Every morning, Maricela Flores got out of bed, dressed, brushed her hair, and went to the kitchen table where she ate jam on a thick piece of her mother’s homemade bread. After she finished her usual glass of tangerine juice, she stepped out her back door, descended the four steps to meet the beginning of the path. Each morning, a song of clicks of branches and whistles of wind through the leaves serenaded her as she walked the circular pathway and stopped at the gate that opened to the world outside.
Every morning, in the house next door, Alex Morgenstern finished his peanut butter on crackers and fruit, and took a last gulp of apple juice before opening his back door to the sound of birds and buzzing bees. At the bottom of the stairs, he wound his way along the path until he reached the gate where he met Maricela. There, Max brushed the leaves and caterpillars from his ample blond hair and Maricella tightened the band that held her ponytail in place. They both left together through the gate and made their way to the sidewalk running in front of their respective houses. They followed the sidewalk to the small blue school building at the top of the nearest hill.
Ever since they moved to their houses when they were each very small, Maricela and Alex, both ten years old and both the only children in their families, considered themselves the brother and sister that they each didn’t have at home. And every day when school ended, they ran as fast as they could back to the gate. Behind the gate and the high wall that separated their one huge yard from the outside, after changing clothes and a picnic of snacks, they spent the afternoons climbing the trees scattered throughout that small forest behind their homes, each tree holding a multitude of small worlds. Burr oaks, red buds, cedar, chinaberry, acacia, and ash. Bald cypress grew on the banks of the stream that flowed just inside the walled boundary at the back of the property. They stayed outside until the air grew too cold or the night too dark or the rain too torrential. Not long after they went inside, their mothers and fathers came home from their work in offices in the buildings downtown.
It always happened exactly that way. Until the night of no light.
It started like any afternoon. Maricela brought out carrot sticks and dried cranberries and Alex carried a container of ice water and a bowl of cut melons. After eating, they ran and chased and jumped. Just as the sun sank down toward the horizon and the sky began to pale, under a moonless sky, they scaled the trees’ trunks to see who could climb the highest before going inside. That night, it was Maricela.
“I’m the winner, Alex! Look how high I’ve climbed.”
“Okay,” he said. “I guess you win this time.”
Sitting on the sturdy branch, Maricela held her arms up over her head. “You should climb up here tomorrow and see for yourself. It’s so high I can see the city…” Just as she said it, the lights on the horizon in the buildings short and tall dimmed one by one. Then the illumination through the windows in the surrounding neighborhood also shut off, until, all around them, total darkness blanketed everything. Maricela got very quiet, even when Alex asked her if she was okay. Finally, she responded. “The light is gone, Alex. All over the world!”
“What?” He scurried up the tree trunk to find a branch just below hers. “Oh, no,” he said in a low voice.
If cars climbed the mountain road, they did so without headlights. The street lamps gave off no soft glow. Both Alex and Maricela were too afraid to move from their perch, and soon they began to shudder.
A voice came from below them. “What’s this?” The voice sounded deep and a little muffled. The children both startled.
“Who are you?” Maricela whispered after a long silence.
“You should know by now. I’m just below you.”
Alex reached over and grasped Maricela’s hand. “Is someone down there?”
The voice spoke again. “Don’t worry. I’m here to help you. I’m holding you up right now.”
“What?!” both children shouted in unison, shifting on the branch where each one sat.
“’Why are you afraid, little ones. We’ve all been watching over you almost all your life.” One branch and then a second one moved around both Maricela and Alex. With the tree’s embrace, Maricela felt less afraid as the oxygen the trees exhaled filled her lungs. And Alex settled into the crook of the branch as the tree drew in the heavy air leaving everything clean and fresh around him.
“Tree,” Maricela asked. “Everything is so dark.”
“And if everything is so dark,” Alexi said. “Then our parents will not be able to find their way home.”
“Don’t worry,” the tree whispered. “The house will help them find their way.”
At that moment, both Alex and Maricela turned to see a slight glow coming from the houses behind them, especially along the corners and across the roof. “What’s that?” they both asked at once.
“The sun left buds of its light throughout the day, as it does every day. The buds illuminated because you needed them.”
Just beyond the houses, very slowly, the light from the houses began to spread to the street lamps, one by one, down the hill. And in the dark streets, a few pinpoints of light appeared in clusters and both Maricela and Alex realized that the lights came from the trains carrying people to and from the city, and the funicular making its way up the hill, most likely the cable car that carried their parents.
At that moment, the branches lowered the children to the ground, and a flurry of lightning bugs showed them the familiar path that took each of them to their respective back doors.
“Goodnight, Maricela,” Alex said.
“Goodnight, Alex,” Maricela said, adding, “I’ll see you tomorrow right back here.”
The children both stood still for just a few minutes more, before going inside. As they did, they both turned to the forest behind them. “And goodnight all our sister and brother trees.”
They didn’t hear the lows goodnights as they closed the doors behind them because their parents had just arrived.