Junie the Tree started the game because the rest of us are cowards. That’s what she said, anyway, and no one was going to fight with her about it.
If Junie says you’re a chickenshit, all you can do is accept it. Then change it.
I stick my hand into the can and swirl the little scraps of paper around. This is one of those big novelty cans you find at the grocery store, filled with three different kinds of popcorn, the outsides decorated with holiday themes or whatever cartoon characters are popular right now.
Tiny echoes of rustling paper bits bounce off the sides of the can. Ghost scents of chemical caramel and cheddar powder drift up to my face.
“Just pick one, Ellie,” says Amelia. She’s got a cigarette in one hand. She nibbles on the thumbnail of the other.
“No shit,” says Brady. “You’re taking for fucking ever.”
All five of us are getting antsy. The anticipation, the nerves, this happens every time.
“Okay,” I say, “Get up off me, already.” I extract a folded piece of paper. I open it and read it to everyone. “Sucked off a stranger in the men’s room at Hardee’s.”
We all look at each other and shrug. “Not bad.”
“Well, it’s sorta gross.”
“Meh. Not super gross. There’s grosser.”
Codie takes her turn, pulls out a scrap of cheesy-smelling paper. “Ate two dozen tacos. Stuck my finger down my throat.”
Junie the Tree rolls her eyes, but we only see the normal eye. The lazy eye is concealed beneath her eye patch. “Is this amateur hour? Try harder.”
Frizzy blond hair sticks out in all directions on her head. Hair so blond it’s almost white; so fine you can see Junie’s angry pink scalp. Her shoes look like they belong to two different people. On her left, a blue, adult-sized knock-off of a Converse All-Star. On the right, a small, child’s size in the same style. Junie never had toes on her right foot. Instead of toes, it’s smooth, thick flesh.
She reaches into the can and pulls out an anonymous confession. She unfolds the paper, then starts laughing. After a moment of giggling, she reads it to the group.
“Shit myself at a party. Took off my crappy pants and hid them in my ex-girlfriend’s purse.” Junie folds the paper, still laughing and says, “Hilarious, but not enough.”
Brady reaches in, he eyes each one of us as he takes his time, feeling the bits of paper, looking serious and concentrated, as though reading them with his fingertips. He clears his throat, like he’s about to make a grand speech to a room full of people wearing suits and ties. “Fucked my brother.”
Junie the Tree leans forward on the couch. The way she smiles, it’s the same smile you see on the faces of mothers looking down on their ailing child. Soothing. Empathetic. A healing smile that says how much she wants to take the pain from you; that makes you feel like everything is going to be okay. “That’s better,” she says.
The last time I saw Junie cry was the same day she decided to be a tree.
Every morning, when I went across the street to Junie’s house to walk to school, there was an event. Screaming. Hurled objects. Rage-red, tear-streaked cheeks. I’d enter the house, following the sounds of her mother’s shrieks, yelling at Junie to eat her goddamn oatmeal, to comb that awful hair, to stop wearing that stupid eye patch to school.
“That thing is for your eye exercises. It’s not a fashion accessory. You’re in the sixth grade, not a fucking pirate ship.” She grabbed the eye patch and snapped it. Junie screamed and knocked her bowl of goddamn oatmeal on to the floor.
Me, I’d just stand there like an idiot with my hands in my coat pockets, wishing I wasn’t a dumb kid. Wishing I was someone brave, or at least a little older and taller.
I’d been there when Junie’s parents forced her to endure her eye exercises. They’d cover her good eye with the eye patch, then empty a pill bottle of tiny plastic beads out on to the coffee table.
Scattered all over the table, hundreds of colored specks. Those same plastic beads that some girls put on safety pins. Friendship pins. Those little girls, they loved those beads. For Junie, they were symbols of aggravation and forced normalcy.
Junie’s father would hand her a pair of tweezers and sit her down on the floor. One by one, Junie tried to pinch one of those tiny symbol specks to put them back in the bottle. Her lazy eye off in another direction, unable to focus. Her head tilted at an odd angle, trying to point her eye toward those tiny dots of color. Her lip started quivering, fighting to keep all the angry tears trapped in her head.
The tears and screaming came long before the bottle was halfway full.
The day Junie decided to be a tree, I opened the front door of her house and found her sitting on the brown shag carpet of their tiny living room. She had one foot in the air, trying to duct tape a sandal to her toeless baby foot.
“Help me with this,” she said. “Quick. Before my mom gets out of the shower.”
I squatted down and held the sandal to her foot while she wrapped tape around it.
“How come you don’t just wear your tennies?”
“I’m sick of tennies. I want to wear sandals.” She cut the tape and stood up. “How’s it look?”
I took a step back. Her right foot was mostly duct tape. All around the back of her heel and over the arch was silvery gray. Only the toe of the sandal was visible, looking like an empty shoe. “It looks good. Where’d you get sandals, anyway?”
She had her hands on her hips, holding her two feet together, admiring her handiwork. “Got ’em at a garage sale for a quarter.”
That’s how Junie’s mom found us when she came out of the bathroom.
“What the hell are you two doing? Why aren’t you on your way to school yet?”
