Chris Howard



Time slipped by worryingly—and no sign of the Leaf Father or my mother.

We’d made the journey to the treehouse and slept for hours. I did anyway, not sure how long my dead-hunting and OKF-thwarting associates ever closed their eyes. I was down for good, burning through my collected materials for most of that day, and when I wasn’t completely out, my mind fiddled with Brazley’s question.Is she my friend? Am I hers? I’d given her an uncommitted nod, and rode Carlos’s impatience to get home as an excuse to keep any real answers to myself.

Brazley had watched me as we crossed kilometers of field, and forest, bounding over decaying bridges—glancing back, a raised eyebrow, hoping to get more from me.

It was just going to have to wait.

Friends? I didn’t have any. I knew people, talked to them, I could even be considered friendly in the right circumstances, but it wasn’t real.

Reed was the closest thing to a friend to me, and what we had was far stormier than fair. I felt the idea forming like a seed splitting in a warm damp spring, an idea that had never occurred to me: this could all be my problem. It wasn’t Reed—he’d tried to be friendly, it wasn’t Brazley, Andreus, and now Carlos and Fritz.

It was me, something I wasn’t handling, performing, knowledge I didn’t possess, some area in my brain that didn’t work, a blindness that kept me from seeing...stop your damn whining.

It was like college all over again.

When I was younger than that—before college, schools had been easy to work with, simpler rules, hardly any effort at all to set up barriers and remain alone. Girls—mostly girls—talked to me, said ‘hello,’ sent out tentative feelers of friendship that I would shut down hard, and then it would get around that I wasn’t human—I looked like one, but my mother wasn’t from this world, and therefore neither was I—and deserved no friendship. Easy.

Everything changed in college. My father was teaching up at Dartmouth, edgy stuff even for their anthropology department, and that’s where I went—along with Reed and a few other neighbors. And everyone I’d known or hadn’t known, everyone who’d hated me, avoided me, shot snappy bitchy remarks at me in grade school on up, had changed. It’s like humans go back into the tank, ground, womb, whatever, and reemerge the same person stripped of their preconceptions, their shallowly held opinions they thought they had formed and held rather well a year before.

We’d grown up, and now everyone was interested in me all over again. All that hard work to create an avoidance curtain around me, had been shattered—or even closer to the truth, the humans came out rebirthed for college with a way to knock down my curtain, or see right through it like it wasn’t there. I was exposed, wide open to their eyes, their friendship, their eager questions, their prodding, and some seriously bad urges running through me: what am I going to have to do, kill someone?

And worse, most of the time my disinterest and outright hostility was taken as some sort of discriminatory take on the world, an eccentricity that somehow made me all the more desirable to be around. I repeat: what am I going to have to do?

Sure, most of humanity had gone away, into the Spheres, but there were still enough around to become a nuisance if you got them together in one place, like a school.

I didn’t have to live in the dormitories—praise all that is good and growing—and so I suppose it could have been worse. Most of the questions—although direct—were low intensity: what’s it like being a dryad? I’d love to meet your mother. Do those vines hurt your head? I’ve killed all the plants in my dorm room, forgot to water them during midterms. Can you revive them? Can’t tell you how many times I had to run to the bathroom to throw up.

I still got through it without friends. Everyone has to join the club, the college-brand-sweatshirt-wearing group, but I didn’t have to be friendly with anyone.

Until now...

Brazley was pinning me with her solid black stare every minute we were in the same room, demanding answers. Carlos was setting up some kind of strategy session to go over what we should do next, what to do about OKF, Folesh, the Leaf Father, that tree-hugging woman without any friends.

I saw it in their gestures, a glance my way, everything they did. It’s like they were conspiring against me.

I went to check on Reed when I felt too many eyes on me. Lack of friends and paranoid, nice work Thea. A couple threads in my head had been plying the problem, trying to triangulate on something that hung out there in the dark, intangible, but something at the heart of this problem.

We had to get out of here, but I wasn’t leaving without Reed. No sign of the Leaf Father, or any other undesirable, but I didn’t want to push probability on that one. Chance never seemed to be on my side.

Still, Carlos pushed back, wanted us to plan out our next moves thoroughly, which thoroughly disgusted me. Planning usually does. On the other hand Carlos said had been on the wave trying to get us some transportation, a couple all-terrain amphib vehicles he thought he could borrow for a few weeks. Nice.

