by Kammy Liu
As Sarah looked into the dead tree she saw ashes, then a fire, something burned into nothing. She saw the broken wood and thought of chests, split in the center, a heart stopping. The burning smell was like the static of something broken. Images came to her like nails to a magnet: she remembered the storm and how it had drowned the leaves in the gutters, and the bonfire the neighbors had thrown the last time before it rained, and a stand of poppy flowers they had passed on the street this morning, their red petals and black centers a bouquet of warning signs.
Looking at the tree, she knew that something terrible was going to happen. Someone’s going to get hurt, the tree was telling her. Someone close. Soon.
Sarah walked a full circle around the tree, taking in each twisting branch, each wrinkle in the bark, searching for some overlooked detail that would show she had simply read it wrong, that no one was in danger after all. She’d been seeing signs for years now but nothing like this. The most serious message she’d ever seen had said her parents were getting divorced, but she’d suspected that for a while. And like every other message she’d seen, it had been right.
Hurt, close, soon. Sarah could only see those three things, over and over again, written on the tree like an obsessive’s graffiti. There was nothing else there.
Evelyn put her hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “Are you okay? You’re shaking.”
Sarah stepped back and hugged her arms to her chest. “I’m fine mom.”
Evelyn glanced at the tree, then back to her daughter. The tree had been struck by lightning the night before. Its trunk was cleaved in two, and sections of the exposed inner trunk were black as charcoal. “Sarah, are you… seeing something?”
She shook her head.
“Honey, please, you have to tell me.” Evelyn stepped between Sarah and the tree. “What is it? Is something wrong?”
Sarah looked into her mother’s eyes, noticing the shadow of dark circles beneath them and how the faint wrinkles at the corners deepened with worry. She saw the same thing whenever a reference to the things she saw slipped out. Her mother still hoped, Sarah knew, that it was all a phase, like a child’s imaginary friend they know doesn’t really exist. But she had outgrown the age for imaginary friends by a decade, and if there was one thing she had learned since then it was when to lie.
“It’s nothing,” Sarah said. “I just felt dizzy all of a sudden.”
“Are you okay? Do you want to head back home?”
“Yeah, can we? I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine honey. As long as you’re okay.”
Sarah nodded and they turned to go. The woods went around the edge of their neighborhood, just a few blocks from their house. On the way back Evelyn tried to speak to her but Sarah couldn’t respond with more than a word at a time. She could feel the dead tree growing distant but still there behind her, as if its fallen branches had taken root in her mind.
Sarah snapped the curtains closed and sat on her bed with a thud. For days there had been no clouds, nothing to see. The blue sky stared back at her like an empty mirror, as if in its silence it was saying No. Sarah took a deck of cards from her dresser, pinched out a few from the middle, and let the loose cards drop from her hands. The ace of spades, three of hearts, and three and eight of diamonds peered at her from the floor. The other was upside down, presenting blue and white cherubs on bicycles. One of the first clear signs she’d seen had been in a set of cards, the numbers and geometric patterns like letters in a foreign language, but one she was learning.
What’s going to happen? She tried to see in the black and red shapes. What should I do? All night she had grappled with what the tree had said, unable to believe she would be told about something so terrible only to have to wait, powerless, for it to come. By morning she’d decided it had to be a warning, not a sentencing. This was a good thing. For the first time, she had been given the chance to prevent a bad sign from becoming true, maybe to save someone’s life. She was supposed to stop it. Whatever it was.
Sarah concentrated on the cards but the images were all muddled, all fragments and blurs. She thought she could almost see the edge of a shard of glass or a glint of metal, but then they dissipated back into diamonds and spades. Nothing. Half a week had passed and she knew just as much as she had the first day, except now she had less time.
When will it be? Who’s in danger?
The cards lay there, flat and paper-thin and silent. Sarah picked up the last card: six of hearts. She considered it, put it down, picked it up again, and tossed it onto the others with a sigh. It didn’t work that way, she knew. She didn’t ask for signs. And the world didn’t answer, as she had once tried to explain to her mom. It just was.
Sarah picked up the box of cards and thought for a moment, then flung the open box in the air. It started to turn over, then hit a nearby wall with a weak slap and slid to the floor, not a single card out of place. Feeling flimsy as a playing card herself, Sarah collapsed backwards onto her bed, closing her eyes against the blank white ceiling above.
The idea that there might be nothing she could do, always in the back of her mind, crept into the forefront. She knew none of the messages had ever been wrong before. But she’d never wanted to change them before either, she reminded herself, so there must be a chance. There had to be. The thought that she couldn’t prevent this was impossible, like standing on the edge of a cliff and looking into the chasm below. She couldn’t take that step if she tried.
