Tom Mason’s neighbors watched him surreptitiously through the long months after his son Tommy died unexpectedly. He quit his job, cashed out his retirement, sold his two vehicles, and rid himself of almost every furnishing in his house. Audrey left him a week after Tommy’s funeral. Those around Tom could smell the smoke from his grill nightly. No one suspected that he slept every night under the stars. Though Tom was still friendly, he no longer accepted invitations to socialize, and no one visited him. He waved and smiled at them as they passed his house. In time, he lost at least seventy pounds and grew a beard past his neckline.
Tom spent hours outside working on the impressive treehouse he erected high up in the backyard trees. The yard transitioned to dense trees and foliage behind Tom’s house, an area technically owned by the township. Tom strategically built the treehouse on the edge of the unmaintained property. People wondered if he had permits for the work, but no one dared break the taboo of reporting him. Losing a son had short-circuited something inside him; no one wanted the burden of being the one to shatter him completely.
Two months after starting the mysterious project, he was the talk of the block when he spent one entire day back there tearing it all down. The neighbors wrongly assumed he abandoned his plan to build a treehouse. Some of them expected a bonfire to follow the demolition. They realized later that most of them collectively held their breath that night, waiting for something terrible to happen. It didn’t.
The next morning, several of them laughed in relief when they saw the local lumber yard send a construction truck to Tom’s house. It unloaded an impressive load of lumber. By 8 a.m. Tom was already up in the trees without a harness or safety scaffolding. He’d torn down the weeks of work because it wasn’t perfect, and he knew he could do better.
Day after day, Tom stayed outside, experimenting, measuring, and learning new skills that he added to the structure. At times, the neighbors could hear the echoes of work being done inside the house, too.
One night in July, after most neighbors finished late suppers, lights came on in the trees, casting an eerie and beautiful bouquet of illumination into the adjacent yards. Tom learned wiring at some point. A few nights later, people craned their necks from his neighbor’s yards to note that he’d erected light posts across the perimeter of the property, as well as installed solar lights on the city property behind it. Lights curled around trees, and some of them were vivid colors: blue, red, and soft green. Most neighbors would have been shocked to know that Tom installed an array of solar batteries in weatherproof containers, ones concealed in the foliage. He installed an electrical subpanel in the back, too, for times when solar power wouldn’t suffice. He wanted the next occupant of the house to know that he thought of every eventuality.
On August 3rd, each neighbor awoke to discover a hand-printed envelope on their front door. To each recipient’s surprise, inside was an invitation to a party at Tom’s house on Saturday. Though the notice was short, no one considered not attending. Curiosity consumed everyone. Later that morning, dozens of calls, texts, and emails passed between the neighborhood’s connections.
The following day, cargo and utility trucks arrived, each with a different specialty emblazoned on the vehicles’ sides. Electrical, cabinet, ironworks, painters. Tom had a vision for his treehouse. By noon on Saturday, all the hired help departed, and a strange silence fell over Tom’s house. No one felt at ease. Months had passed with an endless series of new sounds. Tom’s project was done. The neighborhood once again held its breath, hoping that nothing terrible would happen. By 6 p.m., everyone was tapping their feet in anticipation. By 6:30, people lost their ability to wait and found themselves walking to Tom’s house early.
As each person or couple walked up to Tom’s front door, they discovered to their delight that a man dressed in a bright blue suit stood at the front door. He handed each party an envelope. “Please don’t open it until Tom makes the announcement.”
Inside the door, Tom stood. He was tanned, healthy, and smiling. As if his son hadn’t died and his wife left him, he smiled ear-to-ear, and he hugged everyone. “Come inside. Go anywhere in the house you want. Just don’t go outside yet.” By 7 p.m., all the people who received invitations were inside the house. Slightly after 7, Audrey came inside the house. Without saying a word, she hugged Tom fiercely for a few moments and then went for a drink.
Each guest noted that Tom had utterly remodeled the inside of the house, too. Wood floors, new furniture, walls removed, and custom tile work through the bathrooms and kitchens. It was a fantastic transformation, fueled by grief and unlimited time. In the kitchen, Tom built a fifteen-foot long sapphire river table that had inlaid lighting. On its wooden edge stood buckets of beer, wine, champagne, and carafes of bitter coffee.
“Drink! Enjoy!” Tom shouted until his guests realized he meant it. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
“Now, outside,” Tom said, ensuring that everyone had a drink of their choice as they exited. Tom also replaced the back patio. Instead of broken concrete, his guests discovered that he’d carried the custom tile and brickwork outside. Hand-carved columns now supported a raw wood roof that smelled of fresh wood. Along one side of the new patio stood several tables, each also built by Tom. They were filled with bbq, salads, chips, and a thousand condiments. Two younger women stood by, keeping everything replenished. Another woman stood near two large gas grills as smoked slowly made its way out.
“Let’s eat!” Tom said. And then he added, “Before the big event.” He smiled as if he knew a secret. He turned to a panel by the double french doors leading the patio and pressed a button. The entire backyard exploded in soft colors. A thousand subdued lights suddenly illuminated the whole back yard, all the way into the trees. Several people gasped at the unexpected beauty of the lights and colors. From somewhere, soft music filled the air.
“Seriously. Let’s eat.” He clapped, and though people still gawked at the lights, they began to eye the food selections eagerly. For thirty minutes, the guests consumed their food with abandon. Tom moved among them, talking and smiling. Everyone kept watching Audrey as she occasionally approached Tom, touch his arm, and speak to him softly.
The lights dimmed and brightened a few times, a signal that the ‘event’ was due to start. A hush fell over everyone.
Tom climbed up on one of the tables in the grass.
“Everyone open their envelopes.” He laughed.
Each guest or couple tore the seam of their respective envelope. Inside was a single sheet of gold paper:
“We lost Tommy a year ago. And it destroyed us. He wouldn’t have wanted that. It ended our marriage. We had a beautiful house, a beautiful ten-year-old son, and beautiful life. I’ve spent a year making this house one anyone could be proud of. And we are proud again. We are doubly proud because we are giving this house to the Leer family. The Leers, for those who don’t know them, have three kids, one two, one four, and one eight years old. They live two streets over. This remodel is a gift for them, so that a family can once again live in this house. I built the treehouse for the kids. Tommy always wanted a treehouse. I took for granted that we would have time to build it. Everyone welcome the new owners, the Leer family. They are not here tonight. We gave them the news yesterday. We’re moving to their house Monday. Audrey and I love you all.”
No one spoke. From somewhere, someone clapped. And then another. In a few seconds, everyone was applauding. As the crescendo of applause deepened, Tom hung his head and looked at the ground. When he raised his head, tears rolled off his face. He did not attempt to conceal them or wipe them away.
Tom raised his hand. “Now, let’s go look at the treehouse, shall we?” Audrey walked over to him and took Tom by the hand as he led her to the rear of the property.
Ahead of them, the colorful lights lit the way.
Darkness had departed.