Horror First Place Winner: "Tree Gifts"

Congratulations to Benjamin Barbour, first place winner in the Horror category of the Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards! Here's his winning short story, "Tree Gifts."
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Congratulations to Benjamin Barbour, first place winner in the Horror category of the Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards! Here's his winning short story, "Tree Gifts."

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[See the complete winners list.]

Tree Gifts

The first gift I received was a six-inch-tall plastic action figure of Leonardo, the leader of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He wore the blue mask, and I always liked him the best, even before my Tree Friend gave him to me. I was probably eight or nine when I found Leonardo jammed into the knothole of an oak tree that stood at the corner of an empty lot behind our house, separated from our backyard by a wall of pine trees.

That vacant lot wasn’t always empty. The Maitlands had owned a home there, but an electrical fire destroyed the house when I was a baby. The Maitlands left the city, and no one ever built there again. The grass grew high, and the empty space became an eyesore until my parents and some of the other neighbors took it upon themselves to collect the plastic bags and cups blown in off the street and take turns cutting the grass. Within a few weeks, the area had become a space for the neighborhood kids. The other boys and I used the lot as a shortcut, dashing across the land to get from one point to another. Other times we turned it into a football or soccer field. Just a few times, mostly in middle school, we settled disputes in the empty lot, hashing it out with insults and sometimes fists.

Starting in the sixth grade, I cut through the empty field every morning to get to the street corner where the school bus met me. That’s when I discovered in the knothole of the oak tree other gifts: a bundle of colored pencils wrapped together with a pink rubber band; a plastic baggie filled with green army men; a deck of playing cards still in the plastic; a rumpled two-dollar bill; bags of candy corn; twigs wrapped together with string and made to look like tiny people; a stereograph photo viewer with several sepia-toned cards from Egypt; and a pack of Dunhills I shared with my buddies. I found rolled-up comic books slipped into the knothole in such a way that I could see them jutting out like flag poles when I passed. Some of the items lodged in the oak tree seemed fairly odd, like the single muddy running shoe, broken chess pieces, reading glasses with the lenses busted out, a brass plated skeleton key, an earring box stuffed with pumpkin seeds, a ball of twine, and the spelling bee medal from 1926.

When I found the chipped porcelain doll, I thought maybe my Tree Friend had forgotten I was a boy. I considered throwing the doll away in the dumpster behind school, but changed my mind at the last minute, deciding to give it to my little sister Emily. The doll, so dirty and smudged, looked like a hundred little girls had handled it, but I figured Emily wouldn’t know the difference, and she didn’t. She loved the doll, despite its ugliness, even naming it Laura Louise. My parents, seeing Emily playing with Laura Louise one evening, asked where she had gotten it. My sister pointed at me, and I fumbled for an answer before telling them I had grabbed the hideous thing from the gifts collected by our school for the city mission. My parents explained that while they admired the thought I had paid my sister I should never do anything like that again, as my actions had amounted to stealing.

“Yes,” I nodded. “Never again.”

Of course, I wanted to know the identity of my Tree Friend. Four big pine trees at the foot of our property made conducting stakeouts from my bedroom window nearly impossible, so I decided to catch the culprit in the act of depositing an item into the knothole. On a dozen occasions, I slipped out the back door around one or two in the morning, cut through our yard, and waited on the other side of the pine trees. A yellow street lamp on the other end of the lot cast just enough light onto the field that I might see anybody come or go.

One autumn morning, as the still sunless sky turned a crisp blue-lavender, I thought I had caught my patron. I watched a hooded figure walk up the street on the other side of the lot, a flashlight bouncing in his hand. He stepped into the field, which was covered in a crackling lattice of auburn leaves.

The person wandered next to the oak tree, the light of his flashlight playing across the ground. A second figure appeared from down the street and stepped into the field. I could see it was a woman, and she held something in her hand. A leash.

They were a couple, and she was walking the dog. They let the dog urinate at the foot of the oak tree and then they were off, walking down the street away from the field.

Eventually I gave up reconnoitering the field behind our house, and I continued to find treasures of all kinds.

