I spoke yesterday about having a story that I wrote in the past that I’ve always wanted to turn in to something better. I decided that I would share it here, just to put it out there…I wrote this in the fall of 2007 (it was one of the submissions for my creative writing scholarship application) and I haven’t touched it since. I’ve read it a hundred times and I’ve looked at it and obsessed and pondered, but I haven’t touched it. It definitely needs work….but that will come later…
Enjoy. Or don’t enjoy. But here it is….
Natalie looked up at the tree house looming in front of her, the place of refuge for her and her three siblings since she was three, surprised that after standing for twenty years it was still in good condition. By all official meanings of the words ‘tree house’, it wasn’t one. It was more of a play house, built in three levels. It stood next to a tree, though, and so earned the ‘tree house’ title.
She frowned, picked up the hem of her dress, and started up the platforms to the top level. A few steps into her ascent she realized that the tree house was not meant for a twenty-three year old to climb- it was a much smaller space than she remembered- and by the time she reached the top she had worked up a sweat.
Glisten, she mused to herself. Granny always said that girls glisten, not sweat.
With as much delicacy as she could manage, she crawled to the wall and settled against it, leaning her head back with a heavy sigh. She finally managed to get some time to herself.
Three days earlier, she had arrived in her hometown to little fan fare and an uneasiness that started growing as soon as she saw the sign alerting her that there were twenty miles to Pauletta. She contemplated turning around a few times, but managed to keep her foot on the gas pedal.
Her mom was getting married, after years of being single, and she was in the bridal party. She had to be there, it was her duty as a daughter. Her siblings had to be there as well. It had taken weeks of persuasion and pleading on behalf of her mom and sister to talk her into agreeing. She hadn’t seen her older brother in two years, and until the phone call from her mom announcing her engagement, she had no intentions of seeing him.
The days leading up to the wedding were full of dinners and showers and pictures of the wedding party. No matter how joyous an occasion it was, the events had left everyone involved exhausted, tired of seeing people, and ready for the whole ordeal to be over with. The reception after the wedding, held in the spacious back yard of the house Natalie grew up in, opened up the perfect opportunity for her to sneak away, and she had seized it.
Natalie gazed through the open window across from her, smiling softly to herself at the image of people gathered around the pool. Lanterns were strung, criss-crossing from post to post, and the large tent was decorated with white Christmas lights with a lighted fountain center piece, creating an intimate and serene mood. She could hear the rumble of people talking and laughing and the faint sound of music. It reminded her of summer days when she and her brothers and sister had occupied the pool.
Then, the pool had been a grand island lagoon, inhabited by vicious natives, and they had been the shipwrecked pirates, hoping to survive. From time to time it morphed from an island into a pirate ship that they crewed, battling enemies and finding sunken treasure. The diving board served as the plank, which Natalie had the misfortune of walking on a recurring basis. Somehow, it always managed to be her fault that the crew mutinied against their fearless captain, Captain James.
It was strange how their present lives mimicked their days of make believe.
Natalie straightened up from her leaning position to get a better view of the yard at the sight of movement in her line of vision. She tilted her head slightly and smiled when her gaze fell on her twin brother, dressed in his black tuxedo with his bow-tie loosened and hanging around his neck, walking slowly towards the tree house. She sat up on her knees to lean on the windowsill and waited for him with a small smile playing on her lips.
Nicholas stopped and looked up to the window. “Marco.”
“Polo.” Natalie’s smile widened.
Nick smiled at her and she lost her view of him as he moved to the platforms to join her in the tree house.
“I figured you were hiding out here somewhere,” he said when he appeared in the doorway. He eyed the space hesitantly and arched an eyebrow at his sister.
“I’m not hiding,” she said. “I’m just taking a break from the festivities.”
“You’re hiding,” he argued, mumbling as he carefully moved to lean against the wall opposite of Natalie.
She tried to bite back a smile while she watched him, thinking that he resembled a waddling duck while he tried to maneuver under the low ceiling.
“God, do you know how long it’s been since I’ve been up here?”
“Probably as long as me,” Natalie answered.
They sat in silence, the sounds of the reception across the lawn filling the space around them. Natalie kept her eyes away from the window where Nick was sitting. She didn’t feel like having him question her at the moment.
“Do you remember that tree?” Nick asked, breaking their silence. Natalie looked at him expectantly as he pointed across the tree house.
She turned to look out of the window next to her and squinted. The light from the lanterns decorating the pool area began to fade just past the tree house.
“The big pine tree?” she asked, looking at him.
“Of course I do. We used to play under it.”
“We lived under it.”
Natalie turned and looked at the tree again. She imagined if she was standing next to it, it would be much smaller than she remembered, much like the tree house. The one advantage of the pine tree, though, was its width. It spanned enough ground that as kids, there was plenty of room to crawl underneath it and find relief from the heat in the shade. Natalie and Nick had spent large amounts of time lost in the fallen needles of the pine when their older brother had outgrown their company and their sister had decided she was too girly to get dirty under a tree. It was their own little cave, their place, and the lack of intrusion from their older siblings hadn’t bothered them.
