Time had passed, yet some things stood still.
The living room brought a mix of nostalgia and dread as he laid his eyes upon the stained carpet, worn sofas and little television in the corner with its bent antenna.
Clothing that had once belonged to him, little blue and white, led in a trail to the equally little shirts and skirts lying in a heap by the coffee table. Crowned atop it was but another thing that had loved her, and was punished for it.
Jake knelt and grabbed the teddy bear. He swallowed hard as his fingers brushed against the pink, velvet fur. It stared at him blankly, as if its soul had been ripped from its body. Jake considered his own reflection in those beady eyes, pitying the poor thing. He tried to remember what she had called it but could not. He put the bear back atop its castle and made his way through the little archway leading into the kitchen, ignoring the things scattered atop the dining table and kitchen counters as he went through the screen door leading into the garden.
He closed the door behind him and took a moment to catch his breath, but as his eyes leveled with the old willow at the other end of the garden, there was no need. He was calm, as if looking upon the tree had caused a seed of tranquility to bloom within himself.
A curtain of dying leaves covered its body, some having fallen and come to rest atop the pond beside it. There had once been fishes inside, but now there was only a thick layer of algae that had formed across the surface. The long reeds that had grown around it bristled gently in the afternoon wind, a wind that held no power over the willow leaves that remained absolutely still.
Jake stepped down the porch and made his way along the stone path that lead into the willow’s embrace. He parted the curtain-leaves with a hand and stepped inside, the outside light cutting out immediately as the leaves closed behind him.
A shiver ran through his body as the pulsing red light from the gelatinous center of the trunk thrummed like the beating of a heart. Yet despite the fear that was steadily climbing inside him, it paled in comparison to the resolve that had brought him back after so many years.
The air trapped within the confines of the willow had heated like an oven, and Jake struggled to breathe through the rising humidity. His heart was thundering within his chest, and despite the heat, his fingers were ice-cold. The ground swam beneath him in the effort to throw him off balance, but Jake kept walking, eyes trained on that pulsing mass of crimson as he reached forwards and laid a hand upon it. The gelatinous exterior yielded around his fingers that grew yet colder as they plunged further within the trunk. Just as it reached his elbow, his hand came in contact with something on the other side, something hot with long, sinuous grooves running along its length. Its heat lanced up his arm. Before Jake could cry out from the pain that blossomed across the right side of his body, the crimson light flickered into nonexistence.
Jake was left sweating and panting in the dark and quiet. He tried free his hand of the ‘heart’ but it had somehow hardened like cement around his arm. Panic wrought in every fiber of his muscles, Jake pulled as hard as he could, his shoulder screaming in pain as he tried to free his arm of the trunk. But the harder he tried, the more his arm hurt, and it was only then he realized that, to his horror, the more he tried to free himself, the harder the willow’s trunk squeezed his arm.
With a cold dread washing over him, Jake stopped struggling immediately.
Tired, unable to see and in pain, Jake was left with no choice but to reflect, and it was in reflection that regret slowly bubbled to the surface, mingled with a familiar despair he had not felt for years. The nostalgic dread that clawed against Jake’s heart led him to cast a desperate look to where he had come from, and there found hope.
An orange light bled through the leaves, so faint it disappeared before it had the chance to fall upon the ground or along the willow’s trunk.
For a moment, there was nothing.
Jake was still.
His breath fogged against the cold air.
The willow leaves parted, and unveiled before them, a room bathed in sunlight. The willow’s trunk had disappeared, replaced by a bookshelf full of fairy-tales. They were all ones he and no doubt every other child had read or at least heard of before. There were even ones that had only been told through word of mouth, transcribed upon cheap lined paper and bound with staples, their milk-white spines incongruous against the assortment of blue, black and brown. But he knew those as well. It was he whom had come up with them, after all. The hand that had been stuck in the ‘heart’ now brushed against one of them.
“This was a place of lies,” came her voice from behind him.
Silence returned like water gone still after a fleeting ripple, and as the birds chirped on the branch just outside the window beside him, Jake thought that perhaps it had been his imagination? But imagination, here in the Treehouse, was just as real as the world he had come from. It could be wonderful, as long as one took care to look no further than that; to understand Imagination, to control it, was a terrible thing.
Jake could feel her eyes on him.
The hand reaching for one of his fairy-tales was shaking.
He could not bring himself to turn around.
“And lies were what ended us,” the window beside Jake opened to the summer air, and the birds on the branch tweeted happily.
A silhouette appeared in his peripherals and sat on the windowsill, Jake’s heart plummeting as she swung her legs. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he could hear himself telling her to stop, that it would become a bad habit. He could feel his arm, as he returned it to his side, tingling with anticipation, expecting her boot to kick at it any moment now. He was so sure it would happen that he held his breath, eyes drifting to his arm and his mind a strange mix of dread and excitement.
But then her legs stopped swinging. “You’ve come to take me back, haven’t you?”
Jake nodded. The air fell heavy between them, for they both knew what that meant. Mustering up his courage, Jake turned to face the woman whom, the last time he had seen her, had been a young girl of ten.
There was no sign of emotion. But now it was her whom was unable to meet his eye.
She turned sideways on the windowsill and looked through the branches to the afternoon sky.
The birds had fled; freedom so near, so far.
How to tell him what he already knew? Desire did not change the truth. Here, it only made things worse.
Seconds passed but she said nothing. Her silence was enough to shatter the lie he had told himself.
The last sliver of hope had been stripped from him, and for that she felt a pang of guilt, but did he not realize that they had lost all those years ago?
This was a place of lies. And now Jake, too, was in His clutches.
She glanced at him, and the despair she saw in his eyes wrenched her heart. She wanted nothing more than to jump from the windowsill and hug him, tell him everything would be alright.
But she would be lying.