Original Stories Fan Fiction ❯ The Willows ❯ Trees ( Chapter 1 )

[ P - Pre-Teen ]

Anna hated moving to a new place, having to meet new people. Her parents kept telling her it was a wonderful opportunity, but that seemed to be true only for them. Every place they went, her parents made all new friends and fit right in immediately. It always took Anna forever to make new friends, and just when she was finally starting to feel comfortable, they would move again. Her father was some kind of important executive. He went around “fixing” companies, although Anna never really understood what was wrong with the companies he fixed. Anyway, he was good at what he did, whatever it was, and as soon as he was done with one company, another company would hire him and they'd move again. It was exhausting.
This new city didn't seem any different to Anna than the last one, even though they had been living in England, and now they were in the United States. They always bought a large, expensive house in a quiet, exclusive suburb, and she was always enrolled in an expensive private school.
But then something different happened. She made a friend her very first day at school. And the really weird thing was that he was a boy. Anna had always had trouble making friends with boys, but this boy was different. He made eye contact with Anna when she was introduced to the other students in her first period class, and he didn't just look through her, in that bored tired way the other students did. Neither did he grin and lean over to exchange snide whispers with someone else. He just looked right at her and smiled. And Anna surprised herself by smiling back.
The same boy was in two more of her classes.
At lunch time, when all the students were collecting into their little cliques to gossip about other students, Anna found an unclaimed spot in the grass under a tree away from the lunch tables to eat. She had brought a homemade lunch because she liked them, which immediately made her something of a geek, she discovered. Everywhere she looked, students were eating from the lunch trays provided by the school for a small fee. The only students eating bag lunches, like her, were eating alone. She sighed.
“May I join you?”
Anna looked up in surprise. The boy who had smiled at her was standing in front of her, a lunch tray in his hands. It wasn't windy, but his dark brown curls looked windblown, tumbling into his gray eyes in a very charming way. He was cute.
“Of course.” Anna hoped she didn't sound as flustered as she felt.
He sat down next to her and balanced the tray on his knees. “My name is Max. Max Santorini.” He held out his hand.
Anna shifted her sandwich to her left hand and shook his a little awkwardly. “Anna Vining,” she introduced herself.
She expected an awkward silence after that, but Max surprised her. He talked easily, telling her all about the kids in the school. He would point people out and give her condensed versions of their life story, and it seemed as if he knew everyone. And then he asked her where she lived.
“We bought a house on Twelfth Street. The place with the big willow trees out front,” she told him.
Max stared at her. “You live at The Willows?” he said.
“It has a name?” Anna asked in surprise.
“Yeah,” Max frowned. “If you look at the post on the right hand side of the driveway, there's a little plaque.” He gave her an earnest look. “Be careful there, ok? Don't go near the willow trees, especially early in the morning or at dusk. It's not safe.”
It was Anna's turn to stare. “What do you mean, not safe?”
Max looked unhappy. “I don't want to scare you. It's just better to stay away from those trees. They're really old.”
“What does being old have to do with it?”
“The old ones know more,” Max said in a quiet voice. He looked up at the tree whose branches were spread above them. “This tree's not old. Not like those willows. This tree is still safe.”
Anna had finished most of her lunch while they were talking. All she had left were her cookies. She took these out of the sack thoughtfully, wondering if Max was completely normal. Normal people weren't afraid of trees. But still, he seemed nice and he had talked to her when no one else had. She held out the bag.
“Would you like some of my cookies?”
Max grinned. “Thanks! I love mini-Oreos.”
Anna poured some cookies into his palm and they munched in companionable silence.
A bell rang, signaling the end of lunch hour. They gathered up their trash and dumped it into the nearest garbage can.
“Can I walk home with you after school?” Max asked.
Anna flushed. “S-sure, that would be nice.”
“Ok, I'll see you after seventh period. Bye!” Max waved as he walked away.
Anna looked around nervously. No one seemed to be looking at her, though. Well, maybe it wouldn't be so bad here after all.
After school, she met Max out front and he walked her home. Her new home was surrounded by a six foot wall with an iron trellis on the top. There were two brick posts by the driveway that supported an iron gate. Max stopped next to the right-hand post and squatted down.
“See this?” He pointed at an old metal plate bolted to the post near the bottom that looked like it might be bronze.
Anna leaned over to look. Just barely visible on the weathered plaque were the words The Willows.
Max stood up. “These trees were here before the house was built. In fact, they were here before the whole town was built. There used to be a stream that ran through here, but it got diverted when the houses were built.”
“How do you know all this?”
Max shrugged. “I read it somewhere.”
Anna studied his profile as he stared up at the towering willow trees. “Would you like to come in?”
He started. “No, thank you, I can't.” He looked at her and smiled. “But you can come over to my house anytime.” He pointed up the road. “I live three houses up, on the other side. There are three big sycamore trees out front. I'd better get going. See you tomorrow!” He trotted across the street and then waved to her before continuing up the other side.