As my eighth grade year concluded, I had my first experience with loss. My family’s black lab Cooper became ill with cancer. Emily and I were distraught. We had grown up with Cooper. He might as well have been our sibling, and it devastated us to watch him lose energy and weight, to wither away before our eyes. His personality vanished along with any physical semblance of the dog with whom we had spent so many hours. Cooper slept most of the day, sometimes limping over to our feet. I could see somewhere in his eyes that he wanted to love us as he had before, but he simply could not muster the strength. When Cooper stopped eating, my father took my sister and I aside and told us that putting our dog to sleep constituted the only humane decision. Emily sobbed, but I managed to keep my cool, even though I too wanted to hit the floor, curl up, and bawl my eyes out.

After Cooper’s death, I found myself drawn to the lot behind our house. On a humid summer evening I made my way back to the knothole, looked inside, and found a two-inch tall white soap carving of a dog sitting upright. I felt a little unnerved at first, even panicked. All the gifts I had received up until that point had little, if any, real connection to my daily life. The little carving I held in my hand represented something else entirely. My Tree Friend knew about Cooper’s death.

Benjamin Barbour

Had he been watching our house?

It didn’t take long before my initial bafflement turned into reluctant appreciation. As I calmed down, I came to realize the carving represented a kind of sympathy card for the loss of my pet. Its provenance, who made it, or how they had come to the knowledge of my dog’s passing concerned me less and less. The little soap dog honored Cooper, and my Tree Friend had provided me with something by which to remember the dog I loved.

I jogged across the field, through my backyard, and up to my bedroom. There I tucked the soap dog into the bottom drawer of my desk, alongside a tangle of other Tree Gifts, and then I went into the basement of our house. At my father’s workbench I opened his red tool box and retrieved a sturdy folding pocket knife, having decided that I would commemorate my friendship with the secret gift-giver, whose surprising thoughtfulness after Cooper’s death had touched me.

A chorus of cicadas provided a shrill backdrop as I used the knife to carve the date into the bark of the oak tree right below the knothole: 8-14-1995. I worked fast in the heat, globs of sweat running into my eyes, and I had nearly finished when my Mother called my name from our yard. By the time I got to the number five I turned the knife into a chisel, angling the blade against the bark and smacking the butt of the handle with my palm. The cicadas continued to chatter while the wood cracked and splintered. I took a brief second to admire my finished work before I could hear Mom’s voice again, this time from the edge of our yard. Afraid she would question what I was doing, I threw the knife in the knothole and wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. I spun around and ran back home through the wall of pine needles to greet my mother.

That night our family had dinner at a local Italian restaurant to celebrate what would soon be my first day of high school and my sister’s first day of middle school. That night, as everyone watched a movie in the den, I snuck out of the house and went back to the oak tree to retrieve the folding pocket knife, but it was gone.

It sounded like a shriek, though at first I thought I might have been dreaming. I rubbed my eyes and studied the ceiling. Above me, the shadows of the tree branches pantomimed against a bent square of silvery moonlight beaming through my open window. I listened to the sounds of officious voices. Another desperate howl, almost inhuman in its intensity, drove me out of bed.

In the dark I almost tripped over my freshman literature textbook, which I had thrown over the side of my bed after finishing my homework. Three weeks into high school, and I already felt overwhelmed by it all. I kicked the book across the floor, and it smacked into my plastic bin of dirty clothing.

I opened my door and moved down the hallway to the top of the stairwell. My parents stood in the foyer between the front door and the kitchen, my father holding my mother as she pressed her face to his chest. His mouth touched her hair, and she was crying.

Two police officers with their hands behind their backs watched my parents with solemn expressions. One of them looked up at me, but said nothing. My father kept his gaze on the top of my Mother’s head. “Go back to your room,” Dad said, never looking up at me.

He repeated himself in a tone that underscored the gravity of the situation. “Go back to your room. Now.” He finally faced me, his mouth clamped together and his jaw flexing.

I did as he said, and in bed I lay awake, listening to my mother wail. By the time sunlight inched across my floor, her crying had subsided. I heard tired feet plod up the steps and down the hallway. The door to my room opened, but I kept my eyes on the ceiling. My father slumped down onto the edge of my bed. I turned and touched his back, and his body shrank into itself as he dropped his head and wrapped his arms around his chest as if a gust of cold wind had swept through the room. That, I recall, is the moment I felt most afraid.

“Emily’s gone,” he said in a way that seemed to hint she might come back. But my little sister was not coming back.

