• There's a big tree up on the crest of a hill just ten minutes--five if you bike--away from my house. If I look out my window, with my nose pressed up against the glass and my head tilted just to the left, I can see most of it down the street. When it rains I like to watch the branches get whipped around by the wind and sometimes in the Fall I'll go collect leaves from its base.

    Or maybe I should be using the past tense to talk about all of this. Because I wouldn't dare come out of my house now if my life depended on it. I wish I could say my parents forced me outdoors, but maybe they see the tree sap like blood on my hands every day just like I do, and see all those goddamn notes flitting into view behind my eyes and decide not to. It feels like the secrets are all tangible, and that they can be seen written all over my face, imprinted there from being sucked up overnight like they were. And I should use the past tense because the Tree isn't really there anymore. See, I chopped it down. I chopped it down a long time ago. It's just the memory of it that keeps me thinking that I never tore all its secrets out like they were mine to read.

    I lived (still live, if you can call it that) in a pretty bad neighborhood. It wasn't exactly as if there were guns and drugs waving under your nose every corner you turned (it's never like that; only in Hollywood), but you knew that they were there. Of course, there was the odd smattering of good kids; the kinds who got all A's on their six-week cards, had academia pumping through their veins, and ran through books like they were candy. The social rift was enormous.

    A neighborhood of bad kids was bound to have secrets; it was only natural. But in a neighborhood of bad kids, gossip spreads like wildfire. It was established long before I ever found myself there that we'd all found someone, or something, actually, who could lend an ear without filtering everything you said right back into the faces of your enemies. That's where the Tree comes in. Some animal had burrowed a knothole out of the trunk, and shortly after it was abandoned, the little hollow was occupied again-but by scraps of paper this time instead of squirrels or birds or whatever had nested there before. When you were terrified of being found out, or if you'd done something you really shouldn't have and it was eating at you (or if you were one of those few good kids and you'd cheated on a test, God forbid) you could tell the Tree. At times, the braver of us wrote our secrets on slips of paper and tied them to the lower branches. Or maybe they were the more cowardly, because the secrets were always gone after the next rain (which was guaranteed to be sometime within the week) and were never signed, as was usual protocol behind submitting a secret.

    There is no such thing as an unbreakable system. Don't ever let anyone tell you there is. Because of that, I broke-no, shattered and ripped to shreds-the system of the Tree. You were never supposed to look in the knothole. You were never supposed to even think of looking in the knothole. The Tree's secrets were the Tree's secrets, and if you did anything to dirty the sanctity of the one unwritten rule that came with the ability to toss your troubles, one by one, into that hollow in the wood, you sunk lower than anyone could imagine. I had done just that. Take a few steps back, now, and I'll tell you about it.

    March 17th, 2004

    It's late at night. I'm in a bad mood given the fact that my parents are yelling at each other again and I've got a pounding headache. The weight of some pretty deep crap I've been wading through the past few days isn't helping, either. My social life is going down the toilet and I haven't started with the thick stuff-the secret-stealing and the tree-chopping and all that apathetic junk. But since my brain hasn't been exposed to anything worse, I decide that my life couldn't possibly become any more complicated. I need to take a walk. That sort of thing is good for me, even with the threat of creeps walking around behind me in the night.

    Naturally, when I leave, I'm taken to the Tree. My legs just carry me there-I've visited it more than once: when my mom decided to dip her hands into the special emergency bank account, and when I found my dad sleeping with another girl, and again when I couldn't tell anyone that I'd been the one who spray-painted "crass" words on the brick side of the school (they were just things everyone needed to hear, anyway; in retrospect I'm unsure why I was so afraid of being caught). The walk down the street and up the hill has become a course laid into my brain, and I feel pretty good seeing it against the backdrop of stars. I've got some scraps of paper in my pocket, and the Tree is more than willing to listen to me.

    When I get to the base of the trunk I let myself slip down onto the grass and take in the smell of dirt. It strikes me as odd for a moment that dirt-smell is more comforting than home-smell and maybe more aesthetically pleasing, but then I remember that my dad's jacket reeks of chain-smoker and has consequentially spread the smell throughout the whole of the home and I'm not quite as shocked.

    After a moment of inhaling the bare Earth, I reach under one of the twisting roots of the Tree and grab a pen I leave there for situations like this, then pull a fistful of paper from my back pocket and begin to write. "Mom and Dad are fighting again," I say. "It's because of Dad's goddamned jacket, I know it. Mom has asthma and she can't take it." When I'm done, I wonder how this is supposed to be considered a secret. Being cautious, I add "I'd rather go with mom when they get a divorce" to the end. And it's a quick, harsh blow because I know my dad will be all alone when they finally do. I love him, but I hate his smokes more. Besides, I feel some obligation to stay with my mother. It's like an unexplainable daughter-pull--why leave her, after everything she's done for me? Birthed me, raised me. It hardly seems fair to turn tail and walk away with Dad after all that.

