The ground begins to shake beneath me. I stumble to the nearest park bench and sit down hard. The cobblestones in front of me crumble; the branches of the oak tree above me vibrate and tremble. My heart skips a beat as I look to my left and some guy with a grey beard three benches down is flattened by a large falling branch. Further down, tree limbs are being flung like pick-up-stix, and to my horror the largest one takes out a pair of joggers. The couple are crushed in an instant. I blink. To my right, a towering ash is uprooting as pedestrians and dog walkers scramble toward the street. The giant trunk teeters for a moment in slow motion, and then in a split second crashes to the pavement, squashing the horde like so many mutant cockroaches.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath, thinking I should never have walked into the park. When I open them, the joggers have stopped in front of me; one of them is adjusting her shoe. I look left and the guy with a grey beard is mumbling at pigeons. Up the block a couple of dog walkers are chatting about nothing at all as their clients wag their tails and sniff at one another. I stand on unsteady legs and try to focus on my breathing and not looking up. People have told me I have a penchant for flights of fancy, but the things I see feel real to me.
I make it home and am careful to crack open the front door to my apartment just enough to reach my hand through and release the trip wire before entering. Once, in a state of drunkenness, I had forgotten to do that. I would have been brained senseless by the falling bucket of stones that I keep perched above the foyer, had I not ducked out of the way in the nick of time.
My one room apartment doesn’t get much light even when the heavy shades are open, so I turn on the light and quickly assess the room. The bare light bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling casts concentric circles of light and shadow on the floor. The lime green paint is peeling from the walls in places, and I worry that insects may be hiding among the flakes. But a quick scan reveals nothing, so I walk across the bare linoleum to the lone cot, check underneath for changes or movement, and sit down to remove my torn sneakers and ratty socks and jeans. I throw them on top of the pile of laundry in the corner next to a small portable fridge.
There’s a half empty coffee mug on the floor next to the cot and I top it up from the cold pot next to the microwave. Once it’s heated, I blow on the oily black surface and walk barefoot to my computer. I can’t stand anything made from wood, so I have a makeshift desk made from empty milk crates turned upside down near the shaded window. Checking underneath for roots or anything else that may have grown while I was out, I remove my shirt and sit down in my underwear on a cobalt blue gaming chair. My prize possession, the only furniture I ever spent money on. It’s on wheels and reclines at all angles so you don’t get a stiff neck during long battles. It swivels too, so when things really get going you can take a ride across the room with just a kick or a twist. Once when I was rolling around the floor dodging stones and branches at three in the morning, my downstairs neighbor pounded on the ceiling.
I examine the computer keys for signs of growth between them, and everything looks normal so I light a cigarette and log in. There are sixteen messages in my inbox. One is a friend request from S1ckTrekkerChuck, and I immediately accept, although I have no idea who he is. There’s also one from LazyInAlabama asking if I’m up for a plane crash at 8 o’clock. Games in The Forest always start with a plane crash, but no one gets killed until later in the game.
I write back: “I’m in.”
My evening is set. I’ll be in The Forest till late.
Next day I’m up at noon and have to be at the shop by 2. I work at a Ground Floor-ista on West 44th Street, where I spend afternoons making art with microfoam for Lululemon ladies and pulling shots for people in business suits. They call me a barista, and people say I have the right look because I’m tall and skinny with long black hair that I keep in a pony tail. My beard is short, but I keep thinking next year I’ll grow it long for when I turn 21. I secretly hope it will cover up the scars on my jaw and upper lip, but Jill tells me I should always keep it short because I look sexy that way. She works next to me behind the counter and has short black spiked hair and a lot of tattoos and piercings that are cool so I listen to what she says. I like Jill a lot.
I always take the subway to work. It makes me feel safe to be underground, except I worry about roots. But I figure if there are any growing down there the train will cut right through them, so it’s better than being on a city bus where limbs and branches might fall and crush it. Or worse yet, riding a bike. A lot of people have been hit by falling branches while riding bikes and even the ones wearing helmets don’t survive. Bikes are dangerous. I think the branches are aiming right at them.
