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  • by Deborah Jarvis

Old Trees

This story came from a college class titled "Writers on Writing." It is an adaptation from the exercise in Stephen King's book On Writing, and follows the basic premise that there is an announcement on the radio or TV about a person escaping from a local mental hospital and then there is a sudden sound... The creepy tree people of Truro, N.S. are real, and have inspired a few stories. The announcement on the radio was one that we heard while driving around Truro on our Honeymoon. I mean, who else but creepy tree people would steal a swimming pool?

Old Trees - 2012 It was the smell of old, decrepit wood that greeted Sam when he returned from work that evening; the kind of wood smell that hints of rot and molds that have begun to eat at the very fibers of the tree’s lifeline to the world: the bark, the xylem and phloem, the cellulose of the dead. The smell of wood rot was so overwhelming that it took Sam’s breath away and instilled him with a sudden feeling of terror. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.

He took hold of himself as the smell faded swiftly from his senses; swiftly enough that he was able to convince himself that he had imagined the experience whole cloth. It was the date that did it, he thought to himself. His anniversary always played merry havoc with his mind, especially since she had...gone away.

Still, there was a moment as he stood in the oak-paneled foyer that Sam strained to listen to the restive sounds of the house, listening for breathing, for footsteps, for the heart-stopping creak of old wood, rotting wood, that had decayed from within and died from disease. For that long moment, Sam stood and counted his heartbeats, imagining that somewhere in the house, something counted with him, listening to the numbered drumbeats counting down the days and hours of his life and devising ways to shorten them further. But there was nothing. Nothing.

When he had convinced himself that all was still and safe, Sam went out into the kitchen and put on the kettle, planning to have a cup of Darjeeling with perhaps a tot of brandy to smooth out the rough edges of his nerves. He looked out the window at the last vestiges of the fading light, admiring the early spring sunset, the tall figure of Josiah Brown, and feeling relieved at how little this winter had reminded him of other days, worse days, when he had not been sure of the reality of any given moment.

His relief at seeing the tall figure silhouetted against the sunset was a palpable thing, a moment of solidity that was the final balm for the brief moment of panic when he had entered the foyer and smelled, or thought he had smelled, that smell. Josiah had not always been a comfort to him. There was, indeed, a time when the sight of Josiah and many of his compatriots had brought the feeling of terror into Sam’s heart, but in the five years since Sarah had gone...elsewhere, the feelings had ebbed, faded, and finally fled, leaving Sam with a feeling that both he and Josiah had survived the tragedy intact.

He made his tea, added a dash of brandy, and sipped at the delicate flavor as he went into the living room to watch the evening news. His old brown slippers were by the sofas where he had left them, and he slid his feet out of his loafers and into the slippers with a soft sigh. The couches were sprawled in a U-shape, one angled slightly towards the television for better viewing. Sam had few friends, did not host parties, and rarely entertained, but was happy enough to be able to accommodate his family when they dropped by. This was less often since Sarah had left, but his family still visited a few times a year, and he was always glad to see them.

His hand closed around the remote and he switched on the television, clicking to watch the evening news. A blaring commercial met his eyes, excited young people dancing around selling some sort of soft drink which resembled urine and probably tasted worse. The girl in the commercial was wearing spandex and jumping around. The selling point of the soda was clear. It would definitely taste horrible.

Sam settled back and closed his eyes, and as he did, that sense of unease closed over him again. What had made that smell? He would have to check the cellar in the morning. What with all of the rain that they had been getting, it stood to reason that something might have begun to molder somewhere. A broken pane of glass, some leaf litter blown in by the winter winds...it could be anything. It still had given him pause, but now, bathed in the light of the evening news, it all shrank to something manageable. Normal. Safe.

The news came on with a fanfare of trumpets and a gasp of sound that heralded the appearance of the two starring anchors. Melissa Corman and John Weatherbee’s melodious voices added a cushion of comfort to the brandy already seeping into Sam’s bones, and he settled back with his doctored tea to watch.

“Good evening, folks!” beamed John. “Tonight’s stories include the incoming storm front and the results of the latest restaurant poll, but first, this just in. A break from the Women’s prison in Digby leaves five officers wounded and two inmates dead. Three unnamed prisoners have made a break for it in a daring daylight escape attempt and local police warn that they are at large and very dangerous. The escape attempt occurred at 1:30 this afternoon, and there has been no sign of them in or around Digby. Officials fear that they have escaped outside the perimeter and are further afield than originally expected. Be extra cautious with any strangers in town, and...”

John’s voice continued to drone on, but Sam’s attention had suddenly refocused back in the house. How far was Digby from Truro anyway? How long to drive here by car? Four, five hours maybe? She could have gotten here long before he got home. She could easily be waiting somewhere in the house. She could be waiting...with them.

