The photo below provided by Emilio Pasquale. The story I wrote inspired by the photo follows…
She thought she’d find an ally in her sister, but as they engaged in a stare-down, it became obvious to Elaine that she’d miscalculated. Her stiffened legs and a crick in her back warned she should quit. Clearly, more than a laminate table divided them. Yet, she refused to show signs of wearing down. I inherited Dad’s stubbornness.
“She’s getting older. I think the stress of the trip will be too much for her. Please, convince her not to go,” Elaine said, mindful to keep desperation out of her voice. Jackie would never admit it, but they both knew she had more sway with their mom. It’d been that way from the beginning, when Jackie almost died the day she entered the world fifty-eight years ago. It took adulthood and having kids of her own for Elaine to forgive her for that.
Jackie snorted. “We’re all getting older, Elaine. There’s no way she’d not go.” She dunked her tea bag several times with the back of her spoon. Her mouth pressed into a thin line and a frown creased her eyebrows.
Three soggy tea bags rested on the saucer beneath Jackie’s cup. All spent. That’s how Elaine felt. After two hours, neither had budged. If the conversation translated into chess, it would be a stalemate. In their defense, there wasn’t much room for compromise; it’s not like they could half-way go.
Elaine shook her head. “She gets so upset. Besides, the Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point she doesn’t understand much anymore.” She hesitated before adding the root of her concern. “I have a bad feeling about it.”
Jackie smirked. “Another premonition?” She crooked her fingers in air quotes as she said premonition.
“Nothing specific; just a feeling.”
“Look, you know as well as I do she hasn’t forgotten that house.” With the back of her hand, she brushed her graying bangs off her forehead. “I don’t know why, but she has to visit that place on Halloween every year.” Jackie sipped her tea and set her mug back on the paper coaster. “If you won’t go, I’ll take her by myself.”
Elaine recognized the determination in her younger sister’s eyes. Just like Mom’s. “You can’t drive until your seizures are controlled.” She sighed. “Fine. I’ll drive. We’ll leave at noon so we can get there before dark. That house is darn creepy at night.”
Jackie laughed. “That, I’d have to agree with.” She pulled out her wallet. “I got this.” She dropped a ten on the table to cover the muffins and beverages.
After she slid out of the booth, Elaine left another few dollars to compensate for monopolizing the table for so long.
*** *** ***
Elaine shifted the car into park on what she thought could’ve been the driveway. The once-worn dirt tracks had been overtaken by wild grass, thanks to a heavy rainy season. She looked over at her mom in the passenger seat; her expressionless face impossible to read.
She got out and rounded the car to open her door, but Jackie reached it first. Elaine’s eyes focused on how her mom leaned into Jackie and she felt a tinge of jealousy at the moment they shared. As quickly as it surfaced, it dissolved into shame for her childish resentments.
“Dear, can you get the bag?”
“Sure, Mom.” Elaine popped the trunk and retrieved the gallon-sized baggie. Every year, she brought a bag of white powder. Every year, she knelt at the base of a large tree, said a prayer, sprinkled the powder around, and then cried. She’d never had the nerve to interrupt the moment by asking her mom what it meant. Maybe this year, I will. Right after she thought it, she knew she wouldn’t. Her mom only shared on her terms; it’d always been that way.
Elaine fell in beside her mom and sister after they stopped under the canopy of a large tree. All three women gazed at the house that stood in disrepair. Elaine and Jackie urged their mom to sell when she inherited the house, but she remained firm. For fourteen years, she’d owned a house she couldn’t sell, but couldn’t live in either. The wood siding had weathered to the point no paint remained on the splitting boards. Shingles had been torn from the roof after years of winter storms. No telling what the inside looked like; no one ever crossed the threshold.
“Daddy was a preacher man,” Mom whispered. “He taught me about faith.”
Jackie and Elaine looked at each other. Their mom never spoke of her father.
“Everyone looked up to Reverend Richard Mason, but he was a wretched man.”
