The Tree | Teen Ink

The Tree

May 15, 2020
By JorgeLarach, Houston, Texas
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JorgeLarach, Houston, Texas
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Author's note:

Inspired by Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King. Student at The Post Oak High School in Houston, Texas, will attend Trinity University in the fall. Written during quarantine.

I never considered Rivian Tessio to be a political type. That’s why I was so surprised when he asked me if I wanted to come with him to the rally. I didn’t really know much about Senator Michaels, considering I wasn’t up-to-date with the political going-ons of the country. And up until that moment, I didn’t think Rivian was either. But when I heard the eagerness in his voice and noticed the glimmer of excitement in his eyes, I knew I was wrong. 

I had first met Rivian just over a year before, when he joined our app development team as an intern. At first I thought he was a bit peculiar ー he was pale, gaunt, and would skitter from one place to another, like a nervous mouse. Sometimes I’d spot him staring blankly at a black screen or drinking an absurd amount of black coffee from an oversized thermos. Despite this, there was no doubt among our coworkers that he was a gifted programmer. His ability to masterfully program in nearly any language with such a high level of quality in each astounded all of us. His signature mark in any game that he worked on was a bird, he later explained it was an osprey (his favorite species), with a shimmering ring of light around it. 

Thanks to the small size of our fledgling development company, it would be difficult not to become at least acquainted with all employees before a month had passed. Despite feeling unsettled by him early on, I had grown to like Rivian within weeks. He had made friends with everyone on the team, but for some unexplainable reason he seemed to take a liking to me. We would go out with some of our fellow developers to the local bar or the odd lunch date, but nearly every weekend, he would offer to get together with me and hang out. We both shared a love for computer science, and would often hold competitions over who could write the better program. I would lose every time. I eventually got past all his oddities, like how he never wore anything more than a long sleeve shirt, even during freezing winter nights, or how whenever we drank together he seemed completely sober, no matter how much we drank prior, and began to consider Rivian to be one of my closest friends.

On a chilly Tuesday morning in early Spring, Rivian knocked on my door with a guitar case in his hand and a proposition on his mind, the nature of which would later be revealed to be much more sinister than I ever could have imagined.

“Good morning, Shaun. Do you want to accompany me to Senator Michaels’ rally this weekend?”

The nature of his peculiar proposition, combined with my usual morning grogginess, produced a sound out of my mouth that went along the lines of “Hrrng?” 

But before I could get my bearings, Rivian invited himself inside, sidestepping me with a nonchalant “wonderful, I knew I could count on you.” I shut my door and turned to him. It was clear he had come to practice the guitar with me; I had been teaching him the basics for the past few weeks.

“So?” He asked as he sat down on my couch and pulled out his guitar from the case, “what do you think? I heard at least half the town is going.” This served as the second small shock of the day. The population of Hood River, Oregon was a small family short of a thousand. Rivian hated public places, and attending a rally of over five hundred people would have surely been a nightmare for him. By this point I was snapping out of my morning trance and had begun to wrap my mind around the situation. 

“You sure, Riv? Five hundred seems like a lot,” I said as I momentarily stepped into my room to grab my dad’s old guitar. “I’m also not a huge fan of politics,” I added, hoping this would discourage him from going. I frankly would have preferred staying home for the weekend. But what else was new?

“I’m a big supporter of Senator Michaels, and I think he can do a lot of good for everyone” I heard him say from my living room, “also, think of it as a parting trip. I’m moving away next week to Europe.”

Small shock number three. He had never before mentioned himself moving to Europe, or even any interest in it at all for that matter. I came back into the living room with my old guitar and sat on the chair adjacent to the couch. “Why Europe?” I asked, trying not to show the disappointment in my voice. 

“I like the trees,” he said, and looked at his guitar as he began to strum slowly on it.

I decided not to dig deeper, suspecting it would only lead to further confusion. Instead, I changed the topic to the rally.

“So when’s the rally?” I inquired. His suggestion that it would be a “parting trip” had struck a chord with me. I think by that point I had already made up my mind I would go. 

“This Saturday, in Portland. It’s only an hour away.” It was assumed that I would be driving, as Rivian had yet to get a driver’s license. 

