The Last Madrona Tree
“Oh no. I’m so sorry. I thought he was going to send Cassie away. Is he okay?” Penny looked scared.
Cassie had finally looked up from her intense coloring session to see what was happening.
“Did you do that?” Binny wondered aloud, sounding more calm than she felt.
Zach knelt down by Huitre to inspect the damage.
“I felt bad about leaving you guys. I knew you were coming here, and I wanted to make sure you were okay. I went through the backyard, and snuck in through the broken back door. Things started getting out of hand, and you looked so upset, and he said he was gonna call Luce Laboratories, and I just touched the wall and I must have accidentally unlocked the chain.” Penny was in tears now. “Is he dead?” she wailed.
“He’s alive.” Zach had two fingers pressed to Dr. Huitre’s neck, carefully avoiding the blood that was slowing to a trickle from the small gash on the doctor’s head. “I think he’s what they call ‘out cold’.”
“Will he be alright?” Cassie was now peering down at the doctor too, her face creased with worry. Finally something was more interesting than her coloring.
“That cut looks bad.” Penny was still sniffling and the look of worry hadn’t left her face.
“I think it looks worse than it is.” Zach said.
As the children pondered his condition Dr. Huitre started to stir.
“He’ll be fine. See? He’s waking up. We need to leave.” Binny’s tone left no room for argument. “Now!”
Binny led them out the door, but not towards the Jordan house. Cassie was clutching the coloring she’d managed to grab before the older kids had shooed her out of the house.
“Why are we going to the woods?” Zach asked softly, not wanting to agitate his sister further.
“I need to think.” Binny said.
The foursome traveled the winding path that Binny had walked on her own so many times before.
“Ooh. Cool.” Penny stretched out the words when they arrived at the abandoned car that had been Binny’s secret hideout for so long.
“Is this where you always run off to?” Zach had a smile on his face.
Binny looked up a little sheepishly, finally letting go of a little of the tension that had built up. “Caleb calls it my ‘fortress of solitude’.”
“Your fortress is a little rusty.” Zach teased.
Everyone laughed, but worry about the state in which they’d left Dr. Huitre was still in the back of their minds.
Cassie headed towards the abandoned car intent on exploring its insides.
“Don’t go in there!” Binny stopped Cassie in her tracks. “There’s dog poop. I haven’t had a chance to clean it out yet.”
“Ewww.” Cassie thought better of her original plan.
The kids sat down on a pair of logs near the car. “I didn’t mean to hurt him. I swear.” Penny was still shaken about the chandelier dropping on Huitre’s head.
“I don’t know that you had anything to do with it. The chandelier could just be a coincidence. And besides, he was up to no good. He knew that Luce Labs was up to something, and this is the proof.” Binny brandished the cellphone in her hands.
“Right. You recorded him!” Penny looked a little bit relieved.
“Why does it only say 18 seconds?” Binny was starting to sound nervous.
“What do you mean?” Zach asked.
“The recording. The phone says the recording is only 18 seconds long.”
Binny hit the play button. The recording ended when Huitre let them in the door. “Argh! I was holding it, I must have accidentally turned it off.” Binny looked utterly dejected. All that for nothing!
Penny and Zach tried hard to stay quiet and not catch Binny’s eye. She was looking absolutely miserable. Penny looked up at the branches overhead. Zach chose to stay focused on Cassie to make sure his eyes didn’t wander. That’s when it caught his eye. A symbol he’d seen before.
“Cassie, what is that?” Zach pointed at the papers Cassie was holding.
“My coloring. Wanna see?”
Zach eagerly took possession of the papers.
“You’re looking at the wrong side.” Cassie said.
Zach was holding the first sheet, but Cassie’s drawing of a pink limousine was on the back of the page he was looking at.
“I think you guys are gonna want to see this.” Zach said.
“You’re still looking at the wrong side.” Cassie whined.
Binny and Penny gathered behind Zach, looking at the back of Cassie’s drawing. The Luce Laboratories logo was at the top. As were the names Julie Jordan and Cassie Jordan listed as “TRIAL PARTICIPANT” and “TRIAL PARTICIPANT OFFSPRING”. In one corner of the page was a symbol that looked familiar to Binny, but she couldn’t quite place it. “What is this?” she finally asked Zach.
“I think it might be the proof you’ve been looking for.” Zach examined the papers further. “It looks like records of Mom’s participation in that trial. They don’t reveal anything about the purpose of the trial, but they do prove what Huitre said – that Luce Labs is interested in Cassie.”
