This story by Allison Walters Luther is the fourth place winner in the 5th Anniversary Writing Contest. When she’s not chasing after her three children, Allison is busy writing, mainly within the historic, horror, and thriller genres, striving to create strong characters and vivid imagery. Her flash fiction has been honored multiple times by Wow! Women On Writing (Summer 2015, Winter 2016, and Spring 2016) and she is currently slated for publication in the debut issue of Speculative 66. You can read about her family’s journey with autism at simondoesntsay.com or you can find her on Twitter @AllisonLuther.
Grandpop said you could tell how old a tree was if you chopped it down and counted the rings inside. “But that would kill the tree, right?” My four-year-old cries were sharp at the thought of chopping down an innocent tree just to count rings. What if someone wanted to cut me open to see how old I was? I had nightmares for weeks and once my mom found me in the middle of the night, standing next to the oak tree in our front yard, sobbing. Touching the tree, she asked me, “Do you hear it, too?” Mom was always hearing voices that no one else could.
In my eighth summer, a limb in that tree died. It was a thin branch about four feet up, the right height to pull myself up to the fork in the trunk where I would hide and escape my parents’ fights. The leaves all turned brown and the branch would creak, low and ominous, if I put too much weight on it. During a fierce storm that fall the dead limb fell off , leaving a gaping wound behind, not much bigger than my hand. Mom called it an ugly scar. Grandpop said it was a cicatrix and I liked his word better. Cicatrix sounded magical, not ugly or shameful. I rubbed my hand around the edge of the cicatrix and marveled at the strength of the tree to survive such a loss.
My father left soon after the cicatrix appeared, vanishing to a new life across town. I never felt comfortable in his apartment, all gleaming wood and shiny glass, or with the succession of equally gleaming and shiny women. No one thought to ask what I wanted, so every few weeks I was packed off to spend two days camped on Dad’s uncomfortable sofa while he and whatever Shiny was around pretended like we were a Happy Family.
Dad’s leaving left an ugly hole in our family, one that I didn’t know how to fix. Mom refused to leave the house, not even to go to the store. She would sleep all day, leaving me to get myself up and off to school, but often sat awake all night, muttering to herself. I sang songs and danced, trying to cheer her up, but she would just stare through me. Grandpop started coming over almost every day, taking me to the movies or the park. When Mom’s rantings got too loud, I’d press my hand against the cicatrix, hoping, praying, to be as strong as the tree.
On a sunny day just before I turned nine, Grandpop picked me up at school. “Your mom is in the hospital, Lori. I’ll be staying with you until she’s better.” He took me to visit her, the hospital so sterile and white that the inside of my nose burned. We walked down a long hallway full of groans coming from other doors, but Mom’s room was silent. She was laying flat on the bed, staring up at the ceiling with her empty gray eyes.
“Mom!” I rushed to her bed, my arms outstretched, wanting nothing more than to cling to her and cry out all the worry and panic boiling up inside me, but she didn’t reach for me. Her head swiveled towards me like it was hung on a rusty hinge, her eyes unfocused and empty. Then I noticed that her arms were wrapped in bandages and wide straps ran across her body, holding her down. Her cracked lips moved and I strained to hear her whisper. “Kill me.” I burst into tears and Grandpop rushed me out of the room.
She came home a couple of weeks later, a pale skeleton. The bandages on her arms were gone, revealing a ladder of scabby cuts criss-crossed with black stitching. Grandpop slept on the couch every night. As the days passed and Mom sat and stared at the wall, I worried about what would happen to me, to us, if he left and went back home.
“I don’t think that’ll be happening anytime soon, kiddo.” He glanced at Mom, who was chewing on her hair while staring at a blank TV. Sometimes I would sit with her, holding her hand, and my fingers would trace the scars on her arm. Her cicatrices.
I tiptoed through my days, even at school, afraid that too much attention would shake my already fragile world to bits. My friends grew bored with me and soon I only had Grandpop and my tree to talk to, the cicatrix giving me hope that our family would, somehow, survive.
I was nine, ten, eleven, and the cicatrix on the oak tree grew higher. I grew taller, too, but I couldn’t keep up with the cicatrix and could barely stretch to touch it. Grandpop still lived with us, renting out his house and using the money to buy us food. Dad married one of his Shiny ladies and she soon had a baby, so they stopped asking me to come visit. That Christmas, I found Mom lying in a puddle of vomit in the bathroom, pills spilled out by her side. They put her in a special hospital an hour away, a drive Grandpop and I made every week. She rarely spoke during our visits, instead drawing pictures in the air with her finger.
With Mom and Dad both gone, Grandpop was all I had. “Lori, you must always be strong and unafraid. Life is full of joy if you only let it be so.” But I knew that he was wrong, that all that I loved could be taken away in an instant.
Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. The cicatrix was far out of my reach, but if I got the ladder from the garage, I could reach it. We still visited Mom, even though she never spoke to us. We were a Happy Family, Grandpop and I.
It was a Saturday the day it all ended. Grandpop always made us breakfast on the weekend, but instead of waking up to the smell of pancakes and bacon, I woke to silence. I found him in bed, Mom’s bed in her old room, and he was gone.
Sometime that morning, during the flurry of paramedics, Dad showed up and took me away to his house, to live with my Shiny step-mom and little brother. I leaned out of the car window as we drove away. I could see my tree in the distance long after I had lost sight of the white-draped stretcher being wheeled from the house.
Months passed as I tried to fit into Dad’s new family, making myself silent and small. Shiny developed lines around her mouth and would often sigh whenever I came into the room. Late at night, I could hear their whispered conversations and Dad’s assurances that I would be going way to college in just two years, God, Macie, keep it together, would ya? I felt that I would snap from the tension and the only time I could breathe was when I’d take the car and go sit under my tree at my old house. I couldn’t reach the cicatrix anymore, but I would sit and stare at it, the only constant thing in my life, up among the branches.
A ‘For Sale’ sign went up and came down at my old house and Dad said I couldn’t go over there anymore. I still did, though, sitting in the car and looking at my memories. One day, the road in front of the house was blocked off with orange cones and a big truck parked nearby. ‘Orville’s Tree Service’ it said. Branches and leaves from my tree lay strewn across the yard and there was a man belted near the top swinging a chainsaw around. Another man stood on the sidewalk, writing on a clipboard.
“What are you doing?” My cries at seventeen were as sharp as they had been at four, my terror as real, as I was told that the owners wanted the tree removed so they could… the rest of his words were drowned out by the scream of the saw. My chest felt tight as I clutched his arm, begging him to save my cicatrix, please, sir, let me have it. He laughed at the stupidity of someone wanting an old knothole. I knelt on the ground and watched as my childhood disappeared into the grinding shriek of the wood chipper.
I flipped up my middle finger in response to Shiny’s snarled question of what is that you’re carrying, then laughed as the shouting began and I went up to my room. No longer was I going to be quiet and meek. It was my turn to be strong, like Grandpop said I could be. It was my turn to live. I fell asleep that night next to the heavy piece of wood, touching the cicatrix and counting the rings of my oak tree.