Content warning: racist abuse, homophobia
Dale + Eva, 1969
We heard them before we saw them—loud boots over the stones and their rowdy hee-hawing. We knew they were trouble based on that alone.
Dale dropped his hand from my waist and took a small step backward. I hated how that was his instinct.
I closed my eyes and willed the low-hanging branches to hide us, wished for them to pass by.
They did not. I recognized Lucian Hardy as he poked his tow-head through the leaves into our sanctuary. Lucian and his two lackeys, Tallen Cavenaugh and Thad Phelan. We’d gone to school together since the first grade. I hoped that would buy us some mercy.
It did not.
“Is this guy bothering you?” Lucian’s voice was too loud. Obnoxious.
“No,” I said slowly, stepping out to face him in a move braver than I felt. “But you are. Could you move along?”
There’s an unspoken rule: this tree is sacred space; you don’t bother couples at the Kissing Tree.
“Are you sure about that?” Lucian and his gang were not going to give up. “I thought you said you weren’t dating…”
“Not dating you, that’s all.”
Even in the dusk I could see his face go blood red. I remembered him looking red as he leaned against my locker at school, trying to look casual. You wanna see a movie sometime? So vulnerable in his awkwardness, big shoulders slouching forward, that I almost took pity and said yes. But he was more pink than red, then. Now he was not vulnerable. He was livid.
“I guess I see why,” Lucian spit, “Now that I know what you’re really into. Guess I dodged a bullet with you.”
I felt Dale’s hand tighten around my wrist and interpreted its warning. Back off. I didn’t want him to signal that to me. I wanted him to shout it at them, to claim our spot here, claim our right to be. But he hadn’t said a word. There were three of them and two of us, and Dale was never one for fighting. He preferred to hang back and study it all. That’s what made him so smart.
Dale's empty hand thrummed nervously over his pocket. Here he was again, being smart.
“You ain’t dodged nothing yet till you move along,” I said, keeping the heat in my voice at a low simmer.
“And let you ruin yourself with him?” Lucian said, flinging his arm toward Dale. I could hear Tallen and Thad snicker behind him.
“That’s my problem, isn’t it?” I wanted them gone.
“Well, now that we’re here, it’s our problem too,” Lucian said. “What would it say about us if we looked the other way now?”
“I’d say you’re decent people,” I said, just above a whisper.
Lucian smirked, a hard glint in his golden eyes. “Look who’s talking about decent people,” he said. “Looks like you’ve got no ground to stand on, pervert.” He was in my face now, leering down. I could smell the beer on his breath.
“Would you like to see us to the car?” Dale spoke up for the first time. I felt the heat and tension in his hand around my wrist, the sweat starting to break out.
“I'd like to see you in that tree,” Lucian hissed.
My blood was ice in my veins, but I stayed rooted to that spot. “We’re all gonna keep our feet on the ground tonight. Keep a level head, right? We can all go home right now.”
“Come on.” Dale pulled my wrist and turned to go, but the other two boys blocked our path.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Lucian drawled. I could sense the way he relished toying with us. “How about you go home, and we’ll take care of your girl?”
“She seems a little lost,” said Thad.
“But we know where she lives,” Tallen added.
“Sorry, fellas. That just wouldn’t be responsible,” Dale said, pulling me in closer to him. “I promised her mom I’d have her home by nine, and I intend to see it through.”
“We’ll just have to make sure to get her back by eight-thirty, then! Couldn’t take more than an hour to set her straight...” Lucian wrapped stubby, calloused fingers around my other wrist.
“I can’t let you do that.” Dale’s voice was hard. His left hand clung to mine while his right hand traveled into his pocket. I knew what he was about to do.
Behind us, sap still oozed from the wound where he carved our initials into the tree’s taut bark. Minutes before, I’d watched that tough skin slide open beneath his blade, bleeding the same amber inside each of our letters: D♡E.
The boys howled as Dale flipped open his pocket knife. “Oooh, I always knew you were trouble. What’re you gonna do with that?”
“I’m going to see my date to the car,” he answered, his voice somehow even.
“You see that?” they asked each other. “He’s threatening us.” They circled in, hungry jackals.
My eyes locked for a moment with Dale’s, both of us searching the other’s for answers. We’d never talked about what we’d do in this kind of situation. I guess we should have. In our love, we’d been lost in the beauty of things—all bird songs and rustling leaves and streaks of purple in a sunset. We hadn’t looked up to think about how ugly people could still be.
