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Trees


Most of the changes were small. Her birth certificate, bank account, student loans, and driver’s license all listed her middle name as June. Odd, but she didn’t use her middle name much.

Ignore it, she told herself, knowing that dwelling on these little things made her feel sick. No one cares about a middle name. It’s just a word.

But in her memory, she still heard her mother calling her “Deborah Virginia.” Sadness gripped her every time she saw the initial J sandwiched between her first and last names on her checks. Eventually, she ordered new checks with no middle initial. Problem solved.

Other words seemed wrong, too.

People started calling trees sylves at some point. Fir sylves and Pine sylves and Maple sylves and Apple sylves. Deb walked by carolers singing O, Christmas sylve, O, Christmas sylve, how lovely are your branches in December. She developed a severe aversion to Christmas that year.

Still, new words come and go. It’s a fad.

But Deb couldn’t find the word tree anywhere, though she checked dictionaries and encyclopedias. Deb used the word once in a while, unable to resist trying it out on people. She received blank looks or questions in response.

That led Deb to create the tree blog. When she felt like she was losing her mind, she went online and found pictures of trees, and she labeled them with the names that felt right to her. Maple Tree, Pine Tree, Fir Tree, Redwood Tree, Birch Tree. She added no narrative, just the word tree over and over.

People came to look at the blog. Deb could see the number of visitors, and she noticed that the number steadily increased as time went by. Nature Enthusiasts, Deb thought.
Deb’s mother died after battling early onset Alzheimer’s. Deb comforted herself by thinking that she might have the same thing. After all, better to believe that dementia ran in the family than to think the impossible: that the world had changed. Or even crazier, that she was in a different world altogether. Could it be that the people around her were not the ones she’d known for years? She looked at her daughter sometimes and asked herself, Is this the same girl that I fed and bathed and clothed as a baby?

But those thoughts led nowhere good. She’d believed that tree was a word and she was wrong. Not a big deal, was it? She’d thought she was in a relationship with a coworker but he left her for someone else. She’d lost touch with a sister. These things happened, she told herself. Put that way, it didn’t seem so strange. And most things in life stayed the same.

She had the same job, apartment, car, and coworkers. There were a few changes here and there – Hadn’t Karen had twins two years ago? Deb had been to their first birthday party. But she must have been mistaken. No need to lie awake at night trying to figure out why the world didn’t match her memories of it.

When she couldn’t take it anymore, she went online and labeled those tall leafy plants trees and felt relieved that she could make a little tiny bit of the world right.

“I could help you spruce that blog up,” her brother Jason offered at one point when he and his wife had come over for a family dinner. Deb had turned on her laptop to look at her blog while the kids cleaned up the dishes. He nudged her. “Get it? Spruce!”

Deb gave a weak smile.

She found herself sneaking away to look at her tree blog a lot when her brother came by for family dinners. He’d bring his wife and two children, and he treated Deb and her daughter with a familiarity that felt horribly wrong to Deb, who never had a brother growing up.

Fortunately, she’d been prepared the first time she’d met Jason. Deb didn’t want to scare Melissa, but she relied on her daughter to get her through the world. She gave Melissa a vague story about memory gaps caused by a prescription drug and had Melissa explain everything that seemed odd to Deb, such as the tall, curly haired man who showed up in the family photo albums.

He turned out to be Melissa’s well-loved Uncle Jason. Jason’s younger daughter, Ally, looked so much like Deb’s mother that it made her heart ache.

She kept agreeing to family dinners every couple of weeks and spent her holidays and long weekends with them. But some part of her mind (an irrational part, she knew) cried out that Jason had murdered Deb’s younger sister, Beth, a grinning brunette who never existed, according to all records Deb could find.

“What do you mean, spruce it up?” Deb asked, resisting the urge to close her browser down so that Jason couldn’t see into her private world.

“I could add some more functions, a discussion board, that kind of thing. Put in some tags so it’ll show up in search engines where other nature enthusiasts can find it.” He looked over the web page. “Why don’t you change the name? It’ll be easier for people looking for sylves to find it if you call it The Sylve Blog.”

He glanced back at her. Deb shook her head, not willing to make up an explanation.

“Okay, okay,” Jason said, and Deb allowed him to add in a discussion board and email functions.

“Mom,” Melissa said a couple days later, looking at her mother’s email. “You have 182 emails. Don’t you ever read these?”

“They’re probably junk mail,” Deb replied, coming over to see for herself.

