Before my sister started smoking cigarettes, she loved to visit the old, abandoned treehouse in our neighborhood. Often times, she took me along with her to the treehouse, which perched on its thick-leaved oak tree like an ailing raven. Sometimes, she did her homework in the treehouse, but most of the time she gazed out the window, staring longingly at the grassy hills in the distance.
During one of these viewings, a wind swept up, lifting the red and gold autumn leaves from a ground. My sister’s eyes fixed on something in the air, and she leaned over the windowsill with an outstretched arm.
When she leaned so far that it looked like she might fall, I called out to her, “Vivi!” However, she didn’t fall. Her hand closed around something. Backing away from them window, she stared at the object in her palm. I stepped behind her and peeked over her shoulder. It was a scarlet and pearl-colored feather, unlike any bird feather that I had seen. Wordlessly, Vivi slipped the feather into her pocket. She took my hand, and we walked back to our house. All the way home, she stayed silent, so I didn’t say anything.
Later, Vivi explained to me that the feather was a good luck charm. She carried it with her wherever she went, tucking it in her pocket or her backpack. It was around this time that she began to believe that everything could grow on trees. One time, she plucked the seeds from an orange and buried them in our front yard.
“What are you doing, Vivi?” I asked.
“Growing a house,” She nodded toward our cracked-wood home barely big enough to fit us.
I gave her a confused look.
She explained, “We’ll grow them until they’re big enough. Then we’ll live in them.”
“But oranges can’t grow that big.”
“They will if we take care of them.”
The orange tree grew and gave us juicy fruit every summer. Every year, Vivi picked the oranges, tucking her scarlet-and-pearl feather in the basket. However, each time, she was disappointed that the oranges weren’t big enough. Even when she was fourteen, she still clung to the idea of growing oranges into houses.
When she was fifteen, she came home with the basket of fruit and ate them expressionlessly.
“You’re not upset?” I asked.
“Why would I be upset?”
“The oranges still aren’t big enough.”
She stared at me for a second before saying, “Oh, that house. I was stupid. Don’t know why I ever believed it.”
Then she pulled a cigarette out of her pocket and lit it.
Neither my parents nor I could figure out what happened to Vivi. First, she snapped at Mom for asking her to clean the dishes. Then, she stormed out of the house and returned three days later. Finally, she smoked a cigarette in our backyard.
Mom and Dad tried to take the cigarettes away, but Vivi walked out of the house and threatened to disappear into the city streets. I told her that she wouldn’t, that she wasn’t that stupid, but the crazed looked in her eyes made me unsure.
Eventually, Vivi stopped attending school, and anyone who tried to convince her to go back to school would suffer her wrath. On the day Vivi would have graduated from high school, she drove us both in her dirt-crusted car to the grocery store, swaddling herself in a too-big gray jacket.
When we walked out, carrying bags of bananas, oranges, jerky, and bread, I said, “The car’s this way—”
“We’re going over there,” she said. I knew that she was going to take a smoke. Though Vivi was eighteen, she still looked sixteen, and she hated the “you’re too young” looks casted at her when she smoked.
We stopped in an alley and she lit her cigarette. I stood quietly, breathing in the smoke.
“So, there’s no climbing out of this rat hole,” she said.
“Stupid I was, believing that I would be able to get out. I woke up long ago. There is no climbing out. Broke people are destined to have broke lives. Our fault is that we are born to moms and dads who barely make enough to feed us.”
She turned and looked at me.
“I don’t think that’s right,” I said.
She crouched down so that our faces were level, “I was once like you, so hopeful. Do you know what made me indulge in such lies?”
“No,” I answered quietly.
“Do you remember that feather I used to put in the orange basket? The one that I caught in the treehouse?”
“Well, it had the colors no bird had. I thought it must’ve been a gift from the heavens, or something watching over us. It was such a bright color that I was sure that it was a sign that we would make it out.”
Vivi paused, her breathing shaky. Then continued, “All those years, I carried it with me, slipping it into the orange basket. Then, one day, I dropped the basket into a puddle of water, and you know what happened?”
I shook my head.
“The color leeched right out of that thing. It was just a plain dove’s feather colored with dye, probably fallen off from someone’s old feather duster.”
She laughed humorlessly, “I should’ve figured it out long before. The oranges would never grow bigger than the ones at the store. What a fool of a child I was.”
With one hand, she reached into a grocery bag and threw an orange at the wall in front of her, juice splattering in her face, her laugh echoing down the alley. My heart pounded. I didn’t know what she would do next. My only thought was I didn’t want to find out. So, I ran and used some loose change to ride a bus home.
I’m still ashamed of how I acted.
Soon after high school, I headed to college. Now, I am a journalist at a national newspaper.
After that day in the alley, I set out to prove Vivi wrong. It couldn’t be true that I was destined to have a broken life. I took jobs at restaurants to save up for college, applied for scholarships and studied for exams every free moment I had. There were times when I was screaming that I wouldn’t make it.
I’ve seen Vivi only once since I left her in the alley. Neither our parents nor I know where she lives. Somedays, I wonder if it would’ve been different if I hadn’t run from her. Maybe she would’ve felt more welcome. Maybe she wouldn’t.
The one time I saw Vivi was last week, when I was visiting our hometown. She came to our parents’ house for some food, dressed in patched up pants and shirt. We sat on the lawn, staring at the now-towering orange tree, while she smoked a cigarette.
After a long stretch of silence, I said, “Remember when you wanted to grow those oranges into houses?”
She held still for a moment, then nodded.
“Well, they still aren’t big enough,” I continued.
“But,” I said, gesturing at the tree’s tallest branches, “The tree’s big enough to make a treehouse.”
She didn’t respond for a few seconds. Then, she laughed. The sound bellowed through the neighborhood, filling it to its brim.
When she finally stopped laughing, she looked up and put her cigarette down, the tears in her eyes shimmering like a blood red sun.
Jieyan Wang is a high school junior in northern Idaho. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and published in Teen Ink. In her free time, she loves to play the piano and paint flowers.
The featured art piece is by Anthony Johnson, titled “Alone.”