Trees


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5 min
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Caleb Litster is a hard-of-hearing undergraduate student pursuing a degree in math education. Reading Philip K. Dick sparked his love for short stories, and he has since written his own sci-fi short  [+]

Image of Fall 2020
Image of Short Fiction
He must have been walking for half an hour before he turned around to go home. He wasn't sure what it was that impelled him to frequent these woods. Maybe it was anger, taking some savage pleasure from trampling over the very roots and leaves that he so despised. Or perhaps it was longing, a futile effort to resurrect the trees of the past by immersing himself in memory. Most likely it was simply because he knew of no other place where he could feel alone.
    He shivered and stuffed his hands into his coat pockets, exhaling sharply as he tilted his head back. He had hoped to spot the moon glittering through the upper branches, but the thick, snow-covered foliage swallowed up the sky and everything in it, leaving only a pale greenish glow that dripped from each translucent vein. The path split before him and he veered left out of habit, then stopped suddenly and looked back. A giant tree placed just between the fork stood heavy and drooping, its icy branches clanking with every gust of wind.
    He hummed softly as he wrapped his small gloved hands around the lowest branch and pulled himself onto it. He quickly reached his little nook about twenty feet up, where he contented himself watching the snow fall from the sky like stars.
    He moved closer to the tree, stretching out his hand to touch it.
    He was climbing down now, breathing in the sweet smell of the crackling fire he knew awaited him at home, when he shifted his weight to a dead branch and it snapped. The branch fell with him and collided with the fresh snowbank below, sending up a white cloud that nearly covered them both. Reaching for the branch, he felt a pair of strong arms lifting him away.
    He pried his fingers from the glossy trunk and let them tumble to his side. His arm felt strangely limp and unresponsive, but only for a moment before he could move it again. The glowing leaves above him bowed in mock sympathy, banging together with a horrible noise that set his teeth on edge. He scowled at them one last time before starting back down the path.
    At length he spotted a familiar chimney rising out of the lamplit gloom. By now, of course, the chimney served no practical purpose, but he had insisted they keep it. His eyes roved over the red speckled bricks that covered his house, granting him some semblance of peace. His icy fingers fumbled the key into the lock, and he knocked the snow off his boots before jolting the heavy iron door open. As he hung up his coat in the side closet, a gentle pair of arms wrapped themselves around his waist.
    "How was your walk?"
    He turned slowly and kissed her, causing her to jerk back as if burned.
    "Your lips are freezing!” she exclaimed. She pulled away to shut the door. “Were you warm enough in that old coat?"
    "I'm fine, Amber."
    She studied him with one eyebrow raised. "Go thaw out by the fire while I get you some cocoa."
    As she disappeared around the corner, he lifted his hands to his mouth and blew on them softly, stepping toward the fireplace. He collapsed in a red armchair and leaned close to the vent to breathe in the hot fumes. They were scentless and empty. He settled back and gazed into the repetitious, two-dimensional flames.
    Out the window he could see thick black smoke billowing from his right engine. Beads of sweat trickled across his lips and he shuddered nervously, trying to calm his breathing. He knew he had to land soon, but where? More shrapnel peppered the air around him and suddenly heaven and earth swirled together. He fought to right the plane but he had lost all control. He clenched his muscles, reached for the lever and pulled, fighting to stay conscious as he shot upward—or was it downward?
    For a brief moment, all was still. His plane lay buried beneath the infected trees just ahead of him. Maybe, just maybe there was a chance he could save the healthy seeds. In a dizzy haze, he watched the smoking wreckage as it erupted in a ball of flame. A scream pierced his ears. It was over. He had failed. It was all ov—
    “Honey?”
    He stiffened and cleared his throat. He felt a hand brush his shoulder and reached up to clutch it tightly.
    “Were you daydreaming again?”
    He didn't answer.
    “Listen, there's nothing more you could have done, okay? It's not your fault.”
    “That's not true, I—”
    “Honey, it’s late, and Violet’s already asleep. Never mind the cocoa, why don’t you just come to bed?”
    He squeezed her hand and flashed her a smile, then slowly stood up and switched off the fireplace.
    Lying in bed he turned to look at his wife’s face, imagining the lustrous green eyes that hid behind her closed lids. The moonlight danced upon her cheeks and it seemed for an instant as if she were smiling. He turned back and stared at the ceiling, listening to her rhythmic breathing.
    “... Notice the fractal structure iterated in the leaves, giving them an almost lifelike appearance. Of course, th—”
    “Dr. Pho?”
    An audible sigh filled the lecture hall. “Yes, Oliver?”
    “Do these trees produce oxygen?”
    “Not yet. Our researchers are developing artificial photosynthesis chambers that could be embedded in the leaves, but for now, the trees are inert. As I was saying, the...”
    Crossing the courtyard he heard hurried footsteps behind him, and turned to face the sound. A woman entered his vision, her hair swaying like willow branches.
    “You ask a lot of questions.” She winked. “What makes you care so much?”
    He shrugged. “An overdeveloped attachment to nature, I guess. Is that bad?”
    “No! I think you’re right to care.”
    He grinned. “What's your name?”
    “Amber. Yours?”
    “I think you’d know mine by now if you paid any attention in class,” he joked.
    She laughed like a bubbling spring. “It's still polite to ask, isn't it?”
    He was certain now that he could see a smile on her slumbering face. The moon hid behind a cloud, plunging the room into shadow, and his eyes drifted shut.
    He awoke in an empty bed to the distant sound of sizzling. He pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweater, walked into the kitchen, and sat down across from his daughter at the table. Her blue eyes widened and she frowned as a steaming plate was set down in front of him. He gave his wife an understanding smile.
    "Daddy?"
    "Yes?"
    "There’s snow on the ground and you said we could go play!"
    "Now?" He glanced at his untouched plate and then at his wife who was stifling a laugh. "I guess breakfast will have to wait. Let me grab my coat."
    "Yippee!"
    He opened the back door for her, and she ran into the middle of the yard and began picking up snow and throwing it in the air. She was trying to catch the flakes with her tongue when he grabbed her hands and twirled, swinging her in circles as she giggled and screamed.
    "Daddy, stop! You’re making me dizzy!"
    He stopped spinning and let go of her hands. She stumbled a few steps before losing her balance completely and tumbling in the snow. He chuckled and laid down beside her, taking her small, fragile hand in his.
    A single leaf detached itself from the tree overhead and dropped toward them, its rapid descent capturing the attention of both father and daughter. She reached up to protect her face and the leaf collided with her palm, eliciting a tiny gasp.
    "Daddy, look! It's so pretty!" She lowered the leaf close to her eyes and gazed at her father's face through it. It had the texture of blown glass and was a sparkling, virulent green. He stared at his daughter's rapturous expression and bile rose in his throat. A tear slipped from his left eye.
    "Daddy, why are you crying?"
    He blinked up at the shining foliage and noticed that he couldn’t see the sky.
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