I told him I’d go, and we spent the next hour practicing some chords I had taught him in previous classes. After he left, I sat silently on my couch, my thoughts now directed to next week’s applet deadlines, utterly unaware I had just set up the trajectory of how the rest of my life was going to play out.

It felt like no time at all had passed when the day of the rally came around. I picked up Rivian from his small, dilapidated apartment, of which I had never seen the interior due to his insistence that I keep away ー he confided in me that he was too embarrassed to let anyone see how incredibly messy it was ー and began the drive to Portland. 

Finding a suitable parking spot was a nightmare. It seemed like the entire state of Oregon had come to watch this man preach. We nearly got there late, neither Rivian nor I could have predicted the river of traffic that would meet us at the entrance to the city, but thanks to Rivian’s suggestion that we leave early After ten fruitless minutes of scouring for empty parking spaces, Rivian suggested we check the roof of a parking building near the stage of the rally. Luckily, there were almost half a dozen available spaces there, and the rest soon filled up after we secured ours. We got out of my car and looked down at the enormous crowd that had gathered around the still-empty stage. 

“Why don’t we just watch the rally from here?” Suggested Rivian. I remembered his aversion to large public gatherings and understood.

“Sure. I don’t really feel like being shoved around for the next few hours either.” 

We leaned over the railing and waited. A few hundred people had coalesced in front of the stage, milling about, waiting for the main event. Many were holding signs, or wearing shirts, bearing Michaels’ name. I scanned the crowd, seeing if I could recognize anyone from Hood River, and spotted Mrs. Kindle, the town’s middle school English teacher, and Mr. Marsh, the owner of the local car wash. Finally, after much excitement, Senator Bob Michaels strode onstage, and set himself up on the mic. 

“Good morning, people of Portland!” He announced to the crowd, his voice booming over the speakers and reverberating within the concrete walls of the parking garage. His smile was entrancing. “How are we all doing today?”

This elicited a deafening response from the audience. I glanced at Rivian, who had now fallen silent. He was staring at Michaels, with his eyes wide open, his hands buried deep inside his winter jacket. I thought I noticed a bead of sweat forming on his brow, despite the cold. 

“I love you, I love you!” He continued, further riling up the crowd which had grown twofold within the past ten minutes. “It’s not about me, it's about you! It’s about all of us!”

He continued for a few more minutes, hyping up the crowd with sayings like “we are strong and we are united,” and “we'll brave this election cycle, and we will come out on top!”

It was when he was berating his opponent, Senator Jeff Merkley, when Rivian pulled out of his jacket a handgun with silencer attached, aimed at, and shot Senator Michaels. It happened so swiftly, I had barely registered what happened before Rivian struck my temple incredibly forcefully with the butt of his gun, his eyes wide and wild, and I lost consciousness immediately. 

When I awoke, we were driving on a small, snow covered dirt road, with fir and red cedar trees peppering the landscape on either side of us. It was dusk, and I could see the dark orange belt of sunset underlining a starless, black night. I felt my pockets and noticed my phone missing, and I felt a trickle of blood flowing down the side of my face. My head screamed in pain.

“You’re up,” Rivian said. He sounded like a completely different person. He had taken off his winter jacket. “I have your phone because I knew you’d try to do something with it.” He was right. I would have. 

When my eyes focused on him, I noticed he was driving with one hand ー the other one was now pointing his handgun at me. 

“I know you’re wondering why I did that today,” he said in a tone of indifference, near boredom, “and I will tell you only because it is critical in the events following tonight.”

I stayed silent, still trying to sort out my bearings. In the distance, a mountain loomed.

“I am to be born in about sixty years from now; born into a wasteland Earth,” he said, his gun staring at me, his eyes trained on the road, “In about seventy years, a fissure in time will be discovered in a mountain range in Oregon ー that is where we are going. This fissure seems to connect two specific dates in time. And far as we know, it is invariable. We don’t know how it was formed; it must be some natural occurrence that happened millions of years ago when the tectonic plates shifted. Or maybe it’s not natural at all.” He pondered this for a moment, his eyes gazing over the road, unfocused.

 “I was chosen among a group of many to step through and prevent something from happening, something which, if allowed to happen, would turn most of the planet into nuclear sludge.”

