“Where did this come from?” Mr. Jacob Genesee called to his 14-year-old daughter, pulling up a young tree at its roots. “Julia, did you replant the tree-shoot that I picked and threw into the trash yesterday?”
“No, dad,” Julia responded from the kitchen, eating oatmeal for breakfast. “I don’t go digging through the trash. I could get germs!”
“Well, honey, someone replanted it,” her mother Claire explained, examining the mysterious regrown baby tree. “This is as bad as having a weed that never dies!”
“I think we got it this time,” her father insisted, throwing it into the trash bin and pushing dirt over the hole where it once grew.
“Why does everyone have to be so mean?” Julia questioned, slouching in her chair and brushing her chestnut brown hair from her shoulders. “Our little town of Humansville has so many problems. I would have liked to climb its branches one day. I want this town to be a better place to live,” she wished.
“You’re so idealistic,” her mother chided. “You need to be more realistic.”
“Realistic, pragmatic, practical,” her father instructed in a firm tone.
“I realistically wonder what today will bring when I have one less tree to sit under for shade,” Julia snapped. “Maybe you can figure it out for me. I’m only in the eighth grade.”
Her parents decided not to respond to her smart-aleck comments.
As she headed off to school, it started raining, one drop at a time, which fogged her glasses.
Later that day, when she returned home, she found a full-grown tree in her backyard with a huge trunk. Green leaves and red, juicy apples hung from the tree branches. A dripping wet player piano sat next to it, making haunting music.
“Is this a joke?” Julia whispered in disbelief. “Mom . . . Dad . . . you can stop your tricks now! I know you thought I was upset about you pulling out the tree-shoot, but really . . . this is a bit much. Where did you get this gigantic tree? What’s with the piano?”
Julia plopped herself beneath the shady branches. “I guess there’s nobody home,” she figured out, dozing off for a nap.
When she woke up, her parents and her 12-year-old, sandy blond-haired brother Nathan gawked at her beneath the awkward tree in the backyard. The player piano crooned melodies in the minor key.
“Young lady, what did you do this time?” her father ridiculed her, as eerie music played from the piano.
“What?” she snapped, waking up from a deep sleep, slowly remembering the addition of the tree in her backyard. “What did I do? No, what did you do? You can’t blame me for this!”
“I definitely didn’t plant this!” Claire, her mother, quipped, touching its trunk to make sure it was real. “This music is so strange. Does the piano play automatically?”
“Maybe this is a hoax from the neighbors, like an early Halloween,” her brother suggested. “We really never got along with them anyhow.”
“Halloween isn’t for months, and I’m hungry,” Julia moaned, grabbing a gorgeous, shiny apple from the tree, biting into it. As she was about to take another bite, her dog, Meatloaf, ran from the house and barked, knocking the apple from her hands onto the ground.
Her family watched worms crawl from the once pristine fruit. Julia swallowed hard, and Meatloaf kicked the rotten apple under a bush.
“Aren’t the glistening apples beautiful?” her mother bemused as her eyes became blinded.
“Julia must have just picked a bad one,” her father was sure, following her mother’s lead. “One bad apple can’t spoil the bunch!”
“I’m so curious,” her brother pondered, handing the apples to his parents before he bit into one. “Mine doesn’t have worms. It’s really fresh.”
“I don’t know,” Julia doubted, rubbing her head. “I have a stomachache from just one bite.”
“We might as well have apples for dinner tonight,” her father planned rashly.
“Better than the produce aisle at the grocery store,” her mother suggested, overcome with the deception of the fruit.
“Almost organic,” her brother reasoned. “We don’t use pesticides.”
Feeling sick from the apples, Julia attempted to find an off button on the player piano, sitting down in the front of it.
“There doesn’t seem to be a way to control this instrument. It just keeps playing and playing on its own,” Julia determined after a minute or so, watching her family enjoy the apples. “Oh, maybe I did just get a bad one.” Not thinking of the consequences, she grabbed another apple and sunk into it.
After a full meal of apples, the family went to bed for the night, and the player piano performed its creepy music without interruption, fast melodies, and then slow ones, changing keys and time signatures.
