Chris Howard


The OaK leaF

It hurts her eyes. The observation room is sterile, and too bright.

And it’s warm like a greenhouse.

After her age, that’s the first thing Thea remembers. She still remembers she’s nine-years old. She’s already starting to forget how she got here, that nice woman with a normal name in an orange-flowered blouse, talking to her about trees as if Thea’s a child, the differences between coniferous and deciduous, hinting at deeper phototropic processes, and nodding when Thea explains sugar conversion and carbon fixation, laying out long carbon chains and hydrogen bonds like toys on a tabletop...and let me tell you about storage—storage’s really important, ATPs and the role of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate. Thea’s excited because her mother’s asleep for the winter—she’s lonely, and someone knows what she is, what she can do, someone wants to know all about her, and even wants to take her to meet some friends of hers with funny names.

“Come on, it’s just through those trees. You know what we call it? You’ll love the name of our little branch facility. The main complex is faraway, but we’ll have so much fun in our local branch.” The friendly woman with the orange-flowered blouse points.

OaK leaF.

A man named Thimbleberry grabs Thea by the shoulders and puts a black bag over her head and through the fabric, puts a needle into the side of her neck, and then her whole body fills with a fluid warmth and her muscles don’t work anymore.

Thea’s nine, and the room is too hot. What do they think she is, a date palm, an acacia? This isn’t the tropics. It’s New Hampshire, zone five if you’re lucky, and that’s a mean winter temp of negative 25C. Good luck with your acacias in that.

She looks up as they enter the observation room, soft shoes sliding on the evertile self-cleaning floor—good for hosing out spilled blood and other biologic messes. Four of the eight take their places, a semi-circle around her, and Thea smiles because they hit her when she doesn’t smile.

Doctor Strawberry, Thea’s “handler,” nods approvingly, and smiles back down at her in her creepy red lipstick, too orange and metallic for her pinkish skin—like a thin sheen of drying blood up the sides of a stainless steel sink, darker at the corners of her mouth like the black-purple ring of still-wet blood around the hole of the drain. And when Strawberry opens her mouth, rows of white teeth and gums the color of used pencil erasers. Strawberry looks older today, tiny wrinkles around her eyes deeper than yesterday, soft lines in the skin around her chin, a single strand of white hair standing out in the rest of her long coffee colored hair, blending with her labcoat.

Thea thinks the four of them look a little older today, weary in a way she doesn’t understand. Dr. Blueberry isn’t happy, maybe because he looks as old as Strawberry this morning, the hair at his temples going a little gray, his white labcoat not quite as pressed and sharply-creased as usual. Raspberry, who isn’t a doctor, but some sort of torture technician, Thea thinks, because that’s all she ever does is hurt people. Raspberry’s eyes are red, bloodshot, her usual tight bun is lopsided, curling strands of hair hanging around the sides of her lean angry face. Her teeth haven’t changed, sharper than normal canines, and Raspberry’s baring hers at the Tissue Engineer, Blackberry, who’s the only one who bears any resemblance to his ridiculous name, pale with high cheekbones, summer green eyes, and his hair, black with cold blue highlights. Elderberry, Nannyberry, Boysenberry, and Thimbleberry huddle in their chairs on the other side of the command console, pieces of them visible through gaps between video screens, faces glowing, but it’s hard to make out any stress or aging from where Thea stands against the far wall, getting her Presence and Door Strength measured.

Whatever the hell that means.

And for the thousandth time, Thea asks herself, what’s with the childish names? Those can’t be their own.

She can’t ask them, not aloud, not again, because they’ll hit her stiffly in the neck or lower back—someplace that gives her lasting pain without messing up her face—“have to keep what the mirror shows you unbruised, Theodora.” Or they’ll give her drugs that make her fall down, that make her stupid. She’d rather feel their fists than that sliding sensation inside her head.

They always call her “Theodora”, and she hates them for it.

When Fritzy calls her Theodora, she pretends she hates it, but she doesn’t. Fritzy’s a little crazy, but that’s fine with her. So’s everybody in the OaK leaF. He’s her own age, and he loves music as much as she loves the trees, which means they have nothing in common and spend any time they have together arguing over stupid details where their two worlds come close to intersecting—whistling wind through the branches, Fibonacci sequence in flower petals and five tones in the Pentatonic scale, eight in the Diatonic, thirteen...

But all he has to do is sing for her, and she stops arguing. She listens. She can find that place to hide her sorrow. He even sings a song he calls the Great Sorrow, sort of a box for two, a place they can each stash their hardship, their pain, everything they have to endure, merge them, and lock them away...for a little while.

Thea never makes him sing, just waits for him to bring a song to her every Friday. Strawberry makes him sing—but not the same kinds of songs—on Mondays and Wednesdays, just as she makes Thea feed out her vines thirty meters every Tuesday and Thursday.

Fritz is her only friend left in the world. All she has left. When the nice lady in the orange-flowered shirt tricked her, Thea lost her mother, her father, her Uncle Theodore, everyone who once cared for her. They tell her she doesn’t have a mother or father, that they died, but she doesn’t believe them. She used to wonder what her mother and father were doing, if they were seeking her, but those dreams are fading with the months.

Fritz is her only hope, as she thinks—and hopes—that she is his. She runs through their schedule, grabbing him by the hair, pretending to be angry, really whispering in his ear. She agrees to help him, help herself, and escape their misnamed prison. She knows the Berries watch them every second, and hopes they haven’t seen a change in their behavior. Fritzy tells her not to worry. He has his music. He has it all under control.

Thea ducks, pulls in her shoulders so no one can pattern match her moving lips, and mouths the happy words: “one more day and we’re free”. They see each other at dinner, make eye contact, an entire language in the blinking and the arrangement of the items and food on their trays.

