Monday, May 23, 2011

Oak (NSFW)

Oak

1981

Here lies William Maxwell, beloved husband, father, friend.
Born - 1915
Died - 1975

    Jonathon never liked his friend's tombstone.  He didn't like the idea of it, that his friend lay buried beneath, and he didn't like the tombstone itself.  Dark gray and filled with what seemed like an excessive amount of blank space.  It was cold, a depressing marker of what lay beneath, not a celebration of the life that had preceded it.

    The ground in front of the stone lay bare, decaying beneath the shade of a large oak as that particular area of the cemetery aged, and new tendrils sprouted from the far reaches, extending the inexorable grip of death out into the rest of the town.  Jonathon laid his collection down, the same one he brought every year.  A map, printed in words neither could read, a memento of their time spent overseas in the second World War and an unopened beer, an everlasting symbol of the bond they'd shared.

    He sighed, standing silent for several moments.  Only once in the six years since his friend's death could he recall speaking to the stony grave.  It seemed pointless, and it always made him uncomfortable.  Even as friends, they'd shared few words in life.  Why change that after one of them had passed?

    William had never been the same since that fateful day back in sixty-six, when he'd stumbled onto the body of a boy hanging from the very tree beneath which Jonathon currently stood.  A rambunctious twelve year old known well in town, no one had seen suicide coming.  William had seemed particularly distraught over it, refusing to speak about the incident and taking any thoughts he might have held to the ground with him.

    After several minutes, the cool spring breeze caused Jonathon to shudder and he decided that he'd lingered long enough.  As he walked away, he heard a full metallic thud.  The beer can had tipped over as something had unearthed itself beneath it.  Jonathon leaned down to get a closer look.  A weathered knuckle of one of the tree's roots had somehow found daylight.  At least something within the cemetery still held life, he mused, setting the beer can upright once more.  A few morsels of dirt were pressed aside as the root seemed to unearth more of itself.  Jonathon stared at it curiously, willing it to move again.  When it laid dormant, he turned to leave.  Before his left foot could land, he was knocked forwards, as though the ground was merely a rug to be yanked away.

    The air became clouded with the shrapnel that had been thrown skyward as Jonathon shielded his face.  When the chaos settled, and he dared look, he found himself face to face with the decayed visage of his friend, screaming in silent agony as the tree root held him aloft, dripping what was left of his earthly body onto Jonathon and the ground below.

1987

Here Lies Jonathon Crandon
Born - 1914
Died - 1984

    Edward Maxwell placed the beer his father, and his father's friend had been adamant he leave for them to enjoy in the afterlife.  Edward thought it was a stupid gesture, bound in a sort of superstition he loathed, but he'd respected the two old men, what they'd done, what they fought for.  And he liked to think that the reason the beers were always gone within a few weeks was because they'd somehow pulled the beverages from this world into the next to enjoy together.

    Jonathon was buried on the other side of the large oak tree that had taken umbrage with Edward's  father's corpse six years prior.  It was a fitting location as most of the town's World War Two vets ended up in the same area, as finding formation in death as they had in battle.

    After a few short minutes that he felt were wasted Edward turned to leave, aware of the branch he needed to avoid, but not fully realizing just how close it lay to his foot.  It would have been a comedic scene were it not for the end result.  A stumble, an awkward fall, a sharpened piece of shrapnel that a recent storm had loosed from the tree.  Within moments Edward lie still, adding fresh blood to Jonathon's grave.

1993

    Lydia Maxwell stretched out her creaky right leg as she half stood, half stumbled from the kneeler back into the pew.  As she grew older, she felt like her body was going fuzzy piece by piece like a dilapidated television set with the leg being the latest casualty.  She smiled encouragingly at the couple next to her as they worshipped together in the church that bore her late husband's name.

    While William didn't initially have a problem with filling his pockets with as many spoils of war as his large hands could carry, the burden of the stolen items weighed on him.  Shortly after coming home, he pawned them off for a tidy sum and used the money to start a church.  It was little more than a glorified gardening shed at first, seating about a dozen, but it was the first Protestant place of worship in the decidedly Catholic Marshville.  People came, and with them came money.  Soon the shed had an addition, then it was demolished entirely for the cozy new building that could seat about a hundred if the parishioners were skinny.

