The treehouse should have been empty.
That was why Matthew climbed up there in the first place. He longed for quiet, sought to put distance between himself and the shouting. He thought that his absence might make things change, might make it all stop. He hoped to forget. Most of all he wanted to be alone.
But he wasn’t.
The Other Boy stared at him from the opposite corner of the rickety room. “This is my den,” he said, picking at a scab on his knee.
“Well, it used to be my den,” Matthew said. “You can’t be old enough to be up here on your own; how old are you, five or six?”
“That’s still too little,” Matthew said, ignoring how young he’d been when he first climbed the tree himself. “You could hurt yourself; you’ve already banged your knee. Did you do that climbing up here?”
‘…mild concussion, but he’s otherwise remarkably unscathed considering the height from which he fell…’
“No,” the Other Boy said, pulling the leg of his shorts down over the blemish.
“Alright. It’s still dangerous up here though. This place is falling apart.”
Splintering wooden planks groaned as if in protest. Matthew wondered how the treehouse had aged so much in such little time. Or had it always been like this? Rusting iron nails held the structure together, its walls covered by crumpled posters for Goosebumps and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A single torch illuminated everything, tied to a skipping rope that hung from a picture hook jutting from the ceiling. A faded denim bean bag chair lay in one corner of the room; Matthew could remember his mother stitching it together from some of his old jeans that were torn and frayed.
She had loved to sew things for him back then.
“You can’t stay up here. Do your parents know where you are?”
The Other Boy took a deep breath. “No. But that’s fine because things are bad down there, aren’t they? Inside.” The torch flickered as the Other Boy spoke, killing shadows as quickly as it cast them. “This is where I come to hide.”
“You’re hiding?” Matthew said. But he knew it was a good place to hide, he remembered that much clearly. He used to come up here when he was about the same age as the Other Boy; he too had felt like he was hidden away from the world and everything going on inside.
‘…you’re very lucky that he’s fine, you really should have called for an ambulance straight away…’
“Do you like pogs?” the Other Boy asked.
“Pogs. Wanna see my collection?” The Other Boy held out a grazed, grubby hand full of plastic disks. “I’ve got loads. You can look at them if you want.”
Matthew sat down on the bean bag. The Other Boy scattered his pogs out on the floor between them, flipping over any that landed face down. “My favourites are the shinies, especially my Man United one.”
“I used to have loads too. Didn’t realise they were still a thing,” Matthew said, inspecting a pog between his fingers. Marvin the Martian was printed on it, his face worn away. “I had this one, actually. They’re a lot smaller than I remember.”
“Wanna play?” The Other Boy grinned.
Matthew let out a short laugh. “Nah, I’m too old for pogs now. They’re for little kids.”
“Are not,” the Other Boy said, flicking a pog up at Matthew’s face.
“Don’t do that.”
A pog flew over Matthew’s shoulder. “Do what?”
Matthew clenched his fists. “Look, this is silly. I don’t want to play a stupid game with you. You shouldn’t even be up here! I can’t waste my time babysitting, there’s too much going on for that…” Matthew glanced at the hatch, at the top rung of the ladder that would lead him back down to the house.
‘…that doesn’t explain the contusions to his neck and arms…’
“Pogs aren’t stupid…”
“Whatever. I’ll have to go soon, so you’ll have to leave too. You can just piss off home, alright?”
The Other Boy let out a sharp cry, the walls shuddering around him. “It’s your fault I’m here anyway,” he screamed, throwing pogs around the treehouse, “you should have stayed hidden like me, if you’d done that everything would be fine, none of this would be happening!”
Matthew froze. He looked again at the Other Boy’s face, studied it. Spotted the old scar above his right eye. Too faint to notice, of course, unless you already knew it was there.
Unless you had felt the blow land hard upon your brow.
“You…you don’t know how bad things have been. You don’t know…you have no idea what it’s been like. What he’s been like.”
