The Moaning Tree, by Sofie Couch, (c) 2012.
It just felt weird, going out on Halloween without Caleb. Caleb’s like my left arm. I don’t often use it, (being right-handed and all), but if it wasn’t there, I’d sure miss it. That’s what this felt like. But would just one Halloween apart really kill me - us? Because 1) Caleb and I have been trick-or-treating together since we both turned eight and my Grandma Skye let us go out alone, (but who was she kidding? We totally knew she was following us in the pick-up truck), 2) Caleb and I have been too old for trick-or-treating for four years, the age limit being twelve, 3) Caleb’s my best friend, but we’re not boy-friend/girl-friend or anything, and 4) when Trey Molenado asks a girl out, the girl says “yes” unless she’s too tongue tied, in which case, she would say, “yeth.”
But it was doomed from the get-go - the whole trick-or-treating as a date with Trey Molenado. Even if it hadn’t been for Caleb being all weird and not quite pouty, but just kind of stoic, Trey doesn’t get trick-or-treating. He showed up in regular street clothes, skinny jeans and tee shirt and his black biker coat and boots, so he could have been going for a James Dean thing, only that’s what he wears all the time. So instead, I was just left looking like an idiot in my zombie cheerleader road kill outfit, complete with a tire track that ran diagonally across the front of my uniform and face.
And Trey made it pretty obvious what he wanted. He kept staring at my chest, and not because of the painted on tire track. I found myself constantly comparing his behavior to Caleb’s – Caleb who treats me like I’m androgynous… or his little sister… or a best-friend who just happens to be female.
“We could bag this whole trick-or-treating thing and just… hang out,” Trey suggested hopefully.
I knew that to be code for make-out and I don’t "make-out". I need a purpose. For the first time, I began to think this might have been a mistake.
“Hey,” I spun around and whacked him on the shoulder; because that’s the sort of thing I would have done to Caleb when I came up with a great idea, only Trey looked put out and rubbed his shoulder. Okay, so maybe I hit him harder than I might have, but he would not stop staring at my breasts. “Let’s go to the moaning tree,” I suggested.
“You know that ancient oak in the middle of Lewis and
?” Clark Park
If Trey and I followed the trick-or-treating route that Caleb and I devised to optimize our foot-step to loot ratio, it would take us right through the park, past the statue of Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark, around the bench where all the drug addicts slept, and right past the tree - a local phenomenon that had been totally contrived and given its reputation by me and Caleb.
In Halloweens past, Caleb and I would park ourselves on the back side of the tree where there was a giant cleft. It would have to be giant to hold both me and Caleb who was, shall we say, of disproportionate girth. We would sandwich ourselves in the hollow spot on the back of the tree and speak to passersby through a hollow knot hole that went through to the other side. It sounded as if the tree itself was talking and we’d make up crap to scare little kids. A few times we scared people slightly older than little kids and the tree had gained something of a ghostly reputation. Okay, maybe not a reputation considering Trey had never heard of it before.
“Yeah. That’s cool.” But Trey glanced back at my breasts and I started to regret inviting him to the tree. I would just have to make sure he was to the inside of the cleft and I was on the outside.
Trey didn’t show any interest in trick-or-treating and as he was trying to grow a moustache, he really couldn’t pass for twelve years old any more. With me and Caleb, we didn’t really care that we were too old for Halloween. We still hit the homes of the people we knew and raked in plenty of booty. The real fun of Halloween was our time at the tree.
Little kids darted around us in their rubber masks and capes. In addition to the usual witches, ghosts and pirates, there were no less than three Minecraft block heads, three kids in a Viking boat with their legs sticking out of the bottom, and a kid in a wheel chair who was decked out like a Transformer. Retro.
At the edge of the park we waited for a lull in trick-or-treaters before moving down the sidewalk, through the bower of boxwoods to the tree. It was dark here. The street lights were spaced far enough apart that there were dark hourglass shapes between the yellow orange arcs of light.
Trey’s heavy heeled biker boots ka-clunked on the sidewalk, because they weren’t quite broken in and didn’t bend with his foot. We hadn’t had a lot of quiet spaces yet during this, our first date, so there hadn’t been any awkward silences – until now. And it’s only during the awkward silences that you can tell if you click with someone or not. Caleb and I never had awkward silences - long silences, to be sure, but never awkward. It occurred to me then, that I didn’t really know Trey at all. He wore biker boots, but I had never actually seen him on a bike. Caleb wore the same pair of blown out sneakers, because all of his friends had autographed them the year before. Trey wore skinny jeans that highlighted his chicken legs. They don’t make “skinny” jeans in Caleb’s size. Trey wore a black leather biker jacket. Caleb dressed in layers, because that’s what people do when they’re trying to mask their weight. Caleb and I could talk about anything. The only thing Trey and I had in common were my breasts – me, because they’re attached and he, because he wanted to attach himself to them.
“Look. There’s a bench where we could hang-out.”
