“You’re breaking up with me?”
Victoria shut her eyes, her croaked voice from her memory echoing inside her head. Maybe this time, when she opens her eyes, Donna will be there, standing in front of her with a crooked smile and torn up jeans and vintage rock band shirt.
Victoria opened her eyes.
No one. Just an empty apartment, bare of furniture, with only dust formed around where things used to be.
Victoria swiped away a tear that rolled down her cheek as she stared hard at the glossy black invite that read like a retro travel poster. Join us at Selunia Falls!
After several weeks of rigorous interviews, the mysterious group at Selunia Falls invited Victoria to join their ranks as a botanist. The pay and benefits were great, and the secrecy intrigued her.
The day she told Donna remained etched in her head. Donna had shook her head firmly, stating that moving to this secluded town interfered with her dream to become a rockstar. Instruments packed and without so much as a backwards glance, Donna left that next morning.
With one last glance around her hollow apartment, Victoria shrugged on her backpack and stepped out the door, a rental van and official-looking driver in dark sunglasses ready to take her to Selunia Falls.
“I’m a botanist–not a Christmas tree seller!”
Victoria placed her hands firmly on her hips and scowled at Sian, her supervisor. They stood beneath a tarp, within a fenced area next to the laboratory. Rows of fuzzy fir saplings stretched before them, ending at a trailer that Victoria was soon to call “her office” for the next few months.
Sian held her hands up helplessly. “It’s not like we can just hire temporary people outside to sell Christmas trees. Sometimes we have to double up on tasks in this town.”
“Don’t we have Renaissance fairs that come through here?” Victoria asked incredulously.
“We do,” Sian said with a sheepish nod, “but we have a surprisingly iron-clad agreement with them.” She gestured to a row of saplings. “We need these to grow before December, or else we’re going to have some really angry townsfolk with repressed holiday energy.” Sian forced a smile, as though to channel positive energy. “I think you’re on the right track with your current experiments on expediting their growth and hues.”
Victoria fumed as Sian escaped back inside the laboratory. Ever since Victoria arrived at Selunia Falls, she had been relegated to menial tasks, with everyone around her being so dodgy about what the big secret is in Selunia Falls.
Soon, Sian had told her. Soon, I promise.
At what point does “soon” become “never?” Was she not worthy of the secret?
And now she had a few weeks to grow Christmas trees–a feat that usually takes years.
Victoria sighed before pulling on some gloves to examine the saplings. She poked and prodded them, while also pushing away the resentment in her body. There was nothing unusual with the saplings.
The items inside the trailer, on the other hand…
An assortment of jars containing odd liquids and dust filled the cabinets and open table spaces, with only brief notes on what the samples might do (asterisks around the word “might”). Victoria pored through the samples, her curiosity piqued by their textures, viscosities, and patterns.
These samples looked so… alien, Victoria thought to herself.
One shimmering orange sample caught her eye, as it coalesced and then dispersed in a constant pattern inside its jar. There were no notes on its properties, other than: Be sure to use gloves.
Victoria regarded the sample thoughtfully. Something about it called to her. She cradled the jar carefully in her arm, returning outside to pour a cup of it into the soil of one saplings.
For science, she thought wryly, as she watched the liquid soak through the sapling’s soil.
Victoria tried a few other samples, occasionally mixing some together before pouring them over other saplings. So immersed she was in her work that she realized, as she squinted at her notes, it was already dark. She scribbled some last notes before tidying up her space, locking up the fenced area, and heading home.
Victoria frowned, poking through a pile of dust where a sapling used to be. There were no remnants of green or brown from its former form, just a pile of dark dust.
Complete disintegration! Victoria realized with a start, marveling at the fineness of the dust.
Victoria peered once again at the coalescing sample, hoping to glean more information about its nature. It provided her no answers, simply coalescing and dispersing in its hypnotic motion.
Almost equally impressive were the rows of saplings that sprouted overnight to seven to eight foot tall trees. Their pines were lush and smelled like the embodiment of Christmas, which Victoria took some pride in after deciphering the different samples from last night. Many of her experiments were a success, yielding trees with different leaf colors such as pink and blue, with only a handful of her experiments producing dead or wilting trees.