The subway ride is smooth, and once I’m at the shop, the smell of roasted beans fills the air. The whirring of the grinders and the hissing of the milk as it steams soothes my nerves. My afternoon goes pretty well until a certain couple approach the bar to place their order. While I’m grinding, I hear them talking about a book one of them is reading.
“It’s so great, Jackie. It’s by that guy who wrote that other one you liked. The Inner Life of Animals, I think it was. You can read it when I’m finished.”
“What’s the title again?” says Jackie.
“The Heartbeat of Trees. It just came out.”
By the time I hand these two ladies their lattes, panic is setting in—my hands are shaking and it’s hard to breathe. I turn to Jill and tell her I’m going out for a cigarette. I’m standing outside smoking and there’s a plaza across the street with some newly planted greenery. It looks harmless enough, but I’m having a panic attack as I flash back to my experience in the park. I’m thinking I’ve got to get home before branches start getting hurled and roots start breaking up the pavement. I don’t want to get swallowed up or crushed.
I go back in and tell Jill I’m sick and have to go home. But as I approach the subway I hear a lot of sirens and there are police and fire trucks next to the station entrance. They aren’t letting anyone on the train, so I start walking. More like running, actually. And by the time I get to 94th street I’m beat because just about every block on the west side of Manhattan has trees of some type or other. I’m weaving around to avoid them and listening to see if I can make out their heartbeats over the traffic noise in the streets.
My apartment is on the sixth floor and there’s no elevator, so by the time I climb the stairs and reach home I’m really sweating. But after the usual precautions and having some re-heated coffee, I start to breathe easier. I decide to settle back into The Forest at my computer where it’s reassuring to know I’m in control. I’m by myself this time, so I spend time setting booby traps for the genetically altered enemies that lie in wait. Once I’ve laid a safe perimeter, I recline in my cobalt blue chair and begin to arm myself by gathering stones on my screen. And I wait.
The next day is my day off, and I remember that I’m supposed to go see Erika. She’s a therapist Jill recommended. I told Jill I don’t have much faith in shrinks, but she said I should just try talking to Erika because she’s different. I started seeing her a couple of weeks ago and she listens and gives good advice. Her office is great because everything is carpeted and leather and smooth. It feels good to sit on her sofa with pillows behind me.
I’ve been waiting all week to tell her about this Netflix documentary I saw about alien abductions. These lunatics are out of their fucking minds. I mean, they actually believe that earth has been invaded and that people are being taken prisoner and forced to have sex with aliens. I can’t get my head around the stupidity of these idiots. What fantasy world are they living in?
Erika and I discuss UFOs for a while, and she seems to agree with me, but says there’s not much we can do about it, and besides, what harm are these people causing? I’m about to challenge that mindset because we live in a post-fact world and I’m about to go off on a rant about it because I’m pissed.
So Erika says maybe we can continue with that next week because I had promised her that today I would tell her stories about my parents, and she seems interested in those.
“Tell me about your father,” Erika says.
“He died when I was three.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Go on. What do you remember about him?”
“He was tall.”
“Like his son,” Erika says.
“He was always off on a business trip somewhere, and once the plane he was flying in crashed in some bad weather. At least, that’s what Mary told me.”
“Mary is my mom,” I say.
“I see. You call her… So you really never got to know your father, then.”
“And do you really think he was on business and died in a crash?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I say.
“Well, you sounded like you might not have believed what your mom told you,” Erika says.
“Yea.” I say. “Maybe not.”
“What about your mother?” Erika says.
I start shifting around on the couch. The pillows behind my back aren’t feeling as comfortable.
I say, “Mary. Most of what I remember is how mad she was all the time and that she threw things.” I’m starting to feel sweat trickle down my back.
“What things?” asks Erika.
“They didn’t hit me that often, but once in a while a dish or a plate would nail me in the face and I would lock myself in the bathroom and look in the mirror at the blood.”
I stand up and look around the room.
“Are you all right?” asks Erika. “Can I get you a glass of water?”
I look out the window and say, “Sometimes Mary would come home with some guy or another. She was convinced he would save us, but usually he would hang around for a night or two and then split.”
