Well, I’m happy to say that holiday shopping is O-V-E-R (This doesn’t count the last minute stuff I get for the kids, like candy to stuff into their stockings). Anyway, best wishes to everyone for a safe, happy and healthy holiday season!
And in keeping with Friday’s theme of Flash Fiction, I’ve added a new story below. Technically it’s longer than flash (about 1700 words), but it’s the holidays, dude! Excess is good!
The table was one big-assed monstrosity, sitting in the middle of the yard like it was planning to grow roots. That was, if metal could grow roots, which Aidan was pretty sure it couldn’t. Gingerly he sat in one of the matching chairs and watched as his mother brought out tray after tray of food-mounds of chicken and tuna salad, loaves of bread, bowls of pickles and cut up broccoli, bowls of stew. That was what happened after someone died-you ate and ate. Or at least you were expected to.
That was, unless you had no appetite. Which Aidan didn’t. Considering that the dead someone was his brother.
# # #
“Come out back.”
He looked at Sara. “Why?”
She made a face, than pulled something out of her jeans pocket. He could smell it before he saw the baggie. “Here?”
“Not right in front of your mother, dummy. Out back. The rest of the kids are there.”
He hesitated. On the one hand the last thing he wanted to do was stay here, at the enormous metal table his mother had purchased last week from Costco or Walmart or some other mass-producing shithole. But on the other hand, he knew how it would look if he slunk away to smoke dope with his friends. He could almost hear his older brother, the voice of reason, telling him that that shit was bad, that you should only get high on life and Jesus and all the other holy-roller crap he’d started spouting when he’d gotten together with Annabel. Annabel, who sat at the other end of the table, looking blankly at the heaped plate in front of her and eating nothing.
Not that Jesus had helped his brother.
He half stood, than caught his mother’s eye. She shook her head slightly, which was all the encouragement needed. He pushed back the chair, feeling the divots it made in the soft ground, and followed Sara.
# # #
Michael and Tyler were already there, sitting propped up against the back of the old shed his brother used when he wanted to create. He knew if he went inside he’d see the remnants of his brother’s projects-the intricately worked tables and chairs, the cabinets with their carved motifs of flowers and birds, the little wooden soldiers and cars he made for the kids at the cancer ward. Seeing those things, all those bits of his brother’s life, would make him cry. He knew it. Which was why he didn’t go inside. Why he hadn’t since the accident.
Michael passed him an inexpertly rolled joint. He lit up and drew in the smoke. He wasn’t sure what he was hoping for-maybe some new images to chase out the ones he’d replayed over and over in his mind since it happened. Anything would be better than his imaginings. He slid down the wall of the shed and felt Sara’s hand on his knee. “You okay?”
He nodded and passed her the joint. She slipped it into her mouth, her lips forming a pretty little pout around the paper. That was one thing he liked about Sara-her lips. That and her skin, smooth as dusk and almost as dark. “Now I am. Sort of.”
“You needed this.” Michael wrapped his arms around his knees. “That happening to Kyle…really sucked.”
“But what I can’t figure out is how it happened. You know?”
He shrugged. Felt warmth through his jeans as Sara lay across his lap. “I don’t know.” Except in my dreams. “It was just an accident.”
“I’ll bet it wasn’t.”
He felt himself tense. Tyler never held back-if he had a thought, he spoke it. “What do you mean?”
He looked at Aidan, then away. “Didn’t your brother ever tell you about the dryads?”
“What the fuck is a dryad?”
“A spirit of the forest, dumbass. They live in the trees.”
“You’ve been smoking too much shit.”
Tyler shook his head. “I haven’t. I mean, yeah, I’ve been smoking, but I’m telling you the truth about this. I mean…”
“This one time? I went into the woods with my dad. We were looking for a Christmas tree…you know, to cut down. And we find this big beautiful one, all green with no dead needles, and Dad gets ready to, you know, start chopping. Got the axe at the ready, you know? And then…we hear it.”
“Hear what?” He felt Sara’s fingers trailing up his thigh and absently pushed them away. A sign of how interested he was in Tyler’s stupid story…or how disturbed.
“This…sound. Like a moan, deep like it came from underground almost. And then…”
“I see it.”
“See what? You pulling this out for dramatic effect or what?”
“No. It’s just…” He shook his head and rubbed a hand over his eyes. Aidan suddenly realized something-that Tyler was freaked. Seriously freaked. And despite himself he felt a knot of cold in his belly, a knot that hadn’t quite gone away since Max’s death but in the days since the funeral had started to loosen. Now, though, it felt harder and larger than ever.
