The Longstanding Tree
The sweet melody of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” plays as I shuffle through my papers. The window is open and I feel the cooling spring breeze flow through and brush against my soft skin. “Here it is!” I shout as I pull out a worksheet mapping the different parts of the brain for my AP Psychology class. With the AP test coming up, I want to make sure that I understand everything. So far the class has been really interesting, but I never was able to get higher than a B+ in biology. My phone vibrates in my desk drawer and in surprise, I answer it.
A text from Stacy appears on my phone:
Hey Callie! Have you finished the Chem work?
I roll my eyes and reply:
Yeah I finished it at lunch. Want it?
I go back into my purple folder and take out the worksheet for Chem, snap some pictures of the front and back on my phone, and send them to Stacy. Converting mass into moles isn’t even that hard if you paid attention in class and know how to do simple math, I thought. But sending the work wasn’t that much of an issue considering the fact that I finished the problems in about five minutes. I hear a car door slam and the front wooden door unlocks and opens. “Callie, I’m home!” my aunt yelled up the stairs.
I walk over to my door and go down the stairs to see my petite aunt standing in the kitchen. Her dark brown locks are tied tight into a bun while a few strands - that some may consider bangs - hang to the side in front of her face. “You’re home early,” I say still in slight shock. She turns to face me and I notice that she is fidgeting with the ring on her left hand. A beautiful ring crafted into a heart shape that still glimmers a sparkling silver just like the day she got it. “Yeah the trial didn’t last very long… Besides, I thought maybe we could go out to dinner tonight.”
I hesitate. “We can go to your favorite place? Red Robin? You can get that burger that you like and I’ll even get you a chocolate milkshake too!” she says as she blushes and her smile spreads from cheek to cheek. She had a natural glow about her that was beginning to fade. I answer, “I haven’t eaten there since… It’s okay. We can have something here?” I stumble on my words trying to find a way to tell her I don’t want to go without actually saying it. I used to like to eat there, but ever since I was twelve, it hasn’t been the same.
Her smile begins to turn into a frown and her eyes become weary. The spark dies into smoke that is now nothing. “If that’s what you really want, then we can do that.” My guilt suddenly triggers me and the words spew out of my mouth, “You know what, let’s go.” She looks at me and that smile reappears. “Are you sure?” she asks me.
I thought about it. Did I really want to go there after all these years? As many faults as my aunt had, I loved her, and she wasn’t home very often, so when would this opportunity come around again? “Yeah, I’m sure!” I say. We head out to the car and I hesitate when she unlocks it. She gets into the car, starts it, and waits for me to get in the passenger side. I stare into my reflection in the glass window and see my long, wavy, light brown hair and my deep brown eyes. I see the stubby nose on my face, just like the one my father had and the lush eyelashes I got from my beautiful mother. I see them when I stare at my reflection and my stomach clenches when I think of what I would give to see them again.
I snap back into reality and look at the car. Placing my hand on the handle of the door, I quickly snap it back and get in. Taking a deep breath, I buckle my seat belt and my aunt turns on Q102. As we drive into Delaware, I stare at the trees. All of them so tall and sturdy, it would take a tremendous wind storm to knock them down. I wish I could be like that.
A while later we return home and it is getting late. My aunt heads up to bed and I go back to my room to study a bit more before taking a shower and going to bed myself. The next day I wake up to my sounding alarm at the same time as every day: five thirty-three a.m. In my freshman year I would wake up at five thirty a.m. but then I started to give myself an extra three minutes of sleep. I quickly get ready for school and head out of the house at about six thirty-five a.m. like normal. Walking to school is always relaxing to me. I get to listen to my favorite music and think about all the things I had to do that day.
Unfortunately for me, it is Thursday which means I have work. I push through the day, getting as much of my assignments done as possible. At two fifteen, I leave school and rush home to get changed for work. Keeping my jeans and converse on, I change into my black polo shirt with the small rollerblade logo on the pocket. I brush my hair back into a tight mid-ponytail and grab my employee ID, phone, and keys before heading off to work.
