Willow, 1861


The hard, barren earth was crumbling around the young willow tree's roots. Soon the fiery sun would dry its branches to kindling. This was the first summer of its young life, and it looked to be its last. Pity. Things were just beginning to get interesting.

Now there was another sun in the sky.

The tree wriggled its thin tendrils around in the baked soil and searched for a single molecule of water to quench its thirst. But it could not drink what did not exist; the blistering sun had seen to that. Now all that remained was for the raging westerlies to blow the dusty topsoil away and expose its shriveled roots. It wouldn't be long then.

The willow had been alive since last spring. The blustery winds had carried its tiny piece of branch over one field after another, crossing an entire county before landing here. In its travels the branch had floated over platoons of men marching across open farmlands, pounding their drums, carrying their muskets and flags, heading toward whatever battle would end their lives. So resplendent in their Prussian blue uniforms, and in such a hurry to fight their brothers to the death.

The willow branch passed over this on a breeze, blissfully ignorant of the war that was coming. It landed in this field, which would one day be named for it. When the first rain struck it as it lay in Jackson county, the tiny scrap of branch sank into the soft mud and began to sprout. It would never travel beyond this point. This was home, and it explored the soil of its new home with a lusty fervor.

But the spring died early, and with it the rain. The sod was soon dried out, which forced the willow to stretch its roots down into the earth beneath. It would fight its way through the rocky soil and find ... nothing.

The second sun was growing bright in the sky.

The willow was accustomed to sensing a certain fiery yellow ball rise into the eastern sky. That one had dried up all the moisture and all the nutrients in the precious soil. That one had taunted the willow with the promising rays of life, while it deprived it of the materials essential for it to live. That one was playing a game it was destined to win.

It was an old friend.

But this new sun came from the south, and it grew hotter with each passing minute. What destruction would it bring, and would the willow even live to see it?

The winds turned, no longer coming from the west. Clouds of dust whipped through the willow's field as the new sun became a scorching veil that blotted out the sky. The willow trembled as the ground shook and twigs snapped from its tiny branches and littered the ground. Its small boughs bent low as the searing ball of fire passed overhead. A booming 'crack' thundered and a chunk of the hurtling rock broke free and plummeted to earth. It crashed in the willow's field.

It was no bigger than a fist, but it punched a hole in the field nearly the size of an acre.

The mother lode of rock barreled on toward a rendezvous with a northern lake, but in southern Ohio the willow had a rendezvous of a different kind.

The fist of rock was on a trajectory headed straight for the willow tree when it bored a trench into the hardened earth. The impact splintered the rock into a thousand specks of gravel, each tunneling their way into the ground, each on a beeline for the willow and each gleaming with an element that had never before touched the earth.

The passing tremor threatened to topple the small tree, as the unearthly substance peppered the willow's roots from below the sod. On impact with the wooden tendrils, the element disseminated, spreading like seed over tilled soil. In time, they would worm their way into the willow's genetic make-up, bonding then changing, as the tree grew strong under its supervision.

The heated moisture in the air, brought by the fiery traveler, cooled and blanketed the field with a layer of mist.

It wasn't much, but it would do.

Jessilyn, October 5th


saw U on PI

haunted inn - interested?

The Rusty Gate - Willow Tree, OH

real deal - check it out!

a fan

Jess Granger rubbed a groggy eye and plopped back down on her cushy pillow. She looked at the text again, her arm stretched out to readable range. The world wasn't coming into focus yet. She needed a cup of coffee and a shot of Maker's Mark. The coffee she could afford.

She set the phone down on the night stand and then ran her stubby fingers through her short, blond hair. She hated her tiny hands; they were like little kid hands. They were something you were supposed to outgrow, like a first set of teeth or a first bra. She had long since grown out of her bra.

Jess considered her options as she ticked them off on her tiny fingers. She didn't need all five.

On a good day she could call herself a stringer. She still had an in with several web publications, mostly digital tabloid stuff. She could fill a blog post on demand, when there was a demand. Nowadays every asshole had an opinion and a blog and most of it was chum in the water. She thought the internet was supposed to bring us all together into one big, happy family. Mostly, it just made her feel irrelevant.

That was on a good day.

On not so good days, she delivered pizza for an all night joint on the east side. She figured that delivering pizza at two in the morning was a surefire way to get stabbed for a slice of pepperoni.

Was that the point? She hoped it hadn't come to that.

She rubbed the sleepers from her eyes and squinted across the room at the clock with the big numbers on her dresser. Seven-thirty in the AM. Normal people would be off to work around this time. Fuck normal people. Jess grabbed her phone from the night stand and had another go at the message.

