This month’s story is The Founder’s Tree, by Ichabod Ebenezer. To download a printable .pdf file of the story, please click here.
The Founder’s Tree
Everyone knows there’s no such thing as magic, and the things that go bump in the night all have logical explanations. If ever mythological beasts and pagan gods did exist, they were long ago supplanted by reason.
As with just about anything that everyone knows, this is, of course, entirely untrue. Creatures of sufficient power have been able to hold onto this world when magic was lost to us, it’s just that their influence is localized, limited, reliant on the beliefs of the people who live in the area. And sometimes, on particular days when this realm drifts closest to those realms where magical creatures fled, the ones that stayed can draw upon that energy and do great things. Great, and terrible, things.
Garret Barnhart was eleven years old when he found out that his little town was one such location. Fall Hollow, New Hampshire was known for its cider; coming in hard varieties as well as the all-ages version. On the label was a woodcutting of an old gnarled tree. The town square was built around the real-life tree depicted there, and every tree in the orchard was grafted from a cutting of that original tree, the Founders’ Tree, now some three hundred fifty years old, some said even older.
October thirtieth every year, they tapped the kegs that had been aging for the month prior, and a three-day celebration started. People came from all over New England to Fall Hallow to celebrate the Samhain festival. Garret was eight or nine before he learned to spell it properly, thinking it was Sowwin, or something like that.
He was also one of the oldest kids in his class, his birthday being October eighteenth, and the first to turn eleven among his group of friends, which was significant because on Halloween night, the festival ended at 9:00pm, and all children ten and under were put to bed.
At 10:00, with all the outsiders gone home and the children in bed, the adults have a little ritual of their own. The kids all knew about it, of course, but the grownups kept their secret.
Garret, being the oldest, reveled in his relative adulthood and missed no opportunity to tell the other kids what he learned by virtue of his advanced age. When the boys wanted to know what it was like to kiss a girl, he gave them the advice of his invented experience.
Since everybody knew he would be the first to attend this event, they extracted promises that he would betray the town’s confidence for his select crew. In exchange, they all swore to eat a booger if they told what they learned.
So, at the appointed time, Garret and his mother stood among the crowd gathered around a stage built to hug three sides of this grand old tree. All the electric lights were switched off, and torches lit the corners of the platform.
He was prepared for something spooky. There was a reason children weren’t allowed to attend. But he was eleven now. He knew the difference between reality and make believe. Even if part of him was still not so sure.
Garret didn’t like the Founders’ Tree. Even in the middle of spring, there wasn’t a single leaf on it, and apples never grew on it. It was covered in uncountable long thin cracks and ugly bubbles of petrified sap. The air around it was always still and silent. No birds would perch in its branches, though crows filled the rest of town, and the temperature always seemed so much colder around it.
Still, the tree was protected, even venerated. Any child caught climbing on it was immediately pulled off and reprimanded. Even the teenagers of the town, who didn’t seem to respect anything, would tell kids off for playing nearby it.
Garret lost sight of the tree and the platform as adults crowded in front of him. He craned his neck to see, but he was simply too short. He looked up at his mom, but he was too old to ask her to hold him. He was eleven, after all. She caught his look though, and seemed to read his mind.
She smiled. “Just this once. Okay?”
He put up his arms, thankfully, and she lifted him up without another embarrassing word.
From his new vantage point, he could see a figure in dark robes and a thin silver chain as a belt, standing on the platform. The hood was pulled up and shadows danced within, bringing to mind images of death personified. The sickle the figure held did nothing to dispel this image.
The figure turned toward the crowd. Garret squeezed his eyes shut, fearful of the skull he was sure to see, but just before he closed them, he recognized the face of Mayor Billings. Garret opened his eyes again, inwardly kicking himself for his fear. This was just Halloween. This was just a costume, and that old tree was just a tree.
The mayor beckoned to somebody offstage. Someone else in identical robes climbed the wooden stairs and stood at the far end of the platform. A line of robed figures formed behind them.
