Julian sighed as he listened to the crowds on the side of the door rush about their lives. Another typical day, he thought as we listened and waited. He tapped gently on the door when he finally heard the familiar, friendly whistle of the janitor.
“Caught again?” Max asked as he turned the combination lock.
“Thanks,” Julian said, wrenching his way out of the locker. “I think I need to lose some weight.”
He tried to make the best of a bad situation, but he knew it was only a matter of time before either they would kill him, or he would kill himself. Max shook his head, patted Julian on the shoulder, and continued on his nightly work.
A quick look out the door to see if they were waiting for him. It was clear, so Julian slowly opened the back door to Glover Middle School, then gunned it for his house. Past the newspaper stand, turn at the pharmacy, avoid the construction on third, through the city park, and over the wall into the safety of the old Our Father graveyard. He thought it was safe. It usually was. This time, not only was Jerry and his gang of Neanderthals there, but Heather was there with her squad of trained monkeys. He didn’t stand a chance.
Luckily Father Reynolds heard the commotion from the church and came running out to shoo them away.
“Those kids are nothing but trouble,” Father Reynolds said, helping Julian to his feet.
Julian just nodded and picked up his broken backpack. “Thanks.”
His house sat just past the graveyard and even though he was still in pain and bleeding, Julian smiled when he saw the old Model T in the driveway.
“Grandma!” he screamed as he opened the front door.
“Ah, there’s my little –” His grandmother stopped as she exited the kitchen and saw his face. “Oh, Julian.” She started to tear.
“Don’t worry Grandma, it happens all the time. I’m used to it.”
She hugged him, kissed his forehead, then returned to the kitchen muttering in her native language. Julian went upstairs, cleaned up, and changed his clothes. He could hear his mother talking about the bullying and torment he went through every day. His grandmother tutted and muttered to her daughter.
“You let me handle this,” his grandmother said.
At first Julian couldn’t understand why his grandmother had come to visit, but then he remembered that his birthday was in three days. His thirteenth. It wasn’t a big deal to him, but it sure was to his mother. Something about finally joining the clan and learning all about his heritage. He was half expecting to wake up that morning and be a werewolf or have some stupid owl deliver a letter to him, but they had been on too many camping trips during the full moon to be werewolves, and he would die if he had to go to Hogwarts with all those stairs and spells to remember. He would make Ron look like a genius.
Later that evening, after a delicious dinner of roast beef and broiled potatoes, the family watched as the stars made their entrance. It was something they did every night, but tonight was special because his grandmother was there. She would stare at the sky and point out each of the unusual ones and tell stories about them that had been handed down to her by her grandmother.
“Time to go, Julian.”
Julian looked at his grandmother and was confused. “Go where?”
“We have a little harvesting to do tonight to get ready for your birthday party on Saturday.”
“I’m not –”
“No arguing, Julian,” his mother said. “Grab your jacket, so you don’t catch cold.”
There was no arguing with his mother, or grandmother, so he did as he was told and returned a few minutes later ready for whatever nighttime adventure his grandmother had planned.
She was already outside waiting for him. His mother shooed him out the door.
“Don’t we need a light or something? I don’t want us to fall or get hurt or –”
“Stop your worrying,” his grandmother said, taking hold of his hand. “We’ll have all the light we need.”
As they walked past the graveyard toward the woods, they talked about school, his life, and his bullies. She tutted the way she did in the kitchen and shook her head. It made him feel worse than when they kicked him on the ground or shoved him in the locker. He felt weak. He knew he should stand up to them, but he just couldn’t.
“Stop thinking that, Julian,” his grandmother said, looking at his wet face in the moonlight. “You are not weak for not fighting back. That makes you strong. But, even the strongest person needs a little help now and then.”
The moonlight faded as they walked further into the woods. Julian started tripping over fallen twigs and thick undergrowth.
“Maybe we should –”
“Stop looking with your eyes. We’re almost to the heart of the woods.”
He didn’t understand how she could walk all that way with her eyes closed and not hit or trip over anything, but he trusted her and closed his eyes.
Suddenly the world around him changed. The trees were bathed in a light blue glow and he could see everything around him. He opened his eyes and the world was black again. “I don’t –”
His grandmother laughed and patted him on the back. “You’re almost thirteen. It’ll get stronger the older you get.”
