The Ficus Tree

The Ficus Tree

On Unforeseen Garden Encounters in a Wealthy Los Angeles Neighborhood

Oh, no. The alarm clock. Ya…? Cómo pasó? Qué dolor de cabeza tengo. God knows how I will be able to get something done in that garden, later. I definitely drank too much, last night. Pero qué fiesta, para mi princesa. The best niece an uncle could possibly ask for. I love her so much! How can she already be fifteen years old?! Quince años… Time flies… The day Mariana put her in my arms for the first time, at the hospital, I couldn’t believe it. She was such a little nugget. Sure, Mariana wasn’t ready, and that cabrónAhi, I don’t wanna even think about him. But we made it here, Mariana y Miguél, Miguél y Mariana, los hermanitos, twins and best friends, always together. And God blessed us with Susanita, and yesterday she was shining in her quinceañera dress! I can’t stop thinking about it… Qué benedición! Oh, el cafécito… What a headache. I should probably take an Advil… Or two. Or even more. 

Aquí estamos… This is a hell of a house! How can people possibly make enough money to own such a mansion in Los Angeles?! Maybe they’re rich people, born from rich people, always been rich people. But still… Mariana and I got here from Guerrero with nothing. And we can’t complain, oh no, we’ve always been honest workers. We never got caught up in… esa mierda, como el cabrón. And yesterday it was his daughter’s fifteenth birthday… Not even a phone call… Again, stop thinking about him! Here, all the tools… Oh yeah, this backyard definitely needs attention. It looks like nobody has worked here for at least twenty years, how weird… Oh, look at that little shady area, right under the ficus tree… That corner over there would be awesome for planting some roses! Let me check… 

“Hoot, hoot!”

Oh, Dios mío! Un pinche tecolote! Ave María! Barn owls are birds of bad omen! Cuando el tecolote canta, el indio muere, “When the barn owl sings, the native dies,” says the proverb! That raspy call chilled me to the bones… I’d better start working really hard, I wanna be out of here as soon as possible. Definitely before the night comes down. I don’t wanna meet that sinister creature again, ahi no! I didn’t know those creepy feathered creatures could live in a big city like Los Angeles, but clearly in this grown-wild garden it found the perfect nest… Why is my headache so strong? I thought that three pills of Advil would do the trick…

And now… Now what? What a weird stone… Here, let me dig more with this shovel… What’s this blue ruffled thing? Hairs?! Wait, that’s not a stone… Oh, Dios mío! Una calavera! This is a human skull! And more bones!What am I gonna do now?! And my head hurts so much, I think it will explode! I’ll never have so many margaritas again in the future, I swear, never again! 

“Hey, that’s not the margaritas… That’s me…”

I’m not just seeing birds of bad omen and digging up dead bodies in abandoned gardens, apparently. Now… Now I hear voices in my head. Ave María. God knows what the hell they put into those margaritas, yesterday night. My sister is gonna hear about this, I shouldn’t have trusted her stupid friend Eduardo, with his… alcohol barato… We should have bought high quality tequila! I’m surely intoxicated. I’ll die here alone and end up like this stupid bag of bones! 

“You’re not dying intoxicated! I’m telling you, this is not the cheap tequila. It’s me, connecting directly with your brain! That’s why your head hurts! It’s because of the magnetic frequencies.”

Pues, claro. That should be making me feel better, of course. And who are YOU?

“The dead body you’ve just found.”

I’m out. I’m going to the E.R. to get my stomach pumped. I’m definitely intoxicated. Then, when I eventually come to my senses, I’ll call the police and report the finding of these bones. I should have left right after I saw that stupid bird. Those creatures only bring trouble. Or better, I should have called in sick and never come here in the first place. I wouldn’t have had to deal with all this shit, then!

“Please, don’t leave.”

Oh, you bet! 

“Please, Miguél, don’t leave. I’m only fifteen years old. I mean, whatever remains of my body has been worm food since 1994, but once I was just like your niece, Susanita. If you love her, listen to me, please. Don’t leave.”

Mind tricks. Of course, this… thing… calls me by name and uses my princesa as leverage, since it’s the product of my own intoxicated imagination! 

“No, Miguél, I’m not! I’m real just like you are, I just belong to a different level of perception. You know that. You believe in it.” 

That’s true. That’s why we celebrate el Día de los Muertos. But… That’s for our ancestors… We’re not part of the same family!

“Although we are not related by blood, your love for your niece gave me the key to your consciousness, you know? Because of that love, I know you can be sympathetic towards me. Now that you’ve found my remains, I need to communicate with you, I need to tell you my story, so justice can be done. You are a good and just man. Would you help me, please?”

