The treehouse fell down on a Tuesday. It wasn’t unexpected.
It had been dangling for a while, balanced precariously on two boughs of the swaying willow tree. The floor had rotted through two years ago. We had only discovered this when Charlie climbed up and nearly came back down the hard way after trying to clamber inside. The posters on the walls—Nirvana, One Direction, Katy Perry—had all faded until they were remnants of blank white smiles and some impression of color.
On Tuesday, the treehouse fell down. Charlie watched it happen, but I wasn’t outside. I was indoors making mac and cheese. Charlie said it looked like a capsizing ship. When I saw its remains, shattered wood and rusty nails scattered all over our lawn, it looked to me like a broken egg. A waste.
The house had seemed so majestic when our dad had hammered the final nail in and let us climb up. I thought it strange timing, though. Not two weeks before he started the project, I had snuck downstairs and heard our parents arguing about selling the house. The treehouse became my haven, a welcome shelter from the reality that waited down on the ground.
Even though the thing had been lost to nature for years, I could still picture every intimate detail in perfect clarity. It was barely five feet tall, all rough wood and poking splinters. Its triangular roof had two beams stretching across it, one which was wrapped in colorful ribbons that I had stolen from my art classroom and the other which was covered in stickers, glitter, and glued-on feathers. My dad spent hours up there with us despite the limited height and floorspace. There were paint smears all over the floor from when he’d help us craft our art masterpieces, from when he’d craft his own. As much as the treehouse was ours, it was undeniably his.
One long-gone Thursday, after Charlie and I got home from school, I had to drag him by the wrist out of the house after our parents’ yelling reached a fever pitch. We sat in the treehouse painting on the walls with our fingers. It took me nearly an entire bottle of paint to correctly render all my letters onto the wall of the treehouse, but it was partly because Charlie rubbed his hands all over the first draft and forced me to join in to hide the evidence.
By the end, we were sticky with paint and glue. Charlie had decided to construct a ramshackle chair for one of my dolls with popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue. I can’t remember if he succeeded or not. Those dolls had rotted away in the treehouse after too much rain clogged them up and filled them with mold.
Our dad began climbing the rope ladder about a half an hour before the sun would fully set. I could tell that dusk was falling because the sun had finally stopped blinding me from where it shone through the only window in the whole place. I could tell that my dad was climbing up because the rope ladder always creaked, and the treehouse always tilted just a degree to the left. I was never scared that he would tip the treehouse over—he was invincible, immune to any opposition the earth could present him with. If I ever needed someone to hide behind to rescue myself from sticky fingers and a blue-streaked face, I’d pick Dad.
“Whoa!” Dad yelled when he stuck his head up into the treehouse and Charlie ran at him with his bright blue hands. He might have said something like, “Did you get into the blueberry bushes, buddy?” or “Wow, you’re turning into a mini Picasso already!” or something equally charming. We had cycled through this scenario so many times that it had become rote. They fought, we ran, he came up to the tree.
To fit within our routine, I probably said something like, “Charlie got into the paint again,” all pouty, because I hated when Charlie got our dad’s attention; maybe something like “He ruined my painting and I had to start over,” because I hadn’t yet gotten the memo that it wasn’t always in my best interest to throw Charlie under the bus.
“Aww, did he?” Dad asked charmingly, ruffling my hair, which was also crusty with paint and God knew what else. But I remember what broke our routine here, and I think this will haunt me for the rest of my days. Dad spotted the initials that I had painted in the back wall, and even eleven-year-old me recognized some of the expressions he cycled through: surprise, joy, anger, sadness, and finally heartbreak.
“Aww, darling,” he said finally. There was a lump in my throat. For the life of me, I didn’t know why. “Is that all of us together?”
It was. I had painstakingly positioned my and Dad’s initials right next to each other, with Charlie’s right below ours. Our mom’s were slightly below his, in much fainter paint—I had run out and hadn’t bothered to refresh my fingers with fresh pigment.
The tension was too thick for me to break. There was a pressure in the air, pinning down my tongue, squeezing my throat. I felt like if I moved, if I breathed, the entire treehouse would crumble around us and we’d fall down and down until we reached China. Dad stared at the initials, following the progression of our names to Charlie’s name to Mom’s, and there was a depth to his eyes that I had never seen before.
He could have corrected me. Reminded me that we should all be on one line, in our own little group. That we were all a family, not just me and him and maybe Charlie. He could have knelt down on the ground and offered to help me fix it.
He ruffled my hair again, smiled down at me, and said, “I love it, sweetheart.”
Maybe Dad knew something I didn’t. That his time with us was limited, that our family was unfixable, that their accident was inevitable. I’d like to imagine that he would’ve told us if he did know. Don’t shut yourself in your room to avoid me,I imagine he’d say to me when I was thirteen and angsty and too old to play with my dad anymore. You’ve only got a month left with me. Let me sit in this rickety little treehouse and play and paint with you and pretend that my wife won’t try to kill me.
Charlie and I climbed the willow tree that evening. We had to dodge the rotten timber littering the lawn before we reached its trunk. It was scarred with notches that our dad had tried to carve into the tree to help us climb up before he gave up and installed a rope ladder instead. It was torn from its post a year ago by a hurricane. I don’t know how the treehouse survived. Maybe the last of my dad’s stubbornness. It was probably wood glue.
We sat in the tree’s crooked branches for an hour. The treehouse had warped the tree so that half of its limbs dangled flat and low to support our play structure. To see this ancient tree crooked from our hubris seemed like a waste, now that the treehouse was gone. It seemed like a rebuke. Like failure.
