“Richard,” said his mother. “Please come down.” Her hands were clasped at her breast and her head was tilted up like she was at Church. The focus of her gaze, however, was not an alter, but a handsome cherry tree. Wedged in the very center of the tree, like a fly all balled up in a spider’s web, was a boy, sucking on a cherry stem.
The man standing next to her had a head the shape of a pug’s and the size of a bear’s, and his thumbs were hooked so firmly in his belt loops it seemed his pants were actively trying to walk off his body. “You won’t hear any pleases from me,” he said. “I want him out of that tree.” He had long ago stopped talking to the boy, directing everything he said to the mother, or to himself, or even to the cherry stems that littered the ground like fish bones. “Three months of growing, that’s nine weeks of ripening into the prettiest cherries you ever seen, now look at you.”
“I’m really so sorry Mr. Torres.”
“Flores, I’m so sorry. Richard, it’s been quite long enough.” It had, in fact, been three days. It had taken half of the first day for his parents to find out that he was in a tree, and that it was this tree, and the other two and a half days had been spent unsuccessfully trying to get him out of it. He had resisted every plea, every threat, every negotiation. He had lived for three days on nothing but cherries. That night it was going to rain. “Why are you doing this?” she said in a frail voice. Everything about her was frail, in fact. Her frizzy hairs looked like they would snap if touched, and she teetered a little in her flats. Richard didn’t respond. That was the other thing: he wouldn’t say a word. He would stare at them, he would eat cherries, sometimes he would shake his head, but he wouldn’t get out of the tree and he wouldn’t speak.
Another cherry pit bounced off Mr. Flores’s old grey sneaker and he pulled even harder at his belt loops. In past years, birds had a habit of getting to the cherries right as they ripened up, but never a little boy. Not only was the predicament of having a ten-year-old in his yard for three days against his will frustrating, but he was very particular about his fruit trees. He had a pear tree, and an apple tree, and a walnut tree that was just starting to give fruit. What Mr. Flores still couldn’t figure out was why the boy had chosen the cherry tree. He would have thought the oak in the backyard or the apple tree would have been more classic climbing tree choices. The cherry tree was a closely tangled mass of little branches, by far the most difficult to get into—or out of. And while he was certainly thankful the boy wasn’t eating his pears or knocking over the walnut, the cherry was his most valuable tree. It shaded out the living room when the afternoon sun was low, and in the fall he even sold the cherries for a little extra money. But mostly he was just proud of it. It was the first tree he had planted when he moved into this house twenty-five years ago, and it was his most beautiful.
The boy looked around and, seeing that there were no more cherries within reach, clambered koala-like into the next level of branches. A few of them snapped under his feet and Mr. Flores sucked air in through his teeth and then exclaimed, “Get him to stop that!”
“Richard please,” crooned Richard’s mother. “This is very upsetting.” She glanced at her watch. Her husband would be getting home from work soon. He had been forced to take yesterday off to relieve his wife, who had been the vigilante the first day, and today she had let him go back to work and cancelled her job interview with a marketing firm. They were certainly making a strange first impression in the community, not only with the neighbors, but with her husband’s new employers, and her potential employers, and Richard school, which he had yet to attend. They felt it best to be honest with everyone about the circumstances, but had been cautious to avoid giving any details of the location lest the papers or the police showed up.
Mr. Flores specifically did not want the police called, although the parents had suggested it several times. He didn’t want big firetrucks scraping up his grass, and he was afraid they might have to do some damage to the tree to get the boy out of it.
“I don’t know how you raised that kid, Mrs. Taylor,” said Mr. Flores, “but you did it wrong.” Mrs. Taylor was hurt, and she swayed more noticeably in her shoes.
“I swear he’s never done anything like this,” she said earnestly. “He’s just upset we moved here is all.”
“So am I,” said Flores.
“Well…” she said, and trailed off.
It started to rain.
Mr. Flores grumbled.
“Well I’m not going to stand in the rain. You can if you want. Or,” he said, beginning perhaps the hardest sentence he had ever said in his life, which is why he said it as he was turning around and walking back to his house. “You can come in if you, you know, have to. You can watch the kid from the living room couch.”
“Oh, that’s very kind,” Mrs. Taylor said, and what ever else she was going to say was cut short by a sound like a tree falling down—or rather like a ten-year-old boy scrambling out of a tree and sliding to the ground. He ran for the house like there were dogs after him, outpacing the old man and slipping into the house. He left the door open behind him.
Flores stopped and looked over his shoulder.
“This a haunted house you moved into?”
“Well…” said Mrs. Taylor, stupefied, and again didn’t finish.
Richard was already lying on the couch with his back towards them when they got into the room. His mother was uttering apologies and chastisements about how she couldn’t believe him and this just wasn’t like him and said, “We need to go home now.”
“Just…leave him,” said the old man, disappearing into the kitchen. “It’s raining.”
“He’s getting your couch all wet,” she remarked.
Flores didn’t care. There was nothing inside his house he cared about. It looked like the house of a man who never had the neighbors over, because it was. In fact, no one on the street ever talked to anyone else on the street; they scarcely would have recognized one another in the grocery store. It wasn’t animosity, just passionate indifference.
He returned from the kitchen holding two glasses of water, which was the only beverage he had in the house that was child-friendly. Mrs. Taylor took them both in her wet hands and apologized some more. She was sitting awkwardly by her son’s feet.
“Don’t tell me your kid’s been eying my couch for three days,” he said. “Haven’t you got one he can curl up on without ruining things?” He looked remorsefully out at the cherry tree, just a little bit more hollow now, and rain-soaked.
“Well…said Mrs. Taylor, “no.”
“No,” he said.
“The furniture hasn’t gotten here quite yet. It should have gotten here yesterday…well it should have gotten here when we did…”
“The furniture, all of it?” He laughed. “Kid doesn’t have a place to relax.”
Mrs. Taylor waffled between the two water glasses and took a sip out of one.
“We really need to go,” she said.
Mr. Flores stared out the rain-polka-dotted window for a few moments and then turned around. He shuffled up to the couch and leaned his stiff body over where the boy’s head was.
“Hey. Richard. I think I just heard a truck go down the street. No through traffic on this street. Probably a moving truck.” He winked at the mother—or at least as much as someone who never winked could wink. Miraculously, Richard scrunched his head around to look into the old man’s face.
“Really?” he said, around the cherry he was still sucking at.
“Get out of my house and go find out.”
Encouraged by the momentum, Mrs. Taylor pulled her son up to sitting, and then to standing.
“Right, good,” said Mr. Flores. “Go.”
The boy pulled the cherry out of his mouth and held it out to Flores. Sensing the apologies building up in the woman’s chest, he said, “Thanks,” took the cherry, and led them to the door.
“You’ve been very kind,” said Mrs. Taylor, getting drenched with rain. “We’ll have you over to sit on our couch as soon as it gets here. Why, we’ll invite the whole street.” Then she wobbled off into the rain, holding onto her son’s arm like it was a leash on a puppy.
Mr. Flores closed the door. He had a horrible feeling he was going to start seeing more of the neighbors.