The Crimson Oak

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

There are rumours that a majestic oak, know for its vibrant crimson foliage, brings ill-omen to the town of Port Hope. Can its strange growth be linked with the disappearance of young girls over the years? One father will soon find out...

 

ONE

He sensed the room had brightened and this stirred him awake. Staring down at him, with a mischievous grin on her face, was the bright face of his young teenage daughter, who had just opened the blinds in his room.

"I slept in, didn't I?

"That you did" she replied. "Unless, of course, your plan was to get up this very minute and drive me to school in your pyjamas."

She giggled at her own remark and then straightened herself, shifting her backpack into a more comfortable position as she did so.

"Give me five minutes Lizzie and I'll be ready"

"Oh no you won't" she replied, placing her hand firmly on his shoulder as he began to sit up. “I know you’ve been up most of the night working dad – I can hear the tippy-tap of the typewriter keys through my bedroom wall. I still have time to catch the school bus. You take your time getting up. Older people need their sleep.”

Once again, a mischievous grin appeared on her face.

“Good one, Lizzie – you definitely have your mother’s sense of humour.”

Her grin slowly faded away at these words. She hesitated, then added in a soft voice “Dad, today is October 25th.”

“I know, sweetheart.” He reached out and stroked her cheek softly.

“Mom passed away four years ago today.” she continued, then lowered her gaze before adding “I still miss her dad.”

“So do I Lizzie, so do I…”

She leaned over and gently kissed his forehead before turning towards the door. She got halfway across the room before adding in a more cheerful tone “This year I decided to wear the hair ribbon she gave me for my 9th birthday.” A silky, emerald-green ribbon was tied around her braided ponytail, which she now swayed from side to side. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“It most certainly is. I’m glad you’re wearing it.”

 “And Lizzie…” he added hurriedly.

She turned to face him.

“I’ll pick you up after school, OK? Tell Grace I can give her a lift home as well.”

“Thanks dad, see you then.”

He continued to stare at the empty doorway long after she left for school.

 

A cold shower helped to lift his spirits and focus his attention on what needed doing that morning. He had lingered in bed far too long, reliving the events that led up to his wife’s death. An icy road, a fallen tree branch, a swerving vehicle, a beautiful woman out for a walk, a policeman at the door…

“Let it go, Richard.” he said quietly to himself. “Focus on being a good dad to Lizzie – it’s all you can do for Caroline now”.

He made his way to the kitchen and prepared a coffee. It wasn’t until he was returning the milk to the refrigerator that he noticed Lizzie’s lunch on the bottom shelf. “So much for being a good dad” he scolded himself. Placing the lunch on the counter, he reached for the phone receiver next to the cupboard.  Lizzie had taped a folded note to the rotary dialer. It had two items listed: Dad, can we (1) get a push button phone (Grace’s family just got one) and (2) say hi to Aunt Kimberly for me.

He smiled as he placed the folded note in his shirt pocket. “Dialing Aunt Kimberly now…” he said out loud to himself.

She answered after the first ring. “Hello big brother” she said.

“Hi sis – guess you were expecting my call.”

“It is October 25th Richard, and my good brother always calls to confirm that we’ll meet for coffee at Caroline’s favourite diner in honour of her memory.”

“A small change of plans this morning if it’s OK with you. Lizzie forgot her lunch, so I’d like to drop it off at her school later this morning. Can we meet closer to her school – perhaps we can stroll along Oak Creek – Caroline loved taking walks there. I’ll bring the coffees.”

“Sounds like a great idea. It’s a beautiful day for a stroll.”

“Excellent, meet you at the small parking lot just off Campbell Street around eleven.”

“See you then, Richard.”

“And Richard” she added with a note of hesitation in her voice “How’s Lizzie doing today?”

“She’s good sis – she’s a resilient young girl. She sends her best and looks forward to having you over for dinner tonight.”

“I’m glad to hear see’s doing fine. See you soon”.

