2014.06.12 – 68 – What can writers groups do for you?


I’ve been attending writers groups here in Phoenix for the past two months. During that time, I’ve met some really cool people and learned a ton about writing. I’m actually shocked how much I’ve learned. I thought, because most of the members are somewhat inexperienced, I’d have to take a lot of critique with a grain of salt.

Boy howdy, was I wrong.

Sitting down with a group of writers of all experience levels is crazy beneficial (totes ma goats!.. that’s right, I said it). I’ve even noticed that some people who aren’t amazing writers (in my opinion) give amazing feedback. One guy has even led me to rewrite my novel’s first chapter (the response has been amazing so far).

Needless to say, I’m very pleasantly surprised. Here’s why:

I like to think I’m pretty self aware when it comes to things. But, with writing, it’s impossible to separate yourself completely once the work is done. You know – in every detail – what happens and why. And because of that you make assumptions that may or may not be true.

OK I could go on and on about this. But, as young whipper snappers these days say, the proof is in the pudding.

A couple months ago, I posted a short story called “The SEE Tree.” I’ve taken that story to writers group and implemented lots of feedback. The result is shorter in some ways but more detailed in others. Now that I’ve run the entire story through writers group, I want to share it again.

To any of you who read the first version, I encourage you to scan this one and let me know what you think. The good news is, if you hate it, I can just blame writers group. Yay for scapegoats!!! :)

P.S. If you want to read it, but don’t want to scroll down this huge page, click here to download a PDF version.