Behind her, wind rustled through the willow trees with a sound like whispers. Anna turned to stare at them. The trees were beautiful. It was one of the things her mother had loved about the house. Anna marched up the driveway, which circled around the two trees in a big arc. A beautiful green lawn surrounded the trees and her mother had bought a set of white painted wrought-iron table and chairs to put under the trees. It looked idyllic; the perfect place to sit and read in a floating flowered sundress and floppy hat. Anna didn't like flowered sundresses and floppy hats.
Life in her new home settled into a familiar routine, with one exciting variation: Max. Anna didn't want to jinx herself, but hanging around with Max almost felt like having a boyfriend. They didn't go on dates or anything, and he certainly never tried to kiss her, but they spent almost all of their free time together, usually at Max's house. That was really the only odd thing about it. Max would never come to her house. But Anna decided that that one little quirk was not enough to scare her away from Max's company. He was a lot of fun to be with. He seemed to know absolutely everything. It didn't matter what they talked about, Max always knew.
But sometimes, Max would be busy and would not be able to spend time with her. He always told her ahead of time, so it was never a surprise, but he never told her what he was doing. His reason was usually “family stuff”. It didn't seem that important, so Anna never pressed him.
It was on a day when Max was busy that Anna came home late from school. She had gone to the library to study and lost track of the time. It was just after sunset when she got home and the day had that beautiful soft blue glow that comes up when the last redness of sunset fades. Anna hurried up the driveway, but then she stopped in surprise. Seated at the little table under the willow trees was a woman in a long, pale green dress. She had pale wispy hair that floated in the slight evening breeze. Her skin was very fair. She turned to smile at Anna and Anna could see that her eyes were green.
“Excuse me,” Anna said. “Can I help you?”
The woman smiled. “Please sit for a moment. I have only a few minutes to talk.”
Anna frowned. “What do you want?”
“You are friends with the sycamore-boy?” the woman asked.
Anna stared at her in confusion. “I don't know what you mean. Who is the sycamore-boy?”
“I have seen you with him,” the woman said, “but he will not come in with you.”
“Do you mean Max?” Anna asked in astonishment.
“I do not know his name.” The woman smiled at her, but there was concern in her expression. “You must be careful. The sycamores are seeding.”
“They will need blood to sow the seedlings. Have a care.” The woman stood up. “I must go now.” She seemed to float rather than walk as she moved behind the great willow trunk.
“Wait!” Anna called. She ran toward the tree, but when she reached it, the woman was gone. Anna stared around in surprise. There was no where for the woman to have gone. She had simply vanished. Anna felt a sudden panic. She remembered Max's warning about staying away from the willow trees early in the morning and at dusk. Suddenly frightened, she ran to the house and slammed the front door behind her. What had just happened? And what did the woman mean about seeding and blood? Anna shuddered. She was sure she didn't want to know.
Anna wasn't sure why, but she didn't tell Max about the woman or her warning. It had all been too weird. But the next time she went to Max's house, she couldn't help staring at the towering sycamore trees in his front yard.
“Max, are these trees really old, like the willows at my house?”
“Oh, yes, they are very old.” He stopped and looked up. “If you listen very carefully, you can hear them talking to each other.”
“Trees don't talk!” she exclaimed a little nervously.
“Not in words, like we do,” Max agreed. “But they talk to each other all the same.”
Anna stared at him, feeling a vague alarm. “You have really odd ideas about trees, Max.”
“Do you think so?” He smiled disarmingly. “Maybe I am a little weird. Come on.”
They went into the house and after a while, Anna forgot about the odd feeling she'd had in the front yard, under the sycamores. Max was still just Max, probably the best friend she'd ever had.
And the trees in his front yard were just trees, like the ones in her yard.
But that Saturday, she went shopping with her mother, and they did not get back until sunset. As they drove up the driveway, Anna saw the same strange woman sitting at the table under the willow trees, wearing the same green dress. Anna grabbed her mother's arm.
“Mom, do you see that woman?” Anna pointed.
Her mother looked and stopped the car in surprise. “What is she doing in our yard?”
“I saw her once before,” Anna said.
“You should have told your father. Maybe we need to start closing the gate.” Mrs. Vining turned off the engine and stepped out of the car.
Nervously, Anna followed her.
“Excuse me,” Mrs. Vining said, “but this is private property. You'll have to leave.”
The woman looked past Mrs. Vining as if she had not spoken. She looked straight at Anna.
“Seeding time has almost come,” she said gravely. “Stay away from the sycamore-boy, or you will be lost.” Then she turned and drifted gracefully behind the tree.
“Just a minute!” Mrs. Vining said sternly. She strode briskly across the lawn, but then stopped in surprise when she reached the tree. “She's gone!” she exclaimed.
Anna put a frightened hand over her mouth.
Mrs. Vining turned around and gave Anna a puzzled look. “What did she mean by that, do you suppose?”
Anna shook her head mutely.
This time, Anna told Max about the woman when she saw him at school on Monday. She waited until lunch time, when they could speak privately. Max listened to her in complete silence, but an angry look spread over his face as Anna repeated the woman's warning.
“I told you to stay away from the willows at dusk!” he said sharply.
