Trio of Terror!
Halloween has always formed an important part of my writing, and this month AAA presents three of my classic short story favorites. Written in the ‘80s, these tales of vampires run the gamut from atmospheric to downright bizarre. There’s “Silent Partner”, an HP Lovecraft-inspired story about the symbiotic relationship between the living and the undead. “No Looking Back”, about a one-night stand gone terribly wrong, has the immediacy and irony of a Robert Bloch tale, in a “Twilight Zone”-style framework. “Ruby Oak” is perhaps the most unique offering in this Trio of Terror – it’s certain you’ll never look at vampirism the same way again!
I am old now, and though my sight is failing and my arm grows weak, there is one tale still that I have to tell.
You’ve come to expect a good tale from me. Over the years, in bestseller after bestseller, we’ve about covered it all. Together we’ve made the great events of the past live again ‑ I through the telling, but even more you through the reading of them, for a tale’s not a tale till it’s heard.
Perhaps you’ve wondered where I get my material. How do I know Julius Caesar’s last thoughts as he felt the bite of Brutus’ blade? Or Mary Queen of Scots’ before the axe fell? Or Napoleon’s as he saw the battle turn against him on the field of Waterloo? Or what happened to Hitler after he disappeared into that bunker?
Of course you’ve told yourselves I can’t possibly know. No one knows those things. You suspect I just have a very vivid imagination.
Or do I? The fact is, I didn’t author any of those stories. Not any one of them. Oh, I may have put pen to paper but the stories aren’t mine. Yet I believe them; I have no choice. The source is impeccable. You see, I have a silent partner. You might say I am his ghostwriter.
But I perceive that I am being enigmatic. Is it possible that after years of revealing the secrets of the dead past I cannot now write plainly of what I myself have experienced? Perhaps I feel the awkwardness of the novice author, for this is indeed the first story I have written.
But at what point to start it? Perhaps Hitler and 1945 will do as well as any. During the war I led a surreal half‑life as a member of the Belgian underground resistance. Oddly enough it is something about which I have never written. The experiences I had then helped to form my character, but the turning point in my life came just after the liberation of Belgium.
It was then I met the man who called himself Van Arteveldt.
That was almost fifty years ago, and yet I remember every detail of that first meeting, as indeed I vividly recall our entire association. I think it was his physical presence that so captivated one on sight. He was extremely tall of stature, and though aged, unbent. He was gaunt, almost haggard, and although that was hardly a rare sight in post‑war Europe, as the concentration camps disgorged their survivors, yet there was something different about Van Arteveldt’s gauntness, for there was no sign of weakness in his emaciated frame. His limbs were long, as were his fingers, thin strands of bone with grotesquely bulbous knuckles and long, almost hooked nails; but his grip was iron.
His features were especially striking; the nose high‑bridged and aquiline, with a hawk‑like curve at the tip, the brows beetled and drawn together beneath the high forehead, the cheeks sunken and the thin lips pulled tightly over the long, white, perfectly formed teeth that glimmered faintly when he spoke.
But most mesmerizing of all were his eyes, the strangest color I have ever seen. In artificial light (for I never saw him abroad during the day) they shone hazel, with purplish rims, but cast in shadow they sparkled like finely cut amethyst, and there was a nothingness behind them that seemed to hide undreamt‑of depths.
I had lost both my parents during the war, and though in my late twenties I believe I needed a father figure in those lost times. That was what Philip Van Arteveldt became to me.
His exact origins I never did determine. His name was Dutch, but there was a certain Eastern European feel about him, and he was very superstitious. Indeed, his connections with the East are proved, for by his own admission he lost over half his private estate and income when the Communist government was established in Hungary. But the half that remained to him was a sum sufficient to maintain him in a more than modest style, and it was under his aegis, if not through downright bribery, that I was enabled to accompany him to this country and gain citizenship.
Looking back I cannot quite remember why I agreed to travel with Philip. I had no family ties to Europe, it is true, but I had friends, and before the war had been actively pursuing a medical degree. Suddenly it seemed the most logical thing to do was to follow this relative stranger. Though acquainted scarcely two months we had grown quite fond of each other and I felt strangely at ease in his presence; though others expressed a horror of his glance, I was cognizant of a special bond developing between us.
