by Kris Erickson
If you have found your way here, then you're here to read the short story that inspired my graphic novel, THE FLIP SIDE. Before my friend and creative partner passed away from cancer, he wrote the story you are about to read, and I couldn't be happier that you get to check it now. He never felt like he totally got it right, and maybe if he had the time he would have gotten there, but I believe the story stands for itself. There were a few racially different versions left behind once he was gone, but I am sharing the one that I believe he was the happiest with. Without any further blathering, I present to you ROOTED by Kris Erickson (unedited by myself or anyone else).
Be advised, Kris was never afraid to drop an "F" bomb or twelve and less afraid to fill his writing with them. Also, this story deals with suicide and suicidal thoughts. This may be triggering and upsetting for some readers. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please reach out for help. If someone is in immediate danger, call 911.
Get connected to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988.
The world had literally turned upside down. Not the “literally” where someone says, “I ate so much chocolate-peanut butter pie that I’m literally going to explode.” No, the kind of “literally” where people were walking down the street or working at their crappy job or eating too much chocolate-peanut butter pie, when all of a sudden earth’s gravitation pull fully and immediately reversed. Most everyone, then, fell. They fell along with their cars, phones, houses, places of work, wives, husbands, kids, friends, bosses, dogs, and all of the chocolate-peanut butter pie. They fell until they found themselves floating in space, dead. So, the world had literally turned upside down. Some people got to stick around, though. Let’s move on.
Nate was hollering at his kids to clean their rooms again. He yelled at his kids to clean their rooms a lot, mostly because their rooms were always really dirty. But getting his kids to clean their rooms was an uphill battle as it was pretty much, probably, the end of the world.
“I’m sick and tired of stepping on toys every time I walk into your room,” Nate said to his son Michael. “And you,” he said to his daughter Beatrix, “if I took care of you the way you take care of your dolls, someone would call child protection on me.” The truth was, there was no more child protection and what she had could barely be considered dolls. They were more like stuffed animals with baby faces stapled on.
Through the kitchen window behind his kids, Nate noticed his neighbor Larry Carlson mouthing something from the attic window of his little gray one and a half story. “What’d he say?” Nate said walking to the window and opening it down. Nate wondered for a minute why Larry was sitting there with a rope around his neck. “What’d he say?” he asked Michael.
“He told you to shut up and stop yelling at us and to listen to him,” Michael said.
“Watch it,” Nate said to Michael. “What’d you say?” Nate called out the open window.
“I said, ‘shut up, stop yelling at your kids, and listen to me for once.’’’ Larry said.
“For once?” Nate thought, but said, “Why are you down there?”
“I’m done with this,” Larry called back. He was a big man, tall and round, but strong. Nate might have been mistaken, but it looked as if the yellow and black rope around Larry’s neck was the one they had lost around a month ago.
Nate turned to Michael. “I need to go talk to Larry. You and your sister go clean your rooms now. I won’t ask you again. You go clean your rooms. You won’t like what happens if you don’t.” Realizing he might have said too much, he said, “Just go clean your rooms.”
“Is Uncle Larry ok?” Beatrix asked.
“Yes,” Nate said.
“He’s crying,” she said.
Nate turned to see that Larry was indeed crying. This was concerning, as Larry was not a crier. He’d once confided to Nate that he hadn’t even cried at the end of Rudy.
Nate looked back and forth from one kid to the other. “Go to your rooms,” he said, thinking he might add on “Please,” he instead said, “Now.”
Nate opened the kitchen door, stepped up onto the lintel, and reached out to grab the rope that led from Nate’s door to Larry’s. This was the only way across, since the sidewalk was now up, and the sky was where your feet wanted to be. Nate took a breath, stepped off the lintel and began a hand over hand lateral climb to the house across the street.
Nate could still sense his kids in the doorway behind him. “Now!” he said not turning around. His kids had seen a lot. They didn’t need to see this.
“On my way, buddy,” Nate said down to Larry.
“Maybe you shouldn’t come over,” Larry said.
Nate quickened his pace now, skinning his knuckles on the concrete blocks above. He hadn’t had time to put his climbing gloves on, an omission he now cursed. “You found our missing rope,” Nate said, attempting to lighten the mood.
“It wasn’t missing,” Larry said. “I lied about that. Sorry.”
“That’s ok.” Before he lost sight of Larry as he closed in on the door, Nate said, “Don’t…” “Move,” he might’ve added, or maybe he would’ve said, “Jump,” but he was glad he didn’t say that.
