Under The Boughs Of A Tulip Tree



Scene Title Under The Boughs Of A Tulip Tree
Synopsis While she may physically stand alone in the abandoned borough of Queens, the tree that was Emily Epstein is never alone in spirit.
Date April 2020 - August 2020

Ruins of Queens

April 1


If ever there was the thinnest of silver linings upon a cloud that’s dark indeed, it’s that Lance’s credentials allow him to get past the crime scene tape and the security set on the ruined home and reach the tree that’s also one of his closest friends.

She might not agree with that estimation, but he’s always been bad with boundaries like that. If he decides someone’s a friend, family, they are, and that’s that.

He stops to stare at the tree once he comes into sight of it, just looking at it for a long moment before walking over slowly. He turns, and drops down to sit, leaning back against the trunk.

“You should be mad at me right now,” he says, head resting against bark and eyes closing, “It’s April 1st. You have no idea how many pranks I had planned for the office. I should be pulling them all right now, and you— you should be mad at me about it.”

“That’s how this is supposed to work.”

He draws in a slow breath, then exhales it in a sigh, “Instead, you’re a— you’re a fucking tree. I mean, are my pranks that bad that you had to become inanimate just to avoid them?”

Long minutes pass as he sits there in silence, promising quietly, “I’ll visit you a lot. I promise. Until we can get you turned back.”

“But I’m just gonna save up all those pranks for when you get back, so you’d better be ready, Em.”

May 15

The structure around the tree shudders. Not, this time, because of structural instability but because something tears through it. The clawed well of an excavator tears through the house, carefully tearing it back and away from the tree in an attempt to prevent damage from befalling it. After all, it was someone rather than just some thing that could be left to grow freely.

Getting out here in the first place to perform the careful demolition had taken considerable planning. Beyond the physical borders of the Safe Zone, the path to the site isn't well-maintained. Not to mention, there was concern regarding the types of folks who lived on in places like this. Either no opportunist sees use in stealing Caterpillar equipment, or the armed construction workers who accompany it are enough of a deterrent they're left alone.

It takes the better part of two weeks for everything to be cleared away— unusable detritus from the house that was once there deposited in spaces between houses a few doors down while some of the more useful salvage was taken back to be sold for its worth.

But eventually the house is torn away, the ground where it once stood tilled carefully to break up anything that would be obstacles for the tree's growth. It was delicate, unhappy, but necessary work.

As far as anyone could tell, the tree would be here for a long time. It deserved its best shot at lasting the full amount.

June 10


“This is not weird at all,” Cooper says as he stands before the trunk of a massive tree. “I'm here, talking to a tree, who used to be a person.. but is still sort of a person.” It sounded crazy saying it out loud, but… there she was. A telepath had confirmed it for Corbin.

“Can you even hear me?” he wonders out loud, reaching out to knock on the truck, mouth pulling to one side in thought. Jerking his hand away when he realizes, “Sorry… inappropriate touching, I guess technically you're naked… huh?” He scrunches up his nose and wipes his hand on the front of his coat, as he looks upward at the branches noting the flowers.

He slowly turns watching the way the light filters through the leaves. “I dunno if you can hear me, but you’re missed. My desk… I can't keep up with it. Didn't realize how much you kept it in line. Pretty sure Al is moping too.” Maybe. Al is a hard read, so maybe it was his owner who was the sad one. Much like Cassandra’s death sitting heavy on his shoulders, it hurt his heart to see another kid fallen victim to unusual circumstances.

Yet, there he still stood unharmed. It didn’t seem fair.

“I almost brought you a donut,” he says thickly, “…but… you can't eat those, soooo….” Cooper pulls a troll doll from his pocket and holds it up to the tree. “I brought this.” He gives it a wiggle and its neon pink hair goes wild and bits of glitter shower from it. He looks at the doll. “I saw it at the market. Thought, Emily will hate this… she totally needs this. I left it on your desk, but you never came back.”

Going up on his tiptoes, Thomas sets it on a thick root, settling for leaning it against the trunk after trying to balance it a few times. Once he’s standing flat on his feet again, Cooper sighs. “So I thought I'd bring it to you. Keep you company. I’ll get you a donut when you… have a mouth again. Oh and..”

Cooper dips his hand in his pocket and throws some glitter at the tree. He frowns at the stuff that sticks and then down at what settles on the ground. He gives a heavy disappointed sigh. “You need to come back, kiddo, it’s just not the same.”

June 14

roxie_icon.gif animal-goober_icon.gif

Smells like her and not her. In the tree?

Roxie can’t help but give a huff of amusement at the assessment of the dog sniffing around the tree and then looking up at the branches and giving a bark. We are here! You can come down. I have made it safe! Goober barks again, sitting on his haunches waiting. He wasn’t able to grasp the concept of what had happened to Emily. How does a person who is comfy to lay on become something hard and unyielding like a tree?

