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The third time Benjamin saw
his mother she was lying amidst the stinking sheets of her deathbed.
He’d been brought to the asylum by a member of what he’d come to
think of as the Secret Society That Knows My Mother. At this visitation,
he had just turned the troublesome age of fifteen, not all that different
from the age of sixteen, or, for that matter, fourteen. His rebellious
nature had honed itself somewhat; it was nearing the peak of its perfection.
He had become the quiet seething boy that rode in the back of the school
bus on those long morning and afternoon trips over the hill to Eureka
Joint Union High School and back again. He’d become the boy who never
spoke much, who embodied the old adage, actions speak louder than words.
He’d become the boy who never, not once, got answers to the questions
he rarely asked anymore concerning his mother and what had happened
to her to twist her mind so. He’d become the boy who spent his school
lunch periods standing outside the Humbolt County Infirmary for the
Insane when he could manage to hitch a ride across town. He’d developed
a relationship with a small band of hooligans, one of who happened to
be a boy named Macey Walker. This young trouble-maker was just as disenchanted
with the optimistic hints and clues of life’s asinine big questions
(also known as “things adults say to make themselves feel better”)
as Benjamin was, whose daily regiment consisted of Break Shit, Fuck
Shit Up, and Don’t Give a Shit, as had Benjamin’s. Benjamin had
also managed to wrangle himself a girlfriend somehow—damned if he’d
ever be able to reason that one out—who just happened to be one of
the notorious Brendas of Bingly, whom he figured he loved, or at least
really liked, and years later (or rather, currently), after a fatal
car crash and her subsequent death, he would realize just how in love
with her he’d been. He had become a boy who never told those closest
to him, Macey and Brenda, who his mother was, or where they kept her,
or what state of mind she was in. He’d become a boy written up so
many times in the county newspapers’ police report that all of Bingly
had known his name, and he’d been infamous in a way, or he’d always
liked to think they’d considered him as such. He’d become a boy
who believed all who looked on him witnessed debacle incarnate, thought
of himself in such low esteem that he deemed the effort of digging himself
out not near worth the effort, besides the fact that he secretly enjoyed
playing the part of town black sheep. He hadn’t become a monster hunter
at this point. That pursuit would begin the day after he dropped in
on his mother for the third time, which, back then, would have been
the day of the visit, during his fifteenth year, things changed. The
wiles of fate intervened on what would have more than likely been a
lifelong downward spiral.
been summoned, and promptly delivered, to the infirmary. The urgency
and the hurried pace of this meeting had upset him, he having become,
beside all attributes listed above, a boy of leisure. The current foster
parent, whatever their name might have been, had roused him after he’d
spent the entire night getting thoroughly drunk, which, over the last
year or so, had become part of his regimen as well as the other assignments
listed above. He’d been told he was going to see his mother. It’d
been early in the morning, and he’d been hungover, so, of course,
while he’d hurriedly gotten dressed, he’d slipped the handgun from
his bottom dresser drawer into his waistband and covered it with his
shirt. One could never be too careful. Especially when one was hungover.
hour-long ride to the asylum made him even more sick, so he wasn’t
in the best of moods when he arrived. He was shown into a small room
with a wide and tall glass window that looked in on a larger room with
many cots lined up. One of these beds supported his mother, who looked
inches away from death’s door. After some mumbled conversation, of
which Benjamin chose to stay out of, concerning the dire condition his
mother was in, he stood up, escorted the current foster parent to the
small room’s door, assured the parent he was only after privacy, shut
the door, turned, and pulled out the handgun. Apparently, fifteen-year-old
boys with hangovers hadn’t been high on the list of the infirmary’s
security risks. It was just Benjamin and the doctor in the closed room
at that point. It was the same doctor, slightly pudgier, who had mishandled
Benjamin’s mother four years prior.
told the doctor to forget about leaving the room unharmed, that what
transpired next would determine whether the doctor received a bullet
in the crotch or the head. Then he asked the doctor if he understood
everything he’d said. The doctor told Benjamin he understood, which
Benjamin found odd. He’d expected shouts and squirms and pleadings
for mercy. But Benjamin wasn’t feeling well and had some questions
he wanted answers to, so he let the strange reaction to his threats
ride without further fuss. He shoved a chair back up under the door
handle, securing it somewhat. During the next twenty-some minutes, Benjamin
finally got some answers to those questions that had been building up
in his head. Not all the answers, but a fair amount.
learned his mother’s name was Jessica Samuel Weller, or at least that
was the information they’d been given. They had no prior information
on her from the time they’d been called in to pick her up in Bingly.
As far as they knew, she was a vagrant, a nobody, a woman of zero means,
insane and babbling about monsters, and, to no one’s surprise at the
infirmary, she’d been pregnant. “Happens all the time,” the doctor
said. “Either they’re taken advantage of because of their mind state,
or their mind state is a result of being repeatedly taken advantage
of.” At this, Benjamin wished he’d had time to put bullets in his
gun, as he was oh so tempted to shoot the doctor in the crotch, one
quick pop of vengeance.
found out he’d been birthed in the asylum, and then fed into the somewhat
gentle folds of the administration that took care of unwanted children.
There’d been one stipulation attached to baby Benjamin—the first
data typed on his records sheet, even before the first medical notes,
was that when the time came for adoption or fostering, he was to be
sent back to Bingly. It’d all been prearranged, bribes and expenses
had been meted out, and volunteers had been waiting by the time baby
Benjamin arrived. When Benjamin asked how this directive could have
come about, the doctor blanched, coughed, and turned away. After a few
moments of silence, during which Benjamin had stared at his dying mother
through the wire-meshed glass, the doctor admitted to tagging the directive
onto Benjamin’s records himself. He’d been visited by the queerest
little girl, dressed in finery—and as he described her, his words
had been breathy and his eyes had taken on a faraway look, as when one
recalls and revisits the nightmarish side of dream—and she’d ordered
him to addendum the directive. Her talents of persuasion had been dumbfounding,
the doctor told Benjamin. And, oddly enough, she’d come with satchels
of cash. After arranging things with the doctor, the little girl had
waltzed into Benjamin’s mother’s room and greeted her familiarly,
calling her Jessica; Benjamin’s mother, to the doctor’s surprise,
knew the little girl perfectly well, despite her ragged appearance,
and called her “my best little girl.” The doctor recalled the endearment
vividly, as Jessica had repeated it over and over, overjoyed at the
sight of the small child. After their meeting, the little girl informed
the doctor that they’d decided on the baby’s name, and she had him
write it down, telling him that the August part was her idea.
doctor, greatly affected by his retelling of this encounter with Best,
told Benjamin how she had ridden into town on a giant horse. By the
time Benjamin pulled the chair away from the door, he and the doctor
had come to an agreement. No one would find out about the handgun or
the rape. And then Benjamin went in to visit his mother.
terminal complications had to do with his mother’s insides, natural
causes, failing organs. The morphine they had pumped into her had transported
her back to an earlier time in her life, and during her last breaths,
she talked to people that hadn’t been present. She asked to be put
back in the tree; in her frail, dying tone, she commanded it. She said,
“She doesn’t want to belong to anybody.” At the end, Benjamin
took her sweaty hand in his and looked into her flickering, half-lidded
eyes, her somewhere else eyes, and wondered what she’d lived through
that had twisted her mind to such a degree. She opened her eyes fully
then, stared at him for a few seconds, and asked, having swum up from
her delirium, if he knew how special he was. “Best still visits me,”
she told him, which he didn’t understand, thinking her sunk in the
sea of morphine dripping into her arm and filling her up. “She tells
me you’re an angry boy.” She nodded her head, patted his hand, and
said, “Maybe you could use that anger to free the tree.”
being her last breath, Benjamin left the infirmary, sadness threatening
to break his knees, sadness wanting to crush his body to the ground
and cover him like a death shroud. He didn’t understood any of what
had happened, not the bulk of the crazed answers the doctor had offered
up, not the insane prattling of his mother. He wanted to understand,
wanted to keep hold of his dead mother’s hand, but they pulled him
away and ushered him outside.
they walked from the infirmary, the doctor informed Benjamin that there
would be no services, that besides Benjamin, the only other visitor
his mother received over the years had been the little girl, and so
he said, “This is done. It’s over. If you could please tell your
nightmare of a sister not to come visit anymore, it would be greatly
appreciated.” Benjamin had understood that last request of the doctor’s
no more than he’d understood any of it. He didn’t have a sister,
didn’t have a mother anymore, either. He had nobody, nothing.
next day, after little sleep and much alone time, he looked into the
odd stories he’d stumbled upon, as all who lived in Bingly had stumbled
upon at some point in their lives. He set his comic books aside. He
became fascinated with anything having to do with real monsters: eyewitness
accounts of bestial sightings, local lore, articles written up in a
stash of old county newspapers he’d found in one of the storage closets.