    I stand up and cram the scrap of paper into the knothole with a feeling of immense relief. It feels so much better to know that I've got a shoulder to dump my worries on; it feels good to know that I don't have to pull an Atlas every moment of the day.

    But as I pull my hand out of the trunk I feel my fingers brush against everyone else's ironically light scraps of paper. It's a fleeting, almost unnoticeable contact, but it sits with me and I don't even notice myself stopping to think. I have my fingers brushing over the bare exposure of nearly every person in my school. I can pull them all out right then and there and instantly become the most in-the-know concerning every living soul I see on a daily basis.

    It'd be a dirty way to go about things, the good part of me-the (admittedly) ignored part of me-whimpers. Remember remedial morals. Do not dive into the business of others.

    But then again, you're familiar with the concept of blackmail. And in a place like this, a thing like that is a powerful tool.

    In retrospect, I'm ashamed to admit that I listened instantly to the darker-tinted voice. It was making more than a bit of sense; if I could scare people away, why be worried about living where I was?

    Without thoughts to guide me, I wrap my fingers around as many secrets as I can and drag them, screaming and begging me to "stop it, have some sense, child, go home and curl up and listen to music--just stop" back into open air. The seat of my pants hits dirt again and I spread them all before me. And I proceed to mercilessly destroy the Tree's single unwritten rule.

    There were people who've gotten girls they barely know pregnant. A kid who cheated on his math test. Others who are telling bald-faced lies to their parents on a daily basis. It sounds melodramatic and stupid of me to say that all of these are a painful (but dare I say enjoyable?) hit to the gut. Worse still, they're all signed. Our lead quarterback is pumping steroids through his veins behind the team's back. And behind his back, his cheerleader girlfriend is cheating on him. I laugh for a moment but it feels too wrong. The moralistic voice in my head finally decides to rear its ugly head once more. I should cram all the notes back into their bark-dusted hole, but it's far too late for that sort of thing.

    March 19th, 2004

    I had made a bad mistake when I'd pulled those secrets out against their will. It's eating at me every day. I look sideways and see the kid who's slipping his antidepressant pills to his mom, or the girl who paid off the leader of the cheerleading squad just to get into their clique. No matter how meaningless the secret, it gnaws at me. I find myself clutching my stomach by the end of the day, every day. The feeling of constant nausea is overcoming me.

    March 24th, 2004

    I've lasted just beyond a week. But a week has been far, far too long. I'm taking something out--I'm going to erase some part of what I did. It's late at night again, just like it was before, and I look around my room for some sort of answer as to what I can do. I catch a brief look of myself in the mirror: disheveled, tired, blue-grey rings under my eyes like some sort of jittery raccoon's. I've tried my absolute hardest to cover them with gobs of makeup but nothing really works; instead, mascara simply runs down my cheeks in blotches, adding to the image. Something deep down inside of me giggles at the accurate comparison of myself to a bandit like that. I note that I've become a bit thinner, too--mostly due to the fact that in the end the nausea took over and I can barely keep anything with substance in my stomach anymore.

    The déjà vu of the night hits me in a wave when I lean to look out the window. That's what I'd do. I'd sneak out of the house and into the garage, down the street, past the rows of unsuspecting houses and up the hill and then--

    Enough talking about it, then. With my breath barely rolling out of my lungs, I creep through the halls, with smell of stale cigarette clawing at me and dragging my steps down. I force my way through the air thick with self-created tension and manage to make my way into the garage without getting caught. The laughter rises in my throat. I'm afraid now of getting caught walking around in my own house? I really am cracking, aren't I?

    I'm not sure how much time I spend giggling in a heap on the welcome mat in our garage. When I finally haul myself up, I crawl over to a box of long-discarded tools and dig my hand in. Before I can blink, my fingers collide roughly with the long wooden handle of a rusted, loose-fit axe. Perfect.


    The tree blinks down at me as if it is begging my subconscious to not swing the axe head down and down again. The sound of snapping and stretching fibers of wood is already loud in my ears and I haven't even struck the first blow yet.

    I've endured eight days of seeing the world at its blackest, and eight days is all I need. I'm more than done with this. And I'll be doing everyone else a favor chopping the Tree down, too. I'll be saving them all from temptation. Here I am, their bloody-handed Messiah, ready to cut one giant worry from their legs. They'll thank me for it, eventually. If I let them. I'd rather not look at anyone's face anytime soon.

    I lift the blade of the axe high over my head with a bit of a growl bubbling into the air. They'll thank me for it.