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Little Miss Lumberjack
There’s a pine tree in the middle of my living room. The top of it is bent against the confined space of the low ceiling, and the lights tangled around it keep blinking out. The poor tree’s being weighed down by a profuse amount of sparkly, shiny, colorful, and highly breakable orbs. It looks miserable and so obviously out of place amongst the neatly wrapped presents, cold tile floor, and pristine cream walls. My living room is no place for a great green pine tree.
See, but that’s my problem. A normal person would walk in and see a beautifully decorated Christmas tree and a warm cozy fireplace. I see a live, living being that’s secretly dying on the inside where nobody can even see it. I see a pine tree that does not belong in my living room. Sure, it’s pretty, and it smells nice, and it’s a warm and fuzzy holiday tradition, but it’s a misfit. This pine tree does not belong in my living room.
Want to know where it really belongs? The forest. It belongs with other pine trees. It belongs somewhere that its roots can grow deep into the ground, and its top can stretch towards the sky. It belongs somewhere that can keep it alive. Let it thrive. You know? It belongs somewhere nice and real with lots of fresh air—somewhere like Pinetop.
I tense up at that. I have to, don’t I? There’s someone else who belongs in Pinetop too. That’s why. His name is James. He’s out of place right now too. James is stuck somewhere he doesn’t belong. He should be in Pinetop right now. Just like the pine tree in my living room.
“Meg!” says my mother as she comes into the living room. “Meg? Honey?”
I don’t offer any help to her in finding my location. She sees me anyways. “Oh, there you are. Your father and the girls are already in the car, waiting for you. I don’t mean to rush you, but I really want to get there before midnight. I was actually hoping to get there by eight, but seeing that it’s already seven…well I think we’d be lucky to get there by ten.”
That’s my mom. She’s sweet as homemade brownies, but she talks about a mile a minute. Usually, I just tune her out and think about something else. I’ve trained my ears to pick up on keywords to signal information that might actually be of use to me. Most of the time it works pretty well.
I take my eyes off the misplaced Christmas tree and see that my mother’s lips are moving faster than the speed of light. See? I’m so good at tuning her out I didn’t even hear her talking. I stare at her for a minute, still not hearing any words. I look closer and realize her lips have stopped moving. She’s stopped talking. However, she continues to stare at me for quite a while.
“Meg,” she finally says. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” I say. It’s not that I’m trying to lie. This is just my automatic response to most things. How are you? Fine. How was your day? Fine. How have you been? Fine. Honestly, most people aren’t expecting a real response anyways.
I guess my mother isn’t ‘most people’ though because she is definitely not appearing to be satisfied with my auto-response. Her neat little eyebrows knit together in a way that makes her look confused. Then her look softens, and so does her voice.
“Meg, honey,” she says, “I know you’re upset about what happened with James. It’s okay to be sad or scared or even mad about it. Just let your emotions come up.”
“I’m fine,” I snap at her without even meaning to.
She doesn’t say anything for a minute. I know I’ve hurt her, but I don’t apologize. Unfortunately, this sort of exchange between us is pretty common. I’m usually too indifferent to care though. The same goes for tonight.
My mother clears her throat and says, “Well, we should be getting into the car then.”
“Okay,” I say, and I follow her out the front door. Just as she said, my dad and little sisters are already in the car and buckled into their seats. All the girls are in the middle row, which means I get the backseat all to myself. I carefully climb over the middle row and into the back one, careful not to step on anyone’s hair or fingers. Usually, at least one of them would join me in the backseat since the drive to Pinetop is three to four hours long, and that’s an awfully long and boring time to be alone in the backseat. However, part of tonight’s plan is for my sisters and I to get some sleep on the drive up. Plus, they all know I’d rather be alone this trip. This is going to be a rough trip for all of us, but especially me. I don’t have to say anything to the girls about that though. They just know.
It’s already dark outside. I always feel just a little bit nervous driving in the dark. My mother gets into the passenger seat, and my dad pulls out of the driveway. We drive down the street and out the neighborhood gate. We have officially started our journey to Pinetop. I try not to think about what that means. I also try not to think about the pine trees and the lakes and the mountains and the sky. I try not to think about the summertime. I try not to think about James.
