The Anderson’s new house had come with a big oak tree in the front yard; its trunk was thick and gnarled and the branches twisted out in wild directions. On one particularly thick branch two ropes tethered a wooden bench swing.
“I don’t understand why you avoid the oak tree,” Aiden’s father would say, “When I was ten years old I would’ve been climbing up and down that thing all day long.”
“It watches me,” he would tell his father.
They had moved into the house only a few weeks prior. Mr. Anderson felt a change of scenery from the big city to a family suburb would do his son well, especially since Aiden had discovered the boy scouts. It was all he could do to get his son to remove the uniform for an occasional washing. He also thought kids in the suburbs might be more supportive of Aiden’s love of scouting; city kids weren’t as interested in the arts and crafts and Aiden, a small boy for his age group, tended to get bullied. He hadn’t seen his son smile in weeks.
“We could build a fort” his dad suggested, “maybe a ladder would make it feel safer?”
“Maybe later dad,” he responded, “I need to catch bugs in the field in the back yard and then identify them in the handbook.”
His father was beginning to get concerned about his isolation and lack of friends.
“It’s just an oak tree, Aiden,” he would say, “If anything it is there to watch over and protect you.”
“I need to get to work dad,” Aiden would say and saunter to his room. Before he closed the door he turned to his dad, “it wants something.”
“I’m pretty sure it just wants the rest of its leaves raked up,” Mr. Anderson pointed to the disheveled leaf pile.
Aiden closed his door.
From his desk Aiden could see the oak tree outside his window. It appeared extra ominous with just a few remaining leaves after the autumn chill that had blown the majority away. He couldn’t explain what he saw when he looked at the tree. It felt alive. It was alive, but alive in a different way than most trees; he could feel the tree calling to him. On windless nights the branches would sway in his direction and on moonless nights it maintained a dim glow. It sent shivers down his spine.
“Lights out bud,” his father said cracking open his bedroom door later that evening, “don’t forget I’m starting my new job tomorrow. It’s only a half day for orientation, so I’ll see you when you get home. Are you ready to walk to school tomorrow?”
It would be his first time going to school without his dad dropping him off. His dad was much more nervous about it than Aiden was. His little boy was getting older and more independent.
“You need to meet Autumn by the lamppost at 7:30am.”
“I know dad,” said Aiden.
Autumn was the strawberry blonde girl who lived across the street. She was the same age and in the same class as Aiden but, like most kids his age, a head taller. From his observations she was also much more popular as she always had several friends playing outside their house. According to Autumn’s mother she had been walking herself to school since the second grade.
“Maybe you’ll become friends,” his dad suggested.
Aiden just rolled his eyes and turned his lamp off, “goodnight dad.”
That night Aiden dreamt he had climbed to the top of the oak tree. The air was thin and he struggled to breathe. He needed to climb down, but if he started to move he knew the tree would notice he was there. He held his breath and slowly, steadily, and gently balanced his way toward the center of the tree. As soon as he placed his hands on the trunk he felt the tree come alive.
He stepped from one branch to the next and the tree shook. Acorns fell all around him as twiggy vines erupted from the branches and snaked their way toward him. He kicked at the branches as he let his breath out in a burst and began to scramble from one branch to the next.
With every branch he descended the tree seemed to grow another foot. He was higher up now than he had been when he had started. Tears streaked his face as he scraped his hands from the scratchy wood. The vines twisted and grew around his ankles until he feared he had no choice. He jumped.
He woke up drenched in sweat. His hands itched and when he looked at them his palms were dirty and covered in scrapes and scratches.
“You’re late,” Autumn said, arms folded and tapping her little silver heels on the sidewalk. “My mom told your dad that you needed to be here by 7:30 and it is 7:35. I am going to let my mom know that I won’t walk with you if you are late again.”
“Sorry,” Aiden mumbled, and they started to walk in silence.
Autumn made sure to keep one or two steps in front of Aiden, increasing her pace if he tried to speed up.
“What’s with the nerdy costume?”
“I became a junior boy scout this year,” Aiden responded excitedly. He held up his sash for her to see, “I already have three badges: lifesaving, fire building, and rock and minerals. My scout leader said that lifesaving is the most important, so I earned it first. I’m really good at CPR. I like a lot of the badges and I plan on earning them all. I’m working on insect collections next.”
“Nerd,” autumn replied, stopping long enough to turn around and make sure he saw her.
A leaf from a tree fell in front of Aiden’s face and startled him. He slapped at his face with both hands.
“What’s wrong, loser? Scared of leaves?”
“It just startled me,” he said.
“Maybe you need to work on your fear of leaves badge,” she smirked, “anyway, we’re two blocks from school. I don’t want my friends to see me with a scaredy-cat loser, so you’ll have to be okay from here.”
Autumn flipped her long hair over her shoulder and took off running.
Aiden walked home alone that day. He didn’t even bother looking for Autumn. When he arrived at home his dad was raking the remainder of fallen leaves from into a big pile.
