Episode 16: Visions and Victims
We took shifts watching over Maddie and Baku throughout the night. After Al relieved me for the last shift before sunrise, I retreated to the study. There were too many things buzzing around in my head for me to sleep. I settled into the chair behind Pa’s desk and drummed my fingers on the surface as I tried to make sense of everything.
The ticker tape from the explosion, the letter with the Blacksmith insignia, the splinter Al found at the crash scene, and Maddie’s strange drawings were spread across the desktop. The answers had to be here somewhere. My sleep-deprived thoughts drifted to visions of Maddie standing over Baku with the hatchet, the gleam of the copper handle in the afternoon sunlight, the vapid gaze in her eyes. I laced my fingers behind my head and reclined, staring at the ceiling, letting the images from the desk collide in my mind’s eye.
The crash site appeared in front of me, smoke and debris still floating around the airship. From somewhere faraway, a soft, melodic voice called my name. I looked to where Lloyd should have been waiting at the treeline, then in all directions, but no one was there. The forest grew and shrank in and out of focus, roots and branches seemingly alive as they twisted and wove in and around each other, creating a wall surrounding the clearing.
“Come find us.” The playful voice cooed again, followed by a giggle. The sound echoed from all around, closer, louder, and I recognized it as Maddie’s. “Join us, Pike.”
I walked to the far side of the ship, and just as before, the mechanical man’s body stuck out from the rubble. But as I neared, the torso shifted under the wreckage, displacing scraps of metal and cloth. The figure’s back arched as it stood, and dirt slid off a tattered grey coat. My heart pounded against my ribcage as the eyes of a dead soldier met mine. He jerked his head to the side and cracked his jaw, before stepping toward me. Legs made of tangled tree roots grew and slithered like snakes, growing, reaching as he advanced.
I retreated slowly, afraid of what would happen if I bolted for the treeline. But in a few short steps, I was backed against a tangled mess of branches that constricted around me. Vines wrapped around my ankles and arms, pinning me to the wall. I glanced to my holster, my hatchet my only chance at escape.
“Don’t.” Maddie’s voice returned. When I looked up, she was standing where I’d first appeared, holding her doll as she had the night we’d rescued her in the woods. “It won’t hurt you.”
I tried to warn her about the soldier, but my voice failed me as another vine strapped across my throat. When I glanced back in his direction, he no longer retained the body of a man, but had morphed into a trunk and sprouted branches and limbs, shoots that intertwined with the growing vines and roots at my feet.
A low wind howled through what was left of the clearing, bringing with it the familiar musical clinking of bottles dancing in its wake. I blinked repeatedly and swallowed hard as the old Lynchin’ Tree towered over us, darkening the sky. One of its branches lowered toward me, a sharp tine aimed at my head.
I startled from my dream, sweat streaming down my face. Al hovered over a large leather-bound volume of mechanical theory—the apparent weapon for waking me—his face becoming red as he held in his amusement.
“You idiot,” I muttered, rubbing the crick in my neck.
Al burst into laughter. “You should have seen yourself.” His exaggerated imitation of my reaction received only an unamused glare.
In the doorway, Baku smiled at Al’s childish antics, though the subtle wince that followed indicated he was still in pain.
I leaned forward to gather and conceal the papers in front of me. “Well, look who’s joined the world of the living. How you feeling this morning?”
Baku nodded slightly, a gesture of politeness I guessed. “Better, thank you.”
“Good.” I focused back on Al. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
Al picked up the letter opener by the tip and threw it up in the air. He caught it by the handle as it fell back toward the desktop. The piece of straw he chewed bobbed between his lips as he tossed the opener again and concentrated on the spinning blade. “Better to do? We’re getting ready to go to Richmond and you’re in here napping.”
“We’re?” I repeated.
“Yea, Baku’s offered to go with us.” He pointed at the wounded man with his half-chewed straw.
I shook my head. “No way. He could barely stay conscious last night, he’s in no condition to travel.”
Al tilted his head and clicked his teeth. “Mae wasn’t lying, whatever she did has him practically good as new this morning.”
I leaned over the top of the desk, lowering my voice so only Al could hear. “And what makes you think it’s a good idea to bring him along?”
Al mustn’t have caught my intended discretion, because he plopped down on the sofa before he answered. “Well, I’m sure there’s still a lot of explaining to do, but he did save Maddie. That makes him all right in my book.” Al winked at Baku as if he was doing him a favor.
“You’re right about one thing, there’s a lot of questions that still need answering. Like why you’re here in the first place. And what’s this Jubokko gibberish?” And why Maddie would try to kill you. I stared at Baku with a look that said we weren’t doing anything until we cleared the air.
Baku’s expression remained relaxed, hard to read, and he didn’t make any effort to move from the doorway as he held my gaze. “The legend of the Jubokko means different things to different people. In Japan, tales spread of trees sprouting from the corpse-ripe earth of a fresh battlefield, feeding on the blood of the dead.”
