Below is the ominous, strangely poignant first ~18 pages of my second novel, Redwood Falls. The story of David Foster Sayers–who grows up to become one of the most infamous “eco-terrorists” in the world–begins when he’s a young, vulnerable, unusually naive child. His suffocatingly overprotective mother Rita is already headed for a “descent into madness,” as the Blood Alley Diaries reviewer phrased it. She whisks Foster away on a mysterious late-night road trip. The traumatic effects of which he may never recover from…
PART 1: PLANTING SEEDS
When I was eight years old, I decided what to do with my life. My mother decided to do anything she could to stop me. Anything.
I lay on my Salvation Army bed, scrawny eight-year-old me, with no clue as to the magnitude, the gravity, the sheer life-altering madness my choice would bring. I was reading a yellowed copy of Catcher in the Rye, cover worn off two owners ago. Eyes flying across the words.
Then it hit me.
No warning, not an inkling of an idea that gradually bloomed to full desire. It’s like I was a chameleon and my tongue shot out across space, latched onto the flitting fly of an idea, and yanked it into my consciousness. Ready to be chewed.
It mulled in my head for a few moments, the idea, and then I smiled, thinking How cool! I hopped off the bed and hurried out to the living room.
My mom sat on the old beige couch, cushions sunken under her weight. She wasn’t fat; hefty would be the more precise word. She was watching the game show Jeopardy! I glanced at the screen, and the most eminent mustachioed gentleman in all of TV-land read an answer. “Quartz!” Mom barked.
“What is quartz?” one of the contestants responded correctly. A minute smile etched into one side of my mom’s lips, carving a little divot into the pasty skin of her cheek.
“Mom?” I muttered. Engrossed in the thinking person’s game show, she didn’t notice my arrival. Her gaze lingered on the screen. A tiny reflected-contestant-facsimile appeared in her thick-lensed glasses, with an even more minute reflection below, in her shocking blue irises. Finally she glanced at me.
“I’m not on the show, I don’t have to answer in the form of a question.”
“What?” The skin between my eyes scrunched.
“So I still got it right. Perestroika!” she cried, correctly questioning a $300 answer. She looked at me, and I stared back, uncomprehending. Then she said, “What’s going on, sweetheart?”
“I know what I want to do.”
“When you grow up? Zachary Taylor!” Her eyes shifted between the screen and me. Me and the screen.
A Mona Lisa-like smile appeared on her lips. “You don’t want to wait until you grow up. You want to do it now as well?”
“David Foster Sayers, my little scholar! Only eight years old—the Amazon—and already so very specific with your words!” She smiled, pleased at what she’d no doubt consider her accomplishment. “What is it that you want to do, angel?”
“What is the Amazon?” a contestant said, and $800 was added to his score.
“I want to write.”
Her eyes flashed onto me and this time remained. Smile faltering as her lips went slack. “You . . .” She swallowed. “You mean like technical writing, right?”
“Writing for companies. Instruction booklets, manuals—stuff like that.” She stared at me now, intently, with those penetrating eyes. No longer paying an iota of attention to the TV.
“No, I mean books. Like Catcher in the Rye!”
“Oh.” She turned her face back to the TV. “Oh, I see. Of course.” An answer was given on Jeopardy!, but this time Mom didn’t respond, though I’m positive she knew the question. It was about Vincent Van Gogh—her favorite painter. One of her “Genuine Deities.” Her dark black eyebrows suddenly creased down hard, like she was trying to crack a walnut with her eye sockets. She bit her lip. Nostrils flared. Breathing heavily. Another answer whizzed by, unacknowledged.
“Mom, are you okay?” A sick feeling prodded at my tummy.
“Oh,” she murmured, “a writer, oh-wow-oh-no. But of course!” She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead with the first two fingers of one hand hard enough to make an audible friction sound. Like when she’d shade a drawing with a #2 pencil lain on its side.
