The Tree House

Twinkles lived in the West Hills of Portland on Vista Ridge. It was a nice neighborhood in that the houses were expensive and large. Families could live in them without running into each other for days, which was good because many of the families’ members didn’t play well together. Divorce rates were high, affairs a given, and out-of-touch children, who expected life to be sprinkled in front of them like rose petals, were rampant. Twinkles lived in a tree house in the backyard of the Johnsons’ house. It belonged to their children, but they had grown up and moved south to California. It was a good tree house, built by craftsmen and made to last. It needed some paint and caulk because the Johnsons were now elderly and without grandchildren visiting it was neglected. Twinkles wanted to paint it and protect its flaking wood, but he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. Nobody knew he lived there. He was a tree house squatter and he doubted squatter rights would apply to tree houses.

Twinkles liked squatting. It seemed more natural than ownership. You can’t take your house with you, so ownership was really no more than squatting. But people’s laws said otherwise and men with guns enforced them, so Twinkles kept quiet in his tree house and only fixed things that wouldn’t be noticed, like leaks in the roof and squeaky hinges, and these he did in the early hours of the morning when no one was about except for the drunks arriving home after last call. To them he would appear as nothing more than an apparition of an oversized gnome. He even wore a red hat he’d found last Christmas. It was knitted wool, and it may not have kept his head dry, but it did keep his thoughts warm, and it was important to keep his thoughts warm because it was his thoughts that controlled where he traveled at night in his dreams.

He called them dreams, but they were more than that. They were out-of-body experiences, but calling them that would sound crazy, and he didn’t want to sound crazy to the people who worked at the soup kitchen where he got his main meal of the day. It was well known that if one of the do-gooders there thought you were crazy they would fast track you onto heavy meds, and getting that main meal of the day would then become contingent on taking them. Living in a tree house and taking heavy meds was not a good combination for survival.

It was raining hard as he zipped himself in his sleeping bag like a mummy wrapped for centuries of sleep until the grave robbers would wake him. He lay there listening to the pitter patter of angel toes tap dancing in the rain, thinking grave robbers wouldn’t find much to steal. The opossums and crows would have a much better haul, which was only fair since he had shooed them out of the tree house when he moved in, and occasionally still had to. His dreams started as a noise, like the ringing people get in their ears, but more of a vibrating sound like high-voltage power lines in a storm. It would grow louder, as if it would wake the whole neighborhood and the Johnsons would amble outside on their walkers, and then with a sudden snap of elasticity, he would find himself suspended in the air outside the tree house.

Tonight he drifted down the street like a tuft of dog fur caught in a breeze, not choosing where he was going but riding the currents of his thoughts. He had only recently figured out he could influence where he went. It was strange being a living ghost inside a strip club, but very much the same. He still couldn’t touch the girls, and he heard them say what he sensed from them anyway. They talked about the men who ogled them on stage, about how they hated dancing for them, but couldn’t dance without them. One night he sensed something different from one of the dancers than the usual dislike and disgust and left with her. He sat in the back of her car as she drove. He knew it was a creepy thing to do, but the whole thing was insane to start with so he did it anyway. He waited for her when she stopped for cigarettes, and when she got pulled over for rolling through a stop sign, he saw how old she was on her driver’s license. Sixteen. The cop was going to give her a ticket, but ended up hassling her about being out past curfew. She gave him a sob story of lies and he let her go.

She made a lot of money at the club, and was easily the most popular dancer. She worked it for every dollar she could because she knew it wouldn’t last. Nothing did. Eventually her pert looks wouldn’t be so pert. She went for the punk and Goth outfits because they made her look older, but not too much older. The other girls at the club told her she should do the Catholic Schoolgirl thing; she still had hers from St. Mary’s Academy, but she was afraid if she did that the club manager would start to worry that the ID she used to get the job was fake. Obviously it was fake, but a very good fake. Like so many things, she’d gotten it from a guy who knew a guy. She never considered that the manager knew it was fake and just didn’t care. She wasn’t that cynical, but maybe she should’ve been.

But Twinkles’ thoughts didn’t lead him to the strip club at the bottom of the hill tonight, instead he drifted the few blocks to what at one time had been his house and was still where his wife and son lived. She had remarried, but they had never divorced. He’d been declared dead once the requisite time had passed since his disappearance. Since one morning just like every other morning he’d stepped on a bus to go downtown to work and never made it home, at least not in body. Something happened that day inside his head. Like he’d been hoping for all his life, everything became clear, but at the same time, nothing made sense anymore. He didn’t hear voices. That would be crazy. He simply “understood”. He did talk to himself, especially about his nighttime travels—he couldn’t tell anyone about those—and sometimes a voice answered him back, but he knew it was just himself telling him what he needed to hear. “You’re a good man, Twinkles. Your travels are your gift. In time you’ll know what they are for.” It was New Age mumbo jumbo to ease his anxiety when the buzzing started at night. Being loose from his body scared him. What if he couldn’t get back and got stuck as a ghost while his body lay there in the mummy bag, unaware that it needed to get to the soup kitchen and eat? He tried not to think about it.

Visiting people in their private moments wasn’t the way to endear himself to them, or them to him. Recently he felt he could read their thoughts when he was alone with them. Like the sixteen-year-old stripper when she got pulled over. She was afraid the cop would find out she was a runaway, but the cop was thinking about his own daughter and just wanted this girl to get home. He hated patrolling the night shift. He thought the darkness would hide the ugliness, but it highlighted it instead, like sharp rocks sticking out from the water’s surface, waiting for the unsuspecting ship in the night. He sensed her thoughts when she drove away and fantasized about moving to California where it was warm and dry, and now as he drifted through his old house to his teenage son’s room, he sensed him dreaming in his sleep of a girl he would soon meet, a punk, sometimes Goth girl who looked older than his own age but really wasn’t.

He watched his son breathe. In, out, in, out, and then he heard the buzzing that came before he separated from his body, but it wasn’t his buzzing. It was coming from somewhere or someone else.

A voice behind him said quietly, “Dad?”

“I’ve met a nice girl for you,” he said reflexively as if he’d never disappeared on the bus that morning.

“Dad? Is that you?”

He turned and recognized his son’s figure floating before him. He was about to tell him the girl’s name when he was suddenly back in his tree house, zipped snugly in his mummy bag, rubbing his eyes awake as he realized the drumming on the roof of a rain shower had woken him. This didn’t bother him, though. Night would be back soon enough.

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