You forgot, you forgot,wailed the emptiness between me and the tree trunk. I wanted to say I had to,but I knew it was a lie.
“It’s kinda funny,” Charlie said. “We haven’t come up here in so long, and it fell anyway. I forgot it could.”
I sat there. The bark of the willow tree was rough, but its leaves were wispy, and they tickled. I rapped my knuckles on the branch, and I said, “it was fifteen years old. It was only a matter of time. I’m going to make dinner.”
I made burgers and we ate leftover mac and cheese. The window in front of the stove aimed right at the remains of the treehouse. In the golden light of the sunset, I could see the initials of all of our family members that I had drawn in red paint on one of the ceiling panels, but the wood had cracked through the middle. Charlie and my name were split away from our parents’. I hadn’t seen any of the contents of the treehouse in years, not since the rope ladder was torn down and the floor grew too precarious to stand on. It was an unwelcome reminder to see them again now.
Charlie didn’t remember the night of the accident right. He insisted that our mom wasn’t the one who jerked the wheel; that it was actually our dad, spinning us into a drift to try and pitch us off a cliff. Charlie couldn’t recall the long evenings in the treehouse, just him, dad, and me, stamping our hands in paint to create little turkeys that Dad would stick googly eyes onto. He wouldn’t have steered us right into a telephone pole and left Charlie and I alone.
Neither Charlie nor I would budge on this subject. It was a point of contention, exacerbated by our residence in our childhood home. Old wounds torn open. Neither of us could afford a place of our own, but neither of us could bear to let the old one go.
On a dark Tuesday night, my life as I knew it was destroyed. It was ruined on a rainy road in a little compact Toyota, while I sat in the backseat with Charlie’s socked feet in my lap. I’ve forgotten more about this night than I recall, but I’ll start with what I remember before I continue with what I know.
The car seats were black fabric, not leather, because they didn’t make my legs sweat when I wore shorts. I was sitting behind my mother, and she had her hair twisted into a bun at the crown of her head. My dad was wearing a blue collared shirt. The windshield wipers on our old car used to squeak whenever we turned them on high enough, so all I could hear was the spray of our tires against asphalt, the squeak of the windshield, and the patter of rain against the roof of the car.
I remember that there was a fight that afternoon, the worst fight I’d heard in a while. Maybe ever. I remember I heard the word “divorce.” I know I heard the word “die.”
I remember that the roads we drove on were curvy and poorly paved, because I kept hitting my head on the side of the car and Charlie’s feet kept accidentally kicking me in the gut. I remember that my parents were leaning away from one another. I remember the sound of crumpling metal, the feeling of heat licking my skin, the way the fabric of Charlie’s coat crumpled in my hand as I pulled him by the arm out of the car.
The police don’t know what happened. I do. I know that my mom was taking an easy turn, with me dozing off in the backseat. I know that my mom, maybe shattering through some wall that she had built up in her mind, let out a mindless wail of rage and turned the steering wheel in her hands towards the guardrail. I know that my dad reached out to stop her, to try and guide us back onto the futile road of asphalt, of life. I know that he failed.
Charlie thinks he knows what happened too. He thinks he knows that our mom was taking an easy turn, with him asleep in his sister’s lap. He thinks he knows that our mom continued on the easy turn until our dad reached out to turn the steering wheel towards the guardrail. He thinks he knows that our mom wailed to beg him to stop, to let her get us back onto the futile road of asphalt, of life. I know that he’s wrong.
At four in the morning on Wednesday, I watched rain soak the wood and soothe the earth beneath. I was suddenly overcome with anger. How could it just fall? After the games, the toys, the initials, the only remnants of a family that I wish I could forget, it suddenly groaned and collapsed under the weight of its legacy? On a Tuesday?
I stormed out of the house. I didn’t bring shoes. I wore nothing but a loose shirt and a pair of shorts. I stood in front of the wreckage, the sunken ship, the broken egg, soaked by the rain, the wind lashing at my hair. I think I might have screamed at it, or stomped my feet, or sobbed. There was no one to hear but Charlie, but he left me to my confrontation with the monument of the memories that I had tried to leave behind.
I stared down at finger-painted turkeys, uneven gashes, Katy Perry’s faded smile. They stared back at me. I wondered if they recognized me, the giggling little girl who smeared red paint on her dad’s shirt and in her brother’s hair. If my father’s ghost was anywhere, it was here, all around: shattered wood, rotten memories, the echoes of joy and sorrow that I—that we—had to leave behind.
It wasn’t unexpected, Dad whispered. His eyes twinkled. There was no one there. The accident, the fall.It was expected. We are gone. Does it matter who killed who?
The sound I made—a scream, a sob—was lost to a roll of thunder that I felt in my teeth. I drove my heel into the initials in the center of the wreckage and ground them into wood pulp and weeping paint.
The next morning, I had papers laid out in front of me. My eyes were probably red, but I doubt Charlie noticed. He came downstairs, rubbing his eyes, and blindly groped for the coffee pot.
“I was thinking about Dad last night,” I said. I liked to test the waters with Charlie in the early mornings, to see what mood he was in. Sometimes, he’d get so angry—purple-faced, white-knuckled, spittle-flying angry. He got it from our dad, I think. [more]
“I want to sell the house,” I said. “I can’t look at that ugly tree anymore.”
He stared at me, then the shattered ceiling panel seemed to catch his eye. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah.” It was a Wednesday. It wasn’t unexpected.
About the Author: Mason Earle is a high school senior in New York City.