The Scary Tree

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It stood in the northwest quadrant of the front yard – this terrifying tree of unknown origin. It could be seen from every window of our bedroom and the living room, and it looked like a giant clawed hand. We called it the scary tree.

It was an important distinction. There was the boring tree, which couldn’t even be climbed because the limbs were too high up. The crepe myrtle tree bloomed and caused Momma to sneeze every Spring.  The climbing tree in the backyard was our favorite, and the giant tree, that cast a shadow on the house every afternoon, would kill us all if it ever fell.

There wasn’t anything special about the scary tree. It was quite normal during the day, but at night, it was a giant beast, clawing its way back to the earth from somewhere beneath us. We spent many a night averting our eyes from the windows only to hear the scratch of its branches outside. We imagined it coming for us, not because we were terribly naughty, but because we’d seen Poltergeist, and the only things scarier than clown toys were trees in a storm and possessed fathers, a la #2.

Locked in our room together, we’d huddle in a corner away from it, away from everything we feared, but we couldn’t escape it. It brought with it an intoxicating stench. When the lightning would crash and the wind would howl, we knew it was coming for us, or at least, someday it would. Until that day, we would be neither seen nor heard.

The scary tree was there after a late night return home when the silence in the house was not calm or pleasant.

The scary tree swayed at the sound of sirens at midnight or the sobs after a smack.

The scary tree convinced us we were worthless and needed to be taught a lesson, even when it never directly said it to us.

We wondered what life was like outside those four walls, but we never dared to leave or escape it. We just accepted it for what it was – a tyrant.

Back then there was more thunder and lightning than sunshine. (Or at least, that’s what my adult brain recalls.) Storms came frequent and fast, in trumpets and torrents, and we weathered them all – albeit frightened and alone in our little crowd.

The day came, though, when it all ended. The storm of our childhood started to settle down, and sunlight broke through the clouds.

Lightning crashed, shaking the house and our bodies, and the tree splintered in two sending a sweetness into the air. A soberness, as it were.

It wasn’t the same anymore. The claws, the sheer terror of it, was gone. But what it symbolized? That never diminished. It lingered there, a permanent reminder of the storms, until we moved and something else took its place.

 

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The Run

I look at my phone for the hundredth time in the last hour. Five a.m! Damn. The day won’t even begin for hours yet. Restless. Alone. I can’t just sit here and wait.

I step out the hotel doors and wrap my arms across my chest. The cool Melbourne wind bites my hands and my face – the only spots of exposed skin. Tiny drops of mist leave sprinkles across my glasses. It’s cold, but I’ll be warm soon enough. I slide my hood over my head and set a slow pace as punk queen Gwen sings about running.

Travelling for work isn’t so bad. Your days are all but decided for you, but it’s the night, the early morning – when you’re brain dead or brain preparing – that’s the worst. You dine alone, you try to fill your time with shopping or walking, but most of the time, you read in bed until you fall asleep. Only to then toss in bed because you can’t quite find that right spot or if the sheets should be on or off.

The streets are quiet but not vacant at this hour. The sun isn’t quite up, and the streetlights let out a dim glow as if preparing for it to rise at any moment. I have the volume turned down on my phone and take in the sounds of my surroundings – the clatter of the trams, the buzzing of the power transformers, the chatter of people. There’s something beautiful about a city that is still sleeping.

Sleeping bags and big wooly blankets line the sidewalk in front of the shops. Some of the mounds are moving, but most remain still. Not awake, not asleep. Just existing.

I wonder at the resilience of man. That drive to keep going is certainly not unique but is inspiring all the same. This mind-wander continues until I round a corner and a man shuffles past me. His face and hands are dirty, his hair unruly. I smile at him. Smiles cost nothing, after all. He returns the smile with a big toothy grin.

“Run, run, run. You’re doing great,” he says with a raspy laugh in his voice.

I laugh with him.

He follows me, smiling and jogging alongside me for a hundred meters. I grin from ear-to-ear. I sense no malice, just joy. Maybe it’s only mine. Maybe not.

Later that day, a colleague will tell me how frightful that experience sounds, but nothing in my tone or telling of the story will show I am scared for my safety. She will go on to tell me that a woman should not go out alone in the dark. That I should protect myself – be more careful. 

For now, though, I enjoy the moment; I revel in it.

He stops, and I wave at him as I cross the street to continue this forward momentum.

When the moment passes, I let the next take over and then the next. 

I love every second of the run. I love the river and the way the water ripples with the light rain. I love the flat dirt track around the Botanical Gardens and the way it felt separate but still a part of this city. I love the fountain surrounded by golden leaves and a muted glow. 

I lose track of time and distance, traveling 7km before I realize I need to get back to my room.

