SHORT STORY: Pines

  

Someone keeps leaving flowers at the edge of the field, where the pines begin and their blue shadows stretch strange and twisted over the dying October grass. Every morning, in the stale early dark, Billy Damon and Mac Grant hurry across the field, hoar frost melting into will-o-the-wisps and they clear whatever’s been left: flowers mostly but every now and then there’s a teddy bear with blank black button eyes or a little white cross, the kind you buy to stick in gravedirt. Billy and Mac work in silence, hardly daring to breathe this close to where the pines wait, incessant green as all the other trees die around them. They sweep the mementos into a plain black garbage bag and heft it back across the field to the school where they toss it into the dumpster behind the cafeteria. Billy and Mac have to do this before Robert Harrison arrives. If Harrison knew, if he saw--well, it’s worth the lost sleep.

Some of the others have offered to help. Kevin McNeil and Audrey Rainer and Lily Taylor are homegrown too, just like Billy and Mac and they know about the flowers and the pines but Billy tells them no, no. Just make sure Harrison doesn’t find out. He and Mac appreciate how Kevin and Audrey and Lily think they’re somehow responsible too but neither man will allow them to fall into the ritual. 

They don’t deserve it.

*

October is the worst month at Warren Township High School for so many reasons.

The kids know. They can taste the air, tangled in thunderstorm currents, electrical memory sparks, cold cobweb ghosts. The intercoms crackle unexpectedly and the lights flicker in the south wing, which is the oldest part of the school, built back in ‘52. Bathroom mirrors fog up. Pages are torn from library books. Computers restart, blue-screen themselves to death. All the kids know. The football team knows best. They practice into the falling dark of autumn, go home with the scent of earth and blood draped around them like invisible cloaks. The practice fields are nearest to the pines. 

Ellie Gardner knows best of all.

Ellie is the first girl to play varsity football at Warren and she’s been well-received. Mostly because of her dad and what happened to him; people are careful with her but she loves to play and she’ll take pity over cruelty. She’s the best running back Warren has had in decades; she’s fast and aware, the world around her a blur when she has the ball, her blood singing, her heart wonderfully numb. 

Her best friend, Max Lawrence, is the quarterback. He doesn’t pity her. He walks her home from practice most nights. They live a few houses down from one another but Max’s house is always lit up when they walk past it, warm yellow glowing from the bay window, muted white behind the linen curtains upstairs. Max’s house is full of light and Max always asks her if she wants to come in, if she wants to have dinner, if she wants to stay. Sometimes she does, the warmth of Max’s house and the gentleness of Max’s friendship lighting the cold that’s settled in Ellie’s bones since she was young enough to understand what happened to her father. 

But never in October. 

October is when the dead come back from the fields and Ellie knows her father will be waiting for her.

After practice she’ll find him sitting at the dining room table. From the back he’s almost normal, almost real--dirty black t-shirt straining across the width of his shoulders, his overlong hair mussed. But the house smells of dirt and cold and when Ellie sit down across from him, he doesn’t look normal anymore. 

He looks dead.

He is dead.

But not just dead because dead isn’t always bad, dead can be gentle sometimes, peaceful, easy. No. Her father is mangled, he’s brutalized. His face--what remains of it--is strung together by white stuff that looks like spiderwebs and his shirt’s torn down the front exposing the ruin of his chest, where bones splinter through wrecked mottled skin. He doesn’t have eyes anymore. One of his hands is gone. The other rests on the table’s ancient Formica surface, bones peeking through the pulled-back skin like claws. The first time she saw him she’d screamed but now--

Now she’s used to it.

It’s October.

*

John Harrison dreams he is a king sitting on a throne made of burning pines, sap spun and hardened into an amber crown. He sits on his throne and watches, over and over again, as Eddie Gardner claws his way out of the earth and is swallowed up again by jagged white teeth spun from spider silk

*

A cold snap turns the back field white with frost, strangely luminescent against the low dark. Billy and Mac hurry through the grass, the air sharp and freezing in their lungs. When they get to the edge of the pines they both pull up short and Mac gasps. 

“Oh shit,” Billy says.

