Linnae was a resplendent three years old. She wore an inverted Burger King crown and her face was sticky from a blue lollypop. Genny looked in the rearview mirror at her daughter, who was holding court over the mess of a birthday celebrated in the middle of a cross country move.
They were going to Breaker, Texas. Malcolm drove them through shimmering distances comprised of heat mirages that disappeared when they got close. In the surrounding countryside, trees fought their way up through whitestone soil to brandish leaves olive colored and drab. The persecuting eye of the sun followed the passage of their car and Genny covered her eyes, trying to carve a miniature slice of night for herself.
“Do you really think things will be better here?” she asked.
“Yes,” Malcolm said, glancing over at his wife. “Getting out of suburbia and away from the strain and rush will help us both rest. There won’t be any more incidents.”
“It was an accident, not an incident!”
“Laney was in the car.”
“I told you what happened,” Genny said, and let her hands drop away from her face.
“You nodded off with your eyes open, and when people came to help you out of the wreckage, you said you heard the tree talking.”
“No. I said I heard it calling.”
Malcolm’s grip tightened on the wheel.
“I’m not suicidal! And it wasn’t a hallucination. I was drawn and then everything happened so fast and I’m sorry!”
Genny leaned towards Malcolm, her seatbelt straining and her mouth trembling with emotion. Half a word escaped her and then Linnae threw her sippy cup onto the floorboard. It landed with a decisive thud.
“Mom-mee,” she called.
Genny reached behind her seat, trying to get the blue cup covered in gold stars from the floorboard, but it had rolled too far away. If she could take off her seatbelt, it might just be possible to reach. She knew, though, that taking off her belt while the car was moving was the last thing she could do.
“Mommy can’t get your cup, Laney-loo.”
“Drink!” Linnae said.
“You’re going to have to wait until we stop.”
Linnae wailed. Malcolm took a deep breath. He was careful to go exactly the speed limit and not to swerve, not even when he turned to look at his screaming daughter and make a wordless plea for quiet.
FM-6060 had changed names and number designations no less than five times since they left I-35. Soon it would become Main Street and lead them right through the center of Breaker, but for now it was a rural road running alongside an orchard. The straight lines of trees extended out to the horizon, each tree lined up behind the tree closest to the road, then, in the very next moment, the same row of trees would cascade into a set of diagonal rows stretching back east. The illusion distracted Linnae from her lost cup. Her cries tapered off and then stopped all together.
“Peach trees,” Malcolm said.
“They look strange,” Genny replied.
A historical marker was posted in a small turn off, and Malcolm slowed the car.
“If you stop, Laney’s going to want out, and it’ll be at least twenty minutes before I can get her back in the car seat.”
“We aren’t due to meet Roth for another half hour and check-in at The Gauss isn’t until one,” Malcolm said.
“I bet they’ll waive check-in time. They probably haven’t been booked since that aborted oil rush in the eighties,” Genny said.
“Breaker’s on the way to Big Bend.”
“This is the off season,” Genny said. “Besides, the trees are hideous. All gray and sick looking.”
Malcolm tapped the gas pedal and they went past the marker.
“Are you mad?” Genny asked.
“Well, you’re driving like you’re mad.” Genny smoothed her sweating hands along the fabric of her skirt. “I’m trying not to make you angry; let’s go back.”
Malcolm pulled the car into a controlled U-turn. He drove back to the pull-off, then checked carefully before crossing the opposite lane of traffic. Gravel crunched and popped under the sedan’s tires as he inched closer to the sign, his window rolled down and the outside heat overpowering the car’s AC.
“Makepeace Orchard,” Malcolm read aloud. “Established 1822 by Eduard Makepeace on land that had been cultivated by a native tribe, the Cayalanzuvan. The Cayalanzuvan grew a kind of medicinal plant here, something called sytra.” He continued to scan the print. “There’s a petrified tree at the entrance.”
“What’s petrified mean?” Linnae asked.
“Made of rock,” Malcolm said. “Do you want to see a tree made of rock?”
“Is it scary?” Linnae asked.
Malcolm looked at Genny and said, “That’s because she was in the car when you did your Seymour Glass impression.”
“Mommy?” Linnae called.
“Yes?” Genny replied.
“I don’t like it here.”
“It’s new, that’s all,” Genny said.
Malcolm rolled up his window and drove back onto FM-6060. The Makepeace Orchard was announced by a stone arch and a dirt road that led beneath it. On the right side of the dirt road was a stand with a hand painted sign that said, “Fresh Peaches.” A woman was asleep by the stand, a paper fan in her lap. As Malcolm pulled the car under the arch, she woke and started to fan herself. She did not smile or otherwise acknowledge their presence until Genny opened the backdoor to get Linnae out of her seat. Then the woman stood, and all around them the leaves in the peach trees quivered and hissed in a wind that Genny didn’t feel. When Malcolm got out of the car, Genny tried to get him to look at her, but he reached his arms overhead and stretched with his eyes closed.
