the short story project


Teresa Henderson

The Tree

(Content note: reference to child trafficking and death; mental health)

I’m not sure if I have ever seen the house from outside. I was always ushered through the garage.

Trevor mutters something about the last time we were here. He sounds like he’s poking around a storage area in the depths of our mind. He’s apprehensive about this visit because his recollection of that time is either nonexistent or fragmented. It’s ironic he can’t access the memories that created him. Maybe one day psychiatrists will agree on how my disorder manifests. Until then, Trevor’s explanation will have to do.

I can’t remember life before Trevor or imagine myself without him. Would he be a part of me if none of this ever happened?  It’s a question without an answer.

I ring the doorbell and the sound puts my heart in my throat. I begin to panic when the doorknob turns. It’s not who I expect; my muscles relax.

“We’re not buying, donating, or signing anything,” a middle-aged woman drones through the disappearing crack in the door.

I grab the jamb. The door bounces off my knuckles with a painful thud.

OW!  Brilliant, Sean.

Shut up, Trev.  I take a deep breath.  “Excuse me, ma’am, but I’m not here for any of that.”

The wood remains pressed against my fingers.

“We know exactly where Jesus is too.”

I snort out a laugh. “Then tell him to get off his holy ass and help the world out.”

She lets out a loud sigh and pulls the door open by a few inches, releasing my aching fingers. “What do you want then?”

None of her business, Trevor reminds me.

“I’m going to hand you my card….” A response doesn’t come. “Hello?”

“Your card invisible or something?”

Trevor snickers while I fish one out of the case and push it through the crack. “Please ask Larry if he’ll speak with me?”

There is a pause. The door opens a little wider.New York Court of Appeals? All his charges were here in Ohio.”

“I’m not here as an attorney. Please. Hand him my card and ask him if he’ll talk with me. That’s it.”

“Talk about what?” she insists.

None of your fucking business, Trevor mutters.

Will you stop? Trevor’s fire is spreading through me and that will not help us get past the threshold.

That son of a bitch doesn’t deserve protection or warning. He may have served his sentence, but–   

I push Trevor down to a whisper. “David. Tell him I want to know what happened to David.”

She shakes her head. “You people need to stop harassing him. He paid his debt.” She starts to close the door.  Trevor keeps me from grabbing the jamb again.  

“Not to me!” I answer with more of a bite than I intended and that gets her attention. I adjust my attitude and continue. “I’m not here to harass or harm him. I don’t even want an apology anymore.  If he recognizes my name, he’ll understand why I’m here. And it’s something I need to know. Please.”

Something changes in her face, and she narrows her eyes. She looks both ways on the street, like she’s afraid of an attack. There’s no one here but Trevor and me, and she can’t see Trevor.

“All right,” she says and takes a hesitant step back.  “But don’t you pass that table there,” she warns.

I step over the threshold and slide in with my back close to the wall. She shoves the door shut.

The table is the same old metal frame with a weathered plank top, but it used to be in the conservatory. She taps the corner furthest from me and says, “No farther than this right here.” She taps it again while staring at me, then looks to a spot on the wall across from the forbidden corner. Satisfied that she communicated… something… she nods and goes to inform her charge.

What was that about? I ask Trevor

He turns our head to check where she looked. A mirror. I’m not sure which of us takes the step to the corner of the table, but once we’re there, the mirror shows her talking to an old man in a wheelchair.

I wasn’t prepared for that. Maybe she knew I wouldn’t be.

If he had wheeled past me on the street, I wouldn’t have recognized him. Not even if he wore the same old ratty bathrobe, hanging open with his gut and nuts on display, and had one eye peering through a camera.

The rest of his body has caught up with his limp, shriveled dick. Plastic tubing delivers oxygen and fluids to their needed destinations. He takes the card from her and stares at it. It drops to his lap and he covers his face.

Trevor sends a wave of bitterness through my satisfaction.