I knew that bench. There are used hypo needles under that bench. There’s dried vomit on that bench. That bench is somebody’s bed… and toilet.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to share the secret of the moaning tree with Trey. I just wanted to finish the circuit, not get any candy, go home, call Caleb… and apologize for blowing him off tonight.
“You know, I’m not really feeling great. Maybe we should head back.” I put my hand to my stomach.
But Trey kept moving toward the bench. He would sit and pat the bench beside him, then make his obvious move and he would expect me to follow through on some unspoken promise - my "reward" for being the subject of his interest.
"Don’t sit there!” I put my hand out at almost the same time he was about to sit and he stopped, butt bent, ready to land. “Whatever you do, do not sit on that bench.”
He slowly straightened, then turned around, looking for whatever was there that wasn’t. “Why shouldn't I sit? Are you afraid of something?” His smile was leering, a dare. I wondered if that tactic worked with other girls.
I thought on the fly. “Someone died on that bench.”
“Yes. Shit. Blood. You name it. All over that bench.”
He swallowed it and his smile faded. “No kiddin’?”
“Yeah. You never heard about it?" I didn't wait for him to answer since I was sure he hadn't heard the story I was about to make up. "It was on a night, just like this one. There was a little nip in the air. Usually the people walkin’ through this park, they stay to the well lit sections, but this couple, they wanted some place dark, secluded, where they could… you know." I looked pointedly at the bench. "That’s why they came here, into the park, where it was darker and they’d have some privacy. So they saw the bench in the shadows and thought, what better place?”
I slipped my hand through Trey’s arm and pulled him along, past the bench, but the old fashioned gesture kept him at a safe distance. “If only they had kept to the path, to the well lit spaces and moved quickly through the dark patches," I said as I pulled him with an exaggerated step into the shadowy arc of the sidewalk.
“But they paused." We stepped out, into the light again. "They hesitated a minute too long in the dark.” I glanced over my shoulder, then looked ahead. We were coming up on the moaning tree. “They say even today, some nights, when the weather conditions are just right – a nip in the air, a starless night… that you can still hear the moaning as he bled out on that bench.”
Trey laughed. “You’re makin’ up this shit. I think I would have heard about somebody bleeding out in the park. It would have been in the paper.”
“Oh, it was... but longtime ago - before either of us was born – back in the sixties. He was a biker – a James Dean sort. She was flattered that he had asked her out and she had stood up her steady boyfriend for one night on the wild side. Too bad. Her boyfriend, the steady, reliable one? He snapped!” I snapped my fingers in front of Trey’s face. “He followed his girlfriend and the biker into the park, moved around behind them through the shadows, and when the mismatched couple started making out on that bench," I let go Trey's arm to stab my thumb over my shoulder toward the bench, "that was when he made his move. The boyfriend attacked the biker, slitting his throat with a switch blade.” I made movements like I was flicking open a knife, then running it across Trey’s throat. “Diced him up like a pancake.”
I shrugged, like it didn't matter to me if he believed me or not. "The girl was catatonic when the police found here, covered in blood. They never found the killer though. He disappeared, leaving the girl to grieve over the loss. But it’s the biker’s moan that people say they always hear in this park.”
And just then, the tree moaned.
Trey’s eyes widened. “What the…?”
“Get your hands off of my girlfriendgggrrdgrgrd...” The tree moaned, ending with a gurgling sound, like someone choking on the blood of their own slit throat.
Trey jumped six feet over the hourglass of dark at the moaning tree. His biker boots made a staccato ka-clunk, ka-clunk, ka-clunk, as he beat a path out of the park, leaving me alone at the edge of the dark.
Trey was probably half-way home by the time Caleb extricated himself from the crack in the back of the tree.
“How long have you known I was here?”
I shrugged. “How long did it take us to figure out Grandma Skye was following us in the pick-up truck when we were eight?”
“I didn’t start out stalking you, ya know. I was planning on just comin’ here and scaring the crap out of some trick-or-treaters.”
“Looks like you managed that.” I looked along the sidewalk. There was no sign of Trey Molinado.
“Yeah. Sorry 'bout that."
I shrugged. "I'm not."
"You told Trey you weren’t feeling’ well.”
“I wasn’t.” I slipped my arm through Caleb’s and he and I both looked down at my hand over his forearm. I don’t think I had ever held his arm before. But it wasn’t weird. It was... a thrill… for me, at least. “I felt crappy about ditching another guy I’ve had a standing date with every Halloween since we were eight.”
Caleb bent his arm to give my hand a squeeze. He chuckled. “Double burn.”
"How so 'double burn'?”
“First you ditch the guy for Trey and now you’re ditchin’ him for me?”
It wasn't planned. I didn't hesitate. I leaned in and kissed Caleb - on the mouth. Then I laughed and pulled him with me into the cleft at the back of the moaning tree… where it's dark.
Sofie Couch writes YA Paranormal novels and southern gothic romance. Watch for her upcoming release of a mystery novella featuring the characters in this short story, FLIPPIN’ THE BIRD: A PUDDIN’ PI MYSTERY.