Mary Beth Writes

The heavy castle door creaked as it slowly opened; the music fell to a low thrumming heartbeat. Andy moved his controllers slowly and carefully, easing closer, peering through the meager light of the flickering candelabra...

"Andy!"

The screen went blank.

Andy blinked, and then looked up. His mother was standing next to him. The scowl on her round face made her look, to Andy, like the chubby elf-slayer on Morph-Over.

"... I have asked you at least eight times to carry the Christmas tree out of the house and to the curb. I refuse to drag a tree outside by myself when I have an able-bodied teenage son living in my house."

Andy shrugged his shoulders as he found his voice. "Jeez, Mom, I'm two levels from Morph-Warp, which no one I know has broken into yet. I'll do the tree later, okay?"

His mother leaned her hand on the edge of his desk, slowly shaking her head. "Andy, Andy, where are you? It's like you moved into some game land and I can't get to you anymore."

She pulled her glasses off, rubbed her eyes, and then put the glasses back on. "You are not in trouble, but it's going to feel like it. I'm taking screens away for a month. The monitor, the TV, your computer. I'm sorry, but you're giving up virtual reality -- cold turkey."

And with that she leaned over a bit further to unplug and pick up the monitor, and then walked towards his bedroom door.

Andy's mouth fell open. She couldn't. She wouldn't. Would she?

He blurted. "If you're that strong, why don't you just pull the stupid tree out of the house yourself?

She shook her head again, which made her dark brown hair, exactly the same shade as Andy's, tumble into her eyes. She blew sharply to puff it out of her face, also exactly the way he so often did the same thing.

"This is and isn't about the tree. Mostly, you are simply too young to be this addicted to anything. Sorry."

Andy leaned back in his desk chair, threw his arm over his eyes, and groaned. His life totally sucked.

...

Several minutes later Andy lay on his stomach under the infernal tree, squinting as he unscrewed rusted tree-stand bolts. Needles rained into his neck and hair. When the bolts came loose, he slid back out and stood up to pull on leather gloves his mother had found somewhere. Maybe his dad left them behind when he moved out.

When Andy tried to jerk the tree out of the loosened stand and water spilled on his socks, Andy swore. He jiggled the tree again and heard a noise that sounded like the "Oof" of someone being punched. He turned around but of course no one was there. His mom was doing something in the kitchen. His brother had gone back to college a couple days ago. His dad had moved to Arizona after the divorce last spring. Even his dog had died two months ago.

Andy heard another grunt as the tree finally came free of the stand. He laid it on its side and then grabbed the trunk to drag it out the front door.

"Watch it, Andy. Ouch."

Andy looked around. Man, maybe he HAD been playing video games too long.

He took a big breath, and then slid the tree through the front door. Some of its bottom branches snapped.

"That hurts!"

"What?"

No one was around. Andy started dragging the tree down the steps and across the front yard.

"Are you deaf or something?"

Andy stopped to stare down at the Christmas tree. The voice was definitely coming from inside it. He crouched to peer in. Was there a microphone in it there? Was this one of those pathetic TV show stunts?

"Andy, I need a little assistance here, if you please."

It was a woman's voice; a sexy, sultry adult woman's voice. She sure didn't sound the way most grown women sounded when they talked to a high school kid in baggy jeans.

"Who are you, Ma'am? And WHERE are you?"

"I’m right here. My name is Rose and I'm your Christmas tree. I know this isn't conventional, but believe me, I'd really appreciate if you'd stop cracking my branches."

"Tree? You're a frickin' talking Christmas tree?"

"Andy, swearing is an ugly habit."

Andy just stared at the balsam lying on the ground in front of him.

"Whatever, Tree."

"Andy, not 'whatever'. Say what you are really thinking even if you are expressing doubt. And my name is Rose."

"Rose."

"Yes?"

"This is friggin' impossible. Man, I shouldn't have stayed up to dawn playing Leprechauns of Doom."

"Andrew, "friggin'" is another word not suitable for polite company."

"Tree? I mean Rose? This is impossible. Trees do not talk to people."

There was a deep sigh of womanly irritation.

