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IT WASN’t the most ideal tree to take refuge in, and Alba was out of tree-climbing practice. After a fierce moment of indecision, she had scuttled up the closest tree like a long-legged moth.
Alba mustered her strength and wrapped her arms around the branch directly above her, hoisting herself up. This should be far enough. She anchored her middle across a thick limb and swung her feet sideways, bracing them against the trunk. She wiggled her bottom into a fork created by two massive upper limbs. Her pulse contracted hard in her throat. She looked down, roughly 20 feet to the ground below.
“What’s the matter you big baby,” yelled the man in the black suit. “Are you going to cry again?” His deep voice echoed through the tree.
A rock whizzed by Alba’s left ear. It cut through the dense foliage of the upper canopy like a stray bullet.
Alba wiped her nose with the back of her arm. A clear line of runny snot, punctuated by a zigzag of smudged lipstick, spread from her wrist to her elbow. The lipstick was rose petal pink, and all the current rage.
“You’re an abomination of God!” yelled the woman in the yellow, loose-knit sweater.
At the same time, the woman in the red high-heel shoes with the polka-dot bows fastened to the backs shouted, “You’re a freak!”
Alba had seen those shoes in a flyer delivered to her house last Saturday. She had even considered buying them, only they didn’t come in her size. She was cursed with abnormally large feet.
Another rock, larger this time, cracked against the tree trunk just north of Alba’s head. Shards of bark spat out and rained down the back of her neck. She flinched and momentarily lost her balance. Her weight wobbled precariously from cheek to cheek. She clenched her butt muscles, and a cramp coursed through her buttocks. She muttered a curse, and considered straddling the branch, letting her legs dangle down on either side like she had done so many times at summer camp. Felled trees along the banks of the camp creek had created impromptu bridges, and Alba would ride them as if they were a great steed going off into imaginary battles. That was back when things were simple. Simple and quiet.
“We can see you up there in your stupid dress!” Snorts of giggles drifted up.
Alba smoothed the red and white checkered seams of her skirt. It was a new sundress, a present to herself, and this was the first day she had worn it. She decided against straddling. She didn’t care what they said, it wasn’t stupid, it was pretty.
Another rock zipped through the canopy. This time it came from the opposite direction. It skimmed the hairs of her forearm and then shifted trajectory, landing some 50 feet away in a pile of dirt. It made a soft thwaping sound as it landed.
“Nobody likes you!” screamed the man with the scruffy beard.
Alba sniffed and used her clean arm to wipe at her nose. She had liked him, the scruffy-bearded guy. She had even thought he looked cute today, in his skinny corduroys and old-school Led Zeppelin tee. But now he was just being mean.
She looked down again, peering at them through a hole in the foliage created by the skeleton of a dead branch. There were six of them. Four girls and two boys. Alba knew them all. They’d grown up together. Shared birthdays, fort-building, and had spent lazy summer afternoons at the local matinee. They weren’t mean then, and they certainly didn’t throw rocks.
“Andy is a loser! Andy is a loser!” The childish chorus of chanting had begun.
Alba shuddered. She didn’t like that name. They weren’t supposed to call her that anymore.
“Do you want your mommy?” There were shrieks of laughter now.
Alba’s chin sagged forward. Fresh tears threatened in the corners of her already swollen eyes. She did want her mommy. She wanted to wrap herself up in the pillowy softness of her bosom. She wanted her mom to smooth her hair and give her butterfly kisses all up-and-down her arms like she had done when Alba was little. Like only a special mommy could. Her mom would squeeze her with love until Alba just about burst, and she could disarm all of Alba’s fears with a gentle cooing noise, a noise that didn’t sound like anything but must have been something, and that noise would make it all go away. No matter what. But that couldn’t happen now. Mommy didn’t want her anymore. She wouldn’t even talk to Alba, wouldn’t even look at her anymore.
Alba heard the next rock before she saw it. She recoiled instinctively crossing her arms in front of her face in a giant X, as if she was an umpire in a grudge match calling an obscene foul. The rock missed her arms and hit her square against the side of her exposed jaw. She muffled a yelp with her hands. She didn’t want them to know they had hurt her. It was bad enough that they’d seen her blubbering like an infant while they’d chased her long-legged moth-ass up here.
“Get down here,” yelled the man in the black suit. “We’ll help beat the faggot out of you.”
More shrieks of laughter.
Alba stretched forward and tugged at a bushy branch, pulling it close. She plucked a fresh, flat leaf and then let the branch go. It snapped back into place with a whoosh. She inspected the leaf, removing a ladybug hidden in the fleshy veins of the underside. She set the bug down in the middle of one of the black checkers on her skirt and stared at it while she dabbed her bloody chin with the leaf.
The ladybug watched her. Curious. For a moment, they seemed to have locked eyes. In that moment, Alba wished with all of her might that she could trade places with that ladybug. She would fly off and laugh hysterically at human problems. And then, of course, as if on cue, the ladybug widened its eyes, extended its wings, and flew off. That figured.
“Show us your dick!” Snorts and sniggers fluttered up through the lower branches. “We know you’ve got one!” A barrage of rocks bombarded the upper canopy.
