Here’s my latest update:
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a new short story called The SEE Tree. I’m in the third round of edits and, so far, I’m really excited about it! I think it’s my best short story yet. Hands down. And the few people who have read it enjoyed it.
Although I’m still making edits, I wanted to go ahead and share some of it with y’all as a “thanks” for all the support over the last year.
Oh, I say “some of it” because it’s my longest short story, clocking in at 33 pages. Therefore, I figured I’d take that old school approach of sharing pieces every few days. I’ve divided it up into 3 sections of about ten pages so, hopefully, you’ll want to come back and read more.
Anyway, without further ado, here is The SEE Tree, Part 1:
Harper Dodd never thought his life would sink so low that he’d be sitting in a tree with a gun pointed at his face. But here he was, tied to the branches of the SEE Tree, while Therese, his neighbor, twice-removed, carefully tracked his every breath from her lawn chair. Now, contrary to the situation, Therese was a perfectly normal woman, but Harper knew she’d pull the trigger. He would have, too. So he sat still – bored even – without much to do except wonder, if the average person would kill me, what kind of asshole have I become?
Five months earlier, when it all began, Harper sat in a conference room at The ITLR Group, waiting for its members to reengage. He’d just finished a presentation and, already, his stomach ached and he wanted to vomit. One of the blank stares in the room turned to pity. He had seen countless looks in his advertising career, but never that one. It clearly said, “He’s washed up,” and, in that moment, Harper felt like some C-list actor doing infomercials. Four years of college followed by an MBA followed by 18 years single-handedly hauling agencies from the mud, and, here he was, being pitied by an entry level account executive. The thought made him just as angry as embarrassed. Not because someone so junior was giving him that look. It was the fact that a rookie could tell his presentation was a failure. He had to close his eyes to keep from breaking down.
At forty-three, Harper didn’t feel any different. His blood pressure hadn’t changed and his feet were just as quick and his Sudoku skills hadn’t waned and he still won Monopoly every time he visited home. But the ideas were gone, the well had run dry. Everything he came up with was suddenly generic, too expensive or, typically, full of holes. The company hadn’t used a single contribution in months. Hired for his knack of finding creative solutions for the bitchiest client assignments, he knew that, although he’d made the company a ton of money, their generosity wouldn’t last forever.
And he was right.
After the meeting, the president asked for a minute alone with Harper. With a thin smile she asked if everything was OK. Her voice was kind but, but in his paranoid state, Harper couldn’t help but imagine an awful patronizing tone. He desperately wanted to say things were not alright, that he suffered from encephalitis or a concussion or some odd form of PTSD. Unfortunately, none of that was true, and Harper wasn’t a good liar (unless it was to clients). Technically, there was no logical reason for his collapse of ideas, other than the self-fulfilling prophecy that he was suddenly so terrified of meetings that he couldn’t think straight, which naturally led to terrifying meetings.
Nodding her head and placing her fingers to her lips, the president launched into her speech. It didn’t go as bad as it could have. She didn’t fire him. Instead, she bumped him down to part time, work from home. He’d be involved in less prominent business pitches. Her rationale was that, with less pressure, he might be able to relax and become productive again. Harper knew that really meant she didn’t want him touching high-profile accounts anymore.
Harper was too embarrassed to walk past rows of stares to take the things he needed from his office. Instead, he scurried straight to his car and sped home. When he got there, he didn’t pig out on Kit Kats or go comatose over reruns of Seinfeld or collapse under his blankets. Instead, he powered on his computer, and Googled information on brainstorming, crowdstorming, and every other kind of storming that might bring his brain back. Over the past few months, he felt less than a person, like a part of him had emptied out of some new orifice, and, although he had no idea where it had stemmed from or exactly how to fix it, he was determined to beat this creative block. And he kept plowing headfirst into tactics that didn’t seem to work. That’s how Harper operated – when faced with failure, he hammered at the round hole with his square peg until it forced its way through.
After two hours of searching and researching, Harper sat back and stared out the window, begging the air around him for inspiration on how to beat something that made no sense. A light sprinkle started and sporadic drops gushed from the opening at the bottom of the rain gutters. Harper was so desperate, he imagined the droplets were ideas and debated sticking his head below the hole to take them in. Then he watched the apple tree a couple blocks away. Now that fall was approaching, its fiery orange leaves were slowly falling away. Harper likened them to himself, feeling a piece of his brain topple with each leaf. He wondered what would happen when it was bare.
