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Free Read: Branches

This is a horror short story that I wrote last month. I’m posting it to go along with some upcoming writing tips. This isn’t a genre I write very often, but I wanted to try it and this is what I got.

Liz is looking for her birth family.  What she finds may cost far more than she’s willing to pay.

Branches

by Rose B. Fischer

©2013, All rights reserved.  No part of this material may be reprinted or shared without the written consent of the author and clear direction to the original content.

“Carrie?”

I paused with my hand on the wide porch railing and half turned toward the sound of a guy’s voice. He was standing near one of the trees in the front yard, wearing a dress shirt, brown jacket, khaki pants, and the most godawful green and red ascot I’d ever seen.  When had those come back in fashion?  Maybe it was a college thing? He looked young, no more than 18 or 19, with dark brown hair that was brushed forward to partly cover his right eye. The hopeful smile on his face wavered and then twisted into a puzzled frown when he got a look at me.

“Sorry, my name is Liz,” I said, offering him an apologetic smile.

“Oh — you’re —not Carrie.”

“I was supposed to meet her here. Are you a friend of hers?”

“Used to be,” he smiled and then shrugged.

His posture was casual, the smile was bright and ingenuous, but the muscles around his eyes never moved and there was no humor in the blue-gray irises.  I decided that it would be impolite to ask for details, but even though I didn’t know Carrie very well, I could guess what happened between them. I should’ve just nodded and changed the subject, or made some excuse and left — I could always have come back to meet her later — but I took pity on him.

“Can I tell her that you stopped by?”

“I don’t think so. Thank you, it’s nice to see you again,” he said, then turned and walked around behind the tree.

See me again?

 

I set my tote bag down on the porch and sprinted down the steps. Even as I went, I told myself it was just another case of mistaken identity — but how many times could I be mistaken for the wrong person on the same day?

Rounding the tree, I saw a narrow dirt pathway between the side of the house and the one next door. There was another tree at the far end like the two in front, with a low trunk and long, snaking branches that wound around each other as they reached toward me.  Two of the branches forked off to create an arch where a washed out wooden swing dangled from frayed rope.  Beyond the swing was a gated fence, and I assumed that Carrie’s lover had slipped through there to the street.  I hurried to the end, pulled on the gate, and found it heavier than it looked.  It squealed and groaned as I moved it, and the street on the other side was deserted.  Not even any cars.

I looked at the house next door. Could he have come from there? It would make sense. Carrie had grown up in this house. She and the boy were about the same age. Maybe they had grown up together, and he had been disappointed when she left.

I considered going to knock on the door, but I already felt awkward. It probably wasn’t important anyway. There was no way that he could have seen me before. I had only met Carrie a week ago, and that had been random chance. I shook my head, turned, and walked back toward the porch. As I went, I heard the gate creak closed behind me.

***

I waited an hour, but Carrie never showed. I called her twice with no answer either time, sat on the porch steps for a few minutes more, then finally sighed, stood up, brushed off my pants, shouldered my tote bag again, and walked back to my car. I’d made hotel reservations, so I followed my GPS, but since there was only one hotel in town, it wasn’t hard to find.

The desk clerk was a dark skinned man with salt-and-pepper gray hair. He smiled, greeted me warmly, and then did a double take when I gave him my name and handed him my driver’s license. I didn’t bother trying to explain this time. If everyone I met was going to mistake me for Carrie or a member of her family, the explanations were going to get tiresome.

I let the bellhop take my bag, even though there was only one and I could very easily have carried it myself, handed him the last of my cash as a tip, and dropped onto the edge of the bed. I rubbed my eyes, then moved my hand to the side of my neck and massaged the worst of my tension away.

What am I doing here? I asked myself.

I didn’t know Carrie Albright. I was supposed to be speaking at a medical conference on Monday, and here I was, 100 miles from where I was supposed to be, chasing a stranger just because she said I looked like her mother. I shook my head at myself. I was almost 40, and every time I had looked for my birth family, I’d come up dry.   After all these years, the only thing I knew for sure was that I had been born in the winter of 1973.  Why did I keep looking?

