Election Day

Alan Davis
22 min readNov 8, 2022

(a short story from Clouds Are the Mountains of the World)

“Did you vote?” the mysterious Ava said. She had a bright orange sticker stuck to the sweater over her left nipple. I VOTED, it said. She had come to the barbecue with our neighbor Bobbi, whether as a long-lost friend returned from the Boundary Waters, where Bobbi intimated some terrible things had occurred, or as a newfound lover, I had no idea.

Time would tell. It always does.

“Vote? There’s an election today?” I was having her on, of course. I knew there was an election. Everybody told me it was important, that it would change everything if the wrong creep got into office.

“You registered?” she said. I was dumbfounded. How could any responsible citizen decide not to vote or pretend not to understand what was at stake? Did she ever stop to think that my vote might neutralize hers?

Or was she having me on? There was a furious light in her blue eyes. She glowed as if on fire with rail-thin luminosity. She had survived a long recovery after the Boundary Waters, Bobbi had warned, and could be brittle. That much Bobbi had told us as prelude to our gathering. “I’m bringing her along with trepidation. Give her slack. It’s her first outing in a while.”

“Of course I’m registered,” I said. “What do you take me for?”

I voted. I could tell you who for. It’s still a free country, despite the mess, the violence, the new world order. The ballot is still secret. I’m secret, too. You can’t know about me.

We stood on the porch that faced my next door neighbor Park’s large bur oak, a majestic tree that could outlive not only election day but all of us who presently walk the earth. Ava was very easy on my eyes, but her own ocean blue ones stared deep at everything around her, as if she thought she had X-ray vision. I nursed a gin-and-tonic and thought about politics. There was a lot to think about, things to curse, things to praise, people who should be shot, a few worth celebrating. I could have ranted and raved, and I knew that eventually I would, but I decided I would hold off as long as possible.

I thought that I would wend my way inside later in the evening, after our guests were gone, and turn on the television to study the election results and curse if needed, shout with delight if things turned out good. My friend Denzel and his wife Latesha drove up into the driveway on the other side of the house and my wife Louise greeted them with a happy shriek. I grimaced. I wanted to say something to her about that shriek, which had become more frequent of late, but she would be offended. Everything offended her if it wasn’t straight out praise. So I kept quiet and kept the peace. Louise had lived a hard life before we found each other. If she enjoyed a shriek now and then, so be it. There was little enough joy left in our part of the world.

After a few minutes of conversation that I could hear inside the house, Denzel came out juggling his own gin-and-tonic, a fresh one for me, and a glass of white chardonnay for the mysterious Ava. His hold on the drinks was precarious, as if he might drop one. He had a little too much weight around the middle, a recent development, though who am I to talk? He gave Ava her drink and introduced himself. Before she could hypnotize him or bore into him with those eyes, I stood, put my drink on a table next to the grill, and shook his hand with a tight, firm grip so that he would know my spirits were up. “Did you vote?” I asked.

“Hell yeah,” he said, smirking, used to my antics. I could tell you who he voted for in my sleep. The world has gone to hell in a bushel basket. The weather won’t behave itself. The people up here in this part of the world are dying off or driving off. There’s unrest. Violence. Marauders out west who, like the weather, might show up with a shit show in mind. Some nights, we have armored vehicles parked on the periphery of the neighborhood, special Militias paid for by the homeowner’s association. Despite that, Denzel still doesn’t carry a gun, which is ungodly behavior. What if a Marauder came along and grabbed Latesha by the ass and threw her to the ground? What’s he going to do about it without a concealed carry? Somebody I don’t like puts their paws on Louise? Boom.

We didn’t talk politics, though. We talked sports. We talked food. We talked books. We both like mysteries, the kind they write in Scandinavia where life is kind of good and all the people are treated mostly the same while mass murderers ply their trade, but only in fiction, until a woman with a dragon tattoo or a man with a deep scar across his face snaps them in two.

Ava ignored our chatter and stared, twiddling her long-stemmed glass, at the awesome oak. In profile she was a stunner, Ava I mean, with the long neck of an Egyptian queen, an aristocratic Roman nose, and décolletage that could slay a man. Her skin was dark, glistening, and I wondered where she came from, where her parents might have been born. Dark skin, blue eyes. The colored tattoos on her upper arms were unreadable hieroglyphs, abstract patterns that reminded me of paint Jackson Pollock might drip on canvas. Her jeans were tight, her sleeveless blouse bright and Latin. There was something otherworldly about her, as if she had arrived in a time machine and might vanish without warning.