A knock came at the door. Sarah sat up quickly as Evelyn opened the door.
“Hey honey. I baked some cookies downstairs, do you want to come get some?”
With the door open the warm, freshly-baked smell drifted into the room. “I’m not hungry,” Sarah said honestly.
“Oh.” Evelyn stepped into the room and frowned. Sarah followed her gaze to the cards on the floor, but decided that sweeping them under the bed now would only draw more attention.
Evelyn sat on the bed next to her. “Sarah, are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? You’ve seemed preoccupied lately, and you won’t talk to me. I’m just worried about you.”
Sarah felt a stab of guilt. She’d been keeping to herself so that her mom wouldn’t worry. “I’m sorry mom. I’ve just been tired.”
“Sarah. We both know that’s not true.”
“What do you mean?” Sarah said, but she could tell her voice came out wrong.
“It’s those signs you see, isn’t it?”
Sarah didn’t respond. She fixed her eyes on a faint stain in the carpet, trying to keep her face blank. The room was silent except for the ticking clock on the wall.
Evelyn sighed. “Honey, I can’t just ignore this anymore. I know something’s been bothering you, and I think you saw something in that tree last weekend. What was it?”
Sarah shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does! It matters that you see these things I don’t understand. It matters that I don’t know what’s going on with you. It matters that you’ve spent all week worried sick about some message that doesn’t exi—” Evelyn stood up suddenly, raking a hand through her hair. She turned back to Sarah. “Look honey, I don’t know if this is the right thing to say, but… how do you know what the messages are telling you?”
“What? I just know. I mean, it’s all right there.”
“Then why are you the only one who can see it?”
Sarah remembered a year ago when she heard how other people tried to see the future in cards. She wanted to say that she wasn’t the only one, but when she’d brought up card-reading the first time it’d seemed clear to her mother that it wasn’t the same.
“I don’t know.”
“Then how do you know it’s not just in your head?”
The words went through her like a knife. “I’m not making it up. I’m not imagining it.”
“I know, I didn’t mean— I’m sorry. Forget I said anything.”
Sarah stared at the floor until her mother left. A few minutes later she came back, setting a plate of chocolate chip cookies on her desk and leaving again without a word. Sarah was busy thinking about the dead tree. She could see it in her memory, every branch, every fold in the bark. And she remembered, just as clearly as the tree, the message she had read from it. But as she tried to hold the two things in her mind one somehow slipped off the other, and now in one place the tree was just a tree and in another place the message had nothing beneath it. She always knew that in a way it was all in her head, but in the same way everything someone saw or heard was, not the way her mother had meant. But for a second she couldn’t remember what the difference was.
The next day after the school bus dropped her off, Sarah took a detour into the woods, retracing the steps she and her mother had taken the week before. Left at a broken beer bottle, right at two trees whose branches locked together like tying ribbon. She needed to see the tree again. To prove the message was real, to prove it wasn’t, or to look for more signs. She imagined the tree as an oracle handing out messages, and this time there would be a robin in its branches, or a carved pair of initials in a heart, and she would see something else.
One last turn, and Sarah stopped in front of a stump. It was the right width, in the right clearing, but any sign of the damaged tree she had seen was gone. A part of her recognized that it had probably been a safety hazard, with half the trunk falling off to the side, and maybe they’d removed it. Another part was struggling with the disconnect between what she remembered and what was there, realizing that now, with the tree gone, the message truly was only in her head.
Sarah jumped at the sound of rustling leaves behind her. A man with graying hair and a North Face jacket smiled and raised his hands like showing the police he was unarmed. “Whoa, hey there. Didn’t mean to surprise you.” A small brown terrier panted at his feet.
Sarah smiled back. “Oh, sorry. I was just wondering, do you know if they cut this tree down recently?”
He thought for a moment. “No, I think that stump’s been there for a while.”
The man started to leave when he stopped and said, “Actually, I’m not sure. I may be thinking of another place. I don’t usually take this route.”
She thanked him, and he and the dog went on their way. Sarah stayed for another minute. How much time did she have? What more could she do to stop whatever was going to happen? She stared at the ringed surface of the stump, willing herself to believe that the tree being cut down was a sign, that it meant nothing was going to happen after all. It didn’t work.
It had been dark for a while when Sarah returned to her room that night. She checked the clock: eight P.M. No, that couldn’t be right. Sarah went closer and lifted the clock off the wall. Its second hand was ticking forward but jerking back in the same motion, ticking eight o’clock, eight o’clock, eight o’clock, eight o’clock again and again.
Sarah dropped the broken clock and backed away. It hit the carpet with a muted thud and fell face up, still speaking to her. Tomorrow, it said. That was all.