"Andy, you are 17-years old and you received a C- in General Science. I know this because you and your mother argued about it incessantly over Christmas break. What you do and do not know about how the natural world works is truly not that extensive. So let's just assume that I'm real, I have a few needs, and fortunately or unfortunately, you are the human in the best position to help me."

"This is very weird."

"Only from your point of view, Dear."

Andy furrowed his forehead and shoved his cold hands into the pockets of his jeans.

The tree continued. "Now, first, please gently transport me to a safe place. Then settle me into a large vessel that is, hopefully, filled with champagne. I am very thirsty and that would be a pleasant way to begin our relationship."

Andy wrinkled his forehead. Rose's voice reminded him of really old movies he used to watch with his mom when he was a kid. The kind of movies that had Dean Martin, Jack Lemmon, or Marilyn Monroe in them.

Yeah, that was it. She sounded like Marilyn Monroe.

"I'm a kid, Rose. Where am I supposed to get champagne?"

"Oh, that's right. Well, I suppose ginger ale would suffice. The two liter size, please."

Andy shrugged his shoulders. Apparently it was his day to do what the ladies said. Look how much trouble he got in when he ignored his mother.

It didn't take Andy long to carry the tree to the furthest corner of his big backyard. He told his mother it would provide a nice sanctuary for winter birds. She looked at him suspiciously, but let it go when he vacuumed the living room without being prompted. She never noticed when he snuck her giant soup pot out of the house a bit later. Andy figured his mom wasn't going to be making gallons of soup for the two of them anytime soon.

Rose sighed when he poured ginger ale into the pot.

"Mmmm. That hits the spot, Andy. Thanks so much."

He stood up. "Well, then, um. Have a nice winter, Tree."

"Any! Surely you don't think this is it, do you? I will need a fresh 2-liter bottle of ginger ale every day. If you find a way to get champagne, that would be great, but I'll assume that might not happen."

Andy stared.

"And then, of course, we have to set you to your Three Tasks."

"What?"

"Your Tasks. Don't you remember anything from all those fairy tales your mother read to you when you were little?"

"Rose, I really think you ought to explain this more clearly. What's going on?"

"Oh, Andy. I am, of course, an enchanted being stuck in an inanimate object. I would very much like to be freed from this, but that can't happen until someone else, who also needs to learn some things about the depth and possibilities of life, undertakes three tasks on my behalf. Certainly you recognize this formula."

Andy just stood there, the snow in his sneakers melting through his already damp socks, his chapped hands stuffed in the pockets of a parka that had belonged to his dad before he moved out.

Rose was smiling. He had no idea how he knew that, but he could feel it, so he figured it must be true.

"So, this is your First Task. Bring me the ugliest, most terrible-smelling scarf in your school."

Andy shook his head. "That makes no sense. You must be nuts."

"Andy Dear, I am not the one arguing with a Christmas Tree. So anyway, you aren't supposed to understand your tasks. Just do what is required. If you are lucky, understanding might come along later. No promises, though.

"Also, Andy? Please don't forget that I need fresh ginger ale every day."

...

It wasn't hard to find awful smelling teenagers with foul-smelling clothes in Andy's large public high school. The challenge came in determining which kid, with which particularly ugly scarf, was worst.

Andy surreptitiously sniffed the school's halls, classrooms, and cafeteria for two days. He finally decided that the "winner" was a filthy brown scarf worn to school by a kid in his homeroom.

The kid always sat in the back of the room by himself. Probably because other kids groaned, then mimed wiping their butts or holding their noses when he passed them in their rows.

Andy was nervous to strike up acquaintance with the putrid kid, but Rose had been nagging him about possibilities every day, and when he'd mentioned this boy, she'd insisted he get this kid's scarf.

Andy took a deep breath to walk through the buzzing clot of kids to the back of the room. He slid into a desk next to the kid. The boy glanced up but then let his eyes return to whatever was tucked inside his notebook.

Andy glanced over quickly, then turned and looked again. It was a car magazine and the kid was reading about a Shelby Mustang GT 500. 

"Hey, that's cool."

The smelly kid's eyebrows shot up.

"Yeah?"

"My dad knows a guy who has one. It's in Arizona though, so I haven't seen it."

The kid mumbled back. "My uncle works on cars for this guy who races a lot. He's worked on one that has a blower that makes it hit around 600 horse power."

