Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2021 finalist Linda Chang! Linda finished 8th grade this past school year. Her story is called “Under the Cherry Tree.” Enjoy!
UNDER THE CHERRY TREE
by Linda Chang
Ivy woke up at 6:00 AM for her 10:00 AM shift.
Yes, but she didn’t care. Today was big. Her first high school job – working at a retail store in the mall. It wasn’t her top choice, as she would much rather be doing something educated, like tutoring, but it was something.
Ivy arrived at the store at 8:00 and decided to wait in the parking garage, redoing her short black hair over and over to get every little strand out of the way, until 9:51, which she thought was a reasonable time to not seem excessively early while not risking lateness, either. She walked carefully, finally arriving at the store at 9:58.
Juan was texting his friends and procrastinating on his homework when he realized that it was already 10:01. Oops. When did his shift start again? 10:00 or 10:30? He could never remember.
He begrudgingly got up and got ready to go, brushing his teeth without eating breakfast and jumping into the car.
It was only once he was on the road that he remembered about Owen. Owen was his best buddy, his closest friend, the one he did everything with – including work. They had worked together at the store for almost three years until Owen moved away last weekend. He checked his phone to see if Owen had texted him since he left, but there was no sign of him. Owen was fun to be around, but he didn’t seem like the kind to stay in touch.
Now there was a new employee who Juan hadn’t met yet. Hopefully, they would be nice.
He arrived at the store at 10:19 and quickly ran in, unlocking the doors and opening up the door when–
Juan turned around to see a short girl with a perfect bun, neat white shirt, black skirt, and an actual tie looking up at him with a professional smile. What kind of customer dressed like that?
“Hi there, sorry for the inconvenience. This store usually opens at 10, but there were some issues with the power, so we couldn’t open until now,” he lied, getting the store ready to open. It didn’t seem like anyone other than this girl noticed he was late, which was good.
“And yet the lights were on this whole time,” she said, making Juan realize that he’d forgotten to turn them off at closing last night. Well, so much for that excuse.
“Uh– sorry, I meant the water,” he said, but his lie was becoming obvious now.
“You could have just used an Out-of-Order sign on the bathrooms,” she replied.
“Sorry,” he said, not offering any more explanation. Why did he always have to get himself into trouble? “How may I help you?”
“I’m not a customer, I’m a new employee. My name is Ivy,” the girl said, not bothering to shake his hand – although he wouldn’t have usually expected it, but something about the way she was dressed made him expect formalities. Juan suddenly wished he had worn something nicer than his standard T-shirt and jeans.
“Oh, h-hey, Ivy,” Juan said, already knowing that he wasn’t going to get along with her. “New here? I can show you around.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I already took a tour during the interview. And by the way, your shoes are untied.”
Juan took a deep breath. Yep, he definitely wasn’t going to like her.
Ivy was annoyed by the lazy boy who she was going to be working with. His clothes, posture, and excuses all made her wish that she had been accepted at the tutoring center more now than ever. Did she really have to work with a slob like that?
After she finished her three-hour morning shift, or more like two hours and forty-one minutes, she headed to the food court and bought a rice bowl for lunch. All of the tables were jam-packed, and she couldn’t find anywhere to sit other than a little spot outside under a big tree. It was the kind of thing that looked relaxing in the movies, but in reality, it was hard to sit on the awkward roots without getting her clothes dirty. Yuck. Ivy found a root that wasn’t too bad and sat down to eat.
After surviving the torture session that was Ivy’s first day on the job, Juan sat down in his usual spot, right under a huge cherry tree in the food court area. It felt weird not having Owen sitting next to him on the only other comfortable spot on the roots. But he didn’t feel quite alone today, which freaked him out just a little. Who else would have found their little hideout?
“Hello?” he asked the air, feeling like he was in a horror movie and something was about to eat him. Not a terrifying thought at all, was it?
“Hello,” a female voice responded from the other side of the tree.
“Who are you?” he asked in a panic, because the voice sounded exactly like one of those creepy demon dolls in movies. Juan shifted around in his spot as the wind whistled loudly.
