Treehugger

bynicecthulhu©

Thank you to catbrown and searchingforperfection for editing this story. Once again, any remaining errors or problems are my responsibility.

*

The bone-white clouds hung in the sky: moist, cold and seemingly eternal. Alarmed at his turn of thought, Paul rubbed his eyes and forced his imagination elsewhere. The breeze coming off the small lake was too weak for his liking, and the water was too still.

Where were the sounds of animals and the summer wind, he wondered? He should hear the odd fish breaking the surface, or birds chirping, or his distant neighbours splashing about and laughing near their own docks, but everything was silent.

Uncrossing his ankles, he settled back in the deck chair and let his head hang back. Yesterday there'd been rain, and he'd sat in it unmoving until the drops, partially frozen from their overlong stay in the stratosphere, had become too painful to ignore. There was no rain today. There was only this stillness that threatened to bring back the memories that Paul fought to bury.

He sat straight up and opened his eyes. He missed the sky. He missed the way that a summer sky could appear almost indigo directly above and yet fade to a very pale blue as your eyes dropped to the horizon.

Her eyes had been that same pale blue before they'd gone out forever.

Paul grabbed at the book he'd set beside the wooden chair. He took a deep breath and opened the Bible to a random page. There'd been an internal debate about which reading material to bring out onto the dock. His own past favourites, Clive Cussler and Ian Fleming, just couldn't keep his mind from wandering to more emotional matters. The Bible was something that he could concentrate on; he found it so boring that he had to focus on every word just to keep following the stories.

Job.

He slammed the book shut with a grunt. After taking a few seconds to calm down he opened the book again.

Lot!

He slammed the Bible shut a second time, stood, and with a roar of rage hurled the offending tome as far out into the lake as he could. It fluttered briefly at the top of its arc, before flipping and then dropping like a stone. The small splash was completely unsatisfying, but in a way Paul had found the mere act of violence, as minor as it had been, somewhat soothing. He was breathing slowly and deeply as he stared out at the lake, watching the brief-lived ripples expand and diminish.

The metaphor raised a fury in him the likes of which he'd never felt before. The deck chair, despite its mass and bulkiness, followed the bible into the lake.

What prevented the rest of his belongings from being drowned in the lake was the remembrance that all human toil results in so little and lasts for fleeting seconds in the lifetime of the universe. What was the point of anything? He pondered that as he shuffled his way back into his home, the one that Rachel and he had bought after she had confided it was her lifelong dream to have a getaway such as this.

She had only set foot in it once, just before they had bought it. The insurance money had ensured that Paul would never have to work again and could spend the rest of his life tucked away from the world here, in what would have been their home.

He went to the bedroom and stared at the queen-sized bed. He couldn't bring himself to lie down on it. It had taken all of his willpower to just make the bed. Without a thought for dinner Paul went to the chesterfield, where he had slept every night since moving in.

The sound of men's voices woke him. He glanced at the silent electronic clock and then groaned when he realized it was already past ten in the morning. He rubbed his eyes, to give them time to adjust to the sunlight shining in through the windows.

Paul spent a few minutes in the washroom, enough time to use the toilet, wash his hands, think about having a shower, and think about shaving. Then he shuffled toward the kitchen. With a small sigh he noticed that he hadn't changed into his pyjamas the night before. He shrugged in resignation, then made himself some dry toast and poured a glass of water to wash it down.

The voices continued outside, but Paul ignored them. What was outside was outside his world, and therefore was no concern of his.

After he finished breakfast he rinsed and dried the plate and glass, and then turned to the sliding glass doors to head back to the dock. He stopped as he recalled there was now no chair to sit in and no book to read. This break in his routine jarred him. How long had he been living like this? This was July-something, and hadn't he arrived in early April?

Paul ran his hand across his chin and then quickly pulled his fingers away, surprised at the beard he'd felt. The washroom mirror showed him an unfamiliar face. He picked up his razor, and after staring at it for a long and dangerous minute, he carefully set it down and began to attack his whiskers with a pair of scissors first. Once he was clean-shaven he turned on the shower and set the water to very hot. He took his time stripping and then jumped in all at once, gritting his teeth as the water reddened his skin. He adjusted the water to merely hot and proceeded to clean himself thoroughly. The water began to go cold before he finished.

