Cassiopeia, Part 5.

After exiting the car, we began walking the trail adjacent to the resort. Jack Russell took the lead.

“I was the product of one of his many affairs,” Cassiopeia said, shoving her hands into her pockets. “We rarely discussed him, Mom and me. I knew I had a father but that was all I knew. For years, Jupiter would just randomly show up at our house. There was never an explanation as to who he was; my mother would fix him a plate and we would just all eat dinner together. It was so strange. He would ask me a million questions about school, my teachers, what I liked to do for fun. I was eight years old when I asked my mother who he was. That’s when she told me everything. He was her biggest mistake, but I was the gift in that mistake, according to her.”

I remembered the Google search from a few days and not being able to find an Alfred Benson on the web. “Was there ever an Alfred Benson?” I asked.

She shook her head. “It was easier for me to invent a kind, benevolent man as my father. Not the man I currently know.”

“And yet,” I said, remembering that day in the break room and the reverence in her voice, “you admire him, don’t you?”

Cassiopeia nodded after a moment. “He’s a self-made man. He started from nothing. And now, he—not just his companies—he is a conglomerate. A part of me finds that incredible.”

“That story, about your name and—”
“All true. He chose my name for all the reasons I shared with you.”

A fierce and unapologetic love for his child, I recalled her saying.

“I wanted to please him in every way. I attended the same colleges he graduated from. I studied what he studied. He was everything to me. When he asked me to join the corps, I did.”

“The corps?”

“It’s what we call the agents that my father employs. It’s all true, that there are agents who exist to enforce his rules. But some of us operate a bit differently. Some of us are absorbed into the company as employees. We become your friends, your confidants, maybe even your crush. When we learn about relationships or even admissions of feelings, that’s when the other part of our team takes over.”

I recalled Crew Cut’s words. When you make admissions, they come after you. An image of Ballard Keene crossed my mind. The memories of that afternoon came flashing back to me: Ballard declaring his intentions to marry Marnie and quit the company, Ballard detailing his lofty goals to speak to Jupiter himself. I had long recognized the bit of hope in our conjecture and theories after the two had vanished, a hope that we would be proven wrong and learn that the two had simply chosen to disappear. Now, however, I needed to know. Inhaling deeply, I steeled myself for the question that needed to be asked. “What happened to Ballard Keene and Marnie Anderson?”

She was silent for some time. I watched as she visibly struggled with my question and my heart sank with each passing minute. Hadn’t Crew Cut also mentioned that if I wanted to live, I would stay away from Cassiopeia? There was only one alternative to living. And Ballard and Marnie had refused to stay away from each other.

“Cassi. Please.”

“Just know that I wasn’t part of—I didn’t hurt them.” She turned to me. “My father ordered me to, and I said no. They were so young and in love and didn’t deserve what he wanted to do to them. So, I took my punishment.” She paused, then, noticeably reliving the memories of whatever pain that punishment had involved. “But I didn’t touch them, Elliott. Please believe me. Believe me.”

Someone had hurt them, however; someone had done what she had refused to do, what she knew would happen to them. The reality of all those things felt like successive punches in the gut.  

*

I now walked ahead of them on the trail, weighed down by my thoughts. Cassiopeia deliberately lagged, accompanied by Jack Russell, undoubtedly aware that I needed space.

How could I consolidate my feelings for this woman with the knowledge that she had actively hurt people? The question remained there, growing as I walked, each word mounting with each step I took. I couldn’t find the answer. I just couldn’t find it.

Arms encircled around me.  I squeezed her hands and then turned around, placing my hands on both sides of her face. “I don’t know what to think right now,” I told her, searching her brown eyes.

“I worshiped him in the beginning, Elliott. But it wasn’t enough. I was also troubled and disturbed by what we were doing. When I said no to the Ballard and Marnie plan, I experienced a rage from him that I still can’t describe. He declared war on me. So, I bizarrely thought switching to the other team, not being an enforcer, would help somehow, at least to ease my conscience and to stop his punishments.” An abundance of emotions flashed across her face: anger, sadness. But I also saw resolve. “That day in the Thai restaurant, I could have easily led you to say the words, to admit that you wanted me. That was my assignment. I had been threatened with seeing it through. He was listening to us that day. He was likely watching. But looking at you that day, looking at you as me, not the woman I was pretending to be—I couldn’t. And I wouldn’t.”

Nothing to say?

I—         

It’s ok. We’ll talk about it later. Let’s discuss that collaboration project they mentioned at the morning meeting.

