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"THE TREE FARM"

Written by Mason McDonald

Lizzie didn’t like the man in the red cap. His hair was black and bushy, his beard thin and wiry. His flannel coat smelled like stale cigarettes and grime, and his knee high rubber boots were old and faded and caked in gross, oily gunk. Her father talked to him as he led them through the trees. Lizzie walked beside her mother but didn’t hold her hand because Mom was holding baby Jeffy in her arms. Jeffy was swaddled up like a burrito under multiple layers to protect against the softly falling snow and the harsh winter wind. His chubby face poked out from her mother’s chest and he smiled at her. Lizzie faked a smile back for his sake. Inside she didn’t feel right. The man in the red cap scared her.

The man walked too fast and while Dad kept up with him, the rest of them were almost tripping and slipping in the snow. “Babe? Can we slow down a little please?” Mom asked.

The two men stopped. “Yeah sure, no problem,” Dad said.

“Apologies,” the man said. His voice was gruff and low. Lizzie hated the way his skin looked under his beard. It was bumpy and red. His eyes were hidden under bushy brows and she didn’t like that, either. “So used to runnin’ around here workin’, I forget myself.”

“All good,” Dad said and looked around, hands on his hips, breath coming out in white clouds. “How about we take a look around and when we find one we like, we come find you?”
The man was quiet for a moment. Lizzie was uncomfortable. It was awkward. She looked up at her mother who was hushing a fussy Jeffy and bobbing him gently up and down.

“Well,” the man began, “that’s alright.”

The man stepped closer to Lizzie, the sound of his boots crunching in the packed snow making her feel even more uneasy, and he knelt down. “You make sure your folks don’t get lost out here now, hmm?”

It sounded like something grown-ups would say to make kids laugh. Mom and Dad chuckled but Lizzie didn’t because they couldn’t see the man’s face like she could. She didn’t laugh, because he didn’t either. It didn’t seem like a joke to him. No smile split his dark and ugly face.

Lizzie never met the boogeyman under her bed, but she imagined it looked like this man.

The man stood and tipped his cap to Mom and turned back to her father. “People get lost here all the time,” he said to Dad.

“I’m sure we’ll manage,” Dad said and shook the man’s hand, “thanks.”

The man nodded and walked off into the pines.

With him gone, Lizzie could finally enjoy herself. The annual trip to pick out their family Christmas tree was the highlight of the season for her. They’d all get packed into the car and each year drive to a different farm. Some years, like this one, they’d drive so far to a new one that it’d be dark by the time they got there. They’d all walk around and pick their favourites. Dad liked the really tall and skinny ones, while Mom preferred the wider, more round ones. Lizzie liked them all, but she especially liked the kind with needles that were such a deep green they turned blue in spots. Afterwards, Dad would tie the tree to the rack on top of their SUV and on the way back they’d stop for hot chocolate, sometimes dinner, depending on the time.

There was something magical about wandering the rows of trees.

It was like a fairy’s forest from the story books she liked.

“What about this one?” Dad said and ruffled the branches of a tall tree. It rocked back and forth on its wooden-cross base.

“It’s a little tall don’t you think?” Mom said. “How would we even fit it in the house?”

“Agh, where’s your sense of adventure!” Dad said. They both laughed and they left that tree behind, continuing through the rows.

As they walked and searched, all three of them suggesting and vetoing trees, Lizzie couldn’t help but notice they hadn’t passed other tree shoppers in a while.

Or at all.

Were they the only ones there?

“Mom,” Lizzie said and stared up at her mother, “where is everyone?”

Mom was smiling at something Dad had said and it took her a minute to understand what it was that Lizzie was saying. Normally, this would bother Lizzie. However, it never bothered her to see the way her parents loved each other. It was like it was in the movies with those two. Lizzie thought that was real nice. “What’s that, hon?” Mom said.

“There’s no other people,” Lizzie said, looking all around, “just us.”

Mom spun her head around, peeking through trees, while Dad kept inspecting trees for “prime greeny colours and proper branch girth”, something he’d repeat every year that always made Mom blush and laugh.

“Must be a slow night,” Mom said.

“There’s always other people,” Lizzie said.

“This place is pretty far out in the boonies, Lizzie-bear,” Dad said.

“The boonies?”

“It’s something old people say that means out in the middle of nowhere,” Mom said.

Lizzie laughed. “You guys aren’t old!”

