The screen door slammed shut behind Alex as she ran into the backyard, into the protection of darkness.
“I can’t eat this.” Her dad’s voice thundered behind her. He spoke to her mom. “I’ve told you…” The voice became a slur. Glass broke. Something made a thud. Alex ran. She had to get away from them. Had to get away from the craziness. The tension.
She was halfway across the yard when her bad foot caught something. A second later her chin met the ground. Her jaw snapped on her tongue, and warmth filled her mouth. She didn’t notice the pain though. She didn’t care enough to. Scrambling to her feet, she reached the back of the yard where a large maple tree offered escape. She climbed up it, higher and higher until she got to where a large branch split from the tree. She wedged into the nook it made, her back to the tree, her knees pulled to her chin. Then she closed her eyes and tried to shut out everything; her home, her school, her bad foot. Her mom was screaming now. At least from this distance she couldn’t tell what she was saying.
Above her the leaves rustled. A cold breeze made her shiver. She tried to let it sooth her, but the knot growing in her chest was only getting worse. It felt like a rock crushing against her lungs. It was getting to be too much, the constant strain. Her dad was always angry. Her mom never smiled. It didn’t help that her one leg had decided to grow longer than the other. It wasn’t a lot longer, but it was enough to give her a limp. People looked at her funny when she walked. People stared.
The weight in her chest throbbed. She rubbed her hands up and down her shins and focused on her breathing. She wouldn’t cry. She would forget her life. She wouldn’t cry.
Alex jerked her head up. The voice came from higher in the tree. A small form made a silhouette on a branch.
“Hey.” Alex wiped her eyes with the back of her hands. The form belonged to her neighbor, Kara.
“Care if I sit by you?”
The girl was eleven years old, two years younger than Alex. She shimmied down the tree and squeezed beside Alex in the nook. They didn’t say anything, just sat and listened to the rise and fall of voices. Kara was one of those girls that always had bruises on her arms and shins. It seemed like they never healed. Alex never asked her how she got them, just like they never asked each other why they came to the tree. They both knew.
It was silent for awhile. Kara pulled out a crumpled notebook from under her shirt. She opened it to the middle and placed it on her knees. On a branch beside her, she balanced a small flashlight.
“What are you doing?” Alex spat a string of blood down the tree. Her tongue was swelling.
“Getting away.” Kara had a small voice, like she didn’t speak enough to strengthen it.
“You know.” She pointed to her chest.
The hurt. The pain. The pressure inside.
Kara scribbled in the notebook with a broken pencil, the top of her bushy head bobbing up and down. Helplessness washed over Alex. Would it ever get better? When she was Kara’s age, she thought things would change. Maybe the next year, or the next. But they never did. The older she got, the darker the world grew.
Something crashed from inside the house. Heaviness gripped her. She leaned over and threw up.
“Help?” Kara said when she finished.
“Not really.” Alex wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. It was surprising anything came out. She hadn’t eaten for days.
“I’m sorry.” Kara said.
Alex went back to rubbing her shins.
Kara watched her. “You can read some from my notebook, if you want.”
Alex had seen Kara writing in the notebook before. She didn’t know what she wrote, but it was important enough to Kara that she never went anywhere without it. Alex understood Kara was trying to comfort her, but at the moment, she didn’t think it would do any good.
“I’m too sick to read,” she said.
“I can read for you.”
“I guess. If you really want to.”
Kara flipped to the first page of her notebook. Alex held her stomach.
“Once upon a time…” Kara began, her voice as dim as the moonlight.
“A story?” said Alex.
Kara held her finger to her lips. “It’s not a story. It’s a fairytale. And talking breaks the fairytale spell.”
“Sorry.” Alex rested her head on her knees.
Kara went on, “Once upon a time, a young princess was lost in an enchanted forest, far away from the palace where her cruel father lived…”
Kara read. Alex listened. The shouting voices became distant battle cries. The rustle of leaves became the rustle of stiff dresses in royal halls. The great maple tree became the golden throne for a beautiful princess. Little by little, the spell took hold. Little by little, the world around them faded. And for the first time in a long time, the weight on Alex’s chest seemed to fade away as well.
Austin Prettyman lives in the mountains of eastern Washington. When he’s not crafting stories, he’s tearing up the wilderness on his dirt bike.