    "And let us not forget the untimely passing of Lydia Maxwell's son Edward six years ago today.  I would ask that those among us keep Lydia and her family in their prayers."  Lydia smiled softly at the glances that came her way, not sure how to react to the attention.  The past two decades had been a series of wounds that had never healed.  First William with his heart attack, then the car accident of Jonathon, and finally Edward's gruesome passing, ironically while visiting the gravesite of his father.

    "Time heals all wounds."  That's what her mother had told her as a little girl over the passing of many a beloved pet.  It had been true then as the pain faded more with each second, but as the important people in her life were slowly ripped away from her, the years felt like a hand thudding down the keys of a piano towards a dull and depressing climax.  That's why Lydia felt oddly at peace with the fact that she carried her husband's army pistol in her purse, loaded with a single bullet.  She'd only need one.

    "Ms. Maxwell, I'd like to speak to you," a middle aged man with lines just beginning to stretch their way across his face had approached her pew after the service.

    "I'd like to be alone," she said shortly, trying to will the younger man away.

    "Please, it's about your husband...and my brother."

    Lydia sighed and gestured out one of the stained glass windows.  "Let me have some time alone with my husband, then we can speak."  The man didn't seem to find that option particularly palatable, but he nodded his head and backed off.

    Ten minutes later the option was no longer a possibility as the old woman sat slumped against a red and gray tombstone.  Her shaking hands hadn't wanted to cooperate at first and she wasn't sure if she could get the bullet into her head from point blank range, but slowly she found the strength.

    The irony was not lost on the old oak tree, as it ensured it was not the only witness to the scene.  On that day it finished wrenching three bodies from the ground, splitting their coffins and sending their feeble bones tumbling out to meet Ms. Maxwell.  Luckily for her, there was nothing left behind her eyes to view the scene.

1999

    "It's just a fuckin' tree, why do we gotta cut it down?"

    "You're prolly too young to remember, but this damn thing's roots keep gettin' into gravesites.  Pulls the bodies straight up outta the ground."

    "Maybe they shouldn't bury 'em so close.  Fucking sucks that we have to take it out piece by piece."

    "Do you want to be the one responsible for disturbing a dozen graves when it falls?"  The youth shook his head vigorously, looking around the scattered plots.  The older man was right, there was no real good place to land the tree.  The only way to bring it out was the way they intended, by cutting it out branch by branch.  "It's bad juju," the older man mumbled.

    "Look, even the tree wants to go," the older man smirked, leaning out of the cherry picker towards a short piece carved into the weathered trunk.  The words had faded as time punished the tree, but they were still unmistakable.  I wish he'd kill me.  "I don't know who 'he' is, but I'm going to," the old man said, readying the chainsaw.

    The two landscapers worked slowly and carefully.  No one expected the tree to be down any time soon and they'd only hurt themselves by cutting off more than they could handle.  As the older man cut, the younger would pick up what branches he could reach and toss them into their cart as he spotted the ladder for his companion.

    "Jesus fuck, what the hell?"  The ladder had shifted, subtlely, but enough to give the top a good shake.

    "I dunno, it just sunk a bit.  Better come down and we'll reset it."

    "Fuck," the older man said, turning the chainsaw off.  His heavy boots clanged downward as he seemed to put extra emphasis on each step.  When he stepped onto the ground his boot sunk a few inches.

    "What the hell?  I ain't heavy, and it ain't rained."

    It was then that he saw something smooth poking out of the dirt.  "Aw fuck, not again, see what I mean Jesse?"

    Jesse was a few paces away, taking the time to pick up some of the branches that had fallen farther than he'd dared venture from spotting the ladder.  When the old man turned, instead of Jesse's wiry form, all he saw was cold grey steel as the ladder finished its silent journey from the tree tops directly into the his head.  While the impact of the ladder with the old man's face produced an uninteresting thud, the crack his skull made against the hard granite on his way down was unmistakable.  Not a decade after Lydia had added some color to her husband's tombstone, the back of the old man's head did the same.

