It starts with a tree. An oak or cottonwood, large and ancient with branches reaching forever upward and a rutted trunk with hollows to sit in. This time, by chance, it was a cottonwood.
Mist descended, warming the icy world. A false warmth, shrouding light, muffling noise. Only gloomy dark shadows marked where houses and trees stood in the ashen haze.
She didn’t like it, the girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers, this frozen world. Three and a half feet of snow made the grey sky shimmer purple-blue like an otherworldly bruise. At first, she didn’t think anything of it. It was often misty in the mornings. But the mist stayed.
This lingering mist, she read, had happened before, every decade or so and would happen again. The papers advised to drive slower, wear extra layers and turn cell-phone lights on. The mist, as mist tends to do, would dissipate. Eventually.
A never-ending chill began living in her spine. The chill turned into fear, starting in the back of her brain and spreading downward over the eyes and out every limb until her fingertips tingled.
The girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers went for a walk when the sun pierced the mist making everything milky white. Snow turned to slush at her feet as she walked toward the end of her block where gravel gave way to a huge expanse of prairie. The trees in the wetland cast wispy black shadows but one tree, at the end of the block cast a solid unwavering silhouette.
The cottonwood loomed out of the mist; branches heavy with ice. The fear spread from her spine to her toes, swallowed her heart and made her eyes feel numb. She was allergic to cottonwood and knew only this to be true, there was no cottonwood tree at the end of her block.
But there it stood growing out of a deep ditch, casting its shadow across the grass and pavement, ice dripping slowly in the warming mist. Roots buried deep in prairie grass and concrete.
Not here. Not now. This wasn’t real, she told herself so many times she believed it to be true. But there it sat, the cottonwood, reaching toward her in the mist.
The boy never told her his name. It was private, he said. A secret, he said, like all names should be. They were the same age, so it seemed, when they met, for the first time, at the base of the cottonwood tree.
Her mother let her play in the wetlands when she was young, fearing only ticks and rabid raccoons and not strange wonderful terrible boys who knew a passage through the base of the cottonwood tree. At age six, the girl met the strange wonderful terrible boy. She didn’t yet know about cottonwoods and oak trees.
Every summer morning the girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers crawled on her hands and knees through the tunnel, dirt clinging permanently to her skin. On the other side of the tunnel, a dense forest sprawled. The forest bloomed with radiant mammoth flowers. Vines as thick as ropes hung from emerald treetops and waterfalls spilled over crimson jagged canyons.
The strange wonderful terrible boy told tales of a white city of crumbling stone where an ice rink sat in the center. He told tales of a beach always bathed in the glow of sunset where the ocean was always the perfect temperature. The girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers wanted to visit but the strange wonderful terrible boy said not yet, because the city of crumbling stone was crumbling and policemen patrolled the beach in hot air balloons looking for trespassers. Maybe later. Maybe some other time. Maybe tomorrow.
But tomorrow never came.
One day, he was gone. The tunnel, a cramped four-foot crawl ending in a shallow pit of rainwater by a drain. Fear began to fester at the base of her spine and so the girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers waited.
School resumed in autumn and with each passing year, she forgot about the strange wonderful terrible boy and the cottonwood and the forest beyond. Those memories turned to dreams. They couldn’t have happened, she learned, trees do not lead to forests, or crumbling cities or jagged canyons, she was taught.
They are simply trees.
At nineteen the summer before college, the girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers went with friends to an arboretum. They lazily explored the looping trails before settling under a cottonwood by a stream for lunch even though she complained of allergies. Moments later, a rustle in the trees and there he sat, the strange wonderful terrible boy, in the branches of the cottonwood. They were still the same age, so it seemed, but she would know him anywhere.
His hair the color of ink, fell around his ears in uncombed peaks. His face, sharp, dark, thin lipped and eyes starless and honey colored.
“Oh my god! Who are you?” One of her friends trilled.
“An old friend.” he grinned and jumped down.
“Will you excuse us for a second?” The girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers stood calmly and followed the strange wonderful terrible boy down a path.
“He’s cute.” She heard her other friend say.
Except her heart hammered in her ears. This wasn’t right. He wasn’t right. He didn’t exist. He couldn’t exist. An imaginary friend, she convinced herself as years passed. A chill formed at the base of her spine. Because if he was real…
“Hi.” He smiled, voice full of chocolate and hickory. Exactly how she remembered. She bit her lip to keep from screaming. He ran a calloused hand through his wild earth hair.
You left me, she wanted to say. I waited for you. I looked for you. You left me.
“You.” Speaking to him again was wonderful and ghastly and glorious and tragic.
“Yes. Me.” His teasing laugh was horrible and charming sending the chill radiating through her bones.
“Who are you?” The bitterness in her voice could have leveled a mountain.
“It’s safe to go to the city of crumbling stone now. You wanna come? The beach should be safe now too, at least for a bit.” He talked as if they had seen each other yesterday. As if 13 transformative years had not passed. As if they were still children, waiting for each other every summer morning by the base of the cottonwood.
“You’re not real. You don’t exist.”
“Jeeze-calm down! Why are you so upset?”
“I hate you!” the girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers screamed and clenched her fists and stomped her foot like she was six again. “I hate you! I hate you! I HATE YOU!”
She ran back to her friends, sobbing, and he did not follow. Her friends couldn’t get straight answers about the strange wonderful terrible boy through the incoherent babbling about summer days, tunnels under trees, and waterfalls over crimson canyons.
And now years 13 years later, staring through the mist at the cottonwood looming over the end of the block, the fear spread from her spine to her fingertips, swallowed her heart and made her eyes feel numb.
Everyone thought she was a strong, grounded woman. Her whole future lay ahead of her with opportunities abound. But she knew her future, and it only involved waiting.
Waiting while the mist evaporated, snow melted, and flowers sprung out of the ground. Waiting to be summoned through the tunnel to the dense forest and jagged canyons, waiting while her body aged like all bodies do. Waiting with the never-ending chill living in her spine.
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