“Welcome home Aiden, how was school?”
“Same old, dad.”
“Where is Autumn?”
“I think she had something after school. I don’t need an escort; I can walk home on my own.”
His dad looked visibly defeated before perking up with a, “hey, want to jump in the leaves?”
Aiden looked at the ominous towering pile of red and orange leaves peppered here and there with acorns. It was easily twice his height. If he were to jump in he could easily be buried – or eaten.
“No thanks, dad.”
“It might be your last chance.”
Aiden ignored his dad and went directly inside to look out his bedroom window. His dad was pulling off his gloves and finishing the yardwork for the day. Aiden watched as a squirrel climbed down the trunk of the tree and surveyed the massive pile of leaves. It inched closer and closer to the pile and plucked an acorn off the edge.
Aiden pressed his forehead against the cool windowpane and watched the squirrel as it turned its back and examined its prize. A crack appeared in the leaf pile. It slowly widened and, like a gaping mouth, bent over and enveloped the squirrel.
Aiden pulled a notepad out of his desk drawer and made a seventh mark under the headline, “squirrel.”
The next day Autumn did not wait for Aiden. He didn’t mind, he preferred to walk to school on his own. He took a wide berth from the leaf pile and made his way to school.
“That’s my neighbor,” Autumn pointed and giggled to a group of her friends, “he’s afraid of everything. He nearly pissed his pants at a falling leaf. I think he’s earning his pants-pissing merit badge.”
Throughout the school day he would find random oak leaves inside his desk, stuffed in his backpack, stuck under his shoes. They would fall out of the tissue dispenser in the bathroom and he’d pull them out of his hair during study time. When they had group reading time his book, fresh from the shelf, was filled with disintegrating husks of leaves. He was never sure, but he thought he saw the other children giggling or pointing.
At lunch he took a bite of his peanut butter and jelly sandwich to find that it had a crunchy oak leaf pressed inside.
Mr. Offra, the school counselor, had asked Aiden to come to his office after school that day.
“Your father asked me to show you some of the after-school extracurricular activity options. He thought it might be good for you to occupy some of your time with other kids. I think some of these clubs might help out with some of your badges.”
They went through different pamphlets and websites for half an hour, “chess club, photography club, youth theater, 4-H, arbor club…”
“Arbor?” Aiden asked.
“The arbor club works in the gardens and raises money to plant trees,” he pulled out the arbor club flyer that showed a big oak tree on the front.
“I have an oak tree at my house,” Aiden said.
“The mighty oak! It will always stand sure,” said Mr. Offra, “it’s a symbol of our little city. The native inhabitants worshipped the oak tree, and many settlers continued the tradition. Some people say that they would leave offerings and sacrifices on the biggest trees in the town to appease… I’m sorry, that’s the history degree in me. Take this flyer and talk it over with your dad. I’m sure the arbor club would love to have you.”
When Aiden arrived home he saw Autumn and some of her friends swinging from the bench swing and jumping into the leaf pile.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Aiden.
“Because you’re scared of leaves?!” said Autumn while her friends laughed and threw leaves in his direction.
Autumn got on the swing and pumped hard, “look Aiden, watch me!”
She pumped harder and harder until she jumped, landing in the pile of leaves. She plunged deep into the mound and was hidden from view in the tornado of leaves. Then she popped up.
“Oh no,” she said in a mocking tone, “they’ve got me.”
Her friends laughed and tossed more leaves in his direction when Autumn’s facial expression changed and she yelled out, “hey.”
Everyone looked her way and she continued, “hey! Something has me. It really has me!”
She struggled and attempted to pull her way out of the leaf pile before she plunged under with a big scream. The group of friends were silent as mannequins as they paused their taunting to stare at the motionless leaf pile.
Then Autumn popped up and laughed, “What a loser!”
Mr. Anderson pulled his car into the driveway and the kids all scattered.
“Hey Aiden, I’m glad to see you had some friends over,” his father said, “they didn’t have to rush off like that.”
“It was just Autumn.”
“Well, next time you invite them over, maybe try to clean up some of the leaves. I worked pretty hard to get them piled together. I’m going to need you to help me get them bundled up and taken into the field in the backyard. My new friend Umar is going to be joining us this weekend.”
They spent the afternoon with Mr. Anderson filling up leaf bags and Aiden dumping the contents into the field in the back yard.
Aiden had a pleasantly dreamless sleep the following night. He awoke well before the sun had come up, well before his alarm. Before opening his eyes, he rolled over in bed to the sound of crunching.
Through cracks in his eyes he saw that his pillow had been covered in leaves and as he rolled and sat up he saw that his entire bed was covered in dirty, crunchy, detritus. The leaves were scattered onto the floor and trailing out his bedroom. Aiden ran to the window in his father’s room to see that the pile was still outside in the field.
He spent an hour cleaning up and dumping the leaves as close to the pile as possible –without getting too close. He only barely made it to school on time.