The mayor raised his arms, the sickle gleaming in the torchlight, and said something in a foreign language. All the gathered adults repeated after him. Garret remembered a woman who came to class for a couple weeks every year teaching a bit of French and Spanish, but this was nothing like either of those.
“What did that mean?” Garret asked.
“If you can’t keep quiet, you’ll have to go home,” Mother said in his ear.
Garret shut up.
The mayor spoke some long passage in that same odd language, then turned to face the tree and sliced it with the sickle. Sap oozed out, all red and sticky. He said something else, and the crowd all responded, then he did something Garret never expected. He sliced his own hand with the sickle and made a fist.
Blood dripped onto the stage, and Garret gasped. Cold shot through him, ending in the soles of his feet, almost as if he felt the pain of what he saw. He wanted to scream with concern and surprise, but covered his mouth so Mom wouldn’t send him home. He had no idea what was going on, but he was determined to see it.
The mayor held his fist out over the tree, and his blood dripped onto the cut in the tree. His blood, and the sap flowing out of it looked to be the same color in the light of the torches. All the while, the mayor was speaking under his breath.
Then, and Garret was glad he was already covering his mouth, the tree moved.
Branches swirled around, like arms stretching after a long nap, and the trunk untwisted. A hole opened up, the sort a bird or a squirrel might live in. The night grew still, no bugs or crows making their usual noises. Cold sweat prickled his arms in the stillness.
Garret wanted to bury his face in his mother’s neck, hide from the sudden certainty that all his nightmares were not just possible, but certain. Many nights, he had woken from dreams where this tree had reached out for him with long, thin fingers on gnarled, arthritic hands, and here it was, moving for real.
But he could not turn his head or even look away. His eyes refused to close.
The hooded figure at the top of the stairs walked forward, spoke some foreign words, and dropped an apple into the hole in the tree. They stepped off the stage at the other end, and the next figure approached. Their hand unfurled around a cluster of roofing nails. Only then did Garret recognize Mr. Waxworth, the man who’d installed new cabinet doors in their kitchen.
Garret’s eyes flicked back to the person at the front of line. It was Mr. Tellerby, the guy who ran the local newspaper, holding a gallon size jug labeled ‘Printer’s Ink.’ Behind him was Garret’s teacher, Mr. Chips, who held a box of crayons, and behind him, Mrs. Jennings from three doors down.
Each in turn spoke some odd phrase Garret couldn’t quite catch, then dropped what they were holding into the hole that had formed in the tree.
How deep was the hole? Surely, it would fill up. How deep were the tree’s roots? How many years had they been stuffing it full of old junk and odds and ends? If every scar on the tree came from this old sickle during a Samhain festival, then they’ve been doing it since the tree was young.
Garret didn’t know everyone who came forward, and some kept their hood covering their face, so he didn’t even see who it was, but Garret was shocked again to see his own father walk across the stage in those dark robes. Mother must have felt him tense up, because she rubbed his back in a reassuring manner.
Dad dropped something Garret didn’t see into the hollow of the tree, and was quickly off stage again.
Several more men and women came up with their own gifts for the tree, but Garret hardly registered them anymore, his mind on his father. Did he do this every year?
Finally, the line came to an end. The mayor stepped forward again, holding his arms wide, the sickle still in his right hand. Garret couldn’t stand it anymore. If there was more blood, he just knew he would scream.
Luckily, that didn’t happen. The mayor said some long phrase, and the gathered crowd said something else in unison. At the end, the tree curled itself back up, wrapping around that mysterious hole.
The crowd dispersed, and mom put Garret down. Father joined them, the hood of his cloak down. They walked back toward home, silently. They passed dozens of other people, many in these weird costumes, like monks or priests or something.
Garret kept seeing that hole in his mind’s eye. He knew it wasn’t gone, just sealed up. It would reopen next year, and he’d never see the tree the same way again. The same went for the townsfolk. When they returned to school on Monday, how was he supposed to look at Mr. Chips without thinking of him in dark robes, dropping crayons into a hole in a moving tree?
He had a hundred questions, but somehow Garret knew not to ask them until he was home.