“I see you children have made some progress.” The children looked up over their shoulders to see Caleb towering over them, inspecting the papers Zach was holding.
Binny jumped a bit when she realized he was there. “Caleb, you scared us!”
“I wasn’t scared.” Zach joked.
“Shush.” Binny said.
“Sorry Miss Jordan. I do pride myself on keeping my noise pollution to a minimum. Next time I’ll rustle a few more leaves.”
“Thank you.” Binny accepted Caleb’s apology.
“Now let’s see what you have there.” Caleb said.
“It’s a pink limousine. My limousine.” Cassie tried to be helpful.
Caleb smiled, as Zach offered up the papers. He reviewed them in earnest while the children waited for his verdict.
“Well, it is a pink limousine. And a sparkly and expensive one at that.” Caleb addressed his comment directly to Cassie, and then to the others, “But it looks like little Miss Jordan chose just the right scrap paper to draw on. Did you get this at Luce Laboratories?”
“No. We got mango there.” Penny offered helpfully.
“Then you got this at Dr. Huitre’s house I assume?” Caleb asked.
They all nodded.
“And he just let you leave with them?” Caleb added.
“He was uh, indisposed when we left.” Binny offered with a guilty look at Penny and Zach.
“Indisposed, huh?” Caleb muttered to nobody in particular as his eyes were still on the pages.
As Caleb continued to examine the documents, the kids wandered around a bit, inspecting the car, gathering sticks, and getting antsy. Only Binny remained sitting right next to Caleb, waiting for him to pass judgment.
“You’ve done a good job, Binny Jordan.”
“A good job?”
“Yes. A good job.”
Binny just stared back at Caleb not quite understanding his meaning. He continued, “You’ve created quite a little team here. And you did it all to protect your little sister. That takes a lot of courage and leadership.
“Leadership? We… I haven’t really done anything quite yet. Not really. Cassie is still in danger. I don’t trust Dr. Huitre. And I don’t know if these papers are going to be enough to prove to my parents that something funny is going on with Luce Laboratories. All I’ve done is messed up the recording,” Binny shook her head at herself remembering her mistake, “where Huitre admitted that even he wasn’t sure about Luce Labs’ intentions.”
“Being a leader doesn’t mean that you always succeed. It doesn’t mean that the path to success is ever easy. It means that you try to do the right thing even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. And you, Binny Jordan, you’re not just a leader. You’re a leader of heroes.”
Binny was beaming at the compliment. “You’re starting to sound like my dad.”
“Have you thought of a name for your little group?” Caleb asked.
By now Zach and Penny had wandered over, listening intently.
Binny looked up at them and then back at Caleb, not sure what to say.
Caleb continued. “In my day we had a little band of kids running around these same woods. We fought bad guys. We protected the good guys. We called ourselves the Madrona Heroes.”
“You spent time in these woods when you were a kid?” Binny asked?
“You fought bad guys?” Penny chimed in.
“You had a power. Didn’t you. And you still do.” Zach said more than asked.
Caleb laughed loudly. “So many questions. Which should I answer first?”
“Answer Zach’s question.” Binny said quietly looking directly in Caleb’s eyes. “Do you have a power? Like Cassie?”
Caleb paused in the silence that followed the question and then answered, looking directly back at Binny, “No ma’am. I do not have a power like Cassie.” Binny exhaled as Caleb continued. “But that doesn’t mean my friends and I couldn’t be heroes.”
“The Madrona Heroes. I like the way it sounds.” Penny said cheerily.
“It’s not terrible.” Zach added.
“We’re not superheroes.” Binny moved to tamp down Zach and Penny’s enthusiasm.
“I am.” Cassie was triumphant.
“You’re certainly not superheroes without a good superhero hideout,” said Caleb with a sparkle in his eye.
Caleb led them from the abandoned car through the woods. They were no longer on a path. The ground was covered with vegetation, and the trees seemed to get closer together. Caleb would point out a funny shaped tree along the way, or a special rock as landmarks. After they’d walked for awhile, he stopped in front of a massive tree with peeling bark.
“This… is the last Madrona tree in Madrona.” Binny hadn’t noticed how large Caleb’s hands were. One of them, still impressively strong by the looks of it, held onto the trunk of the last Madrona tree in Madrona.
The tree rose out of a depression in the hillside. This spot was far from any of the established paths, and if you hopped over the rim of the crater you were essentially invisible from even 20 feet away. Caleb hopped over the rim with surprising ease. The children followed.
