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Authors: Joe Sharp

Dead Willow (7 page)

BOOK: Dead Willow
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Jessilyn, October 7th

 

“And you did this
how
again?”

Jess put a hand to her face to hide her embarrassment from Doctor Crispin, who was busily suturing the tip of her finger. Two stitches. Not bad. But, she didn’t care for the smirk on the good doctor’s face. She also didn’t care for the country music spilling out of the radio on the counter. It was her belief that anybody who could get weepy over a pick-up truck just didn’t get relationships.

“Like I said,” she explained through red cheeks, “I had my finger in the wrong place … at the wrong time … and there was a guy.”

“Oh, there was a
guy
.”

“You know, the doctors at the
Immediate Care
clinic in my neighborhood don’t chit-chat.”

“What do the doctors in your neighborhood do?” asked the doctor.

Jess’ smart-ass radar was pinging. “They do their job with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of professionalism.”

“The doctor seemed to consider this.

“Yeah, I can’t do that,” she said. “I have this bedside manner just oozing out of my pores.”

“You’re oozing something alright,” muttered Jess.

The doctor tied the last suture with a flourish. “There we go. How’s that?”

“It’s like I’ve got stitches in my finger.” She crooked her finger a few times to make sure it still worked. “So, are we all done?”

“Not quite.” said the doctor, pulling a roll of gauze from the cabinet. “First, I’m going to wrap up your finger like a kid on a snow day. Then, I’m going to give you a shot.”

The woman seemed to love her job way too much. As the doctor rifled through her cabinet drawers looking for more torture implements, Jess glanced around the room.

The sparkling tile floors and spotless counter tops screamed of OCD, but at least Jess didn’t feel in danger of catching some creeping flesh disease. Judging by the make up of the festival crowd, any number of pathogens might have passed through this place, but the doctor obviously ran a tight ship.

A tan bonnet lay on the end of one counter. The frilly headdress was a staple of the women in Willow Tree; Jess had only seen one woman not wearing one. She wondered if the doctor would get in trouble with the bonnet police if they found out.

Seemed a shame to have to put up all that pretty auburn hair and stuff it under a hideous bonnet, thought Jess. She tried to imagine the doctor with the bonnet covering her head and she got a sudden jolt of deja vu. Had she seen Doctor Crispin before? Maybe on her way into town? She couldn’t recall, but the sensation that this wasn’t their first rodeo together would not go away.

There were a half dozen folding cots arranged side by side along one wall, and Jess tried to imagine the scenarios. Perhaps the excitement of browsing shop after shop of Civil War memorabilia was causing festival goers to hyperventilate. Perhaps fighting over who got the last corncob pipe had led to a few bloody brawls.

Or perhaps the town drunk came by to sleep it off.

Jess had to admit that last scenario had a certain appeal. She had been here all of one night and was already feeling a little rough around the edges. She had been sure she would be able to get something when she got here, but her search of the Main Street shops had yielded zilch.

She should have googled ‘dry counties in Ohio’ before she left.

Speaking of thirst, something else caught her wandering eye. At the end of the long room next to the last cot stood cases of bottled water stacked to the ceiling. Either Willow Tree was hosting the world’s largest marathon, or this clinic doubled as a survivalist shelter.

This town was full of questions, but as of yet, no answers.

Jess had been unable to locate the town bartender, but it occurred to her that the town physician ought to know a thing or two about the goings on in Willow Tree. As she prepared to dip into her journalist’s bag of Jedi mind tricks, a pair of framed diplomas above the doctor’s desk caught her eye.

One was the standard sheepskin documenting Paula Crispin’s graduation from medical school. Jess didn't recognize the university; but that was no surprise. A person could practically become an astronaut online these days, and colleges were crawling out of the woodwork.

The other diploma was the one she found interesting.

“You’ve got a PhD in
Botany
?”

The doctor, seemingly caught off guard by the question, dropped the syringe before she could pierce the vial of Tetanus vaccine booster. Grumbling, she reached down to retrieve the needle.

“Ow! Shit!” she exclaimed, popping up and holding her pricked finger.

“Oh, I’m sorry! My bad!” pleaded a remorseful Jess, reaching out. “I didn't see you doing that!”

