It was the end of summer, in 1952. I was seven years old. School was about to begin, and I, eager to enjoy what was left of my freedom, spent most of my time playing outdoors with my best friend, Billy Wagner.
Billy, the ever adventurous boy, would lead me on a new journey into the unknown every single day. Shortly after breakfast, he would arrive at my house, skipping down the empty lane from his home a block over. My mother would remind me to be a good boy, and send me off to play. Together, Billy and I would make our way down the street, seeking fun wherever we could find it.
At times we would play in the alley behind the drugstore, playing cops and robbers. Other times we were spacemen hopping across the surface of the moon in an open field somewhere, fighting off the evil aliens who wanted to invade.
But most often our favorite adventures took place in the nearby woods, just outside town. There we could do anything, become anyone, and go anywhere our imaginations could dream. Sometimes, our imaginations weren’t even required, as the small forest contained enough new and exciting things to discover on its own, all we had to do was look for it.
We played with bugs and climbed trees. We played on a tire swing that had been there for ages and even sailed paper boats down the small river that cut through the wood.
Billy, being more a leader, always decided what we were going to do. He chose our adventures, and I the ever faithful follower, happily tagged along. The day it happened, began like any other day that summer.
Billy arrived outside my home, all smiles, and waved for me to join him. I hastily threw on my shoes, and impatiently waited as my mother kissed me atop my head, before skipping out of the house as quickly as I could.
“So,” I asked Billy as we walked down the sidewalk together. “What are we going to do today?”
Billy’s grin only grew. “The woods!” He said gleefully. “I found somethin’!”
Though I asked, and asked again, Billy wouldn’t say what he had found; or when he had the time to find it, considering we spent every day, all day, together. He only smiled, his familiar crooked grin, his two front teeth missing.
As was our custom, Billy led the way into the woods, passing through a hole in a chain-link fence at the end of my street. I followed along for what felt like miles, my curiosity ever growing.
“How much further?” I asked.
“Not much,” Billy replied.
Down and down we went, deeper into the small forest, further in than we had ever traveled before.
Here the trees were older and taller. Their large wiry branches blocked out the sun in places, casting long dark shadows around us. The wind blew stronger here, funneling in from the outside world, moving the ancient trees, causing them to sway and dance slowly. Their bark creaked and moaned loudly. Every so often, a branch somewhere would crack and snap like a gunshot in the distance.
Here the sounds of burbling streams and singing birds were harder to hear. The further into unfamiliar territory we went, the less I heard. Only the wind in the trees, whining and whispering, like a secret being told to the old and brittle timber that loomed overhead could be heard.
Finally, we came to a place, secluded from the rest of the woods. I hadn’t even noticed approaching it, as we rounded a large soaring oak. It was an opening, devoid of scrub, or grass. A vast clearing, paved in dirt. Encompassing this clearing were megalithic stones, taller than the height of Billy and I combined. At the far end, opposite of where we entered, stood an enormous dead tree. It was dark and twisted. Its branches like the claws of a cyclopean beast.
I stood in awe, my jaw open in wonder. Billy gamboled to the center of the clearing and began to spin in a circle over and over with his arms out like a whirly bird.
“Isn’t this great?” He shouted.
“It’s amazing!” I answered. “How did you find this place?”
“Billy stopped spinning, teetering from dizziness. “My friend told me.” He replied.
“Which friend?” I asked, slightly offended that Billy had been spending time with someone other than me.
Billy made his way to the far end and stood under the archaic black tree. He patted the trunk with his small chubby hand.
“This friend.” He said.
I laughed. “That’s a tree, stupid.”
Billy frowned. “I know it’s a tree!” He answered. “But he’s my friend too.”
“How can a tree tell you something?” I asked.
“In my sleep. He told me how to get here. He said I should bring you.”
“Why would a tree tell you that?”
Billy’s face suddenly changed. He stepped away from the tree and made his way back to me. Stepping in close, he whispered. “I’m not supposed to tell you, he’ll get mad.”
I looked at the tree, peering over Billy’s shoulder. The long twisted trunk did resemble a torso, its roots like legs, and its branches like arms. They seemed to be reaching toward us, gnarled and bony.
Billy continued, his voice even quieter now. ”He said he’s been watching us. He knows when we come here to play. He says these are his woods. That he’s lonely.”
I looked back at my friend. “But it’s just a tree.” I said, unsure why I was whispering in return.
“He’s alive.” Billy said, his eyes growing wide. “He says he needs kids like us to keep him company, or he dies!”
“Well, where are they?” I asked, looking around for others.
“They’re inside him.” Billy answered. “Inside his trunk.”
“I don’t believe you.” I finally exclaimed.
“It’s true! It’s true!” Billy shouted. “He showed me, last night when I was sleeping. Look!” Billy ran over to the tree and scrambled up the black bark like a squirrel. He pointed to a small round hole in the trunk.
“Down there you can see them!” He shouted.
Doing my best to clamber up after my friend, I made my way to the round hole inside the tree. Within was dark, impossible to get a decent view. Craning my neck, and squeezing my head into the hole as far as I dared, I looked inside.
At the bottom, piled like a mound of stones, were the bones of children, and lying on top, was the cold dead corpse of Billy. I yanked my head from the hole in the trunk and stared at child beside me. His face was curled into a dark and crooked grin.
“He’s lonely.” Billy said. Only it wasn’t Billy. “He wants you to stay with him.”
I leaped from the tree, landing on the cold hard ground below. The child thing followed, sliding down from his place beside the hole, effortlessly. I scrambled to my feet and backed away.
“Don’t go.” The child pleaded. “He’s so lonely.”
I inched back further, and the thing mimicked, inching closer.
As if in anticipation of my flight, the tree seemed to twist, and unwind, reaching its long branches toward me. It creaked and moaned as it moved its skeleton-like fingers in my direction.
Without hesitation, I turned and fled, unsure of where I was going. I left the circle and made my way through the forest. Climbing over logs, and sprinting past boulders; I moved as quickly as I could. The thorny branches of scrub oak scratched at my face, slicing my skin as I tore through it, moving in the direction I could only assume was toward home.
Behind me, the sound of creaking and moaning timber came closer. The distinct crack of snapping trees and branches mere feet behind me. I pushed harder, as the sound grew louder, never looking back.
Ahead of me, in the distance, I could see the fence Billy and I had used to enter the wood. My lungs were burning, and my legs were aching, but still, I pushed on. Trailing at my heels the creaking sound became deafening. I could feel the thumping vibration of each giant step taken by the dark thing that chased me.
Something tore at my back, and my shirt came free, ripping off my skin like paper. A hot burning sensation shot up my spine, but still, I ran on.
It was there, only a few more feet! I could see my escape. If only I could make it! I ducked below the fence, out of the woods and never stopped running, all the way home.
Out of breath, and unable to move my legs, I collapsed on the lawn in front of my house. My mother came out and quickly picked me up.
“Oh my God!” She exclaimed. “What happened to you? Where have you been!”
Panting, my throat dry and my voice hoarse, I answered, “Billy…the tree…”
My mother looked at me, confused. “Billy?” She asked. I had never seen such fear on my mother’s face before. “Billy mother called this morning after you had left. She hasn’t seen him since last night!”
Mustering what courage I could, I looked back toward the end of the street. Standing there, beside the fence leading out of town, stood a small, chubby boy. Behind him, tucked back into the woods, towered a tall black tree.
Written By Rick Bishop