From on the ground, Ralphie looked at the other two boys. They seemed larger than they normally did from this angle and their shadows reflected that; when Ralphie looked to the right, he could see Terry’s shadow, impossibly long and tall, stretching across the grass.
“We don’t play with guys like you.” Terry said, spitting a wad of phlegm. It landed on Ralphie’s shoes.
“Guys like what?” Ralphie dared to ask. The one cardinal rule with bullies was paramount: if you want to get out alive, don’t talk back. However, Ralphie always played against the rules when he could. He was a rebel that way.
“Fucking nerds.” This from Paul, Terry’s cronie. He was the shorter of the two boys and from this angle looked like an angry troll. “That’s who. What book are you reading today, Ralphie? Winnie the Poopoo?”
Ralphie was stung a little at the insult. Winnie the Pooh was a wonderful book and he had read it several times. “I’m actually reading The Secret Diary of Adiran Mole, Aged 13 ¾’s.”
“What the fuck you reading that for?” Terry said, sneering. He picked up the book from the grass. “Why you reading some guys diary? Looking for tips on how to jerk yourself off?”
“It’s not like that, it’s actually a very good book. What’s the last book you read? Your mothers Penthouse magazine?” Ralphie was a rebel, true. He was also a bit of a daredevil. He laughed in the face of danger.
Terry kicked him in the stomach at that point and Ralphie had cause to regret being a daredevil. When Terry then stepped down hard on his legs, smashing his feet into them, that regret was full blown. But what were a few more scratches and bruises? He already had scrapes down his arms from where they had pushed him down on the pavement. Add a bloody nose (and possible black eye) he got after running away from them and Paul had grabbed him by the shoulder and pummeled him.
Robbie looked at each scrape, cut and bruise as a badge of honour. That’s the only way he could see a light at the end of the tunnel. Badges of honour.
“Fucking queer boy. Fucking cocksucker.” Terry picked up Ralphie’s book from where is had fallen on the grass. Ralphie knew what Terry was going to do a moment before he did it, but he still experienced a slash of pain run through him.
Taking a cover in each hand. Terry ripped the book in two. Seeing the book mistreated like that was like a knife to the gut. Then Terry started ripping up the pages and let them fall from his hands. Ralphie did pause to consider how much like snow the pieces of paper looked like as they were carried off by the wind. He appreciated the picturesque-ness of that.
“Fucking queer boy.” Terry said again. He gave him one more kick, to the ribs this time. “Try reading the fucking book now.”
Terry and Paul walked away. Ralphie remained silent this time and watched their shadows shrinking until they slipped away over the grass. Then Ralphie spoke: “Asshole.”
He stopped himself from going after the pages, they were lost to the wind. However, he did pick up the front and back cover. He hugged them to himself, as if the book could be healed by such a simple act. Ralphie sighed and wiped his bloody nose on the back of his arm. Taking the book covers, he went to a tree that was sitting on the edge of the field.
It was a large tree, easily over a hundred years old. Its branches, covered in hundreds of thousands of leaves, stretched across the sky. He wondered who had planted it and how long it had really been here? Right now, it would provide him refuge.
Ralphie sat down at the base of the tree and did what his beaten body and emotions had been threating to do for a while: he cried.
The tears came slowly at first, sliding down his cheeks in big fat drops, but that was just the beginning. Soon a torrent of tears was sliding from his eyes, especially the one that would become a black eye by morning. He tried to mop his tears on his shirt, but more of them came. So he just let them come.
“Fuck.” He said quietly. “Shit, fuck, gosh diddily.” The last word made him smile and he let out a watery laugh.
“That’s it kid. Ain’t nothing that can’t be fixed by a good laugh.”
Ralphie looked around and didn’t see anyone else in the field. There were people on the road that ran along on edge of it, but no one else but him inside it. Who had spoken? “Hello?”
“Hello yourself. Here, you should dry those tears. Your face looks like a wax work gone wrong.”
There was a rustle of leaves and a branch from the tree came down in front of Ralphie’s face, shaking its leaves softly at him. Letting out a little yelp, he backed away from the tree and looked up at the leaves with wide eyes.
