Editor’s Note: We received 72 entries in our first ever (but we hope not the last) Short Story Contest. Our four judges chose this moving story of friendship by Teresa Burns Gunther as a runner up. To learn more about Teresa and the other winners click here.
Natalie hunted her front yard for her paper beneath a silver morning sky stained with crimson. The kid who delivered, from a dented Camry blasting death-metal at 4:00 a.m., had an unenthusiastic arm. She found it near the sidewalk, wedged in a creeping rose whose thorns drew blood from her wrist. She didn’t know why she bothered; it was only ever bad news. Across the street a blue tarp flapped loose like an ill-fitting toupee on the bungalow that stared back, empty. Empty of Natalie’s closest friend, Carla, who’d moved across the country to New Mexico thirty-seven days earlier in search of a drier climate for her husband’s lungs.
A brisk breeze riffled the colorful leaves of the liquid ambers along Carla’s side of the street; three grand sentries that had marked the seasons of their lives, their friendship, their families. The largest held an abandoned treehouse, nearly hidden behind a quaking fall kaleidoscope. A red-orange leaf drifted down like a memory to settle on the sleeve of her robe. She fingered its satiny skin as the first construction truck arrived.
Inside, she refilled her coffee and went out to her studio in the backyard, thinking of predawn cups with Carla before the scramble of getting kids to school, themselves to work, one shouting across the street, “I’m going to the market, text me what you need.” They’d joked, called themselves sister-wives.
Natalie studied the painting on her easel. Each time she set out a new canvas, she’d start by mixing paint—cobalt blue, Chinese white—determined to paint something new, something beautiful. Maybe a wide sky, an opening door, but her brush sought out ochre, began with a shoulder, followed a line along a clavicle and down and she’d begin again to paint her altered self. The converted garage felt cramped, claustrophobic. She considered its clutter of brushes and tubes and decided to clean. Doug suggested that now, with an empty nest and her mother settled, she could reclaim her life. But she had ADD: Artistic Disorganized Distraction. She said it out loud, exaggerating the consonants. Her self-diagnosed excuse.
She’d nearly finished when her husband texted two hours later. Doug was working hard, early mornings, late nights, designs for a repurposed train station—a dream project—and playing catchup after helping her through chemo and surgery. Hope the visit goes well. Kiss your mom for me. Only in choosing a husband had Natalie surpassed her mother’s expectations. Three weeks earlier, Natalie moved her mom into a memory-care facility. She visited each morning precisely at 11:00 because the doctor said it was important to keep everything the same.
Natalie backed out the driveway, swiveled her head right, then left, to see around the trucks that pinched the narrow street. A roar and screech startled her. She braked hard, scrambled out and stood, hands clapped to her mouth as a severed limb crashed down with a whoosh all leaves and branches, into the street. The air thickened with evidence of massacre as wood fiber drifted and settled. Fall yellows, oranges, and reds bled across the sidewalk, the street.
She staggered to the other side of the road, clutching her jacket closed at her chest.
“Hey!” she shouted to a sparkplug of a man in a sawdust flecked beanie shoving a branch into a grinder. She grabbed his elbow. He turned, wide-eyed, shut off the machine and slid his headphones down around his neck. She towered over him.
“You okay lady?”
“No!” She swept her arm over the devastation. “What are you doing?”
He cocked his head, the question of her sanity in his eyes. “Taking down a tree?”
“Why?” She bent, picked up a branch the size of her arm, cradled its glorious yellow and orange leaves. He removed his cap, slapped it against his beefy thigh, releasing puffs of dust.
“I just do what I’m told.” One cheek creased in a weary smile.
Natalie hugged the branch closer; it pressed against her scarred chest and she felt a deep kinship with the butchered limb. “It was so beautiful,” she said, the words rasped at her throat.
Another man strode over wearing a button-down shirt and yellow hardhat, the artificial color an insult to the trees’ splendor. He eyed Natalie warily.
“She’s upset about the tree,” the first man said out of the corner of his mouth. He tugged his cap back on and stepped away, happy to pass crazy off on someone at a higher pay grade.
“Yeah?” The boss adjusted his belt and looked her over like one accustomed to talking people off ledges. “It’s diseased,” he said. “A hazard.”