Nate reached down and tried the doorknob. “Locked,” he said out loud.
“Sorry,” Larry said from somewhere down below.
Nate gave the door a good kick and nothing happened. On the next kick, his foot went through the window. “Oops. Sorry.”
He reached inside the broken glass, opened the door, dropped onto the ceiling of Larry’s kitchen, and ran to the stairwell to slide down into the attic.
One end of the yellow and black rope was tied around the exposed brick chimney, which came down through the center of the house. The other end of the rope was still tied around Larry’s neck as he sat in the window. There were four crushed Budweiser cans loitering on the ceiling under the window.
“Beer?” Nate said.
Larry glanced at the cans and then looked up to Nate, embarrassed. “I lied about that too,” he said. “Sorry.”
“That’s ok,” Nate said stepping forward. “Happens to the best of us.”
Larry took a deep breath. “Why couldn't it have been zombies?” Tears welled in his eyes. “Why did it have to be ‘upside down world?’”
Nate hated when he called it that, but Larry was right. This sad and quiet apocalypse left a lot to be desired.
Larry was watching Nate now, and Nate could tell that he was waiting for something. Something that might change his mind, but Nate hesitated and Larry readied himself to go.
“Whoa!” Nate said stepping forward again. “Don’t do that. We can talk about this.”
Larry laughed a sad laugh and eyeballed Nate. It had been months since the two men had had anything approaching a real conversation. They had simply run out of things to say.
“I’m sorry you weren’t left with someone more interesting,” Larry said.
Nate blinked, thought, and then said, “C’mon, you’re the man,” so halfheartedly it was almost as if he didn’t say it at all.
Larry dug his wood handled knife from his pocket and tossed it to Nate. “Make sure I’m dead before you cut it. Please, I don’t want to be alive for the fall.”
Nate took another step forward. “Don’t jump.”
Larry chuckled again. “What are we waiting around for? What’s the point?”
Nate started to answer about fifty different ways, but stopped every time, not believing any of them.
Larry’s sad smile turned down and his tears began to fall. “Tell your kids I’m sorry. Tell them I was just done.” Nate started forward and Larry said, “Sorry,” as he slid out the window. Nate waited for the “thwap,” of the rope, but the “thwap,” never came, and then the screaming began. Nate either ran or fell or a combination of both to the open window just in time to see that Larry’s head had slipped from the noose, and he was now trying to swim his way out of free fall. It turned out the universe had one last joke to play on Larry, the last person Nate and his kids knew.
Nate heard a gasp and looked up to see his children still standing in the doorway across the street, their eye’s following the man who’d become their uncle, screaming his way into oblivion. When he was finally gone, they didn’t move. They didn’t even seem to breath.
“I told you to clean your fucking rooms!” Nate yelled, tears in his own eyes now. The children snapped out of their trances and found him in the window. Michael quickly broke away, disappearing into the house. Beatrix’s face turned red and she began to sob.
Nate didn’t go home right away. He wished he hadn’t said that thing to his children, but he wished for many things that didn’t come true these days.
He wished his wife could be here to deal with the kids on this one. She would have known exactly how to make them feel better, but she’d been flipped off with most everyone else. Even Larry would have known better what to say to Michael and Beatrix, but he was probably hitting the last of Earth’s atmosphere right about now. Maybe, Nate thought, if he wished hard enough, his kids would forget the entire incident by the time he returned home. Stranger things had happened. It’d be nice if one of these unexplainable anomalies could go his way for once. That would be a nice surprise. Nate needed one of those. Larry had just been one more bad surprise in a long history of bad surprises. This world just didn’t seem have any nice surprises left.
On the wall hung a portrait of Larry and his wife, Linda, wearing sombreros, presumably on a trip to Mexico. They’d never had children and Linda had died from cancer about a year before The Flip. Nate hadn’t really known her. In those days there was nothing but the passing hello between the neighbors who lived across the street from each other.
Nate chucked the portrait of Larry and Linda in Mexico out the window, making a wish that it would find his falling friend.
The children had retreated to their usual places, Michael to his bedroom and Beatrix had climbed to the tire swing that hung from the tree in the backyard.