 

After a few seconds, I force myself to sit up straighter, fished my phone out of my tote bag and dialed my son.

“Hey, Mom, how’d it go?”

“Hi, Mason,” I felt myself forcing a smile even though he wasn’t in the room. “The lady never showed up. It’s… well, it’s a nice-looking place anyway.”

“Oh.  Aw, I’m sorry. What are you going to do? Is there anyone else in the town who might know anything?”

“It’s okay, honey. I went to the library before I drove to meet Carrie. This family, the Albrights, seem pretty well off, and it’s not a big town. I found some town history books, and I printed out copies of some old clippings and records. I haven’t looked through it all yet. I just printed off whatever I could find in their digital archives in case it panned out. I guess I’ll look through for a while now, and then swing by the house again on my way out of town. Maybe she was just late.”

“Yeah, I hope so.”

“How is everything there? Was the geometry midterm all right?”

“Well…”

“Mace.”

“I know, I know. I have to keep up my grades. No grades, no lacrosse.”

“And no car.”

“Jesus.”

“Hey.”

“I think I got a B.

“Very funny,” I laughed.

“Had you going, didn’t I?”

“Yeah. Is everything else okay? You need anything?”

“It’s fine, Mom. I’ll see you when you get back from Maine.”

“All right. I love you.”

I hung up, tossed the phone on the bed, and pulled out my file folder with the ream of printouts and old articles that I had copied. I  picked up the society articles and started to read.  Most of them were old. I guess people didn’t go so much for small-town gossip when it was so easy to pick up a glitzy, full-color tabloid at the supermarket or the corner store.

The name I saw most was Kathleen Albright. Her “coming out” party made bold headlines in 1925.  Three years later, in 1928, her engagement to a wealthy hotel manager made front-page news. The picture of the two of them together made my stomach clench. His face was turned toward her, and I only saw a profile–dark hair swept to one side, a cheek and strong chin.  Kathleen’s body faced his, but someone must have called her name for the shot, because she had turned her head, and except for a bob haircut, flapper dress, and lots of jewelry, she could’ve been me.

Kathleen Albright. Kathleen Mary Albright.

The name be through my head in time with my pulse. With shaking fingers, I flipped through the rest of the clippings, skimming her history — my history? — for mention of children, for the possibility of my mother’s name. I smiled at wedding photo that had been staged on the swing I’d seen earlier, and tried not to be disappointed that the man’s face was too obscured by the dappled shadows for me to get a good look. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I noticed how odd it was that that she didn’t take her husband’s name.  It was listed there right beside hers: Neal Freemason, but there wasn’t a single reference to Kathleen by that name.  I didn’t think much of it.  I was too busy hunting for references to a daughter.

Near the end of the stack, I sucked in a sharp breath.  My fingers locked onto the sides of the page, and I could feel it crumpling, but I couldn’t let go.  The howl of the wind outside made the hair on my arms stand up, and I shuddered.

FREEMASON BANKRUPT–FOUND DEAD!

I stared at the accompanying photographs bit my lip to stifle the sounds that tried to break out of my throat.  I couldn’t tell if they were sobs or screams.  Finally, I managed to drop the page, and the next clipping —

“Oh, god.  My god.  Oh please, no…”

I rifled through the rest of them, more horrified with each headline, and finally I twisted around, pawed the bed for my phone, and punched in Carrie’s phone number again. I tapped my foot, rocked on the bed, and then sprang up as her ring tone cut off and voice mail prompts started again.  Outside, a sudden, brutal gust slammed  the shutters on my window. I jumped, and a small scream burst out of my mouth before I could stop it.  I dropped the phone, spun toward the window, and then deflated as I saw what had made the noise.

