((Photo provided by Unsplash.com by artist tertia van rensburg))
Okay so here’s the deal. Halloween is my Christmas. Seriously. I love All Hallow’s Eve or Samhain however you refer to it. And I know I already wrote one story a year ago, another this year, but it’s still a couple of days out. So, what I think I am going to do, is post a serial blog with a story I’d been working on for some time called The Tree. Now the thing is, this story is partly written. And I want YOU the READER to give me feedback on how you think it should end. I’ll post a little bit every day until Halloween and if I like YOUR suggestions – I’ll send you a free copy of it.
Okay? So here goes….
The old oak tree down by the river was his favorite place to be. It’s old trunk leaned sideways like the twisted back of an old man with two-thirds of it pointing across the river as if it were an arrow directing some long forgotten pilgrim to a destination west of where it stood. The branches were like arms, opened wide. They reached in all directions, some pointed toward heaven while others swept the surface of the river that ran underneath it. Its root system ran deep, holding it fast along the downward slope of the ten-foot embankment that the river had cut long ago on its way south.
He’d been raised under the shadow of that old tree all his life. As a little boy, his grandfather taught him how to swim under its shadow and in the winter, taught him how to ice skate as he reached for its barren branches to keep from falling. In the summer, they’d camp underneath the umbrella of the leaves where his mother would bring chocolate chip cookies and hot cocoa as grandpa read him stories. And during the day, his dad would push him in the tire swing far out above the river where he’d jump off and plunge into the cool water below. When his grandfather died, he held himself during the funeral at the First Methodist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan but as his father wept in the arms of his mother, he’d wrapped his arms around the trunk of the old tree and pressed his face against its rough bark and cried salty tears. The tree didn’t talk. Nor whisper nonsense words of comfort. But the bark had been warm against his face from the summer sun, sturdy, and unmoving yet its silence was more appreciated than anything anyone could say to alleviate the hurt. It was a constant thing in his life and he loved it. Was it the wisdom of the tree? Its strength? The young boy didn’t know. But as the world turned and seasons came and went, it stood there waiting for him to come out of his back door and down by the riverside.
Even in his teenage years, his friends and he traded the tire swing to simple rope and used that to swing out over the water before letting go and falling into the deep water which would cool their hot bodies in the summer time. They’d swim for hours, till his mother would call them in to eat. And plenty of times, he’d fallen asleep in the crook of the limbs, high above the ground, shaded from the noonday sun or on warm summer nights, bathed in the light of stars. He’d never fallen off. He knew where to step and where not to. Not to say he didn’t slip at all. But when he did, there always seemed to be a branch right underneath where he needed to be.
In his college years, he’d worked up the courage to come out to his family, but made sure to tell the tree, first. It stood there, as it always had. It didn’t crack, split, its root ball didn’t suddenly burst out of the ground and the tree didn’t dive into the river. It stayed put. Constant as it had always been. And he remembered pressing his sweaty forehead against it, the knot in his stomach slowly releasing, and whispering a thank you, before he walked into the house to sit his parents down.
Now Erik sat next to it again, his head resting against the solid trunk as if it were the shoulder of a good friend. The river flowed slowly underneath him as he sat with pants rolled up at the calf and his shirt collar undone. He’d lost the tie a while ago after he drove in from the airport, kissed and hugged his awaiting parents, and lost his shoes. They’d been waiting for him with open arms after he called and told them he was coming home. He paid the taxi driver, grabbed his suitcase, and walked up the front steps as he’d done so many times growing up he couldn’t count. This time, he was a professional. A grown man. With his suit jacket over his shoulder. His Ray-Ban sunglasses perched on his nose. And his briefcase in his right hand. He was grown now. And he fought back the tears when he saw his mom and dad as he walked through the front door.
“That ol’ tree has been waiting for you to come home.” His father said from behind him. Erik half turned to see his father bringing a couple of beers down to the water’s edge. He handed one to Erik before sitting next to him. Erik hated beer. But his dad had one or two a day and when Erik turned 21, when it was ‘serious talking’ they had to do between them, it was always with a can of Budweiser. But today, he was grateful for it. He popped the top and took three long hard swallows. The bitter carbonated liquid slid down easy.
