From that first day, Julie and the kids quickly settled into the cottage on Gray Road. Mama Ray and her granddaughters, Danielle and Tanya, became regulars in the home and Mama would spend hours baking home-made bread or making “suppa.” The girls would spend time with the kids, taking them for walks or playing games of tag or hide-and-go-seek. For the first couple of days after “the incident”, Julie would take Jeremy out to the tree. But, there was no recognition; no complete sentences; no stillness. Jeremy would only look directly through the tree, just like he had looked through so many other things, leaving Julie ever confused, curious, and amazed by the boy.
Since Jeremy could walk, Julie needed to implement safety guards throughout the house so that he couldn’t wander outside and into unforeseen trouble. Unfortunately, there were times when the boy would be found in a neighbor’s yard or plotting to climb a tree in the park down the road. For this reason, there were alarms and locks on the doors, and gates guarded each stairway at home and now in the rental. So, it was a surprise to Julie when she got up in the middle of the night for a glass of water and didn’t find Jeremy asleep in his bed. Panicked, she immediately threw on all of the lights. She looked under all the beds, and in all the closets. Suddenly, as if being slapped in the face, she knew exactly where she would find him.
Jeremy was talking, Julie couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying, but he was using words that she knew. He seemed to be carrying on a conversation with the tree, a real give and take discussion. From the fluctuation and intonation of his voice, it was obvious that he was asking questions and acknowledging the tree’s response. Julie moved closer as to not cause notice and quietly listened.
“How old are you?” pause. “Wow” pause. “I do like it here.” Julie couldn’t stop herself, she moved to Jeremy’s side and hugged him, she was so full of emotion that the tears began to fall down her face. “Mama, the tree is lonely.” How could the tree be lonely, she thought as she looked around at the yard full of trees, bushes and weeds - lots and lots of weeds. Even though Maurice had mowed the lawn, there was still so much overgrowth. “Is that so, why is that, Jeremy?” she asked.
“Well, Mama because she is alone, silly.”
Over the next few weeks, while Mama and the girls watched the kids, Julie decided to free the tree of its “loneliness.” She and Maurice, pulled, cut and trimmed. And, as the yard took shape, it quickly became a retreat for the family. Julie found a small table with two chairs in the basement, and after a much needed cleaning, positioned it on the small brick patio that was recently discovered. Her mornings were spent drinking coffee at this table; her afternoons were spent watching the kids play; and her evenings were spent relaxing and taking in the fresh air. Jeremy’s conversations with the tree continued, sporadically, and usually when Julie wasn’t looking. She often asked him if the tree still felt lonely, but his gaze remained blank and Julie knew her question didn’t register to the boy.
As the summer marched on, so did Julie’s relationship with Mama and Mama’s family. Most days and nights were filled with at least one, but usually more, of Mama’s family members coming in and out of the cottage, cooking, cleaning, painting or doing whatever Mama had instructed them to do.
Julie learned more about the family over this time. Mama had six kids and nineteen grandchildren. Her brother, Aaron, the author of the advertisement for the rental, lived in the house at the end of the road. She lived in the house across the street with her two granddaughters and the other three homes were occupied by three of her kids. Julie learned that the father of Danielle and Tanya, her son Terrence, was in the army and she was appointed guardianship of the girls. There was no mention of their mother. Julie also opened up to Mama during their nightly talks.
“He says he needs a break,” admitted Julie.
“Oh, honey that boy is a father and a husband, he don’t get no break,” replied Mama. “Is he steppin’ out on you?”
“No” said Julie, although that was her first assumption, but he firmly denied that there was anyone else. And she believed him.
Since the day her husband, David, came home and said he needed “some time”, Julie had not heard a word from him. He had not even contacted the kids. Julie knew that Jeremy’s behaviors affected David in a way she couldn’t understand. His coldness towards their son had turned frigid and so did his feelings towards her. He blamed her and she knew it. He said that Julie and the kids could stay in their house, but she decided some time away would benefit them all. She asked for a leave of absence from her company, packed up the kids into her new SUV and drove. It wasn’t until she reached Virginia, when she read the advertisement for the “Short-Term or Long-Term rental.” North Carolina seemed like a better place than any other to spend some time.
“It’s an Apple tree” said Mama. “It used to bear all sorts of fruit, but it ain’t given up nothin’ since my Daddy passed.” Julie guessed that the tree hadn’t been pruned since his death, over twenty years ago.