“You want me to delete them all? It looks like spam nonsense words.” Deb looked at the long list on the screen. Many of them had the word tree in the subject line.

“No,” Deb said. “I better look through them myself. Go stir the sauce,” Deb instructed her daughter. Alone with her email in-box, Deb opened the first letter.

Hi,

My name is John Deen and I remember trees. When I was a little boy, I used this word all the time. My mother taught me how to tell Pine Trees from Cedar or Spruce by looking at the leaves. But by the time I reached 3rd grade, the word had disappeared. I never understood that, but it warms my heart to see that someone still uses this word.

I wish I could find someone who remembered my mother, too. They tell me she died in a car crash when I was a baby. But I remember her being there until I turned 8, which was in 1992. I woke up one day and she was gone. It’s the oddest thing.

Take care,

John Deen

Many of the letters said similar things. People wrote to ask her if she remembered events or words or people that had evaporated from the present world. Someone asked her if she remembered what the grassy knoll signified. Curious, Deb looked up John F. Kennedy. He died in ‘65 in a car accident. Further research showed details about a failed assassination attempt in Texas, mostly forgotten today.

Deb considered carefully how to respond. At first, she replied to the emails individually.

Hi, John, There are a lot of odd things in the world, aren’t there? Sometimes I think I must be schizophrenic, but if I am, I guess we all are. I remember trees, too. Deb

Eventually, overwhelmed by the number of emails, she redirected the conversations to the discussion board.

The blog took on a life of its own. The discussion board read like a missing person’s website. Did anyone attend so-and-so high school? I’m looking for someone who can tell me what happened to my husband.

Deb let Jason guide her through upgrading her server to host the site, but stayed in the background, reading obsessively everything that was posted. At some point, Jason started reading through the stuff on the forums, and he stopped helping.

“This is getting weird, Deb,” Jason said. “I wouldn’t have encouraged you to expand this website if I’d known it was about some weird new age conspiracy theory shit.”

“It’s not,” Deb said. “Jason, it’s important. You know I don’t believe in new age stuff or conspiracy stuff.”

“You have people on that site threatening to attack the world trade center,” Jason replied. “I’ve seen it.” He paced in front of her, up and down her living room while Melissa worked on her homework in her bedroom. Deb hoped that Melissa couldn’t hear what this conversation was about. “And you legally changed your name? What was that about?”

“Just my middle name,” Deb said. “And don’t be absurd. They’re not planning on blowing anything up. They’re just telling stories of what they remember happening. The stories are mixed up, that’s all. History isn’t the way they remember it. They remember planes flying into the world trade center.”

“That makes them nuts,” Jason said. “You know that, right? When people don’t remember the way the world is and they start telling themselves that the country is under attack or something like that, they’re nuts.”

“Maybe some of them are,” Deb agreed. “Never mind, Jason, don’t worry about it.”

“I can take that site down for you,” Jason said. “I’ll help you do it.”

“Leave it alone, Jason,” Deb said. “It’s none of your business anyway. I’ll handle the site.” And she did. She put out a message on the forums and had several people volunteer to help handle the technical aspects of keeping the site going.

The forum read like the inmate’s blog at the asylum. The government did it, anarchistb0b insisted daily, posting up any tidbits he’d found through scouring the news that indicated that the government might be behind whatever had happened. They’re running experiments on us, just like they did with syphilis in the 40s.

Deb debated moderating some of these comments or users in order to keep the site from seeming too wild. But how do I know he’s wrong? She wondered. She couldn’t say.

People posted theories about mass hypnosis or psychosis, group delusions, and otherworld theories.

Some people, Deb thought, watched too much science fiction. We’re in a virtual world, one person said. This world isn’t even real.

The threads about alternate dimensions reached the max limit of 50 pages at least once a week, so new threads started weekly and the archive grew large.

People spent a lot of time talking about whether they would ever get back to a world that matched their memories, and talking about sightings of white spots – something that looked like TV Snow falling across a spot in the ground or the wall or the air, which many people reported seeing right before their own world shifts. Deb didn’t remember any TV snow, but she was pretty sure her world had shifted while she slept in bed at night.

If her bed had been the spot that shifted her out, maybe it could shift her back. She wondered every night when she went to sleep if she’d wake up back where she’d started. But all she had to do was go check her tree blog to see that no, things hadn’t changed.
We can’t let things change, HappyWife207 posted. Her husband had died in a car accident two years beforehand; he was alive again now, the car accident erased, and she didn’t want to go back. She was one of the anti-shift group, those people that liked the new world better than the old one and didn’t want it to change back. Deb believed they were the ones who kept trying to hack the site or get the government to shut it down. They were afraid that all this chatter in the forums might actually lead to the right answer about how to make things go back the way they’d been.