Father took off his belt and robe as soon as they were home, placing them first in a plastic bag, then in a box at the top of the closet. Mother sat at the kitchen table and pulled out a second chair for Garret.
The questions collided and jumbled in his mind, so that now that he could ask them, nothing came out.
Dad came to stand behind another chair and started answering all Garret’s unspoken questions.
“The Founders’ Tree is extremely old. The founders of our town, Daniel and Bonnie Sidhe, brought it from the old country before America was even a country, and New Hampshire was the frontier. No one knows for sure how old it is. Some even say it’s the very first apple tree, and that it is home to a spirit of sorts. The spirit of our town.”
Garret finally found his voice. “Is it… a good spirit?”
Dad smiled, but didn’t answer right away. He spun his chair around and sat, leaning across the back of it. “It… well, according to the stories, it is a nature spirit. It’s neither good, nor bad. Like anything else in nature, it requires nurturing. If you treat it well, it will reward you. If you plant a tomato seed, then just ignore it, it’s going to die. But if you water it, give it plenty of sun, weed it, and trim it just right, you’ll get the biggest, sweetest tomatoes in return.”
“So… the tree eats crayons and ink and stuff?” It didn’t make any sense to Garret. He may be young, but he knew that would kill a tomato plant.
Mom chuckled. “No, sweetie. Not quite.”
“What she means is, in this case we’re feeding the thing in the tree, not the tree itself. For one day a year after sundown, the spirit becomes active. The rest of the year, it sleeps. And it doesn’t exactly eat the things we give it. Those are… offerings. Like the basket we pass around at church, you see? They are symbolic of things that we care about.”
“I think I see. But… why?”
Mom answered that one. “First off, if we stopped those offerings, the spirit of the tree would die. Now, I don’t think anyone has proof of this, but if it dies, the results for our town and the surrounding area would probably be bad.”
“The orchard would die, for one thing. All the people in the cider industry would be out of work. The local wildlife would move away or die. And once again, no proof of this, but I think worse things might happen. The river might dry up or grow foul. The land beneath town may sag and break up. Folks who have been lucky their whole life would find that luck turn sour. You see, for our offerings, the spirit gives us something back.”
“What does it give us?”
Dad said, “Our heart’s desire.”
Garret was quiet for a while, contemplating that. “How does the spirit know our heart’s desire?”
Mom said, “It’s related to what we offer. What we’re thinking about when we make our offering.”
“Oh,” Garret said, and thought again. “What were you thinking about, Dad?”
Dad smiled. “I was thinking about you, son. Your future. I want it to be great, and for you to be happy.”
Garret smiled back, but weakly. He had a lot to think about. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted a spirit in that old tree looking out for his future. He also had a new worry now. What would happen to him if the tree did die?
Dad interrupted his thoughts. “Now that you know our town’s secret, that means you are part of that secret. It’s important that you keep it. No telling anybody. Understand?”
Garret nodded, already lost in his thoughts again.
“Alright,” Dad said, standing. “Off to bed. Tomorrow’s another big day.”
Garret went to bed, but he didn’t go to sleep. He sat, staring at the ceiling. The wind howled outside, and the tree in their yard cast moving shadows across his ceiling. He knew it was the tree in his yard, bare this time of year, but in the deep heart of him, he was certain it was the long, gnarled fingers of the Founders’ Tree. He knew its secret now, and it was coming for him.
He closed his eyes and pulled the covers over his head, waiting for the scratch of wooden fingers at his window. He tried to hold his breath, so desperate to hear, but his heart raced, burning up what oxygen he had. Instead, he breathed through his mouth in thick, hot gulps.
Still the sound did not come, which could only mean it was waiting, hovering over the glass, for the moment he dared to peek out again.
He wouldn’t tell. He wouldn’t tell. He wouldn’t tell.
Well, except for the boys, of course. He’d promised them he’d share everything, even as he promised his parents he wouldn’t. But dad hadn’t made him pinky swear, which made all the difference.
Did the tree know about his pinky swear to the boys? Was that why it waited outside his window? He couldn’t turn around now and just keep his mouth shut—they would hound him, and bully him. He’d lose life-long friends overnight, but what were his options?
