I glance at the window for half a second longer than a glance should take and immediately, Mrs. O’Neil tells me off.
“Mr. McGuire, for the last time, pay attention!”
I begin to protest but stop myself, knowing it won’t end safely. She starts talking about the unbelievable disrespect she has been receiving from this generation. I tried to pay attention to the lesson, honestly I did, but there was something odd about the tree in the school’s yard. I stared at it for a while trying to make out what was off about it. The tree has been there since I was in preschool. It had a tough, jagged bark, and its roots spread around. Its branches grew, towering over the little daisies surrounding it. The roots resembled bony arms reaching out to tear the daisies out of the ground, threatening to trip anyone who dares to play tag near it. I remember being mesmerized by it the first day I saw it. I continue staring at the tree wondering what it was that made it look abnormal. Then it hit me, there was a weird symbol engraved in the tree. I squinted at it for a while.
It was shaped like a- “Jayden! That does it young man you’re getting sent to the office!” Oh for the love of God, that’s the third time this week!
“Mrs. O’Neill, I promise you, I wasn’t distracted; I heard every word you just said.”
She cocks her head to the side and raises an eyebrow, disbelief written all over her face. With a side glance to Michael, my friend who is seated next to me, I know he’ll help me get away with it.
“If you were paying so much attention, why don’t you tell us what I was talking about?” she beckons in a tone of voice that could send a rock running for shelter.
I thought fast.
“Mrs. O’Neil what’s the date?” I asked after a moment’s hesitation.
She too hesitated before turning to face the board and checking the date. In that split second, I tapped Michael who scribbled down the words: “Agriculture in Greece. You owe me 1.” By the time she had turned around to answer my question, I found the answer to hers. “It’s the 23rd of October, are you trying to avoid my question, young man?”
“Not at all, Mrs. O’Neil, in fact, you were talking about the agriculture in Greece.” I manage a smile. She mumbles, clearly disappointed and goes back to the lesson. I whisper a thank you to Michael and start taking notes.
I reach for my keys and begin unlocking the front door when I remember the tree. I smack my forehead, in frustration. How could I forget to check the mark?
“I’ll just check it out tomorrow before school.” I murmur to myself as I turn the key. I hear the usual click that notifies me that the door is now unlocked. I step inside, instantly smelling the usual scent of daisies which my brain immediately links to my father. My mind’s eye goes back in time to the days I spent with my father. I remember the stories he would tell me about the importance of empathy. He used to tell me that without empathy, we would cease to exist. I shake my head trying to clear my mind of the way his light brown eyes twinkled in the sunlight. The way his chocolate; wavy hair fell over his eyes making him constantly toy with it so he can see; the way he gave my mother happiness. And I remember how all that happiness drained out when he left for war. Sadly, I couldn’t stop thinking of him. I walk to the kitchen to let my mom know I’m home. I find her sleeping on the couch with my dad’s picture in her hands. I walk up to my room, on my way to do the same.
Two days later, after the mark on the tree had completely left my mind, I was in Mrs. O’Neil’s class in the same seat I was when I first noticed it. My throat was getting dry, and I was parched. I take out my water bottle and suddenly a little note falls out. I pick it up and slowly unfold it, cautious about Mrs. O’Neil’s hawk eyes. I bow my head down, placing the note on my lap. Completely unfolded, I could now make out the wrinkled words: “October 30th the janitor’s office”. Under that, there was a pathetic drawing of a tree with three tally marks on it. I shoved the note in my pocket, absolutely dumbfounded. Today was the 25th; the 30th would be five days away, on a Wednesday. I had no clue what the tree with tally marks poorly scribbled on the note meant, though. I also had no clue what the connections were. The janitor’s office, a tree with tally marks and, and October 30th? I shrugged; my guess was the note didn’t belong to me. I glance at the window and suddenly remember the elm tree. Today I think to myself. I’ll check the mark today. My mind shifts back to the slightly boring history lesson and I try to stay focused.
I finally get the chance to check out the tree. As I got closer, it becomes more obvious the mark was actually a tally mark. There were three of them. Just like the note I received. Consider me puzzled. I was now truly confused. Who was the note from, and why would they draw this tree, the date on Wednesday, and “the janitor’s office” on it? Is someone trying to meet me? Am I a victim of some sort? Should I be scared? My brain continues to fill with paranoia on my way home.
Two days later, during lunch, I found another note. I was sitting at my usual table… the one known for its solitude. It’s near the window and I like it mainly for the quiet and sunshine. Since there’s no one to talk to, I usually just read a book. I flip open the page I left at, and a tiny little note slips out. I pick it up and unfold it carefully. The note has a similar tree, except this time with five tally marks. There was a poorly drawn man with a gift in his hand. Then there were two numbers: 3:35. I was confused. I decided to go check the tree at 3:35 on the dot.
At exactly 3:35 I went to the tree and what I saw surprisingly didn’t surprise me. There were five tally marks on the tree, but there wasn’t anyone with a gift in their hand. I shrug and walk back home. Should I talk to my mom about this? And if I do, what should I say? I unlock the door and see my mom actually cooking something. I smile when I hear her laugh. It’s been so long since I heard that beautiful sound. It’s like music to me. Dad was the only one who could get her to laugh like that. This makes me wonder who she was talking to.
“Hey, Jady, how was school honey?” she asks quickly turning off her phone.
