A Story by Mark Reefe
The old man looked to have a couple of years on Methuselah. He snorted and then spit out a tobacco-infused loogie, leaving a dribble of brown juice on his unkempt beard. “You won’t find a better tree for less’en three times the price, so don’t try bargaining with me, boy.”
Craig Dowers knew the tree was a steal. It was at least eight feet tall and lush with needles soft to the touch. It looked like a fir but was much greener, almost emerald. He was more concerned with the shifty roadside operation than the merchandise. But he had already been to three nurseries and one Home Depot, and the junk they had left wasn’t fit for the likes of Charlie Brown. Plus, it was two days before Christmas. So what if the old coot sawed down some trees that weren’t his to saw down. Who was he to judge?
“You said twenty, right?”
The old man winked at him and flashed a yellow smile. “I’ll help you tie’er up.”
The strangest thing about the transaction was the old man’s parting advice. “After Christmas is over, burn’er up. It’s bad luck tossing a Christmas tree out to rot. Nope, you need to light’er up and let’er burn.”
The burning part didn’t bother Craig – living in the country he had a burn pile in the back of his property and used it frequently – but the old man’s use of the word her when referring to the tree struck him as creepy. His repeated instructions to burn her did little to lessen the creep factor.
Christmas ended up being a huge success, and everyone agreed it was a beautiful tree. Even Craig’s stingy father-in-law nodded his approval when informed the specimen had cost just twenty dollars. The only one not a fan was Tiger, the family’s black and brown Burmese. The cat hissed at it when they first brought the tree in the house and refused to enter the room where it was displayed. Fortunately, Tiger didn’t have to avoid the room for long. By New Year’s Day the tree was out of house and sitting on the burn pile, where it remained until spring.
Fierce winds rolled into the valley with the arrival of March, and soon Craig’s property was littered with branches from the surrounding pines, maples, and willows. He was out back tossing the splintered limb of a maple tree on the burn pile when he first noticed it. The fact that the old Christmas tree looked as green and full as the day he had purchased it wasn’t unusual – he knew evergreens could retain their color for months on end. But its vertical position did strike him as peculiar.
Stomping over brush and kicking through brambles, he reached for the tree, intending to lift it from its wedged position and lay it down in its initial resting place.
The tree refused to budge.
Craig took a knee and cleared away the rotting branches and weeds from its base.
“What the hell.”
The tree was planted in the ground.
Craig ran his fingers down its trunk and felt roots buried in the earth. He stood and brushed his grimy hands off. “I’ll be damned.”
He once heard a story about someone getting their Christmas tree to grow roots by planting it in Miracle-Gro, but he was pretty sure that was a bunch of crap. Regardless, he didn’t plant the damn thing. Was somebody messing with him? Did they sneak onto his land in the middle of the night, steal his old tree, and plant a new one? It was a ludicrous thought.
He marveled at the apparent Christmas miracle, but his smile died when he recalled the old man’s words. You need to light’er up and let’er burn.
It was such a strange thing to say.
He wanted to share the oddity with someone, but with the kids back at college and his wife out of town on business, it was just Tiger and him. He was pretty sure the cat didn’t give a rat’s ass about the tree.
He was wrong about that.
He woke to Tiger’s hissing at 2 am. Craig had a pillow in his hand and was half a second away from chucking it at the Burmese when he peered beyond the cat to the bedroom window. The pale moon cast a shadow over something large just outside. It moved.
Craig was quick to his feet and the loaded shotgun he kept in his bedroom closet. He was out the front door and on the porch in seconds, but by then whatever had been spying on him through the porch window was gone. “Come back here and I’ll put a few holes in you, you son of a bitch!”
He felt silly shouting. Crime was rare in the valley, and his property was several miles off the grid. Whatever animal was out there would have no clue what he was saying. He cocked his head and listened to the rustling of branches. Something was scampering off in the dark.
The morning sun revealed no paw prints or hoof marks in the fine layer of dust resting on the porch floor. Instead, a path swept clear of dirt led up to the window. In its wake, a speckling of needles trailed off the porch and to the yard. Where the needles disappeared in the lawn, a path of crushed grass about three feet wide emerged and continued around the house to the burn pile.
After retrieving his shotgun, Craig spent the better part of an hour poking and prodding through the dead vegetation looking for fur, scat, or any signs of a nest. From what he remembered of the previous night, whatever was watching him was probably too large to live in the burn pile. Still, he had been startled awake, and it was dark out. Might have been something smaller was perched on the windowsill.
It didn’t matter. Whatever may have been hiding in the pile was long gone, and as soon as it dried out a little, he would move the brush away from the tree and light it up.
Light’er up. The words echoed in his mind.
By the end of the day, he had forgotten all about his visitor, and for the next couple of days, he set about getting the necessary supplies for the bathroom remodel he was planning while his wife was away. It wasn’t until he was elbow deep in mortar he noticed the full bowl of kibble in the kitchen. The cat was damn good at reminding him when it was mealtime, but the food in the bowl had been sitting there for at least a day – maybe two.
A quick sweep of the house proved the cat was nowhere to be found. That wasn’t unusual. The cat loved to roam the property and had full access in and out of the house thanks to cat doors he had installed. Still, Tiger never missed a meal. He looked for the cat the rest of the day, only giving up when the sun set.
He set out early the next morning with the intention to expand his search into the surrounding countryside and forest. His wife got the cat from a shelter three years ago and loved him dearly. She would be devastated if something had happened to him, and Craig would be the target of her well-earned fury for months.