The tree was an ancient Elm that had either split off when it first sprouted or had been two trees that had grown into one, leaning out both ways like a giant “V.” Since The Flip, trees had stopped growing leaves and had instead covered their bodies with a shaggy green moss that dripped with water. Much of the grass and dirt from the yard had fallen away so you could see the roots of the old elm reaching out to the younger trees nearby, maybe to steady them until their own roots had grown deep enough into the ground. The roots twisted in and amongst themselves and in the space between, warm gusts of winds would escape the earth.
Nate had been forced to create stories about the trees once his kids tired of his puppet show reenactments of the TV show Friends. In these stories, the trees sang a song that beckoned children inside to the kind and beautiful Root Queen. Not very creative, but his kids liked the stories. Well, Beatrix still did.
Beatrix was pushing off the tree humming the strange song she had taken to recently, which was more of a single sustained note, drawn out and carried over the air. “Aaaaaahhhh.” But then she seemed to sense something and stopped singing. She sat up and looked at Nate. “Why did he do that?” she demanded. Her eyes were red and puffy. “He must be stupid!” She started to cry again.
“You in there?” Nate said knocking on Michael’s bedroom door.
“Can I come in?”
“No,” Michael said.
“Ok. You ok? You wanna talk?”
“Ok,” Nate said. “Let me know if you wanna talk.”
Well, Nate was glad that was all over. He was able to console his little girl after a few minutes of hugging, and Michael hadn’t wanted to talk about it at all. Clean and simple, just the way Nate liked it.
The three sat quietly eating their dinner. The food tonight was warm for a change, as Nate thought it might be a good night to break out his old Coleman camping stove. They each ate directly from their own can with white plastic spoons. Beatrix’s favorite was SpaghettiOs, but tonight she just picked at them. “It’s warm,” Nate said to her.
She brightened and took a bite of the little round noodles. “It’s good,” she said, but Nate could tell she was only saying it for his sake. Coleman fuel was low, even at the grocery store, so they usually only ate warm meals on special occasions, birthdays and when someone died. Nate, though, was the only one who seemed to care whether or not a meal was warm or cold.
Michael was plowing through a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli.
“Slow down,” Nate said to him.
The boy nodded and slowed down.
Nate himself was eating what he estimated to be about the five hundredth can of Dinty Moore beef stew.
“What do you guys want to do tonight?” Nate thought maybe they should play a board game or something. “Monopoly?” he looked back and forth between his kids. “How about Sorry?” He poked Michael’s arm.
“I’m cleaning my room,” Michael said.
Nate put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Listen, you can do that another time. Tonight we should just hang out together.”
“That’s ok,” Michael said, “I want to.”
“How about you sweetie?” Nate asked Bea.
“Why did Larry do that?” Bea said.
“I don’t know,” Nate stammered. “I already told you I didn’t know why.”
But she just stared at him.
“I think he missed his wife,” Nate finally said. Seemed as a good a reason as any.
Bea sat in stunned silence. “He had a wife?”
“When you were little.”
“Did you know her?”
“Was she nice?”
“I think so.”
“Was she friends with mom?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was she pretty?”
“She was ok…Listen, let’s just finish our dinner.”
“I know why he did it,” Michael said. Nate and Beatrix stopped what they were doing and turned to face him. “Because he’s a pussy,” Michael said. “He was just a big pussy.”
“Hey!” Nate said.
“No he wasn’t!” Beatrix said slamming the can of SpaghettiOs away from her.
Nate put his hand on Beatrix’s back to calm her. He turned to Michael. “Why would you say that?”
“Because it’s true,” Michael said. “He couldn’t handle any of this anymore, so he killed himself.” Michael smiled and looked down. “You’re a pussy too. So am I. And you too,” pointing at his sister, who began to cry in a helpless rage.
Nate brought his fist down on the table.
Michael cracked another smile and got up to leave the table.
“Sit back down!” Nate said, but Michael just walked towards his room. “Sit down please,” Nate said again. Nate didn’t try to stop the boy though, instead he shouted, “Clean your room then,” and held his inconsolable daughter.
After dinner, the only clean up required was to toss the cans and spoons out the nearest window, much easier than the old days, and highly preferable. It was one of the few post-Flip improvements. Dumping the cans, Nate noticed the noose still hanging from Larry’s attic window, and made a mental note to pull it up later.
Beatrix had wanted Nate to tell her one of his stories tonight, but that was too much for him right now, so she settled on her favorite book, The Giving Tree. As a father who had brought two kids up on this book, he was a master at it, barely having to glance at the text as he voiced the boy who went from playful child to bitter old man over the course of the story. For the tree, he donned a soft-spoken and nurturing voice. It occurred to him sometimes that Beatrix might be too old for this book, but hell, it was the end of the world. People could read what they wanted now. He did know that if Beatrix’s mother were still here, the girl would be reading at the appropriate level, whatever that is when you’re seven.
