"For He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways." Psalm 91
Joshua watched on with awe-filled dread as the last remnants of dusk were swallowed up by the dark, like an enormous black serpent slowly wrapping itself around its prey. Then, before his very eyes, the great oak at the bottom of the garden was once again transformed into a dark and insidious creature, with long, writhing and twisted arms that reached all the way up to the heavens. He looked on with fearful wonderment as its long tendril-like arms reached ever higher into the velvety night sky. Then, with one last, enormous effort, it snatched the largest and brightest of the evening stars away for itself, just like it had done so with another the night before.
Suddenly there was a powerful gust of wind, which immediately sent the enormous tree-creature into a frenzy. Joshua looked on with horror as its snake-like roots began slowly uprooting themselves from the ground. Then with one last enormous effort, the insidious giant pulled itself free from the soil which had held it in place for more then a century, and began lumbering up through the garden towards his hiding place on the second floor. He hurriedly ducked his head beneath the sheets and lay cowering in the darkness, hoping with all his might that the awful creature had not spotted him spying on it from his bedside window.
The house shook violently as the awful tree-creature took hold of it and began shaking it like a toy. Joshua curled himself up into a ball and waited for the end to come.
After what felt like an eternity he plucked up the courage to lift his head from beneath the sheets. As if by magic the monstrous tree-creature had retreated to the bottom of the garden and taken on the familiar form of a great oak, now resplendent in the silvery light of the rising moon. He said a little prayer and thanked the angels for chasing the rampant monster back to its rightful place; pulling his sheets over his head just to be sure. The hooting of his friend the owl confirmed once and for all that all was well again in his world, and soon he was fast asleep.
Joshua awoke with a start to the new day and the warmth of the morning sun on his bed. Memories of the night's terrifying ordeal flashed through his mind as he surveyed the outside world through bleary, inquisitive eyes. The ancient oak was back where it was meant to be; sprawled out over the bottom of the garden just as it had done for the last hundred years. On the farthest hillside he could see the whitewashed boards of the neighbour's farmhouse in amongst the trees; the usual herd of black and white cows grazing in the adjoining field. Somewhere beyond the hills he knew was a beach. But he had never been there; his father wouldn’t allow it. He must be the only person in the whole of Australia that hadn’t been to the beach, he mused.
And then suddenly he remembered. There was something special about this day, something tucked away in the back of his mind, just waiting to be discovered. For a time he stared through his bedroom window at the fattened cows on the hill, pondering why it was that the hungry tree-monster had not eaten them all during the night. Directly below him, he could hear his mother preparing breakfast, while continually shouting at his younger twin brothers to get ready for school.
And then suddenly he remembered. Today was his first day with his new teacher. Not that he was really sure why the last one had stopped coming. His mother hadn't told him anything. Maybe one night she had wandered too close to the great tree at the bottom of the garden...
Joshua listened to his twin ten year old brothers squabble as they devoured their breakfast. As usual, he was filled with eager anticipation for the slamming of the porch door; that heralded their dash for the school bus. He had long since given up feeling jealous about not being able to go outside, and besides, as his mother often reminded him, he was far too sick to go out anyway. He had always looked forward to spending time with her when the others were gone. But for some reason lately she was always too busy.
When his mother eventually appeared at the top of the stairs with his breakfast, she appeared solemn and stressed. She placed the tray with his favourite breakfast of bacon and eggs on the side of his bed, then disappeared again without so much as a word. At first he wondered whether he had done something wrong, then shrugged it off and began to devour it with relish. Soon his plate was empty and he was sipping warm, sweet tea from his favourite mug. Blazoned all the way around it was an icon of a brave knight at war with an enormous red dragon. He gazed upon the scene with wonderment. One day he too should like to slay dragons- that is, if he ever got better.
Joshua pushed the empty breakfast tray away and settled back on his pillow to watch the antics of his friends the birds, as they flitted about in the garden. This scene had been a favourite part of his world since as far back as he could remember. He was happily daydreaming when he heard the low drone of an unfamiliar car as it slowly made its way up the long, winding driveway to the house. He heard his mother greet someone as she let them in, followed by an older woman's voice down in the kitchen. They talked for a while over tea, until eventually the older woman turned the conversation on to him.
"Well now, I guess I'd better meet this young man of yours, Mrs Sharpe. There's no time like the present, as they say."