“I have a bigger stomachache than I did before the second apple,” Julia yawned to herself. “I feel like it is Halloween. Maybe I should wear a costume to school tomorrow.”
“Wow! I feel like a superhero,” Julia felt amazed, gazing at herself in the mirror the next morning. With bulging muscles, she stood taller in stature and stronger in form than ever before in her entire life. “I must have superpowers from the apples!” she called to her family, running into the driveway, and lifting the family car into the air.
“I’m stronger than a quarterback!” Nathan declared, throwing the football to the end of the neighborhood street without a whim.
Through the front window, Julia watched her mother and father rearrange the dining room furniture in minutes. “We decided to try a new look,” Julia’s mother explained as her children walked through the front door, accidentally slamming it, and breaking its frame.
“Be careful,” her father scolded, looking at the damage. “I’ll fix the cracks later.”
“Who cares about the broken door?” Julia asked, flexing her muscles. “I look like a sports model. The apples did this for us!” She ran to the tree and grabbed an apple with worms crawling from it for breakfast. Despite the rancid taste, she only felt its power.
The rest of the family ran to eat more apples as Meatloaf barked in warning.
“If I make applesauce, we can eat handfuls of fruit at once,” her mother suggested. “Our powers will increase exponentially.”
“We were meant to have this power,” her father insisted. “We deserve it.”
“Life is going to be so much easier,” Nathan decided. “No one will ever bully me again.”
After school, Julia came home and flung a detention notice on the kitchen counter.
“So, I broke the bathroom window by slamming the door and knocked over the chemistry lab table,” Julia laughed. “I didn’t mean to break anything. I was just showing my power to everyone around me. Mom and Dad won’t care.”
Since no one else was home, Julia walked into the backyard alone to eat some more apples and abruptly noticed a scantily dressed woman crawling in the mysterious tree, singing along with the player piano.
“Who are you? And what are you doing in my backyard?” Julia yelled at the stranger.
“Maybe I’ll tell you. Maybe I won’t,” the stranger in the green leaf-like body suit quipped. “Why should I tell you the truth?”
“The truth?” Julia responded. “Because I deserve it.”
“Oh, really?” the intruder sighed. “I thought you deserved power. You seemed to like the apples.”
“I didn’t put this tree here,” Julia snapped, feeling rageful at the need to eat more apples, and craving their taste. “It invaded my space.”
“Well, in that case, then maybe I should tell you the truth. My name is Evelyn,” she pondered. “As the story goes, the music from the player piano has the power to bring life or death. Which one do you want for Humansville, Julia? You are a smart girl.”
“Life,” Julia responded in a whisper. “I want life.”
“Good, I’m glad to hear that,” Evelyn concurred. “As a descendant of Eve, the first woman, I carry the Legend of the Tree of Good and Evil to whoever will listen. A version of the original Tree appears from time to time to test people. Didn’t you long for Humansville to be a better place to live? Well, you were asking for the Tree’s appearance when you did that!”
“I didn’t intentionally do anything,” Julia explained, wondering where her parents were at the moment. She hoped her brother would be home at any minute.
“Until the town understands its faults, how will it ever be a more gracious place to live?” Evelyn pronounced. “Remember when Eve and her husband Adam ate its apples and were kicked out of the Garden of Eden? You’ve clearly become addicted to its apples.”
“This sounds like what my science teacher taught about rats and mice becoming addicted to narcotics and other illegal drugs,” Julia commented. Then she blinked, and Evelyn was gone, but the player piano kept going. “This is getting weirder by the minute. Where did she go?”
Considering her options, Julia decided not to take any chances.
“I’m not going to be an addict. I have to get rid of these apples before they tempt anyone else,” Julia concluded, feeling woozy minutes later. She gathered the apples from the Tree and hid them in her bedroom so no one else could eat them. She withstood the thought of gorging herself on the fruit. Then, she looked out her bedroom window at a tree branch. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” she noticed that almost as soon as she had picked the apples the Tree had grown more fruit.
Before her family came home, she hurried into the backyard to destroy the new apples, driven by rage. Meatloaf barked, howling at the fruit, instead of being tempted by it.