They had reached the point in the story when the boy, now an unhappy middle-aged businessman, returns to ask the tree for a boat. But before the boy could chop the tree down, the page had been torn out, flipped upside down, and taped back into the book. The text had been blacked out and a balloon had been drawn coming out of the boy’s mouth while the tree hung safely from the top of the page. “Aaaaaaahhhhh!!!” it read. The boy was still falling on the next page, but was now joined by, I Am Sam, Curious George, The Man in The Yellow Hat, and Dora, all extracted from their own books and inserted into this horror show. “Aaaaahhhhh!!!” Michael had replaced the next double spread page with two sheets of black construction paper which he had poked tiny holes in for stars. Down in space, even more characters, Pikachu, and Frog and Toad, and Pooh and Alice now joined the boy. There were no more word balloons though, and all of their eyes had been “X’d” out.
On the last page, the tree just hung from the top of the page, alone. “And the tree was happy,” the caption read.
Nate and Beatrix sat in stunned silence.
Beatrix said, “Why did he do this?” and the tears began to flow down for the third or forth time today.
Nate gently took the book from his crying daughter, his hands shaking, as he slowly walked to Michael’s room counting backwards from ten. He expected to find the boy with the same sadistic smile from dinner, but instead Michael was crying as he dropped the last of his things out his open window.
“Room’s clean,” Michael said.
That night, Nate lay on the mattress on the ceiling of his bedroom. He silently cursed the photo of his wife that sat beside him. He told her the kids had been left with the wrong parent. He wished the world hadn’t flipped. He wished Larry hadn’t jumped. He wished that it had been him who had fallen instead of her. He wished his kids didn’t need him. He wished he had never had kids at all. He wished he had never grown up. He wished, and wished, and wished, and finally fell asleep.
He dreamt the same dream he always dreamt. He had to stand on the ground and watch his wife float up into the sky, away from him forever.
Nate climbed to the grocery store latterly, the old-fashioned way; hand over hand on the ropes he and Larry had slung along the pavement together almost four years earlier. The ropes had been set at thirty feet lengths with a carabineer tied to each end, clipped to an anchor, and embedded into the pavement by a bolt. In order to set the path, the anchors had initially been spaced three feet apart and the rope had been threaded through the carabineers. This was the only way they could have set the path. They soon found by accident that if they unhooked an end carabineer and re-hooked it to their safety vest each man could take a sixty-foot swing, catching the anchor at the other end of the arc. This cut the one-mile trip to Super Foods grocery store from six hours to one.
He told his kids he was going grocery shopping when they woke up the next morning. Beatrix burst into tears again, and Michael asked if he could go along, a thing he had been more and more interested in lately. Nate patted his son on the back and told him he needed to stay and look after his sister. He promised he’d bring home a treat. The truth was Nate needed to be alone more than they need groceries.
First he passed by Barb and Martha Huntsman’s green house. Barb had been a Lutheran minister and together they cared for an adult autistic son who had fallen at The Flip. The two women had seemed fine, but then a few months earlier had taken the plunge.
Next was the hole in the ground where Jim and Sarah McDonnell’s house had once stood. The McDonnell’s had a ten-year-old boy, Damon, who had gone missing about a year after The Flip. Everyone assumed the boy had fallen, and then the father had lost his head and chopped down the tree in their backyard. Not long after, Jim and Sarah’s house had ripped free of the ground while everyone in the neighborhood watched it fall silently into the sky. After that, everyone agreed it best to leave the trees alone.
Last was Sheryl Gustafson’s house. She was twenty-three and the first to go. Nate had initially thought her the best candidate to help him out with the kids as he and Larry tracked out the neighborhood. It seemed she was too hung up on the loss of everything she’d ever known and loved, especially her boyfriend. She slipped away one night a month after The Flip.
There were others, but they were either not worth mentioning or had been forgotten altogether.
After the flip, Nate thought that the little community they had formed would hold everyone together, like the roots of the trees. But they were all just people. Nothing was holding them here.
Three blocks into the trip and Nate’s arms and wrists were starting to ache. He wasn’t getting any younger or stronger. He reverted to the long swing method and gave his limbs a break.