By now Joshua was beginning to feel very uneasy. There was something about the woman's voice he didn't like- though he was not at all sure what it was. He began to feel like one of those poor butterflies in his brothers' collection; pinned to the spot and defenceless. In the end he decided to do what he always did when someone came to visit. He ducked his head beneath the covers and pretended to be asleep. He heard the telltale sound of loud clunking footsteps up the old wooden staircase that led to his room, then the familiar creaking of his door as it was opened.
"Well that's strange!" said his mother. "He was sitting up eating his favourite breakfast not half an hour ago. Joshua! Wake up! I've someone here for you to meet."
Joshua slowly slid up from under the covers and let out an exaggerated yawn.
"Good morning mother," he said.
"I've got someone here for you to meet. Her name is Mrs Mondes." His mother nudged him with a firm elbow. "Say good morning to Mrs Mondes, Joshua."
The elderly woman leaned over and touched him on the hand. Her large, plump hand felt cold and clammy as it completely enveloped his. He instinctively pulled his hand away.
"You can call me Hettie if you like."
"Good- good morning Miss Hettie."
"Don't look so frightened Josh! Mrs Mondes is going to be your new teacher."
"What- what happened to Miss Pennywort?"
His mother let out a short, exasperated sigh. "Miss Pennyweather, Josh. Her name is Miss Pennyweather. You know very well what happened. She had to go away. She went to live somewhere else."
Joshua smiled mischievously.
"And Miss Jimjam?"
"Never mind about Miss Jones now. You're asking too many questions. I'm sure you and Mrs Mondes will have lots of things to talk about."
The elderly woman smiled unconvincingly.
"Joshua can call me Hettie, if he likes. After all- he is a young man in his teens."
"I think I'll call you Mrs Mondes for now," Joshua quickly replied. "And besides- I don't know whether I like you yet."
His mother was mortified.
"Joshua! Don't you talk to your new teacher like that!"
"But it's true mother! I hardly know her yet. You and dad always told me never to judge someone by their appearance. Isn't that right Mrs Mondes?"
The elderly woman smiled sweetly. Joshua saw an unsettling coldness in her eyes. It took all his willpower not to hide under the covers again.
Mrs Mondes reached over and gently touched him on the hand.
"Time to begin your first lesson, young man."
Joshua's mother scurried out of the room, taking his breakfast tray with her.
Mrs Mondes smiled at him yet again, then retrieved a chair from the far side of the room and placed it beside his bed.
"Your mother tells me you've spent the best part of this year in this bed. It must be very hard for you. I can't imagine what it must be like for one as young as yourself- stuck in bed, day in and day out."
Joshua sat up slowly, his head propped up by his favourite pillow.
"What kind of car do you drive, Mrs Mondes?"
"Oh- a very old one- but special nonetheless. It's my brother's car. It was Arthur's most favourite car of all- right up until he died."
"How did he die? Did you poison him too?" Joshua smiled sweetly, then suddenly recoiled in horror at the realisation of what he had just said. For a time his new teacher made no reply, but continued staring through his bedroom window at the garden below. With every moment that passed, the weight of Joshua's awful words made him shrink ever-lower into his bed. Finally he could stand the awful silence not a moment longer.
"I'm sorry Mrs Mondes. Sometimes I just say things without thinking."
"That's alright Joshua. We all say things we later regret. Now- let's talk more about cars- that is, if you want to."
Joshua nodded eagerly; he had always loved cars.
"Most times I can tell the make of the car that is coming up the driveway, just by the sound of its engine."
"My, you are a smart one, aren't you? Tell me Josh- what kind of car do you think I drive?"
"Only my family calls me Josh."
"Oh- I'm sorry. All right then, Joshua- what kind of car do you think I drive?"
Joshua frowned, then let out a long, painful sigh.
"Why your car, of course! You're not going to try and trick me with hard questions like the others, are you Mrs Mondes?"
"Of course not, Joshua. I wasn't trying to trick you. I think it's very clever to recognise someone's car by the sound of its engine. Now- tell me- what would you like to talk about now? Do you have a favourite hobby? Your mother tells me that you like books."
"Only the ones with pictures of trees in them."
"Trees- why trees?"
Joshua stared incredulously at his teacher, then glanced at the great oak at the bottom of the garden.
"Do you have a tree like that in your garden?" he said in a half whisper.
"No- I don't believe I do. Though we do have some large willow trees on the banks of the river near our house."
"Willow trees? What's a willow tree?"
Mrs Mondes followed Joshua's gaze to the enormous tree overshadowing the bottom of the garden.
"Oh, nothing as large or spectacular as your tree, I'm afraid"
"It's not my tree!"
Mrs Mondes appeared startled by his reaction.
