I remember wandering through the Dickens museum. Back in my BA days, before I went JD and corporate. (Then mental institutes, for the depression. Rehab, for self-medicating the depression.) Some time in November, when the leaves fell and winter let out a slow, tentative breath. I remember the sky a pale grey, so uniform it seemed more like slate than cloudcover. I followed his life through the museum, past china cups I envied, a wine cellar I considered raiding, until finally I came to the top and found a portrait. An empty chair, wooden, a week after his desk. Where is he? — the chair, or perhaps the artist, seemed to say. Too realistic to be poignant, too precise. When it comes to suffering I prefer Van Gogh. For depression, Picasso in his blue period, before he learned to sing through the paint. For rage, Pollock.
Would they call this a form of art, I wonder?
Her rocking chair lies in splinters across the porch, untouched by the fierce New England wind, as fierce as the woman who used to sit there, in that chair, her hands lined and veined and so gentle, so firm, so cruel. I resist the urge to sit in the chair, although I know, can see clearly, that it has gone. I enter the house via the backdoor, still unlocked from my last, careful entry, take the broom, and began to sweep the front porch. Is it guilt? I cannot help but think that she would have preferred it without the mess. Perhaps that is why I do it. To please her.
I enter the old house cautiously, though the old fear does not remain. I pass a dark shape and turn in horror. The dark spot, where the mirror used to be. I close my eyes. Blood, still on the corner of the mirror. I decided it would be best to unscrew it from the wall, dump it where it and I could not be seen or connected back. I open my eyes. Gone. I can still smell the lemon in the air from my attempts to scrub it, to hide the overpowering scent in the air.
Sirens. I close my eyes and pray. Who to?
I realize I have left the remains of the rocking chair on the porch and double back. We can’t have a sign of a struggle now, not with the police coming around. I walk out front, watch them as they pass across to the house across the road. I can hear it now: the whooping and EDM bringing me back to my college days. I smile and wave at the police officer as he steps out and I smile and wave and he gives me a curt nod, an apologetic raise of the hand. Law and order, you and I Sir. Of course he wouldn’t suspect. We’re far out enough in the ‘burbs that lawyers do have a good name. A couple miles North and you’re in Hell frozen over, I suspect. I double-check the slant of the door, check the cracks for anything that might remain, step back inside. The earth never seems to swallow you when you want it to, does it?
I start on the liquor. Nothing else to do. I’ve covered everything that the forensics could get their hands on, and it’s not like they could connect it back to her. It wouldn’t make sense. Again, I pray. Pray. Whatever. I am on the ground in the living room, where the chair once sat. I have poured myself three shots of whiskey and a Blue Moon to start myself out. Of course the woman would have the fancy beer. I smile, in spite of myself, then cover my eyes with my hands. Perhaps I should add holy water to the mix, just in case. If it wasn’t water that started the whole of it. I listen for the creaking of the pipes, the sound of… Nothing.
Proposal: a water spread disease. How far does it go? I realize I have no idea, but poison a reservoir and what does it go through? What process of sanitation, I mean. What would you have to do to affect a town? To destroy the evidence? Or would you call this more of a local problem.
I hear the rattling again and cover my eyes with my hands. There we are, I have my god: whoever will make the duct tape hold until morning. Good God, God of duct tape, I raise my dead mother’s beer to you.
I take a swig. I contemplate the caffeine situation. Then I call a friend in town.
“Mind if I sleep over?” I ask. She chuckles, starts to make a joke, and then my tone hits.
“You alright?” She asks. I shake my head.
“I… No, no, not at all,” I say.
“You drunk?” She asks. “Thought you quit drinking after… well, you know.”
“Save me from myself?” I ask. I laugh hoarsely.
“I’ll be right over,” she starts.
“No,” I say quickly. “I–Meet me at the Starbucks, midtown. I need to sober up before seeing you.”
“You sure you’ll be alright?” She asks.
“No,” I reply, and hang up the phone.
I waited for the cop to drive away, or… the two cops? Okay, overkill on the drinking. It had been too long, and I wasn’t as big as I’d used to be.
I leaned against the wall, took a breath. Then I walked down the long dark stair to the basement. Scratches at the door, hisses. I grabbed the kerosene from the closet to the right of the main room, walked deliberately up the stairs. Out of her duct tape already, then.
I spread the kerosene from room the room, careful to cover everything I could. I was grateful the house was only a single story, old, rickety, on its way out. I covered it, walked out to the front porch, and dropped my lighter. Whoosh.