OK, chamaco. Dale, pues. What’s your name? And… How did you die so young? 

“My name is River De Jong. I was born and raised –– well, at least until it lasted –– here, in Los Angeles. I lived in a house in this neighborhood, not too far from here.”

Una fresita… A rich kid, then. Good for you. Oops… Sorry, I couldn’t help.

“No worries. Yes, my parents were doing pretty well as executives. But that’s not the ticket to happiness, you know? Whoever says that money buys happiness is a total liar since, guess what? It doesn’t. My parents used to spend more time traveling on business than they did at home, so I was pretty lonely. But, hey, I had a passion! When I was just a little kid I discovered music, and I couldn’t get enough of it! I loved music! They say it’s a drug, you know? It activates the production of dopamine, serotonin, and, well, all those substances in your brain that make you happy. So, one of my nannies was a huge fan of rock music. She would listen to it all the time on her headphones! One day, though, I woke up while she had “Stairway to Heaven” on our stereo. That moment changed my life. Throughout the song, multiple instrumental layers would continuously unfold, building up from the fragile acoustic guitar opening to the glorious electric guitar solo at the end, in a constant crescendo, although imbued with melancholy and nostalgia. It was earth-shattering. I realized that music was all I wanted to do in my life. So, on my eighth birthday, I asked my dad for an electric guitar and music lessons. It took me a while to convince him, but he eventually gave in! And that’s how I started to play the guitar and sing! And yes, my fingers were bloody all the time at first, but I was so happy!”

Qué cool! My niece loves music too. She sings in her high school choir, she’s very gifted. Sabes, I really enjoyed rock music when I was young… Guns ’n Roses, AC/DC, Scorpions were among my favorite bands… And, yes, “Stairway to Heaven” is definitely a masterpiece. But it’s true that music tastes have changed in the new generations. Teenagers don’t listen to rock music that much anymore, they prefer hip hop, trap music, reguetón… And they dance in such a vulgar way! They basically shake their booty to the rhythm of music! It’s called “perreo,” or “twerking,” in English… Ave María. I can’t imagine Susanita doing that! But sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you. Music is always a fun conversation topic. Go on, please.

“I’m glad to know that you liked rock music, too, when you were young! My dream was to become a rockstar, you know? A rockstar like Kurt Cobain. He was my idol. Isn’t it ironic that we died in the same month of the same year? April 1994. But he had already changed the history of music, when he died, at 27. He had written “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” one of the greatest songs of all time, and defined grunge as a new musical genre. When Kurt died, he wanted to die. And because of that, he became immortal. On the other hand, when I died, I was just a teenager with blue-dyed hair and a heart full of dreams. I didn’t have time to achieve anything, nor to leave a trace of me in this world. My best songs were yet to be written. I didn’t even get to try all those things that rockstars do. I’m not saying that destroying musical instruments, doing drugs, or getting drunk at concerts is good. I’m just saying that I didn’t even have a choice. They decided for me. They deprived me of the chance to live or die, just how it pleased me. And that’s so unjust. That’s what bothers me the most, more than the fact of being dead itself.”

Chamaco, lo siento mucho. Really, I’m so sorry about all this. But you didn’t tell me how it happened yet. Who shattered your dreams? Who decided for you? 

“I’ll get there… So, as you know, I used to live in this neighborhood. I attended that prestigious private high school that you have probably seen on the way here, right at the end of the boulevard. It’s an all-boys school. But I didn’t have many friends, there. To be very honest, I had none. Growing up, my only friend was Juancho, the son of our housekeeper, Mrs. Ana. They were the best, both of them. So sweet. I had so much fun with Juancho! We played soccer and hide-and-seek in the backyard. And we would sing together while I accompanied us on the guitar. He believed in me, he used to say that I would definitely break through as an artist, one day. But my schoolmates didn’t think that I was that cool. They actually thought I sucked. And that doesn’t surprise me, since I thought they sucked, too. They looked all the same, with those pink cheeks and those well-combed blonde curls. They all liked the same things, too, mostly breaking the school rules without being caught and playing the weirdest sports in the world. There were a bunch of them who played musical instruments, but they were mostly interested in classical music. They had a snobbish attitude towards every other musical genre. Including what I liked to play. Now, I understand that I could have made the effort to play with them sometimes, although classical music wasn’t my favorite genre, just to connect with other students through the universal language of music. But that’s death’s wisdom speaking. As a living fifteen-year-old boy, you are way more hot-blooded. In every sense.”

That’s so true, chamaco!

