The Speaking Tree. (1)

March was in full-swing, wind whistling a bluesy tune, the world humming along. Everything, Rhys Torrence included, was a hot, torrid mess, as though to spite the damp spring chill. It had started earlier that day with his boss, Frank Hammer.

He waddled when he walked, huffing as though there was so much of himself that to get from one place to another required a herculean will. His beer belly poked out beneath the hem of his dirty white T-shirt, peeked over the lip of blue jeans that were desperate to not have to hold his considerable girth. If the worst that could be said about Frank Hammer was that he had a penchant for booze and was morbidly obese, Rhys could have gotten along with Frank okay. But Frank was worse than a fat drunk. He was an incurable grouch, a vulgar ass, a squinty-eyed despot and, worse of all, Rhys Torrence’s uncle. His mother, for her part, always had a vaguely apologetic cast to her face whenever Rhys mentioned Frank Hammer.

“You never do a god damn thing, do you?” Frank had accosted Rhys while Rhys leaned by the light pole outside his uncle’s shop, his belly rolling like a fat, white ocean.

Rhys leaned forward to blot out his cigarette’s mad red eye against the sidewalk before turning to face the store.

“You listening to me boy?” Frank had demanded, spittle whipping past his chipped teeth to land on Rhys’s cheek.

“I was taking a break. I get those still, yeah?”

Rhys tried to move past, to make it through the grimy-glass and into the musty, dimly-lit interior of Hammer’s Goods. There, he planned on ruminating on the shoelaces of his sneakers that were always coming untied, on the way the air conditioner rattled on and on like a wheezy, old man, on his long-standing plan to, come graduation, fill up the gas tank and drive until the road bled black beneath the cars and he didn’t see anything familiar around himself.

A meaty hand descended on his shoulder, and he found himself staring into Frank’s scowl.

“Don’t,” his uncle said, “ignore me when I’m talking to you, you little sn-”

His sentence was punctuated with a well-aimed fist, driven by Rhys’s desire to send cartilage reeling up into brain tissue. It wasn’t an entirely unsuccessful attempt, either, if the generous outpouring of blood was any indication. Frank Hammer stumbled back. The ground beneath him quivered in response.

“Son of a bitch!” Frank Hammer said. “Son of a bitch,” and his hand rubbed a trail through the blood. Rhys was about to say something about Madeline Hammer not being a bitch, but he caught the look in Frank’s eyes. He thought twice, thought a third time, just to be sure, and then turned his back on Frank.

His hand braved the perilous dive, past the garden of lint that flourished in his pocket, plumbing the denim depths until, at last, his fingers, still throbbing from the impact, seized on the keys.

“You don’t watch yourself, you’re going to end up like your father,” he heard Frank say behind him, and that was, to the best of Rhys’s reckoning, when the clambering beast that sometimes frolicked in his skull took to roaring. Certainly, he couldn’t make that noise. Certainly, the hands flying weren’t his. And that satisfying slap of flesh against flesh, the way the fat, meaty tissue of the stomach buckled beneath the onslaught of punches, that was not something that Rhys on his own would have exulted in.

It wasn’t Rhys’s fault that Frank Hammer had gone and brought that up.

Rhys thought he might keep going, too, until there was nothing left of flesh, until there was nothing left of bone or blood or organs, except that his movement was brought to a fierce and somewhat agonizing halt. Frank had, somehow, managed to maneuver his bulk so that he came behind Rhys, wrenching his arms back. Pinned tight against the rolling chest of the larger man, Rhys felt the roaring subside.

“Now,” Frank said, his breath hot in Rhys’s ear, “you get in that car of yours, and you drive away, and, when you come back in to work tomorrow, we’ll forget all about this. You got that, boy?”

Rhys grunted his assent. When Frank released him, he strode to the car as fast as his wounded dignity would allow him to. The seat was hot beneath him, and soon both man and store were a rapidly disappearing blur in the rearview mirror. Rhys had a habit of not looking into rearview mirrors, much.

The small town had a way of seeming almost alive when Rhys drove through it like this, little light poles sashaying past, small bushes scurrying along in their effort to go along with him, stores marching one after another. And then, Rhys came to that spot, the one where it all dropped away and there was nothing left but road and trees and streetlights and silence, and he slowed down to breathe.

He slowed down to breathe, and thought he’d slow the car down too. The only problem was, it kept slowing. It kept slowing until, with a throaty cough and a puff of smoke, it left Rhys with no choice but to pull over on the sloped grassy shoulder of the road. He stepped out and studied the wounded, rusty vehicle, watching the smoke seep lazily from beneath the hood of the car.

Rhys figured he probably ought not to make the vehicle the second victim of his rage for the day, and so he lit a cigarette and leaned against the car. It kept his mind quiet, at least, even if his foot tapped out an impatient rhythm that was muffled by grass and dirt. At last, the cigarette was gone and, since the smoke wasn’t, Rhys opened the hood of the car and turned his back on it. Trees erupted a few feet from the grassy area where Rhys stood, and it was toward that wild explosion of greenery that Rhys wandered now, lighting up the last cigarette he had.

Then, his feet took him off, as they had a way of doing. Rhys’s arms batted away scraping branches of the trees and his feet kicked at the restless shadows in front of him. He had half a mind of turning around and walking home and coming back for the car later. He almost had a full mind to do so when he noticed the trees had given way to a field.

It was sunlit, and dusted with flowers and birdsong. In the center of it was a tree, its branches spilling everywhere with spring-green enthusiasm and its trunk smooth and welcoming. It would have been perfect, if it hadn’t have been for the girl already sitting beneath it.

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