Prompt: A teenager whose parents have unwelcome news
Include: comic book, battery, crumbly, apartment, angelic, breach, shooter, soda, engineer, substantiate
The Family Tree
Elowen waits for her daughter to return home from school, aware of the absurdity of her life. She deserves none of it, and the fear it will disappear any moment feels terrifyingly close at all times.
She stares toward her bedroom as if she can see the mirror tucked away in the back of the closet wrapped in layers of thick wool or the book hidden under the floorboards. Her reality and the truth run parallel to each other, but she knows they will intersect. It’s simply a matter of time
Her patient husband, Gabriel, broke through her barriers four years ago when he delivered a crate of canvases to the apartment she hasn’t left in ten years. When she told him her truth, leaking it out bit by bit until it laid before him in a pile, he didn’t run. He stepped into her world, he accepted her, and he made her believe she deserved love.
The early years with her daughter were her favorite because she didn’t leave her side. She was a delightful, sweet-smelling flower of a baby with plump rosy skin and bright curious eyes. She filled the apartment with a kind of frenzied happiness neither she nor Gabriel could have imagined.
As she grew, her curiosity and energy felt too big for the space and Gabriel would take her to the park, the zoo, the library and to see Elowen’s artwork in galleries all over New York. Elowen would pace the floor each time they left, certain they would not return. When they did, she’d scoop her daughter into her arms and kiss her face.
“Tell me everything!” she would say.
Viola became an excellent reporter and storyteller. She’d bring her mother little gifts of snow globes, picked flowers, or pretty rocks. Elowen would put them on the bookshelf and they’d sit as reminders of an outside world she wasn’t a part of and dread the day it might be the same for her daughter.
Finally, the time came for Viola to attend kindergarten. She stood in a yellow-spotted dress, her hair in two long braids tied with yellow ribbons, and her pudgy hands on her hips. She stared at her mother with a mix of curiosity and fear.
“Why do I have to go and you don’t?”
“Because you can.”
“It’s not fair.”
“I know but I need you to go learn things and teach me.”
Viola did. She would come home and curl up in her mother’s lap. Elowen would run her fingers through her daughter’s soft brown hair, and she’d tell her all about her day. Elowen would help her with homework, art projects, and studying for tests. She’d run lines with her for her many theatrical endeavors, and Elowen would do her stage makeup, tell her to break a leg, and then cry when she left. At home Viola had one life, but in the world she had another. Elowen wished she could be in both.
The front door opens and Viola comes in with her backpack bulging full of homework. Elowen knows not to run to her anymore, so she sits at the table with a plate of fresh-baked cookies waiting for her daughter to tell her about her day. She looks at her soft freckled skin and the changes of her body, impossible to ignore, and tries not to cry.
The truth casts a shadow across the kitchen and Elowen can feel it pressing around her, growing larger and more terrible each moment. Viola dunks her cookie in a glass of milk, and Elowen prays she will forgive her.
Viola didn’t tell her parents about the party. She feels bad, but they gave her no choice. Since her 13th birthday last week, her mother’s anxiety has become overbearing. She texts Viola constantly, refuses to let her attend the botany class trip, and keeps sniffing her.
“Your mother does not sniff you,” Elle said.
Her best friend since the first grade, Elle knows about her mother. When they were ten, they found ‘agoraphobic’ in a book at the library, a word Viola overheard a parent calling her mother when she didn’t come to the class play. Her mother said the label didn’t fit and to ignore hurtful people. Viola tries, but her mother always made it difficult.
“She does sniff me!” Viola says. “I swear!”
“Oh, Viola. Really! It’s too much.”
“I know, but it’s true!”
Her father used to balance her mother out, but lately, he’s become just as bad as she is. Elle says it’s because she has boobs now, which Viola finds disgusting and possibly true. She’s caught both her parents staring at her, and they make these annoying sad faces. Viola’s had enough.
“I swear they think I’m going to sprout into a teenage monster any second!”
The entire walk to the party Viola can’t believe she snuck out. She’s never broken a rule before and she feels bad about it, but not attending this party wasn’t an option. Beverley, the coolest girl in school, invited her. It’s a cast party for an off-Broadway play her older brother stars in. There will be all kinds of opportunities for Viola to meet agents, and maybe get discovered. This could be her big social and professional break.
