Katie Ganshert loves Jesus, her family, writing, and teaching, exactly in that order. This wife, mother, writer, 5th grade teacher, and Midwest dog-lover writes inspirational contemporary romance and women's fiction. She's an active member of American Christian Fiction Writers, enjoys blogging, reads voraciously, and is represented by Rachelle Gardner with WordServe Literary. You can find her on the web at www.katieganshert.blogspot.com
The ash tree in our backyard started dying the spring of my thirteenth year. I remember sitting in the bay window of my bedroom and looking down at the twisted bark, waiting for the buds to appear like pistachios on the tips of the branches, then for them to bloom into a rustling mass of vibrant green, waving up at me in the breeze. But when April turned to May and May to June and only a few scattered buds blossomed into half-hearted leaves, my stepfather told me it was time for that tree to come down.
He stood beneath the glaring sun, squinting up into the gnarled branches, with a chain saw in his gloved hands, while I glared at the pear tree keeping it company. The fruit exploded from the branches, each one competing for space before giving up and plummeting to the ground. The rotted stickiness of the fallen pears attracted bees, and I’d already been stung twice. Of the two trees to die, why couldn’t it have been that one? Why did it have to be my ash tree? Our ash tree?
“You want to take the tree house down first, or cut it with the tree?” Jeff set down his offending weapon and walked over to the rope ladder strung to the lowest branch, where my dad and I had built our fort in the limbs.
I shrugged and scuffed my tennis shoes against the grass.
“When’s the last time you went up there?”
I shrugged again and waited for him to say something. When a few seconds stretched into a minute, I looked up from the ground. Jeff had climbed halfway up the ladder. I was surprised it could hold him. “What are you doing?”
“Going up.” He jerked his head. “C’mon.”
I fingered the rope as he disappeared through the hole and peeked his face over the side. He looked down at me, waiting. “Are you coming?”
A warm breeze tickled my skin, brushing away the curls I let fall in my eyes. I grabbed hold of the rough rope and climbed. It swayed as I stepped up each rung. My palms stung by the time I got to the top.
Jeff sat at the far edge, dangling his feet over the side. I walked over and joined him. Neither of us said anything for a while. We just stared down into the yard, taking in Clara’s toys spread across the lawn. The tricycle Grandpa bought her for her third birthday tipped on its side. The inflatable pool rumpled beneath the sun. My old Raggedy Ann doll I gave her when she turned two. Clara had Jeff’s strawberry blonde hair and greenish blue eyes. They shared the same freckles, the same long eyelashes, even the same detached earlobes. I looked nothing like either of them.
I brought my knees to my chest, wrapped my arms around my shins, and rested my chin on one of my kneecaps. My dad and I had built this tree house together. We finished the summer after third grade. The summer before he left and everything changed.
“Do you want to keep this tree house, Sam?”
I turned my face, rested my cheek against my forearm, and looked at the man sitting beside me. “Why did he leave?” I’d asked my mom that same question once, a year ago. But she didn’t have any answers. Maybe Jeff did.
His back rose and fell in tune with the large breath escaping his lips. “I don’t know.”
I tried to picture Jeff leaving Clara. But I just couldn’t do it. Jeff loved Clara too much to disappear. I looked around the small tree house, the one that had looked so big to my nine-year-old eyes. When we had finished nailing in the last board, my dad kissed my cheek and told me it was a gift for his Sammy Bear—a nickname he called me ever since I was a baby.
“He must not have loved me.”
“Your father loved you, Sam.”
Jeff propped his hands behind him and rested back on his arms. “I don’t think that’s true. But even if it is, that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with him.”
I chewed over his words, trying to digest their meaning.
“I know our family isn’t perfect. I know I’m not your dad. But I love you, Sam. Just like a daughter.”
Somewhere deep down inside myself, I knew that somehow, even though we didn’t share the same DNA, even though I had dark hair and brown eyes and tan skin, Jeff was telling the truth.
I curled my hand beneath one of the planks and gave it a tug. They wouldn’t be hard to pull up. “Maybe we could take these down and use them to build a fort up in the garage. Annie and her dad built one up in the rafters. It’s pretty cool.”
Jeff brought his arm around my neck, pulled me toward his chest, and rubbed his knuckles across my hair. “You know, sometimes, when you rebuild something, you can make it just as special the second time around.”
He released his hold, but I stayed under his arm. Nobody knew why my dad had left. Nobody could offer an explanation that might erase the scar he’d placed beneath my chest by his actions. My gaze roamed over Clara’s toys one more time. Charcoal and smoke mingled with pears and freshly mowed grass. The scent swirled together and trickled up my nose. I tried to imagine how different my life would be if he’d stayed. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t see anything but my mother, my baby sister, and Jeff. Our family wasn't perfect. But that didn't make it any less beautiful.