He’d come across these accounts when checking to see how many times
he’d been written up in the police report, and the monster-sighting
articles just happened to be printed on the same page. In most cases
it was pretty much the same column, the same article, the police report.
He’d pulled out an old unused notebook—all his notebooks had been
unused up to that point—and copied down a newsprint snippet that had
caught his eye:
black stallion spotted on Rill Creek Bridge, less threatening
than last sighting, still considered
dangerous. The rider, accord-
ing to witness Netty Bildergrase,
was the small girl with pigtails.
seen, do not approach. Any
further sightings of this sort should be immediately reported to the
county sheriff’s office.
He’d spent the entirety of
that day filling his notebook with similar accounts while thumbing through
the old newspapers. He’d found something to work with. Something to
help him understand. And, to boot, he’d decided to call himself a
in the underground chamber, he felt less a monster hunter than he did
a retirement home orderly stationed in the terminal wing on a bad day.
He was screaming at the old woman, “Climb up the damn roots!” and
for some unfathomable reason, she was refusing to budge from the throne,
knifing Benjamin’s nerves to no end.
chamber was rocking with quake. A thick dirt cloud roiled in the confines
of the underground room. The dirt was trapped and it wanted out. William
was beside Hobbs, his staff in the crook of his arm, his hands on the
old woman, trying to pull her up from her seated position.
shouted at Benjamin, “I have just experienced torture the likes of
which you’ll never imagine! I experienced this torture up in those
roots, Benjamin. Understand, I’m a bit reluctant—”
he screamed, cracks widening under his boots.
had her in his arms, and he stepped up onto the stone throne’s seat,
nearly losing his balance as great slabs of earth shifted below. He
raised Hobbs up, but she refused to grab hold of the roots.
he said. “Please. Just eat a slice of humble pie and do as the boy
reluctantly grabbed hold, looking down on William’s dirt-dusted, whiskery
face, hurriedly telling him, “Tell him I’ll have to refocus. He
can’t possibly expect me to use my own strength to climb into this
rat’s nest.” At the mention of rats, her eyes took on a wild look.
“Tell him, William.”
wavering spell surrounding the throne flickered, the blue flames along
the dirt floor popping, turning white, with intermittent sparkles as
if iron shavings had been thrown here and there...and then the spell
fizzled out and was gone.
going to have to bring down the protective magicks, Benjamin,” William
shouted, pushing at Hobbs’s feet, getting her up inside the macramé
weave of the tree roots.
Benjamin, the chamber was a mixing bowl of activity. The daughters seemed
as trapped as Benjamin and his two companions, and they were circling
the throne at great speeds, searching for tunnels bored in the dirt
wall, escape routes that hadn’t collapsed yet. Their long, boneless
limbs were flailing about, whirling like detritus caught in the sway
of a tornado. Didn’t look to Benjamin as if any of the monsters had
noticed that the spell had faded away, that the dinner bell had rung.
he hissed. “Would’ve been nice to know we were powering down prior
to fucking now. A few seconds to prepare, man.”
ago, after Benjamin had informed Hobbs of his ancestry, he’d refused
to say more, although Hobbs had demanded he expound on the subject.
He was done talking. He’d sorted through the dead vines on the ground,
picked through the assorted refuse of split daughter bodies and entrails
and bloody wads of mud and this and that, and finally he’d come up
with the shotgun where the dead caretaker had dropped it. He fished
what shells he had left in his pants pocket, four bright red, stubby
plastic things. He loaded the gun and moved toward the stairway entrance,
leaving the comforting hum of the blue protective spell, batting the
furiously rampant vine storm out of his way as he advanced, trying to
come up with a way to get Hobbs and William out of that spell and up
into the stairwell without them getting hole-punched to death by the
whirling dervish daughters. A mad dash, he figured. He had to place
his footsteps carefully. The floor of the chamber had become a grid
work of widening cracks, with dank odors rising from those depths. Then
some support up inside the dark stairway had snapped, and a great pounding
weight flushed dirt from the entrance. Benjamin launched himself backward
to avoid the chunks of sharp stone and railroad spike splinters that
had shot from the stairway.
stumbled back to the insides of the spell dome and found he had no plan
B to fall back on now that the stairway had collapsed. So he lifted
his head, and knowing it was ludicrous, a terrific waste of time, he
demanded that Hobbs climb up into the tree roots that hung from the
ceiling. And it looked like she’d finally found purchase up in the
roots, with the help of William, who was now standing on the throne’s
seat, gesturing hurriedly for Benjamin to climb up beside him.
vine daughters were carrouseling around them in high gear, crowding
in on the throne, threatening to suffocate them or cudgel them to pulp.
Benjamin could see that a few of the daughters had pushed their faces
in past the whirling limbs, looking in at him and William with their
glowing grapefruit eyes, their mouths agape with the realization that
the protective barrier was down, that they could attack those who’d
murdered their mother. An ear-popping wail began to leak from the rotten-toothed
mouths of the observant daughters, rising in pitch and intensity, some
sort of signal to the others.
knew he was somewhat safe from the daughters’ attack, but the old
drunk certainly was not. He leapt up onto the throne beside William.
“Get up in those roots!” he shouted over the storm rioting in the
chamber. “Yesterday, Willy! Yesterday!”
first,” William said, a ringing of metal as he flashed his sword from
its sheath. Calloused vine tips were swinging in toward them, a few
rearing back to stab at the flesh sacks centered tantalizingly amidst
was too much noise, too much dirt blasting into him, for Benjamin to
argue with William. He figured the sooner he got himself up in the roots,
the sooner William would follow. He slung the shotgun over his shoulder
and reached up to grab two fistfuls of pale roots, little doubt in his
head that they would snap with his weight. With a boot up on the high
back of the throne, he heaved himself up into the damp web of roots,
reaching up further and grabbing thicker handholds, dirt raining in
his eyes as he stained to find a crawlway leading up. He could feel
William moving about below, bumping into his boots. He glanced down
past his suspended, flailing feet and saw William standing atop the
throne seat, his sword flashing as he swung it in precise arcs, pruning
vine tips as they dove in at him from all sides.
Benjamin, Hobbs could barely be heard working her way up into the roots,
a grunt here, a snap there, and then she stopped moving. Benjamin could
see a hint of her shoes, could see one blue-jeaned flank, and then he
caught sight of the icy blue glint of one eye peeking down from her
perch, finding and focusing on him through the nearly solid bramble
of tree root. Benjamin knew she was saying something to him, but he
couldn’t hear her. The rumble of the sliding earth drowned her out,
as did the screams of the daughters and the slithering of their limbs
and the whooshing of William’s busy blade.
was guessing Hobbs had reached an impasse. The roots up to a point had
been shaken free of dirt, allowing a pocket of climbing space, a loosely
wrapped ball of string for Hobbs and Benjamin to force their bodies
up into. Visibility had clouded over with the raining dirt from above
and the swirling storm pushing up from below. He could just see hints
of Hobbs perched five feet above his reach, and he heard snippets of
what she was trying to shout down at him, something about “solid roots”
and “no further” and “help William.”
pulled his boots up into the tangle, wedged them into knots of entwined
tendrils, and got his body somewhat horizontal, one hand stretched and
grasping the netting of root above. With the other hand, he reached
down into the chamber.
he yelled. He could see more curling tentacles now. They’d cocooned
the old man, his whistling blade making a slashing appearance now and
vines withdrew, leaving a startled William a-twirl on the throne’s
seat, sweeping his sword in a wide arch, narrowly missing Benjamin’s
outstretched hand, and he nearly lost his balance, nearly toppled from
Grab my hand!”
daughters were furiously burrowing into the dirt wall to the sides of
the collapsed stairwell, stumbling over themselves to get their steely
vine tips churning at a patch of dirt, trying to dig their way out of
the collapsing chamber. The backwash from their burrowing efforts hit
William with force, and he grabbed the back of the throne to keep himself
upright. The daughters were fast diggers, Benjamin noted. They’d burrowed
a ways into the wall, and were now pulling their bodies in, their webbed
feet flapping at the loose dirt amassed along the floor of the individual
tunnels, hitting William with a brutish wave of dirt and worms and bugs.
Within seconds, their trailing vines were pulled in after them, like
so many puckered lips sucking in red, slick remnants of a mouthful of
guess they know when they’re beat,” William said, sheathing his
creaking, as of a giant rusty-hinged door inching open, filled the chamber.