It spread a little, but the harsh wind was a wet one, too. It wasn’t catching. I took the kerosene around the sides, helping it out when nothing else would. The flames grew bigger, unstoppable, the timbers shrieking with moisture. I could hear screaming, more like an animal’s scream than an old woman’s. I stayed longer than I should have, but I needed to see it burn all the way down. If there was one thing I’d learned from the last few years, it was that running never worked. Better to catch up with what was chasing you before it caught up with you. Best to meet its eyes, let it remember that you, too, knew how to chase. To kill.
She rises from the fire. Spreads her arms like a phoenix’s wings and for a moment her eyes meet mine. A brilliant and piercing green, like a granny apple. I reach back for my gun, but stop as I see the fire cut deeper, the arms start to lower. I don’t need any more forensic, especially considering how recently I purchased the gun. How I purchased the gun.
Her body burns away, dust to dust. Soon it begins to rain, a cold heavy sideways rain that numbs my nerves. I have the urge to sit down, to let it rain down on me. Decomposing like a field mouse in the well out back. My phone vibrates. I check it, see the note of concern. I start walking down the road just as she, my Jane, pulls up.
“Your house!” She yells. I nod, silently, and pull myself into the passenger side. “What the hell happened? How come nobody called the cops?” Because they’d already been called, and sent everyone home who might’ve stayed awake to see.
“She lit it,” I said. A white lie, but one she might believe.
“What?” Jane asks. I press my face against the glass, hoping the chill will numb me.
“Burned the damn thing down.” I say. Jane pats my shoulder, weakly. We stop for coffee and she helps me as I drunkenly stumble to a seat.
“You start drinking before or after the fire started?” Jane asks.
“Before,” I reply, realizing I can’t back up after. “She was acting crazy, Jane,” I add. I don’t know how to cover myself, not in a situation like this, but she seems to believe me. I cover my face in my hands.
When lying, it’s best to include part of the truth.
“I think she’d gotten real sick,” I tell Jane. “She kept saying there was something in the water. She’d… act differently, after she drank, and she said her caretaker kept saying she should drink something.”
“Her caretaker?” Jane asks.
“She said… an old man who came by?” I say. Jane looks at me blankly. I feel my stomach sink. Green eyes, like a granny apple. “There was a man taking care of her when I arrived,” I say, and Jane sucks in her lips. I cannot tell if she believes me. I recall that I haven’t seen him, myself, and my stomach sinks.
“She… used to say that,” she whispers after a moment. “I didn’t believe her.” Jane covers her mouth with her hand. Shock. But my Jane doesn’t cry. That much is good.
“She said he had green eyes?” I ask.
A tear runs down Jane’s cheek.
“We’ll find out,” she says. “Who he was. How he did it.”
“I think this might be out of our league, Jane,” I say. “No way to prove a poisoning, if that’s what this was.”
“We could go back to the well,” Jane suggested. “That’s where your water comes from, isn’t it?”
I swallow. “Can we wait until morning?” I ask. I know I won’t be able to sleep, so this is just cowardice, pure and simple.
“Of course,” Jane says, taking my hand. “Of course we can.”
She takes me back, tucks me in in her bed. I know nowhere’s safe but somehow, someway, I’m asleep the instant my head touches the pillow.
We return the next day, as cops circle like lazy vultures. I avoid the scene, slinking by in Jane’s car, and drove North instead back up into the fields the long way. I drive until I thought I knew where we were — it has been a long time — then park just a little ways off the road, grateful for the lack of a slope. We hike in down towards the well. Jane is quieter than me in the undergrowth. Every few steps I check my belt for the gun. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears. Out of shape. Sitting behind a cubicle all day has done nothing for my stamina, and a small part of me wonders if she will notice. If she does, she says nothing.
The most surprising thing about the well is how ordinary it looks. We draw near it slowly. I remove my gun from my pants’ line.
“If it’s poisoned, how will that help?” She asks.
“In case we’re confronted,” I reply. In case it — whatever it is — is down there. As if I knew how to use it, anyway. I remember reading a report saying even cops were useless with guns unless they were trained for combat situations specifically. Something about the stress alters your reactions, makes you sloppy. Useless. You were more likely to have it used against you or use it against yourself than use it effectively.
“Alright,” she mutters. She leans over the edge of the well before I can stop her, but nothing happens. She just looks down. “Doesn’t look like anything out of the ordinary,” she tells me. I peek curiously, but all I see in the deep pit below are roots, roots reaching down in the dark like hands. I took a shaky breath. A shiver runs down my spine.
