The darkness crept slowly at the edge of the flashlight, dancing back as Jake marched forward, Alex walking close behind him. The path into the Tanglewood was narrow and not suitable for a car; they’d parked just outside the forest. Alex had taken a backpack, saying that he had a surprise for Jake in there. Jake merely shrugged and went along with it.
Alex’s surprises were usually fun.
So, on they tromped through the undergrowth, thick weeds and small shrubs having grown up over the years from lack of traffic. Jake swore, and not for the first time, as he cut his hand on a thorny bush. He sucked on his finger, the coppery taste of blood filling his mouth as he tried to stem the bleeding.
After nearly half an hour of hiking, they came upon a low wall with a rusted gate. The gate was locked with heavy chains and a thick padlock, but the brick wall looked easy enough to get over.
“Alex, give me a boost,” Jake said, pointing to the wall.
Alex nodded and walked over, squatting down and cupping his hands. Jake quickly scaled the wall with his boyfriend's help, and he reached down to help pull Alex up over the wall. They turned, sitting on the aged brick, staring out over the grove.
Beneath the light of a waning moon, the tree stood stark amongst the small tombstones radiating from it, the whole area devoid of grass. A low fog filled the area, unable to escape due to the presence of the stone wall.
“Well, this looks inviting,” Jake said.
“Oh hush,” Alex said, slapping Jake on the thigh. “This’ll be fun. We can do anything we want out here and not a soul will hear us!”
“Anything, eh?” Jake said with a smile.
“Yeah,” Alex breathed, leaning in close to Jake while wetting his own lips. Before they could touch Alex hopped down into the graveyard, laughing as he did so. “You’re going to have to show me around before we start any of that mister!”
Jake growled, looking down at Alex, who was playfully sashaying up to one of the tombstones. Jake slid down the wall and walked up next to Alex, slapping him on the ass. “Slut…”
Alex looked over his shoulder at Jake. “You know you love it!”
Jake rolled his eyes. Walking past the headstone Alex was looking over, Jake made his way to the Tree of the Dead. Shining his flashlight at the tree, he counted the various thick roots that seemed to have erupted from the ground, as if the tree were some sickening spider. The roots lifted up before burrowing back into the earth, all save one. A narrow root flanked by two large roots, which practically formed a wall beneath the “belly” of the tree, this root stretched up and out, with four twisted twigs and a shorter, thicker stump, all splayed wide open as if the branch were reaching for something.
“Hey, Alex!” Jake called out. “Want to see something cool?”
“Sure!” Alex replied, trotting over towards the light. “Oh my God, there’s the branch from the story! It looks just like I imagined it, only creepier!”
“Yeah, real life can be that way…” Jake muttered before shining his light on one of the flanking roots, easily three feet wide and two feet thick. It was covered in roughly carved hearts with initials of, presumably, lovers.
“Are those…?” Alex began before he heard a noise that chilled him to the bone.
Looking behind him, he saw that Jake had pulled a pistol, now cocked, and was aiming it at Alex.
“Baby,” Alex said his voice wavering. “What are you doing?”
“What I always do when my newest Freshman boy toy wants to see this place,” Jake replied calmly. “Now turn around and look at the initials carved into the tree. Read them to me…”
Alex turned, sweat pouring down his mocha neck. Jake shined a light over the numerous carvings. Alex leaned in close, looking at them.
There were dozens of them, all hearts with initials. The oldest ones had a heart with an L and an A carved within it. The freshest ones, looking to be maybe year or so old were roughly hewn hearts all bearing J and some other letter. A sudden thud in the dirt at his feet let him know Jake had tossed something at him, something heavy.
“Pick it up,” Jake ordered.
Alex kneeled and grabbed the metal item: a butterfly knife. Pulling it open, he looked back at Jake, squinting his eyes due to the brightness of the light. “A knife?”
“To carve our initials stupid,” Jake snapped. “My families been doing this for years now, making sure we pay respects to our grandfather.”
“Grandfather?” Alex asked, turning to look for a bare space on the trunk.
“Yeah, the Slasher,” Jake said, a wicked smile in his voice. “He had a daughter, who married well and brought her husband here one night. Then she told her oldest son he had to do it a few times, and he told his son. That would be my father, who said I had to feed it three times.”
“Feed what?” Alex asked, stabbing the tree to begin carving.
A spurt of blood sprayed out and a whistling shriek echoed through the night, seemingly coming from the tree. The roots all began to strain against their confinement in the ground, all hopeless in their attempt to escape.
“Keep carving!” Jake shouted. “That’s the blood of Gypsy scum you’re feeling, the sickened fluid of Godless heathens. Just like you!”
“How am I a heathen?” Alex cried out, carving the heart and trying to ignore the warm blood trickling over his hands.
“Leviticus 18:22! Thou shall not lie with another man as with a woman; it is an abomination. An abomination!” Jake shouted, walking up and cracking Alex in the shoulder with the butt of the pistol.
Alex whirled around, bringing the butterfly knife down into Jake’s chest, who let out a wail of agony. Alex spat in his face. “I loved you asshole, and here you were about to murder me for what? Family tradition? You sick fuck!”
“N-not family t-tradition,” Jake said between clenched teeth, blood trailing from his lower lip.
Three rounds were emptied into Alex’s stomach, blood and gore erupting from him as if he were a water balloon. Alex cried out, digging the knife in deeper in search for Jake’s heart or an important artery. Jake just began pushing Alex backward, holding him partially up as he pushed him between the thick roots.
Alex opened his mouth in a silent scream as the sharpened twigs of the small root, the arm, pierced his back. It was then he felt the branch pull on him, dragging him down to the ground. Alex hadn’t even been able to pull the knife from his boyfriend’s chest before he was pulled down to the ground. The root was pulling him towards the base of the tree and, upon contact, beneath the tree in a gory display of compression as the Alex twisted and burst, his body slowly being pulled into the ground for the tree to digest. Jake tossed the gun into the mulching pile of meat and cloth, smiling as the murder weapon disappeared with the body.
His father had taught him well.
Now all he had to do was go home and have his Dad stitch him up. This was his second time feeding the tree. It was a shame…
Jake walked up to the twisting root, shushing it as he petted the smooth bark. He stared at the half-finished job of the heart, no lettering inside it.
“Well, I guess this one will forever remain a mystery…” Jake muttered, limping off towards the gate, fishing in his pocket for the key to the padlock.
Only one more to go and then I can go back to women… Jake thought as he walked over the graves. He stumbled over himself, his head dizzy from the blood loss. Looking down, the ragged hole in his chest was dribbling blood everywhere, rivulets sliding down his arm and falling into the soil.
“Great… now I’m leaving my blood at the scene of the crime!” He groused, pulling a rag from his back pocket and, painfully, stuffing it into the hole to plug it. “There, that should do it…”
Jake walked to the gate and unlocked it, whistling as he left the graveyard, the Tree of the Dead happily consuming it’s offered victim, the crunching of bones and tearing of flesh echoing throughout the woods and into the night.