She had purposely kept me from speaking further.

“Nothing happens to you under my watch, not by me or anyone else, Elliott.” 

Gently, I kissed her. I had found my answer.

Cassiopeia, Part 4.

I stopped short. My dog barked at her. Cassiopeia simply patted the side of her leg twice and Jack Russell ran over, licking her hands while she enthusiastically petted him. What a guard dog.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, remaining where I stood.

She studied me before glancing at the duffel bag in my hand. “Are you going somewhere?”

Instead of replying, I whistled for Jack Russell, noting how reluctantly he left her side to come back to me.

“Why haven’t I heard from you?” Cassiopeia asked.

“Shouldn’t you be at work?”

“Shouldn’t you?” she countered.

I headed toward my car, which was parked against the curb a few feet away from her. “Look,” I said, opening the passenger door and urging my dog inside, “I need to get going. I’ll talk to you later.” Which, of course, I had no intention of doing.

Before I realized it, Cassiopeia was standing before me, peering into my eyes, her breath on my face, so, so close. I gazed at her and felt every ounce of my bravado falling to pieces.  I muttered something unintelligible, probably “God” or “help.” I wasn’t sure. She then pointed toward her collar. I looked at the collar and shook my head, confused as to what I was looking for.

“Closer,” she mouthed.

Leaning even closer—the movement caused the side of my head to brush against her earlobe and yes, my heartbeat was now fully out of commission—I examined her collar once again. A tiny, nearly microscopic gold pin. It was affixed to the fabric on her collar. I looked back at her.

“Pull,” she mouthed and then pointed at herself.

I obeyed and placed the pin in the palm of her hand. She carefully set it on the ground and then crushed it with her foot, rendering the pin into a shimmering pile of gold pieces.

“It was a microphone,” Cassiopeia said. With that, she got into in the passenger side of my car. My dog situated himself on her lap and lovingly gazed up at her. Traitor.

*

The two-hour trip to Palm Springs was silent as far as she and I were concerned. Cassiopeia was far more interested in entertaining Jack Russell than saying anything to me. Eventually, I pulled into the parking lot of the Pebble Brook Hotel and Golf Resort. Moments later, the car’s engine now off, we sat in silence.

“Let’s get a few things out of the way first,” she finally said. “I liked you from the moment I met you. You’re funny, smart, a great listener, and I like your face.”

A smile tugged at my lips. I remained stoic, however, looking straight ahead of me and not at her. That would change, however.

“Can you please look at me, Elliott?”

The question and the sincere way in which she asked me: I knew that staying away from her would never work. (Adding to the fact that she was already sitting in my car.) I belonged to her. I had belonged to Cassiopeia Benson from the moment we met, even if that wasn’t her real name. I turned to face her. “Always,” I said. “I will always look at you.”

Cassiopeia gazed at me for a long while, not speaking. She then moved closer toward me. “Thank you, ” she said. “Zachary Jupiter is my father.”

Cassiopeia, Part 3.

Later that afternoon, I sat on a bench in the dog park and dazedly watched my Golden Retriever, Jack Russell, playing and running about with some of the other dogs. Thoughts piled high in my mind, all stemming from lunch from earlier that day.

  • Cassiopeia is aware of how you feel about her.
    • How did she know?
    • Did you exhibit some sort of behavior that was out of the ordinary?
      • After all, you’re careful. You don’t stare; you keep things casual.
      • She said I was transparent. How?
  • What happens next?

It went on and on like this; attempting to organize my thoughts like a college research paper, attempting to understand the whole situation. And, of course, there was the $64,000 question:

  • Does she feel the same way about me?

“That your Retriever over there?”

Instinctively, I looked up to see if something had happened to my dog. On the contrary, Jack Russell continued to run around with abandon. “It is, yeah,” I replied to the guy who now sat next to me on the bench. I glanced at him. Crew cut; steely expression; shaped like ten bodybuilders. He didn’t look familiar; most of us who frequented the park had come to know each other well. He crossed his arms over his massive chest and watched the dogs, remaining silent, as if he hadn’t just spoken to me moments ago and/or hadn’t heard my reply.

“Don’t look at me again,” he then said, his voice lowered. “Call your dog over. Look distracted and look down; you’re not talking to me.”

Something told me not to question it. I didn’t. Quickly, I acquiesced and called Jack Russell over, who bounded into my arms. I busied myself with petting and playing with him.

“You can’t trust her,” Crew Cut then murmured.

