Michael is convinced that the old oak tree outside his bedroom window is evil; by R.M. Warren.
"Do you think school will be cancelled on Monday?" Michael asked, hopefully.
His sister shrugged. Ever since turning eleven, Emily had done a lot of shrugging and Michael was still trying to decipher the meaning behind this ambiguous new gesture.
"But it might be, right?" Michael asked again, this time more desperately.
Emily shrugged again. "Depends on whether or not they get the plows out early enough. I don't hear any yet."
Michael opened the window and the wind blasted his room with cold air. He listened for the rumbling of the county plows but didn't hear any. In fact, the entire neighborhood was eerily silent. Not that the old cemetery across the street and the small church on the corner constituted much of a neighborhood. Still, activity could usually be heard in the distance well into the evening hours, especially on weekends: tractors, chainsaws, and gun shots, mostly.
The only sound was coming from the giant oak tree right outside the window. Most of its leaves hadn't yet fallen and the old branches creaked tiredly under the weight of the wet, heavy snow.
Michael thought that the tree's twisted and gnarled branches looked to be moving closer to the house, as if seeking shelter from the storm. No, not seeking shelter, Michael thought with a shiver. Reaching to grab me. If Michael had stretched his arm out of the window he was sure he'd be able to touch the tip of the closest branch with his fingertips. Not that he would ever do that. Surely, such a foolish gesture would result in the tree ensnaring his arm and pulling him into trunk through the black, narrow hollow near the top.
The fear of being eaten by the tree was one that the eight year old boy had as long as he could remember. Unlike the monster in his closet, Michael could not pinpoint the exact moment when the tree fear materialized. And also unlike the monster in the closet, the terror evoked by the tree only intensified with time.
Of course, the stories Emily told him about the cursed oak didn't help matters. There was the time one of its largest limbs fell on their mother's car moments after pulling into the driveway. Michael was an infant at the time, too young to remember, but Emily had shown him the photos their father had taken for the insurance company: the roof the 2008 Ford Taurus crushed like a tin can under the huge, thick limb. Michael and Emily had fallen asleep in their car seats on the way home from the Food Lion that afternoon and their mother had briefly considered bringing the groceries in first so as not to wake them. But something told her to bring the kids in first and she heard the limb crack just as she was stepping back outside to retrieve the bags. It wasn't long after that when Michael and Emily's mother began attending church.
There were other stories too: a combination of tales Emily had heard from her classmates in the schoolyard and others she read in a library book about local ghosts and legends. The deep gashes at the base of the trunk facing the road were supposedly caused by a group of teenagers who ran their car into the tree on prom night in the 1950s, killing all them. Other stories, like the witch who was said to be hanged from one of its limbs, were not supported by evidence. Regardless, Michael believed them to be true. Emily used to believe the stories too, before the shrugging started.
Michael often speculated that before the road in front of their house was created, the cemetery across the street had extended to their property. The cursed tree, he was certain, was planted over removed headstones. He lay awake many nights imagining the roots puncturing coffins and wrapping themselves around skeletons six feet below the ground. His mother tried to assure him that the tree was there long before the cemetery and that it was quite possibly the oldest tree in the valley, but this only confirmed it as a source of ancient evil in Michael's eyes.
"I hope lightning strikes that horrible old tree and splits it in two," Michael said, slamming the window.
"I don't think there will be any lightning tonight," Emily said. "But maybe the wind will finally knock it over."
"Hopefully away from the house," Michael said with a shudder.
Their house was old and sturdy. It had "good bones," as their father said. But the tree had bones too. Bones covered in dark, scaly flesh. Bones of giant outstretched hands. Hands that could crush their house like they had crushed mom's car.
"Can I sleep in your room tonight?" Michael asked.
Emily's bedroom was on the back end of the house next to their parent's room, far away from the tree, and she had always allowed Michael to sleep there during a storm. "Sure," she said.
Michael sensed a hesitation in Emily's response. She had been getting funny about having her privacy lately and Michael could tell that Emily would rather not have her little brother crashing in her room. Still, he was grateful that she didn't refuse the request. "Thanks sis," he said, giving Emily an awkward side hug.
Later that night Michael was awoken by a crashing sound. He squirmed out of his sleeping bag on the floor and peered over the top of his sister's bed.
"Emily," he called out.
The lump beneath the pink blanket moved and released an annoyed groan.
"I think the tree got into the house," Michael whispered.
"It's just a tree," Emily mumbled, her words muffled by the blanket.
"It's not just a tree," Michael said, panic rising up his throat. "You know it's not just a tree."
"It's just a tree," Emily repeated, the last syllable trailing off sleepily.
A moment later, Michael heard the door of his parent's bedroom click open, followed by slippered footsteps down the hall, and finally his mother's voice crying out:
As Michael stepped out into the hallway, he saw his mother's figure silhouetted in his bedroom doorway, the bottom of her robe billowing in the breeze, one hand on the light switch and the other covering her mouth. Michael felt his father's hand on his shoulder.
"Everybody's safe," his father said.
A second, lighter hand rested on Michael's other shoulder. "It's ok," Emily said.
