The Evil Hearts of Trees
The dead do not exist in the same world we do.Though their remains are tied to the earth, there is a different time and place that exists alongside ours, a place that few can ever see, never know.
When Crazy Girl fell victim to the monster, she was too frightened at first to do anything but lie in her body in the earth.In her mind her heart still beat, she still breathed, even after her body had long grown cold.As her mind quieted, these illusions disappeared and she began to ponder her situation.
The dead do not always realize they are dead. In between periods of quiet and awareness, she would remember the last horrible moments that occurred before she took her last breath.What followed was a nothingness that confused her.She must be alive but what was she doing in his cold, dark place?
One day she suddenly rose from the earth and saw her surroundings.A cold dirty basement with one small window appeared to eyes that could now see.She looked at the window and suddenly found herself there. She gazed out at the world of the living, a world she sensed was no longer hers.The basement was an awful place, but to her it became the embodiment of safety, a twisted refuge free of abusive boyfriends and men who took advantage of her for the pitifully little money that she gave to her pimp.
“How could I be here?” she thought one day, “One minute that white man was picking me up, and now I’m here.”She crumpled to the dirt floor and began to sob.“I’m really dead,” she realized, the horror of it overcoming her, “I don’t know how, but I’m dead.”
Crazy Girl did not try to leave the basement for a long time.Every so often a paunchy man with stringy hair would come downstairs and look at the mound of earth that held her remains beneath the floor and smile. She did not know who he was, or if she did, she did not remember.
One day she’d had it with his gloating.“Go away, I don’t want you here.You’re evil.” A jar flew off a shelf and hit him in the head.She did not know what she had done, but tried again and found she could move objects with her mind.
Years passed, though it only seemed a moment in time.She even forgot her name. He quit coming down so frequently to the basement, as if he had forgotten her, or was afraid.She had almost resigned herself to being alone or entering the light that appeared at various times--though she didn’t understand what it was--when he brought another girl dangling limply in his arms to the basement.Crazy Girl closed her eyes until he’d finished with her, then watched as he dug another grave and dumped in the girl’s body as if she were no more than a bag of garbage.
Crazy Girl knelt by her, waiting.Days passed, but the girl finally found her way out of the earth, gasping as if she were breathing, and looked at Crazy Girl with fear in her eyes.
“Don’t be afraid,” she told her, but it had been so long since she had spoken that her words did not make sense.Eventually, though, she could make herself understood, and found that looking after the new girl gave her purpose, and she no longer felt so desperately alone. She could even ignore the white light when it started glowing in the corner, enticing her, trying to lure her into surrendering herself, giving up the earthly existence that had become her life
There was something here, she thought. Crazy Girl looked around her and she heard someone calling her name, someone she knew from a very long time ago. I hear you, she answered, then hung her head. It was about to begin and there was no way to stop it.
Someone was calling her name. Mariah paused for a moment, listening. The voice was familiar, as if out of a dream. She heard it again, then found herself in the basement.
“I heard something,” she told Crazy Girl, “My name being called, something was calling my name.
“I know,” Crazy Girl replied, “And don’t you mean ‘she’?” She came here looking for you. You can’t hide here anymore.” And if you tell me you don’t know who it is, I’m going to know you’re lying. We’ve been here far too long.
“She can’t be here, she can’t. We weren’t told when we had to leave. We were sent here for the girls, that’s all.”
“Girl, if I could die, I’d swear you were gonna be the death of me.You know who it is.You ever think that maybe we’ve stayed here too long, when we’re supposed to be leaving? We weren’t supposed to stay after the girls were gone.”
“I’m not ready to leave, we haven’t finished what we’re supposed to do, not yet. We were supposed to get justice for them, that hasn’t happened,”
“I think we have, you’re just too stubborn to let go of that boy.You haven’t been listening and she’s trying to get you to pay attention. You’ve got to listen, and soon, or she’ll go after that boy, and if he gets hurt you got no one but yourself to blame.”
“How do you know it’s really her?And if it is, why won’t she justgo away and leave us alone?”
“You can’t make her go away.I’m telling you—we’ve done what we came here to do, and she’s telling us it’s time to leave.When we leave, she’ll leave. We don’t belong here; if we leave, everybody will be safe and the door between our world and theirs will be closed.”
“No,” sulked Mariah, “I’m not ready to go back.I want to stay.”
“Listen to yourself,” Crazy Girl sat down next to her, “You can’t have that boy forever, unless you get him killed, too.That what you want?Has he met somebody and you can’t bear the thought of him being with her?Is that what this is all about?I thought you’d have that boy for a while, then you’d let go and we could go back where we belong.You’re breaking the rules and it’s going to get us both in trouble. You gotta think about someone besides yourself, that’s your problem.If you really love him, let go of him.Let him have the life he’s supposed to have.”
“I’m not ready,” Mariah replied, “Not yet.Maybe someday, but not yet.”