At the sound of “her”, an alarming knowledge quickly settled over me. Cassiopeia.

“She’s not who you think she is,” he continued.

Oh God.

“It’s obvious that you have feelings for her. If you want to live, fight those feelings and get rid of them. Don’t go near her. Keep to yourself. You get my drift.”

I nodded faintly, my chest twisting itself into painful, unceasing knots.

“She will notice the shift in your behavior, by the way. And she won’t allow it. She was trained to be unrelenting, to force you to admit things. When you make admissions, they come after you. Resist.”

With that, Crew Cut was done with me. I watched peripherally as he surveyed the park for a few moments before he stood up and disappeared down the sidewalk. Now numb, I remained in the park long after the sun had set.

*

The next day, she came to my office door minutes after our daily staff meeting ended, a meeting I had joined virtually.

The knock on my closed door—a door I didn’t typically close—seemed to reverberate throughout the room. I remained still in my chair, both willing her to disappear and wanting, so badly, to see her.

“El?” I heard her call from outside the door.

I didn’t move. I wasn’t breathing, either.

“Elliott, are you in there?” she called again.

Just go, I silently implored her. Moments passed. Cassiopeia knocked again. After a long while, I ventured that she had walked away. For now. Quickly, I accessed my personal iPad and Googled Cassiopeia Benson.

Most of the results dealt with stories about her mythical namesake and the ensuing constellation. Nothing about a living person with that name. I then wondered: was Cassiopeia even her real name? After the conversation with Crew Cut, I presumed that Cassiopeia was working for Zachary Jupiter’s team of hoods; perhaps she had been planted among us to determine who was going against the policy. I shook my head. The entire matter was ludicrous when one considered it: enacting violence on employees that simply chose to become romantically involved with each other. I even laughed despite everything. Insane. I then searched for Professor Alfred Benson, “Cassiopeia’s” deceased father. No viable results.

She had lied to me from the beginning, I thought. The story about her name, the extraordinary way she told it, the person she had quickly become to me: all lies.

CB: Where are you?

I gazed at the Instant Message that had just popped up on my work computer, the letters swimming before my eyes.

CB: I didn’t see you at the meeting. Are you okay? Are you here?

I turned off my monitor and sent a text message to my manager indicating that I was placing a request for a personal holiday for the rest of the day and for the remainder of the week. As soon as he replied that he would approve it, I left the office.

*

I decided to head to Palm Springs for my days off. I needed distractions: golf, relaxation, anything. I needed to clear my head. The next morning, after hastily throwing a few things into a bag, I guided Jack Russell outside, ignoring the incessant voice in the back of my mind that demanded that I stop and think. Why I had so quickly believed the words of a stranger with a crew cut? the voice insisted. Why was it acceptable that the woman I thought so highly of would be involved in nefarious behavior?

She was waiting for me on the sidewalk.  

Cassiopeia, Part 1.

I discovered Greek mythology as an 11 year-old wandering around the stacks of my local library. One afternoon, I happened upon an illustrated book of Greek myths and was immediately struck by the photo of the frowning goddess on the book’s cover. Naturally, I grabbed the book and set to reading, quickly devouring stories about these gods and goddesses that manifested purely human traits for supposed inhabitants of a celestial mountain. They were very much fallible, yes, and some of the stories were uncomfortable to read, certainly. (Zeus was very much for the streets.) But I was intrigued, surely. This led to more readings about the Greeks; Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, for example, and other related works. I wanted to know more and more about them. By college, I was taking Classics courses on Mythology for that guaranteed A (I mean, yeah), and had read an arsenal of myths of other cultures, too. It was all so interesting to me.

In my fiction and poetry, you’ll find more than a few pieces inspired by Greek mythology. Sometimes metaphorical, sometimes allegorical, sometimes outright pieces spoken in the voice of a chosen character. This particular short story I’ve decided to share with you is brimming with mythological symbolism. Let me know if you can find the symbols (won’t be hard to find, tbh.) Anyway, the story was inspired by a myriad of things; I mostly wanted to write a story about the corporate world, which I know quite well, write from a male point of view, and throw in some suspense in my storytelling.

Here comes Part 1 of Cassiopeia. Enjoy.

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Let’s start from the beginning.

Three months ago, we had the following conversation:

Me: Your name is pretty unique.

Her: Do you know the story behind the name? It’s from my father’s favorite Greek myth.

Me: No, I’m not familiar with it.

Her: You remember Perseus and Andromeda, right?

Me: I’m nodding but I have no clue.