Nate paced up and down the aisles of Super Foods. It was an older neighborhood style grocery store with lower ceilings making it much easier to shop under the new set of circumstances. The shelving racks had been bolted to the floor, and that was where they hung as he strolled the aisles, occasionally having to step over the florescent light fixtures that jutted up from the ceiling. Most of the food items here had a short drop at The Flip, just falling to the bottom of the shelf that had once been above it. Top shelf glass jarred items such as olives, jalapenos, and capers were now extinct. If Nate needed jumbo size Jiff he only needed to grab a stocking ladder to climb up to the shelf nearest the floor to grab one. And no need to worry about expiration dates, turns out that was a bunch of bullshit.
Nate scanned the aisles up and down for the item he desired. He was not looking for olives, jalapenos, or capers. Nate was looking for something with booze in it.
Upon Nate and Larry’s first arrival at the store, they had celebrated by getting drunk off of 3.2 beer. This was Minnesota, at least that’s how Nate still thought of it, and any stores that sold groceries were only allowed to sell beverages with a maximum of 3.2% alcohol by volume. This was mostly ok with the light beer and wine cooler aficionados. Also, it was good enough if you just needed a little something to iron out the nerves.
“I think I have a drinking problem,” Nate said right after his seventh beer and right before he vomited.
“Me too,” Larry agreed.
Still in a drunken stupor, the two men filled seven shopping carts with light beer, wine coolers, and margarita mixes, wheeled them to the docking bay, and shoved them off into the sky. They got rid of the cooking wines, mouthwash, and isopropyl alcohol, agreeing hydrogen peroxide would be sufficient to keep wounds clean.
Nate started his search in the beer section and worked his way out, hoping he and Larry had missed something years earlier. When he and Larry had tossed out the cooking wines, Nate couldn’t say for certain if he purposely withheld Mirin, an Asian cooking wine, which usually hung out in the global foods section. This knowledge came in handy two years earlier when three people decided to drop out of the neighborhood over the course of a couple of days. The two men had downed the first bottle in less than a minute. After the fifth bottle, Nate challenged Larry to a fight from which was produced one black eye and one torn shirt. Later, tearfully, Nate said, “We can’t do this anymore.”
They piled the Mirin along with Shaoxing into a shopping cart, pushed it to the loading dock door, and shoved it out to forever. Hours later, after they’d sobered up, they shared a silent trip home, Nate wallowing in his shame. He couldn’t say for sure if he’d purposely withheld the identity of vanilla extract.
Three days after Jim and Sarah McDonnell’s house had broken free; Nate downed five bottles of pure vanilla while Larry was on the other end of the store collecting pain relief medication to aid in his aching wrists and hands. When Nate knocked over the stack of breakfast cereal they had once neatly organized, Larry ordered Nate to bring him to the culprit. Together they put all of the extracts into a basket and rolled it out the door. “Sorry,” Nate said every few seconds until he finally fell asleep for a few hours. The fog of that experience was so deep that Nate couldn’t say for sure if he’d withheld his knowledge of Pam cooking spray.
Nate sprayed the Pam down his throat until he started to feel fuzzy in the head. He slipped a little and caught himself on the shopping cart he was pushing. “Nice,” he thought. He sprayed more into his throat feeling all the bad surprises fading away.
Filling the cart with the usual items, soup, SpaghettiOs, corned beef hash, and propane; he finished off the Pam, tossed it on the floor, and pulled another can from his front pocket.
He browsed the book section to see if there was something he hadn’t read yet. He grabbed something written by Phillip Krietzer and read the back flap. He wasn’t sure if he’d read this one or had seen the movie, or both. He shrugged and tossed it into the cart. At home he had a bookshelf full of the classics. Books written by Dickens, Twain, Hemingway, the Russians, the Swedes, the Spaniards, and the Ugandan. He hadn’t found time to read any of those before The Flip, and he hadn’t found time to read them now. He’d find time to read them sometime, but for now he’d read this piece of shit written by Phillip Krietzer for the fourth time and toss it out the window when he was done.
Nate flipped through the pile of magazines he and Larry hadn’t bothered organizing. He finished off his second can of Pam and pulled the third from his back pocket. Sports Illustrated? No. People? No. Time? No. If magazines were relevant then, they certainly weren’t anymore. Where were the porno mags? Those had the most chance of relevance. He took a hit of Pam, and his head started to swim.
