The Withering Tree
Ben directed his car into a small hunter’s pull-off along the side of the road near the state park, pulling deep into the shadows, where the last remaining light from the sun could not reach him. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, he tried with futility to calm his racing heart. He thumbed the small antique coin his grandmother had given to him when he was seven. One side had a strange face crudely imprinted on it and the other side was charred black, a discoloration he was never able to get rid of. She had told him that it was a good luck charm, that it had saved his grandfather’s life during World War II, though he didn’t recall being told the whole story. The coldness that radiated from the coin as it rested in his palm felt as though any luck it may have held had finally run out.
He had been waiting for this night for a long time. His older sister, Julia, had vanished nine years earlier; he was eleven and she, sixteen. About a month ago, her bones were finally recovered, the dental records confirming it was indeed Julia. He had dealt with the ridicule, the pity, but he knew was correct, he knew it was her haunting screams that were heard in the park at night, causing rangers to search for hours, to no avail. He knew it was the tree.
. . .
The curse of the Withering Tree was something that had plagued the town of Seeker Falls, West Virginia since the mid-fifties. But, as Ben found out during his research, the first disappearance was actually in February of 1947; a girl named Alice, who was around 12 years old. According to an old German immigrant, whose wife vanished in February of 1965, there is a tree used by a cult for ritual sacrifice, a tree that only emerges once every nine years. The true power of the tree and what exactly it does is unknown, but the police reports state that the remains of each of the victims, usually female, are found in a pile at the foot of the tree, withered to nothing, rusty chains still clamped around what would have been a neck and wrists.
There were no recorded photographs of the tree, but it has been described in news reports over the years as something not of this world. The smooth, white bark gouged and stained with blood, the leaves like leathery, clenching hands, gray as death. Everyone who has ever confronted the tree has ended up with a string of bad luck and anyone who has attempted to find the tree has failed, as it has never appeared in the same place twice.
Now another girl has gone missing. Ben didn’t know her, she was just a student at the local high school, but as soon as he heard the news, he knew it was time. This couldn’t happen again.
. . .
He took another steadying breath and placed his hand on his dad’s handgun in the holster on his side, the cold steel a bit more substantial and realistic than that of an old coin. He fumbled for the latch and opened the door, feeling the winter air wash over him as he traversed the threshold into the wilderness. He didn’t know where the tree would manifest, but he had an idea of where to start looking. There was an old abandoned church that resided in the middle of the park, a hotspot for teens to go out drinking in a town with nothing else to do. A massacre occurred in the graveyard there in the mid-80s. A lot of strange happenings were associated with the place.
The town of Seeker Falls sat in the middle of what is known as the Radio Silence Zone, a thirteen thousand square mile area taking up a great swath of land in Virginia and West Virginia, as well as a tiny piece of Western Maryland, where radio interference, including radio stations, Wi-Fi, even microwaves, are prohibited. The reason for this area is the radio telescopes in Green Bank and Sugar Grove, West Virginia; any radio interference could distort potential findings from deep space. Seeker Falls is just far enough away from the telescopes that it doesn’t fall under the stricter guidelines of abstaining from Wi-Fi and microwaves, but the town officials voluntarily impose these regulations and do not hesitate to give out fines.
He followed the path he had carved out days before, being mindful of his steps, and within twenty minutes, he came to the church. He sat at the edge of the clearing and waited, maintaining a steady presence of alertness. The building sat stark white against the gloom of the dark forest. Although much of the church had fallen into disrepair and was barely standing, the tower at the top stood intact, as well as the massive bell that hung there.
He watched silently and, as if on cue, a gathering of robed figures manifested out of the night and began to move steadily through the woods. They were dragging with them a teenaged girl; her clothes were dirty and blood stained. She was trying to scream, but her mouth was gagged, and they dragged her roughly along with chains strapped around her wrists and neck. He moved around the edge of the clearing and began to follow them, his movements masked by the haunting, monotonous chanting that now resonated through the trees.
Far ahead of the migrating cult, Ben could see the faint glow of firelight, and as they got closer, his heart stopped, and his eyes settled on the pale withering tree for the first time. The tree was much bigger than he thought it would be – a twisted, organic skyscraper. Its top was obscured by its sheer height that stretched endlessly upward, as if passing though the sky and into another world. Ben thought of all the victims tied to the tree over the years and how they must have clawed at the bark in their maddening final moments. He shuddered and pushed the thought from his mind as he gripped his jacket closer to him.
