I saw you at a party once. You stood by the bookshelf, reading a tattered volume on Proust. You wore an orange and yellow XTC shirt beneath brown flannel. I bumped your elbow by accident and you looked up, your eyes startling green.
I smiled and said, “Hi. I’m Nina.”
I trailed behind you for the rest of the party. You introduced me to your friends and I laughed at their jokes. Twice, our sleeves brushed against each other.
Around two in the morning, you left with your friends. An hour later, I also left. I crossed the empty campus, humming under my breath, wondering if I’d ever see you again.
The watch on my arm beeped.
“This experiment will measure how small changes occurring before a certain event affect its outcome positively and negatively.”
The chair is her creation. She bought the frame on impulse at a medical supply shop. The conical helmet, perforated with slender tubes, fits on top. Whenever she maneuvers her head beneath it, she thinks of the hair dryers at her mother’s beauty salon. All those bulky astronaut bonnets lined in perfect rows, vibrating air molecules to a feverish pitch. She likes this scientific homage to her mother extracting time from thin air.
“Recording of the control event complete. Setting a change in a condition set slightly in the past. The goal of this first jump is to see if this will change the outcome of the event to a more positive circumstance.”
She types on the laptop built into the armrest, then glances at the elaborate flowchart tacked upon the far wall of the laboratory. Written in her own hand, neat and precise, equations and sums branch and connect like a roadmap of a probability highway.
She wonders which formula will have his lips pressing against hers.
“Test #1. Begin.”
I saw you at a party once. You stood next to Muriel, hair rumpled, clothes wrinkled. I had my hair permed that morning so it hung straight over my eyes. I wore tight-fitting jeans and a blue top with spaghetti straps.
I didn’t speak to you, just hung out with a couple of my girlfriends. When “Atomic Dog” came on the stereo, I shimmied to the bookcase, shaking my hips and wiggling my butt. Only then I noticed you, you and your startling green eyes. You smiled and said, “Hi, there.” Muriel looked over and pulled you from the room.
Later, while getting punch, I looked out the window and saw you and Muriel standing on the sidewalk below. She cupped your face, pulling it down to meet hers. I thought, Shame. He had nice eyes.
Then someone stepped on my foot and I swore, loudly. As the guy next to me apologized, the watch on my arm beeped.
You went on to have three children with Muriel. It took several years until I said yes to Brenton.
She rises from the chair, pulling the sensors from her body. She takes a sip of lukewarm coffee and frowns at the chart on the wall.
The outcome remained the same, but that was to be expected. With so many variables, it will take time to narrow down the finite set of outcomes, both positive and negative. She isn’t worried; after all, only two possible outcomes can come from this event.
She picks up a black magic marker and crosses off a number with an ‘X’.
We came to the party together, your arm slung around my shoulders. You and I had met several weeks before. Within a week, we were dating. Within six weeks, we were an ‘item’.
Muriel was there as well, dancing alone by the bookshelves. Though my hand was buried in your back pocket, you couldn’t tear your eyes from her. I distracted you by pulling you over to introduce my friends. You nodded, laughed at someone’s joke and glanced towards the corner.
Brenton asked if the punchbowl needed to be filled. I went to check it out, but when I came back, you were gone. I looked around the room, but you had vanished along with Muriel. With a sinking feeling, I walked over to the window.
The two of you stood together on the sidewalk, she cupping your face to bring it down to hers. You didn’t hear me banging on the window or crying out your name. As I leaned my head against the glass, my watch beeped.
You broke up with me without saying goodbye. Three weeks after that, you left Muriel for someone else.
“Professor, look at this.”
She sets the petri dish under the microscope and observes the professor as he peers through the eyepiece. She already knows what he’s seeing: crystalline branches, splitting off in different directions, growing like a snowflake created in God’s palm.
“What is it, Nina?”
“It is a memory that I never had. A choice I’ve never taken.”
He looks up at her. “You’re using this to predict the future?”
“Not ‘the’ future. ‘A’ future.” She lays her hand on the helmet. “The chair allows me to see non-linear time. I can study the branches leading up to a single event and set variables accordingly. In a few brief moments, I can experience several different lifetimes based on that single change.”
The professor frowns at her, then at the chart on the wall, speckled here and there with tiny ‘X’ pinpricks. “So you can watch the outcomes of a choice without suffering the consequences.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it that.” She runs her hand fondly along plastic and chrome. “It simply turns wishful thinking into reality.”
I’ve known you all my life.