The kid's name was Ron and he was as nuts for cars as Andy. It wasn't like they became friends, but suddenly there was something to talk about in homeroom while they waited for the teacher to show up or the period to be over. By the end of the week Andy offered Ron a ride home from school in his car. Ron's rickety house pretty much explained why he smelled so bad. No mom around. A dad who spent too much time on the sofa with TV and a twelve-pack, and not enough time picking up work. Unpaid utility bills. No mystery there.

Andy blasted the heat in his car. Ron tossed his rancid scarf in the backseat. Voila!

Andy was grinning that evening when he festooned the scarf through Rose's branches like holiday garland.

"Good work, Andy."

He grinned. "Yeah. So now that I did it, what do I win?"

A frigid breeze suddenly touched his face, like someone running an ice cube over his cheek.

"Win? Andy do you think this is a contest with a prize?"

"Well, yeah. In fairy tales, after the prince does whatever he’s supposed to do, he gets some of the king's land, or a new horse, or a princess or something."

Rose's voice was icy. "You already have the prize, you chump. It's Ron, who is becoming your friend."

Andy's heart slammed in his chest. "Ron? My prize is smelly, overweight kid who lives in a shack and eats subsidized lunch and likes it? Jeez..."

Her voice was not amused. "Andy. Sometime when you are not completely wrapped up in yourself, you might want to consider how a teenage girl could get her spirit snagged inside a doomed tree. Because frankly, I got enchanted into this tree twenty years ago, back when I was absolutely the coolest girl in my high school. If you'd known me then, I wouldn't have given you a nod from my Barbie blonde head. Not even if you'd fallen down on your knees to worship me from a tile floor while I was in my gym suit."

Andy cocked his head. It was a hard image to fathom.

"So don't be getting all contemptuous about your status compared to Ron's. This enchantment business tends to be about conceit-prevention. A word from the wise should be sufficient."

"Okay, okay, sorry. Anyway, Ron said his uncle can get tickets for us to Union Grove next weekend to see some drag races. My mom said she'd drive us."

He heard Rose crack a smile again.

"Your mother is a sainted woman."

Rose sighed. "I guess it's time for Task Number Two. Write a rhyming poem that is at least 50 lines long and is beautiful enough to move a person's soul."

"WHAT?"

"You heard me."

"What do you think I am anyway, Rose? A freakin' flake? I DO NOT write poetry. I am not that kind of guy."

Rose uttered what sounded suspiciously like a chuckle of glee.

"Magical tasks comes from beyond your realm, Andy. Either you ignore it, which means I'll stay in this tree forever. Or you fulfill it, thereby helping me get free."

"Rose?"

"Yeah."

"Over here, in my realm, we call this blackmail."

She laughed her husky laugh. "I know that."

...

The Poetry Task plagued Andy for days. What images and words were interesting enough that he could write fifty lines of them?

He'd be walking between classes, and suddenly he'd notice something dumb like how the floor wax still shone along the edges of the scuffed tile hallways, like a shiny belt on beat-up jeans. He'd congratulate himself on the observation, and then sigh in frustration. It was a two-line poem, at best.

He and Ron would be eating drive-thru hamburgers (Andy's dad sent him a hefty allowance every week, which was working out well to feed the boys significant after-school snacks). Andy would notice a bunch of crows flapping across the sky, chasing a hawk who had probably done something lowdown and crow-mean. Andy would listen to their scrappy caws against the wintry sky and realize their noise made great syncopation.

Yeah, right. That would work up into 50 lines REAL easy. Ode to Crows.

Then one night at supper he looked up just as his mother was lifting her spoon to her mouth. They were eating spicy Italian sausage soup and he was already on his third bowl. He had no idea how she made the stuff, but she always served garlic bread with it, and he realized right then it was one of his favorite meals. The kitchen blinds were shut against the dark night outside, the house was quiet except for some classical music floating out of the radio by the sink. His mother's smooth brown hair was, Andy realized with a start, exactly the color of a burled wood instrument board in a Jaguar.

He wondered what life felt like to her. A year ago she'd been a busy mom in a family of four. Then her husband ditched her for a pleasant redhead, and her first kid had gone to college, and now her significant other was a 17-year old kid who rarely noticed she existed unless he wanted something.

