I HATE NIGHTS LIKE these, when the wind wails and howls and the rain lashes down against the windows. Especially when I’m alone. Usually I’ll go out to a bar or a club, drown it all out with loud music, booze and the company of strangers, but sometimes there’s no avoiding it and I just have to sit it out and do my best not to think about things. But that’s always easier said than done. Too many unwelcome memories come tapping on my window along with the wind and the rain.
We were just kids when it all started. I was a real tomboy back then: all scrappy short hair and dirty knees, and I’d get mad if anyone reminded me that I was a girl. My two best friends were Danny and Jules – they were both a year older than me, but they treated me like one of the guys, and for a couple of summers we were absolutely inseparable.
We spent a lot of time hanging around in the woods on the edge of town, playing soldiers, building forts and doing all the things kids do when there aren’t any adults around. Those woods were like our own private playground, and we felt like they were ours and ours alone.
It was near the end of that last summer when the evenings were getting cooler and the nights were starting to draw in that we found the tree house. Me and Jules were sitting playing video games at his house when Danny came round, looking more excited than I think I’d ever seen him. He said he had a surprise for us, and made us follow him down into the woods.
He wouldn’t say what he’d found, but we could tell it was something big. There was a kind of light in his eyes, and you could see the excitement squirming inside of him. He led us through the familiar paths and deep into the secret trails that only we knew about. Soon we were in the thickest part of the forest, where hardly anyone ever ventured and the undergrowth was all but impenetrable, standing at the foot of an old, gnarled tree whose tangled branches seemed to strangle what little of the fading evening light that remained.
“It’s up there,” said Danny in hushed, almost reverential tones, pointing up into the branches of the great tree. “Come on.”
With that he launched himself at the trunk of the tree, kicking up off a root and grabbing a low lying branch. With a grunt, he pulled himself up, and reached up for a handhold in the ancient, gnarled bark. I shot Jules a quizzical look. He shrugged, then followed Danny’s lead. With a sigh, I scrambled up after them.
It was hard going at first, especially because I’m not particularly fond of heights, but there was no way I was going to show any weakness in front of the boys, so I persevered. After the first few feet the branches began to get thicker and the climbing easier, so I soon caught up with Danny and Jules who were straddling one of the thicker boughs above me. “What kept you?” said Danny with a grin. “You’ll like this next bit.”
A rope ladder, twisted and gnarled with age, snaked upwards through the dense foliage and dissappeared into the gloom above. Danny scrambled up it in a flash, quickly vanishing into the tangle of swaying leaves and branches.
Although the prospect of climbing this ramshackle ladder made me a little queasy, I gritted my teeth and hauled myself up. After a few feet a large wooden platform emerged from the swaying branches: it seemed to have been cobbled together from old planks and scraps of wood, but it was surprisingly well constructed, and looked solid enough. The rope was anchored to a branch above it, and Danny and Jules were waiting to help pull me on.
It was easy to see what Danny had been so excited about. The platform was more than large enough to hold the three of us comfortably, and although there were no walls, there was a crude roof over the section closest to the tree trunk, and the canopy was thick enough to completely shield the tree house from the ground. The tree itself must have been hit by lightning at some point, as there was a great jagged crack down the trunk that faded into a blackened scar: this old injury had prevented the tree from growing any branches on that side above the strike, which meant that it was more open to the elements and gave the tree house a spectacular view out over the forest.
“It’s amazing,” Jules breathed.
It was. Like we’d found a castle in the sky. But still, something didn’t feel right to me about the place. It hadn’t been built by kids, that was for sure. There was a clump of mouldy rain-soaked rags in one corner of the platform which it looked like someone had once used as a bed. Somehow this felt like an adult place, and that troubled me deeply.
“How did you find it?”
Danny beamed with pride as if he’d built the whole thing himself. “I was climbing a tree over there when I saw the rope ladder. Thought I’d check out out. Wasn’t expecting to find anything like this, though.”
“Have you seen these?” Jules was standing by the crack in the tree, running his hands over the bark. Looking more closely, the wood was covered in a series of thin, spidery scratches, tiny rune-like symbols that time and weather had worn almost smooth. The more I looked, the more I saw: it must have taken hours to etch them all into the hard surface of the wood. They looked a little like hieroglyphics, but I had no idea what they might mean. The gave me the creeps.