William looked around him uneasily. With a mighty crack, the throne
dropped a foot. William raised his bushy face to Benjamin.
out of the way,” he said. “Think it’s best I climb up now.”
climbed farther up into the clog of roots, not sure why William would
deem it time to climb up out of the chamber. All the monsters had left,
and it seemed to Benjamin they might want to climb down instead of up.
They might be able to follow one of the freshly dug tunnels up to the
surface. He glanced down at William, opening his mouth to offer up this
suggestion, and a gust like a bellows full of hot air shot dirt up into
his eyes and mouth, stinging his exposed skin. He screamed at this sudden,
violent event, and he scrambled, trying to get away from the dirt blast.
He was blind with the dirt in his eyes and deaf with the roar that rose
up from below.
allowed the storm to do its thing for a few moments. Not much he could
do about it. Creatures That Inhabit Dark Places began nudging up close
to him, demanding some elbow room in the knot of root. It became hot
and rather stinky. Finally, the roar of storm died down a bit, and Benjamin
felt he might be able to open his eyes now that his tears had washed
some of the dirt away.
mud from the rims of his eyes, Benjamin looked below him. He tried to
focus on the throne, focus on William, looking for the dirt floor of
the chamber, the walls, and saw it was all gone, replaced by a swirling
mix of soil and emptiness, brown and red and black...a witch’s cauldron.
his boots, he felt a tugging at the root system, heard William taking
big breaths, fumbling to keep his grip on the armload of roots he’d
managed to anchor himself to as the throne had fallen out from under
my stick again,” William said between lung pulls. “Damn it to hell.”
could see him through the draping roots. William’s lips were pulled
back and his teeth were clenched. He was hauling his worn and ragged
body up into the network, level with Benjamin now, hooking his arms
around knotted strands, hanging there, resting. Looking beneath William,
Benjamin saw the swirling dirt dissipate, drawing away from the roots,
their blue glow nearly dead, and what glow was left in them was reflecting
off nothing below, a deep dark pit stinking of sour rot.
pulled himself farther up into the roots, up away from the chasm below
him. The roots’ individual pliancy lessened as he inched upward. Their
pale blue rubbery tips gave way to thicker cords, and these gave way
to roots the thickness of his forearm. Forcing his hand up into these
and finding a handhold was no problem, but he’d reached a point where
he couldn’t pull his body up any higher; it was too crowded with stiff,
fat roots. The roots were of little use as a light source; only a few
of them emitted enough of a bluish glow to distinguish themselves, and
the rest of them were dirt-caked.
wedged himself up as far as he could get, so desperate he’d been to
put distance between himself and the dark yawning hole beneath him.
He was stuck. And, what’s more, he couldn’t see a damn thing. Didn’t
know where Hobbs had climbed. Couldn’t see William. There was no glowing
root near his head to comfort him. He thought he could make out hints
of a shimmering beacon beside his boot, but he couldn’t turn his head
toward it fully. He’d somehow managed to wedge his chin up between
two roots, jammed it up there good.
eyes twisted in their sockets, and he saw what had to be William’s
hand. It was about level with Benjamin’s knee, gripping a few root
strands just off to his left. One of the roots William had in his grasp
had a bit of a glow to it.
Benjamin said, working at keeping himself calm. The sensation of paralysis
amongst all these roots, and the darkness surrounding him, and knowing
he was suspended over what was certainly a long drop were intoxicating
him...a phobia cocktail. “Hey, Willy!”
hear you,” William said. Within the knot of roots, they could speak
calmly, their voices reverberating along the fibrous sinews. “No need
to shout, Benjamin.”
you see Mrs. Hobbs?”
can’t move,” William said. “Give an old man a hand?”
tried to pull back his arm, wanted to get his fingers on the roots restricting
his head, pry them apart. Maybe then he’d be able to look around,
which would be a great relief. He couldn’t budge his arm. It too was
wedged tight, too.
Benjamin said. The silence inside the root system was complete. He’d
never heard the likes of it before. Felt like he was packed up inside
a shipping box, Styrofoam peanuts pushing in at him from every angle.
He called to Hobbs again, louder this time.
not deaf,” came the response from above. “Don’t have to scream.”
You can do something?” Benjamin wasn’t too hopeful, just adverse
to the gloomy silence surrounding him whenever no one was talking. “A
Panic was closing in. He felt as he’d felt in that black underground
tunnel with Turnkey earlier. He felt directionless. Up? Down? Who knew?
He focused on breathing slowly, the fetid stink wafting up from below,
or maybe above, tanging at the back of his dry throat and working to
sober his panic.
can’t do anything,” Hobbs said. He was somewhat sure she was situated
swore the roots were moving in on him. He could not have shoved his
body up into them this snuggly. Every inch of him was pressed in by
the roots, and the pressure seemed to be increasing. Could be phobia
talking, he told himself, but it felt like maybe he was about to be
crushed by some old dead tree roots. Zombie tree roots, he supposed.
spell,” came from below...or what he guessed was below.
felt a cramp beginning in his left calf. That, he told himself, simply
could not happen. If his leg cramped, he’d freak out with the pain,
and he’d rip something open against the coarse upper roots, and more
than likely, bleed to death. He forced the toes in his left boot up
as far as he could get them. Relax, he repeated to himself.
weak,” from above.
wet slapped up against his cheek. It wiggled past, slurping through
the cloistering bramble. Benjamin felt dampness on his face, wet ooze
dispensed by whatever had slapped up against him.
hated what lurked in the dark. Hated what his mind made of these lurkers,
these Dwellers of Darkness. It could have been anything, a harmless
thing. Could have been an eel that’d lost its way, separated from
its cousins. Or maybe it’d been a slug, a real nimble slug. Could
have been William’s foot, all torn up and slick with blood. But William
was below him, or above him, wasn’t he? Benjamin had a feeling that
whatever had slapped him in the face was not something harmless. That
was just not how his day was going.
Benjamin said. “I think somebody’s in here with us.”
and rocks started shifting around Benjamin. He could hear the hiss of
the dirt as it cascaded down the sides of the shaft situated below him,
which oddly enough seemed to have moved. Something was definitely happening.
The shaft below was shifting to his side, and just maybe up was becoming
down. The pressure of the restricting roots increased, digging into
his skin, near to puncturing. He felt the slimy flesh of the root dweller
slide across his stomach. His T-shirt had been lifted by the vising
roots, and his stomach was exposed.
dawned on him that this new creature had touched him, was touching him,
and no blue sparks had resulted. Whatever was in the roots with them
hadn’t eaten bad fruit. Benjamin figured this meant two things. This
new creature might not be as evil and hell-bent on murder as all the
other monsters he’d came across over the last twenty-four hours. But
it also meant, regardless of its affiliation, if it wanted to, it could
rip into him and gut him and kill him without any adverse effects to
its flesh, no defensive electrical spritzing off its prey.
in here,” Benjamin yelled, not just out of girlie panic, but also
as a warning to the other two. “I’m not joking, you guys.”
roots were squeezing him too tightly. It was getting hard for him to
pull in air, sour and dank as that air was. He felt something splat
against the bare underside of his forearm and adhere there, a suctioning
sensation on his skin. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t tell the others
he’d been attacked, if attacked he’d been. No sound from Hobbs.
William was moaning a bit; no doubt the roots were squeezing him as
well. Or maybe a giant slug was working on swallowing the drunk whole.
light leaked in through widening cracks, blinding Benjamin momentarily.
He closed his eyes and managed to pull in a breath. A draught of fresh,
aboveground air rushed into his lungs. The roots nearly sprang free
of him, releasing their death grip, and he scrambled to keep some of
the roots in his grasp, yelling, “Hang on!” The golden cracks had
opened up, huge chunks of earth falling away to reveal the low sun burning
harshly in the clear sky of Outside. A great roar rose up all around
him. Down was becoming up.
had an idea what might be happening. The tree had been leaning slowly,
craving to lay its length upon the ground, its dead weight a slave to
gravity. A major amount of earth had vacated the hilltop on which Scalabrini
Hall was perched, and as Benjamin had witnessed beneath him as he’d
clung to the roots above the tumbling throne, the huge tooth of land,
rotted and filled with cavities, had practically hollowed itself out,
leaving the tree with very little support. And so the tree had succumbed
to nature’s laws. It’d begun to fall. Luckily, for Benjamin and
friends, the tree had directed its fall away from the drop-off created
after the entire west half of the giant main house and the earth it’d
been resting on had broken off and slid down into the valley far, far
below. If the tree had fallen the other way, they’d all be riding
the heated July air currents to Splatsville, where bones get crushed,
organs burst, and dreams die.
a rickety elevator, jerking upward, the mass of under-root rose, breaking
through the topsoil, as the tree’s length levered toward restful earth.
felt the suctioning pop of release as the monster that had gripped his
forearm tore itself free and scrambled into the dense core of dirt and
root at the base of the fulcruming tree. He’d caught sight of it,
a snapshot, his eyes pained by the brightness of day and shuttering
shut, and it’d looked part leech, part man, porous like a sea sponge
in spots, taut pale skin in other spots. Benjamin glimpsed its face
in a flash as it turned to glance at him: an old man’s face, a flattened
worm’s head, jumbled, whiskered, a rounded mouth affixed in an O,
a sucker mouth, bushy eyebrows, confused eyes, incriminating eyes. It
had geysered a plume of vomit at Benjamin before turning and working
its way into the jumbled mess of roots, its body doing things it shouldn’t.