Someone has made a scarecrow: dead pine branches stuck in the wet earth, tied together with twine. And on the scarecrow is a football jersey in Warren Township school colors: kelly green, white letters. 17. GARDNER. A football helmet hung on the jutting broke-off head. And all around the scarecrow’s feet are bright red marigolds, chrysanthemums, poppies, roses. 

Mac grabs Billy’s hand without thinking about it. Billy squeezes back. Their rule: never ever touch anywhere near the school--is much less important now. 

“Who did this?” Mac asks, voice hoarse.

“Whoever’s been doing it I guess,” Billy says. They’ve never asked before. They’ve never let themselves ask. All that matters is John Harrison never sees the memorials or else the violence at his core will erupt again and there will be more than one victim. It’s not how or why, there’s no space for how or why. Not in October. Billy feels like he’s been hit, his chest, his ribs sore. Breathing hurts. Mac’s hand is cold in his. 

“Come on, let’s...before Harrison…” Mac says, trying to force some steel into his spine but he doesn’t let go of Billy’s hand.

Not yet.

*

Max Lawrence watches Mr.Damon. 

Max watches everything, really. He does it without looking like he’s watching. That’s what makes him a good quarterback. No defense can follow his eyes as he scans the field for an open receiver or play fakes and hands the ball off to Ellie. He’s not particularly big but he has a sort of stillness to him, a solidness that makes him seem taller, larger. He is too quiet his teammates say but being quiet means he listens. 

And remembers.

Mr. Damon was an assistant defensive coach until last year. Max didn’t have much to do with him then, not until he stopped coaching and Max became interested. Because Mr. Damon is tied up tight with John Harrison, the devil at the heart of Warren Township and it behooved Max to keep an eye on him. 

So Max knows about Mr. Damon and Mr. Grant.

Not just that they are lovers. That’s not a bad secret. It’s a good one really, it’s a reassuring secret, it makes Max feel less alone in himself. 

He knows what they do in the morning at the edge of the field, where Elie’s father was murdered. He knows what secrets they keep from John Harrison. He knows that October charges the air, makes the dead hungry, makes the blood run. He saw what was there, the figure wearing Ellie’s father’s jersey. 

No wonder Mr. Damon is pale, sick-looking. No wonder he follows Mr. Grant when they’re on lunch duty together, follows close, more close than he ever would normally. They stand huddled near the open cafeteria door as a cold jagged wind knifes its way through the humming buzz of students. Everyone is on edge. It’s October. Lights flicker. Cell phones break. The whole of their world balances on an invisible edge, between the devil and the dead. 

Max watches, ignores his teammates.

Eddie Gardner was found brutally murdered in the blue shadow of the pines. 

Everyone knows that.

But before. Before Eddie. Before Eddie had a daughter and John Harrison came to collect. 

Max watches. He watches to protect himself. Protect Ellie. Protect Mr. Damon and Mr. Grant. And so he knows who puts the flowers and crosses and scarecrows at the edge of the wood. 

The sacrifices that came before Eddie.

The ones no one else but Max and John Harrison know about.

*

Ellie Gardner is called down to the principal’s office. The voice that emerges from the intercom is 

distorted, almost a growl but it’s October. It’s expected. She leaves third period Chemistry and walks through the empty halls, murmurs and hisses coming from behind closed classroom doors. The school breathes like a living thing around her. The air is cold and smells of copper, of earth. 

This has happened before.

John Harrison waits in his office, behind his immense mahogany desk. He keeps his room dark, shades drawn against the windows that would, if they were open, look out on the football field and the pines beyond. His continent of a desk is completely barren except for his nameplate, glowing a dull gold in the gloom. He motions for Ellie to sit with one of his big, spidery hands and he stays silent until Ellie feels like screaming. 

This is worse than coming home and finding dad at the table.

“I have a question for you,” John Harrison says finally. He is tall and thin but his voice is deep and low and guttural. He reaches beneath his desk, opens and unseen drawer and places a wilted red flower on the flat empty plane. Ellie makes sure not to look Harrison in the eye. She keeps as quiet as death. She waits. “Did you do this?”

