Once Zoe is up in the tree, she thinks, This is probably a bad idea. Because it probably is. There are so many ways this could go wrong. If he sees her as he approaches, this all falls apart. Gabe may have spent the day keeping her calm by asking her to come up with game plans for every what if scenario her brain could dream up, but Alex seeing her before he sees her letter and asking “Whatcha doing up in a tree, Zoe?” is not something they prepared for.
But if she hides anywhere else, she won’t be able to see him, which is not an option. The letter tacked to the tree trunk is the most important letter she’s ever written. She can’t not watch him read it. Also, climbing the tree is symbolic. Or something.
So she climbs the tree. She knows the direction he’ll approach from (at least, she thinks she does) and she tries to put the trunk between the two of them, and she trusts that he won’t look up, and that if she stays still, the branches and the leaves will block her from view. She wore green and brown today on purpose as well, for camouflage just in case, and yes, she knows how embarrassing the amount of thought she put into this is.
She hugs the tree trunk and watches through the branches and sure enough, he appears just where she thinks he will. He’s confused when he gets to the tree itself, and out of breath, like he ran from Cuppa Joe’s. He looks around the empty space, and peers around the surrounding area, and she holds her breath and thinks, Don’t look up, don’t look up, don’t look up as hard as she can.
He doesn’t. He kneels on the blanket, to read the tag on the gift — Don’t open without Zoe here, are you nuts? — and he laughs out loud. She grins; she can’t help it. Then he sees the letter, and pulls it down, and starts to read.
She worked so long and hard on that letter that she knows it by heart. She knows what makes him look around at the start. She knows what makes him gasp sharply and sit down on the blanket near the middle, and she’s terrified for a long moment that he’s going to stop, because he closes his eyes and doesn’t read on. Keep going, she urges him silently. Please, Alex, you have to keep reading. When he does, she knows exactly which line makes his breath catch in his throat. This close, she can see him swallow, see his hands shake, see his eyes move faster and faster across the page. She digs her fingers into the tree trunk and bites her lip and holds her breath, and she waits.
She knows when he finishes. She hears the heavy exhale, and her heart beats faster and she can’t remember ever feeling this nervous in her life — but she wouldn’t take a word of that letter back for anything.
She’s gripping the tree branch in front of her so hard her knuckles are white, and she’s just thanking God that this tree is here to help hide some of her nerves, and then he stands.
And looks up.