But Deb started to notice something weird. The people on the forums argued a lot about the history they remembered. Not everyone on the board remembered historical events in the same way.

Some people remembered the word trees but not JFK’s assassination. Others had grown up with the wordsylve but not 9/11. Even the people in the forums didn’t have consistent stories about the way the world was supposed to be.

It came to her all at once one night as she lay dozing off to sleep. She sat up in bed, turned on the light, thought it through. We don’t come from the same world, she realized. If we did, we’d have the same memories. We come from different worlds.
Hundreds of different worlds. She counted at least 142 different versions of the world based on the stories on the forums.

That’s when Deb started to think she was in a completely different world. That there were a lot of completely different worlds. And she started to think about where the white spots might be.

She’d tried different things to get back. She’d developed a lot of ritual behaviors. She tried to recreate everything she’d done in the weeks that she noticed the change. She ate the same breakfast foods, walked the same path to work, and even wore the same clothes, thinking maybe something she’d done had triggered the shift.

None of that had helped. But she had a theory now. She’d been thinking about her
little sister Beth a lot. Beth the piano player, Beth the athlete. Beth who didn’t exist in this world. Deb had dialed her number, more than once, every time hoping that some miracle would connect her through to the sister she remembered growing up with.
She’d been to Beth’s downtown apartment more than once, but strangers were living there.

She called Jason and asked him to come over on a night when Melissa was spending the night with a friend. When he arrived, she had papers and photographs spread on the floor all around her – email print outs, bills, anything that might help her figure it out.

“I need your help,” she said. Jason nodded at her.

“I’m glad you realized that on your own,” he said. “You’ll get better faster when you realize you have a problem.”

“No, Jason,” Deb said. “I’m not enrolling in a recovery group. I just need to figure out when it happened, when everything changed.”

“Nothing changed,” Jason said. “Things are the way they’ve always been.”

“For you, maybe,” Deb said. She was sitting on the floor sifting through the photographs, with ones she remembered on the left and those she didn’t recall on the right. “You’re the biggest change,” she told him. “I met you on July 15 last year. I couldn’t forget that; that was too big a change.”

Jason looked sober. “What do you mean, met me?” he asked.

“I didn’t have a brother before last summer,” Deb said. “Look, I know this sounds crazy, but this is my life the way I experienced it. I had a little sister, someone I was very close to. Her birthday is July 14, and it was so close to Melissa’s that we always celebrated them together. I remember talking to her about plans for it sometime in June.” Deb tapped the date on the detailed timeline she’d been constructing anytime Melissa wasn’t around to see it. Deb didn’t want to scare her daughter. “You showed up at the party.” Jason didn’t respond. “That was the first time I met you,” Deb said. “I’d already realized that things weren’t right, though.”

She looked up at Jason, wanting to see how he was taking these crazy ideas from her. He knew what was on the Tree blog, however. He couldn’t be completely surprised. His face was perfectly still.

“What’s the point of all this?” Jason asked. “So your memories are confused. We all remember things wrong sometimes. You should see a specialist, not obsess over this kind of thing.”

“I know I spoke on the phone to Beth a few times in June,” Deb continued as if he hadn’t spoken. She didn’t want to know what kind of specialist he had in mind. “We let two or three weeks go by sometimes without calling, though, and of course I don’t have the phone records. So I can’t pin it down exactly. But sometime in June it all changed.”

“Nothing’s changed,” Jason said, emotion creeping into his voice. “Things are just what they should be. Can’t you let this go?” Deb shook her head, ignoring him. “For your daughter’s sake,” Jason said. “Do it for Melissa.” He gripped her hands in his own and Deb looked up into his eyes. “You remember her from before, don’t you?” It was a genuine question. He wanted to know.

“Yes,” Deb said. “But.” She sighed and sat back against the wall. “She was different. Her grades were better. She was more extroverted. I hardly ever saw her because she was always out with her friends. Now, she’s moody and barely talks to me about anything.” Jason sighed heavily.

“She’s not what you want her to be,” he said, half a question. “You want to go back to a world where you have a perfect daughter.”

