I remember the first day I saw that gnarled old Tree; it seems ages ago now. I must have passed the house where The Tree stood a dozen or so times, but as with many things, one gets busy and life interferes with the ability to notice simple things.
On this one particular day The Tree finally caught my eye and I stopped for a closer look. It wasn’t a small tree, hardly one someone would miss, but easily taken for granted in a city where everything is rush, rush, rush. It is somewhat expected to see the odd Tree on a lawn in the smaller neighborhoods, as it lets people pretend they are not entirely surrounded by concrete and noise. Nature in the city is regulated to the cooing of pigeons on the sidewalk and dead leaves blowing past the gutters.
The house that sat behind The Tree was not overly remarkable, an older 2 story home, painted a faded shade of teal, that had been obviously subjected to the elements over the years. The only real character to the house was that the top floor window, which extended out and over the lower portion of the house in a curved cylinder shape, was as wide as the lower portion of the house. Shutters hung to either side of the windows on both floors, painted a dark, taupe, but they were not movable shutters just accents for the windows as many older homes used to have. This house did not appear to have been lived in for a great many years.
The base of The Tree was directly in front of the house, perhaps the contractors had built the house over a seedling and it sprouted from beneath in retaliation, and the base was the size of the tires on a Greyhound bus, round and stout like an old fashioned rain barrel. A trunk of chocolate coloured, solid wood rose just a couple of feet off the ground before twisting upward and away from the house at such an alarming angle that it was a miracle the Tree had not fallen over. It almost appeared as if The Tree was trying to escape the presence of the house. There were no leaves on The Tree, no birds or squirrels hanging in it’s branches, it was devoid of any form of life, except that the wood was a rich brown and obviously very much alive.
The form of The Tree intrigued me, and as a storyteller inspired me as well. I began imagining what The Tree might be running from, what it could be afraid of. Was there some sinister presence in the house, like the story of Amityville, or was The Tree the true evil, reaching out for new souls to capture little children to eat, like the one in Poltergeist?
Now you’re probably thinking that I have simply seen to many horror movies and read to many Stephen King stories, but this tree would make anyone wonder, if they took enough time to really notice it. Every day and evening when I passed The Tree I was compelled to stare at it with wonder and I honestly believed that the thing was growing bolder, that it’s arms reached further away from the house and closer to the street, closer to me.
Finally, on one cold evening in December, as I walked home through layers of gently falling snow that covered the sidewalk, cars, and fences that I passed, I noticed that the The Tree remained untouched by winter’s hand. There was a thin layer of snow on the ground beneath, some on the house behind, but no snow on The Tree itself.
This was simply too much to ignore and I was compelled to investigate such a phenomenon. I had finished my shift at midnight and it was now almost one in the morning. There was no one on the streets of my quiet neighborhood, no cars, no people, and not even a stray cat. Having no audience to remind me that technically I was trespassing, I stepped forward onto the front lawn of the house. There were no lights in the windows, nor had there ever been in all the time I had passed by at night, which was why I assumed it was vacant.
My boots left small footprints in the snow as I approached The Tree and part of me, mostly stirred by my imagination, told me to get the hell out of there before The Tree came alive or some zombie came running out of the house after me. However, the logical part of me, who dismissed such happenings, could not contain her curiosity.
Two more steps closer and I was at the base of the Tree, looking up through the branches, which offered a decidedly macabre appearance. Reaching out with a gloved hand I touched The Tree, not knowing what to expect, but certain something would happen, and when nothing did I pulled back. The Tree didn’t come alive, a hand didn’t appear to pull me inside, and I wasn’t shocked into oblivion or turned into a toad, it was just a tree.
Somewhat disappointed I stepped back to glance around The Tree to the house. It didn’t look specifically ominous this close up either. Shaking my head at my own morbid stupidity I turned back toward the street, only then realizing how incredibly quiet it was.
When I say this, you must understand that while it is late at night, in the city there would still be noise. The sounds of all night streetcars on the roads, someone shouting from three streets over, usually teenagers out past curfew, and sirens in the distance can almost always be heard along with the humming of streetlights and neon signs. Instead, there was only a deafening silence with only the sound my own heartbeat to keep me company.
