Nellie is always busy, always distracted. She’ll come up with a billion new things to do rather than stick with one thing for more than a day
Eli: Nellie and I keep fighting — over what to do to raise money, over which ideas make sense, even over whether or not a hurricane is going to hit this weekend.
Nellie: It really upsets me. I found this strange piece of a map in a bird’s nest and I can’t even show it to Eli right now.
Squizzle: I think the twins just need some time to talk things out — but they have to be talking in order to do that!
The map makes no sense. Eli can figure out where it starts — there’s that row of houses, and he can track the beginning of the path from the woods behind the house, but that’s it. Once he tries following the path, it takes him to the left side of the map, and then continues on past what’s written on the map. To get to the quarter-loop at the corner of the page, he’d have to follow a path that doesn’t begin, just snakes across the top of the map from outside of it with no explanation.
Well, at least he knows that the quarter-loop, which must be Treeo, is to the northeast. He tracks the movement of the sun to figure out which way is east, then guesses on the direction he needs to go, but he walks for ages and finds nothing.
This would be so much easier with Nellie here. He can imagine her above him, climbing across trees and calling down what she can see from afar. But he hadn’t asked her to explore with him this time. Every time he mentions it, she ignores him or brushes him off, and Eli has given up on asking her.
He’d thought she’d been as fascinated by the treehouse as he is, that she’d also want to find it again. But Nellie is always busy, always distracted. She’ll come up with a billion new things to do rather than stick with one thing for more than a day. And now she’s decided that she doesn’t care about the treehouse.
He turns around, peering at the sky again to track the sun. He spots Squizzle, chittering happily above him, and he laughs, his mood brightening. “You really must like hanging out with Nellie and me. Or maybe you’re looking for that treehouse, too.”
Squizzle makes a noise that sounds like agreement. Eli tilts his head, surprised. “You are, aren’t you? Well, let me know if you find any clues. This map is no help.” He folds it carefully and puts it into his pocket.
Squizzle darts down the tree and races in circles around him; Eli can just tell that he’s excited about something. “What have you got for me?” he asks, bending down to see the squirrel better. There is something in his grasp, long and silvery and hard.
Squizzle shakes a little clenched paw at Eli, and Eli holds out his hand, palm up, waiting patiently. Squizzle runs forward, lets out a little noise, and drops the item into Eli’s hand. It’s a metal tool of some sort, long and thin like a stick or a straw, but with a curved top. Eli is suddenly sure that he’s seen it before. “This was in Treeo, wasn’t it? In that room of tools—”
He takes a breath. “I wonder if that globe that I found would fit on top.” He pulls it from his pocket, examining the globe again. Even now, there’s a faint glow to it, though Eli isn’t sure if it’s only reflecting the sunlight. When he sets it down on the curved top of the tool, it slips off and falls toward the ground.
Squizzle makes an alarming sound. Eli’s hands move on instinct, and he catches it before it can fall. “It’s like a baseball,” he assures Squizzle. He stares at the ball, then the tool. “I bet Nellie would have some ideas about what this means.”
But Nellie isn’t talking to him. Eli looks at Squizzle. Squizzle’s nose wriggles. “I have to talk to her, don’t I?” Eli sighs. “I hate fighting.” He drags his feet as he walks back home.
But when he gets back home, Nellie’s door is shut. He knocks and she calls, “Come in! Hands are busy right now.”
He slides the door open. Nellie is perched on her bed with Miri in front of her. She’s braiding Miri’s hair, and as Eli watches, she says, “Oh, I messed up!” and drops the whole braid as she turns to see who’s walked in.
Eli regrets knocking on her door at all. He doesn’t want to talk to Nellie while she has a friend over. “Never mind,” he says quickly, and he backs away and shuts the door again.
When he turns around, Kivi is there. “Wanna play a game with me?” Kivi offers, eyes hopeful. “I promise I won’t cheat!” He reconsiders. “More than twice,” he amends, holding up two fingers.
Eli stares at him. Kivi pouts. “Okay, fine. Once.” He puts down one finger, still blinking up at Eli with big eyes. “Please?”
“I have a better idea.” If Nellie doesn’t want to explore, then Eli can bring his little brother. He bets Kivi would be excited about the clubhouse — or at least about being included in the search for it. “Want to check out something in the woods with me?”
Kivi is a very different kind of explorer than Nellie. He spends the first ten minutes in the woods running ahead, and Eli and Squizzle have to race after him at top speed so he doesn’t get lost. “Careful!” Eli scolds. “If we’re not on a path, you need to stay close. You could get lost or hurt out here if you’re not careful.”
Kivi scuffs his sneakers against a tree. “I’m tired of walking,” he announces. “I have little legs.” He wiggles them at Eli to show him and nearly kicks Squizzle in the face. Squizzle yelps and climbs away to safety.