It was during the crossing of the Atlantic that Philip first regaled me with one of his marvelous oral renderings of the past. I call them that because in the telling, Philip’s vocal artistry was so great that the events and the scene he evoked were brought to life like the charcoal sketches of a Renaissance master.
I remember that night, the first of our journey, in full detail. I had joined Philip in his cabin just after sunset; we ate there alone, as was his habit ‑ he had a distaste of the more superficial social contacts and never “mingled” ‑ and after dinner and a few hands of gin he began his tale, a vivid recounting of Marie Antoinette’s last days, the rigors of her imprisonment, the humiliation of her trial, the ride in the tumbrel through the jeering crowds and the last awful walk to the guillotine. I sat entranced, unable to move or speak, as he wove his story on into the small hours. At last, well after three, he finished, and dismissed me rather brusquely. I stumbled in a haze back to my cabin, completely drained, and fell into a deep sleep, from which I did not emerge for a full twelve hours.
The next evening was the same, and the next, until I had changed night for day and day for night, and a creeping lethargy overtook me. Philip had never been in better spirits, however, and expressed concern that the late hours he was imposing on me were adversely affecting my health; he offered to discontinue the narratives until we had arrived in Miami, and I agreed somewhat reluctantly (for despite my lassitude his conversation was so fascinating that I craved those evenings together), retiring to my bed for the remainder of the voyage.
Philip unexpectedly overcame his aversion to his fellow passengers and while I lay in my cabin he became the star of our little set of emigres, relating amusing anecdotes by the hour. The voyage, which had begun in apprehension of the future, became, solely due to him, one of great enjoyment for all aboard, a pleasure that was only somewhat marred by the unaccountable disappearance of one of the crew the night before we docked, presumably lost overboard.
We settled in a smallish two‑story stucco home on the outskirts of Miami, and I immediately set about the process of establishing citizenship. Philip seemed apathetic to the process, and intimated that he might not after all establish residency here. Even so, he commenced great improvements to the place, principal among which was to regularize our water supply by connecting with the newly‑laid public water system, the previous source having been rainwater which was collected in a vast underground cistern beneath the backyard and pumped indoors as needed.
Our conversations resumed, but only weekly. Each time, though I eagerly anticipated the event, I dreaded the resultant feeling of exhaustion which oddly seemed to follow. In time I began to notice the development of an unsettling inverse relationship between us. While my strength and vigor would build until the evening of our talk arrived, Philip’s vitality seemed to wane; the following day our positions were reversed, and I would recommence my slow and gradual improvement, while a temporarily reinvigorated Philip declined apace.
In our daily routine, too, we could not have been more opposite. I have always been what is called a “morning person,” and save on the day following our talks continued to rise early. Philip never came down before three at the earliest, though whether he slept until that hour I could not say. When he did descend he never stirred from the house until after sunset, but sat and read or did research in a small room which we used as a parlor, and which at his request I always prepared for him by drawing the blinds shut and laying out a selection of books from his vast collection, taken from a list which he updated nightly. If he went out in the evenings, he would always ask me to accompany him; otherwise he would retire to his second floor bedroom about ten, locking himself in and not emerging until the following afternoon. That, at least, was what I assumed, but several times I had occasion to seek him out after ten or before three, and no amount of knocking or calling would rouse him. I began to fancy that he was not there at all some evenings, but I knew he had not passed my room at the head of the stairs and there was no conceivable alternate exit.
The reader may well wonder why I remained in a situation which I found so unsettling, and in explanation I can only say that the mesmerizing hold of our conversations was complete. For those few hours each week I was transported to a different world, an otherwise irretrievable era was revealed to me. In addition I was a stranger in an unknown city; Philip graciously provided all my needs in return for my services as housekeeper and secretary.
For over seven months we lived thus, and I lost virtually all contact with the outside world. I vaguely recall that it was a period of anxiety for Miami and its environs, for a series of mysterious disappearances plagued the district, over a dozen people in all vanishing without a trace in those few months.