“Let’s get out of here,” I say. I look around, wondering where the tree that the roots connect to may be.
“I want to get a sample,” she says. My hands sweat as I pull the chain to draw up the bucket. I do not want her touching the water, but I cannot explain. I don’t know how. Maybe I really am cracking up.
“Don’t touch it,” I say.
“If touching it were enough, your mother would have been gone weeks ago,” she replies. “But alright.”
“It just seems like it’s dangerous, that’s all,” I tell her. “Better to be careful, until we know what it is, right? Or just leave it.”
“We’re getting to the bottom of this,” she replies. She frowns, looking down into the bucket. “It’s… is that sap?” I look down, see the sticky mass that has risen from the bottom of the well. It is red, thick, but too transparent to be blood.
“Jane, I really—” I start. I look around and pause. I realize why I could not see the roots were connected to. I move closer as she looks through the sap, her brow knit with confusion. I run my hand along the cut stump of a tree near the edge of the wood. When I draw back my hand it is white with ash. I rub it on the grass, tuck my hand in my pocket. A memory flashes back to me, from the time before I learned to think too much: the tree, full and tall and wild, like my mother. And the man in the… I hear a crunch and whirl towards the edge of the trees. Nothing. I swear I must be panting. My heart races.
“You ready to go?” Jane asks. She puts her hand on my shoulder as I jump. “I got a sample. We can take it back.”
“I… I want to go back to the house,” I say, on a whim. I want her away from that sap, untouched and unhandled. I watch to see which pocket of her purse she puts it into and follow her back to the car. We drive back around, past the house. Ashes to ashes, dust to… Oh, God.
“What is it?” Jane asks.
“The chair,” I say. “Her chair.”
It’s back together. No one in it, of course, but there it is, just like it was before the fight. I close my eyes, open them again. It’s still there. I get out of the car slowly. My body feels far away. I brush past the police, move towards the chair. Uncharred, too. I run my hand along the sides, feel the new varnish. I run my hands along the bottom of the rocking chair and pause. I try to move it, but it’s cemented to the ground.
“You got a pocket knife?” I ask the officer. He nods, handing it over.
“What the hell happened?” He asks.
“I was drunk and halfway to Jane’s by the time I heard about it,” I lie. “But I think the Old Lady did it. She’d been acting… erratic.”
“Hmm,” says the police officer. I scrape the knife along the bottom side of the chair, cutting through solid wood. I drag it up and find roots underneath, fat and heavy. I sniff them. No idea.
“I’m going to borrow this,” I say. I don’t listen for an answer, but continue cutting the chair up from the roots that have made their way into the soil, pulling each up as I do. I have no intention of risking any contamination. I pour out the last of my whiskey on the spot of earth, shaking out my flask. I light it up. The police officer looks concerned, to say the least, but why would I burn down my own house?
I push the chair into the back of the car, try to ignore the rattling sound of my teeth in my head.
“Bring it back,” I say. “Back to the well. I want to check something.”
“Alright,” she says. She can tell I’m cracking up, but she doesn’t want to push me. Always was kind. I wonder if I’ve imagined the whole thing. I look back at the chair in the back. Again, the shiver. I cover my eyes with my hands. A sickly sweet smell in the car as we ride, like her apple pies. Her…
I remember, now.
“A little faster,” I say. Jane looks over at me. She steps on the gas. I reach back to the touch the tree, the roots lying loose in the backseat.
I have her drive straight through the forest, promising to pay for any damage done to the car. I have no idea what makes her do it, but I must scare her. I catch a look of myself in the side mirror and realize I have the look too. Brown eyes bleeding with green in the corners. Not water in your tear ducts anymore. I swallow, close my eyes, open them again. Running away never works.
I leave the chair by the stump like an offering. Try forcing it against the trunk. Jane watches with something in her eyes like pity. When I reach for her hand I realize no, no, it isn’t pity. Just fear. My fingernails splinter in my hands, the veins discoloring. I run my hand over the stump, press my ear to it. It wouldn’t be that easy, would it?
I drag the chair over to the well, lift it above, and well a sigh like the wind in trees I let it drop. It falls, hits the sap at the bottom. There is a sound like churning, syrup and peanut butter and bones in a blend. Jane grabs my shoulder as the well starts to break down. I stumble back as the tree rises from the earth, taller and fatter and fuller than it was when I grew up here. It stretches outwards, reaching as though it would swallow us, but she drags us both back. I am coughing, green coming up instead of red, but she manages to pull me free of the expansion. It stops just short of its old trunk, its long arms drooping to touch the earth. Huge, green granny apples ripen and fall to the earth around it. My whole body shakes.
