A living tree is a dare.
Jordan had a favorite, a western red cedar, that lay just a few minutes’ walk into the woods behind his house. It was his favorite because purple streaks shot down its side like scars, or like the stretchmarks that appeared on Jordan’s belly and thighs last year, when he turned twelve. His older brothers hooted and called the stretchmarks his “lap map” when they saw him in a swimsuit for the first time that summer. They would pretend to need directions and yank down his pants and say, “Hmm, yes, I see, if we just take a left past the balls—” before Jordan could wrench away.
Jordan also liked this red cedar because it was just far enough from the house that he could hear his mom calling him from the backyard but couldn’t be seen through the brush. Sitting at the base of this tree or perched in its lower branches, he had ample time to vanish deeper into the woods if he heard someone coming.
But Jordan hated the way tour guides at Tice Woods or Hart Mountain talked about appreciating nature, about caring for it and preserving it. He would stand in the back of the field trip group, breaking twigs under his foot, resenting the guides. He couldn’t name exactly what it was that he found so distasteful—it was like they were talking about a baby or someone in a coma. When Jordan stared up the sharp length of a tree, he saw unfeeling strength. An ancient mind that looked at him as though he were just another inferior animal eating and shitting at its feet until it died, only one blotch in the generations staggering beneath its canopy.
The summer before eighth grade, his mom sent him out to Mrs. Plotz’s to clear away the onslaught of young trees and brush that her old age had allowed to advance right up to her back patio. Jordan’s mom originally sent his brothers along too, but as soon as they rounded the first corner out of sight of their house, Max and Andrew walked off toward downtown with a “Have fun, dipshit.” Jordan tried to chase after them at first, but their long soccer-player legs outstripped him easily, and they lost no breath to laugh and call “fat-ass!” over their shoulders.
So Jordan labored alone, Saturday after Saturday. Mrs. Plotz gave him no gloves, and the first time, before he knew to bring gloves from home, prickle-seeds and broken stems bit his hands. Even with gloves, the overgrowth scratched his forearms and calves, sometimes as high as his cheeks, leaving welts and pungent, sticky sap stains. All the while, Mrs. Plotz stayed in her decrepit little house watching TV, never beckoning him inside for a rest, setting a cup of lemonade on the patio for flies to get into, sometimes forgetting about him entirely as she stared at the blond, besuited pundits that filled up her favorite 24-hour news channel.
Max and Andrew broke Jordan’s Walkman long ago, so Jordan had nothing to entertain him as he toiled. The overwhelming drone of Mrs. Plotz’s air conditioning unit blanked out his brain and passed him into a kind of mechanically moving fugue. He pictured himself as a preindustrial farmer, a woodland dweller with no conception of TV or pop music or microwaves, working the land in simple reverence. But on cooler days, the air conditioning unit would shudder off and expose the chanting of crickets and the hiss of blowing leaves that barely covered the deep silence just beyond the trees. In those moments, the pundit voices from Mrs. Plotz’s TV, always turned up to a blaring volume, would somehow both save Jordan from that silence and tear at his nerves.
He knew that no one would think it to look at him, but Jordan was good with tools. In the short blips when his father was home from trucking frozen food across the Pacific Northwest, he taught Jordan how to use his Weedwacker, his crocodile-toothed hedge trimmer, his chainsaw. An unexpected joy settled over Jordan when, in his hands, these tools allowed him to do with ease what had been so hard to do alone, as if he was the bomb and the backyard weeds unprepared soldiers. But when Jordan tried to bring the Weedwacker one Saturday, Mrs. Plotz refused to let him use “that noisy thing, I won’t be able to hear myself think.” So Jordan hacked at brown saplings with tiny hand clippers, kicked at them to try and uproot them, yanked at them while newscaster voices assailed his ears. Then, awake the night before school started again, Jordan found himself outside, opening the shed door.