Moving to crouch next to the dog, Roxie scratches at the top of his shaggy head. “She can’t hear you, bud,” she informs him gently. Goober looks at her confused. “Someone bad came and turned her into a tree. Mr. Ayers is looking for the bad person, but it could be awhile.” It didn’t help… She could hear him rolling that concept around in his head and the moment he hits a wall. With a sneeze Goober moves to snuffle around the tree again.

She is just hiding. I will find… you will see.

Roxie’s head falls forward, while rubbing at her eyes with finger and thumb. “Goob… “ she starts and then finally sighs. “Know what… nevermind.” Taking a moment to carefully pull her pack off, she turns to sit, leaning against the tree and resting her head back against it as if ready for a nap. “Fucking knock yourself out… I’ll be here waiting.”

Tilting her head back to look up into the branches, observing all the flowers, Roxie feels a flash of anger for the woman trapped. “I do not envy you this, girl. I’d say, I’d kick the ass of whoever did this… but damn… how do you fight an ability like this?” Her attention drops to the bag next to her and she looks guilty. “I guess that’s why people like my family kill first…” She wrinkles her nose as soon as she says that. “Cause shit like this scares me. Imagine someone that isn’t like us.”

She picks up a fallen leaf from the ground besides her and twirls it between her fingers, “I hate this feeling… like balancing on the fence. I don’t want to be there, I want to be on the right side of it all, but… stuff like this keeps me balancing. It’s not hate though… I’m /scared.”

June 19th


With a soft thump, Joaquin lowers his guitar case to the grass sprouting around the tulip tree. He's chosen this spot to stay awhile in the natural fork between the roots. At first it seems awkward, an uncharacteristic nurturing cradle. But once he's settled, he exhales a slow sigh.

His neck cranes, eyes turn upwards to the branches as he finds lines to trace. "Brought some reading and my guitar," he speaks to the tree, "I read somewhere, not in this book of course, that music's good for… plants…" Words trail as he feels a swell and fights off a tightening in his neck.

Joaquin drops his gaze down, clears his throat. Fingers work the latches and he flips the cover open to reveal the acoustic instrument. After a few plucks and tuning adjustments, he pauses. "Anyway, um. Thought you might, like to… Yeah."

Another staggered breath later, he starts to play the lilting song of Romance Anónimo.

When it's finished, he leans the guitar up against him and his back up against the tree. A shed tear contrasts with the twist up of one lopsided mouth corner as he looks up again. "Bet you thought I was going to play Wonderwall."

June 28


Sitting far enough back to get a good perspective, Brynn has the shape and the rough-in of the tree in her sketchbook. She gets up and moves to sit in the shade of the wide branches, curling in against the trunk. She can't talk to Emily, but she can keep her friend company.

The breeze that kisses her cheeks is soft, and the sun peeping through the leaves above makes intriguing patterns on the ground. Brynn's pencil glides across the paper. She fills in details on the image she's creating, using her ability to channel the exact colors she wants from her pencil. Realistic and very lifelike, Tree-Emily is going to be quite beautiful in her summer colors. It will be a nice match to the spring blossoms that were pastel and lovely when Emily was blooming.

I miss you, Ems. I wish there were at least texts where you are. And I hope you're not still stuck by wintertime… I really don't want to have to come decorate you in holiday colors, but I will, I swear it.

July 4


"Over a little bit, yep, okay… now loop it through… Perfect. Keep going," Hailey's loud voice is just a little too full of glee as she watches the monkey racing through the branches unravelling yards upon yards of crepe paper streamers behind him. The instructions are loosely followed, considering they’re in Hailey’s human rather than the squeak of Jim’s monkey language. His screeches prompt her to reach into the bag and pull out another little package, unwrapping it carefully and then flicking the battery pack to the on position.

"There's only about seven of these so try to arrange them nicely," she calls, knowing full well the monkey can't understand a word she's saying. Still, she throws up the illuminated little bundles waiting for him to thread the one he's holding through the leaves before tossing up the next. They've been practicing this trick for weeks, and boy howdy is Emily going to be surprised… if she even knows what’s happening on the outside. There’s no guarantees of anything.

It takes about two hours to complete the masterpiece, but when Jim finally clambers down they walk a distance together and turn to look at their handiwork. Tulip Tree Emily (hey that rhymes) covered in red white and blue crepe paper streamers. A little more festive than a skeleton tree at Halloween but along the same lines. Together they sit on a crumbling curb, waiting for the sun to set. It's only then they can see Emily in all her glory, lit up like a Christmas tree on the fourth of July. Cupping her hands around her mouth, Hailey shouts across the expanse for the whole neighborhood to hear.