The doctor’s gruff interior was on the verge of coming out, and Jess braced herself for a beat down. But, after a moment, the physician’s withering glare turned back to the tiny drop of blood squeezing through the latex glove. She snapped the glove off her hand and tossed it into a red receptacle on the wall labeled ‘Bio-Hazardous Materials’.

“It’s just my stupid clumsiness,” she admitted, dabbing at her finger with a piece of gauze. “Sorry if I frightened you. I don’t usually attack my patients until their second visit.”

She searched the drawers for a band-aid while she managed a smile. It didn’t quite suit her. For some reason, Jess would have preferred to talk to the doctor who had almost come out.

She smiled in return, but in the moment when the doctor had ripped off her glove, Jess had seen the dark, thick veins running up her wrist and disappearing under her sleeve. Her journalistic nose was twitching. How many stories could she write about this town? She had to remind herself that this was not why she had come here. She looked away and back to the diplomas.

“I was just admiring your degrees. Medical Doctor
and
Botanist. Quite the blend.”

“Well, the MD thing is more of an honorary title,” she quipped.

Jess looked down at the Frankenstein stitches on her finger, and her stomach turned a little.

“Just kidding,” the doctor assured her. “My sense of humor is an acquired taste.”

“But, what’s with the Botany degree? You grow the biggest watermelon in Jackson county?”

Busy trying to stuff her newly bandaged finger into a new surgical glove, she paused, glancing down at the floor beneath them.

“Well … we grow the biggest something.”

The doctor went back to preparing a new syringe with a Tetanus booster. Jess was fixated on that last comment, because she had seen something big in this town.

“It’s that tree, isn’t it? The giant willow in the cemetery.”

Like a tour guide, the doctor recited it from memory.

“The tree is over one hundred and fifty years old. That is old, even for a willow. She soars over seventy feet into the sky, and shades the whole of
Weeping Gardens
. All of our ancestors have lived under her shadow. It’s what got me into arboreal sciences in the first place.”

“But a doctor,
and
a botanist?” questioned Jess. “You must have a scary smart brain.”

“Some would say that I am part tree,” said the doctor, her eyes staring off at something only she could see. Then, she looked over at Jess and her mouth curled mischievously. “But, they would be crazy, wouldn’t they?”

Doctor Crispin came toward Jess with a roll of gauze and tape. “Now, let’s see that finger before I end up dropping a scalpel on my toe.”

Jess reached out her hand and the doctor held it up to scrutiny.

“That is a damn fine job of stitching, I must say. I should take a picture of that before I wrap it up.”

Jess grimaced. “Sure. That’ll give the police something to ponder after you’ve gone off on your killing spree.”

“Please,” said the doctor disdainfully, “ain’t nothing to kill in this town that isn’t already dead.”

She noticed the doctor seemed to drift in and out of a more formal way of speaking, as if she were affecting some accent for Jess’ benefit. She just didn’t know which was the real Doctor Crispin.

As the doctor wrapped the gauze round and round, Jess thought of how she could broach the subject of
‘the haunting of Rusty Gate’
. Her first attempt, with Eunice, had blown up in her face. This was going to require some finesse, and Jess really hoped that she wasn’t all out.

“There you go. Boo-boo all better.”

The doctor set the roll of gauze on the tiny rolling tray and picked up the syringe full of Tetanus booster. Jess got a little queasy.

“Which arm?” asked Doctor Paula, even as she was swabbing Jess’ left arm.

“How about somebody else's?”

“Oh, come on. Big girl like you?”

Before Jess could tell her which arm, the needle was in. The jab was clean, the pain immediate. Then, came the spreading cold, slow and lingering. Jess’ eyes slammed shut on the jab, and by the time the doctor had pulled out the syringe and slapped on a band-aid, all she could feel was a numbing ache.

“Your bedside manner sucks,” she whined, rubbing her arm. Jess tried crooking her finger again through the gauze. “How am I supposed to type with that?”

“You a typer?” asked Doctor Crispin.

