It’s a Monday morning and they’re cutting down the tree in the park by my house. It’s a sturdy oak, younger but taller than all the other trees around it. There was a storm last night, a storm worse than any in my memory. I guess the tree was struck by lightning. It’s split straight down the middle, the half farther from my view cleaved away, the half closer to my house still stretching towards the sun.
I met you when we were five years old. I was running around in the park by my house when I tripped and fell. My knee was scraped and hurt a lot, so I did what any sensible five-year-old would do in that situation. I sat there and cried.
I didn’t attract my dad’s attention as I had hoped -- he was off somewhere talking about sports or smoking a cigar or being an overall negligent parent with his dad friends -- but I got yours. Other people's pain made you curious. You wanted to understand their stories and commit them to memory.
You helped me up and gave me Neosporin for my knee. You said your mom made you carry it around everywhere for emergencies. I sat next to the oak tree they planted the day before while you rubbed the medicine into my knee.
I wondered how that tree could be twice my size if it was only a day old.
You moved to my school in first grade, and for the next few years, everyone thought we were twin brothers. My features were light and yours were dark, but we acted like we knew each other from the womb. You and I were inseparable.
The oak tree grew with us as we got older. Most of the time we would do homework under it together. When we were done, you would tell me stories about imaginary worlds, lands of dragons and prophecies and magic. My mom would invite you in for dinner, and you would always say yes. You loved my mom’s lasagna and she made it at least once a week just for you.
I was in the sixth grade when my dad left. He just packed his bags and said he was going. It was almost a relief. There had been so much fighting between my parents for the past few years, and I just wanted it to be over. That doesn’t mean that when it happened I didn’t climb the oak tree as high as I dared and cry.
You found me up there late at night. My mom hadn’t bothered to come looking for me. But you and I were supposed to meet to study for the big math test the next day. I told you what had happened and you walked me to your house. Your mom made me chicken soup.
We both failed the test.
You wanted to be a writer. No, you were going to be a writer. You were going to be the next J.K. Rowling and have a fandom that spanned the earth. Maybe even beyond, if we discovered alien life by the time you were old enough to publish your books.
I said that I would be your advisor. I would help you proofread your books and set up book displays in Barnes and Noble and tell all the aliens how good your books were so they would read them. Your books would be so good they would make the aliens decide that the human race was worth sparing. You would get a Nobel Peace Prize and they would build statues in your honor. Maybe they would even name our park after you.
We would sit under the oak tree late evenings the summer before high school started and you would read me what you were writing. Your main character was so clever and always knew how to get out of traps. His sidekick followed him to the Earth’s end time and time again.
I was starting to notice things about you in ways that I had never noticed them before. Your hair was growing out a bit, and you would brush it out of your face subconsciously when you spoke. Your voice was getting deeper faster than mine, and I was jealous of that. Our hands were calloused from climbing the oak tree, but the callouses suited you. They just made my hands ugly.
I noticed when the girls started giving you looks in tenth grade. I tried to ignore the tightness I felt in my chest whenever you were talking to Lia from English class. She wanted to be a writer too.
Soon the two of you started dating and suddenly you didn’t have as much time for me anymore.
Lia was one of the nicest people I had ever met. She was sweet, she was kind. She wasn’t nearly as bright as you, but that was a given. Still, I was suspicious of her. She always wanted me to tag along when you wanted to be alone with her. I would always catch her watching me out of the corner of her eye. I could tell that she wasn’t committed to you. She wanted me, and she was using you to get to me. I despised her for that. You deserved better.
One day, she pulled me aside, and I knew what was coming. She was going to tell me that she loved me. She was going to suggest that I break my loyalty to you, and I would finally be able to expose her--
But she didn’t. She told me that she knew my true feelings. She told me she knew that I loved you, not in the friendly way, but in a way that some people might think was weird. Because we were both boys. But she told me that she didn’t think I was weird. She just didn’t want me to feel hurt by her. She wanted to make sure that her relationship with you was okay by me, because you and I had been friends longer.
I found myself suddenly unable to despise Lia, so I told her I was happy for you two.
That night, I sat underneath the oak tree and cried.
A few days after high school graduation, we were sitting beneath our tree. You seemed nervous, and you eventually told me that you and Lia finally did “it” the night before. I did not have to ask what “it” was. I loved Lia, I really did, but the feeling I got in my stomach when you told me about your exploits demanded action. I felt sick. I knew I couldn’t keep my feelings secret anymore, no matter how much it would hurt Lia.
So I told you. I let you know how I really felt about you. I let you know that you were so much more than just a friend to me, even if it was our friendship that would always come first. I apologized. I told you that I wished I could let go of these feelings, but they were so pure and true that they could not be silenced.
You were silent for a long time. Finally, you stood. You said that you didn’t support my lifestyle. You said you couldn’t believe I had been using you for all these years. You said we couldn’t be friends anymore. You left me.
Lia broke up with you the next day. She found me by the pond, and we sat together and cried.
You became a writer. You wrote about dragons and prophecies and magic.
In your books, your main characters were clever and always knew how to get out of traps. They would go out and save the day, and they would always end up with the girl. They did not have sidekicks.
I read each of your books as they came out. If I tried to talk about them in public, I would get uncomprehending looks. Nobody knew who you were. Your fandom did not span beyond the earth; your fandom did not even span across a continent. No aliens came to read your books anyway.
I liked to think that if they did, they would have liked them.
You moved to England a few months after publishing. You claimed it was to celebrate being one step closer to becoming the next J.K. Rowling.
We both knew you were running from the past.
You and Lia never spoke again. She invited you to her wedding a couple decades back, but you never even sent an apology for being unable to attend. She and her husband didn’t want kids of their own, but they’ve been fostering children since before their wedding.
One little foster child was the flower girl at their wedding. Twenty years later, Lia’s husband walked her down the aisle to her soon-to-be wife.
You and I never spoke again, either. For years, I tried. I texted you, I called you, I even sent you letters. I told you that I had changed, I didn’t love you in that way anymore, we could go back to being regular friends.
You never responded. You probably blocked me the very night I came out to you.
Eventually, the hot pain in my chest faded to a dull throb. I would feel it when I was thinking about you, but sometimes I would feel it for no reason. I would hope that in those moments, you were thinking of me, wherever you were.
One day, I met a man. He was sweet, he was handsome, he was funny. He took my mind off of you. He felt the same way for me as I did for him, and just a couple years later I proposed.
I sent you an invitation to the wedding, but you didn’t respond.
I didn’t expect you to.
I leave my house and take the path to the oak tree. I haven’t been here since the day I came out to you, but I can still get to our tree blindfolded. It trembles as the chainsaws bite into it.
I’m gazing up at the charred branches when Lia approaches.
“Hey,” she yells over the sound of the chainsaws. “What are you doing here?”
Her dog is with her.
“Looking at the tree,” I reply.
“Yeah, I could tell. Freak storm, huh?”
I nod. We stand in silence for a while.
“You been standing here all morning?”
“What’s up? You look lost in the past.”
“What’s so important about this tree?”
With a whir of machinery, the tree comes crashing down, and a weight is lifted from my chest.
Finally, I look at her. Her eyes are the same green as the park’s lake.
“Nothing, Lia. Nothing at all.”