I could not blame her. Well, maybe I blamed her a little bit. I know how impossible it sounds that someone even could, let alone would, hurt the tree. The Lilly Tree is more than just a tree. Its was living sentinel, a protector of the people in Arbor Town. When the tree sensed any kind of aggression, like an assault or a purse snatching, or even road rage, it reacted to neutralize the source of that aggression. Often times the tree would shift its roots and cause the ground to swallow a person whole. Sometimes, it would snap off entire limbs and drop them onto attackers, trapping them until police came. I have seen the tree spread some sort of pollen on a man with a gun. He was paralyzed, frozen in place for hours. Since the Lilly Tree appeared, there had not been a single murder, assault or robbery within the limits of Arbor Town.
No one really knew how the tree did it. How it can sense when someone was in danger, or when someone was the danger is a mystery. But what was known is that the Lilly Tree could protect itself as well as everyone in town. So what happens when the tree can no longer protect itself? The question kept me up the whole night. I mostly slept in class the next day, having nightmares about a fallen tree and riots in the streets and my dad's empty grave. It was around the end of the final period that I began to wonder if Shay was right to think I had imagined it all. But I had just spent an entire day worrying myself about the tree, at the very least I was going to prove myself wrong.
The final bell rang and I made for the front door. Shay was there waiting for me. She looked at me with concern.
"You look terrible," she said.
"Didn't sleep," I said simply as I made my way out of the door. "I was thinking about the tree, and what could be wrong with it. I was thinking-"
Shay held up her hand to cut me off. "Why don't we just make sure there is something wrong with it before we start diagnosing it."
I huffed, perhaps a little immaturely. "Fine. Then let's go."
We made our way through the winding streets and cut through a few backyards. There is not a whole lot of town to Arbor Town, and before we knew it we had reached the tree. Unfortunately, we were not the first ones.
A couple of teenagers had gotten to the tree before we did. I recognized the guy. His name was Jake. He was a senior like me, we had been in each other's class since we were little. As kids, Jake used to bully me, then he got older and realized that the son of Sumac might have some powers of his own, so he generally left me alone. I had know idea who the girl was, but I could feel Shay bristling next to me.
"Who's the chick?" I asked.
"Cassie," Shay growled. "The most obnoxious, egotistical little snot I've ever met. I have to take three classes with her this year."
I chuckled softly. "Wow. Tell me how you really feel."
"What the hell is he doing?!" Shay said suddenly.
I looked back at the couple and instantly felt my mind glaze over in anger. Jake had taken out a knife and was carving into the trunk of the Lilly Tree. He had just written his initial and was starting on Cassie's.
"That son of a bitch!" I snarled. I sprinted toward the tree, with Shay hot on my heels. Jake heard my footsteps and turned around with a big smirk smeared across his face.
"Oh, look who it is!" he said jovially. "My good friend, Zack! How have you been?"
"Have you lost your damn mind?!" I shouted. "You can't just carve up the tree like that!"
Cassie tilted her head quizzically in a gesture that looked strikingly like a particularly stupid dog. "Wait, why not? Is this their tree?"
Jake scoffed. "It's nobody's tree. We can do what we want to it." He tossed the knife from hand to hand and spun it between his fingers. He was obviously trying to show off for Cassie.
"That's the Lilly Tree, you idiots," Shay said. "It might as well have our names on it."
Jake looked back at the tree, making a show of inspecting it. "Hmm. I don't see your names anywhere. In fact the only names I see are ours. See here?"
He lifted the knife to the trunk again, and I had run out of patience. I picked up a large rock from the ground and hurled it wildly at Jake. He barely had time to move his head out of the way. He was so startled he dropped the knife.
"Are you crazy?! you could've killed-"
He never finished his sentence. I had already tackled him to the ground. We wrestled for position until I managed to stay on top and began to mercilessly hammer his face with my fist. I saw a flash of motion to my left. I looked and saw Cassie standing over me with Jake's knife. She swiped weakly, grazing me on the arm. As quick as a flash, Shay lunged at Cassie, gripping her hard by the throat.