“Man’s best friend,” Julia hugged Meatloaf, stomping on the apples that had already fallen to the ground, longing to eat another apple. “You’re always protecting me.”
She hoped her willpower against the apples would be enough. A ray of light shone through the clouds, and the wind brushed against her face.
“What’s going on?” her father asked, walking into the backyard, several inches taller than his normal size. Her mother had the muscles of a heavy-weight champion.
“Nothing. Not a thing,” Julia lied. “Just cleaning up around here.”
“I’m going to make apple pies tonight,” her mother called from the kitchen. “Your brother requested pie with vanilla ice cream. He’s bringing over some friends.”
“We want apples!” a group of guys yelled, running through the front door.
Her brother threw his friends against the wall, making a large crashing noise as a bookshelf with delicate pictures and keepsakes fell to the floor.
“Wow,” Julia commented, hurrying to her bedroom. “I have a lot of studying to do tonight. Big test tomorrow. I have to focus right now.”
She ran into her room with Meatloaf, locked the door, and buried herself into the covers on her bed with her dog. She cried, feeling the withdrawal of the apples. Her head throbbed, and her heart raced.
“What am I going to do?” she sobbed. “My family did not ask for this tree.”
That night, from her bedroom window, Julia watched Evelyn asleep on the tree branches under the moonlight. Julia wondered if she should wake Evelyn and demand a real explanation from her. Overnight, every apple that Julia tried to hide or destroy grew back.
In her sleep, Evelyn mumbled something about how Julia is the only one in the Genesee family that can see her.
“How lucky can Julia be? She is the only one in her family who has eyes to see me,” Evelyn chanted in a rhyme.
“Why does this have to happen to me?” Julia pounded the mattress on her bed. “What if Evelyn is just a figment of my imagination? Maybe the apples are making me think that she’s real, but she’s an illusion.”
The next day at school, Julia attempted to stop eating the deceptive apples.
Despite her longing for the fruit, she ate a ham and cheese sandwich and pretzels for lunch in the cafeteria. By the time the bell rang for her next class, her hands were shaking, and she craved the apples more than ever.
“I feel like I’m hallucinating, and I can’t see straight,” she moaned. “I have no choice. I might just have to eat one apple. One might be enough to help me through the day.”
She pulled an apple from her backpack in study hall, eating it before she could think about it. “Oh, I feel better,” she told herself, destroying everything in her path in a fit of rage when walking to her next class.
“Don’t go anywhere near her,” her classmate screamed. “She’s gone crazy. Her brother is the normal one. He’s so nice that he’s passing out apples. I just ate one.”
Hours later at home, Julia felt worse than ever, almost like she was dying, craving more apples. “I got my powers too easily,” she reprimanded herself, forgetting to brush her hair. “I did not earn the responsibility that comes with them. I am a mess.”
Wanting to avoid Evelyn, she sat in her front yard, looking at its decrepit surroundings, uprooted gardens and trees, broken roofs and windows, smashed cars into broken fences, and flatted garbage cans. As far as she could see, the entire place was in shambles.
“Apples!” she heard a grown man scream in the neighborhood. “More apples!”
“I think Mom passed out the apples to the neighbors,” Julia observed. “Clearly, too much applesauce.”
She felt sick to her stomach and could not think of a remedy.
“The Tree just keeps producing more bad apples,” she shook her head. “Everything is out of control.”
Walking into the backyard, Julia saw Evelyn sprawled across the tree branches.
“You have so much free will, and you can do whatever you want,” Evelyn whined. “I’m jealous. I want your life. It would be easier. I want to make my own choices.”
“Please tell me what to do to stop the madness from the apples,” Julia begged, throwing herself onto the ground in front of the Tree, crying. “I need to save Humansville. Stop being so mean. Tell me what to do to get rid of the poisonous apples. Their power is dangerous.”
“This is such a dark night of the soul for you, isn’t it? Hmm, you might need this lesson for your sanctification,” Evelyn taunted. “Sanctification. Do you know what that means?”
