The Hazel Branch


June 4th, 2015

April clutched her coffee with both hands, holding the mug close to her lips.  The heat on her palms made her afraid to take the first sip, so instead she savored the smell and steam.  She yawned and looked up through the branches of the tree in her back yard at the retiring stars.  Standing there, on her back porch, April relished the purple light of the new born sunrise.  She knew she needed to get moving.  There was only an hour left for her to get into the shower, get dressed for work, and get to the bus stop; but still she lingered, feeling the steam swirl in her nostrils and looking out over the grass.

She loved her back yard.  April had only lived on the block for a few months.  After graduating from High School, it’d taken her eight months working at the grocery store register to save enough for the first and last months’ rent.  She’d plan to be choosy and take her time finding a place, but this was the first house she’d seen and she jumped on it.  It was a run down, long neglected mess that needed new paint, new carpet, and electrical work.  But the yard.  She had never seen anything like that yard.  It went on and on, the length of two full rowhomes.  She had chosen it solely for the yard.  Growing up on Fulton ave, all she’d ever known was a seven by eight concrete slab.  The yard had called to her.  It had stirred her soul.  With that yard, the condition of the house was irrelevant.

April braved a sip.  The hot liquid seared her taste buds.  Deciding to steal another second from her morning routine, she breathed deeply and smiled.  The light of day was slowly gaining strength and the green of the grass took on a rich, almost neon hue, as if she was looking at it through an instagram flitter.  She loved this place.  Sure the house at the end of the block, three doors down, was abandon and rat infested.  Sure the elderly Indian man in the house to the left cooked strange smelling food every night.  Sure it was a a longer bus trip to the Safeway where she worked.  She didn’t mind any of it.  It was worth it.  That marvelous yard made it worth it.

She bit her lower lip and sighed.  There was no more time for lazing around and smelling steam.  She stepped out of her brown slippers, not wanting to get them soiled with dirt, rested her mug on the window seal behind her, walked down the back porch steps toward the chicken wire surrounding her garden.  The old wood of the steps tickled her bare feet.  She paused at the bottom of the stairs to pat the trunk of her tree.  She’d always wanted an old tree in her back yard.  She rubbed the rough bark affectionately and looked up the trunk.  It’s withering complexion told it was in the tailspin of life.  Standing next to the tree always made her wonder how many amazing things the aging giant had seen.

She gave the tree one final rub and then continued forward.  Before April had unpacked her kitchen boxes, before she had painted her bedroom walls, before she had hung any pictures, she had planted her garden; and for the past three mornings she’d been eyeing the strawberries.  She was sure they were ready.   Last night as she’d made dinner April had envisioned eating them on the bus on the way to work.  Sitting in the silence of her kitchen table, she ate and searched Google on her cell phone hoping to discover what a ripe strawberry still on the bush was supposed to feel like.

She arrived at the chicken wire and tapped it’s sharp tips with her fingers..  The wire was for the rats.  She’d read online that if she buried it deep enough they wouldn’t be bothered to dig underneath it.  So far so good.  Although, April suspected what really compelled the rats to leave her fruit and vegetables alone was the always overflowing Royal Farms dumpster across the street.  Why mess with picking fresh food when half eaten Royal Farms fried chicken was readily available for minimal effort?

April removed her robe before attempting to easy over the wire.  Every time she ventured into the small plot, she regretted not putting in a gate.  The thin, tattered blue frock had been her grandmothers.  It did nothing in the winter to keep the cold off, but she still put it on every day after work because it reminded her of the gentle old lady April so wanted to be like.  April hung the robe carefully on the fence post and then gingerly stepped over the mesh, trying not to catch the crotch of her grey sweat pants on the wire.  She’d already ruined one pair this way.  Tore a whole right down the seam.

As she shifted her weight from one leg to the next, she noticed a man standing in the street at the end of her yard.  Something about him gave her immediate concern.  April had never seen him before.  He was tall and slender.  He wore a white sleeveless undershirt, baggy jeans with no belt, and backward black hat.  There were black ink tattoos on his arms.  His goatee was trimmed tightly around his mouth, and his pants sagged revealing a good two inches of black boxers.  He stood with his hands in his pockets, his spin curved, leaning on his back foot.  He was staring at her.  She wondered how long he’d been watching.

