“What if I tie a rope around a branch and then around my neck?” The curve of Joe’s lip points upwards, but his eyes are vacant, hazy and lost.
“I would never get over it.” I tilt my head back and fight away the tears.
Joe moves over to me and pulls me into his chest. He kisses the top of my head and rubs his left cheek over my mane.
“I will never leave you.” He whispers, running his fingers down my arm.
I take his hand, and we wander into the only place we are free. Fragrances of minty grass and damp earth flow freely through our noses, and our feet tread over crackling twigs and displaced leaves. The further we move, the more the light fragments. It splits into misshaped patterns, creating shadows and spotlights, and soft susurrations resonate through the green canopies.
Joe stops for a moment and lowers his eyes to the ground.
“What do you think?” He asks, letting go of my hand.
I turn my gaze away from him. A ninety-degree angle up from exposed roots and the trunks of mossy pines and I am greeted to a collage of manufactured wood. Boards with earthy shades from honey orange to gritty browns, and others with swirling grains and tattered ends are hammered into a tree. I lift my eyesight further towards to the sky and with a deep exhale inspect an awning of stripped foliage resting on top of the wood.
“Are those railings?” I point to a balcony of branches. They attempt to stand upright but their crooks and layers of bark make it impossible.
Joe does not answer me, he just keeps his eyes attached to patches of grass and moist soil.
“It’s wonderful. You did this?”
He shrugs his shoulders and takes out a cigarette, but I see it. For a second, he lifts his head and the sparkle in Joe's eyes reappears, but as soon as the cigarette meets his lips; it vanishes.
I have only seen this sparkle a few times. The first time we met, introduced by Jessica’s older brother, all I could think about was that sparkle. How eyes so brown could have golden tints in them. And our first kiss under the oak tree. The rims of our mouths greeted each other. I came up for air and in front of me were autumn hues delicately placed inside his deep brown irises.
“Come have a closer look.” He mutters.
Joe hangs behind as I climb up the tree and pull myself into his creation. My bottom sticks to a sturdy strip of wood, my feet dangle in the air, and he joins me. It is a different view from up here, it’s the place for spying on our winged friends as they fleet between branches. A place no one will catch us if we have a passionate kiss and put our hands under each other clothes.
“I built this for you. For us.” Joe offers me a quick glance before turning his gaze outwards.
I take a moment to comprehend his words, and like a potent drug I react. The strain in my heart extends into my stomach and the tears fighting to fall win.
“Don’t cry Em.” Joe wraps his limbs around me.
“Why do you want to kill yourself, Joe?” I search his face for clues, for some understanding into why I am not enough.
Joe lets out a sigh. His heavy breath lingers down my spine and his scent of smoke and aftershave oozes through my nose.
“Let’s not talk about this today.” He answers, caressing my hair like it’s made of silk. “Let’s imagine everything is perfect.”
“In my world, everything is perfect.” My voice is meek, frail and damaged.
I know I am not enough for him. I never will be. There is a gloomy cloud following Joe, one that is so powerful it eradicates any chance of hope and happiness. The days are changing into months and with that the roller-coaster of life is feeding this cloud and I know its only matter of time before it sucks him up.
Joe rubs his soft lips over my mouth and the tips of our tongues massage one another. A warmth discharges through our flesh and not even the cruelest of winds could freeze us now.
Behind us the birdsong adorns the sky and sunlight presses through the leaves, reaching our pale faces and textured hair.
“Do you think this is what heaven is like?” Joe asks.
I pull away from him. His mind is a world I have never been able to figure out. The best mind reader would struggle to read the boy I love.
‘’I don’t believe in heaven or an afterlife. I believe we have to treasure this world.” I raise my voice and furrow my eyebrows. But it’s no use, Joe is unharmed by my change in mood.
“I might go.”
“If you want Emily. Shall we have a cigarette first?” Joe reveals his enamel teeth and the brown in his eyes sink closer to his pupils.
I want to go. I want to leave him. I want him to understand the pain he is causing me when he hovers his planned death in front of me, but I can’t. I was incomplete the day I met him. A lonely youth misunderstood by her peers and family. That all changed the day Joe placed his fingers in between mine. Suddenly I was whole, needed, loved. This boy sitting inches away from me coerced my breath into the pit of my stomach so it could dance with my insides. His love and presence ignited a fuse in me, and his touch healed my suffering and teenage angst. If only I could do that for him.
I take one of his cigarettes and move to an arm of the tree warmed by a generous helping of sun. Joe throws me a lighter and placing the tobacco stick between my lips, I ignite it. My eyes slide shut and open in a cloud of smoke, and as the circular wisps disintegrate into the atmosphere, I feel Joe's eyes pressed against me.
“I am sorry, I won't talk about it again.”
“I just don’t want to lose you.”
“You will never loose me.” Joe offers me a smile. His eyes are still vacant, but the rest of his face animated. Alive. “So, you like the tree house?”
I nod my head.
“Most of the wood is stolen and the nails are taken from my dad’s collection?”
A flutter of excitement tickles my inside and I purse my lips
“My Dad is missing a fence panel.”
“That’s right behind you.”
Joe points to an ailing piece of wood clinging to the tree with burnt orange nails hammered at either side. It's reachable distance and I place my spare hand over it, stroking its lifelines and knots. My dad wouldn’t care, it needed to be replaced. The timber post next to me looks like part of grumpy Dave’s gate, and his response would be to lock Joe away. A response I have heard many times. Few people like my boyfriend. My mum complains he needs to get a job and Jessica thinks he is creepy. They just don’t understand him. I don’t even understand him. He is a complex character. A beautiful, complex individual, and that’s why we are a perfect match.
A slither of sun beams down Joe’s face, irradiating his bushy eyebrows and pointy cheek bones, and as I gaze at his radiance, I return to his grasp and lay my head on his shoulder.
“I think this is what heaven is like.” I say, moving my fingers down his chest.
“I don’t need to go anywhere then.” I can’t see Joe’s smile, but I feel his face muscles tighten.
Two orange rimmed eyes in a plumage of jet-black feathers hear our conversation. Its winged feet land on one of the wooden planks resting on top of a branch. The feathered creature opens its polished amber beak. Tilting its head to the skies it lets out an operatic hawk and on its final note, it flaps its wings and returns to the sky.
Joe watches, mesmerized by this brush with nature. Another kind of beauty. I observe his eyes, determined to see them sparkle, but they turn as dark as the jet-black feathers on the singing creature.
With a deep inhale, he pushes his lips against my ear.
“If I die, I will come back as a bird and I will sing to you every day.”
I unable to save Joe, I know that now. I am not doctor or psychologist. I am just a child in love. A silly child as my mother calls me. If he ends it, whether that is us or his life, at least I can say we shared this perfect afternoon in a tree house he made for me.