The first is a co-ed on her way home for the weekend. They find her car abandoned on a road ten miles from home, skid marks trailing behind, trying to catch up to the now-still tires. A cell phone was left open on the passengers seat, the purse spilled onto the floor below. A set of womens footprints, sneakers size six-and-a-half, leaks from the car and around its front, where the hood was popped. The footsteps continue for some ways down the road, at first a walk (investigators determine), then a run. They end, abruptly, at a large oak growing near the side of the road, the first branch of which is too high for anyone to climb. They dont pick up elsewhere. There are no more prints, no clumps of hair left in the grass, no trace of DNA in any form from either the girl or anyone else. There are no signs of any struggle.
Things like this happen. People run away, or are taken, and you read about it in the paper on the bus to work, and you move on. In a few days, you read about another, this one a mother of two. She was last seen on her way to buy groceries. The car is still in the lot, a cart full of groceries stopped still at the bumper; the trunk is cracked and the keys still dangling from the lock like a tongue. The camera pans the lot before coming to rest on the car, then zooming out for the full effect; the only signs of life are a few wayward weeds flowering in a crack in the asphalt. Their yellow-white heads sprout next to the carts back wheel, nodding in the breeze.
The third should know better. Shes walking home from the library after dark, a habit despite her mothers constant nagging. They find her book bag slung carelessly along the side of the curb, beneath a low-hanging sapling.
Youd think the fourth would be safe but, no, not even on her own street, only a few houses down from where she lived. All they find is a beautiful tree, one no one remembers seeing before; the flowers on its leaves (out of season, the neighbors are quick to point out) are the same white-and-pink as the colors in the knit hat shed worn.
Witnesses say the fifth shrieked before it happened. There, wrapped around the trunk of an elm, was a vine of ivy as long and reedy as the girl who, moments before, had stood leaning against the tree.
The sixth never comes home from school. Instead, theres a berry tree blossoming near the marsh where he usually looked for frogs. This in and of itself isnt remarkable except that when you tilt your head close to the branches, you swear you can hear them singing. Its his voice, the boys father sobs, inching his face closer to the bramble, the camera closer to his. The tears fall in a watershed down his face, but, from this angle, its impossible to tell whether from sorrow or joy.
The mother of the seventh says she can see her daughters face in the pale-white tree along the road that has a reputation among the kids for being a place to go for some, you know.... Shes camped out there (the reporters inform you) ever since she first noticed the resemblance. You can tell: Her hair is as matted as bramble, and her eyes have what can only be called a feral look to thema look acquired only by those who have spent too much time without either modern conveniences or necessities. Shes now as pale and slim as the whip-like tree where she keeps her vigil. I should have never let you go, she croons, fingers tingling over the coal-dark slits in the bark. You were too young, and still I let you; I thought youd be okay, but it wasnt a good idea, and I knew it, and I let you go anyway. Never again.
Or so the story goes. Of course, as the papers and newsmen are quick to remind you, this is all speculation. The more outrageous rags will tell you, no, it isnt the world really has gone out of whack, and these are only the first signs. But lets not jump to conclusions. We cant say how, or even if, perfectly normal, healthy peoplechange into objects that are decidedly less than human. It sounds ridiculous to even suggest this, but still you cant deny that the facts do seem more than mere coincidence. Some might even go as far as to suggest that we are using these mere coincidences and hypothetical situations concocted by grieving loved ones to come to our own absurd conclusions. We can assure you this isnt so. Just know to take the proper precautions. Carry a whistle with you or a bottle of pepper spray. Always check the backseat of your car before getting inside, and always, always avoid parking lots when you can. Take public transportation, but make certain no one follows you on or off. Hail rides with friends, never taxis (you never know). Make sure youre home at a reasonable hour. Never stay out after dark, but, if you must, always be aware of your surroundings. Only go out with a buddy, maybe two. Dont bike in the mornings and never, under any condition, walk alone as this is a surefire way of attracting unwanted attention. Never run.
Heres a girl for you: Her hair is the color of autumn leaves when they are at their fullestin some lights golden, in others reddish, and in others still the color of melting cocoa. Her eyes are neither blue nor green but a color that some mistakenly call hazel. They tend to dry out (thanks to clear contacts), making her a frequent blinker, someone who closes her lids tightly before letting them pop open into a wide, surprised look. When thinking, she has the habit of snatching at the hair at her right temple, a long, coppery (or golden, or mahogany) strand thats frayed at the edges. Shes of average height and weight (maybe a little on the tall side, and a little thin). She is by most accounts pretty, with the kind of face that is both attractive and unremarkable. She lives alone in an apartment in a building populated mainly by retireesfor the atmosphere, she might say; her neighbors, who have no complaints, would say shes the type of girl whos always out and about. Very warm, friendly, always with a good word for everyone. When going downstairs for the morning paper, she always makes sure to bring yours up, too.