Together they walked with their eyes closed until they reached the heart of the woods. One large oak was bathed in red. It pulsated as though it was a beating heart. Julian could almost hear its rhythmic pulse beating life into the woods.
“Go to the tree, Julian. Ask for help. You will find it here.”
Julian was confused, but again, did as he was told. He walked up the tree and started talking to it. Suddenly everything poured out of him. His secrets. His hopes. His dreams. His fears. Everything. There was no order to his words. It was as if his heart was answering unheard questions. One heart speaking to another.
Sounds of rain filled the air, but it was not rain that fell. It was beans. At his feet lay fifteen glowing red beans. He was more confused than ever.
“Well, pick them up, Julian. That is all the help you are going to need.”
Julian picked them up and put the beans in his pocket. “Thank you.”
Closed eyed and hand-in-hand, Julian and his grandmother walked back out of the woods. Once they left the woods, the world was pitch black and Julian tripped over the curb.
His grandmother helped him up and laughed. “Open your eyes, silly. You’re in the man-made world now.”
Thursday passed as usual with Julian ending up in the bathroom soaking wet, and Friday brought even more excitement as Jerry thought it would be great fun to depants him in front of Heather. Yes, life at school was normal, but all he thought about during the day was going home where he could listen to his grandmother tell stories of the old country. He could never get a straight answer about her age, but the way she told the stories made it seem like she had actually been there.
Saturday morning arrived. Thirteen. He was finally thirteen. Julian ran downstairs and found his mother and grandmother sitting at the table. There were two wrapped presents on the table and a large stock pot filled with chili on the stove.
“What’s this for?” he asked, stirring the chili in the crock-pot.
“Your birthday party,” his grandmother said.
Julian looked horrified. “What birthday party? I’m not having a party!”
His mother pointed to his grandmother.
“Yes, you are. I have it all arranged,” his grandmother said, smiling. “Now sit and open your presents.”
He unwrapped the one from his mother first. A new blown glass ball for his collection. This one was odd though because when he first looked into the box, the ball was clear, but after he picked it up, he could see a large oak tree in it. Weird, but cool. The more he looked at the ball, the more it seemed to talk to him without using any words.
His grandmother’s present was a large, leather-bound book full of writing he couldn’t read, but the pictures were fascinating. Large trees, small roots, hand-drawn pictures of plants he had never dreamed of fill its pages.
“You come to understand all that in time, Julian,” his grandmother said, patting his hand.
Julian smiled. This was the best birthday he could remember. That was until he heard Heather’s distinctive high-pitched laugh. It also meant Jerry was close by. She only used that tone when he was around. Julian’s mouth went dry and he started to sweat.
“None of that today,” his grandmother said.
Julian sighed and shook his head.
“Let’s go greet your guests,” his mother said.
The three went to the front door and Julian peered out the front room window. He nearly fell over. It seemed as if everyone he knew was out front. There were long tables with white tablecloths set up all over the place. Some were stocked with food, and some were stocked with empty plates and chairs. How had his mother and grandmother done this? Father Reynolds and Max were chatting and drinking out of red plastic cups. Heather and Jerry were making fun of the other cheerleaders. Kids and adults were all over the front yard.
“Hey everyone,” his mother said, “thanks for coming. Be sure to grab a plate and fill it up but leave some room for the chili.”
“Only he would serve chili at a birthday party,” Jerry quipped.
Heather laughed. “Maybe that’s why he farts in class…he’s full of hot air.”
Jerry laughed as if that was the funniest thing he had ever heard. Julian wanted to throw up. It was disgusting watching those two day after day. It’s not like the whole school didn’t know that they liked each other.
The party continued for another hour with everyone keeping to their own little groups. Julian sat on a chair at a table by himself and picked at a cupcake. All he wanted to do was to go upstairs, look into his new glass ball, and start learning how to read his new book.
“Psst,” his grandmother said, tapping him on the shoulder. “Follow me.”
“It’s time for lunch,” his mother said. “Please have a seat and we’ll bring it out.”
As Julian and his grandmother went into the house, his mother and the guests all found seats at the table.
“Go get those beans.”
Julian was confused as to why she would want them, but he ran upstairs and slid them off his dresser into his hand and ran back downstairs. She was in the kitchen with fifteen bowls sitting on four trays.