It was near the beginning of my eighth month in my new home that I suffered a physical collapse. I do not remember much of that day, the last I ever saw Philip, except a feeling of extreme lassitude (we had been up particularly late the night before discussing the assassination of the Tsar and his family). I was risen barely half an hour before Philip, and had just finished drawing the blinds in the parlor when I heard his light tread in the hallway, and turning, saw him framed in the door. Then a dizziness surged over me and I lost consciousness.
When I fell I received a severe concussion, and it was several days later that I awoke in the hospital, to find that I had additionally been diagnosed as having pernicious anemia.
There was a letter from Philip, which I still retain, and reproduce here:
“My dear friend:
I hope you are well on your way to recovery when you read this. I trust I can have been in no way a cause of injury to your person. I find that I am urgently required on my estate in Piedmont, and will leave for Europe in two days’ time. I regret to say the stay will be permanent and we will never meet again. This country is not suited to one such as me, who has lived so long in the past.
I feel the need of thousand‑year‑old streets beneath my feet. The house I deed over to you, on the express condition that you never sell it and never cause the old cistern to be opened or removed.
This is the last communication I ever had from him, and never saw him again.
At least, I may say that I never saw him in the flesh. But the night before his departure I had the strangest dream, if dream it was.
I was heavily sedated and still in the grip of my anemic lethargy, but it seemed to me that Philip came to my bed in the small hours. I dreamt there was a rapping at my window which woke me, and rising with difficulty I crossed to the sill. Philip was there, suspended stories above the ground, his long tapering fingers scratching the glass and craving entrance. I drew up the pane a bit and stood back as he passed silently into the room, somehow slipping effortlessly through the six‑inch opening, for it is well known that actions in dreams defy the laws of nature.
He did not speak audibly but yet I heard him say his farewells. Even in my drugged state I was concerned for my future, for Philip had been my sole support in this country and I knew no one.
“I have already given you your livelihood,” his unparted lips seemed to say. “Take my stories, the stories I have told you, and write them down. They will stand you in good stead.” Then he drew himself up to full height, and more so, for he floated a full foot above the floor. “Only be certain that you never, never tell of me, or where you have learned these things. If you disobey me in this, it will be to your uttermost peril,” and his eyes flashed purple sparks in the darkness. A second later he was gone.
All his conditions I have met. Though I could well afford more luxurious surroundings, I still own the house, and the cistern keeps its secrets. And until this day I have, perhaps needlessly, obeyed that dreamed injunction never to reveal his name.
But I am grown old, and Philip was fully as aged then as I am now. Surely it is safe to tell the truth today, if ever there was a danger.
As I have written the sun has set, and the shadows have deepened into night; the open window invites the chill of the evening indoors. I have not thought so much of our time together in this house for a great while, and in recounting it now I almost feel transported back to those early days so long ago.
I even fancy I hear Philip’s light tread in the hallway outside my door…
NO LOOKING BACK
Looking back now, if indeed such a thing were possible, Myron Haycroft would definitely have been able to pinpoint that second cup of coffee at the department store’s lunch counter as his downfall.
Life, it seems, is full of hundreds of these unmarked turning points, if we but knew it. We scorn a car’s faulty ignition, when in fact that few seconds’ delay may have saved the life of a small child playing further down the road, who would otherwise have run heedlessly into the street before the oncoming auto.
Some twists of fate are kind, others less so. Who can say what further horrors that second cup of weak, murky brown liquid may have saved Myron? Who now shall ever know?
* * *
Myron replaced his coffee cup in its saucer with a mild grimace on his pursed lips. He clasped his hands together, forming a fleshy bridge to rest his chin upon, and stroked his throat meditatively with his thumbs.
Someone dining with Myron would have been aware of a succession of short gasp‑like sighs. But as he dined alone, no one noticed.
“Another cup, sir?” asked the pimpled waitress.
Myron thought a second ‑ which was the lesser of two evils? A third cup of that disgusting fluid or facing his empty apartment that much sooner? The fear of indigestion won out.
“Thank you, no. Just the check, please.”
The waitress bustled off, leaving Myron an unimpeded view of the mirrored wall behind the counter which the department store had thoughtfully provided, doubtless so those solitary diners would have someone to look at, if not to talk to.