On this day, shes on her way to meet friends for drinks. Its October, just before dusk. She doesnt think twice about slipping into her boots and out the front door of the apartment complex, where she says good evening to two of her neighbors on the front stoop. They watch her stroll down the well-walked street and head for the entrance of the park at the corner (is that a good idea? they recall thinking, watching her slip behind the wrought-iron gates). But she doesnt pay attention to the news, and if, by chance, she does, she dismisses it as hogwash. Her only precaution is the cell phone she takes with her, but its at the bottom of her purse and turned off, and anyway the batterys almost dead.
She starts down the path leading from the gates, just one more person enjoying one last, lovely autumn evening. A few runners may smile as they pass her, and shebeing polite, as all her neighbors will attestwill nod good evening. She crosses a clearing where a group of college kids is playing soccer; the captain of the blue team shanks the ball in her direction, which she kindly kicks back towards his waving figure. Thanks, he calls and watches her retreat down a tree-lined path as his friends bitch that hes hogging the ball.
When she is next seen, it is by a trio of horseback riders who watch her hurry along the path, her hands stuffed firmly in the pockets of her denim mini (later, they will remark on how cold she looked). She keeps her gaze trained ahead except once when she turns to look over her right shoulder, her neck swiveling quick as a whip. The riders assume shed heard one of their horses whinny.
By the time the teens see her, she is running, the thump-thump-thump of her chunky-heeled boots like a train plodding along asphalt. Hey, one calls, but she doesnt hear him. And she isnt running like shes scared, they think, more like shes in a hurry.
By the time she reaches the duck pond, she is in a full-out run. The elderly husband and wife who spend their evenings feeding the ducks are startled when she bursts from the path as if spit from the trees, sprinting lickety-split, as if the devil himself were nipping at her heels. The wife raises her hand but the girl doesnt see them. The wife notices the girls scarf, alternating stripes of purple and orange-pinkhandmade, she speculatestrailing away from her neck, a ribbon flaying, an arm reaching back, fumbling in the dark.
We cant say when exactly her boots stick to the grass, when her feet stretched down to root in the dirt. We cant say for certain how her body seemed to thicken and stretch, or how her arms twisted above her head or how they split and grew into branches, her fingers to twigs; nor can we say when the bark scaled up what once where legs and torso and neck, nor when it finally closed over her mouth. What we know is that there is a tree standing where a girl once was. The orange-pink and purple scarfwhich had unraveled in the final seconds beforewaves like a banner from the highest branches. Notice how the leaves are the same copper red as her hair, golden in some lights, dark in others. See the black spots as wide as her eyes, the O-shaped stain the same as her stunned lips. See the curve of her nose in the bark.
The proof, we now think, is undeniable. You may not believeand, we admit, it is a hard pill to swallowbut all the facts now seem to point to the same inevitable conclusion. Samples taken from the twigs reveal that there is some material other than sap running through those veins. Peel the barkin parts the same brown as her jacket, in others bluish, like her skirtand beneath you will find the flesh is the same color as her skin. Peel this and youll swear youll hear screaming.
You try to ignore the fact that slowly these changes are creeping closer to you. You ignore the fact that she lived in the same city that you do. You try to ignore how her face, when you see her picture on the news, is familiar. Did she play volleyball against your team in high school? Was she the one in the red sedan who cut you off last week?
But its hard to ignore when you see those black-and-white eyes staring back at you from every paper on the newsstand, or from the tabloids on the bus that everyone sitting across from you seems to read. Even the driver has taken to keeping one on the dashboard next to the meter. Such a shame, he says, shaking his head, the way he does now every morning, as if he didnt just say this to you yesterday.
You go to work but you find it hard to keep both your mind and eyes on the computer screen. Your co-worker two cubes over keeps giving you the Evil Eye over the dividers. He tries to be cool, but its obvious how he keeps rattling on to the person separating you, talking too loudly about the Mc-someones account. (The account is mine, those eyes seem to say. Did you ever say you wanted it?) When you look up to challenge him, your own Evil Eye ready, hes always looking somewhere else.
At the end of the day, your friends from accounting announce they are going for drinks at the pub around the block. By half past five, the place is jammed and smoky, your friends huddled in a booth near the arcade game. Kelly says she heard about another one this morning, a few suburbs over. A girl out playing in her front yard…. AJ from two cubicles down asks didnt they find the one who went missing last week…? Other than that, they say very little, and you find it hard to believe that they can believe this hogwash, that they can actually let this ruin what should be a nice evening out.
After just one drink, you excuse yourself, citing how tired you are (you pretend to stifle a yawn for good measure). They wont let you leave alone, though; AJ and Kelly wont hear of it. Before you can say otherwise, one of AJs friends is slipping into his coat and telling them hell be back in a few. Ready?
He drives with the windows down although its nearly forty out. He keeps time to the radiosome jazz stationby beating his palms against the wheels. Theres the public square, the courthouse, the library with the statue outside where all the kids hang, the boys who say hey babe and whistle tuneless and low, like theyre still learning.
