Crooked, on Flickr, by curious_spider
Crooked, courtesy curious_spider aka terribleminds

The challenge this week is to write about the tree above.

Ron’s mother always told him to avoid fights, not get into them.

His cousins, raised in a home closer to the city center, had shown him a couple ways to take care of himself, but his mother had broken that up quickly, yelled at Ron’s uncle for “fostering violent tendencies,” and threw out all of Ron’s Bruce Lee movies. He’d still practiced, though, in secret, for days like this.

Days when Missy and Sam got bullied.

Missy was a cute girl in his classes, and her little brother Sam was a big kid who liked books. The tougher, cooler kids liked to pick on him, especially when they found out he didn’t like girls. Ron knew his mother wouldn’t have approved, but it had been going on for weeks. That afternoon, as Missy and Sam walked home, Ron had trailed the hecklers. When the time was right, and they passed the expansive and overgrown park, Ron ran up and kicked George Frederickson in the butt. The junior football star went stumbling forward and knocked Sam down, laying on top of him for a moment.

“Ha! Looks like you’re the gay one now!”

The other boys from the football team were not amused. With a cry from George of “Get him!” they chased Ron into the woods. It had rained off and on over the previous few days, and the ground squished a bit under Ron’s sneakers. He zigged and zagged before arriving at a small clearing.

Ahead of him, a tree was bent towards the ground, branches kissing the earth. Ron approached it slowly, uncertain. It hadn’t been struck by lightning, so why was it bending like that? He heard voices behind him, and dashed under the crook of the trunk. He hunched down in the ferns under it and waited.

“What do you think you’re doing here?”

None of George’s boys had been as close as that voice. He blinked, looking around. Everything seemed… greener, somehow. He inhaled and he wasn’t just smelling wet ferns anymore. He could smell berries from a bush several feet away, a soft tang in the air that probably meant more rain was on the way, his own sweat, and…

“Hey! Answer me!”

Ron looked down to see a squirrel perched on his knee. At least, it looked like a squirrel. But most squirrels Ron had seen were small rodents. This one was the size of a housecat.

“How are you talking?” Ron wasn’t sure how else to respond.

“Nevermind, nevermind that. You can’t be here. It’s dangerous. Too dangerous.”

“I don’t understand. How did I get here? Where is ‘here’?”

The squirrel slapped himself in the face. Ron tried not to laugh. A big talking squirrel facepalming was the funniest thing he’d seen in a long time.

“Stupid, stupid. Of course you don’t know. Of course. Secrets behind the curtain, more than just an old man and wheels, secrets, secrets.”

The squirrel spun in a quick circle on Ron’s knee.

“Well, you had to do or be something special to arrive, so congratulations and welcome. Now farewell, goodbye, off you go, shoo shoo.”

“But I still don’t know where I am!”

“Good! Good! The less you know, the better off you’ll be! Now shoo!”

Ron crossed his arms, glaring at the squirrel. The oversized animal, blinking large eyes at him for a moment, scrambled off of his leg. For a moment, there was silence. Then, the squirrel burst out of the ferns, squealing at the top of its lungs, its tail bushed out and claws made for climbing trees aimed at Ron’s face.

Startled, Ron fell backwards, and was on the near side of the tree again. The colors seemed more washed out. He smelled less. And he heard the bullies coming for him.

He got to his feet and into a fighting stance. When they came through the underbrush and saw him, George started laughing.

“Look! He thinks he can take all three of us at once!”

George approached, spreading his hands. “Tell you what, tough guy, I’ll go easy on ya. Just one on one, you and me, okay?”

Ron stared at George, but saw one of the other boys pulling out an empty bottle. He wasn’t sure what that boy’s name was, but if he was on the football team he probably had a decent throwing arm. Ron turned his attention to George and took a deep breath, closing his eyes.

For a moment, it was like he could still see George, and every living thing in the forest, but as a silver silhouette. He gasped, his eyes flying open. Then, seeing that the boys were still advancing on him, he repeated the breathing and the closing of his eyes. The silver lights were still there, and George was close enough that he could make out distinct parts of him; his eyes, his hands, his heart. As he exhaled, Ron reached out with his right hand, which was glowing red in this odd pseudo-vision, and pointed at George’s chest.

The football captain gasped. Ron opened his eyes and saw George clutching his chest. Ron had seen someone act like this before, when his grandfather had a heart attack. Staggering, George fell, and the other boys ran off screaming. Ron approached to see George staring up at the trees, mouth and eyes wide, unmoving.

Ron stepped back, a chill going through his body. He’s dead. How is he dead? He can’t be dead! I didn’t kill him! He looked down at his hands. It wasn’t me!

He looked over his shoulder at the tree. Swallowing, he stepped back under the crook. The squirrel was glaring at him.

“Go back! Go back!”

“I can’t.” He swallowed. “I won’t. Tell me what I am.”

The squirrel blinked, then sighed. “What you are, kid, is part of this world. The world your world forgot. Follow me. I’ll show you.”

Ron, casting a nervous glance over his shoulder, followed the squirrel deep into the green.