Luckily on weekdays the majority of people there are little kids coming from daycare or babysitters bringing kids here because they don’t have anything else to do with them. Today, I am assigned to snack bar duty. As I stand slouching at the counter behind the bulky cash register, I hear someone say, “Hey. Callie, right?” I look up and see a boy around my age with dirty blonde hair and stunningly blue eyes. For a second I lose my breath before I can respond, “Uh yeah.. Yeah that’s me.”
I look at him trying not to be too obvious. “Yeah we were in the same bio class last year with Sikich.” Oh no, not biology class!, I thought. My cheeks begin to blush and butterflies whirl around in my stomach. I rush to try and remember his name but it couldn’t come to mind. How could I possibly forget his name? I just stutter the words, “Oh, yeah!” Awkward silence does not begin to describe what happened after.
A few seconds pass by when he finally says, “Oh, sorry. It just came to me that you may not remember me. I’m Noah.” I sigh in relief and finally remember. “Yeah! I remember, you were the guy who wanted to be a marine biologist, right?” Noah nodded his head and smiled. I could see his cheeks begin to glow a pinkish-red. “Yeah, I did… I mean, I do, I do.” I couldn’t help but smile and chuckle a bit.
My manager then came out from behind me and my smile disappeared. “What did you want?” I asked him. His smile went away and a confused look came across his face. I repeat the question as he sees my manager behind me. “Oh yeah, sorry about that. Could I get a medium Diet Coke and two slices of pizza, please?” I type the order into the old computer next to me. “The total comes out to seven dollars and thirty-three cents.” He hands me eight dollars and I put it into the register as he says, “Keep the change.”
A slight smile appears on my face as I begin to prepare his things. I then hand him the two slices of pizza and his drink. He grabs them and says, “It was nice running into you.” He smiles and walks over to a table where there is a little blonde girl with pigtails tied up in ribbons sitting there awaiting him. I watch as he hands her the one slice of pizza and she imitates how he eats his. I giggle at the sight of her when everything goes dark and I remember something.
I see myself sitting in that same booth with my parents when I was younger. They would pretend that the fries were planes flying around and then they would eat them. Sometimes we would even take the wrappers from our straws and throw them at one another. The sound of our laughter was never ending. That day was filled with complete and utter happiness. I haven’t felt that way in a long time.
Work dragged on for another five hours or so. When I get home, I finish off my homework and study for about an hour. For dinner, I eat some carrot sticks with ranch and a seltzer water. Around eleven, I head downstairs to get a glass of water when I hear a quiet sobbing sound come from the living room. At the bottom of the stairs, I creep around the corner and peek in. I see my aunt sitting in a hunched position on the loveseat by the window. In her hand is a glass filled to the brim with red wine and in her other hand is a photo of her and my uncle Jim. It shows her on his back hugging him and both had the biggest smiles across their face.
I remember the day that was taken. My parents, my aunt and uncle, and I had all gone down to the beach for the weekend. I remember the hot sand, the warm salt filled ocean water, the bright sun shining down on all of us. That memory I remember in color, unlike everything else nowadays. The color in this world is beginning to fade for me. Bright and beautiful colors that make up everything are turning into black and white.
I look back at my aunt sitting in the moonlight. I see the wine bottle on the side table that we had gotten two days ago now nearly empty. Tears flow down her once naturally rosy cheeks. A tear runs down mine and I rub it away. I forget why I even came downstairs and so I go back up to my room and go to bed. Lying under the covers, I look out the window up at the glimmering moon up in the nighttime sky. I close my eyes and I can see them again, as if they never left me, and before I know it, I fall asleep.
The next day everyone at school seems to be in a state of hyperactivity. Teachers believe it to be due to the fact that it is Friday, but that is just an excuse people give themselves to act crazy. I walk into my World Beliefs class and see Noah sitting there in the back corner desk where I usually sit. I walk back and as I approach he says, “Hey! What are the odds? You’re in this class too?” I set my binder and notebooks down on the desk next to him and say, “Yeah. You’re actually sitting in my seat.” He looks up and down as if I mean another seat before he begins to get up to move. I hold my hand out stopping him and say, “It’s okay. You can sit there just this one time. But tomorrow, I get my corner window seat back.”
