Here’s my latest update:
Harper was baffled; he swore the chair wasn’t there when he arrived. In his climb, had he completely missed a woman hauling a chair out into the yard – with a gun! – and sitting down to watch him? The thought was embarrassing; some crook he turned out to be.
It was then the absurdity of the moment hit him. He thought of himself, the oblivious midnight vandal, up in a tree with a rope and saw. He thought of Therese, a perfectly normal woman, sitting on a lawn chair with a gun (as big as she) pointed at his face, threatening to shoot him for pruning. It was all too much, and Harper began laughing. He wasn’t sure where it came from, and he didn’t feel particularly light-hearted, but he couldn’t stop himself. Therese simply watched with a patient calm.
Finally, between guffaws, Harper managed to say, “Can you imagine if you shot me on someone else’s property? They’d find a dead body in their yard. You’d go to jail. I’d go to the morgue.”
Therese, not laughing, said, “I own this house.”
Her statement’s implication immediately destroyed his fragile shell of mirth. Swaying with dread, Harper managed to sputter, “How?”
“I offered the owners way more than it was worth. Sure they were attached, but they couldn’t refuse.”
Harper felt himself floundering again. He could still hear himself laughing in his head, and it made him ill. He suddenly wondered how many paychecks and houses and cars the “SEE” tree had earned Therese.
“So you bought the house just for the tree,” said Harper. The thought was maddening, and, when Therese nodded at him, Harper began to cry; he couldn’t help himself. It was all too much. That one act single-handedly represented everything that was wrong with the tree.
“It isn’t fair,” he muttered to Therese.
Surprisingly, she looked sympathetic, not angry, at having been drug out of bed in the middle of the night to kill someone. And she looked genuinely sad for the vandal bawling in her tree.
“I’m sorry,” she said, when his whimpers subsided. “And it isn’t fair. I’ve thought about it a lot. But I have to protect myself.”
Harper pondered that for a second and said, “You knew I’d be coming.”
She nodded again. “I would have.”
The statement made him feel less evil, but far more generic. Any sane person, it turns out, might be up in the tree.
“Would you really shoot me?” Again, Harper already knew the answer. If, somehow, the sign was helping him, he would have killed to protect it. Not just because of what it would have given him in terms of financial security, but for what it represented. However, the idea sparked a nugget of skepticism, something that made him feel better.
“I don’t think you’d get away with it,” he said, before she could respond. “If I was in your house, sure. But in the yard, you’d go to jail.”
Therese shrugged. “The tree’s been pretty good to me. Something tells me I’d find a way out of it.” His smug skepticism melted, and, more than ever, he wanted to destroy the damn letters. If anything, he just wanted to level the playing field; it wasn’t fucking fair.
Before he lost his nerve, Harper turned to face the word in the branches. Immediately, he heard a frantic noise below, follow by, “I will shoot you.” He couldn’t see her but knew the gun was pointed right at his back. His hands started shaking and tried reaching up, but couldn’t bring himself reach up to grab the branch. He didn’t want to die. But he couldn’t back down, either -she’d been winning everything for months, and he couldn’t give this to her.
And so, he simply stood there, paralyzed, while she laid out her case.
“Look, I’ve never shot anyone before. And I don’t want to do this.” Her voice sounded sad, frenetic even. “In some parallel universe, I’m the one in the tree and you’re the one with the gun. But I will do it.”
Harper remained still, which she apparently took as a sign to keep going.
“Here’s what I think.” Her voice was desperate and shaky now. “You climb down and come in for some coffee. Then we talk about how I can help you.”
In the moment, Harper was sure she thought he’d give in. Her suggestion was perfectly reasonable, kind even. However, Harper wasn’t even considering the proposal. He didn’t want her money. She could give him thousands but, in the end, she was still the one who’d won God. And he realized he wanted to punish the divine just as badly as he wanted to sever Therese’s advantage.
Thinking about his situation, Harper knew he had to act now, in this moment of what seemed like indecision. And he was struck with an idea that might give him some semblance of leverage. However, given his ideas, lately, he hesitated, and even heard a distinct whimper flee his lips. He was going to die, he just knew it. And a tiny voice in his head was frantically chirping, “Just go home.” But his pride and anger and desperation to win something punched the voice aside. Surprisingly, his hatred of that cowardly voice made him resolute in his decision, and he clenched his teeth until they hurt, telling himself, This is happening.
Then he moved.