“No, no, no,” Deb said. “Before, Melissa didn’t even need me. She was going to take off into the world and rule it without any help from me at all. I loved her. But now, this Melissa. I feel like she needs me in a way my other Melissa never did. I want to be there for her.”

“Then stop this obsession,” Jason said. “You’re here with her now. She needs you. Can’t you be a good mother and let all this go? How will you help Melissa if you have a breakdown?”

“I’m not having a breakdown,” Deb insisted. She kept sorting through the pictures. “I don’t have phone records showing when I last talked to Beth, of course,” Deb said. She kept scanning down the list of phone calls from that month. A few had been to Jason, but how could she know if they’d been before or after that shift? The bank.
“I called the bank,” she said. “This was when I first noticed it. My middle name was wrong on my statements. I called them up and tried to get them to change it.” She circled the date. June 22. She could feel herself gripping the pen too hard. “Sometime before June 22.” She looked up at Jason.

Jason sighed heavily. “Does it matter when you started having these hallucinations? It’s not going to help you fix it even if you find the exact date.”

“It might,” Deb said. “There’s a theory some people have on the blog about it. They think that if you can go the exact place that you were shifted, you might be able to shift back.”

“Why should that work?” Jason said.

“I don’t know,” Deb said. “But there has to be the snow.”

“It’s not going to snow anytime soon,” Jason said, looking out the window at the sunny day. It was spring.

“No, not real snow, but like – electrical interference. Like TV snow, you know when you leave the TV on too long? That kind of snow. It shows up sometimes, and those are the white spots where you can go through.” Deb sighed. “It’s the only thing that makes sense, because that’s the one story people agree on. Hundreds of people on the blog talk about seeing this snow. I never did.” Jason just looked at her. “I could have been asleep or something, though,” she said.

“Or maybe the snow was just on this world, not on yours,” Jason said. “Maybe it only shows up on one side.” Deb glanced at him sharply. He looked worn out.

Deb’s resentment of this stranger had dissipated a lot over the previous ten months, but she still didn’t feel that close bond she’d felt with Beth. But she still could feel pity for him. He’d put up with a lot of craziness from her, and that had to be stressful. And apparently he felt the bond, even if she didn’t. Not many people in life will love you like family. How could she reject one who did?

“Deb, I wish I could help you,” Jason started.

Deb flipped through the photos she’d had printed off the phone in her camera. “I remember taking a lot of these,” she said. “Even the ones that go back years.”

“You did take them,” Jason said.

“But not these,” Deb replied, pointing to pictures from holidays years past with her, Melissa, and Jason’s family. She stopped and stared at Jason.

“You know, there was something before the bank statements, something strange with you.”

“Me?” he asked.

“Yes,” Deb replied. “There’s one thing I remember, but just barely, because I barely noticed it at the time. Melissa and I were in the car, driving out for the day. And she said Why’s Jason here? I thought he was some boy she liked from school. But I’d never heard that name before, so I remembered it, because I hear about a lot of the different guys she has crushes on. So the name stuck with me.”

Deb rubbed her fingers against her temples. “It’s so hard to remember this all right. I didn’t know things were wrong at first, so I wasn’t looking for anything unusual. But by the time I meet you at her birthday, I knew that everything was wrong somehow and I thought I just had to go along with it. I mean, I can’t argue with everyone about what reality is supposed to be like, can I? If everyone says the sky is green, I can’t argue.”

“The sky isn’t green,” Jason said, thumbing through her papers in which she’d tried to reconstruct the month of June from memory as much as possible.

“The thing is that memories aren’t solid. They’re just echoes, ghosts of things that happened. Only the moment you’re in is real. We trust that the world matches our memories, but what if it doesn’t? There’s nothing you can do then. You can’t go back in time to prove that things were what you thought they were. The only proof we have is agreement. Everyone agrees that things happened a certain way so that must be true. But no one agreed with me. So I didn’t argue when everyone said the world was different than I remember.”

“By the time I met you at Melissa’s party, it had been nearly a month and I was panicked and scared but I knew by then that I couldn’t trust my memories. So I didn’t say anything.”

“So you didn’t have a brother before?” Jason asked, and Deb was surprised because it sounded like a genuine question. As if he might believe her account of things and wanted to know what it was.

“No,” she said, feeling her eyes start to water. She sniffed. “I had a little sister. We were close.” Jason nodded and looked down.