Noah smiles at me, sits back down, and says, “Okay, deal.” We settle in and get our laptops out. Mrs. Buckmaster, bubbly as always, asks how we are doing and then introduces what we are doing next. We are currently in the middle of learning Buddhism and so she decided our final project for the unit will be done in pairs. I look around to find everyone already paired up, all except for him. “Wanna be partners, partner?” he says, looking at me with a bright smile on his face. I smirk and say, “I don’t have any choice, do I?” His blue eyes sparkle in the sunlight and his smile is the most white I have ever seen. He says, “Nope. You’re stuck with me.”
We begin to work on our project and decide to hang out after school. From the high school we walk to Cocco’s Bar & Grill. When we arrive, the waitress walks up and seats us in a booth on the upper level and hands us our menus. Both of us decide that we are not that hungry, so when the waitress comes back, we ask for a pitcher of Diet Coke and two orders of cheese fries. We go over the basic ethics of Buddhism and meditation techniques. As the hours pass by, we go from talking about the Dalai Lama to talking about our personal lives.
As we go deeper into the details of our families, we both unintentionally stop talking. In the silence, Noah looks into my eyes with a worried look on his face. He then looks away and says, “A few years, ago my father died in a car crash. I’m not sure what the direct cause of it was, exactly, but he died on the scene. He was on his way back from a business trip when it happened.” My mouth slightly drops and I reach out to hold his hand. “I am so sorry, Noah. No one should have to go through that at such a young age.” He looks at me and holds onto my hand. His eyes water and he continues to tell me about his father and how close they were. “We would go fishing every Saturday morning and to church on Sundays. I can honest to God say that he was my best friend. Now I just live with my mom and my grandmother, my dad’s mom. They get worried about me a lot so if I get a call, it’s probably from them.” We both laugh and move on to some more lighthearted stuff.
We talk until the sun sets on the horizon. I look down at my phone and see that it is 8:27 already. “Crap! I have to get home.” I say to him. He gets up and holds out his hand, “May I walk you home?” I grab his hand and hold it in mine as we walk all the way to my house. As we silently stride along the sidewalk, I look up at the sky and see the full moon surrounded by shining stars. Noah sees me looking up and he looks up as well. He then glances back at me and smiles as we finally approach my house. Standing under the stars with the moonlight shining down on us, we say our goodbyes and go our separate ways.
Entering my house, it is pitch black and smells of bourbon whiskey. I peek outside the window and realize that my aunt’s car is parked in the driveway. I tiptoe up the stairs as quietly as I can. I walk over to her room and place my ear up against the door to see if I can hear anything. The door flies open and I try to stop myself from falling over. My aunt stood there with mascara running down her face. “Where the hell have you been?” she asks me.
I politely respond with, “I was out with a friend working on a project.”
“Friend? You don’t have any friends.” she slurs.
“Well, I made one.”
“Awe, look at you making friends. Now, be a good girl and go make me a martini.”
She then slams the door in my face. I stroll into my room and throw my backpack onto my bed. I then head downstairs to make her martini. I look in the trash can and see another empty wine bottle. When I am done, I head back upstairs, knock on the door, hand her the martini, and go back into my room. Luckily it is Friday so I just turn on some Billy Joel and draw for a bit.
Over the weekend, Noah and I begin a texting conversation. It turns out that we have a lot in common, more than I thought we would. Over the next few weeks, when I did not have work, I spend the rest of my time with him. During that course of time, the empty wine, along with vodka, bottles begin to rack up in our trash can. One day, I go into her purse to borrow a five dollar bill for lunch and I find a silver flask. I pull it out and smell what is inside. It reeks of vodka.
Today, is May 1st.
I wake up a bit later than usual because it is a Saturday. When I finally get out of bed, I head downstairs and make an egg white omelet with American cheese and turkey sausage. The smell of the sausage and egg white fill the air. When I finish cooking my food, I put it on a beautiful plate and head over to the dining table. I open all of the curtains and allow the warming sunlight to shine through.