Her limbs felt numb. Sarah opened her window and looked out into the street, as if she could see the events of the next day coming over the horizon. Beyond that line someone was going to get hurt, maybe even killed. And though she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it, when she read that it was someone close to her, the first person she thought of was her mother. There were other people, classmates or neighbors or even her father on the other side of the country, but her mother was the one she imagined most clearly falling victim to the sign.
Her heart was beating fast and her hands were shaking, but outside everything was still: the other houses with their stone roofs and glowing windows, the metal shells of cars parked in driveways, the streetlamps and their dim-edged cones of light, the stars tiny pinpricks in sky. It was lighter outside at night than in her own room with the lights off, she realized. For some reason she imagined nighttime pitch black, but it was only a sort of soft, shadowy blue.
Looking out at the world, she didn’t feel the fullness of a web of meaning and images connecting everything but a vast emptiness, as if the world was hollow inside. Somewhere out there the first of a chain of dominoes had been knocked over, its long and snaking path heading inexorably towards her, but outside her window nothing moved, nothing made a sound. In her second-story bedroom she felt as if locked in a tower miles above the earth where nothing she did could change anything in that empty, silent world below. She had done everything she could. She had done nothing at all.
Sarah picked up a card still on the floor, the six of hearts. Returning to the window, she flung the card out as far as she could. For a moment it sailed almost horizontally through the air, then twisted sideways, hitting air resistance, and began to spiral down to the earth. Sarah watched it fall until it disappeared somewhere in the bushes, seconds after she had let it go.
The lost card seemed to say, ‘There was never anything you could do’, though of course she was only imagining it.
The next morning passed like a broken video, alternating between unbearably slow minutes and hours that went by in a blink. Every sound made her jump, and every once in a while she’d look over her shoulder as if the event from the signs would sneak up behind her. Sarah knew and couldn’t forget that in all this time she hadn’t done anything to stop it, and it didn’t help that her mother was out showing houses and didn’t know when she’d be back.
It was early afternoon when Sarah’s restlessness led her into the kitchen and she went for a glass of water. A window over the sink looked out into the backyard, letting in an expanse of sunlight that lit the whole room, and a tangle of leafy vines had begun to creep onto the left pane. As she held the glass under the faucet the thought struck her then that it might’ve already happened, but she might not know for a long time. The thought was sickening but at the same time almost a relief. At least then it would be over, and she could try to forget all of this.
Water began to spill onto her hand. Sarah returned to the present and set the overfilled glass on the counter, where water sloshed over the rim, falling in puddles that grew towards the base of the cup like a widening cone. The glass caught a reflection from the vines, distorting it around the cylinder of water so that it reminded her of a column of green lightning.
Because of you, it said.
Sarah smashed the glass into the counter. A sharp pain bit into her hand but she noticed it as if it were happening to someone else. The constellation of shards on the countertop was spelling your fault your fault your fault and the way they sparkled in the sunlight sounded like laughter, and she breathed as if the broken glass was in her throat too. She realized she was on the floor and then her mother was at her side, grabbing her hand.
“Oh my god, what happened? Sarah?”
Sarah didn’t respond. She didn’t move at all, as Evelyn cleaned and bandaged the wound.
“Are you okay? Does it hurt? Honey, say something.”
She shook her head. Evelyn swept the glass into a trashcan, and it wasn’t until the last piece was out of sight that Sarah felt like she could breathe again.
Evelyn bent down in front of her. “Sarah, what happened?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know anything, I thought I could stop it but I can’t and the water said it would happen because of me—”
Her mother held her tight. “Oh god, this is all my fault. I knew I should’ve gotten you help earlier. God, I was so stupid.”
Even in her daze the word stood out. “Help? For what?”
“Sarah, listen to me.” Evelyn looked her straight in the eye, her voice slow and deliberate. “Whatever you’re scared of, it’s not real. The signs you see are not real.”
Sarah started to protest but caught herself, realizing she didn’t want them to be real any more than her mother believed they were. In her mind a door opened, and through it she saw a different world where trees were only trees, and she didn’t lie so much to her mother, and no one would die because she hadn’t done anything, and nothing like this would ever happen again.
“I don’t want to see things anymore,” Sarah said quietly. Whether they were real or not. She didn’t want to know about things she couldn’t change. She didn’t want to spend her days watching clocks tick down, wishing desperately she could pull their hands backwards and put off the inevitable.
Evelyn sighed with relief and began to tell her about doctors she had looked up and how everything would be okay and she was fine, she would be just fine, the words spilling out as if released from behind a dam. Sarah nodded and tried to smile. But over her mother’s shoulder she was still watching the clock, its hands turning slowly. There was plenty of time left. For the sign, not for her. No matter what happened, it was counting down to the end of a day she could never come back from.