“No sir,” Ellie says. She doesn’t even know what this is but she hasn’t done anything except play football. Except be Eddie Gardner’s daughter. 

“Do you go to the woods, Miss Gardner?” John Harrison asks.

“No sir.”
 “Not ever?”

“No sir.”

“Do you visit your father’s grave Miss Gardner?”

She wills her voice not to shake, to break. “Yes sir.”

“Do you leave flowers for him?” 

“No sir.”

“I found this,” he says, motioning to the flower. “In my bedroom last night. What a strange thing, yes? What a strange thing to have happen.”

Ellie thinks I find my dead father in my kitchen every night.

“Who would put a flower in my bedroom?” Harrison asks, his voice soft, almost gentle. Ellie wants to scream. It’s October. The entire school is haunted, the brutalized dead shudder their way home, the football field smells of blood. It’s October and John Harrison sits behind his desk like a king with blood on his hands and now he’s suddenly shocked, suddenly insulted that he might be haunted too. Rage claws up Ellie’s gut, drags cold jagged teeth down her throat but she keeps her silence. 

“Your father was such a talented young man,” John Harrison says. “What a shame. What a shame. But of course, sacrifices are required Miss Gardner. You may go.”

She stands up, makes it out of Harrison’s office and into the empty hall before her legs give out from under her and she slumps down against the lockers, her face in her hands.

*

Ellie walks home with Max.

“Ellie,” he says as they stand in front of his house and warm yellow light spills across the dying grass. “Something happened today.”

Of course Max knows. Max knows everything. It usually makes Ellie feel safe but not today. Nothing makes Ellie feel safe anymore. Every time she closes her eyes she sees that red flower on John Harrison’s empty desk. She swears she can feel it, the soft wither of it against her skin. 

“Harrison had me in his office,” she says in a low voice, glancing over her shoulder. The road is empty. The air is dark blue with night. “Someone put a flower in his bedroom. I don’t know if he thinks I did it. I’m…” she stops, takes a breath. She’s never told anyone about her father coming back. It’s not that they wouldn’t believe her. Here in Warren everyone believes in ghosts. It’s that she’s afraid Harrison might come back for him again. “I’m scared of what he might do.” Because I am Eddie Gardner’s daughter and John Harrison will need another sacrifice someday. Maybe soon.

Max’s face is still. He’s quiet for a long time but Ellie knows to wait. Finally he nods once, to himself, and he reaches out, takes Ellie’s hand. “I have an idea,” he says. “But we’re going to need some help.”

*

Billy goes to Mac’s house after school lets out and they don’t say much. They huddle together on Mac’s old threadbare sofa and watch ESPN without hearing a word the commentators say. 

“We should leave.” Mac’s voice is hoarse, rough.

“What?”

“We should leave. Just...leave. Soon. Now.”

“Leave town?” Billy asks, his brain stumbling to catch up with Mac’s train of thought.

“Yeah,” Mac says. “My parents have a place in Florida you know. It’s small but we could go there. They wouldn’t care. Get jobs down there. If we stay here he’s going to kill us.” 

“Why now?” Billy asks, pulling an unsteady hand through his hair. “Mac?”

“The scarecrow,” he says. “It’s the worst we’ve seen. Something...something’s different. Something’s happening. And if Harrison...when Harrison realizes, he’ll need more. More...of whatever he got from Eddie.” Mac stops, takes a breath. Eddie was a senior when Mac and Billy were freshmen. He was bright, brimming, a bright astral streak of a human being. On the field he was living magic when he threw the ball. Billy thinks sometimes if Warren can make a devil like John Harrison I guess it makes sense it can make an angel like Eddie. “I don’t want him to hurt you. I don’t want him to hurt us.” 

John Harrison hadn’t been happy when Billy had quit coaching.

John Harrison would be even less happy if he knew Billy had quit because of Mac. 

“What if we can’t leave,” Billy says in a voice he doesn’t quite recognize as his own. “What if...if somehow…”

“We need to try,” Mac says. He cups Billy’s face in his hand, runs his thumb along Billy’s jawline. “I love you.” It’s the first time either of them have ever said it.

