AKA The Tree
A Short Story by Cult
A winter's wind traverses the mountain pass, it whistles a sorrowful melody as it playfully nudges a solitary evergreen conifer's highest branches to and fro. A brook in the nearby distance meanders lazily to the nearest lake babbling incoherently to the beasts that choose to drink from its shallow crystalline depths.
An abrupt noise sends those same creatures scampering into cover as an uncoordinated form stumbles haphazardly into the clearing. After only a few paces the figure collapses.
Limbs splay awkwardly as exhaustion claims dominance over the rapidly failing torso.
A cascade of crimson drips unhampered as a previously constricting appendage falls away, claimed by the weight of slumber, a steady voluminous flow from the ragged and deep tear in the form's side.
The gaping wound stares obnoxiously at the sun as the figure transforms to a sickening pale pallor in stark contrast to the vivid and rapidly widening bright pool beneath it.
The tree's roots stiffen at first upon contact with the foreign liquid, only to then relax then revel in its newly found source of nourishment. The body of dark liquid soaks slowly in the earth from whence all creation came. The mortal shell slumped gracelessly against the sapling fir's trunk would not go to waste.
After only a few days all that remains is a small pile of discolored fabric, saturated in dripping gore and covered in feasting insects. Sitting atop the mound is a small black patch with an embroidered legend (in red and smaller brown stitching) Pearson's Logging Company.
Thick cords crisscrossed the roof of the vehicle to secure the object atop it. Measuring nearly eight feet in height with healthy dark, thick, green foliage it was a specimen that Tom could not pass up. It truly was as if it had called to him, urging him, prodding him against his better judgment to go that extra mile. This year would be different than the last. This year the tree was real, and that had to mean something... right?
Truth be told the box in the attic (the one they pulled out every year for as long as he could remember) contained a faux tree folded up and tied with twine which was old falling fast into disrepair, most of the lights were out, and the power cord was unsafe. Its frayed condition was something both he and his wife frowned upon especially now with their upwardly mobile child. This hand-me-down (because that's what it was) was nestled in the darkest corner of the attic which was more than likely infested with spiders and God knows what else, all but forgotten but for one week the same time each and every year. Tom smiled as he thought of his family and the look on their faces that his coming home earlier than expected, struggling across the threshold with a real tree, would more than likely produce. His smile widened at the prospect that his journey would soon be at an end.
This stretch of the interstate was monotonous and so damned boring that the only breaks in scenery momentarily came from vehicles left on the median absent of wheels or the gory, vivid Technicolor stains coming from those unfortunate beasts whose instincts had abandoned them, all of which flashed like subliminal messages in front of his car's wavering headlights. Although this trip wasn't by any means a long haul it still made him empathize with those brave souls that chose to drive over the road as their primary means to pay the bills. It certainly wasn't as easy as it seemed to be. Now if only he could stay awake long enough to pull into his driveway to be able see his youngest's face light up with delight. It would be the sight to make all of the extra hours at work, the arduous journey home and everything else he'd rather not do if he had the choice, worth it.
“Ray!” A booming voice carried through the somewhat serene, if it wasn't for the raucous noises of several diesel engines idling, and picturesque environment.
“Where you at?” In a lower volume, “You miserable old bastid.”
Dammit, can't I find a minute to myself in which to take a piss?
Droplets of pale liquid dribbled against the ground perilously close to a pair of boots spread a torso's width apart as arthritic hands hastily fumbled with the zippered contraption designed for hands much younger and infinitely more coordinated than his own. Flesh only seemed to turn progressively number as age unceremoniously pulled you toward your final resting place he mused. After a careful glance to ensure that everything was where it should be and that blood or chunks of genital flesh didn't peek out from the front of his pants, Ray tuned his head.
He could barely make out his coworker (for he would never really think of him as his boss), swatches dark patches of cloth spied through thickets of overgrown vegetation, who was currently trampling noisily toward him like an excitable and uncultured tourist.
He yelled an acknowledgment over his shoulder, “Fuck you Mike!” Under his breath, followed in a louder voice by, “You knew I was fit to bursting.”
“Ah, there you are.” A smirk and the lilt to his companion's voice gave away the fact that Ray's current location came as no great surprise to him.
“Seriously though, can't I take a freakin' break?”
The younger man's face brightened with a look of mirth. He was decades younger and had years of experience to go to even come close to his companion's journeyman status.
