“My grandmother’s mom planted that tree, you know.” Herb gestured at the twisting trunk with his mottled hand. His other hand quavered on his his cane. Rae worried that he might fall on the uneven ground. The roots of the tree rippled up out of the earth all around it, like knucklebones poking out of the yard. “Did you know that?”
“Yes, Uncle Herb,” Rae said. She had heard the story many, many times while growing up.
“She lost her first kids,” Herb continued, either ignoring Rae or unable to hear her. Both options seemed equally likely to Rae. “Twins, a boy and a girl. Gram said she buried their bodies right there underneath it.” He scratched his scalp. “Actually she used to say she planted two trees on their grave, one for each of them. But they grew together. Twins, you know? Still close, even after.”
“Yes, Uncle Herb,” Rae said. Her whole body itched. She resisted the urge to scratch. Outside did not appear on her list of favorite places, but here she was, listening to her grandmother’s brother, because a good person should do that.
Herb’s wispy hair floated about his head in a corona of white fuzz. Rae felt no wind, but his hair was so thin and light that the breath of a squirrel in the next yard over could cause it to stir. The leaves of the tree rustled, too. Rae frowned. Perhaps she just hadn’t noticed the breeze.
“It’s a yew,” Uncle Herb continued. “Don’t see many of those around these parts. Don’t know how Gram came across it to plant.”
“I don’t know, Uncle Herb,” Rae said. She wished Loren could be out here, in the sun, listening to an old man say things Rae had heard him say countless times before. Loren liked the outside. Loren had much more patience for the elderly. But Herb was Rae’s uncle, not Loren’s.
“I know your friend is probably going to mess up the yard,” Herb said. Rae turned to look at him. His crusty green eyes focused on her. “Tell her to leave the tree alone.”
Well, that was something new. Rae tilted her head. “Why is that?” The tree had what Loren might call character, with its twisted limbs and a trunk that looked like melted wax, but it was not, in Rae’s eyes, attractive. Plus, its roots would make it hard for Loren to mow, and the branches reached over the house’s northern roof.
“Because,” Herb said. “Just because. Gotta have some respect for my Gram, I guess. Consider my only request for the house.”
Rae shrugged. Herb had decided that he was too old to keep up the house himself, so he was moving into a care facility where, he believed, he would be pampered at all hours of the day. Rae suspected he had some illusions that would soon be dispelled, but she said nothing. Herb had decided to let Rae and her partner, Loren, have the house. The timing worked perfectly. They had just moved back into the state. Living with Rae’s parents became tiresome quickly, especially when they wouldn’t let two married women sleep in a bed together.
In his own way, Herb had been one of Rae’s most accepting family members when she had revealed the true nature of her and Loren’s relationship. The rest of her family, especially Rae’s parents, were overly and bothersomely religious in all the wrong ways. Loren’s family was religious, too, but in the way that promoted acceptance rather than disgust. Rae’s family barely wanted to talk to her at all, except for Uncle Herb. He had some quirks — like only ever referring to Loren as Rae’s friend — but overall, he just didn’t care.
The sound of the back door sliding open called to Rae like sweet music. “Rae, dinner’s ready,” Loren called. Loren rarely cooked. That was part of their deal: Loren did the yard work, because she liked it, and Rae did the cooking, because she didn’t hate it. Loren had offered to make dinner today so that Rae could spend some time talking to her uncle. Rae would have to ask later if Loren was mad at her about something.
“Coming!” Rae waved gratefully. “Let’s go inside, Uncle Herb,” she said. “Loren has dinner ready.”
“Hmph,” Herb said. “I’m always ready for a meal.”
Boxes filled the living room and the bedrooms. Most were Rae and Loren’s, since after dinner Herb was headed to his new home, but a few were things of Herb’s that he had asked them to dispose of. Under these conditions, Rae would have preferred to order out for dinner. Herb, however, had staunchly refused his entire life to eat food that was prepared by someone he didn’t know. Rae had just wanted to send him on his way. Loren had insisted that they treat him to a meal as a way of thanking him for the house, since he wouldn’t accept their money.
Herb poked at his chicken with his fork. “What did you put on this?”
“Herbs,” Loren said. She giggled. “Get it? Herbs for Herb?”
Herb frowned at her as though he didn’t understand. Rae just rolled her eyes.
“You guys are no fun,” Loren complained. She was not a beautiful woman, on the outside. Not like Rae, who cared for her appearance and kept her hair a careful, reflective shade of blonde. Loren was thick around her waist and wore her wood-colored hair in a lazy ponytail. Her most attractive physical feature was her eyes, which were a stunningly pale blue.
Rae didn’t know what Loren saw in her. Loren showed an unmatched kindness to everyone she met. She cared about people and liked to help them. She was intelligent and knew how to get things done around the house. Rae felt useless and bitchy by comparison. Pretty, but useless.
“I marinated the chicken with basil, garlic, and olive oil,” Loren said. “Then I gave it a cranberry glaze.”
“Hmph,” Uncle Herb said. “It’s good.”
“Thank you,” Loren said. “I like cooking, but Rae normally handles it. I don’t get to experiment very often.”
“Well, you do so much else for her,” Herb said. “You’ve gotta let her contribute somehow.”
Loren laughed. Rae blushed. “I help out,” she said.
