I first met James the day of my cousin’s college graduation. In case you’re wondering, during a college graduation they have long boring speeches, and then they call the name of each person in the graduating class. There are normally about seven hundred people. If you’ve never heard seven hundred people being called up to receive a diploma, then just so you know, it takes a while. The list goes in alphabetical order of the last name. My cousin’s name is Jae Ab. She was the first one to receive her diploma. I wasn’t too psyched to wait a few hours to congratulate my cousin.
Instead of waiting for all the other names to be called, my parents let me walk home so long as I promised to be back in an hour and a half. I wanted to finish putting up the new hammock for my bedroom. (I use a hammock as a bed for a few reasons: a) you don’t have to make your bed, b) it takes up a lot less space, c) it’s actually pretty comfortable.) My room was pretty small, but I thought it was awesome. I had shelves on the walls all over the room for my books. (I was a huge fan of fantasy and adventure books.) Some of the shelves were used for all my collections. I collect glass bottles, corks, golf balls I found on the beach, junk, and little figurines of army guys. The remaining wall space was covered in posters for the Red Sox, Harry Potter, and other posters with themes that interest me, such as Greek mythology. In one corner I had a huge bean bag chair with my laptop on it. In the opposite corner all my sports stuff was piled. I play soccer, lacrosse, hockey, and basketball. It sounds pretty busy, but I don’t take anything over the summer seriously; if I want to play a sport, I go out and fool around. I also only play two sports a season. It’s pretty busy, but not overwhelming. The rest of the free space is taken up by my survival gear. I love going on camping and hiking trips. I have a great supply of stuff. But back to the point, my room’s pretty crowded, and a hammock is much easier to have instead of an entire bed.
On my way home, I took my usual shortcut through the woods. The woods came out behind an orphanage, and once I reached the sidewalk in front of the orphanage, I simply had to walk a few blocks to my house. I normally tried different routes to get home through the woods each time I went, but today I used a route I had gone through for years. About a third of the way in, my head banged into something. I stopped thinking about the parachute-like material in my new hammock. From my position on the ground I couldn’t see what I had banged into. I reached upwards, not wanting to slam my head again. I made to grab a vine to pull myself up. Instead of the vine pulling away from the others easily, like I expected, it didn’t move. I pulled harder. Nothing. I stood up properly and looked at the bunch of vines. They were about five feet above the ground, firmly attached to a low tree branch. I looked closer. It seemed pretty unusual for a clump of vines to be in this square shape, now that I thought of it. Upon closer exploration I found a long rope disguised as a vine hanging from another tree. I saw at once that you could use the rope to swing onto the square of vines which was actually a platform. I also saw that if you didn’t know what they were there for, you’d never guess they were there. They were camouflaged by an expert. Deciding to see what was up there (because people don’t just randomly put a platform up in the middle of a forest); I grabbed the rope, backed up a few paces, ran, and swung up to the platform. It was surprisingly sturdy; very well made. Going up to the next branch was a well camouflaged rope ladder. I climbed up this easily, getting more and more impressed by the handiwork of whoever had built all this. At the top of the ladder there was another platform concealed by vines, and a rope. I could guess what I had to do. I looked around, and noticed another platform hidden by vines in the next tree over, about fifteen feet away. That was pretty far, so instead of leaping towards the tree, I leapt away from it so that I would swing past the place I had jumped from on my way back. After reaching the next landing I saw a rope to shinny up, and a last rope to swing from. By this time I was pretty high up. Each platform had been about ten feet higher than the last. I swung through a curtain of leaves, and gasped. Inside a huge circle of vines and leaves about thirty feet above the ground (very high) was a superb tree house. It had four rooms; a bedroom, kitchen, living room, and a workshop. At the end of my swing I landed on a platform jutting out of the open-air living room. I strode over to the workshop area and stopped by the door, watching the boy inside nail some pieces of wood together. It looked like he was building a chair. The kid was about fourteen with dark brown hair that hadn’t been cut in a while. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, both of which looked like he had been wearing them for a week. He looked up. His eyes were dark, a bluish gray. He scowled at me.
