Don’t Tell

I’ve never told anyone this before. It’s one of those stories that’s been locked up in of me, tucked into some crevice behind my heart so that nobody can ever get to it. I don’t open up easily. Nobody sees what’s in my insides, and usually I forget to look. It’s much easier that way, if I just pretend that all I have in me is the dark twisting coils of intestines and brains. There’s nothing but blood and guts in there. No truth, no hurt.

When I was thirteen my best friend was Ann who lived three floors up. She was two years older and I followed her around everywhere. I’m sure I was like a little puppy, just tagging along hoping for a rub on the head and an affectionate word. We’d been friends for ages, and it didn’t used to matter as much. That is, she’d been the cool older girl but when she was younger she had played mother, pretended to take care of me and laughingly protected me from the terrors of the swing set or the fire escapes. When we got older she didn’t want a kid to take care of when she was hanging out with her friends. I would tag along, yes, but I sat and tried not to be a bother while she did whatever it was that cool older kids did. She got these new friends in high school, Eric and Jay especially, and she spent a lot of time with them. Something about them made my skin cold and my shoulders hunch.

Eric seemed to have a thing for Ann right away, and she almost but not quite teased him about it. She would give him that sidelong glance and her eyes slid right over to him and her lashes curved in just such a way that they only did for him, but for ages that was all. He pined after her, putting an accidental hand on her waist and absentmindedly playing with a strand of her hair, while she demurred. I think even she got bored of flirting with him like that. Anticipation can run on so long that you’re not tense with it anymore, you’re just tired.

Once she had the boys over, Eric and Jay, just like always, and I left to go downstairs and do some of my homework. I knew she didn’t really want me there because she sent little jabbing glances at me. I stood their pricking for a while and then, stung, I left. When I got into my own apartment my parents were out and my little brother was at a friend’s, so I really had to do homework. I sat and did my math problems, itchy with anger, until I gave up because I couldn’t concentrate. I went back up to Ann’s and her mom let me in and then retreated back to the kitchen. She always did hide from her daughter. I walked down the hall and then I froze.

The hallway was long, with the rooms all branching off to one side. Ann’s room was at the very end, and the door was ajar. Through it I could see a sliver of her bedroom, and in the sliver I could see her and Eric. Jay’s laughter was snaking through the crack in the door so I could tell he was in the room, but I didn’t even think about that until later. I could just see Eric, leaning over Ann where she was against the wall, his hands pressed against the wall on either side of her, his face close to hers. She was smiling in a funny sick way, her mouth in a line. Eric slid his hands down to her shoulders and pressed closer, put his face into her neck. Ann said no, Eric, come on. Look Jay’s right there. Stop it. He didn’t stop. He just pushed closer to her.

I was standing in the hallway, my whole body cold and my face hot. I burned and froze there, unseen, until my mind came crashing back and I turned and ran. I don’t know if they could hear my feet pounding away but I didn’t look back, I just left. I don’t know what happened after that. When I saw Ann the next day she didn’t act like there was anything wrong. Eric and Jay ignored me like usual.

I could have interrupted them, maybe. At least the annoying kid from downstairs might have made them stop, but I didn’t. I stood frozen until I ran like I’d been scalded and I had to get away and never go back, but I could have done something.

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The Child and the Apple Tree

When the child was twelve, the apple tree in the backyard began to decline. The apples fell that autumn like any other year. They spread across the grass around the tree like a pebbly green sea, and when nobody was looking he picked them up and took bites out of them as they lay on the ground. Its leaves unfurled and deepened in the September sun that held out the last charms of sun-drenched summer before tucking them away with the receding heat. The apples were less that year. The child didn’t notice. He was too busy to snatch up more than one apple before he careened off through the woods, howling his strange song. He lingered on the edge of childhood that autumn, beginning to grow lanky but still clambering up trees and chasing imagined bandits and heroes. He didn’t climb the apple tree anymore. Now it was all the oaks and maples that boasted tall trunks, sturdy branches, and leaves that lost their green and gleamed with warmth instead. The child was proud that he could scamper up like a squirrel, clinging to the living wood and perching on a jut of branch too high to see.

The apples fell, and crowded on the ground, and rotted there to soft forgotten mounds of what once was crisp and sweet. The animals gouged chunks from the fallen fruit while the child fought villains too terrible to name in the clearings of the forest. He won the battle against the beasts who terrorized his kingdom. He scared himself on the highest creaking branch of the oldest swaying tree and clambered down again, sweating. He shot a scornful, guilty glance at a girl who smiled at him in the cafeteria. The child was less a child, and the apple tree died.

Its demise was slow, almost imperceptible. Its leaves fell and crumpled on the scattered apples instead of rusting red. The tree stood stark and empty in a forest of trees still bright with autumn plumage. Its green leaves and fruit moldered on the ground. In the winter, snow piled in glittering drifts in the forest, and the trees shuddered and shivered in the cold. Snow lined the branches of the apple tree and frost encased its twigs. Inside the dead white, the apple tree froze. Its wood dried and became brittle until the ravages of a blizzard cracked two branches. In December the child dragged a sled that was too small through the forest. He stopped in awe when he saw the apple tree. He gazed at the jagged pale stubs poking out from it, undignified and crude. The child picked up and tossed away the lost limbs that were beneath it. He reached a hand to the trunk, where the life of the tree was dying embers, but he moved his small warm hand away from the bark when he felt the cold grasping at him.

When the spring came, the snow shrank to wizened shreds on the dirt. The daffodils burst into color, banishing the cold. The child ran through puddles and cursed at his mud-spattered clothes. The apple tree still stood, but it had no life returning. Its wood was dry and its branches lit no leaves. While the child made new games in the chittering forest, the apple tree shriveled. The child became a hero and saved a kingdom. Sometimes he stopped to look curiously at the apple tree’s plain lines, the curves uninterrupted by green and the spiky wounds that would not heal.

In summer the forest was brilliant. The sun filled it with stained-glass leaves and light-spotted shadows. The animals whispered and cried out. The child sat in the crook of the old oak with a book, unmoving for hours. The apple tree stayed dead and cold at the edge of the woods.

When autumn came, the child was still less a child. He had less of the bright-edged certainty of a hero, and none of the duller calm that he thought must be coming. Sometimes he came to the forest and told himself stories, still. These were not described in sweeping gestures and wild rollicking. These stories crept out in murmurs. He sang less now and did not howl. In October the apple tree was white against the blood and flame of autumn. It heaved a sigh of twisted wood and relinquished the last threads of life. The not-child stayed a moment beside it, his hand warm on its creased surface, before he went on.