The road at 2 a.m. was a different road, a ghost road, and the trees watched him. When he reached Mrs. Plotz’s house, he stood at the base of an old tree about twenty yards to the side of the front door. A western red cedar, like his favorite. They didn’t always have limbs close to the ground, making it much easier to get to its trunk. Mrs. Plotz was practically deaf. That’s why she had to have the TV volume up so loud. Half a mile of dense trees deadened the distance to the nearest neighbor, but Jordan was afraid to break the silence as he studied the moist, grainy bark of the red cedar. His gaze climbed to the top, to the feathery ends of branches dissolving into the darkness.
He revved the chainsaw, and the noise crashed around him. The vibration of the handle turned insistent as he touched the blade to the trunk, as softly as a girl applying nail polish, and the cedar’s earthy smell diffused into the air around him with the strength of perfume. The wood resisted. This tree was alive, as alive as he was with his ragged breath and his squeezing, thundering heart, and pushing the chainsaw’s teeth into it felt like putting a knife into a king. But the saw worked faster than Jordan expected. In only a few minutes, he was almost through. He cut like his dad taught him, at a diagonal to control the direction of the fall. Only then did he stop and check that Mrs. Plotz wasn’t standing at the front door screaming at him. She wasn’t. Deaf old hag. Fear overtaken by giddy relief, Jordan made the last cut, set down the chainsaw, shoved the tree with all of his might, and stumbled back. The remaining sliver of intact wood snapped, and as the tree toppled, it collided with the utility pole beside the road, knocking its twin transformers askew before slicing through its powerlines. The air reverberated with electrical whip-cracks, and twisted bolts of blue electricity arced, terrifying Jordan anew. But then when the tree slammed onto the road, it was no more than a slain animal, harmless except for its last thrashes, and Jordan ran away—not on the road in case someone called the cops, but through the trees, close enough that the streetlamps lent him a little light.
He was late to school the next day because of the downed tree. He kept silent in the backseat at his mother’s swears as they waited through the unheard-of traffic on the highway, only to be turned around by a frowning state trooper. Max and Andrew simply snoozed while their mother performed a furious three-point turn to go back the way they’d come. Through the back window, Jordan glimpsed Mrs. Plotz standing in front of her house, white hair in dandelion disarray because she had no electricity for her curlers, looking like she could murder one of the utility workers swarming the scene. Power filled Jordan’s head, pressing against the sides of his skull.
Seeing the same faces he’d seen since kindergarten in the same school he’d attended all his life, he wondered if anybody could read what he’d done on his face. They were all already scrutinizing each other, in the hallways and in class, to see who had made the leap in the summer between seventh and eighth grade—who had facial hair, who had breasts, who still hadn’t cleared five feet. Jordan himself had gained five inches so quickly last year that the stress on his skin left those livid purple marks on his thighs and belly. But he was still a fat kid. That morning, right out of the shower, he’d looked at himself in his bedroom mirror to see if anything had changed, but the only thing he could see was a distressing new bagginess to the skin on his stomach, like when an eggplant went bad. And no one at school looked at him any differently than they had last May. Eyes still traveled over him and then moved on without registering.
The six o’clock news, which his mom always watched during dinner, reported on the downed tree and the damaged utility pole, which had taken out power for over twenty households. It scared the appetite right out of Jordan. A grim state trooper told the camera that it had been a clear act of vandalism, indicated by the chainsaw cut. An apoplectic Mrs. Plotz said that whoever did it was a darn coward. Jordan spent that sleepless night waiting for the police to pound at the door after Mrs. Plotz finally realized that the only one it could possibly have been was Jordan. For the first time, he wished he shared a room with his brothers so that he could be comforted by their snoring instead of suspended in silence.
But nothing happened, not the next day or the next. The news only mentioned the following evening that there were still no leads before dropping the story altogether. Jordan returned to Mrs. Plotz’s to struggle with her backyard. Even though her electricity was back, instead of staying inside to watch TV, Mrs. Plotz sat in a folding chair next to the back door and ranted at Jordan for a full hour about whoever had done this heinous, psychopathic act. Probably the least violent thing this pervert had done. Probably he’d been watching her through her windows at night, trying to get a peep. Jordan worked with his back to her, terrified at first that she knew it was him and was only torturing him. But soon it was clear that Mrs. Plotz knew nothing, and as she warbled on, disgust filled him at the idea that he’d want to see her wrinkled, mole-pocked body. And disgust gave way to contempt, which gave way to daring, and he straightened from a half-uprooted sowthistle and said, “Why would someone want to get a peep of an old woman when there are a million young ones around?”
