Claire opens the back door and her father stumbles into her, even paler than he has been and panting harshly. Claire catches him on instinct, then feels the damp sweat stains through his shirt and wishes she hadn’t.
“Dad?” Her father’s rasping breath puffs against her neck, and she shudders. She nudges him with her shoulders until he balances on his own feet, staring glassily down at her. She looks away from his loose skin and shadowed eyes. “You’re supposed to stay in bed.”
Her father grips her shoulders, surprisingly hard for a man who’s been wasting away for months. “Claire,” he says. “Claire.” Claire remembers when she was very small and her father could lift her over his head without effort. Now she can see his bones pressing against his skin, fragile as twigs. A cut on his arm bleeds sluggishly, dripping onto his bare feet.
She can smell the sweat on him, the lingering sourness of disease, though the doctors have never been able to decide what it was that sapped his strength so quickly and utterly. She steps away, puts her hand on the door behind him.
“Don’t,” he says convulsively, grabbing at her again. “Don’t listen to it, Claire—”
So his mind is decaying as well as his body, Claire thinks. She kicks the screen door until it opens.
“Go back to bed, Dad,” she tells him, and leaves.
In the morning, Claire sees her mother standing in the doorway of her father’s room, a plate of toast clutched in her hands. Claire goes and stands beside her. The room is empty.
“Where did Dad go?”
There’s a very slight quiver in her mother’s voice when she says, “I’m not sure.”
From outside, Claire hears a hint of something like music.
Some impulse guides her to the tree in the backyard, an ash on the very edge of their property and the only thing taller than cornstalks for miles. Her mother had planted it when Claire was barely old enough to hold a shovel, watching in amazement as it grew from a sapling to a tall, sturdy tree faster than anyone could explain.
She can’t remember, now, when she had stopped sneaking out of bed to climb it, or why. Its branches curve just low enough to its squat trunk that Claire can grip one and lift herself onto it, blonde hair swinging behind her as she ascends immediately to the next branch, and the next. She straddles a branch twenty feet up and feels the rough bark rub against her back through her t-shirt. The grass beneath her rustles, dry and brittle from drought, a percussive counterpoint to the ringing in her ears.
In only the past week, the green-tinged buds have burst forth into leaves, young and green and clambering for sunlight. Claire reaches to touch one, to feel the life as it pulses through those delicate veins, then jerks her finger back. A dark blot smears across the leaf, courtesy of some unseen splinter, and the high, whispery note in her head gets louder. The tree shivers around her.
It gets harder to sleep. As soon as she lies down, Claire will catch strains of a music she has never heard before, some alien amalgam of reedy flutes and low humming and the sound of waves breaking. It’s always faint, too similar to the susurrus of her own blood for her to know if the song is real. So Claire lies awake, turning her head this way and that, hands flexing on the covers, trying to pick out a melody.
She gets up, one night, unable to keep her restless body still, and goes to the window. The ash tree is a solid figure on the horizon, rooted and permanent. Claire’s father promised her they would build a treehouse once it was big enough. The thought of being swayed to sleep among those branches soothes the itch in Claire’s mind. Her father is gone, she thinks, folding herself back under the blankets. Surely he won’t mind if she starts without him.
Claire pulls the measuring tape tight around the ash tree’s limbs, pausing every few moments to scribble numbers on the floor plan she drew up. The leaves are growing larger, brushing against her bare legs as she moves from branch to branch.
When Claire returns from the lumberyard with a pile of beams and plywood, her mother says, “You can’t build a treehouse all by yourself. You’re fourteen. You’ll fall and break your leg again.”
Claire doesn’t remember falling out of the tree, nine years old and fearless, but she remembers how quickly her yells brought her father running, remembers him scooping her up and cradling her all the way to the car, his thumb rubbing her knuckles in the ambulance as it took her away. She ignores her mother and drills into the ash’s trunk, humming under her breath.
The air gets drier and hotter, the grass on the lawn turning yellow and then brown. Claire drags the hose out to the ash tree and lets it trickle into the ground far beneath her, bolting in triangular supports as the tree shakes around her. Her hammer follows a beat she can’t quite discern. On the day she finally affixes the platform’s frame in place, an unseen branch slices deep into the meat of her forearm. Claire stares at her blood falling all the way down to the tree’s roots, mesmerized.
Her mother’s lips press tighter and tighter as she swipes antiseptic over the wound, gaze picking out the other scrapes and bruises on Claire’s pale skin.
“This is too dangerous,” her mother snaps. “For God’s sake, Claire, you’re dizzy.” It isn’t dizziness, though; Claire is only unaccustomed to the solidness of the ground beneath her. The music is louder now than she’s ever heard it.
Her mother tells her to stop building. But her mother leaves for work every morning and doesn’t return until sunset, and Claire can see the treehouse’s skeleton from her bedroom window, her head buzzing with the need to complete it. The tree braces her up, shades her with leaves that grow thicker and greener every day. Every day Claire finds it harder to put her tools aside, to slide back to the parched ground and walk on shaking legs to the silent house.
When Claire slips, and the ash scrapes open her thigh so fiercely that red seeps into the bark, long minutes go by before the pain penetrates her consciousness. Claire draws her leg up, curiously detached, and soon the hushing rhythm of the leaves drives it from her mind. She does not tell her mother.
And then, one day, the treehouse is finished.
That night, Claire gathers a blanket and a flashlight. She has resisted the urge to sleep in her treehouse during its construction, though this exertion of willpower combines with the maddeningly faint music to assure that the unrested shadows beneath her eyes keep pushing deeper against her skull.
Her mother catches her at the door, holding her by the shoulders just as her father had those many weeks ago. “I told you to stop, Claire,” she says. “Don’t go out there, please, it’s—it’s the middle of a thunderstorm.” Behind her mother Claire can see the tree, a verdant green crown on the brown landscape, and above it the gathering dark stormclouds. The unearthly music’s tempo is getting faster, her heartbeat with it.
“I finished it,” she says desperately. The wind rushes in and out of the door, tugging at her clothes. “Mom—let me go—“
“He’s not coming back,” her mother says, wide-eyed, fingers digging in, and Claire can feel her own bones creaking. She has pulled away and darted back to her bedroom before it registers whom her mother was talking about. But the realization soon sinks under the rising tide of sound as she inches open her window and climbs out into the green-grey sky.
The wind is on her at once, whipping through her hair and sliding down her back. The clouds rumble, but the ground is still dry when Claire alights, the grass crunching as she runs through it, racing as swiftly as the wind demands. The tree bends toward her like a man asking her to dance.
She doesn’t need a flashlight to climb these branches, familiar to her now as her own body. Twigs flick against her arms, her face, but the profusion of leaves strokes soft over the scratches. She doesn’t even notice how fast her breath is coming, nor the smile on her face. Claire reaches the treehouse and pulls herself inside just as the rain hits.
It’s beautiful. The fluttering leaves swirl in patterns of green and silver, rushing back against the roar of the storm. Water beats against the roof, the walls, flying in through the empty window and onto Claire where she lies gasping on the floor. One hand grips the tree trunk where it juts through and up, grounding her on her swaying bed, the creak of wood drowned out by the high trilling music that is finally loud enough for her to hear.
Claire sings, and the tree sings back.
The earth is still damp the next morning when Claire’s mother approaches the tree, draws close to the mess of broken wood scattered through the branches and over the yard. Claire’s body is gone, as she knew it would be. She drops to her knees among the roots, touches the faded drops of blood still visible on the thirsty ground. Then, even as her tears fall to join them, she looks up, head tilted toward the leaves.
She hears the indistinct whispers of music. The tree has never looked greener.