Surely, he wasn’t the first kid in this position. Other boys with other groups of younger friends must have made the same promise before. How is it the brickwork around the base of that tree wasn’t soaked in the blood of previous generations who’d threatened to betray its trust? How was it the school didn’t have a wall devoted to all the eleven-year-olds of the town who’d fallen to the tree’s wrath before Garret?
Maybe they’d all made up a story. Told their friends something, anything. Believable, but boring. After all, it was the adults of town who stayed up late, and they were always doing boring things.
Of course, if they were just drinking and talking, or something like that, they wouldn’t let teenagers attend, and there would be no reason to force the younger kids to bed so early on this one night.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Garret was a terrible liar. He couldn’t come up with a story that even he would believe. And the biggest problem was going to be Andrew.
Andrew now, not Andy anymore. He was too old for that.
Andrew’s birthday was November eighth, so he was still ten. He openly resented the fact that Garret got to go this year and he didn’t. He would question everything Garret said, forcing him to think on his feet, and Garret would fail. Everyone would know he was lying. He’d either have to learn to live without friends or tell them in the end. And if he was going to cave eventually, it would be better to come right out with it.
That was the power of the pinky swear.
Ironically, his anxiety over confronting his friends had calmed the horror of the tree outside, giving him the courage to peek out. No scratch came at the window, and no tree stood just outside. The tree that cast these horrid shadows was his own familiar tree, standing twenty feet away.
Garret climbed out of bed and went to his window, just to be sure. In the dark of the moonlit night, it looked just a little too much like the wrong tree. He didn’t want to look away in case it lifted its gnarled roots and stepped a little closer.
His real problem was, Andrew was prepared not to believe him no matter what he said. It was always that way until he proved his word. Andrew was a sceptic, or even worse—what was that word his father used? Pundit. That’s what Andrew was. If Garret told him the sky was blue, he’d argue it wasn’t.
And the tree was only magical tonight. Tomorrow, and for a year following, he wouldn’t be able to prove anything.
Garret knew what he would have to do, he just didn’t like it. But just like lies and Band-Aids, it was best to rip them off and be done.
He put his clothes back on, pausing at his desk for one more item, and went back to the window, where he first listened for any sounds from his parent’s room, then looked for any indication the tree had moved. Of course it hadn’t. It was just his tree. A birch and not an apple. He pushed the window up and climbed out as quietly as he could.
The boys were all at a sleepover at Jimmy’s house this year. The parents must all take turns being the one who couldn’t go and make an offering. That was just one obvious answer to a question he’d never even thought to ask. Now his mind was full of them.
The streets were empty, but Garret had never felt so exposed. He was sure his parents had discovered his absence, that it was a race to get to the boys and say what he had to. Every lamp post was a spotlight, singling him out. Every dark window he passed was filled with informants phoning his parents with Garret’s current location.
He broke into a run, stopping only when he got to Jimmy’s yard. Luckily, there were no trees around his house looking anything like the Founders’ Tree. He only had the bushes outside Jimmy’s window to contend with. The boys would all be lying in sleeping bags on the floor of Jimmy’s room. Sam, Carl, Andrew, Phil, and Jimmy. Garret would have been there too if not for his birthday.
Next year it would just be Jimmy. The thought only just dawned on Garret. Their tradition was officially over. Jimmy didn’t even turn ten until December. Would Jimmy find new friends next year, or would he just be the only one of them who didn’t go to the offering? Both answers seemed wrong.
Garret put the thought aside and pushed through the bushes. He tapped on the window. There was a chance they were still up, and Garret hoped they were. He didn’t want to tap any louder and risk waking Jimmy’s dad. Mr. Lawson managed the boys’ baseball team, and really knew how to yell.
Garret tapped a second time, and Jimmy’s face peeked through the blinds. Jimmy opened them wide when he saw who it was, and the other boys crowded in. Good. It didn’t look like he woke them.
Jimmy opened the window, then Andrew forced his way to the front.
“So? What was it like?”