“Guys- I don’t think we should be here.” I hated to come across as the scared little girl, but the whole place just feltwrong to me. Deeply wrong. “I think someone’s been living here. And there for to a lot of effort to make this place secret…”
Danny looked as if I’d just strangled his favorite puppy. “Look how overgrown it is. Even if someone was staying here once, they’re long gone now. No-one’s been here in years.”
I looked over at Jules. He seemed uncomfortable. “Well, it is getting kind of late. Maybe we should head back. We can come back later.” Just then a strong breeze blew through the tree house, making the branches seethe and roil as if in mute agreement. Danny got a strange, faraway look in his eyes. “There’s a storm coming,” he said. Without another word he marched over to the rope ladder and quickly vanished out of sight.
Sure enough, the next day was wild and windy, with dark, foreboding skies and an unsettled edge in the air. Back on the ground again I felt bolder, as if the strange feeling I had got from the tree house was just the memory of a bad dream. I met up with Jules on the way to the forest, and as we cycled down there we talked excitedly of the tree house and all the mysteries it contained. Jules was convinced that it had been built as a hideout for some master criminal on the run from the cops, and that we were sure to find his hidden loot nearby – I laughed along with his imaginings, but somewhere deep inside me there was still a gnawing feeling that something wasn’t right.
Danny was already at the tree when we got there, staring up into the swaying branches with a vacant look on his face. He didn’t seem to notice us until Jules slapped him on the shoulder. “Hey! You’re a bit quick off the mark, aren’t you?”
He slowly looked round with a kind of wistful smile on his face. “Oh, hi. Listen – I had an idea. I think we should spend the night up there. I brought some stuff.”
Sure enough, his backpack was bulging at the seams. Before we had a chance to say anything, he was off up the tree like at rat up a drainpipe, leaving Jules and I to follow sheepishly after.
The platform was steady as a rock, even though the smaller branches around it heaved and shifted in the wind like waves crashing against a beach. There was no arguing with Danny: his mind was made up. He’d already told his parents that he was sleeping over at Jules’ house, and he’d brought enough food and snacks in his backpack to feed a small army. But now that I was back up the tree, there was no way I was spending any more time up there than I absolutely had to. I think Jules could see how much the place spooked me: he’d always secretly looked out for me, and now he tried to persuade Danny that this was a really bad idea.
It didn’t go well. In fact, they almost came to blows over it, with Danny stubbornly refusing to budge and Jules calling him an idiot. In the end Jules stormed off and I followed, leaving Danny all alone in the heights of that dark and mysterious tree.
I don’t think either of us thought he’d actually go through with it, especially when the first few drops of rain started to fall as we cycled back. We thought he’d stay until his pride was satisfied, then leave for home after an hour or so. We really did. Even so, I still remember lying in bed that night as the rain lashed down and the wind howled mercilessly outside and being sick with worry at the thought of him out there all alone.
The night roared and bawled under the weight of that furious storm, alive with threat and the promise of violence. We never did find out if Danny had spent the entire night in the tree house, but from that day on he was like a different person. Something had changed in him, that much was certain. Whenever we asked him about that night he would just smile and tell us,”you wouldn’t stay, so you don’t get to know.” He stopped hanging around with us, and the fun, carefree kid we once knew was replaced by a strange, solitary child with a streak of cruelty in him that became ever more pronounced.
Time passed, and things went downhill for Danny. His parents divorced, and his mother took to drinking: the other kids started picking on him because of his disheveled clothes and odd smell. Looking back, it’s obvious he wasn’t being cared for properly, but back then he just became “the weird kid”, and people didn’t really give it a second thought.
I did, though. Every time I saw him, sitting alone at the back of the bus or mumbling to himself at lunch breaks, I would be reminded of that day at the tree house when everything changed. I tried to stay friends with him, but it was hard: I didn’t want to become a target for bullies myself, and he wasn’t an easy kid to like anymore.