To make matters worse he knew it but it mattered not as he also understood that his Father (incidentally the logging company's President) would believe everything and anything that fell from his lips, no matter how preposterous or unbelievable those collection of words may in fact be. Ray was screwed. With only a few months left till retirement he was resigned to the fact that he would have to bend over backwards to appease this worthless pissant, no matter the request.
“Nope. Shake it off, we're done. The guys are loading up to head back down the mountain. I can only assume that you need a ride also?” Chuckling to himself the youth turned to leave.
That smug twat! What I wouldn't give to grind that sissy face under my heel.
In a sudden flash of spotless, immaculately designed and specifically tailored fabric the youth turned back to face him once more. A questioning visage had since replaced the look of amusement across his face, “Sorry... did you say something?”
“Nope.” Making direct eye contact Ray registered a visible flinch in his youthful superior's constitution, a flush of rose to his cheeks and a noticeable shrinking of his over-inflated and entitled ego. Yep, that's just what I though Punk!
“Just buckling up.”
I'm just getting too old for this shit. Be glad you're not ten years older kid, I'd destroy you like I did your uncle and with the same axe I used back then there's irony for ya! I think he's lying around here someplace.
That day's events many years ago, played in the back of his mind as if it were yesterday. No one treated Ray the way that asshole chose to, no one would ever find his body, of that he was certain. Although this week's scheduled harvesting area was getting awfully close to the area in question on that fateful day. He briefly pondered on how he would find a way back up here (in his own time, but it had to be soon) to check on exactly that, it would be a travesty to waste retirement in a jail cell when he had worked so hard to be able to finally reap his rewards for putting up with all of the dickheads in charge for as long as he had managed to. It was truly a miracle he hadn't in fact killed more.
Ray allowed his companion a few paces before he coughed loudly obnoxiously clearing his throat, “It appears that you missed one.”
Mike came to an abrupt halt with a dismissive shrug as he slowly turned back around Ray stepped aside to reveal a single stout conifer. Standing proud it was pristine and proportionately stunning. With a fine winter's coat of virgin powder it was a Kodak moment for the season, a scene ripe for the finest Holiday greetings card. It was now his turn to smile.
“So what are you waiting for Ray? Grab an axe.”
Yea I'll grab an axe and be sure to bury it in your back, asshole.
A chortle escaped the youth's throat as he handed down his final ultimatum.
“You've got five minutes.”
The sharpened axe head connected with more than just precision and years of expertise in the moments that followed. Sweat fueled by hatred and loathing sprayed from the tool's worn handle. Wood chips ricocheted in all directions as the tree's roots feasted upon its last source of nourishment. An unrelenting thirst for more of the same screamed through it's every fiber as it plummeted the short distance to the forest’s floor only then to be torn from its surroundings.
Tom stole a glance in his rear view. He was quick to spot an array of flashing lights that seemed to bear down upon his very position. The vehicle's blaring cacophony might have alerted him sooner if only his stereo wasn't at its maximum blasting the 'Metal Gods' latest. It was the only time he was afforded such a luxury. Jennifer, his wife of twelve years now, preferred any music to rock (or even its close cousin: metal) and the children? Well, if he was forced to listen to whatever it was that they deemed “awesome” for even a moment longer than necessary he would more than likely slit a damn sight more than just his wrists.
Instinctively he looked towards the cluster of instrumentation on the car's dash to see that he wasn't speeding (by much). He twisted the radio's knob and lifted his foot from the gas pedal by a fraction of an inch. In a frantic whirlwind his synapses fired through a brief checklist of other things that he might possibly be pulled over for. Were his brights on? There was no blue indicator light on the dash. Had he run over anyone or anything without realizing he had done so? There had been a moment, a few miles back, where it appeared as if he was dressed in a tux arm in arm with a barely dressed buxom beauty hoisting an Oscar in the air with a short speech unfolding in his free hand. Alas he had yet to star in a movie, even as an unpaid extra, so he was obviously enjoying a much needed nap. Shame on you Tom, all this while travelling down the highay at a hair over eighty. It was a wonder he was still in one piece and not bleeding profusely in the median trapped under a ton of smoking Volvo.
A check of both side mirrors displayed no splashes of crimson, no partly severed limbs and no random tufts of hair stuck to the car's bug splattered side panels very much in need of a scrub. So what then could be the problem? An object flickered into his line of sight, a movement that disturbed his train of thought. Of course, the tree. He had taken care to strap it down securely, it was still attached to the roof which was a miracle in and of itself. The motion came from tree's bouncing point, sharp as an arrow that dove in and out of the top center of the windscreen. As another even more obscure possibility prepared to cloud his resolve the Police cruiser barreled past as if his car was at a standstill.