 

TWO

He spotted Kimberly’s car parked askew near the confines of the parking lot. “Good old sis” he said to himself “she never could back-in properly.”

She was waiting for him a few feet away, next to a path that led to the open park area of the creek. She wore a rainbow stripped V-neck sweater, a recent birthday gift from Richard. “Looks good on you,” he remarked. “I definitely have good taste in gifts.” She smiled and gave him a hug. He handed her one of the coffees, then raised his cup and said “Here’s to you, my beautiful Caroline.”

“To Caroline” replied Kimberly. She slipped her arm through his, and they started down the path.

After a short while, Kimberly stopped to point at an oak tree near the creek’s bank. “Take a look at that tree Richard…it’s beautiful! The leaves are such a vivid red, when they sway in the wind it gives the illusion that they’re on fire.”

“Ah yes,” he replied “that’s the dreaded Crimson Oak

“Dreaded?”

He looked at her in surprise. “Surely you must know about it. Don’t you remember the rhyme the boys would chant whenever they wanted to scare the girls on the playground? I can still recall it.”

Oh little girl
Get away from that tree
For a bough it will grow
with the blood from thee

 

“Richard!” exclaimed Kimberly “That’s absolutely dreadful. Why would they say such a thing?”

“Apparently,” he said, “there is an unsettling story behind it. And, I may add, one in which some people believe is true – though they’re not likely to admit it.”

She stared at him with wide eyes. “Well, – go on.”

“Do you see the five lower branches on the tree, how they stand out from the others because of their neat circular alignment around the trunk.”

“Yes.” she answered. “Now that you point it out, it’s quite apparent.”

There was a moment’s silence and Kimberly turned towards her brother. He was staring very intently at the tree, with a puzzled expression on his face.

“Richard?” she inquired.

He blinked and then turned to face her. “Sorry sis…” he said absently “I just got caught up looking at the tree. I thought – well never mind. Where were we?”

“You were going to tell me about the five branches” she said, steering him back to the topic at hand.

“Ah yes. Well, the growth of each of those branches coincided with the disappearance of a young girl. Five girls have gone missing over the past 30 years, and the growth of each branch occurred on the day a girl went missing.”

She looked at him in disbelief. “Richard, you don’t actually believe that nonsense, do you? Sounds just like the stuff that old wives’ tales are made of. Is the tree supposed to walk around on its roots and find a girl to eat?”

“Not quite,” he replied with a chuckle. “But I can tell you that the tale has some basis in fact. A few years ago, a well know crime author – last name was Blackwell I believe...”

“Chris Blackwell?”

“That’s it – Chris Blackwell – he came to investigate the disappearances for a true-crime book he was writing at the time. He became so obsessed with the story, that he ended up spending two months right here in Port Hope, scouring the newspaper archives for photos of the Crimson Oak taken around the time of the disappearances. He followed this up with ads in the local newspapers, asking folks to submit any photos they had where the tree was visible. Given its brilliant colour, you can image how often the tree gets photographed. In the end, he found several photos that supported the Crimson Oak legend – no branch the day before a girl’s disappearance, a new branch clearly visible the day after. His book is in the library if you’re interested.” He delivered the last statement with a wink.

“No thank you. Think I’ll stick to reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull – lots of blue sky and no trees.”

“Wise decision” agreed Richard.

No more was said about the Crimson Oak for the remainder of their stroll. At noon, Kimberly said she would stay on a while longer and enjoy the fine weather while Roger left to drop off Lizzie’s lunch at her school.

 

THREE

Several teenagers were standing next to the front doors of the school. A tall, lanky boy wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt opened one of the doors for Richard as he approached.

Richard thanked the boy and flashed a “peace” V-sign with his hand. He heard the kids giggling as the door was closing behind him.

“Oh, you’re so cool, Richard” he thought amusingly to himself.