As I stooped to pick up the phone, the neat stacks of paper on my bed all slid down, tumbling against my head and shoulders.  Pages clung to my hair, my face, even my clothes, and as I tried to bat them away, the shutters blew open and lightning flashed.  They banged back again.  The windows rattled with the impact, and I heard Carrie’s voice, tiny and filled with static from somewhere under the cascade of family records.

“Kathleen?”

I shoved the papers aside and grabbed the phone, fumbling it to my ear.  Carrie’s voice was harsh, desperate now, frantic.  “Stay away! Don’t —”

“Carrie! Carrie! It’s Liz! Where are you?”

If you’d like to leave a message, please press one…”

 

“What?” I pulled the phone away from my ear again and stared at it. I had heard her. I knew I heard her, but how could I have if the voice mail prompts were still playing? Even if she had picked up her phone, I had already been transferred to her voicemail box.

I ended the call and dialed her again, but this time there was no ring at all. Just the crackle of dead air.

***

There were still no other cars in front of the house when I arrived. There were no lights on, and nothing had changed since yesterday. This time though, I noticed that both of the houses on either side of it had “For-Sale” signs on the lawn. I parked in front of it, left my engine idling, popped the trunk, and grabbed my tote bag from the shotgun seat. I wasn’t sure why I was here.

The wind blew me to one side as I stepped out of my car. I threw out my arm to brace myself on the side of the vehicle, then went around to the trunk. I hunted around for the flashlight, found it, and ran up the steps. They were wet and slick from the rain, and as my heel came down on the porch, my foot skidded out from under me. I fell to my left, and probably would have broken a rib if I hadn’t landed on my tote bag. Was it my imagination, or was one of those trees leaning toward me?

I shook my head. It had to be the wind.  I tote bag off my shoulder, heaved myself up again, and pounded on the door. No answer. I tried again, this time using the butt of my flashlight make more noise. Still no answer.

“Carrie?” I called, feeling my cheeks redden with the absolute foolishness of what I was doing. If any of the neighbors saw me, they would think I was insane.  I glanced to either side, but there was no sign of another person — just the trees.  They swayed a little closer with each gust of wind, branches grasping for me.

I shivered and tried to push the thought away.  Peering around at the porch, I tried to find an open window or at least a broken pane of glass so that I wouldn’t have shatter one to get inside. There wasn’t one.  I pressed my face up against the cold glass, straining my eyes to see into the dark room. I heard a faint rustle, then a flurry of footsteps from inside, rushing toward me. Screaming, I jumped back , ducked to avoid the spray of shattering glass —

But nothing happened.

I realized that I had been squeezing my eyes shut, slowly opened them and drew in a breath. I could feel the trees watching me.  Better judgment told me to get back in my car and drive away, but I couldn’t. Not if Carrie was in there, not if all the answers  were there.  I stepped back further to look at the house.

It was a neat, mustard yellow two-story colonial with pretty pink and white trim on the roof. It looked lonely. Empty but not abandoned. The lawn was still well kept, the wrought iron fence around it was painted white and well-maintained. Even the window shutters looked like they had had a fresh coat of paint in the past year. There was a secret hiding somewhere inside it, I knew it in my gut.

The images from the news clippings flashed through my mind again.   The sillhoutte of a noose hanging from those branches where Neal Freemason had hung himself.  Then, with each succeeding generation, a suicide.  I craned my neck, searching for the window — that place where Kathleen’s daughters and granddaughters had jumped to their deaths.  Jumped — or been compelled?

Get out of here, said a voice in my head.  Mine or someone else’s?  I shivered and started to turn away.  Lightning flashed overhead, and as I started back down the porch steps to my car, the wind howled, slamming the trees up against the side of the house.

Glass shattered somewhere above me, and I threw myself to the side.  Panting, I craned my neck to see where the sound had come from.  The curtains on the second floor were moving.

“Carrie?!” I shouted, racing back up the steps.

Thunder shook the trees and swallowed the sound of my voice, but as it died away, I heard her scream

“Kathleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen! “Stay away!”

***

I pulled my sleeve up around my arm, hefted my  flashlight, spun it around, and smashed the butt end through the window pane. Then I used it to knock enough of the jagged shards away for me to slip through.

