Our “Great Break” contest winner: The House They Built

Autumn tree

It was an early autumnal morning the day Randolph decided Three Trees had to go. A Saturday, Juliette was volunteering at Langone Medical Center in Manhattan. He didn’t know how she did it, returning to the same floor week after week to work with Sebastian’s “friends,” each kid as bedridden as Seba had been, some with multi-colored wires splayed from their skulls and concealed, barely, with gauzy wraps, thin and soft. It was akin, Randolph thought, to returning to the scene of a crime. How could she smile and bring coffee and donuts and garden lilies to the same doctors who had failed their son? It was mind-boggling.

Randolph stood naked in his study, coffee mug in hand. No denying he had lost weight. His hipbones jutted out at painful angles. His pallor was a greasy yellow similar to a waxed stringbean. He looked like a waxed stringbean, gaunt and thin, irregularly hunched. His sister had been brave enough to speak up when Juliette had kept silent. Juliette rarely touched him now. The space between their sleeping bodies edged ever wider.

“Randy, it’s been a year,” his sister had said, nudging the bread basket toward him. “C’mon, eat.” They were at that god-awful Italian restaurant on the south side of Brooklyn’s Gowanus. Randolph dutifully pushed a piece of the sourdough roll back and forth inside his mouth until he could swallow the mass whole. It seemed he could trace its trajectory down his esophagus and then farther, deep inside his bowels, where it then sat unmovable for days. Never mind the gnocchi.

Randolph slung on a pair of cargo pants and a faded T-shirt. He walked to the window. Outside, the trees’ leaves were beginning to thin out and droop. The beech leaves shimmered like slivers of parchment paper. The skinny tree Randolph didn’t know the name of, the one perched on an outcropping of shale at the far end of the property, burned a surreal shade of pink. Through the exposed patches of sky, Randolph made out the stark geometric lines of the power cables that criss-crossed the horizon.

There was no avoiding it: Three Trees was dead center. Standing, the tree house was the focal point of Randolph’s sight line. His worktable was positioned in the corner of the study, so whenever he leaned back in his chair, he caught a glimpse of it. That panoptical feature was originally by design: Randolph could watch Seba from a distance, the little boy never suspecting his father’s keen eye. It was amazing, Randolph thought, that he had looked at the tree house every day for years and hadn’t seen it clearly until today. He felt as if he were waking from a long, heavy sleep, the dream matter still clouding his sense of logic.

Looking at it now, Three Trees appeared to Randolph as a wooden ship impossibly flung into the sky, forever moored in a thicket of tangled branches. He tried to ignore the hand-drawn flag that hung from its front end – the bow as it were. Seba had done the lettering himself – “Three Trees” scrawled in a child’s uncertain hand – and Juliette had cut and sewn the weather-proof fabric. Seba had coined the name in the literal sense: The tree house was stilted upon the intersection of a single red oak tree that morphed into three distinct sub-sections. Randolph and Juliette preferred to apply a more poetic meaning: They were three who had become one.

When they had purchased the Westchester home, a fixer-upper whose real value lay in its undisturbed acre-and-a-half of forested land, Cal, Randolph’s father, showed up two months later. The tree house had been Cal’s idea. It came to him, he said, on the airplane while flying over Colorado. He had been thinking of a trip he had taken there years earlier when he had slept in a tree house nested high in the Rocky Mountains. At dawn’s first light, he had had a bird’s eye view of a herd of deer as they woke, one by one, from a meadow dotted through with wildflowers and tall switchgrass. It was as if the herd had materialized from the morning fog, their sleek forms taking shape against a hazy silhouette of golden light.

“Every boy needs a tree house, same as he needs a dog,” Cal had said, definitively, as if arguing the point. He had thrown his carry-on luggage in the back of the Subaru like a man 20 years his junior.

“I didn’t have a tree house,” Randolph had pointed out.

“No, but you had a dog … and we’ll build this one together.”

Juliette, in her good-natured, enthusiastic way, had chanted, “Tree house, tree house, tree house!” from the back seat.

“Why does a tree need a house?” Seba had asked.

“Everyone needs a place to hang their hat,” Cal had said, “even trees,” and laughed along with Juliette.

Seba, looking out the window, imagined a forest of trees dressed in top hats and long-waisted dinner jackets.

Randolph worked his way through the house and to the outdoor shed. He contemplated phoning his father to confess what he was about to do. Then he thought the better of it. Cal would see the demolition as an act of betrayal, not toward the memory of Sebastian or to Juliette, but to him. Randolph knew that Cal thought the tree house redeemed every failure he had made as a father and that it doubly qualified him as a bona fide good grandfather. When the lumberyard had delivered the railroad tie that he and Cal had sunk into cement as a supporting leg, Randolph had carried one end of the heavy piece of wood and his father had taken the other. They hoisted the rail onto their shoulders and silently traversed the uneven, rocky pathway with a muscled grace Randolph understood was genetic but had no idea he actually possessed. It was the closest he had felt to his father in years.

But Three Trees was no more. It was a shell, just a bunch of sticks propped together and nailed into shape.

