The Dead Tree: Chapter One

Chapter One

Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.

Classes were over for the summer, and Shawna, my roommate, had left to go back to her home in Oregon, leaving me alone in the small house. My boyfriend Bryan and I planned to get our own place together at the end of June.

It was Friday night, and he was late. Not just a few minutes, but really late. It wasn't like him not to be here when he said he would. He hadn't texted or called, and I worried that something awful had happened to him. My phone calls to him went straight to voicemail, and after the fourth or fifth time, I gave up trying to reach him.

When the sun sank below the horizon, casting dark shadows about the small living room, I didn't bother to turn on the lights. I chose instead to sit in a state of confusion amid the bare room, ignoring the niggling gut feeling that something was wrong. Internally, I came up with all sorts of logical explanations as to what had probably happened to Bryan. Around nine, I decided to drive over to his apartment to look for him, sure he had most likely taken a nap and lost track of time.

Bryan's car was parked in the street in front of the house, and lights shone brightly through the large front window. I knocked, but no one answered. Strains of soft music drifted from the back of the house, and, thinking he'd fallen asleep, I let myself in.

Looking back, I wish I hadn't done that, because what I saw next will be forever burned into my retinas, there to remind me each time I closed my eyes. I found my former roommate, my ex-best friend, and Bryan in an undeniably compromising position. An involuntary scream left my throat.

"F*ck! Ariel." Bryan yelled and quickly shoved my roommate, Shawna, off of his dick. My best friend Dina's eyes bugged out of her head, and she scrambled to find something to cover her naked double D's. I ran from the house in shock.

That was three days ago, and I'd been in the same smelly clothes the entire time. I had no appetite, and I couldn't sleep. All I wanted to do was curl up and wither unnoticed to dust. All weekend, Bryan called, pounded on my door, texted, and called some more. I refused to talk to him. I didn't want to hear his voice. I didn't want to see his face. I mean, what the hell could he even say that would make this all better? It's not what it looked like. I can explain. Yeah buddy, I don't think so. I was born in the dark but not last night.

Funny how hindsight really is twenty-twenty. The things I didn't notice going on right under my nose while they happened...are pretty damn clear now that I've had a chance to think about them. How could I have been such an idiot?

Of course, now, I've started to become suspicious of every shared joke between the four of us was actually them laughing at me and not with me. It was their way of poking fun at poor, unsuspecting, naive Ariel Fountain. She doesn't have a clue we're f*cking each other behind her back.

Monday morning came, and in spite of my best wishes, life has, indeed, moved forward. It was my first full workday at Valley Organic Greenhouses, and Marlena was counting on me not to let her down. I had to force myself through the motions of putting one foot in front of the other for her sake. Since she'd taken a chance on me, I had to show up.

I had a bachelor's degree in organic agriculture already under my belt, and I planned to continue my studies and ultimately find work in sustainable agriculture here in northern California. Working at Valley Organics would help prepare me for that future. It was hard to get an internship at Valley, and I was lucky to get it, I just wish life came with a pause button once in awhile.

I dragged my half-comatose self into the shower at the ass-crack of dawn, and, as hard as I tried, I was unable to scrub away the bitter mood seeping from my pores. I dressed in something comfortable, was out the door and behind the wheel of my Tuxedo Black Mustang with five minutes to spare.

The scent of wet dirt hung heavy in the morning air after the greenhouses had been closed up overnight. The roof vents, set on timers, cranked open as soon as the sun popped over the horizon.

Marlena led me to my designated work area for the week. "You'll be working alongside me with the tomato seedlings," she said. She stared pointedly over the top of her little round spectacles at me. "You look like hell. Rough night?"

"You could say that," I said, feeling the familiar burn at the back of my already swollen eyes. "Bryan and I broke up."

She nodded her head once and said, "Sorry to hear that. Can't say as I'm surprised. Something about that guy...I just didn't trust him. Catch him messing around on you?"

My eyes narrowed and my lips pursed into a scowl. "What? Was it that obvious? I mean did everyone see it but me?"

"Nah, I doubt it. I'm just older and wiser to the ways of the male species. I can smell a lying, cheating bastard at five hundred paces," she said, picking up one of the garden hoses to move it to the other side of the stone walkway. "Once it stops hurting, you'll realize it was a blessing in disguise. You deserve better than that, Ariel, and karma has an uncanny way of lending a helping hand in settling debts."

"Nothing less than seeing him swing from the highest tree with a rope around his unfaithful neck would satisfy this morbid sense of revenge I have right now," I admitted sheepishly.

