Mac placed her palm flat against the tree trunk. “This one has had a million birthdays,” she said seriously.
I scoffed. “You actually think that tree has been there a million years?”
Mac eyed me critically until Audrey spoke up from where she crouched by the fire.
“No, Emery. Not a million years. A million sunrises. A million birds singing in its branches. A million raindrops peppering its leaves.” She smiled at me. “Trees measure time differently than we do.”
Mac laughed jubilantly. She always rejoiced whenever Audrey proved me wrong. The kid had problems.
“Fine.” I grumbled. With Audrey and my sister teaming up against me, my night wasn’t looking like it’d be getting any better.
Audrey shot me a knowing smile and chased Mac away from the tree. “C’mon, Mac. It’s time for bed.”
Mac screeched and danced a swift jig around the campfire until I caught her arm. “Get over here, you.” I smirked and tossed her into her sleeping bag. “Now go to sleep.”
She burrowed into the sleeping bag then popped her head out of the top. “Tell me a story, Audrey.” She begged.
Audrey rolled her eyes and scooted closer. “You already told one about the trees.”
Mac shook her head. “No, that was real. I want one of your stories. The made-up ones.”
“Yeah, Audrey.” I studied her from across the campfire. “Tell us a story.”
She flushed under my gaze. “Alright. Let me think.”
After a moment, she began again. “Once upon a time there was a little girl who grew up in a valley.”
“Like the Fall,” Mac accused. “That’s real.”
“A magical valley, then. This girl, she was about your age,” Audrey prodded Mac in the stomach. Mac giggled.
“Anyways, she lived in a little house surrounded by trees with ruby-colored leaves. Every morning she would wake up and dance with the leaves that spun in the wind. And she was very happy.
“But one day, all of the leaves disappeared. They were blown away and the trees looked like skeletons. And the little girl was very afraid. She searched the valley looking for the ruby leaves, but there were none left.”
Mac’s eyes were drifting closed so Audrey dropped her voice to a murmur.
“Instead, she found a little boy. He had sapphires for eyes and he told the little girl she shouldn’t be afraid. You see, he explained, there are things called seasons. And eventually, after a while, the ruby leaves will come back. So you don’t have to worry.
So the little boy and the little girl became friends. He chased the skeletons off the trees and eventually, after a while, the leaves returned. But they were green this time. And the little boy told her how the leaves matched the emeralds in her eyes.”
Audrey looked at me and I realized this story wasn’t for Mac. It was for me.
“And when the leaves turned to rubies again, the little boy fell in love with the little girl. But the valley is dying and he can’t chase all of the skeletons away,” she whispered.
I studied her then. This little girl with the emeralds in her eyes. This little girl so afraid of skeletons. And in that moment, I knew I would never stop loving her. Even if she could never love me in return.