“But that day in June, Melissa said Why’s Jason here?,” Deb said. “We were getting in the car to go, and I saw her waving at someone, but I thought it was some boy from school. It was you, though, wasn’t it?” Jason nodded his head. “That’s the day,” Deb confirmed. “That was the first day that I can be sure the world was different.” Jason was taking this all too well. Deb looked closely at him. “Why were you looking for me?”

“I wanted to make sure you were ok,” Jason said hoarsely. He took a moment to explain the rest. “I had a hunch something was wrong. But you looked fine so I thought everything was ok.”

He paused another moment, sighed as if letting a big weight off his chest, then said,

“I can show you where the white spot is.”

Deb’s froze. “You know where it is?” She asked.

“It’s in my garage, sometimes. Not every day,” he said. “But Deb. I don’t want you to go back. Your daughter here needs you.”

“So does my daughter there,” she said. “And my sister and my life. And I could live in a world where people won’t think I’m crazy. Where I won’t feel crazy.”

Jason kept sitting, though Deb jumped up and headed for the door. When he kept sitting there, she went back and offered a hand to get him to stand up. “Come on,” she said. “Show me.” She stopped when she saw how sad he looked.

“It’s ok, Jason,” she said. “I mean, I don’t understand the physics or anything, but you had a sister here in this world. She’ll pop back over here, won’t she? Don’t you want to have your real sister back?” Jason shook his head at her. Deb got angry. “I don’t even know you,” she said. “You’re a stranger to me. I’m not your sister.” She tried to calm down, remembering that he might have the key to getting home. “Just take me there, Jason. I need this.”

He kept sitting. “She won’t come back,” he said finally. “My sister is dead, I think. I’m pretty sure.” She sat back down next to him.

“Explain,” she demanded, and he did.

“I was driving home with my sister from a dinner where they were announcing a scholarship in Mom’s name at her old school. There was an accident on the way home.”

“An accident?” she asked.

“Someone ran a red light and smashed into the right side of the car, where you-she-Deb was sitting. I saw her – She didn’t look like she was going to make it.” Jason wouldn’t look at her when he told her this story. He stood up and started pacing around the room. “But then I looked away for a moment and she’d disappeared. No body, nothing. I just blinked and she was gone. I called your house while I was waiting for the police. I thought Melissa would pick up. But you answered the phone, and I thought, Oh. She’s home.” He sat on the floor again, head down, still not looking at her. “You hung up on me. You thought it was a wrong number. So I went by your house the next morning to make sure I hadn’t imagined it. As I pulled up, I saw you and Melissa getting into the car. And I did what you did. I said nothing, because whatever I said would make me sound crazy.” Jason had stood up and walked a few feet away, only half glancing back at her occasionally.

“That was when my memories didn’t match the world. I remember you dying in a car seat next to me. But there you were, at home. I thought it was a miracle. In my mind, in the instant the car was hit, I saw it all. Having to tell Melissa she’d lost you, the funeral, the grief. But then there was this unexpected reprieve. You saved us from that.”

“You never said anything,” Deb said.

“I didn’t want to sound crazy,” Jason said. “You didn’t say anything either. You didn’t tell me I was a stranger.”

“I didn’t want to sound crazy, either,” Deb echoed. “When I found all those people on the net, though, and I realized this had happened to a lot of people, not just me, that gave me the power to acknowledge it. I needed other people to know what I meant.” Jason nodded.

“Jason.” Deb knelt down next to him. “Jason, tell me. Where have you seen the white spot?”

“After I had my car door replaced, I kept the old one. It’s in my garage. And I’ve seen it a couple times, with that white snow on it. Like I’m looking at something that isn’t quite there. It’s still there in my garage.” Deb got up to go, car keys in hand. “Wait, Deb. Think of us. Think of Melissa. If you go back, she’ll have no one. Can you just abandon her?” Deb put her hand on the doorknob.

“She’ll have you,” Deb said.

“I’m not her mother,” Jason said, face turning red, gripping her arm. “She’s still in school. She needs you.”

“My Melissa, she’s probably been an orphan for a year,” Deb said.

“You told me she was more self-reliant.” It was true. Deb’s other daughter – Deb’s real daughter – could deal with the loss better than this Melissa. And Beth would be taking care of her. They’d had a year to adjust to the loss. Would she just make things worse by showing up now?

“Please don’t do it,” Jason said. “You don’t know how this works. You might end up somewhere else completely. Don’t do it.” She pulled her arm out of his grasp and opened the door. “Don’t do it.” He kept saying it, over and over.

Deb jiggled the car keys in her hand for a moment, looked at him one last time, then she opened the door and left.

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