Miracle Trees: Neighborhood Watch

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The piercing headlights of oncoming cars intensified my growing headache. The knot behind my ear throbbed and was hot to the touch. I was grinding my teeth and holding my breath to cope with the pain. The drive home seemed much longer.

As I traveled past the neighbor’s house, a parked car looked out of place. It looked familiar, but I couldn’t place where I had seen it before. Now, you’re paranoid. Shaking away the thought, I rationalized why it belonged there. Maybe the neighbors bought a new car or have company. I pulled into the driveway and shut off the engine.

I sat there for a moment to compose myself. If Mom is awake, I don’t want her to suspect something was wrong. As I sat there, the back of my neck prickled. It felt like I was being watched. Glancing in the mirrors and then out the windows, I saw no one.

I kept my footsteps soft on the porch and quietly shut the door. I dodged the squeaky floorboards as I tiptoed towards the kitchen. Halfway across the room, a gasp followed by a shriek near the window made me jump. The pain behind my ear intensified.

“Mikey, what are you doing sneaking around like that?” Mom shouted. She was standing by the window, tangled in the curtain. An engine revved outside. Then headlights tracked across the living room wall before the sound faded.

“Good. They finally left,” she said, shaking her arm loose from the curtain.

“Who’s they?” I walked over the window and peered out.

“Some guy who wanted to sell me a new roof. Told him the one I had was just fine.”

My heart hammered at the thought of her being over powered in her own home. “You let him in the house?” I asked.

Miracle Trees: Confrontation

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While I waiting for Dr. Cora Nelson’s reply, I read through what the materials from Alex’s backpack. I had scanned each page into my computer before allowing Mom to stitch them into the bottom backpack. The more information I read, the more conflicted I became. My conclusion – no one knew with certainty how these trees became a reality. Even the theories contradicted each other regarding the impact to the environment.

When Cora responded three days later it only contained questions. ‘How did you get this email address? Who are you? Who do you work for?’ and so on. No pleasantries or even a thank you for letting her know about Alex.

Instead of working on my client’s project, an ad for a hardware store in Maine, I sat staring at the questions. Perhaps contacting her was the wrong thing to have done. She had kicked Alex out, but I don’t know her side of the story.

My original message to her was brief. I didn’t mention the BWCA trip, the police or whoever they were, or that I had found the papers in the backpack. I finally replied that I’m Alex’s friend, a self-employed graphic artist, and that I had his backpack. I wanted to know more about her before giving out any more information.

Breathing a sigh of relief and rubbing my hands on my jeans, I turned my attention back to my client’s project. Unless I made tangible progress on the hardware store’s graphics, I’d be working late tonight. I had promised to take Mom to the Olsen’s greenhouse after dinner because she would like to freshen up the yard. I won’t feel like working after that trip.

Less than thirty minutes after I sent Cora my answers, she replied. She wanted to meet immediately. Her eagerness made me even more anxious to be rid of it. If he had hidden seeds inside, I didn’t want in my possession if those men came looking for it. I agreed to meet her at a lakeside park along highway 61 at 7:00 tonight.

Miracle Trees: Conspiracy Theory

I pulled into Mom’s driveway and shut the engine off. A year ago, I moved back to keep an eye on her. Even though her mind is still sharp, her physical health is worrisome. She sleeps much of the time. The doctors brushed it off as natural age progression. Then they suggested moving her into assisted living, but she refuses to because in her words, ‘I’m not old.’

Closing my eyes, I leaned back in the seat to collect my thoughts. Could I really be considered an accessory to Alex’s poaching? When I moved back in with Mom, I had to give up a better paying job in the cities. My freelance pay isn’t enough to cover lawyer fees. I can’t tell Mom, not right now at least.

I opened my eyes and took a deep breath. Now, to assess Lowry’s vandalism of the interior my vehicle. The contents of the glove compartment littered the floorboard. My emergency crate was tipped over. And Alex’s backpack was partially emptied and some of his belongings scattered between the front and second row seats. The bottom of the backpack was wedged under a second-row seat. A worn-out sneaker, a pair of rolled up socks, and a pair of frayed jeans laid near its opening.

After straightening up my belongings, I attempted to put the spilled things Alex’s pack back inside it. The man must be a master. Try as I might it wouldn’t close properly even though not everything was back inside it. I scooped up the pack and stray items, taking them into the house.

