The Cracked Parts, published in Cold Lake Anthology June 2023 (Flash Fiction)
Mom’s frustration with my latest tic escalates to a crack on the head. The abrasive sounds from the back of my throat mimic some baleen distress call and replace the spastic nose scrunches from last week.
She asked me to stop, then handed me the squeeze ball. When that didn’t work, she gave me a stick of gum, took her deep breaths and counted to ten. Twice. The fleshy part of her hand snapped me out of it, like when grandpa fixes the fuzzy television with his foot.
I leave the table without being told and let the screen door slam behind me. None of the kids on our block are awake this early, so I sneak up the trunk of Hancock, the conifer Dad estimates is at least as old as grandma.
Within seconds I’m standing on the two-by-fours my cousin Billy laced to one of the lower branches four years ago. These planks of wood were the highest we could climb when we were six years old. They served as our hangout that summer, back when our imaginations were unburdened by the knowledge a tree house required walls and a roof. Billy no longer climbs with me. I don’t give him enough space. I’m clingy.
I’ve been hiding in the higher branches this summer and soon reach the spot Billy calls the Bleacher Seats. I’m eye-level with our roof and can see the second floor of the Wilson’s house across the street. Resting will invite my noisy tic to return and blow my cover, so I keep climbing.
The gaps between branches grow bigger up here. I stretch my arms until my shoulders burn, barely able to grip the branches above.
I don’t want to stop. Freedom from my body’s impulses and all the nagging about things I can’t control propels me higher. My feet provide enough lift to wrap my fingers around the next branch. A squirrel looks up from her acorn, tilting her head to watch me scoot my legs up onto the limb with the grace of a bear cub. I study my cracked, bloody hands and understand the squirrel’s amusement.
I gaze past Hancock’s needles at the big blurry world stretching to the horizon. The familiar streets of my paper route lead my eyes to our church, and the world becomes less threatening when I can touch my school with the tip of my finger.
I inch along the trunk like a caterpillar and kick my legs onto the highest branch with serious effort. The sky surrounds me, and the clouds appear closer. The only thing to hold onto is the trunk, which I hug tightly, spooked by the lack of cover up here.
The top of the tree is a powerful place. Boy, will it be great to tell Billy how far I made it today – he’ll never tease that out of me. I make the mistake of looking down and see how much I have to lose. I could silence the grunts from my throat and the noises in my head by simply loosening my grip. The thought causes the branches below to spin, and the concentric force of vertigo tugs at me as I squeeze the trunk more tightly.
Mom calls my name from the screen door. My voice cracks when I respond. Unable to hear my whimper, she steps out of the house and gazes up and down the neighbors’ backyards.
Letting go would free me from the shame of my disorder, but ending my suffering would destroy my family. All I want is to get back for breakfast and use my arms and gym shoes to control my slide down the trunk.
I pause again at the Bleacher Seats. Pushing myself to a scary place today consumed the attention and anxiety my curse preys upon. I learned I don’t need to kill it, I just need to find something new to frighten me tomorrow. Blood oozes down the soft, fleshy sides of my forearms, but the cracks that drove me up this tree have healed because the woman who never ignores an opportunity to fix my flaws noticed I was missing and came looking for me.