The effect of Shay's powers was almost instant. Cassie's veins protruded from her neck and face. Her eyes became bloodshot and she was unable to move. When Shay released her, she fell to her knees and began to vomit violently and persistently.
Jake was horrified. He shoved me away and grabbed Cassie up.
"Come on, baby!" He said with almost genuine concern. As he left, he turned back to me and shouted. "You freaks are dangerous! One day someone's going to realize that!"
"I'd say someone just did!" Shay shouted back as they stumbled into Jake's car and sped away.
I looked back at Shay, who wore a grin on her face from ear to ear. She turned around and offered me a hand to help me back to my feet. The same hand that had just turned a girl into a vomiting mess. I would have hesitated if I had not known that Lilly powers cannot effect other Lillys. It was still pretty jarring to see Shay's ability in action, there was almost never an opportunity for her to.
"She is going to be okay, right?" I asked.
"Oh, she'll be fine," Shay said, waving me off. "I hit her with a low dose, she'll just be puking her guts out for a few hours. What about you?"
She pointed at my arm. I had not even realized it was bleeding. The trickle of blood was small, and did not seem to merit alarm.
"It's fine," I said. "Just a scratch, I barely even... felt... holy crap."
"The tree!" I said, a little too excited. "That moron just stabbed me! If the tree really is fine, why didn't it stop her?"
A whole new concern fell over Shay's face
"But if the tree can't protect Arbor Town..."
"We need to warn people," I said hastily. "No one knows that the tree has stopped working."
"Zack, we don't know the tree has stopped working," Shay said abruptly. "It could've just been a fluke, a one-time thing. Maybe it sensed that we were Lillys and decided we could take care of ourselves. And anyway, we can't just tell people, that would cause a massive panic and worse. We came here to do a job. If there is something wrong with the tree, you have to find it so we can fix it."
I nodded. She was right, telling anyone that they were no longer under the protection of the Lilly Tree would be disastrous. We needed to solve this problem without anyone knowing there was one.
I strode over to the base of the tree. I closed my eyes and focused. I emptied my mind and summoned my power from the depths of my being. Without looking I lifted my hand and placed it on the trunk of the Lilly Tree. In another moment, I dove into a vast consciousness. This time the consciousness was not empty or still. There was movement, activity, energy. It was like synapses firing in a brain. It was more activity than I had ever experience from the Lilly Tree.
"I'm not sure what this is," I said. "It's insane, erratic. It's some sort of response. But to what?"
"If the tree really was attacked, it could be responding to that," Shay said. Hearing her through my connection was like hearing her through a tunnel. "Maybe it's scared."
I had not thought of that. Maybe all of the erratic behavior I was experiencing through my connection was in fact the tree's way of processing some loose interpretation of fear. But the more I watched, the less I thought that was true.
"I don't think 'scared' is the right word," I said. "All this activity, it's not as random as I thought it was. This energy is being directed, focused."
I loosened my grip on myself and fell deeper into the tree. A dangerous tactic, but I had to follow the flow of energy. I had to understand. I followed the current until I felt it narrow into a channel, and then into a vein. The same pain I had felt from the tree was present here. It was dull, but persistent. I felt the claustrophobia set in, the pressure from all sides, like I was under ground. I felt moisture and cool darkness. Underground.
A root! I silently cheered. I only needed to find out where the root was. The Lilly Tree had spread its roots beneath the entire town. I had to narrow the search down. I focused on the surroundings. There was a distinct feeling of pressure, like a large object in close proximity. A building, big enough for the Lilly Tree to take notice. There were sporadic vibration emanating from the building. Many footsteps. Many people. School had let out, and there were only so many places in Arbor Town that would be open on a Friday. Most businesses liked to start their weekend early. The only viable candidates were Town Hall, the supermarket, and the office park.