A feeling of unease settled over me and as I moved one foot forward back onto the curb. I glanced down and saw that the lawn, dusted with a thin layer of snow, remained beneath my boots. I took another few steps, able to see the sidewalk ahead, yet unable to reach it. Like an old Jimmy Cagney musical, the ground seemed to roll backwards with each step I took, giving the illusion of walking without actually going anywhere. Another step, and another, I was almost running, and still I could not reach the sidewalk, until I took a giant leap and was propelled backwards into the Tree.
Stunned and frightened I lay there in the snow, staring at the houses across the street, a small convenience store just up the road with cars parked in front of it. This didn’t make any sense! What had I gotten into? I could see everything just as before, but I couldn’t get off the damn lawn. Horrified, I watched as a car drove up the street in front of me, moving without any sound. There was no crunching of tires on pavement, no hum of the engine as it drove past, only absolute silence like a movie without the soundtrack.
I scrambled to my feet and walked around to the other side of the lawn and the same thing happened, movement without movement, walking without getting anywhere. I began to shout, hoping someone would hear me, maybe call the police, come to their doors to check out the noise, but the neighborhood remained silent as a tomb.
Desperate, I scooped up enough snow to form a ball and threw it, watching it land, soundlessly on the street. Then, I made the mistake of reaching my hand out, half expecting to feel an invisible barrier of some kind, like the one mimes often pretend to feel with their hands, but my fingers slipped through and I felt only air. I took my glove off, no, not air, I felt nothing, absolutely nothing and it felt horribly wrong. Even air feels like something, when it touches bare skin, when you wave your hand back and forth there is a slight change in temperature, a breeze, warm or cold, yet here there was nothing. I shivered, but not from the cold, and pulled my glove back on.
There was no sound, no feeling, and it was then I realized that my breath no longer fogged the air. When I tried again to move forward I felt a painful discomfort and I realized that my feet had fallen asleep. The prickling sensation ascended to my legs and intensified by the time it reached my torso, like a swarm of spiders had worked their way inside my clothes and embedded themselves beneath my skin.
I slapped at my chest and legs, ripped open my jacket expecting to see the insidious creatures, and found nothing. I spun around during my struggles, facing The Tree and the sensation stopped. That couldn’t have been just my imagination; my skin still felt like it was crawling, just not as strong. I stared at The Tree, it remained immobile and indifferent, but my chest was heaving like I had just run a marathon.
Still scratching at my chest and arms, I turned to look at the house. I could see no way around to the back due to a privacy fence, so my only choice was to go through it and hope there was an exit to the road behind. There had to be a back door, a house always had a front and a back door, didn’t it? Right, so that was what I would do. I’d go through the house to the back, shouldn’t be too bad.
Now, you are probably thinking isn’t it lovely how well I am adapting to the situation, aside from my spastic fit a few moments ago, but you have to understand… I HAVE read an enormous amount of Stephen King and so my sense of normality is somewhat different from others and I tend to adapt easier to the bizarre. I mean really, I suppose I could start screaming for help, okay technically I did try that, but I’m not yet crying hysterically, or praying because all is lost… that would only do for an hour or so and I would still be stuck now wouldn’t I?
So, over to the house I went, not really afraid mind you, just extremely cautious. After all, I had no idea what I would find in that house, but in it I must go. I couldn’t sit out here all night. Stepping onto the porch my foot immediately went through one of the boards and I twisted my ankle, which of course, was a wonderful start to my adventure. It hurt like a sonofabitch, but I was able to pull it out and continue.
I knocked on the door and received no answer, I think I would have been more surprised if there had been a response. The door was locked, and so I limped around the porch to the side of the house, hoping to gain access to the rear and put this Twilight Zone episode behind me. Oddly enough the porch only led into an outside wall of the house, with one door; also locked.
There was a smell here, to this day I can’t describe it and I have never discovered anything like it since, but it was strange enough that I proceeded with additional caution. A small window on the side, the top, level with the doorframe beside it, was slightly ajar by about an inch or so. It was too high up for me to reach but there was an old kitchen chair on the porch, rusted and with no backing, that I was able to climb on to boost myself up. Sliding my hand between the sill and the window I lifted it the rest of the way up, waited a moment to see if an alarm would sound or three-headed dog would take off my hand, and then I climbed inside.
Okay, I should mention here that whenever you climb through an open window, unlike in the movies, you should not expect a soft landing, nor are most people double jointed that they can start headfirst and land on their feet inside. I pulled myself through headfirst and that was pretty much how I landed, my scull and right shoulder bouncing off what I assumed was a kitchen counter.
