So, we've talked about how I'm a writer, but I've never actually shared any of my writing on my blog before. I think it's about time for that to change.
As you may know, I'm working on my first novel right now, but you may not know that my novel idea actually came from a short story I wrote in college. My book and the original story are quite a bit different in terms of character background and plot, but the same themes that run through my story will (hopefully) transfer to the book, as well. This story holds a special place in my heart because it was one of the first times I wrote something that touched me. When you're a writer, sometimes it feels like you are prostituting your characters, sticking them in situations just for the heck of it, but this story always felt natural to me. I could see Elby and Madelyn very clearly and their sweet friendship was the main reason I wanted to write a book. I wanted to know where these characters would end up.
Just to be clear, none of this will be in my book. This is absolutely not an excerpt or anything like that, but I hope you enjoy it!
Everything in Between
Madelyn walked across the sidewalk and headed for the weeping willow. Elby followed. She seemed okay—normal, even. Her hair was swept back into a lopsided ponytail, held by a pink elastic tie with a rainbow attached. The purple sneakers she’d owned since he’d met her had two holes where her big toes had rubbed through the fabric, revealing her neon green socks, and she wore a black t-shirt with a splattering of tiny holes around the collar. She looked the way she always did, lying in the cool dirt beneath the drooping branches, the green light falling in ripples across her arms, her cheeks, her hands. Elby wanted to touch her, to feel her fingers, to hold her hand for the first time in their special place. He’d walked by this tree in his front yard everyday of his life without realizing what it would someday mean to him.
She’d saved his life too many times to count when she’d used the tree’s readily available supply of IVs to rehydrate his body, to give him a full blood transfusion, or to replace his human arteries with metal ones, making him a cyborg. Elby had started a salad restaurant when Madelyn wanted to be a vegetarian, and turned it into a hamburger stand when she started craving meat. They’d eaten the leaves after they watched the Land Before Time on the old television in his closet and heard the dinosaurs call them ‘Tree Stars’. It was their secret cave, their hospital, their restaurant, and the only place no one except them cared about.
“Do you love me, Elby?” Madelyn reached up to pluck a leaf from one of the branches, and placed it across her lips, letting her breath lift it slightly and then pull it back tight as she inhaled, like a boat at sea.
Elby balled his hands into his lap and straightened his legs out in front of him. He knew he thought about Madelyn all the time, but that could be because she was the only person he liked to talk to, outside of Daniel and Allen. He also knew that if he thought any girl was pretty, it would be Madelyn.
“I’m not sure. How would I know?” He stared into the tangle of branches over his head, suddenly aware of how close their hands were. Dewy leaves dangled over them, dropping water when the wind blew.
“Well, do you think I’m pretty?” Madelyn turned her head to look at him. Silver lip gloss colored her lips, and small clumps had formed at the corners of her mouth. Puddles of blue sat atop her cheeks, giving her eyes a faraway look. He could tell she hadn’t been sleeping. He wanted to make a pillow of fallen leaves, lay her down, and protect her while she slept.
“Yeah, I guess so.” He leaned back on his palms, and he could feel dirt sticking to his sweat. Madelyn looked back into their green-tinted sky.
“Thanks,” she said.
Elby couldn’t decide if all of this meant he loved her or not, and she didn’t say. He didn’t mind, though. Madelyn always taught him new things, and he knew she’d tell him sooner or later what the answer was. For the time being, he was happy to press his head into the dirt, thinking that he’d almost told a girl he loved that he loved her for the first time.
A few nights earlier the sound of mechanical birds had woken Elby up from a perfectly forgettable dream, and if it hadn’t been for the red and blue lights flashing across his ceiling, he probably would’ve fallen back asleep. He didn’t, though. Instead, he slipped his bare feet into a pair of tennis shoes, and crept down the hall. Daniel’s room, just as dark as Elby’s, was unfamiliar, and Elby tripped over a bean bag. The mattress springs squealed as Daniel rolled over and turned on his lamp.
“What in the hell are you doing?” Daniel’s eyes barely opened, and Elby couldn’t decide if he was actually awake or not. Elby wanted to explain everything—what had happened, why he needed to follow her and be with her.
“Can you take me to the hospital?” His voice came out frantic, on the verge of breaking, and Daniel almost dismissed him, until he saw the same faint glow of blue and red across his curtains.
“Shit. Yeah, okay. Give me a minute.” Daniel didn’t ask anymore questions, and Elby was surprised, but relieved. Daniel couldn’t have known what had happened, and Elby wouldn’t explain it to him. He’d promised Madelyn over and over, their pinkies twined together like rope, that he’d never tell anyone about her dad.
Elby took soft steps down the hall to the hook by the back door where his mom kept her keys, his tennis shoes squeaking lightly on the hardwood. Daniel didn’t have a license, but he had a permit, and Elby figured that was good enough. Besides, if all went well, they’d be home before she even woke up, as long as the ambulance didn’t draw her out of bed. Daniel came down the hall louder than Elby would’ve liked, but he wasn’t in a position to critique the way Daniel snuck out of the house.