“How’d you find this place?” I told him about crashing into the platform. He scowled more darkly and muttered something about moving the platform higher.
“What is this place?” I asked after a while when it was clear that he wasn’t going to say anything else.
“Where I live,” he grunted. I was getting the message that he wasn’t the friendliest of sorts.
“Why do you live here?” I asked. “Don’t you have anywhere else to live?”
“Nowhere that’s a real option.” He kept working. I checked my watch. I had twenty minutes to get back to the graduation.
“I got to go. I might see you later,” I said.
“Fine. Just don’t tell anyone else that I’m here.” I left the tree house on the rope, noticing as I passed the tiny bedroom that he used a hammock as a bed too.
For the next week, I couldn’t help thinking a lot about the tree house, and the kid who seemed to live there. Why was he living there? Didn’t he have a proper home to go to? And how did that kid learn how to work wood so well? Everything he had built looked like professional carpentry.
The next opportunity I had to go in the woods was a few days later, when my mom was at her part time job as an architect. My dad was her partner, as the head of his carpentry company. They were on a job for some lady who was apparently obsessed with her pet hedgehogs. She wanted an entire building with all the latest hedgehog convenience technology. She obviously had too much money to spend. I didn’t really care that much at the moment though, because it meant my parents were out of the house. After waiting a few minutes to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything, I set off for the tree house.
At the house, the workshop was busy again, this time it looked like the kid was making a table.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi.” It came out as a grunt.
“So what’s your name? I’m Jack.”
“So how come you’re living here?” No reply. “Don’t you have any parents? Did you run away?”
“Look. I’m not talking about myself to you. If you want to come here every so often, I can’t stop you, seeing as you know about this place. Anybody would want to come, because it is pretty cool. I understand that.” I heard a faint strain of pride in his voice, even though he was trying to sound offhand. “You can come, but you’ll help out, and you must not tell anybody I live here. That’s really important. Understand?” He fixed me with such a piercing gaze that I nodded right away, without pausing to think about what he was saying. “Good. You can start making a shelf for the other room. You know how to work tools?”
“Sure.” James showed me which tools were, and where the supplies were. I got to work. After working for two hours in silence, I showed him the finished shelf which he examined with professional interest. He pronounced it passable, (because compared to his work, mine was pretty pathetic) and left the room to put it up. I followed him. His room was amazing. He had a bunk bed, but the bottom was a desk covered in booklets on math, science, history, and writing. He had a collection of sports equipment and loads of other amazing stuff. Pocketknives, figurines, books, (including the Harry Potter collection) and tons of great knick-knacks. The hammock I had seen before was by the window next to my new shelf which had all James’ books and figurines on it. It was a great reading nook. The room was brilliant. James finished putting up the shelf and turned around to see me. “I’ll give you this: you are definitely persistent. Not many people would go after me this far to find out my background. I might tell you at some point, but not now, not today. I don’t trust you yet. Come back every so often, and if I decide I can trust you, I might tell you.” I recognized the dismissal. As I left I heard him playing a tune on his harmonica. James was exceptional. He was teaching himself everything.
Over the next few months I kept going to the house. Soon he already had projects ready for me. I learned so much about woodworking that I started projects of my own. His tree house was finished; he had added as many comforts to it that he could think of: screened windows, pictures and writing pieces in frames, everything you could want. We started painting, but after a while James and I were hanging around more than working. He taught me how to play the harmonica, to juggle, unicycle, shooting (we used nerf guns), and sword fighting. James however was careful not to say a word about his past. I didn’t ask, but as the months went by, I couldn’t help wondering more and more. One day four months after that first meeting, I decided to ask. We were working with our wooden swords and shields, but all of a sudden I put down my sword. I blocked his stab with my shield. “Wait. I wanted to ask, have you decided if you can trust me yet?” James sighed. “I guess. I could have earlier, but I just don’t want to talk about my past. I’m having too much fun right now. But I guess I owe that to you. You’ve stuck with me this long.” We put away the swords, and climbed up into our hammocks (I had long since put up my old hammock across from James’.) He lay back and closed his eyes, gathering his thoughts. James took a deep breath, and started.