"Oh- I'm sorry. I thought you liked that tree."
Joshua turned his eyes off the giant oak and stared with bewilderment at his new teacher.
"Can't- can't you see them? Can't you see the faces?"
There was a heavy pause that seemed to go on forever.
"Faces?" said his astonished teacher
"You mean you really can't see them?" Joshua continued staring at her with unbelieving, baby-blue eyes. He sighed disconsolately. "My other teachers had trouble seeing them too. Miss Jimjam said I was making it all up. She told me to grow up- that there were more important things to do in this world than look for faces in trees. She wouldn't even look for animals in the clouds."
"You see animals in the clouds too?" said Mrs Mondes.
Joshua swallowed hard.
"Don't- don't you?" he gasped.
Mrs Mondes smiled, then peered up through the bedroom window at the clear blue sky.
"Now you're really testing my memory, young man. It's a long time since I looked at the clouds at all. I'm afraid that somewhere along the way we busy adults lose our imagination. Somewhere along life's journey we become far too grown up to notice animals in the clouds."
"How sad," replied Joshua. Then suddenly his eyes lit up. "Would you like me to show you some?"
Mrs Mondes leaned over to the windowsill and grimaced at the empty blue sky.
"Not much chance of that today I'm afraid. Perhaps tomorrow…"
Joshua turned his gaze back on the great oak at the bottom of the garden.
"Not like those faces in the tree," he said, quickly turning his eyes away from it. "They're nearly always there."
Mrs Mondes pulled her face away from the window and rubbed her tired, glassy eyes.
"I'm afraid my eyes aren't what they used to be, Joshua. All this searching for clouds is giving me a headache."
Joshua stiffened and pulled away from her.
"You don't believe me either, do you?"
Mrs Mondes reached over and touched him on the shoulder.
"If you can see them Joshua, then they must be there."
Joshua listened intently to Mrs Mondes's car as it slowly wound its way down the driveway and back out of his world. He waited with eager expectation for his mother to appear with his lunch. He thought his first lesson had gone better than most of the others, though he still wasn't really sure whether he liked Mrs Mondes or not. Did she really want to learn how to find animals in the clouds, or was she just saying it to trick him?
After a while Joshua's mother appeared with some sandwiches and a drink.
"So how did you like Mrs Mondes, Joshua?"
"I think I like her, though I think she should have another name."
"Oh don't start name calling again Josh- it's very disrespectful."
Joshua smiled mischievously.
"I know. How about miss baggy eyes?" he said.
"Joshua! Don't you dare! You should pay more respect to your elders." She moved closer and stared into his mischievous baby blue eyes. "You've got that look in your eyes again. Have you been taking your tablets?"
"Only when my friends tell me to."
Joshua's mother ignored his last remark and began painstakingly searching his bedroom, just like she had done a hundred times before. She did not stop until she was certain that there were no tablets anywhere. Finally she slumped down at the end of his bed, her trembling hands covering her face. Moments later she began sobbing quietly to herself.
This made Joshua very unhappy.
"I wanted to like my teachers- really I did. But they wouldn't listen to me."
His mother stood up, walked to the top of his bed, then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
"You and I both know that you are far too sick to leave your bed. That's why it's important for you to listen to your teachers. There are lots of other sick children out there whose parents can't afford a teacher to come and visit them. It's only because your daddy has such a good job that we can."
Joshua turned his gaze back on the garden.
"I would rather my father would spend time with me than be someone important."
"Now you know that's not fair, Joshua. Your father is good at his work. He cares about us- it's just that being a soldier means that he has to be away a lot."
"Why can't he get a job where he can stay at home with us? Then he wouldn't have to go off and kill people." Joshua's eyes suddenly filled with horror. "Does he kill other children's fathers?"
His mother pretended not to hear him.
"Such big thoughts for one so young," she sighed.
But Joshua wasn't finished yet.
"Why can't he stay here and protect us from that tree? Why can't he…"
"Oh don't start on about that stupid tree again! How many times do I have to tell you? It's just a plain old oak tree. It's been part of our garden forever. Your great grandfather planted that tree."
Joshua watched with eager anticipation as the sun slowly made its way across the sky, until finally it was the time when his twin brothers got home from school. He listened eagerly for the dull roar of the school bus as it slowly made its way through the hills towards their home. He often wondered what was beyond those hills, and promised himself that one day he would find out for himself. He listened eagerly as his brothers burst through the backdoor, but was quickly disappointed when he heard them shout something about football training and fly back outside twice as fast. A few minutes later he heard the familiar sound of their team bus outside the house; and then they were gone. He quickly brushed the tears from his cheeks when he heard someone coming up the stairs.