In its hand—or perhaps it’d been its foot; Benjamin wasn’t sure,
his glimpse of the monster having been mercifully quick—it had carried
a long-handled axe, glinting under the sun’s blast as if freshly sharpened.
a third of the root mass had ascended aboveground. It had pushed the
blood-saturated soil up out of its way as it slowly lifted. The levering
action had stopped. The massive trunk of the tree was not lying flat,
however, as was its obvious intent, but slanted upward at a forty-five
or so degree angle. Benjamin was half in, half out of the dirt, clinging
to the knotted undergrowth, staring dumbly at the spot in the roots
where the axe-wielding monster had vanished.
he told himself. That was one of those lumberjacks who’d set up camp
here so long ago.
gave his head a shake, clearing the creepy-crawlies, and turned to look
at the low afternoon sun. To the west he saw a broad landscape, rolling
hills of green, blue sky. He saw freedom from the darkness and the stink.
All he had to do was crawl from the roots and get his boots on the dirt,
situate himself on that narrow belt of vista resting between the roots
and the cliff line.
ground was rippling oddly, and Benjamin saw that the cliff line, where
recently the west half of the main house had been, was breaking off,
crumbling away, inching closer to the roots of the tree. The west end
of the atrium had collapsed, glass shards littering the mud, so he had
an unobstructed view of the crumbling cliff’s edge coming his way,
the cliff face peeling off layer after layer, sliding down to the valley
floor far below the hall’s pedestal perch.
shouted, “Hold on!” again, just as the last of the supporting earth
fell away, unveiling the entirety of the root mass, and in its whiskery
underside was William, who’d been below ground level, clinging to
the crumbling ceased, Benjamin knew that the tree, weighted by the root
mass, not to mention its three clingers-on, would tip and plummet down
the cliff. It was like a waterfall, he decided, and they were rushing
toward the runoff...and there was no stopping a waterfall...and why
does it just keep crumbling away like that...and... “Damn it!” he
shouted. “Goddamn all this bullshit!”
became quiet. Silence but for the slightest trickle of dirt, and then
even that stopped. No hissing dirt, no clunking rock, no clanging glass
shards from the jagged edge of the atrium overhead. Benjamin dared to
think that just maybe they’d get out of this little pickle alive.
tree moaned, a low creak from its bending trunk, and the top of the
tree shifted against whatever it’d propped itself up on, screeching
like a car wreck, and the tree roots slid over the crumbling cliff edge.
held an image in his mind. A magic cardboard carpet. He and Brenda racing
down a grassy slope sitting atop a flattened cardboard box. When you
live in a small town, inventiveness comes into play, and the magic cardboard
ride, repeated over and over, was how the two of them had filled an
entire afternoon one April day. She’d loved him back then, or at least
he liked to think she had, and she’d clung to him tightly as they’d
raced down that hill, their asses bouncing and bruising and sliding
about on the slick cardboard. He’d had to hold on to the front lip
of their sled so they wouldn’t slide off. He hadn’t been able to
hold onto her. He wished he had. She would have liked that. And maybe
then, if he’d done that one thing different, she wouldn’t have left
and gone off with Macey. But it could be said that he was going to die
a boy who had once been loved, couldn’t it? He at least had that,
tree jerked to a stop, nearly bucking Benjamin from it. He snapped open
his eyes and looked down onto the three-hundred-yard drop. He wasn’t
positive, he was dizzy and exhausted, but he thought the tree was doing
that seesaw thing he’d seen in movies when the car is dangling over
is it, boy?” William seemed irritated.
Benjamin thought. Like I’m inconveniencing him or something. “We
got to get up out of these roots, man. Off of this tree fast.” He
was scrambling for handholds on the stiffer roots, pulling himself toward
the upper edge of the bulbous mass. “You hear me, Hobbs? Off the tree.
pulled himself up over the top of the roots. He could see, for the first
time since he’d risen up out of the dirt, the scene to the east of
the massive root bulb. The eastern half of the main house was still
standing three stories tall. The giant atrium was only half there, a
protective half-dome behind the leaning tree, its curved roof jutting
out jaggedly overhead, just short of Benjamin’s position. Chunks and
shards of thick glass were tumbling down occasionally, the weight of
the atrium’s roof too great for what remained of its supporting walls.
The tree had leaned back into the half dome of glass. For the moment,
unfortunately, the glass wall was holding the weight of the tree. Where
the treetop had hit the glass, there was a webbing of long cracks, a
slight concavity, but as of yet, no collapse.
stuck down here,” Benjamin heard William say. He must have climbed
into the root ball and made his way to Hobbs’s side.
cliff face retreated another inch or so, and the tree slid a few inches,
maybe a foot, making Benjamin fumble for a firmer handhold. Through
the whiskery tendrils at the top edge of the root mass where Benjamin
had managed to climb and glom onto, he could look down the length of
the tree trunk, up into the shadows webbed against the bristling underside
of the gnarled branches. Something darker than shadow was clinging to
the twisted, deep-wrinkled bark of the trunk, just beyond the first
outthrust of limbs. Against the black crosshatchings of twining branch
and twig, against the subtle brownness of the dead leaves, was a set
of eyes, glinting red as they caught the sun’s light, and they were
staring back down the length of the trunk at Benjamin.
pulled himself over the top edge of root bramble. He tumbled down along
the brittle roots intertwined like wicker that ran to the base of the
trunk. He re-anchored himself with fistfuls of pale root. He had to
be careful not to slip off to either side. The tree had slid enough
so that the base of the tree trunk, along with Benjamin, was at least
ten feet beyond the cliff edge. He’d have to get past the ring of
overly large roots, the surface roots, thick and rigidly pointed outwards,
just ahead of him. He’d have to crawl past those and onto the trunk
itself, and from there he should be able to jump to the raised plateau’s
muddy tabletop. If only Hobbs and William would hurry their asses up
and catch up with him. He wasn’t going to leave them behind. Not after
moan from the twisted trunk, a crumbling of another cliff peel, and
the tree edged farther over the drop-off.
thing clinging to the tree up ahead was scampering along the trunk toward
Benjamin. He nearly lost his balance as he tried to back away from the
creature dancing closer and closer to him, but then he recognized the
little Brinikin girl from the graveside. She had an oblong piece of
fruit in her hands, its skin the purples and blues of a bruise. The
fruit was nearly as big as her rotting head. She cradled it in her upturned
palms as she stepped up to one of the surface roots, a pillar she could
easily hide behind. She remained behind the root, the tiny fingers of
one hand inching into view as she gripped the root for balance. Benjamin
wondered if she was hiding from him, expecting him to seek her out.
Then her whole arm wrapped around the upright root-pole, and she began
walking circles around it. A ring of blood was drawn where her flesh
scraped the root. She held the fruit perched precariously atop her outstretched
Benjamin, somewhere in the thick of the twining confusion of root knot,
William wailed, a sad sound, a repeated harsh melody, or perhaps a dirge
of some sort. Had Hobbs died somehow? Squeezed to death by the torquing
roots? Or maybe the lumberjack had attacked her. Whichever, Benjamin
had a bad feeling she may have passed, and William was airing his lament.
Good for her, Benjamin thought. She’ll miss the part where we die
screaming, freefalling down that three-hundred-yard drop-off.
there, little brother,” the Brinikin said.
could see that one of her pigtails had been pulled from her rotting
skull. He wondered if she felt the pain, if she even knew it was gone.
He wondered what it’d caught on, or what son of a bitch had yanked
it out, and why hadn’t he been there to… He shook his head, a cheek-load
of tears dumping from his eyes. He tried to put a smile on.
there, Best,” he said.