Louise was inside with Latesha and Bobbi, all of them making a tater tot hot dish and a strawberry rhubarb pie to accompany the grass-fed beef and very wild salmon I planned to put on the grill. Maybe Bobbi would reveal some Ava scuttlebutt to Louise and Latesha, and Louise might clue me in later, if the women didn’t keep what they learned to themselves. It was clear to me that Ava would be the prime topic of conversation if she wasn’t with us. “What’s the story with Ava?” one of us would say, probably me, though it would be Louise who would tease out of Bobbi whatever she knew.

They were making pie, but I was the real cook that night: steak medium rare on the grill. It’s a steak that’s very lean. Lots of protein. Easy to overcook. A little charring never hurts a good steak, but these babies are delicate. I got them special at Mike’s Meats. Mike knows meat and I know Mike. The salmon is for Bobbi, who’s pescatarian.

Ava told me she eats anything. “Not particular. Food is food.”

“Did I tell you I voted?” I said when the conversation died down. “Did my duty?” Denzel agreed that it might be good later to watch the results but the weather was too grand on the deck to go inside and nobody wanted to be the first to stare into a phone. The clouds were deep and fluffy. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were mountains. The usual haze from the city twenty miles down the interstate had been blown earlier in the day in our direction. City stink. But the wind stayed high and the stink moved on.

I heard the kind of beep a truck makes when it backs up. Fred’s Trees, the logo read. There was a picture of a logger with a saw taking down a big one. Park, my neighbor, came out to greet the tree man. That would be Fred, I guessed, though it’s possible Fred’s Trees was not a one-man operation. It was possible that Fred didn’t work alone. In fact, there was another man in the truck with him.

The two of them talked for a few minutes. Fred was a very tall Black man who wore a bright orange uniform and angled his right hand with his white work glove to indicate to Park something about the tree. I got a funny feeling. If what I thought was about to happen came to pass, I realized that I would have a situation on my hands. I picked up the fresh gin-and-tonic and drank it. Fast.

“What do you think they’re doing over there?” I said.

“Looks like a tree’s coming down,” Denzel said. “Is there more blight in the area?”

“Not that I know of,” I said.

Ava had turned to listen, licking her lips and sipping her wine. “They kill trees, don’t they?” she said in a droll voice.

“Huh.” Denzel frowned. He didn’t know what to say to that. He wasn’t a tree hugger, that’s for sure, but nature was one of his issues, with the seas rising, the heat burning the land, the crazy storms dropping like napalm without warning. “I hope they’re not taking down that big oak just to improve the view.”

He read my mind. That was my thought exactly. “Let’s not jump to conclusions,” I said. “There are other trees on his property. Or maybe they’re talking about a trim, some pruning.” I heard myself say the words, but I was getting a bad feeling, a vibe, and could feel anger build to a crescendo.

“He’s a man on his own land, right?” Ava said. She tucked a stray hair behind her ears, squeezed her lower lip with two fingers. One of her nails was bitten to the quick. “You men do what you like on your land, all of you, isn’t that the way it is?”

I ignored her. “You know what, Denzel? I think Park is going to take down that tree.”

By now we were both frowning and studying the situation as if we were watching a post-apocalyptic movie. “Fred, if that’s Fred,” I said, “is there to erase a beautiful bur oak from Park’s backyard.”

“Dude, it’s his yard,” Ava said. “His tree. It’s a great tree, no doubt he should leave it unless it’s diseased. But that’s not for you to decide. None of your business.”

“Hell with that,” I said, though I tried to soften my tone to placate the mysterious Ava. “How many oaks like that are left in the world?”

“Plenty,” she said. “You’d be surprised.”

“Is that a bigot speaking?” I said.

She startled as if struck. “Dude,” she said. “Stick it up your ass. Who the fuck do you think you are?”

She went on like that. She had a bee in her bonnet. I ignored the rant, though Denzel was scowling, maybe in shock. “I thought you were a nature boy,” I said to him. “Tree hugger stuff. That tree has a right to its own existence. Just like Ava here. Let’s you and me go over there and see if we can’t save it.”

He demurred. “She’s right. His yard.”

What I figured. Didn’t have the courage of his convictions. “He’s gonna rape that tree right in front of us and this is your response?” I was disgusted.

“Rape?” Ava said. “Not the right word, dude. Reconsider your vocabulary.”

I could hear the ladies in the kitchen giggle. Sound carries. White wine. That’s what they were drinking. White wine makes for the giggles. Ava heard the laughter, noticed her chardonnay was gone, stared me a dagger for good measure, and left us to join the ladies. She looked a bit sketchy on her feet, but that stare could kill.

I sighed and walked across the yard, which was freshly mowed and smelled sweet like wildflowers and clipped grass, a smell so unique that I would remember it if I was on Mars. Our house didn’t have trees out back or in front. They had all died from the latest blight. We all lived in a suburb on the western edge of town. Beyond it was farmland green with young crops. Most of the trees out there were young, unlike the bur oak, which was majestic, the kind of tree that kids can climb, a tree to conjure with. It’s the kind of tree that neighbors should worship and spend money to save. My guess is that Park would have sent the tree to an assisted-living facility, the way his fussy wife did with her mother when the old woman’s memory went, but you can’t uproot and transplant an old oak the way you can a senile woman.

“Hey!” I shouted. “Park!”

He turned from Fred, if the tree man’s name was Fred. Fred had a clipboard in one hand and a pencil in the other. He was so tall that I wondered if he had played basketball in his gone days. What I realized as I put it all together while closing the rest of the distance between us is that they were talking about logistics. Old Park didn’t want the tree after it was cut falling on his house. “Gerald?” he asked.

I put a friendly hand on his shoulder. He’s a small man. Asian. I tower over him like a medieval knight in armor come a calling, though Fred’s height puts me to shame. “I couldn’t help but notice, Park,” I said, as friendly as a man selling insurance. “You seem to be contemplating doing something to this magnificent bur oak that all of your neighbors love to death.”

Park shrugged away my hand and moved a few steps to one side so that Fred stood between him and me. “This gentleman is here to cut it down today. His name is Fred. Have you met him?” I could tell that he was determined to be polite.

I nodded at Fred up there above me. “That’s not going to happen,” I said. I pointed to the tree. “That lady is no tramp.” I heard somebody call my name and turned to stare at my deck. My wife Louise stood there with a spatula in one hand and Denzel by her side with his arms crossed. She waved the spatula as if it was a wand. Get your fat ass back here, is what she was saying. Fire up the grill.

Bobbi and Ava, glasses of chardonnay in hand, clinked them together. Louise pointed to the grill and squatted next to it to turn on the propane. Latesha was lying in a lounge chair with her head rolled back to take in the last of the day’s sun, which had come out from hiding.

Ava walked towards me. Was she an emissary from Louise?

“Your wife has the right idea,” Park said. “I’m within my rights. The tree has to go. It occludes my view and its roots could damage my foundation.” He was polite. There was no combativeness in his voice. “I agree it’s a nice tree. If we could dig it up and let you have it, we would do so. Can’t be done.”

“Park, have you ever read Pliny?” I said.

He frowned. “Pliny? I think I’ve heard the name. But no. The answer is no.”

“You haven’t read him?”

“That’s right.”

“Let me share with you something Pliny once wrote. They called him Pliny the Elder. Wisdom in that last word. This is what he said: ‘An object in possession seldom retains the same charm as it had in pursuit.’ “

Park blinked, trying to puzzle it out. Fred with his clipboard watched us argue the way a coach at a game studies the cat-and-mouse combat on the court. He looked at his watch. Park noticed.

“This is all very amusing,” he said. “But this man here is on a schedule to keep.” He motioned for the clipboard and pencil and scrawled a signature on the paper. “That gives him permission to work. One of his associates is sitting in the truck and will help with the job.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “That tree’s not coming down. It belongs to all of us. Not just to you. I love that tree. I’ve lived with it for years, since before you bought this house. This tree is not yours to cut down.”

Ava came up beside Park. “Dudes,” she said. “Dudes. Can we talk this out? Can we just get along?” I could hear that she was imitating somebody. She squeezed the narrow bridge of her nose. “A tree like this should be treasured.” She was a little drunk. Or a lot drunk.

“Hello,” Park said politely. “Your host is making a fuss about something that’s none of his business. If he doesn’t back off, I’m going to call the constabulary.”

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law, Park? That what you saying?”

“No, Gerald. I’m saying possession is all of the law. Everything.”

“The constabulary?” Ava said, tasting the quaint word. She closed in on Park and whispered something to him that I couldn’t hear. He squinted. This was none of her business, he was thinking. Fred up there in the clouds didn’t look none too happy about the delay. A glance passed like radar between him and Park.

“Did you vote, Park?” I said.

That stopped him. “None of your business, Gerald.”

Fred had his signature. That was enough for him. He and his co-worker carried a ladder to the tree. They had ropes, pulleys, other paraphernalia required in the tree-cutting business. We all took a brief break from our conversation to watch them install the pulley and rope with an anchor hammered into the ground so that the tree, when it fell, would fall away from the house. “Park,” I said again. “You voted? You didn’t say.”

Ava shivered. She looked sketchy again, hugging herself and squeezing, as if her blood wasn’t pumping through her body right. “Dudes? This is macho bullshit.” She turned again to Park. “Park? If I may? Why not take a night to think it over?”

“Not a bad idea,” I said. It was indeed a smart thing for her to say, but I could tell she was edgy with the standoff. I thought she might be about to blow. I thought it might be interesting if I saw what that looked like.

Whatever it was, her sensible words or her impatient tone, it hit Park the wrong way. He set his mouth in a scowl. “What if you were big with child,” he said to Ava, ignoring me, “and didn’t want the baby? What if a man who didn’t own your body made you learn that he could tell you what to do, make you keep the baby? Would you like that, lady?”

I could see her face turn pale, as if the blood was being siphoned from it. A bad memory, I thought. In fact, a law that would do exactly that was on the ballot. “Oh, dude,” she said. “This is your house. Your land. I get that. You can murder that fucking tree for all I care. You can do whatever the fuck you want. Fuck a duck while you’re at it.” She twerked her pelvis as if fucking. “I get that, too. Way of the world and all that shit. Then you can see it die all over again at night in your dreams. You know how awful that is? To watch something you’ve killed die, over and over again, every goddamned night?”

“Lady, I say again. You would do to me and my land what men do to women and their bodies.” He walked away and pulled out his phone. The local constabulary. As if they don’t have enough to keep them occupied in these times. I knew some of the local cops. Which one would come? If it was Peter — Peter Pumpkin Eater, I called him to his face — there might be trouble. There had been some trouble with Peter in the past. He and I had once come to blows. I couldn’t remember over what. Nothing, actually. Nothing at all.

I walked over to Park. Once he shut down the phone, I told him that voting was a sacred rite of passage for real Americans. “What you mean by that?” Park said.

“Take it how you want.” I stepped close, inside his personal space. “No damage done yet to that magnificent oak. Why not stop?” Fred climbed the ladder to lop off some of the tree’s branches. The point of no return was fast approaching.

Ava spoke to me. “Dude, he’s right.” She finished her wine like water, stared at her glass as if she couldn’t believe it was empty, and tossed it at Park’s feet like a bouquet of flowers. She stared down at it. “I can’t believe I did that,” she said. “Macho bullshit.”

“Macho?” I said. “This tree is a wise woman. Nothing macho about that.”

“How does your wife put up with your crap?” Ava said. “Bobbi tells me she might be leaving you soon.” She smirked when she saw me taken aback. I knew it was a lie.

As if on cue, Bobbie and Louise, like cyborgs on batteries, hailed us from my deck. Louise flipped her head to get a loop of hair out of her line of sight, motioned with her glass of wine, calling me back from the brink. Many nights, she and I, pickled with booze, argued for hours about anything that came to mind. “Big Ger,” she would say, “you’re mentally ill.” It was our kind of fun. She had the right to call me out. The mysterious Ava didn’t.

Ava pulled her hair back behind her head into a ponytail. She looked dazed.

“This isn’t your fight,” I said. “Why don’t you go wait with Denzel and the ladies?”

But Denzel had approached without me seeing him and now stood beside me. “Dude,” he said, mocking Ava, “it’s his damn yard. It’s his tree. Let it be.”

Ava hummed a song under her breath, a ditty I could almost remember from the gone days. The gin in my brain was making me hear an echo, a refrain, as if the earth itself vibrated beneath my feet. I swear to God, I’m not a violent man, not by any means, but I wanted to punch her goddamn lights out. Denzel too. “Get thee all to a nunnery,” I said, mocking them both. “Either you’re in this fight to the end or you’re not.”

“Not,” Ava said.

Denzel shrugged. “I wash my hands of it, Gerald. Also, we’re all getting hungry.”

“Hey Park,” I called, as if the Asian was half a block away, “you didn’t tell me if you voted. Did you vote? And how did you vote? As a feminist, I want to know if you believe a woman has the right to choose.”

Ava turned to Denzel. “This asshole? He’s your buddy?”

“None of your business,” Park said. “This is still the United States, Gerald.”

“Are you sure about that?” I said. “Have you been paying attention lately?”

Ava walked back to the deck very slowly, as if she didn’t know the way or was terrified she might trip on a blade of grass. I watched her take her time.

Denzel crowded me. “Let’s go cook some food,” he said. My blood rose and I nudged him hard. I remembered how a friend after two years in the military told me that overseas under fire he could keep his cool most of the time but now and then saw red mist instead of air and went crazy bat shit. “Hey Park,” I shouted, “when the cops arrive, I’m going to ask them to take a look at your papers. Are you legal, my friend?”

The blood drained from Denzel’s face. “A bridge too far,” he said. He retreated and followed the mysterious Ava across the green lawn to the deck. They all sat there on deck chairs as if on the Titanic. Louise opened two more bottles of wine. I expected that she was unhappy with me. The wine would help with that.

Park crossed his arms, checked his watch. For the next ten minutes, until the constabulary arrived, I lectured him on nature, ecology, and the secret life of trees. I told him about the root system that was crying out in pain. I told him the tree was sending out a banshee wail to every other tree. “That tree is a magnificent woman,” I said. “Imagine if I cut your wife’s throat with a slice-and-dice knife. That tree is about to feel the way you would feel if I did that.”

“Is that something you might do, Gerald?” Park said, his vocal fry revealing his stress.

“Imagine it,” I said. “Imagine how that would feel.”

The cop car arrived and pulled into a vacant spot next to Fred’s tree truck. Fred, seeing the cavalry, started up his chain saw, moved to the oak, and made a cut into the trunk away from the house at an angle from above. It was a deep gash, maybe a quarter of the way into the gnarled trunk, just below a burl that might be saved and polished and made into an ashtray.

I walked over to Fred and reached out to grab him at the elbow of the hand holding the saw, but Peter — it was Peter in the cop car, burly Peter with his cross around his mottled neck as if he was the Disciple and not a local rube with his belly jingling like a cow’s udder — wrenched me from behind, threw me down, and fell on top of me like a sack of grain. He cuffed me. “What the fuck,” I said, feeling my shoulder wrench and breathing in the smell of grass and soil and turning my head to one side to catch my breath. “Get the hell off me, Pumpkin Eater.”

Breathing hard, Peter pulled himself up, fiddled with his uniform some, and then helped me to my feet, wrenching me up with the help of the handcuffs, which caused searing pain. For the next 20 minutes, after I caught my breath, there was a heated discussion. “Listen,” Peter finally said, “this tree is entirely in his yard. This community does not have a heritage tree ordnance. I looked it up. The trunk of this tree stands completely on Park’s land. That means it belongs exclusively to him.”

“The root system,” I said. “You’re forgetting the roots.”

Peter stared me down and continued. “If you had wanted to protect this tree, you could have brought it up to the homeowner’s association. You didn’t. Now, sir, it’s too late. Mr. Park has the right to do what he’s doing.” He caught his breath. He was winded. “Besides, don’t you folks — don’t all of us? — have more important things to worry about these days?”

“It’s murder, isn’t it?” I said. “You’re condoning murder, aren’t you?”

Peter shrugged and raised his eyes to heaven. He conferred with Park. He blew out a deep breath and perp-walked me not to his car but to my deck, where a G-&-T, the ice cubes melted, still sat on the round table beside my sun chair. I turned in time to see Fred make another gash, this one horizontal, in the bur oak deep enough to meet the first cut, which really is the deepest, I thought, and made a notch so that the oak would fall like a shot.

Ava was far away, in another country, the Boundary Waters maybe, her eyes bright, polychromatic. “You’re lit up, aren’t you?” I said. “Wish I was, too.” She didn’t hear me, but the others wouldn’t look my way. Even so, they made my case with due diligence to Peter that seeing a resplendent oak cut down in the prime of its long life drove a stake through my heart that had to bleed when it was pulled out. “Damn right,” I muttered, though now, embarrassed myself, my voice sounded feeble. I had nothing more to say. Louise smiled as if one of our knock-down arguments had gone in her favor. “Gerry means well,” she said. She smiled sweetly, but I could tell she wanted to say something mean. And would, later, when we were alone.

“This settled, then?” Peter said. “Park won’t have to call me back?” We all agreed. Peter uncuffed me. “Sorry about that, sir,” he said. He held out his hand.

“Hell,” I said. I took it.

He shambled across the lawn to Park. They talked as if discussing the result of a blind date, whether any sparks had been struck, and then Peter turned to Fred and gave him a thumbs-up.

Peter and Park continued their talk. Both nodded twice. They shook hands once. Peter came back to us and I laughed at his Santa Claus belly. “Santa Claus,” I said with bitterness, “about to give me a gift.” That’s what he did. “Mr. Park has agreed not to press charges,” he said. He had a high-pitched voice that sounded like the squeal of a mouse and made me laugh. It wasn’t a mean laugh. Such a big, clumsy man, such a tiny voice. “You know, I could charge you anyway if I feel like it. Public nuisance. Harassment. I’m only being nice for the sake of the neighborhood. This is one of the few that’s still intact.”

“Keep the peace and all that?” I said. Louise, sitting next to me in her own chair, pinched me hard. I felt emasculated and remembered what Ava had said about my wife’s plans. Surely it was BS. “There’s nothing to charge me with and Park knows it.”

Peter shrugged again; it was his conflict resolution gesture. I could see Park stare my way with a smirk on his face and thought about charging across the lawn like a gorilla. But I’m not that — a gorilla, I mean — and so I held my place, stewing in my own juices, the steak still not grilled.

In the middle of this mental hullabaloo, the tree fell with an anticlimactic whoosh, hardly the earth-shaking atrocity I had imagined. But bad enough. The earth shook beneath my feet.

Bad enough.

I nodded and waved a hand like a wand. “Look over there.” He did. I had to admire his equanimity. He could have put me in cuffs again just for the hell of it, to show me where things were at. My insides were boiling but outside I was calm. My heart beat like a time machine taking me into a future I could only fear. I could see Peter pat himself on the back without moving a muscle. Another page from the new conflict resolution package the local force received after a local, young man in the right place at the wrong time was shot over nothing. “You see what I see?”

He pulled an ear as if turning on his battery and frowned. I nodded again. “Of course you do,” I said. “You know what you see? Absence. There was presence there and now there’s absence. Think of that when you wake at two in the morning to eat a donut. The something that was and the nothing that is.”

“You know what I see, dude?” Ava said. “A line of trees on the horizon, oaks , maple, birch, even a healthy elm or two. Who gets to have those anymore? Appreciate what you got.” She was talking about the faraway tree line a half-mile beyond Park’s place that separated our tract neighborhood from farmland.

“We’ve had reports of Marauders coming this way,” Peter said. “If I were you, I’d make sure those armored vehicles are in place tonight.”

There was a stump and a dead tree cut into pieces where the bur oak had been. It was private property and Park, whether he voted or not, could do with it what he wanted. Soon Fred would return with a stump grinder. In a day or a week there would be nothing but new grass seed where the majestic tree had stood its ground for so many years. Park could burn the wood from the oak in his fireplace.

Peter drove away in his constabulary car.

“Dude,” Ava said, very relaxed after another long trip to the bathroom inside the house. “People tell me you’re the man when it comes to steak. How about it? We’re starving.”

“Coming right up,” I said. I’ve worked with junkies in the past. These days, who hasn’t? I had no intention of starting anything. Even so, Bobbi stepped between us. Louise buried her face in her hands. Denzel folded his arms, turned, and stared into the middle distance. Latesha was half-dozing on the chaise longue. Ava grinned. “Whatever gets us through the days, right?”

I grilled the steak and salmon. We went inside and ate and drank and came back out, woozy with booze and protein, to sit and stare at the place where the tree had been. Louise brought out homemade rhubarb pie and a bottle of chilled, dessert wine and five long-stemmed glasses, but the mood of the evening was dead. The five of them drank wine. I had a cognac. The mysterious Ava disappeared again into the house. When she returned, her skin almost glowed in the dark. Those blue eyes had a light in them that wouldn’t go away. Whatever she stared at didn’t have anything to do with us.

Past the dead tree, along the tree line where the houses stopped, armored vehicles groaned into their designated slots. The mercenaries we had hired eased out of the vehicles. One of them turned on some music, hard stuff, drums and shouts, some kind of call-and-response. We sipped our drinks and listened.

The oak in Park’s yard was the first of many deaths in the neighborhood.