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White Poplar

Shannon Peavey is a writer and horse trainer from Seattle, Washington. A graduate of the Clarion West writer's workshop, her stories can also be found in Writers of the Future 29, IGMS and Urban Fantasy Magazine. This is her fifth story in Daily Science Fiction. Find her online at shannonpeavey.com, or on twitter @shannonpv.
It's somebody's birthday. Streamers tangled in the chain-link fence--a spotted pit bull with a party hat strapped to his flap-grinned face. So I know it's somebody's birthday, and soon I'll remember whose. Soon I'll remember arriving here or who is going to take me home.
I close my eyes and there are countless unknowable faces behind my eyelids and they want to touch me, want to know, like there's something they could steal from just underneath my skin--
"Mari," says my sister, and she brushes the back of my hand. I blink back to the party.
"Do you want to go?" she asks, which I guess answers at least one of my questions.
I just press my knuckles to my eyelids until I see spots and I shake out my hair. There are leaves in it, I know without looking--little white poplar leaves, glossy green on one side and pale on the other.
"Whose birthday is it?" I say eventually.
She tells me that it's Kurt's birthday and then looks away. "He's seven," she says.
I think, oh, and I remember the last time I talked to my youngest cousin which was not here, at his parent's house with its broken concrete yard, but there, in that place. I had asked him, when did you die? and he said I don't know. I don't know. I start to tell Christina this and then I think she must already know. I must have already told her.
Kurt is running around the yard, chasing the party-hatted pit bull. He almost runs into my legs when I step into his path and he's so alive, then, so bright. Just the air heaving through his lungs is a novelty.
"Happy birthday, squirt."
"Thanks," he says, and runs on past.
I get a soda from the cooler and stand there drinking it while one of our uncles talks at Christina. Saying how well she looks, how healthy.
"The doctors must be so surprised," he says.
Christina shrugs. "Apparently all those years of fancy school don't count for much."
"Not a career option for you?"
"No," she says. "I've seen enough of hospitals."
I remember the hospital, even the way I am now. The scuffed tiles and dark green privacy curtains; the hurry-up-and-wait for news, for a dose, for a nurse. The smell of iodoform low in my nose and also the way this woman looked once, standing in the breezeway between the parking lot and the reception desk--hunched over with her knuckles pressed white against the bridge of her nose, breathing hard but making no sound, no sound at all.
We had seen enough.
So we took Christina home to die. In her own room, without so many strangers looking on. Maybe if she'd stayed in the hospital, they would have been able to pinpoint the moment of her sudden recovery--the machines would have recorded an unusual blip, or the security footage caught something strange and miraculous. But at home, our mother looked in on her midmorning then collapsed for a nap. When she woke up, Christina had turned a corner. God's gift, Mom likes to say. A response to all our prayers.
I don't say much about it at all.
Christina finally extricates herself from the conversation and we leave the yard without really talking about it. We don't say goodbye to anyone. Just turn out a gap in the streamered fence line and start walking.
I blink and we're in a dry-grass field down a block or so from Kurt's party. People go there sometimes to run their dogs or trade grubby paper envelopes through their car windows. It runs downhill to a stream after a while. I don't remember how we got there but suppose we must have walked. Not something to worry about.
Christina's saying something and I tilt my head at her and say, "What?"
Patiently, she says, "Do you know how old Kurt gets to be before he dies?"
"No." People there have faces, they have--maybe they have faces. I don't know. They are unique and some of them I recognized right away, but never by their shape. Kurt and his twin brother Darren are inseparable there. Darren was born here, but never even opened his eyes. His heart hadn't formed right.
We slope down to the stream bank in quiet. Christina has her mouth screwed up like she's thinking hard but I can't tell what she might be thinking about. She doesn't remember much about that place.
Me, though: I'm thinking about how the people there went on, one after the other with no end. How everyone who has ever lived or who will ever live is already there, the ancients and the unborn babies of a thousand years from today and also you, and also your kindergarten teacher and your mailman. Everyone except Christina, and except me. I pulled her back when I should not have. I know that, now.
"I'm so sorry," I tell her, and sink down to sit on the bank. There's junk in the water--fast food wrappers caught in tree roots and cigarette butts stuck in the rocks. Tiny leaves of white poplar float down the current, though the trees around this place are all cottonwoods.
It's a hero's tree, the leaves two-colored for life and what comes after it. Heracles crowned himself with white poplar when he returned successful from the underworld, three-headed dog in tow. He brought a monster back and he brought a man back and also a princess, too, I think--and they called him a hero for it.
"Don't be sorry," Christina says with a shrug. "How is it bad to be gone from hell?" She reaches down to trail her hand in the water, her yellow-and-pink painted nails visible even through the murk. "Maybe now we won't ever die."
She would like that, at least for a while. She was always so afraid, afraid to wake up gone or never wake up at all.
"Maybe we won't ever die," I echo, and curl my arms around my shins. I'll hold everything in, cage it between my fingers--all the pieces of me that are starting to go. For my sister, I can hold myself together a little longer.
I taste something grassy in the back of my throat, slick like a leaf. I think, I am a hero, and I remember Kurt's voice saying no no no, don't go. Don't go. When I close my eyes, I no longer see the light through my eyelid. I see the people there, the ones I left behind. I see white.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 29th, 2015

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