I began to hear stories about him. Disturbing stories. That he was the real reason his parents had divorced and his mother had turned to drink, that he terrorised the younger kids when he got them alone, and that he liked to catch small animals and do terrible things to them for his own amusement. Even the older kids stopped picking on him and left him alone after he broke a guy’s arm with a crowbar one time after they wouldn’t stop pestering him.
Still, I tried to be civil to him at least, giving him a smile or a simple nod each time I saw him, more because of the boy he’d been than who he was now. We were growing up fast, I suppose: I left my tomboy phase behind me, and me and Jules sort of became an item.Danny seemed stuck in the past, a strange little boy stuck in the awkward body of a young man, and I felt sorry for him and for how things had turned out. I chose not to believe the wilder stories that people were now telling about him, and tried to be kind to him when I could, which wasn’t often.
So it was a surprise when he came tapping on my window late one night like he used to do when we were kids and he wanted me to sneak out with him. He looked terrible, even more disheveled and unkempt than usual, and I could tell from his red-rimmed eyes that he’d been crying. Part of me liked the fact that he felt he could still come to me when he was in trouble, but another part – the greater part – was afraid of him, and wished he’d picked some other window to knock on.
Against my better instincts I opened the window. He wouldn’t look at me. “I’ve got something to show you,” he said. Reaching his coat, he produced a long hunting knife. Even in the semi-darkness I could see that the blade glistened with fresh blood. “Danny – what have you done?”
He wouldn’t answer. “There’s a storm coming. We’re going to the tree house.” His voice was flat but utterly steadfast.
“But Danny, I -“
He fixed me with a gaze that chilled the blood in my veins. To this day I still can’t give a good reason for why I climbed out of the window that night and let him take me to the tree house. I don’t have an answer that can satisfy myself, never mind anyone else. But when I think back to that single, silent stare, that’s the closest I can get to understanding why I did what he wanted. I will never forget the look in his those eyes. It’ll be with me until the day I die.
We didn’t say a single word to each other as he marched me down to the forest. But he was right. The sky had been clear and the air still when we first set out, but almost with each step we took the night became more unsettled and disturbed. Dark, brooding clouds rolled in from the east, and the rain began to fall in thin, cruel sheets that beat against us with each fresh gust of wind.
Questions tossed and turned in my mind. What was Danny going to do to me one we reached the tree house? What had he already done with the knife? I wanted to say something to him, but I couldn’t seem to find the words: it was as if the storm had already stolen them from my lips. We trudged on in stony silence.
By the time we reached the old tree, the storm was at its height, with the rain coming down in solid waves and the wind a force that we had to fight against as we walked. Getting up the tree was difficult, but with Danny behind me and still armed with the knife I had no choice but to struggle relentlessly upwards. He’d started crying again, in great heaving sobs that seemed to almost suffocate him. I was wet through; drenched to the bone and shivering as if possessed.
When we finally reached the tree house, my heart was in my mouth. I was certain Danny was going to kill me. I wondered what the cold steel of the knife would feel like as it thrust deep into my body, how the hot rush of blood would follow as if desperate to leave my shivering body. I imagined it pooling on that little wooden platform and seeping through the cracks only to be lost in the relentless rain as it dripped down to the ground beneath. I felt strangely disconnected from my body, as if I were already an insubstantial ghost.
He stood stock still in front of me, a single fixed point in a chaotic storm-tossed world of turbulent motion. His eyes were empty black pools in his head, in stark contrast to the sharp silver knife gleaming in his hand. I felt like I was hardly there at all, just another leaf blown in on the wind.
Then, without a word, he turned, cut down the rope ladder and sent it tumbling to the ground, and disappeared into the darkness beyond the tree house. I collapsed to the ground like a rag doll, as if the threat of him standing there had been the only thing holding me together.
The storm was like a living thing now, raging at the world like a wild beast unleashed. It tore into me mercilessly, whipping at my clothes and stealing the tears from my eyes before they had a chance to fall. I don’t know how long it took me to get a hold of myself again. Minutes? Hours? I crawled across the platform to where the rope ladder had hung and peered over the edge into the rippling sea of branches beneath, but there was nothing to see. How Danny had got down I had no idea. For all I knew he could be lying at the roots in a crumpled, broken heap.
