Roots

“It was here,” Abigail muttered as she paced back and forth over the clearing.

“You should have seen it, Jesse. The branches were so thick that you couldn’t even see the sky when you sat by the trunk.” She paused, wiped away a tear, and looked up at the sky.

“I left a piece of my soul here,” she whsipered, and sat down in the dirt.

I looked down at my watch. Dusk was beginning to fall around us. A lightning bug flashed to my right, and a mosquito bit into my arm.

“We only have a little longer before it’s too dark to see anything, Abby. Maybe we should just head back,” I said.

She didn’t respond at first–just stared at a blade of grass she twirled in her hand. When she began to speak, her voice trembled with sadness.

“This place was so different a decade ago. I used to come out here all the time by myself in the summer. I always preferred to be alone. There is something about the sound of the forest when you are the only human in earshot. When you are still for a while, the animals begin to trust you. They emerge from their hiding places and walk right by you like you aren’t even there.”

“Except the mosquitoes,” I muttered bitterly.

“Yes, except those.”

She sighed and I sat down next to her, surprised to find the ground hard beneath me. Before I could say anything, she continued.

“One morning, in my early twenties, I came out here with a mission. A man who claimed to love me had given me a necklace with my birthstone in it. I remember thinking it odd since he always forgot my birthday. When he left me, I kept it for weeks, hoping he would return. He didn’t, and with each passing day it became heavier around my neck.

I buried it at the base of my favorite tree with a note for the person who found it that said something like, ‘I hope this necklace brings you joy, because it has only brought me sorrow.’

I left, and life began to move so fast that I forgot to visit again until I saw you sitting in the coffee shop last week. I couldn’t take my eyes off your necklace. I knew I’d seen it before, but I had to be sure.”

My hands instinctively went to my throat and touched the small charm. She turned to me, her eyes searching mine for an explanation.

“The tree isn’t here, Jesse. I left the necklace, and every trace of who I was is gone.”

I took her hands in mine, fighting the urge to cry myself. I did not owe her, an almost perfect stranger, any explanation. Yet, we both spoke the language of heartbreak, and letting go was a choice I could not make for her.

“I’ve only had it a few years,” I began. “It was a gift from a hiking buddy of mine. He always wanted me to go on long hikes and camping trips with him. He couldn’t stay in one place. On his last trip, he decided to spend a few weeks on the Applachian Trail. It was right after the first hurricane of the season, and the trails were damaged in several spots. He wasn’t prepared for that and got lost. They found his body a couple of weeks after he was supposed to check in around Bristol. This is the last thing he gave me.”

I lifted my hands to unclasp the necklace, and passed it to Abigail.

“And as for your tree,” I added, patting the ground, “It may be gone, but the roots are still buried beneath us.”

Abigail’s eyes widened and she placed one hand on the soil next to her, frantically feeling the remaining roots of the missing tree. Then, she threw her arms around me and pressed her face into my shoulder. When she pulled away, the necklace was around my neck once more.

“I’m so glad,” she whispered, “that everything with a past has the opportunity to start again. How blessed are we, Jesse, to witness that?”

We left, hand-in-hand, both stunned to silence. The stars balanced on branches in the night sky as we made our way back to our cars. Crickets sang, fireflies danced, and the heart of the forest continued to beat.

 

(Writing prompt from http://www.thinkwritten.com: Pick a few words from the start of an article in a magazine and write a story or poem about it. This story was written in response to an article in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic (page 26) that began, “A fallen tree in a forest may seem unremarkable…”.)

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City Girls

Written for February Words3
Theme: “Love”

(Author’s Note: This piece began in response to a writing prompt at a conference I attended in January. The goal was to focus on a souvenir and form the story around it. I used an actual souvenir from a trip I took years ago and wove a short fictional story that may become a memory for a character in a sequel to The Huntsman. I’ve changed the title since I first read it in February.)