She responded to my statement with robust laughter. The fact that I could make her do this, to throw her head back and laugh, thrilled me in ways I couldn’t even describe to myself, much less to you.

Her: Ok, so Perseus flew the horse with wings, Pegasus. Andromeda was almost sacrificed to a sea monster. Here’s where my namesake comes in. Andromeda’s mother, Cassiopeia, boasted that both she and her daughter were more beautiful than the nereids, who were sea nymphs. Of course, this didn’t sit well with Poseidon, who was god of the sea. He decided to unleash a sea monster onto the kingdom. Naturally, the only way to appease Poseidon was to sacrifice their daughter, because how else do you appease mythological gods, right? Moments before the sea monster takes Andromeda away, Perseus swoops in on Pegasus and saves the day. But Poseidon still wanted to punish Cassiopeia for her arrogance. So, he placed her in the sky as a constellation, in the same position that her daughter had been in when she was chained to a rock at the edge of sea.

Me: Interesting. Your father named you after an arrogant woman chained to a rock…

Her[chuckling]: Well, Cassiopeia was a queen, so she was powerful in her own right. He loved that about her. She also refused to cower to the gods. He loved that, too. But it was the fact that she wasn’t just boasting about herself: she included her daughter in her boasting. To him, that signified a fierce, unapologetic love for her child. So that was the primary reason he gave me the name because he felt the same way about his daughter.

A few things.

1) She was almost out of breath when she was describing the myth. Her eyes gleamed the entire time, her hands moved to and fro as she described the scenes. It was dizzyingly incredible.

2) Her passion for the story quieted when she mentioned her late father. She spoke about him reverentially; it made me wish we weren’t standing by the coffee machine in our break room but that we were somewhere else, maybe in a holy place, a place worthy of the awe in her voice.

Finally, 3) If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m in love with Cassiopeia Benson.

*

Three months ago, I was walking down the hallway that Monday morning and didn’t realize that the empty office I typically passed by was no longer empty. 

“Good morning,” I heard moments after I had passed by.

I reversed and peered into the office.

She sat on the edge of her desk, her attention on the folder in her hand. When she became aware of my presence, she looked up and smiled at me.

Initial thought: my God.

It’s just not enough to tell you that, in that moment and thereafter, I sincerely believed that Cassiopeia Benson was too beautiful for words. Beautiful couldn’t legitimately describe what I saw in that office. Perhaps essence or light or wonder were comparable, but in the end, every word fell short.  Whatever it was that was emanating from her, I wanted it right then and there. Not merely for myself, but with me, next to me. 

“Good morning,” I replied after locating my voice. I then gestured toward the boxes sitting throughout the office. “I’m guessing that you’re moving in.”

“I am—it’s my first day.”

“Welcome and happy first day. I’m Elliott Percy. I’m on the Wealth Management team.” I walked further into the room and extended my hand toward her, which she shook. I did everything to stop myself from lingering there, palm to palm.

“A pleasure to meet you, Elliott, and thank you,” she said. “Cassi Benson, Portfolio Management.”

“Stephen Worthy’s team. He’s a good guy.”

“I’m glad to hear it. But I was warned about eating in the cafeteria?”

I laughed. “There was an incident about four years ago. I won’t go into much detail, but it’s probably safer to consider outside options for lunch.” I paused then, quickly making up my mind on what next to say. “A few of us were planning on Italian for lunch actually, this afternoon. There’s a great spot close to the office. Feel like joining?” I was amazed by how casual I sounded, being that my heart was minutes from imploding. No, it wouldn’t be just the two of us at lunch, but it would certainly feel that way to me.

“I’d love to. You can fill me on other office-related things I need to know. Want to pick me up here?”

“Sounds like a plan. Again, happy first day.”

“Thanks, Elliott.”

When I reached my office, which was a few right turns away from hers, I took a seat at my desk and stared dazedly at the blue screen of my monitor for what seemed like an eternity.

*

When I arrived to pick her up in the afternoon, her new nameplate was now emblazoned on her office door. CASSIOPEIA BENSON. I gazed at the curious first name and decided, before knocking, that “Cassi” was far too average for a woman who was nothing like the word. It was after our Italian lunch, in the breakroom, that I asked her about the origin of her name and heard that breathless, reverent, amazing story. 

