The maidenhair tree.

Juliet left school, through the 8th grade double doors, on Tuesday at 3:52, according to the big, round clock in the hallway. Her last class, English, had ended early, at 2:55, when Mrs. Wimmer had grabbed Catherine, caught passing a vulgar note, and marched wordlessly to the principal’s office.

They had sat at their desks for a few uncertain minutes, all of the girls minus one, a hiss of gossip in the corner where Catherine had sat, the honor council representative clearing her throat in a futile attempt at control.

Juliet sat in the front row, by the far wall, looking out at the cloudless sky, branches waving in the building breeze. That was the day the weather would turn suddenly cold, the night tender plants, forgotten on limestone window ledges, would succumb to frost.

At 3:07, eight minutes before the first dismissal bell would ring, one of the girls, Catherine’s rival, swept up her things and strode out. In small groups, then eventually one by one, the other girls trailed behind.

The school hallway was empty, the other classrooms still occupied behind closed doors. Juliet walked purposefully to the library, thinking she could always say, should anyone catch her, that she’d been sent to fetch a dictionary, because Juliet was the kind of girl who was sent to fetch things. Instead she would reach the library and search for Rebecca while Mrs. Wimmer wasn’t around to stop her.

But no one would catch Juliet that day, not in the library, not after school. No one would see her. After signing out her book and packing it neatly in her book bag, long past the 3:25 final bell, she would push open the heavy grey doors with the chicken wire in their glass. She would walk out alone, into the last afternoon of fall.

This was the first year she had walked home from school, two years after her sister Laurie left for college, one year after her father moved to St. Louis, a few months after her mother took a job keeping the books for Charlie Smith, not a quarter mile from their house.

Juliet was supposed to walk straight home from school at 3:30, always following the same route. Her mother would leave her office promptly at 4:30, pulling in their driveway no later than 4:40. This was their agreement, especially as the days grew shorter.

These were things that would later be important: the dismissal time, the route, the distance from school to house, the unhurried pace of a 13-year-old girl.

Juliet walked the first two blocks on the busiest street, the one in front of her school, where there was usually a crossing guard along with a row of mothers waiting for their daughters to heave backpacks and gangly limbs into Hondas and Buicks and Volvos. But by 4:00 they had all vanished.

The wind rustled the leaves and grazed her legs, bare and exposed below the hem of her plaid uniform skirt. It had been warm at the start of the day, but now with each lick of chilly air Juliet felt a faint sting in the tender spot at the back of her left knee where she had cut herself shaving that morning.

The first side street was the longest, three blocks. Its houses were mostly clapboard, unlike the brick on Juliet’s street, with Victorian detailing and a variety of cheerful colors. In August and September, and even still in October, Juliet had seen neighbors on these porches, getting their mail, watering their begonias. But by this day, the last Tuesday in November, all had retreated indoors and the street was deserted.

The second street was the most remote. It was technically one long block, a cul de sac with a break in the middle on one side, the intersection of Juliet’s street. Once she reached this corner in the middle of this isolated block, she could see her own house, pale stone with dark green trim.

As she walked this quietest section of her route, the late afternoon sun hit the autumn trees and cast light in a way Juliet had never seen. She slowed and looked up, into the red and orange, the blue beyond. And then she stopped, caught by the shimmer of a yellow tree in Miss Ingraham’s yard. These were the minutes that would later be stretched out, probed and puzzled, reshaped.

Miss Ingraham lived in a small bungalow on the northwest corner of the T-shaped intersection that led to Juliet’s house. Miss Ingraham knew Jesus, that’s what everyone said about her, before that day, at least.

Juliet, and the other children in the neighborhood, knew Miss Ingraham from when they were much younger, when their parents sent them all out to play on long summer days. Juliet remembered how Miss Ingraham brought trays of oatmeal cookies and pitchers of iced lemonade onto her porch, and anyone could have as many cookies and as much lemonade as they wanted, as long as they would stay for Bible study and pray at the end so they could know Jesus, too.

Miss Ingraham wasn’t on her porch that day, though. It was just Juliet, standing on the sidewalk, gazing up at the brilliant, golden light, a whisper of majesty in yellow leaves that wrapped like sleeves around each branch, stretched all the way up to the top of the tree, above the rooftop of the little gray house, with its red door and wicker bench and bowl of cat food and purple chrysanthemums.

Juliet heard a click behind her, that’s how she became aware of the car. It was light blue, metallic, and one of its tires was missing a hubcap. The man in the driver’s seat, his hands on the steering wheel, had dark, curly hair that was longer than most men’s hair, past his rounded chin. He was wearing a black overcoat, unbuttoned at the top, and brown leather gloves that were old and worn and had knitted sweater cuffs sticking out of the ends. His car window was halfway open, connecting them in a fleeting tableau: the man, and the car and Juliet, together under the golden canopy of Miss Ingraham’s tree.

Later, a full generation later, a young couple with toddler twin girls would buy Miss Ingraham’s gray bungalow, a steal of a fixer-upper. They would paint it white, fill it with reclaimed flooring and Hilton McConnico drawings and Moulton Brown hand soap. It would be on the neighborhood home tour, and the newspaper would feature it in a story about urban renaissance.

But at a slumber party in the winter of their third grade year, the twins would learn the dark secret. They would hear grisly details, embellished over time, of rope and knives and blood. They would come home to their own beds, only to find that haunted screams had seeped into their once-peaceful dreams. And then their parents would extract the story no one had wanted to tell, and that family would move away, leaving the house and its tall tree and its story behind.

What had Miss Ingraham seen that day? When Juliet stopped, mesmerized by the tree, was Miss Ingraham brushing away crumbs from the edge of her cookie plate, readying herself for Bible study? When her doorbell rang, when the man from the blue car walked up to her front door, had she seen Judas in his face?

On the last Wednesday of November, the day after the weather turned cold, the double doors at the end of the 8th grade hallway opened promptly at 3:25, and a throng of girls, their short plaid skirts paired with tights and long overcoats, spilled out. They walked to their cars, where their anxious mothers waited and an extra crossing guard, in full police uniform, waved them forward.

Juliet, near the back of the group, zipped her jacket, wriggled her hands up opposite sleeves and crossed the street to walk her usual route, surprised instead to find her mother’s navy Taurus in line with the other cars.

“Charlie let me leave early. It’s so cold today, I thought I’d pick you up,” she said, too brightly.

Later that evening, over vegetable soup and cornbread, sitting at the oval table in their kitchen, Juliet’s mother would reach for her daughter’s hand, would tell her the awful story of Miss Ingraham’s violent end. She would ask if Juliet had seen anything, would ask questions that Juliet would answer over and over in the coming days about the car and the man that no one would ever find, that no one else had seen.

But every time the questions came, Juliet would be only half listening, thinking back to her ride home, sitting in the passenger’s seat of her mother’s warm car, looking out the window, at the light, sharper than the day before, and the suddenly bare ginkgo tree that had shed itself overnight, leaving behind a wide, golden halo on the ground.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. jgroeber says:

    Ah, your writing is so gorgeous. I want to pull this apart and twist the words so I can see exactly how such a startling and beautiful thing works. Please do more.

  2. I am and always will be a fan of your blog, for this very post and all the gorgeous ones like it. Your writing humbles me every time. xo

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