“Come on,” Garret said. “Quietly. I want you to see something.”
The boys climbed one by one through the window, as quietly as boys do such things, which meant they bickered the whole time, tried out new curse words, and play-fought, but whispering.
Miraculously, Jimmy’s dad didn’t start yelling, even after all the noise of six young boys pushing through the bushes. Garret led the way toward town square.
His promise to his father still weighed on him, especially with Jimmy there. In a year’s time, the rest of them would have known everything anyway. But for the random nature of gestational durations, Andrew might have even been there tonight. Jimmy was two full years away from finding out for himself.
This was a terrible secret to keep. Clearly, Garret was failing to do so, but at the same time, he was going to ask Jimmy to keep it for two years? But what was done was done, and at least Jimmy could talk to them about it. It wasn’t as bad as keeping it from all his friends.
The tree loomed above them, somehow bigger than it had been just a few hours earlier. Had its spindly fingers reached so far? It seemed ready to engulf the group like a video Garret had seen of an attacking octopus. A shiver ran through him. He couldn’t take his eyes from the spot where the hole had opened up.
“Okay, loser, why’d you bring us all here?” Andrew asked. His face was already in the ‘I don’t believe you’ pose.
Garret gulped. Never before had it been so hard to swallow. “It’s the tree. They put us to bed early so they can bring gifts to the tree.”
His voice was hardly more than a whisper. He’d wanted it to be strong, but here, in front of the tree, he could barely force it out at all.
Andrew barked out a laugh. “That’s it? That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. Alright, Mr. Older-than-everyone-else, I don’t see any gifts.” He spread his arms wide. “Where are they?”
Garret reeked with sweat, though whether it was his fear of the tree, or of standing up to his friends, he didn’t know. But it was time. He’d known he’d have to do this.
He reached into his pocket, carefully in case the little cap had come off, but it hadn’t. He drew forth the X-Acto knife he’d brought with him, the one he used for building models. “I can’t tell you. I have to show you.”
The other kids were lined up behind Andrew. Taking sides. It was always this way, and Garret couldn’t even blame them. To cross that line was to face Andrew’s scorn, and Garret had lined up along with them when it was one of the other boys in front.
Before his courage fled entirely, Garret removed the cap from his X-Acto knife, mounted the stage, and sliced at the thick bark of the ancient tree.
What if it would only suffer such injury once a year? What if it lashed out at him now for his insolence? He didn’t even know the words he was supposed to say. Garret watched, unblinking, fully prepared to run.
But the tree remained still in the suddenly windless night. A slow, small bubble of sap formed and grew.
“They’re going to kill you when they see what you’ve done,” Andrew said. The implication was that he intended to tell. His father, or Mr. Chips, George the grounds keep; he didn’t know who Andy would tell, but somebody.
Garret looked at the blade in his hand. Small chunks of bark clung to it, dirtying the sharp edge. He’d never hurt himself purposely before. Every stubbed toe, and scraped knee, and paper cut flashed through his mind, and with perfect clarity, he remembered how each one felt. He could feel them even now.
“Let’s go before someone sees us with him,” Andrew said.
“No, wait!” Garret said. Still, it took several moments of building courage before he could place the knife against his pointer finger. He bit his lip and swiped the knife.
For a moment, he felt no pain, and it didn’t immediately bleed, but then both came. A small, red bubble, same as on the tree. His eyes watered from the pain, but he turned so the boys wouldn’t see. He stabbed the little bubble on the tree with his fingertip.
The tree reacted instantly. unfurling its fingers with a sound like an army of click beetles.
The boys backed away.
“No way,” Andrew said, standing his ground. His jaw remained open at the end of that short phrase.
The tree unwrapped, same as before, exposing that hole at its center.
“That’s where they put their gifts,” Garret said, pointing.
Jimmy wet his pants. Later, perhaps, they’d make fun of him, but for now, the boys just held onto their own bladders.
Andrew jumped up onto the stage.
“What are you doing?” Garret said, horrified.
“I wanna see. What sort of gifts?”