It wasn’t too long before the end of the school day that Aiden felt something itchy in his crotch. He shuffled in his seat, but the feeling only got worse. He itched at the seat of his pants, scratched at the brim of his underwear line, and then raised his hand, “I need to use the hall pass.”
“School is almost out, can it wait?”
“No, it really can’t,” Aiden responded with a severe amount of urgency in his voice.
Safely in a stall, Aiden pulled down his pants to find his underwear stuffed with brightly colored oak leaves. He pulled them out and shoved them into the toilet. Handful after handful he stuffed them down into the overflowing toilet. The sight made him sick, and he began to gag.
Tears streamed down his face as his gags turned into coughing dry heaves. He pulled a long yellow leaf from his mouth. Then, before he could control it, he vomited up a sticky gooey mass of brown and yellow oak leaves.
The bell rang.
Aiden avoided the eyes of the other children and his teacher as he gathered his things and left for home.
In the backyard, at a safe distance, Aiden screamed at the leaf pile, “What do you want from me?”
A few leaves blew in the wind, but the pile didn’t move.
“What do you want from me? What do you want from me!? WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!”
“Who are you screaming at, nerd?”
Autumn appeared from around the side of the house. Aiden stood silent.
“How did your leaf pile get so big?”
Aiden remained silent, glaring at Autumn. She surveyed the massive pile and walked slowly around to the rear. Aiden reluctantly followed, maintaining his distance, to keep her in his sight as she walked around the massive pile of leaves.
“You really are scared of leaves, aren’t you?”
“Yes you are,” Autum approached the leaf pile and grabbed a handful.
“I really wouldn’t do that,” Aiden said.
“Why, what’s going to happen?” She tossed the leaves into the air and let them scatter around her silver heels.
Aiden stared back at Autumn without response.
“You really need to loosen up. It’s just a leaf pile, not a monster,” Autumn faced Aiden with her back to the leaf pile.
“It’s not just a leaf pile,” Aiden responded.
“Yes. It is. Watch,” Autumn cocked her head, put her arms straight out to the side, and fell backward into the leaf pile. Her upper body was consumed by the leaves with a muffled “whump” as her legs stretched out, spasmed, and stopped moving.
Aiden could’ve sworn the leaves begin to smile as he cautiously approached the leaf pile and pushed the leaves away from Autumn’s face. He put a finger to her neck and confirmed her pulse. He pulled a mirror out of the bottom left pocket of his scout shirt and tested to see that she was still breathing. She would be fine with the right lifesaving skills.
The leaf pile smiled harder.
“Aiden, are you back here?” His father shouted from the side of the house.
Aiden pushed the leaves back into place over Autumn face. He saw a silver heel sticking out. He picked it up and tossed it in the heap. He came around the back of the pile, “yeah dad!”
Mr. Anderson appeared from the path alongside the house carrying an armful of folding camping chairs. Another man was with him, “Son, come meet Umar. He’s the, uh, friend I told you about. He’s going to join us tonight for our annual tradition and then maybe a movie.”
“Nice to meet you sir,” Aiden shook the man’s hand.
“Nice to meet you as well, I hope you don’t mind me interjecting one of my own traditions,” Umar pulled a small telescope from behind his back. “Your dad told me you have gotten really good at merit badges. I thought you might like to know that I am an official counselor for the stargazing badge.”
“Cool,” Aiden cracked half a smile.
“Hey Bud, did you write down your wish,” said Mr. Anderson.
“My wish is already in the pile,” said Aiden.
Mr. Anderson looked disappointed, but ruffled his son’s hair and smiled.
“What about you, did you write down your wish like I said?” Mr. Anderson asked Umar, “it’s tradition.”
Umar pulled out a paper plane, “yup, it’s written inside. Can you explain this to me again?”
“There isn’t much to it. It’s kind of our own version of a lantern wish. Whenever we did a controlled burn at our old house, we would write our wishes on paper planes and throw them into the fire so that the smoke can carry them to… whoever grants wishes.”
“You have your fire-starting badge, are you going to be doing the honors?” Umar asked Aiden.
“No sir, I don’t have any steel wool.”
“Well, I’m sure we can make do,” said Umar.
Mr. Anderson lit a piece of wood kindling with a lighter from his pocket and waited for the fire to burn thick before tossing it into the pile.
Umar took Mr. Anderson’s hand, and they tossed their planes in the fire together. The fire popped and crackled.
“That is a really big leaf pile,” said Umar as the fire grew larger and lit up the evening sky.
“We put the leaves on top of a pile of boulders,” said Mr. Anderson, “figured if we were going to do a controlled burn we could get the field ready for some gardening. We could use the boulders to make a little path if we can clear out the black widows and other pests.”
Aiden wrapped his arm around his dad’s waist and smiled. It was his first ear to ear smile since moving into the new house.
About the Creator
I'm Jeff Carter; I wanted a unique & personal pen name. Writing offers an opportunity to create and heal. These stories in the bizarre, horror, and magic realism help inspire me to move forward with novel writing. Thank you for reading.