Sam turned around in his seat, looking back at the dimly lit kitchen and, rising quietly from the sofa, eased into the kitchen. There was still enough light to see by from outside, though there wouldn’t be for much longer, and Sam moved to the window to look for Josiah.

Still there.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Sam went to make sure that the back door was locked, and double-checked the front as well. All seemed to be secure, and Sam went back into the living room, and sat back on the couch, a little shaken still. He held his cell phone tightly in his hands but did not call the police. What could he say to them anyway? “Hello, my ex-wife is loose from jail and I think she is coming for me. Oh, and watch out for the trees.” They would think he was deranged.

When he and Sarah had first come to Truro on their honeymoon, Sarah had been enchanted with the giant, rustic statues of famous residents. What a great use for elm trees that had been infected by Dutch Elm disease and could not be cut down for historical and environmental reasons. Three local artists had started on them with chain saws and chisels, and before anyone knew it, the town was peopled with giant statues. Sam thought that the trees were completely creepy and often joked that they belonged in a Stephen King novel somewhere. Even the news report the night they stayed there of a swimming pool being stolen seemed to fit in Sam’s imagination with some crazy plot of the town of the damned, frequented by giant wooden thieves with diabolical purposes for above-ground pools.

Sarah had fallen in love with the town and its history, and she had insisted that they move there when she got a job in Halifax. The commute was not that long, she insisted, and she wanted to live somewhere that begged to be part of a story. Because Sam wanted to make her happy, they had rented an apartment on Prince Street for two years before finally buying a home at the corner of Louise and Queen streets. The house faced Louise St, but through the kitchen window, Sarah could see Josiah Brown, her favorite of all of the statues.

Sam was not enamored of the ‘creepy tree people,’ as his father termed them, and often found his gaze drawn to the figure of Josiah while he did the dishes. The tree people made him nervous in ways that he could not readily define. He felt them watching him with their blank, wooden eyes; felt them judging him with their empty stares. Who are you, they seemed to say, to live in our town? Who are you to own a house in this most holy of shrines, a shrine to dead elm trees, sanctified by chainsaws and wood putty for all eternity?

The creak of the house dragged Sam from his reverie, pulling him back to the present. There was a feeling in the air, a tangible pressure, an intent so vivid and so vast that it drowned out all other feelings. Sam returned to the kitchen, a small island of sanity in a suddenly insane moment. He knew, beyond words or comprehension, that Sarah was in the house. He could not hear her breath, could not hear her tread upon the stairs, but he knew she was there, up through the oak paneled foyer, up the stairs, listening to him listen for her. And if she were here, then they were too.

He peered out through the window suddenly, but the kitchen light drowned out all hope of seeing the darkened world beyond the panes. He reached up beside the window, and flicked the light off in one sharp movement. It took but a moment for his eyes to adjust and show him the truth his heart already knew.

The statue of Josiah Brown was gone.

Sam stared numbly at the empty, vacant space where the statue once stood for a long moment before he switched the light back on and turned to face what lay inside his house. The kitchen flooded with light as he turned around and found himself still completely alone with one exception. A large wooden hockey stick rested across the doorway to the foyer, effectively blocking it. He knew this hockey stick well as he passed the statue that held it twice a day on his way to and from work. The message was clear – there would be no exit through the front door. He could only go into the living room and see what lay in wait.

Not daring to take his eyes fully off of the stick, Sam eased towards the door to the living room. It was a large, expansive room, and aside from the U of the couches and the television, there was a small desk and bookshelf near the front window. Sitting in the chair to the desk was his now ex-wife Sarah, dressed in an absurdly low cut black evening gown and matching high heels. Beside her stood several of the statues small enough to fit through doors. They faced him, immobile but threatening nonetheless. He knew that they were able to move quickly if they needed to. Their chief advantage was their speed, though the ones who had actual arms were the ones that could truly do things. The ones in his living room were more like oversized chess pieces that could move on their own, but not grab or carry anything. That didn’t make them any less dangerous, however. Being crushed to death was still an option for the unwary...or the slow.

“Hello, Sam,” said Sarah, her voice smooth and even. “Are you happy to see me, darling? It’s our anniversary. I hope that you don’t mind that I brought some...friends.”

“What are you doing here?” asked Sam, stalling and hoping that his brain would begin to work again through the panic. ‘Any time now,’ he thought.

“Sam, as if I need an invitation to come to my own home. I have waited for this for so long. Five years. Five years that it took them to be lax enough that I could carry out my plan. And now I am home again. Aren’t you excited to see me?”