You should get yourself a car, he says, checking the passengers side mirror before making a sharp right. He doesnt look at you, even when he speaks. Its a good investment.
You remember you heard once how, in gas stations, people (gang members, probably, or just punks out for a good time) would sneak into the backseat while you were at the pump and then wait there for you to get back inside. You mention thisto make conversation, you thinkand your companion chuckles and shakes his head.
That sounds a bit paranoid, he says.
You want to remind him that hes the one who volunteered to drive you home when you could have just as easily taken the bus. You pass a stop, where the line is already two buses deep.
Well, he says, its safer than taking the bus.
He drives past the park, dark now, only the shadowy trees visible, your citys own little black hole. How many of these trees might have appeared only in the last few weeks? Can you see her from the road, the one who haunts you from the papers? If you came back in daylight, could you identify her by the leaves? Up close, would they look like hair?
You think how you dont really know this man, just another face at the office. And its a nice face, the kind of face that always wears a smile (the kind youd like)but, then, dont they all? You cant even remember what department hes from, how long hes worked there, or if he and AJ really are good friends.
Turn here, you say, pointing to a street still some blocks from your own. You direct him to a building with an awning and a doorman holding the door open for an elderly woman in a fur stole. You wonder if the girl, the one in the park, lived in a building like this.
Thanks, you tell him, stepping out of the car. You wait at the curb for his taillights to turn the corner before hurrying the few blocks to your building, now wishing for the safety of the car, thinking how silly it was to think that the streets might actually be safer.
There are other girls, tooyou shouldnt forget that. The reports come in daily of other such transformations, although none quite like that of the girl in the park. We cant even be certain of the validity of these cases; perhaps some of the girls in question have just run away. But the lack of evidence to support this conclusion makes us think that there is only one possible alternative.
You go to the park once on your lunch break. Theres the tree, in the middle of the field by the duck pond, just like they said on the news. The leaves have fallen now and are collected by children to make wreaths. They wear these as they play tag under their parents watchful gazes. Theres the face in the trunk, the wide black eyes and the O of the mouth, the kind of thing youve seen in how many trees before but never really thought about. Maybe this has been going on for longer than any of us has realized. Maybe shes still there inside the bark, a full human being trying to claw her way out. Or maybewe think, more likelyshes stuck with the eyes and mind and consciousness of a girl, watching the world move slowly around her. How terrible, you think, to be held like this, rooted and still.
You take the bus home in the evening, the usual crowd all there, your five oclock family or so youve come to think of them. But you just dont know whom to trust these days. Is that man across the aisle really reading the paper? Is there really any music pumping through that young punks earphones? Does the driver really drop you in front of your building because he doesnt want you to have to walk the few blocks from the stop?
Youd think that with women, at least, youd be safe, but youve seen the way they claw at each other on the playgrounds and remember last week, when a car full of them grabbed that boy and practically tore him to pieces.
By the time you get off the bus, its dark out. Forget your jog. Youll get a gym pass instead, or maybe a treadmill.
No, the whole world is going to hell in a hand basket. Wed hate to sound like any of the fogeys on the television, preaching a return to those good, old-fashioned values because, we think, those values never really existed in the first place. But we do thinkwe knowthe world has gotten worse. You cant leave the house without wondering if youll fall victim to some calamity or another. We wonder, in times like these, if there is a God because, if there was, certainly then Heor She, or It, whatever you thinkwould be looking out for us, wouldnt He? And then we find ourselves thinking back to those girls, the ones who change. Is this some form of punishment, an example to all those others out there foolish enough to do the same? Or is this some divine hand, whose idea of salvationor punishmentis so very different from our own?
You think about your girl, the one in the park, and you wonder why she was running in the first place. Who was it behind hersomeone she knew? Some stranger whod seen her and found her a lovely target? Maybe she didnt even need a pursuer; maybe it was enough that she was there, in a park where she had no business going by herself so late in the evening. Had she felt her feet stick longer to the ground with each footfall, the change rushing up through the ground to meet her? Did she think that, if she kept running, thered be nothing that could catch her?
But these arent things youd like to think about. You keep the TV on although you arent really watching, and, when the news pops on at ten, you dont bother changing the channel. Youve taken the phone off the hook so your friends cant ring to see if youll go for drinksnot that they will, but if they do its too late; you were up so early. But you wont go out tomorrow, either, or the next day. There are so many people outside that you can hear them even through the closed window, like there are more of them than usual. You want to shut out their noise. You want nothing more than to curl up in your chair with the afghan to your neck. The news ends and on comes a nice movie, the fluffy kind that makes you forget the world isnt really like what it is on screen. You pull the afghan closer to your chin. Yes, its nice to lose yourself in this world. When the movie ends, another comes on, and another after it. You curl up ball-tight, eyes glued to the screen, legs beneath you and perfectly still. If it werent for your blinking, one might think you couldnt move at all.
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