She remembered her mom threatening to cut it down when she and Nick had reached their early teen years when the fence surrounding the area it was in was taken down. It had been a traumatizing thought for both of them, the idea of losing something that had held a place in their hearts for so long. Natalie had won out in the end, pitching a classic teenage angst fit, and the tree was left standing.
“Do you remember-” Natalie and Nick stopped, smiling at each other, when they realized they had started to speak at the same time.
“You go,” Nick said.
Natalie shook her head. “It was nothing.”
“Natty, will you talk to me?” Nick said after a moment of silence.
“You know. About the argument that you and James had before the wedding.”
Natalie shook her head, ready to verbally protest.
“Natalie! Nick!” The calling of their names interrupted their close moment. They exchanged looks before simultaneously moving to the window, squeezing together to peer down below them.
Their sister, Lauren, was standing with both hands on her hips, looking up at the balcony of the tree house.
“What do you want?” Nick asked.
Lauren’s head turned in their direction. “I was looking for you two. Don’t think you went unnoticed.”
“We were hoping,” Natalie said.
Lauren rolled her eyes at her younger sister’s dry comment. She disappeared from the twins’ line of sight to ascend the platforms to join them in the tree house.
“My God, this thing is going to collapse on us,” Lauren said as she crawled to sit in the space next to Nick.
“We’re fine,” Nick said.
“I can hear it creaking.”
“We used to camp out in here all the time when we were kids.”
“And in case you haven’t noticed, we aren’t exactly the same size as the average kid anymore.”
“Lo, stop worrying,” Natalie said.
“Yeah. There is no worrying allowed in this tree house. It’s a new rule. Follow it or get out.” Nick smiled.
Lauren gave Nick a perfected disapproving look and stretched her legs out, letting her feet hang out of the doorway slightly.
Natalie met her sister’s gaze. “Where’s your husband?”
“He’s out there somewhere.” Lauren shrugged. “One of Richard’s family members cornered him and I snuck off.”
“You abandoned him,” Nick said.
“I came to check on my little sister. I think he’ll forgive me for that.”
Natalie shook some loose hair from her face and looked away from her brother and sister, focusing on the partying around the pool. She sighed heavily, knowing that she was about to get double teamed by Nick and Lauren.
She had a fleeting thought of crawling onto the balcony and shimmying down the rope that still hung from it, but thought better of it. The rope would likely break under her weight, and there wasn’t much point in trying to avoid her siblings. They would probably shimmy down the rope after her.
Natalie looked back at Lauren and Nick. They had grown quiet and were looking at her expectantly.
“You would think that by now James and I would be over this,” she said. “You would think that by now I would have learned not to take what he says to heart.”
“But what he said today wasn’t your fault, you didn’t do anything to provoke him,” Nick said.
When Natalie was younger, despite her closeness to Nick, James was her favorite sibling. He was six years older than her, and in her child’s mind it seemed like enough of a gap in age for him to know everything that anyone would need to know. He was the oldest sibling and even though he sometimes treated Lauren, Natalie, and Nick like nuisance younger siblings, he was their leader. She looked up to him.
During her years in junior high she began to see her brother in a different light. Even though James had graduated, he chose to stay in the house while he was attending the local college. Their parent’s troubled marriage surfaced and James seemed to take it the hardest. He refused to believe that his family was falling apart.
Natalie had poignant memories of sitting on the balcony over the living room with Nick and Lauren, thinking they were hidden in the shadows, listening to the arguments below them. They watched their mom in her chair crying and their dad and James exchanging heated and angry words.
Things were worse when he was drunk.
She would never forget the night she watched James back their dad into a corner. The anger in their dad’s eyes retreated before his body did. He was scared and she couldn’t blame him.
Before Natalie started high school, her parents divorced, and after being given the choice of who to live with, Natalie and Nick chose their dad. They moved two hours away from Pauletta.
James was an alcoholic by the time Natalie graduated high school.
He was divorced, on a revoked license for the second time, and was in debt by thousands of dollars, half of which he owed their dad before she graduated from college.
Any respect or compassion that was left in Natalie after years of watching her leader self destruct ceased to exist at his last phone call to her asking for money. She couldn’t do it anymore. Natalie didn’t care if the rest of her family aided him and dealt with him, she didn’t want to be in that position, or that state of mind. She was tired of being exposed to it.
“I had hoped that if you and James saw each other, since it’s been so long, that you would be able to fix things,” Lauren said.
Natalie nodded. “I know, but I came to support mom, not to fix things, and I’m pretty sure James didn’t show up to try and fix things either.”
“He came for the free wine bar,” Nick said.
Natalie and Lauren both shot Nick scolding looks.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I’m mad at him. For once I can say that I’m really angry with him. He should’ve never told you that you don’t belong here, Natty. I shouldn’t have let him say that.”
Natalie’s scolding look changed to affection.