I saw cold determination in Dale’s eyes and I knew he was willing to do what it took to get us back to the car. His eyes didn’t linger on me for long; they darted back to our would-be captors.
They smirked, their teeth yellow under a crescent moon. They had nothing to fear. Tallen’s father was a police officer, and so was Lucian’s uncle.
And what if Dale hurt one of them? We might be safe for a while. We might even make it home. But what about when the police showed up at his door?
“What are you going to do with that, boy?” They continued to jeer, their bodies pressing in.
I couldn’t let them take Dale down that way. “Give it to me,” I whispered, hoarse, into his shoulder.
I felt the knife’s wooden handle, cool and solid, in my hand. I loved it that he trusted me, that he saw what I was capable of.
“I dare you to leave a mark on either of us,” I said and watched Lucian’s golden eyes widen, his smile freeze.
Dale’s hand led me back toward the road and I let my feet follow, but my gaze didn’t leave our attackers. “A lady has a right to defend herself,” I said as we walked through the wall of their bodies. “You’d best dodge.”
Adam + Ellery, 1999
We’re deep in the woods, but not too deep. Just far enough that the roar from the old road disappears into the leaves and moss.
“Here it is,” Adam says. “This is what I wanted to show you.”
He takes my hand and leads us toward the biggest tree I’ve ever seen. It stands alone in a clearing. It must be a hundred feet tall. Above my head, a crown of dark green leaves flutters over a trunk that Adam and I couldn’t circle with both our arms together—not even close.
Wandering under the canopy is like entering another world. It’s cool and dark. Branches twist down, forming thick buttresses. Its mossy roots are like fingers digging into the ground.
I hold on to Adam’s hand, enjoying his fingers laced through mine. “It’s amazing.” I mean it.
“It gets better,” he says, walking up to the trunk like he’s greeting an old friend. 'This is my last-ditch effort to change your mind.”
As he leads me around the trunk, I notice a maze of hearts and pluses and an alphabet of initials carved into the gray bark. “What is all of this?” I ask.
“They call this the Kissing Tree,” Adam says, settling into a cleft between two rope-like roots.
“Does that mean you’re going to kiss me?” I swallow my smile, or maybe half of it.
“Maybe…” The color rising to his cheeks makes my stomach flip. He looks down at the ground.
“Good.” I sit down on top of a root, nearby. “It’s about time.”
His eyes still don’t meet mine. I watch his fingers gently trace the initials carved into the tree trunk and imagine those fingers tracing their way up my arm, pulling goosebumps from my skin.
“I’ve been coming here for years,” he says. “It used to be my fortress when I was a kid. There’s a new set of initials every few months. People are still doing it. Look at all these…”
I do. I take in the old scars, worn smooth by wind and rain, scabbed over with new growth, and fresh wounds, raw and black, forming a tapestry of block letters. My eyes come to rest on a deep seam in the trunk, and I follow it up until the branches swallow it.
“Is this one tree, or two?” I wonder aloud.
Adam smiles. “Good eye. Both, I guess. It’s a gemel. When two trees grow close enough to rub together, eventually their bark wears away and the trees fuse together.”
“Cool.” I can feel my cheeks burn and I want to change the subject. “How many years has this tree been collecting autographs?” I ask.
“Decades, at least! Maybe a hundred.” He rubs his thumb over a faded D♡E. “I like to imagine who they were, the stories behind each one. What brought them here? Did they stay together?”
I laugh. “I don’t know whether you’re a creepy perv or a hopeless romantic.” I know which one he is and I love him for it.
“Why don’t you come here and find out?” Adam spreads his arms and grins as he leans back into the gray trunk.
It’s everything I dreamed it would be. There are no words for it—just a flood of warmth and softness, once we find our way around teeth and noses.
“Don’t go, he whispers into my hair as our lips break apart and my forehead finds a home in the soft skin of his neck. “Not now, when we’ve just figured this out. Stay. We could do this every day.”
“We will,” I say. “Every day we have left.” I count them in the darkness of his shoulder. Eighteen.
“Not enough,” he says, burying his nose in my hair.
“Come with me, then.” I’ve thought it through. There are so many more jobs in a college town than he could do here.
He sighs, and the heaviness inside his ribs—inside his heart—sways my body on top of his. Adam has deep roots here, and he’s such an optimist he only sees the good in this town.