Mrs. Plotz was struck dumb for a moment before her entire face puckered, and she said, “That is a very rude comment, young man.”
Jordan shrugged, half ashamed, half cavalier. Mrs. Plotz stood up and marched inside. After a moment’s hesitation, Jordan walked home. When he got there, his mother was waiting to yell at him—she’d just got off the phone with Mrs. Plotz, who said he’d insulted her. Jordan yelled back. Mrs. Plotz was the one who was rude. And his mother didn’t seem concerned that Jordan was the only one working over there, even though Max and Andrew were supposed to come too. His mother wasn’t talking about Max and Andrew, she was talking about Jordan. There was no excuse not to be kind to the elderly. Did Jordan know how much this embarrassed her? Now Mrs. Plotz didn’t want him to come back.
Jordan slammed his bedroom door. He didn’t need to be told that he was grounded. But he had nowhere to go anyway. Once in his room, as though operating under some instinct, he lifted up his shirt and looked in the mirror. Yes, there were those weird wrinkles that radiated north and south from his belly button. His vision merged with the unwanted image of Mrs. Plotz’s wrinkled body, and he shook himself away from the mirror.
Jordan got his Saturdays back, only to remember that Saturdays at home meant his bored brothers made him their plaything unless he could get lost in the woods before they woke up at noon. There, Jordan read Goosebumps books perched in his favorite red cedar until, inevitably, the urge to wander deeper into the trees overtook him. He uncovered years-old litter, beer bottles and cigarette packets, clearings whose natural bareness carried an alien sensation, like a crop circle. Two Saturdays after he’d downed the tree, though, Jordan encountered both his brothers eating sleepily at the kitchen table at eight o’clock. He froze in the doorway before registering their cleats and shin guards and ruefully remembering—the school soccer season was starting. They had practice. Maybe they would be too drowsy to torment him before they had to leave. Without a word, Jordan moved to the cupboard to make himself a bowl of cereal to take back to his bedroom.
Then Max’s voice rang out in the quiet kitchen. “You dieting, fatty?”
Jordan looked at the box of Reese’s Puffs in his hand and then to Max. A half-second of confusion before he saw his brothers’ smirks, and Jordan made a show of rolling his eyes and turning his back to them.
“No, seriously, you look, like, skinnier,” Max said.
“You barfing up your meals?”
“I caught Alexis doing that once,” Andrew guffawed, referring to a girlfriend from ninth grade. “Maybe she gave him tips.”
“Okay,” their mother called out as she strode through the kitchen, purse slung like a bow over her shoulder, “ride’s leaving.”
Max and Andrew scarfed their remaining cereal and followed their mother out of the house. Left in peace, Jordan ate his breakfast in front of the TV then went to his bedroom to be out of his mother’s way when she returned from her errands. He had actually, miraculously, needed to go down a notch in his belt starting a few days ago. Maybe it was the sweaty work he’d been doing for Mrs. Plotz. For his entire chubby childhood, adults had been telling him that it was just baby fat, that he’d slim down once he went through puberty, but he’d never been able to see himself as anything but the way he was, forever. Now, with even his brothers acknowledging it, it must really be happening. Dizzy hope washed through Jordan as he tried to see the difference in his doughy stomach or the whipped cream dollops of his chest. But the bagginess on his belly skin was getting worse, the wrinkles deepening. How could it be that losing weight was somehow making him uglier?
That night, he dreamed of trees. They were the trees in the woods behind his house, the trees he’d known all his life, except they weren’t. They were misshapen and crooked, knobbed in strange shapes, bent at absurd angles—some of them at ninety degrees, parallel to the ground, like a hex key. Some doubled back completely on themselves, inverted U’s and curlicues. And the air bore a wild, sick feeling, resounding with the wrenching sound of growth and the collapsing, crumbling sound of decay. Jordan woke with the need to feel once more the vibration up his arms from the chainsaw’s touch to wood.
