“I want to show you something,” Drake says to April as they stand on the fringes of the wedding reception. People shimmy and side-to-side step on the dance floor positioned in the center of his grandparents’ backyard. His cousin, Harris, twirls his new wife, Andy, the white tulle of her dress bunching in the space between her legs and his. Family and friends, including April and Drake, surround them, nursing drinks.
“What?” April asks.
She cocks her perfectly-tweezed eyebrow at him, but takes Drake’s hand when he extends it. The buzz of the night hums through her body. It’s her first time meeting all his family, and she’ll admit, she’s surprised at how well it’s gone considering she’s encountered what seems like every living member of the Spencer gene pool. Family members have come in from hundreds of miles away to attend, and even the sloppiness and loudness of their brandy haze hasn’t spoiled her impressions of them. But, that may be a pleasant side effect of her own alcohol consumption. Or of the aura that surrounds a family so much more cohesive and far less than destructive than her own.
They cross from the laminate to the grass, the globe bulbs hanging above them on dainty wires rocking to and fro with the breeze of a fan turned on low. The music fades, going from a roar at the center of the floor to a melodic hum the further they go into the grass. The light around them dims until the only brightness is from the foot lamps staggered every few yards.
Their feet arrive at a maple tree so gigantic it would take three of April to fully wrap their arms around its trunk and even more to match the length of its limbs. The pads of her fingers run along the bark, feeling not only its fissures and flakes but also etchings running up and down.
“What do these say?” April asks. Drake turns on his phone’s flashlight, aiming it just beyond her fingertip. It’s a set of names, she now sees: Mark & Madison, and a few inches below it, Jameson. To the right, Nick loves Thomas, and above, Edith. Dozens more line the bark, all chiseled into it bluntly and yet maintaining their own style—some in all caps, others looking like each letter was carefully placed by a dedicated craftsperson.
Drake pans the light from the base of the tree up to where the light is blotted out by the mass of leaves. April tips her head back to take in as much as she can. “What is this exactly?”
“It’s my family tree,” Drake says.
She can’t help but laugh, caught somewhere between surprised and amused. “You have a literal family tree?” It seems too wholesome to be real.
“Yup.” He steps closer, and points to the names in the center of the bark. “My great-grandparents, Esther and Milton, were the ones who built the house and this tree was their favorite part of the land. The way my mom tells it, they wanted to be part of it—be part of something that had stood there for at least a hundred years already and might be here longer than the house, so they put their names in it. Then when my Great Aunt Margie was 10, maybe 12, she decided she wanted to do the same. It turned into all ten kids doing it and having their kids do it, too, which is a lot of names considering there were ten of them to start and they each had a handful.” With one hand stuffed into his pockets, he sways back and forth like one of the string lights in the wind.
“That’s kind of incredible,” April says, estimating the names in her head to be at around 75.
“Yeah,” he chuckles. “We’re pretty proud of it. Which—” He removes his hand from his pocket, holding a pocket knife, its silver handle tarnished from years of use. “—is why I want to add you to it.”
Drake shrugs as he flips the knife open, the cell phone light sending a near-blinding glare off it and at her. “Well, we’re going to be someday, right?”
They had alluded to it in recent months, and obviously, when he invited her to spend the weekend with his family, she knew he was serious about their relationship. But “inscribing her name into his sacred family maple” serious? That was one step closer to taking a thought and transforming into a plan. “I mean, yeah.” She tugs on the base of her tassel earring, a nervous tic she hasn’t been able to shake since childhood when her mother yelled at her and April needed something to do with her hands other than what her thoughts were telling her to do. “Is this your proposal?”
He scoffed. “You think I’d propose at my cousin’s wedding without a ring? Please. I’m nowhere near that basic.” He positions the edge of the blade a few centimeters away from the “E” of his own name. “So, are you good with this, or did I make you want to run and hide in the trees?”
While April did feel slightly—okay, more than slightly—caught off guard, the idea of marrying Drake didn’t send a terrifying chill down her spine. Instead, it’s as if every part of her being has been warmed by the prospect of stability, of a home with him, a new last name, a new start.
“Yeah, I am,” she says, and kisses him, sealing their lips and the deal.
“Good,” he smiles, and takes his first stab into the tree. Drake’s carving method is halfway between treating her inscription like a Neanderthal drawing and a Renaissance painting. He hacks away at the bark, but at the speed of a sloth. As he takes his time, her mind—and her eyes—starts to drift, flitting from carving to carving, until one distinctly different from the others catches her gaze.
Smack dab between a cluster of signatures is a patch of tree scraped free of bark, leaving what looks like wood pulp that had gone through the shredder. It’s a space just large enough for another name.
“What?” Drake pauses his woodworking to look towards where April’s finger is pointing. “Oh.” His knife returns to rounding out the arch of the “R.” “Uh, I’m pretty sure that used to be my Uncle Jake’s spot.”
“Used to be? What happened?”
“I’m not sure exactly. They don’t really talk about it much,” he says in the same detached manner he discusses local city council meetings with her. April, however, is invested.
“Have you ever met him?” she asks, tracing the letters J-A-K-E into the bark. In the light of his cellphone, she can see his jaw pulse.
“When I was young,” he mutters. “I don’t remember him much.”
“Has anyone tried to contact him? Seeing if he’s alive?”
In a flash, his head whips towards her. “What? Are we playing 20 Questions?” There’s no joking in his voice. The jovial nature of his non-tree proposal had all but evaporated.
“Sorry, it’s just that taking a knife to a tree to excise your family member seems like they would have to do something bad to cause it,” she says, stepping away from Drake. They had plenty of fights over their 14 months together, but this is audibly different. It’s no longer the run-of-the-mill defensiveness. It’s mixed with protectiveness, too, as if she had opened a door he had been told to keep shut.
Which she understands to an extent. There are plenty of doors she has kept shut from him and almost everyone in her life. Some, she basically boarded up, pounding dozens of nails into the woodwork so there’s no chance of someone getting a peek inside. And yet, she wants to know what’s behind his door, because maybe it would help her gauge how he’d feel about what’s behind her own.
“Yeah, he hurt them,” he says forcefully. “I don’t know how. Stole money. Maybe threw them under the bus. Either way, everyone was really pissed, and Grandpa dealt with him, and said none of us were going to be dealing with him anymore, and that’s why he’s not on the tree. Because we don’t talk about him, okay?”
“Okay.” He drags the blade to form the “L” at the end of her name, digging in to make sure it’s thick and noticeable. Within a couple of minutes, he folds the blade back into its handle. “You like it?”
“It’s great,” April says, conjuring enthusiasm that she doesn’t feel.
“Great.” Like he had before he led her off the dance floor, Drake offers April his hand. “You want to head back then?”
“Sure.” But she doesn’t mean the word, and her hand doesn’t fit in his like it had just before. The happiness that filled her had been replaced with nausea of the dreadful kind, and not just because of Drake’s 180-degree attitude flip or her rose-colored glasses have disappeared. It’s herself.
Three states away, her mom is readying herself for bed, maybe talking about the drama with her aunt, or what the next day will bring. If April is ever mentioned, it most likely is in the same way Drake does about Jake for what she’s done—and hasn’t.
The past she’s sought to shed clings to her shoulders. If Drake knew, would he see her the same way as her mom does? Would his family? And what would they do if they did? If they’ve cut out one of their own, they could easily do it to her, someone who is on the tree not because of genetics but chemistry.
She may not have done anything to them personally, but her hands have yet to wash clean. Maybe in her stain, they’d recognize their own, and send her the same way as Jake: an erased patch of tree, a blotted memory of which no one speaks.