The SEE Tree
by Cody Wagner

A pointy girl, no more than twenty-five, gave Harper a thin, patronizing smile from her over-sized chair. Harper had seen countless looks in the ITLR Group conference room, but never that one. It morosely announced, “He’s washed up,” and, in that moment, Harper felt like an A-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 a rookie could tell his presentation was a failure. He had to close his eyes and imagine the solace of his office 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 too generic, too expensive, or 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 agency president, Katherine Clark, asked for a minute alone with Harper. The room cleared out as if a fire was eating the thick berber carpet and black velvet walls. When they were alone, Katherine tapped her lips with her index fingers and said, “Is everything OK?” She sat straight, as if a board had been strapped to her, to compensate for her five foot one frame. She placed a comforting hand on Harper’s shoulder. He felt like a child and wanted to shrug it off.
Instead, he looked down at the intricate mahogany table and ran a finger over the polished surface, mind racing for a lie. He desperately wanted to say things were not alright. He wanted to claim he suffered from encephalitis or a concussion or some odd form of PTSD. Those excuses were asinine and he couldn’t think of anything better. 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, his fear led to terrifying meetings. And so, he simply shrugged and, without looking up, said, “I’m good.”
He felt Katherine remove her hand and knew she was rocking back and forth in her chair, something she did when deciding how to proceed. She nodded and stood up.
Here it comes, thought Harper.
Only she didn’t fire him. Walking a long circle around the table, she bumped him down to part time, work from home. He’d be involved in less prominent business pitches.
“We want to take some pressure off you,” she said, “so you can focus on yourself instead of our most difficult clients.”
Harper knew that really meant she didn’t want him touching high-profile accounts anymore. Her lack of directness was insulting. That line might have worked on an art director, but he felt he deserved better, and didn’t say a word as she left the room.
He waited a few minutes before slinking to his office for some task lists. On the way, tops of heads poked over cubes and disappeared, like prairie dogs. He was like a man heading down death row. Halfway, the shame became too much, and Harper realized he wouldn’t make it to his office and back without crumbling.
Balling his fists, he turned and faced the foyer. He didn’t want to let these people get the best of him. Who cared what they thought? But that was a damned lie. He did care, and had to get out before they saw him break down.
The ding of an elevator door rang down the hall. Harper tensed his legs to move; if he went now, he might get on without waiting. He might not have to suffer the abuse of the annoying receptionist and her million questions.
Keeping his head tall and face stony, he made his decision and strolled toward the foyer. The elevator door opened and started to close. Shit. Harper gave up all pretense of calm and ran for it, sticking his hand in the slit before the elevator slammed shut. The doors balked open, and Harper stepped in. He heard the receptionist’s nasal soprano voice and he pounded the “Close Door” button until he was safe and alone. His body deflated and he felt relieved but weak as he fled to his car and drove home.
Scurrying into his house–as if more prairie dogs were still watching–Harper couldn’t even bring himself to slam the door. He felt he didn’t have the right to be angry and pushed it shut so feebly, it barely latched.
As if by instinct, his eyes found the sleek black desk right next to the modern kitchen. He faltered for a second, debating whether or not to pig out on Kit Kats or go comatose over reruns of Seinfeld. But he couldn’t give up again today. He inched across the living room to the computer, like a zombie, and powered it on. Without thinking, his hands found Google and, numb, he searched for information on brainstorming, crowdstorming, and every other kind of storming that might bring his mind back.
Over the past six months, he felt subhuman, like a part of him had emptied out of some new orifice. Although he had no idea where it had stemmed from or exactly how to fix it, he was determined to beat this creative block, even if his tactics didn’t 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 a small window right in front of him. Scanning the roofs of the other ranch houses and their clean stone fences, he begged the gray, heavy air around him for inspiration on how to beat something that made no sense.
A light sprinkle started and sporadic drops fell from the opening at the bottom of his green metal rain gutters. Harper was so desperate, he imagined the droplets were ideas and debated sticking his head below the hole to soak them in. Shaking the insane thought away, he found the lone apple tree a couple blocks away. It stood randomly in a neighbor’s lawn, two houses behind his. He loved its uniqueness; most of the trees in the area were of the low water variety, acacias and palo verdes.
Now that fall was approaching, the apple tree’s 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.
Another leaf fell, and his attention was drawn to the right corner. The branches twisted and turned so orderly, 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; a shape was emerging.
Desperate for a distraction, he inched to the window. He put a hand on the wall, feeling rapid heartbeats pulse through his fingertips. The branches were, indeed, twisted into a shape. Only it wasn’t a picture, as he’d first thought. Somehow, impossibly, the branches wrapped around each other to form a word.
Recognition was instantaneous. Placing eager hands on the cool glass, Harper traced the letters with his head as he held his breath, afraid a single exhale might shatter the fragile vision. The word was unmistakable; there was no guess work to it. This wasn’t some Jesus burned into toast. 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. However, in that moment, he felt his body lighten, for the first time in months. He couldn’t overlook this sign; it was too much, too perfect. Or maybe he was so desperate, he was willing to see something invisible in a pile of sticks. Either way, he let the word wash over him. Miraculously, the ideas came.