In the present instance it was a rather somber, aging face that stared back at him, and Myron didn’t much like it. In fact, he disliked it heartily, and he felt a sneaking suspicion that in giving that face the cold shoulder, humanity knew very well what it was about. He attempted a half‑hearted smile, but it just brought out the wrinkles around his eyes. A listless grey, they had only just begun to enhance the color of his hair, and now much of that was on its way out. At forty‑seven, middle age had apparently handed in its notice prematurely, but the good news was that old age was right there to take up the slack.
“Your check, sir.”
Myron started from his thoughts as the small green slip of paper was laid before him. “Thank you.” He laid a few bills on the counter, and with an effort gathered his dark raincoat about him and covered his head with a black hat. He retrieved his briefcase and umbrella from the stool beside him and turned to go.
Once on the street, he readjusted the hat and opened his umbrella to protect himself against the warm lashing rain that fell like sheets of shattered crystal. Of course he had parked his car to the rear of the large macadam lot ‑ all the nearby spaces had been full. The night was dark, with low‑hung mists that persisted despite the rains, and Myron followed the eerie path of neon streetlamps, moving like a pantomime of death from one limpid pool of light to the next.
At length he approached his car, parked alongside an artificial grouping of cement‑girded beech trees which had all but shed their leaves as November tightened its grip on the land. He fumbled clumsily with his keys at the lock and a sudden gust of wind blew the umbrella up and nearly out of his grasp. The rain stung his eyes and lashed his cheek and lips; it was salty, like tears; or blood.
And suddenly she was there; a young girl, at first seeming incredibly young, almost childlike; dark‑clad in a skirt and jacket and boots, with a brown‑and‑red tam crushed awkwardly over the black rain‑soaked hair that clung limply to her neck and back. Oddly, the first thing he noticed about her was that her mascara had run, and how very full and red her lips looked against the pallor of her skin.
Myron rubbed his eyes, questioning their veracity. He was not generally accosted by young women in parking lots.
“Please,” she gasped, and her dark eyes flashed. “Can you help me?”
Myron just stared at her a second ‑ with an effort he comported himself enough to speak. “I…uh, that is…how? What seems to be the trouble?”
“We’re getting drenched out here ‑ can we get in the car?” Without waiting for an answer she reached for his keys, and Myron noted with pity how cold her hands were. In a second she had turned the lock, then quickly ducked into the car and slid across to the passenger side.
A squealing siren arrested Myron in mid‑step and he turned, half bent, to see a patrol car swiftly round a corner of the department store and glide smoothly past him. A roving searchlight picked out his form by the car door and he brought the umbrella down suddenly to shield his eyes from the glare. The patrol car moved on and Myron snapped the umbrella shut and got in the car. He half expected to find that he had imagined the girl after all, but there she was, a meek, diminutive figure, holding herself and shivering. Myron remembered a blanket he kept in the back seat.
“Here,” he said, reaching over the seat to retrieve it. “This will warm you.”
The girl smiled shyly and wrapped the blanket snugly about her, pulling a fold up and over her hair.
“Now, then, what’s all the fuss?”
“Please, could we just drive? It’s so cold here.”
“Now, look here, young lady, what is all this about?”
“Please ‑ ” she took his hand and the icy coolness of her flesh made his skin crawl. “You don’t want me to catch my death, do you?”
“No….No, of course not.” He relapsed into silence, started the ignition and shifted into drive.
“Not that way. Turn around and go back to the east entrance.”
“Oh, it’s a ride you want?” he asked. The girl didn’t answer.
He backed the car and turned eastward. He dimly saw the patrol car’s flashing lights reflected in his rear‑view mirror. The silence in the car was unnerving, and he attempted to make conversation. “Quite a night, isn’t it? I don’t ordinarily give rides to strangers, you understand, but in the circumstances I’m happy to help. I suppose you must have missed the last bus? It is getting rather late, and not at all the sort of night for a young girl to be out.” The car had reached the intersection of the main road. “Which way now, Miss…”
“Miranda. Call me Miranda.”
“I’m Myron Haycroft, Miranda. Which way?”
“I don’t care. Which way are you going?”
“Eh? I’m going home ‑ I have an apartment downtown.”
“That will be fine.”
“Where downtown would you like me to drop you?”
