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Authors: Joe Sharp

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BOOK: Dead Willow
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Eunice took the meaning behind her statement, but she was in no mood to debate the social sciences. This was in essence a job interview, and Eunice would have to evaluate her based on other criteria.

"Apologies, child," said Eunice as soothingly as she could muster. "Time does get away from me these days."

She stepped around in front of the girl and leaned against the front of the desk. Annabel was forced to stretch her neck uncomfortably in order to look up at her. Eunice smiled. All part of the process.

"Tell me child, how do you like your home here in Willow Tree?"

It was not a threatening question, but Annabel's lip quivered nonetheless.

"I like it fine, Madame," she answered with a quaver in her voice.

"Have you ever thought of leaving Willow Tree?"

Annabel's expression curled into a question, and within that question was fear.

"But, I can't leave Willow Tree, Madame, you know that. Just like everybody else."

"You are Bellwether, are you not?" Eunice waited for the girl to nod timidly. "You could leave for a brief time, and then come back."

The girls face held its uncertainty. "Where would I go, Madame? I been here all my life."

"You would do something for me," replied Eunice, touching her hand lovingly to the girl's cheek. "Just a few hours drive from here. You can drive?"

"Yes, Madame," the girl answered.

Eunice knew this, of course. It was part of her training, to drive the delivery truck, just like the others of her kind.

"Excellent!" exclaimed Eunice excitedly, as she moved to an ornate cabinet mounted on the wall opposite her desk. Opening the cabinet door, she extracted a small, wood box made of cherry, with elaborate silver inlays along the edges. Eunice brought the box to Annabel and held it out.

"This must get to its destination tonight at midnight."

Annabel took the box and set it in her lap gingerly, as if it were made of eggshells. She ran her fingers lightly along the silver lines, admiring the beautiful creation. Eunice knew all of the skilled carpenters in Willow Tree. She had obviously selected the right one for its construction.

She looked up at Eunice for permission, who simply nodded. Annabel placed her hands on either side of the lid and slowly opened the box. Once she saw, Eunice knew she would understand.

The box was filled with soil, the blackest loam that could have come from only one place. In the center of the dirt lay a small scrap of tree branch with an unearthly glow.

"It is not fair for us to keep this to ourselves." Eunice sat down in the small chair across from Annabel, whose eyes were riveted to the box. "That would be covetous."

She took hold of Annabel's hands tightly, demanding her attention.

"There are other who are in need, and I am sending you to them. You know what to do?"

Annabel looked at Eunice, who saw the awe in her eyes at the task that had been handed to her. She glanced once more at the small branch in the soil, then lowered the lid. The girl dared not look too long. It would stir a hunger in her that could only be satisfied in one way, and now was not the time.

"It is called 'Whispering Pines', and it is waiting for you."

Eunice flitted around behind the desk and took a yellow envelope from the center drawer. She brought it to Annabel, who took it willingly.

"All the information is in there, along with some funds, should you need to stay the night."

Annabel started to open the envelope when Eunice locked eyes with her.

"Stay only one night," she cautioned. "You will wish to stay longer, and you will think you can. You cannot."

Annabel nodded. Everyone knew what happened when you stayed away too long.

She cradled the box in the crook of her arm and gripped the envelope in her hand and stood. As she started toward the door, she turned back.

"What if someone sees me with this? They'll think I stole it."

Eunice had to remind herself that patience was a virtue. "You are Bellwether, never forget that. You answer to no one."

"Yes, Madame," she said reverently.

Annabel squared her shoulders a bit and, with her confidence bolstered, walked to the door and slipped out into the morning sun.

Eunice had an uneasy feel
ing in her gut about this one, but the girl had received the training as the others had, and they had performed flawlessly. She decided to put her faith in tradition. It had always served them well.

Another knock at the door. Eunice glanced at the hands on the
Tiffany
grandfather clock in the corner and sighed. Her day was just getting started.

"Come."

Willow, 1863

 

It was a pine box.

At first the Willow had thought it a gift, brought by the men and buried deep into the Willow's black soil. They had carried it from a long way off and dug a hole for it. Their implements tickled the Willow's roots as the men carved out a nook for their present. Then, they stood around the box and moaned and said their incantations. They struggled the box into the hole and covered it over with loam. They erected some sort of marker at the site with elaborate carvings, pounding it into ground with their implements.