We grew up in the same neighborhood. Our mothers put us in the same playgroup. We went to the same public school. You had a hard time with math, so I tutored you. At first, you didn’t like it; you thought it was stupid for a girl to tutor you. I said for each answer right, you got a kiss. After that, you showed up every week.
We hung out a lot in high school. By then, I was tutoring other guys. You played our kissing game with other girls, but you still considered me your best friend.
In college, I fell in love with a guy named Brenton. Our mutual friend, Muriel, wouldn’t give you the time of day.
One night, you called me from a party, your words emotional, slurred. Muriel had left with some other guy. I was in a middle of an argument with Brenton. I walked out on him and went to join you at the party. We laughed and danced with each other by the bookshelves.
Later, we stumbled out into the cool night air and collapsed against a wall. Your fingers fumbled on my blouse; your breath hot upon my neck, smelling of punch and beer. I dug my fingers in your silken hair, gasping, glancing up at the silent moon. As I fumbled with your zipper, the watch on my arm beeped.
Afterwards, you walked me home, both of us suddenly sober and quiet. Brenton and I made up, but I never told him what we’d done. You and I drifted apart, too embarrassed to remain in contact. Years later, I got a letter from you. I ripped it up without opening it.
The professor turns from the chart. “But what about ego preservation?”
“What do you mean?”
“If the essence of who you are is based on your own experiences and memories, wouldn’t viewing these alternate choices also alter you?”
She laughs. “That won’t happen.”
“How do you know?”
She raises her arm, the one with the watch, “This keeps me grounded. It pulls me back before anything permanent–”
A soft crack makes them both turn. The petri dish has burst, spreading a lattice-work of thin frostlike threads down the microscope base and across the table. Grabbing a spray bottle, she quickly spritzes a solution over the engulfing crystal. The fragile structure dissipates into an alcohol-laced mist.
The professor flaps his hand in front of his face. “And what, Nina, do you call that?”
She turns her head, hiding her grimace. “It only shows that I need a stronger dish.”
We went to separate grammar schools, but attended the same high school. At college, we shared one class: Economics. I sat in the front, you in the back. You dropped out after three weeks.
We saw each other at a party; you showed up with a red-head, I was on the way out with Brenton. Our arms brushed as we passed each other. You turned to say hello, but Brenton pulled me away before I could say anything back.
I graduated with honors with a Ph.D. in Mathematics. I didn’t know what happened to you.
One day, I went with a group of physicists to a lecture. We were discussing the butterfly effect when I looked out the car window and saw you–in a wheelchair, clothes filthy, beard and hair matted. On top of your amputated legs, you held a cardboard sign: “HELP THE HOMELESS”. You stared at me with those startling green eyes.
“Stop,” I said, “Stop the car.” My watch beeped as I reached for the door. The car moved on and soon you were lost.
Five years later, I accepted the Nobel Prize for my contributions to Quantum Physics. I used my knowledge to search for you in timelines, but I never, ever found you again.
Using the party as a control event isn’t working.
She stares at her chart, tapping the magic marker against her lips. She thought that by now she would have seen two realities–one negative, one positive–branch from the single event. A couple of times, it comes close, very close, but each time reverts to a negative outcome.
That last one was interesting. She takes out a highlighter, traces the formula in fluorescent yellow. She’ll have to come back to that possibility.
But then, she thinks of his eyes, piercing through her other personas, pinning her true self upon the chair.
“Perhaps I’m going about this the wrong way.”
She rips off another large sheet of paper and tacks it up on the remaining empty space in her lab. She scribbles her formulas, several loosely-scrawled numbers escaping onto the bumpy surface of the wall. Satisfied, she doffs her lab coat and applies the sensors to her naked body: head, neck, shoulders, underarms, between her breasts, right hip, around her left toe. She types in the modified conditions, then makes adjustments to her watch.
“All right, then. Test #353. Begin.”
We never met in college. We met at Mr. Gee’s Grocery Store. You were in Aisle 6, looking for Pampers. I told you that the store brand was much cheaper. We laughed for a little bit, then you asked me out for coffee. You were a father working part-time from home. I was a stay-at-home mother.
Neither of our spouses knew about us.
One warm spring day, while our children played outside, you and I twisted on bedsheets: your mouth moist and hot upon my neck, shoulders, underarms, between my breasts, right hip. You sucked on my left toe as David pulled into the driveway. We didn’t hear him open the front door, nor did we hear him mount the staircase. As my watch beeped on my nightstand, he pulled the gun from his holster.
In court, he swore that the safety was on. I divorced him and endured a nasty custody battle. You remained in a coma for six months. I couldn’t visit you due to the restraining order from your wife.
“Are you all right?”
