The last of my rations are placed in the side pockets of my rucksack, and I lift the latch over the bag and clip it tight. It's been a week exactly since Sky's death and five days since his funeral, and his words still linger in my mind.
'You're going to meet me again,' I often find myself muttering at the funeral, at school, and even in my sleep, according to Sophie. I saw none of Nathaniel since the forest, except for when his mum, the Starks are our neighbours, who stopped by to offer her condolences with Nathaniel, but we hardly talked. I stayed in my room the entire time, crying my eyes out, and Sophie has never been so quiet now. Sky had been cremated and his ashes placed in an urn that Sophie keeps by her bedside, so I often steal away to her bedroom in the middle of the night and stare at it. One night, I visited the urn again and woke Sophie up. She knew what I was doing, and gestured me to lay with her on the bed. I did so, and she wrapped her arms around me. She looked deep into my eyes and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
'I'm so proud I have a daughter like you,' she whispered. 'Sky's very proud of you, you know.'
I return back from my thoughts, and swing my rucksack onto my back and leave my room. The words keep repeating in my head over and over and over again, and slowly this plan is making more and more sense and coming together. Back in the day, Sky told me stories about a special tee in the forest that allowed the living to talk with the departed. I was only six at the time so I would have believed anything, however Sky's death seems to change things and finding this tree seems like seeing out his wishes.
I cross the corridor towards the stairs and pause at the first step. Sophie and Sky's bedroom door is slightly ajar, and I lean back a little to see a shadow fall on the floor. I throw the bag to the top of the stairs, approach their door and open it slowly. I find Sophie sitting at the bottom of the bed, staring into space with Sky's urn held firmly in her hands. I sit by her and place my trembling hand on her back to which she jumps at her touch, as if my touch had brought her back to the real world. She looks at me, and strokes my cheek, her eyes have lost their life as her life seems to have lost its purpose.
'I'll go and make you some sandwiches,' she mutters, and then places the urn back on her bedside desk. She stands before it a moment, as if Sky is going to pop out of the urn at any second, but then turns to the door. I take a deep breath and stand up before she could leave the room, blocking her.
'Mum, I'm going to find Dad.'
Her eyes widen at my announcement, and my eyes twitch a little in fear she would slap me for saying such a thing.
'I'm going to find the tree,'
'Oh, that...that blasted tree he told you about. I did tell him to stop telling you stories in case you start doing things like this. Listen, Arianna, sweetie, it's...it's just a pipe dream, an invention from a child's story.'
'I know...I know...but it might be real...Sky...always said all stories come from fact.'
'Sky also said that if you clap your hands and think really hard, you could grow wings and fly away, would you believe that?'
'The tree is real, mum, and I'll find it.'
'Honey, I want to see him too, but...we need to move on...eventually.'
'We can't! You can't! You keep the urn at your bedside!'
'We must keep his memory alive, but we still have to move on! WE HAVE TO!' she screams. I clench my teeth, fighting back words, but then storm out to avoid this argument becoming physical. I swipe my bag from the stairs, fling it onto my back and leave the house without a word. I keep stopping and starting, in hope that Sophie would stop me or want to join me, but I couldn't hear any footsteps or calls to join me or bring me back.
I step out into the front garden and look over at the tulips, and the rest of the foliage Sky grew over the years. I cross the garden and bend over to take one until -
CLANK! CLANK! CLANK!
My head shoots up at the metallic sound of pans hitting each other or falling on the floor, that rings distastefully through my ears, to find Nathaniel stumbling over his own equipment. Anyone could easily describe him as a complete idiot. Nothing is where it should be - there is no visible canteen at his belt should he need water at a minute's notice, there are sleeves of clothes which means he must have left his house in a hurry. He waves at me, letting more things fall out. I roll my eyes. I know where this is going. I clip the stem of the tulip with a pair of sheers left stabbed in the dirt, and tuck it gently into my breast pocket, its head hanging loosely from the top of it. I turn to Nathaniel, who waits like a loyal dog by the fence, and cross over to him. I examine him, looking up and down. He is like the human example of how to not prepare for an expedition. I have to do something about this. I begin with the straps:
'These straps can mean the difference between life and death,' I say, tucking the final one into a pocket.
'Imagine, you're running from a predator or someone who wants to kill or hurt you, anyone in your case, and these things snag a branch, make you fall, and you're dead, or someone grabs it, pulls you back and slices your throat,' I continue, then think back to what I said. It is horrible, but it's true, 'but that doesn't matter because you're not coming with me.'
I secure his bag, clip it closed and then push him away towards his house (he is my neighbour).
'Go back,' I say, shoving me forward even more. 'I don't need you.'
'Where are you going, Ari?'
'Don't call me that!' Only Sky and Sophie call me that.
'Where are you going?' he repeats, then steps out of my way towards the woods. His smug smile annoys me; he is definitely staying to stay no matter what I want. I lower my shoulders and massage my brow.
'So are you going to tell me or what?' he asks.
'Why do you want to come, Nathaniel?'
'Call me Nat.'
'I prefer Nathaniel.'
'I prefer Nat.'
This isn't going anywhere. He refuses to leave me alone, and I don't want anyone to waste my time. I have planned this with the very last detail: from the provisions I need to the route on my map of Kiloft. I couldn't help thinking the company would be appreciated, even if it is Nathaniel. I hoped Sophie would join me, but that clearly wasn't going to happen. I look to Nathaniel, who still waits for my response.
'You're going to laugh.'
I sigh. 'I'm...I'm going to find a tree.'
My prediction is correct, however...Nathaniel tries to contain his amusement, and a traitorous chuckle manages to escape his lips.
'In the woods?'
'It's the tree of Nenaeh!' I confirm from behind my teeth. 'Not just any old tree, and I'm doing it for...I'm doing it for my dad, so...so if you think this is going to be your idea of a fun day out, then go back and hang around with friends you don't have.'
Yes, it is terribly harsh but, honestly, I can't care less, Nathaniel is about as useful as a glass hammer, but since he’s so focused on coming along, I suppose his company is better than nothing. I don’t know what Nathaniel has packed, but I have enough to last me a week or so, enough to find the tree and get back safely, and only me. Whatever happens to him happens to him. Not me.