Underneath The Tree

Five boys sat underneath a great tree as it shielded them from the worst of the August sun’s heat.

The first, and the oldest, stood suddenly with a look of worry. The other boys watched curiously.

“Suppose so,” he said, before leaving the other four without so much as a goodbye.

The remaining boys shared a look amongst themselves as their friend vanished into the bright light they’d been trying so hard to avoid. Just enough of that dreadful sun broke through the leafy shield to leave those still resting in a sense of twilight.

“How ‘bout that,” said Tommy, the second oldest of the boys and almost always first to say something. “Where’d ‘ya think he’s off to?” 

Little John, named so because he was by no small margin the youngest and littlest of the boys, spoke up.

“‘Reckon he’s gonna visit his daddy. Heard from my ma yesterday he needed help ‘fixin that ‘ol truck in the bush.”

Tommy thought about it and nodded. They’d all passed that run down car every day on the way to school. There was no doubt in their minds it needed all the help it could get.

The group fell into a familiar silence again, one in which only the light rattling of leaves set their thoughts apart from the noises of the world. 

The silence came to an abrupt end as Tommy stood up.

“Can’t argue that,” he said.

Little John blinked and raised a hand to shield his eyes from a stray ray of light. 

“What you say Tommy?”

Tommy ignored him, neither responding nor looking at Little John, instead taking off in the same direction as the first boy, leaving behind the tree and its haven. Three boys watched him go. 

After a moment passed, Little John turned to Sam, the third oldest of the group.

“Now where’d ya think he’s gotta be?”

Sam made a face that could have meant anything. 

“Think his brother ain’t well these days,” Sam said. “Probably ‘seein to it he’s where he ought to be.”

Little John nodded, more to himself than to what Sam had said. It made sense, he’d seen Tommy’s brother in town not two days past. He’d looked about as pale as a sick ghost fighting through a blizzard as his daddy would have said.

As another quiet lapsed between those sharing the tree’s shelter, all three boys returned to thoughts of their own. Most were muddled by the worst of the heat that simply could not be escaped, but every so often a convincing memory would come along and distract from even the most sultry moments. In one of these particular aberrations, Little John recalled a time in which he and his younger brother had gone swimming in a nearby quarry that had dried up a summer earlier. Lost in that memory, he could picture the way the water lapped against the beach as kids jumped into it from surrounding ledges that towered over the little canyon. He remembered the dusty grove that blocked the view from those driving by, and the countless afternoons spent caught in an everlasting breeze that had on more than one occasion lulled him to sleep.

How Little John longed for those afternoons, free from a heat that tethered them all to one lonely tree.

He was about to suggest visiting the quarry, if for no other reason than to make sure it hadn't miraculously filled itself, when Sam got up.

“Makes sense to me,” he said. 

Little John asked if Sam was leaving, but the boy stayed quiet, looking out to where the sun beat down on its domain with a wicked resolve.  

Georgie, the forth oldest and final member of the group, leaned over to Little John.

“Who’s he ‘talkin to?”

Little John shrugged, watching Sam with some interest. 

“Maybe the heats got ‘em.” 

Georgie shrugged, settling back into his nestled place at the base of the tree. 

Little John stood up then, waving a hand in front of Sam’s face and whistling loudly.

“Sam, what ‘cha ‘doin?”

Sam said nothing, ignoring Little John like he was asleep.

Little John looked down to Georgie who just stared back flatly.

On the outside, Little John shrugged and sat back down, trying to make it seem like he didn’t care much. On the inside though, a feeling he couldn't quite put into words had begun to climb up from his stomach. It was cold like the water of the quarry had been two summers previous, and in a way almost as murky too. Like as a feeling it couldn't quite decide for itself what it was meant to be. There was worry, but also something closer to fear. 

Suddenly uneasy, Little John scooted across the dead grass until he was a little closer to Georgie. If Georgie noticed, he didn’t say anything.

Without warning, and like the two boys before him, Sam suddenly marched away in the same western direction. The sun swallowed him up as he pressed through the more adventurous of the tree’s branches, and before long neither Little John nor Georgie could see him anymore.