*

I started dreaming about Cassiopeia soon thereafter. The dreams usually consisted of the same scene: me standing silently before her in an unknown, shadowy place, the only light coming from the constellations that whirled around on her brown skin. A breathtaking, endless display of moving stars on her arms, hands, cheeks. The dreams rarely went beyond us standing still before each other—until the most recent dream. In that one, I reached out to touch the configuration of stars spinning around on her cheek. Before I could, however, she pulled me toward her and locked her arms around me until the stars appeared all over me, too.  

The Hanging Tree, The End

Sitting deep in the woods, within a slight clearing, was the oak tree. Its trunk was massive and burly, with branches strong enough to bear the weight of the African American men, women, and children who met their final moments at its feet. Some of the white children, some of whom had been present during some of the lynchings, began to refer to it as the Hanging Tree. After Myron’s final hanging in 1961, someone had anonymously tied a  rope around the base of the trunk, its fibers painted red…  

On this particular warm morning in 2014, however, a gathering of teenagers, led by their American  History teacher, her mother, and a few of her friends and colleagues, approached the clearing. Bringing up the rear  were camera crews and reporters from an assortment of local news stations. When this assembly arrived at the tree,  the students formed a circle around it, each grabbing the hand of the person next to them.  

“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Rebecca Harper whispered in her  daughter’s ear as the students formed their circle and held hands.  

“Truly,” Alice replied, both stunned by her students’ gesture and overcome with  emotion.  

Standing next to her, Henry Cooper slipped his hand into hers. Alice glanced down at their joined hands. History was one thing, yes, and the future was another.

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A pleasure to share this story with you. Thanks for reading, for commenting, for liking.

More stories to come!

The Hanging Tree, Part 5

Alice slipped on a pair of sunglasses when she walked outside the next morning due to  the glare of the sun, but primarily to cover her swollen eyes. Following her short, succinct meeting with the superintendent, the desire to both scream and give up had culminated in a weeping session in the ladies’ room. (She drily noted that the time spent sobbing in the bathroom stall had been longer than the meeting itself.) As she walked toward the parking lot, her mind raced, sadness and confusion swelling in her chest. However, rage was quickly surpassing those other emotions. By the time Alice reached her car and discovered Henry Cooper standing next to it, she wanted to shatter somebody’s windshield with her fists. Perhaps the superintendent’s. Surprised that he was there, she nevertheless held up her hand. “I can’t talk to you right now,”  she said.  

“What happened in there?” Henry asked.  

“I’m surrounded by inept, idiotic fools who care more about public relations than education. That’s what happened in there.”  

Hot, angry tears quickly then pulsated behind her eyes. It was her lot in life to react to anger with tears. As the tears descended past her sunglasses, down her face, and onto her blouse, Henry approached her and placed his arm around her shoulders.  

“You planned this,” Alice said, wiping her face. “To be here and to be the hero.”  

“I just wanted to support you. This actual moment, however, with my arm around you, might be icing on the cake. Although I would prefer that you weren’t crying.”   

“Did you really turn down Atlanta because of me?” Alice asked.  

Henry nodded. “I didn’t like the idea of not being in the same building as you.” 

“You should know that it’s highly likely that I’ll be fired, so being in the same building as me may not matter.”

“Yes.”

“I’m taking the kids to the tree.”  

“I know.”  

“I might go to another school in another city, another state.”  

“I know that, too. But Alice, I can only hope that if there’s a chance that you leave, it won’t be goodbye.” 

Alice took off her sunglasses and looked up at him. “I mean it, Henry. I need to really know you first.” 

“I want you to know me, remember?”  

There was no harm to simply getting to know him, was there? she reasoned. Admittedly,  the fact that he was even there at the superintendent’s office spoke volumes. Slowly, she placed her head on his shoulder.

The Hanging Tree, Part 4

“Would you date someone outside of your race?”

Nadine Maxwell peered at Alice over her wineglass following the latter’s question. Having since reconciled over their disagreement earlier that week (being friends since grade school meant they couldn’t live with an impasse between them for too long), the two sat on the floor in Alice’s living room that evening. In advance of the next day’s meeting, it was Alice’s intention to drink away the abundance of nerves that currently consumed her. The idea of meeting the superintendent with a slight hangover paled in comparison to quieting the butterflies that roamed about the entirety of her body.

“That’s certainly an interesting question,” Nadine said.

“Well, would you?”

“I would and I have.”  

Alice’s eyes widened. “You have?”

“Sure. In college. He was Asian.”

“Asian? Where was I?”  

“Probably holding mock sit-ins at the local diner.”  

The two collapsed into endless giggles.  

