I stayed home from school that day.
When my father said it was okay and that I’d barely missed any school all year I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Jones and I had skipped the day before, even though class had been cancelled. I’m guessing he wouldn’t have minded but there was no reason to push my luck.
We stayed mostly inside that day, venturing out only to plant a few rows of potatoes and beans in the wet soil of our garden. When we’d finished my father poured me a dram of whiskey and told me to go lie down. I drank the liquor and did as he said, weariness nearly taking my feet from beneath me as I went to my room. I don’t remember being so tired before or since, and it wasn’t thirty seconds before I fell into a dreamless sleep only to be woken what seemed like minutes later by my father knocking on my door. He asked if I felt up to working for Mr. Tandy today, and even though I was still bone-weary, the thought of seeing Sara gave me a jolt of energy.
We took the pickup to the school and I waited in the cab while he went inside and spoke with Mrs. Shawler. After a short time my classmates started to stream out of the schoolhouse and split off in their separate directions. Jones emerged followed closely by Sara who looked more peaked than the day before. They came to the truck and I climbed out.
“Hey, Lane,” Jones said.
“Hi,” Sara said, waving a little before looking away.
“Hey,” I returned.
“Where were you today?” Jones asked.
“A little. Momma’s not well either.”
“Sorry to hear,” Sara said. She came closer and looked me in the face, searching for what I wasn’t saying. I couldn’t meet her eyes in fear that I’d spill the whole story to them both right there. A moment later my father came striding toward us and glanced around.
“You all working this afternoon?” he asked. We chorused a round of ‘yeses’ and he jerked his head toward the bed of the truck. “Boys in the back. Let the lady ride up front.”
The trip to the Tandy’s was short in the pickup, though I kind of wished we could’ve walked. I wanted to tell Jones and Sara about what had happened the night before and knew it would’ve come out on the walk to the farm. But there was no time to fret about it once my father dropped us off. Nathan Tandy was waiting in the barn when we arrived and before we knew it we were in the field, dirt beneath our shoes, shovels in hand.
The somber sky hadn’t lifted all day and it seemed to press down even more while we worked so that at any second I expected to see the tree tops scratching clouds. The constant sickness of my stomach was slowing us down, but if Jones noticed he didn’t say anything. My back had started to ache also. Not the typical muscle strain from running a shovel, a deeper pain right between my shoulder blades like a knife was stuck there.
A knife. Like the one momma almost slit her own throat with the day before.
I shook my head trying to rid myself of the thoughts. She was safe now over in Arbor. She had doctors and nurses and all kinds of people to help her if anything was wrong. I would go and see her tonight I decided. I knew my father wouldn’t object and it would be good to sit beside her and have her tell me everything was going to be all right.
The pain between my shoulders flared and I shrugged, trying to work out the knot or whatever was bothering me. Jones chopped at the bottom of our latest stump and soon it wiggled loosely in the soil. We looped Heely’s towrope around it and urged him forward. The stump popped free and we began to fill in the hole left in its wake. Sara worked fifty yards or so away, plucking rocks from the dirt. I took a moment to admire her. For only a second I let myself imagine what it would be like to hold her, touch her face, kiss her lips. I could see us living in a little house someday, children playing in the yard outside. The vision was so vibrant and strong, for a moment all my discomforts faded.
Jones nudged me out of my daydream and nodded in the opposite direction. Mr. Tandy had worked his way around the edge of the field with Winnie, his big horse towing several stumps to the large pile Jones and I had accrued near our side. Jones shot me a knowing grin and I tossed some dirt at him that he sidestepped easily. Mr. Tandy was approaching us and we were about to move onto the next stump when something stopped me in my tracks.
Sara was gazing at the sky again, expression blank just as it had been the day before. I looked around. Something was wrong. It was a beat before I realized the slight wind that had pushed at the trees all day was gone.
The field was silent. Motionless.
“Lane. What’s happening,” Jones said.
Sara dropped the rock she was holding and her head tilted back in a silent scream.
I started to run to her, feet sliding in the dirt. Mr. Tandy yelled something as he pulled up beside Jones, but I didn’t stop. Sara’s arms came out from her sides and her feet came together so that she looked a lot like Jesus on the crucifix in my parents’ bedroom.
There was a sizzle in the air like lightning had just passed overhead and Sara’s feet left the ground.
I stumbled to a stop a dozen yards from her and watched, awestruck. She rose from the earth in a smooth motion, her feet coming up to almost chest-height. Her arms stayed straight out from her body as if she were nailed to an invisible cross and her head tipped so far back it nearly touched her spine. Jones was yelling and I was sure it was in horror at what was happening to Sara, but when I looked his way I saw I was wrong.
The stumps we’d pulled from the ground were moving.
They crawled with their many roots like squids dragged from the deep and deposited on land. The roots writhed and whipped and several stumps hopped forward in what looked like gleeful urgency. The lead stump was a large one with a wickedly pointed taproot at its bottom. It wriggled forward as Mr. Tandy and Jones backed away, leaving Heely standing near the last hole, unaware of what was approaching. Just as the stump closed in, the mule must’ve realized he was in danger. He tried to lunge forward but the animated stump was faster.
It leapt into the air and buried all two feet of its taproot into the mule’s side.
Heely screamed like a human, his bray deep and sonorous that echoed the worst kind of agony. His front feet gave out and he toppled forward into the dirt, the stump riding him down like some obscene parasite. Bright blood pumped from the wound and a sucking sound filled the air like a child draining the last of a malt with a straw.
Winnie danced around, eyes wild and teeth exposed as Mr. Tandy tried to hold her. Sara’s father was in shock, I could see it plain as day even from a distance. His jaw was slack and his movements were jerky like a badly strung puppet. Jones was backing away from the dying mule and the thing that was arching itself up and repeatedly stabbing the animal with its taproot. I was about to yell something, call out an instruction of some kind, when Jones turned and ran.
There are moments of clarity in everyone’s life. I’m not talking about a clear understanding of a situation or facts. That type of thing happens on a day-to-day basis for intelligent people. The clarity I’m speaking of is that which borders on precognition, an ability to see not only what is but also what will be in a surety that is fact even before it happens.
I saw what was to come, and in that split second my soul died a little.
Jones ran from the horror gutting and drinking the mule and passed directly behind Winnie.
The horse sensed him and lashed out with one of her powerful hind legs.
Her hoof caught Jones in the side of his head and I saw his skull flatten there, the top crowning as the bone shifted and broke.
Jones flew to the side, arms and legs akimbo, and I knew he was dead before he hit the ground.
The pain flared again in the middle of my back and it was so sharp I thought that a stump had somehow gotten behind me and was stabbing me like Heely. I looked down at my chest, sure that I would see a twisted and bloody root protruding there, but my shirt was unbroken. All the air seemed to have been sucked from the world as my knees gave way. My strength was gone, leeched from me as I struggled to stay upright and failed.
Sara floated above the ground, back arched now as if in extreme pain.
The Earth tipped on its side, the dirt coming up to meet me even as the girl I loved let out a shriek that tore at my eardrums and followed me down into the dark.