Every thought I have relates back to it all somehow though. So, in the end, I just drift off to sleep. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think about it. When I’m sleeping, I don’t have to think about it. I don’t have to think about anything.
I wake up though—maybe an hour or two later—and I can’t fall back asleep. There’s something about waking up in the middle of the night, I’ve found. I don’t know if it happens to everyone or just me, but there’s something about the darkness, knowing I’m all-alone and that everyone else is probably sleeping that brings up all my deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings—the ones I’m desperate to keep down. Night is the only time I am truly vulnerable. Night is the only time I can’t escape my nightmares.
I feel sick. Nauseous. It’s not like I’m going to throw up or anything; I feel like this a lot. I’m sick of waking up every morning and gluing a pretty little smile on my face. I’m sick of being told I have to keep going—that things will get better. I’m sick of being here. I’m sick of being alive.
I’m not supposed to say that. I know. No one wants to know about the depression or the pain. They all just expect me to put on my stupid little smile and entertain them. Not that I would ever dream of letting them know the truth.
I wonder if this is what James felt like before he died. The sadness, pain, and numbness—were they killing him the way they kill me? I can’t help but blame myself for what happened. Someone like me should have noticed someone like him. How could we have both been feeling so lost and never even realized? I thought he was the strong one. It never so much as crossed my mind that he could be suffering the same way I was. I looked up to him, and I followed his lead. If I hadn’t been so focused on hiding all of my own problems, maybe I could’ve noticed his. Maybe we could’ve confided in each other. Maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t have killed himself. Or maybe, he still would have.
If he did feel the way I do now, what finally made him give up?
James lived in Pinetop, and he worked at the Rec Hall. He was only twenty-two when he committed suicide two weeks ago. I remember the way he smiled. He looked like a Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas when he did. I remember the tattoos on his arms, and I remember how hard he could throw a dodge ball. He taught me how to boil water and win a card game. Most of all, I remember what he said to me on a camping trip one summer. I was walking through the creek with all the other kids, balancing on rocks in an attempt not to get wet. I, however, just couldn’t stop falling. I was soaked.
“Why are you so wet?” James asked me when he caught up. He had chosen to walk alongside the creek on dry land, which in my mind wasn’t any fun at all.
“I keep slipping!” I exclaimed. “I’ve fallen in six times now!”
“Well,” he said, “If you say you’re going to keep falling, then you will.”
I stared at him blankly. I hadn’t expected him to sound so serious.
“If you tell yourself you won’t fall, then you won’t. You make the choice.” Leaving me with those words of wisdom, James continued walking until he had caught up with the other Rec Hall staff members. I probably watched him for a while with a dumbfounded look on my face. See, this was before I knew him very well, so I wasn’t really sure what to think.
Well, I finally thought, I guess I have nothing to lose.
So, I charged on through the creek. Every time I could feel myself starting to slip, I said out loud, “C’mon, Meg. You’re not going to fall. You’re not going to fall down again.” By the time I caught up to all the other kids at the end of the creek, I was starting to dry off. James had been right, after all.
I know he didn’t mean it this way—at least I didn’t think so at the time—but I couldn’t help interpreting his advice on a more personal level. It wasn’t just about the creek and my choice to try harder or fall in again. It was about my life. It was about staying afloat or letting myself drown. So James’s words came to me in the toughest of times and the relentless bouts of depression. “You’re not going to fall, Meg,” I’d tell myself. “If you tell yourself you’re not going to fall, then you won’t. It’s your choice, Meg.”
After his death though, his words began to haunt me. James had made it clear to me. You always have a choice. If you tell yourself you’re going to fall, you will. If you tell yourself you won’t, you won’t. Constantly, I wonder what he must have been telling himself this whole time. Did he even take his own advice? Did he keep telling himself he wouldn’t fall like I did? Or did he finally give up? You always have a choice. That’s what he told me. It haunts me to think that while I was down in the valley encouraging myself to go on, James was up in Pinetop telling himself he was going to fall down. It kills me inside. It really does.