His name is Gary. He’s good looking, in that young, fresh-from-the-dormitory sort of way. He’s supposed to be her intern, but nowadays she doesn’t want anyone in the lab with her. She looks up from her hands and says, “What makes you ask that?”
“It’s just that you don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine.” She goes back to staring at her hands spread upon the cafeteria table. He sighs and takes the seat across from her, spreading out several sheets of paper.
“I’m having a hard time with these calculations you’ve given me. I don’t know why, but each time I check the results, the equations seem different. It’s like they’re mutating.”
“That’s impossible. They should stay the same.” She lightly traces the raised blood vessels running beneath the brown skin of her right hand, imagines them bursting out from her fingertips, lines of red and blue capillaries branching out in all directions…
“I know. I’ve checked and rechecked. It’s weird.” He looks at her carefully. “Are you sure you don’t wanna go out and get some coffee or something? Go get some fresh air?”
She’s faintly amused that he’s trying to ask her out. But those wide, earnest eyes are baby blues, cheerful as a sunny sky. Innocent. Unappealing.
I never went to college. Ran away from home at twelve. Got pregnant at fourteen. Had an abortion. Pregnant again at seventeen. Got another abortion.
You saw me on the corner at 16th and Park, hiking my miniskirt up. I peered at you through the car window, “Hey, wanna have some fun tonight?”
You stepped out of the car, flashing a cop’s badge. Our arms brushed briefly as you handcuffed me.
You pulled into the headquarters’ parking lot. I tried to act nonchalant, holding your gaze in the rearview mirror. Minutes later, my watch beeped, but I couldn’t silence it. My hands were still locked behind my back as my head bobbed between your legs.
I was back on the streets by Sunday. Dead from crack overdose on Monday. Weeks later, you started a different beat, having already forgotten me.
The entire lab is wallpapered with formulas: on paper, on the walls, the linoleum floor, the ceiling. There are calculations drawn on top of calculations, Magic Eye illusions only she can decode. The one formula she highlighted, the timeline with the Nobel Prize, has already been written over six times, hints of yellow showing through black scribble.
She has given up on using paper. It’s too limiting, too confining for her work.
For every ten formulas, there’s a thick, black ‘X’ through them, solid, forbidding, accusing. She uses white chalk to write over the ‘X’s, expanding her writing space one a layer at a time.
She stands in front of the latest calculation, the magic marker twitching in her hand. Just one positive result. That’s all she is looking for. She watches the calculations spread, mutating right before her eyes. Every choice, another branch. She turns her head, another world forms. All she can do is change the variables, trying to get to the outcome she wants, continue the process of elimination.
She viciously slashes the wall with the marker.
I saw you at a concert. Either Pearl Jam or Oasis–I don’t know. All I remember is moving close to you, brushing my arm lightly against yours. You smiled down at me, draped your arm across my shoulders.
“What’s your name?” you shouted above the music.
“Nina,” I shouted back.
You held me close for several more numbers, then began kissing me on my neck, my lips, my shoulders. You steered me out of the crowd and towards the parking lot, towards your van. My heart thumped in excitement, until two other men pulled open the door. As you pushed me inside, my watch beeped frantically.
The police found my corpse in a cornfield. By then, you were long gone.
“I have reviewed your research and feel that extensive revision is required.”
“May I ask why?”
“You are straying from your original thesis. Before, you were just observing different possibilities, but looking at your latest research, it seems that you are trying to force a specific result–”
“All I need is a little more time, please–”
“Nina, you told me that these jumps aren’t affecting you, but they are. You’re losing your scientific objectivity; you’re growing obsessed–Nina, are you even listening?”
You and I dated briefly in college. We hooked up again a year later. You proposed to me on a Sunday morning. I accepted, and we eloped that night.
The first two years were absolute bliss.
Then, when I became pregnant with twins, you wanted me to stay at home. I tried to study for my Master’s online, but I couldn’t handle the pressure and had to drop the courses.
My life became filled with diapers and drool.
I began to resent you, the freedom to move about, holding adult conversations on business trips that took you across the globe. I drank in the afternoons so I could cope with the nonchanging days. I also begin to watch you closely. You seemed too happy, too cheerful in your job.
One night, going through your Caller ID, I ran across several numbers from a woman named Muriel. You told me I was seeing things–maybe I needed to see a doctor. I threw your phone out the window.
You rushed out of the house. I flung through the window everything I could lay my hands on. Shoes. Plants. Books. My beeping watch. You yelled at me to stop, bent over to pick up the watch. The square glass candleholder–the one with the buttercream vanilla candle inside–smashed on top of your head.