“Who is she?” Anna demanded, her voice shaking. “What does she mean about the seeding?”
Max looked away. “They always interfere,” he whispered harshly. “It's none of their business.”
When he didn't say anything else, Anna touched his hand. “Max, please tell me what's going on.”
He looked at her and took her hands in his. “The seeding is a time of renewal. It doesn't happen very often, but when it's time, it must happen. It's important.” He looked into her eyes. “It's important to me.”
For the first time in her life, Anna understood what it meant to be lost in someone's gaze. She felt as if she were falling into Max's eyes. They held her mesmerized and she couldn't look away.
“If you say so, Max,” she whispered, “then it's important to me, too.”
“Thank you, Anna,” he whispered. “Come home with me tonight and I will show you everything.”
After school that afternoon, Anna went home with Max. As they passed her house, she could hear the wind blowing through the willow trees with a sound like soft weeping. She almost stopped, but Max took her hand and smiled at her, and she kept walking. As they passed under the sycamores, the great trees swayed and sang in the breeze. They went into the house and Max took her down into the basement, the first time he had ever done so. The floor of the basement was just earth; rich, dark soil that smelled of life and nutrients.
“Take your shoes off,” Max said. He sat down on the bottom step and removed his own shoes.
Anna set down beside him and took her shoes off. When Max took off his socks as well, so did she. He stepped barefoot onto the dark earth and held out his hand to her. Nervously, Anna stepped onto the damp ground beside him and took his hand.
“The seedlings need the rich earth to grow,” Max said. He walked farther out into the basement, drawing her after him. The earth was surprisingly warm under Anna's feet. In the middle of the basement he stopped and turned to face her. “Don't be afraid, Anna,” he said, and looked down at the ground.
Suddenly fearful, Anna looked down, too. She felt something moving under her feet. Then something poked up out of the ground and wound itself around her legs. She gasped. It felt like snakes crawling up her legs, but she could see it was roots. Tree roots. They grew at a lightning pace, twining around her, growing up her legs and covering them.
“Make it stop!” she cried out. She looked up at Max in terror. There were no roots growing on Max. “It's all right, Anna,” he said calmly. “Trust me.”
Pain began to lance through Anna's legs. She looked down and could see blood trickling over the tree roots wrapped around her legs. The roots were biting into her skin, growing into her flesh. As she watched, she could see her blood running down the roots and dripping onto the rich, dark soil.
“Oh, god!” she cried. “Please, Max! Please, help me! Make it stop! It hurts!”
But Max released her hand and stepped backward, giving the roots room to grow. Now Anna could feel them slipping under her clothes, sliding across the skin of her back and belly, wrapping around her breasts. She gasped as the pressure started to make it hard to breath. And the pain! The pain was quickly becoming unbearable as the roots grew into her. Now they were crawling up her neck and across her face. Anna wanted to scream, but she could barely breathe. The roots crawled across her scalp. And then at last they covered her eyes and she could no longer see Max watching as the roots consumed her.
There was no pain anymore, only darkness.
Anna opened her eyes. She was lying on warm, moist ground. It felt good and right. Around her, she heard rustling, like soft whispers. She turned her head slowly to the side. A small green seedling was growing beside her. She lifted her head and looked around. There were seedlings all around her. They were thickest close to her, but the whole room was filled with them. She sat up.
“I told you not to be afraid, Anna.”
Anna turned. Max was seated on the steps behind her. He had her clothes neatly folded in his lap, and only then did Anna realize she was naked.
“What happened?” she whispered. “I thought I died.”
“You did die,” Max said quietly. “And you were renewed.”
“I don't understand.” She looked around at the seedlings. “Are these new trees?”
“Of a sort.” Max smiled. “They are your young, born of your flesh and the sycamores outside.”
Anna stared at him.
“You are special, Anna,” he said. “I knew it the moment I saw you. Not just anyone can cause a seeding.”
“Who are you?” Anna whispered.
Max smiled. “You might say I am the sycamores.”
“But,” she whispered. “You're human! Aren't you?” She stared at his soft gray eyes and handsome face.
He shook his head slowly. Then he held out her clothes to her. Anna stood up and stepped carefully through the seedlings to the steps. She took her clothes and put them on, balancing carefully on the bottom step. It was strange looking at herself. There were no marks on her skin. No sign of the tree roots that had grown through her and consumed her. Then she followed Max up the steps and out into the front yard.
The air felt different.
“How long has it been?” Anna wondered aloud.
“Only a week,” Max said. “Your parents have been worried, though. You should go home.”
“How can I go home?” Anna stared at him in shock. “They'll want to know where I've been! What can I say?”
“Tell them you don't remember.” He smiled. “Come back tomorrow to see your children. They will grow quickly.” He turned and went back into the house, leaving Anna with no choice but to go home. She ran all the way.
But when she turned into the driveway, she stopped in her tracks. The wind was blowing through the willow branches, making them stream across the driveway like long fingers reaching for her. And in their rustling she could hear voices:
“We warned you, sycamore-girl! We warned you!”

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