It was a beautiful fall morning, eight days into October, and Curtis was turning 10. His mother had planned a party with all his school friends at their place that afternoon. Curtis lived with his mom and dad in a townhouse complex that lied between the outskirts of their small town and its surrounding forest.
Usually it was cooling down this time of year, but that day the sun was shining after a few long rainy days. Even though the air was brisk, Curtis wanted to go outside and do something. He thought it would be fun to go out with Derek for a bike ride before the rest of his friends came for the party.
Derek, Curtis’ best friend, lived right next door. They had almost everything in common, even their size, except Derek was two years older. Derek lived with his mom and was good about helping her out as much as he could. But even so, he was always game for getting out of the house for a little break when she was doing her housework. She’s the kind of mom who likes to put headphones on and sing loudly out of tune while she works! Before the boys left for their ride, she leaned over, rustled Derek’s hair and said, “Have fun boys!” The boys found their shoes then sat on the steps to put them on.
Curtis’ mom swooped her smiling face down and gave Curtis a kiss on his head, saying, “Don’t be too late! It would be terrible for you to miss your birthday party! And be careful, it’s still a bit wet outside.” You know how moms like to worry.
The boys grabbed their bikes and meandered up and down their neighbourhood streets squishing worms with their front tires. All of a sudden, Derek took a quick turn and raced down a nearby pathway.
“What’s up?” Curtis asked Derek as he screeched to a stop at the mouth of the forest.
“Remember that fort I was telling you about that my cousin was helping me make? Do you want to help me finish it?” he asked eagerly. “It’s nearly done and won’t take long to finish up. Do you want to help me?”
“Yeah!” Curtis whooped. He loved going into the forest, but he was only permitted to go with Derek or his parents because they were all older than he was.
“Just leave the bikes here and I’ll show you where it is. This is going to be so cool! Come on!” Derek motioned for Curtis to follow him.
Derek led Curtis down the path a while before turning left at secretly marked trees. He knew the entrance by the little blue flowers that grew at the base of the trees. Twigs cracked beneath their feet and wet leaves marked their jeans as they pushed through the shrubs. The fresh air seemed to leave traces of their breath behind. They felt like they were exploring new land like a young Johnny Cabot and Christopher Columbus!
“Eew!” Curtis moaned.
“What is it?” Derek asked. He looked behind him and saw Curtis pulling his feet out of a black pocket of mud.
“Gross! It keeps sucking my feet into the mud!”
“Don’t worry, it’ll dry in the sun. See the huckleberry bush growing out of that tree stump? That’s the next sign!” Past the tree stump, they found the third sign, a fallen tree. Derek pointed ahead. “That fallen tree is how I know where my fort is. Look, there it is!” Derek said, turning to face Curtis.
“WOW! It is cool! You and your cousin made this?”
“Yup, but if you help me finish it, I’d make it OUR fort.”
Curtis grinned from ear to ear, “OK, let’s get going!”
The boys started collecting thick branches and weaving them together with skinny willow twigs to finish the roof of the fort. There were nailed wooden steps up the side of the large tree trunk leading up to the fort. Derek climbed up first, opened the latch of the hatch floor door and Curtis passed up the roof bundles. Then he climbed in.
It was his first time in a tree fort and he couldn’t stop smiling! They closed the hatch and looked out into the forest. They were the ‘Kings of the forest green’. They could see out over the shrubs and bushes, they spotted rabbits and mice scurrying to find food. Curtis was having so much fun, he almost forgot it was his birthday. Then he noticed some heavy black clouds hanging in the distance.
“Maybe we should start heading back?” questioned Curtis.
“Oh, come on. We’ve got lots of time before those clouds reach us. Let’s just work fast and finish it up!” Derek said as he jumped to the ground from one of the nailed planks at the base of the tree.
Not wanting to disappoint his friend, Curtis continued searching the ground floor for more branches and twigs. Soon he came across a blackberry bush with the biggest, juiciest blackberries he had ever seen. They were wonderfully sweet and stained his hands as they squished between his fingers.
“Hey Derek! Check out these berries! They’re huge!” Curtis stretched and reached to get as many as he could. In his eagerness, he didn’t see the embankment hiding behind the brambles. With one more stretch forward, the earth gave way beneath his feet and sent Curtis sliding uncontrollably down.
“AHHHH! DEREK! HEEELP!” With these last words, Curtis’ head hit a big rock and he fell unconscious.
Derek came running, yelling out, “CURTIS!!! CURTIS!!!” but there was no response, only the tracks Curtis had left behind. Derek was scared, he couldn’t see anything and there was no response when he called…but even worse, he noticed the black clouds had quickly moved above. A crack of thunder broke his thoughts. He jumped. He knew he had to get help, there was no way he could help Curtis on his own!