Knowing Mom might be asleep, I gently nudged the front door open; she was. The recliner would be far more comfortable, instead she was sitting up on the couch with her head thrown back. Several years ago she would have stirred or said something, but she continued snoring. I tiptoed across the living room dodging the two squeaky boards that tattled on me so many times when I was a child.

Once in the kitchen, I placed the stray items on the table and began unpacking the rest. Maybe if I saw how it was packed, I can get everything back into it. Inside were two thread bare shirts and one pair of jeans with holes in the knees. They weren’t the fancy ones you bought that way, but the kind that are worn out. Oddly, the other sneaker was towards the bottom of the pack.

It looked empty, but still seemed too heavy. I turned it over looking for other compartments – nothing. Grabbing it by the straps, I gave it a firm shake. Something shifted inside, but I couldn’t see how to reach what was hidden.

Miracle Trees: Restricted Area

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Once Officer Johansen, Officer Lowry, and I reached the road, I was instructed to stand in front of my vehicle. They asked me a few questions and then requested my driver’s license. It was slid through a handheld device not much bigger than a cellphone and handed back.

“What’s your friend’s name?” asked Johansen.

Alex hadn’t told me not to give his name, but given his agitation I’m certain he wouldn’t want me to. The pit of my stomach ached. My mouth felt like it was lined with flannel. I nearly choked as I said, “Alex.”

The two men looked at each other and then back at me. Lowry spoke this time. “Your friend told Officer Olsen,” he pointed to an earpiece, “that it was Shaun. They had to search him to get his ID to find out who he really is.”

I sagged against my SUV. Thoughts whirled through my mind. What is Alex up to? How much trouble is he in? Am I in? I haven’t done anything but try to help Alex? Don’t say anything these guys might take to mean I’m up to something.

“What are you doing in a restricted area of the forest?” Johansen asked.

“Restricted? I didn’t know there were any?”

The officers folded their arms over their chests and widened their stances. Their stares made me squirm on the inside. “Really? You had to have passed at least two or three warning signs,” said Lowry.

Miracle Trees: Forest Trip

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I pulled into a parking spot at Ole’s Burgers and More and shut the engine off. Its outward appearance and menu were designed to entice tourists. For locals and the adventurous tourists, there were wild rice side dishes and walleye sandwiches. For the timid there were basic sandwiches. The city council refused to allow national chain anything into the area.

Alex refused to get out of the SUV. “They have a drive-thru. We should eat on the way. It will give us more daylight to look at the damage in the forest.”

My stomach knotted. Breakfast no longer sounded appetizing. “Okay.” I cranked the engine and put it into gear. We ordered our breakfast sandwiches at the drive-up window and were on our way in just over five minutes.

The greasy smell of hash browns and sausage biscuits roiled my stomach. The coffee had even less appeal. Alex ate his sandwich in about four bites; the hash browns disappeared shortly after that.

“We should have gotten a second one for you,” I said. “You want half of mine?”

Alex grunted. “You’d best eat it. Don’t leave it uneaten in here unless you want a third passenger on the way back.”


Miracle Trees: A Plea For Help

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I pulled into the library parking lot five minutes before it opened, hoping to catch Alex arriving. After waiting five minutes and no vehicle pulled into the lot, I walked around the building to the front doors.

A person in a faded farm supply cap was curled up a corner of the lobby with a rolled-up sleeping bag serving as a pillow. The grubby cap hid the person’s face. I chose not to disturb them and stayed near the outside doors.

As I watched for Alex, a woman and a leashed dog walked by on the sidewalk across the street. No cars drove past or pulled into the lot. No was walking from the parking lot. He’s ghosted me. A shuffling sound from the person in the corner startled me.

I turned to see Alex adjusting the hat to rest on top of his head. “You’re homeless?”

Miracle Trees: Amazing Ash Trees

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Mom struggled with the SUV door and was halfway out before I could reach her. “I’m fine, Mikey.” She pressed her lips together so tightly that they became devoid of color and momentarily disappeared. To steady herself, she gripped my arm so tightly that I had to fight back a whimper. ‘Old people use scooters and walkers’ she retorts any time I suggest she consider one. Aunt Terri, Mom’s older sister, had died over the winter. With the end of May approaching, Mom wanted put something pretty at her grave.

As we approached the entrance of Olsen’s Greenhouse, a man on one side of the doors and a woman by the other side tried to hand each of us a brightly colored pieces of orange paper. Mom refused it and said, “I’ve already found Jesus and have a church I like.”