After eating breakfast I head back upstairs and continue to read - my favorite book - Just One Day by Gayle Forman. Around three o’clock my phone rings. I look at the screen and see a text from Noah:
Hey! What are you doing on this beautiful day?
Ummm… reading. You?
Do you want to go to the carnival with me tonight?
Hmmm… I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.
Come on. I bet you don’t have anything else to do.
Fine. Meet you there at 6.
See ya there, partner!
Four o’clock comes around and I take a shower to freshen up. The boiling water heats me up and relaxes me. I then take the next hour to blow dry my hair and pick out the perfect outfit. I head over to my closet and look through every single top I have and sigh in frustration. “I seriously don’t have a single outfit I can wear for tonight? Really?”
I fall onto my bed and stare at my white chipped ceiling. I hear a knock on my door. “Open sesame!” she yells through the wooden door. I walk over, open it, and see her about to fall down . I grab her underneath her arm and lead her across the hall to her room and help her over to the bed. She falls asleep almost immediately. I find a bright pink post-it note and write that I am heading out to the carnival with Noah and will be back by midnight. I stick it on the cream lamp sitting on her night stand. I walk over and flip the light switch off so that she can get some rest. When I get back into my room, I walk over to my closet and say, “Okay. Round two.”
Everyone is out tonight. Parents with their children, teenagers, pre-teens, and then there is me. There are several rides that I have not been on in years and concession stands filled with all sorts of food that will make you gain a couple pounds. The lights brighten up the night sky and I can hear the cha-chings of the games. I walk up in front of the firehouse and search for Noah.
I suddenly feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around to see Noah in his usual t-shirt and jeans. He smiles, looks me up and down and says, “You look amazing.” I respond with a simple “thank you” and we head in. Lately the weather has been warm and humid so I chose a simple black tank top with a plaid shirt to wear over it, unbuttoned, a pair of dark jean shorts, and of course, my converse.
“What ride do you want to do first?” he asks me.
I look around and barely remember what it feels like to be on any of these rides. One catches my eye. Towards the center of the carnival is a ride that appears to look like paper airplanes that two people ride on, each on their stomachs. I point to that one and we run into the line. We only have to wait a minute or so until the ride stops and it’s our turn. Noah hands the ride instructor our tickets and he lets us in.
I pick one that looks pretty sturdy and we both get on. It’s head first and you lie on your stomach which instantly feels pretty weird, but I’m excited. Noah gets on next to me and then the ride instructor comes around and puts down the part of the ride that holds us in and makes sure it is secure. Noah turns and looks at me, his face only inches away from mine, and says, “You ready?” My stomach tightens and my heart begins to palpitate. My breath gets heavy and I hear Noah whisper, “Hey, look at me.” I look at him and see those beautiful blue eyes that I am so envious of.
My heartbeat slows back down to the normal rate as we begin to be lifted up in the air. I let out a slight squeal of excitement and nervousness. We are lifted into the air and the higher we go, the faster the ride gets. A cooling breeze blows in our faces and it feels as though I am flying. We are flying. I catch in the corner of my eye Noah glancing at me and smiling at the sight of me actually having fun. That feeling doesn’t very last long. Before I know it, the ride slows down and lowers us back to the ground.
As we get off, he looks at me and says, “So, what next?” We go on a few more rides and play a game where you throw baseballs at plates. The goal is to break at least three of the plates with a limited amount of baseballs. He buys each of us five baseballs and we begin throwing. I manage to hit five and he only hits one. With both of our hits combined, we won a large stuffed animal. He points at the large teddy bear with a blue bow tied around its neck and the guy running the stand takes him off the wall and hands him to Noah..
Noah then hands the bear to me and says, “So..”
“So…” I say.
“You have a really good arm.”
“Thanks. I’ve only played softball for about six years.” I say laughing.
“Really?” he says looking at my in shock.