He peered around the trunk of a large tree to see that there are about a dozen cult members in all, dressed in dark robes and standing around the fire, chanting and swaying in unison. Ben held the gun in his shaking hand and tried to steady it. He had thirteen rounds, and another thirteen in the magazine strapped to his side giving him more than enough to end the despicable lives of every single one of these monsters, and though it would probably put him away for a while, he felt this was not only the right course of action, it was the only course. He switched the safety off, but then stopped.
The chanting ceased and everything had gone silent. The sounds of the night, the insects, the wind through trees, had all gone away along with the chanting. There was a low tremor thrumming through the ground beneath Ben’s feet as he looked over at the gathering. Ice rushed through his veins and his breath caught in his throat. Something was emerging from the bonfire, something tall and dark. He blinked, trying to get an idea of what it was, but it remained featureless, smoke-like, but still substantial enough to disperse the flames. The entity began to speak to the congregants as they prostrated themselves upon the forest floor, its voice like a whisper, yet radiating through the ground. The girl was silent, frozen in abject horror, much the same way as Ben. The weight of the gun brought him back to the situation. His breath returned. It was time. He leaned around the tree and raised the gun.
The thing was staring at him. Looking into its face, he realized too late why none of the congregants had turned their gaze to the ground. He fired wildly, his sanity sacrifice to the flames that licked up around the being. He hardly realized when he was out of bullets, even as the empty gun clicked uselessly into the silence. His legs gave out and the ground beneath him vibrated with the etheric power that radiated from the being, unharmed by Ben’s earthly barrage, although several congregants lie dead or dying in quickly growing puddles of blood.
Ben lay on the icy earth, gasping for breath as his motor functioning failed and lights began to dance before his eyes. The gun fell from his numb hand as the as the indescribable face of the thing peered down over him and his vision faded to darkness.
It took him then. A strange warmth enveloped the lower half of his body and he thought, in what he believed was his final miserable thought, that he had just soiled himself. But soon this warmth radiated up his core, throughout his chest, arms, and upon reaching his head, exploded into a brilliant light.
A piercing scream severed the silence and his eyes opened. A throbbing pain struck him between the eyes, and he shambled backwards, gasping for breath as a glowing visage stood before him.
“Ben! Don’t look!” A familiar voice called out and he did as it said, slowly backing away, his eyes to the ground. Out of his peripheral vision he saw the dark entity recoiling towards the low, glowing flames. He turned to see the kidnapped girl, cowering at the tree, her face hidden behind her arms. Ben scanned the ground and found the nearest cult member, face down, a pool of black surrounding his head. He turned the body over, trying not to look at the face, and felt around for a key to free the girl. He began to feel sick as he found nothing but regular old car keys in the pocket of the robe. The ground rocked and a searing chill went through the air, causing a sheen of ice to form over the pools of blood. Ben darted towards the girl.
He found one of the cult members, a boy nearly his age kneeling before the girl, something shimmering in his hand. Ben reached for the gun but stopped as he noticed that the boy was unlocking the shackles. He glanced at Ben and took off into the night. A groaning sound erupted around them and he noticed the tree was moving, the branches and leaves slowly coming to life, as if it realized the release of its sacrifice. He grasped the girl’s hand and they both staggered to their feet and then bolted from the clearing and into the darkness of the woods. The two made it several hundred yards away before an earth rending crack exploded in the calm night and a burst of hurricane-force wind sent them plummeting to the forest floor. Several trees limbs came crashing to the ground around them.
. . .
Both awoke on the forest floor, freezing but otherwise ok. She knows he saved her, but from what exactly she wasn’t sure, a thought that would simultaneously disturb her and bring her relief for the rest of her life. They were both silent as they tried to put the pieces together in their minds into a coherent story. Ben drove up to the hospital and it occurred to him that he has no idea how they managed to get to the car in the first place.
He reached down and found the empty holster of the gun and a faint memory of firing it springs into his mind, but he doesn’t know why. He places his hand in his pocket and pulls out the coin. The face of it now charred black, matching its opposing side and he remembers the voice, telling him to look away. For a fleeting moment, he thought that the voice belonged to Julia, but he knew that couldn’t be possible. He searches for more clues, but can only recall a searing, bright light and heat, a heat like burning flames, much like he was being burned alive. He drives off, heading back home and sees a teenaged boy, dressed all in black, walking down the street, his uneasy expression triggering something familiar in Ben’s mind. But he passes by the boy without another thought, and the memory of the withering tree soon dies away with the light of the sun rising over the mountains.