Here’s my latest update:
Last week, I shared the first part of my latest short story, The SEE Tree. I didn’t want to wait too long before delivering the second section. Sooo here is… dun dun dunnnnn:
More than anything, Harper just wanted to visit the tree, to see how his perception might change when he actually laid hands on the bark. Hell, the branches might spell out something else entirely (or nothing at all) when he reached it. And he wasn’t convinced he’d actually cut the branches.
Harper embarked on his mission just before dark, pulling on his black sweatshirt, testing the saw against a broom handle, and stepping out his back door into the chilly evening air. Running to the 6-foot stone fence, he tried pulling himself up. He wasn’t one for working out, though, and struggled, having to use his feet to push up and over the wall. Grimacing, he landed with a painful thud that rattled his knees, and made sure the letters were still in the tree. They were, and heaving an uncertain breath, Harper walked around the alley and past a couple of houses. Then he skittered across another alley and set of houses. Turning, he looked up and immediately found the tree; it was four houses down. This time, the word was gone. No, it was still there, it had just disappeared into two dimensions.
Picking up his pace, Harper approached the house containing the SEE Tree. It was an ugly, unassuming house, the worst on the block. Fortunately, no cars were in the driveway and all the lights were off, giving Harper some hope that its occupants might be out to dinner or a movie.
Making sure a glow in the window was just a streetlight reflection, Harper walked to the tree and looked up. He half expected the letters to be illegible, or gone entirely, but they were clearer than ever in the dimming light.
Seeing them jump out at him from fifteen feet away stirred something deep inside Harper. The word was larger than life now, making his failure seem larger than life as well. He couldn’t prevent the frustration and doubts and shame he’d experienced over the past several months from flooding him. Then, for the first time, a persistent, nagging anger welled up in Harper, and, standing there, reveling in the hatred, and thinking of the emptiness and his shitty life and the useless words, the decision became easy: he had to cut the branches. Their presence hurt too much. Better to remove them than keep the stinging sense of false hope.
Growling at the tree, as if challenging it to object and growl back, Harper jumped and grabbed the lowest-hanging branch, eight feet high and thick enough to support his weight. Swinging himself forward, his shoe caught the base of the tree. Using the grippiness of the bark, he began to scuttle up. When his feet reached the branch, he wrapped his legs around and let himself swing, like a cradle.
It quickly became clear to Harper that knowledge on climbing trees escapes the adult mind. It certainly wasn’t like riding a bicycle. Without seeing any other useful branches, he tried to gather the momentum to swing all the way up. Thanks to gravity, that was impossible, and the bark began to scrape through his pants into his ankles as he rocked. Closing his eyes and piling verbal “shits” on top of each other, he pulled himself up until his knees and elbows were around the branch. Then he hooked his foot around the base and inched his way around until his stomach and chin were on the branch. Opening his eyes long enough to ensure he’d actually made it, Harper wedged his hands under his chin and began to press himself up. Miraculously, after a minute, he was straddling the branch eight feet up, his feet swinging below.
Entire body shaking with the chill and vertigo, Harper pushed himself up again until he was standing on the branch like a balance beam. There, he waited until his body grew accustomed to the unsteadiness of the swaying tree. When his focus returned, the word was right above him. Cursing, he stepped back and fought to keep his eyes open. It was a 3D movie this time, with the letters surrounding him like prison bars, which made him even more intent to remove them and escape. Pulling out the saw – which he’d wrapped around his shoulder – he grabbed the first branch, the one forming the curve of the letter “S”, placed the saw against it, and pushed it forward, seeing a few specks of bark dust fly away.
“What are you doing?”
The voice had the force of a fire hose and Harper almost fell out of the tree. Gasping, he twirled around and seized the base, hugging it frantically, like it might try to uproot itself and flee. Then, slowly, he turned his head down to find a woman standing just below him. Her arms, sporting a fine layer of red hair (visible even in the waning light), were planted on her hips. Pushing some red hair out of her sharply angled face, she shrugged at him as if still waiting for an answer.
“Shit,” Harper hissed. The family wasn’t at dinner after all. Suddenly, images of police arriving and arresting him for trespassing rolled through his head, and Harper felt very stupid. Once again, he’d let the fucking tree get the best of him. And it was really no one’s fault but his own, which was even more aggravating.
“Well?” the woman said. She was angry, and put her hand on the bark like she might climb up after him. In the moment, still squeezing the tree like a baby and feeling idiotic, Harper couldn’t think of anything to say except, “I just wanted to prune your tree. You know, pay it forward.”
Harper winced before the words were even out. The woman wrinkled her nose at him and shook her head.
“It’s not my tree. But it isn’t yours either.”
Harper threw a hand up to stop her. “It’s not your tree?”