He went down the road in the opposite direction as Mrs. Plotz’s house. She kept calling his mother to rave about all the noises she kept hearing in her backyard and the woods just beyond, how she knew the vandal had cased her house and was now returning nightly to leer at her through her windows, preparing to burgle her or worse, and the idiot police had stopped taking her calls. If Jordan felled a tree anywhere near her property, she might have a stroke or, God forbid, catch on to him. So he walked north for a long time along the wooded highway that bisected the town, but he stayed sheltered just inside the tree line in case of any late-night drivers. He eyed the trees, looking for the right candidate and furtively scanning for any of the weird attributes he’d seen in his dream. He didn’t know why. He just felt like if he saw something, there would be some meaning to it, some secret, terrible knowledge he might attain. But the trees looked as they always looked, some with small, familiar aberrations, the rest straight and tall and impervious.
He chose one. It grew close enough to the road that he could direct the tree’s fall onto it—he’d liked blocking traffic the first time—but not so close that he had to stand in the unsheltered open to do his work. Insipid, yellow-white light from the nearby streetlamp illuminated his surroundings just enough. Looking up into the branches, where the scalar fir leaves scattered the light, he felt the same way he’d felt before, only more. The trees closed in like concerned family members around a sickbed, muting the noise of his chainsaw. And when he shoved the trunk, the surrounding trees seemed to try and catch it, their fingers grasping at the falling one. Snaps, creaks, slaps, then the loudest crash as the cedar collapsed across the road, scattering bark shrapnel. The force of the ground’s shake made Jordan fall backward. He landed in a seated position, square with the exposed cross section of the cedar’s trunk, where he saw an inverted sun—a bright tan ring around a center core of deep garnet. Jordan crawled toward it, reached out, touched. It was moist, with the slightest give. This unseen red core ran the length of the tree, a titan heart stretching from root to top. When he pulled away, his fingers were sticky with sap. They smelled of soil and something metallic, like blood.
Racing home, he didn’t bother to quiet his crash through the brush. No one was awake. He hadn’t seen even one car. No sirens wailed. Maybe this was what being drunk felt like.
Jordan woke the next morning and came downstairs to find his mother looking out the front window onto the highway, where a static line of cars in the northbound lane stretched all the way past their house and farther beyond the visible curve. The kitchen radio babbled about the distinctive cut mark of a chainsaw.
“What’s going on?” Jordan asked, an actor in a murder mystery.
“Shush, I’m trying to find out,” his mother said, flapping her hand at him as the broadcast announced, Removal crews are at work, but authorities suggest using alternative routes until further notice. His mother shook her head and muttered that at least this time it wasn’t in their way before walking to the kitchen to resume her normal morning routine. Through the window, Jordan peered into each of the cars he could see and marked the expressions of anger, boredom, resignation, despair on each driver’s face.
He floated through school, no longer searching for recognition from his classmates but rather basking in his secret. When dinnertime came, however, all his satisfaction drained away as the felled cedar proved to be the top story on the six o’clock news. For the second time in a month, a fallen tree had blocked all of Highway 23, both downed by a chainsaw. Police would not yet comment on whether this was a pattern. But then the news announcer said that a 57-year-old woman’s car hit the newly felled tree early this morning as she swerved to avoid it shortly after 5 a.m. The woman received minor injuries, but the car was totaled.
Jordan’s brothers and mother did not seem to notice how Jordan couldn’t eat his lasagna or how his hand shook when he tried to lift his milk glass. He could see a car hitting a tree, a bumper and engine hood crumpling, a woman’s head bouncing against a steering wheel. He wouldn’t do it again. But, just like the first time, the story dropped out of the evening news after a few days, and no one came for him. Still, he told himself, he wouldn’t do it again. Why should he? What did it get him? He put his head down at school. He did his homework. He tried not to think about the trees gathering at the edges of his sight.
As the weather cooled, however, he dreamed again—the sickening creaks and rigid, unnatural angles of weaving, ground-scraping boughs. This time, though, there were animals. A fire-red cardinal’s head poked out from a trunk, embedded in wood up to its neck. A buck stood frozen as its antlers melded into branches. All of them silent, as though consenting to this devouring.
