(photo by rogersanderson)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly, on Mondays and Fridays, with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
by Jennifer Diemer
She tells me her secrets, and they sink into my veins, some sweet as sap, some bitter, like wind through dying leaves.
“Everyone at school thinks I’m such a freak.” I toss my backpack to the ground, and it lands with a smack and a squish—sinks into a perfectly backpack-sized patch of mud. I sigh. “Of course.” I collapse against the tree. “I’ve got the worst luck in the world. The worst life.”
My gaze falls to the side, and I pick up a red leaf lying next to my hand, twirl it in my fingers, nestling my head into my favorite crook, between two big roots. “Okay, I don’t have the worst life, obviously. I know that. I know. But that doesn’t mean my problems are any less real, or important. They’re very real. To me.”
Overhead, the branches sigh. I look up and admire the arcing limbs’ familiar sweep. Against the sky, the branches weave together in pretty patterns, like Gran’s lacework. I don’t know what kind of tree this is, but it’s been my tree for as long as I can remember. No one else knows about it. No one knows this is where I come when I leave, when I have to leave. When I need someone to talk to.
Someone who won’t judge me, or laugh at me, or punish me.
Trees are great listeners, you know.
Especially my tree.
Okay, that sounds crazy. But right now, this tree is the best friend I’ve got.
“So today, in biology, Stacy thought it would be hilarious to ask Mr. Frank if homosexuality is natural or unnatural, if there are gay lions and toucans and things, and of course he got all flustered and dropped his chalk and then gave us a stupid pop quiz, but everyone was staring at me, and Lucas threw a paper airplane onto my desk. I didn’t unfold it, but one of the wings said ‘unnatural’ on it.” I roll my eyes and gulp down a sob. “I just wish I’d never told Janet how I felt about her. That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I knew she wasn’t into girls, but…” The leaf flutters from my fingers. “I hoped. I wished.”
I laugh a little, though nothing’s funny. “Have you ever wished?” I ask, gazing up again at the branches overhead. “Do trees wish? I guess you don’t really have any reason to. I mean, you’ve got everything you need—earth, water, sun.” I trace a hand over the rough bark of the trunk. “It must be nice to be a tree. So simple.”
When she curls up on the ground and rests her head against my roots, I imagine my branches cradling her—no, I imagine arms, not branches. I imagine arms and legs, eyes, a voice…
She’s right: it is simple to be a tree. It’s simple and dull, and perhaps I was never meant to be a tree at all, because I want to move, I want to feel, I want to speak and laugh and sing. But my roots are too deep, and I have no tongue.
All I have is the sky, the stars, and my wish, the same wish I wish every night.
I hate that I’m crying—again—but at least I was able to hold back my tears until I got here, safe beneath my tree. Sometimes, when I’m feeling this low, this alone, I wish a crazy thing: I wish that this tree was not a tree at all…but a person. A girl, even. A girl like me. And I wish that we met here every day in the forest, far from home, from school. I wish this was our place, our special, secret, safe place.
We could listen to each other, and make fun of the idiots in class, and she would tell me that, in time, Gran will get used to the idea of me being a lesbian, that she’ll ask to see me again, that she’ll tell the nurses I’m allowed in her room. Or even if she doesn’t, even if she really has disowned me forever, my tree-friend would give me a hug and promise that she would always be with me, no matter what, that she didn’t think I was unnatural at all—because if I was unnatural, that would make her unnatural, too.
I sit down on a root and cradle my head in my hands. It’s stupid to wish for something so weird, so impossible. But I wish it, anyway. I wish it hard, pressing my hand into the bark until it makes imprints in my skin. When I pull away, I gaze at the tree veins on my palm and feel a little dizzy. I’ve given myself a headache, I think, from crying, but I’m not crying anymore.
I rub the tears from my face and sigh, stand up. Somehow I always feel a little better after I spend time with my tree.
I think I’m…changing.
There’s a girl standing next to my tree.
I gasp when I see her, and I feel silly for gasping, but I still want to turn around and go back the way I came, because I come out here to be alone, not to be bothered by…
Well, I don’t recognize her. She’s about my age, but she doesn’t go to my school. Maybe she’s new?
She’s staring at me. She looks kind of…confused. Or worried.
Maybe she’s lost.
I swallow and stuff my hands in my pockets. My backpack slides to the crook of my elbow, so I just let it fall to the ground.
“Hi,” I say, and my heart does a little flip, because I never say hi first, to anyone, but this girl looks even less likely to say hi than me, and… Okay, she’s kind of cute. Pretty.
Yeah, she’s really pretty.
Her hair’s a bit messy, tangled, and she’s wearing a plain brown dress, no shoes. But somehow the simplicity suits her. She looks natural. Sweet.
“Hi?” she whispers, and then clamps a hand over her mouth, as if she’s mortified that she spoke the word out loud.
