Fiction: The Drive Home

For those of you keeping score with an advent calendar, this is day 21 of "25 Christmas Eves," my series of Christmas-Eve-inspired short stories designed to get you in the holiday spirit. And speaking of holiday spirits....

By: Erin L. Snyder

“You’re kidding, right? You know what time it is?” Mark was frantic, which wasn’t making his drive through the storm any easier. His cellphone was pinned between his ear and shoulder, while he clutched the steering wheel. On the other end of the line, his ex-wife was just as stressed.

“Yes, Mark. I know what time it is. And I’m sure I’m ruining your plans to spend Christmas Eve in a bar. But right now, I really need you to step up and be a father for Tom.”

“So now I’m Tom’s father again,” Mark said. He regretted it as soon as he said it, but it was too late. He cringed for the worst, but Patricia only sighed.

“Look. Jerry’s brother is back in the hospital, and... I just think it would be better if Tom wasn’t here in case things get worst. I know it’s a lot to ask on short notice, but this caught us all by surprise.”

“I’m... look. I... I mean, of course, I’ll take him. It’s just, I wasn’t expecting this. I don’t exactly have Christmas dinner ready or anything. Hell, I don’t even have a tree set up.”

“I’ll make sure Tom eats before I bring him over. Is an hour enough time?”

Mark glanced at the dashboard clock in his pickup. Six forty-five. “An hour’s good. I’ll pick up some cookies or something at the drugstore. I mean, you got to have cookies, right?”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ve can send some stuff with Tom. Sweets, his stocking, and all that. It’s not like we’re going to need it here. If you have a chance, maybe get a tree, though. He loves decorating.”

“Alright,” Mark replied. “Tell Jerry I hope his brother gets better and all that.”

“Okay. I’ll be by in about an hour.” She hung up abruptly, and Mark threw his cell phone into the empty passenger’s seat.

“Damn!” he yelled. His truck barrelled along. “The hell am I going to find a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve?” he asked himself. By way of answer, he turned down Route 242 and sped up towards the General Store. They’d had a handful for sale in front of the store all month.

Even while speeding, it took five minutes to reach the store. The lot was entirely empty. He pulled a U-turn in the middle of the road and started towards the next place he could think of. A farmer on 77 always ran a lot for the holidays. Mark didn’t know where he shipped them in from, but he figured the guy probably made more on the trees in one month than the various other crops he sold the rest of the year.

He pulled up and found the lot locked up. He could see a handful of trees in there, just out of reach. He looked over at the farmer’s house. All the lights were out.

Mark seriously considered scaling the fence before realizing he’d never be able to get a tree back over it. If he’d had a pair of bolt cutters, he’d have cut the chain and left a note. But he didn’t.

He did, however, have an ax.

The idea of cutting your own tree always seems better before you try finding one that could pass for one of the genetically modified, precision-groomed varieties manufactured for the holidays. Mark drove down one backroad after another, slowly rolling along and looking at trees alongside the road. None of the pines he saw looked remotely like anything his son would recognize as a Christmas tree, except a handful growing in people’s front lawns.

Mark was about ready to give up when he saw it. A solitary tree, standing in the midst of a small cemetery located at the side of an empty road. It was one of those old, small cemeteries predating the pavement leading up to it. Just a few dozen plots. The kind of graveyard where no one new’s been buried in decades - maybe even a hundred years - and the markers have almost worn down to smooth tablets.

There was no one around; no houses, either. Mark climbed out of his truck, taking his ax with him. He approached the tree to give it a look. It wasn’t as perfect as the kind you’d get from a lot, but damn if it wouldn’t do in a pinch. It was the right height, the branches were full all the way around, and it looked healthy enough.

Mark took another look to make sure there were no headlights up the street, but he couldn’t see any. Couldn’t hear any motors or snow grinding under tires, either. He looked back at the tree, and at the gravestones. “I’m going to hell for this,” he said with a shrug. He raised his ax.

