“Where did that come from?” Rae whispered, too chilled to scream.
“I don’t know,” Loren said. “There’s not as much as I thought, at first.”
“It sure looks like a lot,” Rae said. She refused to pass the border into the room. Loren, however, approached the branch.
“No, it’s just the way it dripped,” Loren said. She shifted the branch tentatively with the barrel of her gun. “I wonder where it came from. There’s not a body of anything around.”
“Check under the bed,” Rae said. “Maybe there’s like, a squirrel or something under there.”
The bed was unmade. Loren bent at the waist to see beneath it. “There’s nothing. Just some needles from the branch.” Loren shifted the branch slightly so that she could see under it. “There’s nothing here, either. And I don’t see any fur or feathers or anything on the window glass.
“This is creepy,” Rae said. “Do you think it’s a hate crime or something?”
“What? No,” Loren said. “A branch fell off of the tree. That just happens sometimes.”
“But it’s not even stormy, or windy,” Rae said. She hugged herself. The room felt chilly, even though all day she had been too warm.
“I bet some kind of animal was on the branch, and it was on the verge of cracking,” Loren theorized. “The branch broke, the animal cut itself on the window and went outside rather than in. Maybe tomorrow morning we’ll find a dead raccoon or something on the ground outside.”
Loren set her pistol on the bed. She lifted the branch, carefully avoiding the bloody spots, and pushed it out of the broken window into the yard. “I’m going to clean up this glass,” she said. “I don’t want to leave it until morning.” She smiled at Rae. “You can go back to sleep. I know you have to be at work early.”
“Are you sure?” Rae said. Loren’s proposition sounded ideal, but out of decency, Rae had to pretend that she felt bad about not helping.
“I’m sure,” Loren said. “Get some sleep. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Rae said.
Rae awoke grumpy and grumbling in the morning. Loren did not stir either to Rae’s phone alarm or her groggy stumbling as she bounced off the wall and the dresser in the dim, unfamiliar space. Rae’s clothes were first thing she’d made sure to unpack, so that she would have them ready for work this morning. She grabbed an outfit out of the closet.
On the way to the bathroom, Rae peeked into the guest room just to check on it. The blood was no longer visible, and the glass was gone. Loren had taped an unfolded cardboard box over the hole left in the window. Rae smiled. Without Loren, she didn’t know how she would continue to get through life.
Loren met Rae at the door when she returned home. Even before she saw the furrow of Loren’s brow, Rae knew something was not right. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I want to show you something,” Loren said. “Don’t be too worried. It’s just weird.”
“Um, okay,” Rae said. Loren knew that telling her not to worry was one of the best ways to make sure she did.
She let Loren lead her down the stairs into the basement. It was a new addition to the house, added when Min had insisted upon remodeling. It extended only under the southern half of the house. Beneath the northern half, there was only a crawlspace.
Loren opened the door to the crawlspace. She grabbed a flashlight she had set on the ground next to the door. “Look,” she said, gesturing into the darkness with the beam of light.
“What am I supposed to see?” Rae asked as she crouched down to where she could look it. It was a pointless question, born of Rae’s impatience with the scenario. When she actually looked, she saw.
The crawlspace was full of gnarled, knotted roots. They twisted through the space, exposed to the air like a writhing nest of snakes had been frozen in place. Thin roots extended out from thicker ones. They cascaded forward from the far end of the the darkness. Each pierced the exposed earth of the bottom of the crawlspace, save one, which seemed almost to be reaching toward them.
The end of that closet root had been broken off. Viscous red fluid dripped from it onto the raw earth. “Oh my god,” Rae said.
“I know,” Loren said. “We won’t be able to use space for storage until we take these roots out. We should probably get rid of that tree.”
“Wait, that’s your takeaway from this?” Rae asked, surprised. “Not ‘holy hell, there’s blood coming from that tree?’”
“Oh, I forgot that I never texted you,” Loren said. “It’s not blood, it’s sap. The stuff we thought was blood on the branch last night was sap, too. It just happens to be red.”
