A Gun by a Willow Tree

by Amy P.

 

November 20th, 2021

 

She never meant for it to happen.

A gunshot, as piercing and as clear as a midnight bell, rings through the forest. A body, as frail and as small as a delicate twig, crumples onto the floor. The only sounds that follow are a soft thud of the body meeting dirt, a crisp crunch of the fallen leaves beneath, and a chilling wail from the woman who held the gun. A young man appears at her side and pries her fingers, bone-white and clenched tight, off the weapon. It lands with a jolting clatter on a tree root and plummets into the dark abyss — out of sight, out of mind.

“Go! We have to go!” the man shouts, his voice hoarse and almost incoherent against the rushing of the stream. But they’re dead words to the woman. She crawls toward the body feebly, her fingernails digging inches deep into the damp dirt. A palm-sized container tumbles out of her ragged beige sweater pocket. Orange pills spill onto the floor as the glass shatters on impact — the only sound that jars her back to reality.

“The girl,” she croaks, pointing ahead with a gnarled finger.

The body, strewn on its side, plunges down the muddy riverbank. Its eyes, glassy and still open, glint in the moonlight as the body rolls over and over down the hill. Face up…face down…all the way until it fractures the river’s surface with an almost reticent splash. As it drifts downstream, the water surges back and forth, lapping at the body like a rabid animal wanting more, but never having enough.

She never meant for it to happen.

November 20th, 2000

“Duck…duck…duck…duck—goose!”

With an elated squeal, the little girl hops to her feet and dashes around the circle of giggling onlookers all playing their favourite new version of the classic ‘Duck Duck Goose’, her stout legs waddling with as much coordination as a toddler can muster. Her grubby hands grasp a red balloon, hot to the touch from the glare of the afternoon sun. In her peripheral vision stands her target, the chosen ‘goose’ — her goose who’s getting away! She lobs the balloon ahead of her…and it ricochets off the boy’s shoulders and sails away. Her target has been hit, but now the keystone of this game is flying into the distance, carried off by the refreshing fall breeze.

“I’ll get it!”

The side of her house, its wooden fence, and the gravel path of its alleyway whizzes by her as she chases after the balloon with a steel-like concentration, eyebrows furrowed and tongue peeking out of her mouth. The chorus of shouts and cheers from her friends — “go, Lizzie, go!”— fades away into a low, distant hum as the river’s roar grows louder, and louder.

Clang!

Her foot collides with something hard and she tumbles to the ground with a startled cry. Tears pool in her eyes as blood emerges on her knees. She crouches with blurred vision for a few moments, gauging the distance between her and the house but knowing in her heart that, as the birthday girl, she can’t return without the red balloon. How could she disappoint her friends? Her search for the balloon leads to the discovery of something else, though.

At the end of the stream stands a child near her age. With the hope that she might be able to help, the girl scatters the leaves around her, waves frantically, and yells at the top of her lungs — anything to get the other girl’s attention.

But, something’s…off.

The same eyes, hair, mouth, height…why is the girl wearing the same dress as her? Did mum buy her neighbours’ children the same presents as her last Christmas? She swipes at her eyes and blinks a few times. But when she looks back up, prepared to resume her shouting, the girl on the other side of the stream is gone. What is happeni—

There! There, wedged between a willow tree’s thin, outstretched branches swaying in the breeze like feathers ruffling in the wind, lies the red balloon, taunting her as if it knows that the girl is incapable of retrieving it. If only that weren’t true. She turns, dejected, and limps away, her spirit deflating.

Oh, well. There must be another red balloon back at the house.

November 20th, 2006

 

Swallow.

She blames the boy.

She blames him for the loss of all her friends, for countless lunch periods spent in a washroom stall, for the name-calling that haunts her every day. The names — they never stop.

Swallow.

All it took was a whisper — a leaked secret between him and another classmate. Then suddenly everybody began branding her as insane, as the girl who went crazy at the tender age of five, and as the girl who saw a ‘ghost’ who looked just like her outside her house.

Swallow.

Her father told her that it was a mere figment of her parched imagination, and that the combination of excessive sunlight and ‘insufficient liquid intake’ — whatever that meant — played a trick on her eyes and mind. The solution? Drink water.

Swallow.

Somehow, through the grapevine, everybody caught word of her ghastly encounter, and it was all because of the boy. Through countless sly whispers and passed notes, a day in elementary school turned into a lifetime of public humiliation.

Swallow.

Ever since, she’s found it hard to focus. Classes blur into monotonous rhythms of time, conversations fade into dull patterns of sound, and faces dissolve into nameless blotches of colour. Daydreams are her only companion. Every time she closes her eyes, the hazy image of a little girl standing by a gently bubbling stream clouds her subconscious, and everything around her — everything real — evaporates. Titles like ‘crazy girl’ and ‘witch’ follow her around at school, faintly muttered under cowards’ breaths. She never catches the perpetrators. She simply ducks her head and prays for it to pass.  

The worst part is when she has to walk home.

“Hey, heard it was your birthday. Have a good one…Crazy Liz!” a posse of girls with matching orange hair ties giggle, smirks donning their faces as they lean on the front doors with crossed, tanned arms.

“Seen any ghosts lately?” a spinning basketball rains down from a nearby tree and lands a mere two inches from her shaking toes. She looks up to see a cackling boy in black sports uniform…and the girl.

