Wright woke on that mild Mississippi winter morning to the early alarm
that he had set on his cell phone. Outside his window everything
on his father’s property was still wet from the long thunder storm the
night before. Lightning had flashed bright enough to keep him
awake until nearly two in the morning and even if it hadn’t the thunder
was loud enough to rattle the windows of the old house for the duration
of the storm.
The thunder and lightning had reminded him of a war long ago, a war he had been part of. Lucas looked at his cell phone … January 18 … twenty years ago to this day he had been sitting on the hood of a HumVee watching the bombers stream north and wishing he had a cold Coke. That had been Operation Desert Shield which quickly became Operation Desert Storm. Now, twenty years later, he was in the bed that he had grown up in, in his childhood home thinking about the storm from the night before.
Life was funny like that; twenty years gone in the blink of an eye.
One particular crack of thunder had sounded like it was right outside his bedroom window and had rattled nearly everything that could rattle in the house, that particularly distinct clap of thunder taking many long seconds to roll off into the distance. The storm had been impressive, not just the thunder and the lightning but the rainfall itself. When Lucas did finally fall asleep his dreams were vivid involving his father and his youth but his sleep was deep and fretful.
Some storm, he thought, coming slowly awake. He hadn’t seen a storm like that in a long time, years in fact. The thunder storm had lasted for hours, had knocked the electricity out over a wide area and disrupted the cellular towers in the area, proof of that was the fact that Lucas’ woke to a lamp switch that didn’t work and his cell phone couldn’t access the Internet or his email. In fact, his cellular phone was showing no signal strength at all.
His business partner could handle the work load while he was out and Lucas had planned to be out of the office for three weeks, maybe even four which was strange since Lucas couldn’t remember the last time that he’d even missed a day of work. When you were in business for yourself work tended to become your life and when you were single the only person you had to answer to, let alone include in any plans that you made was, of course, yourself.
After a dimly lit hot shower, thanks to the gas fired water heater and some old hurricane candles he found in a drawer in the kitchen, Lucas had dressed in old blue jeans, a long sleeve tan button-up and his hiking boots with the full intent of walking his father’s property again, today, starting with the east field and working his way back around the big pond on the south side. As a child, an only child, Lucas had loved to play in the east field; a hundred and twenty-five acres of grass covered rolls, woodlands and wetlands. His father hadn’t done very much with this land but he’d held onto it until the very end.
Long walks in these rolling grassy fields with his father on those late summer afternoons when the day seemed to last forever and the sunsets were something worth waiting all day long for, that was how Lucas liked to remember his father … not the twisted, half senile caricature of his former self that Lucas had spent the better part of his past week beside a hospital bed with.
Lucas had been there at the inevitable end, had been there for days before the end, driving down from Boston to be with his dying father … and was still here, now, after his father’s death. His father had been a strong man, tall, stout, and eighty-three years young … an ex-Marine with medal earning tours in Korea and ‘Nam but the leukemia had taken almost everything from his father including his stalwart spirit. His father had fought the Leukemia all the way up to the very end because that was just how his father was and in doing so his father had wasted away right before Lucas’ eyes.
The chemo, it seemed, had just angered the leukemia, made the cancer bitter and spiteful. As soon as the leukemia was forced to retreat from one part of his father’s body it quickly spread to two other parts with a vengeance. There at the end his father was reduced to nothing more than a pale shadow of the powerful, quiet man that Lucas had remembered and now all that Lucas had left of his father was a funeral urn of ashes, his memory … and the family homestead in rural Marion County on the outskirts of Columbia, Mississippi.
The legal matters could wait until Monday, he thought. The storm had knocked power out over such a large area including the nearby city of Columbia that he doubted if anyone else in the area was ready to do business by flashlight, candlelight or sunlight. No, most people were probably cleaning up their yards, checking their roofs and calling their insurance agents who were probably going to be the busiest people working today.
Lucas needed two things right then; breakfast and a long morning walk to clear his head of the vivid, rapid fire dreams that he had endured the night before … dreams that were still knife edge sharp in his memory. Breakfast was easy since the stove and water heaters ran on natural gas fed in from a large rusty tank behind the house. After cleaning up he stepped out on the front porch to get some fresh air … the memories of his dreams still busy in his mind. Lucas felt confined then and whenever he had felt confined as a child he had left the house and hit the woods to both lose his self and find his self at the same time.
So, it was that morning, after the terrible storm, that Lucas set off walking across his father’s property, past the twisted rusty barbed wire fence with its ancient gnarled posts leaning this way and that, out the rusty cattle gate and into the rolling grass covered fields east of his childhood home. His head full of memories and struggling with the residual grief that his father’s loss still held over him, Lucas walked the rolling fields, hands in his black leather jacket’s pockets, silver concho banded black cowboy hat tilted slightly down to block the bright sun rising in the cloudless sky to the east … Lucas was lost in his thoughts and paying no attention other than to what effort it took to put one foot in front of the other in a direction he felt like walking; his body was on automatic while his mind was on rewind.
