He stood out under what they called the Lantern Tree. The arboreal meeting place had become what it was, because it was a lone standing thing, in the middle of the commons, and it was the only one that had pink leaves. No one knew why the tree had pink leaves. They weren’t pink blossoms, but actual leaves and they lasted year-round, winter or summer, frost or drought. The tree was vital, and beautiful. It gave hope to the boys and girls at the hospital home for the socially and reality challenged.
They – the boys and girls here – had strung lights through the Lantern Tree. And, oddly enough, they had hung lanterns on it, of all shapes and sizes. They had been hung from strings, and some were made of paper, others from oddments or cans. And they were hung as messages and beacons, or even as prayers and wishes for something new. All new things were represented. New life, new hope, new love, new friendships, new beginnings.
Denali was always there, frequently hanging a new lantern, every day. It didn’t matter if it was his time to be out in the yard. He always seemed to find a way to get out of his room, even when the orderlies were sure that he had been sedated, restrained, searched and helpless. There was no way to get out of his locked quarters, everyone agreed. And yet, Denali was special, and everyone knew it at the care center. And he escaped at will. It baffled everyone. So the powers at the center decided it must be someone sympathetic on the staff that was aiding the young man to let him out. It had to be. Just, even with cameras and spies and all manner of surveillance, they couldn’t catch how he did it. It was like he could walk through walls. Or had some magical power.
So eventually, they gave up watching him. Mostly.
In truth, Denali was a clever young man, nearly 20 years of age, but when you looked into his different colored eyes, the right being green, the left one being blue, you got this sense that he was seeing the world differently – and part of that was because he was different himself.
He was technically mad. The clinical term .. well who knows what that really means – psychotic break? Psychosis? Psychoses. He wasn’t playing with a full bag of marbles. That was the learned physicians’ concurrence. Nutty as a fruitcake. It was mostly because he spoke like he was seeing a different world, most assuredly differently than the learned colleagues with many letters and abbreviations after their names didn’t understand the world they lived in, other than what their limited 5 senses could detect. Denali was seeing the world with 6 or more different senses.
At least, that’s what Theodore believed, as he observed from a distance. Theodore was the head nurse at the care facility. He was also privately part of a community of believers in the strange, the occult, and/or the supernatural.
Theo himself had the blood of the elves flowing in his veins, so his grandmother had told him. He was one quarter elf, though he had not been gifted with the points on his ears. He was slender, but toned and athletic, he had an uncanny sense of balance and grace of movement. He had been the star of his track team, outrunning just about anyone that challenged him. He was also quite handsome, almost beautiful. That had gotten him picked on many times by certain members of the jock crowd, despite his athletic prowess. He had long, golden hair that flowed halfway down his back, and was fine as golden thread. He wore it pulled into a ponytail. He had emerald green eyes and with skin that would tan lightly but never seem to burn. And he wasn’t really that tall, maybe just a few inches under six feet. He wore glasses, but didn’t need them – he wanted people to believe he did though. But really, they were just an affectation.
He was wearing his blue scrubs, as he stood outside, in his blue trainers, the ones with the crossed-swooshes on them. He was being inconspicuous as he observed what Denali was doing. Theo was feigning reading something on his tablet, the glow of the screen gently lighting his face, as he glanced up watching the young man.
Denali was just standing there, his back against the tree, his long brown hair pulled back from his face, the long coils of his mane draped over one shoulder and the bangs framing his pale and pretty featured face. He had snakebites in his lips, and he his unusually long and pointed nails, painted gold, were clawlike. They disturbed Theo a bit, and he wondered whether they would break off, or if they were actually functional as claws.
Denali was wearing a short sleeved white shirt over a pink T underneath. Black pants covered his legs, and he was barefoot. He had 3 bands on his pale wrist, each color coded to represent a different kind of treatment or patient requirement.. Red, Green, and Purple. Denali had scribbled out something on the red band with a black magic marker.
Theo could see that the young man was talking to someone. However, there was no one up there. Was Denali talking to the tree? Theo did understand that Denali could see things that most others couldn’t, just as he, with his elven heritage, could sense things that most others couldn’t. He wondered if Denali were a seer perhaps? Or maybe the young man was of one of the other races, like himself.
He wondered. Maybe it was time to approach. After all, it was only a matter of time before one of the other nurses or orderlies checked Denali’s room and would find he was missing. If that happened, the alarm would go up. And he didn’t want to see Denali injected with enough drugs to tranquilize an elephant, like usually happened.
Theo put his book into a pocket in the back of his scrubs, and started a slow walk along the little bricked path to the tree. The brick path changed to flat stones and then to just a little dirt trail as it approached the tree. He felt the change of the smooth stones to the grit of the soil through his thin trainers. They were more for traction on the sometimes slick/ smooth flooring when it got wet, than for any kind of athletic support. But they were fine for this. He could feel the bones of the earth through his feet.
As he approached, Denali shook his long, lush, brown mane, as if denying something. “No No NO! I won’t do it.. I won’t! You have to stay where you are!”
Theo slowed his approach and stood at the very edge of the border between the surrounding meadow and the shade that the pink-leaved tree was casting on the ground. “Ummm Hey .. Denali.. Who.. or what.. Are you arguing with? Can I help?”
The young man’s eyes seemed to be focused elsewhere; at a point to the left of where Theo was standing, by about 4 feet or so. But when Theo spoke, Denali’s strange and different colored eyes changed their focus and shifted to look at the young nurse. “I.. well, you won’t believe me if I told you who or what it was speaking to.. So I’m not going to.. “
“You’re not going to bother?” Theo repeated and finished the thought for the young patient. “You can always try me. Afterall, I have some elven blood in me. You don’t hear anyone in the staff making that kind of claim, do you?”