My shoes crunched against the broken glass as I set my feet down. I eased in the rest of the way, and felt a wet, bristly finger brush against my back. I yanked away, slipped and skidded on the wet floor, staggered forward with my heart pounding in my chest as I thought I was about to land on the glass, and collided against an end table. It pitched forward, landed with the crash, and several pairs of footsteps pounded away from me, deeper into the house.

“Hello?” I called.  “Carrie, it’s Liz! Are you here?”

Silence.

“Carrie!”

I waited, straining in the darkness, shivering as the wet spray of the rain through the broken window soaked through my clothes.  I didn’t want to go any further in, but I couldn’t just stand here. Why the hell had I broken the window if I was just going to stand in front of it and listen to my blood pound in my ears.

I flicked on the flashlight and swept it around the room.

A thick coat of dust lay over the furniture and coated the walls like a living cocoon. I expected it to start writhing and chirping like crickets. I almost jerked my flashlight beam toward the floor, but I didn’t think I wanted to see what was there. Panting, I walked forward, heard the rustle of movement to my right and turned that way, raising the flashlight.

The beam struck a woman’s face, and dark eyes glared at me.

 

Get out.

I jumped back, lifted the flashlight over my head, and whaled on her but as it connected with what should have been her skull, there was only a soft thwack, as if I’d hit the outside of a tent — or a framed piece of canvas.

I sighed.

You’re imagining all of this, I told myself. No one is here. You probably didn’t even hear anything on the phone. How could you have? You just want this to be something other than a dead end.  You —

What? I began to question my own assertions. I what? I IMAGINED that Kathleen Albright looks like my twin?

Then I realized who the woman in the painting was. I brought the flashlight up again, studied her face and the hair on my arms in the back of my neck began to rise. Kathleen Albright, in a long 1920s glamour gown and headdress, a queen from another age.  She was still here.  I knew she was.

Outside, the tree branches began to scrape against the side of the building and beat on the windows. I could feel the painting staring at me.  I clenched my free hand into a fist to keep it from shaking, and moved the light away from it.

There were framed photographs on the floor. I must’ve knocked them over when I collided with the table. Kathleen and a young girl about 12, with the same dark hair and eyes.  My eyes.  My mother? Or… No. Not one girl. There were two.  Two different hairstyles, two sets of clothing, but the same settings.

Cautiously, I stooped to get a better look, and saw another frame sticking out from under the table.  I eased it out far enough to see both girls posing with their arms around one another.  Kathleen loomed in the background, a gray-haired matron with her hands on their shoulders.

I felt tears begin to burn my eyes. One of them must’ve been my mother, and the other one would have been Carrie’s mom — the one she said looked so much like me. That didn’t make sense. Carrie was my son’s age.  How could our mothers have been twins? What happened to them?

“You know, don’t you?” I muttered to the painting.

Kathleen gave no answer, so I straightened, crossed the room, and shined my flashlight into the hall beyond. At one end, there was a doorway, at the other end a flight of stairs.  There was another, larger room across the hall, but when I shined my flashlight into it, I found  an empty, tiled linoleum space with bay windows on the far end.  A cluster of trees danced and waved like macabre scarecrows in front of those windows. I swallowed hard and turned away.

The hall smelled of rotten leaves, and it was stronger coming from the stairs. The sight of the staircase was enough to make my body want to curl up. It was covered in a dust cocoon even thicker than the one in the sitting room, and even when I shined my flashlight upward, I couldn’t pierce the darkness of the top. I drew in a breath, trying to think of a reason to avoid them. There were no footprints in the dust. None of the footsteps I heard earlier had gone up or down any stairs. They just walked — or ran.  I’d try the room at the end first.

I crept into the hall with the flashlight held in front of me like a shield instead of a tool.  I felt a soft, warm breath on my neck, spun around, and found me hall behind the empty except for the stairs at the other end looming like some twisted gateway to oblivion. I stared at them, unable to rip my eyes away, my pulse pounding a panic- rhythm against my rib cage. Outside, I could hear the trees scraping and rattling and banging in time with my heartbeat.