“Are you sure?” Rae rose , not wanting to look at those roots any longer than she had to. “That doesn’t sound real.”
“I’m sure,” Loren assured her. “I realized it when I went to clean up the branch I shoved out of the window yesterday. Then I looked it up online to make sure. It was harder to find much, for some reason, but I think some varieties of yew have red sap.”
“Well, I know,” Loren said. “Because this one does. I just broke that root off to make sure. Also, it was pushing on the door.”
“Does sap usually come out of broken roots, though?” Rae asked. She knew little about trees, but that didn’t seem to conform to her memories.
Loren shrugged. “Sometimes, maybe. I’m not sure.” She smiled at Rae. “Look, it’s just a tree. No need to be worried. We’ll just hire someone to cut it down, and then we won’t have to worry about it anymore.”
“We can’t cut it down,” Rae said. She found herself surprised to care. “Uncle Herb said that was the only stipulation he had about us taking the house. We have to leave the tree.”
“You know I’m normally with you on this sort of thing,” Loren said. “I love trees, and I hate when people cut them down for no reason. I absolutely would like to respect Herb’s wishes. But the tree is a danger to the house. The roots are going to undermine the foundation, if they’re growing like this. If they haven’t already. And we can’t risk having a tree grow over the house like it is now. We already have to fix a window, when it wasn’t even storming.”
“Okay, I get all that,” Rae said. “But…” She didn’t really have the energy to argue, not when she didn’t really care much about Herb’s wishes in the first place. Still, something drove her forward. “It’s sort of a part of the family history, you know? With that story about the twins.”
“I know,” Loren said. “Trust me, I’ve heard the story a few time. It’s just that sometimes, we have to put the present ahead of the past.”
Rae sighed. “I don’t even really care about this,” she said. “I guess I’ve just heard him tell that story so many times that it makes me a bit sad thinking about the tree being gone.”
“I understand,” Loren said. She gave Rae a quick hug. “I promise I won’t make you help clean it up.”
“That’s not part of the problem,” Rae said. She turned, moving into the basement proper. “I know you wouldn’t make me help anyway. I just, I guess it’s a bit eerie, you know?”
“Oh?” Loren asked. “Why’s that? I know it looks like blood, but sometimes things are just red, Rae.”
“It’s not just that,” Rae said. “I just got a weird vibe from Uncle Herb. When he made us promise not to bother the tree.”
Loren shrugged. “It’s just a tree, Rae. I’m sure it will be fine.”
“What if we just trimmed it?” Rae said. “What if we just took all of the branches off of the side that comes over the house? Then we don’t have to worry about anything falling on the house.”
Loren bit her lip as she considered. “Well, sure. We could do that. Then if the whole tree falls, at least it’s more likely to fall away from the house.” She led Rae upstairs. “I can probably do that part myself, then. We won’t have to hire a tree service.”
“Perfect,” Rae said. She felt an odd sense of relief that the yew would remain alive. “Let’s do that.”
When Rae returned from work the next day, Loren had cleared most of the roots from the crawlspace. It had taken her all day, half-crouched in the small space, cutting away at the tough roots with the pruner. Her clothes and body were stained by dirt and the red fluid that she insisted was sap, which Rae still doubted. Rae made her shower before she would give Loren even a peck on the cheek.
With Loren in the shower, Rae decided to use the half bathroom off of the kitchen. Regretfully, she left her phone sitting on the bathroom counter, leaving her with no entertainment. She stared at the wall instead. Is this what people did before cell phones? Her close observation revealed that the wall was uneven. In one spot, an odd bulge marred the flat expanse. If plaster could stretch, this part of the wall had done so. Rae blinked. It looked almost as though the paint was cracking.
Rae reached out to touch the bulge in the wall. At her touch the paint, the plaster, the wall cracked away and fell to the ground. Something jutted outward from within. Rae screamed, pulling her hand back as though she had been burned. She yanked her pants partially up and scuttled away from the the toilet. Then she realized what protruded from the wall.