Andy grimaced. He really didn't like that line of thinking. Was a teenage son supposed to be thoughtful towards his mother?

"Mom?"

She looked up.

Her eyes were wary, as if she expected him to be upset at her for something. That look made his stomach twist.

"This is good soup. I like it."

Her face gentled.

"Thank you."

"So I have a question. Do you know how to write poetry?"

She smiled wider.

"Good poetry? Nah. But back when I was in college, I wrote a lot of bad poetry and some of it got published in the college art magazine. Your dad and I met at a coffee house where we'd both go to Poetry Night."

Andy's eyebrows went up. His parents met over poetry? How lame yet interesting was that?

She chuckled at the startled look on his face.

"Do you have to write a poem for an assignment?"

Andy nodded. He didn't have to tell her the assignment was from an enchanted Christmas tree, did he?

"Yeah, and I don't know how to begin."

"Well, the best writing comes from one's heart. Figure out what’s tender inside you and start there."

Andy looked at his mother and shook his head. She was spouting Chinese again.

...

It took three more days before Andy realized he did have something tender in his heart. So tender, in fact, it hurt. He was looking for his favorite sweatshirt on the floor of his closet when he uncovered one of Clancy's old chew toys.

Tears swam into his eyes. He went to his desk and started writing.

"Her body was soft and warm as sand at the beach on a summer's day
Her eyes were brown as pale tea, her fur was brownish gray.
My dog came into my life when I was three and small,
she was a loony puppy, we bought her at the mall.
She jumped and chewed and barked and yipped
and ran and bumped and hid,
I joined her in the fray till my
mother said we were gallumping clowns.
What I remember most now is how
she'd sleep against my back.
There's never anything wrong in the world when your dog shares your rest.
Her breath was bad, she snuffled and snored, she'd take up too much room
but when I'd awake she was already there,
When I opened my eyes she'd thump the bed
and my mother said "Eeuw!" and the day was ahead.
Nothing could ever be totally wrong when my dog shoved her nose in my hand, or under my arm, to make me glad.
The sun would shine like the gates of the sky and the waves on the lake would roar.
Clancy would run and pound and bark at gulls and pant as hard as if she were the lungs of the deepest part of the world.
Sometimes I'd snap on her leash and we'd walk for miles and miles. She never got bored, she never said no, and she never wanted to go home.
But when we got there anyway, she loved everyone in the house.
My stupid big brother, my nervous dad, my mom with her tears in her eyes.
Everything cracked and shifted. Everything smoked and lied.
My dad moved out, my mother grew stiff, and the phone didn't ring and the house went stale and nothing was right but my dog.
Clancy still slept at my back.
She wagged her tail when I opened my eyes.
And the sun would shine on her ashy fur and her eyes shone soft and ..."

...

That is where Andy laid his head down on his desk, remembering. One morning last fall, Clancy had nosed Andy awake. She whined. Her muzzle was hot and her eyes were bleary and the vet said later the cancer had been growing quite a while.

Andy cried a long time alone in his room. After a while even he knew it wasn't all for Clancy. His sadness was also for his dad moving out. Why did he have to go with that new woman? It made Andy so crazy and mad that he liked her, too. But he loved his mother. And his big brother started buying cool clothes and never wanted to shoot baskets anymore. All he seemed to do, when he was home over break, was get ready for dates, go on dates, come home stupidly late from dates.

Andy brought the poem out to Rose.

“Its lame, Rose..."

"Read it to me."

"It has a lot of rhymes in it, but not all the lines rhyme, I couldn't get that to work right."

"Read it to me."

"And I know real poems have a lot of fancy describing words in them, you know, adjectives and adverbs and such, and my poem doesn't and..."

"Andy, if you don't read the poem to me right now, I am going to assign you a Fourth Task."

Andy read. He didn't know that while he read his shoulders relaxed. His voice settled a little lower. His posture shifted until, unaware of himself, he stood like a young man beginning to edge into kindness and power.

He came to the end of the poem.

"Um, that's it. If I have to do another one, I guess I can do it. I..."

"Andy, it's not perfect poetry, but it's a Task accomplished perfectly."

"Huh?"