Reed didn’t wake, just slept the hours away with an occasional tremor or twitch to show that something was going on inside. He ran a low-grade fever, never dipping below 38C, never climbing high enough to start doing drastic things. Carlos was medically trained and looked after the scrapes and bruises Reed had suffered in captivity.

Shirley couldn’t tell me much, or was afraid to with the Winterdim Lord out of the box, or, if not out of the box, at least able to listen in on our conversation. Shirley’s good. I’ve relied on her discretion in the past. I counted on it, and she’d come through for me again and again.

And the heart of my problem was on the tip of my tongue, floating just beyond reach—and wouldn’t let me pull it in.

In between packing for the trip back to the Rennonvorah, I went for walks with Fritz, while Carlos, Andreus, and Brazley typically spent the short bursts of downtime tearing shit up, shooting targets with different kinds of projectiles, mostly stuff that went into flesh, rooted around savagely and then exploded.

Fritz’s clothing preference didn’t change—except the patterns, light weave unbuttoned shirt, rolled up sleeves, and ancient faded jeans. He felt good to be around, but we didn’t spend much time talking about the past, no catching up, no regrettable looks back.

He couldn’t tell me much about my mother’s “promise.” And I tried to count back to the day she’d sent out her message through the forest to see if one came after the other, to see if she was still alive.

“Kraneia became the central tree in the house, the giant oak that runs up through the middle of the dining room on the first floor. She just walked out of it, and told us how it was going to be.”

“And when you said no?”

He laughed, slow at first, then a spike of it that died abruptly. “You still know me? Yes, we tried to refuse, of course. Slow it down, work the deal to our benefit. Kraneia slapped that down quick, and laid it out simply. Took each of us to the point of killing the other—more tears on the floor than blood, and then told us to find Reed Gossi, track him, recover him in whatever way we felt best. Goodbye.”

“Nothing about returning? No reward?”

“That was it.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I was assuming the reward was that we could continue living our lives. Then again, Reed’s not conscious, so maybe we’re not yet out of the woods.”

I shot him a glare because I hate that phrase, and then turned it on the knobby bark of the tree coming up through the floor. “Yeah, thanks mother.”

“You can’t call her?”

“Not without raising every alarm and trigger the Leaf Father must have set up. I’d only do it at the very end.” I held my thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart. “That close to death.”

“Anyone you trust with a message?”

The breath caught in my throat. That was the word I’d been looking for. Trust. That’s what I lacked, and without it I couldn’t really have friends.

I shook my head. No one I can trust.

A flicker of light, a soft dab of wet glittering on his cheek—just caught it out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned to Fritz, he had that side of his face against his shirt sleeve, arm raised, pointing into the trees at a family of crows, and he made a few squawking noises with them, a forced smile on his face.

* * *

I was feeling itchy for the road, stuffing the last shirt under the poncho in my pack when Carlos the philosopher-soldier sprang it on us, calling us all into the living room, summoning up write and map boards, with a presentation on defensibility, types of offensive measures OKF employs, and then near term plans for Reed.

I exchanged a quick smile with Fritz. Carlos was in his element, planning, structure, key goals along the way. I was finding it hard to breath. Andreus was eating it up, adding a long list of objectives he wanted to reach with Brazley’s training, most of it normal, but a few points got some raised eyebrows, like “acquire a pet, preferably a dog or bird” and “grave digging.”

Brazley was somewhere between the freakishly oppressive detailed schedulers and the freedom-loving let’s-play-it-by-ear camp—me and Fritz.

And slowly, inevitably, skillfully, the talk was nudged toward friendship. Fucking bastards. They’re all in on it, aren’t they? I felt a chill up my arms, longing, a wish for Reed to be next me—the two of us side-side, we could fend off these over-thinking, meddlesome twits.

I glanced back at the open doorway to his room, nothing but shadows and a couple twinkling operation lights on some medical gear racked next to the bed. I hadn’t checked on him since dawn, but I’d know if he was awake. Someone would have told me.

Unless they were all in on it.

Carlos looked right at me, and then turned to write on the board in very neat handwriting, talking over his shoulder with the pen squeaking on the board. “Each of us is going to tell a story about friendship. Let’s begin with something simple, something I think we can all agree on.”

No one would choose to live without friends, even someone who possessed all other good things—wealth, fame, health, etc.

