I’m headed to college in a couple weeks, and I couldn’t be happier about it. I’ll be out of this town and I won’t come back! I’ll be all the way in New York and that’s fine by me — there’s no reason to stay. I went travelling over summer. I visited all sorts of great places and forgot about my messed-up life. But I had to come home and tidy up my stuff before I leave for college. I sorted through my mail (already opened) while my snooping mom nagged me.
‘Come on, Cat. You want to look nice for the wedding, don’t you?’
‘Tina,’ she said.
I froze. ‘Oh.’
‘Honey, if you want to talk–‘
‘Mom, I don’t need to talk. It’s fine!’
‘I mean, I was so glad you made it up. But didn’t she tell you?’
Probably. I’d set up all her stupid mail to go straight into the spam folder. If she wasn’t sending me chain letters, it was, oh Jordan and I did this and wish you were here and isn’t life wonderful?
Yeah, I thought peevishly. It’s just the greatest.
I sifted through the mail and found the envelope. I read the invitation, chewing my lip. ‘But I don’t understand!’ I said.
Tina wasn’t really my best friend. We just sort of drifted together, flotsam on a tide of teen indifference. My family had moved to Louisiana when I was 14, and I lost my real friends back home in Indiana. The girls in school didn’t need little mousey me in their established cliques and I was never one the boys swooned over.
I didn’t hang out with anyone after class. I used to go to this beauty spot, Bellevue, and while away my time there. When mom asked me where I’d been, I’d pretend it’d been party or whatever I was supposed to be doing to be normal.
That was where I met shy, lonely Christina Fuller. She was as desperate for friends as I was. And it shamed me because my best friend was a carbon copy of all that I hated about myself, with added insecurity and an embarrassing eagerness to please.
The only thing was, she also had Jordan.
Things are never fair, are they? Jordan was just right for me, and she knew it. He was smart, funny, handsome, with the cutest dimples when he smiled. His favourite book was The Catcher in the Rye. That was mine! Tina probably didn’t even know who Salinger was.
But there were some cool things about her, like her love of nature. We always hung out at Bellevue when we could. It was an old park, landscaped by some deluded guy in the 1700s who thought he could tame the rugged beauty of Louisiana. If you went right into the park, towards the lake, the trees there were ancient, gnarled things, all beautiful and tortured.
There was one rather ordinary-looking tree in particular she wanted to show me one day. I wish she hadn’t. ‘It’s about time you learned of the Grey Tree,’ she said. ‘Everyone in this town knows the story of the Grey Tree.’
‘It doesn’t look very grey to me,’ I said.
She gave me her patented Patronising Tina look, the one that always made me want to slap her. How did Jordan stand it?
‘It’s because of the squirrels, Cat.’ She guided me closer to the tree. ‘You see?’
She pointed at a little grey squirrel which had been doing, I don’t know, squirrel things on the ground nearby. When it noticed us, it scurried right up that tree and into some hollow in the trunk.
She led me closer. The bark was stripped away in some parts – the squirrels, I guessed. But where the bark remained, people had scored love hearts into the tree. DS + HJ, EB 4 AB 4eva. Nauseating.
‘Isn’t it romantic?’ she simpered.
‘It’s mean,’ I said. ‘To the tree. You’re not going to write your name in it, are you?’
‘In this? Never!’ she looked horrified. ‘It’s cursed.’
‘Tina,’ I said. ‘It’s a tree.’
‘DS was Damon Simonswood. You know what happened to him? He drowned on the day of his honeymoon. Ellie Barker, see the EB? She went through the nastiest divorce with Andrew. He killed himself. PR is Paul Rugen. Childhood sweetheart of Celia Layec. Yeah, that didn’t last. Every last couple on this tree, Cat. They all lost each other.’
‘Then why did they write it in the first place?’ I asked sceptically.
‘I guess it took a few years to find out,’ she said. ‘Anyway, I don’t want to tempt fate. So, you know. Let’s not.’
You know what happened next, don’t you? Don’t pretend the idea didn’t strike you as it did me, and that you wouldn’t find satisfaction in scoring her name deep into the trunk. I did it twice: TF and then, after agonising over it, CF. I didn’t know if the creepy tree ghost would only split them up if I used her full name, you see.
My own name is Catherine Fox. Yeah. I was so unhappy that she had the love of my life, I threw away my own chance.
And then, guess what? They split up. Awesome tree.
What I didn’t expect was for Jordan Clarke to turn up on my doorstep one night, weeping over Tina breaking his heart. I held him. I talked with him into the small hours. And then he asked if he could spend the night in my room, nothing bad, just could we talk?
We did more than talk.
And then, oh, I don’t know. Things were perfect, or as near to perfect as I think I’m ever going to get. It was the greatest summer of my life (so far, and I totally don’t think I’m going to do a music festival at 70). We hung out a lot, we danced to cheesy music. We talked. We made out everywhere, and when we weren’t making out we shared sly, hungry looks.
I’ve never been a romantic, and I hated that one story with that mopey girl and the stalker, but I felt like I understood things finally. I barely ate, I didn’t care about homework or my mom nagging. I just was so happy to be alive, and in love.
Geez. I was in love.
Jordan, it turned out, wasn’t. He became distant. He talked of Tina, a lot. We argued about it constantly. Spats by text ended with longer and longer silences. And then do you know what he did? He dumped me. On Facebook. Oh yeah, I got the it’s complicated to Jordan Clarke is single treatment.
That damned tree. I should laugh at my own stupidity: I may have cursed Tina — poor, simple Tina — but I’d also destroyed my own chance at happiness.
I drove the car up to Bellevue and went on over to that copse. How did it fail me? It got me, all right. It got all those other people. Why was Tina so special? How had she overcome the creepy ghost curse?
Well, maybe I hadn’t marked it deep enough. I was determined to find out. Nothing could stop me. Except maybe coming across some old park warden sorting through timber.
‘Squirrels stripped the bark clean,’ said the old man when I asked him about it. ‘We tried everything to save it, but we had to clear half the trees, they was just fallin’ apart. Goddamn squirrels!’
‘But did you save anything?’ I pressed. ‘A piece of bark?’
He regarded me suspiciously. ‘You best leave it. Ain’t nothin’ uglier in a person, my grandma always said.’
‘What are you even talking about–‘ I began, but the shame choked me.
Was it because I did it deliberately, with mean intentions?
I bought a new dress. I got my hair done, I bought them a wedding gift. It was a beautiful September afternoon when they wed, with the light falling just right on the lawns of Bellevue. They had a band playing before the service. They played Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, and it was totally Tina who chose that. She always fancied herself the heroine of every song, every tale.
Was it because I carved her name twice?
Jordan wouldn’t look at me. I wondered what had made Tina forgive him, what had made her forgive me. We never talked about it, you know. But she was like a puppy, forgiving everything I did and just wanting to be my friend. Was that so bad of her? It’s not nice, realising you’re the villain in your own story.
Does it have to be the person herself who carves her name into the tree?
And then came the vows:
‘Do you, Jessica Christina Fuller, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?’
She looked at Jordan, then at the congregation. ‘I prefer Christina,’ she said. ‘But I do.’
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