“Well doc, I’m about to be married. Sure it took me till I was a little over 30, but what more could I possibly want in life than the possibility of eternal love and a family of my own?”
I state this with as much fake enthusiasm as I can muster, though I’m pretty sure my long-time therapist Dr. Bennet who is in her 60’s and has seen more than her fair share of client pandering isn’t buying my crap as usual.
“I’m not buying that crap Layla.”
“Look Layla dear, we have been together on this journey of recovery for just over 11 years now and…”
“And I promise I have taken every second of it heart doc, but…”
“But, I’m not just going to watch you walk away from this if I don’t think you are truly ready. Not in good conscious at least.”
I stand up and start to pace.
“When exactly will that be huh? I may still be sick in the head according to everyone in this town, but I'm more sick of this. I just want my freedom.”
“You will never be free…”
“Until I learn to take this seriously. Yeah I know, and I try to. I mean I haven’t done anything drastic in years, and I’m am in a committed relationship.” I say pointing out my ring finger sporting a basic yet still elegant diamond engagement ring. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“It isn’t about what I want Layla. It has to be about what you want, and even more so about what you need.”
She stands slowly and gestures gently to the sofa indicating I should sit as she continues. I sigh and take a seat as she continues her lecture.
“I can only give you advice on what I think would make you happy Layla, but I am not a psychic. While I have commended your progress and did suggest that it may be time to make new connections and relationships, you have to be doing it from a place of good intentions and not obligation. Also, while you may not have done anything drastic recently, we would both be lying to ourselves if we didn’t know the potential is still there.”
As she talks, she makes her way around the desk and sits next to me on the sofa and to my surprise puts her hand on my shoulder in a comforting motion. Her look saddens.
“While I am not supposed to grow too attached to my clients, after all these years together I do genuinely care for you and your wellbeing Layla.”
“Stop being a perv doc. Remember I’m taken now.”
“I’m being serious here. Please just know I am making you continue with these sessions not out of disregard for your feeling, but because of them.”
“Doc, really I feel grea…”
I instantly feel a sense of cold and empty dread inside. She has played this trump card many times before, and the cheap shot always wins. I look away trying to hide the impact the word has on me, or perhaps the lack of impact. She simply nods and we share a long moment of silence that seems to last an eternity. Finally, she breaks the silence by tapping on her watch, indicating the end of the session.
“See you next week Layla.”
Without responding or even looking her way I exit the room in a coldly heated haste.
Exiting the office building I make my way down the street in a rush to get somewhere, anywhere fast. The brisk air of winter feels like nothing as I march mindlessly forward. As I move through the crowd I stumble a bit over a crack and smack into the nearest person.
I get my bearings and see that I have smacked into the unwelcome but familiar face of Todd. Once a friend from high school, now just another one of the many thorns in my side from the prickly field of thorn bushes that is my life. The collision has made some unknown liquid he was drinking spill all over him. When he looks up and finally sees me there is an instant shift from simple frustration to instant hatred. While I know that may be a strong word, I assure you it fits the bill perfectly.
“Of course it had to be Layla the Lunatic.” He says with a scoff.
I start to walk away without a word, but he grabs my arm forcefully.
“Don’t think you can just ignore me now. Just because others are scared of you or think you’re some pathetic pity case doesn’t mean I do.” He flashes to cold smile. “To me you will always just be the bitch who murdered my best friend.”
“What do you want from me Todd?” I respond emotionless.
“Nothing. You had 11 years to do something, but you can’t even muster up a sorry.”
“Would that make you feel better?”
“No, but this might.”
He lets go and goes to grab a hot coffee from the stand next to him and is about to throw it my way when a little girl about five years old that has gone unnoticed till now tugs on his coat.
His eyes meet his daughters and without hesitation he places the cup back down. It was as if a spell was broken and I was no longer even there. He takes the girl's hand and walks away calmly, without even looking back at me.