“I had to finish getting ready.”
“Well, you can’t wear that. And what is that shit on your foot?”
Me. Idiot. Hands in my pockets. Silent and wishing. A useless coward.
Junie’s mom shook her head. “Go change. You can’t go to school in a green t-shirt and ratty brown corduroys.”
“I’m a tree.” Junie dropped her arms down at her sides and stood up straight. “See? Tree.”
“Stop being ridiculous.” Her mom’s hair was still wrapped up in her post-shower turban. “Get changed and get to school. You’re making Ellie late by pulling this shit.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t care if I’m late.”
Junie’s mom rolled her eyes and shook her head. “You’re just as bad as she is.”
That’s when Junie made a break for it and dashed out the front door. I ran out after her, finding her already in tears.
“She’s so stupid,” she said, in between little sobs. “I don’t get why she wants me to wear a bunch of stupid outfits that don’t look like anything. At least now I look like something. I look like a tree instead of a boring person in a boring outfit.”
“I like it,” I said. Junie didn’t seem to hear me.
“And she always wants me hide my foot. I don’t care about my foot. If someone else feels weird because of my stump, it’s their problem.”
“Yeah it is.”
“She’s ashamed of me, but she should be ashamed of herself. She’s the reason I’m not like everyone else.”
Before I could respond to her, Harlan Strunk caught up to us, riding his skateboard.
“What’s up, Goony Junie?”
“Shut up, Harlan,” I said.
He ignored me. “What’s wrong with little Goony Junie? Why you bein’ a crybaby, Goony?”
“I’m not a crybaby. I’m a tree,” she said.
“What? You’re a freak is what you are, Goony.”
“I’m… a… TREE!” Junie lunged at Harlan, throwing her whole body at him, knocking him off his skateboard. He landed hard and Junie landed on top of him. He cried out and the skateboard rolled underneath an ugly brown station wagon that was parked in the street. I heard the grinding stone scrape of Harlan’s body against the gravel on the road.
Junie jumped up off of him, unhurt. “I am a fucking tree.”
Harlan sat up, the right side of his face scraped up, with a few tiny bits of gravel stuck to his cheek. He cradled his right elbow, rubbed his face and narrowed his eyes at us, but remained silent.
Junie straightened her eye patch. Brushed off her brown corduroy pants. By the end of the school day, everyone at Daleview Middle School knew that Junie was whatever she wanted to be. And no one was going to fight with her about it.
Junie says that the worst thing about shame is the way it chains you down. The way it holds your mind hostage and won’t let you go, gnawing from the inside out, feeding on you like a parasite.
Getting rid of it, she says, is really just a matter of purging. Puking out the parasite.
After she got kicked out of college, Junie abandoned her plans to be a psychiatrist.
“I can help just as many people without that bullshit psych degree,” she’d said. “And now I can start earlier.”
A few weeks later, Junie told me about the game.
“The thing about shame,” she said, “is that it’s easier if someone else pulls it out of you. You write it down, no one knows who writes what. When someone else reads it, when you hear your shame talking back to you, it’s out there. It’s in front of you.”
People are too afraid to speak their own shame, she says, so they need to hear it spoken from someone else. They need someone there when they hear it. The more, the better.
We started out small. First, with tiny, petty shame. Then, we worked our way up. The more people who came to play, the deeper the confessions became. Some people only came once. Others, like me and Codie, we came almost every night.
After the game caught on, my boyfriend Derek, he started freaking out. The first time I brought him to a game was the last time. He ran out of there before we’d even finished drawing confessions.
“Everyone in there needs help, Ellie,” he said. “Especially your friend Junie. This kind of shit is how cults get started.”
Derek, he was just one of those people who feel better when shame isn’t spoken out loud.
Junie says that boyfriends and shame bind with the same chains.
Junie slides off the couch and joins the rest of us on the floor. She puts her arms around Amelia, who starts sobbing. Not gentle tears; the anguished, hyperventilating flow of tears that come from suffering.
I look at Brady, his eyes wide and befuddled. Codie is all slack-jawed surprise. I can’t see my face, but I know the expression is the same. We’re all mirrors of one another.
Somehow, Junie is reading all of us.
“I didn’t want to,” Amelia says through her sniffs and choking sobs. “I didn’t want to, but he… he… he was hurting me, and… I DIDN’T WANT TO!”
“I know, I know.” Junie the Tree, she smoothes Amelia’s hair. Her good eye and bad eye both rimmed with tears. “Now we can start making it better,” she says.
The rest of us, we help Junie. We sit there on the floor of Junie’s little trailer, holding one another in a big knot of arms and tears. Junie the Tree in our center, holding us up.
Rasmenia Massoud is from Colorado, but after several weird turns, she ended up somewhere in France. She is the author of the short story collections HUMAN DETRITUS and BROKEN ABROAD. Some of her other work has appeared in various anthologies and online at places like The Foundling Review, The Lowestoft Chronicle, Literary Orphans, Metazen, Full of Crow, Flash Fiction Offensive and Underground Voices. You can visit her at: http://www.rasmenia.com/