At the bottom of the stack of magazines was the cheap tabloid Weekly World News. On the front page of the paper was just the two-word headline, “WHAT’S NEXT?” Nate paged through the rag to see what its four-year-old predictions were.
Most of the issue detailed the natural and unnatural disasters that plagued the earth in recent years and the subtle hints it had been giving off that it didn’t want us here anymore. After years of ozone depletion, global warming, deforestation, depletion of natural resources, we were doing our best to wear out our welcome. The earth had started to fight back with bigger tsunami’s, increased volcanic activity, stronger earthquakes, and more powerful tornadoes. We just weren’t getting the hint though.
But the planet got more direct about matters when the sea levels started to drop and the lakes and rivers began to dry up. Luckily for us, most of the oil had been depleted years earlier, and somebody figured out that if he redirected the oil derricks, he’d be able to pump water back out of the earth. “Hurray!” humanity let out at once. And just like that, we had water bottles with names like “Chevron,” “Shell,” and “Phillips.”
It was only the last few pages of the magazine that dealt with “What’s Next?” One prediction was that the water had gone deep underground to super heat at the Earth’s core and was going to return to the surface as a giant geyser, scalding all of us to death. Another had the world just exploding. Nate liked the theory where the Angels came back to Earth to strike down all the souls unfit to enter God’s kingdom. The writers of the paper seemed to agree that the most likely scenario was that things would get worse, then plateau, then get worse, then plateau, until we as a species just couldn’t take it anymore.
Nate knew what really was “What’s Next?”
You’re in another fight with your wife, and she drives off to get away from you. In the moment, she’s right. You’ve lost all of the money you had, and all the money your going to have for the next twenty years. You let her down, all because of the stupid idea that Minnesota needed a mountain climbing supply shop. People tried to tell you that there weren’t mountains in Minnesota, but you just didn’t listen. She had your back, though. She always had your back. Her support started to go away when your business began to fail and you secretly went out to get more bank loans, and then asked her dad for a personal loan. The last straw was when you refused to unload the merchandise, to at least pay her father back. Instead you just filled your garage with the equipment, and let it gather dust.
“Clean the garage,” she’d say, which meant, “Please Nate. Please sell the climbing gear. I love you. Please show me you want to try and save this marriage.”
“Clean the fucking garage,” was what she said the day she spun off in the car, which meant just that. Michael was in his room on her orders to clean, and Baby Bea was swinging in the tire swing.
You stood in the garage and looked around at the mess of your failure. Your pitiful attempt to regain your youth. “Regain yourself,” you told you. All it did was push you away from what was important. You. All you wanted now was to be alone, and to climb.
But then the ceiling came crashing up in your face, and you heard screaming and tearing coming from outside. When you made it to the door you saw houses and buildings falling down into the sky. You saw your son with his bloody face calling for mommy from the back door of your house. You saw your baby girl swinging in the tire swing the wrong way, laughing. “Hi Daddy,” she said. “Why does your face look like that?”
“Karen!” you screamed out at the world. “Karen!” and you did that until you couldn’t do it anymore.
Nate was sitting on the floor now. It had been the worst for Michael. His son remembered life before The Flip, and what it was like to have a mom and a dad.
Beatrix didn’t know the difference. She took away nothing from the old world and was content to live in this one.
Nate tossed the can of Pam to the other end of the store. “What’s Next?” he asked.
Later, he’d fill a cart up with all brands of cooking spray, roll it to the dock, and push it into the sky never being quite sure he’d ignored the presence of the Grey Poupon.
The effects of the Pam were beginning to wear off, but the sun had begun to go up, and an early rule was no climbing after dark. Instead he sat in the entryway of Super Foods and watched the sunset. This was “the magic hour,” the moment in the day when you could see the ring of debris that had formed around the earth. It was proof that beautiful things still happened. The ring was in alignment with the orbit of the moon, which had not floated off into space. This was the proof that there was still some gravity somewhere on earth. It was also proof that The Flip had been entirely personal. He drew a circle on the dusty floor, and then drew a ring around the circle’s equator, which turned it into an orb. He wondered what it all looked like from outer space.
