Tree of Life

by Phoebe Rosenblum, age 14
Tree of Life Phoebe Rosenblum is a freshman at LaGuardia High School in the vocal studio. Along with short stories (her favorite things to write), she enjoys writing songs and poems. She comes from a family of writers and musicians, so music and theater play a very important role in her life. She’s been writing since a very young age but never really thought of it as her passion until she turned twelve years old. Ever since this life-changing epiphany, she’s been pulling and recording ideas out of her infinite universe of a brain.

“Children loved the summer and they never once wished the car that rode along that endless road would come to a stop. If the winding road was seemingly forever, so should be the car.”

Summers in the suburbs never flew by. The long and winding road of hot weather and lemonade and ice cream never seemed to connect to any sort of parking lot or gas station deli. The usually weak sun shone brighter than any collection of stars ever did on the sleepless nights during which children were most energetic. They enjoyed every last bit of play and moment of joy, and they soaked up the beauty that the grassy fields emitted; whether it was sprawling on top of it or tugging at the weeds for mud pies. Children loved the summer and they never once wished the car that rode along that endless road would come to a stop. If the winding road was seemingly forever, so should be the car.
A mint green house sat lonely on its asphalted driveway. The trees around it swayed along with the ever-so-slight wind. The front steps of its porch were withered and breaking, but just sturdy enough for a family of three to step on and into their quaint living-quarters. Perched on the wood staircase were the feet of a little girl. Book in hand, she admired the plain yet scenic neighborhood and playing children that were only a little too lively for her taste. Even so, she read the sentences before her carefully and savored every line. She paid no mind to the noises of laughter and cheer.

Then there was her tree; her tree behind the house, parallel to all the others that were unimportant to her. She sat on the porch only when the book she was reading was uninteresting. Only the great moments of her current novel could be read under this tree that she loved so dearly. The moment in the story could never be as spectacular unless she was in the comfort of the soft bark and grass that, to her, was greener than any other patch.

And she would just stay there.

The playful children always looked at her with contempt and confusion. How could such a child, and their age too, sit back and do nothing on this gorgeous day of the sadly finite summer? The girl would only reply with a simple, yet witty, “the noun ‘nothing’ has a different definition in all minds. This may be yours, but it is most certainly not mine.” The taunters would look her over once or twice, shrug their shoulders, laugh and prance off, (partly because they couldn’t pick apart her artful language). Unfortunately, sometimes other much more upsetting happenings would occur, (and in the event of a crisis, the girl would retreat to her tree no matter how boring the book).

“Hey, you!” shouted a young boy in a collared shirt lacking a button. “Get that paper out your face!”

The girl looked up from her book, hiding her aggravation. “Pardon me?”

“Look at ‘er,” said a girl in a dirty, unattractive, beige plaid dress, “usin’ fancy words like ‘pardon’ and such.”

“Better stop spending so much time with all those books,” said a larger boy in a similar outfit to the first boy. “You might catch some sorta English virus!”

“I don’t think I know what you’re talking about.” The girl stood up from the porch steps and walked backwards onto the doormat, preparing for the worst. “There are no English viruses. At least not that I know of.”

“Gimme that,” spat the dirty girl. She snatched the book right out of the sweaty hands of her opponent. The dirty girl turned the book over in her germ-infested fingers. She opened the front cover.

“‘Lori’?” asked the larger boy, reading over the dirty girl’s shoulder.

“That’s my name,” said the girl. “Now if you’d please–”

“So, your name ain’t Booky after all?” asked the shorter boy rhetorically. “See, that’s what we’d been calling you before. We hadn’t known your real name, so we made you a nickname.”

“Oh, well my name’s–”

“I like Booky more,” said the dirty girl.

“May I have my book back?”

“Booky!” the larger boy yelled. “Booky!”

And so on, the three sour children danced around Lori, chanting “Booky” while holding the book that she had been enjoying so much. The dirty girl waved the book around while Lori attempted to grab it, simultaneously worrying about the horrid stench the dirty girl’s hands would leave on the inside cover and front. Maybe her stench would bleed through to the text itself, Lori thought. That would be awful.

After lots of running around and even a tumble into the mud, Lori retrieved her book and ran to the back of her house where the tree awaited. She looked at the thin branches that contained more love than she ever received from her peers.

Lori didn’t need friends. She didn’t want friends. Worrying about others was something she was never good at, and she was under the impression that each and every person deserved to be cared about by someone who could truly take on the responsibility of looking out for another human being. She also had the theory that children who have bad attitudes and personalities in general are the way they are because their parents took on too big of a challenge. Lori was daunted by the idea of parenting. People were too much work. It wasn’t like any of the neighborhood children appealed to her anyway. They were all truly horrid creatures in her mind, and she couldn’t imagine being “responsible” for them. All they wanted to do was ignore their education, get dirty, wash themselves off and get dirty again. Compared to other children, Lori was very refined, but in all honesty she was an ordinary introvert who wanted a nice spot on the grass and a complicated fictional text to decipher.