Falling in his chair, Harper began typing. New concepts and solutions invaded so fast, he could barely keep up. His fingers flew across the keyboard until they ached. He couldn’t even get up to piss and squirmed in his chair after three 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 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 bite. 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 dialed into the conference call with an energy he hadn’t felt in months. His ten coworkers, separated by cellular waves, picked up on it and, instead of silent black holes and random coughs, he heard chattering about happy hours and a girl burst into laughter. When the energy peaked, Harper launched into the presentation with his old spark, making salted crackers jump off the page like filet mignon.
When he finished a half hour later, 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 then diffused. He had done it. This time, like many times before, he imagined the impressed buzzing from the other members. He wanted to jump up and run around the room like an airplane.
A long pause followed. The awkward silence was horribly familiar, and Harper felt saliva catch in his throat as he forced back a cough. What was going on? A voice in his head said, “They’re blown away.” But he didn’t hear the tell-tale excited whispers or papers rustling or pens frantically scribbling across pads. Images of that prepubescent account executive and her patronizing smile played behind his eyeballs and his heart pounded drums.
“Ok. Thank you, Harper,” said Katherine. Her voice had no inflection; it was a thankless thanks and Harper knew she was unimpressed. He pushed back in his chair, confused. He was sure he’d won them over.
“Well, if there aren’t any questions,” said Katherine. “Let’s adjourn and regroup later today.” She didn’t even pause for questions. Harper heard chairs moving and footsteps. He had his face in his hands and was tugging his hair.
“Harper,” said Katherine.
Harper closed his eyes and said, “Yes?”
“Stay on the line for a minute, please.”
Harper laid his head on the desk. “Sure.”
For two minutes, he heard what had to be Katherine pacing around the room. Then he heard the door close and two sets of footsteps got louder. A pair of chairs creaked and settled under the weight of bodies.
“Harper, I asked Nancy from HR to join us.”
Harper nodded but didn’t say anything. He proceeded to rub his forehead up and down the desk as Nancy coolly laid him off.
The instant the line went dead, Harper sobbed on his keyboard. He wasn’t upset about being let go; 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.
His mis-perception about the meeting destroyed Harper. 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. He’d never 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.
Thinking of nothing, Harper found the “SEE” tree. At first, a flash of anger ricocheted through his guts like a stray current. It 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 shouldn’t blame some pile of twigs. But he did blame them. And he couldn’t stop believing it was a sign, even now. There was no way wood could bend itself like that. The letters 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 six weeks 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. The opposite happened. He couldn’t let the SEE Tree go, and grew to despise it. He 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 reeked of laziness, and Harper couldn’t accept that.
Perhaps that was what led him to the tree in the middle of the night, brandishing a tiny flashlight and bow saw.
Harper could have ambled out his front door and strolled around the block, but he refused to let the tree out of his line of sight, and stepped out back. The night air was chillier than he expected, but Harper refused to go back in and grab a coat. It was bright red, which would make him look like a flame in the tree.
Crouching like a sprinter on his wooden patio, Harper looped the saw up his arm around his shoulder and placed his hands on the ground.
“Ready. Set. GO.”
He took off to the 7-foot stone fence like an uncoordinated sprinter. Four feet away, he planted his right foot, leapt, and grabbed the top. He struggled, having to use his feet to push up and over the wall. The coarse rock was frigid and burned his hands.
Grimacing, he landed with a painful thud that rattled his knees. Ignoring the pain–and his lack of physical abilities–Harper made sure the letters were still visible. They were, and, heaving an uncertain breath, he walked down and around the alley, and past a house. He skittered across the street and, turning, he looked up and found the tree again; it was four houses down. The word had vanished into two dimensions from the side.
Picking up his pace, Harper approached the house. It was a gaudy affair, purple and brown, the worst house on the block. No cars were in the driveway and all the lights were off, giving Harper some hope its occupants might have been out to dinner or a movie. He nervously rubbed at his jeans and tiptoed the remaining twelve steps to the tree.
Harper expected the letters to be illegible, or gone entirely, but they were larger than life, making his failures appear larger than life as well. Growling at the tree, as if challenging it to object and snarl back, Harper jumped and grabbed the lowest-hanging branch, eight feet high and thick enough to support his weight.
He quickly realized climbing trees wasn’t like riding bicycles; he had no idea what he was doing.
Closing his eyes and piling verbal “shits” on top of each other, he hauled himself up, herky-jerky, until he was standing on the branch like a balance beam. Shaking with chill and vertigo, he waited until his body grew accustomed to the unsteadiness of the swaying tree and looked up. The word was right above him. Cursing, he stepped back and fought to keep his eyes open. It was a 3D movie this time, the letters surrounding him like prison bars, making him more determined to remove them and escape.