The boys all had the right idea, backing another step farther away. Garret wanted nothing more than to run far from there. He couldn’t imagine coming closer.
“All sorts of stuff. Nails, ink, cupcakes, apples. A wad of money. Stuff they care about. Don’t—”
He couldn’t finish his sentence. The words caught in the desert of his throat. Andrew was standing right in front of the hole that hadn’t been there their whole lives.
“What? It’s just a tree. You’re the one who cut it.”
He was looking this way and that, peering into the hole, shading his eyes as if that would help.
“Maybe you should come away,” Carl said, his voice nearly as weak as Garret’s. His eyes were still focused on the tips of branches that had so recently uncoiled, reached out toward them.
“Shut up, Carla,” Andrew said, reverting to sexist insults. “If there’s a wad of cash in here, I’m gonna grab it.”
He plunged his arm into the hole, shoulder deep, stretching to reach even farther. Garret wished he hadn’t mentioned the money.
“No! You can’t!” Garret was trying to yell, but he could hardly speak. He wanted to explain everything, but first, Andrew had to get out of there.
Garret had forgotten about closing it back up. There was something they all chanted, and it just twisted the other way, but Garret didn’t know the words. Maybe it would just close up on its own. What if it did that while Andrew’s arm was inside?
Garret stopped breathing.
Maybe he was only joking. Or, maybe he’d gotten his fingers on that wad of bills he was delving for. Please, let that be it.
He jerked again, and this time, there was a nauseating crack that went with it. Andrew screamed.
Several of the boys screamed along with him.
Andrew wasn’t joking. Panic filled his eyes as he pulled and pulled. He braced himself against the tree, feet up on its trunk, straining with the effort to break free. “Help me!”
After those two last words, he just started crying. Loud enough to wake the town, and still, Garret heard bone snapping again.
He jerked a third time, and more of him disappeared into the hole in the tree. His neck bent at an odd angle, his legs couldn’t reach the tree anymore, hanging in the empty air.
The tree trunk undulated. The hole expanded. Andrew’s upper body disappeared inside. His crying stopped.
In the distance, dogs barked. Lights came on in nearby houses.
Garret wanted to run.
That wasn’t entirely true. He wanted to turn back time, stop Andrew from going up there, or maybe shut his mouth entirely and suffer the loss of his friends. Anything was better than this.
But underneath that, there was a part of him that urged running. Fast and far. Before the tree could eat him. Before the town came and saw what he’d done.
The tree trunk undulated a second time, and Andrew disappeared entirely.
Tears ran down Garret’s face, he hadn’t noticed until now. His mouth was open. He looked to the boys, all crowded together perhaps fifteen feet away. They all gaped in horror.
“What just happened?” Jimmy whispered.
Garret couldn’t answer.
A figure in a robe stepped into view. Not the black robe of the ceremony, a dressing robe with ducks and shotguns on it. Jimmy’s father. “What are you boys doing here? Jimmy, explain yourself. Garret, is that you?”
Somehow, this was worse than watching a tree gobble up his friend, being found out. Still, Garret couldn’t speak. He was afraid to. Afraid the only sound that would emerge was a wail of grief and horror.
“Come here, Jimmy,” Mr. Lawson said.
Jimmy ran to his father, threw his arms around him, buried his face in that hideous robe. If his father noticed the pee-soaked hug, he didn’t call attention to it. Instead, he locked eyes with Garret, still standing on the platform next to the tree.
“Garret, what’s going on? Why aren’t you all in bed?”
More and more adults were approaching now. They’d heard the screams, but maybe they didn’t know what it was. Maybe they did, but they were hoping they were wrong. They couldn’t believe something they already knew.
Garret couldn’t truly say what had happened. He didn’t understand it all. He couldn’t wrap his head around it.
“Garret Barnhart, what have you done?” It was Carl’s mom. Mrs. Younger came forward and placed protective arms around her son. But she stared at the hole in the tree.
The rest of the parents were there, slowly coming forward, as were half the town.
“Where’s my boy? Teddy, where is Andy?”
