A tree, by itself, wasn’t an unusual sight. A tree, in the middle of the second story bedroom of a Los Angeles apartment, however, was a curiosity. The trunk of the tree wandered somewhere behind the building itself, but at a certain point it simply crossed into the bedroom, wholly unbothered by the apartment’s occupants. There were a lot of rumors about how the tree had become a part of the house, but the truth was that it had been built so long ago that nobody really remembered any kind of reasonable explanation.
Paola Herrera, who was older than her two brothers but physically smaller, ended up with the room. It was somewhat inconvenient, but the Herrera family had barely been able to afford the apartment, and so the simple fact that she had her own room seemed a luxury.
She had just bumped her head into the tree on Tuesday morning when her mother burst into the room.
“ICE is here,” she said, breathlessly, shoving two frail little girls into the room. Paola jumped into action. The room didn’t offer much in hiding places, but maybe the girls could squeeze under the bed.
While ICE raids were fairly common in their neighborhood, the Herreras rarely got checked. Paola and her brothers had been born in the US and this saved them from a lot of checks. Dreamers, who had been born elsewhere but immigrated to the US at a young age, were less lucky. Paola shoved the textbooks from under the bed and turned around to find the smaller of the two girls clinging to the tree, deathly white and on the verge of tears.
“Come on, it’ll be over soon,” Paola urged, grabbing the girl’s hips and pulling. The girl said nothing but clung tighter. The older girl crawled hesitantly under the bed. Paola could hear the knocking on the front door. She gave the younger girl another yank.
“Please, you need to trust me,” she begged, shoving the older girl’s feet further under the bed. “Follow your sister, please, please.”
Harsh voices outside confronted her mother. Just as she was about to yank the girl again, her hips swung loose from Paola’s hands. Paola gasped as the little girl tumbled to the ground, holding what appeared to be a door. Disregarding the rising anger from the voices outside, Paola leaned into the tree trunk, which she now saw had a large hollow space with a hidden hinged door. She gaped at the space. Then she heard a pounding at the bedroom door.
The little girl looked more terrified than she had been before, so Paola stuffed her into the space. She fit easily.
“I’m getting dressed!” she shouted at the door, turning around. The older girl had crawled out from under the bed and was staring at the space in the tree. Paola scooped her up, shoved her into the space beside her sister, and slammed the door closed. Messing up her hair, she ran over to the door and opened it to see two stern faced, middle aged men. The said nothing, just brushed past her. They dug through her closet, kicked apart the stacks of books on her floor, and tipped the bed up to check under. An involuntary shiver went through Paola as they pushed past the tree branch, looking defiantly out of place. Wordlessly, they walked back out of the room, leaving it looking like it had been hit by a tornado.
When the men had left, Paola’s mother pulled an adult woman out of the kitchen cabinets, and her brothers produced a man from the storage closet behind their bedroom. Paola, still in shock, brought her family, chattering breathlessly in Spanish about the experience, to her bedroom.
“Paola, where’d you hide the children?” her mother asked, surveying the room. The room fell silent as Paola pulled the bark of the tree. The door swung open, and the two little girls jumped out and ran to their parents, their words tripping over each other.
“It was so dark, Mama, I was so scared, and-”
“I found the door Mama, I found it!”
“Paola, did you know about this door?” her mother asked, wide eyed.
“No, we found it by accident,” Paola said, equally surprised.
The following week was spent experimenting. The entire Herrera family could open and close the door, easily, by the second day. Paola’s father determined that a full grown man could fit into the space, although it was a bit cramped. And Paola’s brother was the one who discovered the note, wedged into a crack in the wall of the space.
My name is Anzhelika. NOT Anna. Blue ink, crumpled paper. Paola took it upon herself to badger the landlord incessantly.
“But you must have a list of former tenants!” she insisted. “Anyone named Anzhelika? Angelica? Angelina? Angela? Anna?”
It took nearly a full month of being horribly annoying, but the landlord finally searched the records and reported to Paola that there had been a tenant named Angela Vanessa Brown. Paola once again took it upon herself to find her.
Sometime between writing a report on the history of the Cold War and shopping for homecoming dresses, she discovered an Angela Vanessa Brown on Facebook, who lived in Virginia, but who had pictures showing her in front of the apartment. More internet sleuthing produced a link to a cake shop and a phone number.
“Boom Boom Bakery, Dawn speaking, how can I help you?” the voice seemed detached.
“Could I speak to Angela Brown please? I have some personal business to discuss” Paola was suddenly nervous.