She bolted to her feet and fled the living room, staring straight ahead, fluffy white slippers scuffing across the carpet. Mumbling, accruing static electricity with her feet. She grabbed the silver doorknob to her room and blue sparks flickered at her fingertips. I seriously heard them go pop! from across the room, but she didn’t flinch from the shock or anything. Just slammed the door behind herself.
Shuffling sounds woke me in the middle of the night. My bedroom door stood ajar. I squinted against the light filtering in from the hallway; Mom was bent over the open bottom drawer of my dresser. Legs spread wide, shin-length skirt pulled way up over her knees. She heaved clothes between her legs, into a suitcase on the floor behind her. Like a football player hiking the ball. Over and over.
I rubbed my eyes. “Wuh’re you doin, mommy?”
She paused, head upside-down between her knees. Scraggly curls of hair hung down like thick clusters of jungle vines. “We’re going on a journey, angel.” The hallway light was dim, but I could see enough. Her face was the red of a not-quite-ripe tomato.
“Journey to where?”
“An important place.”
This would prove, farther along down the path of time’s arrow, to be two things: extremely apt, and the understatement of my life. Such an indicator of things to come.
“Where?” I asked again.
Her upside-down face stared at me. If possible, try not to get stared at by an upside-down face. Too unsettling.
“You’ll see,” she said finally.
I’m not fanatical about surprises. So her words bothered me. This night, over a decade ago now as I write, is my earliest memory of an event—one unceremoniously forced upon me—that clanged against a basic aspect of my personality. Before long, it would seem like the whole world was designed to make me feel flawed on a fundamental level. I didn’t realize it at the time—ah, the blissful naivete of childhood—but she cunningly planned and executed things exactly this way.
The clock on my bedside desk neon-greened 10:37 P.M. Mom stood up and turned around. “O-K-A-Y, cherry pie. Let’s get you dressed.”
I rose from bed slowly, weak from the sudden wakeup. “Why’d you pack so much clothes?”
“We’ll be staying for as long as it takes.” No fluke—she really was that cryptic.
She held out a pair of navy blue sweatpants, hands clasped inside the waistband. I stepped into them. Then I lifted my arms straight in the air, reaching for the stars. Reaching for the treetop canopies (ones that used to shade the area right where I stood). She slipped a plain white shirt on. Then a black hoody.
Out through the living room. Silhouetted objects—couch, television and console, chairs, drapes, easel—were dark facsimiles of the familiar.
The air held an urgent weight. Like something monumental would happen in those dead sleepy hours. Like this gravity, pushing on me from all sides, only discernible in retrospect. But it was there. The seed gets planted, and may take years to sprout.
I climbed in Mom’s olive-green (where it wasn’t rusted) Oldsmobile. Oh how I would come to loathe that pre-catalytic-converter, petroleum-guzzling monstrosity.
It was late fall and we were only 15 miles east of the San Francisco Bay. The air was chilly and thin. It nipped at my fingers and nose. I crossed my arms, stuck my hands into my armpits for warmth. Mom went to the garage and carried something to the car. An uneasy feeling—related to, but not the same, as nausea—seeped into my stomach.
It was an axe. She clunked it into the trunk. When she plopped down next to me, the bench seat rocked. When she turned the key in the ignition, the car sputtered, and then roared to life, shuddering. I was hit fast with the faint stench of smoggy exhaust. I wanted nothing more in the world than for the engine to warm so I could turn on the heater. It was literally the only part of the trip Mom let me control.
“Why don’t you try and get some sleep, dear.” She was looking over at me. Her breath came out in a thin white fog, like ghosts were escaping her body with every breath.
I nodded, said nothing.
We ascended the freeway onramp. Soon was the sign that indicated we were entering Oakland. That night would be the first time I’ve ever gone more than one city away from Redwood Falls. I lay back and closed my eyes. A humongous pair of palms seemed to press on my eyeballs.