She had slept over at her friend Samantha’s house. She and Sam decided to sneak out and walk several blocks to a donut shop that had a cigarette machine outside its front door. On their way back, a driver in a pickup truck plowed into them as they crossed the street. Samantha evaded death, but only just, and now she lay unresponsive in a hospital bed. The accident had killed Emily instantly. The driver’s name was Freddy Muscatto, and he had been coming home from the bar when he struck Emily and Samantha.

My mother spent most of her days after Emily’s death locked in her bedroom. My father worked during the day and tended to Mom all evening. After she went to sleep, Dad retreated into the basement to smoke cigarettes, drink Jim Beam, and listen to jazz records.

On a rainy night, I trudged downstairs to see my father. He turned off his music, put out his cigarette, and invited me to sit on a threadbare chair next to him. His eyes now always looked bloodshot to me, and he had a dark bruise on his forehead from where he had fallen recently.

“You know that asshole’s out, right? He made bail, so he gets to walk around and do whatever he wants,” Dad said. He poured himself another drink. “What do you think of that?”

“It’s not fair.”

“No,” Dad said. “A lot of things aren’t fair.”

My parents bought gifts for Emily at Christmas and placed the wrapped boxes under the tree. There they sat, days and weeks after the holidays, alone and unopened. I think they had wanted to honor Emily’s memory and maybe feign some sense of normalcy, but their decision only made the season harder. The gifts became a constant reminder of my sister, and in late January I came home from school one afternoon to find the Christmas decorations and all of the gifts gone.

I climbed the steps to my room, stopping in the hallway at my sister’s bedroom door. The desire to go inside welled up in me. My parents had only entered the bedroom once or twice since Emily’s death, and they had left it practically untouched.

I turned the doorknob and pushed open the door. Her posters, pictures, and books, even the jumbled sheets on the bed, all remained as she had left them. The hair on my arms stood at the thought that maybe Emily had never died. Everything in her room seemed so unexceptional, so normal. Could she actually be gone?

A green spiral notebook lay on her desk beside a stack of CDs and a paperback edition of The Giver, which she had been reading for school. I picked up the novel and flipped through the pages. To think her fingers had also touched the book gave me some comfort, and I set it back down on her desk, feeling momentarily contented.

Then I saw it: Laura Louise, the filthy doll I had found in the knothole of the oak tree. It sat in the corner of the room next to the door to Emily’s closet. I thought my sister had thrown the doll away years ago, or maybe crammed it in the cedar chest at the foot of her bed where she had kept the mementos of her youth. I smiled at the thought that maybe days or even hours before her death, my sister had admired the gift her older brother had given her.

The doorbell rang and jolted me out of my thoughts. I slipped out of Emily’s room, careful to close the door behind me, and I moved down the hallway, past my parent’s room where my mother slept, and back to the top of the stairwell where I had stood the night of Emily’s death.

Dad was speaking to two police officers, one of whom had a black mustache and looked older than his partner. I stepped back a bit to conceal myself. The older cop did all the talking, while his partner stood to the side, his hands clasped at his waist.

“He’s dead.” “Dead?” Dad asked.

“Murdered,” the policeman replied. “They found him in his apartment.” “Who did it?”

“We don’t know yet. Whoever killed him probably did it because of some argument over drugs,” the mustached officer added. “That’s the usual story.”

Dead,” my father repeated. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead in his palm. “He’s dead.”

“Yes…” the policeman said, flashing his partner a worried look before turning back to my Dad. The younger officer dropped his eyes and remained silent. The policeman with the mustache added: “But between us, sir…” He started to say something but caught himself and stopped.

“What is it?” Dad asked.

“He suffered, sir,” the officer said matter-of-factly. “The perp carved Muscatto up something fierce. And he took his time doing it.”

“Is that right?” Dad asked, nodding. “I’m happy about that,” my father said. “After what he did to us…”

“He suffered. No doubt about that,” the policeman said. “I don’t think a person could suffer much more than he did.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Dad muttered.

The officer immediately realized his gaffe and apologized, but Dad waved his hand in the air and said, “Don’t worry about it.”

The policeman made some uncomfortable small talk, said goodbye, and he and his young partner left. My father stood in the foyer staring out the front door, his hands in his pockets. Then he turned and walked away. I waited a few seconds before descending the steps and going into the kitchen.

Dad sat at the table, his head down, a bottle of Jim Beam beside his elbow, and a glass of bourbon in front of him.