He threw on his bathrobe, after searching through a couple of cardboard boxes to find it. He felt physically better. Paul walked around the house, making mental notes of all the little jobs that needed doing. Rachel would have already given him a list. That thought made him pause. He squeezed his hands painfully tight and forced the memories away.

There were no more voices outside. Paul poked his head out the front door, but saw only the large, gently undulating yard, the smoothly paved driveway leading to the front of the house, the white wooden fence bordering his property, and the large oak near the road that towered over all of the other trees on his and his neighbours' land. Whatever had gone on was over with, and good riddance to it he thought.

He found his cell phone in his jacket and considered turning it back on. Standing there in thought, it occurred to him that there was no-one he really wanted to talk to. The phone was dropped onto a coffee table. He debated going into town, but dropped the idea, as he had a ready excuse not to make the trip: he hadn't completely emptied the fridge yet.

Sweep the floor, he reminded himself. Like a robot, he grabbed the broom from the small closet off the main hall and began pushing dust around the house. He soon realized that he was only stirring up small clouds of debris and spreading them around. With a determined look he began to concentrate on the task. Room by room he coaxed the dust into the centre of each, where he then used a dustpan to transfer dirt out into his backyard. After he noticed cobwebs floating in the mild breezes that he had stirred up, he collected them for transferral into the backyard as well.

At last he was finished. The broom was returned to where it had been and, feeling as if he had accomplished something for the first time in a long time, Paul opened the sliding glass doors and went into his backyard. A small group of ducks quacked angrily and flew off. Their wingbeats sounded supernaturally loud. Paul strode down to the lake and listened to the gentle sound of the waves as they played across the pebbles.

Was cleaning the house an insult to Rachel's memory? Was going on with life? How important had she really been to him? The questions ate away at him. Hadn't he promised to love her forever? Hadn't she been everything to him? Why was he still alive now that she was gone?

Voices from the front yard interrupted his reverie. Paul closed his eyes and tried to shut the world out.

He actually succeeded for a few minutes - until someone rang the doorbell.

A few seconds passed where he considered just ignoring the visitor. It wasn't curiosity that made him turn back to his house and go inside, it was annoyance at the intrusion. The doorbell rang again just as he threw open the door.

"What do you want?" he asked angrily.

The two young men who appeared to be employed by the town, adorned in orange and yellow vests over their jeans and t-shirts, and the thirty-something brunette, dressed in slacks and a loose-fitting white top, were all taken aback at his tone.

"Uhm, sir? Sorry to bother you. But your wife here..." began one of the young men. Paul could see some more mature civic workers leaning on a pick-up truck parked at the end of his driveway. Clearly, they'd sent the younger ones to do the dirty work.

"I'm not his wife!" interrupted the woman, wrinkling her nose at the speaker.

"She's not my wife," agreed Paul, in a calmer tone. His hands went to the belt of his bathrobe to make sure it was secure.

"Uhm, sorry sir. Uhm, well your sister here said..."

"I'm not his sister!" declared the woman, crossing her arms.

The other worker spoke up. "What we're trying to explain, sir, is that you have been notified by the town that we're cutting down trees that pose hazards to traffic and pedestrians." The blank look on Paul's face was met with surprised silence. "Uhm, well sir, we're here to cut down that big oak and this woman has refused to allow us to cut it down. Does she live here?" he asked with a suspicious glance at her.

"I'm the only one that lives here."

The first speaker turned back to his older compatriots who still waited by the truck. "She lied to us! We can go ahead and cut it down!"

"Thank you for your help, sir," said the second, offering his hand.

"Now wait just one second here!" The woman knocked the young man's hand away. "You can't just cut down that tree! It belongs here! It's been here longer than any of you! It's perfectly safe and sound, and the biggest danger it poses to anyone is dropping an acorn on someone's head!"

The two young men turned and walked toward the road, clearly ignoring her. One clapped the other on the back. The older, overweight men by the truck pulled out some chainsaws.