He was passing the burn pile on his way to the woods behind the house when the tree caught his attention. Something was wrong with it. He stood staring at the evergreen for several minutes before it struck him. It was in a different spot. As absurd as it sounded, the damn thing was at least a couple of feet to the left of where it had been firmly planted just two days ago.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
He reached out and touched its wet bark. He shook it. The tree was rooted firmly in the ground. He pulled his hand back and noticed the red on it. Holding it up to his face, he ran his thumb across his slick scarlet fingers. Blood.
Craig stumbled out of the pile as he wiped his blood-smeared hand on his jeans.
Better light’er up. The words haunted him.
A dark thought bubbled in the back of Craig’s brain. His heart pounded as he approached the tree once more. He knelt near its base tearing brush and branch away as his heart hammered. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he continued until there was nothing but a patch of damp earth before him. He let a sigh slip as his heart slowed. Whatever he was dreading to find was not there. Unless…
He ran a shaking hand across the charred soil. It was loose. He hesitated before pushing his fingers into the dirt. Something was there, something wet and furry. Craig’s heart kicked back into overdrive as he parted the soil to reveal its terrible secret. The mud-caked face of the Burmese stared at him with unblinking eyes.
“What the hell!”
Craig scrambled to his feet. Reaching the same blood-covered hand out, he touched the tree again. Though it had been a cold night and was now but fifty degrees, the tree felt warm. He closed his eyes. Something pulsed beneath the bark. He opened his eyes and, with a quivering hand, plucked a small twig from the tree. He examined the wound and watched as a droplet of red sap oozed out.
He looked down at the desiccated remains of the cat and noticed the tree’s roots running through it. The fucking thing was feeding off the corpse of his cat, sucking it dry. He leaned closer and spied a tiny green sapling sprouting out of Tiger’s mouth.
Craig ran to the shed, returning moments later with an ax. With a wet thunk he landed the first blow deep into the tree’s soft base. It shuddered. Sappy blood oozed out of it covering the ax head in a viscid mix. It splattered on his face as he heaved the weapon up for another blow. He licked his lips tasting the coppery tang of blood mixed with pine.
Again and again he swung. With each blow more blood ushered forth until he was drenched in the unholy fluid. Finally, he stood over a glistening red stump. Fighting the urge to retch, he stripped down to his boxers and threw the polluted clothes onto the burn pile.
Better light’er up. He knew what needed to be done.
He doused the pile of bloody wood in gasoline before setting it ablaze. Firelight danced across his blood-slicked face as he watched the abomination burn. Craig swore he could hear a low-pitched moan beneath the hiss, crackle, and pop of burning wood. He waited for hours adding more fuel to the fire until nothing was left but ash and a few cat bones.
After burying the remains of Tiger in a shallow grave, he went inside to clean himself up. He scrubbed his arms and face raw and used an entire bottle of olive oil to purge the bloody sap from his hair.
Craig woke the next morning to a blurry world. He wiped globs of crusted up dirt from the corners of his eyes. Putting a finger to his nose, he smelled the residue. Pine. Apparently traces of the prior day’s slaughter still clung to him. He stood slowly, stretching taut leg muscles. A deep, hollow yawn escaped his mouth. He was getting a cold. Craig plodded toward the bathroom at a sloth’s pace in hopes that a cup of coffee and some decongestant would help right him. He scratched an itch on his neck and felt something long and thin protruding from the skin. A hair maybe?
Placing his hands on the vanity, he leaned in close and gazed at the tired figure before him. He pinched the stray hair between his thumb and index finger and pulled. A sharp pain like that of a hot nail piercing flesh shot through him, causing him to shout in surprise. A tiny droplet of blood oozed out from the wound left behind. He looked at the hair and noticed it wasn’t a hair at all but a tiny evergreen twig.
“What the fuck?” The words came out sluggish.
His stomach began to cramp, and he felt a sudden pressure in his bowels. He shuffled over to the toilet and squatted just in time. A half dozen plunks soon followed. Breathing a sigh of relief, he cleaned himself and stood. Curious about the loud deposit, he glanced down. The turds actually looked like little pinecones. He snorted in disbelief and flushed.
He yawned again. It was stuffy inside and too dark. He needed a little fresh air and sunshine to clear his head and get the gears moving. It took five minutes for his stiffening legs to carry him out of the house. The air outside was invigorating and the warm sun felt wonderful on his skin.
Craig stepped off the porch and onto the lawn with bare feet. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and curled his toes. The sensation of grass and soil squishing between them sent shivers through his body. The coffee could wait. He would stay here – just for a few minutes – enjoying nature and warming up his stiff body.
Patricia Dowers ended up cutting her trip short when she couldn’t get a hold of Craig. She returned to a house with no cat and no husband. There was, however, a half renovated bathroom and a beautiful evergreen planted in the front lawn.
Raised in Bowie, Maryland, Mark Reefe moved his homestead to the beautiful Shenandoah Valley some years back where he now resides with his lovely wife, two boys, and two devilish dogs. After a quarter century in federal law enforcement catching drug smugglers, money launderers, terrorists, and other nasty fellows, he decided it was time to scratch the itch tickling him and start writing. His Hell Walker Trilogy incorporates his experiences along the southern border with supernatural elements in a haunting yet riveting series that has received numerous accolades and five-star Amazon reviews. The first book in this trilogy, The Road to Jericho, will be rereleased by Three Furies Press in 2020.
When he’s not writing, Mark enjoys woodworking, camping, breaking small appliances when they don’t appear to work, apologizing to his wife for breaking the previously mentioned appliances, and bourbon (not necessarily in that order).