Michael felt the cold air seep in between the buttons of his pajamas as the three of them approached his bedroom. Over his mother's shoulder, he could make out the limb's shadow - thick and twisted - cast across his bedroom wall.
He pressed the side of his face against his mother's robe as he peered into his bedroom, taking brief comfort in the fuzzy fabric pressing against his cheek. The broken limb was suspended about two and a half feet above his floor right down the middle of his room, sloping down in a slight diagonal. The splintered half rested on his windowsill, surrounded by shards of glimmering glass. The other half - the hand - stretched out across his bed. His sheets, wet with snow and clumps of leaves, rippled in the wind coming in through the shattered window.
The following morning mom went to church and dad called an arborist. Michael and Emily watched from a safe distance as the man high up in the cherry picker's bucket cut away at the branches with a chainsaw. Large sections fell from the tree, one by one, crashing through the leaves before landing on the snowy ground.
When the fallen limbs dried out a few weeks later, Michael's father burned them all in a giant bonfire out back. Underneath the crackling and popping of the blaze, Michael thought he could hear a faint sound of voices screaming. And as the smoke billowed high into the early evening sky, he could swear that it was breaking apart and taking on human forms.
"Those are the souls of the dead," Michael whispered to his sister, pointing up at wispy, black ghosts dancing in wind.
"It's just smoke," Emily said.
"Don't you see them?" Michael asked.
"No," she said. "The smoke is making my eyes sting. I'm going inside."
As his sister walked back up to the house, Michael stood and watched the ghosts rise from the fire until the sky turned black.
There were no more storms that winter. Mother Nature, apparently, had gotten everything out of her system that October. Michael had managed to mostly forget about the tree outside his bedroom window until the following spring when its pruned branches began to grow back. And they grew back quickly. Every day that Michael came home from school, he looked up at the tree to see the branches getting closer and closer to the house, until that humid day in July when the hand had once again reached his bedroom window.
Michael looked up at the darkening sky through the dense canopy of green leaves. He could smell electricity in the air. A storm was coming.
"You're just a tree," he said, trying his sister's words on for size. He didn't believe it entirely, but he believed it more than he did last October.
Michael had just finished his homework when the power went out. Heavy rain pelted the metal roof and the rumbling of distant thunder was getting closer. He looked up from his desk just in time to see a flash of the spindly, outstretched branches right outside his window. The branches swayed back and forth in the wind as if taunting him with a wave.
Michael grabbed the flashlight on his bedside table and made his way down the hall to the bathroom. After brushing his teeth, he stopped outside his sister's closed bedroom door. He hesitated for a moment before giving a knock.
"No," the voice on the other end of the door said.
Michael opened the door. Emily was in bed, her face illuminated by the blue glow of her phone.
"Can I sleep in here tonight?" he asked, sheepishly.
"No," Emily repeated.
"But what if the tree comes for me again?" he said.
Emily's eyes rolled beneath her long bangs. "It didn't come to get you. A branch snapped off under the weight of the snow and crashed through your window."
"But what if it happens again?"
"The tree man said that limb was old and dead. The new one is young and strong. It won't break. Not for a very, very long time."
"But what if -"
"No, Michael. Go to bed."
Dejected, Michael shuffled back to his room. He pulled his sleeping bag from his closet and unrolled it on the floor near his door, as far away from the tree's reach as possible. He pulled the sleeping bag over his head as he listened to the branches tap against his window. Tap... tap... tap. Tap... tap... tap. Eventually, somehow, he managed to fall asleep.
Michael awoke half expecting to see a tree limb in his bedroom. But the window remained unbroken and the sky beyond it was blue and clear. A red robin perched on one of the tree's branches chirped happily. Michael had no idea how long he had slept, but it felt like it had been a very long time. He briefly panicked that he was going to be late for school, but then remembered that it was Saturday.
As he made his way downstairs, he was feeling rested and relaxed. The storm had passed without incident. As he opened the door at the bottom of the stairwell, he was greeted by another comfort: the delicious smell of something freshly baked. He entered the kitchen to see his family sitting around the kitchen table eating pie.
"Good morning, sleepyhead," Michael's mother said cheerfully.
"We thought you were going to sleep all day," his father said.
Michael noticed that the lights were on. "When did the power come back?"
"Must have been sometime during the night," his mother said. "Would you like a slice of pie?"
"Pie for breakfast?" Michael asked.
"It's noon, goofus," Emily said, shoveling a bite of pie into her mouth.
Michael pulled up a seat as his mother cut off a slice of pie and placed it in front of him. He took a bite. It was delicious. It was, in fact, the best pie he had ever tasted. "What is this?" he asked through a mouthful of pie.
"I picked them this morning," his mother said. "Isn't it wonderful?"
Michael felt a bitter aftertaste on his tongue. He suddenly didn't want any more pie. But he knew it was too late. "Picked them from where?"
"Blessings come from the most unexpected paces," his mother said
The deep red stain around his mother's lips made her smile look grotesque.
Michael's head as he got up from the table. He stumbled to the window and looked out at the tree. Tiny red fruit that hung from its lower branches, red fruit that wasn't there a day ago.
At the base of a tree, the robin lay in the grass. The bird's wings fluttered jerkily before going still.