We were a little tipsy by the time we saw the sign for the record store. I can still remember your hand on my arm, guiding me to it through the crowded sidewalks. It was snowing that night in Boston, and we were a few blocks from our hotel.

Between the buzz of my anxiety just beneath the alcohol and the hum of the city around us, I could barely hear your insistence that this place looked like a sanctuary for punk rockers and anarchists. You, who wanted to buy your way into both worlds with your parents’ money. And me, who really just tagged along for free plane tickets and hotel rooms.

The cold pushed us down a stairwell and through the glass door to a bright, open room with white walls. The cashier barely glanced up at us over his rimmed glasses, and I marveled at the thought of him pushing his tiny frame against the wind to wherever he called home once his shift was over. He wore a blue plaid shirt and jeans, but I know you don’t remember. Irony was always lost on you unless it helped you in an argument.

My hands were shaking, but it wasn’t from the lingering cold in my bones. I could feel my stomach clenching in the new silence of the store. I felt around in my pocket for the little pink pill my doctor told me to take for my panic attacks, and when my fingers found it I remembered what the bottle said about mixing it with alcohol.

I weighed my options as you sifted through Iggy Pop and Gogol Bordello albums for the little piece of treasure you believed, with all your heart, had to exist beneath the city streets. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a table filled with books. For the first time on our week-long journey, I found something to distract me from making sure your needs were met. The pill fell back into my coat pocket.

I crossed the room, past photos of Prince and Johnny Cash that stared back at me with what could have been indignation. The table was small—no bigger than the nightstand in our hotel room. A giant book featuring a cover with a tattooed Marilyn Monroe was propped up on top. Various other titles were stacked together next to it. On the shelf beneath that one, local publications were strewn carelessly, almost covering a stack of tiny bright green pocket-sized books covered with illustrations of protestors.

I picked one up, and flipped through the pages enough to realize that it was not exactly a book, but a planner filled with quotes from people who had protested different forms of injustice throughout history. I was fascinated, and I felt a smile cover my face as I read through them. It was at this point that you realized I was not right behind you waiting to be lectured on the imposters of punk rock and the artists that mattered to the genre.

“Are you ready to go?” I heard you ask from over my shoulder. I turned sharply, book in hand, and saw that yours were empty.

“This place doesn’t have anything good,” you added, loud enough for the guy behind the counter to raise an eyebrow as he thumbed through a magazine. “Let’s go grab another beer.”

I looked at you then, sickly pale in the fluorescent light. Your blonde hair was sticking to the sides of your face. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw you completely sober.

“I’m just going to get this,” I said softly.

You took it from my hand and flipped through it before laughing and spitting out, “A planner? Really?”

I felt heat flood my face, and my stomach turned once more. I thought I was going to be sick. Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply and took it back from you.

“I’ll be outside,” you said, pulling out your phone as you left to text someone more vibrant than me. Someone who needed less so they could be more for you. Someone who didn’t need some silly green planner to feel better about their free ticket to Boston.

Except it wasn’t actually free, was it?

After almost two years of watching you drown yourself in alcohol and self-medicating to the point of disaster, that trip to Boston was when we both realized that I was not capable of truly loving you, because you made me hate myself every time I tried.

I barely looked at the cashier when I bought that planner—just like you barely looked at me when I joined you on the sidewalk. We drank that night, and the next. On our last evening there, you roamed the city alone while I packed for the trip home. Somewhere between you falling off your barstool and stumbling to a taxi, I was making a list of all the things I needed to do to move out of our apartment when we got back.

I can’t remember much about Boston—all the streets rich with history, the tiny shops, or the people who lived there. What I remember instead is the chipped nail polish on your fingernails, and the way you painted on your face like a mask every time we left the hotel. I think of you only when I see lipstick stains on cigarette butts. In those moments, I realize you are still out there somewhere in search of the perfect record, the perfect girl, and the perfect distraction. Our ghosts, on the other hand, haunt those cobblestones with all the other memories of love and war.