I got convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Days later, I committed suicide in my cell.
In this world, she only saw him once, at a party, years ago. She always thought she would never see him again.
Passing a restaurant, she glances inside and there he is, sitting at a booth. It catches her off guard; his hair is thinner, he’s put on a little weight. But without a doubt, it’s him.
He sits across from another woman; their fingers intertwined on the table. They wear matching gold bands upon their fingers. The woman’s hair is short, just like how she used to wear her hair. She appears to have the same build, the wide hips, the full lips. Even the woman’s coffee skin is the same shade as hers.
Outside, she lifts a finger, gently taps on the glass. She uses two fingers. Three fingers. Slaps at the window with the palm of her hand. Everyone in the restaurant looks up, including the man and the woman. She can’t stop herself, her curled fist making the window shiver with her blows.
“What’s wrong with me?!” She screams, tears running down her cheeks. “Why not me? Why can’t we be happy together? Why? Why?!”
The restaurant staff rushes out to pull her away. She howls, struggling to keep sight of him, watching him frown, those startling green eyes turning towards his wife, his mouth shaping the words, “Do I know her?”
I suffocate you while you lie in a drunken sleep.
You die in a car accident a week before our wedding.
I cheat on you with your brother’s wife.
You steal my identity after a one-night stand.
Everywhere I look, our relationship ends in disaster.
My entire laboratory is coated in black.
“As of today, your dissertation is terminated. You are no longer permitted on these premises. You will need to meet with your advisor…”
She sets down the notice, rattles the knob to her lab one more time. Already they have changed the locks. Turning, she slides down, pulls her legs up, rocks herself gently, head tapping lightly against the door.
They think they can stop the experiment by locking up her equipment. Bastards. Taking away the chair and laboratory won’t hinder her at all. They don’t know that all her calculations, all her formulas, had been fixed into her mind. She can just close her eyes and they spring up before her, stretching out in all directions.
Let them keep the chair. She doesn’t need it anymore.
The sudden freedom of it bubbles in her chest, rises up in her throat, escapes in a laugh. She pushes herself to her feet, already planning the next jump…
Then she hears a tiny beep. She looks at her watch.
It’s a graduation gift from her mother, a Precision Quartz timepiece, accurate down to the nearest millisecond. She stares at it, then unhooks it, letting it drop to the floor. She brings her foot down on it, hard, feeling the crystal faceplate crack, then shatter beneath her shoe.
In some alternate universe, you and I are happy.
Somewhere, you and I are married, having children, raising a family. Somewhere, we are laughing together, holding hands, growing older, deep in love.
I just have to keep looking until I find it.
LaShawn M. Wanak lives with her husband, son and a bunch of gophers in Madison, WI. She has had a previous story published in Ideomancer called “CrownTree”. She also had her first professional sale with “She’s All Light”, published at Daybreak Magazine. You can find links to her works at her blog: The Café in the Woods. She says:
Long ago, I fell in love with a boy. I consoled myself with his disinterest by saying that somewhere in an alternate universe somewhere, we were happily married. What was disinterest was in reality shyness. We’ve been married now for eleven years.
For the life of me, I can’t remember when I first met Vale. I can’t recall a moving van or any awkward introductions. We didn’t play together as toddlers, ignoring each other until, by chance, we became playmates. It just happened—first, she wasn’t in my life…then she was.
My earliest memories of her are all the same: “Okay, Stephen,” she’d say, brown hand crooked on slender hip. “I’m Queen and you’re my faithful servant. Let me sit on my throne so I can knight you.”
I always smiled and said, “Okay.” I don’t think there was ever a time when I played King and she was my servant. I just never considered it.
In my boyish mind, Vale’s backyard spread out like a vast green lake, dotted with the occasional island of flowers. Against the back fence stood a single tree; it could have been maple—maybe oak. The trunk rose solidly for three or four feet, then split off into six slimmer trunks: wide enough for a child to scramble through, close enough to shield him from prying eyes. We pulled ourselves into the mossy interior and side by side we crouched, peering up into the leafy canopy. It was the perfect treehouse—our crowntree. That was our name for it.
In the middle of her backyard lay a concrete ring about fifteen feet in diameter. It could have been a paved border for a flowerbed, but for all the years I knew Vale, it only held grass, carefully maintained as the rest of the lawn.
Aaron, Stephanie and I sat on the ring and made up stories about it. “Maybe it’s a circus ring, and that’s where all the acrobats and animals perform.”
“Naw, you’re lyin’. It’s where they gonna put a swimming pool!”
