My town of Burning, South Carolina had two unspoken rules: go to church on Sunday and don't touch The Dead Tree. On a Halloween night, my gran revealed our tiny town’s local legend. My parents were at some party and she had been tasked with taking me trick o’ treating. We were out later than I was allowed to be and Gran grabbed my hand leading the way home.
I was annoyed. I couldn’t see the beautiful colors of the crunchy leaves and my princess costume had turned more uncomfortable than cute. The tiara was too tight and my shoes too big. My mamma had warned me of this when I picked out the costume, and I was determined to make it home without any complaints.
“Piper, you must listen to me carefully,” my gran’s voice was firm, an abrupt change from how it had been a minute ago.
“What is it, gran?” I looked up, unable to make out her expression in the dark night.
“Your parents would rather me not tell you this but it’s something you must know, something you must be warned of,” Gran’s hand tightened around mine. “Have you heard the story of The Dead Tree?”
I rolled my eyes.
“Of course I have. Some older kids at school told me about it, they wanted to scare me,” I sniffed, unbothered.
“What exactly did they tell you?” She stopped us. We were in front of her house, and she ushered me to the white bench in the garden. The porch light illuminated her face. My hands started to sweat. Even at nine years old I could tell this conversation meant something.
“Um, they said that 106 years ago some witch put a curse on an old tree in the abandoned field. They said the 100th person to touch it like dies or something?” I rushed out.
“The 113th person to touch it, Piper. That’s important. That’s the most crucial thing, honey. The 113th person,” her blue eyes were wide and she leaned closer to me.
“Gran, you don’t actually believe this, um, tale, right?” I asked her, pulling off my tiara, wincing when a few strands of my red hair came with it.
She grabbed both of my hands.
“Piper, this isn’t some campfire story meant to keep kids in bed at night. This story is real,” her hands started to shake.
“Gran, are you trying to scare me? Is this some Halloween prank?” I tilted my head, trying not to let her see how much this was frightening me.
“No, I promise on your late grandad, my handsome George,” she squeezed my hands. This was what made me accept she wasn’t joking.
My gran never spoke of my dead grandpa.
“Piper, exactly 106 years ago a woman by the name of Willa was accused of witchcraft. The town sentenced her to be hung. Before she was killed she cursed the tree and the townspeople of Burning,” Gran avoided my eyes and looked down her dark street.
“Willa declared that the 113th person to touch the tree where she had been sentenced to hang would meet a fate worse than death.” She paused, finally meeting my eyes.
“Why would you believe all this, Gran?”
“When I was older than you, three days before my 17th birthday, I touched The Dead Tree. Burning High School has a tradition where two seniors take two juniors to touch it, one boy and one girl. I wasn’t afraid, I was excited. Everyone knew that if you went through with it, you were guaranteed to win prom queen and king.” My gran shook her head, a sad smile on her face.
“You did it then? Didn’t you?” I remembered her showing me her prom queen sash, she kept it in a dusty box in the basement.
“Yes, I did,” Gran shivered.
“You’re fine though, Gran! The story is just that, a story,” I nodded my head, standing from the bench, wanting to go inside to organize my candy.
“Honey, please listen to me,” she grabbed my hand, spinning me around to face her. “When I touched that tree I felt something. Not with my hands. But deep down in my bones. I could feel the black magic surging through that tree, the witch’s enchantment flowing through my body, demanding me to be hers,” Gran’s eyes were scaring me, her usual baby blues were turning dark.
“Gran, you’re fine. You have a happy life!" I argued.
“Yes, because I wasn’t the 113th person to touch the tree,” she gripped my hands too tight.
“Ow, you’re hurting me!” I screamed.
She let go and I backed away from her.
“I’m sorry sweetheart. Just please promise me, if you are the unlucky girl to be chosen, do not go. Do not touch Willa’s Tree. I beg you. You can refuse, a lot of people do. Please don’t do that to your parents. Please don’t do that to yourself,” her eyes were back to normal and I wondered if I had imagined it.