I shifted my attention to the moisture. It seemed like there was enough moisture that there had to be a large source of water nearby. That ruled out the supermarket. Both the office park and Town Hall sat next to the White Hart River. I had to narrow it down to one of them, but how? I inspected the nutrients being absorbed by the root. There was not much, whatever was hurting the tree seemed to be blocking its ability to nourish itself. But there were traces, compounds that can occur naturally, but not at the concentrations I found in the root. Fertilizer. The Town Hall lawn.
I navigated my way back to my body and snapped my eyes open with a start as perspective and reality came rushing back.
"We have to get to Town Hall!" I said. "The tree is using its energy to fight something off, something that's attacking the roots!"
We took off running and we did not stop until we reached the Town Hall lawn. We paused for a minute or two to catch our breath, then we started searching. After about ten minutes, we both concluded that there was nothing to find on the lawn, no exposed root, no displaced earth, nothing.
"But I was here, I know it," I insisted. "The river, the fertilizer, it all makes sense."
Shay looked around thoughtfully. "Let's look over by the river bank."
"Can't hurt," I said. "We need to hurry before someone sees us and tells us to leave."
We carefully scaled the banks of the river, which had been shored up with large stones, we searched for another five minutes before Shay yelped in surprise and disgust.
"Gah!" she cried. She yanked her hand away from a stone she had been holding onto. Her hand was coated in a dark fluid substance. I inspected the rock and found that it was loose. I pulled it away and found the root poking out of the earth behind it. I was elated at first, then I noticed that the root and the source of the viscous black material were one and the same.
The root seemed to be bleeding the substance, oozing it from several places, while the root itself appeared to be completely dead, shriveled and useless. The ooze was thick and smell foul, like rotting flesh.
"What is that stuff?" Shay said, no doubt trying to contain the same nausea that I was wrestling with.
"I don't know," I said. "But it's hurting the tree. This is what the it has been trying to fight off. It's like some sort of infection, poisoning the roots and strangling the rest of the tree."
I looked closer at the withered root and found a peculiar gash running along the side. The ooze was most prominent there.
"This didn't just happen," I said. "The rock was already loose, and this mark on the root, that's not normal. Someone did this on purpose."
"But who?" Shay asked. "Who would do this to the Lilly Tree?"
"I think a better question to ask right now would be how they even knew how to attack the tree. How did they know where to find the root, and that this poison would even work on it? How did they succeed with out the tree ever acting against them? And more importantly, why?"
Shay shuddered, and I could not blame her. Someone wanted a safe, happy town to be vulnerable to sudden violence, and the though of that was enough to my pulse quicken.
"We need to know where this stuff came from," I said. "And I know just who to ask for help."
"We can't ask anyone for help," Shay said sharply. "We don't want to start a panic, remember? No one can know about this. And besides, we still don't know who did this. We go asking around, we could tip them off and then we'll never get to find out."
"There's one guy we can trust," I said confidently. "One guy who won't start a panic, and who we know didn't poison the tree, because it means the same thing to him that it means to us."
Shay thought for a moment. "You mean Eamon?"
I nodded. "He's studying xenobiology or something at Blackstone College. If he can't identify this stuff, I don't know anyone who can."
"Yeah, I'm probably not going to make it to Blackstone City on my bike." Shay said. "How are we going to get there?"
"Leave that to me," I replied. "But first we need a bottle or something to carry this stuff in."
We found a water bottle in a nearby trash can and I managed to get some of the ooze into it. We headed back to our separate homes to make appearances and assure our respective mothers that nothing was out of the ordinary. During dinner that night, I expertly maneuvered my mom into letting me borrow her car to drive into the city the next day. The pretext of wanting to visit my older brother worked like a charm, probably because it was not really a lie. Besides, it was Saturday, and she would not have wanted to leave the house anyway.
That night I had the most vivid dream. I was a child again, and I was riding bikes with Shay on the street I grew up. What was strange about it was that I was watching myself, from outside my own body.
