I’m currently working on the audiobook version of my children’s story, Out of the Shadow World, and I’ve renewed my old resolve to never write anything for adults again—ever only for kids. Children’s fiction is pure joy, isn’t it? Anyway, I thought it would be fun to share the first chapter of the printed version here. Perhaps you know a child who would enjoy meeting Pax and Jayni….and Wilmer.
The Climbing Tree
Pax Griffin was a ten-year-old boy who didn’t know if he’d make it to his eleventh birthday. He had gray eyes, a bald head where thick curly locks used to grow, and a little more of his dad’s dark skin than his mom’s fair complexion. He also had a nagging cough that rattled his bony body and kept him up at night.
This afternoon he sat on the deck of his family’s cabin, coughing and watching a fat lizard do push-ups in the warm sun.
A petite girl with almond eyes and paper-straight black hair, wearing a backpack twice her size, bounded up the gravel driveway.
“Pax! We missed you at school! This a bad day?”
“Yeah.” A smile peeked out through the dark circles around his eyes. “How was it?”
“Good. Miss Matthews gave me your homework but said if you weren’t feeling well, don’t worry. She’ll help you catch up later.”
Jayni pulled out two tattered textbooks and a few loose pages and dropped them beside Pax. Then she pulled herself up onto a wide railing that separated the back deck from a forest of pine trees.
Jayni was the youngest daughter of the Suko Family—the family who’d moved next door to the Griffins almost twelve years ago. The Sukos and Griffins had become fast friends, and when Pax and Jayni were born two years later, the neighborhood had grown a little louder and a lot more fun.
Jayni looked sideways at Pax. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Pax’s voice softened. “I’m glad you’re here.”
The friends sat in silence. Pax’s coughing quieted.
“Do you think you could make it down to the Climbing Tree?” Jayni asked. “I can help you.”
“’Course I can, Spitfire. And I don’t need any help.”
“Spitfire” was Pax’s nickname for Jayni. He’d read it once in a book about dragons and knights, and it seemed to fit his friend who was as fiery and fearless as a dragon herself.
Jayni laughed as she jumped down. “I just have to be home by dinner, so we’ve got two hours. Let’s go!”
Jayni grabbed Pax’s hand but he pushed it away, eager to prove he was stronger than he looked.
The two friends scampered down a small bank covered in crunchy pine needles. Pax paused to catch his breath along the way. Ten steps forward, a right at the boulder, a hop across the stream—and there was The Climbing Tree, looking like a big shaggy giant with dozens of muscular arms.
They’d discovered the tree when they were just six years old, and they’d been returning ever since—to dream up stories, build forts, and talk about the challenges of growing up. Sometimes on the weekends or holidays, they’d pack snacks and books and blankets—and read under the branches till the sun got sleepy.
This is also where they’d had their biggest fight, the summer they were seven. And where they’d run to take refuge a couple of years ago—the day Pax got his diagnosis.
Pax chose a low broad branch and slung his body over it like a sloth, arms and legs dangling free. Jayni scrambled up three branches above him, leaned back against the trunk, and in a fake British accent declared,
“Behold! The Queen of the Climbing Tree! You there, young man, who are you?How dare you enter my royal court without permission!”
Pax rolled his eyes and a smug smile played around his mouth. Without moving he said, “Well, your Royal Fakeness, I am Kingof the Climbing Tree. You have been found out!” He paused to cough before commanding, “Off with her head!”
Jayni’s eyes flashed and she was about to fire back at Pax when she heard a loud rustling sound above her.
“What’s that?” she asked, craning her neck to look upward.
“Sounded like a—” but before Pax could say “bird,” they both heard a voice saying,
“Dad-gum it! This tree gets harder to find every time!”
Then there was a wild flapping and the sound of a bell—a loud, obnoxious blast of a bell. Pax had forced himself up into a sitting position, and he and Jayni stretched and strained to see who in the world could be at the top of their tree.
The vexed voice spoke again— “Oh, rot and rubbish! These wattles will be the end of me!”
There was more flapping, another loud bell sound, and a few brown feathers floated downward. A disheveled bird popped through the topmost branches and began to hop down the tree, limb by limb, as if descending a winding staircase.
Pax and Jayni froze with shock. Had this bird just been…talking? He was an odd-looking thing—like a half-rooster, half-turkey bird, with bulging black eyes and frizzy brown feathers. He had three long rubbery strands dangling from a short black beak. One of these had a leafy twig tangled up in it, and the bird kept scratching at it with his claws and shaking his head violently, trying to free himself.