“Georgie, what’s ‘happenin here?”

Little John waited for Georgie to answer as he strained his neck to see if he could make out Sam’s silhouette, but Georgie didn’t answer. When Little John turned to look at him, he saw that Georgie had quietly stood up. 

His heart leapt to his throat. Hastily Little John pushed himself away. 

“‘Comon now Georgie, cut that out.”

Like Sam, Georgie stood flat faced and unblinking. The boy looked like someone had reached in and stolen his spirit.

“Guess so,” he said.

Little John swallowed. “Guess what Georgie? What you ‘talkin about?”

Georgie said nothing, turning to face the sun.

“Hey— don’t do that Georgie, what’s wrong with ya?”

Taking three steps forward, Georgie walked by where Little John was sitting and out from underneath the tree. 

Profoundly unsettled, Little John clambered to his feet, looking all around him.

He was alone.

His breathing came sharply as he twisted and turned trying to make out anything at all in the world outside the tree, but the light was too bright to see clearly beyond a few feet. 

He ran a shaky hand through his uncombed hair, almost embarrassed how shaken he was.

“It ain’t funny!” he yelled.

With no response to his little outburst, Little John took a careful step towards the edge of what the tree’s great canopy covered. Without moving any of the low hanging branches, he searched the wall of light for any shapes or figures. To his growing dismay though, he found that there were none.

Coming to the only real conclusion there was, Little John braced himself for whatever his friends had in store. With a trembling hand, he parted just enough of the branches to slip through.

In that moment before he broke out into the angry sunlight again, Little John knew that he was about to face something unlike anything else. If asked, he couldn't have said why he felt that way. In fact, the distant sense of alarm came from a part of his mind so dormant he couldn't immediately recognize it for what it was. Little John brushed off the instinctual warning as nothing more than a symptom of children’s pranks, when in truth, part of him knew it was something more. 

At first the light was overpowering, drawing tears to the corners of his eyes. After a moment though, his vision cleared enough for him to make out the scene before him.

Startled by what he saw, he took a step back, feeling the tree brush against his back. 

Without facing him, all four boys stood not ten meters away.

Though they were not alone.

They formed a half circle around a tall man clad from head to toe in a black so dark, Little John thought it had no place being under a sun so bright. The stranger towered over his friends, and though the sun that lay behind him was overpowering, Little John could make out most of the details of his face.

In the instant his eyes met Little John’s, Little John knew the man was not from the same world he was. With a certainty he had never felt before so furiously, he knew he stared back at a creature that simply did not belong. At first glance Little John could understand how someone may confuse the stranger for a man, but anyone with eyes that looked for longer than a moment would have known clear as day that wasn't the case. In a way that defied all Little John had ever learned in school, the man was see-through. It was like he’d been spun into existence with a material the world had yet to discover. Like he was as much glass as he was flesh. Through him, Little John could make out the peaks of the town he’d spent his entire life in. 

The see-through man grinned then. A malicious smile that stretched from ear to ear, revealing a set of pointed teeth that drove a rabid fear right into Little John’s heart. 

Wordlessly, the man raised a thin hand to his face, covering his lips with a single extended finger. 

Had he had the strength, Little John would have screamed then. He would have wailed loud enough to rip holes in his vocal chords, and frighten the birds in the next town over. 

But any sense of composure he had was gone. Vanished completely by the sight of the thing before him that was taking his friends.

Without warning and in an eerie unison, the four boys began walking away towards the horizon. With an ache that threatened to overwhelm him, Little John knew he would never see them again. 

The revolting stranger lingered behind a moment longer, looking down at Little John through hungry eyes. 

In that moment the world fell away.

For what could have been years, the see-through man stared plainly. Eventually he did turn away to join the four boys slowly disappearing into the sun, but not before ensuring he would live forever in Little John’s head.

The boy sank to his knees as he was left alone.

The branches of a great tree tickled the back of his head as they swayed with the wind.


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