“I love you too,” Billy says. His heart hurts but it’s not a cold hurt. Not a jagged hurt. It’s a full sweet hurt.

There’s a knock at the door.

Billy jumps to his feet without thinking, placing himself between the door and Mac but Mac’s up too, his hand on Billy’s shoulder. Billy moves forward, looks through the frosted side-glass expecting Harrison with his eyes made of spiders, of frost. But no. It’s not Harrison.

Mac opens the door. Max Lawrence and Ellie Gardner stand on the front step, both of them looking heartbreakingly young.

“Come in,” Mac says. He locks the door behind them.

“Harrison found a flower in his bedroom,” Ellie says without preamble. 

Billy closes his eyes, feels Mac suck in a gasp beside him. 

“Keeping the field clear isn’t working anymore,” Max says and Billy’s eyes open, a shock of fear grabbing at his guts like a hot wire. Max is staring at him with his careful quiet eyes. “I know you two do it. I know…” he pauses, gestures vaguely and Mac and Billy together. “It’s okay. But it’s not enough anymore. Whatever Harrison did to Eddie is fading. His other sacrifices are gonna start waking up.”

“Other sacrifices?” Billy asks.

“In the pines,” Max says. “The ones he buried in the woods. I know. I’ve been back there and I saw...I saw them.”

“He killed other football players?” Mac asks.

“No,” Max says. “No. No it’s...it’s worse.”

*

Ellie’s mother once told her your father didn’t have to die like that. Ellie’s mother had been a student at Warren too, a pretty girl who sung in the school choir. Now she stays upstairs in October, when Eddie comes home. She doesn’t speak much, she never did. What happened when Eddie died undid her. Ellie loves her fiercely. Her silence is never cruel or harsh. It’s gentle in the way Max’s quiet is gentle. But the few things she has said stick with Ellie.

Your father didn’t have to die. But he wouldn’t let Harrison take you. 

Mom? What does that mean?

He loved you Ellie. So much. And me. He knew what Harrison wanted. What he made the other boys and their girlfriends do.

Mom? 

He loved you Ellie. He loves you.

*

Billy and Mac and Max cross the frost-tipped field and push into the blue pine woods. 

Ellie goes home to her father. 

*

John Harrison dreams that Eddie Gardner has become a beast made of bone and skin and pine boughs, sap running from what had once been his eyes, teeth sharpened splints of dry wood. John tells him Eddie tell her to give me the child. The others have done it. It keeps us strong. It keeps us right. Come on Eddie. Don’t make me hurt you

*

“When this is over we’re going,” Billy says to Mac, shadows draping both of them like spiderwebs. “When this is over we’re leaving. We’re leaving. You and I. Together.”

When this is over, Max thinks someone will need to watch. Someone will need to stay and watch and make sure.

*

Eddie growls low in his wrecked throat and John remembers:

If you kill me it will be enough so you don’t have to do it ever again right? No more babies, no more...no more of this, right? 

Oh Eddie. 

Right?  

*

Ellie sits across from her father, from his wrecked body and for the first time since he appeared she reaches out for him and grabs his remaining hand, it’s broken bones and rotted skin, she grabs it and she can see him as he was for a bright brief moment. Eddie Gardner. 

“It’s time,” she says to him. “It’s time.”

He nods.

*

And John Harrison had been so hungry then, thinking of the blood and marrow brimming beneath Eddie’s skin. He’d forgotten the baby girl that carried a weak flicker of Eddie’s flame. He’d forgotten everything except the rush of heat, of strength he’d get from swallowing Eddie whole. 

John Harrison dreams the hoar frost lifts off the backfield but instead of dying grass it’s become a sea of bleeding red marigolds and chrysanthemums and poppies and roses. 

John Harrison dreams the pine-beast that was once Eddie Gardner waits, standing in a ravenous mouth of red flowers. 

*

In the blue woods, their hands caked in dirt, Billy and Mac and Max find the impossibly small bones and as they bring them out of the earth the air is scented sweet and beneath them they can feel the cold ground grow hot.

Standing in front of John Harrison’s house, Ellie holds her father’s hand and she can hear the snap and pop of his broken jaw as he grins.

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