“Sure, sure,” Herb said. “I know you do. Gotta let an old man have his fun.”
“Yeah, Rae,” Loren chided. “Let people have fun.”
“Thank you again, Uncle Herb, for letting us have the house,” Rae said, ignoring both of them. “It’s so nice not to have to hunt for someplace nice.”
“And your furnishings are lovely,” Loren said, picking up on Rae’s irritation. “We could not be more grateful to you.”
“You’re welcome, girls,” Herb said. “I’d rather see it go to the family, anyway. Someone who’s gonna respect it, you know? The history. Did I ever tell you about the yew tree, Loren?”
“You have,” Loren said patiently. Rae sighed. Herb began to talk about the tree again, and about his Gram and her mother, and what the tree had meant to them. Rae didn’t normally have to sit through the same story twice in one day. She escaped by taking the empty dishes to the kitchen to begin washing them.
“You should be very thankful to your Uncle,” Tiara said. She had her arms folded across her chest defensively. She and Rae watched from the front door as Loren helped Herb into Tiara’s van.
“We are, mom,” Rae said. “We’re adults. We get it.”
“Well, make sure you thank him.” Tiara checked her fingernails. “Send him a letter or something. Old people love letters.”
“Okay, mom,” Rae said. She would rather be talking to Herb again.
Tiara flashed her teeth at her daughter. An unassuming stranger might have labelled the gesture as a smile, but it held far too little warmth for that. “Come say goodbye to your uncle. He’s finally getting out of this house. I don’t know how he lasted so long.”
She put a claw on Rae’s back to usher her down the sidewalk. “What do you mean, you don’t know how he lasted so long?”
“I just mean that things couldn’t have been the same for him after Min died,” Tiara said. “Min did almost everything for him. Like she was his slave.”
“Don’t say things like that.” Rae forced herself to stop despite Tiara’s continued pressure. “Aunt Min loved Uncle Herb.”
“Rachael.” Tiara patted her cheek with her free hand. “Min just wanted to come to the states.”
Rae shrugged her mother’s hand off of her back. She walked swiftly to the van in an attempt to leave her mother behind. Rae had doubts, sometimes, about whether she was a good person. She found comfort in those times by thinking about her mother.
“Goodbye, Uncle Herb,” Rae said. She leaned in to give him a hug. He smelled like dust, cologne, and wet money.
“Bye Rae,” Herb said. “Just for now, though. Loren said you two will come visit me.”
“We will,” Rae promised, though she doubted she ever would. Just the thought of being in an entire building full of old people made her shudder.
Rae and Loren stood in the driveway to wave goodbye as Tiara drove Herb away.
A crash startled Rae and Loren out of their sleep. Rae screamed. “Holy hell. What was that?”
“I don’t know,” Loren said. She was out of bed and standing on her feet. She had moved so quickly Rae hadn’t even registered that she had gotten up. “I think it came from the other bedroom.”
The house actually had four bedrooms upstairs, but Herb had used one as an office and the other as a storage room. Only one other room was currently set up as a bedroom. The one on the northern corner of the house.
Rae looked out of the window. The sky was dark. She didn’t want to look at the time. If the crash turned out to be nothing, she didn’t want to know what time it was. If it was too close to morning, she would have a hard time getting back to sleep.
Loren slid her drawer open. Rae heard the heavy sound of metal shifting against the wood. “Are you getting your gun?” Rae asked.
“Yeah,” Loren said. “I’ve got the heebie jeebies. My skin is just crawling all over.”
Rae hesitated. She hated that Loren had a gun. She slid out of bed anyway. “I’ll go with you to check it out,” she said. “I don’t want to be alone in here. But don’t shoot me.”
“I’m surprised you don’t want to stay here under the covers,” Loren said. She stepped lightly toward the door.
“I feel safer with you,” Rae said. Together, they tiptoed out into the hallway. Nothing. The door to the other bedroom was closed.
The floor creaked as they padded down the hallway. The house didn’t look old, because Min had convinced Herb to refurbish the whole thing, before she had died. Still, it had old bones. Rae cursed them and their noisiness.
With one hand holding her pistol, Loren slowly opened the bedroom door. Rae couldn’t see past her into the room. Then Loren jumped. “Shit.”
Rae’s heart, already beating hard, seemed to vibrate in her chest. “What? What is it?”
Loren swung the door open wide. Rae squeaked. A black shape, writhing in the darkness, lay against one of the walls. Parts of it reached onto the bed. Loren snapped the light on. “Ah!” Rae said, shutting her eyes. “You could have warned me. You know your eyes adjust faster than mine.”
“Relax, it’s just a… Oh,” Loren said. “Holy shit. Maybe don’t relax.”
“What are you talking about?” Rae blinked, trying to adjust her eyes. She brought one hand up over her face so that she could squint between her fingers until her eyes adjusted.
“I was going to say it’s just a tree branch,” Loren said. “It looks like it broke off and fell through the window.”
Rae could see it now. Dark wood and needles growing from it had, in the dark, given the illusion of something animate. “Great. Now we need to fix the window.”
“Yeah, and clean this up,” Loren said. “Where the hell did this come from?”
Rae pulled her hand down from her face, her eyes finally adjusted enough so that she needed only to squint. Running down the wall behind the branch, and along its gnarled surface, was blood.