There she is, again.

Her entire body goes into overdrive as her eyes flick left and right, surveying the thick crowds of nameless people. Does nobody else see her? How can anyone miss that? Sitting between the crook of two branches as thick as human bodies is the little girl, perched like a cougar poised to pounce on its powerless prey.

Swallow.

She takes a shuddering breath and glances up again. The girl is gone. A red balloon sits there in her place.

Swallow.

Her smile droops more and more and her head lowers even further as her pounding steps quicken on the slick pavement in tandem with the chorus of jeers and taunts behind her. Muddy pebbles land in front of her feet like a melancholy symphony of monotonous instruments. Water. The water will help.

Swallow.

November 20th, 2012

 

It didn’t take very long for everything to crumble and to deteriorate — only a year or two. On the day of her thirteenth birthday, her initially tentative but increasingly concerned babysitter took her to a derelict drop-in clinic for a seemingly harmless check-up. On her fourteenth, during a listless family dinner, her previously oblivious and indifferent parents, with hearts colder than their stale meals, had to feign compassion and hide indifference when they found out what had been happening. By her fifteenth birthday, she had been clinically diagnosed with minor schizophrenia, much to the dismay of her financially ambivalent parents. With a blink of her eyes, everything just…fell apart.

It didn’t take very long at all.

After being an unwilling participant in a costly outpatient programme for a few months, her parents extracted her right under the nose of a staff worker with some fabricated lie about a ‘miraculous’ recovery. In reality, it was all about the money; more specifically, it was about not having enough of it. Miracles didn’t exist, but her insanity sure did.

What’s real? What’s not? Everyday is an unconscious battle between what might be real and what might be floating around in her head. Sometimes, when she’s lonely, she’ll tell jokes to the trees and the trees will reply accordingly. Occasionally, when her parents are shouting behind half-heartedly closed doors, she’ll whisper secrets to the ceiling and the ceiling will twist and morph into gentle smiles, full of life and teeming with hope. Voices. She likes the voices. She feels less lonely when something wants to talk to her.

Drifting up through the feeble floorboards now are two turbulent voices brimming with rage and desolation — these are the voices she doesn’t like. These voices blame her for everything that goes wrong, like when the keys go missing, when her brother gets a cold, and when the skies send down rain. These voices signify that it’s time for her to leave in order for her to avoid the aftermath of a broken home.

There’s something she has to check up on first, though.

She enters her little brother’s room with muted footsteps and quivering breaths, reaching down to retrieve a fallen stuffed monkey and tapping its soft nose with her pinky. A sliver of light from a partially hidden moon illuminates her brother’s gently sleeping figure. While watching his chest rise and fall with every beat from his sickly heart, she smiles and knows, right away, that she can’t let her disastrous self come in contact with the only beautiful thing left in the world. She sets down the stuffed monkey gingerly in his crib by his feet and pulls the curtains shut to ensure he won’t wake up to hear their parents’ tumultuous chaos downstairs.

With the remainder of her medication in one pocket, she wanders off into the night, only coming back to reality when her aimless ambling leads her to trip over something protruding out of the ground — a gun. She looks up and isn’t even surprised when she sees the swaying branches of a weeping willow tree. She’s always felt a pull to this place, though she can’t quite remember why.

All night long, she lies on her side on a bed of pine needles, one hand stroking the ice-cold surface of the gun and the other hand clutching her container of pills. By the time the moon reaches the summit of the midnight sky, she’s drifted off far enough into sleep to not notice the red balloon drifting by, and the little girl on the other side of the stream.

November 20th, 2015

 

Cold. Everything is so cold.

The relentless autumn chill seeps through the thin asylum walls and into her bones as she lies on a steel-framed bed, motionless, hopeless and nameless. The day she was wheeled through those doors was the day her identity whittled down to just six numbers: 549943 — her patient number and the only thing that really matters anymore. Then they locked her up and threw away the key. They caged her away like an animal and treat her like she’s the plague.

A string of faint knocks come from her right, and a nurse, his dispirited face washed in an eerie white light from the flickering corridor lights, pushes a steel cart into the room. He stays standing by the bedside table, though. Nobody ever comes closer than that — not even her beloved brother, who, when her father came on an obligatory family visit, stood by the door, cradling a stuffed monkey with a terrified glint in his eyes.

After setting down a glass of chilled water and coercing a few orange-coloured pills down her throat, the nurse, her only form of human contact, leaves, and she is alone once again. Or so she thinks.

She swivels her eyes a few degrees to the left and her heart stutters, for standing two inches from her bedside table is the little girl, donning the same tattered dress from the day of her fifth birthday. In her arms is a shiny red balloon.

After 18 years of haunting her from a distance, the girl is back, this time closer than ever; but, there’s nothing she can do about it. Her vocal chords twist and tighten in an attempt to talk, but no words come out. She closes her mouth and squeezes her eyes shut. This is just another vision. It’s not real. The girl isn’t real.

But she can’t help but wonder…what if she is real?

One day. One day she will get the girl.

For now, she’ll lie alone in her world of grey.

With a gasp of strained breath, she lifts her arm with robotic, machine-like movements and sets down her hand on the surface of her bedside table, right next to where the girl was standing just moments before, and she shivers.

Cold. Everything is so cold.