It was his older sister Gabrielle.
"Have you been crying again, Josh?" she said.
He quickly turned his face away, and pretended to be watching his friends the birds in the garden.
"Do you know how hard it is to live in this room all the time? I've only ever seen football games on television."
"You know why that is, Josh. Father is almost always away, and mother doesn't like to watch the boys play. She's frightened one of them will get hurt."
"I'd give anything to go and watch them. Surely it's not too much to ask," he moaned.
His sister took his hand in hers, and thought for a moment.
"When you were much younger, mother and father would take us all out to dinner at least once a week. There were times when you were good, but there were other times when you were unbearable. I remember one time you bit an old lady on the leg. Then there was that other time when you…"
"Stop it! Please stop! Surely I'm not the only bad person in the world."
"I didn't say you were bad Josh- just…"
"And I suppose that's supposed to make me feel better?"
Gabrielle gently squeezed her brother's hand. She knelt beside his bed, looking for all the world like a doting mother.
"Can you keep a secret?" she said in a soft whisper.
"Of course!" replied Joshua, his eyes suddenly alive with anticipation.
"You're my favourite brother."
Joshua sat there in stunned silence for a time; a solitary tear slowly running down his cheek.
"That's the nicest thing anyone has said to me in ages," he replied in a hoarse whisper.
"Oh don't get me wrong, I love my rascally twin brothers too- but-well- some people are just- well- special. Like you."
"How do you mean?"
"Oh- lots of reasons. You're not a typical boy like the others. You don't talk and eat and sleep your next football game, for one. Let me give you an example. How many new daffodils were there in the garden today?"
Joshua hurriedly pulled himself over towards the windowsill.
"There's one just there in mother's new garden bed, and two more beside the oak tree," he declared triumphantly.
"There, you see! And what else have you noticed in the garden today?"
Joshua thought hard for a moment, then suddenly became very tense.
"Do you mean nice things- or bad things?"
"Nice things, Josh. I'm not trying to give you more nightmares."
He smiled and pointed at one of the many trees in the garden.
"Oh, that's easy then! There's a couple of enormous black butterflies hanging around the lemon tree! They come back every spring."
Gabrielle smiled encouragingly.
"There! You see! No-one but you would have noticed those things. I didn't notice any new butterflies today. Only you did- which just goes to prove my point. And we mustn't forget your poetry or drawings, either."
"Would you like to see my last one?" said Joshua, his baby blue eyes suddenly coming to life.
"Sure I would," she replied.
Joshua rolled over to the other side of his bed, then reached beneath it with his right hand and retrieved a large folder.
"Here! Here it is!" He handed the well loved collection of drawings to her and took a deep breath.
Gabrielle took the large folder from her brother's outstretched hands. Her heart was racing and her palms had begun to sweat; though she wasn't exactly sure why. She lifted the folder up close to her eyes and studied the large pencil sketch.
A sinister looking tree was spread across the entire double page. She immediately recognised it as the great oak at the bottom of the garden. She would have been more than happy for that to be the end of it, but it wasn't. The more she investigated the tree's intricate detail, the more the awful tree transformed before her horrified eyes into an insidious monster. Every square inch of its twisted trunk was the home of a hideously contorted face. And to make matters worse, some of them seemed to have the likeness of members of her family.
The hairs on the back of Gabrielle's neck stood to attention as she calmly put down the sinister drawing and sought refuge for her eyes in the garden below.
"It's- it's certainly different," she mumbled. "Where did you get the idea for those faces?"
"They're the faces in the tree. I tried to tell mother about them today, but as usual she wouldn't listen. They've always been there."
Joshua leaned over and put a cupped hand to his sister's ear.
"I think they're the spirits of the people the tree has captured." He glanced nervously at the great oak, then turned back to his sister, who was now numb with shock. "It came looking for me last night- surely you felt the house shake? It was outside my window; I think it was looking for me. I prayed really hard, like you taught me to; just like when the monsters lived under my bed." Joshua glanced at the great tree and shivered. "I think the angels chased it away."
Gabrielle sat in mute silence at the end of Joshua's bed and listened with horror as his story unfolded into a torrid, unnerving nightmare. She had admired his drawings for some time now, but of late a dark and sinister mood had slowly but surely pervaded them, with all the ominous signs of an approaching storm.