The bitterness in her voice caught Elaine by surprise. “We all have our demons, Mom.” As soon as the words passed her lips, she wanted them back. Jackie’s ‘What were you thinking?’ look didn’t help.
“Satan lurked beneath fervent sermons delivered with a forked tongue.” Tears slid down Mom’s wrinkled cheeks.
Jackie draped an arm around Mom’s shoulder and Elaine placed a hand on her arm. A glance exchanged between sisters confirmed they shared the same confusion.
Mom reached for the tree’s trunk, her fingertips caressing the bark as if reading braille.
The air seemed to cool a few degrees. Elaine and Jackie sensed their mom’s next words would bear weight, but they had no idea how shattering they would turn out to be.
*** *** ***
Just as it always had, coming back to my childhood home took a toll on me. A kaleidoscope of emotions tumbled inside. In the presence of my past, I smelled my mother’s powder scent like I had each night when she tucked me into bed. I felt the anticipation of sampling the food parishioners brought to our 4th of July picnics. I heard father humming as he cut the grass on Saturday mornings. And, just like that, a dark cloud blanketed my soul. I took a ragged breath, feeling every one of my eighty-five years, and then some. “Saturday nights, I’d awaken to the odor of musk, body odor and stale beer.” I bowed my head, unsure if I was ready to let the truth escape. Maybe I already said too much?
I sensed my daughters staring with silent expectations.
“I’d squeeze my eyes shut and fake sleep.” I closed my eyes, and could feel his breath on my ear again. My stomach lurched. “He’d whisper that I was his favorite and warn me that if I didn’t keep our secret, I’d be condemned to eternal damnation.” I flicked tree bark off with my thumb nail; something to focus on besides what I needed to say next.
“I-I don’t know what to say,” Jackie whispered.
“It all changed one Halloween. I’ve never spoken of it.” I looked at each of my daughters. “Until now.”
“Why now?” Elaine asked.
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Leaning my head against the tree’s trunk, I recited the scripture that had been needling my subconscious for years.
A gust of wind sent leaves fluttering to the ground and an eerie sound echoed in the dusk air.
“Does anyone else hear wind chimes?” Jackie asked.
A shiver ran down my back and the hairs rose on my arms.
“Yes,” Elaine said. “We should go.”
I ignored the fear in their voices. I had to finish. Half-told secrets lead to partial liberation. “Halloween, 1942 was the last Saturday he ever crept into my room.” I closed my eyes and cycled through several deep breaths and exhales as I willed myself to speak the truth. “I killed him with a claw hammer.”
I paused to give them time to digest what I just revealed. I couldn’t bear to look at them. Their disappointment would be the one burden heavier than my sins.
“Mama helped me bury him under this tree.” I thumped the trunk twice with the palm of my hand.
“Sweet Jesus,” Jackie muttered. “You can’t be serious.”
The ground shifted, but I wrote it off as hyper-sensitivity to the truth beneath my feet. “I was barely a teen, but she found me a good man who married me and took me far away.”
“Every year, I fertilized this tree so it remained strong and kept our secret well. Your dad never asked why; he just drove.” I shook my head. “Mama’s been gone for years. I’ve repented my sins. There’s only one thing left to do.”
“W-what?” Elaine asked.
“Forgive.” I snatched the bag from Elaine’s grip and sprinkled the poison all around the base of the tree. I dropped to my knees and cried. My knees ached, but not as much as my insides.
Elaine and Jackie embraced each other.
That simple action told me all I needed to know: together, they’d be just fine.
“Heavenly Father, I ask that you work in my heart so that it will no longer be a safe haven for evil. Just as I have forgiven my father for his trespasses, please forgive mine. I release the burden of my sins to you and pray that my father’s spirit will be delivered to its final resting place.”
Leaves dropped and fluttered to the ground until, several minutes later, the branches were bare. The ground rumbled. Soft dirt twisted and split, revealing massive roots that spanned at least twenty feet. The wind picked up again, the metal melody of chimes grew louder. Through the noise, I could hear Elaine and Jackie screaming.