Jess was sensing an opening. The doctor sat down slowly on the small stool at the end of the first cot to finish filling out Jess’ patient form. She crossed a leg over the other and adjusted the folds of her long, fluffy skirt. Jess caught a glimpse of her old lace-up boots and marveled. These people were authentic down to their little toes.

What a pain in the ass, she thought, to have to garb-up like that everyday. Doctor Crispin didn’t come across as some throwback to a bygone era. Jess didn’t understand her motives, but that was a book someone else would have to write.

“Sometimes I write for the internet.” She had tossed it out there.

There was an almost imperceptible pause in the doctor’s handwriting. Maybe Jess had sparked an interest in internet journalism. Or maybe …

The good doctor set her clipboard aside and considered Jess with her eyes. Then, like a decision was reached, she rose from her seat and went to one of the sparkling white cabinets and pulled out a bottle and two small beakers. Jess recognized the bottle at once.

“Is that …
Jameson?
” gasped Jess, a touch of drool at the corner of her mouth.

“I save this for special occasions. But, seeing as there aren’t any, I figure we could drink some of this now.” She poured a couple of fingers into each beaker, and handed one to Jess. The doctor had that sly smirk on her face again, a smirk that said that she knew Jess would not refuse her hospitality.

Jess inspected the beautiful brown liquid. “You are my very favorite doctor
ever
.”

“You need to get out more.”

As they both sipped from their beakers, Doctor Crispin’s mind seemed elsewhere. Finally, she took a nibble on the bait that Jess had thrown out.

“Anything I might have read?”

“What?” asked Jess, enrapt by the beaker in her hands.

“Anything of yours on the internet I might have read.”

And they were back. Just two ladies talking over drinks. Time to set the hook. “Have you ever heard of the
Paranormal Investigator
?”

Another beat, then, “Those ghost hunter people?”

“Ghosts, psychics, pretty much anything supernatural … or just plain weird.”

“Hmm …” Doctor Crispin took her wire spectacles from her nose and looked up at Jess. “So, what are you looking for here in Willow Tree?”

Time to reel her in. “What have you got?”

Willow, 1865

 

The woman came without a pine box.

A strong summer wind stirred up clouds of dust in the nearby fields, but the Willow’s field was too green to be bothered. For over an acre in every direction, whatever seeds and pollen the winds and flying insects sprinkled on its fertile soil grew wild. The soil under the Willow’s sheltering leaves was as soft and black as moist coffee grounds. Beneath this canopy, the Willow grew the only thing it could grow.

It was the garden of the dead.

Under this dark umbrella, the oddly shaped stone markers leaned to and fro like a mouth full of mangled teeth. It had been a while since men had come with their offerings. But it was a warm, sunny day, and the men often came on sunny days. Their sharp implements entered its soil more easily on warm days. They would more often linger, walking from stone to stone, perhaps remembering the deaths beneath the markers. The Willow had to wait patiently for them to leave. It never explored the pine boxes until they had gone.

But the Willow had little interest in the boxes anymore. It had opened every box they had planted in its soil, and the results littered the Willow’s roots, clinging like desperate babies to their mother’s breast. Sadly, the only milk the Willow had to offer could do nothing to nourish these lost children. They lay dead in the soil, roots and curls of vine sprouting from around their decaying masses as they hung like leeches from smooth healthy flesh.

One by one the Willow had withdrawn its unearthly fluid from these tumors, and allowed them to rejoin the soil. It took back what it could, the soil absorbing much but giving little. A few stray nutrients and minerals fertilized the dirt … and, of course, the building blocks of life. This the Willow had in abundance, but it was an empty purse.

The delicate double helixes circled around each other in a dark dance that the Willow could not comprehend. It entwined the twisted ladders, severing then reconstructing each bond, each strand. The results were always the same.

It was the garden of the dead.

The Willow gripped the earth in frustration. Against the odds, it had thrived. It had endured the hostile elements which often bordered on the extreme. It had endured the acrid smoke from cannon blasts and musket fire. The starving and the injured had trampled through its field on their way back home to lick their wounds.

Then, came the dead.