That reminds me of the tree at the Rec Hall. It’s dying on the inside too. James was going to build us a tree house in that tree. Those of us who were old enough got to help him saw the wood. It was supposed to be ready this summer. That’s what he promised. I guess that’s not going to happen now though.
Anyways, the tree is very sick. It’s dying on the inside. The termites got to it and infected it. They have to cut the tree down. Otherwise the termites might spread to all the other trees too, and there won’t be any of them left. I understand why they want to cut it. I can’t let them though. That tree is a part of our Rec Hall. I won’t let them take it away from us. That tree is there every day, every summer, every memory—just like James was. I can’t let it be stripped away from the Rec Hall just like him.
So, I have a plan. When my parents had the idea to go up to Pinetop this weekend—coincidentally the same weekend the tree was to be cut down—the wheels in my head started spinning. I would have to stop them. I’d show up early in the morning before any of the tree cutters even got there, and I would talk to them. I would wrap myself around the tree or climb it or lie to the tree cutters that they had the wrong one. In other words, I was going to do anything I could to stop them. I was going to save James’s tree.
I am still going to save James’s tree.
I don’t care if they all think it’s crazy. I don’t care if they all think I’m crazy. I have to save the tree. James would’ve wanted it that way. I’m sure of it. Besides, isn’t everyone going a little crazy now that he’s gone?
Out the window, the moon is casting eerie shadows onto the trees—pine trees. Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached our destination. We have made it to Pinetop. The sick feeling in my stomach worsens. I wrap my arms around myself, hugging my knees to my chest. I close my eyes. If I can’t see it, it’s not there. Right?
Wrong. Moments later, I can feel the car pulling slowly into the driveway. We stop moving. The engine silences. “We’re here, girls,” my dad announces, and their sweet little yawns and groans fill the car.
If I don’t see it, it’s not there. If I don’t see it, it’s not there.
Someone opens a door. Then another one and another until all the car doors are wide opened. The cool air rushes in, bringing the distinct scent of pine along with it. It doesn’t matter that I can’t see it. I can smell it. I can picture the scene in my mind. I can see it with my eyes closed—the girls rubbing their tired eyes, my parents walking up to the front door, and out the window pine trees, as far as the eye can see. The pine trees—I can smell them.
“Meg? Are you sleeping?”
I open my eyes. My youngest sister is staring at me. I offer her a small smile, as genuine as I can make it. “No.”
“Why were your eyes closed?”
“I was just thinking,” I say. Neither of us speaks or moves for a minute. Everyone else is in the house already.
“I’m cold, Meg,” she says. So I take her into my arms and carry her down the driveway, up the stairs, through the front door. The walk is easier when I’m not alone. Once inside, my sister gets down and stumbles towards the hallway, looking for my mother. Now, I am alone.
I proceed on to my room. I close the door behind me, pull down the covers, and climb into bed, not even bothering to change into my pajamas. This isn’t really my room. It’s the guest room. I’m not actually supposed to sleep in here unless we’re going to be staying a while. I know that. However, my parents can’t get mad at me right now. I know that too. They’re giving me a grace period because of James’s death. They go easy on me, and the things I do that would normally get me in trouble are excused as me acting out from the pain. Usually, sleeping in the guest room when we’re only staying for a weekend would be unacceptable. Tonight, however, it is fine.
I snuggle down into the covers. I’m enveloped in warmth and a sense of security. It’s a false sense of security. I know better than to think I am safe or that anyone else is. Anyone’s life can unexpectedly change in the course of one night. James’s did.
I find myself staring at the bedroom door for a long time. I realize I am waiting for my parents to come in and say goodnight to me. Against my better judgment, I wait another minute. They’re not coming. I don’t know why I even bother waiting. I do it almost every night, and they never come. It’s stupid of me. They’ve got other kids to take care of, and I don’t need them anyways.
