I walked away from the tree and toward Emma and Joy as melodic formants whirled around in my head. A serene smile still streaked Joy’s glowing face. Emma’s smile however, was gone. In its place was a look of deep concern and, despite her obvious attempt to hide it, fear. She told me we had to go in the house right away. Something awful was about to happen.
We sat in front of the television all night. Nothing was abnormal. I was getting a little anxious; Emma’s vague, portentous statement was alone enough to cause concern, but flashes of lightning which hinted at a coming storm only added to the ominousness. Leaving my spot on the couch, I walked tentatively to the large windows facing the woods. More lightning; long, thunderless flashes which caused the trees to cast ghostly, distorted shadows. I was reminded of the times I saw the writhing atrocities in the lightning bolts back in Florida. The lightning here was different, though. I never saw any individual bolts. And the illumination lasted much longer.
I fell asleep in front of the TV with Emma and Joy. When I woke up the next morning, Emma was still there on the couch with us. She insisted that we stay in the living room, glued to the television, until she could know the source of the terrible feeling of dread she’d felt since yesterday afternoon. The day went by and nothing happened. Same with the next. Until early evening.
Whatever boring thing had been on TV was replaced by an NBC news brief about explosion in the USSR and radiation being detected in Sweden. Emma nodded gravely and told me this was what she’d been worrying about. When I asked how she knew, she didn’t answer. All she told me was we were far away and had nothing to worry about, even if the news says anything otherwise.
In the morning, it was on every channel and in every newspaper. A power plant called Chernobyl had exploded and spread radioactive material over an enormous area. No expert was willing claim that Europe would be safe. Not many even said there wasn’t a chance the wind could take it across the Atlantic over to us. But Emma remained calm and confident and insisted we’d be safe. For the first time in months, I saw a slim tendril of bleeding muscle squirm out of the left corner of the room, only to retreat seconds later. Joy giggled in my ear, and I took her from my shoulder and held her in front of my face. She was staring at the same corner.
The day dragged on and Emma remained fixated on the television, I asked her if she’d mind if I went for a quick walk. No further than the weird tree, I told her. She said it was fine. I grabbed my jacket and left.
Spring had melted the snowpack but had yet to take the chill from the air. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and walked in a straight line toward the tree. Deep mud clung to my ankles as I trudged across the clearing. I remembered Emma telling me how the Native Americans thought the area was an important spot. I stopped in the center of the clearing and looked around. There wasn’t anything noteworthy. It might have been a hundred feet across with thick groups of white birch and oak trees surrounding it. Fifty or so feet inside the treeline stood the remains of an old stone wall which Emma claimed the local tribe had built hundreds of years ago.
Icy wind whipped through the clearing and the surrounding treetops swayed. I looked at the graying sky. Flurries were in the forecast for later in the evening, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if they started to fall right then. I made my way across the clearing to the tree. It stood as it did the last time; a black, bulbous object studded with countless, spiny branches and sticks. I placed myself in front of the spot where I saw the eyes. No eyes could be seen. Not even slits where they might open. I ran my hands over the scarred bark. It felt smooth, despite the blemishes. Warm, too.
As I inspected the surface of the tree, a staggeringly-powerful taste of salt entered my mouth. It was awful. I craved water or juice or anything to get rid of the terrible, desiccating sensation. I turned around, ready to walk back toward the house, when the branches reached toward me. Before I could jump, I was grabbed and pulled, face first, against the surface of the tree. Screaming and struggling, I tried to free myself from its grasp. The taste in my mouth grew even stronger and I began to choke. The pressure grew and I could feel my cheekbone and ribs straining against the force.
Everything went black. But I didn’t lose consciousness. I was free to move, but it was like I was floating in space. I spun and kicked and tried to run, only to remain in the same, empty spot. The pressure was gone. The cold wind was gone. The vile, salty taste was gone. Aside from my fear, all I felt was warmth. A moment later, I heard the voice of my friend.
Her voice came through the empty space like wind chimes on a calm day. This time, I could understand each word.
“I miss you. I miss you and I hate myself for failing you.”
Even in the maternal warmth of the space I occupied, the words chilled me and forced gooseflesh to rise on my skin.
“There is so little I can do for you now. So little help I can provide.”
I tried to ask her what she was talking about, but I couldn’t open my mouth. The feeling wasn’t uncomfortable – just strange. It was like I had no mouth at all. All I could do was listen.
“You need to see what lies ahead. And only after you see will you be ready to learn.”
An immense, incomprehensibly vast field of stars exploded into view. The light was intense; brighter than anything I knew could exist. Looking down, I noticed I couldn’t see my own body. The nurturing warmth of the area I occupied kept me calm, though, and I gazed out across the millions upon millions of stars. Nothing happened. I bathed in an acorporeal womb of lights.
After uncountable moments, things changed. Starting at the edges of where I could see and gradually moving inward, stars went black. Slowly, and with growing speed, each pinprick of fire was smothered. With every snuffed light, the temperature dropped. Astonishingly potent fear gripped me as more and more and more beautiful lights were cut from the sky. Cold set in. It was a type of cold for which I have no words other than those which describe death. Not familiar, human death. Cosmic death.
The icy, starless void disappeared and I found myself on the forest floor staring up at the clouds. The black woman’s musical voice filled my mind.
“Everything you do from now on must be for Joy. Keep her safe and show her love. It is up to you to give her a purpose.”
I gagged as the hideous taste of salt overpowered my mouth.