“We need to — I don’t know — get out of here. We need to — “ Jane whispers, harshly. The tree has stopped moving, finished, I suppose, for now. I reach up for an apple. My eyes have begun to cloud, but I take a bite and lie back against the earth. I wait for it to decide: take me, or let me go. I gave you what I wanted, didn’t I? I put you back together. I wonder what I might have missed. The front door, maybe. Would it punish me for that?
Jane is gone. Sunset. I must have slept for hours. I sit up slowly, looking over my skin. I take out my iPhone, go to camera and look myself over. I look human enough. I look up at the tree and wonder, rising slowly to touch its bark. A wonderful cold. I press my face against its skin, glad for the clarity of the chill.
“She was already sick.” His voice is a gentle rasp. I feel him behind me but do not look. “We only wanted to help.” I say nothing. I have never been good at comforting, and I have no intention of offering it to him of all people. “We didn’t realize… We just wanted to make her stronger. I… thought it might… fix her. If she became more like us.”
“But it didn’t work,” I say. I turn to look at him, to meet those brilliant green eyes. “It made her worse.”
“We’re sorry,” he says.
“If you meddle again, I’ll finish what I started with the house,” I tell him.
“I can’t not—” he starts, then pauses. “I won’t make the same mistake twice,” he offers. I give him my courtroom stare. “We won’t.”
“Good,” I say. I turn to go, and I feel his hand on my shoulder. Wooden, as cool as the tree. I stand stockstill.
“It would work,” he promises. “If we did it to you. You’re not sick, you wouldn’t… You wouldn’t decay, like she did. And of course, you’re not like—”
“I am exactly like her,” I hiss.
“You wouldn’t have to worry about the drugs anymore,” he says quickly. “Wouldn’t have to dull your senses down, to pretend to be like them. No more courtroom, no more bills to pay. It could be like it was before, when you were little — I could… protect you again, if you let me. You’d never have to worry about ending up like her.”
“I’m not,” I reply. “I’m worried about ending up like you.”
My father lets go of me. I have not turned to look at him, but I know the expression. Pain, but pain without understanding. I close my eyes. Of course this would all be his fault. Of course he would care more about me ending up like her than what he did to her.
“I’ll be here if you need me,” he says. “And if you have children, I’ll be with them. I’ll look after them.”
“Don’t,” I say. “I don’t want one more thing to protect them from.” This time I turn. I watch as he slips back into the tree, his eyes as innocent as a child’s. Ten years, and he hasn’t changed one bit. But that always was the problem, wasn’t it? I knew more about people at nine than he would at a hundred, two hundred. She had always said not to blame him, but after all this, I don’t see who else I could blame.
I walk out of the field, back to where the car should be. It’s gone. I don’t know why I thought it would remain, when Jane had gone. I wonder what her take on all of this will be, if he’s let her remember it at all.
I start walking. When a car passes, I hail it down.
“You alright?” The driver asks. I shake my head. “Where to?”
“Just get me out of the damn woods,” I say. He nods, turns on the music, and steps on the gas.
I think of the empty chair, of Dicken’s desk without him. I wonder what the house will be like, without that presence, the glaring absence. I start to wonder what my life would’ve been like with him in it, but stop myself. Some chairs stay empty for a reason.
I divide the land when I am asked to look it over. Half to be designated space for wildlife — no one permitted on it, of course. The other half I give to a developer, to work on. Some electronic club. It sounds idiotic in a town like this, but he pays good money. Now the kids can get busted in a bar instead.
“You won’t be coming back?” Jane asks.
“Visit me,” I reply. “New York City.”
“Some apartment overlooking Central Park, no doubt,” she says wistfully. I laugh. I plan on encasing myself in iron the second I get back, but no need to worry her. She hasn’t mentioned the tree, my mother, any of it. “I might join you out there,” she adds after a pause. “I’ve got an interview with a magazine next month. We should… meet up?”
“Sure,” I say. I can tell she wants to make it a moment so I shut it down, brusquely kiss her on the cheek and find a way to thank her without saying the words. She blushes. Not so brusque, then. I’m in my car before she can say anything meaningful and back on the road. The full moon is high overhead, and I know he will be out, dancing like they do. I step on the gas. I can hear the music now, loud and persuasive and wild, wild like he is. Like she was. Who knows on what soil they fed their hungry, thirsty roots.
I think of her.
I keep driving.