A Wednesday afternoon in mid-October, while Jordan walked home along the highway after school, mercifully alone due to his brothers’ soccer practice, he heard a faint cry floating from Mrs. Plotz’s house. At first, Jordan didn’t register it, as it melted into the normal soundscape of birdcalls and the swooshes of cars. He always tried to speed past Mrs. Plotz’s house, not only because he didn’t want her to see him and try to rope him back into doing free labor for her but also because the location bore an uncanny threat, the scene of his first crime. The repaired utility pole, all gleaming with its new transformers, confronted him with a knowing stare, making Jorden quicken his steps. But the cry, a kind of weak, intermittent wail, soon shook him out of his hurried distraction and made him stop on the highway shoulder in front of the house to listen.
All was quiet for a moment, then the cry started up again, a clearly human, wounded sound, and Jordan moved out of instinct, following the keening around the side of the house until he reached the overgrown backyard and found Mrs. Plotz on her back on the brick patio, an upturned stepladder at her side. Her housedress, hiked up to her waist, exposed the shriveled, pocked legs sprouting out from her sagging pink underpants. The sight horrified and repulsed Jordan, and he let out an unthinking swear before pushing himself to her side, where she greeted his presence with another, louder wail. Jordan wedged his hands into her damp armpits and began the arduous strain of pulling her upright as she babbled about trying to change the lightbulb of her porchlight, couldn’t let it just be dark out here at night, not with perverts running amok. She grasped his arms to anchor herself as he hoisted her to her feet. It took him several tries, and Mrs. Plotz began to berate him for not doing it right.
“Lift with your legs, not your back, stupid!”
She was heavy—not fat, but certainly not one of those rake-thin grannies who could be toppled by a strong wind. Weren’t old ladies’ bones supposed to be light? By the time Jordan succeeded, his face was searing hot. Mrs. Plotz leaned against the side of the house, wheezing and glaring at him as though he were the one at fault for her fall.
Jordan’s own grandmother had broken her hip falling from a stool and died later from complications, so the first thing that sprang to Jordan’s lips was, “Did you break your hip?”
“No, I just couldn’t get up on my own, that’s all,” Mrs. Plotz snapped. “It happens to lots of people. I’ve been lying there in the sun for at least an hour. Anything could have happened to me.”
“Okay. Well. As long as you’re okay. . . .”
The breeze shifted, and Mrs. Plotz’s body odor, ripened by sweating helplessly for so long, hit Jordan. Overcome by revulsion, he simply turned and hurried back to the highway, feeling Mrs. Plotz’s offended glare as he fled. He wouldn’t be able to shake the image of her brittle body lying on the ground. He traced the lines down his shriveling stomach. He felt his hollowed cheeks with his hands and wondered, wildly, if he had some kind of wasting disease. He didn’t believe in the stupid stuff his mom read in her dozens of self-help books about the universe giving you back what you gave it, in some kind of magical system of retribution. He knew it didn’t work like that. If it did, what kind of terrible thing could he have done as an embryo to be born with brothers like Max and Andrew?
They were just trees. There were a million of them in the forest. They died all the time.
He was going to do it again. Just one more time. One more perfect time, to make it three trees. Three was a better number than two to end with. He would do it deep in the woods, far from any roads. No chance of anyone else getting hurt. Maybe this was what it was like to be a drug addict.
Jordan moved through the day with robotic calm, and when he went to bed, he had no trouble sleeping. He didn’t dream. Upon waking, he felt rested and hollowed out, as though someone had taken a spoon and scraped away and discarded everything inside of him, turning him into a jack-o’-lantern with no candle. But when the hour got later, as he put his dinner dishes into the dishwasher and his brothers fought over the last piece of pizza, the familiar chill of adrenaline began to build, enhanced by the knowledge that it would be his last. He went to his bedroom and did his homework like he was supposed to, but he wasn’t a junior high student. He wasn’t a fat kid suddenly shrinking, his stomach deflating like an old balloon. He was something else.