Under normal circumstances, Ivy would have told the mystery voice her name, turned around, and shaken his hand. But something about his airy, innocent voice made her stop.
“What if we keep that a secret for now?” she asked after a while.
“You’re freaking me out,” the boy on the other side said. “Why don’t you just come around this tree and say hi?”
“I’ll tell you who I am if you do,” Ivy countered.
“I won’t until you do,” he said.
“Well, I guess we won’t then. I’m done eating now, bye,” Ivy said, getting up and leaving.
Well, that was certainly weird.
Juan ran back to the store after eating lunch, trying to beat Ivy so that he wouldn’t have to endure another session of lectures. But he wasn’t fast enough.
“You’re late again,” Ivy said over her shoulder as she walked by, her shoes clicking against the tile floor.
“Sorry,” Juan mumbled, looking over at the clothing racks and–
All of the clothes were completely rearranged in all the wrong ways. The manager was going to be steaming mad. Juan was torn between wanting to fix it and wanting to let his stuck-up coworker get in trouble.
“Like it?” Ivy asked, smiling in a way that wasn’t helping at all.
“That’s not how it works,” he said, exhaling aggressively. “The price tags are all in the wrong places. And you folded the dresses. There’s hangers for a reason. Also, you have to keep the same style of clothes together. No one shops by colors. If someone wants a turtleneck shirt, they won’t like going to five different sections to find the different–”
“I think it’s fine,” Ivy interrupted.
Ivy’s method made sense to her, so she felt nothing wrong with arguing her case. Especially since her opponent was an uneducated slob who probably hadn’t washed his hair in weeks. Sheesh.
At lunch the next day, there was plenty of space at the lunch tables in the food court. But Ivy was curious about her encounter with the boy at the cherry tree, so she decided to sit there again.
“Hello,” she said to the air.
“Hey,” a voice responded. It was the same boy.
“Sitting here again?” Ivy asked, getting nervous for some reason.
“Yeah,” Juan replied. “I work here. Do you?”
“Yeah,” the girl on the other side of the tree said. “How are you?”
Juan debated saying he was good and continuing the conversation, but… being anonymous had its perks, didn’t it? He decided to try something.
“Not that great, actually. Things are rough for me right now.”
“Aww, what’s wrong? You can tell me,” the girl said, and everything about her voice just sounded… comforting.
“A lot of things. My best friend just moved away a few days ago, actually.” Juan had no idea why he was telling all of this to a random stranger, but he didn’t care what someone he was probably never going to encounter again thought of him. “We were always there for each other, until he wasn’t. He won’t respond to me anymore, and he was the only friend I had.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the girl said. “Are you okay?”
“Not really, but it’ll be okay,” Juan said.
“You don’t have to pretend you’re okay. I won’t judge you if something is really wrong.” she said.
“I don’t know. I guess I just feel alone.”
“Alone? Well, I can help with that.”
After a long chat with the mysterious boy at the cherry tree, Ivy couldn’t stop thinking about how her grandma always told her that cherry trees stood for love. Grandma would always retell the story of how she met Grandpa by a cherry tree, and Ivy couldn’t help thinking about that. She knew she would never hear the end of it if her parents found out that she had a boyfriend, so she did her best to put him out of her mind before it had a chance of becoming something.
Juan headed back to the store, wishing he could spend more time talking to the Mystery Girl. She almost seemed as good of a companion as Owen, except that Juan was getting nervous at the thought of meeting up with her again. Why was he nervous?
Juan tried to picture her in his head. She was probably tall, with long blond hair. Juan mentally tried out all kinds of cute outfits on his mental image of the Mystery Girl, forgetting that he had work until he was almost back to the store. Checking the time, he realized he was about seven minutes late. Oops.
When he found the bathroom sparkling clean, all of the tools back in their proper places, and the racks dusted where he always forgot to, he was infuriated.
“Hi, Miss Perfect,” he grumbled, sitting down behind the counter – which was also perfectly neat.
“Hello,” Ivy said in the most infuriating voice. Juan couldn’t even figure out why he was so upset, which just made him more upset.
“Shut up,” Juan said, leaving Ivy staring at him in a way that was – you guessed it – infuriating.