I awoke before my alarm ever went off. I called Eamon to let him know I was coming to see him, but he did not answer, and I did not want to leave a message about my visit. So I shot him a quick text and got ready to leave.
I started the car and pulled out of the driveway just as the sun had started to come up. Shay was already waiting outside her house. She quickly jumped into the passenger seat.
"Sleep well?" she said.
"Eh, kind of," I replied as I sped onto the main road out of town. "I had some weird dreams, about us as kids, playing and riding bikes. Something about it was off, though. It was like I was remembering things, but not the way I remember them. Does that make sense?"
"I didn't sleep a wink," she said, ignoring my question. "I stayed up scrubbing that crap off my hands for hours."
"You should have payed more attention to your face," I teased.
Her eyes grew wide and she tore down the visor to look into the mirror before she realized that I was joking.
"Oh, ha ha," she said sarcastically as I snickered.
The drive to Blackstone City took about an hour. During that time we took turns speculating on who would have poisoned the Lilly Tree with the ooze that currently adorned the cup holder. After about thirty minutes, the reigning theory involved aliens.
"Hopefully, Eamon will have a better guess when we ask him," I said.
"You know, I've never seen you use your powers like that," she said. "You let a tree actually tell you where it was hurt. That's impressive. You must have been practicing."
"All the time," I said. "Sometimes I think it's the only thing I'm good at."
"I wish I could practice my powers," Shay said.
"You got a little bit of practice on what's-her-face yesterday," I said playfully.
She smiled obligingly, but I could tell she was not amused. She was quiet for a long time. It started to make me nervous. When she finally spoke, it was in a low, hushed tone.
"Zack, what if there is no mystery here?" she said. "What if the tree's not really being hurt by someone, it's just dying?"
"No," I said, shaking my head. "We saw the root, there's poison right there in that bottle. It's proof."
"It's proof that the tree is dying," Shay said. "But not that someone is killing it."
I could only continue to shake my head. "No. You're wrong. You don't know what I felt when I connected to the tree. You don't know what it felt."
She did not respond, and I did not offer anymore words. We drove the rest of the way in silence.
Blackstone City has considered by some as a massive success story, and by others as a dangerously liberal petri dish. The city could be described as a century-long experiment. It started just after the Civil War ended as a small technical college where students were encouraged to find new ways to do the same jobs. Soon a town grew up around the college, the inhabitants were educated and became fabricators and inventors and one-hundred and fifty years later there was one-hundred miles of city nestled deep in the Appalachian Mountains. The philosophy of finding new solutions to problems endured through the city's development and permeated its spirit. Blackstone College brought this philosophy to its natural evolution by becoming a technological institute dedicated to advancing fields of study such as alternative fuel sources, environmental conservation, civic defense, cyber warfare, even space exploration. And, of course, xenobiology, the study of freaks of nature. That was Eamon's major, he was always fascinated with the mechanics of our powers, how they work, what our limits are, things like that.
We pulled onto campus and found a parking space near the main lab building, where I knew he spent most of his free time. We received our visitor badges at the entrance and stepped inside. Shay's jaw dropped when we walked into the front of the building, even I caught myself staring in amazement. I had been to Blackstone College once before to visit Eamon, and had seen the lab building, but even so the sight was outstanding. The entrance emptied into the interior of the building which was hollowed into a massive atrium that ran the full height of the building, all five stories. The atrium was encircled by balconies on each of the floors, and doors that lead to the various labs. Floating through the air were incredibly rendered holograms depicting chemical formulas, conceptual vehicle designs, the kind of stuff you see in science fiction movies. It was all here in this building.
The receptionist told us that Eamon was on floor three in lab fifteen, so we hurried into the elevator, doing our best to ignore the fountain in the middle of the floor with jets of water that slithered through the air like snakes. When we got to the lab we entered a long hallway with glass panes on either side. Behind the panes were groups of scientists, each performing some experiment or documenting some data. Some of the scientists were in full-body hazmat suits. But all of the subjects of the experiments were plants. And not just any plants, these plants were astoundingly vibrant with strange and unusual colors, or had forms and shapes that I had never seen before.