The windows in my room almost take up the entire walls. They are naked. I can see right through them. I want to cover them in curtains, but I can’t. I need the early morning sunlight to act as my silent alarm. Out my bare windows, I see the pine trees and the road leading down to the Rec Hall. I don’t want to see any of that. I guess I’ll just have to close my eyes.
I’m surprised to find that I am tired when I do. I drift off in seconds, traveling far, far away. I am no longer in my room. I am at the Rec Hall. I’m spinning around underneath the bright summer sun. Dizzy, I stop spinning and stumble across the grass. I giggle to myself. The ground feels like it’s moving out from under my bare feet.
“Meg!” calls a voice. I turn my head around to look for it. “Meg!” The voice is urgent. I look down and see that James is lying beneath me in the grass. “Meg,” he says again. “Don’t let yourself fall, okay?”
I laugh. “Don’t worry,” I say. “I won’t. You know I won’t.”
“It’s really important, Meg,” he tells me. “You have to stay standing.”
“You’re not standing,” I point out, laughing. That’s when I realize. “James, you’re on the ground. Why are you on the ground, James?”
He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t answer me. There’s a lump in my throat, and tears begin to sting my eyes. “James, you let yourself fall, didn’t you?”
Sadness clouds his eyes. “Meg, I’m sorry,” he says softly. “It’s not your fault. It’s not anybody’s fault.”
The tears are trickling down my cheeks now, and my voice only comes out as a whisper. “Why did you let yourself fall?”
“I’m sorry, Meg,” he says one last time. Then he disappears.
I wake with a start. My heart is racing. I don’t know if I was crying or sweating or both, but now my face is wet, and I have to take a couple of seconds to catch my breath. The sun is barely up; only a few rays of light stream through the windows. It’s still mostly dark outside, but I’d rather be too early than too late.
I slip on my shoes and carefully open the bedroom door. Slowly, quietly, carefully, I move my feet along the wooden floors. In some places, the floor creaks. Every time it does, I stop and hold my breath for a couple of seconds, terrified someone will wake up and stop me. Each time, however, is a false alarm. Soon enough, I am at the front door. It makes a clanking noise when I unlock it, but it doesn’t matter. The sound is too soft to be heard, and even so, I am out the door. I am running, running, running. I am free.
I run as fast as I can, allowing the familiar images to blur all around me. I don’t want to see anything, and if I run fast enough, I don’t have to. I know exactly where I’m going. I don’t even have to think.
The Rec Hall comes into view. I slow down without meaning to. It looks nothing like the way I left it this summer. Everything is covered in a layer of untouched snow. I suddenly realize how cold it is. A shiver runs down my spine. I forgot to put on my coat. I can’t let anything stop me though. So I walk onwards through the snow—the bottoms of my jeans soaked—until I reach James’s tree.
I stare up at it for a moment. It’s beautiful and right where it belongs. How could anyone stand to cut it down? I reach out with my numb hands and grab hold of the branches. Up, up, up I climb until I’m high enough to see far down the road. The wind bites my face. My teeth are chattering, and I am freezing. I sit up there and wait for a long time.
Just as I’m starting to wonder if I have the wrong day, I see a truck driving down the road. My heartbeat begins to race. They’re coming. This is it. I watch as the car parks in front of the Rec Hall. Three men get out—clad with axes and chainsaws—and they walk towards the tree. I can hear them talking.
“Here it is, boys,” says one man.
“You sure?” asks another.
“Oh yeah,” responds the third. “This is the one.”
“Okay boys,” says the first again. “Now let’s cut it from behind so that it doesn’t hit anything when it falls down.”
The other two men murmur words of agreement, and then I hear a chainsaw start up. It’s loud and obnoxious. They don’t see me. The pace of my heartbeat is off the charts. They’re going to cut James’s tree, and I’m going down with it.
“Stop!” I scream, but they can’t hear me over the noise of the chainsaw. I wave my arms around wildly, but they can’t see me since I’m so high up. I do the only thing I can think of and start climbing down. I go as fast as I can, not caring if I get scratched up along the way. Suddenly, the sound of the chainsaw stops. So do I.
