‘When you grow up,’ he told me, ‘don’t be a damn thing like my parents.’
It was unlike Nick to say something like that. He had always been a goofy sort of kid, frivolous and flighty, fun in that childish kind of way that was just silly enough to make a teacher smirk — and to make me laugh out loud. I liked it.
And that was why I had befriended him in the first place; it was a refreshing escape from my somewhat sullen home life. But when he said those words, it stuck the first fork in our road, and the events that followed after that created in me a reluctance towards him.
I never asked Nick what he meant by it, and I never blamed him for anything that happened. I eventually learned what prompted the statement, through observation and inference. No — it wasn’t Nick who was at fault; it was the people who preyed on him. Grown adults ripped that child’s soul into two, and when I think about it nowadays, I’d be willing to bet that I was probably the only other person who knew anything about why: Nick’s father was abusive.
On the rare few occasions I did see his father, he would be scolding Nick. He was a curly-haired moustached man with a round belly, and judging from the bottles I sometimes spied in their recycling bins, he was a lover of liquor. I knew that because the recycling bins at my home were filled with those same kinds of bottles. I recall a day when Nick could barely walk to school, and he kept rubbing his back. Another time, his face was red around his ears and neck, and he could barely hear me when I spoke to him. When I asked him how any of these things happened, he’d always shrug and say, ‘Don’t know why’. But I knew why.
I saw why for the first time when Nick and I were in his backyard one afternoon, pretending to have a sword fight, using sticks we found in the forest. As usual, Nick had made our otherwise pointless activity fun. He led me through a grandiose scenario; the backyard was the courtyard of a castle and the sticks were our swords, cracking jokes about the size of my stick and making funny noises with his lips every once in a while. We were laughing hard that afternoon, but the adventure abruptly ended when his dad barged through the back door and started shouting:
‘Hey! What the hell are ya doin’ boy! Get over here!’
‘Hey, Dad,’ said Nick. ‘We were just playing —’
‘Are you stupid? I said get over here!’
An expression of sheer dread replaced Nick’s happy face, and after glancing helplessly at me he walked towards his father who was now standing at the edge of the back porch, staring down at him with cold blue eyes that pierced through the daylight. When Nick got within arm’s length, his father snatched the stick from him, and then without any hesitation he swatted Nick across the face with it.
. . . thwack! . . .
‘That feel nice?’ his dad grumbled. ‘Told ya not to play with the goddamn sticks! That’s what happens when you play stupid games with sticks!’ He hit him three more times.
. . . thwack! . . . thwick! . . .thwack! . . .
‘Ow — Okay!! . . . Ow!!’
His father grabbed his arm and shoved him inside their yellow duplex house. All I could hear was Nick’s sobs fading away from the other side of the doorway, accompanied by his father’s rambling reprimand:
‘. . . Playin’ with sticks . . . stupid boy . . . Come on, you settle now! . . . stupid boy . . . and get in yer room . . . You get in yer room now . . .’
The cheap plastic door slammed shut with a cruel rattle, leaving me in the middle of an empty backyard, and nowhere else to go but back home — to where my own father waited.
Nick’s father, like mine, had an illness that was being brought down upon him. It was a frightening thing, and at that age I knew no good way I could help. Over time, but sure enough, that illness became a poison, infecting Nick and subduing our imaginations. It drained the life out of our friendship. As the days passed on, I noticed Nick’s attitude slowly shifting, no longer that bubbly boy I knew before, but an imposter, or someone different, and not at all himself. He went from being energetic and excitable, to being exhausted and edgy. The once taller-than-me boy stopped standing straight, and I gained an inch on him. His eyes got sad and saggy. He hardly smiled. No more jokes in the classroom. No more stick-fights. And from then on I knew from the look in his tired eyes that he wasn’t the person he had once been, much like how a sapling never again resembles the seed.
But Nick and I had a way of dealing with these frustrations. It probably wasn’t the best way, but it was something we knew: near the forest path we took every day on the way home from school, and just a ways off towards the edge of the woods, there was an ancient oak we called the “Devil Tree”. It was a strange and somewhat scary sight; a gnarled old thing with smooth bone-white bark. It had no leaves, its branches were long and twisted, and it was easily the largest and most intimidating tree in the entire town. But the defining features of this monstrosity were the three large cavities in the trunk that together resembled a gloomy, weeping face. Tree sap had leaked out of the holes and dried, leaving glassy brown residue, making it look like it had tears. And to add to this, there was rusty barbed wire running through it and around it, embedded from years of overgrowth. We used to throw rocks at it because it looked so horrifying, shouting at it, condemned it, entertaining the idea that it was possessed by Satan — hence its name. Those rocks left all kinds of marks and scratches; scars all over its terrifying “face”.
It had only started as something to do when we were bored, long before that day with Nick’s father, but it eventually became therapeutic for both me and Nick. Meeting at the Devil Tree became our ritual, almost every day after school. We would take turns chucking rocks, seeing who could do the most damage. And somehow we were proud of doing that. It made us feel good back then, and sometimes I got the palpable feeling that Nick couldn’t get enough of it. I guess it was our punching bag.
That tree was the last place I’d ever see Nick. It was the last week of September, and he had really scared me there.
I had gone to the Devil Tree in the afternoon to find Nick, because he hadn’t been at school. On my way to the spot, I heard a distant knocking, faint and percussive, echoing throughout the woods. I found him there, at the tree, hurling rocks at it much harder than usual. When I got there he turned away and wouldn’t face me. I suspected he had been crying.
I placed my backpack on the ground on and stared at him.‘Hey,’ he said. He sniffed and then wiped his face with his coat sleeve.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Goddamn rocks.’ He picked another one up and chucked it at the tree, whacking it right between its two eyes with a loud clack!