I was so enraptured I barely noticed when one of the rooms we passed held my brother, taking samples from a small plant that looked like a daffodil on steroids. He looked up from his work just long enough to realize he was being watched. A confused look spread over his face, followed closely by a wide grin. He put down the sample and promptly exited the room.
Eamon had always been bigger than me, but it seemed that he had grown even more so. He stood six feet and five inches tall, and was build like a human tank. Apparently all of the geniuses in Blackstone College could not invent a lab coat that fit him properly. The one he had on rode up his forearms and threaten to burst at the shoulders. He rushed up to me and before I could react he wrapped me up and lifted me off the ground in a suffocating embrace.
"It's great to see you, little brother!"
"It's... great... to... can't breathe," I said with what little air I had. He released me and, despite Shay's best efforts, managed to catch her in the same embrace.
"What are you guys doing here?" he asked.
"We came to see you, dummy," Shay said. "We have something to show you."
"Well, why didn't you call ahead, I could have set aside some time."
"I did call," I said. "And texted. Don't you check your phone?"
He reached into his pocket and tapped the screen. "Damn. I forgot to charge it." He looked back at me. "Sorry guys, I've been a bit consumed in my work. I've been experimenting with plant DNA, studying their response to stimulus."
I gestured at the bizarre plant in the room he was working on. "I've never seen anything like that. Where did it come from?"
Eamon looked smug. "I made it. Right hear in this lab. I've been working on it for months. I cloned it from DNA of a late-Cretaceous specimen that I spliced with-"
"Hold up!" I said quickly. "You made a dinosaur plant?! That is wicked!"
Eamon chuckled. "I thought you might like that. I was actually hoping you would, uh... assist me in a little experiment."
I lowered my voice to an excited whisper. "You want me to connect with the dinosaur plant?!"
Eamon nodded eagerly, but before I had a chance to squeal in jubilance, Shay broke in.
"Unfortunately, we don't really have time for that right now," she said giving me a look that told me I should be focusing.
I sighed, annoyed, but I knew she was right. This was important.
"We need your help," I said. I slowly pulled the bottle out of my pocket. The dark fluid sloshed around and clung to the sides of the bottle like vile tar. Eamon took it and inspected it carefully.
"What is this?" he asked.
"We don't know," I replied. "But we think it's poison. We found it in the roots of the Lilly Tree."
The color instantly drained from Eamon's face. Concern and dread filled his eyes, and could see, just for a moment, the skin on his neck reflexively harden, a response by his ability to something that had shock or scared him.
"How can that be?" he asked out loud as he examined the fluid. "The Lilly Tree isn't some ordinary tree you find in the woods. It has a genetic structure all its own." He looked back at me and Shay. "How bad is it?"
"Bad," Shay said. "The tree has stopped protecting Arbor Town. No one realizes, yet. But it's only a matter of time."
The voice came from down the hall. A tall man, probably in his fifties, strode casually towards us. Eamon cursed and quickly stuffed the bottle in his coat pocket. The man neared us and glanced at me and Shay.
"Oh, visitors," he said cheerfully. "And who might you be?"
"Doctor, this is my brother and sister, Zack and Shay Lilly," Eamon said. "Guys, this is Gabriel Dante, my Xenobiology professor."
"More Lillys!" he beamed, holding out his hand. "Excellent! Such a pleasure to meet you both!"
"It's very nice to meet you, sir," I said, shakening his hand.
"It's nice to meet you, professor," Shay swooned. I mean it, she swooned. It was gross, I almost gagged.
Dante chuckled. "I prefer 'Doctor,' actually. "So, how do you like the building? Has Eamon given you the tour, yet?"
"No, we don't really have the time-" I started.