"Be careful what you wish for," she snorted. "The plants have ears, you know."

I've known Marlena nearly as long as I knew Bryan, and although not much older than me, age-wise, she exuded that aura of one with an ancient, all-knowing, all-seeing soul.

"If I thought voicing my wishes for what I'd like to happen to the three of them would work, it wouldn't be pretty. Trust me," I said, allowing a faint smile to cross my lips for the first time in days.

Marlena arched an eyebrow. "Three of them?"

"Bryan, Shawna, and Dina. The three people I considered my closest friends were the same three people who destroyed my life as I knew it." I inhaled the pungent aroma of peat moss and helped Marlena make sure the plants were tended to.

She whistled softly but didn't offer any more sage advice as we continued our morning rounds in silence. I couldn't say she made me feel better, but at least I delighted in remembering what goes around comes around.

The sun was out in full-force that morning, causing the air inside the greenhouses to become hot and humid, and I felt like a human sponge. I pulled a bandana from the pocket of my cargo shorts and tied it around my head. The humidity had made my thick, curly hair, even kinkier and more unmanageable than it usually was. By noon, my tank top was soaked, and I smelled more like an onion than a twenty-three-year old woman.

We washed up, and I followed Marlena to the main office building so she could grab her food from the refrigerator. We decided to stay inside and soak up some clean, air-conditioned air during our lunch half-hour.

"Aren't you eating anything?" she asked.

I wrinkled my nose. "No. I'm not really very hungry."

She tore her peanut butter sandwich in half and slapped it on a paper plate in front of me. Pointing to it, she ordered me to "Eat."

Marlena was the closest thing to family I had. I was born in Missouri, and my parents and baby brother had died in a fire when I was three. I was uprooted, yanked from everything familiar, and shipped to northern California to live with my grandparents.

I grew up in a strict, but loving household and they were the only family I knew, aside from an eccentric billionaire great aunt who wrote but never visited. Grandma referred to her as having more money than social skills, and said Great Aunt Blythe was a recluse who lived in a huge house overlooking the Mississippi River near St. Louis.

In spite of only meeting the woman on very few occasions, I had apparently left Great Aunt Blythe with a lasting, and fond, memory of me. She never forgot me at Christmas, always remembered my birthday, and often sent large sums of money for no reason at all.

I nibbled at my food and watched Marlena take out a small deck of colorful cards. She smiled and handed them to me. "Shuffle," she prompted.

"Pfft, what, you're going to read my fortune now?" I asked.

"Yes, I am," she said matter-of-factly.

I shrugged. "What the hell. Not like I have anything to lose." When I felt the cards were sufficiently mixed up, I put them on the table between us. "Now what?"

"Using your left hand, cut the cards into three piles to the left," she instructed. I complied, and she said, "Now, gather them back into one pile."

After I had done as she asked, she pulled three cards from the top of the deck and put them side by side, face down. She peeled two more cards from the bottom of the deck and sat them below the other three.

She grinned mischievously at me, and I held my breath, convinced something horrific was about to be foretold to me.

One by one, she flipped the first three cards over, and her face remained expressionless as she did, her eyes widened as she went. "Rider, Coffin, Ship," she said.

I pointed to the remaining cards and asked, "What about these two?"

"Not yet," she smiled. She stared at the cards and tapped her index finger against her lips in contemplation. "Hmm."

"Stop it! Don't keep me in suspense. Tell me what horrific doom awaits my already pathetic life." I laughed nervously to cover my unease.

"You're going to get news, very soon, about a death at a distance, and you're going to take a long trip. Better pack your bags," she informed me.

I rolled my eyes toward the ceiling and laughed at her. "Right. Damn. I was so hoping you were going to tell me Prince Charming was about to ride into my life."

She held up her hand to shush me and flipped over the last two cards. "Tree and Man," she said.

"Well there he is," I said pointing to the card.

She frowned. "Normally, the tree is something to do with health issues. But I have a feeling it's something more literal in this case. Oh, and you're right, there is a new man coming into your life. Not for awhile, but he is coming. And for some reason, I can't help but think he's connected to a tree."

I shook my head and pushed away from the table, suppressing my urge to laugh out loud at her predictions. "Well, it's something to look forward to, I suppose..."

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Lori L. Clark

Lori L. Clark currently resides in Hazelwood, MO with three rescue dogs. When Lori isn't listening to the voices in her head, waiting for the next creative inspiration to strike, she also loves to read, run, paint pet portraits and save dogs. Email Lori at

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