Christmas Takeover 11: Mark Reefe: O’Tannenbaum


A Story by Mark Reefe
2,300 words

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).

Halloween Extravaganza: INTERVIEW: Mark Reefe

Meghan: Hi, Mark. Welcome back… well, welcome TO Meghan’s House of Books, but welcome back to the interview couch. It’s been awhile since we sat down together. What’s been going on since we last spoke?

Mark Reefe: So the bad news is my publisher (Burning Willow Press or BWP) recently closed up shop. It’s tough because I worked with the owners and other BWP authors for years. In many ways we were more like a family than a business. Fortunately, I still keep in touch with many of them, and we continue to support one another and sometimes collaborate on writing projects.

The good news is that I’ve found a new home for my first novel, The Road to Jericho, with Three Furies Press. We’re still working out the details and a release date, but it’s tentatively scheduled to come out sometime in 2020. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that all goes well with the release as there are two more novels in the series that need a home too. Wish me luck!

Meghan: Who are you outside of writing?

Mark Reefe: A lover. A fighter. But mostly a half-assed handyman who thinks he can fix anything with some duct tape and a little gorilla glue. When I’m not busy gluing and taping, I enjoy spending time outdoors with the wife, two boys, and two devilish dogs.

Meghan: How do you feel about friends and close relatives reading your work?

Mark Reefe: I get a real kick out of it. Having that personal connection with the reader and knowing a little about their likes and dislikes gives more meaning to any feedback they have to offer. Also, there’s nothing quite like making a friend or family member bawl while reading a particularly moving scene. The problem comes when they’re crying and the part they’ve read isn’t supposed to be sad.

Meghan: Is being a writer a gift or a curse?

Mark Reefe: Depends on the day of the week and how picky my editor’s being. But seriously, when it’s all said and done, I guess it’s a gift. It’s just hard to see it that way when a deadline’s fast approaching and you still have a couple of hundred pages of track changes to sort through. I hate editing.

Meghan: How has your environment and upbringing colored your writing?

Mark Reefe: A fair amount since I tend to put my characters in places that I’ve lived. I love the stark contrast between the lush forests and flowing rivers of the Shenandoah Valley and the haunting desolation of the South Texas shrublands. I’m actually putting the finishing touches on a manuscript that takes place in my hometown of Bowie, Maryland during the late 1970s. I’ve always wanted to capture that location and time in a story and share it for the world to see. Now if I can just get the damn thing published…

Meghan: What’s the strangest thing you have ever had to research for your books?

Mark Reefe: Can you be charged with drunk driving while mowing your lawn? Wait a minute. That research was for personal reasons. For books I’ve done a fair amount of homework on black magic (Palo Mayombe to be specific). I’ve also perused the finer points of how to make pipe bombs in the kitchen (cinnamon is key) and the names of the nine circles of Hell (turns out the ninth circle is actually referred to as Chuck E Cheese’s by scholars).

Meghan: Which do you find the hardest to write: the beginning, the middle, or the end?

Mark Reefe: The middle. Most times I know where I want to start and how I want everything to end, but getting there often turns into a tremendous pain in the ass. Pacing and continuity are so important to good storytelling that I find myself constantly rewriting middle portions of my manuscripts and obsessing over them. Did I mention that I hate editing?

Mark Reefe: Do you outline? Do you start with characters or plot? Do you just sit down and start writing? What works best for you?

Meghan: I’ve done a little bit of everything. As crazy as it sounds, I had a great deal of my first novel planned out in my head before I started writing. For the second and third books in the series, I found outlines were necessary to get everything organized the way I wanted. I tend to focus much more on the characters during the initial stages of any story. I want to know their backstories, motivations, likes, dislikes, etc. If you have well-developed characters you’re off to a good start with any story.

Meghan: What do you do when characters don’t follow the outline/plan?

Mark Reefe: I go with the flow and try to enjoy the ride. I think it’s great when one of my characters takes control of their destiny and changes the narrative. The clean up afterwards can be messy, but it’s usually worth it.

Meghan: What do you do to motivate yourself to sit down and write?

