel, he grew aggressive. “Shut up about the tree already. I don’t care. Can’t we just climb!” Jack did not care that he’d hurt his brother’s feelings. “You’re crying in front of mom?” He pointed up the hillock. “Stop being such a baby.”
When they climbed up the tree, Movo refused to climb down. “I’m staying up here! Forever.”
Jack, frustrated, left his brother. He pretended not to care, but grew angrier with each step away from the tree. In Jack’s fury, he denied the powerful bond he and Movo shared.
That night, he wondered if Movo was okay. He thought of bringing his brother a blanket and pillow (how uncomfortable it must be to have branches digging into your spine!), but he decided that Movo would come back if too uncomfortable.
Jack didn’t visit the tree for a week. When he returned, he shouted to Movo, who replied with silence. He figured his brother would resurface, eventually. With pride, he resolved to refrain from visiting the tree again.
At twelve, Jack’s father explained that they were going to put their house on the market. The boy begged, "Please, can’t you wait until I finish middle school."
His father sighed, consulting his wife with a prolonged stare. "Yes, Jack. Sure. We won’t sell quite yet."
Jack tried to be grateful for the extension, but he felt despondent. He had spent his life rooted in one spot; leaving friends behind was a devastating reality.
On Jack’s final birthday on his beloved property, his curly-haired friend explained that the thirteenth year marks manhood in the Hebrew tradition. Jack laughed, “I’ve always been a man.”
The man returned to the tree when he arrived home. He pretended, at first, that he did not remember Movo. After brief moments, feeling slightly abashed, he peered up the tree in search of his long-ago brother. He wanted to be certain that Movo did not exist, but he couldn't shake the stark recollection of his peer's pointed chin and raspy, playful voice.
Jack took hold of the tree’s trunk. Travelling vertically, he whispered Movo’s name. As he climbed higher, his voice grew louder. When he reached the highest bough, he was panicky, hysterical. "Movo, I'm sorry. I miss you, buddy. Please, Movo. Please." But Movo did not return.
Jack breathed deeply in an attempt to collect himself. The tree felt different. It was wobblier. He knew he did not belong.
Acknowledging this unpleasant shift, Jack resolved to descend. With a shaky foot, he reached down to the nearest branch. As the man lost his toehold, he did not care to brace himself for fear or pain. Regardless of physical damage, his relationship with the oak—his relationship with Movo—was forever changed.
The destruction reckoned before he met ground.
RK Taylor is an emerging writer from upstate New York. He is working to earn his MFA at Chatham University in Pittsburgh and teaches in the Allegheny County Jail through the Words Without Walls program. This is his first published piece.