Sadly, his presentation the following week was just as feeble as the last. No one cared about QR codes anymore. And Groupon was so costly, most retailers wouldn’t consider it. The worst part was, he knew all this; he was the one who’d presented these findings! But his brain somehow finagled and twisted the logic around until the rotted ideas actually made sense.
In the middle of the presentation, his mind seemed to disentangle and, with perfect clarity, he realized how shitty the deck actually was. It was so bad, in fact, he couldn’t even finish it (and Harper finished everything, including an entire year of nightly prayers that were supposed to provide an easier life and a volunteer stint he hated at the local ER and a screenplay he knew would decay in his lowest desk drawer). But, this time, his mouth refused to work, like it was protesting against his stupid brain. Then he started stuttering and repeating slides, like they might suddenly sound amazing. They didn’t, and before things deteriorated further, Harper pretended the call failed, dropped his phone, and stared out the window. The agency never called him back.
In a rare show of violence, Harper slammed the desk. He was actually trying to hit himself – his leg or pelvis or anything – but the desk got in the way. He’d heard about people hating themselves and always thought it strange. If someone hated himself, then why not just change? Now he succumbed to the awful realization that change might be impossible. No matter how much he studied or worked, he was incapable of reaching that place he knew was there somewhere. It was still a part of him, yet he couldn’t even find it; Harper failed at being himself.
After rocking back and forth in his chair to expel any leftover rage, Harper smoothed the desk with his hands and looked out the window, at the apple tree. It was surprising how many leaves had fallen in the past week. Hell, it seemed emptier since the call. Harper felt his chest tighten as he followed the branches, up and down, knotting into each other. Another leaf fell.
That’s when his attention was drawn to the right corner.
Somehow, the branches were twisted and turned so weirdly, they didn’t look normal. It was as if the wind had blown just so, moving the twigs into a sort of tapestry. Harper pushed back a few inches in his chair; something was definitely happening there, and he rested his chin on his hands as he scanned. Was it a picture? Harper squinted until everything blurred, trying to see if a hidden image popped out. Unfortunately, enough leaves remained that Harper couldn’t make out what was behind them. It was like someone had lowered half the curtain over a stage, covering just enough that the entire story couldn’t be made out. Now, the old Harper would have blown off the discovery, just like any other sane person. However, desperate for anything, the new Harper let himself become obsessed with the tree.
That day, and every day thereafter for weeks, Harper started a new ritual. Following each pointless finding or failed meeting, he let himself watch the apple tree for exactly thirty minutes before diving back into decks and research and becoming himself again. During that time, he let his mind wander, thinking about what the branches meant, knowing the answer was probably nothing, and willing more leaves to fall. That last thing was the most important part. Instead of connecting his loss to the tree’s inevitable baldness, he looked forward to it, to seeing what was behind the shroud.
In mid-November, it happened. After a call in which Harper was removed from yet another account – leaving only one – he looked out the window to see the tree completely bare. It was jarring – he was certain that, just yesterday, it still clung to life.
Terrified and excited, he went to the window and put his hand on the glass, feeling rapid heartbeats pulse through his fingertips. Sure enough, the branches were twisted into something. And sure enough, now that the curtain had been dropped, there was certainly more to the production than Harper thought. But it wasn’t a picture, as he’d anticipated. Somehow, impossibly, the branches twisted around each other to form a word.
Recognition was instantaneous, and, in his eagerness to get closer to the words, Harper almost rammed his face into the window. Then, placing both hands on the glass, he traced the letters with his head as he held his breath, afraid a single exhale might shatter the fragile vision. But the word was so completely obvious; there was no guess work to it. This wasn’t some Jesus burned into toast. No, the tree was clearly spelling out a word.
Harper had never been one to believe in signs. They were a way to rationalize bad decisions. But, in that moment, he felt his body lighten, for the first time in months. Although he was a scoffer, this sign couldn’t be overlooked; it was too much, too perfect. Or maybe he was so desperate, he was willing to let a pile of sticks change him. Either way, he smiled and let the words wash over him. Then, miraculously, the ideas came.