“No, I live across the street.”
Relief welled in Harper’s chest and he had to push himself back to take full breaths. He still felt ridiculous for getting caught – a grown man in a tree – but at least he wouldn’t have to deal with restraining orders and whatnot. Hell, she was trespassing just like he was. Putting on the same attitude the woman wore, he said, “Then what do you care?”
At that, she paused. Then, Harper barely caught it: her eyes flickered to the word in the tree.
“You can see it?” he asked.
The woman looked around, shocked, and whispered, as if embarrassed, “SEE?”
Harper’s mouth fell open. In hindsight, it made perfect sense. Naturally, other people might be able to see the letters. But, in the moment Harper was caught off guard, because he’d stupidly believed he was the only one who observant enough to notice. Or worthy enough.
From his reaction, the woman must have realized Harper could see it, too. Placing both hands on the tree, she said, genuinely curious, “You want to get rid of it?”
Without hesitation, he said, “Of course. It doesn’t mean anything.”
At that, Harper pushed himself away from the tree, fumbled for the saw, and held it out for the woman to see. “I’m doing us a favor.”
“By ruining my life?” the woman said, voice dripping with sarcasm.
He froze. “What do you mean?”
“Well, obviously you know it’s a sign.”
Harper pointed the saw at her. “No, let me save you the trouble. It’s not a sign. Nothing happens. Trust me, I know.”
“My bank statements would disagree.”
Hearing that, a strange, angry terror enveloped Harper. Shaking, he pushed forward, asking, “What do you mean?”
He knew what was coming, and his logical side wanted to plug his ears and sing and yell as he climbed down and fled home. But his battered, emotional side was desperate to press the issue. It was like a form of masochism – he knew he wouldn’t like what he’d hear, but had to ask anyway. Perhaps he wanted to hear the awful news just so he could go home and feel sorry for himself, and hate the provider of the news and feel justified in that hatred.
The woman smiled. “Before that appeared,” she said, gesturing to the branches, “I was actually filing bankruptcy papers. Seriously. I was done.” Then she patted the tree as if it were a friend. “The day after seeing that, my houses started selling.”
There it was. In the five seconds she spoke, Harper felt huge chunks of himself draining away, his tiny well of faith becoming contaminated, and his sense of entitlement in the world vanishing. Looking down at her, eyes already wet and angry, he said, “How do you know it wasn’t just coincidence?”
Although he’d asked the question, Harper knew it wasn’t mere chance. But that sick side of him forced him into speaking.
The woman promptly replied, “Either way, I’m not taking any chances.” The look she shot him said she was prepared to climb up there and drag him down if he went for the words again.
She didn’t have to.
Empty and ashamed, Harper dropped the saw. It bounced on the ground near the woman, causing her to jump back and shriek.
“Sorry,” said Harper. His voice was flat, although he did feel guilty. He was just so hollow and rotted, he couldn’t muster sympathy. After descending the tree, he didn’t even remember the process of climbing down. One minute he was standing eight feet above the ground, and the next he was eye-to-eye with the woman.
“Thanks,” she said. Her voice was all gratitude and she stuck out her hand. “I’m Therese.”
Harper nodded, but didn’t shake her hand. Without another word, he scooped up his saw and trudged home. Only he went right past his house. In a trance, he stumbled to a nearby walking trail he’d passed daily but never visited. Stepping up on the uneven asphalt, he began to walk, trudging back and forth across the tiny park.
The word was a sign for someone else. Not him, someone else. Worse still, he was able to see it. That was the disgusting part, the one that made Harper’s heart ache like he’d just been dumped. Not only was fate shitting on him, it was letting him know that someone else was getting the long end of the stick. Never had he felt so unwanted in the universe.
Thinking long and hard about his life, Harper didn’t feel like a bad person. He’d volunteered, for god’s sake. And he took responsibility for his own actions. Of course, his last failed meeting made him question everything. He’d always thought he was no worse than anyone else, but suddenly wondered if he was so far out of touch with himself, that he was actually some worthless asshole pushing through life.
Regardless, Harper Dodd felt like a shell of a person, he inched home like a shell of a person, and he stumbled through the next two months like a shell of a person. Gone was the drive to get his ideas back, gone was the need to find a job, gone was the need to simply fucking exist.
Oddly, though, of all things, his faith was stronger than ever. Before, he’d said all kinds of weird prayers – and attended even weirder churches – in hopes of finding that elusive faith. He never really believed, but desperately wanted to. It was an odd contradiction: he wanted to be in control and make his way without excuses, while keeping hope that some higher power was watching…just in case. The idea of feeling alone, without even the hint of a backup, seemed unbearable to him, and that desire drove him to church every week.