I shudder to think of all the fuel Mom’s huge Oldsmobile burned that night. For so many years, I felt implicated in everything, guilty: if I weren’t alive, Mom wouldn’t have made that road trip and guzzled all that gasoline, emitting carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, particulate matter, and so many other toxins.
As if it were my fault she didn’t approve of my life’s calling.
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I awoke later from a car door’s slam. My eyes snapped open. It felt like someone was sticking sharp knives in my skin all over my body.
My mom held a Styrofoam cup (oh how I would grow to loathe those, too) and a thin aluminum can. She took tiny sips from the cup, and set the can down in the cup holder. “Hello there,” she said.
She started the car and drove off. I looked out the window and watched the 7-11 recede, a glowing aura in the dark deserted night. I saw dead animals—raccoons, possums, birds, deer, a coyote—on the side of the highway more frequently than I saw other cars. We passed a sign that said 101 North.
I only knew one specific place that was north. “Are we going to Canada?”
Mom smiled. “No, not that far. We’re just going near the top of California.” She blew into the little slit in the plastic lid of her cup. She sipped. “You never cease to amuse me, darling.”
The headlights created a small splotch of dim road. It was an old car. I couldn’t see much of anything beyond the headlight glow, except a thin strip of flat, bare dirt. It could’ve been anything beyond that. A lake. A forest. Mountains. California is an eclectic hodge-podge of gorgeous scenery.
I looked up at the moon. It was bloated, gibbous, almost directly overhead. The sky was perfectly clear. No matter what changes happen in life and in our personalities, the moon is always the same. Same cycles. Same craters. It even goes so far as to face us the same way all the time. The only thing that ever really changes is our perspective.
“I have to admit it’s gettin better,” Mom suddenly cried. The radio was off. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. Took a big gulp from the aluminum can. “Gettin behhh-ter all the time!”
I must’ve slept for quite a while this time. I dreamt I was in prison, locked in a cage. I held onto the bars with my face pressed against the steel, screaming. I know I did something wrong to get there, I was a bad boy, I took something that wasn’t mine. Or maybe I was framed for something I didn’t do?
When I awoke, the car was still again. I shivered. Mom was gone. Her door ajar. I leaned forward to look out. She bent over the dirt, retching. Brownish vomit splashed onto the ground between her feet.
The headlights were still on. There’s something eerie about headlights at night when the engine is turned off. Maybe it’s the idea that you’ve fully stopped, with no means of quick escape if something comes after you, and only enough illumination to see it and know it’s too late to get away.
I became terrified for my mom’s welfare. She seemed so vulnerable, puking on the side of the road. “Mommy,” I said, voice shaking.
She dry-heaved, groaned. Wiped her lips with the back of her hand.
“Mom, are you okay? Please come back.”
She turned back to me with her hands on her knees. “I’m fine, sweetie.” She spit on the ground, walked slowly back to the car. “Learn from my mistakes—never mix coffee and Red Bull.”
I heard waves crashing nearby. Just beyond my mom’s puddle of steaming vomit was a dropoff. We were near the side of a cliff. Past that was the ocean. We must’ve been at least 150 feet above the water. The moon, midway between its zenith and the horizon, created huge patches of rippling silver on the ocean. It was unbelievably majestic, and made me brim with the most intense happiness. It is those fleeting moments of brilliance—and only those—that make this pathetic civilized human existence bearable.
There’s an hour around dawn when you feel like the only creature alive on the planet. The sun hasn’t quite come to wake your part of the world yet, and the city is dead, all yours. The birds nap between their 4 A.M. warmup and morning serenade. You could lie in the middle of an intersection for as long as your back could handle it, and the only sound would be the distant glow of cars on the freeway, like some giant stretched-out concrete beast, softly breathing the harmonies of early morning.
At 4:45, we entered the forest. The trees were towering, with tops that seemed to graze the stars. They filled me with an even greater sense of wonder than the ocean had.
Mom sat forward in her seat, clutching the steering wheel to her chest. She drove slowly, half the limit of 40. Her head swiveled back and forth. Scanning the trees, searching furiously.