The rolling hills seemed to be steeper than he remembered or maybe it was the fact that it had been a long time since he’d walked more than a few hundred feet on anything other than a flat, prepared surface. That was city life for you, he thought … the concrete jungle. Comfort, his father had once told him, was a corrosive that slowly ate away at discipline. His father had lived a Spartan life but in that regimented, disciplined life his father had been happy and he had managed to pass a lot of that discipline on to his son in the kind of way that was eventually appreciated rather than regretted.
Lucas stopped at the wide, flat top of the big rolling hill, the really big hill almost in the center of the east field, the hill top that he had always liked to sit down on as a child and watch the sunset, watch the late day clouds race by as they were colored in tints and hues that ranged from orange to purple and pink. From here he could see his father’s house almost half a mile away, back where he had come. When he was younger, he could have covered that distance in almost no time, especially at supper. Now, at the age of forty-one, it might take just a little bit longer, he mused.
The house looked so lonely now … so empty. It was like the property itself could sense the passing of Lucas’ father and was itself grieving in some way. The gardens had lost their gardener. The birds had lost the man who had fed them seed in their feeders all year long, who had put fresh water in their bath basins, and built, by hand, one at a time in his workshop out back, the many painted and colorful bird houses that hung from the trees and poles around the old home.
Lucas stood there, under the shadow of the large oak tree, looking back at his father’s home. He didn’t know how long he had stood there, staring at his father’s home, lost in his childhood memories before something at the back of his mind jarred him back to the here and now.
He turned and realized where he was … where he should be and where he wasn’t. Lucas stood under the dark branches of a large oak tree, bigger round than he could possibly hope to reach his arms. Rays of early morning sunlight streaming through the branches tried to take him back to his childhood but there was this nagging feeling that something was wrong. Lucas raised his head and looked up at the great oak tree.
Lucas took a few involuntary steps back, looked at the oak tree and the flat hill top that it sat on and it was then that he realized what had been nagging at him during his reminiscing. All the times that he had sat here on this hill top, this very hill top, as a child daydreaming or watching the sunset or looking back at his home … all that time this hill top had been bare.
Flat and bare.
Lucas took another few slow steps backwards, looking up at the thick foliage of the old oak tree. The tree was ancient yet something about it … something about it just wasn’t right. For one thing, it shouldn’t be here. There was no way that a tree this size, this old could be here now, today. The tree looked older than Lucas, older even than his father … If it had been here as long as it looked like it had been here then Lucas would have remembered it. Hell, he would have climbed a tree like this for an even better view of the sunsets that he so cherished in his childhood memories. One of the long branches would have been perfect for a tire swing and his father had always kept plenty of hemp rope and a few old tires in the big shed behind the house … that and a dozen barn cats.
Lucas shook his head and looked around the rolling hills of the big field … bare until the thick wooded tree line began at the edge of the field and the field had been cleared long before Lucas’ father had purchased the property back in the ‘50’s when he came back from Korea. Lucas took another involuntary step backwards, stared up at the oak tree and then looked back around the big field again. The oak tree was the only tree in the field and it was sitting right on top of the flattest spot of the field.
That was strange. Lucas didn’t remember the tree at all and that’s what bothered him the most. How could he have forgotten a tree like that?
The tree was silent; no rain drops fell from the leaves on the tree.
The bark looked dry.
Lucas reached out and touched the bark.
The bark felt cold when it shouldn’t feel cold.
The bark felt smooth when it didn’t look smooth and shouldn’t feel smooth. The bark felt almost metallic, like sliding your finger along the new barrel of an M2HB fifty caliber Browning heavy machine gun.
The bark felt dry when it shouldn’t be dry, not after the terrific storm and driving rain that had blown through the area last night.
That was odd and … spooky.
And then there was the smell … or the lack of smell. No, it wasn’t the lack of smell it was the lack of the right smell … that was another thing that was bothering Lucas about the great oak tree. As a child who liked to wander far and wide on his father’s property for hours on end Lucas had been caught in enough rain storms while in the woods to know what big trees smelled like after a storm. There should be the heavy scent of wet leaves, damp foliage and rain soaked bark but instead there was the only the very faint smell of ozone and … burnt popcorn or burnt paint … something like it that wasn’t exactly burnt popcorn or burnt paint in some trace amount that it was barely there at all, just enough to tickle his nose at the very edge of his sense of smell.
That was just enough to tell him that not only should the great oak tree not be here in the first place but it was wrong as well. Lucas squatted on his boot heels there in the shadow of the great oak tree. He thought over how the great oak tree could have come to be here when it just didn’t make any sense that it could be here.
The great oak tree shouldn’t be here.
The great oak tree couldn’t be here.
“What are you doing here?” he asked the great oak tree, a whisper, rubbing his chin in thought.
“Hiding.” The great oak tree said.
And that was when Lucas Wright’s life got really interesting …