The Branches on the Trees
by Sarina Vail
I roll over once, twice, three times now facing away from the wall with my pillow scrunched up in between my arm and head. I blow a puff of air to move the strands of my dark hair out of the way, opening my eyes just barely and staring out into the darkness of my bedroom. I realize I hadn’t been dreaming it. Tap, tap, tap – That knocking on my window. Reaching out and slapping my hand along the edge of my desk until I find my phone, I look at the too-bright screen with my eyes squinted almost all the way shut. 3:48 AM… It has to be Josie.
Closing my eyes all the way I reach up blindly to the small lamp on my desk, turning it on and standing up from my bed. I was just about to stretch myself out a little before the tapping starts back up. So I finally open my eyes and wince at the brightness that I wish wasn’t there before making my way across the room to the window. I click open the small lock and slide the window up, and right outside my window sill is the familiar head of frazzled dyed light blue hair that I had expected to see.
“I’m climbing up, let me in.” She says before I can even open my mouth to ask.
“Jeez good morning to you too…” I say groggily before clearing my throat and realizing how thirsty I am.
She hoists herself up into my room like she’s done it hundreds of times, which now that I think about it, she probably has and it’s times like these I’m glad I live on the first floor. Walking over to my bed, I pause in front of my desk to pull open the top drawer with my snacks and candy in it, leaving it open while I grab the bottle of water on my desk next to the homework for my Tuesday class that I never finished. I plop down onto my bed heavily, uncapping the bottle and drinking until the water is gone. When I look up again Josie’s in front of me, shoes discarded in the corner, searching through my drawer for the sour candies. Those are her favorites.
“Well come on, tell me what happened.” I say before tossing my bottle towards the garbage can on the other side of my room and missing it just barely.
I stretch out onto my bed and Josie crawls over me to sit against the wall with her legs draped over mine. She sighs in response and chews on the worms she fished from my desk. I’m staring at her colorful socks and trying hard to keep eyes open when I hear the faintest sniffle from her direction. Shaking off the remainder of my sleepiness, I sit all the way up and scoot back so I’m against my pillow, placing my hand on her leg.
“I’m listening.” I say, softer than I had been talking before. It must be one of those nights again.
“Kat… I don’t know what to do anymore.” She says in a whisper, brushing the droopy sleeve of her hoodie across her eyes and the side of her face.
Josie starts talking all at once, like water bubbling over from a pot. All rushed details as she recounts what happened earlier tonight, or yesterday rather since it was already the next day. As I listen to the same sort of things I’ve heard for years now, I trace the dark circles under her eyes with my gaze and wonder if she even got any sleep at all before she showed up at my window. Her parents were even worse tonight than they had been last week, she still lives with them despite being 22 because she doesn’t have the money to live on her own yet. She tells me about their locked bedroom door which I can envision off to the left of the front door in her house, right next to the hallway that leads to her own bedroom. She usually left it alone, especially at night, but apparently she had walked by it too loudly.
“Then when they came out, I-I was down the hall and it was just like I had thought, they were on it again and he was so mad but I didn’t even do anything and I, and…” She trailed off and her face looked angrier than she sounded because her voice was so small.
“Shit. Do they know that you left?” I ask, trying to stay calm but failing.
She was shaking and I tried to keep my hands steady on hers as she only shrugged in response. God I hope they just went to sleep, I don’t know what we’ll do if they show up here all fucked up. I swallow my worries down and move closer to her, it won’t help Josie feel any better if I say that, she’ll just think it’s her fault. I’m holding onto her and rocking back and forth slightly just letting her cry softly and whisper small things about how she wished it wasn’t like this, all I can do is agree.
I had offered her multiple times to stay with me but she always explained that she didn’t want to get me involved, didn’t want me to get hurt. On one of my brave days about two months ago, I told her it didn’t matter, that they could go to hell, that making sure she was safe was all I cared about. She laughed small and broken and told me they would eventually, she would just have to wait for that day because for right now it was too dangerous to leave. That night she borrowed some of my clothes from the clean pile and went to work the night shift at the ShopRite in Jersey City, luckily it was only a short bus trip away.
She avoided her parents for a whole day without going back, but when Josie finally did return they were waiting there for her. Not angry with blown out pupils and incoherent sentences like usual. No, that time they promised never again, they said that they didn’t have the money to continue doing it and they realized it was hurting her. They tried to explain that she was safe with them and unfortunately she actually believed them for about a week. Then, that following Saturday I was woken up in the middle of the night by the familiar tapping on my window.