Behind the tree, a curving wall rose into the hillside, covered completely with more of the forest growth that they had trampled to get to this spot.
“When people first settled this hillside, in addition to all the Ash and Maple there were hundreds of actual Madrona trees covering this area from the lake, all the way to the top of the hill. Over a hundred years ago most of them were chopped down, processed at the local mill, and used to build many of the old houses in this very neighborhood. Even yours.” He looked at the kids as he said this.
“Other tree species took over, and now this is the last one left. It’s been hiding in these woods, right here in plain sight, for decades. Keeping watch.” His last words came out almost in a whisper.
“It’s beautiful.” Penny was slowly looking up the peeling bark on the trunk all the way to the top of the towering tree.
“What do you children see behind the tree?”
All three looked and couldn’t see anything other than the thicket of moss and vines that lined the far wall of the depression.
“Look closer.” Caleb encouraged.
Zach stepped forward using his hand to push aside some of the ground covering. “It’s a door.” Zach knocked gently with his fist hearing the metal sound echo back to him. He felt for the door handle, giving it a tug. “It’s locked.”
“Twist the handle upward and then pull.” Caleb suggested calmly.
Zach twisted and the heavy metal door swung open slowly. The children’s eyes widened with wonder.
Before them was a long, seemingly endless, dark hallway encased in concrete. Caleb reached over the children’s gawking heads to flip on a light switch on the wall. A series of fluorescent lights hanging every 15 feet or so coughed to life, illuminating the hallway. Caleb strode past the children without even turning his head. Not knowing what else to do, the children followed.
“In the 1950’s, this country was obsessed with nuclear war with what was then known as the Soviet Union. Now you kids refer to what remains of the Soviet Union as Russia.”
“What’s nuclear war?” Cassie piped up.
“It’s when countries shoot really scary weapons at each other.” Zach explained, trying not to alarm her.
“Exactly. And back then, this country built bomb shelters to shield its people from those scary weapons. Bomb shelters, the last Madrona tree, they’re all echoes of the past.” They’d reached the end of the hallway that had taken them deeper into the Madrona hillside which rose above them. Caleb flipped one additional switch to reveal the expansive windowless concrete room in which they now found themselves. “You’re standing in one of them now.”
Additional fluorescent bulbs, covered in dust, flickered to life in long rows, shedding light on the contents of the room. The sounds of the bulbs coming back to life after a long slumber echoed in the large space and down the hallway from which they’d entered.
“Why is this here? I mean, I know they were scared of nuclear war, but why here? In Madrona? Are there bomb shelters everywhere?” Binny’s mouth was agape. There was a secret room hidden under her favorite woods that she hadn’t known was there. And without Caleb’s help, she never would have discovered it.
“This is a lot better than the crawlspace.” Zach grinned at Binny before wandering off to explore.
“What crawlspace?” Cassie asked, before tottering off after Zach.
Penny had also started exploring the room.
“I don’t know how many of these exist. Probably more than anyone’s ever admitted publicly. But needless to say, even at the time, this shelter couldn’t contain that many people so I’m not even sure what the point was. Maybe they built it just to make themselves feel better. Feel like they were doing something about a potential threat,” Caleb said.
“But how is hiding in a bomb shelter doing something about a potential threat?”
“It’s not, really. It’s a place to keep people and things safe. Things that might get hurt out there.” Caleb pointed his eyes in the direction of the hallway they’d used to enter the room. “To really confront a threat, to really solve a problem, you need to do leave the safety of the shelter and deal with it head on. Still, it’s a good place to hide out, get some rest, and make your plan, until you’re ready to put that plan into action. But remember, a secret hiding place is only good if you keep it a secret.” After a moment, Caleb continued, “Keep up the good work Binny. You’re doing a great job. Your sister is in good hands.” With that Caleb turned on his heel and walked out of the room towards the outside.
Cassie had written her name in the dust on the paneling on one of the walls. Zach and Penny were trying out switches, and seeing what still worked. Binny just stood there watching Caleb walk out of their new hideout. The ‘Madrona Heroes’ secret hideout. What a ridiculous thought. Penny had joined Cassie at the wall and was writing “Madrona Heroes” on the wall with her finger. In between the ‘a’ in Madrona and the ‘H’ at the beginning of Heroes, Penny was drawing a tree – the Madrona tree that obscured the entrance to the shelter.