The office was only few steps away from the front entrance. He walked in and stopped just inside the doorway. The school secretary, an elderly lady with a tall hairdo and stern look, was typing away at her desk. An assortment of succulent plants surrounded her, forming a defensive barrier of sorts.

“Excuse me.” interrupted Richard.

The typing ceased and the secretary turned her head towards him. Her thin lips gave a faint smile.

“My daughter forgot to bring her lunch with her.” he continued. “Can you call her classroom and let her know I’ve dropped it off – the name’s Lizzie Reed.”

“What grade?” asked the secretary.

“Grade nine.”

“Grade nine?” She replied in surprise. “But Mr. Reed, the grade nines are on an all-day field trip today.”

"A field trip?" he repeated, advancing a step or two.

“Yes, at the Arbor Nature Centre. You would have signed the permission form last week or she would not have been allowed to attend.”

“Yes...of course.” he added somewhat unsteadily, vaguely recalling having done so. “Can I take the lunch to her there?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t recommend it Mr. Reed – it’s at least a ninety-minute drive from here. But don’t worry, they do have a small cafeteria at the Centre with sandwiches and cold drinks. I’m sure her teacher will see to it that she has lunch.”

“Yes…you’re right. I’m sure she’ll be looked after.” There was a doubtful tone in his voice.

After a slight pause he added “And what time are they expected back?”

“End of school day – 3 pm.”

Richard thanked her and left the office with Lizzie’s lunch bag tightly clutched in his hand.

 

FOUR

Richard hadn’t been driving for more than five minutes when he decided to turn back and head towards Oak Creek. He needed one more look at the Crimson Oak. “You’re a dam fool, Richard.” he murmured to himself as he drove into the parking lot. He noticed his sister’s car was no longer there.

He stared at the tree for a few minutes before starting his slow walk towards it. The five branches loomed larger as he approached - their neat circular arrangement looking disturbingly unnatural. He stopped a few feet from the tree. “So,” he thought to himself, “I wasn’t mistaken...” Something interfered with the symmetry between the first and fifth branches – it was the growth of a new branch…

 

The four schoolgirls were beginning to tire. At first, they found it easy to locate the waypoints marked on the map using their compass. The fifth and final location was, however, proving more difficult.

“I feel like we’re going in circles,” lamented the red-haired girl. “I’m sure we’ve walked by that tree several times.” She pointed in the direction of a thick clump of pine trees.

 “As if you could tell one tree from another, Lisa,” said Grace. “You’re not even wearing your glasses.” There was laughter among the other girls. Then Grace added “But Lisa’s right, we should have found the last location by now. Miss. Oliver said markers were only 20 minutes away from each other - maybe we are going in circles. What do you think Lizzie?”

There was no answer.

“Lizzie,” she called again, turning to look behind her. The surrounding dense foliage and silence suddenly made her feel frightened. Her mouth went dry.

“Lizzie…where are you?”

 

FIVE

Richard stopped the car at the first payphone he encountered. He dialed directory assistance and asked to be transferred to the nature centre. He glanced at his watch impatiently as he waited for the line to be answered. It was 1:30 pm.

A young woman answered the phone “Arbor Nature Centre, how can I help you?”

“Hello, my daughter’s school is visiting your centre today, I wanted to know if the kids are on their way back to school. The school’s called Humberview”

“There are a lot of schools here today,” she replied “I wouldn’t know which have left. What I can tell you is that lots of kids have already started boarding the school buses. They normally start heading back at this time.”

“I see,” he said disappointedly. “Well, thank you anyway. Goodbye.”

Troubled, he stared at the phone a few seconds before slowly hanging up the receiver. What was previously a feeling of anxiety was now turning into one of fear. “Keep it together,” he told himself as he headed for his car. He could do nothing except go to the school and wait for her bus.

 

Lizzie was not on the first school bus to arrive. The driver told Richard another bus was on the way, and that, no, he didn’t know when it would arrive. All he knew was that there were a few kids that hadn’t made their way back to the main entrance on time, so naturally the bus was delayed.