Sighing a breath of relief Tom momentarily let his eyes wander from the road. A split second was all it took for another wave of panic to wash over his torso, a plethora of decisions flashed upon the veritable chalkboard of his decision matrix, Tom picked one seemingly at random and yanked the wheel to one side. As he did so he tapped on the brake gently (or not depending on your point of view) and prayed to an entity he hadn't acknowledged since fifth grade following a night of unprotected drunken fumblings.
The vehicles speed dipped slowly past a respectable sixty miles an hour as it barreled onto the off ramp. Two of the vehicle's four wheels threatened to lift upwards from the asphalt as Tom's existence flashed before his very eyes. Thankfully they held as so amazingly did the original color of the undergarments he wore. With a screech and burnt rubber protest he brought the car to an abrupt stop at a set of lights advertising the color of that he might have been reduced to if his brake's had chosen to fail. Tom breathed a sigh of relief.
He jumped as the window of the vehicle next to his opened abruptly. “That was rad maaan!” A mass of gray smoke wafted upwards from the yawning square space where tempered glass had previously been, an indiscriminately smiling face slowly came into focus through the thick fog. “For a second there I didn't think you were gonna make it. But you pulled that shit off like a rock star! Fuckin' A' maaan!”
“I did!” Tom breathed out slowly.
His heart was pounding, drumming a hellish battery in his ears. To make matters infinitely worse the car was shuddering and perilously close to stalling. Tom wasn't surprised as the engine was unceremoniously persuaded from redlining revolutions to close to zero in a matter of only seconds.
“Hey, nice tree maaan. It reminds me of what I have at home waiting for me... Xmas smooookage, burn that shit up!”
Yea it is, Tom thought. He lifted his foot from the brake as the lights at the intersection changed from a dull pulsing red to a bright festive green. Only a few streets left and he would be safe at home, a bottle of brandy awaited him there seductively calling his name, urging him onwards. Just the trick to calm my nerves, he mused keeping the needle of the car's speedometer close to the posted limit in stark contrast to the activity of the vital fluids that still coursed thunderously throughout his frayed nervous system.
Awakening from yet another disappointing short burst of slumber within a long night of fitful sleep she turned over. Stretching she found that Tom's side of the bed was unoccupied and cold. Wiping dried sleep that clung determinedly to her lashes she glanced up to see that his pillows were also untouched, absent of any telltale indent. Any fear she might have had came to a full realization as she recognized the unmistakable blue haze of the nightlight beneath the closed door of the bathroom. Tom was always sure to turn it off before he retired, he said it was distracting to a full night's rest. This was only one of the many things that made Tom’s strange yet lovable foibles that defined him as an individual, her loving husband, a great father and a man that apparently had not yet returned home.
Throwing rumpled sheets aside Jennifer pulled her naked legs across the edge of the bed and pushed herself up from the lingering warmth and the alluring promise of perhaps another hours rest. A single footstep brought her to the room's only window, a wide space obscured by heavy dark colored curtains. Nudging aside a single panel she squinted preparing to be blinded by the morning sun's glare. A landscape devoid of any color but white assaulted her senses and forced her to close her eyes for a second, blinking them open she spied a recognizable shape (a snow-car! Her childish inner self reveled in the prospects of such for but the most fleeting of instances as a slight smile tilted her lips) in the same exact spot where Tom usually parked his. Her car was kept warm in the single car garage, it was roughly the same size as his car too but she couldn't totally be sure as she hadn't seen this volume of snowfall, overnight or otherwise, since she had been a very young child.
So where was Tom? Perhaps he had dabbled in a spot of brandy and an episode of Downton Abbey a practice that might have subsequently resulted in his falling asleep on the couch. She really couldn't blame him for that as in her mind that show had the power to lull anyone to sleep. A quick search under the bed located her slippers. The tile and wood floors within the house stayed cool, for it seemed all day, especially shockingly so in the early morning. She just couldn't fathom how her only child, Isiah, could run around all day barefoot and not complain. He complained about near everything else in the way that most three year olds were wont to do.
Crossing the threshold of the bedroom she came to the balustrade of the stairs. Soft music came from the cracked door of her son's room, it seemed to be a phase he was going through as she strongly recalled, only last month, him screaming at her on the way to daycare to turn off the music that issued from the car's stereo. Preparing to descend the staircase she eyed the only step that creaked, rather unassuming as each step appeared to be it was dubbed the 'farting step' by her comedian son. Gingerly stepping over it she looked to her left.
