I tried telling my aunt that instead of paper plates, she should buy real plates, like the ones other families had.
“Paper plates are eco-friendly,” she’d always say in response.
Nothing about paper plates seemed friendly to me. Once I asked the maple tree outside my house its thoughts on the subject. Its branches overshadowed my house and kept it from sun even on the brightest day of summer, which was fine by me. I grew up that way, in the shadow of trees, and my aunt loved the dark. Before the maple tree grew so big, she put heavy, dark curtains on the windows and extinguished the living room lights. But she wouldn’t just turn off the lights; she’d take the bulbs right out of their sockets.
“It’s better that way,” she’d tell me.
Anyway, our maple tree told me that day – with a heavy sigh that shook her branches – that paper plates were the opposite of eco-friendly and we should just buy real plates like the ones other families had.
I loved that tree. I remember the day my aunt cut it down; she hated people to the extent that she refused to call professional tree-cutters. I ended up calling them anyway, after she tried to cut straight through the trunk when she should have cut the branches off first. She always did things that way: straight to the trunk.
After the tree was gone I remember telling her what it had told me. I remember so well because she shook her head in disappointment. She cut it down for that reason, she said, and I should stop talking to trees.
I was so bitter after she told me that. It didn’t seem like her right to tell me who my friends should be, or her right to chop them down into paper plates. I refused to eat off paper plates after that. I’d eat right off the table instead. That drove my aunt insane. I really knew how to push her over the edge. She was one of those neat freaks, you know? The ones who never lick their fingers after eating popcorn and never shake hands with people. And she loved rules. She loved them so much I bet if rules were a physical child, she’d kick me out in the blink of an eye. So my new food habits really got to her.
“Goddamnit, just get a paper plate!” she yelled when she finally broke.
My aunt never yelled, even when she got real mad. For example, when salesmen knocked on her door, she told them politely to leave – and she really hated those guys. I think they leave the house alone now because it’s so dark they think no one’s home.
I like light and I like plants. My aunt hated plants, though. One time she asked who I wanted to invite to my birthday party and I said the sunflower next door. I love sunflowers and their weird fascination with the sun, just like mine. She smiled at me forcefully, that type of smile where her lips were so pushed together they turned almost white and formed a thin line.
The next day, when I went to the neighbor’s garden to have my usual 3 p.m. chat with my favorite sunflower, I found it gone. I asked our neighbor, and he told me it disappeared overnight, which was strange.
Our neighbor was real nice. He was the polar opposite of my aunt, since his windows were always open and his yard was one big flower garden. Strangely, he had a crush on her, but she told him the day she met him that she didn’t want a boyfriend. She always went straight to the trunk.
You could’ve called my aunt pretty in a mysterious kind of way. She had dark hair and dark eyebrows with high cheekbones. She was skinny too, almost too skinny but not quite, right at the line of sickly. I was almost the opposite, with light freckles, blonde hair, and rosy cheeks. My aunt used to tell me I was the daughter of the sun, but I never knew if that was a compliment or not, since she hid from it.
Our neighbor felt so bad about my friend’s disappearance, he invited me over the next day to plant new sunflowers. I nodded so hard my head felt dizzy and ran to ask my aunt. She said no, telling me there were chores to do, but by the time I finished them all it was dark, time for dinner. Dinner that night was normal. I ate on the table, my aunt on a paper plate. She tapped her foot angrily on the floor.
“For my birthday I’d like a lamp for my room,” I said quietly. I expected a lecture, but my aunt just sighed. She looked so tired.
After dinner, while I lay on my bed, I heard her car pull out of the driveway. I tangled myself in the heavy blankets and waited.
In the morning I awoke disappointed in myself for falling asleep and walked to my aunt’s threshold. Her room was empty. The light of my windowed room faded into hers like a flashlight. Mirrorless and windowless, her room reminded me of a well-decorated cage, and I left quickly, uncomfortable.
The day passed while I sat by the door, watching the light change brightness and hue. That night I ate cold pasta on a paper plate, my number one most lousy meal. I called the cops the next morning, and they took me away. They told me they found my aunt dead in her car.
I wanted to die at that moment, but I reminded myself to step away from the trunk and cut the branches off first, so I cried instead. The officer told me she was in Heaven now and would live happily, but I knew my aunt would hate Heaven and would prefer Hell if it wasn’t so hot.
The neighbor adopted me, which was nice, but the flowers stopped talking to me. I sat and cried to them, but they just swayed in the wind. No one could make me feel better than the plants. People told me “everything is going to be all right” so many times that their faces started to blur together and their voices formed a single note of pity.
It’s weird living with my neighbor. He told me he’s my new guardian, but when I look out the window I can see where my old one used to live. I can see the stump of a lonely tree and the ominous shade that the empty house casts.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.