As usual, Ivy couldn’t believe Juan. How hard was it to control your temper? He was probably just jealous that she was more hardworking than him.
Ivy proceeded to fix up the clothes the way she did it the time before, not bothering to think about his strange system.
“What do you think you’re doing? Can you just let me do that? I know what I’m doing here,” Juan shouted after she had barely touched something.
“It makes sense to me the way I do it,” Ivy said, fighting back and moving the clothes the way she wanted.
“Yeah, that’s because you’re weird. It makes sense to everyone else the normal way. It’s been this way since before I started here. Just let me do it,” he said, snatching the sweater in her hands away.
“Well, you can always improve things. I always reflect on my life and make changes to improve it,” Ivy said, snatching it back more aggressively.
“It’s not that deep,” Juan laughed, throwing a hanger at her.
“Hey, that wasn’t nice,” she said, throwing one back, and the conflict only escalated from there.
A few weeks and a lot of talking later, Juan showed up at the cherry tree early after a long morning of complaints and lectures from Ivy. But the Mystery Girl was already there when he arrived, along with a little hand-made pendant necklace.
“I hope it’s good enough,” the girl said from the other side.
“It’s not just good, it’s perfect,” Juan said in complete awe, admiring the little heart and cherry on it. “Thank you so much. You didn’t have to do this.”
“It’s my pleasure,” she said. “Anything I can do to help. So how is everything going?”
“Pretty good, you?”
“I’m okay,” the girl said. “Better because I get to talk to you.”
Juan blushed. That wasn’t something that usually happened.
“Only okay? In my experience, usually ‘okay’ means you’re not okay, but you want to pretend you are. Otherwise, you would have said you were good,” he observed as a soft pink cherry blossom landed in his lap.
“You know me too well – wait, you don’t know me at all,” the girl said.
“Hmm… that means something is wrong though,” he said.
“Well, I guess I’m just tired of my parents,” Ivy said, being vague and hoping he wouldn’t go further.
“A lot of reasons. Their expectations are too high. They put me in a box of perfection and high achievements, and I can’t be myself.”
“Aww, but wouldn’t it be better to have that than parents – well, one parent – that constantly puts you down?”
“I didn’t say they don’t put me down while pushing me up,” Ivy said.
“This analogy isn’t making sense anymore,” the Mystery Boy laughed. “What are they doing that’s annoying you?”
“Well, I guess we can start somewhere. My mom wanted me to take summer math classes, and my only way to escape was to convince them I could work at a retail store. Every day I feel like I have to study, study, study, and there’s nothing I can do to escape the cycle, and…”
“You should tell them you don’t like it,” the Mystery Boy said.
Well, was that not obvious? Like she hadn’t tried it a million times before-
But since he was the one saying it, she decided to try again.
When Juan got home with the gift, his mother was livid.
“So you’re saying you accepted a gift from an anonymous girl and you’ve never even seen her?”
“We meet under the big cherry tree in the food court,” Juan said. “She’s really nice. And I promise, she’s trustworthy.”
“How do you know?” his mom asked, along with a thousand more questions.
“I just know. Her voice sounds super genuine and honest,” Juan said, backing away and hoping to escape the angry lecture his mom was about to start.
“You’ve talked to her?” his mom said, growing even more suspicious.
“Yeah, of course,” Juan said.
“And how long have you known her for?”
“Um, just a few weeks,” Juan said, fidgeting with the pendant.
“How can you trust her?”
“I dunno, she seems nice. She just seems trustable.”
“Yeah, well, I trusted your father.”
The thought of his father, who had left before he was born, made him quiet. His mom had always had a huge ban on love because of him, and Juan had never thought he would need to test it – until now.
“Sorry,” Juan said, not knowing exactly what he was apologizing for before heading up to his room.
When Ivy got back to the store, she stared at Juan for a moment and thought – could it really be? The thought only crossed her mind for a moment, and she put it out immediately. It couldn’t be him. He was too annoying. Although Ivy had never seen the Mystery Boy, she could definitely imagine him – a neat boy with dark brown hair, a nice shirt and jeans, and glasses. Someone who got good grades and worked hard in school, trying his best to support his family. Everything Juan wasn’t.