“Who’s there? Terry? Paul?”
“No, those guys are long gone. It’s just you and me, kid.”
“Who the hell is speaking to me? Am I going mad?”
“Kid, I’m right in front of you.” The tree shook its branches. “Gosh, for a kid that reads a lot, you’re not so smart are you? Or are you just intent on ignoring what’s right in front of you?”
Looking at the tree again, Ralphie stood. “Are you speaking to me?”
“Now you’re catching on.” The tree laughed, shaking its leaves. “Took you long enough.”
“I didn’t know that trees could talk.”
“Well, normally they can’t. But I’m not an ordinary tree. Come here, sit a while. My trunk is rather comfortable. Watch out for the squirrels, though. They like to drop nuts from my branches, the cheeky bastards.”
“You’re pretty foul mouthed for a tree.”
“And you’re a smart mouthed little boy. Shows what you know. I already told you, I’m no ordinary tree. Come, sit. The sun is nice today.”
Pretty sure he was going insane, Ralphie sat against the trees trunk and let the sun warm his skin. He wiped the last of his tears from his face and felt almost normal again.
“Want to talk about it?” The tree asked. “I always find that talking about your problems makes them seem less than they are.”
“Oh, I don’t know. There are so many.” The tears threatened to start again but he blinked them aside.
“Try me. Just say what comes out and go from there.”
Taking a deep breath, Ralphie did just as the tree asked. “I have no friends, no real friends. I’m beat up at school every day. They keep calling me queer or faggot.” Ralphie shakes his head, as if to shake away the memories. “I don’t know what I am anymore. I just know that books have never lied to me or hurt me. Books are my friends. Added to that, my parents fight all the time. I don’t know how to help them.”
Ralphie took another deep breath and realized he felt better. It had been the first time he’d actually been able to tell anyone what was going on. He may have told it to a tree, but at least that was something.
The tree was quiet for a moment. Then branches came forward to wrap him in an embrace.
“What are you doing?” Ralphie asked.
“I’m giving you a hug. What the fuck do you think I’m doing?”
“I don’t know, checking my pockets for loose change?”
“What would I do with loose change, honestly? Do you see any pockets?”
Figuring that it was probably not a good idea to tease the one thing that had brought him some measure of comfort, he apologised. “I’m sorry. I’ve just never been hugged by a tree before.”
“Never talked to one either, I bet. Look, my mother used to say that a hug can cure all kinds of ails. Just following her advice. Now, let me tell you something. You think you got problems, kid? At least you’re not a fucking tree.”
“Well, it’s not a bad life, is it?”
“Are you kidding?” The tree sighed and its leaves drooped. “Birds making a home inside of you, kids carving their initials, squirrels storing their food inside of you. Now tell me what’s not bad about that?” Sighing again, the tree said “I miss being human.”
For some reason, that shocked Ralphie. “Weren’t you always a tree?”
“Kid, how many talking trees do you know? How many trees do you know who had a mother? No, I wasn’t always a tree. I was a man, just like you will be some day.”
“So how the fuck did you end up in a tree?”
“Hey now, language.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“Respect your elders kid. So how did I end up as a tree? It started when I was cutting one down.”
“That’s a fairly good beginning, but you need to work on hooking the reader a bit more.”
“Do you want me to tell you the story or not?”
“Okay then. A hundred years ago, there was no field here. There was actually a small village here. I was having a tree cut down on my property. The loggers were taking it away to do what they do. I went outside to see how they were progressing. I wasn’t paying attention to the people screaming at me to move, to run, but it was too late.”
“The tree was coming down. I had walked right into the line of fire, as it were. The tree was huge, meters round and it was over a hundred years old, must like I am today. That fucking tree crushed me, squished my lungs to nothing but a fine powder.”
“Didn’t anyone come to help you?”
“Oh, they tried, but how many people do you think can lift a tree that weighs a ton?”
“Point taken. Continue.”
