Short Stories

Cari Baker

Falling

The story of my fall starts in the library where I work. Well, it probably started when I met Jeremy, but to make it simpler, we’ll start after the messy breakup was all over. Jimmy, my co-worker, and I were weeding romance novels. He was on the floor and I was on a stool doing the top shelves. My calves strained from being on tiptoe in heels, and my eyes were tired. As usual, my heart also hurt.

“I hate these,” I whined, desperate to make a break from the sweating bodies on the front covers and the sickly sweet copy on the backs. “It’s insane. I don’t know how people can even read these, let alone read them a lot. What is the fascination?”

“Have you ever read one?” Jimmy asked.

“The synopses on the backs are enough,” I said, and threw back my hair. At the moment, I was reveling in my hatred of love. “All that sap. It’s sickening.”

“It’s not really love, Lauren. It’s sex. Open one, go ahead.”

I looked down at him. He was looking back with a half-grin. “I don’t know. I don’t know how much more sap I can take.” I paged through one of the books. “Yuck.”

Jimmy shook his head and stood up. “Get out of your hole.” He snatched the paperback from my hand, opened it to a well-worn page, and shoved it in my face. My neck grew hot, and I dropped the book on his head. He laughed.

“So why don’t men read these?” I asked.

“They don’t need plots. They just get Playboy.”

“Thanks for the insight. I feel much better now.” Actually, I didn’t, but I knew he had to be sick of my complaining. Everything for me was Jeremy, day and night, work and social life. Even though he was gone, he was still there.

Jimmy bent down and started on a fresh shelf. “So you going to write one of these babies yourself?”

I flushed. “I don’t think so.”

“C’mon. You could do better than that.”

He was right, though. I peered at the line of books along the row and flexed my calf. I could do better than one of them.

“Hey, Lauren? Lauren.” Jimmy poked me. “It’s five. Ready to go? Or do you want to stay here all night?”

Needless to say, I didn’t. My legs ached all the way home, but somehow I felt better.

Friday came even though I thought it never would. Jimmy was sitting with me at the reference desk. It was a slow day, so we were checking our e-mail. I was scrolling through when I saw a message from Jeremy, and I clicked on it immediately.

Sorry I haven’t been talking to you a lot lately, it read. I’ve been busy. Wanted to let you know though, I’m seeing someone. I didn’t want you to hear it through the grapevine and think I’m a bastard. Well, you probably think I’m a bastard anyway. Her name’s Kelly. She’s my supervisor’s secretary. I think you would like her. I don’t hate you, Lauren. It’s just nice for me to be seeing her, you know. Talk to you soon.

I closed my eyes. A blue dart shot through my chest and my throat clenched up. I leaned over the chair, and my hair fell over my face as I sobbed.

Jimmy looked up. “Aw, Lauren, what’s wrong?” He patted my shoulder.

“Nothing.” I kept shaking my head, but my mind was collapsing. How could he have a new girlfriend? Why not the person who was still in love with him? I had written him dozens of letters, trying to get him to come back, or at least see me for coffee or something. And the only reason he might think to write me back would be because he had a new girlfriend.

I felt heat on my back. Jimmy was leaning over me. I sat up, and my head spun. “I’m sorry,” he said.

I nodded, but all I could think of was the nights I spent with Jeremy, pouring out my entire life to him, and I wondered how he could be promising this girl the same things he promised me. I got up and wobbled to the staff room, where I wept in a messy ball.

I sat in my car for a long while, my hands clenched on the wheel. After a time, I started it, still trembling. I wanted to ram into a tree. I could see it, the metal scraping, glass shattering, my head pitching forward. Then would be stillness, the silence I wanted.

But I didn’t. I had tried it before, the night Jeremy left. It didn’t work; I’d lived.

Eventually, I made it home. I got out of my car, and beyond the building I could see the top of an oak. Its leaves were swaying slightly, green-gray in the moonlight. I swallowed.

Jeremy had gone to every door in the hall, asking the neighbors if it was okay to build a treehouse. “It’s not that far up,” he’d said. “Your kids can play up there.” It took him weeks. When he finished, he helped me up the slats he’d fixed into the trunk. They were difficult, but the only time I fell was into his arms at the top.

I went up to my apartment and lay down on the couch. I felt heavy. If I was going to escape, I couldn’t remember these things. However, I had no choice, as they were imprinted on my brain. The joy was as new as yesterday, which made the pain of having lost him all the more raw.

The next thing I knew, sunlight was streaming into the window. I rolled over, grimy from sleeping in my clothes, a bad taste in my mouth. I got up to close the blinds. The sun’s brightness and happiness were too much for me. But I stopped, looking out on the tree, and mind went blank.