By the time they’d made it to the car the ambulance was gone, but Mr. Zerger stood on his front porch talking with a police officer. His shirt was unbuttoned, revealing his bare chest, and he still had his jeans and tennis shoes on. He didn’t look up as they drove past, but Elby knew he must have seen them. His arms crossed over his chest as he shook his head at whatever the officer said.
“Bastard,” Daniel said under his breath. He too was shaking his head, and Elby watched the digital lines of the clock shift from 12:47 to 12:51 before Daniel said anything else.
“Was it Madelyn or her mom?” His voice was quiet, the same voice he used to whisper in church during prayer.
“What?” Elby had heard him, but his brain had settled into the silence, and Daniel’s voice had startled him.
“In the ambulance. Was it Madelyn or her mom?”
The roads were empty and all of the stop lights flashed yellow or red, but Daniel didn’t stop at any of them. Elby didn’t think he’d ever been out of his house this late, and he wished Madelyn was with him. She told him once that when she was seven and afraid of the dark, she’d decided to spend the night in her backyard. Elby felt like this was his night in the backyard—following Madelyn, seeing what happened to her. All of it made him feel like he was floating further and further away from his own life, from everything safe. When she’d finally told him about what happened at her house, he understood how she could be brave enough to spend a night alone under the stars—it was nothing compared to a night alone under her parent’s roof.
“I don’t know.”
Madelyn came into his life covered in glitter and holes, and Elby knew he had to keep her. Elby was a collector of collectibles, and he could tell immediately that Madelyn was rare. So far he’d written “Elby’s Collectibles” on the side of a brown cardboard moving box and littered the bottom with a Tennessee state quarter, a Freedom stamp, a Dalmatian beanie baby, a shiny red river rock, and at least one player’s card from every major US sport except hockey. He didn’t know how he’d collect her, exactly, but he thought the right picture could work.
The first time he’d seen her, she’d decided to spend the day in the weeping willow in front of his house, the only tree like it on the block, and his mom had sent Elby out to see if she was lost.
“Why do I have to do it?” Elby backed away from the window, trying to dissolve into the lilac wallpaper.
“Because she’s closest to your age.” His mom had already opened the front door, not phased by his obvious reservations about talking to a strange girl, and ushered him onto the porch.
“Make me proud, little brother.” Daniel stood in the doorway to his room, smiling and blowing kisses into the air as a sadistic sort of encouragement. Allen stood behind him laughing, even though he probably didn’t get the joke. Elby stuck out his tongue before his mom closed the door on him, trapping him in the vacuum of space without so much as a tether.
He’d forgotten to put shoes on, and despite the hot day, the cement in the shade was cool on his feet. Tiny pebbles nestled between his toes and burrowed into the soft flesh of his heels. From the top stair he could see a pair of purple sneakers with silver shoe laces peeking out from beneath the long, lazy limbs of the willow. The sneakers fell sideways and came together again like the paper fan he’d made once in art class. He walked towards the tree slowly, stomping his bare feet on the concrete to give her a warning that someone was coming over. However, after making it out of the shade, he was forced to sprint forward into the grass so he wouldn’t burn his feet, and he found himself a mere six feet from the base of the tree.
“You can’t touch me in here. This is a peaceful planet, but I do have a force field that can blast you into a zillion pieces if you take another step.” She spoke through the branches, and Elby wondered if she could see him. Maybe the tree was like one-way glass.
“Uhm. My mom wanted me to see if you were lost or something?” Elby threw the words in the general direction of the tree, hoping they’d find her. “We have a phone, if you need it.”
The purple shoes jumped with surprise, and a flurry of limbs lifted the girl off the ground and propelled her through the branches.
“Oh. Sorry about the force field thing.” Her weight shifted from her toes to her heels and back again before she looked up at him.
“That’s alright. So, are you…lost?” Elby took a few steps back towards the door, and turned his body slightly away from her, hoping that if she was in trouble she would take the hint and not tell him.
“Not on accident.” She smiled at him and he could see a small gap in her bottom teeth where she’d recently lost a tooth.
“I am lost, but on purpose.”
Elby didn’t ask what she meant, and she didn’t talk like she would have given him a clear answer even if he had.
“Do you need a phone?” He prayed she didn’t because he doubted his own ability to handle the torment he’d receive if she walked through his living room in full view of both of his brothers.
“No thanks. Is it okay if I stay here for awhile?” Her eyes lowered as she asked, as though she was embarrassed, and Elby couldn’t understand how a tree could hold the answer to her boredom. Even before he answered, she began retreating back to its shade.
“Yeah, sure.” He watched her slip between the hanging branches, and he turned back towards his front door, to safety, regularity.
“You can stay, if you want. I mean, it is your tree, after all.”