“So when will you be ready?A day from now?A year from now?A hundred years from now?You’ve put him in danger—you didn’t know you would but that’s what happened.You get some serious thinking to do.Who do you care more about?You?Or that boy?”Crazy Girl disappeared down into the earth, shutting her out, unwilling to talk to her any further.
“Go then,” Mariah yelled after her, “I don’t need your help anyway.”She heard a chuckling coming from deep beneath the soil, so she smashed a jar against the wall to make herself feel better.
Michael joined his family in the front room.The kitten had recovered from its fright and the family was laughing at kitten antics.His mom had left his dinner in the oven, and he removed it, swearing as the too-hot plate burned his fingers.“Use a hot pad,” his mother called, knowing he never did.He brought his plate up to his room, and took out his books, planning to spend the hours between now and when he went to bed studying.He finished his Calculus homework, and moved on to history, Molly’s class.English he would save till last—he had a paper to outline and write, and English was his least favorite subject.
He was lost in his history book when he heard a tapping against his window glass.Mariah?Mariah never tapped.He looked out the window, but could see nothing.He and his father had pruned braches away from the windows, but still, the sound persisted, “tap-tap, tap-tap.”He was about to open the window when it seemed he could hear Mariah’s voice calling to him.“Don’t open the window, Michael, whatever you do, don’t open the window.”He looked around, but she wasn’t there.
He backed slowly away.A bitter, chilling cold was emanating from the window.Autumn was not quite over and it was cold at night; but the furnace was still on, keeping his room at a comfortable temperature.He went back to his bed and continued reading, looking at the window every few minutes.Too distracted to outline his English paper, he picked up his physics book and tried to absorb himself in quantum mechanics, when the tapping started again, only louder.He threw his book down, and went back to the window, going only close enough to see outside.Even in the darkness he could see that nothing was there.
The digital clock numbers read eleven.Quietly, he opened his bedroom door to see if the downstairs lights were still on.Nothing. Down the hall he could hear the muffled voices of his parents in their bedroom.Kit’s room was silent.No doubt, she was curled up with her new kitten and had fallen asleep an hour ago.
“Tick tock, eleven o’clock”.Was that from Ray Bradbury?It didn’t matter, but the words kept echoing themselves in his head.He put on his shoes and his jacket, then turned off his light.He stood for a moment in the darkness of his doorway, quietly closing the door behind him.He went slowly down the stairs, and stole out through the kitchen door and ran lightly around the house and stood for a moment on the sidewalk.
He started up the street, trying to remember where he had heard the cracking noise.This night walking past the house of Mariah’s tormenter did not affect him—he was hunting different game.
And there it was.A giant branch broken from a maple tree had fallen across the sidewalk, just after Mariah had commanded him to run.He looked up at the tree—it was old, but healthy, not rotten.He looked back at the branch.It looked as if some giant had broken it off to use it as a club—if not for Mariah’s warning it would have hit him square on the head.
The maples had lost their leaves weeks ago, but the branches started swaying as if caught in a wind.The noise they made sounded like a clicking—or a tapping.The rising wind seemed to affect no other part of the street, just the spot where he stood.Soon it was like being caught in a storm.He tried to run, fighting to lower his center of gravity so he could escape back down the street, but the wind slammed him against a tree.He grabbed onto it, holding on tightly, trying to keep from being swept off his feet, holding tightly despite the tree’s girth.Debris flew from the street, hitting him like small missiles, and he pressed his face against the trunk, using all of his strength to remain where he was.
The attack was not mindless, it was directed at him. “It’s got to quit sooner or later,” he tried to assure himself.He hoped that whatever it was it would wear itself out, give up, and leave him alone.The debris flying around attacked him, hurting, even though his long hair protected his neck and face.His hands were being scraped and cut, and he could feel them bleeding. Blood trickled down his neck where something had struck his scalp.
“Hold on, Michael,” he told himself, “hold on, hold on, it’s got to stop, it can’t go on forever.”And suddenly, as if tired of playing with him, it did.Michael fled down the street and crept quietly into his house.He washed the blood from his hands, grateful that there were only scrapes and the cuts were small.He did not know why, but his face had escaped injury.His mother’s mint ointment sat on the counter, and he smeared it over his hands, grateful for the fact it was fall, and his long sleeves had protected his arms.
He got into bed and wrapped the covers tightly around him.He began to think Mariah was right, something was there, something wrong.He had thought that his only opponent would be an earthly one, now it seemed something not of this world wished to torment him, too.Mariah had at first seemed a blessing, now he felt that he was being drawn into a web, but where was the spider?
He was stiff and sore when he woke up the next morning, and his hands were painfully swollen.Waking alone, he realized that this was the first night he had spent without Mariah in a long time.The realization that he had not noticed before made him feel guilty, while something inside his head seemed to whisper, “this is how it should be; it’s time to let her go.”
The hot shower made his hands sting, and he scrubbed them with antibacterial soap.He rubbed his mother’s ointment onto his hands, noticing that they were red and bruised, and the swelling had increased.He wished he had time to ice them, but that was not possible—and his mom was sure to notice.She tended to notice everything and he couldn’t slip this by her, or could he?Looking at his battered hands, he couldn’t think of a lie that would hold up, unless she’d accept a fall on his skateboard.