Erika is studying my face and has a concerned look on hers. “I see,” she says. “But what I was getting at is what else did she throw at you?”
“Nothing. Just stuff in the kitchen.” I sit back down and look straight at Erika. “You think that’s what made these marks on my face.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Where is Mary now?” Erika says.
“California.” I say.
“I see. And do you hear from her? Do you speak by phone or facetime?”
“Nope.” I say. “I’m dead to her.”
“I’m sorry. Do you have a photo of her?”
“At home maybe.” I look at the clock on the wall and say, “Can we talk about something else?”
It’s the weekend again, and I stay at home in The Forest. LazyInAlabama and I are locked in combat. Which is a strange thing to say about someone who asked to be your friend. It occurs to me that LazyInAlabama and I should pool our resources because while we were away, the genetically altered enemies started to regroup and now the trees are on their side too. Things are looking dire, so I send him a message, to which he replies, “Screw you.”
Just over a hundred years ago, in a remote area of Siberia, there was a massive explosion that’s known today as the Tunguska event. It was caused by an asteroid or comet hitting the earth’s atmosphere and exploding. Almost 750 square miles of forest were demolished. A few eye witnesses actually saw it happen. They said there were huge explosions and blinding flashes of light.
The fireball flattened more than 80 million trees. I wish I could have seen that.
I don’t eat much, but when I get hungry I go on GrubHub for Chinese. They deliver late, and I like the guy that comes to my door with the food. His name is Jimmy. I told Jimmy once that he is brave to ride a bike all over town making deliveries. He laughed and looked at me funny but that didn’t stop us from being friends. Last time I ordered, a different guy showed up at my door and when I asked where Jimmy was, he said “back soon.” I missed talking to Jimmy.
On this particular Saturday it’s almost midnight and I decide I want some fried rice, so I put in an order and about thirty minutes later Jimmy knocks on my door. I check through the peep-hole to be sure it’s him, and open it.
“Thanks for coming late,” I say to him.
“No problem,” he says.
“I missed you last week,” I say.
“Yea, I took off so I could be with my mom.”
“She flew in from Shanghai. She’s never been to New York so I was showing her around.”
“Oh,” I say. “That must’ve been…”
“She wants to learn English and move here.”
“My mom left and never came back,” I say.
“That’s too bad,” Jimmy says. “Where is she now?”
“Wow. I’ve never been there.”
“My mom hates me.”
“Oh.” Jimmy has been eyeing my gaming chair. “What games are you into?”
“In The Forest.”
“The Forest. I don’t know that one.”
“In The Forest. It’s good,” I tell him. “I fight things that want to kill me.”
“It’s not funny,” I say.
It’s Thursday again, and on my way to Erika’s, I think about the rough week I’ve been having at work. Ever since the couple that talked about trees having heartbeats, a lot of the clients at Ground Floor-ista seem threatening to me. I could swear I heard one of them talking with his wife about the tree in their New Jersey back yard like it was one of their relatives or a best friend or something. Erika’s office is right near the subway stop at West 66th Street, so I don’t have to take many risks in getting there beyond possible roots in the subway.
As soon as I’m sitting on Erika’s sofa I breathe easier. I think about Tunguska, but we start out talking about work instead.
Erika says, “Last time we spoke about it you told me you enjoyed working.”
“I’m having a rough time recently.”
“I think people are staring at me,” I say.
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, there was this couple. They both ordered lattes. And while I was making them they were just staring at me and not saying anything.” While I’m saying this to Erika, I start thinking about trees with beating hearts that are out for revenge, but I keep my cool.
Erika smiles and says, “If they are anything like me they probably are amazed at how you do your latte artwork.”
“Other people too. Some of them look like they hate me, or…I don’t know. They just stare and it makes me feel nervous.”
Erika is reassuring. “I can see it’s upsetting to you,” she says.
“They just stare.”
Erika spends a few minutes telling me that I should try to think about these people another way. “Maybe they are looking at you with admiration for what you do. Maybe they envy you. Can you think of them that way?”
“I can try,” I say. My breathing is slowing down and my heart isn’t in my throat any more.
She says, “If we can move on, then, did you bring a picture of your mother? Would you like to talk about her?”