Binny breathed easier for a moment. Her friend and siblings were enjoying the relative safety of their new space. Nothing to worry about in here, buried deep under the Madrona woods. Binny looked down the hallway briefly seeing that Caleb had disappeared to a pinpoint, and then scanned the room.
In a dark corner that the others hadn’t yet explored, Binny spied a set of shelves containing old unused equipment, and still more dust. At the top was a battered milk crate. She stood on her tippy toes, pulling the crate down. It contained a stack of identical notebooks. They looked ‘old timey’. Each was covered with a fake wood pattern.
Binny took the top one. In the center of the cover was a sticker filled with text: “DAILY REGISTER OF PUPILS. For use in the Public Schools of Washington. Adopted and issued by authority of The Board of State School Commissioners.” Underneath that auspicious title were spots to fill out the “School No.” the “Commissioner District No.” and the “County”. All were blank.
Maybe it wasn’t so ridiculous after all. They had felt kind of like a team of superheroes when they’d escaped getting in trouble at Luce Laboratories. And Cassie clearly had a super power, though it wasn’t clear what they could do with a seven-year-old who could only turn invisible when she was stressed out. Binny wondered, did Zach have a power? He certainly performed an impressive feat with Dr Huitre’s alarm code. And what about Penny? Binny was pretty sure breaking fragile stuff wasn’t exactly a super power. The lock on Dr. Huitre’s back door must have already been on its last legs. That appeared to be the limit of the power inventory – super or otherwise. Binny herself certainly didn’t have any unique skills to offer. Of that she was sure.
Binny opened the old book. Dust flew off the pages. She moved her face, avoiding the tiny clouds she’d created. Inside the book, the pages were all identical. They were designed to let the teacher take attendance, write down who’d handed in their assignments, and assign grades.
Before she even realized what she intended, Binny took a pencil that had been rolling around at the bottom of the milk crate and started writing on the book’s cover. She crossed out the “Daily” in “Daily Register” and replaced it with “Madrona Heroes”.
Then she opened to the first page, wrote the date at the top, and started filling in everyone’s name. In the first column she put the person’s full name. In the second she put their contribution to the new superhero team.
Cassie Jordan. Random invisibility.
Zach Jordan. Good at remembering alarm codes.
Penny Yang. Good at breaking stuff.
Binny Jordan. ___
What should she write after her name? She didn’t know. Maybe Caleb was right. Heroes didn’t need special powers. But what was she even good at? Binny drew a big question mark.
While Binny wondered about her own role, it had felt good to write down what everyone else did well. She hated to admit it, but her mother had been right. Writing down good things about people felt a lot better than writing down their petty crimes and injustices.
“There’s no cell phone service in here. If Mom and Dad are trying to call us, we won’t hear it. We should go.” Zach had wandered over to where Binny was scrawling in the notebook. “Whatcha got there?” he asked.
Binny looked up, startled. “Oh, just doodling in this old notebook.” Binny closed the book and shoved it back in the milk crate which she quickly put back on the shelf. “You’re right, we’d better go before Mom and Dad get worried.”
Zach and Binny gathered up Cassie and beckoned Penny to follow them out. Binny recounted their accomplishments as they walked the long corridor. “I messed up the recording, but Huitre admitted that he’s suspicious of Luce Laboratories. It’s not much, but these papers do show that Luce Laboratories, and Dr. Huitre, are interested in Cassie. That’s better than nothing. Now we just need to convince Mom and Dad that they are up to no good, and I think we’ll be okay.”
As they exited, Zach turned off the hallway lights. “Oh shoot. We left the light on back there. I’ll run back and turn it off.” Before anyone could object, he was already sprinting down the hallway to flip the switch.
The three girls waited outside for Zach to return. Binny and Penny reinforced the need to keep their hideout secret with Cassie. The sun was still reasonably high in the sky, but it was unmistakably close to dinner time. It took at least a minute for Zach to make it all the way back to the exit.
After they’d closed the door and backed up a step or two, they marveled at how difficult it was to notice that a door even existed given all the foliage in front of it. The dirt colored rust that covered the metal door’s surface almost seemed designed for the purpose of camouflaging the entrance.
With the door to their new secret hideout sealed, they started walking home through the woods. As they reached the footpath the sound of their mother calling their names came sailing through the trees. “Binneeeeee. Zaaaaaaach. Casseeeeee.” Their father would alternately repeat the call, and then it would begin again with their mother.
Binny looked at the others. “Uh oh. We’re in trouble.”