Burning Tree Road
A trace of ice in the air made the stars whiter and the shadows blacker, more profound.
Fifteen-year-old Gregory Willis stepped through a bed of late pansies, careless of the bright flesh he crushed, and hoisted himself to the top of a brick wall. Headlights swept over him, picking him out of the dark, and faces pale as moons in the windshield of a passing car might have taken the boy for a Halloween decoration, a scarecrow with a death’s head, straw stuffing a black sweatshirt. Seated precariously on the wall, Greg lifted the plastic skull mask to his forehead, pushing the blond hair from his face as he surveyed the street.
A carved pumpkin, lit from the inside with a flickering candle, grinned from the Sandersons’ front porch, and a parade of clowns and witches, a little red devil with a pitchfork and a pointed tail, made its way to the front door. Two young mothers watched from the sidewalk, talking, shivering in their light sweaters. Soon, the boy thought, the trick-or-treaters and their chaperones would disappear inside, porch lights would wink out, and only the icy breeze would travel the street, rustling leaves in the gutter. The night would grow darker, and the thin horn of moon tipped above the black expanse of the trees would spill its shadow out over the street. Then, for a while, the neighborhood would belong to him.
The caravan of little mummers moved off down the sidewalk, their voices growing fainter as the night gradually closed over them. Greg lowered himself from the wall and started up the long, sweeping curve of Burning Tree Road. He could smell the cold earth and fallen leaves. Some quality in the wind, in the season, a nuance he couldn’t identify, moved his feet and compelled him to walk. What was it? In the daylight, the carefully laid-out streets of the neighborhood, with the same four house models staggered at intervals up and down each block, made him feel cold and dead inside. But now, with the shapes of the houses partly erased in the dark and the black trees looming over them, the street seemed to rediscover a portion of its mystery. Chimneys jutted up toward the stars like minarets in a desert city.
A dented steel can floated at the curb in a pool of shadow. Greg left the road and cut past the side of the house to the back yard, taking up a position at the base of a ragged cedar. He breathed in deeply, the fragrance softer and darker than pine, and a quick breeze sent fallen oak leaves scraping noisily across the patio. He shivered, wrapping his arms across his chest for warmth, and glanced up at the hulking outline of the house.
There, a second-story window brightened suddenly, an eye opening in the darkness, and a girl stepped into the frame. Greg held his breath and waited.
She was a few years older than him, and he saw at once how beautiful she was. Pale skin, a red mouth, her long black hair falling nearly to her waist. The first time he seen her, he’d been kneeling at his open locker at school, running late, trying to find his history book in a jumble of papers. When the bell rang for class, the hall, full of voices and banging metal doors an instant before, had gone silent and empty at once. The girl had come toward him then down the long deserted passage, hips shifting like a cat, stepping slowly through the shaft of light that angled in from the single recessed window. She’d worn a bruise like a smear of shadow under her left eye. Now, gazing up at the lighted window, he thought of a china doll displayed in a bell jar, of Snow White in her glass coffin waiting to be released, a piece of apple caught in her throat.
As the boy looked on, the girl in the window reached down and began to draw the red sweater off over her head. He felt hot, feverish. Kicking nervously with his heel at a stone wedged in the earth, he loosened it, then bent down and clutched it, cold and damp, in his palm. He threw hard from the shoulder, hurling the stone at the window. He had already turned to run when he heard the glass breaking behind him: he imagined the girl’s image cracking apart, splintering into a thousand fragments, the pieces falling.
Crossing the yard in a few quick strides, he vaulted the picket fence and sprinted across the yard that backed up to it. In an instant he was in the next street, running full out down the middle of the road, using the pavement for speed. He wanted to put as much distance as he could, as fast as he could, between himself and what he’d done. For a hundred yards or more, the boy dashed wildly down the street, frightened and elated at once, then ducked behind the trunk of an enormous oak, an old tree that had somehow been spared when they’d knocked down the woods to build those streets and houses. Breathing heavily, his back pushed up against the bark and his feet on the thick, arthritic roots, Greg craned his neck to look behind him.
The empty street, dark trees. At intervals, for as far as his eye could reach, streetlamps cast their pale cones of light over the pavement. The silence felt heavy with intention: the night listened minutely to find him as he watched. A maple draped in light, its yellow leaves startling in the darkness, flared like a match struck in a cave. Greg froze, afraid to move, to give himself away. He closed his eyes and tried to slow his heartbeat.
Then a sound reached him, faintly at first, so faint he could barely make it out: the tap of steps on the sidewalk getting louder, closer. He peered into the darkness but saw no one, though the sound was distinct, unmistakable in the cold, clear air.
He hurried off at a trot, keeping to the shadows.
Even in the dark, Greg knew the labyrinth of streets and houses, knew which yards to avoid and which were safe. Careful not to let the sound of barking dogs give him away, the boy jumped three fences, vaulted a boxwood hedge on the run, cut across a yard with a long rhombus of light thrown haphazardly across the grass, and was soon four blocks away in a different section of the subdivision.