“Does it have anything to do with love?” Julia wept. “You are the one who needs to be sanctified. I didn’t make a stupid tree grow in your backyard.”
“Every hard thing in life is used for learning,” Evelyn remarked. “It’s just another lesson. You must have needed to go through this trial. What are you learning from this test? It’s harder than a chemistry test, isn’t it?”
“I’m learning that you are cruel and heartless,” Julia argued. “You won’t even let other people see you – only me. You are trying to make me seem mentally ill.”
“I’m merely a messenger,” Evelyn proclaimed. “I will never be a true human being, and I really do hate humans for their free will. So, I suppose I’m taking my problems out on you. What a pity!”
With that, Julia climbed up the Tree and threw Evelyn onto the ground. She wrestled with her until she had her in a headlock.
“You are the one who is about to learn something,” Julia screamed. “I’m about to be a very good teacher.”
“Fine! I give up!” Evelyn begged, gasping for air. “There is a second tree, the Tree of Life . . . in Eden. The seeds of its fruit create an elixir that reverses the curse from the apples on the Tree of Good and Evil.”
“Tell me more,” Julia threatened, pulling her hair with her hands around Evelyn’s neck.
“There is a window that opens next to the Tree of Good and Evil at midnight on the seventh full day of the Tree’s appearance,” Evelyn admitted. “When the player piano plays a specific magical song, the window allows a person to travel to Eden.”
“How do I know that you’re telling the truth?” Julia challenged.
“You don’t have a choice,” Evelyn pointed out. “If I help you through the window, I want you to help me become human.”
“I will help you become human in any way that I can,” Julia promised. “This would require me to save Humansville from destroying itself.”
As Julia threw Evelyn to the ground, rattling noises and large thuds came from the house. “My family is home,” Julia explained, hoping they had not completely destroyed the house with their superpowers. “I’ll be back at midnight.”
“I’ll be here,” Evelyn moaned. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Apples for dinner, Julia,” her mother called. “We’re waiting for you!”
“I’m not really hungry,” Julia lied, walking into the house with blood on her hands. “I already ate, but thanks.”
At midnight, the player piano began to play an altogether different melody, triumphant and grand, instead of melancholy. Although Julia wanted an apple badly, and she felt clammy all over, she resisted eating the fruit, and her superpowers had dissipated.
“It’s almost time to go,” Julia explained to Meatloaf as he whimpered next to the Tree. “You stay here, and I will be back as soon as I can.”
“Now is your chance,” Evelyn laughed with a smirk. “Make the most of it. The song won’t last but a few minutes.”
When the window between Humansville and Eden finally appeared, Julia jumped through it without a second thought.
“Don’t look back. Only move forward,” she yelped, to find a golden tree upon her arrival, the Tree of Life. She immediately grabbed its fruit, digging for its seeds.
She filled her pockets full of as many seeds as she could at once from the Tree’s fruit.
“It’s so beautiful,” Julia studied its branches in amazement with Evelyn watching her through the window.
“Hurry home,” Evelyn encouraged her. “Oh, but wait, how do you get back to Humansville once you’ve travelled to Eden? I forgot to mention that part. Yes, I forgot to mention a few things.”
“What do you mean you forgot to mention that part?” Julia yelled, trying to reach back through the window to Humansville. It was like she bumped her hand on a glass mirror. “You forgot to mention that it was a one-way window!”
“I tricked you into leaving your friends and family to die in Humansville,” Evelyn gloated, only partially sticking her head through the window. “If I can’t become a human, then the humans will die.”
“I’m going to kill you either way,” Julia warned. “So don’t worry about it.”
“Is that so? Well, if you want to come back to Humansville, then you can beseech Adam II, the new ruler of Eden,” Evelyn jeered. “Only Adam II can change me into a human being, and he has previously refused my request, saying that I am only a messenger and do not have the strength for free will.”
“I think he is right,” Julia agreed. “You would not do the right thing if the right thing hit you in the head.”
“Well, if you don’t speak to Adam II now, there is no hope for anyone in Humansville—your family and friends will die in a matter of three days,” Evelyn ridiculed, as the window slowly vanished like vapor. “So, I wouldn’t waste any time, if I were you. Get on with things.”