“I promise, Gran. I won’t touch that dumb tree,” I told her and darted into her house.
I didn't come out of her spare bedroom until my parents came to pick me up.
The crunchy yellow grass made satisfying sounds under my black boots. I was doing the exact thing my Gran had asked me not to do all those years ago. But it didn’t matter, Gran was no longer around, and that Halloween story was stupid.
Magic didn’t exist.
I took a swig from the bottle Ben brought.
Besides, it wasn’t like I was technically ignoring her wishes. I wasn’t popular like Gran had been, far from it. My friends and I didn’t care what people think. They probably didn’t even know about our town’s stupid legend. We used the field to party.
“Why the frown, Piper?” Ben asked me, stealing his bottle back and chugging from it. His brown eyes studied my face making me blush.
“Hey, guys! Hurry up!” Our friend, Amelia yelled at us. Our friend group was gathered around The Dead Tree, closer to it than I was comfortable with.
Even if it was just some silly story.
“Let’s go join in the Halloween festivities,” Ben took my hand, winking at me.
“Now that everyone’s here we can start the game,” Amelia said, smiling at us, her short black hair barely noticeable in the dark. I turned on my phone’s flashlight pointing it at her. She nodded at me, thankful for her spotlight.
“We’re all going to take turns touching The Dead Tree,” Amelia’s dark eyes flashed around the circle.
My heart was on the ground. I could no longer feel it beating in my chest.
“That’s stupid, Amelia. I don’t want to play some kid’s game,” I said once I could feel my heartbeat again.
“Scared, Piper?” Amelia mocked me for my reluctance.
“No, I just don’t put much stock into Burning’s legends,” I turned off my phone’s light and crossed my arms.
“I’ll touch the dumb tree,” Ben shrugged. He strode confidently and placed his hand on the peeling bark.
Ben immediately crumpled to the ground.
“Ben!” I screamed and rushed forward to help him.
“Someone call 911!” Ben’s best friend, Rowan shouted.
Before I could touch him, I noticed Ben was shaking.
“Ben! That was so not funny,” I chastised him as he gracefully stood and put his arm around me.
“Oh, come on, babe,” he kissed me on the cheek. “You think I’m cute even when I’m annoying,” Ben teased me.
“Hm,” I gave him a non-answer, still mad I had been tricked. Then Rowan did an impersonation of Ben falling and I was glad I wasn’t the butt of the joke.
“You’re right, it’s just some dumb legend,” I said, walking to the tree. It didn’t look as menacing as before. I paused right before I placed my hand on it. An odd sensation came over me. I could no longer hear my friends. I couldn't hear anything. I tried to turn back, but an invisible force was keeping me rooted at the spot.
It was just me staring at The Dead Tree. Almost like we were fighting, our energies grappling for the upper hand. Tears were streaming down my face and I could feel sweat running down my back. Something or someone wanted me to give up.
I wouldn’t, I couldn’t.
It felt like hours, time meant nothing on this endless night. I was just standing there, a battle taking place in my mind. Once I was sure I couldn’t take it anymore, the feeling stopped as suddenly as it had started. My hearing came back, painfully pulsing in my ears.
Then I felt two hands on my back. They violently pushed me into the tree and I caught myself on the rough bark.
I could feel warm blood gushing down my hands. It made interesting patterns on my arm.
Normal cuts didn’t bleed like that.
It spelled out,
1 1 3
Queasy, I turned away from the tree. The scene I was met with was like a punch in the gut. I was looking at my friends and… and myself. They were laughing, dancing, and partying. I was doing all those things.
But how was that possible? I was here.
Amelia walked up to me and I tried to speak to her.
But my words were lost in the wind like I hadn’t even spoken them. She touched… she touched me. I felt the palm of her cool fingers on me.
After an hour of this torture, they all turned to leave.
Or the me I was staring at.
I willed my feet to move, to follow them, but I was paralyzed.
The new me looked back with an awful grin on her face. She waved at me, her arm reminding me of a branch in the breeze.
That’s when I realized The Dead Tree had a new prisoner.