He and the caregiver exchange words, then she returns. I know it’s silly, but I step back to where I was.

“I can’t leave you two alone,” she explains.  “And if he has a problem breathing, I’m gonna need you to go.”

“Fair enough.” It’s tempting to add I’m only agreeing because he never tried to choke me. Trevor dares me.

She leads me to him. I find the conservatory still has its aura of fear. I’ve rehearsed this for weeks and my speech has played on a loop since I got on the plane this morning… but now that I’m here, I’ve forgotten how to form words.

Larry drags his gaze up my body, but I know his thoughts aren’t what they were. They wouldn’t be; I’m two decades past 11 years old. I’m wearing more clothing than I ever had on in his presence, but I stuff my fists into my pockets to help remember I’m fully dressed.  I ask Trevor to calm my insides as my mouth goes dry.

We lock eyes. He can’t hold it, and it makes me angry. “Look at me, you coward,” I command.

Trevor whispers something reassuring and soothing, like David used to when I was on the verge of tears.

Larry glances up but quickly looks away again. “Those eyes… It is you. You’re alive.

He sounds relieved and I don’t know what to do with that. Trevor wants to blast him.  This man should not be glad to see me.  Trevor assures me our voice will not crack. “I’m alive. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You disappeared. I thought…”

“What? I was at the bottom of Lake Erie?”

His frail shoulders lift an inch and drop. “Maybe? No one knew for sure. You just… disappeared.”

“I escaped,” I supply over Trevor’s objection. He and I can argue about it later.

“Good. Good. I’m glad you got out.”

This piece of shit monster does NOT deserve closure or an explanation or ANY —

Shut it, Trev. I know. I agree. Simmer down.

“Tell me what happened to him,” I say.

Larry looks wistful.  “David…. I miss him too. Such a beautiful boy and so in love with you….”

His words punch me in the gut and sting my eyes. “I don’t need a recap.  How did he die.”

“He wanted the three of us to move away together.”

I almost laugh. “That’s knee-deep bullshit. David wanted nothing to do with you.”

“Oh no, no… he was clear—”

He hated you.”

He blinks, and then blanks. “No, he didn’t…”

“We all hated you, every single one of you. I mean, hell, your dick didn’t work, and you didn’t make up for it by shoving whatever else inside us, so maybe you were hated a little less.  But make no mistake, Larry. We hated you. David hated you.”

Larry stares at me and his caregiver looks embarrassed.

I know pedophiles have a twisted sense of logic but, on some level, Larry had to have known David hid his contempt with false affection and gratitude. “David was a fantastic actor. Every smile. Every laugh. Every ‘whatever you want, Larry.’ All of it was bullshit.”

He can’t, or won’t, accept it and changes his approach. “Do you want something to drink?  Sonia, anything he wants is his….”

Sonia sighs. “I can’t leave you alone with a victim.”

I bristle at the word. “Survivor,” I correct, and she looks away. “Anything I want is mine? Is that what you just said? What I want is to know what happened to David.”

He lifts a bony hand, his crooked finger shaking as he points. “Sit,” he says. “Be comfortable.

“David!” I repeat my demand.

Larry’s drooping face sags further. “It was my fault.”

“Something I don’t know, Larry.”

“You don’t have to be mean about it. I loved him too.”

Are you fucking insane?? You held perv parties right here in this house! You rented him out by the hour!  By the act!  You used him. Then you killed him.”

“I didn’t kill him!”

“You just said it was your fault!” I shout.

Larry raises his palms to me. “I didn’t pull the trigger.”

My throat closes without warning, and my vision goes dark.

The next thing I know, I’m sitting on the far side of the room with Sonia hovering over me and Larry wheeled too damn close. Trevor mutters that we were just told David didn’t overdose. He was murdered. Just the thought leaves me gasping for breath again.

Sean, let me front for this. It’s too much for you.

Trevor waits for me to consent. Trust me, he says.