There’s nothing here. There’s nothing here. There’s no one here. There’s nothing here. You’re imagining all of this — or you’re going crazy!

It took all my will to turn away from the stairs, to put my feet one in front of the other toward the door waiting at the end of the hall, and as I moved, I heard Kathleen’s footsteps behind me. I could hear her breath too, no matter how many times I told myself it wasn’t there.

My hands were slick with sweat, and the flashlight slipped out and smacked the floor. I ran after it, begging it not to go out, not to leave me in the dark, and it rolled to a stop just outside the door. Her footsteps followed but never picked up their pace. I wasn’t going to turn around again. I wasn’t going to look. No matter how close she came or how much I wanted to bolt. I picked up the flashlight, gripped the doorknob and held my breath as I eased the door open.

A canopy bed dominated the room, but the curtains that belonged to it were long gone.  There were windows against one wall. The shutters were open, there were no curtains there either, and the trees leered like grotesque voyeurs waiting to defile a lovers’ tryst.

Breathing hard, I forced my feet over the threshold and looked around. There were books on the shelves, and a safe visible against one wall. It looked as though there had once been a painting in front of it — maybe the one that I had seen in the sitting room. Something in here might give me an answer.

As the storm raged outside, the footsteps creaked around me.   No matter how loud the storm was or how ragged my breathing became, I could hear her movements, and if I hesitated for too long, the trees would scrabble and rut against the windows, trying to claw their way inside. Terror drove me forward until I spotted the family Bible, resting high at the center of a shelf, between a shoe box and something that looked like a toy carousel. The Bible was one of those ornate decorated ones. I was willing to bet that it would have a family tree inside, listing all the birth, death, and marriage dates.

Now my heart was pounding with another kind of desperation. I had to have it. All of my answers would be in there.

 

I was only 5’2″ tall. I knew I wouldn’t be able to reach. The only furniture in the room was the bed, the shelves, and an enormous high backed chair. I knew that there was no way I could move that, so I set the flashlight down on a middle shelf and stepped up onto the bottom row, using the fingers of my left hand to stabilize myself as I reached up to swipe at the Bible.

I missed. Straining up onto my tiptoes, I tried again, felt my fingers brush the old leather, but I couldn’t get a good grip. Thunder crashed outside, the trees banged against the windows, and I felt the shelf begin to sway back and forth. I stepped one foot back, trying to hold myself and the shelf stable long enough for me to reach the Bible.

The swaying picked up in perfect time with the rhythm that the trees were beating on the windows. I pushed myself to the side, landed hard and saw the whole shelf careening toward me. I scrambled out of the way, and it crashed to the floor bare inches from where my leg had been. The room went dark. My flashlight was gone.

I closed my eyes and tried to breathe, tried to think, but I could still hear the trees rustling and scraping and beating themselves against the house in a predatory frenzy. I covered my ears with my hands and pressed them as hard as I could but the sound never faded.

I have to get out of here!

 

But the trees were outside, and she was down here.

No. No. My answers were here. Everything was here. I had to stay.

Lightning sizzled through the sky, illuminating the room, and I lunged for the Bible. I wrestled it open, panting, and sat back on my knees to wait for the next flash.

My answers came in frozen glimpses, distorted snapshots stolen from the dark. Carrie’s name. Her mother’s above it. A sister with the same birthdate listed across from her. And below that —

Kathleen Elizabeth Albright, b. December 20, 1973. d. December 24, 1973.

***

The scrape and banging of the branches was constant as I walked toward the steps. It was a dry, brittle appeal, sometimes urgent, sometimes gentle.  They rapped on the windows, beating in time with the wind, demanding entry, then brushed along the sides of the house like spindly fingers against a lover’s thighs. The sound sent shudders through my body.