April pretended not to see him.  She crossed the small plot of earth, careful not to crush rows of sprouting vegetables.  She dropped down to one knee in front of the small, young strawberry bush.  Pretending to look at the large berries, she ventured a glance up toward the man.  Fear filled alarm bells clanged in her head as she watched the him effortlessly slither over the short small black fence and into her yard.  His hungry eyes were still locked on her.

Forgetting the berries, April stood and moved back toward the gate.  The man was moving quicker now with long, determined strides.  His hands were out of his pockets and balled into fists.  His closed lips morphed into a confident smile.

April’s heart pounded in her chest.  Forgetting the sprouts, she felt them crunch under her feet as she hurried to the fence.  She looked at the back stairs and worried she wouldn’t be able to make it to the door.  She glimpsed back to the man.   He was walking  even faster.  He grinned at her fear.

Watching the man approach, she threw her right leg over the wire with panic.  Her grey pants snagged, tripping her.  She fell face first into the dirt, the ankle of her right leg still caught in the wire.  The man laughed.  He was almost on her.  His voice was low and dangerous.  April felt the sting of a scratch running down her inner thigh, a gift from the fence.

April ripped her leg from the wire and scrambled forward on her hands and knees in a wild frenzy.  Tears filled and burned her eyes.  She could hear his heavy, excited breathing and smell the booze he was bathed in.  She saw the tree.  It was only a few feet ahead.  If she could just make it to the tree.  The base was only a few inches away.  The man had slowed.  He was within arms distance.  She could see the hole.  If she could just make it to the hole.

A scream escaped her as she felt the man’s rough hands yank hard on her ankles.  Aprils hands came out from under her.  Her mouth filled with dirt.  He drug her backwards, laughing more.   She looked over her shoulder and met his lustful glare.  Terror filled her chest.  The man laughed again and twisted her legs, forcing her to flip over.  He moved forward, blocking out the light, seeking to pin her, but she kicked hard with her right leg.  April was aiming for his groin, but instead she made contact with his stomach.   He hiss at the impacted, surprised by her resistance.  His blood shot eyes burned with anger.

April knew instinctively that she wouldn’t get another chance.  He would give her another open shot.  She spun back on her belly, lurched forward, and shoved her right hand deep into the hole beneath the tree.  Her palm found its prize.  She gripped it tightly.

The man grunted and grabbed her legs again.  He twisted them harder this time, spinning her with more force.  April tried to kick again, but he was ready.  He absorbed the blow and pinned her thighs to the ground with his left forearm.  He reached down with his right hand to undo the button on his pants.  He met her gaze hoping to find fear in her eyes, but he was left wanting and confused.  April met his eyes with a victorious and fierce smile.

The roar of the .40 caliber Saturday Night Special in April’s hand ripped through the morning air.  Warm, thick, stick liquid splattered across her face and chest.  The man  stumbled backward looking at his prey with disoriented surprise.  He gasped for breath.  His hands grabbed at the newly forms hole above his heart.  Red blood throbed through his fingers.  He fell backwards.  Sitting in her grass, his mouth hung open wide in shock as a pool grew around him.

April lept to her feet and ran into the house.   She found her phone on the kitchen table.   The room was spinning.  She wanted to vomit.  She tried to dial but only smeared blood across the touch screen.  She held the voice command button down with her thumb and sobbed over and over into the device, “Call nine-one-one.  Call nine-one-one.”

The phone rang.  “Nine-one-one,” a tired voice said on the other end.  “What’s your emergency?”

April’s knees caved.  She fell to the floor of the kitchen.  Trying to catch her breath, she cried into the phone, “A man.  A man tried to rape me.  But I shot him.  I shot him with the gun.  I shot him with the gun I hide under my tree.  The tree in my yard.”

“It’s okay ma’am,” the voice in the phone said.  “Help is on the way.”

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