Pulling the bow saw down his arm, he grabbed the first branch, the one forming the curve of the letter “S”. Gritting his teeth, he placed the saw against it. His hands ached from the chill and bark, but he forced the handle forward. A few specks of tree dust spat off and drifted away. Harper smiled–the letters weren’t invincible–and went to pull the saw back.
“What are you doing?”
The voice had the force of a fire hose and Harper almost fell out of the tree. He twirled around and seized the trunk, hugging it frantically, like it might try to uproot itself and flee. Slowly, he looked down to find a woman standing just below him. Her hands, sporting a fine layer of red fuzz (visible even in the wan moonlight), were planted on her hips. Pushing some red hair out of her sharply angled face, she shrugged at him as if waiting for an answer.
“Shit,” Harper hissed. The family wasn’t gone after all. Images of police arriving and arresting him for trespassing rolled through his head. Harper felt moronic. He’d let the fucking tree get the best of him again. It was no one’s fault but his own.
“Well?” the woman said. She spoke through gritted teeth, putting her hand on the bark like she might climb up after him. 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.”
He winced before the words were even out. The woman wrinkled her nose and shook her head.
“It’s not my tree,” she said. “But it isn’t yours either.”
Harper threw up a hand to stop her. “It’s not your tree?”
“No, I live across the street.”
Relief expanded Harper’s chest and he pushed himself back to take full breaths. He felt ridiculous for getting caught–a grown man in a tree–but at least he wouldn’t have to deal with restraining orders and gossip. Hell, she was trespassing just like he was.
Putting on the same attitude the woman wore, he said, “Then what do you care?”
She paused, and Harper barely caught her eyes flicker to the word in the tree.
“You can see it?” he whispered.
The woman’s eyes grew wide. She looked around and said, as if embarrassed, “SEE?”
Harper’s jaw dropped. He’d stupidly believed he was the only one observant enough to notice. Or worthy enough.
Placing both hands on the tree, the woman said, genuinely curious, “You want to get rid of it?”
“Of course. It doesn’t mean anything.”
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.”
Angry terror enveloped Harper. Shaking, he leaned forward, asking, “What do you mean?”
He knew what was coming, and his logical side wanted to plug his ears and sing as he climbed down and fled home. His battered, emotional side was desperate to press the issue. It was 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 feel justified in that self pity.
The woman smiled. “Before that appeared,” she said, gesturing to the branches, “I was actually filing bankruptcy papers. Seriously. I was done.” 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 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 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. That sick side of him forced him into speaking.
The woman 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, though he did feel guilty. He was just so hollow and rotted, he couldn’t muster sympathy. He descended the tree then couldn’t 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 a 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. He stepped up on the uneven asphalt and began to walk, trudging back and forth across the tiny park.
The word was a sign for someone else. Not him. Worse still, he was able to see it. That was the devastating part. It 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. He’d never felt so unwanted in the universe.
After thinking long and hard about his life, Harper didn’t consider himself a bad person. He’d volunteered, for God’s sake. He took responsibility for his own actions. Of course, his failure to recognize the last botched meeting made him question everything. He’d always thought he was no worse than anyone else, but suddenly wondered if he was out of touch with himself. Did he become one of those people who thought everyone liked him while they talked shit behind his back?
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, his faith emerged stronger than ever. Before the “SEE” Tree, he’d never thought much about God. People were in control of their own destinies and Harper went along with the line of thinking. It wasn’t that he was an outright unbeliever; he worked in tangibles.
Now that the tree was saving Therese, he believed. For the first time in his adult life, Harper believed in God. However, instead of providing him everything he thought it would–stability, peace, protection–faith only brought him torture. God shone his stability, peace, and protection on someone else.
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 insane red hair (that got fancier with each incarnation) and encouraging people to contact her for real estate needs. A hollow madness started to well up in Harper’s stomach, infused with the fact God couldn’t stop rubbing in his face what he’d given her and 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 paper. Harper couldn’t help himself and approached her, hands balled into fists. She flinched and held her purse to her chest behind crossed arms. She peered at her car as if debating an escape. Her eyes were panicked.
“I don’t carry cash,” she whimpered.
“Why 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.
She clutched her purse tighter and said, “What?”
“The sign in the tree. Why do you deserve it?”
The woman’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion as she studied him.
“You’re the guy with the saw?” she said.
Harper nodded, pain filling his stomach. She had better things to do than remember him.
Her posture relaxed. It confused Harper, until he realized she didn’t see him as a threat. After all, he’d been a decent human, leaving her tree alone.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you. You look different.” She gestured at his face. “You didn’t have all that scruff.”
Harper rubbed his chin. He hadn’t shaved in weeks. He had huge bags under his eyes, too; sleep was impossible. While Therese was getting more beautiful, he was becoming more ragged. She’d thought he was a mugger.
“Please. Tell me why you deserve it.” he said again.