"I would love a tour!" Shay said almost immediately.
"Oh well, right this way," Dr. Dante said, gesturing toward the door. "I never do get tired of showing off my home away from home." Shay almost skipped with giddyness as they made their way down the hall to the exit. Eamon waited until they were out of earshot. Then turned to me, and I guess he saw me roll my eye back into my head because he laughed at me.
"Don't worry about Dr. Dante," he said. "He's harmless. And boring. Shay will figure that out soon enough."
"Can we talk about a dying tree, please?" I begged. "I'll be less likely to vomit."
Eamon took the bottle out of his pocket and held the ooze up the light. "How did you get this?" he asked. "You said you took it out of the roots of the tree, but how did you know it was there?"
"It wasn't easy," I said. "I had to interpret the tree's perspective of its surroundings. I went deeper than I'd ever gone before."
"You're getting more powerful," Eamon said approvingly. "That's good, because you're probably going to have to use that power soon."
He sighed heavily and wore a somber look on his face.
"Look, Zack," he said. "I don't know what you're expecting of me. If something's wrong with the tree, I don't know what I can do about it here."
"Well, I was just thinking you could, you know, analyze the goop and maybe find out where it came from or something," I said quickly. "If we find out where it comes from we can find out who poisoned the tree in the first place."
"You think this was some sort of attack?" Eamon said incredulously.
"What else could it be?!" I said, becoming rapidly annoyed. "You and Shay really just think that this stuff appeared out of thin air?!"
"The tree is not immortal, Zack," Eamon said evenly. "Nothing is. That tree wasn't even supposed to exist at all. We're working with unknowns here. And you have to prepare yourself for the outcome."
I looked away from him, trying desperately to deny what I was hearing. I had come to Blackstone to enlist my brother's help, and it sounded to me like he had already given up.
"I can run a few analytical tests on whatever this is," Eamon continued. "If I find answers, they will come gradually. It'll take a few days at most."
He grabbed my shoulders and forced me to look at him. "Zack, I need you and Shay to go back to Arbor Town and stay there. No one knows the tree isn't protecting them anymore. Use your power, keep them safe. They're going to need you there when they finally figure it out."
I nodded. "Yeah, okay."
Eamon smiled. "I'll get to work on this," he said holding up the bottle. "You find Shay and get home. And tell Mom I'm sorry I haven't called. I'll call as soon as I find my charger."
"You could always add her on Facebook," I said playfully.
"No... no, I'm never doing that."
I found Shay with Dr. Dante in the atrium by the fountain. He seemed to be explaining how they used gravity waves to manipulate the water, but Shay did not appear to be listening. Her eyes were glazed over as she stared into Dante's face.
"Come on, Shay," I said, snapping her back to awareness. "It's time to go."
"You're leaving already?" Dante looked genuinely disappointed.
"We're on a bit of a tight schedule," I said as pleasantly as I could. "Don't want to fall behind."
Dante grinned. "Ah, smart boy. Strict adherence to schedules is a mark of great intelligence. Not so surprising from a Lilly! Well then, safe travels to you both, and do stop by anytime!"
He waved as we left the atrium. We got into the car and headed back to Arbor Town.
"So," Shay said. "What did you find out?"
"Nothing, yet," I replied. "Eamon has to run some tests, it could take a couple days. Until then, we need to keep people safe while the tree can't. We need to be in Arbor Town in case something happens."
Just then, I heard a startlingly sound. It was a lot like a weather alert tone, but shorter. Shay dug her cellphone out of her pocket. It was screeching and vibrating.
"What in the hell is that?" I said.
"It's some sort of text alert," Shay said. "'All residents of Arbor Town and the surrounding area. This text was sent to inform you that..." her voice trailed off as she read the text. I could feel the chilled terror coming from her.
"What?" I asked. "Shay what does it say?"
"Someone has gone missing in Arbor Town," she said. "It's the girl from yesterday. It's Cassie."