Enjoy an excerpt from Amber Kim’s “A Tree, A Hope, and A River” featured in our new anthology ON TIME.
Shawna nervously shifted from foot to foot, looking up into the branches of the old birch tree. A ladder had been nailed to the side of the tree. A queasy feeling radiated out from the bottom of Shawna’s gut causing her arms to shake and her chest to tighten.
“Come on, just do it. You’ll love it.” Her cousin, Marcie, encouraged her while twisting a long ponytail around her fingers. “The rope swing is a rush.”
Shawna felt weak. They had been thrown together every summer for as long as either of them could remember. More rivals for their grandparents’ affection than friends, Shawna always played second fiddle to Marcie’s lead. They could almost pass for twins, yet…Shawna couldn’t help feeling dull, plain, and stupid in comparison to Marcie. Forever a step behind despite their birthdays being a week apart.
The acidic taste of fear hit the back of her throat. Heights are so not my thing. Of course, when was the last time anything was?
“‘What if’ is for losers and Luddites. I’ll show you how it’s done.” Marcie shoo’ed Shawna away from the rickety makeshift ladder and climbed. Her bright green bikini contrasted sharply with her skin and blended in to the birch leaves overhead like camouflage. Once she reached the platform, nine meters up, she grabbed a broken fishing pole from its PVC holder and reeled in the rope, which was tied to the underside of a railroad trestle bridge. When she had it, she stepped out into the waiting air.
Marcie traced a graceful arc down from the tree, her toes barely skimming the water as she passed under the bridge, then curved upward into the sky. Just as the human scaled pendulum reached its height, Marcie let go, pointed her toes, and crossed her arms over her chest. After a heart stopping moment, she plunged into the river’s glacial waters.
Shawna held her breath waiting for Marcie to surface. The fretful teen finally exhaled when she spotted her cousin floating back down stream.
“One of these years, you’ll figure it out. The only way to deal with fear is flying into the teeth of it.” Marcie condescendingly flopped onto the grass near the riverbank.
Pretty, brave, smart. Shawna griped to herself as she sat down. Why’s she get all the luck?
They spent the rest of the afternoon in idle conversation. The stillness occasionally punctuated by Marcie flying off the rope swing to cool off while Shawna looked on with shame and jealousy. By sunset, Shawna was more than cross, with herself, her cousin, the kids at school, her lack of friends, even her hair that simply refused to be anything other than a mass of frizz no matter how she tried to tame it. She had completely lost track of whatever Marcie was talking about. Eventually, she realized it didn’t matter, got up, and angrily marched toward the birch tree.
“Hey. Where’re you—oh. About damn time.” Marcie sat up and watched Shawna climb the ladder, her hunter’s orange one piece a neon flare among the tree’s lush branches.
About halfway up, Shawna’s anger petered out. Her foot slipped, forcing her into a mad scramble, clinging to the tree for dear life.
“Why the hell am I doing this?” She took a deep breath. As she exhaled, she opened her eyes.
A small wolf spider, black with yellow markings, crouched centimeters from her nose. She smiled.
“Hello, cutie.” She had always loved spiders. Patient, fearless, fierce. All the things she wasn’t. She adjusted her footing and kept climbing. At the top of the ladder, a small platform of scrap boards provided a place to stand, and an X carved into the sun-bleached wood marked the jump-off point. She lazily grabbed the old fishing pole and reeled in the rope. She let herself enjoy the view despite her anxiety and listened to the birds argue overhead. On the far side of the river was the lumber mill where Marcie’s Dad worked and beyond that hundreds of hectares of well-managed forest. She turned and contrasted that with the Benson’s property downstream. Clear cut. There, the river changed from sparkling crystal refracting the sunset’s reddish-gold glow to a dull, flat muddy brown.
Something wet plopped on her head. A streak of slime oozed past her ear and dribbled on her shoulder. “Oh my gawd. Ewwww!”
She squealed and, nearly overbalancing, glomped onto the tree trunk.
“Why?” She yelled at the birds. “Really? You just had to poop on me. Ugh. Gross.”
She finished reeling in the rope and looked forward to taking the plunge to wash off if nothing else.
She grabbed the heavy multicolored rope and put away the broken fishing pole. Something shifted in her chest. The tightness she carried with her every moment of every day loosened, making space in her heart for a different kind of feeling. She stepped onto the X, tightened her grip on the knotted rope and placed her bare left foot on the large bulbous knot at the bottom. The sun was just slipping under the horizon to her right, casting the trestle bridge’s shadow long on the far bank. Her other foot moved, seemingly of its own accord, from wood to rope. The wind streamed through her hair as she fell. Her body weightless at first, then slowly growing heavier with each rapid heartbeat. She skimmed the water’s surface, rushed beneath the bridge, and the world stood still as she was suspended Inbetweeen.
Earth and sky. Day and night. Child and adult. Hope and fear.
Amber is a thirty-two-year-old trans woman serving life without the possibility of parole in Washington State. She is an activist, witch, student, writer, and not about to let some pesky prison walls stand in the way of her dreams.