Earth is going to die and I know when.
The trees told me. There was an old oak outside my bedroom window, when I was a baby, and it whispered into my dreams.
The best trees were the ones in the Coopers’ land. Even while I was awake I could feel them whispering under my skin — a language I didn’t usually understand without my dreams as a translator. But every time I went to listen, Leon Cooper came running through the woods, his ridiculous white shirt flapping behind him.
“You’re trespassing,” he said that one time, keeping a few metres of leafy, muddy ground between us. His face was red from running. He crossed his arms and I stuck out my tongue.
“You’re irritating,” I replied. His nostrils flared, making his nose look even bigger, and he stepped towards me. I slung my leg over my bike.
“I’ll tell my parents,” he said.
He charged at me and I biked towards him, turning at the last second to splash mud over that perfect shirt. I got away, terrified he really would tell his parents. As far as I know, he never did.
To this day, I’ve never felt the warmth of the trees as strongly as in the Cooper’s land. I daydream about it at the lunch table, sat between Rebecca and Chelsey, the only two people to have taken pity on me.
The other kids think I’m a freak after I told my secret to Sophie Blackmore five years ago at a sleepover. We pinkie swore to tell the truth, giggling through the darkness. “I used to fancy Leon Cooper,” she whispered and I gaped, disgusted at the idea of anyone fancying that red-faced, nostril-flaring boy. “Your turn.”
“I know when the world will end,” I whispered. “The trees told me.”
Beside me, in the canteen, Rebecca giggles and nudges Chelsey.
Leon Cooper has walked into the room. His shirt is as white as ever and he’s stood so straight there must be a rod up his arse. Although he’s grown into his nose.
“I heard his parents own that mansion outside town,” Rebecca whispers.
“Well, I heard he rides horses and plays golf.”
I stuff my sandwich into my mouth. “I heard he’s an arrogant bastard,” I say around my food and they gape at me. I shrug. When you know the world’s going to end, you care less what people think of you.
Rebecca gasps. “Mel, he’s staring at you!”
I look up and he is — straight-faced and serious, like he’s got the world on his shoulders. I raise an eyebrow. I have got the world on my shoulders and I know how to smile, but he still stares, frowning like he can’t remember where he knows me from.
I take another bite of sandwich, wiping mayonnaise from my lip, and stick up my middle finger.
He chokes with surprise and Sophie Blackmore calls him to her table. She leaves her hand on his arm as he sits down, but there’s a curl in the corner of his lips.
I walk down the river bank and into the Cooper’s land. Yes, it’s trespassing, but I need to hear the trees. It’s soon now and I’m scared.
I run my fingertips over the bark, collecting flecks of moss until my skin turns green. I press my ear to the soft ground and close my eyes. The trees whisper through my dreams and tell me not to feel afraid.
But I understand what will happen.
And I am afraid.
I open my eyes. A twig is tangled in my hair and leaves are pressed into my clothes. It’s getting dark and the trees are loud, their voices so sad it aches.
There’s a snap and I whirl. It’s Leon, his eyes wide with surprise. He doesn’t need to ask what I’m doing here; he knows the stories about me and he must remember chasing me away all those years ago.
“Why are you crying?” he says instead and I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand, surprised to find he’s right. I glare at him, locking down whatever thoughts were written across my expression.
“Because I saw your face.” Pathetic, I think.
He snorts. “At least you don’t have a mirror; you’d be sobbing.” I try not to smile.
“Tree hugger.” I shake my head and look at the tree beside me. She’s trying to be brave; I can feel it.
“They say you know when the world will end.”
I shrug. “They say you play golf.”
“They’re wrong,” he smiles. “I don’t play golf.”
He waits, but I don’t reply.
The trees are screaming.
It’s too loud in the woods so I sit on the bank, knees pulled to my chest, and knot my fingers in the damp grass. It smells sweet and earthy, exactly how I want this moment to smell.
“It’s you.” I jump.
Leon Cooper stands on the bank, hands in the pockets of his Corduroys. I scoff like I’m not happy to see him.
“You didn’t come to the woods today.” He sits beside me and stares at the ripples on the river.
“Well,” I shrug, “it is trespassing.”
I rest my chin on my knees and watch the water. The last sunlight bleeds into the sky and I tremble, pressing my hands to the earth. It feels so solid.
Beside me, Leon’s breath is ragged. “Why are you crying?” I whisper. His pupils are huge in the darkness.
“Because I saw your face,” he inhales, “and you know when the world will end.”
The darkness crackles, electrified. My heart pounds against my ribcage as the river gurgles and dead fish rise to its surface. I swallow, fear trembling through my body.
As the trees go silent, Leon takes my hand.
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