Instead of keeping near the highway, at midnight Jordan struck straight back into the woods behind his house, past his favorite red cedar and all the spots he’d known since he was a little kid, deeper into the forest than he’d ever gone before. The right tree presented itself to him without ceremony, appearing on the other side of a thick scrum of shrubs. Another red cedar, of course. It was fitting, manifestly fitting. Jordan took his time, rounding the trunk to study it from every angle, determining where he ought to cut but also absorbing its breadth, its towering, brute strength. It was a wight, an elder monster exuding disdain. The fact that Jordan was so practiced now did not make the rev of the chainsaw any less pleasurable, nor the infusion of sap into the air when the chainsaw’s teeth sank. He tried to savor it, but his excitement made it hard to concentrate. All too soon only a sliver remained, and he stepped back, breathing deeply, prolonging the moment before he would deliver the fatal shove. But then a pop as loud as a gunshot resounded, startling Jordan. The cedar was moving of its own accord, almost rotating along the cut. Rapid-fire cracks and snaps followed the first as Jordan, horrified, realized that the cedar was already falling, and instead of heading away from him, the tree was slowly—and then, suddenly—lurching down toward him. He only had time to drop the chainsaw and run a few yards before a flurry of fists knocked him prone onto the forest floor. Pain exploded in his back and the air shot from his lungs.
Stunned, all Jordan could comprehend at first was the oceanic tremble of leaves all around him. His back raged with pain so intense, so dazzling, that it must be broken. But he was able to first move one arm, then the other. He could wiggle both his feet. So he wasn’t paralyzed. Over his wracked body’s objections, Jordan tried to raise himself only to find that he was pinned so thoroughly, his chest didn’t even clear the ground. He scrabbled, trying to get some leverage, but the weight atop him was too solid. He managed to crane his neck enough to see that the thing holding him down was one of the branches jutting out from the now-fallen cedar’s trunk. The branch lay across the middle of his back—only a fist’s width of wood, but positioned close enough to the trunk that breaking it off would be impossible. The cedar was holding him, facedown, with one hand. Jordan was an insect pinned by a collector, a dog made to smell its own shit.
Jordan struggled. In the panicked, backmost part of his mind, he knew with animal certainty that if he stopped struggling, something even more terrible would happen. Images formed of the trees just out of sight bending, unfurling, exposing something hidden and deep and ugly. Only the wildest resistance would stop this, and so Jordan struggled until he was so exhausted and his back so aflame that he couldn’t contemplate moving anymore. He lay still, closing his eyes and allowing the truth to march through his brain. He was dead. No one knew he was out here. No one would know where to look. All the stories he’d ever heard of people getting lost or injured in these vast woods, wandering or trapped until they died of exposure or starvation, cast themselves before his eyes. He imagined himself wasting and wasting as days went by without food or drink, the wrinkles in his stomach extending until he drowned in his own skin. It had gotten him. The forest had gotten him now.
He opened his eyes. It was still as dark as midnight, though it could have been two, three, four in the morning for all he could tell. Time was dead, just like him. It was a clear night, and if Jordan angled his head right, he could glimpse tiny stars through the gaps in the fallen branches cocooning him. The certitude of his demise now gave him a kind of calm, even as the forest’s ghosts pressed in. He realized, with merciless clarity, how stupid he had been—to think that cutting down trees and stopping traffic and making the newspeople titter amounted to anything, meant anything. How ridiculous a picture he made, then and now. He thought of that woman who crashed her car into one of his fallen trees, and he cried out “sorry, sorry, sorry,” hoping that something would take it.
Sometime after his tear trails dried into crust, he realized that he would have to hurt himself to get free. He lay still for a long time, attempting to come to terms with this idea against which every part of him revolted. At last, he braced his hands and the sides of his feet on the forest floor, sucked in his gut as far as he possibly could, and push-pulled himself forward. The cedar branch scraped his back through his shirt, the sensation like the slow press of a brand, bringing tears once more to his eyes. But he was moving. When he stopped to rest, he was maybe half an inch forward. He braced his hands and feet again, and this time his shirt ripped open—now nothing intervened between the branch and his skin. But he was an inch further. The prospect of escape intoxicated him enough that he could continue to slowly flay himself against the branch, laughing and sobbing by turns at the unbelievable pain and the nearness of deliverance. And when the branch finally slipped off the swell of his buttocks and released him, Jordan collapsed and let out an inhuman noise of joy.