I crawled around the edge of the platform, searching in the darkness for some other way of getting down, but there was none be to seen. The wind came in great buffeting gusts which more than once threatened to send me over the edge. I retreated to the trunk in the centre of the platform, put my head in my hands and tried to make myself as small as possible. I tried to shut out the noise and fury of the storm and think, but it was no good. I felt empty and spent, and the wind blew through me as if I was just a hollow shell.
That night is forever etched in my consciousness, and I don’t think I will ever be free of it. Sometimes when I’m just drifting off to sleep, safe and snug in the warmth of my own bed, I’ll sink back into the thunderous tumult of that night in the tree house, feel the wind and the rain raging against me and hear the dull roar of the leaves and branches swirling around me and I’m jolted awake again in an instant, my heart pounding like a drum in my chest and my sheets clammy with sweat. Sleep is impossible, and I just lie there in the darkness, going over and over the events of that night in my head, trapped there again just as hopelessly as I was on the night itself.
With all the noise and fury of the gale sweeping through the tree house I couldn’t seem to string two thoughts together. At least, not thoughts of my own. As the night wore on I began to become aware of an incessant whispering just on the edge of my consciousness, a quiet yet persistent murmur that somehow managed to cut through the cacophony of the storm.
It seemed to be speaking broken fragments of confused, almost nonsensical sentences, sometimes with multiple voices at once, veering from sounding frightened and hurt to angry and vengeful. It terrified me. It was as if my mind had been taken over by someone else: another mind full of turmoil, seething with hate and anger and fear. Once I felt my hand run over the strange writing etched into the wood: it was hot to the touch, and seemed to squirm beneath my palm like a line of burrowing insects.
It was almost to much for me to bear. I felt like I might lose myself forever in that black, shapeless chaos of sound and fury, with the unseen voice dripping its obscene whispers into my ears. It felt like I was going mad. It was as if the tree itself was a giant brain, with the leaves and branches like vast neutral pathways wracked by gusts of relentless insanity and sent into a wild tumult by forces far greater than itself.
I had no idea how long I had stayed there already, but I knew that if I stayed any longer I would surely go insane. My desperation spurred me into action, and I stood to face the full wrath of the storm. The whispering in my head grew louder, as if trying to shout me down, but I stole myself against that terrible trickle of evil words and stood firm against them.
Something led me to that great, blackened crack in the trunk of the tree, its charred edges gaping obscenely in the fading twilight. The bark was rough beneath my fingers, and slick with the chilling rain. Using the edges of the crack as handholes, I heaved myself upwards, not knowing what I would find or even what I might be looking for.
A fire had one raged within the great tree, a fire just as intense and all-consuming as the storm that now battered against me. The lightning bolt had seared a column of fire deep into the trunk, gutting the tree from the inside and forming a blackened tunnel that disappeared downwards into darkness. There was no telling how far down it reached, but, seeing no other option and acting out of sheer desperation, I squeezed myself into the gap and prepared to descend as far as I could.
Bracing myself in the stiflingly confined space by pushing my arms and legs out against the walls of the rough shaft, I inched my way slowly downwards into the dark. It was a relief to be out of the wind and the biting rain, but the inside of the tree brought fresh challenges. Cold, icy water streamed down the sides of the fire-scorched hole, and my numbed fingers could barely find a purchase on the slippery surface. Once or twice my grip failed completely and my heart leapt into my mouth as I slid painfully down ever deeper into the belly of the great tree.
The whispering seemed to intensify the further down I got, until I felt something against my foot, and then it stopped in an instant. Unable to see in that dank, inky blackness I carefully felt my way around the obstacle, and was pleased when eventually my feet met solid ground. I was thinking more clearly now that the whispering had stopped and I was sheltered from the full wrath of the storm, so I took my cigarette lighter from my pocket and flicked it on to see what I had stumbled into.
The feeble flame cast a dirty, muddied light against the walls of the wooden shaft. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust – in those fleeting moments a strange kaleidoscope of shapes swam before my eyes, seeming to writhe and squirm in the guttering light. At first I took it to be a mass of tangled roots sprouting from the tree itself, but slowly the forms resolved themselves into a single figure: the unmistakable figure of a huddled human corpse.
