Fiction by Madison Welborne
After three days of hiking deep into the Appalachian Mountains, the summer sun finally began to set. High up in a white oak tree, the children could see a large abandoned tree house.
Once the oldest child, twelve-year-old Sacha, had discovered that they were going to be sent to separate homes, they unanimously decided that it would be better to run away, that being together would be worth anything at all. And that was that.
Now they were happier than kings. The tree house appeared like a star that had descended from the sky just for them, and the three orphans feel nothing but relief as they climbed the rungs nailed to the tree trunk.
The house itself was well-built, sturdy, made entirely of wood. It was complete with a tin roof, sky latch, two windows, and tarps for water-proofing. Inside there was a full-sized mattress, a small table and chairs, and an antique wooden chest.
Nine-year-old Olive shouted, "Treasure!" and her brothers scrambled to her side. In the chest were five one-hundred dollar bills, some blankets, a first aid kit, a pack of matches, and a pistol.
They never thought of leaving.
When Frances Livingston was a little girl, she used to swim across Glass Lake with her twin sister, and she never once won.
At eight, her father built her a state-of-the-art treehouse in the biggest tree on the tallest hill of their property, complete with a tin roof, sky latch, two windows, and tarps for waterproofing. For many summers the sisters made mud pies on the table and trapped lizards and pretended to be princesses in a faraway castle. They didn’t mind the spider webs or the pollen. They got along like old friends.
In ninth grade, Frances fell in love with Jackson Ritchie. They ate Pringles and oranges with shins dangling off the roof of the tree house, and her first kiss tasted of citrus and salt.
Four years later, before leaving for different colleges, together they filled a metal container with letters, photographs, locks of hair and other trinkets, buried it beside the oak tree. They devised a plan to unearth it five years later. They never did.
At twenty-nine Frances wanted to be having children but instead she was caring for her last living relative, her sick twin sister, Penny, who died on their thirty-fifth birthday from early-onset Alzheimer’s. If I’m ever this mad, put me out of my misery, Frances told a lover on her thirtieth birthday. She wasn’t joking.
After the funeral she moved back to her childhood home on the mountain. It was after midnight when she stripped naked and swam across Glass Lake for the first time in years. She swam across the lake once, twice, three times, and it was still dark when she got on hands and knees and began digging up the grass next to the oak tree.
It was three months before her death when Frances found the children asleep in her old tree house. For a moment she thought that it was a dream or mirage or some other trick that her soured mind was playing on her, for it had been so many years since anyone else was there. She had aged so much recently that her rusty joints could hardly make the mile-long walk from her home further down the mountain.
But the children’s sighs and snores were as real as the birds’ chirps or the feel of the autumn wind on her face, and it seemed to her that the poor angels were in trouble for they were much too thin with greasy hair and faces covered in dirt. She didn’t wake them; besides, she suddenly couldn’t recall why she went there in the first place...had it been memories that she’d wanted? Reminiscing? She climbed carefully down the tree and made it all the way home before recalling that she went there for the gun. She decided to go back the next day.
The next morning, Frances found herself making bread. She wasn’t quite sure why she was baking, but did it all the same. She measured the flour, yeast, salt, and other ingredients with precision, then left the loaves to rise for the perfect amount of time. She took a nap and dreamt of the children and woke up determined once more make it up the side of the mountain.
“You said you would kill it this morning.”
He had not killed it.
The snake scared the youngest child, the black glittery head slithering through the grass and fangs that could pierce skin like butter. But the oldest, Sacha, kept the snake as a pet and wouldn't get rid of it.
Five-year-old Teddy huffed. He wanted to kill it but was too scared. And if he were being honest, he respected his brother’s orders and didn’t want to make him mad.
“I’ll tell you what, Ted,” the sister said, pulling her brown hair up into a ponytail. She was only nine but had already learned how to soothe and care for her younger brother with a steady voice, a tender touch, bribes, and distractions. “I think I know something that might make you happy.”
She held out two eggs, one in each palm, and Teddy squealed.
Olive walked to the other side of the treehouse, lay down on the mattress and wondered what would happen to them. She was only nine but was having nightmares recently, dreaming of Lucifer and a spear with spikes; about bears, wolves and forest fires; sometimes about drowning like their parents did. She had gotten no good sleep. They’d lived in their mountainside home for three months, at least according to the tallies on the windowsill. Soon it would be winter. She was scared. She was lonely.
Finally she almost felt tired enough to sleep, and that’s when her little brother sniffed the air and said that he could smell bread.
Beads of hot water made the gun slippery to hold. Sacha put his finger on the trigger. They’ve prepared for this—what to do in the case of an intruder—and they performed their practice well.