“You tried to kill me,” said Sam, looking at her squarely in the eyes. “You tried to kill me with these...things! And now you ask me if I am happy to see you? Are you crazy? I divorced you because you tried to kill me!”

Sarah’s gaze grew hard and her lips thinned in anger.

“That’s just what I expected from you,” she said. “Ruin our anniversary, destroy my life. I was happy here, Sam. The statues understood me, even when you didn’t. You started it by taking up with that girl at the office!”

“Sarah, I never was seeing Tonya. I told you that, but you wouldn’t believe me,” said Sam. “I stayed late that night to change her tire when she had a flat. That was it! You imagined something that didn’t happen.”

Sarah seemed to grow and change as she strode forward, outrage snaking across her face in sharp lines. She reached him and slapped his face before he could get out of the way. The slap hurt, and he noticed as he recovered that the statues were forming ranks behind her. He paused for a brief moment before making his decision and racing for the back hall.

He threw himself bodily under the hockey stick, barely dodging the statue left there to guard the way, and stumbled down the hall, trying desperately not to fall. Behind him, he heard the stick clatter to the ground, but by then he had reached the cellar door, and was racing, almost falling down the stairs. He remembered, randomly, that someone had told him that ‘cellar door’ was the most audibly pleasurable phrase in the English language, and he wondered at the part of himself that would come up with such an inane thing at a moment of crisis.

At the bottom of the stairs, he turned and bolted across the basement floor, racing for the bulkhead. Behind him he heard the click of Sarah’s shoes as she descended the stairs , and a softer, more subtle sound of the statues in their mindless pursuit. Dodging furniture, boxes, and other unused items, he reached the metal doors, thrust back the bolt, and threw himself up and out into the night. He stopped at once: his way blocked, and his race over.

In front of him stood the unmistakable form of Josiah Brown, all twelve feet and seven hundred pounds of him. His arms, mobile and reaching, loomed over Sam, blocking his way. There was no escape, and Sam looked up at the impassive face with its dead, empty carved eyes, and despaired. Josiah didn’t move, but then again, he didn’t have to. Sam knew he was defeated and he didn’t try to run. The hedges that fenced in his back yard were all too good of a barrier for him to breach.

Behind him, Sam heard Sarah ascend from the cellar, and he turned to see her. She stood, arms crossed and a triumphant look across her painted face, mocking his attempt to flee.

“You can’t get away from me,” she said. “They know me. I woke them. I own them. Now you are going to pay for five years, five years behind bars, treated like a common criminal. And for what? So I killed your slut girlfriend. I did you a favor.”

“Sarah, for the last time, I didn’t do anything,” said Sam, desperately. “Ask them, ask the trees. They’ve been here for the past five years. Ask them how many girlfriends I’ve had. None! I loved you, and you tried to kill me.”

Sarah laughed and moved as if to slap him again, but stopped short and looked at the statue of Josiah Brown as if seeing it for the first time. Sam looked at the statue and saw that it was looking at Sarah intently. Its carved face hadn’t changed, couldn’t change, but its anger, its intent was now directed toward her. For a long moment, Sarah looked confused, and then a flicker of fear rippled in her eyes.

“No,” she said. “No, it wasn’t my fault. He’s lying. He must be. He fooled you all!”

Sarah backed away from the statues whose attention was now focused solely on her. The hedge loomed dark and green behind her, and as Sam edged toward the road, he saw the statue of Josiah Brown raise its club-like arm. Sam turned and fled, accompanied by the sound of Sarah’s scream and the soft thud of something hard striking a soft, moist substance, like butter or maybe jelly. The scream was cut off abruptly, and Sam ran, not caring where he went, just as long as it was away. He didn’t look back. He didn’t want to.

 

Several days later, a car and a moving van pulled up into a patch of bright morning sun outside of the house on Louise Street. Sam and his parents got out of the car and looked at the statue of Josiah Brown standing as it always had on Queen Street, its wooden face impassive as always. Then they let the movers into the house who rapidly began the process of cleaning out the furniture, boxing smaller items, and taking them to the truck.

Sam led the way to the backyard, accompanied by his father and mother. Of Sarah’s body there was no sign to be seen, but the grass in the corner by the hedge was stained a deep rust brown color, and the ground was deeply gouged as if by something hard impacting there.

As one, they turned and looked at the statue the overlooked the garden, and then back at the spot on the ground. Without a word, they went back inside, but Sam waited until they had all gone inside before giving a brief nod in the direction of Josiah Brown. He got no response, nor did he expect one, but he got a sense that he had made an impression on the old trees of Truro. The trees had witnessed many things over the years, and maybe they weren’t quite as dead as they were believed to be. Not by half. Or maybe not at all.



Writer's Corner Featuring Deborah Jarvis, Author