Taking the paper, I shrugged and sheepishly grinned at the confused man. He looked vaguely familiar and glanced away upon eye contact. As we walked, I scanned the headline. ‘The BWCA Miracle Trees aren’t safe. They are an invasive species. Please don’t buy or plant them.’ It continued in great detail. It was information overload so I carelessly folded it before jamming it into my pocket.

The odor of flowers and damp soil tickled my nose we strolled along the main aisle. She wobbled like the soles of her shoes were lined with acorns from her beloved shade tree. Mom had insisted on picking out the plants herself. Even a dullard like me knew not to insult her by offering to do it for her.

As Mom examined the different flowering plants, I noticed orange flyers haphazardly tossed on the floor, stuffed between bag if soil, and on nearby shelves. A grumbling greenhouse worker walked up and down the aisles scooping them up and stuffing them into a plastic bag. A nearby display of saplings advertised that they were next generation of BWCA Miracle Trees. The fifth anniversary of the wildfire was quickly approaching and some people thought these trees might save our forests from future fires.

This newest iteration was called the ‘Amazing Ash’. The sign boldly claimed not a single ‘Amazing Ash’ tree had been infested with the Emerald Ash Borer. The pest had forced many area homeowners to cut down their trees for the past two decades. Now, they would never have to lose their beloved shade trees. Unfortunately, they cost three times as much as a regular Ash tree despite the fact they were becoming more difficult to find.

Miracle Trees

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‘The National Forest Service declared the small patch of unburnt trees in a fire ravaged section of the BWCA a miracle. There’s been many theories, but none seem plausible. Scientist will take samples and examine the area for clues as to what spared these trees from destruction.’ The reporter quickly moved on to the next headline.

Rubbing the stubble on my chin, I turned to Mom. “What do you make of that?”

I had to repeat myself three times before she understood. I wish she’d get her hearing checked. That was reason I spent the last three days at her home. As the fire had crept closer, she refused to temporarily stay with me two hours straight south. She might not hear someone telling her to evacuate. If she did hear them, she might stay out of sheer stubbornness.

“Don’t know. We live in weird times. Maybe aliens put a dome over those suckers. Bet they find nothing. Waste of our tax money tromping around in there.”

These days she moved a bit slower and was more cynical, but one thing hadn’t changed. Her eighty-year-old mind was still crystal clear. She laid her head against the pilled afghan on the back of the couch and closed her eyes. I stood up and quietly took two steps towards the kitchen.

“You hungry, Mikey,” she said without opening her eyes.

How does she do that? “I was going to call an old classmate who works with the forest service. Now that the fire has been contained several miles from here, I’m antsy to get out. Maybe he would take me to see the ‘miracle’ trees.”

Wondra Animate

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Michael ripped the birthday themed paper from a shoebox-sized object. He gasped, “Oh, Aunt Jo. This is exactly what I wanted!” Still clutching the box, he ran around the dining room table and hugged her.

Then turning towards his mom, “Wondra Animate is the coolest. Whatever I make can be programmed to move using an app.” He turned the box over and pointed to the graphics. It showed a finished dinosaur walking across the floor.

“I see.” She looked up at her sister with an eyebrow raised. “You shouldn’t have.”

“Honestly, Lynn. Michael is twelve now. He should be learning coding. The app teaches that and what he makes from the clay gives immediate feedback.”

Lynn pursed her lips and glared at Jo. “I’m all for him learning. Clay is just so messy.” She wrinkled face in disgust. “And it moving is creepy,” she loudly whispered.

While the sisters bickered, Michael slipped away to his room with the box. The last thing concerning him was the cake, ice cream, and certainly not the off-tune rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. He started the download for the app before he began sculpting the clay.

Secret Santa

Photo by J K Metz

I began assembling the gift box for Kasem, our neighbor from three doors down. He’s a kind young man who has helped so many including us. One day I was struggling to simultaneously bring the groceries and TJ, my sleeping four-year old son, into the house. Kasem was walking his dog, Sparky, and noticed my difficulties. He scooped up the bags of groceries and walked to the door with them. He waited outside the front door with the groceries until I had settled my son on the couch.

He so polite and doing nice things for the other neighbors in our townhome complex. Elderly Ms. Dowd in a nearby building locked herself two summers ago. She had left her phone and keys inside. Kasem noticed an open window and offered to crawl through and unlock the door. She was so relieved that she tried to pay him. He waved it off so she gave him a hug and said if he ever needed anything to just ask.

“Momma. Momma, Kasem is walking Sparky,” shouted TJ as he banged on the sliding glass door. He alternated between the banging and animatedly waving at the pair.