The ground, soft underfoot, was still damp from the previous night’s rain. Randolph’s boots sunk into the clay-colored soil. Sunlight pierced through the cloud coverage. Twenty years a New Yorker, and Randolph still hadn’t gotten used to the East Coast humidity. He preferred a dry heat. The humidity contracted everything. Even now, standing outside, Randolph felt that the corners of the world were collapsing in on him. He would soon be pinned to the ground or, worse, stubbed into the soil, a tree root recoiling into itself underground. Randolph sighed and, trying to ward off claustrophobia, vigorously shook his head. Barkley, their dog, pawed at the screen door, scratching to get outside. The Basset cocked his head and stared at Randolph with sad, mucusy eyes, his long ears sweeping the kitchen tile, but Randolph still said, “No.”

Randolph followed the stone path to the shed. He unhinged its doors and a cascade of crickets leapt from its darkness. Inside, the shed was cool and bore a heavy, earthy smell. Randolph grabbed the hammer and crowbar, pausing to note Sebastian’s collection of acorns that lined a shelf on the far wall. They had been a revelation for the boy. He had used their caps to dig miniature-sized holes around the property. He had buried handfuls whole, willing families of oak trees into existence. The acorns were soldiers and bombs both, used for fighting unpredictable, roaming foes imaginary and real, squirrels especially. Randolph pocketed an acorn and, as he did, Seba’s voice surfaced from the darkness. It was always the same: “I want to go home.”

“Go to sleep, Seba,” Randolph said aloud. It was a trick Randolph’s therapist had taught him. Seba’s voice disappeared, and Randolph instantly felt as if he had scolded his son for something he hadn’t done. “I’m sorry,” he said, waiting, but Seba’s voice didn’t return. “I’m sorry,” he said again, but this time with more force.

Randolph planned to break down the tree house the same way he and Cal had built it: board by board. He grabbed the hammer and crowbar. They felt like weapons in his hands, blunt instruments wielded to do blunt, unspeakable things. He left the shed door open behind him. The crickets quickly returned to its shadows, the vibrato hum of their legs building to a low chorus that pricked Randolph’s ears.

Randolph climbed the ladder to the tree house. He clasped each ladder rung with a fierceness that took him by surprise. He hadn’t felt so determined since Seba’s final prognosis. He was confident then to the point of being cocky – of course he would find the best medical treatment and doctors, of course money was no object, of course he understood the risks implicit in surgery. He had signed the waiver without reading it. The surgeon later told him that he had not, in his 30 years of practice, met an individual who had ever read the fine print as if this detail somehow exonerated both parties for the botched experiment, Seba’s body curled and wilted, no longer that of a spirited 7-year-old boy.

The tree house was taller than Randolph had remembered. He ran his palm along the tree trunk itself, half expecting to feel a heartbeart. The leaves hadn’t yet fallen from the massive oak. There existed above him a canopy of green visible from the uncovered half of the tree house platform. The tips of the leaves looked as if dipped in bronze. It wouldn’t take much, he realized, to break apart the house. Demolition was a 45-minute job. Building the thing had taken three months of planning and fixing, readjusting. He wanted the demolition to be done by the time Juliette came home from the hospital. He promised himself, once the tree house was down, he would return to her. He would be better. He would eat again, real food. He would cook. Filet mignon. Red wine. Salmon in butter sauce.

The first plank fell to the ground with a heavy, creaking sound, startling what Randolph assumed were raccoons in the bramble adjacent to the tree house. The second plank gave way as easily as the first. There was the rustling again of animal movement. He saw what appeared to be the wisp of a tail, large and black, as it surfaced the undergrowth nearby and then quickly disappeared. Randolph pried the nails off the roof until he could easily lift the plywood with both hands. With one strong, swift movement, he hefted the roof upwards and then let it fall. It slid from its angled perch and collapsed into a heap below, the wood scissoring. Randolph exhaled. The plume of his breath brushed against his chest like a feather falling from the sky.

The bramble shook as if alive. A turkey vulture, its wings massive and inky black, showed itself. It took to the sky and circled high above Randolph before swooping back down, a dark shadow descending. It had in its mouth some kind of small animal, the exposed meat quivering and glistening in the August sun. The carrion landed high in one of the branches where Randolph stood. In the distance, Randolph saw Barkley through the window of his study. The dog, raised on its hind legs, barked and howled in the empty home. Randolph withdrew the acorn from his pocket and took aim at the bird’s blood-red skull. He threw it and was amazed to find that he hit his target. The bird took flight, soaring on an air current unknown to Randolph and toward the blue expanse of the Hudson River.

Randolph threw the hammer and crowbar to the ground. Somewhere in the distance, a deer rose and turned its head but Randolph didn’t see it, and all he heard was the quiet rumble of the approaching Subaru as it rounded the steep curve in the road that led home.

Signe Bergstrom lives in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, with her son and fiancé. She is currently at work on Watershed, a collection of short stories.

Read our interview with Bergstrom on the inspiration and craft behind “The House They Built.”


Read our other winners:

Second place: “Fragile” by Anthony Howcroft

Third place: “A Two-Penny Opera” by Marie Smysor Watson 



Interested in entering a future contest? Our current contest, “Lesson Learned,” ends August 31, 2016. Submit today!