“You’re both wrong. It’s a launchpad for aliens and if they catch you, they take you away for a long, long time and when they bring you back, you’re the same age you’ve always been, but everyone else is old and gray.”
Vale never said what the ring was for. In fact, she never even touched it.
I saw Vale’s mama, once. It happened early one morning, when dew still covered the grass, sparkling in the dawn’s weak light. I woke to a silent house and slipped out on some whim.
Vale’s house stood directly across from mine in a cul-de-sac made of several houses forming a tight ‘C’. Something pink flashed in her backyard. I thought it was Vale, but instead, it was her mama. Wearing a sheer pink nightgown, she rocked on her hands and knees in the center of the ring. She stared up at the sky, tossing her dark, curly head and moaning as if something cut her deep.
I must’ve made some sound because she gasped and scrambled to her feet, clapping her hands over her ears. When she saw me, she smiled—oddly, her hands stayed where they were. “Oh, you’re Vay-lee’s friend.” she said in a soft, breathless voice. “She’s asleep right now. Can you come back later?”
Vay-lee. I never heard Vale’s name pronounced like that before. We always called her ‘Vell‘. “I just wanted to sit in the crowntree for a while.”
“Crowntree?” Vale’s mama raised her eyebrows, thin and delicately arched. Everything about her seemed fragile, like a figurine made of spun glass. She looked at the tree and her laughter tinkled into the air. “Why, it does look like a crown, doesn’t it? I never thought of it like that before. I keep forgetting children see things differently. I must tell the others.”
She dropped her hands—her ears looked fine to me; I don’t know why she’d covered them earlier—then, gathering up her nightgown, she skipped effortlessly out the ring, avoiding the concrete. She came over to place a hand atop my head. I barely felt her touch through my springy hair. “Of course you may wait there, child. You may wait for her as long as you like.”
I watched Vale’s mama head towards the house. Maybe it was the rising sun dazzling my vision, but her steps were so airy and light, her bare feet hardly sank into the grass.
You could tell what mood Vale was in by the color of her eyes. When she was happy, they stayed a serene green. When she was sad, they turned to a deep blue so mournful it made your own eyes water. When she was mad, I swear, they changed to an odd shade of purple, bordering on fiery red. It made her special since the rest of us only had normal brown eyes to go with our normal brown skin.
Some weeks after I saw her mama, Vale brought out a bucket of pastel chalk. She said that we could draw anything we wanted to on the ring. Aaron drew cars and trucks. Stephanie had some flower princess thing going. I couldn’t think of anything artistic, so I mostly drew spirals and arcs.
Vale didn’t join us, but watched with meadow eyes from the center of the ring. When every inch of gray was covered, she stood up and hopped lightly across, her feet barely brushing our drawings.
“Hey, Vale,” I asked, “how come you never walk on the ring? You jump in and out of it, but I’ve never seen you walk on it.”
Those eyes twinkled like sunlight off a brook hidden deep in a forest. “You really want to know why?”
We leaned forward.
“It’s a game we play. My family and I. If you touch the ring…”
We held our breath.
She smacked Stephanie on the shoulder and bounded off, her long legs flashing in the sun. We chased each other, leaping in and out of the ring at first, then around the backyard and out into the cul-de-sac. After Aaron tagged me, I spotted Vale crouching in the bushes beside her front porch and ran up to her. “Found you, Vay-lee!”
Her whole body went still, so perfectly still that she blended into the bushes. Without saying a word, she pushed past me and went into her backyard. Aaron, Stephanie and I followed behind, trying to figure out her stony silence. She gathered the chalk back in the bucket, carefully plucking each piece up without her fingers touching the ring. When she finally looked at us, I stepped back, startled by the brooding storm clouds of her eyes.
“Don’t ever call me that again.”
Her flat words stung, so I tried stinging her back. “Why not? Your mama called you that!”
She paused at her back door, the storm clouds lightening to a misty fog. “She only calls me because she knows I hate it.”
The next day, I came back to see her squatting next to the ring, her curls hanging down so I couldn’t see her face. Our chalk drawings had already begun to fade into misty, indistinguishable marks.
“Sorry I made you mad yesterday.”
She sighed deeply, not looking at me. “It won’t matter, I guess. You’ll forget this anyway.”
“All this,” she spread her hands out. “Playing here. Sitting in the crowntree. Acting like queens and knights. One day, it’s going to stop. You’ll forget me.”
“No, I won’t,” I retorted. “I’ll come here every day, even when I’m a grown-up. We’ll get married and live here, and every night we’ll sleep in the crowntree and you’ll be my Queen and I’ll be your knight.”
At that, she raised her head, her eyes the cobalt of an ocean, fathoms deep. “Let’s go to the tree.”
