The Hazel Branch

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. Instead, she chose to savor 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 newborn sunrise. She knew she needed to get moving. There was only an hour left to get into the shower, get dressed for work, and get to the bus stop on time; but she still 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 of working at the grocery store register to save enough for the first and last months’ rent. She’d planned to be choosy, and take her time finding a place, but even though this was the first house she’d seen, she jumped on it.

The place was a long neglected mess that needed new paint, new carpet, and electrical work — but the yard. She’d never seen anything like the yard. It went on and on, the length of two full row-homes. 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. She wasn’t ashamed to admit that she’d snatched up the rental solely for the yard.

She braved a sip. The hot liquid seared her taste buds. It felt so good she decided to steal another second from her morning routine. 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 filter.

She bit her lower lip and sighed. There was no more time for lazing around and smelling steam. Only one more thing to do before she could begin the day.

She stepped out of her brown slippers, not wanting to get them soiled with dirt, rested her mug on the window sill behind her, and 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. Its withering complexion told it was in the tailspin of life. Standing next to the aging giant made her wonder how many amazing things it 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, she 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 its 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 bother digging underneath it. So far so good.

April removed her robe before attempting to ease over the wire. The thin, tattered blue frock had been her grandmother’s. 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. Every time she ventured into the small plot, she regretted not putting in a gate. 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 hole 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. She hadn’t seen him before. He was tall and slender. He wore a white sleeveless undershirt and backward baseball cap. 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 spine curved, leaning on his back foot. He was staring at her. She wondered how long he’d been watching.

April pretended not to see the strange man. 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 at the man. Alarm bells clanged in her head as she watched him effortlessly slither over the small black fence and into her yard. His hungry eyes locked onto 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 looked 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.

She 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. He smelled like he’d bathed in booze.

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 arm’s distance. She could feel him behind her.

She could see the hole at the base. 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. April’s 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. She was aiming for his groin, but she made contact with his stomach. He hissed at the impact, surprised by her resistance. His bloodshot eyes burned with anger.

April knew she wouldn’t get another chance. 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, sticky 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 formed hole above his heart. Red blood throbbed through his fingers. He fell backwards. Sitting in her grass, his mouth hung open wide in shock as the red pool grew around him.

April leaped 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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