“Sooooo….what is it?” I asked, chewing the tip of my left pigtail.
“I think it’s an old treehouse,” Lisa replied. Her face was speckled with dirt. We’d crossed the wide creek an hour before. It had been mostly mud.
“We can probably climb,” I mused, pointing my dirty finger at the ragged wooden slats nailed into the side of the tree.
Lisa studied the slats. They were rotten. Streaks of rust ran down below the old nails. “Yeah, maybe.”
“I’m gonna do it,” I announced, and started toward the makeshift ladder. “Just catch me if I fall.”
“You know you’re too heavy,” my friend sighed. “You’ll break my neck.”
I pretended not to hear. I placed a tentative foot on the first wooden slat, then shifted my weight back and forth. The piece wobbled, but it didn’t break. I put more weight on it, then grasped the rung above my head and pulled. Still steady. I was fine.
“I think it’ll be okay!” I called behind me, and began my ascent.
The late-July sun hung like a drop of molten slag in the western sky; not as bright as it had been a few hours ago, but it didn’t feel any cooler. Sweat poured down my brow and chest and legs, spattering Lisa. She clicked her tongue in annoyance.
I stared up through the narrow, jagged square cut into the bottom of the treehouse. Spider webs clung to the faraway ceiling, drifting in the weak breeze.
“I don’t think you’d like it up here,” I hollered. “I think there’s spiders.”
Lisa let out an audible shudder. I grinned. Spiders never bothered me. I thought that if I found a big one, I might drop it down on her for the heavy comment. My grin widened.
One of the slats creaked under my left foot, and I sucked in my breath and held still. The wood didn’t break.
“Don’t fall for Christ’s sake!” Lisa implored. “You’ll seriously kill me if I try to catch you.”
Three more steps. They looked a little better having been shaded from the worst of the elements over the years. I hauled myself up and into the treehouse.
“So?” Lisa called. “What’s it like?”
I looked around. There were spiders, all right. Spindly yellow ones with fat bellies and angry red streaks across them. Biters, from my experience. Ones I wouldn’t bother picking up to drop on my friend.
“Well,” I answered back, “you should probably stay down there, if you get my meaning.”
Lisa shuddered again.
Ancient leaves lay piled in the corners. “Like old skin,” I thought with a shiver. I didn’t know why I always did that sort of thing; why I always thought the worst about the most benign things.
Though nowadays, I guess I may have more of a reason.
Something made of paper was sticking out from one of the leaf piles. I stretched out and reached for it. My eyes lit up.
“Holy crap, Lis – some pervs left an old nudie mag up here!”
“What!” she exclaimed. “No way! Pass it down!”
“Nuh uh,” I teased, and thumbed through the faded, waterlogged pages. Despite myself, I started to blush. I’d never seen anything quite so hardcore at that time in my life.
“Do any of them look like Kiiiiiiiira, you big lesbo?” Lisa teased.
I didn’t answer. One of the brunettes really did look like Kira. But I wasn’t going to give Lisa the satisfaction of being right. I was too busy wondering how long it took Kira’s doppelgänger to do all that shaving.
I must’ve gotten lost in a reverie for a minute or two, because it took a moment for me to register my friend hissing my name over and over in a hushed whisper, as if she didn’t want to be heard by anyone but me.
“What?” I bellowed, flustered and annoyed. I leaned over the edge of the treehouse entry and locked eyes with Lisa. Her eyes were wide. Almost like she was scared. But then she looked back, toward the area we came from.
Then I heard it – footsteps on the stony embankment we’d crossed when we first spied the treehouse.
“Hey honey,” a male voice called. “What are you doing out here all alone?”
I crept across the splintery floor and peeked out the side window. A man was approaching Lisa. A stranger. I leaned back against the wall, staying unseen. Goosebumps rose on my arms without my knowing why.
“Um, just hanging out with my dad,” Lisa lied. “He had to pee but he’ll be right back.”
The man let out a dry laugh. “Must have a hell of a bladder on him. I’ve been watching you for a little while from over there and never saw him at all. Does Dad usually pee for five minutes straight?”
Lisa didn’t answer. I felt a spider’s prickly legs tickle my shoulder near my tank-top strap. I flicked it away without looking.
“I think,” the man said, shifting his voice from mock friendly to just mocking, “you’re either all alone out here or you got a little friend up in that treehouse.”
My breath caught in my throat.
“N…no,” Lisa stammered. “It’s just me and Dad. He’s a cop. He’s on his way back.”
“Oh yeah?” he chuckled. “The big-bladder police officer’s coming back, huh? Can’t blame him, really. I gotta say, if you were my daughter, I’d never let you out of my sight.”
I’d heard enough.
“Lisa!” I yelled, pushing my head through the hole I’d climbed through. “Just run away!”