I stepped over the stuff on the floor and found my notebook buried beneath a pile of magazines. A pen was stuck in the spirals, hardly used, and the cover was dusty. I clutched it to my chest, eyeing the tree. My running shoes were in a corner by the door. I backed over to them, pulled them on, and ran out into the day.

I hadn’t showered, but being outside made me feel clean. I clambered up the slats and stumbled into the treehouse. It was dirty and smelled of old wood, and there was a blanket on the floor. Although I was sure it was Jeremy’s, I curled up on it and began to write my novel.

After several hours, I decided this tree might just make a good home.

I lost track of the days, and I ignored my stomach until it shut up, beaten into submission. It couldn’t have been that long, since my pen had not run out. One sunny afternoon, I was sitting at the window writing a steamy scene when I heard a voice from below. “What are you doing up there?” Jimmy was standing there, looking perturbed.

I cleared my throat. “What are you doing down there?”

“Looking for you! You’ve been gone for three days and you didn’t call. We were worried about you.”

I smiled. Of course: work. What had I been thinking, coming up here and forsaking all my worldly duties? “I’m taking vacation.”

“You’re not entitled to vacation until August.” He was circling the tree. “How do I get up here?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just tell Rita I’m sick or something.”

“I have to get up there so I can talk some sense into you. I can’t believe - ” He had found the slats and was crawling into my space. “Whew! It stinks!”

“Sorry.”

“Have you showered lately? Have you eaten anything recently?”

My stomach rumbled. “Nope,” I said, and lifted my chin. “I’ve been writing.” I presented him my notebook, now almost full.

Jimmy looked pained. He sat down, not too close to me, and folded his long legs underneath him. “Your novel?”

“Yeah, something like that.” I blushed as he flipped the pages. For a moment I stopped focusing on him and let my mind wander. Cool water was running through my veins, and I felt alive. I was tired, but my thoughts were also clearer than ever.

“You gotta come down from here,” he said finally. “Shower, take a nice rest, get something to eat, and come into work on Monday.”

“I’m not hungry,” I said. “But I wouldn’t mind if you got me another notebook and a fresh pen. I was afraid I was going to have to start etching the words in with my nails.”

Now he looked pale, and leaned closer to me. “Why are you doing this?”

I closed my eyes. “I can hear Jeremy in my mind still,” I said softly. “I figured this was better than killing myself.”

When I opened my eyes, Jimmy was up and at the door. “I’ll be back later,” he said. “Don’t go anywhere.”

That wouldn’t be a problem, I thought. I paused to digest the conversation, then poked my head back outside.

Later that day, I heard a noise outside. It was probably Jimmy. He had said he would be back, and I was excited about that. I didn’t know what I would do when my pen ran out.

It wasn’t him. It was a man carrying a notebook. He was studying my tree. “Can I help you?” I asked.

He jumped, and his face turned red. In the half-light of dusk, I couldn’t make out his features, but he was fair, his hair a rich blond. He was built like a superhero. I thought perhaps I’d use him in my next novel. “I’m sorry—I was just—“

“It’s okay,” I called. “Are you a writer?”

“Yes—yes,” he stammered. “I’m a reporter for the local paper. I was sort of thinking about doing a story on you.”

“Me?” I leaned further out the window. “Why is that?”

“Well, it’s such a noble thing you’re doing, and I wondered where your motivation was to do it.”

It didn’t seem noble to me. I waved my hand. “I guess, but it’s not really that interesting.”

“May I ask why you decided to do it?”

I shrugged. “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was thinking about this treehouse. My ex-boyfriend built it, and it kind of has sentimental value. You really don’t have to write about this.”

“No, I’ve been working on this for a while. I have all the information. Thank you for granting me your time.” The writer paused, glanced over his notes again. “Can I just ask you one more question? What have you been doing up there?”

It was my turn to blush. “I’m writing a romance novel.”

He didn’t say anything as he wrote that down, but he was hiding a grin. “But you’re not seeing the guy anymore.”

“Nope.” I looked back around the treehouse, but I did not say that I wished I still was.

“My name’s Luke.” He waved, still smiling. “I hope you like my article.”

I frowned at nobody and gazed out at the falling night. His butt was cute, I thought, watching him as he got into his car.

Jimmy came back. He brought a notebook, pens, and a toothbrush. “My savior,” I said.

“I thought you could at least brush your teeth if you’re not going to shower,” he replied.

It was nice to have friends.

A few days later, I finished my novel. I supposed I would have to come down from the tree now. I had accomplished my task, and I would have to rejoin the world. I sighed and, feeling pensive, walked over to the open side of the treehouse facing the slats. It was a long way down.

There was a crowd of people milling in the parking lot. They were carrying signs saying, “Environmentalists for Lauren” and “Live for the Trees / Live in the Trees.” When they saw me, they hurried to the tree. I heard shouts, and my head began to pound.

“Look,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m getting down from here now. I’m dirty. I have to wash my hair.”