He wrapped his hands in gauze to protect the cuts and abrasions.The cuts were itchy and his hands felt hot. He wanted to go downstairs to the kitchen and grab his lunch, then say that he wanted to get to school early, so he was catching an earlier bus.His mother was smarter than that, nothing got by her and he knew it.Maybe that was why he had gotten into so little trouble in his life—his mom always knew when something was not quite right.He knew she would see the wrappings on his hands right away, and he didn’t know what kind of believable excuse he could give her.
His mother gasped when he came into the kitchen. She saw his gauze-wrapped hands, grabbed his shoulders and locked his eyes with hers.“Okay, kid, what happened?What did you do to your hands?Why all the cuts and scratches?”She steered him to the sink and turned on the cold water and directed him to put his hands under it while she got the first aid kit.
She cleaned his hands with cotton balls, then applied a disinfectant and an antibiotic ointment.Her skillful nurse’s hands re-wrapped his hands better than he could, and they felt less swollen and cooler to the touch.“Leave the dressing on and I’ll look at it when I get home.Are you hurt anywhere else?”Michael shook his head.She looked at her son, and had a feeling that he didn’t want to tell her all she wanted to know.Michael kept few secrets.He might get into some mischief now and then, but never enough trouble to make her worry.
To his mother’s eyes, he’d changed since they moved into this house.The happy go lucky skate boy who didn’t have a care in the world had metamorphosed into a pensive teenager who seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.He’d never kept things from her before, now she was sure he had secrets he would not share.She wanted to know, but she did not want to try to force them out of him—he would only withdraw.
She drew him to her and hugged him.“I don’t want to see you hurt.Michael, it kills me when you won’t talk.Something is bothering you and you won’t tell me.I’m your mother and when you hurt, I hurt.”She released him, touched his cheek.She scooped eggs and bacon from skillets on the stove onto a plate and drew toast from the oven.“You don’t leave without eating and add some vitamin E to your supplements.I know you don’t believe in it, but humor me.”She watched him walk away with his plate to the table.He still wouldn’t talk and she could coax nothing out of him.
She didn’t realize that he saw her wipe a tear from her eye.If he could only tell her he would, but he couldn’t.This was one burden he would have to bear alone.
Mariah stood on the sidewalk in front of the monster’s house, Michael would have passed her by without speaking, but he could not let himself do that.So he said to her curtly, “Not now, I had a bad night.”She vanished and he didn’t know if she was following him, but it didn’t really matter.He had been attacked last night, he was injured body and soul.He didn’t know whether to be surprised or not when there were no signs of his attack last night—no broken branch lay on the sidewalk.No blood showed on the tree trunk. The debris lay in its place in the street, not on the sidewalk and lawns.
The bus stop seemed a safe haven.All the nightmares lay down the street.When the bus came he sat in his usual place, holding his skateboard in front of him as if it were an armored breastplate, there to protect him.Thea got on at her stop, and tried to talk to him, but he just held his skateboard and stared into space.Her cocoa brown eyes studied him while the bus rolled towards their school.When it stopped, he got off and hopped on his skate board, Thea following him and calling his name to no avail.
Dewey and his faithful Anya were there at the flagpole.Short Round sat on the base, rolling his skateboard back and forth with his feet.It was hard to separate Anya and Dewey these days, but no one seemed to mind.Anya was good company and a good sport.When Dewey had put her on a skateboard the first time, she had fallen and sprained her ankle.When it healed she insisted on trying it again before announcing that perhaps it was not a good idea.She had a Cossack’s nature, with English that she had given her own twist.“An-glish” Dewey called it, and found her accent endearing as well as her misuse of words.
“Meeting at the skate park,” Short Round piped up.He looked around to see if there were any takers.
Dewey shook his head.“Nope, rain today.I’m going to opt out of skating in favor of staying dry.Let’s find our table at the old library and study.If we get our homework done, we can meet at my house tonight and talk there.I don’t want to see any of us fly off our skateboards again.”He looked pointedly at Michael.
“Seeing as how I was the one who got thrown from the skateboard, I’m in favor of Dewey’s suggestion, so I’ll second it.”Thea was trying to be casual but Michael heard an edge in her voice.If thesame had happened to him, maybe he’d feel the same way.
“You guys are getting too serious for me.I just want to forget what happened.Too many things are happening—if it weren’t for skating, I’d join the monastery where my uncles are and be a serious Buddhist.But count me in.”Short Round looked glum, then he jerked back his head as the first raindrop hit.“Looks like there’s been a change in the weather--guess I’ll opt out of skating, too.”
When the rain began to fall in earnest, they ran into the school, each lost in their own thoughts.Outside the storm broke and all that day the rain fell.They looked out the windows wistfully, the skateboards sat in lockers, unused.After school they piled into Dewey’s car and headed to library, rain lashing at the windshield, resistant to efforts of the wipers.