In the springtime when the air warmed and smelled like sage and the dirt started cracking in protest is when things started falling apart. We lived in a small, yellow house with a broken fence and a decrepit pine tree too weak to withstand even my dreams of a tree fort. So I sat underneath it in the backyard instead. I was eleven. My older brother Matthew watched tv and masturbated openly on the couch. His blank-eyed rhythmic pumping scared me, and my only way to cope was to stay away. Mom wasn’t very helpful. I can picture her at the kitchen table arguing with whichever boyfriend was over.
She didn’t date more than one person at a time, but the rotation was well established: honeymoon, anger, break up, back to a former boyfriend to give it another try. Repeat. Later when I was older and had sushi for the first time, sitting on a stool as the little boats passed, I thought of her own circular waterway: take what looked good, eat because she had to, feel unsatisfied and still hungry, and look with a strange, nonsensical hope to the next boat coming down the chute. That bright green wasabi and the fleshy pink of ginger always started out so vivid, but with each time around the moat, the colors diminished.
That was the spring that I started counting. Counting everything. How many times Mom looked me in the eye each day: Average = 1. How many times Matthew spoke to me without disdain: Average = 0. How many times I felt, in one of her boyfriend’s side glances, that he wanted me gone: Average = 4. How many times did I sit alone, back against the tree, feeling the weight of loss for something I didn’t know how to name: Average = X. How do you count what feels like a constant?
I used a pocket knife, stolen from a cousin who lived across town, to make counting marks in the tree. The bark bled sap and smelled like family. The knife soon made it to my own bark, but my sap was red and flowed easier. I made my deepest cuts when the knife blade was sticky with the sap: we were blood brothers. When the thin scabs disintegrated and the scars became quiet, milky rivers, I ran my hand over them and felt like something mattered. I was a living testimony to the uncountable.
By the time the marks made it up from ankle to knee, then thigh to hip, I was becoming too restless to sit quietly with my tree. Mom called Matthew and me into the living room at the start of summer and told us that she was getting married. She sat on her new boyfriend Gary’s lap when she told us, while the tv droned on. I felt repulsed, but mostly angry with myself that I still cared enough to feel anything at all, much less betrayed. The yard could no longer contain me after that, but as I strayed farther away than I thought was possible, what I missed the most was my tree. Years later, still roaming this wild country, displaced from the small, quiet forest I desired, I could still feel the sap flowing veins to heart, pumping under my bark, keeping me alive.
Charlie J. Stephens is a queer fiction writer and poet living in Northern California. Charlie has lived all over the U.S. as a bike messenger, bookstore clerk, and seasonal shark diver (for educational purposes only). Charlie won The Forge Literary Magazine’s 2018 Flash Fiction Competition, and other written work has most recently appeared in Rappahannock Review, Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk, and “Nothing Short of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story” (Outpost19 Books). A non-fiction piece titled, “Me and My Teen Queen” will be part of Original Plumbing’s Ten Year Anniversary Edition to be published by Feminist Press in spring 2019. More at charliejstephenswriting.com.