“My parents are part of the CIA. They can’t tell anyone, so they tell the orphanage that they don’t have enough money to take care of me. They come to visit me every so often at the orphanage. Now, the orphanage is a pretty nice place. In fact, as orphanages go, it’s pretty great. My parents are great too. I understand that I can’t live with them if they’re going on missions all the time. I mean, it would be possible to look after me, but they’d have to make a lot of sacrifices. At first they did, but when I was seven, they told me everything. I actually had the idea to go to an orphanage. They wouldn’t hear of it. It took a year to gently persuade them without making them think that I didn’t want to be with them. I did, but they really wanted me to be a spy agent like them. I just want to be a master carpenter. They wouldn’t hear of it. I told them this when they told me what they wanted me to be; a spy agent. They By the time I was seven, I was learning karate and tai kwon do, the piano, Spanish, French, fencing and sword fighting, and acrobatics with my private tutor. I had academic classes in the morning, and then learned everything else. From three to six I would play with the other kids in the neighborhood so I could practice social skills. I was kept in perfect shape. It wasn’t a bad life, but it was controlled. I had no say in my future. I hated that. That’s the real reason I went to the orphanage.”
“The orphanage, however, had everyone go to the public school (where I was moved up a grade) we could have two after school activities a week, as long as they were part of the school program. The other nights we did chores and hung out. It wasn’t bad. One day a week I could go to the woodshop club after school. The teacher said I was a natural. My room in the orphanage had brilliant furniture. I brought most of it here and made the rest. But the orphanage, like my parents wanted to decide your future for you. It had a reputation for producing lawyers and politicians, and wanted to keep that reputation. We received basic training once a week. In high school you had a choice of three law schools that had connections with the orphanage. You had no choice. By the time I was twelve I had my plan fully formed. I’d run away to the forest and live in a tree house I’d make. I’d survive by running a private business for carpentry, and by taking out the college savings account that the orphanage had started. This plan had loads of problems. How would I get tools and material? How would I get the code for the bank account? How would I contact my customers?”
“I solved the problem of the bank account by escaping at dinner to enter the head of the orphanage’s quarters. I stole my entire folder. I also decided to run a mail order service for things like shelves, tables, and chairs. That way, when I delivered the objects I could pretend to be the delivery boy and no one would know that I was actually making the objects.”
“The main problem was getting materials. I didn’t have enough money to get enough supplies to start with, even if I then made enough money to keep going. I turned over all the options in my head. I would have to steal. Now, this just about ruined my plan. I was immediately reminded of everything that could happen to me if I was caught. I could go to juvie, until I was old enough to lead a life in jail. I could also be fined. If I did manage to escape jail, I would be closely watched for the rest of my life. This would be on my permanent record. And even if I did succeed in not getting caught, I’d have to live knowing I stole. Well, for weeks after that I seriously considered just becoming a lawyer or spy agent. I’d give up on my dream as a carpenter. I’d put back the bank account number and discontinue my plans. If you hadn’t done what you did, I would be in school right now.”
At this point I was a bit lost. I hadn’t done anything to help James out before he moved to the woods. I had never even met him. James seemed to sense my confusion.
“Remember about a year ago, just after you won that national soccer tournament with your team?” I did. “Well, they interviewed the whole team because it was such a big deal. When the reporters asked you if you wanted to be a pro soccer player when you grew up, you said that it was a possibility, although you didn’t know what you wanted to be.”
“After that you said that once you did figure out what you wanted to be, you’d go after it for the rest of your life. That really impacted me. I thought about what you had said for weeks. You didn’t know what you wanted to be, but I did. I wanted to be a carpenter. I didn’t have the rest of my life, because once I was an adult, I would already be a lawyer or spy. It would be harder to start over. I had my chance now. I shouldn’t let anything stand in my way. Even if it came to stealing? I didn’t know what to do. But after taking layer training for a few more weeks, I made up my mind. I considered everything, including the fact that I had already stolen my account number to get the money. I was already a thief. Why not continue. So, even though I knew how thick I was to be doing this, I came up with a plan to steal wood, nails, screws, hammer, saws, screwdrivers, and anything else I might need.”