This bathroom sat against the northernmost wall of the house. That meant that, on the other side of the wall from Rae, only feet away, that tree was growing. The one that had broken the window to the bedroom, which had filled their crawl space with roots, which had now, somehow, insinuated a part of itself within the wall.
Rae pulled her pants up the rest of the way and ran upstairs. She entered the bathroom without knocking. Loren still stood within the shower.
“Rae, that had better be you.” Loren pulled the shower curtain aside so that she could peek out. Soap suds nested within her hair. “What are you doing?”
Rae slammed the door behind her. “That tree is messed up,” she said. “Like, what the fuck. I thought Uncle Herb was just being weird and sentimental, but now I think he was trying to warn us.”
“Warn us?” Loren asked. “I don’t… What are you talking about?”
“The tree is in the house, Loren,” Rae hissed. “I was peeing just now and I was staring at the wall because I forgot my phone, and there was this bulge in the wall, and a root came out of it.”
“A root came out of the wall,” Rae repeated, exasperated. “Of the bathroom. It just popped right out.”
Loren gaped. “Okay. Um, just… Wait here. I’m going to finish washing the soap off, okay?”
Rae nodded. She leaned against the counter, heart racing. She took a deep breath. Suddenly, she felt like a fool. Like Loren had said earlier, a tree is just a tree. Uncle Herb had told her the story about the twins being buried under the tree time and time again, and maybe that was a bit creepy, but people just did that. She had friends who had buried their placentas under trees. Besides, Herb had never said anything about any weird stuff happening with the tree. Had he? No.
Though he had explicitly warned them to leave the tree alone.
Loren reached out of the shower to grab a towel. She dried swiftly, then wrapped it around herself. Her wet hair draped in strings over her shoulders. “Are you alright? You seem shaken up.”
Rae huffed. “Wouldn’t you be? It’s just weird, isn’t it? A root just springing out of the wall?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Loren said. “But you did say you touched it.”
“Barely!” Rae threw up her hands. “Just come look at it. See what you think.”
Rae led Loren down to the bathroom. She stood to the side to let Loren enter the small room. She didn’t want to go back in there just now.
“That’s definitely one of the roots, just like the ones I cut,” Loren said. She shrugged. “I mean, I’ve never seen anything like this, but it doesn’t seem impossible. This wall is right over the root system. The crawlspace is right underneath here. It kinda makes sense.”
“There’s no dirt in the wall,” Rae said.
“I don’t know, Rae,” Loren said. “Things grow in weird ways.”
“Not that weird,” Rae grumbled.
“Look, Rae, I’ll say it again,” Loren said. “It’s just a tree. I don’t understand why you’re so uncomfortable. It’s a very old tree that’s been growing next to this very old house for many, many years.”
“Yeah, but Uncle Herb’s grandmother planted it over the bodies of her dead babies.” Rae pointed at the wall, beyond which the tree grew. “That’s not normal.”
Loren rolled her eyes. “You always say you don’t believe in any of that supernatural stuff, but you’re the first one that gets afraid where there’s a bump in the night.”
“Ugh!” Rae exclaimed. “This is more than a bump.”
“No,” Loren said. “You’re just letting a little bit of fear spiral out of control and take you over. You’re letting it carry you away.”
Rae massaged her temples with her palms. She took a deep breath and tried to tamp down the frustration she suddenly felt toward Loren, who was just saying the same things Rae had tried to say to herself just minutes before. Loren was right. So why did thinking about the tree make her skin crawl?
Lore stood. “I’m going to cut this root off,” she said calmly. “Then I’m going to get dressed, go outside, and start trimming the tree branches. You’re going to make something for dinner.”
“You already did so much work today,” Rae said.
“Are you sure you want to do that?”
“Yes,” Loren said. “I think the sooner I deal with this, the sooner we can have the tree out of our minds.”