Now he believed. For the first time in his adult life, Harper truly believed. However, instead of providing him everything he thought it would – stability, peace, protection – faith only brought him torture, because God was bringing those things to someone else. The thought that a deity was there, rubbing Harper’s face in someone else’s graces was utterly destructive. For whatever reason, whatever was out there hated him, and Harper couldn’t fathom why an omnipotent being would go out of its way to do this.
Soon, the “SEE” tree wasn’t the only reminder of Harper’s scorned existence. He began to see posters of Therese. And newspaper ads featuring Therese. And fucking commercials with Therese, sporting her shabby red hair and encouraging people to contact her for real estate needs. A hollow madness started to well up in his stomach, infused with the fact God couldn’t stop rubbing it in Harper’s face what he’d given her but not him.
In late February, on a routine trip to the supermarket, Harper ran into Therese. She was getting out of a Lexus, so new, the license plates were made of paper. Seeing Harper, Therese instinctively smiled, probably because he’d been a decent human, leaving her tree alone. Then she saw the insane look on his face and stopped, her smile drooping to a thin, uncertain line.
“The word in the tree. How do you deserve it?” he demanded.
It was the question he’d been dying to ask, the one that consumed him every minute of every day. While he felt ashamed confronting a woman whose involvement in his life was through no doing of her own, he had to know what made her superior to him, what made God like her more. And he felt unable to move on without knowing.
Oddly, instead of appearing put out, Therese seemed relieved, which suddenly made a weird sort of sense. Harper realized he was very likely the only other person who knew about the tree. Therese wouldn’t tell anyone, for fear of looking crazy or drawing attention. If she told, the tree might end up in a church somewhere, surrounded in impenetrable glass. She obviously wanted to talk about it, though; anyone in her circumstance was bound to have unanswered questions.
Looking around, as if making sure the Pope wasn’t listening, she said, “What would make me deserve it?” The question wasn’t hostile; she sincerely wanted to know what constituted the reward in Harper’s mind. The question made Harper impatient, though. To him, the answer was obvious.
“Did you help sick kids or find some foundation to treat cancer or save a bunch of lives in a war somewhere?” He spoke quickly, as if repeating something she already knew.
A faint smile crossed Therese’s lips. “Honestly? Not really. I never went out of my way to hurt someone, if that’s what you mean.”
“I don’t either!” said Harper. “There has to be else.”
Therese thought for a second and shrugged. “I don’t know. I loaned my sister some money that she never paid back.”
Harper stared at her, helpless. “That’s it?”
“Sorry if it’s not what you’re wanting to hear.”
At that, Harper floundered. He couldn’t process the idea of someone, no better than he, making off with everything. He began shaking his head, unable to respond. This was absolutely asinine, and he felt even worse now, like he had even fewer answers. It became too much; he couldn’t hear anymore and began racing away.
“Wait,” said Therese.
Harper ignored her – anything else and he might go off on her – and made a beeline for his house. There, he located the handsaw he’d hidden in the bottom drawer of his toolbox and, once again, tested it on his broom handle.
He was going to cut those damn branches. Yes, it was wrong, and part of him felt horrible for even thinking it, as any normal person would. But he was sick and tired of being an ignored normal person, and he just couldn’t accept it. The wake of her success was drowning him. Every stupid flyer and ad and commercial seemed to ram itself down his throat, making breathing more and more difficult. He figured he’d regret it afterwards, probably sliding down some shame spiral, coming out in an even worse spot. But none of that mattered.
This time, he waited until 2:00 – when everyone would be asleep – before pulling on his black sweatshirt, saw, and beanie. He’d learned from his past endeavor and also grabbed work gloves and some rope with hooks on it, in case he needed to secure himself. Then, feeling like a bank robber, he stepped out his back door, made his way to the fence, and climbed over. Crouching, he walked around the alley, past the street and the other alley, and turned to the block housing the tree. Fortunately, the yard was very dark. From the side, the two-dimensional words were merely an afterthought under a new moon. And there were no spotlights or anything, a thought which had worried Harper.
Tiptoeing, he approached the tree and scanned the area. A car was in the driveway this time, but all the lights in the house were off. Harper nodded and placed the saw between his knees and yanked on the work gloves. Then he wound the rope, hauling it and the saw up to his shoulder. Gripping the bark -whose chill he could feel through the gloves – he heaved himself up.
The climb was a bit easier this time. He remembered what he’d done before and, whether or not it was the best way, repeated the motions until he straddled the branch. Then he wobbled to his feet and stopped to catch his breath.
“I figured you’d be back.”
Harper yelped and stumbled back, frantically grasping at twigs above to keep from falling. Then he pounded at his chest to stop the stress pains and looked down to see Therese, sitting in a lawn chair and pointing a rifle up at him. She smiled serenely and looked perfectly comfortable.