This story is one of the September Writing Challenge entries that was chosen to be a featured story.
My breath comes in short gasps as I trudge up the hill, my feet scrambling for purchase on the flattened, sun-bleached grass, trodden down by previous wayward hikers. Determined, I grit my teeth and brush a loose tendril of coppery red hair out of my eyes.
Finally reaching the summit, I allow myself a moment to simply drink in the sight before my dull, listless eyes. A tree stands straight and tall, the only spot of color and life in the barren landscape. Its branches reach out in an elegant, stately manner, as if the tree itself is royalty, cloaked in a flowing veil of rustling green leaves, the kind of green that is fresh and new and inviting, the kind that slaps your face with its screaming declaration of springtime.
“New” and “inviting” being words I do not currently welcome, I eye the tree warily before stepping forward in a cautious manner, as if I’m sneaking back into my own house after a night of recklessness. It’s a familiar place: one I recall, with a bitter smile, that she had loved.
She had loved many things: the feeling of squelching damp sand beneath your toes at low tide, the fresh, bright taste of tangerine ice cream, writing words like “always” and “forever” in endless, looping handwriting.
“Always” and “forever” are also words I do not currently welcome.
At the top of the list of things that she’d loved was a spot reserved for the girl who made her feel like driving 100 miles per hour down empty country roads at three in the morning, inhaling the sharp, pure air drenched with exhilaration, and laughing at the futility of it all. When she wrote my name—no, when she spoke my name, her lips curling around each letter, I almost felt worthy of that position.
I touched the bark of the tree with hesitant fingers. It was rough against the soft, plump pads of my fingertips. It almost felt tougher beneath the tip of my knife.
Yet the cold metal bit into the bark like it was sinking into the crisp flesh of an apple, and I found that with each cut, it grew easier. As the crude outline of a heart took shape, I hardly felt the tears that kissed my cheeks with salt, reminding me of the three words I couldn’t tell the world.
She wanted to shout my name on abandoned country roads, but not in congested school hallways.
She loved low tide days and cold, creamy sweetness on her tongue, but not girls. In public, she is normal. Perfect. Straight.
I stand back, looking at the heart I left behind, the two letters pierced by an arrow with messy feathers etched onto the shaft, Indian style. And I wonder if it’s possible for the roots of something unconventional, yet deeper—something a little bit like love, can take root in shallow soil.
I remember the day we sat beneath this tree.
Maybe it can.