“You’re right,” Mom said with a wink, “just Dad.”

“Oh bite me,” Dad said. He was circling a short, fat pine tree when something caught his eye through the branches. “Oh, look at that one!”

As Dad lifted a leg over the mound of frozen snow on the edge of the boot-worn path, Mom asked him where he was going. “There’s one right over there that’s perfect! Let me go get a look and you can circle around and meet me, ‘kay?”

Before Mom could protest, Dad was stomping through the knee-high packed snow like an excited child. “Daddy’s just a big little kid, you know,” Mom said, taking Lizzie’s hand and starting around the bend in the path that would lead them over to Dad.

“You said he was old,” Lizzie said.

“Both can be true,” Mom said, “and most of the time they are.”

Mom, Lizzie, and Jeffy took their time meeting Dad. They made note of a few pretty trees they liked.

Lizzie was holding the sharp-needled branch of one. It was still snowing and the branch was covered in soft, fluffy snow. Lizzie felt strange, just then, and suddenly knew the tree was very cold. She had the sudden urge to not violently shake the branch as kids are wont to do, but instead used her pink-padded jacket sleeve to gently swipe the snow to the ground. Mom hurried her back to not keep Dad waiting any longer.

As Lizzie released the now barren branch and returned to her mother’s side, she thought she could hear a voice.

A voice saying thank you.

When they reached the area Dad had run off to, he wasn’t there. Mom called out to him and so did Lizzie. His footsteps were there but they were already being covered by the falling snow. “Daddy’s hiding,” Lizzie said.

Mom was smiling but she looked slightly worried. She hiked Jeffy up higher in her arms and reached down, taking Lizzie’s hand again. “He’s just being silly. Let’s go find him.”

People get lost there all the time, that’s what the man had said. Lizzie sure hoped her Daddy hadn’t gone and gotten himself lost in the trees. She liked a good game of hide and seek as much as the next person but she wasn’t sure she liked how Dad was playing it just now.

They searched around the tree farm for another ten or so minutes before it seemed Mom was getting nervous. “Daniel, this isn’t funny anymore!” Mom shouted. “C’mon, hon,” she said to Lizzie, “we’ll circle back and head to the car. Daddy’s probably waiting there for us with the best tree already picked out.”

“But I wanted to pick the tree!” Lizzie said with a chuffing, exaggerated shoulder shrug.

“I know baby, I know,” Mom said. She was walking so fast she almost dragged Lizzie through the snow, her little boots slipping.

They were back to almost where Dad had run off to, and Lizzie heard another voice. It was slow and laboured, like the words were foreign to the speaker and their lips weren’t designed to form the syllables. Lizzie didn’t think it was Dad, not at all, but Mom did.

“Daniel?” She said and turned every which way trying to discern the direction of the voice. It was snowing harder now, distorting the hanging orange bulbs that were strung on wooden stakes along the paths. Outside their range, in the middle of all the trees, was absolute darkness.

“Come…here,” the voice said again.

Mom swallowed hard. “Baby, if I get you to hold your brother, you can do that, right? Like I showed you?”

Lizzie nodded. “Okay then,” Mom gingerly passed the swaddled Jeffy to Lizzie and made sure to keep his face covered from the snow. The baby was heavy in Lizzie’s arms but she liked holding him. She loved her baby brother.

Mom crouched in front of her. “Listen to me, okay? Mommy’s going to go find Daddy.”

“Can I come?”

“No sweetie, it’s too dark and the snow is too high. I don’t want you falling down, right? I need you to stay right here with Jeffy. Can you do that?”

Lizzie nodded.

“That’s my girl. Do you remember the way back to the car?”

Lizzie nodded again.

“Good. If I’m not back in a few minutes, I want you to go wait in the car, okay? Dad always forgets to lock the doors, so I know they’ll be open. We will meet you there in that case, but first wait for me here. You got it?”

Lizzie sniffed back a cold-wind snot and nodded. Mom smiled and wiped her sleeve across Lizzie’s face. “Atta girl. Be right back, ‘kay?”

With that, Mom disappeared into the trees, into the dark, just like Dad. For a while Lizzie heard Mom’s boots crunching in the snow, but soon they stopped, too.

Just like Dad’s.

Then everything was quiet. The only sound to touch Lizzie’s ears were the soft coos of her baby brother and the sound of the cold wind rustling the pines.