Eli gives him a look. “Well, I’m not done exploring yet. If you want, I can take you home, but I’m going back—” Before he can finish his sentence, Kivi has run off again, out of sight. Oh, come on!
There’s a crash and a shriek somewhere in the distance, and Eli says to no one in particular, “Why?” He hurries after Kivi, Squizzle racing across the branches above him where Nellie belongs, and skids to a stop just in time.
There’s a brook in front of him, rushing wide and furious, and Eli can’t believe it. Finally! The brook can lead him to Treeo if he and Kivi follow it down toward….
If he and Kivi….
Where is Kivi?
He hears a loud splash through the noise of the rushing brook, and Eli peers into the water. “Kivi!” He can see exactly what has happened. Leading from one side of the brook to the other are stepping stones spaced far apart, and they’re wet from the rushing water that constantly runs over them. Kivi’s legs are very little indeed, and he must have tried to cross the stones but fell in instead. “Kivi?”
Eli runs toward the water, climbing across two of the stones before he finds the source of the splashing. Kivi is lying in the brook, his hands slapping against the water, and Eli jumps in with a surge of panic—
—only to discover that the brook is merely two feet deep here. Kivi is lying down, but he isn’t drowning at all. Soaked, he grins up at Eli with a gap-toothed smile. “It’s cool in here, isn’t it?”
Eli’s pants are sopping wet. His shoes are probably even worse. Squizzle remains at a safe distance on solid, dry land, and makes a sound like he might be very concerned about their sanity. “We…” Eli begins, casting one last, longing glance at the brook. He wants nothing more than to keep hunting for the treehouse, especially now that he’s found the brook. But there’s no way he’s going to get anything done with Kivi or with his pants and sneakers dripping wet. “… are going home.”
Kivi scowls. “I’m swimming,” he announces, splashing forward. He bangs his head on one of the stepping stones instead. Eli pulls Kivi up as his face crumples and tears form at the edges of his eyes. “I don’t want to go HOME!” he bellows at the top of his lungs, so loud that Eli can’t hear anything else for several moments. After all, that was Eli’s idea in the first place, so he really has no right to get upset about her dedication to it.
“And you know, you’d actually enjoy the camp,” she continues, trying to appeal to his sensibilities. “You’re so good with little kids, and you could show them all kinds of cool animals or whatever — even that annoying squirrel that loves hanging out with you—”
Eli snaps, “I said I don’t want to do it!” His voice is sharp, and Nellie takes a step back, hurt by his tone. He glares at her, and Nellie glares right back, her face growing warm and red with frustration.
This feels like it might explode, like Eli is going to yell at her and she might yell right back. Oh, she just hates it when they fight.
Well, she hasn’t done anything wrong this time. And she isn’t going to apologize for trying to do her own thing instead of following Eli’s ideas, like always. “Whatever,” she says, the flush in her cheeks giving her away. “I’ll just do it with someone else.”
With a huff, she stomps her way upstairs, each step echoing her anger. Rikki pokes her head around her door to see what’s going on, then rolls her eyes and closes it again. Nellie pushes her door open and shuts it behind her with a bang.
Nellie. Even her name is because of Eli, because Nechama is so long and wouldn’t it be cute if the twins had rhyming nicknames? Sometimes she just wishes Eli would agree with all her ideas without thinking so much.
She turns to stare out the window. Squizzle is perched on a branch that brushes right up against her window, making squirrel-y noises that sound mocking, somehow. She glowers at him, and he makes a squeaky little noise and dashes away from her, up to a higher part of the trunk.
Wait. What is that?
Further up the tree, outside Nellie’s window, is an old nest, still there from the spring and mostly intact. But there’s something in it, a scrap of white that looks like it might be a paper.
She slides the window up and carefully pries the screen off of its frame so she can climb out onto the branch. With quick, sure movements, she moves her hands along the branch, pulling herself closer to the trunk, then presses her feet against the trunk to pull herself up. A moment later she’s standing on the branch, and she finds a knot in the tree to use as a foothold.
She climbs up the tree, swinging on one branch to set her feet down on the next, through the thickly woven branches and across the tree to where the nest is sitting. Nellie plucks the white scrap from the nest and stares at it, her eyes widening.
It’s covered in markings, pictures of trees and paths moving through it, and a river drawn in light detail across the paper-like material that she’s holding. It looks familiar somehow, almost like the maps that rangers give out before a hiking trail. Maybe it’s the woods down below her, though she couldn’t say for sure.
There is a strange, small marking, a curved line that blocks off the corner of the paper; Nellie touches it and wonders what it might be. Something important, maybe. Something in the woods that Nellie has never seen before.
Ooh, Eli will probably have some ideas. Eli always has ideas.
But Nellie, tucked into the corner of a tree with frustration still burning inside her, doesn’t feel very much like talking to Eli right now.
(Originally featured in Treeo, Issue 986)
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