“I lay there for what seemed like years, but was only mere minutes. I was breathing in the scent of tree, the taste of the leaves, I could smell the dirt around me. I remember the taste of the tree in my mouth; it tasted of earth and things unknown.”
“If they were unknown, how do you know that’s what they tasted like?”
The tree sighed. “Look kid, I’m trying to be poetic. I’ve never told this story before, so let me tell it okay? Anyone tell you that you have a big mouth?”
“All the time. My mother says my mouth will get me killed someday.”
“Don’t listen to her. Anyway, I was lying there and knew time was short. I expected to just die but something else happened. I felt my spirit start to slide into the earth, sinking into it. I grabbed at anything I could to stay above ground, but all I could grab on to was an acorn. It slipped into the ground and my spirit was inside it. My spirit fell into the earth but my body was taken away.”
The tree was quiet for a moment which prompted Rlaphie to ask: “What happened next?”
“Well, time passed. I started as a small seed, but then started to grow. Over the past hundred years, I watched my family get married, have children, move away. I watched the world around me change and develop and become something I couldn’t begin to understand. It was like I was watching a live twenty-four how reality show, only at a much slower pace.”
“Must suck having only one channel.”
The tree chuckled, it’s leaves rustling. “I guess so kid.”
“That’s horrible, what happened to you I mean.”
“I don’t think so. If it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be able to speak today. Hell, I’d be dead and buried in the ground and would have never been able to tell you this piece of advice: it gets better.”
“So you think I should put my spirit inside a tree and live for hundreds of years?”
“No, kid, that’s not what I’m saying. I just meant that something miraculous happened from what started out as a pretty shitty situation. It may not seem like it at the time, but it does get better. Those kids who don’t like you? They’re just jealous because you sparkle and shine so brightly that they don’t even hold a candle to you. Just you wait, kid, you’ll do great things.”
Ralphie was silent for a moment, thinking this over. Finally, he asked “What was your name? When you were human?”
“My name? I was called Will.”
“My names Ralphie.”
The tree held out a branch. “Very pleased to meet you kid.”
Shaking the branch, Ralphie said “Likewise.”
Just then there were the sounds of loud voices and laughter coming from father away. Ralphie looked and saw Terry and Paul coming back towards the tree and towards him. He heard Terry say “Did you see how that fucking faggot Ralphie started crying when I punched him? Fucking faggot crybaby.”
“Oh no…” Ralphie whispered.
“You just leave them to me kid, Okay? You leave them to me.”
Terry spotted Ralphie first. “Oh look! It’s the faggot crybaby himself! Still crying over your book? What you going to read now, shit head?”
“I have lots of other books. Bet you can’t even read; you’re too fucking dumb.” Ralphie said, sounding brave but not feeling brave in the slightest. He stood with his back to the trunk of the tree and took comfort from it, from Will.
“Looks like we didn’t beat you enough. You’ve still got a lip on you.”
Terry stepped forward, one fist raised to take another swing at Ralphie. Only this time, the punch never got the chance to connect. One of the trees branches whipped out and slapped Terry so hard, he fell to his feet.
“What the fuck?” He looked at the tree with wide fearful eyes.
“I’ll get him Terry.” Paul charged forward like a linebacker, as if he meant to tackle Ralphie to the ground. He didn’t get very far. Another branch, a larger one this time, snapped forward and slammed into Paul’s stomach, knocking the air from his lungs. Stunned, he fell to the ground as well.
Lying there, they both stared up at the tree with looks of terror. “Dude, I think that tree is alive!” Terry said.
“Of course it’s alive, dumbass.” Ralphie said. “It’s a living thing! You would know that if you weren’t looking at Sailor Moon cartoons on your phone during science!”
Letting out a yell of rage, Terry got up and ran again at Ralphie. The tree whipped back another branch and it rammed into Terry, sending him flying into the sky. Ralphie watched him for as long as he could until he lost sight of him. Paul ran after Terry, screaming the entire way.
Laughing, Ralphie said: “Boy, I can’t wait to go to school tomorrow!”
“See, kid? I told you it gets better!” The tree said.