Elby didn’t know why, but he turned and walked back towards the tree, following her into the damp darkness. He felt certain his whole family was watching through the window, and he knew he’d never hear the end of this with Daniel. Wet dirt stuck to the bottoms of his feet like a second skin, and he was surprised by the amount of space around the tree trunk. The girl was readjusting a pile of fallen leaves into a makeshift pillow. She looked at home here, as though she’d lived her entire life in this tree, bathing in the rain and sleeping in its skinny boughs. A crown of hair sprawled out around her pillow, and she plucked several long leaves to wrap around her fingers like rings.
“I’m Madelyn, by the way. I live in that blue house on the corner.” She pointed through a small gap in the branches, but Elby knew which house she was talking about.
“Wow, it’s nice.” His mom raved about the garden lining their sidewalks on a daily basis, and twice Daniel had to stop her from knocking on the front door to see if the man who lived there had a gardener she could call. He wondered if the gray-haired man was her dad or a gardener.
“Yeah, I guess,” she said with her eyes closed. “My mom and I lived with my aunt in Tulsa for awhile. We just moved back last weekend.”
“Did you like it there?” Elby wanted to know everything there was to know about her.
“Shouldn’t I at least know your name first?” She opened one eye to look at him, but quickly closed it again.
Elby told her how everyone used to call him ‘little brother,’ until they shortened it to ‘LB,’ and, finally, to ‘Elby.’ He told her about his dad leaving right after Allen was born, the milkshake flavored milk that was sometimes served at the school cafeteria, and his collection of collectibles.
“So you only collect things that other people collect? Can’t anything be a collectible, though?
“I only add something to my collection if I really like it or I’ve met someone who collects it.” Elby had crossed his legs, thoroughly dirtying his cargo shorts, his back against the trunk of the tree. “Do you collect anything?”
Madelyn lifted her head from her leaf pillow and rested on her elbows. Elby could tell she was thinking, so he kept quiet and watched her process. After a minute or two she sighed and lay back down in the dirt.
“My mom said she was a collector of bruises and heartbreak.”
He didn’t tell her, but he didn’t think that answer really counted—neither of those things would fit in his box.
A red sign reading ‘EMERGENCY’ stuck out from the side of the building, and Elby ran towards it, as Daniel tried to keep up.
“Are you sure she’s even here?” Daniel’s eyes darted around like he was looking for a way out, an escape. Elby didn’t answer.
The emergency entrance had a glass door and large windows on either side, but they were tinted too dark for Elby to see through them. He stopped short of the door, scared, for the first time, that Madelyn wouldn’t be okay. Daniel straightened up and placed his hand on Elby’s shoulder. He didn’t push or pull him, but his familiar weight sat there, reassuring and warm as Elby opened the door and stepped inside.
It wasn’t as bright as Elby had imagined it would be. In fact, several of the fluorescents were turned off and a few more were flickering. To Elby’s left, several empty receptionists’ desks ran the length of the wall. A couple with a crying baby took up four dark red chairs in the center of the room and a teenager with a towel around his finger sat in the corner, using his other hand to text. A web of hallways ran from the room in all different directions, and through the glass door directly across from him, Elby could see Madelyn huddled in a red chair. A female officer with a ponytail sat on one side of her and an elderly man on the other, maybe her grandpa. A discarded teddy bear lay on the floor beneath her and Elby imagined an officer handing her the bear outside her house, and Madelyn, unable to refuse, accepting it.
Now that he’d seen her, Elby didn’t have a plan. He thought about sitting down, waiting for her in one of the blood-colored chairs in the waiting room, but he didn’t know what he’d say when she and her mom came out. Maybe she wouldn’t even want him here.
“Maybe we should go, Elby. You saw her, she’s fine.” Daniel ran his hand over his bed head to smooth out his unruly tangles, and gestured to the police officer. “I just don’t think there is much we can do.”
Elby walked to the glass, looking more confident than he felt, he was sure, and knocked on it. The glass was cold and hard under his knuckles. He saw Madelyn jerk at the noise, and everyone in the hallway turned to look at him. He lifted his hand to give a shy wave to Madelyn. The female officer placed her hands on her knees and dragged herself into a standing position. Two weary strides closed the distance between her and Elby, and she opened the door.
“There is police work going on here. Quickly move through if you need to, or go back to the waiting room, please.” The officer held the door open, giving him the choice to walk past her and down the hallway or to turn around and leave. Elby watched Madelyn as she saw him. Her eyes glazed over his plaid pajama shorts, slid past him to see Daniel standing nervously by the front door, and lowered back to the floor. The older man in the chair next to her wrapped his arms around her thin shoulders and pulled her into his chest. She melted there, in her robin egg blue flannel pajamas and her holey purple sneakers. Elby watched her dissolve into shaking shoulders and tears until he couldn’t watch anymore. He turned around with out saying anything to Madelyn or the officer, walked past Daniel, and left.
Three days passed before Elby looked out and saw her, standing in his front yard, waiting for him.
Elby couldn’t know that this silver-lipped girl was the last Madelyn he would see. He didn’t know that he was about to be offered his first and only chance at loving her. Elby, sitting under the willow tree everyday for two weeks after she never came back, couldn’t know that one day soon he’d walk past it without checking underneath for purple sneakers and silver laces.