“What? Are you really that surprised?” I ask looking at him.
“A little bit. I never took you for a sport-sy person.”
“Well…. I am.” I laughed.
We then head over to one of the concession stands to get some ice cream when Noah grabs his chest. I look at him concerned and ask, “Are you okay?” His face shows that he is in pain but he responds with, “I’m okay. Promise.” Within a few seconds, Noah falls to his knees holding his chest and wails in pain. I scream, “Someone help! Call 9-1-1! Hurry!” My heart beats out of my chest and I am in instant panic mode. I say to Noah, “It’ll be okay. The ambulance will be here soon. Hold on Noah.”
Before I know it, the ambulance shows up and the people put him onto a gurney and into the ambulance. Right before the ambulance door closes I jump in and sit next to him. The EMT puts a breathing mask over his nose and mouth and rushes to figure out what is wrong with him. Noah’s head turns to face me as his hand slowly reaches out towards me. I grab it and don’t let go.
When we get to the hospital, I stay out of their way and follow him as far as I can go. I sit in the waiting room and watch as doctors and nurses pass through. As I sit and stare at the floor my right leg shakes to the rhythm of my heartbeat. I think back to five years ago when I was spending the night at my aunt and uncle’s house. My aunt had received a call on her phone and she woke me up around eleven thirty at night to go to the hospital.
Sleepy and confused, I sat on one of the cold chairs in the waiting room leaning on my uncle Jim’s shoulder. A woman in a white doctor’s coat came out and my aunt and uncle went to talk to her. They were whispering but I could hear what she said, “Sarah was DOA and George didn’t make it through surgery. I am so sorry for your loss.” Time froze and my heart stopped.
“What!” I yelled at the doctor. I screamed and cried for my parents. All I wanted to do was see them again. My uncle held me back and took me outside for some fresh air, although that did not help me at all. A few days later we held the funeral and I played a song on the piano and sang their favorite song: Piano Man by Billy Joel. Family from all over came out to see them. I had my aunt and uncle. Before anyone else said their goodbyes, I walked up and stared at my parents. Their bodies lifeless, cold, pale, lying in those caskets to be buried six feet underground.
Just days ago they were kissing one another and we all laughed together about the most stupid things. They helped me with my homework and my dad was the one who taught me how to play softball when I was little. My mom had just gotten me my first container of clear mascara because my dad didn’t want me wearing makeup just yet. Then on a warm spring night, all of that disappeared in an instant.
“Are you Callie?” a woman asked. I look up to see a tall woman with short blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Behind her was an older woman with fluffy white hair and the same gorgeous eyes. “Yes. You must be Noah’s mom. It’s nice to finally meet you.” I say.
“It’s nice to meet you too. Although, I would have rather it been under different circumstances.” she says.
“Have you heard anything from the doctor?”
The older lady steps in and says, “He’s in surgery right now. He should be out in a few hours.”
“I can take you home so you can get some rest and then you can come and visit Noah first thing in the morning.” his mother says to me.
I accept the offer and she drives me home. That night, as I lie in bed, the stars aren’t shining as bright in the sky. The next morning I wake up early to go see him. As I walk into the hospital, I see his grandmother leaning on his mom’s shoulder. I make eye contact with his mom and she motions with her fingers the number “402.” I nod, smile, and mouth “thank you.”
As I approach room 402, I hesitate to go in. What do I say? What if he’s not okay? I think. Suddenly I get shoved into the room and as I turn around it is his mother walking by to go get another coffee. I smile and walk in to see Noah pale as snow lying in a hospital bed with IV’s in his arm. I go up and sit in the chair next to him and place my hand on his. His eyelids slowly open and he looks over at me.
“Callie… you’re here…” he effortlessly says.
“Of course I am. Where else would I be?”
He lets out a small laugh and then winces in pain.
“Are you okay?” I ask with concern.
“Yeah, I’m fabulous,” he says with a grin on his face.