Down and down he came, agitated, feathers flying, muttering all the way. He hopped right past Jayni, who sat still as a statue, then spread his wings and fluttered to the ground.
“Now where is that blasted thing?”
He bent low and cocked his head to the ground, muttered to himself, shuffled through some leaves, clawed again at the tangled twig, then pecked at the ground.
“Agh! Well, I am up a creek without my cattle!”
Pax and Jayni exchanged confused looks. Pax raised an eyebrow and silently mouthed, a paddle? Jayni nodded, then bit her lip to keep from laughing.
Both children were considering whether to go on in silence or to speak up and reveal themselves, when the bird grabbed onto a piece of bark with his beak and tugged at it violently. The Climbing Tree shook, and—as if a talking bird hadn’t been shocking enough—Pax and Jayni watched as the trunk swiveled open, revealing a gaping black hole inside.
“Oh!” gasped Jayni and Pax at the same time.
Startled, the strange bird jerked his head up—sending the tangled twig into a tailspin—and his beak flew open with that awful bell sound.
“What! Oh, rot and rubbish. Just my luck. I suppose you both were there the whole time? Saw everything?”
Pax and Jayni couldn’t find their words yet, but they slowly nodded their heads up and down.
“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s brother. Why do these things always happen to me? Blarmey. You’ll both have to come with me, I’m afraid. I can’t leave you here now that you’ve seen the tree.”
He stuck out a wing to wave them inside.
Jayni stammered, “But… this is ourtree. We’ve come here for years, and… it’s never done thatbefore.”
Pax, who was terrified of tight dark spaces, quickly added, “I’m notgoing in there.”
Wait. Are we seriously arguing with a talking bird?Pax wondered. He decided he must have fallen asleep on the tree branch, and this was just a strange dream. He’d soon wake up and tell Jayni all about it, and they would laugh together.
The bird cleared his throat and ruffled his feathers. “I’m sorry, but you absolutely must come with me now. What a mess! We’ll have to see Belfrey. He’ll know what to do.”
“You can’t force us to go anywhere we don’t wanna go,” declared Jayni.
The bird let out a huff and narrowed his eyes. “Young lady, it’s time you faced the musical. The reality is, this is a top-secret tree whose roots lead to great wonders and mysterious places and a healing man, and I can’t just have you two…”
“A healingman?” interrupted Pax.
“Why yes, of course. Well, you wouldn’t have heard of him out here.”
The bird scratched at the tangled twig still dangling from the beak rope, and he blew his bell again.
“Agh! These dag-nabbit wattles!”
Pax was deep in thought as Jayni climbed down from her branch, asking, “You’re a magical sort of creature then?”
But the bird was swinging his head back and forth due to the twig, so Jayni bent forward and reached toward his beak.
“May I?” she asked. He blinked in surprise and then said, “Well, um, I suppose so. You look as harmless as a glove.”
Jayni giggled. “I think you mean, a dove.”
She carefully unwrapped the twig from the wattle, which she didn’t at all like touching—it felt like rubbery loose-hanging skin.
“Ahhh. Such sweet relief! Well, thank you, thank you kindly,” crooned the bird. With one claw he stroked all three wattles, then fluffed his feathers and sighed.
“So areyou? A magical bird, I mean?”
“Mademoiselle, I am a three-wattled bellbird, indigenous to Central America, migrated north ten years ago, and presently living in— well, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to tell you where.”
And then, as if suddenly remembering his manners— “My name is Wilmer. How do you do?”
Jayni smiled. “How do you do, Wilmer? My name is Jayni, and this is my friend Pax.”
While Jayni and Wilmer had been chatting, Pax had been feeling something he hadn’t felt in a very long time. That tiny spark of hope that had been snuffed out by long months of illness, suddenly turned into a forest fire. Somewhere out there was a healing man, and Pax wanted more than anything else to be healed.
“Let’s go with him, Jayni,” Pax said suddenly.
Jayni’s eyes widened as she turned to look at Pax. Pax—her friend who was always exhausted, who didn’t want to do anything more daring than climb the first few branches of their tree, whose sense of adventure had been lost, ever since he got sick two years ago. This was the old Pax talking, and she liked it.
“Yes! Oh, Pax, let’s do it! Let’s go!”
“Quite right, then. You’ve finally come to your senses. Off we go,” said Wilmer. “This is a fine metal of fish, but Belfrey’ll know what to do.” Kettle, thought Pax as they stepped into the black hole of the tree. A fine kettle of fish, to be sure. But as the trunk swiveled shut behind him, Pax’s heart swelled with hope.