Evil rose from the broken earth in a fog-like vapor. The misty air squeezed my body like a vice, but still, I held my hands up to God. I pleaded for forgiveness, but prepared for His wrath. The wind… so strong, it forced breath from my lungs. I collapsed face-down onto the ground.
And then I winced from the pain of blinding light. I found this particularly confusing because the sun had begun to set when we arrived at Mason Manor.
“She’s in a coma.”
I didn’t recognize the man’s voice.
“She’s sustained more trauma than a fall would explain. If you don’t tell me what really happened, I have to report this to the police.”
“Do you believe in God?” Elaine asked.
“What’s faith got to do with this?” The man asked.
“Without it, you’d never believe what we saw.”
A monotone beep drowned out their conversation. I felt a peace I didn’t recognize, but somehow I knew my prayer had been answered.
I was finally free.
Inspiration: Besides the photo, the idea for the story came from the fact my grandma’s father was a preacher who had been abusive. In what ways, I don’t know- so those details of the story are completely fabricated. I do know Grandma was one of the most faithful people I’ve known. I wanted the story to convey her true faith, which was untainted by the hypocrisy of her father’s life.
I committed a short story no-no by switching point of views in the last part. The first two parts were from the eldest daughter’s view. I originally followed through with the last part in that POV but changed it because I felt the emotion could be better conveyed by the mother, rather than relayed by observation. I hope it worked- but if it didn’t, feel free to tell me that, too 🙂
By the way, this isn’t my first creepy tree story- in March I wrote one for Speakeasy (linked for anyone interested in reading it.)
A special thanks to Emilio for letting me use his photo to inspire this story! (This time around, he also helped by offering some editing suggestions, too.) If you have a minute, check out his photography blog for more inspiring photos. I should mention that the views expressed in this story do not necessary reflect the views of the photographer!
Thanks for reading, Timothy!
A powerful story – and as usual, I really like the explanation of your inspiration at the end. There’s a lot of tension in this story – the sisters, the mystery of the annual trips, and finally what I’m assuming is good vs evil.
The mother may feel finally free at the end, but the reader doesn’t. There are so many questions!!
Well, I didn’t mean to leave so many unanswered questions, Joanne! In my mind, this was a story about finally being honest – harboring her secret meant she’d lived a lie most of her life- and then feeling the freedom from that burden. Even though she dies, at least she dies with a forgiven conscience 🙂 Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts… I appreciate you taking the time- this one was a bit longer than I intended 🙂
The switch of view point worked ( with the little **** break signal)
Wonderful character development and those little well loaded details/word choices
The bit of resentment, the “competition”.
And the monotone beep at the end – perfect
Great spooky story
I’m glad the transition in POV didn’t come across as jarring or confusing. Originally, it was all written in first-person, but after Emilio shared his reaction, I decided to change the first two parts to third person. I think most siblings have some sort of competition early in life. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Phil!
Darn! I wanted to be the first to comment but I see Tim and Joanne get up a whole lot earlier than I do. This story just chills me every time I read it. And every time I read it I come away with a better appreciation of your talent. You have a way of filling the page with so many clues as to the inner life of your characters. You’ll throw in something about Jackie’s seizures which have nothing to do with the story but defines who that character is or might be. A paper coaster has nothing to do with the story and yet you mention it. I thought short stories were supposed to be trimmed down to only the most important elements. But you have way of making us believe that these people live and breathe in a real world. All I can say is WOW!
And philosophermouse is an early riser, too, I see!
Phil is always clever and on the ball 🙂
I’ll have to pay him a visit! 😉
Philosopher Mouse’s posts are always clever… he/she is a unique writer (in a good way). Most of the time I catch on, but sometimes I’m a little slow!
