Short Fiction ~ Rachel O’Cleary
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 9
She grips the rough bark between her knees, grunting as she reaches higher, hands already pink and stinging. Splinters pierce her palms and thighs, but she continues, eyes reaching up, only up.
She stops. This is it. This is the one. She hoists one leg over the branch and stretches - head out, toes curled against the trunk.
The branch wobbles, but she hugs it tightly, inhaling earthy bark and tangy orange leaf. Her heart stops walloping and settles instead into a smooth roll. She rests, eyes half-open, and breathes with the tree. In. Out. In.
Mum is nowhere to be seen. Her car is in the driveway, but no healthy snack awaits them on the table, no strident voice orders them out of their uniforms.
Their calls race round corners and up stairs.
It is the boy who finds her, being just young enough to think of looking for his mother in a tree. His sister doesn't believe him, but not knowing what else to do, she finally comes. Her eyes, round and clear as bubbles, rise to meet her mother's.
The boy giggles and shrieks at Mummy's game, but the girl only tilts her head. Her body stills, as if she is approaching a stray cat.
“It's OK, Mum,” she coos. “You can come down now.”
Mum grips the tree tighter and twitches her head slightly. Her eyes rest on the children for a moment, then close.
He finds them sitting beneath the tree, chins tilted up. The boy is no longer having fun. He wipes the tears from his pink cheeks with his sleeve so Dad won't see.
They tell him they have begged, promised good behaviour, even tried to tempt her down with chocolate.
He cranes his neck.
“Come on now,” he calls. “What are you playing at? Look at the children – who will take care of them?”
She meets his stare, but says nothing, moves not a millimetre.
“Shit,” he says. Goes to the shed.
When he returns, saw in hand, the girl jumps up, pushes against him frantically.
“No!” she shouts. “No, leave her! I'll make dinner. I'll put him to bed. Just leave her!”
He brushes past.
The chainsaw roars to life, and he stands holding it, watching his wife in the tree. Waiting. She doesn't blink.
He finds the crotch in the tree that holds up her branch and presses the blade in. The whine of the saw becomes a deep growl. A puff of pale sawdust leaps from the tree and softly floats down to earth. He withdraws, pauses again. The children wail, mouths open, but he cannot hear them. His eyes lock on hers.
Blade returns to branch, woodchips flying in all directions. The roaring and swirling mounts as the blade pushes further. A pale dust sticks to their skin, their sweat, their tears. And then, a sharp crack.
Her eyes cool and placid, even as she falls.
Rachel O'Cleary is an emerging writer of short fiction and has a degree in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. She has recently worked as an English teacher in Poland and France, and currently lives in Ireland with her husband and three children.