2005

    Teddy Maxwell looked out the neck-high window of the changing room as he buttoned his robe.  He knew his father's, his grandfather's, and his grandmother's graves all lay just beyond the backyard of the church, but he never visited them.  Whether it was God's will, or something more malevolent, the events over the years had proven that his deceased family wanted to be left alone.  As a spiritual man, he didn't want to mess with whatever forces continued to flit about the graveyard.

    "Last day wearing that robe, then you get to put on the big boy clothes," Pastor John said, poking his head into the room.  Teddy laughed as their dress was identical.  The Pastor was right, after that morning's ceremony, the years at seminary school would finally culminate in being elevated to Pastor.  Even better, John had insisted he stay with his home congregation so the two could split time as the years continued to catch up with Pastor John.  He knew the older man would be thankful for the respite, and he was glad that he would be thrust into such an important role gradually rather than be thrown to the wolves.

    "You're going to rot in hell," the harsh whisper rattled Teddy from the moment of silence.  In the moment of reflection, with everyone's head bowed, Old Man Weathers had been able to sneak all the way to the altar.

    "It's coming, your turn" Weathers continued as two ushers rose to half lead, half drag  him across the red carpet and out of the building.

    Teddy shook his head and laughed nervously as he looked to Pastor John, trying to shake away the increasingly unhinged man's disturbing comments.  The ushers were able to successfully exorcise Weathers without further incident and the ceremony continued.  Aside from the short interruption, it was a lovely service and had been everything Teddy could have hoped for.

    He looked out the window once more at the graveyard.  The abundance of shade made it loom oddly dim in the bright May afternoon.  The old oak tree that dominated the grounds had started to fill out again, growing back a few of the branches that had been cut away a few years earlier.  Teddy didn't really remember the story, but he knew that somewhere along the way, someone had died.  There was so much heartache in one small plot of land that Teddy had to wonder if the fact that the changing room overlooked the cemetery was a bad omen.

    "Congratulations!" John said, maneuvering nimbly around Teddy to hang his own robe.  "And thanks for the many coming vacations," he said with a wink.  Teddy returned the smile, but his mind was elsewhere.

    "What was the deal with Weathers, what happened?"

    "Oh they led him away without any fuss.  He's prone to doing things like that, you know."

    "Any idea why?"

    "I guess he had some sort of a feud with your father.  Or at least he thinks he did.  Hard to see what since he would have been half your father's age when they were alive together."

    Teddy nodded, hanging his rosary and closing the cabinet.
   

2011

    "What's new," Warren Daniels asked as he walked into the station to begin the night shift.  The two words were less a question and more a way of saying hello.  In Marshville, a town of about two thousand, there was rarely anything new.  When everyone knew everyone else, they tended to be pretty respectful of each other.  The most they ever had to deal with was a few dumb kids drinking and breaking beer bottles where they shouldn't.

    "Old man Weathers with fresh conspiracy theories," Thomas Marks responded, making every effort to turn his rickety old chair and desk into a hammock.

    "Can you call him 'old man?'  He's younger than you chief."

    "He's batshit is what he is," Marks replied.  "And when you're that fucking nuts and you're past middle age, you get called 'old man.'"

    "Fair enough, what did he have for you this time?"

    "Oh you know, the same bullshit about forty year old deaths with no evidence."

    "Ah, the usual," Daniels answered, slumping into his desk chair.  "What's on the itinerary tonight?"

    As he spoke, Marks's phone rang.  "Guess we'll find out," he said with an amused grin.  "I'll put it on speaker, hope it's a good one."

    "Hey chief, this is Donny."

    "Donny, long time.  Those kids drinkin' out in your cornfields again?"

    "No, nothin like that chief, this is worse.  You know that old tree?"

    "The one that keeps playing grave robber every couple a years?  It happen again?"

    "No...well, I don't know.  I think it's on fire."

    "Shit," Marks said, rising out of his seat.  "Get down there War, I'll send the fire department on after you.  Must be those fucking kids again, someone forgot to put a cigarette out or something."

    "Yes sir," Marks responded, grabbing his coat and hustling out the door.  It was a five minute drive down to the old church and cemetery, but Marks could see the smoke before he was even halfway there.  When he slid in across the street, 'fire' seemed like an understatement.  The entire tree was engulfed in high flames, as was half the grass around it and the orange seemed hell bent on making its way towards the church.

