No Returns And Warnings

(I wrote this one for Chuck Wendig’s The Crooked Tree flash fiction challenge.)

It would always happen whenever Scott went near the tree.

The tree was in a field across the road from his house. It might have been a park once, but it was overgrown and neglected and anything that had been there to play on had long since been carted away for scrap metal and the bits used to build an extension on the back of your house. It was desolate, if not dead then definitely dying.

The first time it happened was when Scott cut across the field on his way home from school. He passed the tree, a gnarled and bent thing that menaced in the foggy gloominess of late afternoon. Scott gave it a wary berth, but still, when it passed it, the creeping sensation began at the base of his spine. It shivered beneath his skin and then raced all over his body, till the fine hairs on his skin stood on end.

He was young, then, and could not put a word to the rising horror he felt when he walked past that tree. It felt old to him. Old, old and tired. Scott stepped faster and it was a long time before the cold feeling in his chest went away.

The second time it happened, he was a bit older and walking the dog with his mother. His mind had buried that afternoon from before, to save the small boy from nightmares of the creeping sense of… timelessness. But the tree still looked like it had been there since the dawn of the universe when he walked past it that afternoon. The dog barked, loud and ferocious. It snapped and hissed and wouldn’t go near the tree. His mother laughed and carried on past the tree. Both Scott and the dog rushed to her side. Scott only looked briefly over his shoulder, and he was sure he saw the branches shift and twitch.

It went, for some years, like this. Whenever Scott saw the tree, his mouth would go dry with fear, all the moisture suddenly coating his palms. The horror would paralyse him and his mind would shudder and try to compute and impression of that much larger, in every sense, than himself.

The last time Scott visited the tree, he was in high school. On his way home with friends, he refused to cut through the field.

“Why not?” asked one, echoed by a whole chorus of “yeah, why not” from his groupies.

“I just don’t want to, okay. Chilled. I’ll walk around.” To his credit, Scott’s voice did not tremble, but his eyes darted fearfully to the twisted tree halfway across the field. This compulsive movement was spotted and swiftly analysed by his scholarly comrades.

“Shit, he’s scared of the tree!” And on came the jeers, the mockery and the teasing.

Finally, when they became tired of it, the leader of the group glanced at the tree. “I’m gonna go there and check it out,” he said, coating his words in bravado. Once the bar was set, there were calls of “me too!” and “yeah, so am I” and the boys started in the direction of the tree Scott feared so much.

Scott dared a glance at it and blinked. Yes, the branches did move and they were excited, he could tell. It was in the jerky sway, hidden somewhat by the dull wind that blew, cold and unyielding. And suddenly, his head was filled with things. Filled with old and ancient evil, of beings formed outside the rules of our science, of lines and angles that strain and stretch the mind. Filled with thoughts of vast time and power, the far away suddenly coming too close.

The horror grabbed him around his heart and squeezed. The air left Scott’s lungs in a great gasp and because he could not bring himself to put a foot on the field, he stood on its border and begged and pleaded with his friends, implored them to stay.

“It’s not natural!” he finally screamed and finally, they stopped.

“Pussy!” The shout came again and again and again, till Scott scowled with fury and terror, his eyes wide and darting and a fine sheen of sweat clinging to his forehead. The air around him felt oppressive and heavy with nightmarish promises, as if things waited in the slowly gathering mist, waited till it was so thick you could not see your hand in front of your face.

Scott looked once more at the tree, and his horror became so great that nausea hit him in great, dizzying waves. He tried to choke out one more plea, but suddenly, his mind could no longer handle the strain and his instincts pushed forward. Scott bolted, running down the road and away from the field, running all the way home. When he finally shut the front door, exhausting and shaking, his burst into tears.

The next morning, Scott’s mother poured him a glass of orange juice and eyed him up and down.

“You’re looking peaky,” she commented.

Scott said nothing.

“I heard from Mrs Jonathan. She said Timmy didn’t come home last night. Wasn’t he with you last?”

Scott looked at his mother. His eyes were white and stark, rimmed a ghastly red and shaded dark. The boy looked like he had hardly slept at all and there was a tenseness to his jaw and a dull sound that suggested he was grinding his teeth.

Worry flickered like a movie scene across his mother’s features. “Scotty, honey, you okay?”

“They’re never coming back. I warned them.”

“What?”

“They’re never coming back. I warned them.”

“Who’s never coming back, honey?”

“They’re never coming back, I warned them.”

When the medics arrived, Scott was sitting on the front porch, seemingly unaware of his mother, who was crying into a cell-phone. The head paramedic walked up to the boy.

“Hello, son. You’ll be alright.”

“They’re never coming back. I warned them.”

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