The only light in the living room came from the trio of nightlights that were placed strategically to aid in Tom's nocturnal snacking habits. He swore he would only ever step on Isiah's Lego's (he called them the “vibrant indestructible hard plastic minefield”) once before he threw the “whole damn lot” out. He still sported a scar on his forehead, the kitchen tile counter top a spider webbed crack, from his last unsuccessful attempt to traverse that same deadly maze in hopes to get to the last of the meatloaf.
The television was off. Upon taking a few more steps she didn't see or even hear, for Tom was prone to snoring melodically, anyone in the room be they either a burglar or a form befitting her husband's description snoozing on the couch. However, a glinting and glimmering hazy aura in the corner of the room, nestled between the IKEA bookcase propped up by a chunk of wood (that didn't appear in the instruction manual) and the family's haphazardly shelved DVD collection captured her complete attention unlike anything else.
It was a tree. A bona fide real tree, quite unlike the plastic monstrosity they usually dragged down from the attic every year. It also appeared as though it was decorated, but she'd never seen the likes of garland, tinsel and assorted knick-knacks sparkle with the same mesmerizing quality that this did, the dimly lit room was veritably ablaze with an undeniably stunning aura. The wonderous sight propelled Jennifer onward and back to her youth.
Her parent's had always insisted on a real tree, one that was usually too large for the room in which it sat but nevertheless was always a feast for the eyes. It had never failed to plaster a look of glee on both her and her siblings young faces. The glorious sight before her eyes was also guilty of the same crime, she lifted a hand to her cheek and was not surprised at all to see that it came away moist. “Oh, Tom.” She sighed breathlessly. As yet another tear of joy fell freely down the smooth contours of her face.
It was the light reflecting from the very top of the tree however that intrigued her the most. The object was too small to be considered traditional in any way, it was no star but boasted the same magnificence nevertheless. Mere feet away, on limbs that seemed to glide closer of their own accord, the shimmering object slowly came into focus. Jennifer recognized it instantly as her husband's ring it was very similar to hers apart from it only having the one diamond, a single tear followed the course of the ones before it to crash silently upon the tile.
“Tom?” Her whisper was low though she knew that if he was in the vicinity, which he probably was with a sly smirk plastered across his very kissable chops, he would hear.
No answer. She decided to try again, but this time with a seductive and playful edge, it would entice him to crawl out from his hiding place. She knew his weakness.
“Tttoo…!” His name and her breath caught in her throat as a sudden movement within the thick foliage inches from her outstretched arm made her jump. Stringy and tinsel like from across the dimly lit room, the strands most certainly were not what she had expected. One wavered slightly in a sudden drafty chill to brush gently against her cheek. Jennifer stepped back, to her amazement the object's contact had left somewhat of a moist imprint. Pulling a hand away from her face she discovered a stickiness to her palm and on her fingertips. Inching closer Jennifer was determined to understand the puzzling decoration, the likes of which she had never seen before. Studying the bizarre construction within her open palm, its origin clicked instantly but for what seemed like aeons she continued to stare.
It couldn't be, there was no way. Her brain refused to acknowledge the truth preferring instead to muse upon what else it might possibly be, anything similar regardless of how obscure her reasoning. As she broke free from her shock she happened to look upwards, it was only then that she caught her husband's eye... as it fell into the front of her loosely fitting night shirt.
A chunk of flesh, yes it was skin, sinew and muscle (just like the multitude of shredded strips that hung around the tree) she had finally chosen to accept the fact, tumbled out of the tree's branches to her left to land squarely on her shoulder. Jennifer shivered in revulsion as she recognized part of her husband, his lips. They were torn but still his with the tiniest telltale patch of red haired goatee attached, the same lips that had caressed her own many times in the past and smothered her torso with loving tenderness.
But now Jennifer shuddered at the bluing flesh's touch, her throat shredding scream ricocheted around the room as detritus of the only man she had ever loved continued to rain down upon her horrified features.
Jennifer lost consciousness to slip into the thirsting embrace of the hungering evergreen, meanwhile the aroma of copper and sap swiftly engulfed the room. The tree feasted, its carved flat stump and its multitude of limbs submerged quickly, engulfing themselves in the new found source of ripe, fresh and meaty sustenance. Abruptly a squelch sounded from the stairs (the “fart stair”) above. Moments later a small timid presence descended the same stairs.
A single shaky word, a frightened question finally found it's tentative exodus from a small mouth, “Mum?”