My heart pounded; there was a heavy pressure on my chest. I was both frightened and titillated. Mom’s mysterious behavior only deepened the effect.
We pulled to the side of the road. Shut off the engine. It clicked, dying down.
Mom looked at me. Her thin hair was matted to the back of her head from leaning on the headrest for hours. She looked depleted. She pointed to the jacket on my lap. “Put that on, Foster. I don’t want you to get sick. It’s chilly out there.”
I nodded. She took a deep breath, and whooshed it out. “Okay,” she said. “It’s time.”
I opened the door and the chill air bit at my skin. It smelled salty, damp in my nostrils. And the trees—thick, fresh, green. A tremendous array of sensations. An onslaught of beauty.
Mom trudged around to the back of the car and opened the trunk. Its metal hinges creaked. I slipped on my jacket. It didn’t make me warm; it just kind of kept the cold at bay.
Things clunked around in the trunk. Fear exploded in me like a plutonium fission when I remembered what she had put back there, shattering my waning consciousness.
She stepped around the rear bumper of the car, carrying the axe with her right hand halfway up its wooden handle. It dangled just below her hip.
Brown wooden handle about three feet long. Steel head with a blunt red half, and then a sharp silver blade at the other end. The whole thing dulled by years of dust and entropy. I have no idea where it was last used, or for what. It must’ve been buried in the garage among boxes and painting supplies and Christmas lights, what looked like miles of Christmas lights. The axe was nothing special. But what it would do to me that night would have seemingly endless ramifications. This book might not have happened without that axe. In my memory, it has an almost preternatural glow.
Fear kicked my heart into gear.
“Come on, sweetheart. Gotta shake a leg!” She walked away from the car, lifted one of her legs, shook it convulsively to illustrate the point. There was dark forest looming over us in that direction. I sat frozen in place. It’s not like I thought my mother was going to hurt me. It’s just that the situation was so strange and alien that I didn’t particularly want to see where it would lead.
She stopped and turned around. “Come on, Foster.” (My name is David Foster—which should’ve tipped me off long before I realized the truth—but I go by Foster). “Nothing bad will happen. You’re safe with mommy. Always.” Nobody could ever understand how disingenuous those statements were. She came up and took me by the hand. I let her lead me into the forest. Like so many times in my life, I felt completely unable to control its course. I succumbed to my fate with not a word of objection. Not because I was too weak or timid to do anything about it, but because I just didn’t know how to.
We got to the growth of trees at the side of the road. A light clicked on. Mom held a large flashlight in the same hand as the axe. The light shined on tree trunks, on branches, on dirt, as Mom’s hand bounced up and down with our steps.
The tree trunks were wider than cars, with roots fanning out even farther, massive roots bigger than my arms. And their height! Taller than any building I’d ever seen. I craned my neck to try and see their tops, but they receded into the darkness of night. For all I knew, the trees could’ve stretched on forever. To the heavens. They filled me with awe, with a sense of wonder so great I could hardly walk. Several times I tripped and almost fell. I payed more attention to the majesty sprouting up out of the dirt around us than where my feet went. Mom had to catch me. “Be careful,” she whispered. I’m sure she noticed my reverence. And though it was too dark to see her face, I’m also sure the knowledge made her smile.
An unsettling feeling settled into the pit of my stomach by the time we were fifteen minutes into the forest. The oddity of the situation, and our isolation, was finally outweighing my amazement at the beauty around me. Mom held my hand.
Then she stopped. So abruptly that I kept walking for a second, and my arm was pulled backward. I uttered a little yelp of surprise.
“Well, here we are.” She huffed from the physical exertion.
I looked around. We stood in a small clearing in front of a cluster of trees that looked like an extended family gathered together. They were old-growth redwoods, trees that had taken upwards of a thousand years to grow to their skyscraping height. “Where are we?” I asked.
“We’re here. Wherever we are, we’re always here.”
