Mr. Freeman won’t hand in his grades, Melinda reports. She takes advantage of the delay to work on her tree one more time; as she does so, Mr. Freeman uses white paint to cover his grade wall with a mural: a sunrise. Melinda turns up the radio so that she doesn’t have to hear her peers saying goodbye to each other.
Even though her circumstances have changed, Melinda still removes herself from her peers. This is a conscious choice, however, rather than a kind of punishment. Mr. Freeman’s mural, meanwhile, symbolizes the idea of a new beginning.
“My tree is definitely breathing,” Melinda reports. She tries to create an imperfect tree with initials in its bark, and a sick lower branch. Her favorite part to carve, though, is the new growth at the top. As students leave, Melinda comments that she’s in no rush because she’s going to be attending summer school.
After months of thinking her tree was “frozen,” Melinda at last feels that it is alive, just as she herself now feels unfrozen and alive. She has embraced Mr. Freeman’s idea of imperfection, and creates a tree that is damaged, but still strong and growing—a clear metaphor for her own development as a person.
Seniors walk in to say goodbye to Mr. Freeman, and Melinda calls them “girls” only to correct herself to “women.” One of the seniors is Amber Cheerleader, and Melinda realizes that she may have misjudged her. As the seniors notice Melinda, one of them says that she hopes Melinda is okay. The lacrosse team has told the school about Andy’s rape attempt, and Melinda wryly notes that suddenly, at the end of the school year, she’s popular. Her hand, cut by the glass from the mirror, was stitched up at the hospital, and Rachel is trying to reach out to her. It is unclear whether Melinda has responded.
Melinda’s sudden popularity proves how fickle high schoolers are. While just days ago they isolated her, they now embrace her, since the truth about Andy has been made public and her behavior is suddenly explainable—though there may also be a suggestion that her popularity stems from her schoolmate’s guilt at their treatment of her. Melinda’s distance from the school allows her to see all this clearly, but also calmly. She remains somewhat distant, but this distance seems different, one of thinking out her next move rather than a traumatized reaction she can’t escape.
Melinda decides that her tree is missing something, and uses chalk and water to draw birds above it (although the bandage on her hand makes this difficult). As she does so, she acknowledges that she cannot escape what happened to her: “IT happened.” Andy Evans raped her when she was drunk, young, and vulnerable, but it was not her fault, and she can continue to grow despite the experience.
Birds, symbols of freedom and innocence throughout the book, now complete Melinda’s drawing. As she finishes her work, she is at last able to verbalize her trauma, and in doing so, she begins to move past it. It is obvious that her development as an artist is closely linked to her development as a person.
Although there is “a river” in Melinda’s eyes, she can see that her tree is perfect in its imperfection. Mr. Freeman comes to look at the tree, and Melinda studies the bruises on her own arm from Andy’s attack. Mr. Freeman commands her not to cry in the studio because the salt from her tears will ruin his art supplies; he tells her that he’s giving her an A+, and asks, “‘You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you?’”
Although Melinda spent most of the book frozen, she now experiences a “river” in the form of her tears. She has truly put her emotion into her work, and is now experiencing a feeling of relief and release as a result. Although she is still damaged (both internally and externally), she at last has faith that she will heal.
Melinda imagines the tears “dissolv[ing] the last block of ice in my throat,” and feels herself melting. She imagines the ice melting into a puddle of sunlight. “‘Let me tell you about it,’” she responds.
In a moment that unites many of the novel’s core symbols and themes, Melinda at last begins to tell the most trustworthy person in her life the story of what happened to her. She is once again able to speak.