Garret’s heart sank, and his blood went cold. Andrew’s dad addressed Jimmy’s father, but his eyes would soon turn toward Garret, the same as everyone else’s.
Garret wished he could take it back, wished he could have kept his mouth shut, wished his parents had never taken him to their stupid ceremony. But above all else, he wished he could bring Andrew back. That’s what he really wanted. He could face up to all his mistakes if only Andrew were back. Andrew shouldn’t have to pay for Garret’s mistakes.
“Garret, where’s my boy?” Mr. Largent’s voice had gone quiet. Maybe it was dawning on him. His son was the only one missing, and the tree was standing there open, and Garret was standing right next to it.
Garret licked his lips. He had to answer. This wasn’t going to just go away. He wasn’t going to slip away while everyone’s back was turned. He opened his mouth to speak, still not knowing what he was going to say.
A wet slap sounded in the silence. Horror fled in the face of hope. Garret looked toward the source of the sound, and a slimy arm stuck out of the hole in the tree. A moment later, a second set of fingers curled around the opening.
He was coming back! Andrew was coming back!
Garret ran to the tree and grabbed Andrew’s fingers. Those fingers clutched onto Garret like a lifeline, but slipped in that coating of… tree sap? It must have been. Garret locked elbows with him and pulled with all his might.
The tree trunk lurched like a stomach in revolt, and Andrew poured out, right on top of Garret. The two fell onto the stage, covered in sticky slime. The tree had given him back.
Maybe Andrew was just too gross for the tree to swallow. Or maybe the spirit inside wasn’t willing to take a life. But for whatever reason, Andrew was back.
Then, Garret remembered what his father had said. The tree took what you offered and gave back your heart’s desire. Andrew was back because Garret had wanted it enough.
He started giggling. Andrew laughed too, but then reared up and punched Garret in the arm.
“You laugh like a girl,” he said.
Mr. Largent appeared and hauled his sticky son off the stage, pulling him into a tight embrace.
The tree twisted back into its common shape, the one on the cider bottles. People started wandering back toward their homes. The show was over. Of course, for Garret, it was just beginning.
“You’ve got some real explaining to do, mister,” his father said, looking down at him where he still lay on the platform.
His heart raced again. “Yes, sir,” he said, and sat up. Mom was there too, looking none too happy. Garret was going to get an earful when they got home, at the very least.
For now, he looked around at the other boys, heading home with their parents. It was worth it if things could go back to normal.
He jumped off the stage. His father reached for his hand.
“One moment,” Garret said, spying Andrew heading off with his father’s arm around him. Garret ran to catch up before his dad could complain.
He grabbed Andrew’s arm, and the boy, three weeks his junior turned his pudgy face toward him.
“This is real, right?” Garret asked. “It’s really you, right?”
Andrew flashed him that same sarcastic smile he knew so well. But, were his eyes always that dark? Was it, maybe, just the light?
Andrew shrugged. “Mostly,” he said, and the smile twisted into something unfamiliar.
© 2023 Ichabod Ebenezer. All rights reserved.
This is the third in a trilogy, all related to dates important to ancient cultures, and all set in small towns. This one takes place on Halloween, or Samhain, in relatively modern times. I love Halloween, which is probably a surprise to no one familiar with my work. When approaching a Halloween story, I always start by thinking about those spooky elements I love so much, then I pare it down to what hasn’t been done to death (or undeath, as the case may be.)
For this story, I decided on a spooky old tree. Now, to me, plant life is ripe with potential for horror. Things that aren’t supposed to move suddenly lurching toward you, etc. Nothing scares me more in the real world than a damp and moldy basement, or uncovering some patch of ground to find it strewn with mushrooms. Plants bioluminesce, and sting, and grow at startling rates. They cause hallucinations, they can be carnivorous, and some rare few just might play host to a dark and powerful entity. Respect the trees.
Ichabod Ebenezer is the genre-promiscuous author of ‘A Shadow Stained in Blood’ and the horror short story collection, ‘Beyond the Rail and Other Nightmares.’ He lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest with his family, a chameleon, and the ghosts of three cats. There is always a skeleton or two in his closet.
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