Contusions aside, once I was through the window it was like falling into an open grave. The air was stale and rot with mildew, and an odd smell lingered in a darkness that was as black as the deepest pits of hell should be. Everything was so very still. It felt like a giant lump was starting to form on my forehead as I grabbed the counter and slowly rose to my feet. My shoulder and ankle ached, but now that I was inside I could only go forward. The street lamps outside could not permeate this dark, thick gloom and had I realized it would be so incredibly pitch black I might have considered other options.
Feeling my way around, wishing for the first time that I smoked because then I would have a lighter or matches, it appeared that the walls seemed devoid of pictures or ornaments. This must be what it was like to be blind, or dead, I suppose, but I didn’t really want to make that assumption right now. Groping my way across the wall, I was startled when I fell through a swinging door that led outside the kitchen into a narrow hallway. To the right a hint of silver light streaming through the panels of the front door and one of the smaller windows cast an eerie gloom over the bulky, white draped furniture of the living area. The walls remained in shadow, the light reflecting away from them as The Tree twisted away from the house. To my left was darkness and directly ahead was a staircase leading up, probably to that funky overhanging room in the front.
Well, since I was looking for a way out, the stairs would have been an asinine choice. Did you ever notice though that when the women in horror movies or slasher flicks are being chased by killers or zombies, they always run upstairs to get away from them? What are they going to do, jump out a window on the second floor, break their leg and wait for the killer to pick them off? Like I said, asinine. But that’s what makes for a good movie I suppose. If the characters had any real sense, they wouldn’t have been in that predicament in the first place and of course…if they were Texans, they could have shot old Jason or the screamer guy with the 357 Magnum they carried in their purse, for just such an occasion.
Sorry, I tend to crack jokes when I get to this part, I guess because what comes next isn’t really very funny at all. In reality, the fact that I can tell you about it without screaming is really quite surprising.
I moved closer to the wall, using my hand as a guide and wandered into the darkness. I came to what I thought was a door and pushed it open, a cold breeze greeted me. I assumed that this would be the way out. I could see the glow of moonlight up ahead and moved towards it, my boots a distracting clomp, clomp across the floor. I picked up speed as the light brightened through another open doorway and I was sure that I could smell fresh air.
Stepping through the door, I expected to see dark, open sky so was puzzled when to find myself in a child’s room instead. Well, wasn’t this a kick in the teeth? Who would put a child’s bedroom at the back of the house? Of course, I was taking for granted that I was at the rear of the home, stumbling around in the dark can play havoc on your sense of direction. Still, there was light coming from inside the room and I looked around to find the source.
Illumination from the street lamp outside streamed through the second floor window that I had seen from the street earlier, but how was that possible? It hadn’t felt like I had been walking upward and I had specifically avoided the stairs, so how could I have gotten into this second story room? I crossed the threshold and felt a hot flush crawl up my skin, followed immediately by a thousand raised bumps across my cold skin. I moved to the window and could see front lawn The Tree reaching away from the house.
Perplexed, I went back through the door, into the darkness and again felt my way across. The walls felt odd beneath my hands, not completely solid. I could have taken off my gloves to get a better understanding of it, but something inside me advised against this. The floor remained level, it did not appear to be rising or descending, or even curving.
On I went, through the darkness and the cold, searching for an exit, unable to believe that the house was so big, it looked so much smaller from outside. My head ached like a jackhammer was racing across the center of my skull and my ankle seemed to be getting worse with each step I took.
I heard noises in the darkness, whispers, and sounds that I truly believed was either the wind or a product of my own over active imagination. They were so soft, you see, more like traces of whispers, and I had to question if they were even there. Like when you see something out of the corner of your eye, you turn and it is gone; the minute I stopped or cocked an ear to listen the noise stopped. And the smell, it was much stronger and I still have nothing to compare it to. It was like a mixture of seaweed, bleach, mud, propane and something…something else entirely. I had my scarf over my mouth and nose to try and filter it, to keep me from gagging.
After what seemed like forever I could see a light and moved closer, I realized that it was again the doorway to the upstairs room. This was getting silly, for all the walking that I was doing there had to be other doors than the one that led to this stupid room. I had not even seen the stairs again and could no longer find the window I had climbed through or the front door. I have never been particularly bothered by the dark but I was starting to be. The only light came from this room and it seemed that every path through the house led here. That wasn’t possible of course, but the fact that I was trapped in this house with the runaway tree was not exactly something for reality TV either.