“You know I can’t stay. There’s nothing here for me. This place is so small-minded. So much hate. It’s not the life I want.”
I remember every time someone has looked at my brown skin and said (if not with their words, then with their bodies—an eye roll, a puzzled crease in the forehead) you don’t belong here. At this lunch table. In this honors class. It’s etched into my heart like the initials in this tree.
But Adam has never made me feel like an outsider, in all the years I’ve known him.
“I know,” he says now, as his hand sends chills up my back as it travels to the nape of my neck. “But it’s so full of love, too. We’re sitting here, in the middle of it. Don’t look away from that.”
It’s not his fault he’s had a different experience. “I’m looking at you,” I say.
“Good.” Adam pulls me closer, and there’s more.
“I want to add us to the tree,” he says when our bodies untangle.
“That’s our happy ending. That way, no matter what happens, there we are, a record of love: A + E on the tree, happily ever after.”
“What if it’s a lie?” I ask him.
“I’m not lying when I say I love you. No matter what else happens.”
I reach for him and say aloud the words that feel foreign and sweet on my tongue. “I love you, too.”
He fumbles in his pocket until he finds a silver quarter. “Do you mind? Ells, will you live here, on the tree with me?”
I can only smile (or I don’t know, maybe it comes out as a grimace?) and nod.
He takes the coin and, carefully, shoulder digging in against the thick bark, he traces our initials deeper and deeper. I watch the smooth bark part under the friction of his determination.
Rae + Ruth, 2021
It was finished. We lied there, a limp pile of limbs tangled like the tree branches that fluttered above us. I was flat on my back, staring up, a little dumbstruck. I think we were both too surprised and exhausted to say anything just then. I remember the rustle of wind against my bare skin—so strange, almost frightening. I wanted to wear you like a jacket, but I was afraid to; I was afraid to even look at you.
The leaves up there in the sky were bright red. Maybe that’s why I started to think of hell flames. I started to think how easy it had been to lose control, to lose myself. The wave of feeling that had carried me so high with you deposited me, disheveled, on some foreign shore of myself.
“We shouldn’t have done that, Rae.” I still remember the sound of my voice piercing the silence.
“Maybe not,” you said, “but I’m glad we did.” You sounded so confident. It made me feel a little better, but it also made part of me hate you. I was jealous, I think, of the way you were able to experience this. To enjoy it.
You sat up, smoothed my hair, kissed my forehead. I could feel myself losing control again, wandering deeper into the jungle of my desire.
“You’ll be good company in hell,” you said. I know you could read my thoughts. You always could.
“Stop it! Don’t say that.” I sat up and reached for my shirt. I was naked and ashamed.
I’m sorry for the way I disappeared after. I ghosted you, we’d say these days. I know you had so much more you wanted to give. I did, too. When I walked away from you I didn’t just lose my first love; I lost my best friend. It hurt so much.
But I was young and lost. All that day I kept thinking about what my daddy would do if he found out what we did, wondering if he could see it on my face. I imagined him calling me out, begging for my forgiveness in front of the whole congregation. So I punished myself. I cast myself out of the garden—our garden—silly as it sounds.
That “Kissing Tree” was like the tree of knowledge of good and evil for me. I discovered so much good that day—a world of love, and learning who I was. But at the time, I just felt evil.
I went back to the tree this week. It’s still there. I was in town, visiting my ma. I’d just heard about you (Ma mentioned it as casually as any piece of gossip: "Virus took Raelin Shepherd last year. She was a nurse. You two were friends for a long spell, weren't you?") and I felt this heavy sadness. Regret. I always imagined I’d get a chance to apologize and to tell you what you meant to me.
I looked for you out at the tree. If I were able to feel your spirit anywhere, that would be it.
If it’s possible, the tree was even bigger than it was back then—the queen of the forest. More people had left their marks. Her leaves were glowing red, just like they were that day.
Rae, I still think of you when I see beeches aflame in the fall. Today I don’t see hellfire and brimstone, but the little fire that burns inside us all—a life force. This little light of mine. Mine burns brightly today, and I want to thank you for your part in that, for helping me ignite it.
I carved our names in the tree: Rae + Ru, like you had wanted that day. Revisionist history. I hope it’s still what you would have wanted. I wanted to preserve your mark on the world. On me. I wish I had looked at you that day. I’m not afraid anymore.