Rae just nodded. She didn’t feel like fighting anymore. She took a recipe book from her shelf in the kitchen and went to the living room to peruse it. If Loren was going to do all of that just while she made dinner, Rae had plenty of time. She would find something fancy to cook while Loren worked. Perhaps she’d even go out for the ingredients.
As she read, she listened to Loren move through the house. The sounds of her made Rae smile. She would never have thought she deserved someone like Loren, who itched to take care of other people, and genuinely cared about what she could do for others and what kind of impact she had on their lives. She was level headed, capable, and in so many ways, a better human than Rae felt she could ever be.
The back door slid open. “I cut the root off,” Loren called. “I’ll patch the drywall tomorrow. I’m headed out to trim the tree.”
“I love you,” Rae said, leaning back in her chair so she could just see Loren at the door.
“I love you, too.”
Rae leafed through the pages of her recipe book. She couldn’t find anything she felt like eating, nor anything she thought that Loren might like. She wanted to make something that really said “thank you,” since Loren had put so much effort into the house these last few days, and Rae felt like she wasn’t contributing even though she was the one going to work and earning a paycheck.
From outside, Rae could hear the high whine of Loren’s pole saw. She heard it shift as it cut through the wood of the tree’s branches. She heard the light crash as the fell to the earth.
Rae’s attention drifted from her recipes. She found herself staring at the far wall of the living room, in a reflection of her behavior in the bathroom. Her eyes drifted out of focus as she sought ideas for dinner outside of the book. What did Loren like to eat? Steak? Rae knew what Loren preferred, but for some reason nothing sounded right for her, either.
Wait. Rae blinked. A strong sense of déja vu descended upon her: was that a bulge in the wall, on the other side of the room? Rae set her book aside. She approached the wall. Yes. Yes, just like the wall in the bathroom, the wall of the living room looked as though something were pressing up against it from the other side. She looked down the wall. All along it, the flat plane had warped from some kind of pressure. And not just at the bottom. When she looked up, she realized that faint bumps had appeared all the way toward the ceiling.
Rae began to shake. A hammer sat forgotten on top of one of the boxes nearby. With quivering hands, she grabbed it. She paused to think of what Loren would say regarding what she was about to do. Then she dismissed the thought. She slammed the claw of the hammer into the wall and pulled. The plaster came free, and with it, a thick root.
The strike from the hammer damaged the root. Red fluid beaded up where the claw had scored it. It began to drip onto the carpet. Rae swallowed. She stood and slammed the hammer into the wall once more, higher up, where she perceived a warp in the wall. Crunch. There, too, was a root.
Rae groaned, in fear or frustration, she didn’t know. She opened up the northern wall in five more places. Roots. Roots, coming out of all of those holes. Several of them bled from her hammer’s strikes. Loren said it wasn’t blood, but with it dripping down the wall in rivulets Rae could think of nothing else.
Paranoia filled her. Loren’s saw still buzzed outside. Rae didn’t want to tell Loren what she had done. What she was going to continue to do. She ran her hand along the east wall of the living room. There. A ripple. She struck it with the hammer, violently. Vengefully. She reached in and pulled the end of a root free. It felt slick beneath her grasp. Wet and alive. She shuddered.
Rae walked around the room, to the south side next to the stairs. She did not pause at every flaw she felt in the wall. They pushed out every foot or so, somewhere along the wall. The imperfections were subtle. She should have seen them before. But then, wouldn’t she have just taken it to be the result of the age of the house?
Bulges twisted around the door. She tested on with the hammer. A root. She took herself up the stairs. The roots were in the bathroom. In the hallway. In the office, the storage room, the guest bedroom. The bedroom she and Rae had slept in. By the time she was done, the house looked like the scene of a murder — no, of a massacre — with blood-colored sap running down the walls in every room in thin, viscious threads.
