“If anyone asks,” Jason says, “tell them we’re fine.”
But we’re not fine.
The words never escape your lips. You swallow them and they sit heavy in your stomach like a wad of over-chewed gum.
Instead, you nod. You whisper something that sounds like “okay” but lacks conviction. You go along with this because he’s older than you—not by much, but by just enough. Enough to be wiser and smarter and not nearly so naïve, or so he likes to tell you. Sometimes he doesn’t tell you with his voice, but with his body: the way he elbows between you and the bullies, the way he rolls his eyes when you tell him your plans for art school, the way his lips purse when you say something childish in front of his older, cooler friends.
You put up with these messages because you like the way he holds you in the night in the back seat of his car. You like the way he makes you feel safe, even as something rebels in your gut. You like that he likes you—quiet, miserable, small-chested you.
So when your parents ask, you tell them you’re fine—even as you shrug the leafy branches that should be hands further up into your hoodie sleeves.
There are warning signs at school: SMOKING KILLS, and DON’T TEXT AND DRIVE, and finally the poster you find yourself standing in front of time and again, just outside the door to the gym: SILENCE KILLS—IF YOU SEE GREEN, SCREAM.
There’s a scream in your throat. It’s been there since the skin on your arms started turning brown, since deep channeled grooves wove down to your wrists and thin wispy branches replaced your fingers.
You can’t get the scream out.
Jason says you need to shut it down.
It wants out, and you want to let it out, but his word is a law that goes deeper than your bones and you can’t shake him.
“Are you alright?” Ms. Wilson asks on her way into the gym. Her hand falls on your shoulder and you flinch away.
Yes, you squeak.
But your heart says no no no no no.
You lie in your bed and you listen to Mom and Dad arguing in the kitchen beneath you. You’ve got headphones in, but their voices are rising louder than the soothing notes of an acoustic guitar can beat. The branches that form your hands bunch under the sheets, new green leaves slipping against the cotton.
Little Amy must have interrupted them, because suddenly they’re yelling at her too.
A moment later, the sound of her feet skittering up the stairs, and then your door flies open and smacks the wall.
You bite back the reprimand, like you seem to be biting back all your words.
She stands for a moment, looking so young and vulnerable and broken. It breaks something in you. Her eyes are red-rimmed, asking a question.
You nod to the spot beside you and she leaps to your side. Curls up in your shadow and cries against your leg.
What will she do without you?
Your shoulders are heavy as you trudge through the halls. They feel thick and solid and you wonder if it’s how those muscle-bound jocks feel every day. Seems like a lot of weight to carry around.
You texted Jason in English class. You told him you didn’t think you could do this.
He sent a frowny face, and demanded to meet up after school.
No reassurances. You’re not even sure why you’re doing this.
“Don’t you understand?” He sighs and rakes his hand through thick, dyed-black hair. “I thought, of all people, you would understand. With all your art and crap.”
Art and crap.
You wrinkle your nose, miffed, but he doesn’t notice.
He grabs you by the shoulders—his own hands having morphed into thick, strong ashy branches. No leaves. Will he ever sprout leaves? Or will he stand naked wherever he chooses to plant himself, naked for all the world to see?
It wouldn’t surprise you.
“They want to shut this down, but it’s a miracle. It’s eternal life, Charlotte. Eternal life! And not that preachy church bull either. I’m talking living forever under the sun. They make it sound like a nightmare, like a plague, but it’s more than that. I’m more than that.”
We, you whisper.
You shake your head slowly.
Is it too late?
You can’t remember when you first started seeing the green; you don’t know if the cure—multiple, expensive injections, a lifetime of careful scrutiny and doctor visits—would even work now.
You stare at the pamphlets on your desk—three colleges accepted you, two with scholarships. You could make a go of this. Even if Jason doesn’t believe in you, Mrs. Anders from art class does. Mom and Dad do, as much as they’re able when they’re not distracted by bills and fighting and trying to get Amy to practice piano like she’s supposed to.
She sits across from you on the bed, coloring in her coloring book.
You keep your willowy arms inside your hoodie—all you do anymore is hide—and watch her until she looks up.
“What you lookin’ at, butthead?” she asks, all false bravado and a giveaway grin.
You try to laugh, but there are too many words and tears in your throat.
No, you tell Jason. No. It’s all you can manage.
All your reasons—your plans, your sister, your freedom—evaporate the moment the thunder touches his brow. He towers over you and he suddenly looks so much like Big Sue and Anna T. who like to pinch and shove you every chance they get (you forget why—it may not have ever mattered why; there may have been no reason other than that you’re little and quiet and different).
“What do you mean no?”
His voice is a threat. You stare at his arms—bare and wooden in the backseat of his car. His chest is being taken over by that smooth, ashy bark. The trail of blond hair leading from his abs to his belt has fallen out and the skin there will soon be lost as well.
You fight the desire to curl back up in his arms.
Jason—you start to explain.
He points a leafless, wooden finger out the window. “Go.”
When you try to argue, he strikes and his hands are like a dozen switches that Dad talks about from his childhood. You cry out instinctively, and only realize halfway out the car door that it didn’t hurt at all—the wood is creeping up your neck.
There’s a park where most of the kids go. A dozen different tree types, positioned randomly like some strange art installation. They are stiff and silent and they do not answer your questions—
Is it worth it?
Is it eternal life?
Do you love your roots?
You wander amongst them for an hour, sliding your hands over their gnarled, smooth, shining, dull bodies. Maybe they’re lonely. Maybe their parents don’t visit. Maybe they need a hug.
You find a thin maple tree—little more than a sapling, shorter than you—and it reminds you of Amy.
You kneel. You hug it.
Then snicker to yourself and blink away tears. Goddamn tree-hugger.
Jason won’t answer your texts.
Maybe he can’t.
He’s older. Maybe the change got him faster than it got you.
No one knows how it started, where it came from, or why. But when you finally muster the courage to peel off your hoodie in front of your parents, they think you got it from him. The new world STD.
IF YOU SEE GREEN, SCREAM.
You didn’t scream, but your mother does.
She sinks against your father and he clutches her, his face pale. As they console each other, you feel a grim amusement—maybe your metamorphosis will finally bring them together like nothing else could.
You don’t realize you’re smiling until you see Amy standing in the door of the kitchen, mouth agape and eyes wide, watery.
You try to scream, but it’s too late.
Your throat is wooden and solid and won’t make a sound.
You try to say I’m sorry to Amy as she holds your branches in the back of the minivan. You lie on your side—only way to fit—and listen to the crushing silence in the vehicle. No shouting, no jealous accusations. Only tears, streaming from grownup eyes and child’s eyes and the knot in your bark-skin face where your eyes should be.
Mom tried to call Jason, but he didn’t answer. That hurts and doesn’t, all at the same time. There is a pit of anger and pain and love in your stomach when you think of him. You think you’re glad you won’t be planted next to him. He didn’t deserve your forever; he wasn’t worthy of your eternal life.
At Grandma’s farm, they heft you out carefully and set you in the front yard, where the grass grows long and the crickets sing. The moment your feet touch the soil, your toes shift into roots and bust through your shoes. They weave deep into the earth and you are utterly, eternally still.
Mom and Dad stay for a while, arms around each other, before retreating to the house.
Amy curls up in your shadow, and she cries against your trunk as the sun sets and a fine misting rain begins to fall.
—Alexis A. Hunter revels in the endless possibilities of speculative fiction. Over fifty of her short stories have appeared recently in Shimmer, Apex, Fireside Fiction and more. To learn more, visit www.alexisahunter.com.