Still, Victoria could not get her mind off of the disintegrated tree. She pulled out a pen to scribble notes in her work journal when she heard a truck pull up next to her trailer. A woman hopped out of the driver’s seat and sauntered toward Victoria. She had an air of stiff formality, despite wearing a T-shirt of some obscure band, its sleeves rolled up in a fashion like Donna would.
Victoria immediately hated her.
“Are the Christmas trees ready yet?” the woman demanded briskly.
Victoria glanced at the date on her phone. “It’s barely November!”
“Tell that to the people who are expecting trees today,” the woman said with a shrug.
Victoria eyed the woman. “And you are?”
“Reena.” The woman jerked a thumb at the truck she came in–a loaner, by the looks of the government license plate. “I’m a new security recruit here, tasked with doubling up this year to deliver Christmas trees during my off hours.”
“Sounds on brand for this town,” Victoria grumbled before going to her computer. Sure enough, five names were listed to have pre-ordered Christmas trees for delivery for today. “Thanks for the heads up, Sian,” Victoria muttered under her breath as she scanned the names.
One name in particular stuck out to her–-Dave, another security guard in Selunia Falls. Last week, on Halloween, Victoria swung by Anna’s Cafe to grab dinner when she noticed a visibly upset woman sitting outside of the cafe, presumably involved in some incident judging from the group of onlookers that had gathered. She had seen Dave hovering over the incident, but his demeanor was alarmingly apathetic to the woman’s distress. She had vowed that day to not put much faith in the town’s security.
The coalescing liquid caught Victoria’s eye, as though it was waving at her. She glanced at Reena, who was busy looking at her phone, before seizing the liquid and pouring it over five of the newly-grown trees. She hastily hid the liquid behind the counter before approaching Reena again. “Right this way,” Victoria said with a forced smile.
Reena grunted thanks before hauling the trees onto the truck one by one. Victoria watched Reena drive away, an odd satisfaction rolling across her body. She searched her makeshift office for a clipboard and pen. Then, as she settled into her chair, she reflected on her interactions with people in this town and scribbled down a list of names.
Victoria surveyed the row of trees, their bases glistening with a faint orange shimmer. For the past couple weeks, she had perfected her sampling amount and, if her calculations were correct, the trees in this row would disintegrate on Christmas Eve.
Victoria double-checked the names on her clipboard. On the top of one list was Arden, the head of security. Even with her disdain toward the town’s security, Victoria figured she should remain in his good graces. On the same list was Sadie, the quiet but kind girl who worked at Anna’s Cafe, and Sadie’s friend Rainbow, who was nice enough despite his dad being ornery.
On the other list, which was hidden beneath the first list, were Dave (“terrible security guard”), Sian (“made me sell Christmas trees”), Angela (“rude when she drinks”), Winter (“very cold and aloof”), and Dr. Campbell (“probably a vampire”).
And, of course, at the very top of the list: Reena (“stuck up jerk”).
A smile crept onto her face, buoyed by pride for her Christmas trees. Yet, the edges of her smile were anchored down by an inexplicable feeling that gnawed at her.
Victoria’s phone buzzed. She reached into her pocket and flipped on her phone to see that Sian texted her, asking her if she wanted anything from Anna’s Cafe.
An unexpected pang swelled in Victoria’s chest, as she found herself drawing a line through Sian’s name before adding it to the other list with Arden and Sadie. Lately, Sian had been inviting Victoria to coffee runs and even trivia nights with others.
That inexplicable feeling again! Uncertainty plagued Victoria as she crossed off more names on the list. She had seen cold and aloof Winter light up when he was with his friends like Harley, who she could tell shared a special bond with Winter, the two clutching to each other like a lifeline.
For the past several days, Reena had been stopping by to pick up trees. An odd thing happened–her aloof demeanor chipped away. And, when she smiled, she smiled wide, displaying a perfect set of teeth. Small talk grew into banter that actually elicited a genuine laugh from Victoria when Reena commented on Dave’s kale obsession.