I can’t help myself; I laugh, but then I take a few steps closer, approaching her like I approach the feral cats on our street: slow and patient. “Did you just move here?” I ask. “Because I don’t think I’ve seen you at school.”
The girl shakes her head, one arm wrapped tight around the tree. My tree. With her free hand, she points up at the interlaced branches. “I…” She clears her throat, eyes on the ground. “I have been here…for a long time. But not at school, no.”
“Oh, homeschooled, then?” I wrinkle my brows and come up on the other side of the trunk. “I always wanted to be homeschooled, you know? But my mom’s working a double shift, and my dad is hardly around. And Gran…” I sigh and tilt my head against the bark. “Gran’s sick, and she doesn’t want me near her, anyway.”
“I know,” the girl whispers, which makes me peer at her closely, eyes narrowed. “I mean…” she stammers, visibly swallowing. “I mean, I know…” She bites her lip, sighs.
I circle around the trunk to face her. “What’s your name?”
“Oh. Um…” Her eyes dart about; she picks at the bark with her nails. “Fern?”
“Fern? Really? Like in that book about the pig?”
“What?” she asks, looking more worried than ever. “Isn’t Fern a good name? What about…Leaf? Or Sky? Rain?”
“Hold on a second.” I jam my hands into my pockets again and sigh. I have no idea what’s bothering this girl, but I can’t stand seeing her so nervous, especially not because of me. “Let’s start over. Hi.” I wave. “I’m Terra. What’s your name?”
She looks panicked for a moment, but then her eyes fall upon the tree, rest there, and she runs her hand over its bark, lids closed. “I’m Ash,” she whispers, certain. “My name is Ash. I’ve lived here all my life. I have no family. I’m alone. But I…I’ve seen you before.” She says the last part shyly, like a secret, and blushes.
“Here? You’ve seen me here?” I cross my arms over my chest, suddenly anxious. If she’s seen me here, then… Has she heard me talking to the tree?
“Were you hiding? Were you spying?”
“No. You came to me. There was nowhere for me to go. And you wanted me to listen. Didn’t you?”
“Wait. What?” My head is reeling. I’ve never come to the forest to see anyone. No one but…my tree.
“I made a wish,” Ash goes on, and now she’s staring at me again, green eyes gleaming bright. “I wished to be a girl like you, and I am.” She gestures down at herself, rests a hand against her cheek. “I think I always was…inside.”
I take a step back. “No, I don’t—This makes no sense.” Have I lost it? Is this girl even real? I mean, I had a good day today, actually, so I don’t know why I’d start hallucinating now.
Impulsively, I reach out a hand and intend to tap her on the head—just to make sure she’s solid, not a mirage—but instead I lay my hand on her hand, the one she’s pressed against her cheek, and she doesn’t pull away, doesn’t even look surprised.
She’s smiling. A soft, sweet smile.
She’s beautiful when she smiles.
But that doesn’t change the fact that she seems to be suggesting that she is—or was—my tree?
“Please explain what’s happening here,” I whisper.
She sighs, and her expression takes on a dreamy glow. “I made a wish, and I think…you made a wish. And that changed things. Changed me.” Her eyes trail up the length of the trunk at her side. “It pushed me out. The wish. It set me free.”
I stagger on my feet a little, remembering the wish I made yesterday. I wished that my tree were…a person.
I wished it, and now—
“I hoped that we could be friends?” Ash blinks at me, taking a step nearer.
“Friends?” I shake my head, overwhelmed, baffled. I’ve never had a friend, not really. And the butterflies in my stomach are fluttering like crazy—not because I’m excited about having a friend, but because I think I have a major crush on this tree-girl. Just like that. The way she’s looking at me…
I swallow. “Okay, this is all really weird, and I’m still not entirely convinced that I haven’t lost my mind, but you feel real enough, and, if you are real, we’ll have to find you a place to live, and then you can go to school—with me. I mean, if that’s what you want to do.”
“It is,” she smiles, and she takes my hand between both of hers, presses it against her heart. “Thank you for wishing for me, Terra.” And she kisses the back of my hand.
My heart nearly bursts out of my chest.
I’m pretty sure she’s real.
Ash turns away a little, presses her palm against the trunk for a long, silent moment. Then she looks at me with a big, blue-sky smile.
I can’t help it; I give her a giant, goofy smile back.
“Tell me about your day, like you always do,” she says. “How did your Spanish test go?”
“Oh…right. Muy mal,” I laugh, and it’s so easy to talk to her that I go on to describe the Incident at lunch—Stacy tripped and got spaghetti all over her frilly white shirt—and Ash giggles and squeezes my hand, and we’re so busy laughing and chatting—and, okay, gazing at each other with wide, sappy eyes—that I fail to notice the moment we step out of the forest, onto the road, but Ash lags behind, peering over her shoulder, between the trees.
“We’ll come back,” I promise.
Ash takes a deep breath, gives me a grateful smile and nods her head.
Hand in hand, we move in sync beneath the open sky.
I’m free. Me.
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