She was just more mature. All through the school year, Lori concentrated on getting good marks. All through the summer, she read books, praying that no one would bother her, but those prayers were never usually answered.
Lori sat under the tree and tried to stop the tears from escaping her tired eyes. She always tried, but she usually failed. She hugged the tree while her tears stained the bark, the bark soaking them up and taking them into account. Lori always felt the branches of the tree wrap around her the same way her branches wrapped around the tree’s stump.

Lori knew she was different, but she didn’t care. Any thoughts a friend was supposed to talk about to a friend she would write down on a piece of paper and crumple up. She would then uncrumple it, impale it using the tree branch and leave it there. You couldn’t tell how many papers were actually dangling from the tree branches unless you looked closely, but no one came near that old tree besides Lori. Whenever the idea that there were things wrong with her life occurred to her, she grabbed a pencil from a can on the kitchen table and ripped a small piece of paper off a larger one. She’d sit on the grass under her tree. Her eyebrows would scrunch and her fists would tighten as she worked her pencil around the paper trying her best not to break the point for fear of running into her mother and being forced to have a conversation when entering the house a second time. She couldn’t spend too much time gathering supplies or else the idea would be lost forever. She word-vomited whatever came to mind, good or bad.

Unfortunately, the notes were usually associated with the adjective “bad.”

Lori never read a note twice, and as her life went on, each recorded moment was forgotten. Lori was conscious of the darkness of some of her notes. She tried to put the ones that she thought would scare others (and even herself ) the most towards the top of the tree, so they would still loom over her but not as closely.
Many summers later, Lori sat under her tree with a new book. It took her that long to realize that she couldn’t read on the porch anymore. The notes on the tree branches had since tripled as a result of various other events that took place since her eighth summer. Her father passed away from undiagnosed pneumonia, her aunt moved in with them after her drunk husband left her, her grades declined, she developed more immense depression, kids became meaner and her teachers lost interest in her once outstanding book reports. Lori also just kept thinking of more notes to put on the tree in general. Feelings, internal and social struggles, anything that made her want to cry. Writing notes to add to the tree was a substitute. The grass wasn’t nearly as green as it used to be, yet the tree stayed as not-lively as it was when she was younger.

Outside of school, the neighborhood children didn’t bother her as much as they did when Lori was smaller and more vulnerable to such taunting, but she was in middle school now. The children were mean whether they lived near her or not, yet they soon realized that she was experienced in ignoring them.

But that didn’t stop them.

They made fun of her clothes, which were funnily enough, a lot nicer than theirs. Girls would tease her about her hair and say she smelled bad, but that bad smell was the odor of earth, grass, parchment and nature. The boys would call her ugly and make various jokes about her appearance. Sixth grade was hard because that was when it picked up, but now she was in seventh grade, and she expected it at every turn. She considered herself immune.

Almost.

Fridays were never nice. It was the one day of the week when all the parents would let their children play after school and go from neighborhood to neighborhood strolling, laughing, playing and talking. If Lori was lucky, her classmates wouldn’t come into her neighborhood, and sometimes they didn’t. If they did, Lori would sit on the back steps of her house in the backyard, so she was hidden, but if she was being threatened she had an easy getaway.

One Friday afternoon, Lori thought she heard the acidic laughter that was vocalized when kids were approaching. She calmly and quietly, as if it were as normal as going to the bathroom, went into her house through the back door, locked it and sat on the couch to continue her book. One thing was different this time, though. In usual instances, the laughter would get louder and louder as the kids passed the mint house. Sometimes the kids would shout “Booky,” a name that followed Lori around since her younger days. Then the laughter would resume and begin to get softer and softer. Lori would then be safe to go back outside. This time, the laughter got louder and louder as the kids approached but it stayed at one, uncomfortably nearby-sounding volume. Lori looked out the window and saw five kids walking around and picking at a tree.

Lori’s tree.

She wasn’t going to take it. She was not an instigator of conflict; if it were any other part of the property, she would have waited it out. But this was her tree. There were things written on slips of paper dangling from that tree. Embarrassing things. Lori ran outside.

“Hey!” she yelled. “Get off my property!”

The kids let go of the tree branches and turned around slowly, giving Lori their full attention. “Well, would you look who it is,” said a gingery boy who went by Jon. “It’s Booky.”

Lori then decided to explore a new side of herself that she never thought would see the light of day; a side she never let outside her own head. “That’s not my name, and you know it.”

There were some “ooh’s” and “ah’s” coming from Jon’s friends.

“Aren’t you a feisty one,” asked a girl called Rosie. “You better watch your attitude, little girl.”

“You first.” After Lori said those words, she heard a faint rustling noise coming from the tree branches. She looked over and saw one of the other kids pulling a note off a branch and begin reading it. There were a few notes at his feet as well.

“Ooh, this one’s about you, Sally!” he called.