At this point, I was trying to devise a way in which I could overpower him, or take control of the situation, but that gun severely limited my options. I listened to what he said, but understood these were the ramblings of a deranged, murderous lunatic. I decided to sit still and wait until we reached our destination to take action, and to pretend to listen to his delusions. 

“My goal was to travel to your time and wait until Micheals held his rally in Portland. You may not be surprised to hear that he eventually becomes president, if his political career was allowed to continue. I noticed the way he even managed to inveigle you. During his administration, he and a group of like-minded associates set in motion a series of events that eventually sets human civilization aflame.”

Now, I was listening. I could see how easily Michaels could have finessed his way into presidency. The man had a knack for grabbing your attention. However, he seemed more like an entertainer than a politician. And Rivian was right, he did manage to hold my ear, and I secretly began rooting for him during the small period of normalcy in the rally. 

“Senator Michaels belonged to a consortium of a wealthy group of individuals who seek political power. Their motives are not sinister, at least not yet. What I did was send a message to them, to cease all efforts of obtaining any sort of political potential and return to their already established occupations. In previous attempts, I tried other ways to convince them of this, but all failed. I decided taking drastic action would be most effective.”

“Now that I’ve done what I’ve come here to do, I will go back and see what changes I have brought about in my time.”

It was now completely dark. The only light came from the dashboard in my car casting a soft glow on our faces and the headlights illuminating the snowy road. I could see the mountain coming closer and closer. There was something menacing about it, something that put me off. 

“Why are you taking me with you?” I asked, trying to understand how far this delusion went. I knew Rivian was dangerous, and the last thing I wanted was to upset him, especially with his gun pointed at my neck. I wondered if the police were close by, searching for us. 

“It’s paramount you see what I’m about to show you. It’s the last thing I have to do before I go if I want this attempt to succeed.” Now I was worried. Whatever this deranged man had to show me had little chance of being convenient to my health.

“This is not my first time travelling back to this time, Shaun,” he said after a few minutes of silence, “I have attempted a number of times before to prevent the destruction of humanity, but have failed in making any significant changes to the future. I have built a friendship with you, and gained your trust, several times before. I tried the first few times with some of your co-workers, but they did not make the most optimal suspects. I found you were the most weak-minded, and was thus most affected by what I’m about to show you, therefore creating a perfect scapegoat.”

He almost sounded trance-like, as if he was tired of saying this. I pretended to listen to these manic ramblings, but somewhere in my stomach I felt a surge of panic. Now I really was worried about where he could possibly be taking me.

We sat in silence for the next several minutes. The only sounds being the wheels rolling over the fresh snow and our soft breathing as we neared our destination. The mountain stared down at us.

Finally, Rivian slowed to a stop on the side of the empty road. We got out of the car, and he instructed me to follow him. We walked silently up the side of the mountain for almost an hour, with Rivian shining a flashlight he brought to illuminate the trees ahead of us. The snow glittered under the light. Despite wearing a thick jacket, I was shivering. Rivian, however, in his thin, long sleeve shirt, was not. At times, I could hear a strange, coarse screaming from somewhere deep in the woods, but it would end just as soon as I tried to figure out from what direction it was coming from, or what was producing the sound. The gargantuan trees seemed to follow us. I thought about attacking him, but I saw his hand closed firmly on the gun, and knew that any sudden or loud movements from me would surely end in my demise. 

Eventually, we stopped at the base of a tree. Rivian crouched and inspected the depth of the tree well surrounding the tree, and once satisfied, he looked up. This tree was moderately larger than the surrounding ones, stretching about three hundred feet tall, and had a warped, unnatural shape to it. It seemed to slightly curve over itself, with the branches wiggling out and curving along with the trunk. Everything in the tree, even the leaves, was tinged grey. If I turned my head and squinted, I thought I could see a faint purple glow emitting from the tree itself, and could hear a deep thrumming; but I knew that couldn’t be possible. Without warning, Rivian began climbing the trunk. As I watched him go, any thought of overpowering him left my mind. He climbed like an ant, effortlessly lifting his weight from one protrusion in the bark to another. The sight of this tree possessed me with a sense of morbid curiosity, and standing in the presence of this colossus, this ancient force which did not belong here, I knew I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to. The tree stared down at me, and I stared back up. About thirty feet off the ground, Rivian turned his head and told me to climb up. Almost trancelike, I started climbing.