The party’s on the rooftop of the Baldwin Terrace Hotel. Viola walks past doormen in royal blue suits and through a lobby with the largest flower arrangements she’s ever seen. She takes a gold elevator to the roof and a bald man with bulging arm muscles finds her name on a guest list and lets her in. The roof’s filled with people of all ages dressed in fancy suits and skimpy dresses, and she immediately feels self-conscious in the green dress her mother made her for Christmas and her brown Mary Jane wedges.
It takes several minutes to locate Beverly, but Viola finds her standing in a group of guys near the bar. She’s wearing a black silky dress that shows a lot of skin, fishnet stockings, and red pointed high heels. The boys are looking down Beverly’s dress, and nobody looks at Viola when she approaches.
“Hi,” Viola says. “Pretty awesome party.”
Beverly smiles but gives her a pained look. She must have said the wrong thing, a breach of party etiquette, and the boys in the circle walk away. For a few minutes, the girls stand side-by-side watching a jazz band dressed in matching burgundy suits play a soft depressing song. Viola doesn’t know what to say, and before she figures it out, a guy slips his arm around Beverly’s waist. He’s dressed all in black with round glasses, puffy black hair, and a neatly trimmed beard.
“You got a battery in that little purse of yours?”
He wiggles his vape pen in front of her and makes a pouty face. She giggles wildly and it makes Viola want to punch her, or him, or both.
“No, but I bet Jon does.”
They walk away and Viola doesn’t follow. A waiter hands her a tall glass of champagne and it smells terrible. She wishes it was soda. She watches people for a long time, tracking Beverly as she and the guy move around the party. He kisses her neck, touches her thigh, and eventually leads her away from the party toward the elevator, his hand slipping from her waist to her butt.
Viola’s seen enough to know this isn’t her kind of party, and she’s not ready for any of this. She weaves past couples making out on grey sofas and around tight groups leaned close together laughing or sucking on colorful vape pens. She gets a whiff of fake strawberries.
Behind the bar, there’s a brick wall with a narrow passage on the right side. Viola scoots through it and finds it opens onto a large garden with tiny white lights strung across on black wires. The sounds of the party are muted here, and Viola decides to walk through the garden to see if there’s another exit on the other side.
A grey paved stone path weaves between large square garden boxes of light wood, each filled with vegetables, fruit trees, or flowers. Viola takes a few steps into the garden and stops at a bush filled with blooming pink camellias, her favorite. She runs her fingers over the soft petals, around and around, and then plunges her finger into the center. The flower jerks to the side, as if hurt, and Viola jumps back, the glass of champagne falling from her hand and shattering against the wooden side of the planter box.
She hears a deep, guttural scream as if someone has been hurt. She scans the building, looking for the source of the sound and sees nothing. She remembers a movie where a shooter was hidden on the roof of a building and she ducks down onto the ground beside a carrot patch until she can be sure she’s safe.
After a few quiet minutes, she assures herself it must have been the wind. The dirt beside her smells so good, and for the first time in her life, she feels the urge to put her hands into the soil. She digs her fingers into the dirt and impulsively pulls up a fat carrot. It dangles in front of her.
“Hi,” it says.
There’s no mouth, but she’s certain the carrot spoke. Shocked, she throws it on the ground and stands up.
“Hello?” she calls.
All around her she hears the sounds of voices, some muffled, but others high and sweet. The voices call greetings or sing songs. She can’t see anyone, and her heart begins to beat wildly. She looks down and finds her hands are covered in a green powder. She tries to brush it off, but it appears to be seeping into her skin.
The voice sounds deep and close by, but there’s nobody around. The green powder has turned her hands and arms the color of kale, a deep rich green color. Her body vibrates; alive, tingly, and bursting with energy. She runs in place, the feeling of power surging from her head to her toes.
“What in the hell?”
This voice sounds different, angry, and fearful. Viola spins around and finds a waiter, a teenager with pimply skin and messy blonde hair, staring at her with wide eyes. He gasps and starts running. She quickly follows him through the garden and hears a chorus of voices calling to her, singing to her, begging her to stay. The plants lean toward her, aching to touch her. The waiter runs through a metal door and it slams shut behind him.