Instead of appearing put out, Therese smiled as if relieved. It made a weird sort of sense. Harper realized he may be 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 by 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.
“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 should have known.
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 something else.”
Therese thought for a second and shrugged. “I don’t know. I loaned my sister some money she never paid back.”
Harper stared at her. “That’s it?”
“Sorry if it’s not what you’re wanting to hear.”
Harper floundered. He couldn’t process the idea of someone, no better than he, making off with everything. He shook his head, unable to respond. This was absolutely ridiculous, and he felt even worse now. He raced away; her words hurt too much and he couldn’t hear any more.
“Wait,” said Therese.
Harper ignored her–anything else and he might explode–and made a beeline for his house. There, he located the bow saw he’d hidden in the bottom drawer of his toolbox and tested it on his broom handle. Still sharp.
He was going to cut those damn branches. Yes, it was wrong, and part of him felt horrible for even thinking it. But he was tired of being ignored. The wake of her success was drowning him. Every stupid flyer and ad and commercial rammed itself down his throat, making breathing more and more difficult. He figured he’d regret it afterward, probably sliding down some shame spiral, coming out in an even worse spot.
He didn’t care.
Harper waited until 2:00AM before pulling on his black sweatshirt, jeans, and the saw. 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.
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, and faced the block housing the tree. From the side, the two-dimensional words were merely an afterthought under a new moon. The yard was very dark, and Harper nodded, satisfied.
Tiptoeing, he approached the tree and scanned the area. A car was in the driveway, but the house was asleep. Harper placed the saw between his knees and yanked on the work gloves. He wound the rope, looping it and the saw around his shoulder. Gripping the bark, whose chill he could feel through the gloves, he heaved himself up.
The climb was 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. He wobbled to his feet and stopped to catch his breath.
“I figured you’d be back.”
Harper yelled and stumbled back, grasping at twigs above to keep from falling. 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, but her pale eyes were nervous.
Harper’s scanned the lawn in confusion; he swore the chair wasn’t there when he arrived. Did I miss a woman hauling a chair in the yard with a gun?
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. He thought of her shooting him for pruning.
The thoughts snowballed until Harper was 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.
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 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 floundered again. He wondered how many paychecks and houses and cars the “SEE” tree had earned Therese. He could still hear himself laughing in his head, and it made him nauseous.
“So you bought the house just for the tree,” said Harper. The thought was maddening, and, when Therese nodded at him, Harper lost it and began to cry. He couldn’t help himself; her purchase represented everything wrong with the tree.
“It isn’t fair,” he muttered to Therese.
“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.” Her sympathy surprised Harper, calming him.
“You knew I’d be coming?” he asked.
She nodded. “I would have.”
The statement made him feel less evil, but far more generic. Any sane person, it turns out, might have been in the tree.
“Would you really shoot me?” Again, Harper already knew the answer. If, somehow, the “SEE” Tree was helping him, he would have killed for it. Not only because of what it would have given him financially, but for what it represented. However, the idea sparked a nugget of skepticism.
“I don’t think you’d get away with it,” he said, before she could respond. “If I was inyour 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.”
Her effortless confidence infuriated Harper. Only Therese, stocked up on divine intervention, could get away with murder. Harper looked at the branches. 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.
Harper reached up, testing her. He heard creaking as the chair shifted, followed by, “I will shoot you.” He couldn’t see her, but knew the gun was pointed right at his back. He tried touching a branch, and his shaking hands refused. Despite his worthlessness, he didn’t want to die. But he couldn’t back down, either. She’d been winning everything for months. He wouldn’t give this to her.
Paralyzed, he stood while she laid out her case.
“I’ve never shot anyone before. And I don’t want to do this.” Her voice wavered. “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 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. But he wasn’t 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. He wanted to punish the divine just as badly as he wanted to sever Therese’s advantage.
Harper knew he had to act now, in this moment of what appeared to be indecision. An idea struck, one that might give him some semblance of leverage. Given his useless ideas recently, he hesitated, and even heard a distinct whimper flee his lips. He was going to die, he just knew it. A tiny voice in his head frantically chirped, “Just go home.” His pride and desperation to win anything punched the voice aside. He clenched his teeth until they hurt, telling himself, This is happening.
Harper turned, drawing Therese’s focus to his body as his hand reached for the rope. When he faced her, she smiled in relief. Behind his back, he’d undone enough rope to reach the branch forming the letter “S”. Grinning back at her, he crouched as though he were going to climb down.
Instead of descending, he jumped.
Before Therese could react, Harper 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. 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 crashing 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. Harper peeked at her. Therese was still there, only she wasn’t sitting comfortably anymore. Her chair was on its side and she was standing below him, gun pointed straight up, eyes wide with horror. But she didn’t pull the trigger, and Harper knew he was safe for the time being.