“All right, let’s be serious,” Alice then said. “How—I mean—” Her voice trailed off.

“Alice, I didn’t care that he was Asian,” Nadine said. “He was simply a great guy. That’s the criteria for whoever I end up falling for: if he’s a great guy, that’s all I need. I don’t care where he’s from or what he looks like.”

“But what about someone who understands our culture, people, and our background? Our Black experience?” Alice countered. “Aren’t those things important?”

“They are. And I’ll want to reach a place of understanding about those things, or at least try to come close, and also acknowledge our differences. But if we don’t share the same experience, that’s fine. The essence of the individual is far more important to me.”

She blinked rapidly, astounded by her friend’s words. Could she step outside of her comfort zone? Did she even want to?

“This is about Henry Cooper, isn’t it?” Nadine asked.  

“How in the world did you know?”  

Nadine laughed. “Oh, my poor friend. He’s been head over heels for you since we were in high school, Alice. Of course, if you didn’t notice the guy I was dating, you wouldn’t notice anything else. He even stayed in Myron because of you. Five years ago, he was offered a job teaching in Atlanta and he turned it down.”

Alice shook her head in disbelief at this revelation. Images of high-school aged Henry Cooper attending her rallies, handing out flyers, attending her speeches flooded her mind, as if a window to the past had been finally unlocked. “I’m blinder than a roomful of bats,” she muttered, a phrase her father was famous for saying. She then recalled Henry’s words.

Stop looking behind you and look right in front of you.

Nadine touched her arm. “Look, Al, you can feel whatever you like. There’s no rule that says you have to return Henry’s feelings. But I also think, in this case, you’re judging a book solely by its cover. And that’s something I know you don’t want to be a part of.”

*

End it. Make a statement to your students and to the school board that you regret the divisive nature of this endeavor. Abandon this plan or there will be adverse consequences.

The Hanging Tree, Part 3

Unfortunately for Alice, however, Henry Cooper wasn’t leaving her mind anytime soon.  She thought so much about his admission that she found herself bursting into his classroom early Monday morning.

Sitting at his desk, Henry looked up at her in surprise, his reading glasses nearly falling off in the process. He stood up. “Alice—”  

“Did you actually believe that you’d tell me that you’re in love with me and I would choose not to talk about it?” Alice asked.  

“Well, I—”  

“I’m Black!”  

Henry nodded and smiled slightly. “I noticed.”  

“Is this some kind of strange fascination? Is that what this is?” she questioned.   

The smile disappeared from his face. “You think my feelings are part of a strange fascination?”  

“It’s a valid question, Henry. History validates that question. Thousands of black babies born in fields and barns with white fathers who would never acknowledge them validate that question. I  want to know where all of this is coming from.”  

Henry shook his head. “Forgive me, but that might be the most ridiculous thing I’ve  ever heard. Open your eyes, Alice. Stop looking behind you and look right in front of you.” He walked around the desk and approached her. “You’re Black. So what? I’m White. So what?”  

“You can’t ‘so what?’ race. We don’t live in that kind of world,” she replied. “And to be frank, I have to ask these questions. I don’t really know you. Yes, we grew up together and we’re colleagues, and yes, we’ve spent some time outside of school, but bowling and game nights don’t mean anything. I don’t know you, Henry.”  

“Then get to know me, Alice,” he said softly, his brown eyes fixed on hers. “Get to know  me.”  

Startled by the earnestness of his appeal, Alice nonetheless stepped back. “I need to go,”  she said before marching out of the room.  

*

“Ms. Harper?”  

She turned from the chalkboard later that and regarded McKinley Battle, one of the tenth graders  in her fourth-period class. “Yes, Mr. Battle?”  

“My mom told me that if you take us to the tree, she’s going to make sure that you lose your job.”  

Alice nodded. “I know, Mr. Battle. She informed me of that, as well.”  

“But…you’re still taking us, right?”  

*

An hour later, #takeustothetree began trending on various forms of social media. By  mid-afternoon, local civil rights chapters urged the school board to approve the visit to the  Hanging Tree.  

Finally, at the end of the day, Alice Harper received a call from the superintendent’s  office. She was to meet with Franklin Walsh, the superintendent, first thing the following  morning.  

The Hanging Tree, Part 2

However, it was the elephant in the room, wasn’t it? Furthermore, Henry’s admission had given birth to another elephant in the room: Henry Cooper, a White man, was in love with Alice Harper, a Black woman. As she gazed at her dark brown skin in the mirror later that night, that particular fact loomed larger than anything else. Where did this love come from? In all her thirty three years, could she have ever imagined that a declaration of love would come from a man who wasn’t Black?