The sun rises past the buildings, and first light lands on me just as I reach the hotel. I let out a happy intonation before I walk inside and lower my hood. Contentment never diminishes from lobby to shower.

I decide later that day that I won’t go out and do it again.

Still. I regret nothing.

Had I not gone out, I would have missed all those beautiful moments, and that would have been the true loss.  
 
 
 

The Music

Light shines into my charred room and illuminates one tiny patch of unblemished floor. songSomewhere, in the background, a piano plays Rachminoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” – both melancholy and sanguine. All those enchanting chords bounce off the barren four-walled space and remind me something is waiting for me outside. Hope. I touch the light. I feel it’s warmth on my hand. I let a smile spread across my face.

Someone, somewhere, believes in me. I need to believe in me too.

A cloud covers the light, and I’m plunged back into darkness. Stepping into the corner, I touch the walls. Fire has scorched the room. My fire. Anger over my inadequacy will never diminish. I’m in a prison of my own making. The music swells but is swallowed by blackened wood. Faint traces of “Stairway to Heaven” reach my ears and fade.

I will never amount to anything.

I crouch into the corner and tremble. When will this end? I think of all the times I have tried to escape my fate. I am reminded of all the times I failed in some way. I have spent the better part of my adult life being told “You’re so smart. You’ll go places.”, but that hasn’t happened yet. Am I meant to be a permanent reminder to all? You can work hard and do everything in your power to get ahead in life but “in the end, it is about who you know and not what you know.” I have had opportunities to achieve my dreams, and every time I have lost. I’m a failure. Maybe it’s time to give up on moving up?

The clouds fade away, and the light returns. It shines into the other three edges of my self-made cell and touches my toes, my fingers. The tempo changes. It’s a full orchestra – it’s a choir – it’s Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor”.

“You got the job!” I hear over the throng.

Success. I have finally reached the success I’ve craved.

The warmth tries to envelope me, but I inch further into the adjoining walls. I stand rigid as the light creeps closer. It tries to cover me whole, but I won’t let it, shrinking further into that dark recess. Why is my fear and anger of inadequacy still here? Why does it dominate so? I want to be happy.

I want to be happy.

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I Am…

I’m out at sea. Waves crash into my sail pulling me closer to the edge and filling my boat until it’s ankle deep. I hold on, life jacket securely around me, and shovel the water out. I can do this. I can weather this storm. I have been here before, and I know exactly how to see it out.The sun shines through ahead, and I focus on that. I just have a little bit further to go. Keep the sail from touching the water. Keep the water inside my boat low. Don’t think.

What if this is the best I deserve?

I catch a glimpse of where I have been. Those dark clouds, the rolling waves, my past. I have made it this far. 

I don’t see it coming, though. I am not prepared for it. A giant wave sweeps over my boat, and it capsizes. I rush to grab a rope, the sail, anything to support me, but everything is within grasp and nothing at the same time.

The boat disappears, and I am all alone. I swallow water, and I realize I can’t swim. I don’t know what to do. 

I never finished college. They would have taught me this in college, right? 

My arms and legs jerk in competing directions to get be back to the surface. The rough waters send me out further to sea or maybe closer to land. I cannot tell which. I only know one thing.

This is the best I can hope for.

Water fills my lungs, and my mind goes blank. All at once, my arms and legs stop moving, and with the help of my life jacket, I float back to the surface.

I am in the deep end of a pool.

The lanes are not roped off, and I am still so far from the edge. It’s only a pool. A lifeguard is here. The instructor is here. I have so much support around me. Yet I am empty and frightened and sad all at the same time.

I cough and splutter. My arms and legs have no muscle memory of how to survive here. I sink; the water washes away the tears but never the fear. 

No matter how hard I try, I will be stuck doing the same thing for the rest of my life.

The end is within reach but so is the deep. I touch the ceramic surface at the bottom.

My writing is going nowhere. Will I ever get published? What am I missing that others have?

My feet touch the bottom.

Am I ever going to get to see my family again? I am homesick for them. Will I ever be able to afford to go back to college? What if I put on the weight again after working so hard to take it off? What if my heart gives out like my dad? What if my PCOS develops into cancer? What if -?

I barely notice my arm being pulled. The instructor, the lifeguard, the other people in the pool are all helping to take me out of the pool.

I land on the ground and vomit the water onto the soft earth. I breath and push myself up overcoming the weakness in my arms and legs.

I am in a crowded field.

All around me, I can see people. I can see their lives before me. The woman who gets hit every night. The man who has been overshadowed by his father his whole life. The girls who can’t get into the college they wanted to. Every one of them has a right to be unhappy. They deserve to be lost and scared. 