“It was…like a ghost, almost.” Tyler looked at his hand like he’d never seen it before. “She was…tall. A lot taller than you’d think a girl could be, you know? And she had this long dark hair falling all around her shoulders and down her back. And her skin…” He shivered slightly. “You could…see through her. To the other side.”
Aidan pushed himself straighter against the shed wall. “Okay. And?”
“And what? I just told you, dude-a fucking ghost came out of that tree. And she…” He swallowed; Aidan felt himself tensing. “She…she just…looked at us. But it wasn’t, like, a regular look. It was…if she’d been a lion or bear or something? We would have been dead meat.”
In the quiet that followed, Aidan became aware of several things. One, that his leg was starting to cramp beneath Sara’s weight. Two, that the sun had started to slip behind the treeline, the temperature starting to drop. He looked at the woods, at the towering pines and oaks and maples, as if he were expecting a cluster of-what had Tyler called them?-dryads to slip from among the trunks, long haired and beautiful, beckoning. He didn’t believe in ghosts-if he had, he’d have stayed awake in the nights after Max’s death, waiting for whatever was left of his soul, essence, or whatever, to slither up through the floorboards, maybe playing with the lights or making noises in the basement. But now…
“You should just shut up.” Sara said suddenly. She’d turned her head towards Tyler, her pretty face twisted in disgust. “You think you’re helping him? Making up some bullshit story?”
“It’s not bullshit.”
“Sure. The woods are full of hot ghosts.” She turned back to Aidan, but he was already gently sliding his leg out from under her. He slipped his hand beneath her head to lower her to the grass, than got to his feet.
“Where are you going?” She pushed herself up.
He looked towards the woods. Towards the hill where his brother had had the accident. Without thinking he suddenly said, “Did you cut it?”
“The tree. Did your dad take it?”
Silence. Then, “No.”
# # #
His brother had been determined if nothing else, Aidan thought as he went up the narrow path that led to the top of Crafter’s Hill. He wasn’t sure if that was the original name or if his brother had christened it when he’d started the woodworking business. Even if Max had heard the stories, even if he’d seen the tree spirits, it wouldn’t have stopped him. He needed the money so he and the Bible-thumper could buy a house, have kids, all the stuff he’d wanted to do before he hit thirty. Aidan wiped his eyes as he climbed, not liking the way the path blurred before him. The little light left in the sky was fading fast, and he hadn’t bothered with a flashlight. Not that it mattered. He knew there would be light on top of the hill.
At the crest he spotted the machine. Large, hunched as if it were hiding its secrets. A small lamp from behind cast cold light on the metal edges. He knew if he were to get up close he’d see the traces of his brother-rusty stains, splotches, streaks, clots.
He also knew that there was no electricity running up here. Had never been-the power companies couldn’t run lines this deep into the trees.
He came to the machine and stopped. Reached out a hand. Caught himself. And turned.
A girl stepped out from behind a tree. Not the one Tyler claimed to have seen-this one was small, slender, with pale skin and long silvery hair. Her eyes, a pale green, met his. She opened her mouth slightly, revealing small sharp teeth.
Instantly the machine came to life. The rusty gears growled as if the machine were hungry for its next meal. And not a meal of wood. If Aidan strained his ears hard enough, he could almost hear its voice, a malevolent purr.
But it was the girl saying it, not the chipper. He looked at her, into her pale eyes, and wondered how it had happened to Max. A seductive word, a soft hand gently caressing the small of his back before pushing him into the maw? Or had something tripped him, forced him into the grinding, whirring blades?
It didn’t matter. What did was that Max had decided to destroy the machine that had provided so well for the family, propelled by the anti-pagan wishes of his girlfriend. He’d have kept working the wood, of course, but the magic he’d been able to create, the flowers and animals and clean, luminous shapes, would be gone.
And Aidan couldn’t let that happen. A few quiet prayers to the woods goddesses had been enough to insure it didn’t. Which didn’t mean he wasn’t sorry that Max had been the sacrifice.
And now Aidan would need to take over the business. Which would mean more blood.
As he headed down the hill, the machine sinking into resentful silence on the hill, he wondered if Tyler would be willing to take a walk with him. Not tonight, though. Let him enjoy this last night, smoking his dope and looking at the stars and wondering how to get Sara into the sack.