The festivities lasted only a brief time, and then they were gone, leaving the Willow to ponder the meaning of this unexpected tribute.

After the men had gone, the Willow reached out its roots tentatively to this new treasure. It curled its tendrils under and around the hard shell and found it smooth and unyielding. It probed the surface of the box tenaciously, searching for any rough crag or split where it could insinuate itself into the meat within.

As the Willow explored its new resident, more pine boxes began to appear. Men planted them all around the soil under the shade of its branches. There seemed no end to their supply, and soon the Willow's field was dotted with carved markers.

The Willow had thrived for months midst the far off sounds of cannon fire and musket blasts. It seemed that men never tired of making other men just like themselves bleed out into the ground. They attacked it with such passion that the Willow wondered if it might be some kind of game.

The Willow had begun thinking a lot of unusual thoughts like that of late.

It now towered over the field where it had once barely a foothold. Its roots wound their way down deep into the black soil, reaching even to the center of the crater where the second sun had crashed. The more bits of sun the roots encountered, the stronger and deeper they had grown. The Willow no longer craved water as it had. Though water had its place, the Willow could go an indefinite time without a drop to drink. Its roots had learned new, more creative methods to leach nutrients from the soil, and to stimulate the production of other nutrients more compatible with the Willow's needs.

Then, the birds had come, and other life which made their homes within the Willow's branches. Soon, the Willow learned how to leach nutrients from them as well, and their carcasses littered the ground beneath. It was grateful for every morsel that had sacrificed itself so that the Willow could thrive.

Then, the men had come with their pine boxes.

The slender roots were not powerful enough to penetrate the wood veneer, so the Willow sent thicker, stronger roots to the sites. Within a month, the Willow had grown sufficiently to wrap its massive fingers around the first pine box and crack it open like an egg. The smaller tendrils crept inside the broken shell and wormed into the flesh of the man.

Things got a lot more interesting after that.

Jessilyn, October 6th

 

The banner hung in the air big as life, like the sign over the gates of Hell.
Willow Tree Festival
. Looking up at it, all Jess could think was WTF. Yeah, she thought; that was a fitting description for the week she was having.

The banner waved lazily over the main street through town, tethered by fraying cords that threatened to snap at any moment. If the banner floated away, then maybe the festival would float away with it. Wouldn’t that be sweet, she thought.

She coasted down the main thoroughfare with one foot hovering over the brake pedal. Foot traffic flooded the streets like Black Friday at the mall. How the hell was she supposed to get through this? She kept inching through the sea of people, which did NOT part to let her pass, and hoped there was an open side street where she could park. Her old
Chevy
wanted so badly to mow down some pedestrians, forcing Jess to be the even-tempered one.

Little kids were skipping all over the place, holding onto parents with one hand and swinging balloons and whirly-gigs with the other. Apparently the gift shops didn’t sell any toys made after 1950. Some were even selling three-cornered hats. Jeez!

Jess hated these goddamn backward towns. She couldn’t believe anyone would seriously want to live back in Civil War times. Guaranteed, if there really was a time machine, ninety-nine percent of people would go into the
future!
Who wants to shit in an outhouse with bugs and snakes and other people’s shit under you? She had no intention of going back to a time when women were treated like slaves - not to mention the fact that there
really were slaves!

She scanned the shops up and down the main street, which was actually called Main Street, and each establishment looked like it had been put together with
Jenga
blocks. There wasn’t a foot of siding or chrome or steel in sight. The most impressive building was a brick structure that Jess took to be some kind of town hall. Even that had a chimney bricked into the side, with wisps of smoke curling up out of the top. She wondered if the mayor had to chop his own wood.

The crowds started to thin at the edge of the business district, and Main Street gave way to rustic wood houses. Each home had chimneys or stovepipes exiting the roofs, and well stocked woodpiles in the backyards. There were no privacy fences or above ground pools or patios with propane barbecues in evidence. The less she saw, the harder she looked. There were no air conditioning units on the sides of the houses, and the further she got from the center of town, the fewer cars she saw. She began to wonder where they kept the horses.

It was becoming increasingly clear that these people took the concept of a ‘Pioneer Village’ to a whole new level. This clearly wasn’t some amusement park where the townspeople were just actors in costume. This seemed to be how these people lived.

Jess was starting to smell another story in the town of Willow Tree.