After a moment regathering his strength, he staggered to his feet. Even in the darkness, he could see that his blood had left an oblong stain on the branch, bright cherry against the bark’s crimson striping. He swam through the tangle of branches until he surfaced out of the cedar. But which way had he come? Was the highway behind him, to his left, to his right? With no traffic to lend its reassuring, rushing sound and no streetlights to guide, he had no orientation. Frantic to get away from the cedar, he simply began to walk. His shirt hung completely open at the back except for his collar, like a hospital gown, its tatters flapping against his throbbing skin. Blood trickled down his legs, soaking into his socks. He walked for a long time without seeing anything he recognized, and as he contemplated escaping one death simply to succumb to another, his breath began to quicken until he was almost gasping.
But then a glow appeared in the distance, and Jordan followed it with abandon—was it familiar somehow, the quality of the light, or was that just his desperation? He staggered out of the tree line to find himself at the edge of Mrs. Plotz’s backyard, her ancient porchlight so crowded with moth corpses that the light filtering through their guts came out an apocalyptic orange. Jordan fell to his knees, and he didn’t realize that he was sobbing once again until Mrs. Plotz’s backdoor opened and the old woman’s harsh voice barked, “Who’s there? I’m armed!”
Jordan tried to call her name, but it come out a wheeze.
“Show yourself, pervert!” Mrs. Plotz cried. She was only a silhouette in the porchlight, holding up something indiscernible in her arms.
Imagining her firing a shotgun blindly into the night, Jordan managed to rasp loudly, “Mrs. Plotz, it’s Jordan. It’s Jordan.”
She didn’t respond for a long beat. But then she lowered her arms and cried, “Christ above, what are you doing out here, scaring me to death like this?”
Jordan lifted himself to his feet and trudged toward her across the overgrown backyard. There would be no denying the huge wound across his back, no possible explanation for that other than the truth, and—oh, fuck, he left his dad’s chainsaw at the cedar. As he approached the house, he saw that his executioner wasn’t holding a shotgun, but a fire poker. Standing in her pink cotton nightgown, slipper-clad feet braced, she looked like a video-game zombie, ready to lunge. But then she shifted, and the porchlight illuminated her face—mouth agape, pallid, panting, and Jordan understood how much he had frightened her as he’d torn out of the forest and wailed in her backyard. And when she, too, saw him clearly for the first time, her expression changed to horror.
“You’re bleeding like a stuck pig,” she said. And before Jordan could reply, Mrs. Plotz flew into the house, saying over her shoulder, “Stay there.” Jordan was sure she was calling his mom, but she came back in a few seconds with an old towel. She scurried around him and then gasped when she saw his back. Jordan remained as still as he could as she dabbed at him with the towel and muttered under her breath. He thought with shame of what his back looked like—not the wounds, but the way his flesh gathered above his hips and creased at his waist, once pockets of fat and now empty, sagging sacks of skin.
“Here,” she said stepping back, all business, “take off your shoes and socks and that shirt and come inside.” Jordan duly removed his shoes and socks, then hesitated to remove his shirt. But she was waiting for him with a look of crazed expectation, so he gingerly lifted what remained of his shirt over his head and let it fall to the patio. Mrs. Plotz’s clouded eyes took him in. Was she also remembering her own bared, wrinkled skin when she’d laid here helpless on this spot, when Jordan found her that afternoon? She turned away, saying, “Come on.”
Jordan had never been inside her house before. It was tiny, wood-paneled, and crammed with junk. Jordan followed Mrs. Plotz through narrow passageways snaking between the towers of newspapers and magazines that filled the grimy kitchen, down a hallway, and into a bathroom so small that the urine-yellow fiberglass tub, toilet, and sink barely fit inside.
