I stood on the back porch, leaning against a support and sipping wine, gazing at the old tree that straddled the property line between my parents’ place and the neighboring field. The full moon illuminated its leafless branches; that and the chill in the air told me winter was coming.
Every kid in the area had made multiple pilgrimages to that gnarly maple while growing up. We’d called it the wishing tree and whispered our most fervent desires and silent yearnings to its unyielding trunk before leaving for college, a promising new job, or enlisting in the armed forces. A few simply stayed, hanging on to what was comforting and familiar.
The kitchen door opened behind me, and Mom joined me, wearing a warm jacket. She held out a heavy coat. “Put this on. You’re shivering.”
I set the wine glass down on the wide porch railing and slipped my arms into the long sleeves. “Do kids still visit the wishing tree?” I picked up my glass and sipped.
“Not so much now. People who leave usually don’t come back, so there aren’t as many around as when you were young. But I see one occasionally, sneaking along the fence, hoping they won’t be spotted.” She smiled. “I always look the other way. Kids need to give voice to their hopes and dreams, and that old tree has heard a bunch of them.”
It had certainly heard mine. “I think I’ll take a walk over that way.”
“Bring in a load of wood when you return? A fire might feel good this evening.”
“Okay. I won’t be long.” I finished the last of the wine, handed her the glass, and buttoned up the coat. It had belonged to Dad and was big on me, but it felt good. Almost like he was giving me a hug.
She went inside, and I trotted down the steps and crossed the yard, the grass hard under my feet. In a couple or three weeks, it would crunch from the cold. Winter came early and stayed long here.
By mutual agreement with the neighbor, the barbed wire fence ran along his side of the tree, leaving it entirely accessible on our side. I walked right up to it and leaned against the rough bark. The trunk had grown bigger around during my absence, but it felt like the same old tree, ready and willing to hear my secret thoughts.
I remained silent though. My wish had been answered several years ago, and I was content to listen to the rustling of small creatures in the long field grass. I breathed in the earthy smell of late fall and watched the moon move through the bare branches.
The kitchen door banged in the distance, and someone walked toward me across the backyard, shoulders hunched. I didn’t know who it was.
They got closer and then I did. “Hi, Eric.”
He laughed softly. “You recognized me so quick after all this time? Even in the dark?”
We hadn’t seen each other since ninth grade, after which I was homeschooled. “How’d you know I was in town?”
“Word gets around.”
“Gossip mill still working overtime, eh?”
“The tongues never stop wagging.” He stopped a few feet away and looked me over.
I tensed, ready to run or fight. “Come to gawk at the freak?”
He frowned. “I wanted to say hello.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “You’re Mark now, right?”
“Have been for a while.”
He studied me openly. “I don’t see Mary at all. You’ve really changed.”
“Just on the outside. I’ve been Mark as long as I can remember.” I inhaled shakily, muscles still taut. He’d been one of those who’d stayed after graduation, while I couldn’t wait to get the hell away. “Still farming with your dad?”
He nodded. “I like it. I spent a year in the city.” He made a face. “Too frenetic for me. I enjoy quiet and a slower pace.”
I hadn’t known he’d gone away, then returned. “I couldn’t be myself here. I had to go.”
“I know.” He heaved a sigh, moved toward the tree, and patted the trunk. “Becoming Mark was your wish?”
I smiled. “For as long as I can remember. What was yours?”
He leaned back against the tree. “To be with you. I’d liked you a lot and wanted you to like me.”
“I… didn’t know.” I’d been so wrapped in misery and depression, I’d barely paid attention to anyone else. I chuckled ruefully. “I had a crush on you for a while, but…” I’d never acted on it—couldn’t, given my gender dysphoria—then I was studying at home, graduating with no fanfare, and racing off to the big city.
“Sometimes I wonder if I knew you were Mark then, not Mary. If I saw who you really were.” He cleared his throat. “I came out two years ago, but I’ve known I was gay since I was twelve.”
My mouth dropped open, I was so surprised. “I-I wish we’d talked then. Been able to confide in each other.” What a difference that would have made.
He straightened. “It’s not too late, is it? I’d like to hear about your journey and tell you about mine.”
I glanced at the house. Mom had turned off the kitchen light, which meant she was probably reading in her room, but the porch light laid a gold stripe across the grass, beckoning. “I can offer you wine and a warm spot in front of the fireplace.”
“Sounds good.” He fell into step beside me as we walked toward the light.
Who knew? Maybe Eric’s wish would be granted tonight.
Word count: 931