The girl looked at him. “Your apartment will be fine.”
Myron choked back a gasp and stared at her. Miranda’s whole demeanor seemed to have changed, and her eyes glowed brightly from the blanket’s fringe.
“I beg your pardon?” he rasped.
Instantly she was a sweet and vulnerable child again. “I’m sorry if I upset you. I’ll need to dry off, if I could ‑ and use your phone. If that’s all right?” She looked at him pleadingly, and Myron’s cheek felt uncomfortably warm.
“I don’t…why, yes, I suppose….Yes, of course that will be fine.”
“Thank you,” breathed Miranda, then turned to rest her head against the window. She sighed softly and closed her eyes. Myron took that as a sign that further conversation was unnecessary, and he felt relieved. He tried to focus his thoughts on the events of the past ten minutes, but it all seemed a blur. What had really happened there? How had he come to be in this position? Nothing like this had ever occurred to him before and he felt at a loss to explain how he’d gotten involved in this, or indeed what it was all about. He looked over at Miranda. She seemed to be sleeping, but he couldn’t imagine how. What had happened to her ‑ why did he feel such a compulsion to help her, a total stranger?
Miranda maintained her silence for the rest of the drive, and Myron almost believed she really was asleep. As soon as the car stopped, however, she opened her eyes and turned to him, smiling shyly.
Once in the apartment, she was flatteringly appreciative of Myron’s decor, paying special attention to a series of charcoal drawings by local artists. She delicately fingered his few bits of antique Venetian glass and objets d’art, then paused by a wrought iron wine rack. “Oh ‑ you have a marvelous cellar.”
“Uh, thank you,” said Myron, a bit perplexed by her manner, like that of one inspecting a potential residence. Why didn’t she make her phone call and go?
“Where is the bathroom?”
“Down the hall. I ‑”
“Thanks.” She smiled brightly, deposited the blanket on an arm‑chair, and walked off in the direction indicated, pausing to call over her shoulder. “I wouldn’t mind some of that wine ‑ red, please.”
Myron stood gaping after her as the bathroom door clicked shut. This had gone a bit far. Picking someone up in the rain and offering them a ride was one thing, but this… Except he hadn’t picked her up ‑ she had picked up him. No, that didn’t seem right, either; not picked up ‑ chosen. Somehow, it didn’t feel like a chance meeting ‑ he felt … comfortable. Almost as though he’d always known this would one day happen, but never really thought about it. Just like living each day with the knowledge that death is always on the periphery of life.
The thought was unsettling, and he went to the wet bar to fix a drink. He paused as he heard the shower being turned on. His hand strayed to the scotch, then stopped, and his eye rested on the wine rack. ‘After all’, he thought, ‘why not?’
He chose a refreshing pinot noir and uncorked it. The dual sounds of the shower spray and the rain against the windows were strangely soothing, lulling his mind into a lethargy which was almost sensual. He noticed as he retrieved the wine glasses that his palms were sweating. He smiled. This was all so strange, yet it seemed the most natural thing in the world. He poured himself a short glass and drained it quickly, then placed both glasses and the bottle on a tray, and went to the bedroom to wait.
He thought of turning on the light, but decided against it. He didn’t want to see himself in the mirror. Tonight he wanted to pretend he was twenty‑five again. So he placed the tray carefully on the nightstand, kicked off his shoes and undressed in the semi‑darkness, then lay back on the bed.
About ten minutes later she appeared, wrapped in a towel, a dark silhouette against the light streaming from the hall. Her hair still clung to her, but freshly and cleanly now, no longer rain soaked and matted.
“I poured you a drink,” he said softly, for his mouth felt dry.
Silently she crossed the room and took her glass. “Nice,” she murmured after a while.
In the dark, Myron sensed her turning toward him, and heard the faint clink of her glass on the tabletop and the sighing swish of the towel as it dropped to the floor. The bed beside him sagged with her weight, but only a little. Her eyes glimmered above him a moment before he felt her lips on him, teasing, tempting, tasting.
Long after it was over he lay there, his mind drifting listlessly in a sea of sensations. With an effort he roused himself to speak. “Thanks,” he whispered. Her hand lightly caressed his chest, causing an electric tingle that clarified his thoughts. “That was terrific. Uh…can I get you something to eat? You must be famished.”