No longer in a rush after the encounter, I begin to walk more slowly, but just aimlessly. Todd was right, the town is split between those who think I’m someone to fear and those who think I am someone to pity. There were of course a few though like him, mostly those closest to the situation, who just entirely hated me, and may always hate me for what they think I did. But, seeing Todd today letting go of his hatred for his little girl though is something I can’t seem to get out of my mind. He just walked away from me. How come he didn’t try to punish me? How is he able to just let go? How come he can set himself free from that moment, but I can’t?
I notice that my walk has lead me to tree a little outside of town. Nothing special about it really, but the area itself is peaceful and without intrusion. Just myself and a lone tall tree covered in a light layer of frost. I go up to the trunk and place my hand on it.
Before I can even realize what I am doing I find myself beginning to climb the tree. Up and up I go without any hesitation or consideration of the risks. Finally, I get up to where I deem high enough, about 25 feet up, and set myself on a fairly thin branch near the top of the tree.
I watch the view from up above as I feel my weight slowly starting to weigh on the branch I’m sitting on. I smile and just continue to stare out towards nothing in particular as I ignore the cracking sounds of the branch. I don’t embrace for anything as I hear the final snap. I just let it happen.
Down I fall at a rate that would surely be fatal. The dizzying effects of the downward spiral take over me. The moment feels surprisingly slow and entirely chaotic as I feel myself hitting one or possibly two branches on my way down. I close my eyes partially from the pain and partially to try and stop the disorientation.
Just as I am sure the final collision was about to come, I feel instead my hand catching onto something. I open my eyes with a start to discover myself just hanging in mid-air.
Stunned I look up to see a figured hidden in front of the blinding light of the sun standing on a thick lower branch of the tree holding onto my hand with clear desperation.
“Let go!” I call out forcefully.
I get no response and hear the figure still struggling above.
“Let go!” I call with even more force.
Still no response.
“For Christ sake, JUST LET GO!”
I finally hear the voice of my so-called hero respond only to find it oddly chilling and familiar. I shake off the feeling and get back to the matter at hand.
“Ugh. Hey, if you worried I might die just look down.”
I see the figures head move downward to look at the ground below which is at most 5 feet below the bottom of where my feet hang.
“See. It’s not far enough for me to even spare an ankle. Though my arm might be if you don’t let go soon. You stopped my velocity and saved my life. Thanks, hero.” I say with signature fake enthusiasm.
I feel the figure gently loosen their grip as I prepare for the drop to the ground, but suddenly I feel the grip tighten once more with renewed energy and begin to get lifted back up onto the branch the figure rests on.
Once safely seated on the branch I shake out my arm and inspect it for further injury.
“What the hell was that all about? You could have done some real damage to my ar…”
Before I can get the last word in I am suddenly embraced in a tight, almost suffocating, hug. Too shocked to even respond, I sit frozen as I am pressed into the figure's torso. Though strange at first, the feeling becomes warm and familiar as time passes.
Finally, I can’t help but wince at the pain from the injuries sustained from the fall, and the figure slowly releases me, allowing me to I get a clear view of the person that now sitting beside me.
I shudder in a shock so deafening that it silences all thought under the gaze of what I instantly recognize as my first love, and the cause of all my misery, Jason.
Though the last time I remember seeing him he had just turned eighteen, the Jason before me is most certainly now a fully grown man around his 30’s. I stare with wide eyes at how he looks exactly as I had pictured a grown-up Jason would look had we never been separated.
“You can really see me? I’m really here?” Jason says with his intense gaze locked on me
Suddenly he grabs his head as if just recalling something.
“Oh my god. I am so so sorry Layla. I never meant for any this to happen. I don’t even know how it happened. I was right there with you on the field getting ready for graduation and then I jus…”
I slap him with everything I have in me. Years of rage, sadness, fear, and pain that I held back in every session comes out in that singular action.
The force knocks him off balance and he begins to slide off the branch. Quickly I grab onto him to help steady himself.