The houses were older here, the trees more grown in, casting unbroken stretches of obliterating black shadow. Out of breath, cold and tired, the boy wanted to make his way home; but he couldn’t shake the feeling, even now, that he was being followed. So he thought of a better plan. The street ended in a cul-de-sac, and a high chain-link fence behind the last houses divided the neighborhood from the interstate. He would climb the fence and make his way along it to the creek and the woods on the other side. He knew those woods like the back of his hand, a stretch of forest that had stood there, for all he knew, for a thousand years. No one would be able to trail him there in the dark. Then, when it was safe, he would find his way home. He would come from a different direction, passing nowhere near the house with its single dark cedar, its yard littered now with broken glass.
Silently, Greg ducked between the two houses at the end of the street, past the black shapes of juniper bushes with their sharp green smell. At the back of the yard, the fence rose in front of him. He stopped, certain he was being watched.
Turning, he scanned the stretch of dark lawn.
A few stars winked above the black slab of the roof. He closed his eyes to listen as he breathed in the cold, stinging air. Nothing. Then the wind blew, the trees stirred, and the shadows reached for him across the lawn. Swinging quickly away, Greg threw himself onto the chain-link fence and climbed. At the top, he threw over one leg, then the other, but caught himself on a sharp wire – it tore through his jeans and bit into the flesh of his thigh. He felt a shock, a quick stab of pain that left him cold and light-headed, and he nearly fainted when he pulled away from the wire.
Gathering himself, the boy dropped to the weeds on the far side of the fence. When he touched his wound, he went cold and his fingers came away dark with blood. Forcing himself to his feet, he started to run. At the top of the hill, the highway curved to his right. He could make out, as he picked his way through waist-high rye grass and thistles, the headlights of each passing car sweeping a path a few feet in front of it in the darkness. When he paused to get his bearings, he heard the underbrush rustling behind him.
A rush of panic got him moving again.
He stumbled down the hillside, his feet slipping in the wet leaves that littered the slope. The acrid, earthy smell of crushed oak leaves and decay reached him briefly in the dark. Ahead, a stand of sycamores rose along the stream, mist swirling thickly over their roots and trunks. The boy hurried forward and turned, waist-deep in fog, to look behind him.
There, on the hillside, leaves shifted and slid at intervals, as if someone were taking huge strides, coming toward him down the slope on the run.
Greg rushed for the stream. Pushing aside the cattails, he waded in, wincing as the cold water climbed from his shins to his waist and the fog curled over him. He made his way to a spot near the far bank where the rocky bottom offered even footing, then slogged upstream, glancing repeatedly over his shoulder.
A thin, overgrown sandbar divided the creek. He scrambled to its far side, putting the thicket of sunflowers crowding the sandbar between him and his pursuer.
He found the concrete drainpipe, five feet in diameter, the opening partly hidden by weeds. Greg paused for a moment, listening, but all he heard was the stream slipping past and the sound of his own breathing. He crawled into the drain, the smell of silt and dampness in his nose, and moved back as far as he could into pitch blackness.
Repeatedly in the course of the night, the boy thought he heard voices. But the dull roar inside the pipe was like the tide echoing in a seashell, muffling and distorting the sounds he strained to hear. Finally, he shook himself awake. The racket of birds told him the night was ending. Cold and wet, Greg Willis emerged from his shelter into the gray dawn.
Sunflowers stared into the water, their faces heavy with seeds, the last rags of fog swirling in their arms. A crow called from the undefined shapes of the trees.
Still groggy, partly submerged in a dream of panic and pursuit, Greg waded back across the stream. The cold water revived him a little, and he began to compose in his mind the story he would tell his parents. If he said he had fallen asleep somewhere, would they believe him? In part, it was true. But as Greg woke more fully and began to grasp his circumstances, his face burned with shame. He thought of the dark-haired girl in her cage of glass. Impulsively, thoughtlessly, he had broken a window, and he could not begin to explain why, not even to himself. Then he’d spent the night running from his own shadow, and he’d crawled into a wet drainage pipe to hide.
My god, the boy thought, what’s wrong with me?
Reaching the bank, Greg parted the curtain of cattails and pulled himself up on dry land. There, the sense of dreaming crashed down on him again.
Figures hung by their necks from the branches of the largest sycamore: two witches, a pirate, a devil, a clown. A ghost in a white bed sheet, two holes cut for eyes. He thought at first they were scarecrows or dummies, piñatas maybe, but as he stepped closer through the fallen leaves, drawn by his horror and disbelief toward the orchard of dead children, he saw their bruised faces and protruding tongues, saw the blue veins in the feet of the little witches.
Greg collapsed to his knees in the brittle, papery leaves. As the breeze rose, the weights hanging like pendulums in the trees began to stir. Ropes creaked. The shadows swayed across him, back and forth.
James Ulmer’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, The New Criterion, The North American Review, and elsewhere. His collection of ghost stories, The Secret Life, was published recently by Halcyon Press. Ulmer is Chair of the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Southern Arkansas University.