close up of oak tree bark

Are You There?

“Hey, Spaceman!”

I was breathing heavy when Jimmy woke me from my daydream. He was sitting in the driver’s seat of the company’s white Ford Ranger. Beads of sweat were dripping down his round, sunburnt face. “Earth to Spaceman!” he said.

It was muggy as hell that mid-August day in Northumbria Cemetery. Harry Belmont, the cemetery groundskeeper who also happened to be Jimmy’s dad, had told Jimmy and I to trim around the Chen monument on Section H. Harry said the “old biddy,” his term for the yet-to-be-deceased Mrs. Chen, was complaining again.

I didn’t want to work near the Chen monument that afternoon. Not because I didn’t like Mrs. Chen, but because it was too close to the path in the treeline.

I had found the path, which led to the forest clearing and the oak tree by accident, earlier that year in June, while stashing my lawnmower in the treeline on Section H. The clearing was my hiding place where I spent countless hours smoking weed, listening to Delerium on my iPod and reading my mouldy old paperbacks. In the clearing, with my back against the oak tree, I often dreamed about the good old days, in the 90s, when my band was the opening act for Our Lady Peace and Wide Mouth Mason and others. Before the drugs turned the world upside down.

The oak tree spoke to me, too, mostly in my dreams, but sometimes in the messages it left on the ground at its base. She was the goddess, a portal to another universe, and I had vowed to keep her location secret.

When Jimmy and I arrived at the Chen monument, I grabbed the trimmer from the back of the white Ranger and placed it on the grass. I pulled the trimmer’s cord, but the motor didn’t start. I pulled again, harder this time, but still no success. On my third attempt, I yanked the cord so violently passed my shoulder that I tweaked a muscle in my upper back. The trimmer was silent.

“You gotta fingerbang it first,” said Jimmy, as he rolled his cigarette.

“What?”

“You can’t start the trimmer without pumping the primer first. Damn! How many drugs did you do in your day? Get out of the way. Let me do it.”

Jimmy placed the freshly wrapped cigarette between his lips and knelt down beside the trimmer. He pumped the gas primer ten times, pulled the cord once and brought the trimmer humming to life. “Get to work,” he said, as he handed me the trimmer.

I trimmed the tall emerald grass around the Chens’ black marble monument while Jimmy rested against the white Ranger. He stared off into the treeline with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Jimmy was a big man of six feet four inches. He was a total screw up who loved to brag about gouging out eyes and busting lips at the local bars. He also didn’t like to work, but made sure to tell his dad whenever he caught one of the seasonals slacking.

My first encounter with Jimmy was in the lunchroom in May, shortly after he started working at Northumbria. He sat across from me at the lunchroom table and plunged his right index finger – dirty fingernail and all – into the microwaved chocolate brownie in my Hungry-Man.

“Are you going to eat that?” he asked. He stared at me with those electric blue eyes before he started laughing. “I’m just kidding with you, man.”

I stopped eating in the lunchroom after that encounter, and instead took my breaks outside. But there was no avoiding Jimmy. He started calling me “Spaceman” after he found out I was a Bowie fan. Every time he saw me while driving in the white Ranger he would yell out, “Hey, Spaceman!” He always said that he was joking, but it didn’t feel like a joke to me. Soon, everyone started calling me “Spaceman.”

The first time the oak tree spoke to me was in the form of a beautiful pink rose. I was napping in the clearing on an overcast, humid morning in July. The pink rose stood alone in the darkness and moved ever so slightly, from side to side. Suddenly, the outer petals fluttered, at first rapidly like the wings of a hummingbird, then deep and slow. Deep and slow.

When I woke up, my green cemetery shirt was soaking wet and I was breathing heavily. Beams of sunlight had pierced through the tree canopy, for the first time that day, and warmed my stubbled face. Then I saw it. Directly in front of me, at the base of the oak tree. A message written in the dirt:

ARE YOU THERE?

 

“Are you there, Spaceman?” yelled Jimmy, waving his hands in front of my face. “You’re always hanging around in this section. Why?”

“I don’t know.”

Jimmy smiled, revealing a missing eye tooth. His breath smelled like cheap beer and tobacco. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going to tell my dad or anything. As far as I’m concerned, everybody’s a slacker here. Whole bunch of degenerates! Hell, I saw Eileen working on the Gravely on Section P this morning. High as a kite! Let me tell you, my dad and the guys in the suits don’t give a damn. As long as the work gets done, they’re happy.”

Jimmy took one last sloppy drag from his cigarette and flicked the remains onto Mrs. Chen’s plot. He used the back of his sweaty hand to wipe the specks of tobacco and white crud from the corners of his mouth. “I want you to show me,” he said.

“Show you what?”

Jimmy laughed out loud and slapped me hard on my right shoulder. “Don’t play dumb, Spaceman! I want to see that place you go to hide out.”

The muscles in my ribs tightened. “What hideout?”

“Are you kidding me? Every single day I watch you disappear into this treeline. Where you hiding?”

My head was now spinning. I found myself gasping for breath. “I should be getting to work at the Barnum plot. Your dad said—”

“No,” Jimmy said. His smile disappeared and his electric blue eyes narrowed. “You’re going to show me now.”

I didn’t want to say no to Jimmy. So, instead I led him to the opening along the treeline, parted the bushes with my hands and revealed the narrow pathway to the clearing.

“Did you make this path?” asked Jimmy.

I shook my head. No.

I led Jimmy onto the path. Within moments, a stiff breeze brushed against my back and caused the millions of tree leaves to dance. I swallowed the saliva in my mouth. The oak tree was speaking.

“I think it’s going to rain,” I said. “Maybe we should head back to the yard.”

“No. Keep going.”

The narrow path finally gave way to the forest clearing, which was fifteen feet in diameter and in the shape of a circle. Five large stones, placed at equal distance from each other, rested along the edges of the circle. At the opposite end of the path stood the towering oak tree, its bark scarred from an old burn and centuries of weather.

“This place is freakin’ awesome! Who else knows about it?” I kept my eyes to the ground. “Hey, Spaceman! I asked you a question.”

Before I could answer, Jimmy found the dozens of messages scrawled across the ground. “What’s this?” He froze when he finally saw the oak tree. He licked his upper lip and smiled as he studied its corrugated bark and massive limbs. “I’m going to write my name.”

Jimmy removed a serrated hunting knife from his side jean pocket and carved the top horizontal line of the letter “J” onto the tree’s flesh. Viscous ooze poured from the wound.

“Don’t do it!” I said. “You’ll hurt the tree!”

“What’s up with you?” he said, turning back to face me. “It’s just a freakin’ tree.”

“Please don’t—”

“Or what, you’re gonna report me to my dad? Get a grip, Spaceman!”

Dark clouds formed in the sky above the clearance. Fat raindrops pelted my shoulders.

Jimmy took another step towards the oak tree to finish his work. But before his knife could pierce her bark, his foot caught on one of her exposed roots. He fell forward and landed chest first onto his upturned hunting knife.

A large pool of blood instantly formed around Jimmy’s body and was absorbed by the ground beneath. The oak tree had spoken.

Jimmy Belmont was dead.

Posted in Short Story.

John Gilson