Falling in his chair, Harper began typing. New concepts and solutions invaded so fast, he could barely keep up and his fingers ached after a couple hours. Still, they were the easiest hours of his life. All he had to do was dictate the words pouring from his brain, from the SEE Tree.
The finished presentation wasn’t garbage. In fact, it was impressive. Relieved and ecstatic, Harper jumped up and ran around the room, whooping. In celebration he grabbed an apple from his fridge, and thanked it before taking a big bite. Then he ran back to the window and stared at his SEE Tree. The letters were still there, clear as ever. Pumping his fists, Harper continued the celebration in his office.
The following Wednesday, Harper joined the conference call with an energy he hadn’t felt in months. Even his coworkers noticed and, instead of hesitation, he could hear them talking about the previous night’s happy hour and other casual things. It made Harper realize that, over the past several weeks, he had effectively – and single-handedly – killed the entire room. His insecurities and drabness had infected everyone around him before he even started.
Today was different, though, and Harper launched into his deck with his old spark. He was known for taking even the most boring client or product and infusing it with life. It was his gift. It’s why he refused to do anything else. And, today, he felt that same rush as he walked through slide after slide, making salted crackers jump off the page like filet mignon.
When he finished, Harper was out of breath and still riding the waves of his own energy. It was another familiar sensation he’d forgotten about, and he panted as his words echoed around the room and finally diffused. He had done it. This time, like many times before, he could actually feel the impressed buzzing from the other end of the line, and he wanted to jump up and run around the room like an airplane.
Then, strangely, the president raced through the call without acknowledging his deck. It was another utterly familiar sensation, much more recent, that made his chest hurt and his eyes blur. He looked down and noticed his palms were sweating so badly, they left perfect imprints on the desk. Almost before he had begun, the meeting was over, and the president again asked to speak to him privately. Before she began, Janice, from HR, joined the call. Together, they effectively laid Harper off.
The second the line went dead, Harper laid on his desk and sobbed. He wasn’t upset about being laid off; he’d seen it coming for months. And he wasn’t angry; they should have fired him forever ago for his lack of results. The severance package they gave him was far too generous.
What destroyed Harper was his mis-perception about the meeting. Good or bad, he had always prided himself on knowing exactly how his presentations came across. When they failed, he knew it before his clients did. Whey they were a success, he was aware as soon as the first sentence left his mouth. This time, all self awareness was gone, and Harper felt a vulnerability he’d never experienced. He suddenly felt as if his entire professional life was a sham. Wondering if people had been humoring his insanity for years, Harper wiped his nose and leaned his head back against the chair. Never had he felt more naked. The all-familiar drive to succeed that normally consumed him fled.
For two hours, Harper sat, staring at nothing. His brain raced, not with ideas, but with nothing. The nothing he felt like. The nothing he contributed. The nothing he could do to fix anything. Then, focusing back in on reality, Harper found the “SEE” tree.
At first, a flash of anger ricocheted through Harper like a stray bullet. But the anger was quickly drowned out by years of personal beliefs. The tree had nothing to do with his failure; it was all on him, and he couldn’t blame some pile of sticks. Now he was left with only disappointment and shame. He had actually relied on a tree, so sure its words were meant for him. Worse yet, despite such thoughts, he couldn’t stop believing it was a sign, even now. There was no way wood could bend itself like that; it had to mean something. Ultimately, it came down to this in Harper’s mind: what good was an inert heavenly sign?
Harper spend the next several days obsessing over the tree, staring at it over his breakfast yogurt, watching it behind his Netflix queue, and scanning it, top to bottom, before bed. He thought, over time, he’d realize he was just being ridiculous, and his logical left brain would convince his right brain it wasn’t a sign, letting him bury himself into finding a job. Oddly, the opposite happened. He couldn’t let the SEE Tree go, and became more and more frustrated. Harper just couldn’t understand why a sign that did nothing was placed in the world. If a god existed, would he actually forget about his handiwork? It seemed lazy, and Harper just couldn’t accept that.
Perhaps that was what led him to the tree in the middle of the night, brandishing a tiny flashlight and handsaw.