Lizzie was scared. She wanted to go home and drink hot chocolate. She didn’t care about the tree anymore.

“Mommy?” She called out. “Daddy?”

She waited for a response. When it came, it wasn’t that of her mother or her father. It was that broken, disjointed, almost earthly sound. Like the sound of two wooden beams rubbing together.

“Come…here…Lizzie.”

Lizzie didn’t know when it had started, but she was crying. The tears were cold on her cheeks as they began to freeze. Jeffy was moving and was gaining weight by the second. She thought maybe she should go back to the car and wait. The man in the cap was creepy, but he was still a grown-up, he’d help her. He’d have to, that’s their job.

“Come…bring…the baby.”

“Daddy?”

“He’s…here.”

“Mommy?”

“Bring…him.”

Lizzie swallowed back her fear and hiked Jeffy up higher before stepping off the path into the deeper snow, away from the orange light.

Into the trees. Into the dark.

The snow was too high for her to walk normally through. A couple times she fell to her knees in the cold with a whimper, trying her best to keep Jeffy from it. He’d started crying too and she didn’t know what to do, so she sang to him like Mom did. But she didn’t know all the words and this just made her cry more as she hugged him tighter and wandered further into the wet shadows.

She finally stopped when she tripped over something hard and had to fall on her side not to drop Jeffy. They screamed. The snow had soaked through her jacket and into her bones and she was so cold. So scared. She pulled herself and Jeffy up to inspect what she tripped over.

A boot.

Her mother’s boot.

“Mommy?” Lizzie called out.

She listened for her mother’s response but instead picked up on something she hadn’t heard through the wind and her crunching footsteps. It was a grinding sort of sound. Wooden and moist. There were snaps and splashes, too. Lizzie tried to place what the sound was but the closest thing she had heard in her life was the sound of her dad raking leaves into green bags last Fall, as he cursed under his breath because he had left the piles out in the rain and they were soaked through now, but still had audible crunchy spots.

Lizzie searched around her mother’s boot and saw fine red droplets. They trailed off around a wide, short pine. She carried the crying Jeffy around to the other side.

And found her parents.

At first, she wasn’t sure what she was seeing. It didn’t make sense. Her brain couldn’t fill in the blanks, couldn’t diffuse the confusion in front of her.

Her parents were in two separate trees, their limbs crooked and tangled within the branches. The branches were moving and enveloping the two, and they slowly sunk deeper and deeper into the trees as their bodies were pinched and bent and scrunched up. Lizzie watched in terror as Dad’s head, eyes alive and wide and scared, mouth gagged by snow and needles, sunk fully into the tree and was followed with a loud crack and a splurt of dark red blood. Lizzie briefly thought about the red water balloon she popped on Dad’s head at her last birthday party and then she screamed louder than she’d ever screamed before.

In a matter of seconds, the tree swallowed him up completely and all that was left was the splash of his memories left steaming in the snow. It was chunky like Mom’s homemade cranberry sauce.

Mom was next, as all that was left sticking out were her two kicking, fighting legs. But soon they too were swallowed up by the big trees.

A tree in front of Lizzie started to move. When the voice started again, the branches all moved in unison, but they didn’t move like a mouth. They waved back and forth in an alien way. It was unnatural. Like the wind was blowing it but not in the way it should be.

“Pick…me…Lizzie,” the tree said.

“No,” a voice behind her said, “pick…me.”

A tree branch fell on her shoulder, the cold pines pricking her neck and ears, and Lizzie screamed.

She never dropped her brother.

***

When the screaming died down, the man in the hat was just finishing up nailing in some new posts and running more lights. He had more trees arriving in the morning and had to be ready for them. He brushed his brow, cracked his back, and stared out into the rustling pines.

As he did, they were lit by approaching headlights. He turned and shielded his eyes against their yellow brightness as the car pulled to a stop and killed the engine.

A young man got out of the car and was followed by his wife and two young boys. The young man approached him and asked if they could look around. The man in the cap said they could.

“Just be careful,” he said and led them into the trees, “people get lost in here all the time.”

mason mcdonald 01Mason McDonald is the author of A Time For Monsters. When not inventing yuletide boogeymen, he can be found drinking booze and fist fighting his own personal Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. He currently lives in Port Morien, NS with his wife Jenna and their collection of animals.

You can pick up his collection by clicking one of the links below!

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