I could’ve posted it later, Emilio! You’ve written so many nice compliments, I don’t know how to respond. (Other than to admit I don’t have the cash to pay you :razz:) I do appreciate your comments about the character information. When I started this blog four-and-a-half years ago, I was very much plot-driven. I didn’t think about what the characters would be like, just what they would do to make things happen. It’s been through the writing challenges and weekly fiction that I’ve practiced writing people. Whether or not I can still write a plot remains to be seen!
I enjoy teaming up with you on these photo/story challenges. I’m looking forward to seeing what we end up with for November!
P.S. Sorry for turning you into an editor on this one. I’ll try to get my stuff together next time 🙂
About your p.s. Are you kidding? I love playing editor. I told you once before I enjoy it. I was just afraid of overstepping myself. I think the suggestions I made that you used made a difference- though for better or worse, who knows? I know that it was sort of exciting to watch your mind at work through some of the editorial choices you made with and without my input. Yeah, I know. I need to get a life!
Well, I do appreciate your effort, Emilio- made me stop and look at things differently than I might have on my own 🙂
Oops, forgot to mention anytime you want an editor, don’t feel like you’re imposing. Just ask!
Oh, you shouldn’t have written that 🙂
That was very powerful and totally not what I expected!
I appreciate you taking time to read it, Suzicate 🙂
A moving, well-written tale, Janna. No, I didn’t have a problem with the shift in POV and I agree it was more moving when told from the mom’s angle. Good and Creepy, just right for October — and it really goes with the picture, too!
Thanks for reading and sharing your opinion/reaction, Debbie. I’m glad it came off creepy… I wasn’t sure if it was creepy enough for October 🙂
Excellent write, just right for October….
Thanks, Sue – I appreciate you taking time to read the story!
Good one. The POV switch worked well 🙂
*Whew!* Thanks for reading, Widdershins 🙂
Works well with the photo, and ties in well with Halloween. Spooky!
I’m glad you thought it worked, Nancy!
Wow, Janna. I loved the words, the humanity, the emotions, but hated the concept and how people who are “broken,” for lack of a better word, can go on and seek to bend others to regain some measure of the power or humanity or innocence that was wrested from them. Powerful, powerful story that I almost couldn’t bear to keep reading.
I’m glad you kept on reading, Leigh. This wasn’t a light-hearted story at all, but sometimes humanity can be very dark (until we find a way to be free from the constraints.)
You had me right from beginning to the nit do bitter end. Great stuff!
Thanks so much for reading, Firstandfabulous! I’m glad you enjoyed the story.
WOW. Holy crap Janna, this is amazing! WOW. Just WOW. You should be publishing best seller books. Seriously loved this! ♥
Oh, my. Your comment has left me without words, Kathy. That doesn’t happen often!
P.S. I see from the following comment you recommended the story – thanks so much for the support 🙂
Amazingly powerful and beautifully written. That made me shiver – the eerieness of the picture and the evil in the story. I’ve got goosebumps.
Thanks, Kathy Combs for recommending it.
Thanks so much for taking time to read the story and share your reaction, TWB! I’m grateful Kathy enjoyed the story enough to recommend it to others 🙂
Wow, what a powerful story. I like the pov switch, and your portrayal of Elaine. The bit about her leaving an extra tip was a little detail with a big punch.
Thanks for taking time to read, Allen! I am relieved that the POV switch didn’t seem to lose anyone (well, anyone who decided to comment, at least.)
I liked the point of view switch! And I loved the collaboration of the photo and story!
Thanks, Dixie – I’m glad you liked the collaboration – we usually do one each month 🙂
There is so much going on here. Elaine’s love and concern is really clear in the first section. I appreciated the need for the switch at the end and wonder if the middle section from the Jackie’s pov would have added anything – although she’s not the most sympathetic character. This was quite unsettling – Mom’s reveal and the images of the wrath of God at the end.
Funny you mention the Jackie POV… that actually crossed my mind, but I figured I’d be pushing my luck with two POV switches! The end was supposed to be creepy, so I’m glad that came through 🙂 Thanks for reading, Sarah Ann!