A wave of white-hot shock washed over me as I struggled to take in what I was seeing. Parchment-thin skin stretched tight over jutting bones, scraps of faded fabric holding the mummified remains together, a face contorted into a twisted, rictus grin that seemed to be staring right back at me. Bizarrely, one stick-like arm was stretched high in the air over its head, and from the wrist a dancing reflection of my own flickering light was thrown back at me. As my eyes adjusted I saw it more clearly: a handcuff, firmly attached to a small niche in the shaft wall which had been carved with the same diligent craftsmanship as the tree house itself.
The rest of that night is a blur. I have vague recollections of scrabbling back up the tunnel in a blind panic, hands slick with icy rain and smears of my own blood, and spilling back out of the crack onto the wooden platform. I think I remember taking that final step from the platform – I’ve certainly seen it often enough in my dreams – but the fall itself, and the crawl back through the forest with two broken ankles and a dislocated shoulder: those are completely lost to me, and I’m glad that they are.
The next thing I recall clearly was waking up in hospital, staring up at the clean white tiles on the ceiling with the morning sun streaming in through a large side window, the day cool and bright and clear. I felt refreshed and energized, as if I’d just awoken from a deep and dreamless sleep. But for me the nightmare was just beginning.
The memory of what had happened came back quickly, along with the biting pain that chewed at my legs and arm. I expected to see my parents by the side of my bed, and I knew that something was very, very wrong when I saw a policeman hunched and sleeping in a chair beside my bed instead. For a moment I closed my eyes again, as if I could go back to sleep and dream this all away, but I knew it was no use. Whatever had happened, I had no choice but to face it.
Danny was dead. I think somehow I knew that already. He’d turned the blade of the knife on himself, but only after leaving a trail of destruction behind him that would shatter my life into a thousand pieces.
He’d killed his mother first, before he’d come knocking at my window. Left her body in a pool of blood on their kitchen floor and just walked out into the night. After leaving me at the tree house he’d paid a few more house calls, letting himself in through unlocked doors and passing silently from room to room. Jules and his parents had been visited, as had mine, and each one had received a short sharp slice across the throat in their sleep. No fuss, no screams: the police assured me they hadn’t suffered, but then they always say that, don’t they?
It felt as if my whole world had been stolen away from me, leaving me only with a morass of crippling questions, questions that seemed to sap at my soul every time they entered my head. What had caused Danny to do what he did? What had happened to the sweet, happy go lucky kid who had been my best friend such a short time ago? And why had he escorted me to the tree house before beginning his coldly calculated slaughter in earnest?
I knew that the tree house and the withered corpse entombed there held the answers, but I just couldn’t fit the pieces together in my head in any way that made any sense. The police had retrieved the body, but couldn’t identify it, despite the oddly well-preserved nature of the remains. Cause of death was found to be starvation, and in the man’s stomach they’d found a key to the handcuffs, with a twist of barbed wire wrapped around it, presumably so that it wouldn’t pass through him after he’d swallowed it. As suicides go, it was certainly the most horrific and drawn-out method I had ever heard of. I still can’t imagine how much he must have suffered down there, down in the inky blackness of the bowels of that tree as his life slowly ebbed away from him. But what really keeps me awake at night is the thought of how much worse his life must have been if that was the best way he could find to end it.
They say the storm just melted away after Danny plunged the knife into his own chest. It was while they were clearing away the damage of the storm that his body and the bodies of his victims were found. But I don’t know: I lost track of time completely while I was in the tree house, and my memory of coming out of the shaft again is patchy, but were there blue skies when I emerged from the platform again? Could the storm have ended when I stared into the long-dead eyes of that twisted and dessicated corpse? Was that the same moment that Danny drove the bloody blade into his heart?
There is one thing I’m certain of, though – there was some malignant presence in that tree house, something which passed into Danny and changed him utterly and irrevocably. Maybe it originated with the man whose body I found that night, or maybe he was a victim as well: I don’t know. But when the sky blackens and the rain starts to fall, I never know if the whispers I start to hear in the gathering wind are real or imagined, and I wonder if I’m the lucky survivor everyone tells me I am, or if I might have come back from the tree house with something more than just my life.