A grasshopper caught air and landed on the knee of his suit pants and stared at him as if he expected Erik to share his beer with him. His green body stood in contrast to the gray color of his expensive slacks as his antennae twitched about. Erik couldn’t help but snort. As a kid, his twin sister Erin and he would run up and down the yard with nets and glass mason jars. This guy would have been a prized possession they would terrify their mother with. She would shriek and run behind her husband who would chastise them both good-naturedly and make them go release their catches back outside. The grasshopper, having had enough time on his knee, turned and leaped away into the high grass next to his tree.
“Are you okay?” His father asked reaching a hand out to give Erik a light shake.
Erik turned his head and look at the handsome face of David Rhodes. His green-gray eyes, which Erin inherited, were creased at the edges and his hair seemed a little more salt than pepper these days. However, they were as warm as always, and his father’s jaw was as strong as it had always been an attribute Erik got. He saw concern written over his father’s face, mixed in with some confusion, but underneath all of that was love. It was so genuine Erik had to look away and blink rapidly.
“I feel like an airplane crash survivor.” He said watching the sunlight dance off the water as it flowed beneath them.
“Do you want to talk about it?” his father asked. Erik shook his head. The early summer sun was warm on his skin, but for the life of him, Erik couldn’t get the chill out of him. It felt like it was deep in his bones. Deep in his soul. And he began to shiver. He’d put a couple thousand miles between him and his life after he burnt everything to the ground. All his hard work, his entire future, went up in the smoke of a split-second decision to bail out. His bosses thought he was crazy when he walked into the office after the appellate judges came down with their decision. The fury he felt was unlike anything he’d ever known. The hypocrisy of it all. The politics of it all.
The cardboard box in his hand felt like a lead weight as he used his forearm to clear all his belongings off the desk. The months of hard work sprawled out on the desk along with pictures of his family and friends all fell into the box with a clatter of pencils and pens.
He felt gut punched. As if a lover had been caught with their pants down. He knew the breakdown was coming but he’d be damned if it happened here, so he bit the inside of his mouth till it hurt worse.
“Erik, this isn’t over. I don’t see why you’re taking this so personal.” Bob Jones, the head lawyer for the firm said. His southern drawl, which Erik had always found endearing grated against his mind hard enough to make him wince.
“Not personal? This woman is going to die, Bob. They are going to walk her down that green mile to her death. They’ll swab the skin with iodine, they’ll use a clean needle, and dispatch her off to her just rewards. And the sick shit? Is that she’ll be coherent? She’ll be made to understand why she is dying. What happened in that house was a tragedy, I understand that. But the sick shit is that people who know better are going to kill her because not doing so, doesn’t poll well with voters. The Attorney General knows it. The judge knows it. The only people who didn’t have a single fucking clue was the twelve people on the jury just waiting to say ‘guilty’,” he said slamming his box on top of the desk.
The office stopped working and semi stood, peeking over their cubical to hear the commotion. A nervous sweat broke out on Erik’s skin and it stank. It stunk of fear, regret, and shame. Bob’s eyes were wide in surprise; his star lawyer had always kept his composure but his voice cracked at the end. Erik stopped and picked up a picture out of the box. It was him and his ex and South by Southwest in Austin the summer before. Shane had such a huge smile on his face and their fingers were interlaced. Erik remembered the picture being taken. A random woman in a long flowy green skirt and bottle dyed red hair asked if they’d like her to do it for them. They’d grinned and agreed. Shane walked on him six months prior to this moment. In Erik’s mind, he could hear the apartment door slam.
“Son, don’t throw your entire career away,” Bob said taking a cautious step into the office. Erik gingerly placed the picture back into the box of his life and dismissed Bob’s advice with a swipe of his hand in the air. He turned and looked the man dead in the eyes.
