THE HARROWING TREE
No one knew there was a grave beneath the Harrowing Tree.
Out on Hollow Hill, below the oak’s spindly-gray branches, and down a few feet deeper, under the ruddy, shadow-splayed dirt, they buried the body. It didn’t take long. It was the start of spring, and the ground had just begun to thaw after the long winter.
The snow had melted, the clouds shifted to let the light back in, but a haze remained, all over town. A chill still roiled in the bones of everyone living, something felt, not seen. A perpetual sting, like the pain after the feeling had returned to your numb fingers.
A cruelness to the very core.
No grass grew on the outer edges of the Harrowing Tree, as though its roots were poisonous—and perhaps they were—so no one noticed the tarnished earth, the tilled soil.
No one noticed a body where a body hadn’t been before.
“I want to be buried here, too,” he told her, patting the ground with the flat bottom of his shovel, lazily smoothing it over before resting his chin against its shaft, eyes cast to the ground. “When it’s my time, I mean. I want to be with her.”
She winced, staring intently down at the dirt, the hollow before the tree, absent of a headstone. Of anything to mark the life that’d been taken too soon.
“I don’t think I could handle that,” she murmured, struggling to imagine that he’d ever need burying. That she might feel this way again—this much in pain.
He lowered himself down to the ground where she kneeled and crouched beside her, slinging an arm over her shoulder. There was a smear of dirt across his brow. “You could,” he’d whispered in her ear, kissing her just above the left temple. And then again, only softer, more certain this time, he repeated, “You could. If it came to that.”
She didn’t believe it. One body was hard enough to deal with. To mourn. To forget.
“Promise me,” she said, looking up into his warm face, “you won’t make me.” She loosened a shuddering breath, cold in the brightness of spring, and flattened her hands over the soil, feeling for a heartbeat thrumming through the dirt. A heartbeat that wasn’t there. “Promise me it’ll never come to that.”
He grabbed her hand, gave it a squeeze. Promise enough.
Thirty-one years later, he broke that promise.
Somewhere, a bell was ringing.
The evening glow went from light to black in a blinding, dazzling flash, like all the power in the world had suddenly gone out in a wink. Snuffed out by a single breath.
A long, drawn-out hum was the only sound in the universe—save for that bell tolling somewhere beyond what at the time had seemed like the purview of existence—and at the end of it waited the plummet.
The fall of all things wonderful.
Glass splintered in a wave, seeming to swell and arch, then collapse all at once, pulling inward before descending.
Metal churned and wrought as easily as though it were made of straw—no, paper. Origami, folding their lives into something entirely unrecognizable. Chaos crimped it at the seams, deftly pulling the edges together, smoothing out the creases, and then crumpled it up, tore it apart.
Shredded. Door to door. Roof to floor.
And there, calling out from the dark, a single bell.
Once. Twice. A third time . . .
A warning? To flee?
Or a call to action? A call for help.
Velvety darkness snuffed out the world, fitting itself into that car. Taking up its own seat.
Picked through the glass, the debris.
And like hands, it cradled them. Drew them near to heart.
And there it was again, that bell.
Chief Hastings of the Bellriver Police Department was declared clinically dead at 2:03 pm on the evening of July 18th.
Seventeen minutes later, on that very same day, they found a pulse.
“You’ve got that good old Lazarus Heart keeping you going,” the doctors said, again, and again. They would keep saying it.
One thing about Lazarus, though—he came back alone.
And so did the Chief.