I blinked. My perennial reaction to perplexing statements.
She switched the flashlight to her left hand. The axe head rested upside-down on the dirt. She cupped the other end in her right palm, absent-mindedly rubbing the wood with her thumb. “This is an important place, Foster. Because here we’re among family.”
“That’s right, baby. Family. The trees. See those over there?” She motioned to the cluster of redwoods.
“They’re our family. They live and breathe and feel, just like us.”
My eyebrows hunched down like two furry centipedes facing off. “Breathe?”
“Oh yes. They breathe in bad air and turn it into good air so that we can breathe. They give us life.”
The idea was completely nonsensical, but I knew she told the truth. She wouldn’t lie to me.
“They also eat, just like us.” She stepped slowly to the redwoods, raising her voice as she got farther away from me. It echoed, bouncing nebulously around the trees like a pinball. “They take in sunlight and eat the nutrients, and use it to grow bigger.”
I couldn’t understand how that was possible, but had no urge to ask for clarification. I didn’t need it, and probably wouldn’t be able to comprehend anyway.
“These ones have been living for thousands of years.” The trees made her seem like an ant. She rested the axe on one of their trunks. Placed her hand on the bark. “Come here, Foster.”
I walked over slowly, dragging my feet in the dirt. It felt like a chunk of wood was lodged in my throat.
She held the axe out to me as I approached. “Here you go,” she said. “Take it.”
I stared at the axe. A beam of moonlight glinted off the metal blade. “What for?”
“Take the axe, Foster.” Gentle, but commanding. The ominous undertones are only noticeable in retrospect.
I took hold of the thick wooden handle with my little fingers. It reminded me of how small I was, a little kid with a grownup’s toy.
“I want you to cut down the tree,” she said.
I stared at her blankly for a moment. Then my eyes shifted around. The trees stood over me like sentinels, waiting to see what would happen. “What?”
“I want you to take that axe and I want you to chop down this tree.” She put her hand on the bark, trailed her fingers down it.
“I don’t want to.”
“Because I don’t want to hurt it.”
Her eyes were probes, burning through her stock glasses and into my brain and my soul. “But you want to be a writer.”
“Writing is the same thing as cutting down trees.”
I tilted my head at her. “It is?”
Her eyes lit up with fervor. “Yes! Paper that you use to write on comes from trees!” She paused, took a breath, and her voice dropped in pitch. “People come into the woods, men with machines, they come into the forests just like this one, where the trees are sleeping with their families and friends, and they kill them. They kill them, Foster. They cut them all down, and slice them up to make paper.”
My eyes scanned the forest, dread rising in me like a boiling pot about to overflow, expecting to see these men coming now. My voice came out tiny, fragile, quivering. “Why do they do that?”
She responded as though each word had a period after it: “Because. People. Use. Paper.
“And do you know who uses the most paper, and is therefore responsible for killing the most trees?”
I shook my head slowly, never taking my eyes away from hers.
It felt like something inside me was given a noxious pinch. I swallowed thickly. Asked, “What?” in my little child’s voice.
“That’s right, Foster. Writers use more paper than anyone. They use up thousands of sheets of paper, of trees’ skin, to get good at it, and then when their books sell to thousands or millions of people, all these trees are cut down to make all those books.” She turned her head, squinting at me. “Do you think that’s right?”
I didn’t answer, because I felt nothing would change what must’ve been the truth of her words.
She held the axe out to me again. “Cut down the tree, sweetheart.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. I shook my head. Back and forth, once. Slowly.
“Well I guess I’m gonna have to do it.” She gripped the axe in her hands, turned and lunged at the redwood in a swinging arch. The blade crashed into its bark with a soft spongy thud. Two inches of steel were buried in the trunk of the tree. In its flesh.
“No!” I pled.
She yanked the axe away with a grunt, and reared back again. Slammed the blade into the same spot.
I sobbed now. “Mommy stop, please.”