But his voice just sounded so familiar…
Ivy couldn’t believe she had made a present for someone she’d never even seen. Someone she’d met only a few weeks ago. Someone who didn’t even know her name. She couldn’t believe anything she was doing, actually. Was her heart really fluttering at the thought of that deep voice and the sweet smell of the cherry tree? She didn’t think she was one to fall in love. Her parents had made it very clear that she was not allowed to date in high school. But then why was she so caught up on the–
Crash. Ivy walked straight into Juan as she headed into the store.
“Miss Perfect doesn’t seem so perfect today, does she?” Juan noted before walking around her. But he did look a little dazed. A little… dreamy. Exactly how she was feeling.
Ivy watched Juan walk off into the distance, wondering for the first time if Juan just might be the Mystery Boy.
Something clicked in his head, and Juan thought everything made sense for one second. Ivy was probably the Mystery Girl, wasn’t she? The voice was pretty much the same, and Ivy looked distracted and preoccupied. Of course, that might just be usual Ivy snobbishness, but she wasn’t usually one to slack off. And now that he thought about it, Ivy and the Mystery Girl both pronounced things exactly the same way.
Juan just had to know. He promised himself just one little peek – and if it wasn’t Ivy’s infuriating, meticulous hairstyle, he wouldn’t look any more.
“Hey,” the girl said from the other side of the tree.
“Hey,” Juan said, and took a moment then to turn around and see.
All he caught was a glimpse of black hair – there were plenty of black-haired people in the world – but he knew. The way that Ivy styled her hair was like no one else. The minute he saw, he regretted it. Now what would he say when he ran into “Miss Perfect” at the store? His mind filled with a million different emotions. Guilt, fear, regret, shock, anger – you name it, he was feeling it.
“Are you still there?” the Mystery Girl – Ivy – repeated, because she must have been saying something that he wasn’t listening to.
“Yeah, yeah, of course,” Juan stammered. “Did you think I would just leave you?”
“I was starting to think you did,” Ivy laughed.
“Oh, well, I wouldn’t do that,” he tried to recover.
So it really was Ivy. He was trying to process that. But Ivy from the store seemed so different from Ivy by the tree. Could it really be? Could-
“Ok, whatever, I’m gonna go now,” Ivy said after he didn’t respond for the third time.
Ivy was a little confused by how strange the Mystery Boy seemed, but she tried not to think much of it.
Emphasis on “tried.” No matter how hard she tried to put it out of her mind, she kept worrying about him. His voice sounded a little bit different this time, too – was it possible that someone else sat there instead today? No, but he seemed to know who she was. Did she do something wrong? Say something wrong? She was lost in her thoughts when she got back to work after lunch that day.
Juan decided that he was going to convince Ivy to turn around tomorrow. It would be too awkward for only him to know. Then he would be keeping something from her. He still couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that the Mystery Girl and Ivy – two extremely different people – were actually one.
When he got back to the store after lunch, it was extra awkward.
“Hey,” he said, trying not to say “Miss Perfect.” Ivy still looked every bit as snobby and stuck up as usual. But when he thought about how she said she was always pressured to be perfect, he started to sympathize with her instead.
“Hi,” she said, quickly ducking away and going off to do something else. Juan didn’t try to continue the conversation any further.
Did Ivy look too? He wondered. Did she know that he knew? Did she see him looking and decide to look, or had she known the whole time? Or did she not know at all?
“Hey,” Ivy said when she got to the tree.
“I think we should turn around,” the Mystery Boy said, not bothering to respond to Ivy’s greeting.
“It’s been long enough,” Mystery Boy said. “Do you want to?”
“I mean– I don’t have any problem with it, I guess, but why are you suddenly asking now?”
He took a deep breath. “Because I already looked. I looked yesterday. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have, but I got curious. And now… I don’t think it’s fair for me to know without telling you.”
“So do you want to?” he asked.
“I guess we have to,” Ivy replied, and turned around to see. A look of happy surprise came across her face.
“Hey, Ivy,” Juan said, taking her hand with a smile.
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