A twig on the branch scraped her chin as she shook her head. No. He reached in his shirt pocket, pulled out a packet of tissues he offered to her. She thanked him, uncomfortably aware of the sight she must make, a spectacle of yourself, her mother would say. Natalie blew her nose. That’s when she saw the dismantled tree fort, jumbled atop remodeling waste in a green metal dumpster. A well-used swing set, now in pieces, leaned against it all.
“No kids I guess.” She indicated Carla’s former home. The man shrugged. She circled the tree, feeling she owed it an apology. Desperate to turn back time. She stepped to the dumpster, fingered the cold steel of the swing-set, its once bright blue paint visible now only as scratches and flecks.
“You want it?” the boss asked. “I could put it in your yard.”
She nodded, feeling foolish; her kids were in college, almost grown. A horn blast from yet another truck made her jump.
“Lady,” a man yelled, “you’re blockin’ the road.”
She got back in her car, surprised to find herself holding a branch. She set it on the passenger seat and started her engine. Her windshield was grimy; the wipers only slimed the glass. In the rearview mirror, she saw the men laughing, watching her drive off.
After a quick stop at a bakery she drove across town, stunned when she reached the squat ugly facility where her mother lived now. She had no memory of the drive. She parked and slumped down in her seat. Serenity’s Arms looked even worse behind her grotty windshield. She gripped the steering wheel and reminded herself it was the best option, but she hated its stupid, simpering name. On their intake visit, her mother asked the director, “Who the fuck is Serenity and what’s so great about her arms?” She’d raised her fists like a prizefighter, flexed, skin sagging from her arms. The director’s thin lips formed a banal smile. Natalie’s strict Baptist mother had become a foul-mouthed smartass with Alzheimers. Natalie had wanted to pump her fist, shout a booyah, but blushed instead, steered her mother away to follow the aide tasked with passing Serenity’s Arms off as anyone’s idea of a happy ending. Amanda, along for moral support, chewed a thumbnail, shoulders hunched, her worried eyes darted from her Gran to Natalie.
The surprising speed of her mother’s decline tipped Natalie more off kilter. She missed the certainty of rightness with which her mother had steered the planet—the very thing that had driven her younger self crazy—the thing that time revealed had grown integral, like a north pole, a magnet of her internal compass.
She twisted the mirror to check her hair, applied lipstick. The circles under her eyes said Survivor. Her mother had never understood her disregard for fashion, thought Natalie should “make more of an effort.” She wondered if her mother might know her again if she dressed like she’d stepped out of a Talbots catalog, the daughter she’d imagined.
She grabbed the pink bakery box, her purse heavy with the Pride and Prejudice she’d been reading aloud—it seemed to calm her mother—and shoved open the car door as her phone rang. She fumbled for it. “I’m here,” she said, assuming it was about her mother who wasn’t adjusting well. Last week she’d hit an aide. But all she heard on the phone was footsteps. She checked the screen. Amanda. Her baby. A freshman at college in California. Natalie pulled the door closed, sank back into her seat and listened to the slow crunch-crunch on gravel.
“Honey? You there?” No answer. Natalie turned up the sound. She couldn’t make out Amanda’s words but heard the nervous flutter in her daughter’s voice, pictured her raised shoulders, the tense smile, and quickly hung up.
Natalie’s son, Leo, left for college two years earlier as if relieved to pack his bags and go. Perhaps because his college was in Chicago, only two hours away. But Amanda was tiptoeing reluctantly into adulthood, as she had every other life transition. So far it wasn’t going well. She didn’t “click” with her dormmate, felt overwhelmed by her classes and predicted failure, though she was a good student. Doug assured her Amanda would be fine, but Natalie remembered her own anxiety and hated that her daughter had to go through the painful struggle of not fitting in. She felt guilty that she hadn’t protected Amanda from…well, her own DNA. She texted: Hi sweetie, love you. Hope you’re having a great day, adding heart and rainbow emoticons.
Natalie grabbed the pastry box and after a second’s hesitation, the colorful branch. She made her way to the door of Serenity’s Arms, past the sickly-sweet oleanders she’d pointed out to Doug and extracted a promise that if she ended up like her mom, he’d use its poison to take her out. He’d promised an oleander margherita, with lots of tequila and salt.
The doors of Serenity’s Arms slid open hesitantly, as if giving visitors a chance to reconsider before stepping into the beige right-angled world, gray linoleum floors, the reek of ammonia, urine and doom. Natalie was annoyed to find the front desk unmanned; her mother was a flight risk but she found her safe, asleep in her room.