“I am; but I’ll get something later.”
Myron murmured assent as he nodded off. It was only after he was deeply asleep that Miranda satisfied her hunger.
* * * * *
Myron woke next morning to a sickly grey dawn, with pinkish streaks slicing through the window blinds and forming strange patterns on the ceiling. His head hurt and he felt dizzy when he sat up in bed. ‘Too much wine last night,’ he thought, but couldn’t remember having had more than that first glass. He turned to the nightstand, but the bottle and glasses were gone.
Just then Miranda came in, clad in one of his old pajama tops. “Good evening,” she said.
Myron rubbed his head and smiled. “Which of us is worse off? Don’t you mean ‘good morning?'”
Miranda’s lips curled in the suggestion of a smile, and she moved to open the blinds. “A nice place you’ve got here.”
“So you’ve said.”
“I wonder if I could hang around for awhile. I’m sort of in between places just now.”
Myron didn’t answer. He had just noticed a natural phenomenon whereby the day appeared to be getting darker instead of lighter. The pinkish streaks had all but vanished. “I’m sorry; what did you say?”
Miranda sat beside him on the bed and stroked his forehead. Her hands felt cool and soothing. “I need a place to stay. Is it OK if I stay here?”
“Well, after last night, we’re hardly strangers. I guess it’s all right.”
A sudden thought struck him. “Hey ‑ you’re not in any trouble, are you?”
“Not anymore, thanks to you.”
Myron remembered the patrol car from the night before. “The police?”
“Don’t worry ‑ they haven’t actually seen me; you’re safe.”
“What did you do?”
She looked at him. “I killed a man.”
She said it so matter‑of‑factly that Myron laughed. “No, seriously.”
“Seriously? OK ‑ I’ve killed several men.” Her face was hard, like stone.
Myron drew back. “You’re not kidding, are you?”
“No, Myron,” she said, and rose from the bed. “I’m not kidding.”
“Oh, my God…” Myron sunk is face in his hands. “Look, you can’t stay here ‑ I won’t turn you in, but you can’t stay here.”
“I have to now, Myron.” She spoke as to a child.
“But you’ll need me.”
He laughed hoarsely.
“Honestly. You don’t remember what happened last night, do you, Myron?”
“Sure, we made love, and it was great, but if you think…”
“I mean after that, Myron,” she interrupted.
“When you fell asleep.”
“I’m supposed to remember what happens when I’m asleep?”
Miranda stared a moment, then giggled. The sound, so girlish and naive, jarred his senses; it seemed so out of place. “I forgot for a moment that you can’t do that yet.”
“Look ‑ what’s going on here?”
Miranda reseated herself on the bed. “Last night, while you slept, I drank your blood, and then I gave you some of mine. I’m a vampire, Myron.”
He stared at her, and his voice came thickly. “My God, you’re insane.”
“And now you’re one, too. So you see, I have to stay here, to help you adjust. You’ll be lost without me, Myron.”
“You’re completely out of your mind.”
“I thought you might react like this. Need some convincing, hunh? How about this?” She reached for his throat and he clutched her hand. Their eyes met.
“You must trust me, Myron.” He released his grip, and her fingers flicked along his neck a moment. He winced in irritation. “Here ‑” she showed a dark reddish‑brown smear on her finger.
“OK, so we got into it a little heavily last night ‑“ His breathing became more rapid.
Miranda nodded. “All right. How do you explain that?” She pointed to the window.
It was full dark outside. Myron’s head snapped back to the bedside digital alarm. It registered 4:57 p.m.
“I don’t understand…I…how could I have slept the whole day away? It…you’re crazy! You’re crazy!” Get away from me!” Myron leapt from the bed, whirling to face her.
Miranda sighed. “Myron, Myron. You know it’s true. Deep down inside, you know. But if you want one last bit of proof…Myron, remember what you’ve always heard about vampires? They cast no reflection? The mirror’s right behind you, Myron. Why don’t you see for yourself?”
Myron swallowed hard and brushed a film of sweat from his forehead. He turned slowly, and looked into the mirror.
No one looked back.