“Hola,” the woman called.
“We were wondering about the petrified tree,” Malcolm said.
“It is there,” the woman said, and pointed.
The stone tree was leafless, its whited branches twisted by winds long since stilled. Conscious of the woman’s stare and the rows of gnarled trees surrounding them, Genny led Linnae around the back of the car. Together they accompanied Malcolm to the petrified tree.
“I want to go home,” Linnae said.
“There’s nothing to be scared of. See?” Malcolm said. To show her, he touched the tip of the branch closest to him.
Linnae made a frightened noise. It was the same vulnerable noise she made when a bee landed on her their first night away from home. Genny had been unable to move, certain that if she did, the bee would sting Linnae. The insect traversed the back of Linnae’s hand before performing a terrifying ballet on the tender skin between her thumb and forefinger. As the bee danced, the leaves of the trees around them chattered and hissed. Then the bee took flight, and Genny had hugged her daughter, full of relief even when she felt the sharp jab of the bee’s stinger and the burning rush of venom. The back of her neck was still itchy and swollen.
“Let’s go,” Genny said. “Laney’s scared. It doesn’t do any good to force her to look at things that scare her.”
“We can’t let her grow up terrified of trees,” Malcolm said.
“You want picture?” the woman with the fan asked. She was standing very close to the Mercers, but none of them had noticed her approach. “Photo?”
Genny shook her head but Malcolm said, “Yes. I think that would be just the thing. Come here, Laney, while Mommy gets the camera.”
“I don’t want a picture,” Genny said.
“Please, just go get the camera.”
Genny took a deep breath, and then tried to pry herself free from Linnae’s clasp. Genny looked at Malcolm. Not without difficulty, he picked up their daughter, her paper crown shifting atop her head.
“I’m scared,” Linnae said.
Malcolm straightened her Burger King crown as he spoke calming words. Genny listened to the low cadence of Malcolm’s consolation, pretending his comfort was meant for her. Behind them, the woman flicked her fan. She waved it around in the dense heat, sighing and shuffling her feet. Genny turned, ready to snap, but the woman was looking past her, watching Malcolm carry Linnae close enough that she could touch the tree.
“Don’t!” Genny said, but her warning was too late.
Linnae pressed her palm to the stone bark. For a moment, everything was as it had been. Then she screamed.
All the orchard’s blighted, gray leaves shook as if there was a breeze. Branches swayed, but there was nothing except the woman fanning herself. Genny dashed forward and swiped her daughter’s hand away from the petrified tree.
“Stop scaring her!” Genny said, blinking at the shrewish sound of her own fear.
Malcolm cradled Linnae, rocking her as he asked, “What happened?”
“It stung,” Linnae said.
She threw both of her arms around her father’s neck and buried her face in the front of his shirt. Over the top of her bowed and still crowned head, Malcolm and Genny looked at one another. The smell of something going rancid wafted around them and a low hum skimmed and skittered through the preternatural quiet.
“You were right,” Malcolm said. “Let’s skip the picture.” He stepped around Genny to carry Linnae to the car.
Genny moved a little closer to the stone tree. A shuddering darkness not unlike the liquid dark of the road’s heat mirages seeped from the bleached bark. Genny pressed her forefinger into its shadow, but pulled back without touching the tree. The stench was worse now, thick with the gluttonous smell of a carnivore still drenched in the blood of a kill. As Genny backed away, her footsteps left reddish marks in the soil as if the whitestone dust were only a bandage beneath which suppurated a weeping and bloody wound.
With a flick of her wrist, the woman snapped closed the fan and asked, “No photo?”
“I don’t think so,” Genny said.
“Two for one dollar.”
“Ah, then they are a gift.”
The woman went over to the stand and put two peaches in a small brown bag. Then she folded the top of the bag over on itself and thrust the neat parcel at Genny. Inside, the two peaches rolled and bumped together like living things.
“Will you give me a hand over here?” Malcolm called.
Genny took the bag and said, “Thanks. I’m sure they’ll be … peachy.”
She went over to where Malcolm was trying to get Linnae to let go of him long enough to put her back in the carseat. The girl alternated between hiding her face against her father and staring at the petrified tree. Genny touched Linnae’s arm.
“Don’t worry, Laney-loo. We’re leaving now. But you need to be in your seat.”
