by Joe Baumann
Zoe was the only one brave enough to climb the Very Tall Tree. It was in the deepest part of the park, the area cordoned off by the rusting chain link fence covered in vines where the grass had grown tall and tangled in the metal webbing. When the sun would set, even the blazing lights from the baseball diamond and running paths didn’t cut through, and the tree’s massive fronds, the size of chairs, were swallowed in the darkness.
But Zoe climbed the tree in the afternoon, when twinkling, glittery light still shone through the higher branches and a swampy mist from the humidity had settled on the slick greens of the trees. We all watched her from the other side of the fence, our heads tilting back as she climbed higher and higher. A few of the girls squealed, one begging Zoe to come back down, but she wouldn’t. When she was very far up, so far we could hardly see her any more, someone said they saw her stop, but she must have only been taking a short rest, because then she kept climbing and disappeared from view.
We waited for hours, it seemed, everyone scanning the Very Tall Tree, with its wide base and bark thick as the wall of a bank vault. The sun started to set and we heard our parents calling for us as they thrashed through the thick bushes to find us. We bit our lips and our legs shook. Just as they found us, the first adult yelling that we were near the Very Tall Tree, Zoe came falling down out of nowhere, rocketing through the sky like an asteroid. She kept flopping on branches, which caught her like careful, rocking arms, and slowed her descent. She landed in a pile of dead leaves that poofed up around her like a down comforter.
Someone’s mother screamed, and another kid’s father hopped the fence in a silky leap and ran to her. He yelled that she was breathing, but something was wrong with her skin. When they finally managed to get her across the fence, unconscious and heavy, we saw: she was red like cherry bubble gum. Her cheeks looked like they’d been slapped forever or doused with hot water. Blisters covered her forehead.
They took her to the hospital, and everyone followed, waiting in a congested clump in the waiting room. It smelled like antiseptic and helium. When she woke up the hall was filled with exhaled relief. The doctors said she was in a full-body cast for her burns, which were all over, even the parts where she’d been covered in clothes. She wouldn’t say what happened to her, they told her parents, but the whispers waved across everyone, and soon we all knew of Zoe’s silence.
Those of us who had watched her climb the tree sat in her room nervously when they finally let us in, our legs bouncing on the floor, some of the girls braiding their fingers together over and over. We waited for Zoe’s mother to leave the room to go to the bathroom, and when she did we all stood and crowded around her. She was a frozen white blob. Three little holes were poked in the bandages wrapped tight around her head, one for her mouth and two for her eyes.
‘What happened, Zoe?’ someone whispered. Someone else shouted for someone to watch the door, but no one wanted to, because Zoe’s voice was tiny, like a squeaky hinge.
She had found the clouds, she said. They were hot, steamy, and that she’d ignored the warmth as long as she could. She’d seen an owl perched on one of the Very Tall Tree’s branches – she still couldn’t see its top – that was nothing but a skeleton, all of its skin and muscle and organs and blood evaporated away by the scalding heat of the clouds that flashed, she said, with bright orange radiance. When it flew away, it sounded like bowling pins smacking together.
‘Then how’d you know it was an owl?’ someone said.
Zoe blinked through her gauze and said she just knew.
And then she’d felt the pain, she said, the heat in her skin bubbling her flesh, and she’d passed out, and now here we were.
We looked at one another. Everyone had their hands tight on the cold metal rail on either side of Zoe’s bed. For some reason she had a thin blanket over her legs, as though she needed that with the bandages wrapping her up tight like some bland Christmas gift.
‘I thought I heard something,’ she said. ‘Right before I passed out.’
We all leaned forward. Someone hissed that Zoe’s mom was coming.
‘Like laughter. Or footsteps. It might have been thunder.’ Her lips were chapped, and she let out a wheeze. We all stepped back and sat down where we’d been.
Zoe’s mother came back in the room.
‘I think we need to let Zoe rest,’ she said. Her voice was tight as a zipper.
We marched out, each of us casting one last look at Zoe, imagining her skin pink and bloated and rotten, and we wondered what kinds of voices she’d heard up there, and what it must have been like to fall into that heavenly slumber.
– Joe Baumann is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he serves as the editor-in-chief of the Southwestern Review. His work has appeared in the Hawai’i Review, flashquake, The Coachella Review, and several others, and is forthcoming from Cactus Heart.