| Tales of Treeo |

Up North: Chapter 2

“It’s us or Eli.” Squizzle falls silent. He might fight with Nellie, but he clearly likes Eli

Nellie doesn’t like animals, and she likes Squizzle even less. But when an angry polar bear comes roaring at the squirrel, she snatches him up and runs, tucking him under her arm. Because she’s nice.

And because Squizzle is totally not, he nips at her arm through her coat and then runs up to huddle under her hood. “Stop that!” she snaps at him. “I’m saving your life here!”

There is still way too much snow around them, and the polar bear bares its teeth and races toward Nellie.

“Hey!” Eli shouts, drawing the bear’s attention. “Over here!” He throws a snowball, then a second one. One of them bounces off the side of the bear’s enormous body, but the other one hits it in the nose. The polar bear lets out a cry of outrage and rushes at Eli.

Nellie’s turn. The treehouse had given them coats, but she’s still in her loafers, and they slip and slide as she runs across the ice. “Follow me!” she calls to the bear.  “I have fresh squirrel for you!”

Squizzle hisses in her ear. “Oh, be quiet,” Nellie whispers furiously at him. “It’s us or Eli.” Squizzle falls silent. He might fight with Nellie, but he clearly likes Eli.

The ice around them rises and falls, some of it coated with snow.  The rest is slippery, and huge ice floes drift about, some rising like mountains from the water and some flat and thick. Nellie is great at climbing trees, but she’s not so sure she’d be good at climbing ice mountains. For one thing, even touching the snow makes her shudder. For another, she wouldn’t stand a chance in her loafers.

Instead, she slides around a large heap of snow and ice. “Come and get me!” she calls to the polar bear. “Squirrel sandwich? Squirrel-flavored ice cream? Matzah ball and squirrel soup?”

Squizzle bites her ear, sharp enough that it stings. Nellie ignores him. The polar bear is turning away from Eli, which is all she cares about.

But now it’s confused. Eli has disappeared, too, and the polar bear has discovered the mailbox. It sniffs at the wood, then bats at it. The mailbox stays standing. The polar bear snarls at it. The mailbox doesn’t budge. The polar bear lets out a little whining noise and then roars again, blood-curdling and loud, but the mailbox doesn’t move.

“See? That’s what you should have done,” Nellie informs Squizzle. “Just stand super still and pretend to be an object.” She leans against the mountain of ice behind her. It’s cold, and she shivers violently. “I hate the cold,” she mutters. She would never climb to the top of this mountain of ice, even for a million dollars.

Something large and dark-colored rounds the mountain, and Nellie jumps and almost runs away before she realizes that it’s Eli, wrapped in a coat and hunched over as he creeps toward her. Squizzle lets out a joyful noise at the sight of Eli, and Nellie pokes him. “Shh! The bear’s going to hear us!”

Eli whispers, “I keep falling over. How are we supposed to outrun the polar bear? And where are we going to go? There’s nothing but ice here!” He holds up something brown. “And wood scraps, apparently.”

“Pieces of wood?” Nellie asks. They’re small and narrow, delicate like they’d come from a tree. But there are no trees here. “Where’d they come from?”

“If I had to guess? The treehouse left them for us. Same as the compass.” Eli examines the scraps of wood again. “I bet if I had a few minutes, I could make these into snowshoes. I’d just need some… there.” He unzips his coat and tugs something out of his sweatshirt pocket. “I can just tie it with some twine. No problem.”

“And I’ll keep the polar bear busy until then. No problem,” Nellie echoes Eli. The bear is snuffling around again, bored with the mailbox and ready to track down its new prey. Squizzle jumps from Nellie’s shoulder and races up the mountain, letting out a loud screeching noise as he runs. The polar bear roars and races after Squizzle. It leaps onto the mountain in a single fluid motion, and Squizzle makes a panicked sound and runs across the ice.

Nellie throws her arms up in defeat and runs after them, her feet sliding with every step. Someone should make sure Squizzle doesn’t get eaten. “That squirrel’s tiny!” she shouts after the bear. “Barely a snack. You’re going to want something filling to get through the… winter? Fall? Summer,” she decides, eyeing the sun still sitting in the same place overhead. “And my mother has been known to call me delicious. Probably not in the same way that you mean it, but—”

The polar bear finally turns, his black eyes fixed on Nellie with the same vicious interest as it had showed to Squizzle. “Uh-oh,” Nellie says, taking a step back.

The bear is fast. Much faster than Nellie is on ice, and probably faster than she is in the woods, too, where she’d at least be able to climb to safety. Nellie stands still, keeping her eyes on the bear, and that seems to confuse it again. It’s probably used to its enemies running away, and it doesn’t know what to do with Nellie.

“I think I once met one of your cousins at the zoo,” she says. “Have you ever heard of zoos? They’re fun. They’d bring you food there. No more frustrating hunts for annoying squirrels. Just a big rock for you to lazy on and loads of adoring fans. Like my little brother! He dressed up as a polar bear for Purim last year.” The polar bear scoots closer to Nellie, and she says nervously, “Actually, it might have been a grizzly bear. I just know he was wearing a lot of fur and kept jumping on people. You know how little brothers are.”

A blur of movement streaks past the bear. The bear whirls around, following Squizzle again, just as Eli appears on the other side of the ice heap, snowshoes in hand. He tosses two to Nellie, one by one, and she ties the long, netted shoes onto her loafers and heads after the polar bear with Eli. She can’t run very well in the shoes, but at least they give her some traction on the ice. She pants as she chases the bear, Squizzle a tiny brown figure in the distance.

The polar bear roars. Squizzle squeaks. “We have to save him!” Eli cries.

And then — a boat!

It glides through the water, slicing into the ice to clear space in front of it. Squizzle darts forward and up, throwing himself onto the boat, and the polar bear rears back. The boat is making loud, unpleasant noises, and the ice cracks around it. The polar bear skitters away, head down and teeth still bared. “It’s running away,” Eli says breathlessly. “It must think the boat is a bigger animal!”

“Noisier, too.” Nellie watches it go. She can’t see anyone inside the boat. An entire trailer sits on top of the boat, and whoever is steering it is either inside the trailer or on the other side of the boat. Squizzle has vanished over the side, into the trailer where it’s probably warmer.

And then, unexpectedly, the boat stops moving. Two figures emerge from the trailer, dressed in thick coats with big hoods, and they pull a lever that lowers a ramp. Then, carefully, they push the trailer toward the ramp. The trailer’s so big it could fit an entire house inside — with two floors and wider than the twins’ Tatty’s shul — but it’s fitted with special wheels. It rolls off the ramp and onto the thick ice.

When they’re finished, there’s a cheer from inside the trailer, and more people spill out of it, all of them in thick coats that cover their faces from view. Nellie takes a step forward. She’d take any people over polar bears at this point. “Hello?”

One of them turns, lowering his hood, and Nellie is startled to see a yarmulke on his head and peyos framing his face. “Hi!” he says. “I didn’t notice you two on the boat before. Are you here with your families?” Before they can answer, he waves at the trailer. “Go inside! You look freezing.”

Nellie and Eli look at each other, uncertain. Finally Nellie shrugs. “If it’s out of the snow, I’m in,” she says, and she takes off toward the trailer.


(Originally featured in Cozey, Issue 995)

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