She runs in place again but notices her reflection on the metal door. It’s distorted, but there’s no mistaking the newly deep green color of her face and the tangled mess of thorny vines in her hair. The voices from the garden call to her, she can feel them growing and moving, but she doesn’t want to. She wants to go home.
Throwing open the unlocked stairwell door, she sprints down the forty flights of stairs, through the crowded lobby, and onto the street. Nobody seems to notice her, as she runs all the way to her apartment building, leaping the stairs to the fourteenth floor. She pounds on the apartment door until her father answers. His eyes go wide, but he says nothing. Her mother screams and falls to the floor. Viola stumbles past them and collapses on her bed.
Viola wishes she could be anywhere but here. She’s sitting across from her parents at the kitchen table, all of them staring at the crumbly mess of a half-eaten croissant. Her dad has his arm around her mother and she’s nervously picking at the skin around her left thumb.
“Viola,” her dad says. “You know things are weird right now.”
She does. Something happened to Viola at the party. She remembers bits and pieces, flashes of impossible things, strange voices, and waking to find her sheets covered in dead leaves. Her parents have tip-toed around her, and they stop their whispered conversations when she enters the room. Her father, an engineer with several big projects in the works, took time off and hasn’t left her mother’s side.
Viola wishes she’d get punished for sneaking out, but her parents haven’t mentioned the night at all. Her mother barely leaves her bed, and she won’t look at Viola. She cries easily and hasn’t touched her paints or canvases since the party. It’s a week later, and it occurs to Viola maybe it’s not about her at all. Maybe her mother is sick.
Her father’s arm around her mother looks protective and the silence in the room feels big. Viola wraps her legs around her chair and rocks it back and forth making a small thumping sound. She doesn’t want to face grown-up things. She has a sudden urge to run into her room and grab her favorite stuffed rabbit, Bun-Bun. Her thumb aches to be sucked, a habit she stopped long ago but never stopped longing for.
“It’s okay,” her father says.
Viola’s not sure if she’s supposed to speak, and looks at her mother. She expects to see tears in her green eyes or for her to look away, but she meets Viola’s gaze without blinking. There’s a fat drop of blood where her mother picked the skin off her thumb and her father covers it with his large tanned hand.
“This isn’t easy for us to tell you,” he says.
“She’s not ready,” her mother says.
Her father squeezes her mother’s hand in his. There’s a conversation in the looks they exchange, and he kisses her forehead. They return their attention to Viola and her stomach drops. Her mother reaches under the table and pulls out a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a faded yellow ribbon. She sets it in front of her.
“Open it,” she says.
Viola hesitates for a moment, unsure if she wants to see what’s inside the wrapping. Her parents give her encouraging nods, and she pulls one side of the velvety soft ribbon. The bow unties and falls from the package. She rubs it on her face for a moment. It smells flowery, sweet, and familiar. Her parents watch in silence as she pulls the wrapping off and reveals a thin brown book.
She turns it over and gasps at the cover. It’s a comic book with her face on it. Not the face she’s had her entire life, but the green face she’d glimpsed for a moment in the silver reflection of the door. With a shiver, she remembers the plants calling to her and the thorns in her hair.
“The Family Tree,” it says in curling white letters. It’s her mother’s artwork and her mother’s name on the bottom. She flips it open and begins to read.
“Once upon a time, there was a farm.”
The first pages show overflowing and colorful flower beds, neat rows of vegetables, a leaning red barn, and a small yellow house with peeling paint and a wraparound porch. There are three black-and-white cows, dozens of chickens, and two sheep.
“A family of three lived on the farm.”
The mother and her two young daughters have matching soft brown hair, green eyes, and an abundance of freckles. They look like Viola. In the pictures, they pull weeds, milk the cows, and drink glasses of tea on the porch. Written in beautiful cursive letters down their legs are their names; Oleander the mother, Jessamine the oldest, and Elowen the youngest.
“One day something strange happened.”