A day later, they are separated, moved to different wards, routes to mealtimes changed, new security protocols at every transfer point, new tougher looking guards. And Thea is certain these guys don’t have stupid names like Raspberry.

And she bites her tongue, waiting.

They open the door to her cell late in the evening...

To make her watch.

Raspberry makes Fritzy sing, makes him tell the Berries everything about the plans, their escape route, times, stored food, travel ideas beyond the OaK leaF, even a useful balance on an old cashcard Thea has snagged from Thimbleberry’s own pockets. Fritz sings his guts out, spits up everything he knows about Thea. They ask the questions, and he answers every single one with everything inside him.

They force Thea to sit through the interrogation, eight cams from different angles and heights in the room, Fritz sagging in a chair, his bony arms bent back and fastened behind him. And he’s drooling, blood seeping from a bandage at his throat. His voice is hoarse because Raspberry comes into the room, yanks his head up with a fistful of hair, and gives Fritzy something nasty to drink, a fluid, Strawberry tells her, that eats away the lining of this throat—probably temporary. They just don’t want him singing...for real.

Strawberry smiles down at Thea, fingers digging into her shoulder. “What a wonderful voice. You really thought you could plan an escape without us knowing about it? Really? We allowed you to go on with this as a security exercise, just to see where it would lead. And Fritzy’s been playing you the whole time, his easily tuned little instrument, Theodora. That’s all you are. That’s all you are to him. That’s all you are—or will ever be—to us. So, sit back and listen to Fritzy. He loves to sing, doesn’t he, Theodora?”

Thea tries to shrug off the grip. “Do not call me Theodora.” And she lets her anger build until it will be strong enough to unleash.

* * *

Theodore Balanon finds his niece sitting against a grand old oak tree, bent over her knees, sobbing hard, her body shaking, her vines played out straight and tight into the leaves and branches above her.

He doesn’t notice the bodies at first. They don’t make a sound, soft swaying shadows, mouths gaping for breath that won’t find them, eyes bulging, fingers limp, eight of them hanging by the necks from different branches in the surrounding trees, the vines from Thea’s hair standing in thick vertical spirals from her head, vanishing into the oak leaves above. They twist around the boughs, branching into pairs of eight that fan out to nearby gallows trees, the bodies of the Berries twisting from the end of each.

Her Uncle Theodore stands over her, looking up at the creaking vines, understanding, and she stares at his old scuffed brown boots caked with mud and pine needles.

“Come on, Thea. Let them go. I’m here to take you home.”

She raises her head and he sees she’s not crying normal tears, but blood seeping from her eyes, pooling across her forearms, the domes of her knees, down her legs into her shoes.

Uncle Theo can only whisper a very soft, very sad, “Oh my lady” as he bends to wipe her face. He pulls out a thin cloth from his shirt pocket, twists it around one index finger, pointing at her—maybe to show her that he’s not going to hurt her, before he touches her face and wipes away her tears, staining the white cloth dark.

Thea opens her mouth, full of blood, her teeth, gums sticky red, dribbling over her bottom lip and off her chin. One word seeps out wetly, “Just...” She’s shaking so hard the rest of the words bubble back into her mouth, down her throat. She coughs on them, a gurgling bark that splatters Uncle Theo’s shoes red.

He waits patiently, crouching down in front of her, holding up the cloth, already bleached white with the absorb layer working hard. It’s an expensive handkerchief. “I don’t want you to answer now, Thea, but I want to put some questions in your head. I want you to think about them, and when you’re ready, I’d like you to tell me what you think the answers are. Will you do that for me, Thea?”

She looks up at him, fresh wet red branching from her eyes, down her cheeks, collecting at the hinge of her jaw, running into her shirt. “I just want to forget. Can’t I do that?”

There is an infinitesimal tightening at one corner of his mouth. Everything else about Theodore’s expression is warm, gentle. He leans closer, his whisper as soft as a breeze. “I promise you I will find who is responsible for this and make them pay.” He wags a finger over his head, indicating the hanging corpses of Strawberry, Blueberry, and the others. “They did horrible things to you and they were horrible people, and they got what they deserved, but they were following someone else’s orders, Thea.” He sighs. “Please answer my questions when you can, and then you can forget, wipe all of this from your memory if you like.” He lowers his finger, makes a fist. “Would you like my advice on this?”

She stares blankly at him for a moment, and then nods.

“Do not ever forget what happened here.”

She spends another few moments staring at him, and then nods again, this time with purpose. Her face goes hard with the strain of reeling in all her vines. Then there’s the thumping of bodies hitting the earth, rolling into each other, crashing through bushes. But her voice is still soft, beaten. “What are your questions?”

“My first is, do you know a boy named Fritz?”

She stiffens. “Why?”

“He found me, tracked me down, and told me where to find you. Apparently they tortured him and he escaped from this—” He frowns at the name. “—OaK leaF, no friends, no shelter. Fritz starving in the woods, but singing his heart out about you, and the bad people, and something called the Great Sorrow. The Long Wild picked it up and shunted it along. I was out west and hurried home, found Fritz thin as a twig, almost dead in the forest, but still singing about you, Thea.”

It hurts her deep even to think the name Fritz. She has written him off as one more betrayer, and he...probably wasn’t. Strawberry was certainly a liar, no trust to betray. Thea bends until her forehead touches her knees, another shudder through her body, and now there are real tears running from her eyes, clear but with a pink stain of her shame.

When Uncle Theo takes her back to her forests, to her mother and father, Fritz is long gone—and Thea’s glad, the shame like negative magnetic poles pushing each other apart. Easier just to stay away.

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