She stopped twirling around the root, staring at him with her pus-curdled
eyes. “You remember when you were a little boy? Remember us playing?”
crawled forward, keeping one hand anchored in the roots in preparation
for another of the tree’s gut-twisting slides. He told her no, told
her he sure didn’t remember playing. She was twirling around the pole-root
again, drawing a red crayon ring around it with her rotting forearm.
she said. “I was there, Benjamin August. Just wanted you to know that.
Might do nothing all day, but I’m always there when you need me. Like
my papa told me to be. Watched over the both of you just like I was
told. A guardian angel, I am.”
Best,” Benjamin said, up close now and refusing to rear back.
what do I get?” she said.
didn’t know what to say. What’d she meant by ‘watched over the
both of you’? Must be talking about Jessica. The little zombie girl
had watched over her mother and brother. Okay. Benjamin did not want
to linger on these thoughts.
a good girl,” she went on, twirling around her pole. “And what’s
it get me? But I don’t care about that, Benjamin August. I mean, I’m
okay. I still play.”
I see the fruit?” Benjamin said.
eyed him suspiciously, a gelatinous droplet of yellow pus dripping from
her chin to the bruised skin of the fruit in her hand.
been too smart, you,” she said. “You eat this, you live forever,
like me. I used to think that was a good thing.”
don’t want to eat it.”
‘Cause you can’t. Hard as rock. Gone double bad now. The lady underground
is dead.” She stomped her foot so Benjamin would know who she was
talking about. “That’s why I wanted you to have that last one, remember?
In the graveyard? When I pulled you out?”
was the last one.” She was looking at him sternly, and Benjamin knew
he was being reprimanded. “That was the last one where’s you could
get in through the skin.” She rapped her little bloody knuckles on
the petrified shell of the fruit. Benjamin heard the crack of the splitting
fruit, and then realized it wasn’t the fruit she’d busted, but one
or more of her fingers as she’d rapped on the hardened rind. She held
up her broken hand. “Darn it,” she said, barking out one quick sob.
Then she breathed deeply. “You could have eaten that fruit, and we
could have lived forever. And we could have played and played. That
was our last chance. But I didn’t want to explain everything then.
My head gets all dizzy, can’t think for too long anymore. Hurts.”
stepped past the upthrust pole, onto the basket weave of inclining roots,
and she held the dark oblong fruit up to Benjamin. “Here,” she said
in a sweet little voice that nearly made Benjamin break down.
crawled a bit farther, and then he grabbed the fruit. It smelled bad,
but not as bad as the one she’d offered him before. Its skin was rough
and solid as stone, like an avocado forgotten in the back corner of
a pantry. He hefted it, tossed it up and caught it. It’d make a dandy
missile, he figured. He stood, shaking at the knees, and set his boots
sorry ’bout the car wreck,” the Brinikin said, grabbing onto his
leg for support, leaving red hand prints on his jeans. “I should have
done something to make it not happen, but I couldn’t think of what
to do. I’m just a little girl.”
brought the oblong missile back behind him, aimed as best he could with
his knees shaking as they were, and threw it with all his might—or
what was left of his might—at the glass wall that supported the tip
of the monstrous tree.
heard something crack, but he couldn’t monitor the outcome of his
desperate toss. The throw had unbalanced him, and he danced in circles
until he could pile drive his knees back into the roots and grab big
fistfuls of the stuff. He’d gotten turned around. Best had crawled
off somewhere. He looked over his shoulder at the glass wall where he’d
pitched the fruit, and he saw that nothing had changed.
tree took another lunge over the crumbling cliff edge, and Benjamin
was sure this was the last one, the skid that would tilt the scales,
give the weight advantage to the root mass, and send them all screaming
to their bone-pulverizing death.
webbed cracks in the glass half-dome raced to the extents of what remained
of the atrium, and the supporting wall collapsed with a symphonic pang.
The limbs on the underside of the gnarled trunk began snapping one by
one, popping as dead wood does, and the tree settled to the muddied
ground, its tip bouncing outside the jagged crown of the atrium’s
fanged, circular base.
plume of dirt and tree shrapnel rose with this booming roost, and the
shards of glass were tinkling like a wind chime. Benjamin could hear,
beneath all this chaos, William climbing up the roots, breaking a few
as he advanced, encouraging Hobbs, who, apparently, wasn’t dead after
all. Benjamin reached over the edge of the root bramble and gave William
a hand up. The three of them stumbled past the large ring of surface
roots, stepped onto the trunk, and Benjamin thought they might just
make it to solid ground. He was horribly tempted to knock on wood. He
waited until William had helped Hobbs down to the mud before jumping
stomped his boot on the ground, figuring if that’s what it was going
to take to make the whole hilltop collapse, may as well get it over
with now. It held. He looked around at the ruin surrounding him. This
was the cellar he’d been trapped in earlier. The prison of Beanstalk.
It’d blossomed into an open-air museum. Bits of Scalabrini Hall lay
strewn all about. Artful piles of broken glass were on display, threatening
every footstep. And at the center of it all was the ancient magic tree,
supine, laid out before him for his viewing pleasure.
The dead tree lay across the
shattered atrium like some fallen prehistoric beast, its roots stuck
out over the drop-off, its massive trunk sunk in the mud before the
three bedraggled sightseers. It was late afternoon, still a few hours
before sunset. Benjamin stood in stunned wonder, perplexed by the slow
tick of time as of late. His belly was empty and roaring, his throat
and mouth were dry. His bones hurt. Parts of him were numb; exactly
which parts he wasn’t sure. Up on what remained of the landmass on
which the Scalabrini’s had built their wonderful home, there was a
slight breeze. Had to be cooling down to a somewhat bearable temperature.
Still too hot for Benjamin’s tastes. And humid. The air heavy with
blood and dirt.
thing Benjamin had noticed after scrambling down from the trunk was
that the corner of the cellar where Beanstalk had been chained up, the
northwest or southwest corner, Benjamin wasn’t sure which, was gone.
The west half of the cellar, as well as the main house above, had fallen
to the rubble below on the floor of the valley. Old Bean Scalabrini
had to be lying in that rubble, Benjamin figured, his body broken, his
blind eyes focused on the afterlife. Lucky bastard.
stood facing the tree, watching Hobbs mournfully walk along its length,
ducking under and climbing over its branches, letting the multi-shaped
dead leaves brush her face, her fingers tenderly caressing the trunk.
This really peeved Benjamin for some reason or other. Maybe it was that
the old lady seemed to care an aweful lot about a stupid dead tree,
and she didn’t seem to care much at all about him.
was standing by the edge of the new cliff line. He was looking down
over the drop-off, not really focused on anything down below, it seemed,
just gazing into thick air. Benjamin truly hoped he wasn’t going to
bellyache about his lost walking staff. He didn’t have the energy
to listen to such trivial concerns. William turned and walked up to
Benjamin, his hands held behind his back, his head bowed. His flannel
shirtfront was a torn canvas layered with dirt and blood. Certainly
didn’t look the mighty warrior he had on occasion over the last twenty-some
hours. He seemed deflated, an old man, the town drunk once again. He
wiggled his bare toes in the blood-streaked mud. This irritated Benjamin
to no end, too; the brave warrior turned old drunk all of a sudden.
Benjamin wanted more out of William than this toe-wiggling modest mouse
the hell,” Benjamin began, low and quivering, hardly in control of
the rage he felt a part of him now, inseparable, like the tomato base
of a soup, or the industry of a town. He coughed up some dirt that had
crept into his lungs, and he spat it into the mud. “What took you
so long to climb out of those roots, Willy?”
lifted his eyes to Benjamin, seething himself, Benjamin could see now.
Steeped with the stuff of rage. “One of those root creatures, m’boy,”
he said. “had Star in its clutches.” He held up his left hand, amazingly
painful to look at, blistered and peeling and dripping with both blood
and pus. He dug a handkerchief from his trouser pocket and began to
tenderly wrap the raw meat. “It spat on me, upon this.” He held
up the hand once more, in case Benjamin had lost track of what the subject
Benjamin said. He checked himself for traces of vomit. He recalled that
the lumberjack had vomited toward him as it’d scampered away. Seemed
the monster’s bile projectile had fallen short of its mark. “I saw
one, too,” he said. “It had an axe, Willy. I think it was—”
don’t care what you think it was,” William cut him off. “You need
to get us to that new tree. That’s all you have to worry about. I’ve
remembered how William had been wailing from the twined guts of the
root ball earlier. Must have been some sort of animal call. Benjamin
caught himself looking up at the sky, expecting to see giant eagles
circling. He glanced back at William, and he saw that the old man was
busy trying to tie off his bandage using his good hand and his teeth.