I open my mouth slightly, I want to say that this cycle isn’t going to break, that in order to escape she had to do something. Not alone of course, never alone, I was always going to be there for her. But I was interrupted by Josie jumping slightly, a faint buzzing sound coming from her pocket. She pulled out her phone and clicked the light of the screen on, reading the texts far too quickly.
“No..nonono, oh god.” She is panicked, and I stand up from the bed.
“Mom saw me leave, Kat they’re going to come h—“
“Get your shoes on, come on.” I cut her off from the other side of the room, grabbing my keys and slipping on my sneakers.
After throwing stuff into a book bag— snacks, charger, a bowl, wallet, blanket, I slip on a hoodie and we’re both out the front door of my apartment in only a few minutes. We jump into my shitty Nissan parked on the curb with the wrapper riddled floors and the stale smell of weed lingering in the air of the car. I have my key in the ignition and then we’re moving a little too quickly down my block, past Jackson Park and Paterson Ave and right out of Hoboken altogether. We’re on the turnpike going through Jersey City when Josie finally stops checking the rearview mirror for her parents’ headlights.
It is a mostly silent drive because we were both on the lookout for her parents but once I turn onto the parkway and pick up speed I click on the radio. The system reverts to what it last played, the CD mix Josie made for me the fall I started college which is comprised mostly of our favorite songs by The Front Bottoms. The tune is a little too upbeat for the mood that’s floating around inside the car but out of the corner of my eye I see Josie’s hand tapping on her thigh to the lyrics:
I got so stoned I fell asleep in the front seat. I never sleep in the front seat, I’m too tall, but I got so stoned…Come on, baby, calm me down… You’re the only one who knows how…
My car is one of the only ones on the road this early in the morning, the sky has hardly even begun to turn a lighter shade of blue to mark that the sun was coming up. I continue to drive forward at the speed limit even though I haven’t exactly decided where we’re going yet, and even though I keep my gaze on the road I can’t help but envision the pale grey of Josie’s eyes next to me.
“Thank you” I hear barely above a whisper to my right as the CD transitions from one song to the next.
I don’t say anything in response I just hold the steering wheel with one hand and reach over to link the other with hers, then suddenly I know exactly where we’re going. Neither of us really talk after that, we just listen to the music for roughly another fifteen minutes until I turn off at our exit and we pass by a familiar sign for Orange Street. I carry on driving through the city when I hear Josie laugh next to me once we pull up to a red light.
“Remember when we both missed the light rail the morning of the SAT’s and we had to run like hell to make it on time!” She said while pointing toward Orange Street station just past the light in front of us.
“And that security guard lady at Barringer who didn’t want to let us in when we were only like two minutes after eight!” I yelled back laughing too, stepping on the gas now that the light was green again.
We crack jokes and talk more about the stupid things we used to do in High School while I take a few more turns and pull into a small parking lot inside Branch Brook Park. We parked right next to the tail end of the lake near the small playground, roller-skating rink and the basketball court a little ways up the hill. I grab my book bag and we both get out, stretching a little before walking next to each other over to the fenced in playground. It was a little more messed up since we both had last seen it, I pointed out that one of the spinning metal things wasn’t there anymore and Josie agreed that someone probably broke it.
Taking a few things out of my bag before letting it sag onto the ground near the edge of the swing set, we both sit down on the swings next to each other. Josie swings back and forth a little next to me while I rustle my hand around in my hoodie pockets to find my lighter. I take out the little baggy I keep with me and start to pack a bowl when Josie stops swinging and turns to me.
“I didn’t even see you grab that when we were leaving” She said pointing to the weed in my lap, “We’re gonna look real dumb if we get arrested in the park in halfway pajamas… Wait.. You’re not even wearing a bra!”
If it there wasn’t a chilly fall breeze stirring around us my face might have heated up at that last comment, I look around me before responding, “There aren’t any cars on the road, plus the Dunkin Donuts isn’t open yet what would the cops be doing out?”
She snorts then I back smile at her, and a minute later we start smoking. Passing the bowl back and forth a few times we sway on the swings enjoying each other’s company for a while, the creaking above us seemed louder when the sun wasn’t up yet. We take turns blowing out long puffs of smoke that get blown away quickly by the wind, Josie coughs a few times next to me and I pat on her on the back to make sure she’s good.