"You can't let them kill that tree! That oak is life!" the woman implored Paul.

"Life?"

"Do you know how many animals have used that tree for shelter, or have built their homes in it? Do you have any idea how many have fed on its acorns and leaves? Do you know how much fresh air it generates? There is so much more that it does! That tree is life!" She looked to be on the verge of tears. "You can't just let them cut it down! Please!"

"Life..." Paul muttered. A faraway look came into his eyes. He turned to look at the tree, really look at it. It was enormous and old. It wasn't a pretty tree, with its knots, thickly wrinkled bark, and gnarled and twisted branches. An ice storm a few years earlier had pulled down a large branch on one side and that gave it a slightly lop-sided look. However, it was green and alive, just as this woman said it was. He spied some birds huddled up in its high branches. They took flight as a chainsaw roared.

"Wait." Paul took a step forward. "Wait!"

The two young men turned back to him and their faces fell.

"Stop them! Stop that guy!" shouted Paul. He pointed at one of the workers who was leaning a ladder against the trunk.

"Yes! Stop that man!" echoed the woman.

The workers exchanged looks, except for the one with the chainsaw who'd heard none of the shouting. One of his co-workers nudged him and he turned off the chainsaw and removed his earmuffs.

Paul stormed toward the tree, followed by the woman and the two younger men. As he reached the tree he placed his hand upon it, possessively.

"This is my tree and it's on my property. You don't have permission to come here and cut it down."

"Now you just wait one minute, buster," began the man with the chainsaw, pulling a paper from his pocket. "This poster has been plastered to the tree for the last week and a similar notice was posted at town hall for the last couple of weeks. You've had all that time to argue against cutting down this tree and you've done nothing. Now this tree is a danger to everyone who travels this road and it has to come down before it falls over and kills someone."

"Get the Hell off my property!" demanded Paul. "No-one told me they were going to cut down this tree. You can't just show up and..."

The woman stepped forward. "It sounds as if the resident wasn't properly notified, gentleman. That could get all of you into a lot of trouble if this tree comes down. He'd have a lawsuit against the town and your supervisors would be pretty pissed off. Are you sure you have to cut down this tree right now?"

Everyone went silent for a few seconds. Paul was surprised by the officious way in which the woman had spoken, and the workers were weighing which course of action would cause them less trouble with their bosses. To Paul's relief, the chainsaw was deposited in the back of the pick-up and then the men quietly got back into the cab. They pulled away, making a u-turn to head back down the road toward town with a small cloud of dust following them.

"Thank you for saving my tree!" exclaimed the woman once the truck was out of sight.

Paul turned toward her. "Your tree? Who are you exactly?"

The woman tugged at a strand of mousy brown hair and looked around nervously. "Well...actually...I'm your neighbour from down the road. I've loved this tree for so long - " she pointed high into the branches" - we had a swing tied on there, and you can still see the frayed ends of the ropes."

"Oh. Thank you for helping to stop them, miss." He glanced at her left hand and noticed he didn't need to correct himself. "I'm Paul, Paul Cheevers." He held out his hand, but she merely stared at it curiously until he dropped it back to his side.

"I'm...Veronica." Her eyes darted to where his hand was still flat against the trunk. "You know they'll be back; predators don't give up easily."

"Predators?"

"Can I come by later with some papers? I've been researching how I might save my tree - your tree. I have an idea or two, but I need a...someone else's input. Things are so complicated."

"I'd rather be left alone, Veronica."

"They will be back. The man who put the poster on the tree seemed very determined that it should come down." She looked toward Paul's house, then to the tree, and he could see she was very concerned about the oak.

He considered that if they spent a few hours discussing tactics it could mean the workers never came back. On the other hand, if the workers just cut down the tree they'd likely be done in a few hours and then gone forever. Paul pulled his hand away from the tree. He could hear a squirrel chittering away in the branches. He could smell the tree. It was so alive.

"Okay, why don't you pop by after dinner with those papers? We can discuss what to do then."

"Oh, thank you Paul! You won't regret this! I'm sure we'll be able to stop them and make sure my tree stays safe for many years to come." Her fear seemed to have melted away and she was so encouraged that her face almost glowed.