He started to run. He found first the fallen tree, then the huckleberry tree and at last the patch of little blue flowers. It was a good thing he had a marked trail or he would have never found his way out in such a hurry! He sped to their bikes at the mouth of the forest, grabbed his, hopped on and peddled as fast as he could up the hill.
With another crack of thunder, the rain began to fall in fat, heavy drops. He peddled faster. As soon as he reached his front door, he threw down his bike and ran yelling for his mom and Curtis’ parents to come and help. They had to calm Derek down before they could understand what he was saying. Then, with another crack of thunder, they looked outside to see a terrible black storm churning above.
“You’ve got to come quickly! Curtis fell but I couldn’t see him and he’s not answering… he must be really hurt!” Derek cried. The parents were scared too, but they had to remain calm and think clearly in order to bring Curtis back home safe.
Curtis’s mom called the police. Soon the fire department was notified along with search and rescue. They all met at the forest edge and Derek described how to find his fort. The rescuers were concerned that the blue flowers and other signs to get to Curtis might be hard to find in the storm. The rain was pouring down and the mud was churning.
As the thunder and lightning crashed and flashed above them, a tent was quickly put up to shelter the group from the storm. Curtis’ mom held her husband’s hand as she prayed for their son to come home safe. A moment later, she felt a hand on her shoulder, she turned and was surprised to see Derek’s mom with a large group of their neighbours and friends who had come to help find Curtis. She was sure that every car and rescue truck from the town was sitting right in front of her.
Men and women from all over continued to arrive, covered from head to foot in yellow rain jackets holding big torch lights in their hands ready to search. She started to feel hopeful that they would find Curtis soon.
Time passed. It had been more than two hours and the forest was full of white lights twisting and turning as everyone searched desperately through the thick storm. Meanwhile, Curtis lay in a dark muddy pit at the base of the embankment. At first, the rain was mostly kept out by the protection of the bushes and trees above but as he lay unconscious, slowly the water started to trickle in. It was cold and wet and as it touched Curtis’ face, it woke him up.
He opened his eyes and was unsure where he was. It took him a few seconds to remember and then he realized what had happened. He started to panic. He rubbed his head where he hit the rock feeling a big, sore lump. He stood up slowly in the cramped darkness. It was muddy and cold and he felt so alone. Where was Derek?
Curtis wanted to be home with his mom and dad, enjoying his birthday cake and his friends. But in the cold, wet and scary darkness under the blackberry bushes, scratched, bruised and surrounded by a storm, he was afraid. He thought he might never see his family and friends again. He had no idea about the search that was going on above him that very moment.
He started to yell, “DEREK! DEREK! SOMEBODY! HEEEELP!!! HEEEELP!” Being alone in the silence was scary, so he didn’t stop yelling as it gave him comfort and strength to hear his own voice. As he stopped for a breath he thought he heard movement and voices above so he stopped yelling to listen. Maybe they were looking for him, he thought, could that be possible? He strained his ears, and sure enough…voices! He started to yell again frantically “I’M DOWN HERE! SOMEBODY! SOMEONE! I’M DOWN HERE!!!”
He continued and continued until at last, he saw a torchlight flash down to where he stood. Curtis never knew happiness like that moment! A firefighter called down “Curtis? Keep talking! Are you okay? Are you hurt? We are going to send down a rope to pull you up. Can you grab on?”
“Yes! I’m okay! I’m ready!” yelled back Curtis.
Down came a rope with knots tied in it. He grabbed onto one knot and placed his feet on another, “I’m on!” he called out. They pulled him up slowly to safety. They quickly wrapped him in a blanket, then the fireman picked him up and started to carry him in his arms. As Curtis gazed around, he could see all the dancing lights seen through the rain and darkness and hear the cheering voices of the volunteers as they heard the good news.
Tears of joy burst as Curtis’ parents saw the first glimpse of the fireman carrying Curtis towards them. All the searchers were now called back as the local media snapped pictures of the happy reunion. Curtis’ mom and dad kissed and hugged him and promised him the biggest birthday party ever! His mom arranged with the town’s mayor for a birthday festival for Curtis in the town’s hall for all the folks who came to support their family with hot chocolate and cake!
What a celebration in Curtis’s honour! His head still hurt, but a paramedic had looked at him and said he’d be okay. It was certainly more tolerable with all the presents and goodies that kept coming to him.
When the cake arrived he closed his eyes for a long time, everyone waiting and watching, then he opened them and smiled. “My wish already came true!” he said, and then he blew out his candles. Everyone cheered: HIP HIP HOORAY! Curtis decided that with all the presents he received that day, the three best presents he had been given for his birthday were his parents, the firefighter who found him and Derek, the boy next door. THE END