I don’t. I’m a fraud. I shouldn’t be here. I have no right to be in this place.

I push through them all. Their lives touch me, become a part of me. I want to save them all, but how can I when I can’t even save myself?

I see a man standing above an entire peoples. He is driving hate and oppression. I watch their faces go darker. The shadow covers them all, and I see it cover me too.

How did I get to this place again? 

How do I get out?

I drop to my knees and sob. I can’t stop the tears. I want to. I want this to end. This too shall pass, but how? Someone please tell me how!

I lift up my head.

I am in a square room with no windows and no doors.

I accept it. Despite all the support I have around me, I know this is where I am meant to be. In solitude. Not bringing anyone else down with me. 

“You are so useless!” a voice hisses in my mind.

“You will never amount to anything.”

“You’re a gold digger. You don’t really love him.”

“You don’t care about anything but yourself.”

I lie down on the stone floor and let the chill of it sweep over me. I know it’s not true. I know it. The people who said it are no longer welcome in my life. So why are the words still there in the back of my mind holding me down? 

I pull my legs close to me and fill the cramped room with water.

I am drowning in a pool – no, I am out at sea. Everything and nothing is wrong all at the same time, and all I see ahead of me are gray skies, rough waters, and a minute trace of light.
 
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The Principal’s Office

I clutched the note in my hand and walked through the halls of the school with a 10lb backpack swung across my right shoulder. My eyes were focused on the toes of my shoes, each step harder than the previous. My knees seemed to buckle under the pressure of the words stamped across the top of the note: “From the Principal’s Office.”

The weight of the letters was heavier than the six textbooks I carried. What could the principal want from me?

I was a band and choir geek. In that small Texas town, sports were more important than the arts, so it couldn’t be about that. I wasn’t the smartest kid in school, so I wouldn’t be winning some award. I wasn’t naughty. I don’t think I was, at least.

I approached the office desk. The long countertop stretched out across my full field of vision. The dark hallways gave way to a light-filled administrative space speckled with desks three times longer than any students are allowed. Of the staff of six, none bothered to even look up at me.

I rubbed the note between my fingers until the edge was rolled into a mini scroll. I shifted my weight and swallowed to spite the dryness in my throat.

One of the staff coughed uncomfortably without even looking up from her desk, and finally a clerk shot up and walked to stand in front of me on the other side of the counter.

“Yes?”

My mouth opened, and a tiny squeal escaped. I handed her the note, and heat swelled my cheeks.

“Oh. Yes. This way,” she said.

She pointed towards a door around the corner, and I followed her direction.

The principal was waiting for me behind a large oak desk. His pensive look, complete with pen in mouth, stared back at me from within.

I stepped forward and heard the door close behind me before he spoke, “Please take a seat, Melony.”

I nodded and sat down in the first of two cushioned chairs.

“One of your peers,” he said before a slight cough. His eyes fell to his desk before looking at me again. “One of your peers has lodged a concern with my office today.”

My eyes narrowed. What did I do? I don’t remember. 

“They saw something yesterday. At your home,” he continued.

My head lifted a tad and eyes grew. A girl was riding on my street yesterday. I remembered her pedaling past when Daddy…

“Oh that was nothing,” I blurted out.

The image of the moment was burned into my mind. Daddy was drunk. He was angry. I don’t even remember why. The why was never important.

“This is a very serious accusation,” the principal said, swallowing air loudly. “She says he was hitting you.”

Daddy’s tirade had started and ended in the carport. He held in his hands a splintered wooden rake. It may have been the source of the anger, but I couldn’t even remember the next day. He swung it into the post sending showers of wood into the three of us. We crouched to avoid chunks landing on our face or eyes. The onslaught continued until the rake was in two.

I shook my head, “He wasn’t. I promise. Daddy has never hit us.”

I blinked sending tiny drops down my cheeks, and I sniffed the moisture away.

The principal crossed the room and sat beside me. “If you ever need someone to talk to, my office is always open.”

I acknowledged him with a nod, but all I kept thinking was don’t send us away. Please don’t take me from my family. Please don’t take me from my daddy.

“If anything ever happens, you’ll be the first to know,” I said. I stared straight into his eyes and drove the lie home.

He patted my shoulder, smiled, and sent me on my way.

I walked out of the office burdened by the weight of my books and the certainty that life was about to get a whole lot more complicated. He would have to report this to Child Protective Services. He had a duty of care to his students. There would be an investigation, and just like last time, I would be ripped from my parents’ arms.

But there was no investigation. His duty of care must not extend to students who don’t want out of their abusive homes. There were no calls made to my parents. My worst fears were not realized. 

I kept the exchange to myself, life moved on, and I continued to travel along it on a roller coaster with a drunk conductor.

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