Alba flushed with shame. Her private parts were nobody’s business. She was ashamed that she was ashamed, and the crimson in her face deepened. It was a body part that wasn’t supposed to be there. She hated it and the way it looked jammed into her delicate panties, all wrinkly, bulging and disgusting.
Maybe she was a freak. Maybe they were right, her mom too. Maybe she should just give in to them, give them what they want and take her lumps for being born different. There wouldn’t always be a convenient tree to scramble up.
Alba discarded the leaf bandage and peered down through the small opening. They were all still there, laughing with each other, shoving each other playfully, and giving each other the occasional high-five. They were bonding. Making memories to last a lifetime.
Alba pulled herself forward out of the fork and balanced her weight against a thinner branch. She extended her legs, with her feet still braced against the trunk, until she was standing. She looked up. Fragments of blue sky played peek-a-boo through the tree top. It was a fantastical blue. Like pictures of clear water next to tropical beaches, obviously enhanced in Photoshop, that demanded you kick off your shoes immediately. She had seen these pictures in the travel magazines that were scattered around the waiting room at the dentist. She had been thirsty when she came across it, and the thought had struck her to jam a straw into the ethereal blue water and suck the colour right from the page. Instead, she just stared. The blue had gone on forever. Up and out and away.
Alba frowned. Up was not an option, only down. She closed her eyes. All she had to do was let go. She would fall backward. She might hit a few branches on the way down, but it wouldn’t be so bad. Not near as bad as hiding in this tree with mascara and blood smeared across her face, like some kind of carnival clown, and a crusty snot highway that ran the length of both arms.
A wind gust ruffled her skirt. It pricked her ears with a faraway sound. It was the hum of bicycle tires picking up speed and voices calling out in broken, angry syllables. Alba secured her grip and pivoted on the balls of her feet. From where she was perched, she could see a small group of children heading toward her tree. Their arms outstretched, fists held high and their rainbow bike streamers flapping wildly in the afternoon sun. They were a comical display of cavalry, with the youngest travelling behind on a neon green three-wheeler, by a good 30 feet. They arrived at the base of the tree and discarded their bikes carelessly in unsettled unison.
Groans of protest rushed up from below.
“Oh man, what are you doing here?” asked the scruffy bearded man. He kicked at his shoe and avoided the glare of the young girl who stood before him. Her arms were folded neatly across the front of her pink Hello Kitty tee.
“Alba?” A small voice called up to her. “Are you OK sweetheart?”
Alba shifted again to peer down through the skeleton branch and survey the scene below. The children stared up at her with gentle faces. The youngest, still on the three-wheeler, waved.
“Uh, yeah,” Alba said, “I’m good.” It was all that occurred to her to say.
The children shifted their focus to the adults in front of them.
“What do you think you’re doing?” A thin, young girl in braids grabbed the man in the suit by the ear. “You wait until my brother finds out what you’ve been doing!”
“Ow!” The man in the suit bent forward in pain. “We’re just playing around, honest!” The braided girl turned on her heels, forcing him away.
“You should all be ashamed of yourselves,” the small boy on the three-wheeler said. “You’re a bunch of bullies.” His expression was grave as he scolded the adults in front of him.
“Ganging up on an innocent woman?” the Hello Kitty girl said. “It’s disgusting.” She smacked her lips together and locked her tiny hands on her hips.
The adults stood with sullen expressions, their shoulders slumped in defeat.
“How would you feel if that was you?” a plump, red-haired boy said to the woman in the red high-heeled shoes. “You all need to say you’re sorry to Alba, right now.”
Disingenuous apologies overlapped each other in mumbles.
“Now get home, all of you,” a tall girl with a thick, white headband said. “We’ll deal with you when your children get home.”
Alba shifted her weight back against the trunk. She didn’t need to look down anymore. She knew they were leaving. She could hear them collecting their things, their bike spokes turning over, and their voices leading away.
“Alba?” It was the white headband girl’s voice. “Come down honey.”
“They’re gone now,” the small boy on the three-wheeler added.
Alba closed her eyes and gathered herself. She couldn’t stay in the tree forever. Could she? She opened her eyes and began her descent. Limb by limb, with momentary pauses to calculate the next foothold, and also to ensure that she didn’t rip her dress or expose her bulging underpants. It took much longer to get down than it had to go up.
The remaining children waited in silence.
Alba jumped from the lowest branch and landed in a crouch. She stood, and the children gathered around. The tallest of them only just reaching Alba’s immature breasts.
“Now, let’s clean you up a bit,” the three-wheeler boy said. He jammed his hand into the front pocket of his pants and produced a ratty tissue.
“You need to stay strong, no matter what other people say, Alba,” the white-headband girl said. She put her arm around Alba’s waist. “Love yourself fiercely,” she added, offering Alba a supportive smile. “It’s going to get better.”
Alba smiled. Not the kind of smile that meant she understood, and not the courteous kind of smile that was empty. It was somewhere in between, and it was good enough for now.
Alba smoothed her hands down the front of her skirt. It was such a pretty dress.
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