“More like half blood. You didn’t know that you had more elven heritage in you by other parts of your family. I can see that, you know. “ Denali’s pronouncement was matter of fact, and he had a wry smile on his lips.
Theo didn’t know what to say for a moment, but once he regained his voice, he said, “That’s rather interesting of you to say. So. You can see things others can’t. So can I, but in a different way. So.. tell me, please?”
Denali considered Theo for a moment, and tapped one of those taloned fingers against his lip, tilting his head to the side, getting another look at the elf-blooded boy. “Ok, well, I am speaking to a spirit of a long dead magician. He wants me to act as a conduit to take over one of the patients that’s in the house now. He says they are related by blood.“
Theo frowned and cast a glance to the side, to where Denali had been gazing. “So this ..shade? Or dark spirit – he wants you to be his medium, and help him possess someone? I’m really glad you said no!”
Denali huffed and pushed off the tree, but something happened when he did. Theo watched in, at first, amazement, then in horror, as five of the limbs and branches and twigs of the tree seemed to take on the aspect of arms and hands and reached out for, and grabbed ahold of, Denali.
Theo gaped, and he rushed forward to help the young man, but found that additional limbs and branches now reached and grabbed for him as well. Theo felt the rough wooden appendages whip around his legs like vines and gripping hands, restraining hin at the wrists and ankles, waist and neck.
Denali was having the same difficulties, and was gasping as the tree’s fingerlike twigs and vines snaked through his lush mane of brown. It seemed to be making either a knot or a fist in his hair, yanking the boy’s head back.
Theo shouted out and Denali seemed strangely quiet, but was gasping for breath as the vines snaked around his throat, and constricted. What he did gasp out was, “I.. will not be coerced. If you kill me.. You get nothing.”
The trunk of the tree made strange crackling noises, as bark and wood on the side of the tree seemed to flow, ripple, twist and contort into what seemed like a grim visage, that of a horrid arboreal face. Something had corrupted the tree, and the pink leaves that wreathed the tree cast red shadows on those underneath, as if the sunlight filtering through were shining through blood.
As the face formed, there was an odd indrawing of air around the tree, and a rustling of all of its now more crimson leaves, and then gnarled eyes opened – wooden-knotted and rheumy. And then old knotholes reformed into what looked like nasal passages on a skull, and then a mouth with fat, snarling lips. A strange, raspy voice, like it was made by a damaged oboe, sounded out what Theo could barely make out as words. “Then I kill your companion, if you do not comply.”
Denali shook his head, or tried to, but the invading twigs and branches and vines held his head so all he could do was twitch a bit side to side. His hair was being pulled back so hard, it was actually pulling his hair severely and stretching the skin of his face. Denali grimaced at the pain, but snarled out, “Then we both will die, and you get to exist in your deathly state for another thousand years, with no passage to the land of the living.”
The tree seemed to narrow its wooden eyes for a moment, and hissed out a foul-smelling breath of dank earth, and mold-ridden moss. “But then I have no incentive to let you go, either. Your blood will nourish and strengthen this tree, and my connection to it. And more shall come under my sway, and add more bodies to the count. Do you want that on your conscious, medium?”
Theo had an arm free, and he gripped hold of the pendant that was around his neck – the silver one that was a gift from his grandfather. His fingers gripped it so tight that he was almost afraid it would cut into his fingers, but he didn’t really care if it did or not. He put it to his gasping lips and kissed it, “Help .. me.. Spirit of .. the stars!“ he gasped out as the vines tightened on his throat, and the limb of the tree seemed to be trying to probe and snake their way into his clothing, and his nose.
Denali bit the invading vines and twigs and spit out their sappy and gnarled ends. Apparently, his teeth were surprisingly sharp and hard. The tree shrieked a harsh note in its woodwind sounding voice. “You.. will.. Pay…”
Theo felt a welling up of something in his hands, as the vines and branches seized his arms and started trying to pull his arms from his sockets – the little charm of the great eagle he held, the one with the figure of an elven hero standing tall on its spread winged back, upholding a sword – the little figurine seemed to sparkle, and a star began to glow from the tip of the figurine’s sword.
The little elf hero winked up at Theo and waved his sword back and forth, the little starlight growing and growing, until it was a white hot diamond shaped thing of cosmic fire. It flung the growing mote at the face of the tree, and the diamond shard grew quickly to that of a massive sized ball of blue-white flame that struck the tree face and a howl of agony shrieked out of the arboreal entity.
The explosion sent a wash of heat through the tree that instantly flash-dried the leaves and the twigs and limbs and vines holding the two young men suddenly became lifeless, and more importantly, brittle.
Denali smiled and was the first to break free, and then yanked and ripped at the remaining grasping fingerlike and rope-like vines and branches from Theo. The little figurine was inert once more, and Theo simply clutched it to his chest, still disbelieving what had just happened, regardless of what he knew he should believe.
The two stumbled and shambled away from the now dead possessed tree, and Theo gasped for breath, his throat raw from the abuse the tree had inflicted upon him.. No.. not the tree.. The spirit that had possessed that poor pink-leaved plant. He spat out bark and bits of twig, and looked over at Denali, who was as bedraggled and overwrought as he himself must look. “What.. the hell was that. “
Denali shrugged and smiled. “Just another day in the life of a boy. I’m thirsty and I need a shower. Do you want to come help me with either or both?”
Theo blinked incredulously, but fell into step beside Denali, placing a companionable hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You know, sometimes you really are crazy, you know that? “
“It’s the only way to be, Theo. It’s the only way to be.”
Story by: Dehrynn Shepherd
Hair- TRUTH – Deja (Store)
Tree- DRD – Garden Party – Big Tree Decorated – RARE (Store)