Olive was vigilant, holding a steak knife in one hand and the snake basket in the other; Teddy hid beneath the table with his pocket knife, praying a Hail Mary. Three knocks on the door. Sacha stood tall, and in a voice much deeper than normal said, “Who’s there? Hello?”
“I’m your neighbor.” The voice was shrill and shaky. Feminine. “A friend to help. I’ve brought bread.”
Everyone was silent. The kids were hungrier than ever and the sweet smell made their sandpaper tongues salivate. Olive gave Sacha a questioning look, asking what should we do? then stepped two feet to his right and looked out the window. He was surprised to see that the stranger at the door was a short lady with grey hair, thin wrists, and wrinkles so deep they seemed cut by an x-acto knife. It occurred to him that she looked very much like a grandma.
It’s worthwhile to note that the eldest child was not scared of the old lady, not for a second, especially with the pistol in his hand for protection. But from the start her presence did make the children feel uneasy, although they was not quite sure exactly why. Nevertheless, Sacha lowered his weapon and opened the door.
“So tell me,” said Frances, walking inside, eyeing first the gun and then the little girl. “How do you like my tree house?”
Olive was a preemie. She weighed just two and a half pounds at birth.
As a toddler, she used to make Sacha sit on carpet squares and read to her. She didn’t talk until she was five years old, but her parents weren’t worried because they’d had her IQ checked and she scored in the top one percent. She had lots to say, just didn’t know how to say it. Her first word was watermelon.
As a child, her father taught her more than anything to be strong. So she didn’t cry when she broke her arm or when her teeth busted through her bottom lip. She didn’t cry at her parents’ funeral. She was terrified of being weak.
There was a brown birthmark in the shape of a crescent above her left eyebrow. Mean kids at school used to tease her about it until Sacha grabbed them by their necks one day and asked how they like false teeth.
Last year Olive won the third grade spelling bee with the word malignity. She put the fifty dollars of prize money directly into her savings account like any responsible kid would.
In the forest she assumed responsibility for Teddy’s education. Each morning they’d find sticks to use like pencils and she’d teach him the alphabet. Olive drew letters into the dirt. Teddy would trace them in order to learn. Uppercase as and lowercase bs marked the land around the treehouse till the rain washed them away.
She still doesn’t talk much.
Yet it was Olive who spoke to the old lady first. She lifted her chin and, still holding the steak knife, said in her steadiest, most grown-up voice, “Please forget that you’ve seen us.”
The old lady smiled. “Of course,” she said, handing Olive the warm bread. “I forget everything anyway. God I am so sick to death of being alone on this mountain.” Frances sat down on a chair five sizes too small that her father built. She talked about carpentry, a lost art, and the very best way to stain wood, but none of the kids listened because they were too busy eating bread.
They liked her because she brought them bread a few times per week jams, sweet rolls, and peanut butter. One time she even delivered a roasted chicken and they could smell the oil and garlic on their fingers for the rest of the day. It was like heaven. More than once Frances invited them to supper, promising pork chops and lemon bars and telling them they could bathe while thinking to herself that they looked like dying pilgrims. But Sacha always said no before Olive could say yes. They had to be careful, he said. They had to be smart.
But late one night a few weeks later, once her brothers were asleep, Olive took the lantern and the pistol and walked into the cold forest. She was determined to find the old woman’s house. She would be careful, she told herself, she would be smart.
“Achoo!” Olive sneezed. She was getting sick. The woman led her to the fireplace. The log cabin was modest but comfortable and filled with Christmas roses. It was very warm and smelled of cinnamon.
“I’m so happy you’re here. It’s been a long time since I’ve had visitors.”
“Well, I’m not visiting…” Olive said. “I’m your new caretaker, remember? You hired me yesterday. Part-time.”
Frances had absolutely no recollection of doing so. Why, she’d lived in the cabin alone for twenty years, and not only did she value her privacy but she had too much pride to pay someone else to take care of her. She couldn’t imagine herself hiring the child, not even during one of her episodes.
“What, exactly, did I say?”
Olive warmed her hands by the fire as she calculated what to tell her. The truth was that the old woman hadn’t hired her, but the children, having spent over half of their money on food, a bow-and-arrow and other supplies, were desperate for money. Olive needed medicine. Plus winter was setting in and they needed coats and boots.
“You said that sometimes you forget things,” she told Frances. “You lose track of time... you wanted help with baking and cleaning and gardening.”
Frances conceded, not because she believed Olive, but because she always did want a child. The idea of having a companion in her final months sounded nice.