But before he could strike, a gust of wind came at him. It was an icy wind, bitter and riddled with sleet, and it caught him in his face. He lowered the ax, coughed, and wiped the ice from the corners of his eyes. He lifted the ax again, and the same thing happened.

“Ahhh!” he grunted. Then he shook his arms to keep the blood flowing. “Jesus. Damn storm.” It didn’t feel right, but then what part of stealing a tree from a graveyard does? He considered giving this up and trying to find another lot, but a glance at his watch shut down that avenue of thought. It was seven twenty, and he was ten minutes from home. His window was almost gone: if he wanted his son to have a Christmas, this was the only option available.

He faced the wind and swung. The ax struck with a reverberating “thud.” It was loud enough to make Mark jump a bit. He glanced around to make sure there still wasn’t anyone else around to have heard it, but he was safe. So he took another swing. And a third.

Before long, the tree toppled over. Mark grabbed the bottom and dragged it to his truck as fast as he could. Then he hoisted it up into the bed. He tossed the ax in beside it, climbed into the front, and started the truck up. He didn’t even wait for the windshield to finish defrosting before he put it into drive and gave it some gas.

He was shaking from the cold and from the fear he might get caught. He wasn’t sure what the punishment would be for something like this, but it seemed like the kind of thing that might carry some ridiculously excessive penalty. A thousand bucks? Three months behind bars? In his limited experience, that was how the courts seemed to work.

Then he caught something out of the corner of his eye. The defroster had pushed away the fog, but where it had been, a word remained: “Thief.”

He slammed on the brakes, and the truck screeched to a stop. The word was unmistakable. The letters were white and frosted over. Mark stared at the word. Could someone have been there with him at the graveyard? Could they have done this while he was cutting the tree? He’d been so sure he was alone, but what if he was wrong? They could be calling the police right now, giving them Mark’s licence plate number.

No. That was stupid. No one had been there. No one. Maybe it was some sort of joke or something. Maybe someone had written on his windshield hours ago using their finger, and it hadn’t shown up until now. Part of him realized this was wrong, too: that neither explanation explained the word being frozen like that. But a bigger part just accepted it, because there was nothing else to be done.

He removed his foot from the brake and reapplied it to the gas. It was getting late, and he’d have to hurry if he wanted to get there before his ex-wife arrived. A lecture about being late and making them wait in the cold was the last thing he needed.

He glanced at his rearview mirror, suddenly feeling like there was someone behind him, but there was nothing there but the black of night. He kept going, then looked again. A pair of eyes, bright orange, stared back at him.

Mark screamed and hit the brake. He spun around and looked. Nothing there. Nothing at all. Nothing but the tree lying in the back of his pickup.

“Jesus. My eyes. Gotta be my eyes playing tricks,” Mark said aloud. He believed himself, because he had to. What else could he have done?

He started the truck but took it slowly. He glanced up in the rearview mirror regularly now, but nothing appeared. “Thief” had melted away from his windshield, too, so there was nothing left. No sign, no indication. He drove on, into the storm.

“Defiler,” the wind whistled as it blew past his window.

“No,” he said aloud. To hell with this. To hell with errant sounds and unexplained words and tricks of the eyes. To hell with it all.

Then, in his headlights, a form appeared in his headlights. It was a man cloaked in a long robe. It was directly in front him; only a few feet. Mark slammed on the brakes and jerked the wheel to the right. But it wasn’t fast enough.

The form dissolved into snow as Mark’s truck passed through it. But as it did, it screeched like a bird of prey. The sound wasn’t a trick of the wind, and the form wasn’t merely in Mark’s mind.

Mark screamed as his truck swerved off the road onto a muddy patch of a field. It dragged to a stop, and sat there, headlight pointing ahead. Mark stared into the white light, the falling snow. A form danced just beyond the headlights. A voice called out in the distance. “Trespasser. Thief. Defiler.” Then closer: “Trespasser! Thief! Defiler!”