"Yeah. See you then." Paul turned away and walked back to his house. Before he closed the door behind him he noticed that Veronica was still standing by the tree and watching him, a few strands of her straight brown hair in her mouth. He shrugged and went inside.

There was a strange energy within him. The tree was important. It had to be saved. Paul glanced at the clock and noticed he had a few hours before dinner. He searched through some boxes in the living room, unpacked the computer and then plugged it in and booted it up. He had absolutely no idea where his Blackberry might be.

It was very dark outside the windows and Paul was just finishing some spaghetti when there was a gentle knock on the door. He wiped the tomato sauce from his face, glanced at his shirt to see if it was free of stains and then answered the door.

"Hi. I'm not too early, am I?" Veronica stood there, wearing the same beige slacks and white top that she'd been wearing earlier.

"Actually, I was just finishing dinner. I started it a little later than I should have. I didn't hear your car." Paul looked over her shoulder but couldn't see another vehicle anywhere on the driveway. "You can park it on the driveway. It's certainly long enough to accommodate both our vehicles."

"Car?" She looked around the dark yard. The little light that was shining out through the windows of the house made some areas of the lawn look a little less dark than others. "Oh, I didn't drive here. I walked."

Paul whistled at the idea of someone walking a couple of kilometres along a country road in pitch-black darkness. "Come on in. Do you want anything to eat or drink? I'm just finishing some spaghetti."

She stepped inside, looking around with great curiosity. "Spaghetti? I've never had...oh, wait. I like spaghetti. Oh, but I've already had dinner. Could I have a drink, please?"

"I'm not sure I remember where the liquor's packed away..."

"Oh, I only drink water."

He ushered her in, and then fetched a glass of water once she was seated at the table. She sipped and then set the glass down carefully. She stared at his plate and the small portion of spaghetti remaining.

"I can get you some if you're still hungry," he offered.

"No, that's all right. You go ahead and finish and then we'll get started on the paperwork. I have some things for you in this case." She lifted what looked to be a black laptop bag and set it on the table.

Paul ate somewhat nervously. Veronica stared at him intently, watching every twist of the fork. He tried to ignore the attention.

Once he was finished the meal and had risen to take his plate and flatware away to the kitchen, Veronica opened her bag. There were papers scattered haphazardly across the entire table when he returned. Paul whistled in amazement.

"What was that?" she asked, startled.

"Sorry, I was just whistling at the quantity of reading we have to go through. Are you a lawyer?"

"A lawyer?" She gave him a puzzled look for a second or two. "Oh, yes! I'm a lawyer! I work in Toronto, although I come up here to keep an eye on my family's home. My parents are in a retirement residence." She stared at Paul for another second. "They're old," she added.

"Okay..."

Veronica lifted a paper to within a few centimetres of her face and peered at it. He watched in wonder as she scanned the entire page and then set it back down on the table and picked up another to read.

"Did you forget your glasses?" Paul asked.

"Glasses?"

"When was the last time you had your eyes checked, Veronica?"

She searched the air with her eyes. "Oh, glasses! I left them at home on the nightstand. I should have guessed that I'd need them. All these little things to think of..." She began peering at the paper before her face.

Paul picked up a page at random and read. There was something about constitutional rights and the Supreme Court. He turned to stare at Veronica. She didn't seem crazy, just a little scatter-brained.

"So, what's your plan of attack to protect the old oak tree?" he asked.

"I don't have one. That's why we're looking through all of this," she waved her hands at the documents. "You haven't changed your mind, have you?"

Paul took a deep breath. "No, I just expected you to walk in with a plan. This," he waved his own hand at the tabletop, "this seems so disorganized."

She frowned and tugged at a few strands of her hair. "I'm not doing this correctly?"

"Well, look at this one." He handed her the paper he had been looking at. "Really? The Supreme Court is going to have something relevant to keeping a tree from being cut down?"

She peered at the paper carefully. "I thought perhaps that the right to life..."

"It doesn't extend to trees, Veronica. Have you never done something like this before?"

She shook her head and frowned.

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