She slowly shook her head in anguish; perhaps what her mother had said of late was true after all. Tears began to run down her cheeks as she struggled to come to terms with the inevitable; Josh was losing his mind.
"Gabrielle- are you listening? Didn't you hear my question? Didn't you see the tree attack the house last night?"
Gabrielle got up and walked over to the window. She checked to see if it was still locked, then turned and kissed her brother on the cheek.
"I like your other drawings better Josh. The ones with the sun and the birds and the butterflies in them. I've always liked your butterflies..."
But Joshua wasn't listening.
"Gabrielle, what would make a tree want to kill me?"
That was the final straw for Gabrielle; it was as much as she could take in one day. It was all becoming too much for her. She kissed Joshua on the cheek and quietly left the room. Joshua fumbled around for his pencil case, then took out his favourite pencil and started drawing.
Gabrielle closed the kitchen door quietly behind her, then hurried around to the side of the house. She paused beneath her brother's upstairs bedroom window, remaining as close to the side of the house as possible. There was no way her brother must see what she was doing.
Without wasting another minute she began her painstaking search through the geraniums and weeds in the untidy mess that was once a garden bed. It was the only unkempt garden bed out of all of them; a legacy of her mother spotting a large snake slithering into it the previous summer.
Gabrielle gingerly began sweeping away the leaves with probing, diligent fingers. It was only a moment later when she saw it. A tiny white shape amongst the leaves; partly buried, but still unmistakable. Immediately she was overcome by a hollow, sick feeling in her stomach. In desperation she began searching for a spider's web or a lizard's nest, in the forlorn hope that it might be some sort of abandoned egg. But she knew in her heart of hearts it was not. As she began brushing aside the remaining scattering of leaves her worst fears were confirmed.
In just a few minutes she had uncovered in amongst the leaves about a dozen of the small white balls, all in various states of decomposition. She picked one out of the rotting debris and rolled it between her thumb and forefinger as the awful gravity of her discovery hit home. There was no doubt about it. They were Josh's tablets.
Gabrielle stood up slowly and straightened her aching back, her mind reeling as she tried to decide what to do next. In the end she decided she had no choice but to go and tell her mother. She slipped back around the side of the house to the kitchen door and entered the screen door that led into the kitchen. It creaked ominously behind her.
Her mother was busy peeling vegetables for the evening meal. She turned from the sink to greet her. From the devastated look on her daughter's face she knew something was very wrong.
"What's the matter, Gabby?" she said.
Gabrielle handed the collection of small white tablets to her, dropping them one by one into the palm of her trembling hand.
"I found this underneath Josh's window. There's at least a dozen or so there."
Her mother shook her head disconsolately; annoyed at her son's untrustworthiness, and even more so with her own naivety.
"I should have known! I must have searched his room a dozen times in the last week. The little devil!" She sighed deeply. "No wonder he's been acting a bit strange lately." She fumbled around with her apron, then flung it down on the kitchen table before charging off towards the tall flight of stairs.
Joshua’s mother stormed across his room, then opened her tightly clenched fist beneath his nose to reveal the collection of small white tablets.
"What's the meaning of this?" she snapped. "Your sister says there are probably a lot more where these came from."
Joshua stared blankly at the mess of decaying tablets in his mother's outstretched hand, then shifted his gaze to Gabrielle; whose distraught eyes were fixed immovably on the garden outside.
"Is it true Gabby? Are you in on this too? I had a suspicion that father would rather I was gone- but you too?"
But Joshua's mother was not finished yet.
"Joshua! How could you say such a thing about your father?"
"Oh don't start mother! I know you'll do whatever father tells you to- but Gabby…"
Gabrielle moved closer to the bed and reached for her brother's hand in a peace offering, but he quickly pulled away. He stared disdainfully at the collection of small white tablets still resting on the palm of his mother's outstretched hand, then suddenly lashed out at them with deadly accuracy. The tablets flew across the room in all directions, some of them even hitting the large wooden wardrobe on the other side of the bedroom.
"Why are you trying to poison me?" he said calmly.
"Poison! Is that what you think we're trying to do to you?" gasped his mother.
Gabrielle started to cry.
"It's no good crying now, Gabby! I know you're in on it too! They told me."
"And just who are they?" snapped his mother.
"The voices. Sometimes I think they're the only friends I have left."
"Oh don't start on about those silly voices again!" his mother snapped. "You know they're part of your illness. If you took your tablets like the doctor told you to, they'd go away."
"And then who would I talk to when you're all busy doing other things all day?" he replied sarcastically. But they both knew he meant it.