The low, deep thrumming buried itself into my ears as I climbed. I reached a snowy ledge where a wide branch split off from the main trunk. Here, the trunk seemed to grow around a rough, oval shaped hole that a person could easily fit through. Rivian was waiting for me on the ledge, sat with a resigned, defeated look on his face, and he told me to look into the hole. The thrumming intensified as I approached it.

What I saw was… the night sky. It was starless. The forest behind me was mirrored in front of me, except all the trees were like the one I was standing on now: warped and unnatural. I leaned in closer and noticed a pungent, chemical smell hanging in the air; like Windex. In the distance, I heard the same coarse, harrowed scream I thought I heard earlier, but this time more discernible. I also heard birds screeching, but their voices were rough and coarse as well. Then, I saw them. The pack of ospreys flew in a chaotic cloud, their long, charred wings flapping irregularly. I noticed they were shimmering a soft yellow fluorescence. In the distance, a dome of light illuminated the sky.

“It seems like my efforts have been fruitless,” said Rivian, mostly to himself. “I’ll have to go back and try once more.”

He stepped toward the hole, where a mirror branch from the one I was currently on protruded outward. Before he went through, he turned to me with solemn eyes. His gaunt face was illuminated by the distant dome of light. He reached into his pockets and handed me his flashlight, my car keys, and my phone, and said, “I’m sorry, Shaun. Someone had to take the fall.” Then, he stepped forward and shoved me off the tree. 

I fell about forty feet into a soft tree well, which cushioned the impact. Not enough to prevent me from biting my lip and splitting it, as well as bruising my rib, though. After much struggling, I crawled my way out of the pit. I turned and looked back up at the tree, but now, it was just a normal douglas fir, with snow weighing down its normal leaves and normal branches. I put snow on my lip to stop the bleeding. Using Rivian’s flashlight, I illuminated the footprints we left on our trek there, and eventually found my way back to my car. By then, my lip had stopped bleeding, but my side still flared up in pain when I moved the wrong way. 

I got in my car and checked my phone. The screen was cracked, but it still worked. I checked my map and discovered I was somewhere along the border of Oregon and Idaho. I turned on the heater in my car, and began the long drive back to Hood River.

I had to stop for gas more than once, but eventually, I pulled into the driveway in my apartment. The sun was just peeking over the horizon. I checked the news, and of course, it was all about the assassination of Senator Michaels. An article I read detailed the description of the shooting, but that the shooter had actually gotten away. An investigation was already underway looking for them. For some reason, this didn’t register in my mind. I was too busy reeling from what I had just seen.

I also wasn’t completely there when the police kicked down the door to my apartment and arrested me that day, or when they found the same model gun Rivian had used, tucked underneath the cushion of my couch, right where he had been sitting a few days before.

In my statement, I told the truth. I argued that Rivian was a time traveler, and it was him who committed the murder. I also said he showed me the future. It felt like a dream when I received the medical examiner’s professional report, stating I was delusional and unstable. And when the judge sentenced me to life in prison, I could only think about those birds and their entrancing phosphorescence.

They sent me off to Oregon State Penitentiary, where I have lived my life over the last five years, and from where I am writing to you now. It hasn’t been too bad. I learned to make friends early on. We protect each other from the other inmates, the dangerous ones. Still, I receive frequent beatings from them. They think I’m some sort of freak. Sometimes I think about Rivian, and every once in a while I think I see him, standing in the food line or milling about in the courtyard; but when I approach him, it's just another inmate. Perhaps this is what he meant by the “perfect scapegoat.” He needed someone to “take the fall” for the murder, so that the people have someone to blame, someone to take accountability for this trajedy. And who else to do it better than a mentally unstable loner? This is mostly what occupies my mind during the day. The nights are harder, though. It’s filled with the screams of the prisoners and the incessant hooting of the owls, but that’s not what keeps me up. I spend my nights clinging on to the metal bars in my cell window, the deafening screeches of the charred ospreys resounding in my head as I search for their shimmering glow in the starless black night.

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