Mark’s heart pounded. He was sweating, and he wiped a hand across his face. Then he reached over and opened the door.

“I get it!” he cried out, stepping into the field. “Alright. Okay? I screwed up!”

The voice boomed like thunder on the wind. “Thief!” But it wasn’t coming from the wind or the sky: it was coming from the tree. So Mark turned to address the tree.

“Yeah. I get it. I shouldn’t have cut you down. You’re... you’re possessed. Because you were--”

“I was the guardian of the tomb. And you will pay an awful price.”

“Okay. I’m sorry. Just tell me what you want. Do you want me to drive you back to that graveyard? Will that fix this?”

“What’s done cannot be undone. You shall know my wrath this night,” the voice called out.

Mark stared at the tree for a moment. “You know something? No.”

“I shall enact a terrible vengeance,” the tree said.

“Fine, but not tonight. Look. My kid’s coming over tonight. And it’s Christmas Eve.”

“His fate shall be yours.”

“That’s... that’s it! You mess with my kid, you so much as give him a bad dream, and I swear to GOD, tomorrow, I will go back to that goddamn cemetery and I will smash the hell out of every last tombstone. You hear me?” He was standing just a foot from the tree now, yelling and sticking his finger into its branches. “I’ll... I’ll smash those stones, and I will piss on the graves. Is that what you want?”

The wind picked up. Sleet fell, heavy and fast. It scraped against Mark’s face.

“That it? Is that your great and terrible vengeance?”

“You have not yet--”

“I don’t care! Alright? I don’t care about a little sleet or wind or whatever. I just want to give my kid a halfway decent Christmas!”

“You have desecrated a holy place,” the voice said, though it was softer now. Quieter. Almost scared. “You must be punished.”

“Fine. Then... then we’ll work something out, okay? But, tonight, just tonight, could you reign it in? I’ll put you wherever you want. Side of the road, some forest, back at the cemetery... wherever. But I need you to leave my kid alone.”

There was silence for a moment, save cracking ice and the sounds of wind in the branches of far-off trees.

“Well? We got a deal or not?” Mark asked.

“You may place me in your quarters,” the voice.

“You mean, like a Christmas tree?”

“As you intended.”

“And you won’t mess with my son?”

“I will keep our pact. But you must swear to never harm the graves that were in my care.”

“Yeah. Yeah, of course. I promise. We good now?”

There was nothing but the sounds of the storm and wood. Mark nodded and climbed back into his truck. He put it in reverse, pulled back onto the road, and began towards home.

The tree spirit kept its promise. After Christmas, when Mark’s son went home, the threats and curses started again. “Thief,” “Defiler,” “Trespasser,” “Desecrator,” and a host of other insults appeared on the windows of Mark’s home. Finally, about a week after Christmas, the voice called out: “Take me to the wood and bury me.”

Mark did as told, though it wasn’t easy breaking the frozen ground. He managed, and the disturbances stopped for a while. Then, with spring, they began again, softer than before. Mark went out to where he’d buried the tree and discovered a sapling poking through. It had been dry, so he came back and watered it.

“You will be punished,” the tree whispered, though it seemed somewhat uncertain.

“I know,” Mark replied. “Just... let me know if you need anything.”

He took some books on tending trees out from the library and followed the instructions as well he could. Eventually, the tree no longer needed his help, but he continued to visit to check on it. Sometimes the tree would threaten him; other times, it wouldn’t.

The next Christmas Eve, he returned and sat beside the tiny tree. “I was thinking,” Mark said. “I was wondering if you wanted me to move you to the cemetery.”

“My charge endures in my absence.” The tree sounded a little sad.

“Yeah. I don’t think there are that many people out there who’d mess with a cemetery. I mean, I think it’s safe now. But, if you ever want to go back, just tell me, and I’ll move you.

The tree didn’t reply, so Mark just sat there for a while, in case he wanted the company.