I shrugged and said, “Okay.”
Aaron started playing basketball more. He liked to point out the faint line of hair above his lip. Stephanie traded her dolls for double-dutch and eyeing the guys playing kickball in the street. My voice developed a sandpaper roughness that scraped on my larynx. I had a harder time squeezing into the crowntree.
On the outside, Vale never changed. She looked just the same as I always knew her. But as we grew older, she became moody and distant. She spoke less about queens and knights; when she did, her words were flat, listless. Sometimes, she didn’t talk at all—just sat in the tree, gazing up at the leaves far overhead. I told most of the stories now, resorting to stuff I knew: swimming, the new school year, that girl in fourth period English who kept staring at me…
She leaned against me and let me talk. And as long as she let me sit in the crowntree with her, I was happy to oblige.
A few days after my twelfth birthday, Vale asked nonchalantly, “Wanna come to a party?”
“My folks are throwing a party next week. They said I could invite you.”
“Really? All right! I always wanted to meet your folks. Wait ’til I tell Ma—”
“No!” Vale grabbed my arm. Her eyes had gone black, a complete absence of color. “Don’t you dare tell your mother or father! I’m supposed to invite you and only you. No one else can know!”
My mouth dropped open. I clamped it shut, but it dropped open again on its own accord. “Uh…okay…I won’t tell.”
On the night of the party, I told my parents I was going to Aaron’s. Nobody was around when I stepped outside—strange for a Saturday night. Usually everyone would be trying to get in one last game before being called in. Instead, the streets were empty and the other houses squatted dark and silent. Even my own house became hazy and indistinct the further I moved from it. The only things that felt solid were me, Vale’s house, and up in the sky, a surprisingly fat taffy moon.
Cars crowded in front of Vale’s house and around the perimeter of the cul-de-sac, even askew on her front lawn. Every light in her house beamed from the flung-up window shades and music pulsed out, a piping melody interlaced with percussive beats too deep to be bongos. I felt its vibrations pulsing through my sneakers, tugging me onto the front porch. I knocked on the door and it opened, spilling yellow light and warmth and laughter.
“Stephen! How good it is to see you!” Vale’s mama stepped out, wearing the sheer pink gown I saw her in before. This time, I became conscious of her body sketched within. “Vale’s inside—why don’t you come in?”
I started forward when Vale herself came out, wearing a shorter version of her mama’s gown. “Actually, let’s go around to the back. It’s too crowded in here.”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me off the porch. I looked to see her mother still standing there, the light behind her casting the expression on her face in shadow. “Aww…but I wanted to see the inside of your house—”
“I’m sorry,” she explained, “it’s just that, if I let you in the house…it’s better out here. You can meet my father and all my cousins.”
The whole backyard had been transformed. Little twinkling lights swayed and danced on invisible electric cords strung about the yard. In the farthest corner, opposite the crowntree, the source of that strange music revealed itself as a small band playing flutes, drums, guitars and some instruments I didn’t recognize. And the people! Laughing, eating, talking to each other, some dressed like Vale and her mama, others in fabric so thin it appeared to float off their bodies. One lady seemed clad in nothing but bright purple flowers. A tall, angular man—Vale introduced him as her father—wore a tunic made of green leaves. It felt like a costume party, though Halloween was still a few weeks away.
Everyone had the same kind of hair: ringlets as chocolate as their skin, pouring over their shoulders and backs. Looking at so many people looking so much alike, I wondered for the first time about Vale’s ethnicity. Was she black? Indian? African? We’d been learning about different races in school, but Vale didn’t fit the profile for any of them…and asking now seemed kind of rude.
A woman who could easily pass for Vale’s mama strolled towards us, bearing a tray of biscuit-like lumps with shredded cheese on top. I reached for one, but Vale grabbed my hand. “No, don’t. Here—I got some food for you over here.”
She pulled me over to the crowntree and pushed a sandwich and a can of pop into my hands. I scrunched up my face. “What’s this supposed to be?”
Nervously, she glanced over her shoulder to the people milling about. “This is gonna sound weird, but I don’t want you eating or drinking anything here unless I give it to you, okay? Even if my mom offers anything to you, don’t take it.”
“How come?” That stuff on the tray, whatever it was, looked really good.
“Because…well…you see…” She turned to face me. There was something odd about her face, something I couldn’t pinpoint. She bit her bottom lip, then spoke in a rush, “Because we’re leaving tonight.”
Stupidly, I asked, “Leaving? Where?”
She looked at me. Really looked at me, her twilight gaze sliding into night. “We’re going away. Far away. After tonight, we won’t see each other again.”