"Happy Independence Day Emily! Sorry, this is the closest I could get to fireworks!"

July 24

dumortier_icon.gif zachery2_icon.gif

"Can you tell — anything?"

Anything weird, presumably.

Zachery's voice is strained, and has been the entire ride over. His broken leg still healing, he stands with a crutch planted in the dirt on either side of him, aiming a tired stare at the base of the big tree where it's been freed from the splintered home that surrounded it only a month ago.

Had he visited then, he would have been able to see something more than a tree. Now, standing in the cordoned off area while those who let him through wait patiently beyond the tape, it's just reminiscent of the days he might be called to the scene of a murder.

At least the sickly sweet smell of death is missing.

Truth be told, it was time for Rene to start doing his rounds; it's a simple task, checking in on the trees. For this one, however— the last— he has the company. The individuals watching after the space had zero issue letting them through— they know Dumortier, more by job description than anything else. As far as SESA is concerned, he is vetted, and a subtle assistance for this delicate matter.

"Yes," The blonde stays by Zach's side for the time being, supportive in presence. "She's like the others. As far as I and SESA can tell, she's okay. They're all okay. All things… considered." Rene hesitates with his description, looking just a little sheepish for the sake of his sympathy. He'd told Zach about his healing of the damaged tree, out of that same feeling and the want to reassure.

"You don't need to follow me, it's fine either way." Dumortier rests a hand against the other man's wrist before he steps slowly forward, approaching the base of the massive tulip tree.

As far as trees go, she's a beautiful one.

"I'm fine." Zachery replies tersely, tearing his attention away from the tree and to his wrist only once Dumortier starts moving. He rolls his jaw, then starts forward as well, over traveled soil and spent blossoms.

His mouth opens - then closes again. After a few unwieldy steps, the process repeats itself one more time as he looks upward toward the canopy.

Maybe if he doesn't refer who he's visiting directly. A third try: "The telepath girl turned spruce, I met her, she'd been trying to reach people." He finally manages, "When you come around here, do you see—" He struggles both with his words and uneven footing for a moment, then asks, "Do people visit?" The word 'enough' is not actually in the question asked, but from his tone, it may as well be.

"All of them, and often." The answer is, at least, positive. Putting a hand to bark, Dumortier is now right up against the tree— Emily— quietly leaning in against the shadows on the hardwood. She dwarfs him— both of them. The rise and fall of roots shows now, with the house truly gone and the ground free. Patchy grass is quick to grow green and soft again, a finely threaded cover. Others needed it too, that source to pull from. Not all of them were as lucky to have been put in a place less travelled.

"I've met the spruce. The rest. I mentioned Agent Ayers on the way over… Ms. Epstein isn't the only one he has me check in on." A pause, a glance past Zachery to the edges of the cordoned border. Rene is a touch more quiet. "I was able to heal that first one. Who got… cut…." Remembering the first time he met one of them is difficult. Reality was a horror, and still is, read plain in pale blue eyes.

"I hope they find something new, soon." He's back to paying the tree heed, a second later, fingers tracing lines in bark, features troubled, head bowed just enough to note. "Rita, guéris nos causes impossibles1."

Zachery listens while he plods forward, his path toward the tree veering slightly off to one side as if directness is out of the question even there. He never makes it to the bark, nor the aboveground sprawl of roots, nor the healthiest of grass. He opts instead for a spot off to the side, a spot he deems near enough.

Even if it's still just a tree.

It is close enough to hear the shift in mood, prompting him to lean uneasily into his crutches as he shoots a sidelong glance to Dumortier, brow knitting. The heavy silence that always follows these things is awful, and he doesn't have the energy to deal with it today.

But he's here. And he's in good company. He may as well break that silence, and say something meaningful for once — to the friend returned to the wolves for now.

And so he dryly says, after a time, "… I didn't even bring her any coffee."

August 2


She never says much, when she comes. This time isn't much different. There's not really a need to speak; Emily can't speak back, so conversation is quick to get one-sided very fast. Huruma only did it once before deciding it was not worth the effort. She has her gift, instead. She can say a million words more with it than she could with tongue and throat.

Summer heat sits in the air, an indolent blob of humidity under the warm breeze, lolling about and making most people miserable in a stubborn refusal to rain. Huruma doesn't mind it. Better than cold. Winter sun is just as frozen. The empath prefers the heat of a yellow star in a clear sky, even if the air is dense. Huruma stands beside the tulip tree, silently hoping that she does too. The leaves shade her bare arms and what other spans of dark skin the sun had found in the cut of clothing; her face is one of them, upturned as if she might be able to find feminine features hidden in the lines of the bark.