For Myron Haycroft, in more ways than one, there would be no more looking back.
It was his special place. He had only found it that spring, scouting out the area the Simpson girl had been killed in the autumn before, as boys will do. He could never identify the exact spot the body had been discovered, but there was such a peace, such a serenity to the place that he found himself returning time and again.
A young man of just sixteen has a lot to think through, and this was the place to do it. All summer long, whatever the weather, he had managed to spend at least a part of almost every day there, thinking, planning and dreaming.
It was a beautiful, quiet country spot, just over a mile from the land his family farmed; a small, untilled glade, a sort of stopping place between field and wood, dominated by an ancient oak, sturdy and tall. Filled with wildflowers all summer, now as fall descended on the land the goldenrod curled brown, the sumac blazed, and here or there a touch of early frost lit upon a branch of the old oak, highlighting the vivid green with shafts of golden color.
Evan picked his way slowly along the dirt lane from the bus stop to the farmhouse, slapping a textbook purposefully against the posts of the split rail fence. So much to think about, but so much to do, with the harvest still to take in and winter coming on. His glance roved ahead to the grey clapboard house in the distance and he sighed. His parents would be there, with a list of tasks as long as his arm, needing to be done before he could snatch a moment’s solitude to slip away to his special oak and think.
At times he felt so alone. His classmates, his teachers, his parents ‑ none of them seemed to understand him, what he wanted out of life. He knew there was more than plowing fields and sowing grain, a world wider than the farm and the small town he’d grown up with, and he wanted to experience it all. It seemed the only time he could think clearly was when he was alone in his special place. Then he could talk things through; he knew it was silly, but everything seemed more in focus when he vocalized it. He even sometimes felt as if the oak was listening, almost answering. It had become his best friend, sharing his frustrations and aspirations.
His father met him at the gate. “Evan, there’s a deal of work to do. I’m off to the south field for that corn. There’s a killing frost expected tonight, and Mother’s taking in the last of the tomatoes and peppers. Give her a hand with that and then you can take over for me on the harvester ‑ I’ve got an appointment in town.”
Evan nodded dully and turned into the house to change.
* * *
With less than an hour of light left he relieved his father in the south field. His back ached from bending to pick the tomatoes. His mother had already begun to prepare them for canning, and he was expected to help when the light had gone.
He threw the harvester into gear and finished a few more rows, till his father’s retreating form vanished over the low hill separating the field from the farmhouse. Then he turned off the ignition and leapt from the seat, heading toward the setting sun.
* * *
The oak shivered and splayed its branches to revel in the last dying rays of the sun. There would be a killing frost that night; the oak had grown long enough in that glade to recognize the approach of winter.
If only the boy would come tonight. All would still be well.
An icy blast roared out of the north and rustled the green and gold leaves, and the oak creaked its boughs softly. At last its roots detected the well‑known tread of the boy. The wind‑blown leaves murmured a prayer of thanksgiving.
* * *
Evan loved to watch the sunset from beneath his friend. The colors tonight were especially beautiful and soothing, and as he watched the kaleidoscopic panoply of purple, pink and orange, he leaned against the rugged trunk, his arms drawn behind to embrace the oak and caress its jagged bark. A flock of geese glided smoothly over the horizon; their calls came faintly with the wind, sounding to the boy like city traffic at the rush hour. He smiled, closed his eyes and dreamed of one day seeing that city, and the last reflected rays of the sun played upon his placid features.
The oak bent to enfold him.
* * *
It was after eleven when the farmer returned to his home. His wife met him on the porch, her face lined with care.
“Evan…?” he ventured.
“He hasn’t come back, John. I’m worried.”
The man strode past his wife, indoors to the telephone by the table lined with sparkling, empty canning jars. He dialed. “Jeb? John here. It’s Evan ‑ he’s not come back….I know that, Jeb. We should have pulled it down years ago. And after that Simpson girl last fall….No, it’s too late tonight. It’s in God’s hands. But I’ll need your help in the morning.” He replaced the phone and with misty eyes went to his wife and held her close.
* * *
Beneath an oak that flamed scarlet in the early light, they found the pale, drained body of the boy, cradled like the pieta among its hoary roots, covered with a blanket of ruby oak leaves.