| Tales of Treeo |

Up North: Chapter 6

“Quickly!” Eli hisses. “He’s getting away!”

Eli:The plates were floating at the Shabbos meal…
Nellie: The candles were getting higher instead of lower…
Squizzle:  And we’re pretty sure that it’s the custodian’s fault!

When Eli thinks about it, it makes perfect sense. “How did they hire a custodian at the North Pole? Did he come here along with them?” He’s pretty sure he didn’t. Eli remembers seeing the custodian leave the night before, walking right out of the welcome house as though he was going home from work. “Where did he come from?”

“I bet he’s an international spy,” Nellie says, settling down beside him. They slipped out of the dining room during the main course and brought their plates upstairs to the big couches at the top of the staircase. “Oh! Or part of an evil organization with headquarters at the North Pole. They’re worried that our welcome house is going to bring in too many tourists, so they’re trying to scare us away.”

Eli laughs. “This isn’t a book, Nellie. There’re no such things as evil organizations, as far as I know. Except maybe the American Dental Association.” He chews on his lip.  “But we have a lot to think about. Why is the custodian doing all of this? And how? I think we need to figure out where he goes when he isn’t here.”

Nellie is still theorizing when they head back downstairs with empty plates. “Maybe he’s really a polar bear who can turn into a human. He’s trying to get more info on Squizzle so he can have a proper squirrel dinner for Melaveh Malkah.” She winks at Squizzle, who puts two tiny arms on his hips and chitters rudely.

Eli leaves them behind to get seconds. The chicken has already cooled off, but there’s more in the kitchen. “I left a tray on the hot plate,” Nachi assures him.

The chicken on the hot plate looks fresh and smells delicious. Eli’s mouth waters, and he reaches for a drumstick.

“What are you doing in here?” asks a smooth voice from behind. Eli jumps and whirls around.

The custodian is standing right in front of him. He has beady eyes and a pinched nose, and his skin is so pale that Eli wonders if Nellie might be right about him being a polar bear. “I’m just… I’m getting another piece of chicken,” Eli responds. Then, mustering up his courage, asks, “What are you doing in here?”

The custodian turns and pulls open a drawer. It’s full of knives, sharp ones, long and pointed — the kind one of the fathers had used yesterday to cut the meat. Eli’s mouth goes dry, and he stumbles back.

The custodian’s hand closes around one of the utensils, and he yanks it out of the drawer.  “So you don’t burn your hand,” he says, holding out a fork.

Eli feels a bead of sweat slip down his cheek. “Uh. Thank you.” He takes the fork and carefully pokes it into the piece of chicken. The custodian fixes his eyes on Eli and doesn’t move. He doesn’t answer Eli’s question.

Eli quickly drops the chicken on his plate and hurries out of the kitchen. His heart is racing like he’s just run a marathon through the woods. Quickly, he fills Nellie in. “The custodian is definitely up to something. I’m sure of it. He was just standing there.”

Nellie’s eyes widen. “Do you think he poisoned dessert?”

Eli shudders.

But dessert is delicious, and Eli eats his apple crumble with ice cream on top with gusto. “If he did poison it, what a way to go,” he mutters to Nellie.

Nellie snorts. She’s skipped the ice cream and is eating double the warm crumble instead. “Look,” she murmurs back. “The custodian is lurking again.”

This time, he’s sweeping the area near the door, pushing the broom back and forth over and over. One of the fathers goes over to him and speaks to him for a moment, and the custodian nods and doesn’t smile. When the father turns away, the custodian opens the front door and slips outside.

“Quickly!” Eli hisses. “He’s getting away!”

Together, they slip out the door.

It’s light outside and it’s easy to see the custodian walking away. He’s moving quickly, in the direction of the treehouse’s mailbox, and Eli feels a prickle of fear. It’s one thing for a bad guy to be creating trouble at the North Pole, far from home. But what if the custodian figures out how to get back to the treehouse and their woods in Lionstone? Who knows what might happen?

Eli speeds up, leaving Nellie trailing behind. “I hate this, I hate this, I hate this,” Nellie is mumbling, shaking off the snow wherever it attaches to her boots. “I’m cold. I’m wet. This is a nightmare.”

“It’s going to be a lot worse if we don’t catch that guy,” Eli warns her.  “We have to know where he’s going.” The custodian moves with purpose, swift and confident, as though he knows exactly where he’s going, and Eli just needs to see which direction he tur—

“Where you going?” calls someone behind them, loud and shrill. Ariella! The three-year-old is standing near the door to the welcome house, without a coat or boots.

The custodian hears her and turns. Eli ducks, but it’s too late. The custodian slips behind a large hill of ice and disappears. “Ariella!” Eli says, exasperated.

Nellie shakes her head. “Ariella, you have to go back inside. You’ll freeze out here.”

“Wanna come with you!” Ariella retorts.

Eli sighs and walks back toward the welcome house. “You can’t come with us. You’re not even wearing boots. And besides, there’s no eiruv out here. We can’t carry you if you get tired.”

“Let’s go back inside.” Nellie exchanges a defeated look with Eli. “We’ll keep an eye out for him tomorrow. I’m sure he’ll be back.”

“Probably.” Eli thinks that the custodian had turned too late to be headed for the mailbox. Still, he vows to check on it after Shabbos. Whatever happens, that mailbox is their way home.

Inside, it’s warm and bright. Most of the families have bentshed, and a group of boys are sitting in a circle on the floor, singing together. Eli sits down to bentsh, but by the time he’s finished, the songs have gotten strange and unfamiliar. They sound less like music and more like odd chanting, though the boys keep swaying as though it’s perfectly normal.

“Nimaam ina,” they finish, and then again. “Nimaam ina.”

Wait. Eli runs through the words in his head, then reverses them. Ani maamin? The boys continue, sliding into the next song so smoothly that they must not notice what they’re doing. But again, the song is backward, and it sounds like nonsense.

Eli moves to squeeze in next to Pinny. “Are you singing it backward on purpose?”

Pinny stops singing and stares at him. “Eli, what are you talking about?” The other boys fall silent, frowning at Eli.

Eli shrugs, self-conscious. “You were singing the words backward. Didn’t you notice?”

The boys stare at him. Then one of them laughs. “Kids!” he says. “They’re so crazy.”

“I’m not a kid,” Eli protests. “Not any more than you are!” The boy must be only a few years older than him.

But the older boys turn away, laughing in a way that sounds mocking if Eli thinks about it, and launch back into their songs. This time, they’re in tune and in order, and Eli slumps, defeated.

He doesn’t enjoy the kumzitz at first. He’s too distracted by the strange singing from before and his worries about the custodian. But slowly, the familiar tunes begin to draw him in, and he sways with the others as he keeps an eye on the door. Nellie drifts upstairs, Squizzle falls asleep on Eli’s lap, and eventually, one of the mothers gestures for Eli to go to bed, too.

He curls up in his bed, sleepy and full, and he’s just drifting off when he’s jolted back awake by Squizzle batting at his face. “I’m up! I’m up! Is it already morning?” But the clock on the dresser says that it’s close to midnight.

Squizzle scampers past it to the window, and Eli pads after him. He lifts the blackout shades on the window to peer outside into the light of the Arctic night.

A single figure steals across the ice, his footsteps careful. He checks behind himself twice before he finally makes his way to the door of the welcome house.

The custodian has returned.


(Originally featured in Treeo, Issue 999)

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