Lowering his hands, he scrutinized her and smiled; this woman who’d gotten everything was terrified, and it brought a strange sense of power. Giving the branch another tug for emphasis–bringing another chirp of protest from Therese–Harper played his hand.
“If you shoot me, I’ll fall. And if I fall, the word falls with me.”
His words sank in and Therese looked as if she wanted to hurl the gun at him. It was a Mexican stand-off, an unwinnable situation. But Harper had been used to unwinnable situations for months, and it made him infinitely more comfortable than Therese, who’d 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.
After minutes of indecision, apparently trying, for the first time in months to process losing, Therese inched back to her chair, uprighted it, and sat. She 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, allowing himself to lean back and let the cold breeze attack his hair. The tree swayed around him, stirring memories of lounging on cruise ships. He realized how much he missed being an equal to humanity. After a few cleansing breaths, he observed Therese.
Seeing him in such a unassertive position, she set the gun in her lap and stared at him. Sharing a few uncertain looks, they shrugged at the same time and, as if mutually agreeing there was nothing else in the universe to do, began talking.
“You think the tree would really protect you for killing someone?” said Harper. “That’s not very virtuous.”
Therese lifted the gun until her fingers were near her face. She scratched her nose and said, “Who says I’ve been virtuous with everything I’ve been given?”
That makes sense, thought Harper. 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?”
“You could say that. I’m sure you’re thrilled, though.”
Therese barked out a laugh. “I’m sitting in a muumuu in the middle of the night about to shoot someone. I don’t think I’m any more thrilled than you are.”
That surprised Harper. He’d been so obsessed, he hadn’t realized what fate was asking of Therese. He wouldn’t be happy watching God shit on someone else. He certainly wouldn’t be happy if he had to shoot him. He would have done it, but it would have destroyed him.
“So what does that mean?” asked Harper.
“No idea,” said Therese. She leaned forward, lifted the back legs of the chair out of the grass, and scooted forward a couple inches. “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.”
“Then why’d you ask?”
“Trying to figure out how you and I are different,” said Therese.
“To see why the tree picked you?”
Harper wrapped some excess rope around his hand. “What if it has nothing to do with us?”
“What do you mean?”
Harper shifted his weight backwards and said, “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.”
“Could be.”
The idea that the tree wasn’t discriminatory against Harper was both refreshing and frustrating. He thought it nice that Therese wasn’t singled out over him, but stupid because fate was rewarding a random person. What if she was a pedophile? The idea stunk of recklessness, and Harper sat in silence for a long time, pondering possibilities and consequences.
Finally, he leaned forward and said, “So, a realtor, huh?”
Therese arched forward and Harper heard a crack 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 looked 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 poised to tear down the branches.
“Agreed,” he said.
They continued talking, and, during their third hour of conversation, the energy began to change. Soon, the first rays of daylight would pour over the plateaus in the distance. 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 an acute nervousness embed itself in his back.
After getting to know her, Harper realized he liked Therese and had no desire to hurt her. In true conundrum-like style, though, he still refused to let her win. Conversely, he believed Therese when she said she didn’t want to shoot him. But she would. Within the hour, something had to give. Harper could see only three outcomes: destroy the branches, die, or both.
The idea of his shrinking mortality sank in, and Harper found himself twitching up in the tree. He felt like he was sitting in another botched meeting at his old agency. Therese, shifting uncomfortably and jolting every time he moved, obviously felt the same. Because they were too scared to take action, the release of 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. “But if I were you, I think I’d be downright bored, having everything work out, stress-free.” The statement was only half serious, but Harper caught it in her face: she flinched as if she’d been busted.
She agreed with him! Therese was bored!
Therese was bored of her perfect fucking life, and Harper was hit with a doozy: when he’d cracked the branch, it was the first time she’d been scared in months. Hell, he thought, laughing to himself, she hasn’t experienced a rush like that in months. Like it or not, he decided people needed that rush. Humans aren’t compatible with utopias. Conversely, it was the first measure of control he’d felt. Humans aren’t compatible with chaos, either.
Harper and Therese were some ying yang wrapped around The “SEE” Tree.
Although so 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 his decision and stood up. Therese didn’t expect movement and fumbled for her gun.
“Please don’t do this,” she whimpered, tears welling in her eyes.
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 over the trigger.
“Then I’m going to go home and sleep.”
Therese, buried in confusion, couldn’t respond.
After Harper unhooked the rope and began his descent, she managed to sputter, “That’s it?”
Harper shrugged and 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 more.
“So you’re not gonna do it?” she shrieked.
For the third and final time, Harper shrugged. Ignoring her further pleas for information, he walked home, already planning his next foray into the branches of the “SEE” Tree.

About the Author: Cody Wagner

Cody Wagner

Cody is an aspiring author and creator of Wagner Writer. His first novel, A Gay Teen's Guide to Defeating a Siren, was released in 2015. He has a penchant for making weird videos and writing even weirder stories. But not all. Some of his stuff is perfectly normal. He promises.

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