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by Melisa Gregorio

The colour Sarah picked for her manicure was ugly. The dark purple gel polish had dried black, and along with the pointed tips, she looked like a witch. “So elegant,” the nail technician said. “You like?” “Yes,” Sarah lied. She didn’t want to offend her; she’d come back in a few days. Maybe a top coat of glitter would redeem her nails until her next appointment, but before she could ask, her phone rang. “Hello?” “Sorry to bother you, but Iyla has hidden my backpack and keeps telling me she didn’t. I wouldn’t have called except I have my medicine in there and I need to take it,” the babysitter, Ana, said. With a sigh, Sarah said she’d be home as soon as she could. She was tired of Iyla’s behaviour—if she wasn’t stealing or hiding things, she was lying. “How old is your daughter now? Six?” the technician asked. Iyla was five years old, close enough. “Yes.” She paid, and as she left the salon, bumped into her neighbour, Val. “Hello there! We missed you at the block party on Saturday,” Val said. “Iyla had soccer.” Her daughter played soccer on Sundays, but Val didn’t know that. “Next time!” After saying goodbye, Sarah walked to her car. Packages of candy in a store window caught her attention—Pop Rocks. She remembered eating it as a child and an idea sparked. She went inside and bought several packs. * Forty-five minutes later, Sarah arrived home. “I’m sorry! Traffic was nuts.” She had stopped at the grocery store to get milk, but couldn’t help buying a few other things as well. “Where’s Ana’s backpack?” Sarah asked. “I don’t know, Nanay!” Iyla said. Despite threats and bribes, it took half an hour before she led them to the garage and pointed to the neatly stacked snow tires. “I threw it in there.” Iyla refused to apologize and was sent to her room. Although Sarah couldn’t afford it, she promised to raise Ana’s pay. The babysitter was grim. “I’m never coming back.” After Ana left, Sarah opened the Pop Rocks and poured them into a small, glass jar. For dinner, she made adobo and rice, and called Iyla to join her. At the table, her daughter sulked. “You need to quit lying,” Sarah said. Iyla scowled. “Make me.” In that moment, Sarah wanted to slap the sass out of Iyla. “If you keep making faces, you’ll grow up ugly,” she warned. She brought the jar of Pop Rocks to the table. “These are Truth Seeds. If you eat them after lying, they will explode.” “Yeah, right.” Iyla grabbed a fistful of candy and slammed it into her mouth. Her eyes widened and her jaw popped open. The candy crackled and fizzed on her tongue. “I told you.” Sarah shook the jar. “See how many I have? Don’t lie anymore, diba?” “Yes, Nanay,” Iyla said, amazed. “I won’t lie.” That night, Iyla smiled and nodded when asked if she brushed her teeth and washed her face; she had not. That night, Sarah did not wake when her daughter crept downstairs and stole the candy. That night, Iyla emptied the jar of Truth Seeds outside her window. * Sarah woke to shrieking. She ran to her daughter’s bedroom and found Iyla’s bed empty. Goosebumps arose on her cold skin. Fragments of glass reflected the moonlight. As another shrill scream punctured the night, Sarah ran to the window, cutting her feet. A new, magnificent tree, taller than the house, with leaves of red, white, black, and grey, held Iyla in its thick, tangled branches. “The mother,” said a gravelly voice. This tree-monster had stolen her daughter and could speak. Sarah’s feet burned with pain; she was not dreaming. “Let her go!” “She lies,” the Tree said. “Let her go!” “Why does she lie?” “I don’t know!” The Tree swayed and several red leaves fell. “I will not let her go until she tells me why she lies.” “I’ll make her tell the truth!” “You lie!” A tornado of black leaves engulfed Sarah. They swirled around her and dropped. Iyla clung to a branch as she cried. “I lie because I’m bad!” White leaves floated to the ground as the Tree shuddered. “That is not the truth.” Why did Iyla lie? She was a child who caused trouble, but so did Sarah when she was the same age. Her face flushed with realization. “It’s my fault. She lies because I lie.” “Why do you lie?” “Everyone lies!” she shouted. “You will change. I will make you. Just as you’ve sown lies, I will plant truth.” The branches carrying Iyla extended toward Sarah’s open arms. She gathered her sobbing daughter into her arms as the Tree threatened them. “Do not lie; I will know.” * They cowered in the basement. Sarah’s thoughts overwhelmed her. Take Iyla and leave! Call 9-1-1! Call anyone! Destroy the tree! Part of her kept hoping she was dreaming, but her bleeding feet and crying daughter confirmed she was awake. They couldn’t leave because the Tree had grown beside the driveway and her car rested under its branches. Who could she call? Everyone would think she was crazy. She could try to chop the tree, but she didn’t own an axe. Maybe she could set it on fire, but she didn’t want to risk her daughter’s safety. “Are we going to be okay?” Iyla whispered. “Of course, nene,” Sarah said. The house rumbled. Iyla screamed as several roots burst through the walls. One shot out and stopped in front of Sarah. It wagged back and forth like a finger. A river of grey leaves broke the window and spilled onto the floor. Sarah received the message. The Tree would hold her accountable whenever she lied. A question iced her heart. Could she stop lying? “Nanay! Are we going to die?” Sarah hesitated. Finally, she hugged Iyla and whispered an answer she thought was safe, “I don’t know.”

Melisa Gregorio (she/her) is a writer whose work focuses on Filipina/Filipino characters. Her fiction has appeared in Witness (2022 Saṃsāra issue), Pulp Literature, Ricepaper, and elsewhere. In addition to being a writer, Melisa works as a master’s-prepared registered nurse specializing in education and clinical informatics.

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