After a long moment of reflection on both sides, I decide to break the silence.
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit Jason. You suddenly vanish out of thin air without a word and leave me with nothing. I was suspected of your murder! Now you just suddenly show up. I deserve to know where you were all these years.”
“I was here.”
“You have been in town this whole time?”
“No. I mean yeah, but not really.”
Frustration builds within me once more.
“Stop playing games with me Jason. People think I’m crazy enough because of you, and I don’t need any more reasons to go off the deep end. Just give me a clear answer or I’ll do what everyone already thinks I did and push you right out of this tree.”
“I thought you said it you couldn’t even sprain your ankle from this height?”
“True, but falling head first may be a different story.”
I stare him down in hopes of gaining results, but he suddenly starts laughing.
“Is this funny to you?”
“No no, sorry.” He coughs back his laugher. “There is just so much I’m feeling right now and I don’t know how to control it all so it just came out in laughter I guess.” He says as he turns to me with a smile.
This simple act breaks me completely as I finally let everything free for the first time in years.
“I spent 12 years being the town lunatic because I couldn’t control how I felt about what happened. I told everyone you just disappeared before my eyes. No one believed me, and those that did thought I was insane. I wanted to do nothing by cry for weeks, but I didn’t get to because I had to defend myself against your parents and friends mercilessly trying to get me accused of your murder. So after being too tried to fight or care anymore without you I just started to believe them and became the villain they saw me as. I did things I regret to get myself locked away from everything and everyone. I didn’t get to feel anything after that because I was too busy being told to repress everything or being given drugs that would do it for me. ”
“Like hell you do. What could you possible know when you were even around to see it?”
“Layla, I saw everything.”
“What does that mean?”
“I told you I was here. I never left your side, but it was like I was some kind of ghost. I could see and hear everything, but never interact with them. Until today.”
“Did you go crazy too?”
He sighs and then puts his hand to his chin as if trying to think of something buried in memories.
“When you burned the neighbor’s house down you made sure that you broke in and got their cat out first. Everyone thought it was just a lucky escape, but you did that because taking a life was a line you were never willing to cross.” He face darkens a bit as he looks down “Besides your own that is.”
“How did you…”
“I told you. I never left you side. During every hardship, I was there. I wanted to be the one to help you through it all like I always did, but I could never reach you.”
As he says this he puts his face in his hands, as if to block out his pain. I can’t help but soften a bit as I see this and place my hand on his back.
A moment passes before he regains his composure and I release my touch.
“We should probably get out of this tree now.” I say
“Could we just chill for a little longer?”
“Why? It’s getting colder, this branch isn’t exactly comfortable, and I could go for something to eat as we talk more about how crazy we both are.”
“It’s the only spot I know we can talk.”
“Wait, you think if we leave this tree you will go back to...wherever you were?”
“Maybe there. Maybe somewhere different. Maybe nowhere. Heck if I know.”
“That’s just a stupid theory than. We aren’t kids anymore, or monkeys for that matter. I am not hanging in a tree all night. Let’s go”
I go to hop down, but before I can Jason holds onto my forearm with shaking hands and sad eyes.
“I’m not ready to let go Layla.”
We stay in the tree for a long time after that. We go through topic after topic until the sun is completely gone and the moon is in full view.
"Why now?" I question.
"I can't say for sure, but maybe it was just the right time to get over all of this."
"There is no right time."
"Are you even real?" I finally dare to ask.
"Honestly? Hell if I know." He sayings laughing a little.
We take another moment to let our time together sink in.
“Are you ready to let go now?” he asks me with sad smile.
I pause and then kiss him one last time. Years of happiness, passion, and love for him released in one singular action. I release myself from the kiss and jump down from the tree. I gain my footing from the short fall and begin to walk away from the tree. Without looking back I keep moving forward.
“Yeah, I think I finally am, Jason.” I say as I finally shed my first tears at the sound of the name of the man I will always love.