“Right?! But, hey, do you know what the main difference between me and my schoolmates was? It was the fact that, although I didn’t like them, I would always leave them alone. Being verbally or physically violent towards them in order to hurt them just because they were different from me never even crossed my mind. I was naturally tolerant. There was more than enough space for us all at school, even if, for me, that meant feeling lonely while waiting to meet more like-minded fellows in the future. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for some of them. One day, a small group of kids began to call me names in the cafeteria, saying that I was a weirdo and a loser because I was allergic to lactose. Since my menu was usually slightly different, first they made my food uneatable by throwing liquid glue on it, and then they dared me to eat it. The other kids stood around to watch, cheering the bullies on. When I told my parents about that, at home, they downplayed it by saying that these were things that kids do as pranks, and that if I ignored them, they would naturally stop. But they didn’t. Things got worse. Since that first time was supposedly so hilarious, they kept on going picking on other parts of me. They would make fun of my name, of my blue hair, of my skinny complexion, of my passion for rock music, of my ambitions. They would hide my personal belongings during PE classes, or throw them away in the trashcan. I was slandered, mistreated, and excluded on an everyday basis. At the same time, I was ashamed to tell teachers what was going on, after that first exchange with my parents, and I didn’t know how to defend myself. If going to school was like climbing up to Calvary, then I was Jesus Christ crucified.”

Ahi, no, lo siento mucho, River! I’m so sorry! That’s really terrible… Kids can be so cruel! What would I do if bullies treated my Susanita like that?! NO! I can’t even imagine that! And, definitely, your parents’ reaction didn’t help… So… Is the bullying connected to your death?

“Yes Miguél, it is. I’m dead because of a prank gone bad. The bullies were just waiting for the right occasion to do it. And eventually, it arrived. It was the bullies’ leader’s fifteenth birthday. His parents had organized a grandiose party at their mansion, to which not only the students of the entire school, but also the teachers were invited, right after classes. Because of that, it sounded like an official event, and my parents forced me to go, despite my stern objections. My dad kept pointing out that, in the course of my life, I would continuously find myself forced to attend unwanted events, so I had better toughen up and get used to it. ‘The earlier, the better’ — he said — ‘if you don’t want to be a loser.’ So, grudgingly, I went to that fucking party. Who knows, if I had paid attention to my gut, I would probably still be alive. Or maybe it was just my destiny to go so young. Who knows…”

Entonces… What happened at that party, then? How was it?

“To be very honest, when I got there, the party wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be, you know? The bullies seemed to mind their own business. I assumed that such non-belligerent behavior was due to the fact that parents and teachers were surveilling the party. But in hindsight, I realize that they were actually anticipating the unsupervised afterparty. At 5:00 PM, everybody had started to leave the house. While I was approaching the door, Birthday Boy and his crew got in my way: ‘Why are you leaving so early, blue mop? Come on, stay with us! Wouldn’t you like to get some extra cake in the backyard? My parents bought a special one, just for you. Let’s share it!’ I didn’t want to spend a minute more in there, but I was afraid that, if I refused their invitation, I would have to pay the piper at school. So, although reluctantly, I followed the kids to the backyard. From the outside, it looked like the perfect teen movie scene: five fifteen-year-olds sitting in a circle with their legs crossed, sharing a birthday cake in a little, cozy, wooden house in the garden. Except that… It wasn’t. I was actually the protagonist of a horror movie, and I didn’t know it. I…”

It’s ok, River, it’s ok! Take your time.

“Well, I had taken only a few bites of my slice of cake when I started feeling very hot. I was so sweaty that I felt compelled to take off my hoodie, but that uncomfortable heat was still there, accompanied by a heavy feeling of dizziness. I had the sensation that the entire room was spinning around me. When I lifted my head in search of fresh air, Birthday Boy burst out laughing: ‘Look, guys! Now we have a blue pufferfish among us!’ A pufferfish?! I instinctively brought my hands toward my face and touched my cheeks. They had swelled to twice their size. ‘Look at his hands’ — his brother echoed, laughing so hard that tears were streaming his face— ‘they are huge flippers, now!’ I kept swelling, and swelling, and swelling, amidst the laughter and the mockery: ‘We’ve been waiting for this show for such a long time! You’re never a disappointment, De Jong!’ At that point, I realized that the cake I was given was not lactose-free, and that it was on purpose. I got very scared. I tried to get up and run away, but I couldn’t move anymore. I tried to scream, but nothing came out of my throat. Everything turned black. The last thing I remember was the cold floor on my left cheek before I passed out.” 

Ahi, no! Qué tragedia! Lo siento mucho, River! I’m literally moved to tears, I don’t know what to say! So… That’s it? That’s how you died?