Carlos backed up, hand with the pen dropping to his side, relaxed, satisfied. We all stared at the words for a few quiet contemplative moments. I heard a sigh of agreement off to my left, sounded like Andreus. Fritz was nodding seriously on my right. Brazley was looking right at me, probably wondering what was going through my head, what my reaction would be to this allegedly self-evident archaic-sounding line of...

“Oh for fuck’s sake. What kind of idiot spouted this nonsense? Pretty clear any so-called friends are just chummying up to get access to this guy’s all other good things.”

That got some looks. Andreus swung around so fast his single long tail of black hair whipped across his face, startled him. I caught the disappointed staring from Fritz, Brazley, Andreus, Carlos, okay everyone in the room. I waved for the discussion to continue.

“Friendship...” Carlos started solemnly, quoting from a page of something ancient that zoomed into view on the write board. “It’s not only necessary but also noble. For we praise those who love their friends, and it is thought to be a fine thing to have many friends. And again we think it is the same people...” He slid open other books and pages from philosophers, thinkers, crazy-people. Aristotle said this. Euripides compared friendship to such and such, Empedocles to this and that...friends, friendship, blah fucking blah. Heraclitus said about friendship: ‘from different tones comes the fairest tune’ and ‘all things are produced through strife’ Glanced at Fritz on this point, gave him a nod. Okay, Heraclitus is in, but the rest of them, damn, just take their words out with the trash.

Carlos’ gestures were getting more energetic. He was pointing and waving and holding imaginary principles high over his head in offering.

Holy Tree, what’s going on here?

“Those who think there is only one kind of friendship because it admits of degrees have relied on an inadequate blah, blah, blah...

Droning on and on...

And then it hit a scary low point: “The kinds of friendship can probably be cleared up if we first understand the object of love.”

Crap. Is anyone else uncomfortable with this line of inquiry?

I looked around, caught some gazes, let them go, didn’t really want to have any part of this opening oneself up to the scrutiny of others session we seemed to have going. Perfectly happy holding it all in. Can’t they see that?

Carlos set the pen down with precision and took the space between Fritz and I, taking Fritz’s hand, giving me a clear you’re-not-getting-out-of-this look. And he wouldn’t turn away, presumably wanting some reaction from me.

I was chewing through the inside of my lip, holding his gaze. Watch me.

Andreus cleared his throat, distracted us, and launched into a long story about Brazley, how she’d been caught stealing from Helodes—and how he’d been caught the previous day raising one of Helodes’ dead sisters from the graveyard, and the old witch had combined their punishments—basically Andreus had to do something that didn’t involve death—like teach Brazley not to sneak around and steal from others, and in return she wouldn’t flay him over the Mississippi and introduce him a piece at a time to her hungry eel pals.

Oh yeah, Helodes must have been a real cheer to grow up with.

“Brazley’s my friend and my student, but what am I really doing? I didn’t know it at first, but Helodes had a purpose that she revealed to me, and that became clearer with time. I am training my teacher. I will forget all of this—” he fanned his fingers across his chest, three fingers of his other hand pinned stiffly together and going to his temple. “—at some point, and I’m giving everything I know to the one person I trust to give it back to me when I need it again.”

Trust...there’s that word again.

I got the sense from Brazley’s odd look that even she didn’t have a clear understanding of Andreus’ remarks. She didn’t ask, and it didn’t sound like something I wanted to be involved in.

And then, fuck, Andreus turned to me next and asked—politely, “I will need a surrogate in this, someone to play the mother role. Will you do this for me, Thea?”

I blinked, hoping this wasn’t real, and then sighed when it was. Is this what friends do for each other? No wonder I’ve never wanted any part of it.

“I’ll think...” I gave Andreus a hard stare. My damn hands were shaking and I tucked them under my legs. “I’d like to think about it a little more.”

“Thea?” Carlos, who had stood and paced a few times, picked up the pen, gesturing with it. “Who are your friends? Tell us a story about friendship.” He backed up, arms open wide, giving me the floor, and they all looked at me expectantly.

“Uh...” Heavy weight dropping in my stomach. What the hell kind of trap was this? Friends? I don’t know what it means, not really. “I mean...I’m not ready for this.” Waving my hand around the room. “I’m packed up. Don’t you think we should be in the road?” Where we can waste all the time in the universe on this nonsense?

I closed my mouth with finality.