“You.. want to speak to Mrs. Brown? Like, the owner?” the voice asked.
“Yes, she’ll know who I am,” Paola lied.
Moments later, a gravelly voice reached the phone. “Who is this?” it asked.
“Did you ever live in an apartment in LA with a tree through the bedroom?” Paola spoke quickly, terrified she would hang up. “And did the tree by any chance have a space in it?”
There was silence for what felt like an eternity. Then the voice spoke again, with an unexpected amount of emotion.
“How did you know?”
“My name is Paola, I live there now, I just discovered it. It was an accident, but I found this little note in it, it says ‘my name is Anzhelika, not Anna’, and I was wondering if that was you who left it there.”
“Oh dear….” the voice seemed to be gentler now. “That wasn’t my note, it was there already when I arrived. You must have found my chip though.”
“Chip?” Paola asked, carrying the phone into the bedroom and opening the door of the tree.
“Yes, blue plastic.”
Paola rooted through the space until her fingers found an unexpected smoothness.
“I think I found it,” she said, pulling it out. It was dusty and dented.
“That’s my one year chip,” the voice explained. “One year of sobriety.”
“Oh,” Paola gasped, then wondered if it would be rude to ask for further details. Luckily, Angela Vanessa Brown seemed to understand.
“I lived in that apartment with my kids when my boyfriend left me. It was just me, a single mother and four kids. And then my mother, my best friend, died. And I didn’t know what to do. It felt like all I did my entire life was struggle, and I was still drowning.”
“That sounds terrible,” Paola said, turning the chip around in her hand.
“Oh, it was. It was terrible. Unbearable. And it didn’t start as a problem. A beer or two at night, just so I could relax and sleep without worrying about my kids, my job, my life. And then I started drinking on weekends, because I was a better parent when I was drinking. Or at least, I thought I was. By the time my youngest was five, I couldn’t make it through the day without alcohol. I would wake up with a glass of wine, I would put vodka in my water bottles and take it to work, I chewed gum all day to cover up the smell.”
The voice paused. Paola climbed into the space in the tree, clasping the chip.
“I found the hole in the tree by accident, too, but by then I was too deep in. I could’ve done so many interesting, useful things with that tree. But my first thought when I saw it was, what a perfect hiding place. I would buy alcohol and hide it in there. My oldest was eleven years when I started drinking, as the years passed by she would find my bottles and pour the alcohol out. I was so, so angry. Every time. I’m still ashamed to think about it. I remember slapping her when I caught her dumping out my vodka. But then I found the hole in the tree, and it was perfect. I would hide my bottles. Four or five at a time. Cheap, strong liquor. The kind of stuff that teenagers buy from corner shops that don’t check ID.”
“What made you stop?” Paola asked, far too interested now to care if she was being rude.
“I got pregnant. I didn’t know who the father was, or how I would support a fifth child, or what I would do. But I knew that I couldn’t drink, because that would screw her up. So I quit. Cold turkey. The hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I did it. Because I had been a bad parent for so long. When I got pregnant, for the fifth time, my oldest was seventeen. She wanted nothing to do with me. I had been a monster to her. And the other kids, I wasn’t much better. I wish I could have done more. I wish I could remember their birthdays or their graduations. The Christmases. But I don’t. My kids, they raised each other. When I got pregnant again, I thought of it as a chance to do it over. To be a good mom. To bake cookies, and be in the PTA, and take pictures every day. And to remember it.”
“Did you relapse?”
“When she was born, I’d already done nine months sober. I thought, if I can do this, I can do anything. I reached one year, that’s where the chip is from. One full year. And it was better. I loved her more selflessly. I was less distracted. Less annoyed. But a few years after Dawn was born, my son died. Teddy. He’d been drinking with his friends. And Teddy was driving the car, even though he was nowhere near sober. None of them were wearing seatbelts. All three of them died, instantly. I was inconsolable. I thought it was my fault. I’d set a bad example. I’d driven while drunk. Hell, I’d been drunk every day.”
After a heartbeat of silence, the voice continued, more choked up.
“I drank every day that week. And then my oldest visited me. She told me she would take my daughter if I didn’t shape up. That I would lose not one, but two children to alcoholism. So I stopped. Because I needed to have Dawn, I needed to love Dawn. For my survival.”
“So this chip, it’s from right after Dawn was born?” Paola asked, her fingers trailing the grooves of the space in the tree.