    It was then that the fire department showed up, roaring in with a pathetically inadequate modified SUV.  "Shit," the young volunteer said when he saw the extent of the damage and jumped towards his radio.  "Send every goddamn truck, and get the neighboring towns out here too."

    Marks watched everything burn helplessly, covering his mouth and coughing as the smoke wafted in their direction.  Donny wandered over from his farmhouse across the street.  "You see what the hell happened?"

    Donny shrugged and just pointed over to the church parking lot where two vehicles occupied the expanse of gravel.  "That truck is Pastor Teddy's.  That one is Old Man Weathers."

    "They're both inside?" Marks asked.

    "S'pose so," Donny said, a bit too calmly for Marks's comfort.

*    *    *

    Teddy wasn't sure what it was about the changing room at the church that made it such a place of comfort for him.  Perhaps it was the coziness, the cramped warmth that such a small space provided.  Or the solitude of the church itself during the week when the only disturbance would be AA meetings on Wednesday nights.  He did know that a part of him liked the room because it was as close to his grandfather as he'd ever get.  He'd hadn't known the man, and remembering the way his father talked about him when he was a kid, he knew he'd missed out on a great relationship.

    Teddy dozed in the upholstered chair that had been shoved into the corner, resting his feet on the bench in the center of the room.  A few hours later, his own harsh cough roused him.

    "Jesus," Teddy exclaimed in surprised at the figure before him.  "It's you," he said with a tone that bordered on accusatory as the intruder came into focus.  Even amidst the smoke, Weathers's unhinged scowl was unmistakable.

    "What are you doing here, what's going on?" he asked, noting the smoke pouring into the room.  He pushed past Weathers and started banging on the door.

    "It's your time," Weathers said, holding up the nailgun that looked oddly out of place in the traditionally furnished church.  The message it sent was clear; neither of them were leaving.

    "Did you start a fire, what the hell is going on?" Teddy asked, starting to panic.

    Weather grunted and shoved a dilapidated old book into his chest.

    "Help me get out of here," Teddy pleaded as his coughs started to outnumber his words.

    "Read the fuckin' book boy," Weathers said.  "It's short, you've got time enough for that."

    "But..."

    "Read the fuckin' book!  You stare out this window at your grandfather's grave every Sunday.  Learn something about the bastard.  I marked the only page you'll need."

    Teddy's eyes skimmed across the page in a hurry, hoping that when he finished Weathers would let the two of them escape a fiery tomb, though a part of him knew that opportunity had passed.  As he read though, he couldn't help but slow his eyes to take in the weight of every single word.

    He wanted to throw the book away, wanted to call Weathers a liar, but the way the words dug at him...  "No..." he said weakly.

    Weathers grinned, not in happiness, but in malice.  "I don't even have to convince you, you already know," he crowed.

    Teddy coughed again, he knew the two men didn't have much time.  "Why me?  He's dead.  Why me?"

    "Because someone has to answer to what was done.

May 14th, 1966

Today Pastor Bill did it again.  He says it's okay, he says to trust him, but the bible says it's a sin.  He's a Pastor, how can he do something like this?  I hope it won't happen again, but I know it will.  He'll call me into the changing room, and I'll have to turn and face the window.  All I can do is watch the tree while he sins, hoping he finishes quickly.  I wish he'd kill me.

-Sam Weathers

1966

    "Did you tell your brother?" Pastor Bill asked the boy as they walked through the church yard.

    The youth shook his head as tears ran down his face, hoping the older man wouldn't see the lie.

    "Good," the Pastor said with a sad smile.  "I wish our time could continue, but I can't trust you anymore.  Leaving notes behind, tsk, tsk."

    Together they reached the old oak tree.  For the first time Sam looked up to see a rope hanging about eight feet off the ground.  It reminded him of a tire swing, twirling lightly in the breeze.  Like the swing, the rope would give him a ride, unfortunately it would not be a pleasant one.

    "I'll lift you up, you slip it on, and you'll get your wish," Pastor Bill said.  "Understand?"

    The boy nodded and allowed the Pastor to take him in his arms.  It was the first time he was willing...and the first time he was fully clothed.

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