“What do you think you’re doing up there?” one of the men calls out.
I turn my head around just enough to see that they’re all staring up at me in disbelief. “I—“
“Do you know how dangerous that was? If we didn’t see you, you would’ve gone down with the tree,” he continues sternly. “You probably would’ve died on impact. Either that or—“
“Stop!” I call out.
“You have to stop,” I say. “You can’t cut this tree down.”
He laughs. “Babe, I’m sorry to say that it’s not really your choice. Now get down.”
I cling onto the branches as tight as I can until my knuckles are whiter than the snow. If I wasn’t so numb from the cold, this would really hurt.
“You have three seconds to get down,” says the man, growing impatient. “Otherwise, you go down with your tree, got it?”
“Ralph, hold on,” says a man in red boots. Ralph grunts, and Red Boots puts his axe down and steps closer.
“What’s your name?” he calls out to me.
“Isn’t it cold up there, Meg?”
“Yes,” I say. There’s really no point in lying.
“Why don’t you get down then?”
I feel like crying. My voice comes out thick. “I have to save the tree.”
“We…we’re going to build a tree house in it this summer.”
Ralph and the other guy burst out laughing, but Red Boots continues talking to me as if I’m not being completely ridiculous. “Why don’t you build it in another tree?” he suggests.
For some reason, that’s what does it. The tears flow out of me like rain. I am crying. We can’t build the tree house in another tree, because this is the best tree there is. James said so himself. This tree is strong and tall and perfect, and there will never be another one like it.
“Meg, come down, and we’ll work it out okay?” says Red Boots.
This was not part of the plan—crying, breaking down, being agreeable—but instead of fighting it, I find myself descending down the tree. However, when I reach the bottom of it, I don’t back away. I stand in front of it protectively.
“Meg,” says Red Boots softly. “This tree is very, very sick. It’s dying, and there’s no way for you to stop something like that. We’re only cutting it down because we don’t want it to suffer and so that it doesn’t affect the other trees too. Does that make sense?”
Yes, it does. I already know all of that, but I can’t let it go. I couldn’t save James, but I can save his tree. I have to try at least—for him. Even if it’s sick and dying like James was. Even if I can’t stop it from leaving me like James did. Even if it’s suffering just like he was, and it’s miserable like he was, and it wants to die just as much as he did. I have to save it. I have to. I have to save James.
I can’t. James is dead. Nothing is going to change that. I couldn’t save him, and I can’t save the tree. I don’t know how it got sick or even how James got sick, but the tree cutters are right. There is nothing I can do to stop it. The tree is going to die.
Just. Like. James.
Something happens to my mind. My thoughts get tangled up, and my head starts pounding. I think Red Boots is saying something to me, but I can’t hear him. I pick up the axe he dropped at his feet. It’s heavy, but I manage to carry it a couple of footsteps back to the tree. I swing it as hard as I can.
“This is for you, James!” I yell at him. I swing the axe into the tree again. “This is for leaving!” Swing. “This is for lying to me!” Swing. “This is for killing yourself!” Swing. “And this, this James, is for not following your own stupid advice!” Swing. “This is for letting yourself fall!”
I am out of breath. The axe slips from my grasp, and I drop onto my knees. Around me, it is completely silent. Suddenly, my head clears, and I remember where I am. I stand up, brush myself off, and turn around. The three men are staring at me. They probably think I’m insane.
“Meg...” starts Red Boots, “Are you feeling okay?”
I nod, slowly, solemnly. “I was wrong,” I say, more to myself than to any of them. “I was trying to save the tree because I thought James would’ve wanted it that way.”
I stare off towards the road and the pine trees that line up around it. I can see fresh snow start to fall from the sky. It falls gracefully, but it falls all the same.
“James was sick and dying, and he let himself fall,” I say bitterly. “So cut the tree down. That’s the way James would’ve wanted it.”
With that, I start back down the road to my house, letting the tree go to a place I know it doesn’t belong. Just like our Christmas tree at home, just like me, and just like James.