“That’s the worst part, Miguél. If only those motherfuckers would have called 911, a shot of epinephrine would have stopped the anaphylaxis. But when they saw me lying unconscious, they started panicking. Their only goal was to mock me while I was swollen like a balloon. In their mind, it was just an innocent prank: once the effect of the allergen faded out, I’d simply deflate and go home like nothing had happened. It would have been like inhaling helium, funny while it lasted, but short. On the other hand, there I was, swollen, yes, but knocked out on the floor. And that wasn’t funny anymore. The last thing they wanted was for their parents to discover what they had done. That accident would put them in serious trouble for college and jeopardize their future forever. In their position, that wasn’t advisable. If only they had had the guts to check my body, they would have figured out that I wasn’t dead yet! But they didn’t. I was dead to them. So, they all agreed: they had to make my body disappear. The remodeling that was going on in the garden that spring offered the perfect cover-up. With the help of one of the mansion’s gardeners, Timothy Schmidt, Andrew McTurner, Donald Parker, Jr., and his brother Matthew Parker buried me still alive under this ficus tree on April 21st, 1994. The Parker brothers have recently inherited this mansion from their departed father, Donald Parker, Sr.”

AHI, DIOS MÍO! Lo siento mucho, River! That’s terrible, there are no words to describe how I feel! You were only an innocent kid… You didn’t deserve any of that cruelty! But wait, the names of those bullies… I know those names! They are among the richest people in this city! And… Oh, no! Matthew Parker is my employer! His assistant called me to take care of this garden a few days ago! If only I knew who these people were! I’m so sorry, River! I’m so sorry! Perdóname. I won’t take their money, I don’t wanna be paid by a family of assassins! Perdóname

“No, Miguél! No. You don’t have to be sorry. How could you know. Nobody knows that they killed me. After I was reported missing, my face was on every newspaper. Sure enough, becoming famous was my dream, but you must always be careful when you desire something very badly, since it might materialize in unforeseen ways. In the end, the police never found me, so my case file was relegated among cold case files pretty soon. What a stupid way to go, right?! Buried alive after an anaphylactic reaction at a rich kid’s birthday party. A rockstar would never had died in such an aesthetically ugly way, all swollen and covered in dirt, with the lungs filled with manure. I remember that I cried so much when I saw on TV that Kurt Cobain had shot himself in the face with a 20-gauge shotgun, only a few weeks prior to my own passing. He had such a pretty face. But that’s how he wanted to go, and in his suicide note he had clearly stated: ‘It’s better to burn out than to fade away’. But what about me? I was never given the choice either to burn out or to fade away! I was buried alive! My only consolation is that my flesh eventually nourished this ficus tree. It’s nice to know that, somehow, what once was my blood runs in its sap, and that now I breathe through its leaves. My fingers don’t play guitar anymore, yet they are branches that offer shelter to the birds. I can feel the hummingbirds’ tickling while they hover above my leaves, catching small insects with their long bills. Sometimes, seabirds come here from the beach, and they tell me stories about the Ocean with their high-pitched chant. I used to love the sight of the Ocean from Hermosa Beach Pier, when I was alive. I miss it very much, it was so soothing. And that barn owl you encountered has been visiting me for years now, every night. I’ve grown used to its lanky, ghostly pale figure. I frequently find myself scanning the horizon in search for it, if it doesn’t promptly show up at nightfall. There’s always a spot for him in my hollow chest. By the way, the sun is going down… Time flies when you are in good company! You should go, my friend, it’s late… Thank you for finding my remains, for taking the time to listen to my story. I know that you’ll visit me, once I make it to a cemetery. Say hi to Susanita from me… She’ll have a good life, I promise. But please, find a way to do justice. I need it.”

River, amigo mío! Please, don’t go! I have a lot more questions to ask you! What happened to your parents after you went missing? Are they still in town? And why has this garden been abandoned for so many years? Did Donald Parker’s father know…? I really wanna do justice, River, but I don’t know how! Please show me the way, I’m only a gardener! River, por favor! River… I promise I’ll do anything to help you, River! But give me a sign… Por favor… Amigo mío

Pues… He’s gone. I assume I’ll have to figure all that out by myself. Que Dios me ayude. I’ll ask Susanita, she’ll be happy to help me. Also, she’s so good with computers! What a day. But my head… It doesn’t hurt anymore. So, he was right, the headache wasn’t because of the cheap tequila. Or at least, not totally. Looks like Eduardo dodged a bullet… Here, let me collect all of my stuff… I’d better go home, yes. 

“Hoot, hoot!”

Oh, mira, el tecolote… It’s coming back! Look at those sparkling, penetrating black eyes on that heart-shaped pale face… I’m so relieved, at least River won’t spend the night alone… 

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