She never does. But what she does see is what few others can. Huruma has never professed to know what Emily is thinking, only feeling, and with that information… the empath has not been forthcoming. The trials that happen inside of the tree are kept between them. Just like their lessons.

Emily knew she could trust Huruma, and Huruma would like to keep it that way by way of confiding— even if Emily's unable to voice such a request.

Whatever it is that Huruma feels today, it is enough that she runs a hand over her head, burrowing her brow into her fingers, other hand at her hip. She draws her fingers down the planes of her face, pale eyes covered in a fine haze, focused on the distance visible between the flutters of green.

August 9


"Honestly, Epstein, I thought I was gonna get to fuckin' chase some kids with a pocket knife out of here or something," Cesar laments as he stands alone before the towering tulip tree. Staring up into the branches, he's able to see the bits of brightening sky through the foliage as the day is just starting to dawn.

Today's morning run route took him to see her. There's been some changes to routine since the agency found out what happened to one of their own. Especially when it was one of the junior agents. Especially when it was Epstein. Upset would be a euphemism for Agent Diaz's reaction. But the morning runs always give him time, whether it is to think and process or to clear his head, or both. Meeting at the tree roughly at the halfway point lets him choose to do so in silent company.

He plants a hand on the trunk, leaning against the sturdy bark as he stretches on some of his own, fleshy limbs. Today, it seems, he decides it's better to say little else. Maybe it's just early yet and she's still asleep, the man makes the inner excuse.

The timer on his smartphone strapped up on his arm beeps the end of cooldown alert. "Time to go. I'll see ya, Emily," he says. His placed hand lingers a little longer through the soft beeping. Then he lifts it away, snoozes his phone with a tap, hops a couple of times in place, and takes off at a brisk pace once more.

August 19


Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. The wheelbarrow needs oil, and has seen better days. Rust decorate it's once green painted side. That paint is now chipped and worn through, letting air and water do what it does to steel. Pushing the wheelbarrow is one Joseph Winters. He's singing to something he's playing on his phone, and singing badly. No one has ever accused him of being a good singer. But as he approaches the tree once again he stops the song and pulls the earbuds out of his ears, tucking them and his phone into his pocket as he rolls the wheelbarrow over to the tree, stopping to maneuver it over some roots before resting it on the ground. He pauses and looks at the tree, a little smile on his lips, though it's a sad one, forced.

"Hey Ems. I really hope you can't hear this. Cuz I really hope you're not aware… during all this." His voice chokes up a little bit, but he turns and fishes into the wheelbarrow, coming out with a bucket of some sort of brown sludge looking stuff. "Wasn't sure what to bring. Asked some people at the market, and this one guy who used to be a farmer told me this stuff would help. Said it's fertilizer that like soaks into the ground or something, that way I don't have to till the ground, cuz that could weaken… well your root system."

Joe walks around the tree, using a tin can to scoop some of the weird sludgy stuff out of the bucket, pouring it on the ground around the roots of the tree. "Things have been pretty quiet lately. It's been strange. So much happening to other people around me, but I'm like stuck in the eye of the storm. I don't like it. I want to be helping people. But… well." His shoulders lift in a slight shrug as he finishes going around the tree, having emptied the bucket. He puts the empty back in the wheelbarrow and pulls out one of those spray packs where you hold the pack in one hand and the sprayer in the other.

"I'm… not sure how we're going to get you back, but well… I imagine if tree you doesn't… do well… then flesh and blood you will come back in similar condition. So I brought some termite spray. I really hope you can't… taste it? Do trees taste? Well… here's hoping you don't." He starts walking around, spraying the spray around the roots, being careful not to get too much on the exposed roots, and then circles the base of the tree spraying there too, on the ground, not the EmTree.

"I've been asking around, seeing if anyone knows of a plant telepath or something? Thought maybe there is one. I mean it's not an ability most people would probably talk about. But then again it could be. Guess I could ask Brian if he knows of any eco groups that have someone like that. Cuz while I really hope you're okay in there, I also really hope you're not suffering. You've had it hard enough before now." He lets out a soft sigh as he finishes, and put the spray back. Then he circles around, looking for a dry spot after everything he's put down on the ground, and settles in to sit down near the base of the tree. "Life is kind of cruel like that. Kicks the people who are already down a lot. I guess they tend to be the ones that can take the hits though. Doesn't make it right."

Joe prattles on, talking about school, life, and just general day to day conversational stuff. He drones on for a little while before finally coming to a stop. "I miss you Ems." He stands and puts a hand against the tree, eyes closing as more than a few tears slip free and run down his cheeks to fall to the earth at his feet. "You're good people, and you didn't deserve this." He breathes in deep, then lets it out in a long and slow exhale.

"I'll be back in a few days. If you are in there, and you can hear me? Try to stay strong. Hopefully we can figure this out soon."

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