'saw U on PI'

That had to be the Paranormal Investigator. Jess was a frequent contributor to this webzine of the supernatural variety. Just last month she had waxed eloquent on the subject of "Same Sex Psychics", interviewing gay couples who claimed to have shared visions and premonitions. She remained unconvinced.

But, she had done it for Jameson.

Jameson Landry, the Investigator's editor and webmaster had given her a shot when all the other digital rags had stopped answering her emails. He said he saw something in her and she said she wanted a second opinion. That had made him laugh, and it was a singular sound that tingled her heart and made her want to do it again.

From that day on she would write about anything he wanted, even "Same Sex Psychics". He was Perry White to her Lois Lane.

It didn't hurt that he looked a little like Superman.

'haunted inn - interested?'

She had done a piece on a haunted hotel once, and a haunted car wash, but never an inn. She didn't even know the difference between a hotel and an inn, and the next line made her not give a shit.

'The Rusty Gate - Willow Tree, OH'

She could say to a near certainty that she would NOT be driving down to Ohio to check out some creaky cupboards. She had traversed the Buckeye state last year on her way to spring break in Fort Meyers. It was a vegan nightmare! There were cows and pigs and chickens as far as the eye could see, and they all ... looked at her, like she was the one. It was like they had all come out to see the carnivore. She had recently stopped eating meat, but apparently it hadn't registered on her face yet. She should've gotten some bumper stickers.

'real deal - check it out!'

Real deal. She tried to remember how many times she had been told that it was the 'real deal' and she ran out of tiny fingers.

In all the times she had tracked down the real deals, she had learned one thing: people didn't want their myths 'busted'. They didn't want to know who was behind the curtain pulling the levers. They didn't want to look in the magician's box and see the mirror.

She had tried debunking her first time out and was politely informed that ignorance was bliss and bliss sold more subscriptions. If she wanted to stay in this business, then every deal had better be the real deal.

So, the question was, could she fake another one?

Who was she kidding? It wasn't like she had become a journalist to keep her integrity happy. Her ethical lines weren't blurred, they were ... multifaceted. So what if an apparition turned out to really be fireflies reflecting off of cow farts? She could keep that between her and the cow.

The real question was, would Jameson pay? Nobody else would, and she couldn't afford to write this one on spec. Driving to southern Ohio was a tank of gas one way, at least, which was forty bucks in this economy. She thought of all the other things she could do with forty bucks and her tiny fingers went crazy.

'a fan'

Now that was some scary shit!

Internet journalism had its perks. Working your own hours, from your own couch, in your own pj's were perks.

Fandom was not a perk.

If Jess had wanted to be a star, she would've headed for Hollywood, where full figures like hers were back in style. But, she had stayed in Chicago where she could toil away in obscurity and sweatpants. She didn't need crazed stalkers photo-bombing her with 'selfies' and yammering on about what they thought about this and that. She didn't care what other people thought. Fuck other people.

What she really wanted to know was, how did this fan get her number? That one was going to keep her up at night.

This was too much thinking too early in the morning, and without asking the question she really needed to ask; what had she done last night?

Her memories of last night were fuzzy around the edges, and this was sadly not a new experience. She was in her own apartment, which was a good sign. She remembered going out to the Union Jack with some friends, and that was where things started to fray.

Jess laid a hand, palm spread, on the bed next to her to reinforce what she was seeing; no one had come home with her. She let out a breath she didn't realize she had been holding. Whatever dirty deeds she had done last night, she had done them out there. Only thing left to do now was to figure out what kind of apologies to make and to whom.

Jess threw the covers back and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. An alarm bell went off in her pickled brain.

She was wearing jeans!

Shit! Had she been too drunk last night to take off her pants? This did not bode well. The only other time she could remember this happening -

The knock at her bedroom door was right on cue. Jess wadded up a handful of bed sheet and smothered her face in it.

"Go away, Jameson," she growled into the sheet.

The muffled voice was unmistakable. "Jessilyn dear, if you're going to talk, kindly remove the blanket from your mouth."

Her bedroom door creaked open and in tip-toed her editor, bearing a tray of things that normal people normally ate in the mornings. She had some advice for normal people.

"It's not a blanket," she muttered. "And don't call me Jessilyn."

"That's your name," he countered, setting the tray on the army footlocker at the end of her bed. "Says so on your pay stub."

"I quit!" she snapped back.

Jameson took a seat on the folding chair which doubled as a hanger for her unmentionables. Being a gentleman, he didn't mention them.

"Well then, where should I send your last paycheck?"