Pretending to turn in acquiescence, Harper drew Therese’s focus to his body as his hand subtly reached for the rope. When he was almost facing her (she was smiling in relief), he’d undone enough to reach the branch forming most of the letter “S”. Grinning back at her, he nodded and began to crouch as though he were going to climb down.
Then, before she could react, he hopped up and latched the rope’s hook to the “S” branch. He landed, not meaning to inflict any damage, but his right foot slipped and he started toppling sideways off his balance beam. Terrified, with his head spinning, Harper leaned on the rope to pull himself upright, causing the “S” branch to pull toward him, thereby emitting the tiniest of cracks.
Therese let out a horrified shriek and Harper heard noises below. He spun, heart racing, to see what she was doing. He instinctively ducked and shut his eyes in case she was pulling the trigger. Nothing happened. Slowly, Harper opened his eyes. Therese was still there, only she wasn’t sitting comfortably anymore. No, she was standing right below him, gun pointed straight up, eyes wide with horror. But she didn’t pull the trigger, and Harper knew he was safe for now.
Lowering his hands, he watched her closely, and actually smiled; this woman who’d gotten everything was terrified, and it brought a strange sense of power. Again, it was another completely awful and selfish thought, but it made him feel better. Giving the branch another tug for emphasis – causing another chirp of protest from Therese – Harper played his hand, saying, “If you shoot me, I’ll fall. And if I fall, the word falls with me.”
Immediately, his words sank in, and Therese looked as if she wanted to hurl the gun at him. It was a Mexican stand-off. If he made a move to destroy the words, she’d shoot him. But, in shooting him, the words would still be destroyed. It was an unwinnable situation. But Harper had been used to unwinnable situations for months, and it made him infinitely more comfortable than Theresa, who’d recently been stuck in scenarios she couldn’t lose. Loosening more rope, he lowered himself, straddled the branch below him, and let his feet swing happily, like a child.
Finally, after minutes of indecision, apparently trying, for the first time in months to process losing, Therese inched back to her chair and sat. She still kept the gun pointed up at Harper, but her resolution to pull the trigger was gone. Instead, she let out a deep breath and said, “Now what?”
Harper wasn’t sure, but, without being in a position to have to make an immediate decision, he relaxed a bit, allowed himself to close his eyes, and let the cold breeze attack his hair. The tree swayed all around him, making him feel like he was on a cruise ship. It was nice being an equal to humanity again and, after taking a few deep breaths, he looked at Therese. After a few uncertain looks, they shrugged at the same time and, as if mutually agreeing there was nothing else to do, began talking.
Curious, Harper asked, “You think the tree would really protect you for killing someone? That’s not very virtuous.”
Therese lifted the gun until her fingers were near her face. Then she scratched her nose and said, “Who says I’ve been virtuous with everything I’ve been given?” That made sense, too. If the tree demanded a perfect life, all her money would have to go to charity or something. Instead, she was able to buy Lexuses and snap up houses (this one, just for a tree) and do God knows what else.
“Did you believe in God? Before, you know,” said Therese, nodding at the word in the tree.
“Not really. I sure as hell do now, though.”
“Same here. He’s not what you thought, is he?” she said.
“You could say that. I’m sure you’re thrilled, though.”
At that, she let out a bark of a laugh. “I’m sitting in a muumuu in the middle of the night about to shoot someone who doesn’t deserve it. I don’t think I’m any more thrilled than you are.”
That surprised Harper. He’d been so obsessed with jealousy, he hadn’t realized what fate was asking of Therese. He wouldn’t be happy watching God shit on someone else. And he certainly wouldn’t be happy if he had to shoot someone. He would have done it, but it would have destroyed him.
“So what does that mean?” asked Harper.
“No idea,” said Therese.
After a brief pause, she asked, “You married?”
Harper shook his head. “Nope, you?”
She waggled the gun back and forth. “No.”
“Why do you ask?” Before Harper could stop himself, he added, “You interested?”
In the insanity of the moment, they both laughed.
“No way,” she said. “I like being single. I will be forever.”
“Then why’d you ask?”
“Trying to figure out how you and I are different.”
“To see why the tree picked you?”
“What if it has nothing to do with us?” Harper said, after a minute of silence.
“What do you mean?”
“What if it’s like proximity. Like whoever was in your spot was just the right distance away to be helped. Maybe I was too far.”
Therese raised her eyebrows. “Interesting. Or maybe it was timing. Maybe I saw it first.”