Suddenly, the party no longer mattered. The fancy food, the strange music, the exotic people—none of it mattered. I stared at Vale, trying to make her words fit in my head. “But why?”
Vale glanced into the sky. It hit me, then, that she looked older than usual. Maybe she wore make-up, like Stephanie started doing lately. But where Stephanie’s red lipstick and purple blush made her look like a plastic doll, the darkened planes of Vale’s cheekbones were sharper, her lips darker, fuller than what a child’s should be. And, as she looked at the party, her eyes caught the circling lights in the yard and gleamed, just like a cat.
What was Vale?
“I didn’t want you to find out like this,” she said. “I was going to tell you the other day in the crowntree. But my mom insisted you come instead. She likes you, you see.”
“I don’t get it—”
“No, and I don’t want you to,” Vale smiled, tucking a curly strand behind her ear…which looked pointier than before. “Wanna dance?”
My mind barely had time to grasp the sudden change of topic when she grabbed my hand and pulled me to the concrete ring, stepping right on it with her bare feet. “We can stand on it now,” she told me as I gawked at her, “But don’t take your shoes off. Whatever happens.”
I thought the band would play some familiar R&B, but they merely upped the tempo to their drumming and piping. Some of Vale’s relatives joined us, spinning and twirling, stepping on each other’s toes, laughing in each others’ faces. Despite the wild dancing, no one stepped into the grassy center. Everyone avoided it, kept their feet exclusively on the ring—the odd rules of Vale’s game reversed.
I looked down at my own feet to make sure I also stayed on the ring. To my surprise, I saw drawings etched below my feet. A lopsided flower. A car with wheels too big. I recognized my own childish scrawl of spirals, loops and circles. The chalk drawings we did when we were—what, nine, ten?—reproduced perfectly in fluorescent blues and pinks.
“How did—” but my words spun from my lips as we whirled faster. Vale’s hand was soft, but it gripped mine with a strength I couldn’t imagine from any other girl. Through our connection, I could feel the pounding of the drums, the music coursing through us like a never-ending lightning bolt. I threw back my head, gasping for air. The moon, large, yellow, fat, hovered above us like an ancient eye, unblinking.
More people joined us; their movements growing wilder, the music more frantic. I felt swept up in some powerful, giddy wheel. With so many people, there should have been tripping, stumbling. Our feet should’ve garbled the drawings into oblivion. But no one fell. No one touched the center. The drawings remained intact—in fact, they glowed even brighter.
Suddenly, Vale pulled on my hand, hard, and we stumbled out of the wheel of dancers. She steered me to the crowntree while I veered, dazed and unbalanced. My hands scrambled to find purchase on the trunks. Vale boosted me up with a push on my butt. “Get in. Hurry!”
Impossible to believe, but the entire party now revolved on the ring—even the musicians, their robes, instruments, and skin blurring together. The light from chalk drawings below illuminated their faces in bright, garish hues. Vale’s mama abruptly came into focus, her head thrown back in a shriek of glee—then, just as quickly, she was swept away.
My head reeled. “Vale…I feel funny…”
“I’m sorry, Stephen. I told them you weren’t meant to see this.” Although most of Vale’s face was deep in shadow, I could still see her eyes, a swirl of riotous color reflecting the unnatural lights from the ring. “You’re safe here. They’ve taken the ring but…there’s enough of me in the tree to keep you safe. Enough for a while, at least.”
She stared entranced at the dancers as she said this. Through my tilting senses, a thought popped in my head: if there was enough of Vale in the tree—whatever that meant—then a part of her was also still in the ring, spinning to the wild music. It frightened me because it looked like she was starting to forget me, forgetting we were friends, forgetting her life here. I had no clue how to keep her anchored to me.
Until an idea came, formed out of desperation.
I pushed myself off the trunk and kissed her on the lips. They were softer than I thought they would be and sweet, like she had been drinking apricot juice. When I pulled back, she kept her eyes closed a heartbeat longer, then slowly opened them.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said. Then she cocked her head and smiled.
It was the same smile she always gave, but now it looked so foreign, so mature, promising me things I had no business knowing. I suddenly wanted Vale with an ache that crushed the breath from my body. I wanted to pull her dress up, feel her stomach against mine…
At that moment, I think, my childhood vanished. It dried up and crossed me over into the adult realm before I even knew what happened. Before, I was happy just to be with Vale, but now I hungered for something more. There would be no more stories. No more pretending. No more knight and Queen. A deep, overwhelming sorrow rose in me and I buried my face in my hands.