She stroked her mother’s thin hair, once a thick shiny blonde, dyed every six weeks, now a sorrowful gray, not even the dignified silver she deserved. Natalie pulled a chair next to the bed and sat, held her mother’s spotted hand, watching her sleep. It wasn’t until Natalie raised her own children that she’d had more understanding, more compassion for her mother’s complicated love.
A nurse stuck his head in the door, and said in a thick accent, “She have bad night. They give her something to sleep.” Natalie offered him an éclair from the box she’d set with the branch on the dresser. He patted his round belly and shook his head. “She sleep for a long time,” he apologized and hurried off.
Natalie walk-raced to her car, guiltily ecstatic to leave. She texted Carla: Making a break from the clutches of Serenity’s arms!
Carla responded with a crazy-faced emoticon. Ugh. Sorry I’m not there. Got to run. Painters manhandling my universe. Talk later?
The wheeze and grind of machines shredded Natalie’s afternoon. The only thing worse than the noise and vibration was all that it represented. The new owners were remaking Carla’s house into something foreign. The cute three bedroom-two bath bungalow, good enough for Natalie’s favorite people, the house where she’d spent so many hours around the table by the small kitchen fireplace, vino tinto at night, their kids in pjs arguing over Apples-to-Apples, or drawing, tongues poked out of determined little mouths. The best of times and worst moments, deaths and losses, births and achievements, moments small and grand, shared in that house, or in Natalie’s, all sheltered by the three glorious trees.
She winced when the grinder jammed and screeched—an unnerving gnashing of teeth—followed by the rev-rev of a chainsaw, rubbing it in. Outside, the wind swirled with sawdust and leaves. She’d read somewhere that trees feel pain and communicate danger, through scent and signals transmitted over invisible fibers in the ground. She imagined she heard it cry: Wait! No!
She pulled her phone from her pocket. “Doug?” she said, when he answered.
“Hang on a sec.” She imagined his large hand, his neat square nails covering the phone, muting her. “What’s up?” His words were quick.
She opened her front door, held the cell phone out. “That is the sound of murder.”
She slammed the door against the screech and rasp. “The new owners are cutting down the tree. I can’t work. I can’t think.”
“Wait! What? What tree?” She imagined his screwed-up thinking face, eyes closed, his fingers rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“Carla’s treehouse tree. It’s been there forever.”
“Well, probably not forever,” he said, in a jokey voice.
Oh, he made her crazy sometimes, Mr. fact-check auto-correct architect. “Well, as long as we’ve been here; as long as Carla lived there.”
“Oh honey,” he said, his voice softer. He knew Natalie missed her friend like a lost limb. Hearing the tenderness in his voice, a lump closed her throat. “Did you call the city?” He spoke of permits for tree removal.
“It’s too late.” Natalie’s breath steamed the glass of her living room window as she stared at the tree’s stunted torso. Once it had been perfect. She hadn’t met the new owners but given all the work they were doing and the price they’d paid, she figured it was some young venture capitalists—probably vegan—long on cash, short on…well…everything else. Everything Carla.
“Want me to come home?” Doug asked, his hope for a no evident in his tone. He’d been her stalwart stand-by-your-woman man through the difficult past year.
Natalie shook her head. “No. But bring pizza when you do.”
Unable to work, she drew a bath, hot as she could stand it. She was too tall for the dinky tub. When Carla first saw it, she said, “Oh Hon. This won’t do. Bring your salts and robe to my house.” Natalie imagined appearing at the new neighbor’s door in her kimono robe with wine, towel and bath salts. “Damn you, Carla,” she muttered. “Just when I need you most.” Carla moved three days after Natalie returned from taking Amanda to college. Natalie cringed remembering the going away party, hot with noise, music, and laughter. It felt like a wake, but Carla called it, “A house cooling! Friends gather the warmth here and bring it to our new home.”
“Isn’t it already hot as hell in New Mexico?” Natalie asked and Carla’s face wrinkled with disappointment.
“Don’t punish me Natalie. You know this wasn’t my idea.”
“You could get a new husband?”
Carla held her gaze, tried to smile. “I’m going to miss you, Chica loca.” She crossed her arms, her smile wobbled, and Natalie kicked herself for being a shitty friend. Carla’s husband, Barry, mixed fancy blender margheritas that night wearing the apron Natalie made for him one Christmas that said, Let me mix you up! After her third, she climbed on a table and shouted, “Let’s friend-nap these guys and never let them go!” Doug watched with his sad-eyed I see you’re upset look; the new way he looked at her now, like the way he spoke, as if weighing every word.