“There’s chai tea in the pantry,” she said. “And gingerbread cookies. Please, help yourself. And could you get my slippers from my bedroom?”
For the rest of their lives, it would take the kids no great effort to recall, with impressive detail, the sounds, smells, and idiosyncrasies of their beloved tree house and the forest.
They woke up with the sunrise and fell asleep to the soft sound of anonymous crickets. They hunted turkey with the pistol, fished, gathered berries, chopped firewood, swept the floor, and tended to the fire. They learned the course of the river, discovered waterfalls, streams, caves, cliffs. They didn’t fear the animals and the animals didn’t fear them; they lived in peace with the deer, beavers, and foxes. They befriended the squirrels, birds, and chipmunks.
The house was rarely dirty, and the bed was always made. The kids were always working, and they never played until their duties were done.
For fun they walked along the riverbank looking for free, fresh bait—worms stuck in muddy clumps—and delighted in the feel of sand and grit between their toes. They chased fireflies through dense grasses, caught caterpillars and watched them cocoon and hatch. They made a doorbell, a can with a few pebbles inside of it tied to a string that hung from the longest branch. They built a rope swing, and a pulley for hoisting buckets of water directly up the tree.
At night they played Black Jack or Spades and before bed they told all of the stories they could remember in fantastic detail: David and Goliath, Rumpelstiltskin, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the myth of Hades and Persephone. They studied the zodiac and waited for a lunar eclipse. They saw shooting stars and made many wishes.
Sometimes they talked about what life was like before, but only in the dark and only in whispers.
Sacha was purple when he was born, and hardly breathing his lungs were so weak.
As a child he had Ménière’s Disease which caused him to lose the hearing in his right ear. When he wasn’t able to hear what other people were saying, he would smile and pretend like he did.
The first time he drank alcohol was the night of his parents’ funeral.
His parents would never admit it, but he was their favorite: handsomest, brightest, and kindest, with a sanguine temperament and giving spirit.
In sixth grade, he had the strongest lungs on the cross country team, and in seventh, someone called his sister a dork and a loser so Sacha snuck up on him and said be nice to my sister or I’ll break your nose and make the bottom half dangle like silly putty. Olive found a forged apology note and a tootsie pop in her locker two days later. There isn’t much Sacha wouldn’t do for family.
Olive washed Ms. Livingston’s bed sheets, her robe, and her slippers. Everything was covered in urine. She hadn’t expected this part of the job.
At times the old woman didn’t know where she was, in the bathroom or someplace else, and sometimes Olive didn’t know where she was either, for she was very difficult to keep track of. She dipped her fingers into candlewax and always asked if it was Tuesday. And she kept calling the girl Penny.
One night while the children were sleeping, a pounding on the door woke them up, and there was teary-eyed Ms. Livingston in her nightgown and slippers, which were wet and covered in grass. She said she didn’t like sleeping alone. Couldn’t stand it.
Other nights she arrived giddy and breathless, her mind in a much younger state, saying, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner. Jackson? Have you seen him? Jackson? We are supposed to meet up. Where is he? Oh, I wish I had gotten here sooner…”
She became obsessed with the weather; couldn’t sleep unless it was raining. And she had even begun to answer the phone when no one was calling. She’s very strange, Olive told her brothers one night. They begged her to quit. Sacha said he’d get a paying job. He wanted to work so she wouldn’t have to.
As Ms. Livingston’s assumed-sanity was peeled away bits at a time, Olive thought more and more about quitting.
The sky was a clear blue and the sun was shining bright as Olive walked through the forest on her last day of work. She entered the cabin without knocking; that was, after all, the best way, just in case her employer was not lucid.
The air smelled of vinegar and something sulfurous. It made Olive nauseous. She entered the kitchen where Ms. Livingston was wiping the countertops with vinegar. There were eggs on the stovetop, blackened, and on fire.
“What are you doing?” Olive said, lifting a tall vase by the fireplace, dropping the roses onto the floor and throwing the water to put out the fire.
The woman appeared to be dancing, swaying with her dishrag this way and that.
“Nevermind that,” Frances said. “I can eat cereal.”
Olive sighed and poured her a bowl of something sugary, then added milk and a spoon, but not before mixing in some crushed Benadryl first. Before long, but not soon enough, the old woman fell asleep. Olive cleaned the kitchen then ran back through the forest to check on her younger brother, for Sacha had been out hunting all day, and she worried about Teddy when he was alone.