“What happened?” I asked, getting a soda from the refrigerator. “ I heard voices.” “The man who killed your sister is dead,” Dad said flatly, his eyes in his bourbon. “I should tell your mother.” The two cubes of ice jostled against each other as my Father finished his drink. He set the glass down and stiffly rose from his seat and walked upstairs.

When I heard my parents talking above me, something compelled me to go to the oak tree, and I headed for the backdoor, threw on a coat and some boots, and hurried outside, wading through mounds of wet snow. I pushed past the pine branches and staggered into the lot, gulping in the cold air as I neared the oak tree, uncertain why I thought it so dire to look inside the knothole.

And then I found it.

The knife, the folding pocket knife from Dad’s red toolbox, stood upright in the knothole. I reached for it and wrapped my hands around the handle. Pulling the knife from the tree, I noticed the dried blood stuck to the blade. I glanced around to ensure no one saw me standing at the oak tree, the murder weapon in hand. My throat closed and my mouth became dry. I let out a gasp that sounded more like a shriveled croak. I wanted to race home and cling to my mother, to tell her everything I had found in the oak tree, to beg her to forgive me for whatever I may have unknowingly set into motion. But I couldn’t move, and I dropped the knife in the snow and crumpled to my knees. My lips quivered and felt hot. I squeezed my eyes shut as I gagged at the foot of the oak tree, certain my lunch would escape me while piercing gusts of wind drove into my side.

The sickness came and went in foul waves, and when I felt confident the nausea had finally subsided I toppled over in exhaustion, rolling over onto my back to stare at a single pink cloud as the minutes crawled by. The snow swelled around me like quicksand, and I closed my eyes, imagining that maybe this was what dying feels like, or perhaps the inside of a cold prison cell.

The sky darkened, and as I lay under the vanishing winter light, the terror gradually abated, replaced by cool pragmatism. I realized that if I wanted to pull through I needed to hide the knife, just as I had my other Tree Gifts. I scrambled onto my hands and knees and crawled to the blade, which lay about a foot from me. I carefully placed the weapon in my coat pocket. Back on me feet I sprinted home as fast as I could, hiding the knife in a shoebox under my bed before locking myself in the second floor bathroom. There, I swallowed three aspirin, hoping they’d quash a growing headache. My parents murmured softly in their bedroom, and I listened to them through the wall as I plugged the sink and ran the cold water. When the sink looked full enough, I shut off the faucet, lowered my head and splashed the water in my face, thinking the whole time about Freddy Muscatto’s final moments and the officer’s description of the murderer taking his time. How long had Muscatto suffered? Hours? A whole night? What kind of torments had the killer inflicted on the man responsible for my sister’s death?

It wasn’t until I raised my dripping face to the mirror that I realized I was smiling.

My sister’s memory died many deaths after Freddy Muscatto took her life. Her voice, her smile, the little things that added up to her, faded away, as if I could only see Emily from the opposite end of an ever-lengthening tunnel. I wondered how much I actually remembered about my sister and how much I merely though I remembered.

Never again did I receive a Tree Gift after I found the knife. Years passed, and I made it a point to look into the knothole from time to time, finding only leaves in the autumn and snow in the winter. As the neighborhood grew up, our parents saw less reason to maintain the lot.

Garbage blown in off the street burrowed itself in the tall grass. No one cared anymore.

Freddy Muscatto’s murder remained unsolved, though the newspapers spent untold amount of time covering every lurid detail. Insufficient evidence squashed each new lead the police discovered, but I never worried, confident that authorities would fail to find Freddy’s killer.

The night before moving out of town for college, I took a meandering walk around the old neighborhood, making certain to take with me the knife used to kill Freddy Muscatto. I had kept the blade hidden away since finding it in the oak tree four years earlier, though I had considered chucking it into the lake on a number of occasions. Now I concealed the folded weapon in my pocket as I retraced the steps of my youth, walking down black streets damp from a recent rain while I thought about the other Freddy Muscattos I might encounter in my life, people who would wrong my loved ones or me. Sure, few would commit acts as terrible as the man who took my sister’s life, but I knew I would meet people who would cause me pain of varying degrees. It was that realization that took me back to the lot that night.

My feet squelched in unseen puddles as I tramped through the knee-high grass and made my way to the oak tree. The sun had fallen and a light mist hung in the air. I pulled the knife from my pocket and placed it in the knothole. Then, I retrieved from my raincoat a white envelope that I set next to the knife in the oak tree. Inside the envelope, a thank you card.