I stood there silently, not sure what to do, and I fidgeted with my coat as I watched him search the ground for more stones. He sniffed a few more times, and kicked a few stones into a small pile in front of him. After he’d gathered enough into the pile, he finally spoke again:
‘I hate my parents,’ he said. Then he picked up a stone. Nick had never said anything like that before.
‘What do you mean,’ I asked.
Still not making eye-contact, he threw the rock. Another scar for the Devil Tree.
. . . clack! . . .
The rock slammed into the great oak’s smooth surface and then tumbled down the trunk, stopping in the dirt.
‘They don’t give a damn about nothing,’ Nick said. ‘They make me feel . . . bad . . . about everything. For no reason. They don’t care.’ Then, as if I was his last hope, he slowly turned and looked at me. His face was wet and it was then obvious that he had indeed been crying. ‘You know what I’m saying, right?’
I didn’t say anything.
Nick shook his head and then turned back to the pile of stones, grabbed a handful, and whipped three more at the tree.
. . . clack! . . . crick! . . . clack! . . .
‘Bastard,’ he muttered.
‘Oh. Yeah.’ I stood there awkwardly looking at the pile of rocks. I didn’t even know how I should respond.
He just kept throwing more stones, threw them harder and harder, started breathing heavy. He was snivelling too. In less than a minute, tears began streaming down his soft cheeks and off the bottom of his chin, and before I could even react he was crying out loud. Snot oozed out of his nose and into his mouth and he spit it out disdainfully. It was so painful to see him like that. I thought about saying something, or hugging him, or something I should do to calm him down, and yet I did nothing. I had never actually seen the boy cry before and it was the first time I ever saw someone really crying. He was crying because this was important to him. But he was completely outside of himself, and I was completely useless. I will never forget the moment I realized that Nick’s expression so nearly matched the one on the Devil Tree.
‘It’s my dad,’ he said between sobs. ‘He don’t care. He drinks beer every damn night and swears all the time. And you know what? My mom doesn’t say a damn thing. ’Cause he’s paying the bills, right? She can’t make up her mind without him telling her what she should do. She don’t care. Both of them. They don’t care. I hate them . . . I never used to . . .’ Suddenly he grunted, crouched down and took a big rock. He hurling it and screamed like it was shot put.
. . . CLACK!! . . .
It wasn’t fun any more. It was too serious. He kept screaming and throwing, screaming and throwing. For a moment I thought he might even throw a stone at me. He was casting his anger at the tree, harder and harder, searching for bigger rocks, trying vainly to imbed them into his victim — to externalize his pain in the wrong direction. But it was how he knew to. It was how he had been taught to.
. . . CLACK!! . . . CRICK!! . . . CLACK!! . . .
‘Nick!’ I shouted.
Nick stopped. He was out of breath by then, and after a brief respite he composed himself a little bit. He started in the opposite direction, but stopped and then said from over his shoulder:
‘When you grow up, don’t be a damn thing like my parents.’ He wiped the tears and snot off his face and without saying anything more he marched off. Our session with the Devil Tree was over.
I looked at the tree. Fresh indents had split its smooth surface in new places, deep and wide cuts, and it was crying — it was always crying.
I grabbed one of Nick’s rocks, sort of wanting to throw it, as I usually did.
But I hesitated.
I looked up at the tree’s “face”: it was sad and devastated, ruined from years of this abuse. And as I stood there before it with a rock in both my hands, bewildered and by myself, I was soon gripped by the unmistakable feeling of guilt. For the first time in my life I had felt sorry for a plant. The emotion was so prominent that I dropped the rock and put my hands to my face, feeling an unstoppable rush of sorrow. I saw the Devil Tree differently. It was a victim, not a monster. The other kids avoided it when they saw it, called it evil, assailed it with stones. And why? Because it looked scary. But it could not change, couldn’t smile now even if it wanted to. It had grown into that shape. There were other trees around, tall and proud members of the woods, colourful leaves on their branches, healthy bark around them, untouched by human hands. But The Devil Tree didn’t have those things at all. Instead of being allowed to flourish, it ended up being beaten and preyed on. It was the way it was because of its unfavourable conditions — the barbed wire, the cavities, the impact marks — conditions that were largely the result of pure, unwarranted hate. Neglect. I had taken part in that.
And weren’t people like trees, just trying to grow in the dirt?
For the following few nights, I found myself crying in bed over that tortured tree. Or, perhaps, I had been crying for Nick. Or myself. Or for no one. And after that, for reasons I still judge myself harshly for, I was too timid to talk to Nick again.
Then, at the end of that year, my parents hastily pulled me away from that town and that school and those memories like they had only been fodder for a future life. I never had a chance to solve the issues I left there. They didn’t even tell me we were leaving.
And before I knew what was happening, they were towing me off to the new house.
As I sat there in the back of my dad’s van, among the rest of the luggage and the boxes full of rattling beer bottles, I looked out the rear window. It all shrank away; one final look at my home through a dusty glass panel.
I couldn’t help thinking that Nick was still somewhere in those woods, alone, throwing rocks at the Devil Tree. I wondered if he was feeling lonely.
It was all wrong. The Devil Tree was beyond my saving, Nick was beyond my saving. Maybe all Nick needed was that simple hug, or a word of affirmation. But I had been too afraid. I wondered if I was beyond my saving.
The acidic mixture of loss and regret entered me. But I didn’t cry — to my frustration, I couldn’t cry. I clenched my small hands into fists, angered and confused with myself. I wanted to punch something. And at that moment, I realized what had been done. We had seen too much. We had endured too much.
We had already grown beyond our roots, branched out onto paths that were one-way; the world had robbed us of our sensitive souls.