“Hurry up,” she said, waving toward him. “Now pick out a bean, say a guest’s name, and put the bean in the empty bowl.”
Julian shrugged. His day could not get any weirder. “Mom.” He dropped a bean in. “Grandma.” Another bean. He continued until all the bowls had a single bean at the bottom and watched as his grandmother poured one ladle of chili over the bean. A little puff of red smoke rose from each bowl as she poured.
“What’s going on?”
She laughed and continued pouring. “You’ll see.”
Together, they took the trays out and as Julian reached for a bowl he swore he heard his voice say the name of the person that was supposed to get it. He looked at his grandmother and she just smiled and nodded.
“What’s the matter, Julian, don’t know how to serve people at the same table?” Jerry was being his typical self regardless of who was around. It was just who he was.
Julian ignored him and sat next to his family when he was finished setting out the bowls. Everyone had already dug into the chili.
“Happy birthday, Julian,” his grandmother whispered. “Welcome to the clan.”
He still didn’t understand what she meant, but his mother was grinning wildly and tearing up. It felt weird to see that, but at the same time he was happy that she was so happy.
Everyone downed their bowl of chili in no time and that is when things became odd. Strange even. Julian didn’t know the word to describe what was going on in front of him. His mother, grandmother, and him sat and watched. They laughed. They cried. It was as if the guests were there to put on a show just for them.
Father Reynolds and Max were laying on the ground playing a game of marbles. Two of the cheerleading squad and two of the Neanderthals were playing with dolls. Austin was singing while Becky was drawing. Frank and Carver were playing with a litter of kittens.
This was all very strange, indeed. But the strangest sites to see were Heather and Jerry. Jerry was hiding under a bush crying for his mommy because there was a ladybug crawling on him and Heather was sitting at a desk working on math problems.
This continued for the next two hours. Julian, his mother, and grandmother simply watched. They had not appeared to change at all, and Julian started to wonder if there was something wrong with him.
His grandmother laughed. “There’s nothing wrong with you. Don’t you see? Don’t you understand?”
He understood his grandmother really could read his mind. He was utterly convinced of that now. The happenings around him, though? No, he didn’t understand. He shook his head and she patted his back.
“You are young,” she said.
“So are they.”
“True.” She nodded her head. “But you are, on the outside, what you are on the inside. Are they?”
Julian thought about that for a minute. Nope, still didn’t understand. “I don’t get it.”
“Father Reynolds and Max remember what it’s like to be young,” she said, pointing to the two grown men now playing jacks. “They were happy then, and they keep those memories alive inside of them.”
Julian looked at Becky. She used to be different before Heather moved to town. She used to draw all her assignments. She was the only person he knew that could find a way to answer math problems with drawings.
Now he understood. Jerry was a scared, little kid inside. Scared of the world around him. Heather loved math but was too afraid to lose what she thinks she has in popularity. They are all different on the inside. He’s not. He is kind to everyone.
His grandmother smiled and nodded. “You are kind.”
“Would this have happened if I wasn’t?”
“Oh, good question.” She thought about it for a minute. “Whose magic do you think this is? Theirs, yours, mine, or mother’s?”
Julian thought about it for a minute. Magic? He doesn’t have any magic? Then he thought about the beans and the tree and … Wow! Could he be magical? Could that be the clan they keep talking about? But why? “I think it’s the tree’s.”
His grandmother laughed. “Well, yes, that is true. She did have a hand in this, that’s for sure, but it’s your magic.”
It was getting late, and the guests needed to return to their old lives. His grandmother stood up and clapped her hands. “Thank you all for coming to my grandson’s thirteenth birthday.”
One by one the guests snapped out of the dreams and looked around confused, but happy.
“It is time for me to leave too,” his grandmother said.
“Ah, do you have to?”
She laughed. “Afraid so. I am old, and this takes a lot out of me, but there is another gift for you in your room. I will see you next year.”
With that, she walked out to her old Model T, got in, and drove down the street. Julian raced to the road just in time to see the back wheels disappear into the woods. Weird, he thought.
When everyone was gone, he went up to his room and found a translation dictionary along with a handwritten note – “better get to learning, next year you’re hosting at my house!”
This was written for the M.M.H.B. Challenge