The questions remained there, unanswered, swirling about the gray heads of all the elephants that now occupied the room.

That weekend, as she drove down the winding, tree-lined pathway that led to her parents’ home, Alice busied her jumbled mind with envisioning her late father as a young boy skipping down the same road. By 1970, Alice’s paternal grandfather had purchased the plot of land where the Harper family home now stood, having completed installment payments made over a number of years. He had finally become a landowner. Her father could freely skip and play on a plot of land that belonged to his family. But Alice knew that her forebears had maintained a wary eye on their surroundings, and certainly on that energetic fourteen year-old boy, regardless of the land they held. The times were no less conflicted as Black landowners.

As she pulled into the circular driveway in front of the house, Alice banished the other thoughts that aimed to flood her mind. Soon, she stood inside the airy, light-filled foyer. “Mama?” she called.

“Upstairs, Alice,” Rebecca Harper replied.  

Bounding up the stairs, Alice entered the master bedroom and found her mother sorting through an endless pile of clothes on her bed. “What’s going on here?” she asked before nearly racing into her mother’s open arms. Closing her eyes and inhaling her mother’s perfume, she momentarily forgot the stresses of the past week and other related topics.

“That silly cruise, remember?” her mother replied, hugging her tightly.

“Oh, I forgot: the Greek Isles with Ms. Edna.”  

“She wants to us to look like we’re rich and available.”  

“Sounds like Ms. Edna.” With that, Alice flopped down onto the bed, eventually burrowing herself into one of her mother’s mink coats.

Rebecca sat down on the bed and gently rubbed Alice’s back. “What’s wrong, baby?”

Having not yet informed her mother of her plans to take her students to the tree, Alice sat up and told her everything. She started from the beginning, when she had initially thought of the idea, to the heated meeting with the school board a few days ago. “Less than 50 years ago, Jim Crow laws were alive and well right here in Myron,” Alice said. “And these people want to pretend like those things never happened. Taking the kids to the tree is just my small attempt to help them memorialize the past.”

Her mother nodded slowly. “I see that,” she said softly.  

“What do you think, Mama?” she asked. “Am I crazy or what?”  

Her mother studied her, a slight smile on her lips. “I think your father would be proud of you. He was just as idealistic as you are and just as stubborn. One time, the editor of the Myron Sun begged me to convince him to stop writing so many letters of complaint to the paper.”

The two laughed quietly before a heavy silence entered between them, the memories of  Alice’s beloved father playing out in their minds.  

“It’s not my opinion that the past should be swept under the rug as if it never happened,” Rebecca then said. “And I agree that some of these teenagers should see what things were like for some of their own ancestors, especially right here in Myron, even if the tree is more a symbol now.” Rebecca paused. “The whole thing is very serious, Alice. Is it worth losing your job over?”

“I honestly don’t care if I lose my job, Mama.” With those words, the image of Henry Cooper bizarrely infiltrated her mind’s eye, breaking through the barrier she had set up for that particular line of thinking. With some effort, Alice mentally pushed him away. “Maybe Myron isn’t enough for me,” she continued. “This could be a sign that I need something new and different.”

“Well, whatever you decide, I’ll support it. Supporting you is more important to me than anything.”

So far, Alice mused, she had two supporters in her corner: her mother and the one person she didn’t really want to think about.

The Hanging Tree, Part 1

Guess what?

I’m sharing more short fiction with you, dear reader. I wrote this short story after my bestie saw the tree in question (you’ll see further for context) and posed a simple idea to me: write a story about that tree. This was the result. I’ll share in excerpts. Read on…(and this is something I welcome doing with you here on TSP: you give me a topic, I write a story from it. We shall do that next.)

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People tended to forget that history, their history, was soaked in blood. But Alice Harper refused to let the annals of the past go. She incorporated that painful history in most of her  lessons, doing her level best to surpass the ineffectual books that crowded the shelves in her  classroom. In the end, each young mind in her American History classes would recognize that  Myron, Georgia, and the United States (certainly the Southern United States), at large, was not always the place of freedom they had known it to be.  

“But does every lesson require so much intensity?” asked her colleague and close friend, Nadine Maxwell, as they ate lunch in the teacher’s lounge that afternoon. “I understand that you want the kids to take the past to heart, but—”  

“But what, Nadine? Is it too real for them? Are we trying to shield these children from reality now?” Alice asked. “If you ask me, the ‘reality’ they’re exposed to has been whitewashed  beyond repair. It’s about time we stop force feeding them fantasy.”  

