It was the willow tree that sought Katie out the day of her decision. Its skirt of crying branches reached down to the knoll upon which it sat, forming a circular room of shaded stillness. Since Todd had died, she had spent an increasing amount of time in this room, sitting cross-legged and leaning against the trunk.
Her brother's death had been the final weight in a burden that her parent's marriage could no longer bear. The grief had split them and the solace that they both sought was not to be found along a shared path. The end was not immediate, but its seed had been planted the day that Todd was taken from them.
The judge had handed her a piece of paper this morning, asking her to return tomorrow. His words echoed in her mind . . .
"Katie, I want you to think of this as a test with but one question on it. That might sound strange, but I word it like that to communicate to you the seriousness of the question posed there. It has far-reaching implications and should be answered thoughtfully."
Paper in hand she climbed the small hill, parted the branches of the weeping tree, and sat in the cool grass. The wind that rustled the leaves brought with it the too-sweet smell of burning hay from neighboring farmers' fields. The imploring call of a chickadee questioned her business there.
She ran her finger along the fold of the sheet, and then turned it over and over in her hands. She opened it and read the clear blue script of the judge's hand.
Do you want your primary residence to be with your mother or with your father?
Letting the paper slip into her lap, she looked at the ground between her and the wall of willow branches. The light came through in shafts and gave it the look of a giant barcode, with alternating lines of sun and shade both thick and thin. The price of taking this test was stamped all around her.
When she was younger, the smell of asphalt had always followed her dad home from the shingle plant where he worked. He had listened with such interest every night, sitting close and snuggling her tightly as she read, while the hairs on his arm tickled her chin.
Each evening had brought with it a caution from Momma to let him have a few minutes rest before she ran to him with a book. But Daddy, after playful tugs on Todd's baseball cap, always grabbed her in his arms and sat down with her to hear her stories.
Katie's phone buzzed in her pocket with a text from her mom, letting her know supper was on. Her mom had always been her biggest fan, waving her Katie-flag to anyone and everyone. It was Mom who had encouraged her to chase her dream of being a painter, telling her that she had real talent and backing it up by hanging her framed work on the living room wall. Visitors' reactions, before they knew whose work it was, had convinced her she might have something real here.
The two years since Todd's death had been hard on them all. Each of them had isolated themselves as they groped around for meaning and hope. For Katie, there had only recently been shimmers of light that had begun to illuminate that dark tunnel of mourning . . . and now this. She was not naive, she had known this decision would be hers and that if she chose not to decide, she would still have made a choice - a choice to let the judge pick as he saw fit.
There had been days when the weight of it had sat heavily on her chest, shortening every breath and bringing tears of resentment directed at Todd, her parents . . . everyone. Other times she had felt light as a feather as she lay in the shade of her willow tree, and smiled as she remembered how Todd had been so protective of her.
She picked up the judge's test, the exam that spawned a thousand questions but asked only one, and she knew that this was an assignment that she could not ace. There was no right answer, no solution that would bring about a circled "A" or any sense of accomplishment.
She took a pen, put it to paper, and did the best that she knew how.
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