I let my awareness retreat and allow my alternate personality full dominance.  We rarely switch to this extent.  It makes me uneasy, as if one day I might not be able to return. I feel Trevor pull me to where I can hear the conversation. I shudder, and I swear he hugs me. Trevor and I have shared a body for more than half my life and he can still surprise me.

He clears our throat and focuses on Larry.  “You thought I was killed too?  Because David was?”

“You went missing a few weeks after…”

“But you know who killed him,” Trevor accuses.

“Chris said it wasn’t him, but I don’t believe it.”

“Chris?” Trevor asks, and I supply him with information. “You never liked how Chris treated me. Why would David be with him?”

“It was part of the deal… for you.”

“For me?” What is he talking about?

I tell Trevor I have no idea.

Larry nods. “I don’t know what happened at that party, but David begged me to buy you out. So, I went to Chris. He wanted an obscene amount of money and access to David for three days.”

My nerves go into overdrive and I hear Trevor ask, “And you just handed him over?”

“No, I asked him. But I was sure he would say yes. He loved you.”

Chris. I feel sick. A tumble of images flood through me and into Trevor’s awareness. The feeling intensifies as Trevor understands that David wasn’t just shot. There were only a few of us who survived Chris’s sadism fetish.

The nausea is overwhelming.  I can’t tell where I stop and Trevor starts. It takes us three deep breaths before I know we won’t vomit all over Larry. Unfortunately.

“When I came to pick you both up, he told me some crazy robbery story.  I tried to give him the money to take you out of there, but he said the deal was off.  Then you went missing. That’s when I turned us all in.”

Is that all you need to know, Sean? Trevor checks with me and can read I’m steady enough to resume control.

I come to the front and reality sharpens. There’s a cup overturned on Larry’s lap and my card is soaking up the puddled water on the wheelchair’s seat.  “You’re paralyzed?”

That meaningless shrug of his makes me want to slap him.

What they say happens to guys like me in prison is true.”

I’m sure apathy shows on my face.

He leans his upper body closer.  It takes everything I have to not shrink away. “Chris got worse than me. Bled out nice and slow.”

I can’t sort out how I feel about that, but I do know I have what I came for and it’s time to walk out of this house. By choice.

I stand and point to my card. “Do not make any attempt to contact me.

Larry picks up the card and offers it. The stock is still stiff, but the damage is done.  It begins to flop over.

Insert joke here, Trevor says as we walk away.

A thought turns me back to ask, “Where is he buried?”

“David?  I don’t know what happened to his remains. But he has a tree.”

“A what?”

“A tree. At the arboretum. They have a list of commemorations and where the plaque is.  You can call them….”

“Under Connor?”

“Connor, Oh-R.”

What’s left of my composure crumbles in the foyer. My face is hot, and my eyes are wet. Sonia pops in behind me. I wipe my cheeks a second too late. “Thanks for your help,” I tell her, choking on the words.

“Good luck to you.”  She looks overwhelmed. It happens when you learn things you rather not know.

Larry calls out to me.  His voice is reaching and searching; a plea for forgiveness. “I’m sorry, Sean… So sorry.”

Trevor is itching to tell him off, but I’d rather leave him to live with the silence. He may have tried for redemption by going to the police, but the damage he did is irreversible. The court document said his information took down layers of the ring I never knew about and freed thirty-seven children from that hell.  Thirty-seven.

Trevor takes over motor control and reaches for the doorknob as Sonia touches our shoulder. “If he asks, do I tell him you heard that?”

“Tell him anything you want.”

Outside, I take a cleansing breath and look around. So many houses and no one ever knew. 

With the day fading into dusk, I wait until the morning to go to the arboretum. The staff is helpful and after a long walk, I find the tree.  It’s a handsome oak and I pocket the biggest acorn I can find. 

The plaque is simple, surprising, and brings me peace:

In Memory of David and Sean

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