“Sit in the tub,” Mrs. Plotz said. It was an order, but her voice didn’t sound quite the same as when she would command him to yank out this or that weed. Jordan didn’t move, afraid that she meant for him to get naked. But then she said, “Keep your clothes on, just sit in there. Don’t want to get iodine all over my floor.” Jordan obeyed, climbing awkwardly into the dry tub while Mrs. Plotz opened her medicine cabinet and took out a brown bottle, then retrieved a faded washcloth. As Jordan brought up his knees and scooted forward, Mrs. Plotz laboriously perched onto the rim of the tub behind him. “This will sting,” she grunted. And when she touched the cloth wetted with iodine to his back, Jordan jumped in his skin. “Okay, okay, okay,” she hushed, “it’s just to clean it so it won’t fester, all right? Grin and bear it.” Jordan took a breath, and the next time she dabbed the cloth, he was prepared. After a while, Jordan rested his cheek against his knees.
Everything had the air of unreality, like a dream, and yet everything was so material. The line of pastel-colored Avon toiletries along the rim of her bathtub, the black dots of mold peppering the ceiling overhead, the rose-patterned frosted accents on the medicine cabinet mirror. Chalkware plaques depicting fish, mermaids, and naked children in bathtubs covered the walls. The one on the back of the door showed a baby wearing a shower cap and sitting in a sudsy wooden barrel with Baths 5¢ painted on its side. The only sound was Mrs. Plotz’s breath whistling through her nose.
But then, from behind him, she said, “Why trees?”
Jordan tried not to stiffen. He couldn’t see her face without turning around, and her tone was inscrutable. He didn’t speak for a long time, hoping that maybe she wouldn’t make him answer. But she prodded, “Hm? Why?”
“I was angry,” he said.
“That’s no answer.”
He shrugged and winced as the iodine stung. She allowed his silence this time, stretching it until she finished cleaning the wounds. Then she told him to rinse off in the shower, and she left him alone in the bathroom. Even the gentlest lukewarm water was torture on his slashed back. When he turned off the faucet and opened the shower curtain, he found a pair of blue elastic-waisted cotton shorts. His own bloodied and torn pants were gone, but his equally gory underwear had been folded on the edge of the sink. She’d done it without him hearing her.
He threw his underwear into the trash can and pulled on the shorts, and a moment later a soft knock sounded on the door. Mrs. Plotz entered with a roll of medical gauze, scissors, and tape in her hands. Together, they wrapped his middle like a mummy, dressing the scrapes on his back and compressing his stomach in the process. When they were finished, Jordan felt comfortably compacted, held together.
Mrs. Plotz nodded with satisfaction. “I did this after I gave birth to my children,” she said. “Helps with the wounds and with the extra skin.”
His face burned and a lump formed in his throat. He was embarrassed by her intimacy, her acknowledgment of his sagging stomach, but also thankful, remorseful. She gave him a T-shirt with a faded imprint of the Seattle skyline and a pair of beaten-up but clean old lady sneakers.
“Take the gauze and the tape,” she said. “You’ll need to change the bandages once a day, after you shower.”
She didn’t call his mother. Instead, she led him once more to the screened backdoor and stood beside it, hands on her hips. He couldn’t believe was still deep dark out.
“It’s four o’clock,” Mrs. Plotz said, as though hearing his thoughts.
He put his hand to the doorlatch and looked up at her. She met his gaze, her brows contracting with an expression Jordan couldn’t place—neither fond nor hateful, both concerned and cavalier, the way someone might look at a storm cloud hovering overhead.
“Stop being foolish now,” she said as she held open the door for him. “You think you’re the only angry one? Go on.”
Jordan walked out into the backyard, rounded the house, stepped onto the asphalt highway, and walked toward home straight down the center yellow line. There was no one to see him here except the trees, whose cold ranks on either side observed his exiled retreat. He could go back into the woods at sunup and look for his father’s chainsaw, but the thought prompted a stone-solid rebuke that came from—everywhere. The trees’ enormous silence. Mrs. Plotz’s papery fingers on his back. His own feebleness laid bare. Jordan fingered the bottom edge of his bandages, underneath the hem of his borrowed T-shirt. Then he slid his hand fully flat against his stomach. It was so small now, its excess battened by the gauze, and Jordan’s loss came out of the trees to overtake him.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen