Flower Thirteen: Manchineel Tree–Betrayal

manchineel tree



That night was the formal ball, where we would be forced to mingle with the rich and powerful, hoping to catch their attention and gain connections.  Not everyone signed up for the convention was invited to this ball.  Only the families of the perfume company CEOs, but certainly not the employees on the bottom of the pyramid.

We were most likely the only exception.  We were on the guest list because we were extremely important botanists in the Lockhart research and development team, and one of our new flowers was on the market to all.

That fact did give us somewhat of an edge.  Everyone was now curious as to why Grandmother had not only invited us but was also not keeping this flower to herself.  Grandmother told me to tell them nothing, which would only keep them guessing.  Some would speculate that this was a hint she was retiring completely and planned on selling her empire instead of passing it down to her mysterious granddaughter, while others would believe she wanted to create a joint venture with another company, using the Lilting Lily.

It was her way of boosting the interest in the Lilting Lily just a bit.  The rest, she said, was up to me.

I walked to the car, dressed in a rose-colored halter that fell to my toes, which were covered by pink, closed-toe heels.  I was so nervous that I tripped just as I crossed the threshold of the front door.  Before I could fall flat on my face, a hand reached around my waist to steady me.

“We should make you practice walking in those things more,” Marcus said.  “You always seem to trip.”

“I’d like to see you walk in them,” I retorted.  “You’d be tripping more than me.”

“I highly doubt that, Miss Klutz.  Compared to you, I could be the lead in a ballet.”

I was about to respond with an indignant huff, but then I saw he was grinning and realized he was trying to make me angry on purpose.  “You’re trying to distract me from being nervous.”

“Is it working?”

“It was for fifteen seconds.”  I felt the lurch of nausea again, as I thought of the night to come.

“I’m not gonna tell you there’s no reason to be nervous because that wouldn’t be true,” he said.  “I’m also not gonna tell you to picture everyone naked to ease your nerves because I think it would only make things worse.”

That drew a small, reluctant laugh from me.

“But I will tell you everyone has to face times like this.  Nerve-racking situations are a part of life.  Just know that you’re not there to face it alone.”  He offered me his arm, and I took it, letting him escort me to the car.  “Stay next to me tonight.  I won’t let you stumble.”

Whether he meant this in terms of my unstable high heels or in relation to the night in general, I wasn’t sure.

The party was everything I hated, everything from which I tried to escape.  I’d been to many parties before, but only as a wallflower.  I’d navigated to a small corner or room somewhere in the house to hide away alone with my manga until someone came to fetch me.

Still, I remembered the scene clearly.   The flashy cars still lined the driveway, dropping their owners off onto the walkway that lead to the house, which was decorated by glittering chandeliers and marble halls.  Everything still sparkled with that same luminescence that could attract a swarm of moths.  People still drenched themselves in the latest fashions, draped their necks with sparkling jewelry that cost more than the party itself.

The sound of laughter—some of it phony, some genuine and friendly—echoed everywhere as we walked into the room.  Unconsciously, I leaned closer into Marcus, trying to use him for support, until I realized what I was doing and drew back.  He may have said he wouldn’t let me stumble, but I still couldn’t allow myself to take him up on that offer.  I wanted him to see my strength, not my weakness.

“Look there,” Heath said, nudging his chin at a tall woman talking to a young couple.  “That’s Lacy Tyne, CEO of Redforest Cosmetics.  She looks friendly enough.”

“Yes, May said she’s a genuinely nice person,” Marcus confirmed.  “Emma, you can start with her.”

The young couple chatting with Ms. Tyne finally ended their discussion and walked away, giving me a window of opportunity.  Marcus nudged me forward, and before I knew what I was doing, I was standing in front of Ms. Tyne, who was smiling at me.

“Oh hello there,” she said, extending her hand.  “I don’t think we’ve met.”

“N-no, we haven’t,” I replied, taking her hand.  “I’m Emma L—Hartley.  Emma Hartley.”  Oh no, I’d almost slipped up, and it wasn’t even fifteen minutes into the party.  Plus, I’d said my name twice.  She was going to think I was an idiot.

But to my surprise, she didn’t comment or give me a weird look.  She was still smiling.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Emma.  My name’s Lacy.”

I blinked, surprised that she’d introduced herself on a first name basis.  I probably hesitated too long because then Marcus and Stan stepped in to lend me a hand, and I realized Lacy Tyne had just asked a question.

“Well, we’re a part of Splash and Spray,” Marcus said.

“We’re not family, but Mrs. Lockhart invited us to the party anyway.  It’s such a privilege to be here,” added Stan.

“Oh,” Lacy’s eyes lit up, as though she’d just realized something.  “You’re the researchers everyone’s been talking about.  Penny said she’d invited a group of her research team because they’d created a cross of a lily with a fabulous scent.”  The lines of her face crinkled mirthfully.  “The fact that Penny is willing to share this treasure with others is a dream come true.  So, tell me more about this lily of yours.  I’m very interested.”

And just like that, I found myself pouring out the selling points I’d rehearsed.  A little more at ease by Lacy’s warmth, I found it wasn’t quite as difficult to talk to her as I’d previously anticipated.

By the time I’d finished, Lacy looked fascinated.  She inhaled the sample oil I’d given her.  “Beautiful,” she breathed.

Then she asked a few questions, nodded at the answers, and handed me her business card.  “Since I know everyone will be dying to buy the Lilting Lily, I’ll have to ask you to please remember the little people, like me.”  She let out a little laugh.

I assured her that I’d definitely take Redforest into consideration, and then she was pulled away by an old acquaintance who’d been waiting all this time to talk to her.

“I’d say that went well,” Tony commented.

“Can we just sell it to her and go home?” I asked hopefully, but knew it was only wishful thinking.

“We have to aim higher,” Marcus said.  “Redforest is a great company, but their specialties lie in face cleansers and moisturizers, not perfumes.  We can do better.”

We tried to find the CEOs of the bigger companies, but they were surrounded by people who wanted to talk to them.  I saw Grandmother from a distance, and our eyes met for a quick second.  She gave me an encouraging wink before she went back to talking to some old man who looked pretty important.  I thought maybe he was the vice-president of a company called Passion, but I wasn’t sure.

Because it was so hard to get introductions to the major CEOs, Marcus came up with another strategy.  He made me talk to the business associates and partners of companies that were ranked to be equal or even lower than Redforest, in hopes that they would spread the word.  Within an hour, Marcus’s plan started working.  We no longer had to search people out because they were coming to us.  Word had spread that we had a fabulous fragrance from a new flower, named the Lilting Lily, and everyone wanted a whiff of the scent.

We didn’t have to wait long before the big shots searched us out.  We talked to the CEOs of Passion and of Souvenir, and the co-founder of Glorious came by as well.  Soon, I had a stack of business cards in hand, all from people who were interested in buying my lily.

And then suddenly the crowd cleared.  Just as I was wondering if I’d said something offensive to make everyone run away, an extremely tall, daunting man came to stand in front of me.  It was Wayne Murdove.

I heard someone whisper behind us.  “If Murdove’s interested, we might as well forget it.”  Then there were disappointed sighs resounding from all around.

Mr. Murdove didn’t make any small talk, simply got right to business, handing me his card.  “I believe you know who I am, Ms. Hartley,” he said.  His face was severe and unsmiling, as though no one could ever impress him.  “My wife told me she met you earlier but didn’t get to sample the fragrance.  May I?”

He gestured to the bottle in my hand, and I nodded, giving it to him.  He waved it in front of his nose like a real connoisseur and inhaled once.  “Lovely.  Subtly sweet, but nothing like stargazer lilies, which in my opinion, are too overpowering.”  He handed back the bottle.  “I’m very interested in offering a price for this lily.  I believe our companies can work together to develop an excellent new fragrance line.”  Now he looked expectantly at me.  “Penny Lockhart says you are to decide on the best buyer.  I can assure you, Ms. Hartley, I will offer the best price.  There is no need to look further.”

I took a sideways glance at Marcus and saw him nodding his head.  He wanted me to accept the offer, but something felt wrong.  I wasn’t sure what it was, but I had a strange feeling, like Murdove just wasn’t the right one to win access to my lily.  But if Marcus thought it was for the best, I supposed I had to take the offer.  Also, I’d automatically pass Grandmother’s test, and I could relax for the rest of this vacation.

“Well then, Mr. Murdove,” I said, about to accept, but I was interrupted as someone sauntered up to his side.  It was the lady from this afternoon, Mrs. Murdove.

“Oh darling, I see you’ve met the lovely Ms. Hartley,” she said in a bubbly tone, which was quite strange considering this afternoon, she’d seemed ready to smite me for almost bumping into her.  “And did you get a chance to smell the lovely lily?”

“I did, honey.”  Mr. Murdove’s stoic face lit up with a syrupy adoration at the sight of his wife.  It was almost sickening.  “You should smell it and see what you think.”  He gestured to me as if calling to his dog, indicating to let his wife have the bottle of oil.

I was about to deliver it, only I saw the way she stared at someone right behind me and took an alarmed step back.

“M-mom?  It is you.”  This statement came from Tony, and both Marcus and I looked behind us at the same time to find him whiter than a specter.

“Excuse me?” Mrs. Murdove looked nervous but tried to cover it up with a laugh.  “Did you just call me your mother, young man?”

Stan nudged Tony in the ribs.  “What are you doing, man?”

But Tony wasn’t even blinking.  “Don’t pretend, Mom.  I know it’s you behind all that plastic surgery and Botox.”

“All right, now you’re just being plain rude,” Mrs. Murdove huffed indignantly.  “It’s people like you who make me sick, trying to claim anyone with a little money to be your blood relations in hopes you’ll scrape some of that money for yourselves.”

“I’m not lying,” Tony said, his voice rising.  We were starting to create a scene.  “If I was, then how would I know that your favorite ice cream flavor is pistachio, or that you hate spiders?  And how would I know you have a checkmark birth mark on your left shoulder, same as me because I inherited it from you?”

Now it was Mr. Murdove’s turn to look at his wife in dismay.  “He does seem to know you very well, Veronica.”

“Are you accusing me of lying?” the woman cried shrilly, throwing the beginnings of a tantrum.  “After I bore you a son and a daughter and helped your business flourish?”  Then she took a deep breath, trying to calm herself.  “I’ll admit this kid knows a lot about me, but it must be coincidence.  Or he must be a stalker.  You should be demanding a restraining order, not accusing me of lying to you.  My only children are the ones you have fathered—Josh and Phoebe.”

Tony visibly tensed at the mention of the children’s names.

Mr. Murdove gazed at his wife a few more seconds before resolve finally settled in his face.  “You’re right.  I apologize, sweetheart.  I will not tolerate these rumors being circulated.  We’re going home.  Go ahead, and I’ll meet you at the door.”

Mrs. Murdove flashed one more resentful glance at Tony before marching off, leaving us to face her husband’s wrath.  “Ms. Hartley,” he addressed curtly.  “Your associate’s conduct is entirely inappropriate, but I know it is not a reflection of you or your work ethics.”  His face softened, but barely.  “I am still interested in this lily of yours, but I trust the next time we meet, Splash and Spray will have taken the appropriate disciplinary actions against that boy.”  And with that last vengeful statement, he fumed off.

The crowd gathered around us murmured in awe, until I saw Grandmother approach us and finally shoo them away, with Marcus’s help.

“Nothing to see here,” Marcus said.  He glared at some couple who was gawking at Tony and whispering to each other.  “What are you looking at?  Mind your own business.”

Grandmother was a little more subtle.  “Dinner’s about to start,” she said.  “Time to head into the banquet room.”

The crowd dispersed at that announcement.  Apparently, the drama that had unfolded before their eyes took a back seat to the opportunity to fill their hungry stomachs.

Grandmother walked over to Tony and gently spoke to him.  “Mr. Mercer, under the circumstances, I’ll have Porter take you back to the lodge first.”

Tony wasn’t able to reply.  He still looked too stunned, not quite able to believe what had just happened.  So Grandmother asked one of the servers to escort him to the door, while she alerted Porter.  Meanwhile, the rest of us stared at each other, not quite sure what else to do.

Grandmother finally turned to us.  “As for the rest of you, the best way to handle this scene is to sit through the rest of this dinner as though nothing happened.  People will forget about it if they believe you don’t care.”

“Grandmother,” I whispered.  “Do you think she’s really Tony’s mother?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “He doesn’t look anything like Veronica, but maybe he would, if we found what she looked like before all that plastic surgery.”

“Tony likes practical jokes, but he wouldn’t make up something this serious,” Marcus said.

“I’m aware of that, Mr. Lew,” she told him.  “And rest assured, I will get to the bottom of this.  Now, let’s all brush ourselves off and get through this dinner.”




The following day, we were allowed to stay home from the convention.  There wasn’t much going on anyway.  At least not for us.  It was all workshops for the perfumers and cosmeticians.

Besides, Tony was far more important.  After lunch, Mrs. Lockhart called us for an informal meeting, and I knew it was to discuss Tony.

It turned out she had run a background check on Veronica Murdove and had received the results that morning.

“That was fast,” I commented to Heath, but then again, the rich had their advantages.

Tony wasn’t present at the meeting.  He hadn’t come out of his room all day, and we weren’t about to force him.

“What did you find?” Emma asked her grandma.

“Veronica was Tony’s mother, all right,” she replied grimly.  “Seven years ago, she changed her legal name from Nicole Mercer to Veronica Pearson.  Not long after, she married Murdove and became addicted to plastic surgery.”  Mrs. Lockhart pulled out a picture from the manila folder and placed it on the table for us to see.  “This was taken before all the surgery.”

Veronica Murdove looked so different than she did now that I wouldn’t even have known she was the same person if Mrs. Lockhart hadn’t told us.  There may have been a slight resemblance between the before and the after, although I had to really concentrate to see it.  It was a miracle that even Tony had recognized her.

The only things Veronica hadn’t changed were her eye color and the birthmark on her shoulder.  The mark was probably what gave her away to Tony, since the woman had been wearing a sleeveless dress.

“We have enough evidence to take this to court,” said Mrs. Lockhart.  “She abandoned Tony when he was still a child, so he could wring quite a bit of money from the Murdoves.  There was no alimony either, so even if Murdove divorces her, she gets half of the company.”  She shook her head.  “That stupid man.  Reminds me of my Walter, throwing everything away for a woman without getting to know her first.”

Emma visibly tensed and sat back quietly, and I knew she was thinking about her own parents’ situation.

“So who’s the lucky one to break the news to Tony?” Heath asked.

“No need for that.”  Tony quietly stepped from the shadows and into the light of the room.  “I heard you the first time.”  He walked towards Mrs. Lockhart and bowed his head.  “I just wanted to apologize for last night.  I started a scene and ruined everything.”

“Silly child,” Mrs. Lockhart’s face softened, as she gave him a slight pat on the shoulder.  “You ruined nothing.  It’s that hurtful woman.  How she could abandon such a precious child…”  There was a slight catch in her voice, but an instant later she was again in control.  “Don’t you worry, Tony.  We’re taking this to court.  She’ll admit you’re her child if it’s the last thing I do.”

“Actually, I don’t want to take it to court,” Tony said quietly, and we all poked at our ears, wondering if we’d gone deaf.

“Why not?” Stan exclaimed.

“Because it wouldn’t make a difference.  She abandoned me to start a new life.  She doesn’t want her new family to know about her son, and I don’t want to be the one to stir things up.  It would only make her hate me.”


“I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”  Tony cut Stan off with a frustrated wave of his hand.  “No taking it to court, and that’s final.  Now excuse me, I’m going for a walk in the woods.”

We knew better than to stop him.  He needed some alone time, no matter how much I wished I could go after him and help him take away the darkness.


That afternoon, I sat around the house with Stan, Heath, and Emma, playing board games.  Mrs. Lockhart was helping out at the convention, and my grandparents had gone Christmas shopping.

Tony hadn’t returned yet either, even though he’d gone out for that walk four hours ago.  I looked out the window, noted the sun was beginning to set, and frowned.

Even though he could take care of himself, the woods around us weren’t very friendly, and he wasn’t thinking straight.  If he stayed out any longer, it would be impossible for him to get back when it got dark, especially when he hadn’t brought a flash light.  Then he might accidently wander off the main road, get lost, or even worse, stumble off a cliff.  We were all worried, judging by the distant looks all around.  None of us was concentrating on the Monopoly board, and Heath had just handed Stan three thousand dollars instead of three hundred, which neither of them caught until I spoke up.

I knew I couldn’t just sit there any longer.  “I’m going to look for Tony.  This waiting is making me antsy.”

“We’ll all go,” Emma said.

“No, you aren’t,” I told her.  “You’re staying here, where it’s safe.  The three of us will go.”  Stan and Heath nodded in agreement.  Knowing Emma’s klutzy tendencies, she’d probably trip and fall off a cliff.  The girl was a hazard to her own health, and I wasn’t about to make it easier for her to accidently kill herself.

“If you don’t take me, I’ll tell Marlin,” she threatened.  “Then none of us will be able to sneak off.”

“That’s a bluff,” I called her out.  “You want to find Tony just as much as we do.”

“Yes, but if I tell Marlin, he’d send the servants to find Tony,” she said.  “Which is fine with me.  But the three of you wouldn’t be satisfied if you don’t do something yourselves.”

Curse the girl, she was right.  I’d much rather do the searching than sit back and wait for someone else to find Tony.

“Fine,” I said.  “But if you accidently sprain your ankle, we’re not carrying you.  And I get to call the shots.”

She agreed to this happily.  We told Marlin we were going to play in the snow, and we’d be back before it got too dark.

Once we got to the edge of the woods, we decided to split up.  Stan and Heath would go in one direction, and Emma and I would go in the other.  Since reception on our phones seemed fine here, if either group caught up to Tony first, we’d just call the other group.

It was a bit difficult trekking through the snow.  Even though most of it had been shoveled away from the main path, a fresh layer had fallen only this morning and hadn’t been cleared yet.  We were both having some trouble trudging through the white stuff in our boots and stumbled often.

So finally I told her she could hold onto me while we walked in order to keep her balance, but truthfully, and I would never admit it to her, she was keeping me from falling as well.

After some time, we still didn’t see any sign of Tony and were feeling a bit out of breath, so we took a rest under the shade of a fir tree.

“Where the hell did he go?” I groaned.

“I love that smell,” she commented, gazing at the trees surrounding us.  “The species of tree called AbiesAbies grandis is what we usually use as a Christmas tree around here.”

“I don’t care about Christmas trees,” I exclaimed angrily.  I couldn’t believe she would be talking about the smell of pine when Tony was lost and might be in trouble.

Her piercing stare came to fix on my face.  “I know you don’t, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s like you.  This forest is a Christmas tree forest, in case you didn’t know, and at the center of it is a tree one hundred and seventeen feet tall.  Every year, the locals chip in to decorate it, and the lights never go off until after New Year’s.  There’s even a choir of Santas and a train that kids can ride around the tree.  It’s one of the main tourist attractions here.”

The light went off in my head, as I jumped up.  “So you’re saying Tony might have gone there.”  It sounded like him.  He was such a big kid and loved kiddy things like that.

“That is precisely what I’m saying.”

I pulled her hand, forcing her to stand.  “Lead the way.”

We rushed through the trees, miraculously managing to avoid stray brush and branches.  Now that we had a destination, it wasn’t quite as difficult to get through the snow.  We broke into the clearing with the gigantic Christmas tree, just as a fresh bout of snow began to fall.

The thousands of strands of lights illuminated the darkening sky, as the sun was just beginning to set.  There was quite a crowd gathered around the tree, taking snapshots and waving hello as their children passed by on the train.

I truly believed it was going to be another sort of hell trying to find Tony among so many tourists.  So I was completely shocked when Emma pointed somewhere to our left and said, “Look.”

Following her gaze, I saw a lone figure watching the group of parents that surrounded the train, anxious to catch their children on camera.  Tony observed them from afar, hands in his pockets, as he brushed his toe against the snow.  He looked so lost and alone that I wanted to march over there, slap him, and tell him that mother of his wasn’t worth crap, just like mine.

I would have done just that if Emma hadn’t still been holding onto my arm.  “What do we do now?” she asked.

“We tell him to get his butt back home and get over it.  It’s not like he’s the only one with mother issues.”

“Yes, but we’ve had longer to deal with reality,” she said.  “And I don’t think anyone could just get over it.  I know I sure haven’t.  Have you?”

The question caught me off guard, but I was saved from answering, as Tony lifted his eyes and caught our gaze.  He grimaced sheepishly and nodded in our direction, but he showed no signs of coming towards us.  So we went to him.

“What are you doing here?” he muttered grumpily.

“Hello to you too,” I said.  “And we’re here looking for you because it’s been five hours since you took off, and we thought you might have died.”

“Nope, still living a miserable existence, sorry to say.”

We went back to staring at the gigantic Christmas tree, and I had to admit I didn’t know what to say.  I’d never seen Tony looking anything but happy.  He was always the jokester, always the glass is half full sort of guy.  But now I was able to see the sadness in his eyes, as though he hadn’t a clue how to take anything positive from this incident for the first time in his life, and it made him scared.

He just kept looking at the blinking lights, while his own eyes remained unblinking, reflecting the dots of reds and greens in a sheen of tears that threatened to spill over.  And then they did.  I’d never seen Tony cry before, and it was alarming.

“Tony—” I started, but he held me off.

“She promised me a Christmas tree, you know,” he said.  “Usually, she wasn’t in a good mood.  I always knew she thought I was a burden, and she was always wishing for jewelry and pretty clothes.  But then one Christmas, she said she’d gotten a Christmas bonus from her boss.  So she promised to buy me a tree.  Then she dropped me off at that stupid hospital because she couldn’t fit the tree with me in the car.  She promised she’d come back for me, and we’d decorate it together.  Only she never came back.”  He sniffed.  “I can’t believe I actually believed those promises.”  Then he shook his head, quickly brushing away the tears with the back of his hand.  “Doesn’t matter anyway.  I’m being stupid for crying.  Sorry to have made everyone worry.  Let’s go home.”

Then he marched away, dodging the crowds of overzealous parents and made his way back to the forest.  Emma and I had to chase him down.  We walked in silence until we could no longer hear the laughter behind us.  Then I made a quick phone call to tell Heath and Stan we’d found Tony, and we’d meet them back at the house.

When I hung up the phone, Emma startled me when she shot out to run behind Tony and pushed him.  “You’re wrong.”

Tony and I were so astonished by her sudden outburst that we froze in our tracks.

“You’re not being stupid,” she continued to rant.  “She’s the stupid one for abandoning such a great son like you.”

Tony stared at Emma as though she’d just slapped him, and then he slowly began to nod.  “You’re right.  She did a horrible thing, and it does matter.  She left me when I was her responsibility.”  The tears came back, and despite trying to keep them at bay, it was a futile effort.

He sank into the snow and began to weep bitterly.  Emma and I dropped down next to him, extending our hands to pat him comfortingly.  We didn’t say a word, only listened as he asked the inevitable question of why.  Why hadn’t she kept any of her promises?  Why had she abandoned him for a new family?  Why wasn’t he good enough for her?

Finally, when he was done, Emma reached into her pocket for a tissue and handed it to him.  He blew his nose hard, and it instantly went red.

“Tony,” Emma said quietly.  “I used to ask why all the time too.  But then Heath told me once that it’s not the right question to ask.  He said…”  She thought silently for a second, “Oh yes, Heath said there will always be some questions without answers.  Sometimes we’ll never know why.  Things just are.”

“Then what question do I ask?” Tony sniffed miserably.

Emma thought about this for a second, and then nodded her head furiously, having come up with an answer.  “How.  We ask how.  How will we move on and survive?  How will we become what we’re destined to be?  My mother said I was an awkward, useless child who would never be able to accomplish anything.  So I decided I would prove her wrong.  You should do the same, Tony.  Make your mother sorry that she ever abandoned you.”

“I’ve always wanted to become a comedian,” he said thoughtfully.  “And maybe get my own sitcom.  If I become famous, maybe she’ll come groveling back and finally admit I’m her son.”

This time I spoke up.  “But don’t be disappointed if she never does.”  I didn’t want Tony to become disillusioned.  “I never had a Christmas tree either,” I blurted out without meaning to.  I didn’t know why.  Maybe it was because my own mother had left right before Christmas.

“You’ve never had a tree?” Emma turned to me in surprise.

“Not a real one,” I admitted.  “We usually have a tiny, fake one.  Dad’s always depressed around Christmas because he’s thinking about my mom.  She left us before Christmas too.”  Dad never felt like getting a real tree or celebrating.  Instead, he usually went to work over time.  It was always my grandparents who tried to create the Christmas mood.

Silence descended again.  Then Tony was the one to break it this time.  He laughed once, hard and bitterly.  “I guess we all have something in common.  We have horrible mothers.”

At that statement, I was surprised to see Emma look straight at me.  “What would you do if your mother came back and said she was sorry?”  Although the question was meant for both of us, for some reason I thought she was mainly asking me.

“I’d forgive her,” Tony said.

“You would?” I looked at him incredulously.  “Even after all she did?”

“Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean I’d try to re-establish our relationship,” he said.  “In fact, I forgive her now.  I’d only go insane if I didn’t.”

“I agree with Tony about forgiving and letting go,” Emma said.  “But sometimes I dream that my mother came back and said she changed.  I know it wouldn’t really happen, but I wonder what I would do if it did.”

Again, I felt like she was speaking directly to me, even though she was talking about her own situation.

“If I were you, I’d turn my back on her,” I vowed, thinking about my own mother.  “I wouldn’t talk to her, even if she begged.”  My mom had destroyed my family, put us in debt, abandoned my father and me.  It would be wrong to let her back in my life.  I shouldn’t let her back in.  It would be a betrayal to my grandparents, to my father, and to myself.

“I’d be willing to see if she really did change,” Tony said.  “But she’d have to prove it before I decided to have her back in my life.”

“That sounds like a fair answer,” Emma agreed, and she looked to me.

“Why do you keep looking at me?” I grumbled.

“I’ve been taught by the four of you to look at someone when I speak to them,” she replied, a little cheekily, in my opinion.  “You are a part of this conversation, after all.”

I stood up, no longer wishing to continue this discussion.  “We should go back.  Everyone’s probably waiting for us for dinner.”

“It’s still a little early,” Tony said.  “I don’t feel like going back yet.”

Emma looked between Tony and me.  “All right, so let’s go do something else.”  She started for the opposite direction of the house.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“To get a tree.  We don’t need our mothers to have a Christmas tree.”

We followed Emma until we came to a Christmas tree farm that practically swarmed several hillsides.  We watched Emma frolic through the rows of trees, searching for the perfect Christmas tree, and we grunted a few replies when she asked for our opinions.  By the time we’d made our purchase of a lovely eight footer with lush branches, I noted that the light was finally back in Tony’s eyes.

At least my friend was feeling happier.  As for me, unwanted thoughts of my mother now swarmed my head, and I fought to push them away.

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