Neither of us kept track of the amount of time we had spent on the swings, but the gentle haziness of being high was just starting to settle in when I get up and head in the direction of where we parked. Josie followed a few steps behind and we passed by benches near the fence, the ones parents are usually sitting on watching while their kids play in the distance.
I think about how maybe when she was little Josie and her parents could have done that, but then again she didn’t grow up in Newark and even so, her parents were always like this since before she was even born. The thought only fuels my decision, I’m going to finally confront her about this, I just hope this time she accepts.
We climb into the backseat of my car and I turn on the radio. I figure it won’t drain the battery too much to leave it on for a short while, but more importantly I need it on for music as background noise if I had any intentions of going through with this. The sound clicks on and it’s The Front Bottoms just like we left them, this time a different song is playing:
Yeah, maybe that could be our thing, what do you think? I’m talking to young lovers and half price drinks….I could fight the rain clouds in your life… Every day and every night.
I turn and sit sideways in the car, Josie turns too once she sees that I’m facing her. Her expression is questioning, probably because I look like I forgot how to speak.
I laugh nervously before starting, “Okay, hear me out..” and Josie rolls her eyes at me.
I clear my throat in an attempt to sound a little more serious, which was proving hard because I am a mixture of giggly and anxious at the same time, “I have something I’ve been meaning to tell you for a while…”
“Spit it out Kat what’s up?” Josie said, crossing her legs and leaning forward just a bit.
I take a moment to really look at her, the wisps of her hair hanging loosely right above her shoulders and the light pink of her lips pouted slightly in questioning. I had a plan, I have for a while, I knew exactly what I was going to stay— but somehow when I opened my mouth the words just sort of tumbled out and didn’t sound anything like I had rehearsed them.
“Josie.. I know you said no the last times I asked but this time I’m serious, one hundred percent. I already signed the new lease and I’m gonna be moving in a few weeks while my school is on winter break. I got a new apartment…It’s in Jersey City, it’s a little farther away from school but it’s fine cause the rent is a little less each month so that makes up for it.. I know my dad pays half of it so it’s not as big of a deal but uh.. the important thing is well.. your parents will have no idea where I live, they can’t come looking for you, you’ll be safe and I want you to stay with me—“ I hadn’t realized I was rambling on and on until Josie held her hand up to my mouth and was just staring at me with her wide grey eyes like smoke.
“You didn’t.. You absolutely did not get an entire new apartment just because of me.” She was questioning me but she didn’t sound angry.
“I.. care about you.” I said quietly, that was all I could think to respond even though I wanted to say so much more.
“God.. Okay, you wore me down! I’ll stay with you Kat.. Just.. I.. Thank you so much.” Josie was smiling as she said the first part, trying to sound joking to hide that she was beginning to tear up, but I could see it at the corner of her eyes.
I can’t believe she actually agreed, and before I could wrap my head around why I thought it would be a good idea, I was kissing her. Leaning forward and closing the small space between us in the car. She was still crying but then she was kissing me back and her lips tasted like a mixture of how burnt weed smelled and the stale gummy worm candies from my drawer. But I honestly didn’t care, it was perfect. It wasn’t like the other times we had kissed, pecks on the cheeks and lips during truth or dare games or in the hallway because that pushy boy was watching and he wouldn’t take no for an answer but maybe this would show him.
Josie and I separate but I pull her into a hug right after, I was tearing up now too but I rub my face into the shoulder of her hoodie to try to hide the evidence of it.
“This is dumb… Why are we crying?” I mumble into the fabric.
“You’re right, so stupid. We’re crying but we definitely aren’t sad” She sniffled back to me and I could feel her smile against my neck.
I wanted to say more, to ask her what this would mean for us and where we would go from here. But knowing Josie she would probably just say “Back onto the parkway, duh.” and I smile to myself hearing that response in her voice in my head. When I look at her face again her eyelids are hanging low on her eyes and I decide that the conversation can wait for another day or at least until the sun is back up.
Soon the yawns hit us both and I turn off the radio before we manage to lie down in the narrow space of the back seat. I take out the blanket I remembered to pack and use my bag as a pillow, with Josie using my chest instead.
Before dozing off I look up through the car window at the sky, a faint blue color now that looks like it’s just beginning to change into yellows and oranges. It’s only covered here and there by the winding branches on the trees around us, with the last bits of warm colored leaves hanging on tightly refusing to believe that it’s their time to fall. Then as if I’m already dreaming, the dim light of the incoming morning and Josie’s gentle breathing on my chest is the last thing I’m thinking about before I fall asleep.