The Skeleton Tree

For the Fault In Our Stars competition.
Rowan remembers the days spent with her old best friend, Henry, who seems to have disappeared out of her life. Wanting to get their friendship back on track, Rowan finally realises why they had drifted apart in the first place.

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6. 6

Henry calls me late that night. It was just by chance that I was even awake, it was almost one in the morning. It was one of those nights where your brain will just not shut down, filled with events that you have to go over and think through. Henry himself was the main reason for this.

"Hello." I whisper, used to his badly-timed calls now.

"Hi. Can you meet me by the hanging rope tree?" He asks, his voice breaking in an odd way.

"Now? It's one in the morning!" I say, confused.

"Oh come on, be a rebel, sneak out!" He says, sounding annoyed. How can he possibly be annoyed at me?

"Henry, I just can't. I'm not a rebel and you know it!"

"Please. Climb out your window. Go on, I dare you, Rowan." I think this through in my head. My mum had always had clear rules on not climbing out my window. It was right next to a tree, so simple to climb out of, but she'd told me the amount of kids that died a year falling out of windows, and it seemed something she felt strongly about me not doing. But Henry sounded like he needed me. And I am a teenager, I do need to live a little.

"Fine, if I die, I'm blaming you." I say, only half-joking. He laughs and hangs up.

As I open up my window, as wide as it will go, I think of my mum. Smallish, pretty in an old, friendly way, and with extremely strong views on what is wrong and right. Climbing out of windows was not what she considers right.

I slide down the roof, feeling both stupid and slightly giddy, and sit on the gutter. Slipping slightly on the tiles, I grab hold of the tree branches. Why did they even plant a tree right next to their daughter's window if they didn't want her to climb out?

Soon I am jogging through the night, feeling truly mystified. The sky is a deep-blue, and for once the stars are out. My breath steams out in front of me, and the cold creeps across my bare arms. How did I forget a coat? It is freezing cold, yet it feels kind of refreshing. I don't think ever in my life I have felt so alive. I am suddenly so aware of myself, and the complete vastness of this world. Everything appears beautiful. Even the cars, speeding along the roads, seem to fit in nicely.

By the time I reach the tree, I am breathless, but did not want to stop running. The intense pain in my sides, the numbness of my legs, the aching muscles- it all felt sort of good.

Henry sits in the tree, his legs only just in my line of vision. When he sees me, he hops down, frowning at me.

"Are you mad, Rowan?" He says, gesturing to my arms.

"I think so. It feels nice." I say, aware of how stupid I sound. "You should try it. You're always in that hoodie."

"I know. I like it." He tells me. 

"I do too, but seriously, you must be hot sometimes."

"Thank you." He says, grinning.

"Henry." I protest, but I know he is joking. He does look good, but I won't ever tell him. I doubt he'd ever see me in that way. Ever. I bet he has a girlfriend too, all of these kinds of boys do. I guess I should be happy to be friends with him, a lot of girls would kill for that privilege.

We sit in the trees in silence, watching the world go by. His face is blank, but his eyes are sad and round, and I feel like reaching out to him and telling him it will be alright. His mum will be cured. His dad will stop shouting. Those boys will go away. But I cannot guarantee any of that will happen, and it kills me. 

"Why did you ask me to come?" I mumble, reluctant to break the silence.

"You're going to think I'm mad." He says, turning red.

"What is it?" I say, growing scared.

"I want to run away. I can't handle this." He says, tears spilling over his cheeks.

"You can't do that. What about your parents?"

"They'd get over it."

"Henry, what about your mum?"

"She's going to die, Rowan. They've told her that they can't cure her. I can't just sit back and watch her disappear. I can't bear this. Any of it." He begins to sob, in a way that scares me. Quick, uncontrollable sobs that wrack through his entire body. 

"I'm so sorry. But you can't leave. She'll need you."

He shakes his head, sadly. "I've had enough. I need to stop caring too much. I need a fresh start."

"Your life isn't that bad. You'll be okay."

"I'm hurting myself, Ro. I can't stand being here any longer. Look what I'm doing to myself." He mumbles, and pulls up his sleeves. I gasp, and my eyes fill with tears. Across his wrists are thick, white scars, in various states of healing. Some are old, some so fresh that you can still see the dried blood.

"Henry! Why do you do this?" I say, horrified. He shrugs, pulling down the sleeves again. That must be why he always pulls them a lot, to protect his secret. The secret of what he is doing to himself.

"You have to stop." I tell him. He shakes his head.

"You'll kill yourself. Some of these are so deep!" I moan.

"Good." He says, crying harder. I reach out my hands and hug him.

"Don't cry. You can sort it out. You can get help."

"No I can't. They can't save my mother."

"No, but they can make you feel better about it."

"I'll never be better again. My mum is dying and it is completely out of my control. It's the most helpless feeling I have ever had. My dad is so mad the whole time and I just want him dead. I am friends with people who like to steal cars and mug old men, and will force me to join in. I am failing school, I can't cope anymore. I have to go away, Ro, understand me please!"

"Please just stay. It will sort itself out. You'll better soon." I tell him, soothingly, yet really I am wondering how the hell Henry will ever be able to cope with this. It's a miracle he's still here already.

"I don't know. I'd made up my mind."

"Please." I say, knowing how unbearable it would be without him. Selfish, I know, but very true.

"Fine. I'll see how things go."

"Thank you. Everything will be okay, I promise." I say, happy, but unable to shake off the feeling that this is a promise I won't be able to keep.

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