Up ahead she caught movement. It was a girl, or a woman; it was hard to tell. She was wearing a drab Civil War costume, corset and hoop skirt, with a frilly long sleeve top that went up to a modest neckline. She was wearing some kind of shawl and a laced bonnet, and Jess was struck by how … normal it all looked. Like something you would wear every day. The authenticity was eerie.

Jess needed some directions, and this woman looked like the authority on all things Willow Tree. She pulled to the curb and parked. The street was so quiet here, away from the crowds downtown, that all Jess could hear was the woman’s broom as she whisked the dust off of her wood porch.

She knew the woman had noticed her, the
Chevy
being the only car for blocks. She glanced at Jess out of the corner of her eye, as if she couldn’t imagine why someone would be stopping in front of her house,
in a car
. That made Jess’ antenna go up. Nervousness was like an engraved invitation. She got out of the car.

“Hey!” she shouted to the woman, as she stepped up onto the curb. “Quaint little town you have here.”

Jess walked up the dirt path to the porch step. The woman stopped sweeping and held the broom in front of her, both hands gripping it tightly, as if she might have to use it to defend herself. Her eyes darted around furtively while she thought of a response.

“Thank you,” she finally came back. “We like it.”

The woman seemed to be in her late twenties, though it was hard to tell with only a face showing. And that costume … now that was something else.

With that hoop skirt and corset, she looked to have maybe a twelve inch waist, but that was probably just an illusion. The shawl looked like it had been knitted by someone’s grandmother. The lace on the bonnet was fraying a bit, and the lace on the edges of her skirt was fraying a bit more. The whole outfit seemed worn.

Jess wondered if she would find a whole rack of them in this woman’s closet, all similarly worn.

She could feel herself staring and looked the woman in the eyes, smiling. “Sorry. I couldn’t help but admire your cost-,  your dress. It’s very … lovely.”

The woman blushed, something you rarely see these days.

“Thank you,” she said with a dip of her head. She glanced toward the center of town. “How are you liking our festival?”

“Oh, it’s wonderful!” Jess lied. “Everything seems so authentic. You guys really go all out.”

“Well,” she said, her eyes flitting around again, “we love it.”

“I’m Jess,” she said. She almost extended her hand, then thought better of it.

“I am Crystal,” the woman said, nodding shyly.

“Well, this is my first time here. I was wondering if you could tell me where the
Rusty Gate
is?”

The woman’s eyes lit up, as if Jess had finally given her a task she could accomplish.

“Oh, certainly!” She let go of the broom long enough to point down Main Street. “You go down one block to Shiloh, then take a left and go two blocks to Savannah. Go left again and head downtown. You can’t miss it. It’s the biggest building on the street.”

“Thank you!” said Jess enthusiastically. The woman was starting to open up. “So … how many people live here in Willow Tree?”

Apparently, Jess had asked her a tough one.

“Oh my,” she said, fluttering a hand on her chest. “I’m not quite sure. I think … something like … three thousand? Perhaps a bit more? I don’t really know.”

Seems it was not fashionable for a woman to know numbers. Jess decided to try something a little more gossipy.

“So, the
Rusty Gate
,” she said, leaning in. “I hear it’s haunted.”

The woman’s eyes went wide and her pretenses went down. It was obvious that Crystal was as truly shocked to hear this as Jess was at her reaction.

“Where on earth did you hear that?” she gasped.

“I, um … I read it on the internet.” Jess lied for the second time.

The woman scowled with disdain. “You know you can’t believe anything coming out of those computers.”

Crystal shivered as if shaking off the idea. Jess felt embarrassed, and it was pissing her off. Journalists don’t get embarrassed! They embarrass other people!

“Still,” she said, probing, “I wonder why someone would say that?”

That’s when Crystal got the saddest expression of anyone Jess had ever seen. She looked as if she had just lost a loved one … or was about to. Jess felt like a shit-heel for asking the question.

“People lie,” Crystal said finally, with a stony glare. “It’s what they do.”

Jess decided that was her cue to shut up and drive away.

“Well, thank you very much,” she said, walking quickly back to her car. “I’m sure I’ll have no trouble finding the place.”

Crystal did not respond. She simply looked down to her porch and started pushing her broom again, short, angry sweeps. Jess could only imagine what dusty memories she was really trying to sweep away.

She got in her car and pulled out onto Main Street, wondering what she had just learned, if anything, and would it even figure into her story.

 

BOOK: Dead Willow
8.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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