"You were asked to write a poem that could affect someone. You wrote something that affected you. You know, Andy, I'm grateful I got to meet you."

"One more task, Andy."

"Lay it on me, Rose."

"Bring me a ring from a girl."

Andy leaned his head back and groaned.

"Oh man, girls. Couldn't you just ask me to fight a seven-headed monster or something?”

"That would be too easy."

...

Andy watched girls for the next few days. Nothing new about that. He'd been watching girls for years and so far he didn't have any clues about how you got close enough to one for it to count.

Then, a few days later, as he was paying for Rose's ginger ale at the convenience store by the school, he noticed the cashier who always waited on him. She was smiling and asking him how he was today. He smiled politely back at her, when he realized that even though she was old, she was female so that made her a girl, right?

And she had gold rings on each of her fingers. Ten rings.

He stumbled and stammered a bit. “Um, Ma’am? Your rings are pretty. My mother likes rings and I would like to get one for her. Whatever. I know this is weird to ask, but I really don’t want to go to a store or anything, I’d just like to get her a small nice one. She’s my mom, you know? Not my girlfriend or anything. Um, do you think you might be interested in selling one of yours?”

The woman smiled. "Okay, you are a polite boy and a good customer. I will sell this ring to you for $100." Andy was surprised, but then decided that’s probably what rings cost. He told her he would bring the money the next day. He was going to have to go to the bank where he had a savings account.

The woman chuckled. “In the country where I came from, one is supposed to barter. So I guess I will barter for you? You can have the ring for $85.”

Andy blushed and thanked her. Maybe he could ask her, in the summer, if he could work for her part time. She seemed like a nice person.

He brought the money the next day, bought the ring from her, then tucked it carefully into his back pocket to take home to Rose.

It was nearly dusk when he sauntered out to Rose's corner of the yard.

As he approached, he realized something was dreadfully wrong. It was the difference between a live human being and a deceased body in a casket. The shape was there, but the spirit was gone.

"Rose? Rose!"

Nothing moved or sounded except the wind tossing papers in the alley.

Andy dropped to his knees to look into Rose's trunk, to run his fingers along her dry branches. Needles dropped lifelessly to the hard, frozen ground. Her spirit was gone.

Andy felt as if someone had punched him.

He stood back up to lean against the fence to think. He felt the ring in his pocket and pulled it out. Just a pretty ring with no one to give it to. Just a dead, dry tree. Just a rusty soup pot. Just the empty wind all around.
No champagne. No moment of a princess emerging from the core of an old tree.

Ron's ugly, wet, brown scarf fell to the ground.

Andy leaned over to let the gold rose ring slide from the palm of his hand, into the pot. It clunked. The magic was over.

...

Andy's mother knew something was terribly wrong.

"You've been a delight to live with these past few weeks. It's fine with me if you return to television and your computer games."

Andy looked up. He'd forgotten about his former non-stop electronic life. It didn't seem very interesting anymore, compared to hanging out with Ron, or noticing pieces of poetry tucked in the world around him, or his mother's face, or the warmth of thinking there was a tree in your backyard who cared how you acted and what you chose.

"Thanks. I'll put the stuff back in my room later."

He did play games again, but not like before. They were just games. He watched some TV, though it was more fun when Ron and some other guys they'd met who were nuts for cars, hung out at his house so they could watch stuff together. Sometimes, when they were just driving around in Andy's mother's old car, they'd talk about getting a van together. They could fix it up and then drive it around the country together after they finished high school.

He and his mom talked about getting a new dog, too. Maybe in the summer when he'd be home to train it and play with it.

Then, on a sleety day in April, the homeroom teacher cleared his throat.

"Uh, students, we have a new student. Please do your best to make her feel welcome."

Andy glanced up. A round, plain girl was standing next to the teacher's desk. She looked shy and nervous; her clothes were baggy and boring though she wore a beautiful fawn colored scarf around her neck. Also, she had the most amazing long, pale, beautifully blonde hair Andy had ever seen.

The girl smiled timidly and then turned to walk down the aisle to the back of the room. She sat across from Andy. He smiled his most encouraging smile.

'What's your name?"

She twisted a little gold ring on her finger. Was it a rose?

"Rose."

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...

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DP Wigley
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