Family Tree, a short story by Sarah Franklin
That first night home, when I had to sleep in the bunk bed all on my own, I couldn’t go into our bedroom.
I didn’t want to say anything that was going to make Mum cry harder, or Dad turn away.
But I really didn’t know how I was going to sleep in the bottom bunk with no Archie in the top one.
I crept to the door and jimmied it open and the smell of Archie wisped out like a genie from a bottle.
It was as if he wasn’t missing after all, washed off the beach by a freak tide; he’d just made his own way home.
In our bedroom, it smelt like he was alive.
Nan knew this. She was so old that she’d gone full circle and remembered just what it was like to be a kid.
I came back downstairs slowly and she saw on my face the realisation that now I was a twin without the other twin around.
“I’m sleeping with Kit tonight,” she announced.
Mum and Dad didn’t look round.
“Melia, lend me your pyjamas – I’m not going to fit into Kit’s or Archie’s.”
Mum shot up on the sofa at Archie’s name, but Nan patted her arm and she slumped down into her own world again.
Melia stiffened for an argument, but she’d had 14 years of Nan and knew there was no point.
She disappeared upstairs and returned with a fleecy onesie. Nan scowled at it.
“Don’t you have anything a bit more glamorous?”
Melia rolled her eyes and flounced back upstairs.
Nan winked at me.
That’s how Nan ended up in a pair of silver hot pants and a pink T-shirt that said “Feminist AF”.
The room was so full of Absent Archie that it made me ache. Nan put clean sheets on Archie’s bed and changed the Minions duvet cover for a Star Wars one like
mine, “so we’re matching for our sleepover”.
But I knew it was so that the Archie smell wasn’t there.
She put the old duvet and sheet in a bag “in case you want them another time”.
Even with Nan, there was no space for sleep.
I flipped over, grabbed the bar at the end of the bunk and scooched my way along to rest my chin on the windowsill.
It was pitch black out there, but the woods were full and noisy.
Dawn couldn’t be far off.
The bunk above creaked and for a second, Archie was back.
Then Nan’s head appeared, looming down at me just like the caterpillar at the beginning of James And The Giant Peach.
“What’s up, Kit?”
“The family tree,” I said.
Nan knew all about the family tree, the royal oak that stands proud among the apple trees at the bottom of the garden, looking like it wants to join its friends in the forest at the back of the house.
She’d been the one who’d told me and Archie about it.
“Planted by my own great-granddad,” she’d said. We’d looked at her as if she was mad. She was about 900 years old; how could she have possibly had a great-granddad? I wondered: how can there be a family tree without all the family?
“C’mon then.” Nan climbed carefully down the bunk bed ladder.
“Get a jumper. We’re going to the family tree. You’ll see it clearly when you’re in the middle of it.”
We crept downstairs, eased open the back door and tiptoed over to the bottom of the orchard. Our feet made little dew-marks, like tiny fairies if I believed in them, which I don’t.
Some of the apple boughs almost touch the ground beside the family tree, so we ducked to crawl in.
I had to shove Nan a couple of times when her hips went funny, but we got there in the end.
We slouched with our backs against the trunk and felt the bark biting our skin. It was like a puppy tugging at us, trying to tell us something.
“It is telling us something,” Nan said, reading my thoughts again.
She pressed her finger against it.
“This tree has part of all of us in it. It saw me grow, watched me reach 10 like you, then move past it, and as I got bigger, the tree got bigger too. It had to hold all our family history, see? The family spread out, and the tree grew branches to hold all our stories. There’s a ring for every year within the trunk, we all know that; but what lots of people don’t know is that there’s a branch for all of us, too, in a tree like this.”
“But there won’t be a branch for Archie, Nan,” I said.
“Not unless I find him.”
Nan looked at me.
A soft look.
“Come on, Kit,” she said, pulling me up so we stood bent over under the canopy of oak leaves.
The sun was really coming up now, and the dust and dew on the leaves sparkled. “Let’s find Archie’s branch.”
I thought she was just trying to make me feel better.
But then we came to a smaller branch, lower down, with two spikes missing.
And one of those spikes was split in two. We were together, in the tree, just like Nan said.
I still didn’t believe in fairies, but right then I knew to believe in magic.
Or the magic of trees, anyway.
“Look,” said Nan.“That’s you and Archie, right there next to Melia.”
It was nuts, but I felt so much happier for knowing that Archie was still here after all, even in twig form.
One day he’ll be back, I’m certain of it.
And until then, he’s growing alongside me, our very own branches in our family tree.
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