Linnae wriggled into her seat and sat looking out at the petrified tree as Malcolm strapped her in. When he was finished, she crossed her arms over her chest, a corpse pose. Malcolm closed the door firmly, but without slamming it.
“My blood pressure is singing,” he said, the skin under his left eye twitching.
“Do you want me to drive?” Genny asked.
“No, I’m okay.”
“If you’re sure,” Genny said.
Malcolm opened the passenger door and gestured her inside. When Genny was seated, Malcolm walked around to the driver’s side. He passed close to the woman at her fruit stand. She was chanting, a repetitive sound that mimicked the rise and fall of the hum that started when Linnae touched the tree. Malcolm could make out only the end of the chant. “La Zalia,” she said, but it was nothing that he understood.
“Good day,” Malcolm said.
“Sí,” she replied, and then resumed her chant.
Malcolm got in the car and cranked the key in the ignition too hard and too long. In the backseat, Linnae kicked her feet against the back of Genny’s chair. It was a normal thing devoid of its normal annoyance.
“Can you hear it, Mommy?”
Malcolm put the car in gear, and backed them away from the trees.
“Mommy, hear it?” Linnae repeated.
“That’s the car,” Genny said. “Just the engine.”
“No! The tree. It’s singing,” Linnae said.
Malcolm pressed one finger to the nervous tick of his fluttering eyelid. He looked at Genny, but she kept her face turned towards her window. Hot air blew from the vents in great smothering swathes. In the backseat, Linnae covered and uncovered her ears to hear the humming noise grow quiet then loud, quiet then loud.
FM-6060 became Main Street, an empty path of cracked pavement unaccompanied by trees or greenery. The sun-punished land gave structural birth to Breaker, raising a line of dilapidated buildings separated by narrow alleys. Malcolm and Genny looked at each other for the first time since the orchard.
“We’re here,” Malcolm said.
His voice was consumed by the town’s silence. Empty diagonal parking spaces languished in front of the buildings, the chipped white lines a perfect accent for the fading colors of the facades. A few feeble awnings provided relief from the persecuting daylight, but there was no one in their shade.
“Where is everyone?” Genny asked.
“Work,” Malcolm said. He drove more slowly and angled his head away from Genny so she wouldn’t see his eyelid twitch. “It is the middle of the workweek.”
There was a ghost town quality to Breaker’s mix of Southwest adobe and Old West architecture. If not for the strobe light in the window of a hardware store, there would have been no indication of either electricity or people. A stucco building as still and white as the petrified tree served as post office, bank, and tornado shelter. The grocer’s occupied what was once a bordello. The café was a green-trimmed building with three sets of double doors that opened onto a porch. The dusty storefront of the next building displayed “Genuine Antiques!” and a sign saying to call if they weren’t open, which they weren’t. The Gauss Hotel was a brick building with its own name posed on the roof, each letter a motionless marksman. At the far end of Main Street, there was a second hardware store that looked like an old movie theater, complete with an ornate doorway and marquee. “Dangerous Tree Removal,” it read.
“Two hardware stores,” Malcolm said.
“And no gas station,” Genny replied.
“There might be one on a side street.”
“I hope so; we can’t live in a town without a gas station.”
“We didn’t come here for convenience,” Malcolm said.
Genny shifted in her seat. Her left foot kicked the bag of peaches. The fruit seethed against the thin paper.
Malcolm turned down a side street. Most of the houses looked as abandoned as downtown proper and there was none of the suburban conceit of lawn or garden. Yards in Breaker contented themselves with stone sculptures of decidedly pagan origin or with nothing at all: no philodendron, no prickly pear, no potted plants.
“It’s ugly as an old secret,” Genny said.
Malcolm pulled their sedan to a stop. The idling RPMs vibrated something loose in the back of the vehicle. The sound was too much like the orchard’s hum.
Genny whispered, “Mal.”
“Are you sure about this?”
Malcolm cut off the motor. He looked out at Breaker through a mess of smattered bugs and road dust. All along the desolate avenue, clapboard houses sagged their porches.
“I’m not sure about anything except that we agreed to try.”
After a moment, they got out of the sedan. Genny leaned her arms on the top of the car, preparing to tell Malcolm she wanted to try, she wanted to be enthusiastic. Instead, she gave a sudden, inhuman squeal and flinched away from the sun-hot metal.
“What do you say we go meet Roth Huxley?” Malcolm asked. “I’m sure we’ll feel better when we hear about the properties he’s got.”
Genny pushed her hair back from her sweaty face. The bee sting on her neck itched and the discomfort seemed somehow linked to the town. Linnae looked past her mother and started to chew on her fist, a babyish habit reemerging.
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