Benjamin turned and saw Hobbs working her way back from the tip of the
tree. He figured she was saying goodbye to the dead, as people do at
open casket funerals. As people do every second of every day.
had to piss, which he found surprising, seeing as how he doubted he
could spare any of the fluids still pocketed in his dried-up body. He
grabbed onto the rough bark of the tree and climbed up and over the
massive trunk for a little privacy. The girth of the tree was astounding
this close to the major surface roots, maybe ten feet distant, and it
made for a tough climb.
jumped down and faced the opposite side of the trunk. Admiring the bark’s
texture, empathizing with the crazy old woman’s reverence toward the
dead hulk laid out before him—and not liking this empathy one bit—he
pulled at his pant fly, got himself situated, and began jetting a clear
stream of urine onto the gnarled bark. He was standing beside a thick
bough, its stems heavy with greasy, limp maple leaves that trailed cilia
the length of a man. He’d seen the long hairs of the tree’s foliage
earlier. He’d thought the different leaf varieties, the long stringy
leaves and the maple leaves and the palm fronds, were separate strains
growing from separate stems, but he saw that they were all combined
as one hybrid leaf. This tree had been a maverick, the finest example
of its ilk, and for all he knew, it was the last of its kind. As he
pissed, he examined the trunk. It was porous, and while it was multi-layered
like bark, new growth over old growth, it looked the slightest bit reptilian,
like a snake after sunning too long.
his right, the mammoth trunk gang-planked out over the drop-off, its
bramble of root mass reaching skyward and out to either side. He glanced
to his left, past the thick branch he stood beside, and was startled
to see the white lettering of his name etched there, the first of it
curled down under the mud-cradled trunk, the August Weller on full display,
nearly within his reach. He could see the rotten, broken remains of
the branch just below his name, the leaves of which, when the branch
had been healthy and in place, had hidden the carved lettering.
to his left, beyond the stump of the broken bough, Benjamin saw more
carved letters, slyly placed between a few intact branches, hidden from
casual view. He pulled himself together, fastened up his fly, and reached
for the newly discovered carvings, pushing at the dead, oily leaves
that covered up this second name. Looked like it was just a single name.
Looked like it was—
rushed at him from above, making Benjamin flinch, and he was grasped
by the shoulders, his stitched one still tender, and he yelped as he
was lifted up onto the trunk...and then he was being escorted roughly
down the other side. His boots splashed down in the mud beside William’s
bare feet. William had him at arm’s length, a look of disgust on his
filthy, whiskered face.
urinated on Dalai Dae?” he said, abashed, unbelieving, but keeping
quiet so the advancing Star Hobbs wouldn’t hear. “Make no mistake,
this tree is no different from the corpse of any person you may hold
dear, though, by looking at you, by observing your actions as of late,
I don’t think it’d be too far-fetched to assume that you hold no
one dear besides yourself.”
raised his eyebrows, impressed by the drunk’s long-windedness. “I’ve
held people dear, Willy.” He shrugged free from the drunk’s grip.
“They all got worse than pissed on.”
Star had caught you doing that, she would have come unhinged.”
Benjamin whispered, seeing as how Hobbs was getting close. “She’s
already unhinged. Her door’s been busted down, man.”
sighed. “Things are becoming raveled. If we could just—”
got you,” Benjamin said, patting the drunk’s shoulder. “Light
at the end of the tunnel, cowboy up, and all that bullshit, I know.
I’m with you. Just make no mistake, old man,”—Hobbs was nearly
on them, so Benjamin whispered extra quietly—“I don’t give a shit
about your goddamned magic tree.”
arched his back as Hobbs stepped up to them. He raised his arms and
stretched, feeling the comforting weight of the shotgun slung on his
back. He combed his fingers through his hair, telling himself not to
falter just yet, to see this through, to not be a pussy.
were tears on Hobbs face. The wounds inflicted by the caretaker’s
razor-vines were showing as faint white scar tissue in the late afternoon
sun. She wiped her face, slapped on the patented snarl, and glared disapprovingly
is it you plan on doing next, Benjamin?” she asked, a bite of venom
in her voice. “Start a forest fire? Strangle some bunnies?”
didn’t do anything,” Benjamin said. He couldn’t believe she was
trying to make him feel guilty for what had happened, as if he’d been
caught doing something unlawful once again and was no doubt going to
be written up in the county newspaper’s police report for the whole
town of Bingly to read. The townsfolk would avoid him again; this time
they’d actually spit on him when he walked by on Main Street, as he’d
felt they’d come close to doing on occasion. Oh, Benjamin thought,
those damned eyes of hers, making it seem as if something criminal had
were different now, however. Desperate, illegal acts were now ordained
feats of heroism, Benjamin reminded himself. And no one in Bingly was
going to wake up tomorrow morning, leaf through the newspaper over eggs
and toast and read about the latest misadventures of Benjamin August
Weller in the police report column.
didn’t do a damn thing, Mrs. Hobbs,” he said, salivating over the
thought of eggs and toast.
worm women did this,” William said. “All those tunnels bored underneath
the house. Whole hill must have been riddled with them.”
thought you had something to do with it,” Benjamin said, lifting his
hands and wiggling his fingers, letting his eyes settle on Hobbs. “With
weak, too weak right now,” she said. “Like I told you, I couldn’t
bend a spoon given the chance. And I don’t practice voodoo. Very romantic
of you to think I do, but…” She breathed in a lungful of air, her
face beginning to glisten with sweat, looking to Benjamin like she might
pass out. She had to feel at least as exhausted as he did. He was going
over her phrasings, ‘voodoo’ and ‘romantic,’ trying to figure
out what she’d meant by that remark, when she said, “What is it
you plan on doing next?”
he said hesitantly, “we’ve got to find the new tree. Get to it before
Ibucus and his scissor boys do.” His eyes narrowed, agitated by Hobbs’s
acrimonious stare. The anger she stirred up in him was alerting his
system, sharpening his cognizance. He appreciated this burst of reawakening,
but he did wish she’d stop looking at him that way.
not,” he continued. “What’s it matter to me? This is not my problem,
Mrs. Hobbs. Wrong place, wrong time, that’s my problem, okay? I got
nothing to do with any of this bull—”
Hobbs said, “do not go down that road. Spare us, pretty please, little
rounded on Benjamin and said, “You know where we need to go. So tell
us, and we’ll go. Pretty simple, I’d say.”
stared at each of them in turn. He hadn’t taken on any responsibility,
hadn’t signed any contract, had he? He certainly did not want to lead
these two old cronies around. But now there was the new revelation that
had popped up when he’d found that second name carved in the trunk
above his name. He’d managed to see just enough of those letters that
the name had become clear in his head a split second after William had
pulled him away. Made no sense that that name was engraved in the bark
above his. And it would never make sense, unless, of course, he mulled
it over, as he was doing now, which he knew damn well he should not
be doing for sanity’s sake.
me this before I tell you what you want to know,” Benjamin said. “How
does the Lady know the caretaker?”
tell us where we need to go, Benjamin,” the old drunk said, looking
less an old drunk than a schoolyard bully, stepping forward and clenching
his fists like maybe he had plans to sucker punch someone. “We’ve
no time for this!”
need to know this one thing,” Benjamin said. “Tell me how the Lady
knows who the caretaker is. Before the caretaker’s the caretaker,
a ceremony,” Hobbs said. “That ceremony involves many things, which,
when done in the proper sequence, signify the sacrificed or, as I’ve
heard it termed, the chosen. The lamb led to slaughter...”
things? What kinds of things are done in the ceremony?”
heaved a terrific sigh of impatience, and then she said, “There’s
the blood-letting, the placement and the name carving. There’s the
transference of power from the former caretaker.”
carving?” Couldn’t have been what she’d said. But he’d known
this already, had been born knowing this. “What’s that? You mean
like the caretaker-to-be’s name is carved on the tree?” Benjamin
was feeling decidedly dizzy. It really could not go down this way.