“Good Lord, Alice, calm down.”  

“I just want you to be clear with me: what is so wrong with my idea?”

Nadine released a long, deep breath. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with your idea.  But it’s just too much. Why subject them to such a place of horror?”  

Alice abruptly stood and collected the remainder of her lunch. “That place of horror is  where a great number who came before us breathed their last breath. I’d like to believe that you  would want these kids to show it some respect. I guess I was wrong.” With that, she deposited  her food in the garbage and stormed out of the lounge. In her haste, she nearly collided with Henry Cooper, a fellow teacher. “Oh, pardon me, Hen. I was just…” She glanced behind her. “I had to get out of there.” As she reached down to pick up his fallen lunch bag, Henry gently  stopped her and picked it up himself.  

“Did someone leave something ghastly in the microwave again?” he asked.   

“Well, ghastly is the right word, yes, but it has nothing to do with the microwave. I need to get back to the classroom. See you later.”  

*  

Richard Mason, Myron High’s principal, felt that Alice was being “improper.”   A week later, scores of parents—via emails and phone calls—threatened to remove their children from her classes.  

That late afternoon, as Alice sat in her empty classroom, her eyes turned toward the windows and focused on the graying, dimming sky, she felt like having a drink. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately, depending on  how one looked at it—she wasn’t one of the teachers who kept alcoholic reinforcements in their desk drawer. Sighing, she glanced down at the lesson plan on her desk, which she had presented to the school board a few days ago: a field trip to take her students to the Hanging Tree. 

Sitting deep in the woods, within a slight clearing, was the oak tree. Its trunk was massive and burly,  with branches strong enough to bear the weight of the African American men, women, and children who met their  final moments at its feet. Some of the white children, some of whom had been present during some of the lynchings,  began to refer to it as the Hanging Tree. After Myron’s final hanging in 1961, someone anonymously tied a rope  around the base of the trunk, its fibers painted red.  

The knock on her classroom door interrupted her thoughts. “Come in,” Alice wearily called. 

Henry Cooper pushed open the door and walked into the room. “I was passing by and  saw you inside. Just wanted to check if everything was all right.”  

“Thanks. Last minute paperwork. What are you still doing here?”   

Henry sat down across from her. “Same as you: finishing up a few things.” He paused.  “Nadine told me about your idea to take the kids to the tree.”  

She sighed. “Let me guess: you’re shocked and outraged that I would subject those young minds to something so horrifying?”  

Henry shook his head. “On the contrary: I completely support it.”  

Alice raised her eyebrows. “You do?”  

“You’re a wonderful teacher, Alice. I have no doubt that you know what you’re doing. I  remember hearing about the Hanging Tree when we moved to Myron. My parents sat me down  when I asked them about it and told me everything I needed to know. They didn’t shield the  truth from me. And that made a deep impact, believe it or not. I think you have the capacity to  impact your students in a similar way and I support that wholeheartedly.”   

Moved, Alice smiled at him. “Thank you for understanding, Henry.”   

“You’re welcome. Hey, you’re doing important things. My binomials pale in comparison  to living history.” Henry taught tenth and twelfth grade Algebra.  

 “Don’t say that. You’re as dedicated as they come. I’ve always thought very highly of  you.”  

 “I appreciate that,” he said. “Means a lot coming from you. In fact—well,  never mind.”  

 “What?”  

 He regarded her, his expression unreadable. He then laughed softly to himself but remained silent.   

“What is it, Hen?” she pressed, confused.  

 “All right. There really is no other way to say it. I’m in love with you.”  

Later, she would recall the strange sensation that settled over her in that moment, like inhaling sharply and losing her breath all at the same time.  

“You don’t have to reply,” Henry continued. “I’m not sure why I said it so run-of-the-mill like that, like we were talking about the weather. I’m sorry about that.”  

For the second time that day, Alice wished she had a drink.  

Henry stood up. “But it won’t be the elephant in the room, Alice. It’s merely how I feel.  If you want to talk about it, we can. If not, that’s okay, too.” With that he walked out of the  classroom.  

Alice leaned back in her chair, her hand planted over her chest. Shock seemed to  manifest itself everywhere: within the goose bumps that appeared on her arms, the electric tingle  in the middle of her scalp. By the time she had the presence of mind to finally leave for the day,  the sun had already set.