“Yes, I was so proud,” Angela Vanessa Brown sighed. “When Teddy died, I moved to Virginia to be closer to my sister. I’d been so stubborn, so independent, for so long, but I learned how to ask for help, how to take help. I saved up, I opened a bakery with her. I made amends with my other children. Our relationship isn’t perfect, but we have a relationship. And I am very, very grateful for that. There was a time when I thought I would die in a pool of my own vomit, splitting headache, shaky hands. I have grandkids now. I have a business. I’m glad I left. I needed it. But I’ll never forget that tree. It held some bad secrets for me, but I hope for everyone else it holds only good secrets. I hope for you, it holds good secrets.”
“Do you know anything about the note?” she asked. “Was it a good secret, or bad?”
“I know it was there when I found it. And I was always curious. But I never looked into it. All I can tell you is that I asked the neighbors once, and the people who had lived there before me were a husband and a wife, Peter and Anna McLaren.”
“Yes, them!” Paola said eagerly.
“Well, the neighbors said the wife was Russian, and she didn’t speak much English. She was shy, she didn’t come out much.”
Paola mulled on this new information.
“What do you use the tree for?” Angela asked.
Somehow, she seemed trustworthy. Maybe it was because she’d just given her whole life story, just like that. So Paola explained. She explained ICE, and she explained how the Herreras had become somewhat well-known for hiding people when they needed to disappear for a little while. Angela seemed pleased with the information. A short while later, they said their goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. Angela mentioned that she might like to visit in the future.
That night, instead of her reading assignment, Paola searched through internet archives of a Peter McLaren, with a Russian wife Anna. When nothing came up, she searched for the apartment address and McLaren. On page three of Google, she found a decades-old newspaper article, scanned in. Local Man Arrested for Domestic Abuse Against Mail-Order Bride. Paola sat stupefied as she read about Peter McLaren and his wife Anna, who had apparently moved from Russia to marry him after he promised her a better life. The article was noticeably lacking in details about what happened but at least now she had a name, Anzhelika Lebedev.
A google search later, Paola discovered an Anzhelika Lebedev on Linkedin, apparently working in San Francisco for a tech company. The Linkedin didn’t list an address or phone number, but there was an email address. Paola sent an email detailing the situation, then went to bed, homework forgotten.
The next morning, there was no response. A day later, still no response. Paola caught up on the ignored assignment, went for a walk with a cute boy, celebrated her friend’s birthday with cupcakes and cheesy locker decorations. Just over a week later, she woke up to an email sitting patiently in her inbox.
Please don’t contact me again. The tree, and the apartment in Los Angeles, are from a part of my life I don’t wish to dwell on.
My name is Anzhelika. When I was barely 19, I married Peter McLaren because he promised to pay for my mother’s hospital bills. He was handsome and rich and he made America sound like a dream. When we got there, I realised quickly that he was abusive. He raped me. He beat me. He threatened to kill me. I wasn’t allowed to go out by myself, or talk to the neighbors, or make friends. It was hell.
I would hide money in the tree. I couldn’t tell him, couldn’t show any sign I was unhappy, because he would stop paying for my mother’s treatment. I hid all the things I had brought from Russia. He burned my clothes, broke my things. Every reminder of Russia had to go. So I hid my books, my grandmother’s scarf in the tree.
When I say everything Russian had to go, I mean everything. My name was, and is, Anzhelika. He changed it to Anna. He said no one would learn it otherwise. I wasn’t allowed to even say Anzhelika. I wrote that note to remind myself. I had value. I had worth. And one day, I would be free.
One of our neighbors noticed the abuse, they called the police, the rest escalated from there. He went to jail, we divorced, I moved on. My life is so much better now. The tree was there when I needed it, but I don’t think about it actively. There is no point in hating the past.
Once again, please don’t contact me. I have no interest in maintaining a connection with a very dark part of my life. I think if you look more closely, you’ll find some more interesting histories. It means something different to everyone. I hope it helps you.
Three years later, Paola sat in front of the tree door.
“The moving truck is here!” her mother shouted from the kitchen.
She pulled out a somewhat crumpled trigonometry paper and began writing.
She placed the paper and notebook at the bottom of the space, resting on top of a blue plastic chip and note. She swung the door shut and walked out of the room. Just as she turned the corner, she glanced back at it. The tree stretched slyly upwards.
Paola Herrera. 2017.
This tree space has been used to protect the dreams of many. Dreams of happiness, sobriety, safety, independence, hope. While I lived here, it wasn’t just used to protect dreams. It also protected Dreamers. The notebook involves the details and stories of the people I have been able to get in touch with. If you find this space, protect it and it will protect you.