Hobbs said. “The caretaker’s...and her husband’s. Or, as I like
to term them, the lamb and the butcher.”
name,” William said, lifting a finger toward Benjamin, looking the
part of that same schoolyard bully throwing blame for a fight. “His
name is carved on the Dalai Dae’s trunk, Star. I saw it. Oh my. The
little bugger’s name is carved on the tree.”
saw the Lady down in that root cellar,” Benjamin told them, wanting
to pull interest away from the name-carving topic. Right now, he did
not want to think about that. Their eyes were focusing on him now. They
were listening to him. “I saw her come up through the broken floor,
those cracked tiles. Saw her dig into the caretaker.”
were gawking at him now. William’s brow was twisted like a dishtowel,
then it smoothed somewhat, and his eyes brightened. “The transference,”
is it,” Hobbs said, “no one calls my attention to these things when
they happen?” She looked from Benjamin to William, as if she actually
expected an answer, and then she turned her angry stare back on Benjamin.
stumbled ahead, knowing his reasoning might well be flawed, but knowing
also that he had the last puzzle piece in his hand, and that it would
be idiotic not to shove it into place. “Not only has the Lady relocated,
she’s found herself a new caretaker.”
from the two gawking oldsters. Benjamin watched them, hoping something
would click into place. He needed them to take control of the situation,
stop asking him what he planned on doing next, start barking orders,
pull a magic chariot from their asses, and get things rolling. He was
too tired, too hungry, and his legs were shaking. But neither of them
seemed willing to make a move, much less open their mouths. Needed some
Hobbs began. She’d relaxed her fiery gaze and was looking out past
Benjamin now, her mind almost visibly churning. Good, Benjamin thought.
She’s mulling it over. She’ll come up with a plan, take control.
“But...,” she said again, faltering, “but the caretaker must be
a Scalabrini bride. There’s the sacrificial ceremony that must be
observed, and the bride must lay with the tree for a long while, many
right,” Benjamin said. This had been the missing puzzle piece. Until
he’d seen the rest of the carving on the tree while he’d been pissing,
he hadn’t known how it would all fit together. He did not want to
hear about any ceremonies, did not want to hear any more discussion
concerning ‘lying with the tree.’ “Trust me, I get all that. I
wish I didn’t, but I do. Now, we can stand around and I can tell you
more, allowing Ibucus more time to get there before us, or we can roll
on out of here.”
is Dalai Dae?” William asked.
of Hog Hill,” Benjamin said.
weren’t going to believe him. He gazed at their dull stares, saw they
were stuck in some groove of befuddlement. Hell, he hardly believed
it himself. Hobbs began to laugh. Not a good sign. William lowered his
head, staring at Benjamin from under his bushy eyebrows. Benjamin shifted
his weight from one boot to the other, anxious for a response from the
two, despite their obvious, though varied, disgruntled posturing.
don’t recall seeing Dalai Dae on Hog Hill,” William said. “If
you’re making this up, I’m going to—”
no time for this shit,” Benjamin said.
Lady would never place herself out in the open like that,” Hobbs said
between giggles. “She knows to keep herself secreted away. The top
of Hog Hill is bare as an egg; anyone would be able to see her from
town.” It was clear she realized her faulty reasoning even as she
the hell,” Benjamin said, “is going to be looking up at Hog Hill
from Bingly, Mrs. Hobbs? Everybody’s dead. And she knows that. From
the hill I saw her crawling all over Bingly. She was up out of the ground,
spread out over the whole town, searching for something, or maybe blood.
She knows the town is empty. Could be she was looking for you two. Anyone’s
guess why she’d want you two losers around.”
tired from all the running away, my bet,” William said. “Weak and
confused. She’d look to us for help, Ben. We’re not the bad people
here, Hobbs and I. We’re not the enemy, regardless of how you have
us dressed up in your fanciful head.”
besides,” Benjamin went on, ignoring the fanciful head remark, “maybe
she’s sick of being hidden away. It’s you people that kept her secret
all these years, kept walls up around her. Maybe she just wants some
elbow room. You think of that?”
kept her hidden for her own good,” Hobbs said.
just a goddamned tree,” Benjamin said. “Maybe she wants to—”
slapped Benjamin’s cheek. His hand came up to rub at the stinging
flesh, his eyes flitting from Hobbs to William. His whole face reddened
as he felt his blood flush up into it, his eyes going steely. That was
it. He was done. Done with the old lady. Done with the drunk. Impossible
to deal with. Immovable, old, mossy-backed boulders.
you guys,” he said. He turned from them, determined never to turn
ended up standing in the mud, well-distanced from the two old irk masters,
looking up at the south wall of the main house towering above him. The
structure had been ripped in half. Its west half had tumbled to the
flats below. Looking up into the interior of the massive central hub
of Scalabrini Hall, he could see that it’d never been intended as
anything other than a screen against prying eyes. While the outside
of the structure appeared stately, the inside was skeletal, a backdrop
for a theater production. Scalabrini Hall had been nothing more than
four walls and, at one time, a roof to shield the tree from outside
observance. The interior walls had never been finished: no plaster,
no paint, no intricate moldings. There were floorboards at each story,
three tiers, perfunctory affairs, but they’d never spanned from wall
to wall. Each floor was nothing but a simple walkway, from which the
players of the house, those acting the parts of dignified wine merchants,
could exit onto the grand second-floor balcony or wistfully peer from
a third-floor window. There had never been any flooring up through the
center of the house. The massive main house was a hollow shell, a silo,
for the tree to grow into. Rickety wooden ladders, placed haphazardly,
connected the floors. Looked to Benjamin like the flooring had been
cut back at some point, making the circumventing walkways even narrower
than they’d been—and why not, there’d been no actors in the house
for some time, the production having come to a close years ago—to
make room for the bulky atrium, for which the roof had also been torn
few corners on different floors, where the floor space was broader,
looked to be appointed Brinikin lairs; tapestries were hung and beds
laid, collected mementoes cluttered tiny shelves, and in one oddly colorful
corner, a tattered Happy Birthday banner was draped from one wall to
the abutting wall.
there been a period, Benjamin wondered, before the familial bickering
and derailment and Shakespearean plot twists, when this ragtag clan
had tried to live somewhat normal lives? Before they’d become monsters?
had no time to entertain any thoughts other than escape from the cellar
level. He shook his head and looked around him. The mud was littered
with broken glass and wooden debris. He took careful steps to avoid
these, distancing himself from the cliff.
level was the next floor up, and so, as he’d expected, there was no
exit at cellar level per se. He’d already been trapped here once.
The only way out had been down, and that stairwell had been jettisoned
with the quake. But there was plenty of rubble that had fallen to the
mud when the house had been ripped in two, and the first-floor walkway
that had encircled the atrium had collapsed on the east wall, forming
a zigzag of inclines. One section of this funhouse construction looked
sturdy and flush enough to pedal a bicycle up to the ground floor walkway.
Follow that to the south wall and the ornate doorframe set at the west
edge and, ta-da, you could walk out of this façade of a mansion. Benjamin
glared at the first-floor doorway. The quake had shaken the doors loose,
or they’d been removed earlier. The area beyond the doorframe was
hidden in shadow. Why did he get the feeling someone was watching him
from those shadows? A condition a monster hunter sinks to, no doubt.
as he was about to turn to the east wall’s post-quake scaffolding,
he saw movement in the doorway...something black as shadow itself, its
hide glinting in the few stray sunrays that penetrated the doorway.
Huge and muscular, like some obsidian statue come to life, Devil’s
Ride emerged into the light and snorted. Its eyes were dark but not
glowing red as Benjamin had imagined them. And its hooves did not spark
as they clomped along the floorboards of the narrow walkway. One ear
was a nub, grown over with bristles of hair, and its mane was a tangled
mess, briar and thorn poking from it in every direction.
giant horse advanced onto the walkway until its front hooves came up
on the jagged edge. A hooded, bareback rider loomed above the one twitching
ear. It was Beanstalk, spent and near collapse, wearing a robe of mismatched
swaths of tattered garments sewn together. The robe was overly large,
even on the giant, draping his hands and feet, and Benjamin would not
have recognized him but for his size and the unruly head and chin hair
sticking out from the hood. His head was lowered with exhaustion, but
Benjamin could see the glint of the eyes, cataract-white, beaming from
the sallow face.
my God,” Benjamin said.
tilted his hooded head. “Hardly.”
thought,” Benjamin started, stumbling over his amazement at seeing
the giant alive. He lifted his chin and spoke louder so the giant could
hear him from up on high. “Your chains,” he tried again. “That
corner,” he pointed to where he had an idea Beanstalk may have been
shackled. “That whole side of the basement is gone, man.”
raised his head, and Benjamin could just make out the darker pits of
his nostrils over the bramble of his beard as light snuck in under the
hood. Looked like he was sniffing at some scent he’d noticed beyond
the stink of his own body. His head turned as he sifted through the
odors wafting to him from below.
you get free?” Benjamin asked.
raised his arms to his sides. “I didn’t.” He released his grip
on the gathered chains hidden within the long sleeves of the robe. They
thudded and clanged heavily to the floorboards on either side of the
giant black horse. The shackles were still attached to Beanstalk’s
bloody wrists. “The wall released the wall pins, and this ship found
itself adrift.” He threw back his hood, and then lowered his weighty
arms. “Damn lucky I crawled the right way, legs all atangle in this
filthy thing.” He plucked at his robe with a huge palsied hand.
bedding, Benjamin realized. Those ancient rags he’d slept on all those
smell the reek of an unwashed drunk,” Beanstalk said. “Is Growling
here,” Benjamin informed the giant.
the sweet fragrance? Is that flower petals rubbed on silk cloth hung
in the breeze?”
