“By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire.”
“Sir,” the officer began, head tilted to the side and pencil in hand hovering over a notepad. “Are you aware that your house caught on fire?”
Tay slouched further into the couch, arms resting against his knees. In one hand he held a leaf, it’s stem between his thumb and forefinger, and he gazed deeply at it. His expression laid ambiguously between despair and calmness, one could even say, if they believed that such a thing could be seen, that his eyes were empty. “Who knew that leaves were so flammable?” he rolled the leaf back and forth slowly. “Of course I did, but not these ones.”
The officer shifted in his seat and cleared his throat, “Perhaps you would like me to call in a professional for you to talk to.”
“No, I’m all right, thank you. Ah,” he said looking up from his leaf and at the officer. “I haven’t offered you anything to drink or eat. Would you care for anything?”
“No, but thank you.” A cat jumped upon the back of the couch the officer was sitting on, they both watched her as she jumped onto the cushions and then settled in the officer’s lap.
Tay placed the leaf on the coffee table and stood up, “I’m so sorry!”
The officer laughed and raised his hand with the pencil, “It’s all right, I like cats.” He waited until Tay sat back down before speaking again, Tay did so slowly, seeming a little out of balance. “If you’re doing well can you tell me what happened?”
Tay clasped his hands together, dark skin paling from the tight grip, his expression seemed hardened as he looked into the officer’s eyes. “I was in my room on the second floor, leaning out the window talking...to someone,” he squeezed his eyes shut, his lips tensed into a straight line. “When I saw a kid throw his cigarette toward my tree, I yelled at him and he ran. I went outside to see where it landed, guess it landed in the leaves.”
The officer wrote his statement down. “And your tree,” he looked past Tay out the window. “It looks like it’s close to your house, that must have been how the house caught fire.”
“Yes, some of the branches touch the house.”
“Do you know who this person was?”
“Do you know what they looked like? Was it a man or a woman, a youth or an adult?”
“Could have been a man or a boy...was wearing a hoodie.”
The officer crossed his arms and sighed, “It’s a good thing the firefighters got here quickly and only the exterior of your house caught fire. But even if it had been an accident, it could have been worse, so anything you remember about him is important.”
“I’m not really sure.”
“What about the person you were talking with?”
Tay opened his eyes in surprise, “No, he hadn’t seen him.”
“But you said you were looking out your window talking to him and your tree can be seen from your room but not from where this person was? Where was he at?”
“He wasn’t there when it happened,” he averted his gaze. “He had just left, but I was still leaning out the window.”
The officer blinked, “Hmmm.” He unfolded his arms and wrote something else down and Tay gulped.
“This is a family home, my sister and I planted that tree together. I grew up with him, it.” He turned towards a bookcase and pointed at a photo on top of it, “There we are.”
The officer followed Tay’s finger and saw the photo of a young Tay, a little girl, and a small apple tree. “Then I understand that it must be special to you. I’m glad it survived.”
Tay’s expression softened as a smile grew on his lips, his empty eyes filled with life, “Yes, it is special.”
The officer stood up and Tay followed suit. “Thank you for letting me in and talking with me, if you remember anything else please contact us,” he handed him a card.
“I’m thankful to everyone involved,” Tay said, leading the officer to the door. He opened it for the other man, waved him goodbye once he crossed the threshold, closed the door with shaking hands, then ran upstairs. He slid on the carpet once he reached the top, his hands caught him before he smashed his face into the wall and a tingling sensation ran up his arms. Then he was in his bedroom.
Tay caught his breath, hand gripping his shirt at his chest and finally slowed down, walking instead of running toward his window. It was a good thing he’d closed it before leaving, but that wasn’t important now. He opened it and leaned out toward the tree in his front yard. The leaves that were still on the tree were crisped, they had just started changing color a few days ago, he loved his tree all year round but it was most beautiful during fall.
“Red,” he called out in a whispery whimper. “Are you all right?”
There was nothing there at first and his heart and stomach ached in worry, but then shortly a hand stretched out from the trunk of the tree and then an entire figure. The figure was translucent but of many colors: reds, oranges, yellows, and a splash of green. As it became more opaque it was obvious that it was human shaped. Though whether it was human was questionable.
By face alone it was difficult to tell if it were a man or woman and even its body was androgynous, but the flat chest leaned towards male. His hair flowed all around him in it’s bright autumn colors, his skin was glowing and it was impossible to discern what exactly the color of it was, but his eyes were a deep, piercing red. “Of course I’m fine, Tay, who do you think I am. Us trees are pretty strong,” he said, flexing an arm even though he had little muscle.
Tay clasped a hand to his face as the tears he had held in finally fell from his eyes. “I was so worried,” the words were muffled under his hand.
Red reached a hand to Tay’s face and wiped a tear away, “None of that now, none of that.” Tay wrapped his arms around him and Red reciprocated the hug, patting him on the back and whispering soothing words.
Whether the boy from the tree was real, Tay had stopped asking long ago. Since he’d first seen him at the base of his once small apple tree as a child and asked, “Who are you?” the boy had become a part of his life.
“I am an apple tree,” the boy had said in response.
“You don’t look like one,” Tay pouted and crossed his arms in disbelief.
“You can think of me as the spirit of the apple tree if that will be easier to understand. We are connected, what it feels, I feel. When it grows, I grow, and when it dies, I will die too.”
Tay still hadn’t understood, but he nodded his head as if he had and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Apple tree,” he said matter-of-factly.
Tay stomped his foot, “But you just said that that’s what you are, that isn’t a name. It’d be like calling me Human.”
The boy smiled, “Then I haven’t got one. If you aren’t called Human, then what is your name?”
“Tay and you will be Red.”
The boy cocked his head and blinked, putting a finger to his chin, “But my apples will be green, you know.”
“I know,” he jumped up excitedly and pointed. “But your eyes are red, so you are Red!”
“I see, I am Red and you are Tay. Will we be friends?”
Tay turned towards his house, “Well, since I live right here, I guess we could be.” He turned back toward the newly named Red, “Yeah, let’s be friends!” He ran to the tree boy and hugged him, he’d felt both cool and warm and it’d been the best hug he’d ever felt, that never changed no matter how many years had passed.
Adult Tay pulled away from Red and wiped his eyes on his shirt, “I’ll make sure to protect you better next time, I promise.”
Red smiled softly, balancing on one foot on a tree branch as he spun around, “I’m just happy that you’re always near me.”
Tay grabbed one hand, stopping Red’s spinning motion, “Me too.”