Carlos came over, leaned in to Fritz, whispered something, shared a nod, and backed up into the middle of the room. He planted his feet, made it pretty clear we weren’t going anywhere without some answers. He pointed an accusing finger at me.

“How do you know, Thea, that I’m not playing you all? I’m with OKF, chief of perimeter security, infiltrating an enemy’s team, plans, manipulating you all? Come on Thea, what’s keeping you on our side? You have your doubts. You nearly killed me in the middle of Reed’s rescue.” He pointed a finger at the space between me and Fritz and drew an imaginary line across the floor. “What’s keeping you on one side of the line or the other, Thea? I want to know.” His voice rose, a little more anger dialed into it. “Tell us! Why do think we’ll help you? Why do you think—

Where the hell is he planning to take this? “Because I trust Fritz. Now, sit down and—”

“No!” Carlos pointed at Fritz accusingly. “What does your trust mean, Thea? Didn’t Fritz betray you at the OaK leaF?”


“He told them everything—everything they wanted to hear.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“Wasn’t it? You witnessed it, Thea. What else could it be?”

Keep it locked down. Couldn’t keep it out of my voice, and the words came out lethally soft, “You want to know why, Carlos? You want to bring this up, try to rile me, get me to talk, get me to admit to something. Fuck you! You weren’t there. I meant that it wasn’t some children’s fantasy story in which the nine-year-olds outsmart the adults. It was fucking real life. We were kids and they had us locked up, Carlos. And there were two ways out. Two.” I waved a hand at Fritz, couldn’t meet his eyes, though. “Yeah, we planned our escape, had every angle covered but one. We just didn’t know how high the last hurdle was going to be. What happened to Fritz, could have just as easily have been me. I’d have been in the interrogation room dosed to the eyes with drugs and spilling everything I knew. So, I don’t want to hear you needling me—or Fritz on this. You weren’t there. There was no clean way out.”

Arms folded, Carlos whispered, “You got away clean, didn’t you?”

I felt the tug at my hair, the rage starting the twist and braid on its own. “Use your ears. I said two ways out. We both had to jump that last high hurdle. You either stand up to their drugs and torture and the pain of having given everything away.”

“Or what, wait for Fritz to run to your family and he tells them where you are?”

Jumping to my feet, my hair was coiling out. “Shut the FUCK up!” I stabbed a shaking finger at him. “Two ways out. Neither of them clean. You either endure what Fritz endured to make them think you’re broken—but you’re not, and you make your escape.” I stopped the shout in my throat, sat down, whispered, “Or you kill them all.”

I made a quick glance at Fritz, saw the pain in his face. “And yes, he went to the forests and sang about me, called my family. My mother was in the middle of her winter treeform and heard nothing. By the time my Uncle Theodore got there, it was over anyway. I had already finished the job we had started. I went through the OaK leaF and I slaughtered them all. Forty-six people. Me, the nine-year-old girl who loved the trees. I was slopping through rooms ankle deep in their blood. I took the final eight, the Berries, and I strung them up from the oak trees outside the facility—and laughed while they choked and struggled and died. It was also the first time I took materials from the dead, my renderer Shirley explaining how the world works. She made me strong, she showed me how to get out of that place, but it cost me—more than you will ever know. She told me what to do, how to create the disassembly and ownership protocol, how to send out my collection threads. How to get on my fucking hands and knees like a fucking animal and eat the fucking people I’d just killed. They were warm, Carlos, a couple of them still alive, breathing, flinching when my teeth touched their skin. Do you know what that’s like? Do you know what that clean escape from the OaK leaF did to me? Is this what you wanted me to talk about, or admit to, to unbury?” I raised my hand, cupped around an invisible glass of wine—and dammit I was crying, tears rolling down my face. “Here’s to friendship, Carlos. Be glad you have Fritz and anyone else you count a friend. Be glad you can. But don’t go around posturing with your idealism and your pen, and pretend you understand what I need, what I’m lacking, what walls I’ve put up to keep people safely away. You weren’t fucking there.”

Carlos shrugged, tried to come back with something to lighten things up.

I jabbed a finger at him. “Why can’t you give this a rest?” There was a downhill rush of mental maneuvering, thoughts in my head crammed against the walls, leaping aside, not wanting to get caught in the way of a response that welled up out of my childhood. “Just leave me the fuck alone.”

Table of contents

previous page start next page