During the wedding activities, Natalie did a superb job of avoiding James. She didn’t speak a word to him, other than asking him to pass her the salt and pepper at dinner their first night there. She admittedly began to feel foolish after the second day.
That afternoon, in the room of the church where the bridesmaids and groomsmen were held before the wedding, James had given her a challenging look after coming up next to her.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
Natalie raised an eyebrow in response.
“Don’t look at me like you don’t understand the question. Why did you show up, Natalie?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” she asked.
“You’ve barely been around for two years. Why did you even bother?”
“Mom is getting married.”
“So send her a gift and a congratulations card and stay in Memphis.”
Natalie clenched her jaw, and averted her eyes from her brother’s.
“I just don’t get it.”
“James,” Natalie looked at him. “Can we please not do this? Not today.”
Natalie shook her head and turned on her heal to walk away. She didn’t know where James’ sudden urge to confront her was coming from, but she didn’t want it to happen before the ceremony started.
“Are you happy?” James asked.
Natalie turned to face him. “What?”
“Are you happy? Does it make you happy to come here and pretend like you’re better than me?”
She swallowed hard.
“You haven’t talked to me in two years, like I’m just not part of the family anymore. I haven’t done anything to deserve that, you know? I just think it’s pretty immature of you to act like this.”
“Really? I’m immature? Look at yourself. You’re 29 and you’re trying to pick a fight with your little sister in the middle of a church.” Natalie saw the anger spark in James’s eyes when she turned his words on him. “Why are you doing this now?”
“I just thought that you should know before you smiled and walked down the isle to stand by mom and act like a perfect daughter with Nick, that at least one person in this house isn’t happy to see you. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t deserve to be here.”
“Apparently mom thinks otherwise.”
Nick and Lauren, as well as the few other people in the room, were tuned into the small exchange of words between the siblings. They were silently watching them stare down each other.
“She doesn’t always make the right choices.”
“I don’t abandon people.”
Natalie gaped at James, trying to comprehend the words that were coming out of his mouth. Did he think that his actions over the years didn’t measure up to abandonment? What else could they be labeled? It didn’t go past her that he probably had a few glasses of champagne or wine already, but that didn’t excuse him. She clenched her teeth, clenching her jaw as well, and closed her eyes, doing her best to hold back the chain of words she could unleash on her bother. ‘Not today’, she thought, ‘don’t do this today’.
Natalie started to speak, but James waved her off with his hand, interrupting her unspoken words. “Don’t bother, I’m not going to listen to it. You don’t belong here.”
At James’s words, it hit Natalie at how he must feel about her not speaking to him. He had just said, in not so many words, that he didn’t feel like she belonged in the family at that moment. That he didn’t want to call himself her brother. Much like she didn’t want to act as his sister. It was a stab and twist of a knife in the heart.
She stiffened and turned, leaving the room without another word.
“You spoke your mind to him after the ceremony, though,” Lauren said.
“So did you.”
“You didn’t have to say anything to him,” Natalie said. “I don’t want you to be fighting with him, too.”
“It’s a little too late for that.” Nick smiled a reassuring smile at Natalie.
“I’m just causing all kinds of problems.”
“No you aren’t, Natty. It’s okay.”
“It’s not,” she said. “I don’t want to be mad at him. I don’t want to fight with him. I don’t want to feel like I can’t respect him.”
“But something has to get through to him,” Lauren said, “and if that means we all have to say something to him, if that means he has to hate all of us, then we’ll do it. I don’t want us to be fighting either, but sometimes-”
“You just have to do it,” Nick interrupted. “You have to fight.”
Lauren nodded in agreement with Nick.
Natalie mustered a small smile. “I don’t know if I should say thank you or not…”
The three siblings heard a whistle from outside of the tree house.
“Who is it now?” Nick mumbled.
“I don’t know, but we can’t fit anymore people up here,” Lauren said.
Natalie turned to look out of her window. “It’s your hubby.”
Lauren sighed and swung her legs out of the doorway to stand on the platform.
“Are all three of you up there?” he asked.
Lauren laughed. “Yeah, miraculously we are.”
“You’re mom is going to cut her cake and wants you all there. I was sent to find you and bring you back.”
Lauren nodded and turned to look at Nick and Natalie who had heard the message. They unfolded themselves from the small space and one by one descended from the tree house to the ground. Lauren’s husband gave them all smiles in greeting, offering Lauren and Natalie his hand to help them down. As Natalie stepped down she caught a glimpse of the names carved into the rafter of the lower platform that James had done when their dad had finished building the tree house. She let her fingers trail slightly across it before stepping away with the others.
“I can’t believe you guys were up there and you all fit in there.”
“I can’t believe we were either.”
“How old is it?”
“Dad built it when Natalie and Nick were three, so about twenty years,” Lauren said, linking her hand with her husband’s. “We spent a lot of time in it.”
“And it’s still standing?”
Natalie glanced at Nick and smiled before looking at Lauren’s husband to answer his question. “We’ve had to repair it a few times, and it needs some work done, but yeah, it’s still standing.