The day Carla moved in Natalie had watched from the window. Her mother, in town for the overdue arrival of Leo, called Natalie “Gladys Kravitz,” a reference to the nosy neighbor of a sitcom witch. She wrapped up one of the lasagnas she’d made to fill Natalie’s freezer and insisted Natalie take it over as a welcome gift, as if it wouldn’t have occurred to her. Her mother wiped alizarin crimson from Natalie’s cheek. “First impressions are important,” she said, not for the first time, eying Natalie’s maternity overalls, paint-stained like her scuffed clogs. Natalie agreed and waddled to the wine rack, grabbed a good bottle of red by its neck and clomped to the door, drowning out her mother’s sigh. They were at the teeth-grinding stage of her mother’s visit. If the baby didn’t come soon, she’d planned to insist on being induced to preserve her sanity or spare her mother’s life. She’d stopped in the street that day to admire the trees’ showy fall leaves and felt their giddiness infect her; she’d taken it as a good omen.
Before she’d even knocked, a petite brunette opened the door, yelled into the house, her back to Natalie, “Do it now mijo, or I’ll run your fingers through the pencil sharpener.”
Natalie laughed. The woman jumped and turned. “Oh!” She clapped a hand to her chest above a very pregnant belly. Her eyes, amber in a heart-shaped face the color of crème caramel, were bright, expressive.
“Hi new neighbor!” Natalie said, suddenly shy. “I live across the street.” She waved the wine bottle at her own house. “Welcome to the neighborhood.” They eyed each other’s bellies.
The woman beamed. “Thank you! How nice! Come in.”
“Only if you promise not to sharpen my fingers.”
Carla narrowed her eyes. “Not unless you’re asking for it.” And Natalie loved her immediately.
The dark carpets from the previous owner—a creepy guy who kept his drapes drawn and once bragged to her that he made all my own bullets!—were replaced with beautiful wooden floors. Light streamed in through the naked windows. Natalie followed Carla into the kitchen where she shoved a chair out for Natalie with her foot. “I’m Carla. Garcia.”
“Natalie. Cooper.” She shook Carla’s hand.
Carla lifted a corner of the casserole’s foil and sniffed. “Mm, lasagna? Thank you!” She raised on tiptoe to see over a box to a clock propped on the tile counter. “4:55. Well, Natalie Cooper, in five minutes let’s consecrate our new friendship with this tasty wine? Unless you’re a supermom-abstainer. Half-a-glass?”
“My doctor says I do better with a shot under my belt. Or maybe that’s my husband.” She laughed. “Doc says one small glass won’t hurt. Besides, it would be unneighborly to ask you to drink alone.”
They grinned again, and they began.
After her bath, Natalie went out to the mailbox covered with children’s painted handprints, faded now. The air was rich with the scent of tree flesh and the sounds of men packing up.
“Oh No no. Wait. No,” she said, sickened to see what they’d done. All three trees, shorn to look like giant hat stands. The beanied man explained that the owners, he indicated a new SUV in Carla’s driveway, decided they wanted them all out. Natalie shook her head in disbelief. “They’ll miss the shade come summer.” Her cruel twist of satisfaction was quickly replaced with regret; she’d miss it too. She watched the man set orange cones around a large truck and chipper in front of her house. It was Friday. “What? Wait! You’re not leaving them like this?”
He consulted his watch. “We’ll be back on Monday.”
She pulled her phone from her pocket and took pictures but hadn’t the heart to send them to Carla. She sent them to Doug instead and went back inside.
She paced. Consulted the fridge for inspiration. Eyed the Cambozola. The wine. She checked the clock; it was only 4:29. She grabbed a carrot. Put it back. Too much work to peel.
The phone rang. Carla lit up her screen. She took the phone to her room and lay on her back across the bed and watched light play on the ceiling.
“Hey Chica!” Carla said.
“I’m so glad you called.” Natalie pinched herself to keep from crying, from telling her about the trees.
“How’d it go? With your mom?”
“She was asleep. She’s having a hard time adjusting.” But Natalie didn’t want to talk about that and asked how Carla was settling into the new condo.
“Getting there. Met my first rattlesnake.” She sounded delighted. “You’d have freaked!”