She dropped the axe on the ground. Moved right next to the tree, and ran her finger inside the wound. A hot tear rolled down my cheek, tickled me. I didn’t brush it away. My breath came in jagged gasps. As did hers. She turned to me, held out her index finger. On it was a glob of something dark.
“Look at this, Foster. They bleed. Just like us.”
Farther up the highway, Mom suddenly slammed on her brakes. The tires screeched. She turned the wheel hard to the right, and we were on a small dirt road. It was scattered with rocks, rocks tinted purple with the glowing dawn. Some were small pebbles and some were almost as big as my head. The car crashed over them noisily. Massive trees surrounded us on both sides, towering over the car. I crouched low in my seat, craned my neck up, trying to see where the redwoods ended and the sky began. It was like a mouse looking up at a human.
We followed the winding dirt road for what seemed like a long time. We climbed up steep hills, the Oldsmobile shuddering slowly. Then we’d hurdle down hills at breakneck speeds. At the crest of one hill, deep into the forest, Mom pulled the car over and cranked the shift lever into PARK.
She turned to me. “Do you know what ghosts are, Foster?”
“Yeah. Like in a haunted house.”
She nodded, smiling tenderly. The love in her eyes made me feel precious. “You’re so smart, baby. Come on.” We climbed up an embankment on the side of the road. The dirt here was clumpy, loose, with scattered shrubs and weeds. My shoes sunk into the dirt. I slipped several times. We reached the top of the embankment.
The other side looked almost like pictures I’d seen of the surface of the moon. Except it wasn’t totally barren—you could tell there had been something there, at one time. It was a small valley, stretching hundreds of yards into the distance in front and to both sides. Dotted with tree stumps, shredded logs, branches, weeds, but mostly just dirt. Lots of dead-looking dirt. At the end of this massive field were rows of trees. The reality slowly dawned on me. This used to be a forest. I scanned the area over and over, my forehead scrunched down in confusion. A living, breathing forest.
“Can you believe it, Foster? This used to be just like the other forest we were in.”
My lips drew together. One of the stumps nearby had a thick chunk of mangled tree flesh sticking up out of it. It was almost like an arm, reaching toward the sky. And the jagged tips, where the rest of the tree tore off, were like fingers.
“This place is haunted, can’t you feel it?” my mother asked. “Haunted with the ghosts of the trees who used to live here.”
“What happened to it?” I asked quietly.
She put her hand on my shoulder, pulled me close to her. “All the classrooms in the country, they needed their books. Needed their Catchers in the Rye.”
We drove down Highway 101. A bluish glow crept across the eastern horizon. On the left were wide-open fields, crops, endless acres of green. On the right, the ocean. Occasionally, through my cracked window, I heard waves crashing. The air was so fresh and clean. I wanted to drink it, eat it, make it live inside me and give me life. I imagined myself as a tree; standing there and growing thick and tall for hundreds of years, sucking in this beautiful life-giving oxygen. I felt what it would be like to be one of those redwoods. Serenity. I wouldn’t like it if somebody came in the middle of the night and cut me down to make paper or wood, whether they got use out of it or not. Even if a tree can’t feel sorrow or longing, it exists, it wants to keep on living even if it isn’t aware, and it’s wrong for us to go against what’s best for it. Especially since they’re older and have been around longer than us. They are natural, perfect.
As if picking up my thoughts, Mom turned to me and said, “So no writing for you, right Foster?”
I looked at her. Nodded my head in affirmation, thinking about men with axes in the night.
At 6:34 P.M., we drove by a green metal rectangle welcoming us (back) to Redwood Falls. Population 11,341. I stared at the two words—Redwood Falls—wondering why they intrigued me so much. They looked odd put together like that. It’s like they were written in an alien tongue, a language I wasn’t aware I could read. One not of definition but of meaning. The only problem is that I didn’t understand the meaning; I just knew there was one, and that it was important. What happens when a redwood falls? Why did my mind latch onto those two words?
In any case, I entered my hometown a new person.