Benjamin had no idea what the giant was talking about. He was busy trying
to remember something that should be brought up, something the giant
would know about. Benjamin’s brain was milk-bloated toast, useless
at the moment.
Star Hobbs here also?” the giant asked.
here,” Benjamin heard Hobbs say from behind him. She didn’t sound
turned to the advancing couple. Hobbs seemed her noble, bitter self
again, no longer frayed at the edges, slaphappy, or anxious. William
must have talked her down from her anger ledge. They were looking up
at the ground-floor walkway, watching Beanstalk and his horse.
can’t be Sheriff, can it?” Hobbs said quietly, awestruck at the
sight of Beanstalk’s gigantic mount.
you half as glad to see me as my horse, I’d be a lucky man, Star Hobbs,”
Beanstalk said. “As always, though we live torturously long, nothing
changes, and I’m anything but lucky.”
Hobbs said, staring up at the horse’s flapping lower lip with glee.
She looked heavenly in her state of mirth, and it surprised Benjamin
that seeing her in this state, he’d happily forgive her all the bitterness,
all the offhand distain she’d meted out upon him since William had
dragged him to her doorstep. But, he reminded himself, it had to be
some sort of glamour, some magic spell she’d fastened around her like
a raincoat, for she wasn’t as beautiful as she seemed, and she certainly
did not deserve his forgiveness. He pulled his eyes from her, wondering
at a thought he’d just had, how he wished she could have been his
foster mother for at least a little while. Maybe they could have learned
to get along, and maybe she would have cared enough to stick around
longer than the others. She had her hands clasped behind her back, and
she seemed excited and rested, glowing. Rocking back and forth in the
mud, a sly curl of a smile on her lips, she said to Beanstalk, “Nothing
changes. Least of all you, I’m sure.”
lord Christ, Benjamin thought. Is she flirting with the giant?
rushed up to stand beside Hobbs, who had inched herself forward. The
old drunk was staring at the giant horse as well. The horse whinnied
and stomped one hoof at the sight of William below. Some sort of greeting,
Benjamin guessed. Benjamin was quite taken by the horse himself. He’d
never been a horse aficionado, and he’d especially tried to avoid
the large ones. This one seemed as tall as the giant, and it was layered
in muscle, looking very capable of stomping Benjamin to pulp with its
plate-sized hooves. This was no doubt the same monstrous beast in those
old wives’ tales, the urban legend known as Devil’s Ride, sightings
of which had been written up time and again in those old police report
columns Benjamin had come across. The horse’s hair was short and dark,
and it shone with sweat under the sun’s slanting rays. Had to Devil’s
Ride, didn’t it?
came,” William said, his eyes locked on the horse. “Must’ve been
never strayed far,” Beanstalk said. “I’d hear him just outside
some nights. Nothing the poor boy could do to instigate my release,
but I believe he must have put at least a few dents in this dank old
shell of a house with his big old feet. Good boy, he is.” He was picking
through the wiry mane, pulling out thorns and burrs. “He’s found
himself a new family. Brought along rides for all of you. Now let’s
get you up out of there. You’ve riding to do.”
could see activity in the cracked and shattered first-floor windows
up above. He was relieved to see kindhearted horse eyes looking in at
them from outside, nodding their lengthy heads with impatience, wanting
Devil’s Ride back in their fold.
time to stand around,” Beanstalk urged them. “Gather your things
and climb up to me. Or I could send Sheriff down to you. That’s how
I escaped that wretched pit, or rather, how I was rescued from it.”
He was patting affectionately at the horse’s muscular shoulder. “He’s
a good boy, Sheriff is. The best boy.”
things?” William said.
perturbed by the hesitancy of the cellar-bound group, said, “Yes,
yes. Swords and such. Wigs and wands. One last battle to be fought,
old man, before you can rest those—”
have nothing,” Hobbs cut him off. She was looking around her, looking
for a way up, or maybe she was looking for a crucial ingredient needed
to magic Benjamin into a frog. He wasn’t sure which. It felt like
his skin was stretched, folds of it drooping toward the ground. He found
this sensation quite odd. He’d never felt this tired before.
my stick,” William said. “Ain’t that the damnedest thing?”
Well,” Beanstalk said, his huge eyebrows raised, “we need you armed,
Growling. Can’t have you fighting evil with your bad breath alone,
now can we?”
here,” Hobbs called. She’d wandered toward the east wall to examine
the collapsed upper walkway Benjamin had spied earlier. She was near
the tip of the dead tree, gazing over the jumbled, broken limbs, pointing
to the northeast corner of the cellar. William trotted over to her side,
and Benjamin found himself stumbling after the drunk, a stray dog that
did not want to be left alone. Glints of shiny things could be seen
scattered amongst the rubble of fallen walkway. A hilt of a sword was
sticking up out of the topsy-turvy pile of twisted, broken planking.
on, Benjamin,” William said. He climbed over the dead top growth of
the tree. “You’ll need a weapon for when those shotgun shells are
used up. Let’s go see what we can find.”
followed the spry old man to the corner. What else was he going to do?
He shook his head, and then he pushed his palms against his eyes. Moving
about was helping to lube his tired joints.
pulled the sword from the pile, and he hefted it, testing its balance.
There were other swords buried in the rubble. A few were whole, others
broken. William gestured at the pile with his bandaged hand.
something,” he said. “And hurry!”
the hell are these swords doing here, Willy?” Benjamin said.
gazed up at the upper corner of the fake house. Benjamin followed his
gaze, saw that the corner at the first-floor level was similar to the
other corners—decorated and minimally furnished in an attempt to make
them livable, bearable, and reminiscent of former times. The walls of
this corner were mounted with swords, at least half of the display having
fallen to the cellar when the quake had raged. Torn cloth ties and outlines
of sooty grit on the nude planks indicated the fallen swords’ former
sword collection?” Benjamin marveled. “Pretty weird, man.”
collect all sorts of things,” William said. “These monsters you
call Brinikin were once normal people, Benjamin. If you can call rooming
in the corners of a fake mansion normal.”
seems normal enough to me,” Benjamin said. He’d set up a nice home-away-from-foster-hell
in quite a few corners of abandoned buildings around Bingly during his
younger years. There’d been more and more empty buildings as the years
went by, with Bingly ghost-towning as it’d been doing. “But a sword
collection? Where’d they get all these swords?”
of means tend to travel. Travelers tend to buy trinkets.” William
was prying up fallen floor planks with the tip of his newfound blade.
“You yourself must collect something or other, I’ll wager.”
let his gaze fall back to the rubble that filled the cellar corner.
“Comic books,” he told William. He dug up a broken sword and tossed
it aside. Poking up from the wreckage, tucked into the shadowy corner,
he spotted the tip of what looked like the compound bow Gilman Turnkey
had found in Dodd’s Bar. Couldn’t be. Beside the bow tip, he saw
the canvas strap of the duffle bag Gilman had carried. He grabbed the
strap and heaved. The bag came up from under the splintery fallout.
Benjamin looked in the duffle and found quite a few arrows nesting inside.
William said. “Like Donald Duck? What a strange thing to collect.”
Benjamin said, pulling busted planks away from the bow. “This is like
serial killer shit. Must have brought these swords with them from wherever
you guys kept the tree before. Some other time, man.” He pulled the
compound bow free from the pile. Seemed in working order. Nothing broken.
“A time when people carried swords around with them, I’m thinking.
This is Turnkey’s bow, Willy.”
wasting time!” Beanstalk roared from the upper walkway’s landing.
The giant horse snorted in agreement.
is a collection of dead men’s weapons,” Benjamin said. “Murdered
Hobbs called urgently. “Behind you.”
and Benjamin turned. From the direction of the cliff edge and the jutting
roots, three grotesque forms were snaking their way through the mud.
The human bodies, decayed and plump with veins, seemed multi-jointed,
more so than your average, say, mud-scurrying zombie. Each lumberjack
was dragging itself along with one hand, while the other hand brandished
a long-handled two-edged axe. The head of each axe was the size of a
man’s head, the sharpened edges curved and pointed at the tips. Vomit
spewed from the lumberjacks’ leech-like mouths.
William said, his new sword held limply at his side. “Will this parade