Julia sat alone next to the golden Tree of Life, looking across a lush garden that had rolling green hills and fragrant flowers. Bees and butterflies flew through the garden. The sun shone without a cloud in the sky. A waterfall crashed into the river surrounding the glistening Tree with rainbow fish jumping from it.
“Does anyone know the way to Adam II?” Julia called aloud, noticing villages with homes throughout the hillside. “I need some help.”
Then she looked up to find a castle in the distance.
“Excuse me,” a clumsy passerby noted. “Adam II sits on a throne of supernatural fire in his palace. Anyone who approaches his throne with fire from a natural source immediately dies. Make sure not to do that!”
“Well, I wasn’t planning on giving him fire,” Julia assured. “I just need to take these seeds back to Humansville from the fruit of the Tree of Life. I only have three days.”
“Best be on your way,” the hobbling man cheered. “Good day to you!”
“Good day to me! Wait! I need some help,” Julia repeated. “Help.”
“You can do it,” the man assured, inching along the road. “I can’t do it for you!”
Angrier than she had ever been, Julia stood up and ran with all her might for miles until she reached the castle of Adam II. She travelled through a forest with dense brush and up a hillside by a lake. People were few and far between. She spent two nights sleeping in Eden alone, eating the berries from the bushes. Unlike the rotten apples, the berries did not make her sick.
“I need to speak to Adam II,” she demanded, busting into the inner chambers of his palace. She rushed past one guard after another. “I don’t have a second to spare.”
“What is such an urgent matter?” the guard questioned. “Where do you come from, my lady? You look a bit disheveled. I will take you to the king.”
“Thank you,” Julia responded. “This is a matter of life and death. I come from Humansville.”
She travelled down a long corridor, closely following the king’s servant. Smoke seeped into the hallway as the guard opened the chamber door to the throne of Adam II.
“I need to travel back to Humansville and save my people from the poisonous apples from the Tree of Good and Evil with these seeds from the Tree of Life,” Julia cried, throwing herself at the feet of Adam II in tears. “Evelyn, a descendent of Eve, tricked me into travelling from Humansville to Eden through a magic window without telling me that I could not return. She wants to be human and hates me.”
After a moment of silence, Adam II stood up in her defense. Supernatural fire burned from beneath his throne, brighter than anything Julia had ever seen, shielding her eyes.
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,” Adam II decreed, waving his hand and re-opening the window between Humansville and Eden. “I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
Julia stood up straight, hoping he meant that he was going to have mercy and compassion on her and Humansville. She breathed deep, wishing for the best outcome possible.
“Evelyn, show yourself in the window,” Adam II insisted in a booming voice. “I originally sent you to grant Julia’s wish for a better Humansville. You have had no compassion. You were not supposed to cause any havoc.”
“I’m sorry. I beg for mercy,” Evelyn fibbed. “I just wanted to be human.”
In stillness, Julia watched the conversation in remorse for every bad decision that she had ever made in haste.
“Even though it was your first trip into the town of Humansville, you have failed so miserably that I forbid you to ever become human,” Adam II punished her. “Your free will would cost me too much. So, this decree takes away any option of you ever becoming human. As punishment, you will appear chained to the original Tree of Good and Evil in Eden for eternity. You will be a sign of the dangers of evil.”
Evelyn wept in regret. “I didn’t mean to do this. I really didn’t. I tried to confront Julia and her family. This was the only way that they would listen to me.”
“I know you don’t believe that to be true,” Adam II clarified, slamming his scepter on the ground. Waving the scepter, he pointed to the window to Humansville.
“Return home, Julia,” the king exhorted, gathering more golden apple seeds from the fire beneath his throne. “In addition to the seeds that you already carry, these seeds are also from the Tree of Life. Make an elixir from the seeds to save your dying family and friends. Please save one seed and plant a Tree of Life in Humansville as redemption. Make me proud!”
“Yes, sir,” Julia agreed, bowing, and jumping through the open window before he could change his mind. She swirled through the window, stepping into her backyard, still full of a tree with rotten apples and a depressing song from its player piano.