This caused only more shouts, now of protest. Maybe the newspaper article hadn’t been such a good idea after all. I looked down and saw Jeremy, standing apart from the crowd, beautiful as ever. His hands were on his hips. He caught my eye.

Fury blasted through my body, and I felt like weeping, but I screamed instead. His brown eyes bored into my brain, as they always had, and I knew he knew what I was thinking. The people fell silent. This was likely the show they wanted.

Jeremy looked at me with an incredibly cute crooked eyebrow.

“Yes, yes, I do belong in a mental hospital,” I blurted, tears burning my cheeks. “What the hell are you doing here?”

People started hooting and waving their signs, but they quieted when Jeremy raised his voice. He was calm, running a hand through his hair as he spoke. “I came to see what you were doing.”

“Sure. You wanted to see how I’d had a nervous breakdown because of you. Well, you’re right, and don’t you dare take pity on me!” I looked for anything to fix my eyes on except him. This was supposed to be cleansing, and here I was, living it all over again. Why had I thought this tree was special? I had wasted my time… although I had been happy doing it.

The people were confused, and their signs were at their knees. They were waiting for Jeremy. He did not get angry. “I care about you, Lauren. I thought what you were doing was wonderful.”

“Yeah, because it was about you. It’s always about you,” I yelled, growing hoarse. “My whole life. I thought I was trying to get away, but all of it was for you. I wanted you to see the article. I wanted you to come back. Didn’t you ever realize how much I loved you?” When I looked at him, my heart ached and my head spun.

“I never meant to hurt you.”

“Too bad. You did,” I said. “I hate you! I love you, and I hate you! You - ” My knees gave, and I collapsed. My foot caught on the boards, and I tumbled out of the tree, feet clanking the slats on the way down.

I remember little after that except a fuzzy image of Jeremy. He was crying.

I woke up in the hospital, and somehow I didn’t smell anymore.

I hate hospitals, but being in this one was okay. Seeing as both of my legs were broken and my spine wrenched, I needed to be there. I wouldn’t be able to survive without the massive amounts of painkillers I was on. “At least you didn’t land on your head,” the doctor told me. The good thing about this was that I was semi-famous, and it might be easy to get Throats of Passion published, despite its utter superficiality.

Jimmy visited me. He brought my notebooks from the treehouse, a ten-pack of pens, and two fresh notebooks. “I thought you’d need them. You can finish another novel,” he said.

I contemplated this. A good hero would be the nice reporter who had started the whole bonanza. Of course, I had based the hero of my first novel on Jeremy, eyes and all. “Good idea,” I told him. “Sorry you’ll have to be alone at the desk for awhile. What did Rita say? Am I fired?”

He shook his head. “She thinks it’s great. She wants to have a party for you when you get back.”

“It’s great that I’m in the hospital?” That was kind of sadistic.

“No, that you did all that to save a tree.”

“I didn’t. I thought I explained that.”

Jimmy sighed. “You are so drugged up. Did you see the article?” He pulled a rolled-up newspaper out of his pocket and handed it to me. The headline was “Woman Braves Elements for Tree’s Sake.” It was my humble story: a woman cherished memories of the beautiful oak in her apartment’s backyard so much that she couldn’t let it be cut down. In order to stop developers from building a new section of apartments where the tree would be, she climbed up into a treehouse that her ex-boyfriend had built and began living there. When asked what she was doing there, she replied modestly, “I’m writing a romance novel,” and blushed.

“That’s kind of schmaltzy,” I said.

“The public ate it up.”

“I could see that.” I folded the paper and handed it back to him. “That isn’t why I went up there.”

“I know, but the developers don’t.” He grinned. “They’re leaving the tree.”

I shrugged. “I don’t really care, but I guess that’s nice to know.”

I had many guests in the hospital, among them Jeremy and a large bouquet of roses. He said he was profoundly sorry. I nodded, but I felt my adjustment problem was starting to fade. Falling out of a tree can do that to you. By far, my most interesting visitor was Luke, the reporter. He had come to do a follow-up on my story.

“You sure you’re not dating that guy anymore?” he asked, glancing at my roses.

“Nope,” I said. “If you didn’t see it in person, you probably saw it on the news.”

“I know you feel,” he said sagely. I thought how I had always wanted to date a blonde guy. Little blonde babies were the most adorable things. “So—you free next weekend?”

I laughed. “I’ll be here.”

Copyright © 2001 by Cari Baker

About the Author

Contrary to popular belief, "Falling" is not a reproduction of Cari Baker's life. Although the story was inspired by a difficult breakup, Cari has not climbed any trees lately, nor has she fallen out of them. Instead, she attends Hiram College, where she is a junior majoring in English and creative writing and minoring in music. This story was the 2001 winner of Hiram's Barbara Thompson Award for Short Fiction.


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