The tree’s branches clawed at the sky, it’s roots old and twisted. The child wept in painful silence. Tears flowed down her cheeks and off her chin, leaving her skin red and mottled. Lyla raised her head to explore the forest canopy as if in search of answers.
She whispered to the sky, so quietly it was only meant to be a secret to the wind. “I wish he’d just go away forever, he ruined everything.” As the words toppled out of her mouth, she sagged against the tree and her eyelids dragged her into a heavy sleep.
The morning radio cracked through the haze and Lyla awoke, her memories groggy and her skin sticky from the tears that had spritzed her face the night before. Streaks of sunlight poured through the blinds and danced on her bed sheets.
She couldn’t remember getting into her bed, or even out from under the tree; it all seemed like a dream when she thought about it. Then she heard the door creak open and her mother’s gentle voice, which pulled her into reality.
“Lyla, please come to the table.” With each word, her mother’s voice shook, and then she hurried from the doorway.
Lyla swung her feet out of bed and stumbled down the hallway. She stopped at Conner’s door, poking her head through the tiny crack to get a glimpse at her older brother. His bed was neatly made and he wasn’t inside, so she lazily moved one tiny foot over the other sliding into the kitchen.
At the table, her mother looked like a storm, her ash hair pulled into a bun. Her face was fresh red from crying and her hands shook as she clutched her black mug of coffee.
Lyla’s father was something new altogether. The man who would twirl Lyla around the kitchen was now a stranger, his playful light snuffed out.
“Mom? Dad?” Lyla spoke quietly, yet her parents still seemed to flinch from her words.
“He’s gone, Lyla.” Her mother’s lips barely moved. Although her voice was quiet, the remark hit Lyla like a tsunami and she swiveled her head in panic, searching for Conner.
“Gone?” The question escaped her lips like a gasp, before tears burst from her eyes and the breath rushed from her lungs. Lyla looked from her mother to father, but neither of them spoke. They just sat there, completely paralyzed by their grief.
Shaking her head, Lyla rose to her feet. Just as her mother’s eyes awoke and she threw a hand out for her daughter, Lyla tore away through the front door, the nip of autumn biting her cheeks. She launched herself out of her comfortable home and into to the wild.
Lyla ran down the dirt driveway, up the hill, and into the skeletal trees of the forest. Her feet smacked against the cool leaves that matted the ground, snapping twigs and crushing pinecones. The wind blew against her nightgown and the cold climbed up her body, but she refused to stop. Branches clawed at patches of her black hair, and the birds squawked in fury. As she propelled herself through the forest, her mind went blank and she could feel her face transforming like her parents’ had.
“Conner! Conner!” Lyla screamed with raw intensity. It charged the air as she reached the old oak. “You stupid thing! You stupid thing, give him back! I didn’t mean it, I want him back!” Lyla pounded her runty fists against the tree until her knuckles sprouted with blood. She raked the tree with child’s claws and continued its beating. She was relentless and her body went numb as she savagely attacked the tree.
Now she couldn’t believe their silly little fight that had caused her to cry herself to sleep. She couldn’t believe any of it. It was all her fault. She had wished him gone. She had done this.
Lyla remembered Conner’s voice and his many, many warnings. At the time, the warnings were confused with wishes. “The tree will give you everything you ever could want, Ly.” Now she understood, and her body shook feverishly with the awakening of the memory.
A cry seeped into her voice. “I’d do anything to have you back,” she whispered, a promise to the wind again. A pearly tear tumbled down her cheek.
As the air grew colder, so did her heart.
Malia Spencer is fifteen years old. She lives in Arvada, Colorado.