“Damn. I forgot,” I say. I cross my legs and look out the window.
“That’s okay. Bring it next time. I’d love to see her.”
“Can we talk about my friends instead?” I say.
“Jimmy. He’s the Chinese delivery guy.”
“Delivery guy. Sure.”
“Sometimes late at night I’m hungry and I order Chinese. He brings it to my door.”
“I see,” Erika says.
“He’s a friend. Or I thought he was, but he laughs at me.”
“Why does he laugh?”
“Well, first he laughed when I told him that he is brave to ride a bike all over. And then on Saturday night he laughed when I told him that I like gaming.”
“I’m sure he wasn’t laughing at you. Maybe he just likes you and thinks you are fun to talk to.”
“Maybe,” I say.
“Next time, if he laughs again, why don’t you ask him what’s funny? I’ll bet he says he likes talking to you and you make him laugh. That’s all. Maybe he just likes to laugh.”
“I can try,” I say.
“Great,” she says. “Let me know how things go. Oh, and don’t forget next time…”
I’m looking out the window at the courtyard of Erika’s building where a crow is perched on a branch of a small tree, and I say, “A picture of Mary. I promise.”
As I’m leaving Erika’s apartment I have this feeling I just had a narrow escape from a confrontation with genetically altered enemies.
On my way home I think about going to the park again. It’s cold and overcast, and today would be a perfect day to sit on a park bench under a huge tree and wait for it to hurl a limb right down on me. The joggers and dog walkers probably wouldn’t even notice, and that would be fine with me. It would be a quick end. There’d be no funeral, no obituary. I’d be swept up with the dead branches and hauled off as mulch.
But it never happens that way. The joggers and the dog walkers are the ones that get killed, and I’m left standing there.
The week goes by quickly, my life at work a little less threatening. I think about what Erika said, and when I’m serving people their coffee I try to imagine they are my friends. Most of all I try not paying attention to what they are saying. At home, my life in The Forest is quiet, which gives me a lot of time to gather more stones to use later as weapons. My defenses have increased, and for the first time in ages I don’t feel like I need to plan an escape route every time I enter a room. A great sense of relief passes over me.
One morning I spend a couple of hours going through a pile of dusty books looking for the photo of Mary to show Erika. I finally find it inside The Yoga Bible. Small, maybe three by five, faded and creased, it shows her teaching one of her yoga classes when I was small. I’m not in the photo, but I’m probably somewhere over on the side playing with my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
I’m thinking to myself, why does Erika need to see this anyway? I mean, I promised her, but still. It gives me a sick feeling in my stomach to look at it, but I fold it in half and stick it in the back pocket of my jeans.
That evening I’m sitting on Erika’s sofa again and I’m feeling jittery. The first thing I do is hand the folded photo of Mary to her.
“Sorry, it’s the only one I have,” I say.
Erika unfolds it and looks at it and back at me. “Mary was a yoga instructor?” she says.
“She’s beautiful. I can see where you get your handsome looks. And you said your father was tall, but she looks very tall, too.”
“It’s a little hard to tell in that.”
Erika looks at the photo in silence, and then at me again. I shift on the couch, crossing first one leg and then the other. I’m feeling off balance. I look down, and the floor of the apartment is moving, the carpet undulating.
She is watching. “What is it?” she says.
I blink. The walls are trembling. The window shakes and rattles.
Erika is speaking in a low voice. “Your mother. Mary. I’ve never seen a more perfect tree pose.”
There is a crashing noise outside the window, and I jump.
I start for the door, but it’s too late. The floor explodes beneath my feet. The window blows out. Shards of glass are flying in every direction. Giant undulating tree roots grow at warp speed, reaching out at me from the corners of the room. Sinuous branches come in through the window, grabbing at me.
I duck and look for a way out, but this time, there is no escape.
Martin Agee’s career as a professional violinist has brought him to the major concert venues, recording studios, and theatres of New York City for over thirty-five years. During his years as a professional musician, he has remained active as a writer of poetry, fiction and critical essays. His works have been published in Belle Ombre, Allegro, and The Daily Drunk, among others.