Not much had changed, except that Evelyn was now stranded in Eden, instead of Julia.
“Where have you been, Julia?” her father scolded. “I was looking for you.”
“Oh, I just went for a walk,” Julia explained, hoping that he had not realized that she had been gone for at least three days. “I forgot a homework assignment at school. See you later for dinner.”
She kissed her father on the cheek, wishing he could once again fit in smaller pants, which were now ripping at the seams. His eyes looked bloodshot from the apples, and he smelled rancid. From a distance, she watched her mother run back and forth in the kitchen, like an addict getting her next fix from the apples.
“The neighbors must be entranced by the apples because they never complained about the player piano,” Julia mumbled to herself, listening to it tinker away.
“An apple a day keeps the weakness away,” her mother chirped.
“Then why do I feel so sick?” Nathan questioned, throwing up on the lawn.
“I have to get something from the chemistry lab at school,” Julia told her brother, running as fast as she could down the sidewalk. She was hoping it was not too late for her family and town.
“Open the doors!” Julia called, searching for a side door into her high school. “Oh, I could use superpowers at a time like this!”
Though the first two doors were locked, the door into the girl’s locker room was still open. She slipped through it and ran up the stairs to the chemistry lab. She turned on the burners and started to melt several of the golden seeds, mixing in some honey from her teacher’s desk. She saved the rest of the seeds in her pocket for later, especially to plant one in her backyard.
“What are you doing?” her chemistry teacher interrupted, poking his head into the classroom. “I thought I gave you detention for knocking over the glass bottles and flasks! Did you serve it yet?”
“Right after I finish this assignment,” Julia assured him. “I’ve just been busy.”
“Do you want an apple?” he tempted her with the shiny fruit. “I got it from your mother.”
“I’m good,” Julia replied, mustering up all the courage that she had. “I’m going to get back to working on this homework that I forgot.”
“Really? I think you turned your assignments in on time,” he recalled. “You were just reckless with my equipment, but oh, sometimes, I’m reckless, too.” He broke a pencil for fun.
The after-school bell rang, and Julia’s teacher suddenly forgot why he needed to speak to her anymore. “See you tomorrow, Julia! I’ll be expecting a full report on your experiment here.”
“Sure thing,” Julia agreed, finishing the elixir, and taking a dose of it for herself – first and foremost. Immediately, the craving for the rotten apples left her. “I never want to taste an apple from the Tree of Good and Evil again. Ugh.”
Then, Julia ran back home with several bottles of the potion. She took some lab equipment with her in case she had to make more elixir from her extra seeds.
Busting through the front door of her family home, Julia insisted that her family drink the magic concoction. “This will save your life,” Julia chanted, holding her mother’s nose, and pouring drops down her mouth. Without further explanation, she did the same to her father and brother in their bewildered stupor.
After her family took the doses, they shrank, returning to their normal selves and sizes. Their superpowers had left them for good.
“What just happened? I feel like myself again,” her mother admitted.
“Yeah, I couldn’t fit in my pants,” her father agreed. “Sometimes, less is more.”
“My headache finally left,” her brother explained. “I can think straight again.”
Crying in relief, Julia ran into her bedroom, setting up the chemistry equipment, making more elixir. She got honey from her mother’s cabinet to sweeten the taste of the potion.
Travelling home by home in Humansville, Julia rid the town of the cursed apples with Meatloaf at her side. She administered the elixir to the affected people, so they did not crave the evil fruit ever again. After freeing the people in town, she poured the last bit of elixir onto the Tree in her backyard. As she did this, the ground split apart, opened its mouth in an earthquake, and swallowed the Tree of Good and Evil completely. The earth closed over the disappeared Tree. As a reward for passing the test, the player piano remained, and Julia rolled it into her home. She planted a single seed for a Tree of Life to grow in Humansville.
Although the player piano now performed more hopeful melodies, Julia learned to play it herself as time went by. All the while, she watched blossoms bloom on the Tree of Life as it grew in her backyard, wondering what test it might bring Humansville next. She realized that Humansville improving itself was never that simple.
Copyright 2023 Jennifer Waters