She didn't like the tone of his question. It implied that he knew something she didn't, and that would not do. She was about to call him on it, when she noticed him staring at the breakfast tray. Slipped under the plate of eggs and toast was an official looking yellow ticket. She didn't need to see the whole thing to make out the word 'Eviction'.

"You have got to be shitting me!" she spat out. Jess crawled to the end of the bed and snatched the card out from under the plate. "This has to be some kind of joke!"

Jameson pointed to the ice pick setting on the tray next to her orange juice.

"He nailed it to the door frame with that."

Jess sat cross-legged on the bed with her shoulders slumped, stared at the yellow card in her hands and marveled at it. She knew the last straw was seldom seen until after it had broken the camel's back. But here it had been delivered to her on a tray.

She could feel the ice cracking under her feet and she couldn't swim. She looked up at Jameson, her mouth open and no words coming out. Jameson leaned forward, his hands folded in front of him, and she didn't want to hear what came next.

"You know I can help you a little bit - "

"No!" she shouted, bolting from the bed, the yellow ticket wadded up in her tiny fist. "I'm not taking money from you. We've talked about this."

"No," he said, getting his back up a little. "You talked and I sat patiently." His glare nailed the ticket in her hand. "But we're a little passed that now, don't you think?"

"I've made my own way since I was sixteen, and I'm not -"

"Yeah, I know," he said, interrupting. "You're not about to start relying on the kindness of strangers. I've got the T-shirt."

Jameson leaned back in the folding chair, his arms hanging down at his sides and he looked ... spent. He had rode this roller-coaster with Jess for the last two years. Maybe it was time for him to go home.

"What did I do?" she asked him cautiously.

"You didn't do anything," he said in his most fatherly voice. "You just got dealt a lousy hand, like a lot of people."

"No." He had missed it. "I mean, what did I do last night?"

"Oh, that." He crossed his arms and a little grin touched the corners of his mouth. "You showed up at my house."

Jess put a hand to her mouth. "What? How?"

"Apparently you had overstayed your welcome at the Union, and they rolled you into a cab and told the driver to take you home. You gave him my address."

"Oh my God!" she gasped, mortified. "I am so sorry. Did I wake Marci up?"

"I wouldn't expect a Christmas card."

"Oh jeez!" Jess buried her face in her hands and dropped down into the purple bean bag chair by the night stand, moaning. "What did I say? Was it ... embarrassing?"

He was obviously enjoying this.

"You stood on my lawn shouting something about wanting to have my babies. It was all very dignified."

She threw the eviction notice at his head.

"No, you were very quiet," he finally admitted. "You knocked on the door and you seemed ... lost. So we made you a cup of coffee and then I drove you home. Marci insisted."

"Oh, Jamey ... I am so sorry," she said, her eyes pleading. "Tell Marci I owe her big. Tell her I'll babysit for Brody ... for free."

"Brody would eat you alive," Jameson informed her.

"Yeah, he would."

"No big deal," he proclaimed, clapping his hands together. ""All is forgiven. After all, that's what families do, right?"

Yeah, she thought. They forgive you ... and then they eat you alive.

"I hope my car is still at the Union."

"It was when we drove passed it on the way here," he assured her. "It had only been stripped a little. A couple of mirrors and some hubcaps. Barely noticeable."

"Nice try. They got the mirrors last time."

"Anyway, after I tucked you in, I took the cab over to the Union. Your chariot is parked in front of your building as we speak."

"Oh, Jamey, thank you!" Jess checked in the half seashell on the night stand. "Where are my keys?"

"Probably at the Union. You know how they are 'if you sway, they take your keys away'."

Jess scratched her scruffy blond head. "So, how did you drive my car back here?"

Jameson looked down at his fidgeting fingers. "I may have got the extra set from your hidey-hole in the bumper."

Jess' eyes flashed. "The hell! How'd you know about that?"

"You stand in a parking lot holding your friend's hair while she pukes next to her locked car, you tend to learn a few things. Not to worry, I put everything back where I found it."

Her lower lip stuck out. "Yeah well my hair's short now, so you don't have to hold it back."

He laced his fingers together behind his head and put on that serious face she hated. "What's your next move, Jess?"

Whoa, he called her Jess! She must really be drowning in shit. She looked down at the tiny hands in her lap and considered her tiny options. That's when a last resort came knocking at the back of her brain. It was an awful idea, and he probably wouldn't go for it. But that's why they called them last resorts, wasn't it?

"How about an advance on my next blog?"

"You have something in mind?" he asked, intrigued.

Jess reached up and plucked her phone from the night stand. The message was still there, smirking at her, saying "I told you so."

"You better be right about this," she muttered to the phone. She took a deep breath, and then said something she would never be able to take back.

"I'm going to The Rusty Gate."


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