On my third trip around, I’d had enough of the dark, the phantom whispers, and the smell and decided to try to open the window of the second story bedroom. Once outside again, I would at least have light and fresh air and maybe I could find another way around the house. Ignoring that weird, flushed shiver and a moment or two of nausea as I stepped into the room, I was startled to see the light of dawn steaming through the window. How long had I been wandering around in this Godforsaken thing?
I was starting to get really scared as I pulled my gloves off and ran my hands over the window frame, searching for locks or switches that would release it. There was nothing. No locks, no hooks, and the windows themselves appeared to be painted shut. No, on closer inspection, I could feel tiny rounded edges of metal…the window was nailed shut. To keep people out or to keep something else in, I wondered. That smell was filtering into this room and I started to gag again on the awful stench. I watched someone jog past the house and banged on the window to gain his attention, but he ran past without even glancing up.
I hit the glass and screamed as loud as I could, but the guy kept on going. I told myself that he had a Walkman on and couldn’t hear me; I needed the lie to keep myself sane. Then when two ladies walked past in the opposite direction, and they didn’t hear me either, I resigned myself to the fact that the room was probably soundproofed and I didn’t have the time to wonder why.
Turning around, I searched the room for something I could use to break the window, no longer caring that I was on private property. I just about jumped out of my skin when something skittered across my boot, but when I looked down I could see nothing. The complete silence of the room was broken by whispers in the dark, strange moaning and whimpering. Was someone playing a trick on me? No, who would have known that I would come in here?
In my frantic search for something to break the window with, I knocked over a small lamp and was surprised when it blinked on as it crashed to the floor. That was when I saw why the walls had felt so strange, they were covered in what looked like human flesh, many of it still covered in dry blood and hair, insects and God knew what else, stripped flat and stretched like wallpaper across the room.
My hand covered my mouth to keep the bile rising from my gut and spewing across the floor. Terrified, I backed up into the window. Click, click, clickity- click, the sound of someone typing, or perhaps nails tapping furiously on a desk, came from below and when something crunched beneath my foot I glanced down and saw millions of creeping, crawling insects. My eyes clamped shut. This isn’t happening; it’s all my imagination. All of this stuff wasn’t in here before; I’m just getting psyched out.
I dropped my hand and opened my eyes, prepared to see the room as it really was, dark, dull and quiet, but I was horribly disappointed. The lamp flickered out and a bluish glow descended upon the room reminiscent of the morgue scenes you might see in movies, with the overhead fluorescents flickering disturbingly. The light prevented my eyesight from adjusting properly and cast frightening shadows in the darker corners of the room.
I did not want to see what would come next and spinning around I slammed my hands against the window glass, demanding to be let out. Again and again I pounded on the glass until my hands began to bleed from the force of my fear.
Suddenly I could hear a strange scraping, like the tearing sounds of skin ripping from the walls. I froze in horror as the sound of shuffling crossed the room along with the crunching of insects underfoot as something moved closer. A single tear escaped my right eye and still I refused to turn away from the window towards the noise, terrified of what I would see. The smell was putrid, the whispers were now voices, groaning, crying in agony, and the shuffling, the crunching, the flickering of that damned blue light.
I covered my ears, wanting to block out the sounds, wanting to wake up from this nightmare. “You’re not real! None of this is real! Leave me alone, I don’t believe in you!”
I was so intent on my mantra of disbelief, so panicked, that it took me awhile to realize my hands and face were wet and when I looked at them, I saw that they were covered in blood, blood that was running down the window pane as if the house itself was crying for the lost souls hidden in it’s walls.
Something touched my shoulder and I screamed. The horrific blue light; that dead light that I hated, suddenly went out and pitched me into darkness. Seeing the horrors of that room was terrifying, not seeing them was even worse. I could still hear them, still smell them and now I was blind to them.
I felt the insects crawling up my legs, dropping into my boots, scraping the bare skin of my calf. Hands that did not feel like hands at all, touching me, tearing at my clothes, pulling at my hair, caressing my face, whispering their death curses and promising suffering beyond my imagination. I wanted to move, get to the door, better the darkness out there where the walls didn’t breathe and there were no sounds of ripping flesh and masticating insects.
Scratching at the window drew my attention as I battled with the creatures in the darkness, and spinning around I saw that The Tree had twisted its upper branches towards the house.
I pounded at the glass and I knew, or perhaps I was just desperate enough to believe, that somehow it was trying to help me. “I’m here! Let me out! Help me, please!”
