Mary had never really been religious, but, on occasion, she would go and talk to the Trees.
She would have been about ten the day it started. That day, her brother James wasn’t with her like usual because he was twelve and busy perfecting the art of ignoring her thoroughly. James’ ignorance scared and confused Mary immensely. Before, when they were younger, they were always together. They were always playing. They were always picking wildflowers by the pond or coiling translucent snakeskins around their wrists like bracelets or catching frogs by their legs then releasing them back into the water, laughing at how they floated – stunted, immobile for a brief moment like slimy starfish – before pushing off again into the depth. Laughing, laughing. They were always laughing.
But now James was twelve and ignoring her and she was ten and scared. A lot scared Mary back in those days. She was scared of the mayonnaise going off when it sat on the picnic table for too long. She was scared of their neighbour, Mrs. Murphy, having too quiet a voice to scream for help if she fell. And at age ten, Mary was also beginning to wonder whether she was a sociopath, and this scared her too, although she wasn’t sure yet to what degree. She had learned that word – sociopath – from her father. She kind of wished she hadn’t. Having words for things made them more real. Mary didn’t want things to be real, at least not in this new linguistic (another Dad word) way. There were many other words, too, that Mary wished she didn’t understand. Words like divorce and custody and infidelity and I’m moving to Chicago with my new lover Mark who is very handsome and I don’t love him but I don’t love your father even more and I promise this isn’t your fault I just need time to think and I’ll write you postcards, will you write me? Mare-bear? Do you promise you’ll write Mommy? Mary? Would you please say something?
Mary thought she was maybe a sociopath because when she heard these words, she didn’t feel anything. And even at ten, Mary knew that was what words were supposed to do: anything. James felt these words. James felt these words hard. When James felt these words, he cried so much it was like he was trying to reduce them to liquid and purge them from his vocabulary. Mary could hear him cry at night, even though James bunched their yellow ladybug towel in the crack underneath the door to his room. She could hear her father’s silence, too. It was a bleak contrast against James’ obvious noise. The absence of her father’s soothing voice was larger than all of them. It was swallowing. Those nights, Mary would squeeze her eyes shut and listen to James’ cry and her father’s silence and her own indifference and then that word her father had taught her – sociopath: a person who doesn’t feel things like they’re supposed to – jumped into her head and she thought, annoyingly: finally. Finally, a word that made her feel something.
So that day, as James was ignoring her and she was feeling bored and vaguely sociopathic, she suddenly grabbed her bike and began peddling like something more important than her life depending on it. She just went.
What was magical about that day is that the urge came from absolutely nowhere. She had never been out to that area before, certainly never to the Trees. It was this sense of urgent certainty that she would later tentatively call a religious experience. In college, she would hear the term divine intervention and nod, thinking yeah, yeah, maybe. The word fit her experience the way hospital gowns fit frail old men: not quite, but it got the job done.
It was in desperation that she found herself peddling, breathing hard, up along the dirt trail that stretched out perpendicular to the highway. She peddled until her lungs felt red and ripped and swollen, and then she peddled some more. She didn’t know where she was going until she arrived. Here. Here she was. A gravel circle, just to the left of the trail, backset against a nondescript forest. She stopped.
And there were the Trees.
The circle was surrounded by them, all standing at attention at the edge. Seven or so. Tall, tall trees, all straight up, noticeable, defined, similar in kind and size. It felt like she was someplace vital. This was her destination. All the trees gazed down at her like it was a courtroom. Judgment day. The Trees waited. She cleared her throat.
“So, hey.” She started her speech firmly, in a we need to talk kind of fashion. As if she and the Trees had arranged this meeting in advance and it had already been postponed twice – everyone’s schedules just being hectic, you know how it is – but now they really needed to get down to business.
The Trees didn’t reply. She figured they were just a little surprised – it would have been a while since someone had spoken to them so directly – so Mary went on. “I know I haven’t really… done… this, before. Sorry. But I was wondering if I can ask you some stuff?”
The Trees rustled in consideration. When they stilled, she took this as a sign to keep going.
“I’m just, um, really scared?” It came out a question although as she said it she realized she was, in fact, really scared. When she realized it, she started talking so fast, as if that would make the fear leave. “Mom is gone and Dad doesn’t eat anymore and doesn’t cook at all and James is just being, well… he’s hanging out with Spencer and all them. Spencer who put gum in my hair. And he ignores me at school and home and –” she stopped, then laughed a bit, a little puff of disbelief. She rolled her eyes up and to the left. “What am I telling you all this for?” She felt ridiculous. She pressed a palm to her forehead. “You already know all this, duh.”
The Trees were impatient. She could feel it. She took a deep breath and started again, earnestly.
“I guess… I just wanted to come here and ask … to be okay? I think that’s mostly all I want. I don’t want to be scared all the time. Also, please don’t let me miss Amy too much.” Amy was her best friend and she was moving away, and this also scared Mary. “I guess I should also wish for Amy to have a good time in Wisconsin. Please let Amy have a good time in Wisconsin. Please let James start being nice and trading his Pokémon cards with me again. And please let Dad be okay, too.” She was out of breath, now; her desires were coming to her faster than she could want them. “And, and, just one more thing? Can I feel things? I don’t even care if it’s bad things. I just think… I should probably cry like James does, right? The teacher keeps on telling me it’s okay to cry and I know that, I know it’s okay to cry, I just don’t know how. So if I could feel… a thing or two. If I could cry. I think that would help. I won’t be mad if it’s not a good feeling. Just…” She cleared her throat. She realized she was talking a bit too casually. She took a step back, placed a hand over her little ten-year-old palpitating heart, and said softly, in her most prayerful voice: “Please. Please. I won’t bother you again. Unless it’s really important. Thank you.”
She looked up, up, up. She raised her soft brown eyes to the Trees. They shivered. So did she. And then she smiled. The wind moved among them, around them, but spared them the chill.
Riding back, her wheel skittered on loose gravel and she fell sideways, tearing through the folded skin of her knee. The pebbles below her stained a rusty brown. She hugged her knee to her chin, hissing softly through her teeth. She tentatively touched at the torn skin and then felt hot embarrassment swell in her chest, rise up to her face. Stupid, stupid. She hugged her knee tighter as the wind picked up and then, unexpectedly, she burst into tears. Immense tears. Fat, ugly tears.
She cried like she never had before. She cried because her mom had left and probably hated her and her dad didn’t notice her which was almost worse. She cried because James sucked and thought she sucked and maybe they were both right and maybe they both sucked; how could they not with such shitty parents? Shitty. That was a new word she hadn’t let herself think yet. Once she did, she loved the acidity of it, the brutality. Shitty. Exactly. That’s exactly what it was. It was shitty. She grinned at the perfection of the word. She grinned and then she cried more because she hadn’t known she could cry like this before. She cried and laughed and realized those two things were mostly the same action – eyes closed, breathing laboured, face scrunched up – the only way to differentiate the two was with context. She cried until she couldn’t breathe, then she cried some more. She pressed her eye socket into her knee until all she could see were dull, swirling colours, purples and yellows, exploding like bloated fireworks. Soon her tears were squashed and had nowhere to go but back into her.
When she raised her head, it was dark. She peddled back slowly and shut the front door quietly. Her father was on the couch, watching ESPN.
“Dinner?” she asked.
“Kraft Dinner,” he replied, gesturing, but only minimally.
Mary went to her room and shut the door. She lay in bed without taking off her shirt or her tattered jean shorts. Her whole body hurt. Her whole body felt terrible. Her whole body – felt.
Mary grinned into the darkness. She slept wonderfully that night.