The girls and their mother pull weeds in a large field. They wear matching blue overalls and wide tan sun hats with angelic smiles and round pink cheeks. As they work, a green fog descends from the mountainside and swallows the small family. When the fog lifts, the mother stands transformed with her hands on her hips. The two young girls cry with surprise at her green skin and wild hair of thorny vines. Her legs, arms, and neck have stretched and she looks tall, thin, and wispy.
“What happened to you?” Jessamine says.
“I don’t like it,” Elowen says.
The mother says nothing, and the girls begin to cry. The mother turns and runs. She runs for a long time, frame after frame, the vines trailing behind her. The girls go into the house and hide in the closet holding each other. They sleep on the floor.
The sun rises in the sky and the mother opens the door. She has turned back to normal and the girls rush into her arms. The mother looks surprised.
“What’s this all about?” the mother says.
“You were a monster,” Elowen says.
The mother didn’t remember anything from the night before, but her daughters told her the story. She laughed and called it a bad dream. The girls wanted to believe her.
“But it wasn’t a dream.”
The three are picking apples and the mother changes again. She doesn’t run this time but turns to her girls who cower and hug one another.
“What’s wrong?” the mother says.
“You are a monster!” both girls say.
The mother goes into the house and stands in front of an old-fashioned upright mirror of tarnished silver. Her green reflection substantiates the story her girls told her. As she stares, frame after frame, we see a man appear behind her. He’s wearing a long black jacket and black shoes. He appears to be stretched tall like a fun-house mirror.
“Who’s there?” the mother says.
She spins around and the man isn’t there, but in the next frame he’s back in the mirror behind her. He’s closer now and we can see he has long black hair, shiny and wet looking. His eyes are green, the color of fresh leaves when the sun hits them.
“Who are you?”
“What do you want?”
The man puts his hand around her neck, but she lashes out at him with vines from her body and runs from the room. The girls are waiting outside and she smiles at them.
The mother doesn’t tell the girls about the man. She does tell them not to be scared and they listen.
In the next picture, the girls are working in the garden beside their green mother, who moves faster and can lift things she couldn’t before. The garden and flowers grow tall, and the girls hold giant carrots in their hands with wide proud smiles.
On the next page, it’s night and the mother wraps the mirror in a thick wool blanket and places it in the back of the barn. She stands in the moonlight with her hands on her hips, her body half green and half pink, mid-transformation.
“Time moved on.”
The mother holds hands with her girls and watches the sunset, the words “wild green mother” are written across her green naked back.
Frame after frame, the girls get older and older.
The bright yellow kitchen is filled with balloons and streamers of pink and purple. A strawberry cake with 13 written in pink frosting sits on the table with glowing orange candles. Jessamine blows them out, her face less and her body more round.
“Then another strange thing happened on the farm.”
We see the older sister working in the garden, one frame she’s smiling with freckled pink skin, and the next she’s transformed. Her body stretched, green and covered in vines. Her mother holds her hand and they smile together. The younger sister watches, curling up in a ball in one frame and moving to the barn to snuggle beside a sleeping sheep in the next.
“Hello? Hello? Is someone there?”
The little sister hears a voice from the far corner of the barn and follows it. She finds the mirror and unwraps it. The man stands behind her smiling. The girl’s eyes are wide. She turns around and the man isn’t there. She turns back and he’s closer now.
“Who are you?”
“A friend of your mother. Come closer.”
The girl does. He’s behind her, reaching out and touching the mirror, the palm of his large hand presses into the glass. The girl steps forward and presses her small hand into the glass.
He grabs her hand.
“Ouch!” she says.
“Why? You are hurting me.”
“I don’t mean to hurt you, but I’m trapped in here. If you free me your mother will be happy and I will be too. You only have to pull. It won’t hurt anymore. I promise.”
The girl does, and the man tumbles from the mirror in a tangle of long arms and legs. In the next frame, he straightens and brushes the dirt from his jacket and pants.
“Thank you,” he says.
He hits the small girl in her head with his fist and she falls to the ground. He kicks hay over her body.
The mother and older daughter are working in the garden smiling, both green and strong. The man stalks them in the shadows of the trees until he reaches them and pounces. There are several pages of the fight, the mother/daughter duo using their vines and long bodies to fight off his attacks, but he has black whips and he strikes them over and over.