The branches slammed against the window, the sound echoing in the room, as my hands beat on the glass from the inside. Suddenly, all movement and sounds ceased and a curtain of silence dropped over the room. A flickering red glow was reflected in the glass, between my crimson hands, firelight catching on the lower frame of the door and steadily climbing up the walls caused me to turn and face whatever new horror was rising. The only sound now was The Tree outside, scratching vigorously at the window as it would in a fearsome storm.
The floor beneath me began to move again, like the Moonwalk attraction at a carnival, soft, mobile, squishy. A vortex opened, where the door used to be, and through the black pit a face moved forward bathed in fire and razor sharp fangs, the gurgling sound of blood being fed through an enormous mouth. Sharp talon like hands reached forward and I knew that they were meant to peal the skin from my bones and feast on my brains, as it had the others
The house wanted to devour me and this wasn’t a dream. I glanced at the walls, wondering how many people had met their end here, how many people had joined Jeffery Dahlmer’s interior decorator. I didn’t want to be its next victim, I refused to be, even as I felt the talons crawling up my legs, tearing through my denim jeans and gouging bloody trails through the delicate flesh of my legs
I slammed myself against the window matching the ferocious efforts of The Tree outside as it thrashed against the glass. Finally, the window gave away and I dove outside onto the closest branch. A roar unlike anything I have every heard, or ever care to hear again, filled with such hatred that the hairs on my arms stood up, released from the room as the talons made another grab for me.
The Tree was twisting again, moving back towards the street, and I climbed as fast as my tired, battered body would carry me. I grabbed onto one of the higher branches, tried to keep from falling as it rose higher and swung away from the demon house. My hand paused against the smooth wood, yes smooth, like a baby’s bottom and not like a tree at all; which was usually weathered and crusted and embedding splinters into your flesh. I realized there were faces in The Tree, faces and forms and all of them were crying for release, their features warped in agony and despair.
I saw my own frightened face emerging beneath my hand and wondered if I had not made the wisest choice in choosing The Tree for my savior. I began to see myself being eaten like the child in Poltergeist and cursed at my own stupidity. Escaping one horror for another, skinned by demons or eaten by a Tree, what a freaking choice to have!
The branches continued moving, groaning and creaking until it was back in its former position. The limb that I clung to hovered directly over the street, well past the invisible barrier I could not penetrate earlier. The branches lowered, moaning and shuddering with the effort, until I could tumble from its grasp onto the sidewalk without hurting myself further.
I shivered as the cold air slapped the warmth from my cheeks and the freezing snow melted through the seat of my pants, penetrating the layers and chilling me to the bone. A car passed by, exhaled a trail of smoke from its exhaust that immediately filled my lungs. I began to cough, the sound almost drowned out by a street screeching into the subway station several blocks away. My breath! My breath was making soft misty frost clouds and the sounds of the city surrounded me. I had never felt so alive! I had never come so close to death!
I looked up at the Tree, which was now back in its former position, untouched by the falling snow and devoid of wildlife, once again still and silent. Carefully, I managed to pull myself together and rise to my feet and wondering if I had imagined the whole thing, but it was daylight, the city was coming alive and there was dried blood on my hands.
I looked away from The Tree, unable to see the faces anymore and unwilling to share anymore of its secrets. I crossed to the other side of the street, vowing to never go near it again, and when I reached home I wept.
I took a different road home after that day, unwilling to go back near that horrific house, although part of me always wondered about The Tree. Was it trapped on that sinister property, forever guarding that dark secret the house held, or would it one day escape, once it’s branches reached high enough an far enough? Or was The Tree part of the darkness, but for whatever reason decided to change course and rescue me?
After a while I stopped thinking about what happened to me in that house, and I moved on with my life. Then one afternoon, many years later, a friend was driving me home and he took that street that I had avoided for so long. I was compelled to look for The Tree and was startled to see that it was no longer there. The house had been sold, and the tree had been cut down. The house had been remodeled and sported a new paint job and a quaint little fence around the yard, and had a for sale sign in the front.
I asked my friend to stop and I stepped out into the warm summer evening. I was worried for the people who would but the house and what horror’s they might endure, without The Tree’s protection, but then, as I moved closer to the fence, I saw that a small seedling had sprouted from where The Tree once stood, and its tiny, fragile stems seemed to be reaching towards me. I smiled, returned to the car and wished The Tree good luck.