Among The Trees

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A loud crack resounded through the office as the door crashed against its frame, threatening to fly right off the hinges. The carnival manager sighed and shook his head at the maintenance worker’s usual outburst. “Look Tom, I told you last week and I’ll tell you again today. As much as I appreciate everything you do around here, we just can’t afford a raise for you right now. We can’t aff—“
“Then I’ll just go work somewhere else then! This’ll be the last day I work for you, you greedy pig!” The door slammed a second time, making Tom’s exit known to every employee in the area. Mr. Davis saw through the warning though; he’d seen it a million times. He knew Tom would return the next day, without a raise, to the job he so often threatened to abandon. Confident in his reasoning, Mr. Davis neglected to hire a replacement.
* * * * *

“Let’s go on that one, daddy!”
Dr. James Harrison smiled at his daughter’s eternally adventurous spirit. In the past two hours she’d already dragged her parents around the entire park, riding every ride where her forty-nine inches surpassed the red arrow on the height chart. “Come on, let’s go,” she pleaded, tugging impatiently on his weathered hand. He sent an apologetic look to his left, where his wife Natalie stood. “Oh, go on,” she said with a smile.
“You’re not coming?”
She took one look at the Space Drop, watching as the passengers were lifted leisurely into the air before dropping quickly back to Earth, slowing moments before hitting the base of the large tower. “Uhh, No thanks, I think I’ll pass. I’m still trying to recover from the last ride.”
“But you two go ahead and have some fun,” she added.
“Yeah, dad, come on. If we don’t hurry then we’ll miss the next lift off!”
“I’m coming, Janie. We’ll get there, don’t worry.” She stubbornly crossed her arms over her chest, and began impatiently tapping her foot on the asphalt ground.
“We’ll be right back,” he promised Natalie, exchanging a quick kiss before running with Janie towards the Space Drop.

By the time they reached the ride, almost all the other riders were seated and belted in place. “Gimme a sec guys,” said the employee at the entrance when they arrived, “I’ll go see if we got any seats left.”
“Two more, right up front.” He smiled as he ushered them through the gate, but stopped them when he saw Janie. “Hold up, lemme check your height.” He picked up the yardstick leaning against the fence, and held it beside her. “Sorry miss, but I’m afraid you’re too short.” James took a look at the red sharpie line marking the necessary height.
“She’s only missing two inches,” he said, “could she please come through? She’s been looking forward to this all night.” Janie, hearing the conversation, threw in her sad-puppy-face, just for good measure.
“Aw, alright guys, go on through.”
“Thanks so much mister!” Janie cried as she raced through the gate. The two made their way to their seats on the circular lift, which faced out to the rest of the carnival.
They belted themselves in, wiggling in their seats with a nervousness rooted in excitement and anticipation. “Look! I can see mommy!” Janie exclaimed halfway up the tower. They waved and smiled down at her, suspended at the top for a few moments before beginning the ride down. Then they dropped. “We’re going so fast!” she yelled above the screams. A bit too fast, thought James. Another second into the drop, others began to realize that something was wrong. Screams of joy turned to screams of terror as more and more people understood that the fall wouldn’t end where it should. Back on the ground, Natalie watched in horror as the lift came crashing into the pavement.
* * * * *
Several killed in carnival accident, several more injured.

Natalie ripped the article to shreds, as she had moments earlier with the obituary page of the Sunday paper. She and James had always recycled, but this she unceremoniously threw in the trash, along with the microwave dinners from the past three nights. She wondered to herself how pathetic she must look. For Christ sakes, she told herself, I can’t even bring myself to cook! But the silverware set had been a wedding present to her and James, and she’d used the cake pan under the stove to make Janie’s seventh birthday cake. She wouldn’t dare to cook anything in this kitchen.

She walked to the bathroom to examine how she really looked according to the mirror hanging on the wall. An observer would surely notice the dark shadows under her red-rimmed eyes and the way her almost translucent skin clung to her thin frame, but all she could think was empty. She reminded herself of a Jack O’ Lantern, as if someone had scooped everything out of her, carved her up, and put her on display for all to see. The only difference, she thought, is that I don’t get a nice candle to warm me up inside. She sighed and dragged herself up the stairs to the bedroom. It was only eleven-thirty, but she was already exhausted. She dropped onto the bed, and was soon asleep clutching the stuffed panda James had won for her just a few days earlier.

The next morning, Natalie sat on the end of her bed, playing with the hem of her black dress. Are you sure you want to do this today, her mother had asked, so soon after the accident? She now played through the conversation in her head. Yes, she was sure; she just wanted to get it over and done with. But if that was true, then why was she having such trouble now, just trying to convince herself to stand? She knew she should go, the funeral would start in just an hour, but she couldn’t bring herself to move her feet. She heard her phone ring once, twice; but couldn’t get up to answer. Finally, after what felt like hours, she checked her watch, only to realize that it had been hours. Without thinking she jumped up, grabbed her purse and keys, and ran to her car.

When she arrived at the church, she found everyone outside in the back, where the community cemetery was. She slowly picked her way through the graves till she reached the mass of people on the other side. As she approached, she was greeted with a collection of concerned glances and pitying stares. “Are you alright? Where have you been?” her mother whispered next to her. “I’m fine, I just lost track of time.” Natalie glanced around at the faces assembled, barely hearing the priest give his final speech. But in her observations, she noticed, out of the corner of her eye, something moving by the tree line. James? She thought, Janie? She told herself it couldn’t be true, but there they were, plain as day, smiling and waving to her. “James! Janie!” she yelled, breaking into a sprint towards the trees. They ran to her and she hugged them close, when she felt someone tapping on her shoulder. “Natalie, what are you doing?”
“They’re here mom! They came back!”
“What are you talking about? Sweetie, there’s no one there.”
“Sure there is! Look, they—“ But when she turned back to where they had been moments before, her daughter and husband were gone.
* * * * *

“Ms. Harrison, what were you doing that day? Before the accident?”
“Well, we picked James up from the airport, he was coming home from Africa, he helps people there you know.”
“Helped.”
Natalie heard the faint scratches of a pencil on a yellow legal pad. This was her third meeting with Dr. Schrader, and still all she cared to know about the woman was her constant scratching on the yellow legal pad.
“Well anyway, we picked him up from the airport, and went straight to the carnival. Though he didn’t know till we got there that that’s where we were taking him. He always did love carnivals…”
“Loved. Past tense for things that are a part of your past, Ms. Harrison.”
Natalie scowled, but continued, as she always did, to examine the plain beige carpet at her feet. “They are not a part of my past,” she whispered under her breath.
Dr. Schrader looked up from her notes. “They are no longer a part of your present, therefore a part of your past. You need to understand this.”
“But they’re here! I’ve seen them!”
Dr. Schrader sighed and shook her head, instead asking “Have you been taking your medication?”
* * * * *

Natalie continued to take a pill every morning, and continued to see her lost loved ones, for the next few years. Until one day, when she made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit their graves at the cemetery. She knelt in between the two headstones, identical in shape and erosion of the stone, and quietly talked to them as if they were right beside her. After a few moments she looked up to see them standing among the trees, where she’d first seen them. The two of them stood there smiling waving, saying their goodbyes. “Bye mommy!” Janie cried happily. In the blink of an eye they disappeared. And though Natalie never saw them again, she knew they were safe, wherever they were, and finally achieved the peace she’d searched for all along.





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