Ivy brought her shoulders up to ward off the chill scratching at her skin as dead leaves scuttled across her boots. She shoved her hands into the pockets of the jacket, balancing the notebook under her arm. Something hard and cold lay in the bottom of her right pocket.
Bringing it out, she studied the tiny, brass key in her palm. How had it ended up in Joe’s jacket?
One thing for certain, there was no time for this now. Tilly was missing.
A bark echoed through the trees. Ivy trained her ears to the sound. It came from the direction of the river.
Ivy quickened her pace to where the path slanted down to meet the river’s edge and sure enough, there was Tilly, doing a perfect downward-dog at the base of a fallen basswood. Not any basswood. That one.
The basswood lay in quiet repose like a corpse at the river’s edge. The remnant had been the only thing marring the beauty of this stretch of river.
For as long as Ivy had been wandering these woods, the tree had been upright along the shore, albeit a sad, ugly sight. No top, just a trunk, probably eight to ten feet tall. The top had blown off many years ago leaving the trunk. It listed to the south like a crude sundial. As a child, Ivy had tried to climb it a few times, but had no luck. The bark too slick, the angle too steep. Helen said she couldn’t remember the tree ever having a top.
Helen said to stay away.
But the trunk fascinated Ivy, not so much for the terrible event that stole it’s top, but for the carving on the north side. A crudely carved heart with initials inside. R & B. These days, soft, green moss covered most of it.
Helen said she didn’t know a thing about the carving and again, she said with a fierceness Ivy rarely saw, to stay away. When pressed, Helen said she didn’t know who the initials referred to, but worried the trunk might fall and hurt whomever was near.
Despite Helen’s warnings, Ivy often thought of cutting it down to improve the view, but seeing it lying before her now, she was relieved. Mother Nature had saved her the trouble. The tree would now serve as a welcome seat when visiting.
Tilly’s bark took on an urgency. Could it be a mouse or a squirrel teasing the dog for a chase?
“There you are,” Ivy said to Tilly. Ivy took a seat upon the log. It felt good to sit and the trunk was sturdy enough, the bark not too uncomfortable. She opened the notebook, folded back a few pages, and pulled out a pen stuck in the binding.
Tilly continued to bark.
“Shush, Till” Ivy admonished, but the dog didn’t stop.
Tilly, at the base of the fallen basswood, retreated and advanced, back and forth, several times, teeth bared, the rumble of a growl deep in her throat, a line of fur standing along her back.
“Hey, buddy.” Ivy set the notebook and pen aside, pushed up and went to the base of the trunk.
No critters in sight. But a boot. A man’s boot.
Intuition snaked up her spine, slithering, pressing.
It was really nothing more than a simple brown leather work boot, like that of a farmer or a lumberjack, devoid of laces, the leather badly deteriorated, sitting in the detritus of what was once the hard, wooden center of the tree. The sole still clearly evident and whomever it belonged to, wore them long enough to wear off most of the makers stamp on the bottom. Whatever stitching had held the boot together was nonexistent. In fact the form of the boot was now held together simply by the dark, rotting matter around it.
How in the world could a boot end up here? Any sense of the scene before her was not forthcoming.
A fat, meaty worm slithered from an opening in the back seam.
Tilly jumped into the air, barking wildly.
Ivy took a stick from among the leaves and poked at the sole, trying to move it to the side. As she did so, the seam separated and the boot came apart revealing bones caked with dirt and rot. A perfect skeletal foot, attached to a leg bone that disappeared into the rotted wood. The toes still hidden in the bottom of the boot.
“Oh my God!” Ivy’s stomach lurched. Her chest tightened. She gasped for air.
Ivy eyes darted here and there. Surely this couldn’t be real. But who would play such a terrible prank way back here? The culprit knew the tree was hollow. But how could they?
She took a step back, a hand over her mouth. She’d scream if she could get that much air into her lungs.
Her heart banged in terror. Frantically searching her pockets for her cell, she then remembered it was left on the cupboard.
Taking a step back, then another, she turned to run for home, but one boot caught the other and she went down hard, her head hitting the ground with enough force to produce white fireworks. She squeezed her eyes closed. This had to be a nightmare, but upon opening her eyes, it was not.
She blinked once and focused. She lay eye-level with the carving, barely visible, directly in front of her. What kind of person stuffs a body in a tree and marks it with a heart and initials?
Ivy scrambled in the leaves and grass and dirt to find her footing. Tears washed her face and she wiped at them with soiled hands.
“Joe!” she called knowing full well that he was nowhere near.
Stumbling over a fallen branch she caught herself on the thick trunk of an evergreen. A sharp point pierced the palm of her hand. If there was pain, she didn’t feel it, only saw the red stain.
She needed Joe and began to run.
Tilly matched her stride for stride as they fled across the field. Ivy moving like a disjointed rag doll, arms flailing, legs scissoring to their limits, lungs working to capacity as the ghosts of the past snapped at her heels.