“I wanna see!” yelled Sally and another girl simultaneously.

“No!” Lori shouted at the top of her lungs. She dived at the nosy child impulsively and didn’t even realize she was tackling him. Sally and her friend stepped back and abandoned the path they were planning to take to get to the beckoning note. There was no punching, but the boy was kicking his feet in self defense.

“Get off o’ me!” he shouted as his friends watched, unsure what to do.

“Lori!”

Lori’s mom came out into the yard in a fierce rage. Her scolding words flew at Lori’s face but bounced right off as Lori resisted her mother’s pulling, keeping a watchful eye on the intrusive children and not listening. Everything her mother said went in one ear and out the other as she screamed and cried, claiming that her privacy was being invaded. She was hysterical, and even though she was screaming at the kids to leave, her craziness was what shooed them away. They ran down the street in fits of laughter and tears trickled down Lori’s face as she stared after them. Her mother, slowly figuring out what actually happened, pulled her daughter into a tight hug, cupping her face and holding it against her bosom as wet spots formed, dampening her once clean blouse.

Lori’s mother stared behind her daughter and examined what she could see of the tiny slips of paper dangling from so many of the branches. She never normally noticed them, and if she did, she never considered them something of so much importance to her daughter. She couldn’t imagine what must’ve been written on them that was so private. Lori calmed down eventually and her mother decided not to question her any further. She simply told Lori to sit in the kitchen with her for the rest of the day with her book, some lemonade and a warm blanket. Sometimes, as she washed the dishes, Lori’s mother would glance at her daughter to check on her. She would catch sight of her soft cheeks glazed with the light crust of dried tears, yet her expression itself stayed as stoic and relaxed as ever.

It wasn’t until Lori’s eighth grade year that her mother and aunt finally started to observe the pattern in her daily routines. Lori would come home from school, do her homework and spend the rest of the day reading under her tree if the weather wasn’t too harsh. A new addition to this routine, they noticed sometimes, was a minute or two that Lori reserved for a light cry. If they were lucky, they would maybe even catch her adding a note to the tree. Lori’s aunt would always say, “there’s something wrong with that girl,” but Lori’s mother would always reply with, “no, sister, there’s something right with her.” Lori’s mom always thought that her daughter would amount to great things. She recognized her daughter’s knowledge of the world and its twists and turns. She figured Lori was saving her booming thoughts until she was old enough to interpret them, but for now, she was showcasing them on this tree that no one dared go near. What Lori’s mother didn’t know was how hard it must be to live with such a big brain, and how it can make your heart and soul rot slowly away over time.

That was exactly what happened to Lori when it became too late.

She didn’t come home from her first day of high school. Her mom waited for her

anxiously while her aunt rambled on about some man she’d met at a pub. It had been four and a half hours since Lori’s expected time of arrival had passed and she still wasn’t home. Her mother started preparing for the worst, and rightly so.

Lori’s mom went outside to the backyard and decided it was time to read these notes. She’d pondered the idea that maybe they held clues as to where she was. Her slippers pressed against the damp grass with urgency as she made her way to the withering tree. She grabbed the first note she could see.

Papa dead from pneumonia. Rest in peace.

Lori’s mom shivered as she remembered the awful event. She crumpled the note back up, threw it on the ground and removed another one.

Joey called me an ugly bat and said the same about Mama. What a horrible boy.

She grabbed another, intrigued.

Aunt Anna is drinking again. Mama argues with her a lot and it keeps me up at night.

Lori’s mom kept going through the notes in what seemed to her like chronological order; every note she picked up was more dark and serious than the one before it. She started with the ones towards the bottom of the tree first.

Sam Boyce called me a toad. He’s the toad. I hope he burns in hell one day.

I see the cars coming when I walk across the street. I know the car is a safe distance away and that I can make it across in time, but it takes more power to will myself to keep walking. Don’t stop walking. People will be sad.

Billy Sanders is really swell. Very cute, too. I like him because he is nice to me. I think he likes me.

Billy Sanders is a phony.

Sally punched me in the stomach today, so I punched her back and got sent to the principal’s office. It’s funny how only I get caught. They’re gonna burn in hell one day.

Billy Sanders tried talking to me today, so I spit in his face.

I almost stopped walking.

Everyone will burn in hell one day. Just you watch.

Booky will get them all back one day, those sinners.

The darker the notes, the more scared Lori’s mother became. Soon a pile of

crumpled pieces of paper formed at her feet as she picked up the last one from the tree. With tired eyes she looked around at the leaves, once an unnatural, papery white, now back to green. She sighed as she tossed the last note onto the ground, but suddenly, some black markings on a lone leaf caught her eye. She looked closer and was soon able to make out the words For Mom, scrawled on the leaf in thick Sharpie. She hadn’t noticed it before. She carefully ripped the leaf from its branch and turned it over. She read the words slowly and carefully, then out loud so her sister, who came up behind her, could hear. She took a deep breath.

Don’t come looking for me.

 

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