Are you, Are you, Coming to the tree? They strung up a man, Who they say murdered three. Strange things did happen here, No stranger would it be. If we met at midnight, In the hanging tree…
James Newton Howard
Leaves fell to the ground that day. The cold breezes set forth to attack every hint of warmth, the grips of winter overcoming every hopeful late bloomer. My bloodied fists shook the tree- at least I love to think they did.
When you’re young, you feel misunderstood. Unimportant. It’s only natural to wish that something, anything that you did could have an effect on someone else or something else. Just to have proof that you aren’t useless, that you have a reason for being there. That picked flower you gave to someone, their happiness proves your worth. That completed math assignment, the book report, the awards, the diploma. Doesn’t it feel like it’s all for nothing if you don’t receive that ever-so desired reward?
So I shook that tree. The branches shuddered at my touch, shaking and banging into each other. The very leaves that were left clinging to it by autumn’s assault jumped to the ground. But I dare not look up at them. The scraping caress of a browned leaf on my cheek. I simply stomp it into the dying grass below my feet and continue my own assault on that tree. The faint rocking of it down to its roots causes the rope to knock against the bark.
A rope ladder still hangs there from our younger days. Before the dramas of impending college, high school rumors, when middle school was but a dream doodled in notebooks. This was the official meeting place, the after-school hangout like no other. Remnants of the better days remain on the tree.
The rope ladder was for the kids that couldn’t climb the tree as well as others. Not everyone was able to easily make their way up the branches so we had my father set up a ladder to the best spot. A tangle of branches with a roof of leaves every spring, that was able to sit about 4 of us without need to build an actual platform. We loved it.
The tire swing was one that every kid would want a turn on before the calls of adults would draw us back to our houses. A chance to feel the wind in our hair and reach up for the skies. I broke my arm on it once. Good times.
I wondered if I reached into the crevice found just under one of the roots, what I’d find. A hidden action figure. Remnants of the blanket we’d spread to eat our lunch. Another squirrel carcass, dragged under there by a local dog and buried likely. Perhaps I’d find a note.
As the large group of kids dwindled to us four meeting every summer, we thought the less around, the more for us. The four dropped to three when the moving van kidnapped another kid from our class roster. Three was slowly ripped into two as the cliques began to form. Middle school doodles held at one point a picture of our trio but the chance to join the popular kids was one that he never thought twice about.
Yes, our special spot for many years was home to just me and her. Sarah.
Sarah was my best friend for many a year. Through middle school bully sessions for lunch money and false rumors. We made it past the freshman year hell-storm. The jungle gyms of primary turned to study sessions in the library, but we cared not so long as we watched each others backs. She was the one who I’d trust to hide my wallet when the jocks told me I owed them money. I was the person who’d come with her shopping and tell her that every outfit she wanted to get looked great, even if I knew she’d still wear the same black hoodie every day. We each held the key to the others house on our key-rings even.
One night, at a party, we went together purely because I couldn’t resist a chance to get a free drink. Junior year, testing was over and the classes were just about to seal the deal. She always avoided every drink and would make sure I got home safe. Split up by a crowd of booze-breathed hormones and low-rise jean shorts, I made it to the backyard. I found her there, wrist-pinned to the wall by a basketball player’s firm grip on her black hoodie sleeve. He grabbed her tear-streaked face with his free hand and went to smash his lips against hers.
I wasn’t invited to anymore parties after that.
Yet, I don’t think I would’ve had it any other way. We spent the rest of the night at my house, cuddled under a blanket with nothing but late-night tv, popcorn and time. Watching her favorite shows and promising that the next time we go to a party (even though that would never happen), we’d stay closer together as if we weren’t already usually joined at the hip.
I remembered that night now, as I stopped turning my clenched hands to crimson messes, pretending it was raining as I felt something drip off my chin. We never had anything romantic, yet we acted as much like a couple as platonic friends could. With every boyfriend that broke up with her, I’d be there, cuddling with her under blankets at her house, supplying her with tissues and a chiming agreement to what a douche he was. With every dumping I got, she’d show up with my favorite bad kung-fu movies and donuts, and distract my heart with it’s love of horrible special effects, friendship and English dubs. Yet we never so much as kissed.
I heard it. It was the tire, I wish it was the tire and rope knocking into the tree again. The blood fell to the ground in steady drops as I wondered again if a note could be found in the crevice under the tree. Taking a deep breath I looked up again. The tire lay uselessly down the hill where I had kicked it. The black hoodie that hung in it’s place, blocking out the sun, mocked me. Her open blue eyes, bloodshot with a mocking laugh echoing through the air. But maybe it was just the wind howling again.
I punched the tree once more, wishing it wasn’t so far from the street, from my house. Maybe I could’ve been there, seen her from my bedroom window and stopped her in the nick of time. Maybe I could’ve been a better friend and stopped this long before she realize how strong the rope of the tire swing really was.
But this tree sat far off from any streetlight. Only sunlight shone on the cold autumn afternoon as I fell to my knees, noting that the rain seemed to have started up again. I reached with sore hands, digging in the crevice for something. The toys and blanket were emptied out long ago, and no dog had tried to bury something here for ages.
I knew Sarah, she’d say something to me, leave a sign that she was fine. She faked it and was just waiting for me down the dirt road. She had created an elaborate prank as a proving of loyalty. It was all a plot by aliens. Something logical had to be the answer here right!? Her dying just wasn’t logical so obviously this isn’t what happened! Just like obviously there was a note here somewhere!
As I slow my desperate digs, the red-stained dirt falling off my hands to the dying grass below as I pat my pockets. Grasping the phone out of one, I look at it. A text is spelled on the screen.
“Sarah’s mom: Henry, Sarah isn’t answering her phone and your mom said you were out. Is Sarah with you?”
My hands tremble as I drop the phone, ignoring the clatter of a delicate glass screen against a rock. I stand again, my head bumping into her converse sneakers, ignoring the shatter of a delicate heart and mind against the bottom of my gut. I begin to smash my hands against the tree again, stomping the phone into the grass and ignoring the haunting sound of the rope ladder banging into the bark in a mimicking rhythm.
My father had put the rope ladder there for the kids that couldn’t climb the tree as well as others. It rained again as I remembered Sarah was one of those people.