Mark Reefe: Two shots of Elijah Craig with an espresso chaser. Not a joke.

Meghan: Are you an avid reader?

Mark Reefe: Absolutely. Reading a good book is not only a wonderful escape but a great way to exercise the brain. Unfortunately, I don’t have the discipline to carve out specific times for reading, but I always try to keep a book close at hand.

Meghan: What kind of books do you absolutely love to read?

Mark Reefe: I like reading a variety of books, but I lean towards horror, fantasy, and a little science fiction. If the author does a good job creating another world that I can get lost in, I’m happy. If I read a little bit of a story and find myself thinking about it the next day and visualizing the characters and scenes, then I know I’m into something good. Tolkien does that for me.

Meghan: How do you feel about movies based on books?

Mark Reefe: I’m good with it. Sometimes Hollywood nails it (e.g., The Lord of the Rings). Other times you get movies like The Dark Tower (who farted?). It seems to me the big studios get into trouble when they lose faith in the actual story and make changes in an attempt to appeal to the masses. They fail to realize there was a reason the book was a best seller to begin with.

Meghan: Have you ever killed a main character?

Mark Reefe: You bet. What can I say? Sometimes a little blood needs to be shed to move the story along. I tried explaining that to one of my readers after he flipped me off for having killed one of his favorite characters. I’m not sure he bought it.

Meghan: Do you enjoy making your characters suffer?

Mark Reefe: Enjoy isn’t the right word. Suffering is a part of character growth. If it’s done right, I believe it can bring the reader closer to the character and get them more invested in the story. If characters don’t experience pain or hardship along their journey, why would the reader care whether they triumph in the end?

Meghan: What’s the weirdest character concept that you’ve ever come up with?

Mark Reefe: A half-horse, half-dog sidekick that can talk. It was for a short story contest that I didn’t win.

Meghan: What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?

Mark Reefe: A beta reader once said my writing style reminded him of Ray Bradbury’s. That was pretty freaking awesome. I honestly can’t recall the worst. I try not to harp on that kind of thing.

Meghan: What do your fans mean to you?

Mark Reefe: Both of them are super. Thanks Elizabeth and Jeanette – you rock! All joking aside, it’s always a pleasure to know someone has enjoyed my work. My fans are very important to me. Reading a nice review of one of my books on Amazon or Goodreads will easily keep me in good spirits for the rest of the week, so please keep them coming.

Meghan: If you could steal one character from another author and make them yours, who would it be and why?

Mark Reefe: Huck Finn because he’s awesome. He’s dirt poor and a hot mess, but he owns it. Also, he’s willing to go to Hell to help out a friend. I could come up with a few dozen storylines for someone like that.

Meghan: If you could write the next book in a series, which one would it be, and what would you make the book about?

Mark Reefe: Maybe I would take a stab at writing about Odd Thomas and Stormy Llewellyn and their adventures in the next life. I always felt there was more to explore with the series, and I need to fill the void left in my soul from Odd’s departure. Dean Koontz really hit a home run with that series!

Meghan: If you could write a collaboration with another author, who would it be and what would you write about?

Mark Reefe: Fellow BWP Alumni Sarah Dale and I have been kicking around the idea of collaborating on a story steeped in Appalachian folklore. The history of the region is just packed full of war, strife, love, betrayal, etc., and is excellent fodder for a ghost story. Also, I’m a huge fan of her Zodiac Cusp Kids novellas, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’s something we can work on in the near future.

Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?

Mark Reefe: The rerelease of The Road to Jericho will be coming in 2020 with Three Furies Press. The book is the first in a planned trilogy that was initially released with BWP. I’ve also been working on a story regarding the mysterious and terrifying Goatman that I’m hoping to get published sometime soon (fingers crossed).

Meghan: Where can we find you?

Mark Reefe: Facebook ** Twitter ** Amazon

Meghan: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you’d like to say that we didn’t get to cover in this interview or the last?

Mark Reefe: Don’t forget to like and follow me on social media for updates regarding the release of The Road to Jericho, and have a cool and creepy Halloween!

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).