For her part, Vale let me cry without touching me or saying a word. When I finally wiped my nose on my sleeve, she said, “I’m sorry.”
“I did want you to come with us, but you can’t.”
“I know,” I tried one last stab. “I won’t forget you. Really.”
Her laughter chimed softly as she turned away. “Oh, Stephen…grow up.”
Down below, the music built to a feverish pitch. The dancers and light bleared together, a whirling dervish, an out-of-control Tilt-o-Wheel. Vale braced herself between two of the trunks, leaning her lithe body out into empty air. “It’s time. No matter what happens, stay in the crowntree. It will protect you.”
She looked back at me, and her final word made no sense. She said her own name, tenderly, but with her mother’s pronunciation: “Vay-lee.”
Then she launched her body into the air, almost floating to the ground. She ran, her hair streaming behind her, and the swirling bodies engulfed her. She became lost to me among the hands and arms and legs and hips and breasts, and always, always the pealing laughter.
I could just step out, I thought, my foot poised to follow her. I could let myself drop, lose myself in the dance. I was ready to do it. The thought of being without Vale was agonizing, a loss too much to bear.
But just as my hands loosened from the trunk, just as my body tensed to jump, another sound broke through the music: a piercing, childish scream, full of wild joy and abandonment.
Vale had already forgotten me.
I tightened my grip on the crowntree, placed my foot down on the mossy undergrowth, and watched as the moon above grew more yellow and fuller than possible. Watched as our childhood chalk drawings slipped off the pavement and wheeled in the air like a drunken mobile. Watched as the dancers raised their arms, the music crashing in crescendo. Watched as the moon sank down, right there on the grassy center of the ring.
I don’t remember much of what happened next: just flashes of neon color and wild shrieks of laughter, almost howling like animals. But the moon—I definitely remember the moon, filling up my senses until I wasn’t sure if I’d swallowed it or it had swallowed me.
The neighbors found me late in the afternoon of the next day, fast asleep in the crowntree. I woke up just in time to be dragged home by my folks for the worst whuppin’ of my life.
Vale’s house stood abandoned, the front and back doors hanging open. Nothing was left, no furniture, no clothes, no food, not even dust on the floors. All the cars had vanished, the grass flattened and trampled, flowers and leaves scattered everywhere. In the backyard, the concrete ring lay warped and cracked—not a trace of chalk on its broken surface. The grass in its center had been blasted away, leaving behind bare, scorched earth.
Of Vale and her kin, there was no sign.
Weeks later, I snuck into her backyard. Ignoring the crowntree for once, I took off my shoes and socks and boldly stood on the ring. Between the cracked fissures of ruined cement, mushrooms sprouted like tiny white pebbles. My toes curled upon the cold stone, but nothing happened. I didn’t expect it to.
In college, while researching for my thesis paper, I stumbled upon Vale’s name. The way we had said it meant as it sounds: a valley or a dale. But there’s another meaning to her name, one that goes back to Latin roots. When pronounced as vay-lee, it meant ‘be strong’, which was another way of saying ‘good-bye…’
Another family lives in the cul-de-sac now, their children as normal as my daughter. They tore down Vale’s old house to build a larger one in its place, re-sodded the backyard, removed the concrete and put in a wooden playset. The father likes to sit in his backyard; he says it’s quiet and peaceful. The only thing that bothers him is a mushroom ring that pops up every single year. He tried pesticides, weed-killers, even went organic once, but the mushrooms keep coming back.
The crowntree is still standing, too.
It stands proudly, its leaves lush and green, a solitary guardian of the past. When I press my hands against its bark, I can hear Vale speak to me in fairy tales.
Sometimes, if I close my eyes, I can still taste her fruity essence on my lips.
I tell the stories to my daughter now, who listens silently, wide-eyed. When we visit, I bring her to the crowntree and lift her into it. She giggles, peering through the trunks. “Okay, Daddy,” she says. “Let’s play pretend. I’m Queen and you can be my faithful servant.”
And as she stands waiting, brown hand crooked onto slender hip, I press my head against the tree. “Okay,” I say and Vale’s voice echoes my own.
LaShawn M. Wanak has published short stories, essays, poetry, and is working on her first fantasy novel. She lives in Chicago with her husband and 3-year-old son, but is in the process of moving to Wisconsin. Her blog, the Café in the Woods, will remain firmly ensconced where it is.
The tree and the stone circle actually exists. I looked at it for the first time when I helped stuff 5000 Easter eggs for a church function. The tree looked just like the one my sisters and I played with in our backyard. Sitting on that stone circle with all those eggs to fill, “Crowntree” pretty much wrote itself.