“I’m done. I’ve watched my entire life slip by me over this past year. When the judge’s gavel touched the bench in this decision, my career died. And you want me to what? Go back to represent some bimbo who wants half of her husband’s estate, or some rich asshole who wrecks his sports car drunk one night into a family van? I’ll go mad.” he said gently. He walked over to the file cabinet and retrieved his diplomas and certifications that he’d worked so hard to get. His first urge was to throw them in the waste paper basket, but his emotions were switching fast and he was no longer angry. The spectrum had shifted and now all he felt was sad. Hollowed out. Defeated. So, he placed them inside the box and put the lid on it. He put his suit jacket on and scooted his chair up into place and grabbed his worldly possessions under his arm.
Bob’s gaze was on the floor as Erik walked toward the door. He stopped shoulder to shoulder with the older man who’d become his mentor since he’ walked into the office a couple of years prior. He’d been eager and green under the gills. Ready to take the world by the balls. Now, he felt like he’d been kicked in his. Either way, he saw the disappointment in his eyes and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“The appeals paperwork is completed. Judy has copies of all the briefs I’d written. The research is over. The work is done. If you need me, I’ll be in Michigan. Have Judy forward my last check there.” he said and walked out of the office. Bob didn’t say anything as he walked out of the office. He kept his head down. He didn’t dare wave goodbye at the people he’d come to know so well over the years. Instead, he hit the front door of Albertson and Moore and pushed it open one final time as the summer Texas sun cast a shadow behind him. It laid on the floor at his feet trailing after him along with his pride.
That had been six hours ago. A one-way ticket from Bush Continental in Houston to Detroit Metro, a cab ride, and a beer ago.
Did he want to talk about it? His father had asked and still stared at him after to answer his question. Erik couldn’t. Not right now. His heart hurt. His soul hurt. And he was cold. Even in the evening sun. On a day like this, so beautiful it was hard to imagine someone else’s world was ending. He shivered hard once and he placed his hands on the grass partly to feel the earth under him and partly to wrap his fingers in their slender green shoots just in case the world, in its disgust, tried to shrug him off into the voids of space. He shook his head. No, he didn’t want to talk about it.
“It’s okay. We don’t have to,” he said patiently. They sat there for a moment and his father began to talk about his retirement plans. His mother’s insistence on remodeling their bedroom, his sister meeting a new guy, and how his brother Bert and his wife, Sarah bought him a new lawnmower for his birthday. Erik looked over at him and then passed him to the rest of the yard that had been freshly cut perhaps a day ago.
“The yard looks great,” Erik said simply. And out of nowhere, it came. He gave a strangled sob and his father was up and wrapping his arms around his son before he let loose. The shivers that had been minute began in earnest, so much so, that his teeth chattered. His father had him in his arms and a hand behind his head as he wept. It wasn’t a gentle weeping. It hurt. Like the hurt from a misspent bottle of booze on an empty stomach at two am as a person clutched the porcelain god. It came from deep down in his soul, the place where he’d stored the pain of Shane walking out, the disappointment of a year watching the world pass him by as he’d excused himself from it, and the shattering of his world when it all sputtered, kicked, and died. He did what his biology demanded in times like this, he’d gone home.
“I failed her. This poor woman. She’s going to die because she’s sick. But they’re gonna m..mm…maker her b..b..better before they do it!” Erik sobbed laying his head on his father’s shoulder as he did when he was a kid.
“Jesus, Erik. I’m so sorry.”
With every stroke of his father’s hands on his back, with every kiss laid on top of the head of his prodigal son, with the sound of his father’s voice as warm as the hands that held him, Erik heaved his grief onto the ground beneath them. As they knelt there, beside the river that flowed north to south, as the busy bee’s drifted from flower to flower, as the pollen floated freely, as the sky began to redden with the setting of the sun in the western horizon, Erik wept for the world. Every tear that fell, disappeared into the earth as his dad held him fast as if he would slip from their grasp and float downriver. And Erik held him back as his world tilted and reeled. His heart, which had been bruised and beaten up, finally broke underneath the shade of that old familiar oak tree.
Okay, so what did you think? Leave a comment and let’s write a story together!
Follow this link HERE to go to Part 2
Follow this link HERE to go to Part 3
Follow this link for the fourth and final part HERE