The man looked up at me casually. Our eyes met.
“You know,” he said, and I didn’t know if it was to me or Lisa, “the sunset is breathtaking today. Seriously. You should take a look. I couldn’t imagine living my life and dying without ever having seen such a beautiful sunset.”
Lisa turned on her heel and made as if to run, but the man’s hand shot out and grabbed her arm, his fingers digging into her left armpit. She shrieked.
I screamed at him, demanding he let her go. I threw the magazine toward his head. It fluttered harmlessly to the ground like a dead, smutty moth.
“You can come get her if you want,” he told me. “You look bigger. Maybe you’re stronger, too.”
He lifted Lisa into the air with one arm as if she were a paper doll. “But I just don’t think you’re stronger than me.”
Lisa kicked and scratched at the man’s chest and face. Shallow wounds appeared on his cheeks. I expected blood to come out. None did.
“I’m telling you girls, this is one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been around a lot longer than you two. Much, much longer.”
I debated dropping out of the treehouse onto his outstretched arm. Surely it’d be enough for him to drop Lisa. But I’d break my leg. Maybe both of them. I remained where I was.
Like a coward.
“Look at the sun, honey,” the man told Lisa. She didn’t obey; her scratches and kicks continued, uninterrupted. There were more cuts, but still no blood.
My own was starting to freeze.
“Just turn around and look with me, beautiful.” He glanced back up at me. His pupils were pinholes. “This is your last chance to look on your own.”
Lisa aimed a savage scratch across his right eye, one of her fingernails splitting the bottom lid as it went. A tatter of pale skin hung against his high cheekbone. He would not bleed.
The man sighed. “Okay.”
Thirty years later, it’s the sound I remember more than the sight. It was a sound like a foot slowly crushing a carton of eggs. Again and again. Until the eggshells were too pulverized to make any more noise.
That’s how it sounded when the man placed his free hand on the top of Lisa’s head – and twisted. And twisted. Around and around. And around. Until her head hung against her shoulder like a marionette with a broken string. Until her head was facing the setting sun.
I don’t know if I was screaming as it happened. I could have been. I should have been. But all I heard were the cracks. The wet, crumbling cracks. The wet, crumbling cracks, and the man’s voice – loud and clear – not shouting, but firm and steady. Patriarchal. A father-knows-best lecture.
“You’re my girl now. But you were as soon as I saw you. Young and sweet and sun kissed. Why wouldn’t you kiss it back? It’s okay. It’s all okay. You’re part of me now. Your friend up there didn’t love you like I love you. And I do love you, sweetheart. I love who we are now. And I love what we’ll become.
“See how the sun shines over the trees on the hill? It’s gonna shine long after those trees are gone. Long after the hill’s gone, too. But we’ll still be together. You and me and the sun.
“You, and me, and the sun -” he lifted his head to stare into my horrified, tear-streaked face, “- and everyone else.”
As I sobbed, I watched with disbelief as he grasped the flap of flesh hanging from his eye and pulled, unzipping his face and neck. I retched. Something was glowing behind his skin. But not with any kind of light I’d ever seen. It was a cold whiteness; as if ice were shining out of his skin, casting frigid rays across his arms and the body of my best friend.
“I want this beautiful one,” he whispered to me, as he raised Lisa’s corpse into the air and started to lower her, feet first, into the chasm in his face. “I don’t need you. But if you want to be with her, I have room. I will come back and ask.”
Other than pitiful bleats, nothing left my lips. Lisa disappeared into the hole in the man’s head, sinking into the devouring whiteness like a trapped animal in a snowstorm.
At the time, I would’ve sworn I’d heard shrieks coming from that hole. Other girls. Other young women. Screaming and pleading. Decades later, I realize it might have been my imagination.
But one thing I’m sure of – one thing about which I am absolutely certain – is the final moment before Lisa was pulled into the man. The final moment when her hideous, twisted, broken neck flopped back and forth. And her eyes opened. And her mouth wrenched into a perfect circle as she shrieked, “it’s so bright! The sun is too bright! Don’t look at the sun! Don’t ever look at–”
And she was gone.
And the man walked away without saying another word.
Like I said, it’s been thirty years.
I never saw the man again. Lisa was never found. My wife, Bethie, shakes me awake every few nights as I scream Lisa’s name; as I dream about the sight of my friend’s body sinking into the man’s split face. I’ve told Beth the story. I don’t know what she believes.
I stay out of the sun. I heed the warning contained in my best friend’s last words. My eyes are always at the ground. Always low; never daring to glimpse the star that gives us life. Bethie doesn’t ask me to watch the sun set with her anymore. I let her go by herself while I sit alone in the house. Alone in the cool shadows.
Waiting for him to come back.
And wondering what I’ll say.
© Max Lobdell, 2018. May not be reproduced in any format without express written permission.