The idea that the tree wasn’t discriminatory against Harper was both refreshing and frustrating. It was nice in that Therese wasn’t singled out over him, but stupid in that fate was rewarding a random person. What if she was a pedophile? The idea seemed reckless, and they both sat in silence for a long time, pondering the possibilities and consequences.
Finally, Harper leaned forward and said, “So, a realtor, huh?”
Therese arched forward and Harper heard cracking roll up her spine. She sighed and said, “Sometimes. Primarily, I buy and flip houses.”
Harper nodded and looked behind her. “This one’s pretty damn ugly.”
Therese laughed. “Yeah, I’m not even gonna try with it.”
“How did you know I’d be here tonight?”
“I didn’t.” She paused, looking away as if embarrassed, before adding, “I had sensors and cameras setup.”
“Holy shit,” said Harper.
“You gotta do what you gotta do.”
Harper glanced up at the rope ready to tear down the branches.
“Agreed,” he said.
They continued talking, for hours. It was a free and open conversation. There were no other actions to be taken or ulterior motives to be considered. They weren’t in each other’s circles, so they didn’t have to risk accidentally saying the wrong thing about a friend or colleague. And, being the only two who knew about the tree, they could be truly open only with each other, and let whatever was in their heads fall out.
It was during their third hour of conversation that the energy began to change. Soon, the first rays of daylight would pour over the plateaus in the distance. Then, the early-risers would begin venturing outside. As much as they’d like to, Harper and Therese couldn’t sit forever. One of them was going to have to take action, and Harper felt a very acute nervousness embed itself in his back.
After getting to know her, Harper realized he liked Therese and had no desire to hurt her. But, in true conundrum-like style, he still needed the words gone and refused to let her win. Conversely, he believed Therese when she said she didn’t want to shoot him. But she would. And, within the hour, something had to give. Unfortunately, Harper could see only three outcomes: destroy the branches, die, or both. The idea of his limited mortality sank in, and Harper found himself twitching nervously up in the tree, like he was in another botched meeting with his old agency. Therese, shifting uncomfortably and starting to jolt every time he moved, obviously felt the same. But because both of them were too nervous to take action, the release of their tension fell to their banter, which began to get sharper.
“Say I jumped right now and tore down the word,” Harper said, “do you think you’d lose everything you’ve made over the past months?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe. Again, I’m not gonna take that chance.”
“I’m not asking you to, yet,” he said. “But doesn’t that make you feel inadequate? Like you can’t make it using your own talents?”
Therese bristled and said, “At least I’m doing something. Don’t you feel inadequate knowing you have talents that are being wasted while you obsess over a tree?”
“I do,” he said, honestly. “But if I were you, I think I’d be downright bored, having everything work out, stress-free.”
It was in Therese’s acknowledgment that Harper was hit with a doozy: when he’d cracked the branch, it was the first time she’d been scared in months. Hell, it was probably the first rush of high-stakes driven fear she’d experienced. And, like it or not, people needed that; fear of failing was a necessary, ingrained instinct. Conversely, it was the first measure of control he’d felt. People also needed that. They were some ying yang wrapped around the damn tree, and Harper finally knew it.
Although so infinitesimally subtle, the realization was mind-blowing – he gave her life’s rush, and she gave him life’s stability. Or maybe the tree was giving it. Either way, it didn’t matter – based on their opposite hands, dealt by the tree, Harper realized his way out. Almost chirping with excitement, he made a decision.
Completely sure of himself, Harper stood up. Therese didn’t expect movement and fumbled for her gun. Shaking – obviously thinking this was where it would happen – her first murder – she whimpered, “Please don’t do this.”
Harper, calm as sleep, put his arms up and said, “Relax. I’m just unhooking the rope.”
“Then what?” said Therese, still pointing the gun. Her finger trembled just over the trigger.
“Then I’m going to go home and go to sleep.”
Therese, buried in confusion, couldn’t respond.
After Harper had unhooked the room and began his descent, she managed to sputter, “That’s it?”
At that, Harper shrugged then dropped to the ground.
Although her tree was safe, Therese still looked terrified. “So you’re not gonna do it?”
Again, Harper shrugged. His being noncommittal made him feel better, but freaked her out even more. “So you’re not gonna do it?” she said, louder this time.
For the third and final time, Harper shrugged. Then, ignoring her further pleas for information, he walked home, already planning his next fray into the branches of the “SEE” tree.