At 3:30 pm, the second bus arrived. Richard felt weak as he waited for the doors of the bus to open. Five children exited the bus – Lizzie was not one of them. His legs gave way and he fell to his knees. His head spun, but he thought he felt a pair of arms wrap themselves around his neck and a warm cheek press against his. And just before passing out, he thought he heard the words “I’m here dad…”

 

Richard awoke to find himself sitting on the curb, with his back up against the side of the school bus. In front of him stood the bus driver and Lizzie’s teacher, Miss. Oliver. Between them, bending forward with hands on knees, looking directly at him, was Lizzie.

Richard smiled. “First I wake up late and can’t drive you to school and then I pass out when it’s time to take you home. How’s that for service?”

Lizzie smiled back. “Sorry I scared you dad – guess you freaked out when I wasn’t on the bus.”

“That I did,” he said calmly, then raised his arms for a hug.

 

She held his hand during the drive home. Richard glanced over at Lizzie and smiled reassuringly. Apart from her dishevelled hair, a few minor scratches and a bruised knee, she looked fine.

“I’m sorry dad,” she said softly, not turning her head towards him.

“For what?”

“I lost mom’s ribbon. I noticed you looked at my hair.”

“Don’t worry about it Lizzie. All that matters is that you’re back home safely”.

She gave his hand a firm squeeze then closed her eyes for the remainder of the drive.

 

SIX

Lizzie was in a surprisingly chatty mood over dinner, and there was plenty of laughter around the table. After the meal, Richard asked if Kimberly would mind staying with Lizzie for a while longer – he wanted to drop by his office to check for messages.

“At this hour?” asked Kimberly.

“Best time of the day,” replied Richard. “Office is empty, and I can go through the messages in peace. Besides, I’m sure there will be one or two “urgent” ones requiring my attention first thing in the morning.” He took the car keys out of his pocket and added “I shouldn’t be more than an hour - I promise to pick-up some ice cream on the way home. See you shortly.”

As he drove, he replayed what Miss Oliver had told him about the situation. Lizzie, for reasons unknown, had separated from her group. All Lizzie remembered was tripping over a tree root, and something scratching her face as she lay on the ground. It was her best friend Grace who found her. The girl was astute enough to notice several birds dart away in alarm from a small grove of oak trees nearby. She found Lizzie there, on the ground, crying. Miss Oliver thought it best to drive Lizzie back in her car, which was why she wasn’t on the bus. She was sorry but that was all the information she had…

Richard brought the car to a slow stop so that the car beams illuminated a foot path – the same one he had walked earlier that day. He had arrived at Oak Creek. Taking the two objects he had placed on the passenger seat before leaving, he started to walk down the path.

The park was pitch-black, but the lantern he brought provided enough light to guide his way. The second object was gripped tightly in his right hand. He could tell he was approaching the tree – he could sense its baneful influence, an evil that permeated the very air around it. A few more steps and it slowly came into view, casting a long shadow by the light of the lantern. 

He hooked the lantern on an older branch up above and examined the new growth carefully. He was surprised to see that the newest branch had started to wither. He took a step back and said: “You tried to take her, but you can never have her.”

The axe's razor edge gleamed in the light as he raised it over his head, and with a vengeance he brought it down on the branch. A sharp “crack” filled the air as the metal hit its target. The severed branch fell towards the ground but came to an abrupt stop a few feet above the damp earth, as if something had reached out to stop its descent. Richard drew closer but staggered back all at once, exclaiming “Dear God in heaven …”

Like a twisted umbilical cord, emerging from within the dangling branch and extending up into protruding stump, was a silky, emerald-green ribbon.

 


Submitted: November 12, 2021

© Copyright 2021 STall5657. All rights reserved.

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LE. Berry

Engaging and spooky. Good piece ST.

Fri, November 12th, 2021 7:50pm

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Thanks LE - glad you enjoyed it.

Fri, November 12th, 2021 3:44pm

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