“Uh, who was that?” I probe.
“Oh don’t worry about it. How was school?”
“It was… okay, I guess”
She looks a little worried but doesn’t question me any furtherer. I sniff the air. Lasagna. Could it be? I ask what she’s cooking for us today, not capable of stopping the images of steaming hot lasagna popping in my mind.
“Lasagna, your favorite!” she beams, seeing the look on my face.
“Wow, Mom, aren’t you in a great mood?” I haven’t seen her like this since Dad left for war. Maybe the “How to Stop Depression” book I caught under her pillow is actually helping.
I wake up in the middle of the night by the sound of someone closing the back door. I sit up and listen. I suddenly hear someone opening one of the kitchen drawers. I jump out of bed, grab a flash light and run downstairs. I hear a crash, and I barge into the kitchen. I flick on the flashlight to see my mom standing in the middle of the kitchen with a pocket knife in her right hand. She has grass stains on her jeans.
“Mom? What… what are you doing?” I ask groggily. I rub my eyes sleepily. Maybe I’m dreaming? She stutters a little.
“Well, um… You see, I heard this, this noise and I um… I wanted to check it out. So I grabbed my pocket knife, put some clothes on and ran outside.” She gives me a sheepish smile and shrug. “It’s nothing, you can go back to sleep.”
I shake my head and walk back to my room. I fall back asleep the second my head hits the pillow.
The next morning, on my way to school, I notice there is a thumb tacked small piece of paper on the tree. When I walk over to read the note, I realize the tree now has six tally marks. What is this supposed to mean? Is it counting the days to my insanity? The days to my demise? My misery? I pick up the note and read it. Again there is the tree scribbled on the paper, this time with six tally marks and the sentence, “Wait at the elm tree”. The hand writing is familiar; the writer’s “T” looks more like an “f”. I put the note in my pocket and walk to class.
After school, I go to the elm tree and wait there until 3:35, but no one and nothing shows up. I stay longer, ‘till 3:50, but still no one is there. I decide to try again tomorrow and go home. When I get there, I see my mother hiding some colorful things in the shed. I walk over to her and ask what she’s doing. She jumps and stashes whatever it was she was holding and quickly shuts the door with a slam.
“What was that?’ I question. Mom’s been acting kind of weird lately, I notice.
“Oh, nothing you should worry about, honey. Let’s go eat.”
“No, Mom, tell me.” She stiffens up and points her finger at me. Here comes the over exaggerating.
“Listen here, young man, it is none of your business what I am doing. I am a grown woman and I am your mother. You do not question me! Understand?”
Huh, what did I tell you?
“Jeez, Mom, okay!” I throw my hands up in front of me to defend myself from her outburst.
I wake up in a hassle, realizing I’m late for school. I pound down the stairs in a hurry, when I notice a sticky note on the fridge. I swing my bag over my shoulders and walk to read my mom’s note.
“I won’t be here, sweetie, stay after school. Don’t come home before four, I’m just running a few errands and want you to stay at school until I’m home. Love you –Mom”
Looking at her hand-writing I suddenly realize something. My mom also curved her ‘T’s. The ‘T’ looks like an f. Like the writer of these notes. My mind starts racing with thoughts I usually keep locked away somewhere. Is my mother committing suicide? Is that why she’s counting down the days? After all, it was the 30th when my father left for war… No, oh God please, no. I refuse to think such thoughts! I grab my earplugs and play music at the loudest to drown out the little voice telling me my mom’s life will be ending today.
I get another note. I find it in my locker, this time it’s a bigger piece. How did it get here, no one knows my locker combination. Except… my mother. A chill goes down my spine as my brain starts playing scenarios in my head. In one scenario the note is a suicide note. In another it’s her telling me we’re in great danger. But, in the actual scenario -the one happening someplace other than dream land- the note is nothing but a letter filled with confusing arrows. It looks like this:
@ 3:10 go to tree wait here until 3:35 @ 3:35 go to janitor’s office X is your destination.
Heh, well aren’t I looking forward to that, because right now I don’t understand a single thing. Especially since this time the person who gave me this note does not make their ‘T’ look like an ‘F’. Wait so it’s not my mom? I take my books and head to class.
I can’t focus on anything. Not even when I get sent to the principal’s office during Mrs. O’Neill’s class. Not even when the principal tells me I could get a suspension if I keep this up. I want to tell her what’s going on, but I don’t want her getting involved in my personal life. She continues lecturing me about the consequences of my actions. Then, probably telling I haven’t slept properly for days by the look on my face, she asks if everything is okay. I assure her that I’m fine but she can tell I’m not being honest. After a series of questions answered with lies, she comes to the conclusion that I am struggling with something but not ready to open up about it yet.
I followed the instruction on the note I found in my locker, my breath getting heavier. The cold air was burning my throat. Sweat matted my hair as I ran, faster and faster. I reach the janitor’s office door and open it wide. I look at the ground and see an “X”. My eyes wildly search the room and I see colorful balloons. My eyes fall on a man wearing a shirt that says “surprise” in camouflage letters. My eyes linger towards the man’s face. Strangely, I didn’t recognize the man at first. Strangely, my mind was in denial of who was standing right in front of my own eyes. Strangely, my feet unwillingly stumbled towards the man. Strangely, I threw myself at him.
Strangely… I was in the arms of my long gone father. He was home.