Dr. Campbell… was probably still a vampire. Victoria will continue to believe that unless proven otherwise.
Victoria frowned. She knew what the inexplicable feeling was.
Was she actually starting to care about these people in Selunia Falls?
Victoria yearned for 4PM, when Reena would drive up to load up the trees. Today, Reena raved about her band that played in the town’s bars. “We do stuff from the 90s mainly,” Reena said. She smiled at Victoria. “You should come see us tonight.”
Victoria’s heart skipped, her smile faltering. “That actually sounds quite fun.”
Reena dusted off her hands as she placed the last Christmas tree on her truck. “We’re missing one.”
“Yes!” Reena’s smile widened. “My tree, silly!”
“Oh!” Victoria blushed. “Right.” She hurried to the Christmas tree with Reena’s name. She hesitated, before lifting the tree by its stand and returning to Reena.
Reena beamed when she saw her tree. “There she is.”
When she approached Victoria, Victoria pulled back.
Reena frowned. “What?”
Like a dam that was opened, guilt came crashing in, rippling across Victoria’s body and nearly causing her to collapse under the weight of the Christmas tree. She placed the tree down and hung her head. “Reena. I did something bad.”
Reena raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Victoria explained everything, even showing Reena the coalescing sample and the disintegrated trees from her experiments.
Reena glanced from the list, to the trees, to finally back to Victoria, her face aghast. “So you sent self-disintegrating Christmas trees to people that were on your naughty list?”
Victoria placed her head in her hands as she paced back and forth frantically. “This is a disaster.”
“I don’t understand.” Reena frowned. “Did you not consider that people would link this back to you?”
“I didn’t think that far ahead!” Victoria exclaimed, her voice squeaking as panic set in. “I didn’t think I was going to stick around here long enough to find out, too. I thought about having Sian take the fall, but I started to really enjoy working with her.” She hung her head. “I have to tell Sian. I’m going to go and make things right.”
“No–” Reena sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. “I can help you.”
“Let’s just say I know how to get out of tricky situations,” Reena said, her tone firm and leaving no room for elaboration.
Victoria regarded Reena. “No. I need to own up for my mistake.”
“That’s very noble,” Reena said flatly, “but how about you take this lifeline I’m throwing you instead so you don’t get kicked out of her?” She moved in front of Victoria to keep her from pacing. She placed her hands on Victoria’s shoulders and leveled her with a look. “Now, tell me, who did you give the bad trees to?”
Victoria ticked off a few names. Reena rubbed her chin thoughtfully before setting into action. Victoria directed her to a row of good trees that she had as backups. Reena loaded the truck up with as many Christmas trees as Victoria listed from her “naughty” list. Then, they hopped into the truck and set off into town.
The first few recipients of disintegrating trees were easy enough to swap. Reena channeled an air of authority, so the recipients only gave them odd looks but didn’t ask too many questions when Reena simply said they needed to swap out Christmas trees. The ladies helped transfer ornaments from the bad trees to the good ones as a gesture of goodwill and to expedite the process. They then placed the bad trees in the back of the truck, marked them, and continued on their way.
Then they arrived at the residence of the last person on the list: Dave the security guard.
“I gave Dave one of my earlier specimens,” Victoria said, concern in her voice.
When they peered into Dave’s window, Victoria’s fear was confirmed with a pile of dust in a corner where a Christmas tree should be.
“It probably just happened today,” Reena said.
“Why do you think that?”
“He constantly shares on Selunia Fall’s social media platform,” Reena said. “Pretty sure that he’d share if his Christmas tree became a pile of ash.” She glanced at her watch. “Dave gets off work around this time. We better hurry.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“How?” Victoria demanded. Her eyes flew up to the chimney above them.
Reena tossed her head back in a laugh. “Not through there!” She reached inside her leather jacket and produced a small black case. “I can pick locks.”
Reena crouched to be eye-level with the lock before sticking one small rod into the lock, and then another.
Victoria stood between her and the street, hoping to protect her from prying eyes and passersby. And also hoping that the passersby won’t be Dave.