He’s able to wrap up the mother and pull her to the ground. The daughter tries to help, and he knocks her in the head with his fist. He drags the two green figures by the vines of their hair across the field and back to the mirror. He’s smiling. The younger sister wakes as he pulls them through the mirror and disappears.
“No!” she screams.
She bangs on the mirror, tears filling her big eyes, but there’s no sign of the man, her mother, or her sister.
On the last page, we see a grown Elowen standing at the window of an apartment building with the New York skyline in front of her. The mirror sits in the corner reflecting the image back to her.
Viola closes the comic book and finds her father smiling at her with tears in his eyes. He grabs her hand and squeezes it. She looks at one of her mother’s paintings on the wall behind him. It’s of a yellow farmhouse kitchen with a wooden bowl of fresh-picked carrots sitting next to a sink of chipped white porcelain. There’s a lot Viola didn’t understand until this moment.
“Where’s mom?” she says.
“In the bedroom,” he says. “She’s waiting for you.”
Viola stands and finds herself a bit wobbly. She wants to ask her mother a lot of questions, but first, she wants to hug her. The years of feeling embarrassed and angry at her mother melt into shame and sadness. She runs down the hallway.
Her mother stands looking out the window, her hands folded behind her back. Viola begins to cry, rushing to her and hugging her tight before she turns around.
“I’m sorry mom,” she says into her back.
“No,” her mom says.
She turns Viola around and puts her hands on her daughter’s shoulders.
“I should have told you years ago. I didn’t know how and I thought maybe it wouldn’t happen to you…but it did and I didn’t prepare you. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. You deserved better.”
They sit on the bed, Viola laying across her mother’s lap. She strokes her hair.
“I stayed on the farm for as long as I could, but eventually someone found me. I lived with an aunt I’d never met and slept with the mirror beside me. I looked into it all the time, waiting for my mother and sister to return, but they didn’t.”
“How awful,” Viola says.
“It was, but it got worse. As I got older I feared the transformation I saw my mother and sister experience would happen to me. I began to wonder if it did, would the man from the mirror come and get me. I started to worry more about him, and forget about them. I wrapped the mirror up and hid it away.”
She takes a deep breath.
“Then I hid away.”
Viola doesn’t know what to say. She looks around the room and spots a bulky item in the corner she’s never seen before.
“Is that it?” she asks.
They walk together and stand in front of the mirror wrapped in wool blankets and layers of shiny silver tape. Neither of them speak for a long time, Elowen lost in memory and Viola thinking of the grandmother and aunt she didn’t know existed until today.
“Would you like to see it?” Elowen asks.
“I’m scared,” Viola says.
“What if the man has returned because I changed? What if he tries to get me?”
“We fight,” her father says from the doorway.
“As a family,” her mother says.
“Could they still be alive?” Viola asks.
“I’ve never stopped believing,” Elowen says. “I let fear stop me from looking, but not anymore. I’m ready.”
“We’re ready,” Viola and Gabriel say at the same time.
The family works together to cut off the tape and remove the dusty layers of blankets. The tarnished silver of the mirror looks as it did in the comic book, and the family holds hands, Viola in the center of her parents, and looks into the mirror.
Author’s note: I’m not sure where this story came from, except I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the idea of generational pain. My grandmother died of Covid at the start of the pandemic. She was a terribly unhappy woman, and the week she died, I was struck with the idea I needed to write her story. I hatched a plan to interview her when she was well, but I didn’t get the chance.
As weird as it sounds, I’ve felt an internal sadness all my life I don’t think belongs to me. I see it in my mother, my aunts, and my daughter. I’ve healed some of it by facing forward and talking it out in therapy, but it still lingers like a long-ago curse or a green fog from the mountainside.
I struggled with writing this story. It took far longer than any of the other short stories I’ve written, and I don’t think it’s quite right. I might revisit this story of Oleander, Jessamine, Elowen, and Viola in another format as my skills increase, and perhaps then I can find out why these characters feel so important to me.
Next week’s prompt: Week 6
Picking up a hitchhiker
Include: hospital, defer, interface, experiment, beaker, visualize, mattress, skyline, interpret, zap