As he stared up into space Nate could feel Karen sitting next to him. It reminded him of their first night together after he had taken her up Mount LaRue. She hadn’t paid any attention to him when they’d first met months earlier, but he hadn’t been able to keep his eyes off of her. It wasn’t until he showed her who he really was, a climber, that she showed him who she really was. They lay on their backs on a patch of grass on what felt like the top of the world and she’d pointed out different constellations to him. Some he knew and some he didn’t, but in the same way she hadn’t let on if she knew something during his climbing instruction, he kept his mouth shut. Now, though, he wasn’t looking for constellations in the sky. He was looking for his wife. Which little speck in the sea of debris was Karen? It was the thing he had never been willing to tell himself. His wife was dead. Sometime he’d wished that he’d seen her fall, so he’d known for sure that she was gone. Maybe it would have been easier then. Or maybe it would have been worse. He’d engaged in the fantasy that she was out there somewhere, trying to make her way home. These were stories he only reserved for himself. But it had been four years. And this place holding he had been doing hadn’t been working. She wasn’t going to come and tag him out. It was time for him to step up and become #1 parent.
Nate had been sitting there a while when the sun started dropping back down into the sky from behind the earth. “It doesn’t do that.” But then, instead of dropping down farther, the sun began to spread out over the horizon. It wasn’t the sun he was seeing. It was fire. Little bits of light began to drop like the opposite of shooting stars, not randomly, but in a pattern, moving from left to right and then right to left. A thing started to dawn on him then, a thing that felt like hope. “People,” he said. He was watching something being done by people.
Nate couldn’t wait until morning and broke his own rule by climbing home in the dark. By the time he arrived home he had already formulated a plan. His family would relocate to Super Foods. From there, Nate and Michael would return home and start dismantling the path to the grocery store and begin a new one that led to the new people. Judging by how far away the fire was, Nate figured they could be there in six months, maybe less.
Nate dropped on the ceiling of his darkened house. “I’m home,” he called. He felt his way first to Michael’s room and burst in the door. “Michael!” he said, but the only movement was the curtains blowing in the open window.
Next he tried Bea’s room, almost tripping on the toys scattered about her floor. “Bea. Wake up.” But she wasn’t in her bed.
“Michael! Beatrix!” he called through his house. “It’s just me!” He climbed the slippery slope up to the basement and called for them. Next he called out the back to see if they were on the tree, and then climbed to the garage to check there. Nothing.
Larry’s house was empty too, as was the Huntsman’s three houses down.
“Michael.” Nate said. “Beatrix.” He was back home. Where had they gone? He was heading towards the back door when he stepped on something slippery and fell face first onto the lintel between the kitchen and living room. His head felt not-right, and when he put his hand to his face, it was wet. He found the thing on the floor that he had slipped on. It was a book that proved to be The Giving Tree when he held it in a beam of moonlight shining through a window. He began to page through the book, but when he came to the part where his son and begun crafting his own vision, the pages had been torn out and were scattered on the floor.
“Oh no,” he said. “Oh no.” he used the wall to stand up and felt his way to the open back Door. Still hanging from the attic window across the street was Larry’s failed noose. “Michael!” Nate screamed down at the sky. “Beatrix!” and then the world faded from dark to black.
Nate woke up on the ceiling the next morning. His head was crushing his mind, and in a mirror he saw that he had maybe broken the side of his face. He took four ibuprofens to curb the pain, but his empty stomach forced them back up. He spent the first part of the day checking and rechecking the rooms, and the garage, and the other houses as if his children were his keys and he was late for work.
Climbing to the garage again he felt the wind from the elm tree hit him as he passed by. “Hello!” he called in through the roots.
“Hello. Hello. Hello,” the empty space called back.
“Michael!” he called.
“Michael. Michael. Michael.”
“Bea. Bea. Bea.”
He thought about climbing in, but knew he wouldn’t. That place wasn’t for him. Instead he climbed down to the tire swing and sat quietly. He’d never been in it, but now understood why his daughter loved it so. Hanging from a rope, you defied gravity. He pushed off the trunk with his foot and stared at the gnarled and rooted earth above.
“Once there was a boy and girl who lived in a world that was no longer meant for them,” he began as the swing swayed in a lazy circle.
One day, alone, the brother and sister were arguing when they were interrupted by the tree in their backyard. Was the tree magic? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it was magic but not unique. Maybe all trees are magic. But, that’s neither here nor there. The bottom line is that the tree had begun to sing to them…
Nate told himself the story when he returned to his house to eat, and he told it to himself as he gathered the pages of The Giving Tree and began taping them all back together, the way Michael had intended.