‘…I’m sorry, Mrs Starling, but I’m morally bound to report this…’
“Do too!” The Other Boy was growing, standing tall above Matthew. “Difference is I know when to hide, when to stay away. I know to wait until it’s all over, until it’s fine and it’s safe and everyone is happy again. You didn’t, so it’s your fault, all your fault.”
“It’s not,” Matthew said, his throat tightening, “it’s not, it’s…”
“I should be the one that gets to go back inside, not you.” The Other Boy stomped through the treehouse now. Floorboards creaked and cracked, dust spiralled around him in the air, the torch flickered and swayed. “Things were fine before you ruined it all, we were happy. You caused all of this, you should be the one who pays for it, not me. It can just go back to how it was before, when it was good. They will be fine, they will! You can just stay up here all alone, hidden away.”
“But it’s not right!” Matthew screamed, his voice strained. “Everything that he’s doing to her. To me. It has to stop; it just has to!”
‘…how your husband will react is the very thing I’m worried about…’
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” The Other Boy dived at Matthew, raising his fists high above his head.
Matthew caught the Other Boy’s arm as he brought it down to strike. He could feel the child trembling, could see his gritted teeth, the hatred in his eyes. But he saw something else too; the worry, the sadness, the fear.
His blackened arm.
“This…” Matthew said, pulling the Other Boy’s sleeve up over his shoulder, black, yellow and green laid bare under the torch light, “…this isn’t right.”
“It’s your fault, though,” the Other Boy said, his breath stuttering, “if you hadn’t been so…if I hadn’t…he wouldn’t have…they wouldn’t be…”
“It’s not your fault, you know. None of it is.”
And Matthew knew that was true. Looking at the Other Boy, at all the rage, the dread, the vulnerability, he finally understood. It wasn’t the Other Boy’s fault at all. “You aren’t the reason it’s happening, you aren’t to blame – he is. And that’s why this needs to happen.”
“But what will we do…how will we…”
Matthew knew what the Other Boy would ask; somehow he knew it all. “She will be fine; both of you will. It won’t be easy but it needs to happen. It needs to end.”
‘…if not for your own sake then for your son’s wellbeing…’
Tears streamed down the Other Boy’s face. Matthew pulled him into a gentle hug, felt his sobs and shudders. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “We’re okay. I think it’s time for me to go back inside.”
The Other Boy looked smaller now. “Oh, okay,” he said, playing with his shoelaces. “You have to go, don’t you? For her.”
“Exactly,” Matthew said, smiling.
Pushing himself up from the bean bag, Matthew felt stronger. Strong enough to face it, maybe. He turned to the hatch, ready to leave his treehouse behind.
‘…we can put you in touch with people who can help, make sure that both you and your son are kept safe…’
Matthew turned back around.
“Please don’t leave me here alone,” the Other Boy said, barely even there.
“Oh.” Matthew looked down at him. He’s still all alone up here, he thought. He’s always been all alone up here. “You don’t have to hide anymore, you know,” he said, kneeling next to the Other Boy. “It’s not your fault, remember?”
“But where will I go?”
Matthew looked at the Other Boy – he was so small, so fragile. “What if we just go down together?”
The Other Boy looked up at Matthew, eyes wide and alive. “Really? Do you think…really?”
“I can’t see why not.” Matthew grinned.
“But…will she be mad at me? I’ve been hiding so long; I should have done something, should have helped her,” the Other Boy sobbed. “I’ve wasted so much time.”
Maybe his time up here had been wasted, Matthew thought. But what did that matter, really? “We can’t change any of that. The important thing is what comes next.”
‘…it’s going to be okay.’
The Other Boy nodded.
Matthew held out his hand. “Come on, I’ll help you climb down.”
The Other Boy held on tightly as he started to climb down through the hatch. He was out of sight for a moment before his head bobbed back up into view. “Will it be alright? Down there I mean. Back inside?”
Matthew looked back at the pile of pogs, the faded bean bag, the posters. The hiding place he no longer needed. “Everything will be fine. I promise.”
And he knew he was right – whatever waited for him inside.