At first, the only other sounds were my shallow breaths and slow, dread-filled steps as I approached the stairs. I wanted to turn around, but I couldn’t. Where could I go? The trees were out there. My throat was tight as I placed a foot on the bottom step and grasped the railing. I drew a painful, rasping breath and moved my other leg. The floor behind me creaked. I wouldn’t look. I kept my eyes locked on the darkness above me, the shadows on the landing and the rooms beyond that I couldn’t see.

I took another step.  The creaking behind me move closer.  My hand tightened on the icy railing and I kept walking. I wouldn’t close my eyes. I wouldn’t stop. I wouldn’t turn to see. I heard the footsteps following me, felt eyes on my back, but I wouldn’t look, and I wouldn’t run.

 

Slowly, with her breath now hot against my ear and my own coming out in soft whimpers, I ascended.  At the top, I nearly bolted.  I would have, if it hadn’t meant turning around.  There was still no light.  Just blackness that rippled and moved, growing darker in some spots and then shifting, and the stink of rotting leaves.

Behind me, the footsteps had stopped too, but I could still feel her breath, and I heard the rustle of clothing as she reached for my shoulder —

I hurled myself into the mass of swirling, rotten blackness.  As it swallowed me, I tried to scream, but the stench of it rushed in and filled my lungs. I heaved against it, desperate for breath, feeling my chest rise and fall, sucking it in and then trying to cough it out again.

My body slammed up against something hard and solid. My fingers clawed at it, found a latch and turned it. The door swung open, I felt myself fall forward, and I landed hard on my knees with my hands splayed in front of me.

It took a moment to realize that I could see my fingers. I could see the room around me. It was empty.  Just an empty attic or storeroom.  Carrie wasn’t here.  There were no answers.

Then things went dark again and I opened my mouth, but thunder pounded back my screams. Rasping, I climbed to my feet again, looked over my shoulder at the blackness I had just come through, then turned to see where I was. I could make out a window frame, and I could feel wood floor beneath my feet. There was no way out except the window or the stairs.   I inched my way toward the window, mewling and breathing in tiny gasps. When I reached it, my fingernails dug into the splintered frame.  Lightning tore the sky again.

Below me, the trees beckoned, gentle and inviting now.  The swing, which should have been whipping and snapping around in the storm, was guiding itself back and forth.  I smiled at the sight of it.  I laughed.  Then I grasped the bottom of the window and shoved it upward.

When the swing didn’t slow down, and the storm didn’t ease, I turned my head again and contemplated the darkness in the hall. There were no footsteps now, no breath on my neck, no whispers or dead eyes scorching my back. They couldn’t reach me in this room.  In here there was only the tree and its stench of decay.  The promise of oblivion.

Carrie’s lover walked out from behind the tree, as I knew he would.  He raised his arms to me, beckoning, silently promising that I would be safe.  As I leaned out the window, smiled down at him, and his eyes laughed back.  I watched him for another minute, wondering how I could ever have thought these trees were so dead inside.  He beckoned again, and his hand reached out to still the motion of the swing —

Fuck you, bastard.

I shoved my closed fist out into the storm, jabbed my middle finger at him, and walked back into the hall.

***

I never told Mason what happened. I burned the clippings before I went home — both the set I copied from the library and the real ones I found scattered on the floor and Kathleen Albright’s bedroom after I knocked that shoebox over. I burned all of the answers —and all of the questions. I burned everything that led back to that house, those trees, and the secrets wound through their branches.

Every night, I tell myself that there are no trees in my backyard.  The scraping and scrabbling on my windows isn’t real.  Then I light a cigarette and remind myself that trees can burn.

Trees can burn.

 

6 thoughts on “Free Read: Branches

  1. FYI, when I tried to get to this page via your drop-down menu, I couldn’t. I had to click the page then scroll down until I came to this post, then click on it. I thought I’d tell you about this just in case you’re wondering why this post doesn’t get read as often!

  2. Pingback: “But I don’t know how …” | Rose B Fischer

  3. Pingback: Rose B Fischer

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