At first, the pine boxes were intriguing, and a plan had formed within the Willow. It had seen these creatures come and go at will, season after season, while the Willow stayed here, immovable and unmoving. It had traveled the breadth of space, and for what? To be shackled in an open field, caretaker of corpses? To never roam this world as these unthinking creatures could? Or, to someday be destroyed at the hands of the elements, the scorching from the sun or lightning from the sky or from a funnel of wind that could rip it from the earth?

Or … by the implements of these men?

These looming threats the Willow could not abide. It must escape the confines of this field if it were going to survive.

Then, it had been presented with a possibility, and so it had entered the first pine box.

What it had found inside was a puzzle.

The pieces did not fit and the pattern eluded the Willow. It had cobbled them together, bit by bit, merging them with its own life’s blood. But, something was missing, some
key
that the Willow was not seeing. For it had never before been inside of a human.

Then, the woman came without a pine box.

She dressed darkly, her face behind a veil of thin, black lace. The Willow had seen these women before; they were different from the men. Emotions radiated off of them in waves, but they never uttered a word. They would stand before the markers for the longest time, squares of white cotton cloth in their hands, dabbing at their eyes. Small moans escaped them. This was called mourning.

The Willow did not know how it knew this, but it did.

The woman was covered with long black folds of cloth, showing little. Those in the boxes had been covered in such. The Willow could remember having pierced through the layers before it could penetrate the flesh. After that, the cloth fell away as the flesh was liberated. The Willow had no use for these coverings.

The woman entered the shade of the tree, planting her footsteps in the black loam. She reeked of loss and grief … and anger. She canvassed the markers, tracking through the hallowed ground with her leather boots until her eyes fell on a single stone. She stopped before it, and a tremble ran through her body and through the soil and through the tree. The Willow could sense it; the woman was unbelieving … and now she had seen.

The woman went down to her knees, the folds of dark cloth splayed out all around. Her sudden impression in the soil sent a tingle through the heart of the Willow that jolted its senses. It sent roots to the surface of the soil, tiny tendrils that probed her gently. In her state, she would not feel the sensation. She was riveted to the stone, and to whatever its carvings implied.

The Willow reeled from the mix of emotions, rage and confusion … and a piercing sadness that was chipping away at her stubborn refusal to believe. The tree could sense the importance of this
marker and it needed to know more. It sent the probe deeper, penetrating the woman’s flesh tenderly. It was not enough to draw her from the pain that had shredded her heart, but it was enough for the Willow.

A key had been turned in the lock of its understanding. It now saw the ladders of life spiraling into long twisted ribbons of pulsing information. The rungs on the ladders showed it something new, some new line or angle or curve in the blueprint of this woman. As the Willow flowed in and around each rung, bits of image and thought and feeling flooded the tree’s matrix.

It glided about on the vortex that defined this woman, infusing its life with hers, until it had come full circle. By then, there were no secrets or puzzles. It knew this creature intimately, just as it knew what was next.

The woman mourned her mate, lost in some great conflict that the Willow had only experienced in the abstract. Now, it felt the loss, the anguish, the quaking hatred. It had lived each day of her life in a blink, and now it understood.

The woman who loved and had been loved, was utterly alone, her only family a moldering corpse beneath the tree’s roots.

She would not be missed.

Its root, like a fist, punched up through the soil and through the woman, impaling her like a boar on a spit. Her red-rimmed eyes shot open and she stared, no longer comprehending, into the stone marker that was a monument to her late husband. Her hands pawed the earth as she tried to push away from the root. She could not.

Tiny wooden fingers wrapped about her and tugged her down into the black dirt. She gagged on the soil that she inhaled into her mouth and her lungs. More and more tendrils sprang up until the woman was a writhing mass of vines and leaves, pulling her down into the grave with her beloved.

The vines caressed her as the clothing was torn from her body and left above to blow away on a warm breeze. It explored each crease and crevice of the woman, each wisp of hair, each tiny line at the corners of her eyes.

She had stopped struggling. She was home.

Husband, wife, family … all foreign concepts which had spread throughout the Willow like wildfire on contact with the woman. There would be more to come as the woman became part of the soil and the tree. It would reach out again to the others in the soil, now that it knew how. The puzzle was understood.

It would only take a little time to put the pieces together.

BOOK: Dead Willow
8.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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