Reena made quick work of the lock and pushed the door open. They quickly returned to the truck, picked up one of the remaining trees, and shuffled inside Dave’s house. Reena swept up the dust from the previous tree using a broom and pan from Dave’s kitchen while Victoria gathered the scattered ornaments from the floor.
Reena pulled up a picture of Dave’s previous Christmas tree, which Dave had posted on Selunia Fall’s social media website. The women referred to the picture as they carefully reconstructed the pattern of ornaments on the tree. When they were done, they dashed to the front door, softly shutting the door.
Victoria jumped and spun around to see Dave getting out of his car, which was parked behind their truck.. Victoria called out. “Oh, hello there!”
Dave walked toward them, a puzzled look on his face. He turned to Reena. “What are you doing here?”
“We were just about to knock on your door,” Reena said, so casually and collected that Victoria almost believed her. She jerked her head to the truck, where one Christmas tree remained. “I’m helping Victoria here deliver Christmas trees.”
Dave stared at them blankly. “I already have mine.” He pointed through the front door’s window, where their newly placed tree stood.
Victoria slapped her forehead, feigning surprise. “Oh so you do! The tree must be for someone else.”
Dave’s eyes flicked from Victoria to Reena, narrowing suspiciously. Victoria held her breath, hoping he couldn’t hear the hammering of her heart.
Finally, Dave said, “Well. Have a good evening.”
Victoria and Reena exchanged glances as Dave shut his door. They walked back to the truck, watching Dave through the window as they did. Dave looked at his Christmas tree, a frown in his face. He reached for an ornament, straightening it, before disappearing to the kitchen.
“I think we’re in the clear,” Reena whispered.
Victoria let out an exhale. “Thank you for helping me. And for not reporting me.”
Reena folded her arms and leaned back against the truck’s rear bumper. “Why did you do it?”
Victoria hung her head. “I was angry.” She explained. “My ex-girlfriend Donna and I were together for forever.” Her voice croaked. “I don’t really know who I am alone.”
Reena studied Victoria, her mouth pressed together in thought. “I think it’s a good thing you two drifted apart. Donna had to pursue her own dream, and you have to pursue your own.”
“Her dream was silly.”
“But it was still her dream,” Reena insisted. “It shouldn’t be diminished or disparaged, no matter how trivial it might seem to you.”
Victoria opened her mouth to interject, but then clamped it shut. The task of creating Christmas trees seemed silly to her at first, but she was extremely proud of her saplings that were now full-grown trees. The work she put into the task was arduous at times, but she enjoyed it. “I guess you’re right,” Victoria finally said, a weight seeming to fall away from her shoulders. She looked up at the last Christmas tree in the truck. “This one is yours by the way.”
Reena’s face lit up as she appraised her tree. “It looks like a real winner to me. Thank you.”
“Of course.” Victoria looked around the street, getting her bearings. “I can walk home from here by the way.”
Reena hesitated, before nodding. “As you wish.” She walked toward the driver’s seat of the truck before pausing in her tracks. She glanced over her shoulder. “See you at the show tonight?”
Victoria blinked in disbelief. “You still want me to come to your show? Even after what I’ve done?”
“I believe in second chances.” Reena looked around, at houses that surrounded them. “Especially here in Selunia Falls.” Her lips curved to a smile. “Just try not to disintegrate my bass player.”
Victoria chuckled. “I’ll do my best.” When Reena turned and took another step toward the car, Victoria called out, “And also–thank you.”
Victoria couldn’t see Reena’s face, but she knew she was smiling. “Merry Christmas, Victoria,” Reena said, as she hopped back into the truck and drove off.
Victoria took in a breath of the crisp air around her, grounding herself in this place–this odd town–and in this moment. Hope fluttered inside her chest as she thought about what she could achieve in this town, with pride swelling in her chest as she spied her Christmas trees peeking out some of the houses’ windows.
Victoria tilted her head up to the sky, feeling a chapter finally coming to a close as hope replaced resentment. And, she hoped that, wherever Donna was, that she was happy.