His mom and grandmother come in with the doctor. I begin to get up when his mother tells me to stay. The doctor has a look of disdain and worry on his face. “So doctor, is he all ready to go home?” Noah’s grandmother asks. The doctor fidgets with the pen in his hand and comes out to say, “Unfortunately, he’s going to have to stay in the hospital and undergo treatment.”
“What treatment? For what?” Noah’s mother crosses her arms and her voice slightly raises.
“Your son has stage four heart cancer. He will have to undergo surgery and some serious treatment. He can’t leave the hospital. I’m very sorry,” the doctor says.
Time freezes again and the room spins and warps as if it were liquid being twisted in a swirl. I run out of the room, out of the hospital, and find a crevasse to hide in. I scream and yell and cry wondering why this is happening. He doesn’t deserve this. How could this possibly happen to him?
I run all the way home. When I come in, I slam the door shut behind me. I hear my aunt yell, “Where have you been all night?” but I ignore it and sprint up to my room. The next day I receive a text from his mom saying that Noah has been asking for me. I look into the mirror. My face is bright red, my eyes puffy, and my hands are a clammy white. Quickly I get dressed and go to visit him.
For the next few days I visit him in the hospital after school. I call out of work telling my boss that a family member is in the hospital and he allows it. Each day gets worse and worse for him. Although he tries to hide it, I can see his body weakening, his heart beating slower with every hour that passes by. On May 17th, I go in to visit him after receiving a text from his mom saying to get there quick.
I run to the hospital as fast as I can and get to his room. His mom and grandmother stand next to his bed, tears running down their faces, holding his hand. They see me in the doorway, panting, and give me a minute alone with him. On the monitor, I see that his heart beat is slowing down rapidly. He looks at me and smiles, “Callie… you made it…”
“Of course I did. What else do I have to do?” I say.
“Callie… I have something I need to tell you…”
“What is it Noah?”
“Take… my hand…”
His hand motions up a bit and I take it.
He says under his breath, “I love….”
“Noah?” I say.
The machine starts to beep and the doctors rush in along with his mom and grandmother. I begin to panic and move out of the way so they can help him. My lungs forget to breathe and my heart stops beating. His mother runs over to me and catches me as I fall onto the ground. We both cry, holding and comforting one another on the floor as the doctors lose him.
A few days later, I wake up and put on my black dress that I had bought the day before. I brush my hair and don’t even bother putting on any makeup. My aunt drives us to the church where we meet up with his mother and grandmother, along with the rest of his family. At the opposite end of the church rests the casket with Noah’s dead body. I slowly walk down, embracing myself for what I see.
When I walk up to the casket, I see his beautiful, lifeless body lying there. His eyes closed and his hands resting on his stomach. I look him up and down and remember how much fun we had in the past couple of months. His mother invites my aunt and me to sit with them in the front row. I am able to hold myself together for most of the service and the burial. But as his casket is closed and his body lowers into the ground, I think back to my parent’s funerals.
At the end of the service, his mother walks up to me and hands me a paper. She says, “He wrote this while he was in the hospital and asked me to give it to you.” I took the piece of paper and went to our favorite park up by the community center. I sat on the swing and opened the letter which read:
I am writing this to you while I am in the hospital, and if you are reading this, that means I didn’t make it. I found something out from my mom today that I needed to tell you. You know how I told you my dad died in a car crash? My mom told me today that she never told me, because she wanted to protect me, but my dad was driving drunk and he caused the accident. He crashed into a car that had a woman and a man in it who also died due to the impact. My mom then told me that they had a daughter.
Callie, it was the same night that your parents died. I am so sorry. I had absolutely no idea. Apparently my dad said he was on a business trip but she knew he was cheating on her with someone else. That night he got drunk and made the stupid decision to get in the car.
I am really sorry you had to find this out now Callie. I swear I didn’t know this when we met, so please don’t think badly of me. I want you to remember me as the guy you knew who was funny and always wanted you to be happy and live your life freely. Love with all your heart and live your life on the edge, because you never know when your last day may be.
Don’t live your life in sadness over my or your parent’s deaths. We will be looking down watching over you, and we will always be with you.
I love you Callie.
Forever and Always,