Al’s jaw dropped, rendering him speechless. An almost impossible feat, but a visible motion not far off from the disbelief running through my head. That was his explanation? A blood-sucking tree? I narrowed my eyes, trying to determine if there was an ounce of truth to his words. Normally, I’d order him from the house for thinking we’d believe such a tale, but with the things I’d seen lately, I figured I’d hear him out.
He continued. “In other parts of the world, the tree is rumored to be a protector, but I’m not buying it. I’ve seen it kill. It’s a vicious hunter, a killer that manipulates the dead for its bidding. My search for this tree led me here, and after the other night, I know I’m close.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but Al beat me to it. “You want us to believe that a tree is responsible for that soldier the other night? That a tree’s killing soldiers and bringing them back to life?”
“Not just soldiers, anyone could be a victim.” Baku spoke so plainly, like his revelation was old news. I started to protest, but was cut off again. “You have a better explanation?”
I looked at Al, whose wide-eyed stare told me he was still trying to wrap his mind about the far-fetched possibility that what Baku had said was true. The image of Maddie’s drawings and the strange tree flashed through my thoughts, and his story gave new meaning to their presence. I returned focus to Baku. “So you think this tree is here, in Albright Acres?”
“I do. And I’m not the only one.” Now his eyes narrowed too, as if sharing unspoken thoughts.
“The airship,” I said, finally connecting a reason to why he’d been at the crash site. But that realization also meant the Blacksmiths were looking for it too. “That’s why you blew it up.”
He nodded once. “Take or leave my offer to accompany you to Richmond, but it sounds like I’m the least of your worries.”
Al threw me a sideways glance like he was considering it and lobbed the letter opener up into the air.
Baku, now suddenly close to the desk, shot his hand out and caught the opener in mid-flight. He flicked his wrist and the letter opener plunged into the side of the bookcase across the room with an efficient ping. “Though I’m still on the mend, I do have some talents you boys might find useful.”
Al took a hard swallow and gave me a look that said he was impressed.
Lloyd appeared in the doorway. “Mr. Pike? Mr. Al? The horses and supplies are ready.” He bowed his head and gave a polite, yet cautious, glance Baku’s way.
“Lloyd,” I said, pulling my gaze from Al and glancing at the the letter opener before circling back to Baku. “Would you saddle a third horse for us?” Lloyd acknowledged the request with a short nod and left the house. “Daylight’s burning, boys. Let’s move out.”
Al and our enemy-turned-travel-companion followed Lloyd out the door. I stuffed the papers from the desk into the top drawer and locked it. I didn’t want Mae or Ellie to stumble on the documents and become more worried than they already were. I holstered my hatchet and a pistol and grabbed my hat as I left the study.
Ellie must have heard us getting ready to leave because she met me in the front entrance way. Her expression, however strong she pretended to be, was ripe with concern. “You aren’t leaving without saying goodbye, are you? And you’re taking the stranger with you?”
“I would have found you,” I said with a smile. “As for Baku, it looks like he’s tagging along. Better to have him with us, where we can watch him, than to have him sneaking around behind our backs.” I placed a hand on my hip as I second-guessed the decision to let him come.
“That’s true.” Ellie’s skirt swished as she walked closer. “Though the way Al talks, Baku might wish you’d left him for the mountain lion.” Her lips curled into a sly smile and her eyes lit with amusement.
“Don’t I know it,” I said, chuckling at first, but stopping short as Ellie moved so close to me that people might talk if they saw us together.
She pretended to brush something from my shoulder and ran her hand down my arm, her eyes following the motion. “I wish you didn’t have to go.” Her delicate touch and low voice revealed years of unspoken wishes. I opened my mouth to speak, but she shook her head and folded her arms in front of her, as if mustering a strong front. “Oh I know you have to. And don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine.”
I imitated her intimate motion and ran my hands from her shoulders to the top of her back, pulling her into an embrace that would have people talking for sure, if they caught us. But I didn’t care. It wasn’t like we were going off to war, but I imagined Ellie felt a prick of worry for me every time I left the house, just as it pained me to ever have to leave her. I leaned over and brushed my lips against her forehead. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
She sighed, leaning into me for a moment, a warmth I never wanted to be without. Another sigh pushed her from my arms as she retreated to an appropriate distance.
I swallowed hard, now more than ever wishing I could stay. “Take care of Maddie for us. We’ll get her figured out somehow.”
“She’ll be fine, Pike. Like the fever, these bouts come and go. Mae knows what to do.” She reached into her pocket and withdrew something. She let it drop from her balled fist, revealing a thin leather strap with an object at the end. “Take this with you, it will protect you.”
“You know I don’t believe in charms and the like,” I said.
“I know, but wear it for me, so I know you’re safe.” She set the necklace in my palm and wrapped my fingers around it.
I tied the ends around my neck and tucked a crystal stone under my shirt. “If it will make you happy, I’ll never take it off.”
She smiled and dipped her chin in an effort to hide the blush spreading over her cheeks. I opened the door and tipped my hat before I exited. “See you before you know it.”
Stay tuned! The next episode posts Friday, May 22, 2015.