“I don’t know,” Natalie muttered, stung. She googled “rattlesnake” to look at a photo. A scaled creature appeared on her screen, coiled and slit-eyed. “Maybe.”
“Almost unpacked,” Carla was saying. “The kitchen’s ultra-modern. No shelf paper needed. Remember? You helped me do um… that…um…hang on.” Now Carla’s hand muted her. It was over a minute before she was back. “Nat? Can I call you back? My across the hall neighbor is here.”
“Okay.” Natalie swallowed against that damned lump. “Bye.” She started to call her mother, then remembered with an ache. She wondered if she’d found the eclairs, if she’d understood who’d brought them. If she’d noticed the fall leaves. She called Leo. The call rolled straight to her son’s voicemail, but before she could leave a message, his text appeared: Hey Mom. Kinda busy right now. Talk later? The last time they spoke, he’d sounded impatient with her, annoyed, his tell that something was wrong.
She woke with a start. Doug, beside her on the bed, rubbing her back. “Oh babe,” he said, seeing the spent Kleenex. He kicked off his shoes, lay down and spooned her. “That bad?”
“I miss my mom.” She missed everyone. Everything. She missed herself. He rubbed his chin into her shoulder. She felt his half-day stubble. “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I’ll go eat worms.” He hummed. She rolled over to face him. “Did you see the trees?”
He made a face. “Terrible,” he said. “Come on, get up, put on something sexy. I made reservations at that swanky new place you’ve been wanting to try.”
She laughed at “swanky” in the Georgia accent of his youth.
“We’ll have cocktails, eat a gourmet dinner, and dessert! We need to celebrate.”
She stroked his cheek. She did not feel sexy anymore. “There’s nothing to celebrate.”
“Sure, there is. Your recovery. Our empty nest. And…I finished my project today.” She felt a watery tenderness wash through her limbs and snuggled into his arms. Kissed his stubbled cheeks.
“That’s wonderful, honey. Congratulations.” She’d been so self-absorbed she hadn’t asked about his work that had kept him so busy she’d thought he was avoiding her. “I can’t wait to see the final plans.”
Natalie couldn’t sleep. After a decadent dinner, and dessert as promised, they came home and made love; only the second time since her surgery. A slow, tender, awkward dance. He kissed her face, her neck, her missing breasts, touched her in all the right ways. “We’ll get our groove back, beautiful,” he promised and she’d felt a buzzing hope that he was right.
She tried to match her breaths to his soft snores but couldn’t shut off her brain. She slipped out of bed and stood at the living room window. She hadn’t noticed the swing set assembled in her yard.
Outside, she sat in a swing beneath the new moon sky crowded with stars. She pushed the ground with one foot. Unrooted, the swing set juddered and groaned. It was cold. Winter was coming early. She pushed forward and back with one slippered foot, a stuttering arc, her other leg tucked in her nightgown. She ached to see the corpse-like trees, the stunted limbs reaching eerily in the light of the streetlamps.
She padded the familiar path across the street and felt suddenly desperate for a breath, as if she’d been holding it for months. She wrapped her arms around the largest tree, pressed her scarred chest into its rough skin. Her ribs rose and fell against the trunk and she imagined she felt it sigh, exhaling with her.
Lights came on in the new neighbor’s house. She closed her eyes, clung to the tree, dizzied by all that had turned upside down. How she’d been powerless to stop any of it. She didn’t know how long she stood in that embrace, simply breathing, head against the broad trunk. They’d both lost significant parts of themselves against their wishes. Two scarred beings.
She shivered but wasn’t ready to let go. She wondered what messages it sent now.
Her mother scolded in her head, get back inside.
Just a little bit longer.
“I am so sorry,” she whispered and pressed closer. “But you’re still here. And I’m here. I’m here. I am. Still. Here.”
Teresa Burns Gunther‘s work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, most recently: Pure Slush Books, Mid-American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review,The Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review,and others. Her fiction has been recognized in contests at Writer’s Digest, Glimmer Train Press, MAR, Cutthroat, Narrative, Tupelo Quarterly, New Millennium Writings, Best New Writing and many more. Her story collection, Hold Off the Night was a Finalist for the 2019 Orison Book Prize, and her interviews and book reviews have appeared in Bookslut, Glimmer Train Press, Zyzzyva, Shambhala Sun, Literary Mama and others. Teresa is an Affiliate of Amherst Writer and Artists and the founder of Lakeshore Writers Workshop where she offers developmental editing services and leads writing workshops and classes.