She was only gone for an hour but when she got back to the house, Ms. Livingston was awake and busy in the kitchen, measuring cups of cocoa, accidentally pouring milk onto her apron, sucking on a bloody thumb. The girl asked, “What are you doing?” but music was on and the old lady was consumed by nostalgia. Frances didn’t answer her, or maybe she didn’t hear her at all. There was a recipe on the floor for brownies, and the oven was set to four hundred. Olive thought, is she lucid? She can’t be, nevertheless hoping that she was.
That’s when the girl noticed an urn on the floor beside the stove. It was small and silver. What’s that? Olive almost asked. Instead, Olive said, “Can I move that someplace for you?”
Suddenly something was different between them. There was a hesitation, an exchange of molecules. Frances’s old, sharp nose seemed to curl and droop over her upper lip and this was all that Olive could think about as the woman resumed singing. A wrinkly hand dipped into the urn like a ladle then sprinkled ashes into chocolate batter.
“Oh,” Olive whispered, close to gagging. “Oh no…You’re crazy...”
An ash-covered palm slapped her hard in the face. It stung. The girl swiftly put on her boots, mittens, and coat, and ran out the front door for good. She couldn’t leave quick enough.
Frances stayed in the kitchen for another hour until the brownies were done baking, wishing she could wrap herself in cellophane, and wondering what it was about those words that made her fall off her tightrope. You’re crazy, you’re crazy. She couldn’t figure out why, but suddenly she felt guilty, like a witch hunched over her cauldron. She fell asleep that night with the distinct feeling that she did something wrong, though she never figured out what.
The children tried to distance themselves, but Frances wouldn’t leave them alone. They put chicken wire around the base of the tree at nighttime and she came back the following night with gardening shears and cut it to pieces. Her constant knocking and intolerable cries made it impossible for the children to get any sleep. They didn’t feel safe, and they didn’t know what to do.
One night Ms. Livingston said that she had something important to say. She spoke about her father, how he built the treehouse. She talked about generosity. Said, “It’s generous of me to let you live here, isn’t it?” Not one of them breathed. “It’s also generous to not call the police.”
And the thought that she might actually call the cops scared the children into letting her stay for the night, possibly forever, or at least until she died, for they were terrified to death of being separated.
He thought she looked like a clown with all of the blush on her cheeks. And the eye-paint, it didn’t look right on such sparse lashes.
She said she hadn’t been expecting him.
“I’m filling in for my sister.”
Frances Livingston was wearing a bathrobe and her white hair was up in curlers. She offered him juice and cookies. Sacha declined, wondering why she was being so kind. Then he remembered her sickness, which made it much harder to be angry. He could smell onions and fish. He was hungry. But Frances didn’t lead him into the kitchen, rather, through her bedroom and into the master bath.
“I have a date,” she said, features seeming to ripen, although the boy knew it was just the cosmetics. She put on magenta lipstick. “We’ve been together for years. It’s almost been five now so we can open our time capsule soon.”
“I’ll start your bath,” Sacha said. He reminded himself of how she threatened to turn them in. He thought about how she was going to die soon anyway. His veins felt like the roots of a tree, growing, swelling, busting up sidewalks. There was a thickening of the air as the steam from the bath water rose. The tub was beside a window, and he could see a luna moth on the screen. He focused on the lime-green moth as her fragile, naked body swiveled over the porcelain ledge. It reminded him of a small child hopping a fence, the way she splashed into the water clumsily.
“The shampoo is beneath the sink,” she said, and he turned to retrieve it.
The shampoo was in a rainbow bottle but the gel itself was colorless. It made no sense. And it made no sense taking the curlers out of her hair, but then again she was never going on a date anyway.
He rubbed small circles into her scalp slowly, until she began to fall asleep. Then, with an impulsivity he had never known, Sacha stood with his fingers in her hair, steadied his grip, and pushed her face beneath the water. She’ll call the police, he thought, she’ll turn us in. He held her body down as she struggled. She’ll die soon anyway. Limbs flailed. Be strong, he thought, never weak, until she’d stopped gagging and her false teeth had risen to the surface.
Teddy, having never really known anything but the forest, will leave for short periods of time but will always return. He will teach his two kids the alphabet.
In twenty years, Olive will wake up next to her husband and swear that she hears the wind blowing through the trees and the rain on a tin roof. Her husband would savor her tears like crystals, but he’ll never see her cry. She never cries, she’ll say, not since she was nine years old. And it’s true.
When he’s fifty, a difficult divorce will cause Sacha to start therapy. His sister will say it’s he’s having a midlife crisis. His ex-wife will blame it on his difficult upbringing. Sacha will tell the therapist that all he can think about is lunar moths, a can doorbell, and black snakes. It’s so funny, his therapist will tell him, what our mind chooses to remember and what to forget.