He told himself the story as he pulled the portrait of his parents down from the wall on a trip they had taken to Alaska. They were standing in front of a green lake, smiling, with arms around each other’s waists. Nate carefully cut their images out, then applied glue to the back and pasted them to the black construction paper that had been poked with tiny holes for stars. Nate did the same for Karen’s parents, and the same for Larry. He cried and said he’d see everyone soon, as he pasted them in and scratched “X’s” over their eyes with Larry’s wood handled pocketknife.
The sister easily slid up inside the roots, but the brother was bigger and had more trouble of it. He squeezed and she pulled, and he finally made it in, but not before he tore his clothes and scraped his skin. At first it was dark but as they ascended deeper into the earth it began to brighten, different chambers glowing blue, orange, or purple…
He had to find just the right photo of Karen. Her portrait had to be perfect. The one with her in the hospital bed when Bea was born would never do, she looked too tired, and she’d kill him if he used it. Same with the shot of her and baby Michael. Sure, Karen was beautiful in their wedding portrait, but that was not who she really was in her white lace dress and crown of flowers. She was too young in the photo of them taken at the base of Mount LaRue, before the climb he had instructed her on. It was the first shot of them together, and they weren’t even a couple yet when the picture had been taken, but they were a few hours later. She’d teased him later that he was some sort of a prostitute because he had still taken her money.
Nate laughed when he thought of that. She had always been able to make him laugh when she wanted to. She stopped trying at the end. She’d didn’t care if he laughed anymore or not. He studied their twenty-five year old selves and willed a different outcome. Oh well, this world just didn’t have any nice surprises left.
Nate settled on a photo of Karen working in the garden while pregnant with Beatrix, wearing cut off jeans and a red bandana over her brown hair. He chose the photo because she was wearing sunglasses and we couldn’t bear “X’ing” out her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said pasting on her picture. “I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job taking care of our kids.”
The brother and sister spent the day playing the games with the children of the roots. But then the day came to an end, and the Root Queen said, “You must now decide if you are to stay in this realm, or if will return to the realm from which you came.” The brother and sister looked to each other for an answer, but neither could find one in the other’s face…
Michael had been seven and Beatrix had been three at The Flip, and the only available pictures were now pretty dated. Nate settled on a shot of them playing in the backyard together. On the last page of the book where the tree hung alone, Nate expanded the roots outs with a pen to mirror the new reality, and then glued his children there.
For his own photo, he cut out his twenty-five year old self from the base of Mount LaRue. “Might as well be remembered at my best.”
“Where are you going to go?” The picture of three-year old Beatrix asked.
“I’m going into space,” Nate said.
“I’ll miss you though,” she said.
“I’ll miss you too, sweetheart, but it’ll be ok.”
“What are you gonna do up there?” Seven-year old Michael asked.
“I’m gonna find mom,” Nate said turning the page back to the black construction paper. “I’m going to find her and then we’ll both look up at you from space.”
Then Beatrix said, “What happened to your face, Daddy?” and she touched the cut on the side of his head, knocking him out of the chair and onto the floor. Nate looked up at his children, both faces covered in dirt and worry. He reached out to see if they were real.
“Are you ok dad?” Michael asked.
“You’re real,” Nate said.
Michael and Beatrix looked at each other, confused. Then Nate grabbed them both, kissing their dirty faces over and over. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
Michael said “We’re sorry we left, dad, but…”
“Never mind!” he said. “We’re moving to the Super Foods!”
“We are?” Beatrix said.
“Yes!” Nate said. “There’s other people! I saw them!”
“We know,” Michael said.
He pinched them to see if they were real again. He pinched himself. “It’ll be different. I’ll be different. I’ll be a good dad,” he wept.
“You are a good daddy,” Beatrix said.
He shook his head, but said, “I’ve got it all worked out. We’re leaving here today”
“But dad…” Michael said.
“We gotta pull apart…” Nate said.
“Daddy!” they said.
“…all of our track.”
“Will you shut up and listen to your kids for a second?” the long thought gone voice called from outside.
Nate shut up, stood, and staggered to the back door.
“Can’t you see they’re trying to tell you something?” Hanging from the roots of the tree, Karen looked more annoyed than excited. Nate wondered what the kids had been telling her. He reached out for the rope to climb out and greet her as his cutout slipped from his fingers, caught a gust of wind, and flew down the street until it gently lifted off the ground. It sailed off into the atmosphere, then the stratosphere, soaring past the debris belt and the moon.
He was glad no one had “X’d” out his eyes, because from up here, it all looked pretty good.