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Too Late

Rating: PG-13

I am eight years old, carving a face into the sapling outside my bedroom window-two notches for the eyes, a pair of pricks for the nostrils, and a furrow for the mouth. If I stare at it for too long, I can almost see it move.

As the tree grows larger, so does its face. The lips grow long and sensuous, the nose begins to jut, shallow divots on either side suggesting nostrils. The eyes crack open, dark pits peering out from a crown of drooping leaves.

"It's staring at me," I tell my mother, indicating the face outside my window. "The tree."

"That's odd," my mother remarks, scarcely glancing up from her hamper. "Almost looks like it has a face, doesn't it?"

She goes back to folding my laundry. Over her shoulder, I see the tree wink.

I hang curtains over my window, but I can see its shadow through the thick gingham, hear the rustling of leaves that almost sounds like words.

I spend a week sleeping underneath my bed, buried in a nest of pillows and throw blankets, because I don't like the idea of the tree staring at me when I can't stare at it. When I start to ache from sleeping on the floor, I begrudgingly go topside.

I am thirteen. The tree has doubled in height. Two gnarled branches sprout from the bole, grasping at the clouds with spindled fingers. Whorls in the wood suggest pupils, ears, a mild case of acne. I sympathize, and spend a whole night skiving the rough bark back to its accustomed smoothness.

I am sixteen, and the first boy I've ever liked is underneath me, and I am kissing him. His breath catches.

"What?" I ask.

"That tree," he says. "It's looking at me."

I pivot sharply, earning a startled grunt from the boy. The tree's lips are peeled back, revealing twin rows of notched teeth.

"Oh, that," I say. "Just ignore it. If I close the curtain, it'll think it won."

That night, the tree sprouts legs. This development worries me. I remind myself that trees have roots; it can't uproot itself without divesting itself of its only source of nourishment.

The tree seems to realize this. Consternation furrows its craggy brow.

I am eighteen, curled up on my bed with my last high school yearbook, when the tree finally speaks.

"Lily," it rasps. Its voice sounds like the bottom of a canoe scraping over gravel. "Lily, you're going to college soon."

"Yes," I reply. "And good riddance. I'm tired of living next to a peeper."

The tree sighs a sigh like a thousand rivers rushing over stone. "Windows look both ways. How do you know you're not the one who's peeping at me?"

It's a fair point, I acknowledge.

I'm off to college a month later, determined not to give the tree another thought.

My dorm room is on the fifth floor. The window offers a view of staggered buildings, a volleyball court, walkways paved with manicured turf. I feel uprooted, but not in a bad way, nor a particularly good one. It is different here, and all the trees are faceless.

The tree cannot find me here, I think, and let this thought lull me into fretful sleep.

I awake to find the tree towering over my bed. Its branches brush the ceiling, its leaves and limbs shriveled, its face desiccated almost beyond recognition. It looks like it has been starving.

One branch stretches toward me as though frozen in time-an arm. Something dangles from its brittle fingers, and I reach out and grasp it.

"You forgot your sweater," it says.