Rae ran down the stars. She felt compelled to look in the bathroom, where Loren had cut the root earlier. A huge puddle of red covered the floor. Rae touched it. She rubbed it between her fingers. She turned to the toilet and vomited. Blood. This was not sap. Rae had felt sap before. Sap was sticky. Thick. This red fluid was thicker than water, and the shade, the smell, even… this was blood.
Rae found herself breathing hard. She stumbled out of the bathroom, tracking blood. She fell to her knees on the floor in the kitchen. The pounding of her heart and the ragged noise of her breath filled her ears. Everything else, suddenly, was silent. Her breath caught in her throat.
The sound of the pole saw no longer found its way in through the open windows. Rae stood, shaking. She thought her knees might give out. She wanted desperately to run. She could not find the strength. She forced herself toward the back door, step by step, worrying every second that she might fall.
She slid the door open and leaned out, her grip unstead on the door frame. She could see the tree around the corner of the house, still standing tall and strong, with several of its branches gone on its south side. The wounds dripped blood, like a human separated from its arms. A ladder had been leaned up against the tree. Rae could not see Loren from the door.
The walk along the side of the house stretched out as Rae walk. It felt like the longest journey of her life just to take those steps from the back door to the edge of the house.
When she did come around that corner, she saw Loren. Oh, Loren. She lay on her back on the ground, among the tree roots. A hand saw had fallen among the tree roots nearby. Her eyes gazed sightlessly upward. The sharp edge of a tree branch, one she had cut herself, sprouted up from just below her sternum. It was easy to guess that she had fallen down upon it from her ladder.
Rae brought covered her mouth with her hand to dampen her scream. Never before had tears come so quickly to her eyes. She ran to her wife’s side. “No.” Her voice came out ragged and torn. “No no nonononono.” The sound became one long, wordless moan. She fell to her knees at Loren’s side. Her hands groped at Loren’s face, then at the branch that had speared through her body.
Something shifted beneath Rae’s shins. Despite herself she leapt up, backing away. She felt no hope that the movement had been Loren. She had already looked into her wife’s dead eyes and seen them for what they were.
As she watched, the root next to Loren’s body shifted again, rippled the earth around it. Rae realized with a start that Loren’s feet were not visible. A thick root wrapped around her shins just above her ankles. Loren’s pants bunched up as her legs slid further into the ground.
“What the fuck,” Rae said. She could do no more than whisper. “What. What is…. What the fuck.” She went forward once more. She took Loren by the arms and pulled, pulled with all of her strength.
Loren’s body continued to move inexorably downward into the ground. Rae was not enough. She screamed. “Stop! Stop it! Why are you doing this?”
Rae tried to brace her feet against the ground. The roots shifted. This was their domain, the yew’s domain; all of the ground around it belonged to that tree. Rae fell hard on her knees. She grunted at the pain but she refused to give up her grip on her wife’s body. Loren’s legs had disappeared beneath the roots. They worked their way up her torso, now; now her chest; and now just her arms and shoulders were still above the ground.
Rae didn’t know what to do. Her phone was in the house. Loren was already dead. What use would help be to her now? Rae sobbed. “I’m so sorry, Loren. I’m sorry. I love you. I tried. I tried so hard. I’m sorry I wasn’t a better wife. I’m sorry I didn’t stop you.”
Only Loren’s hands came above the earth now. Rae refused to let go. Her grip tightened on the cuff of Loren’s sleeve. “Stay with me, Loren,” she said desperately. “Please don’t leave me.”
With a gasp, Rae watched Loren’s fingertips disappear. She tried to pull her hand away and realized that she couldn’t. Something had wrapped around her wrists and fingers. Rae closed her eyes. She gave a futile tug. She pulled back. Her hands continued to move forward, following Loren.
Stupid, she thought. So stupid. The tree pulled her forward. She craned her head, looking up into its boughs as her arms travelled further into the dirt. Sunlight split through its needles in rays. Blood dripped down all around her. She tried to focus on the sunlight. As her face came up against the ground, she pressed that image into her mind, of the sunlight through the boughs. It was the last hint of beauty she would ever see.