This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “The Brotherhood of Trees.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This story was first published at Aeon Speculative Fiction, February 2006. It was named an Honorable Mention story in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, volume 24. The ebook cover is by Zone 1 Design.
“The protagonist and his partner are depicted with compassion and pathos, and not the over-the-top camp behavior many other authors use to depict gay characters. This, coupled with the neat backstory and polished prose, makes this a tale worth reading.” —Jason Fischer, Tangent Online
The Brotherhood of Trees
Every morning that winter, just as the black night began to melt into the first red fingers of day, I went running in the forest behind our house. Fred was still snoring and twitching in his light, carpal-tunnel-induced sleep, and his eyes would be red when he woke after too much dreaming about line after line of code. Me, I’d be refreshed and sharp and focused, thanks to my new routine of jogging with the hounds.
We’d never wanted kids, Fred and me, not back in the days when our love was still athletic and young. So we got dogs instead. Not a bad tradeoff, in hindsight, due to how hard Fred worked and the long hours I’d started to keep myself after fifteen years at the firm. We loved our nieces and nephews, and we ignored the awkward moments as the kids adjusted to having two uncles living together in one house.
We always got the dogs in pairs—first we had greyhounds (former racers, docile and loyal), then lap dogs (Fred’s choice, not mine), and even mutts (from the pound, always grateful and at our heels).
But these two, Boris and Cloris, were something else. They were beagles. Forget lethargic Snoopy lounging on top of his doghouse. When I took these two running through the frozen woods behind our house, it was all I could do to keep them from pulling my arms out of their sockets, one leashed, furry ball of energy per arm. They tore up and down the trails, baying louder than all of our previous dogs together could’ve mustered. God help me if they saw a squirrel or caught scent of a deer.
Boris was light brown and white, while Cloris was dark brown and spotted, and they were the ones who first saw the young boy standing next to the cave half a mile from the house I shared with Fred.
When they saw him, they didn’t bark like they usually did—all throaty yowl and frenetic gasping for air. They simply turned toward him the same time, hard, tripping me in mid-stride, and then they padded off the trail up to the pale, shirtless boy.
“You okay, son?” I asked as I clambered up the incline toward him. I was gasping for breath, sucking the frigid air into my aching lungs, and it wasn’t just from my previous ten minutes of running. The young man was beautiful: porcelain skin, jet-black hair falling over heavy-lidded, light-blue eyes. His perfection was marred only by what looked like dried blood on the tips of his slender fingers.
Don’t ask me why I kept calling him that. My voice felt raspy and hoarse, too loud in the chill, early-morning air, surrounded by the whispering of the branches above us.
The dogs kept staring at him, quivering and pawing at the cold ground. Usually they were all over people, nipping at their ankles and barking with maximum volume. But Boris and Cloris refused to get too close to the slim, silent boy. He appeared to be in his teens, not nearly as young as I’d thought at first.
Just like the dogs must have gotten earlier, I smelled his scent: wet dirt and something smoky, like aged tobacco tapped from a pipe. When he turned his scintillating blue gaze from the dogs onto me, Boris and Cloris immediately began to whimper for the return of his attention.
I wanted him to say something, but in the warm light of his gaze, I felt like any words would be meaningless. We just stood there, me hunched and huffing for air and shivering, him standing straight and patient and still as the trees all around us.
Then his gaze left me, and I knew how the dogs felt, as if a shadow had just been cast over the sun. He was peering at something deeper in the forest, close to where the trail veered off into the gray darkness still clinging to the trunks and branches like fog. Something crackled off in that direction, possibly a squirrel or a bird. Boris and Cloris never batted a canine eye.
I was about to ask the boy if he was lost, but the question stuck in my throat when I looked back at him. He was standing up now, thin arms raised to shoulder height like a crucifixion. I could see his veins through his pale skin, and they looked greenish-blue as they pulsed with life. His breath clouded the air around his head in a halo. He seemed to be waiting for me to break the silence.
What the hell, I figured. Why not?
I inhaled cold December air, felt it sting inside my lungs, and started to talk to him.
* * * * *
In spite of the coldness in our house, I had no problem waking up early the next morning, or the following week of mornings. Even as snow dotted the forest floor, the boy remained outside the cave, shirtless, and waiting to hear me talk.
With Fred so busy and stressed out with his work, I found talking to the boy—who refused to even answer me when I asked his name or tried to take him to our house for shelter—much easier. And addictive.
So addictive that I never thought to ask him about how he came to live there, or why he never seemed cold. I wanted to talk to Fred the way I talked to this boy, but with our competing schedules, we never seemed to find the time. At some point we’d become more like housemates than lovers.
On top of that, the dogs were infatuated with the boy, and they didn’t seem to mind missing our morning runs. I think they preferred sitting at his feet and licking the dirt from his hands and nuzzling the wounds on his fingertips until they began to fade. His fingers were not stained with blood, I discovered, but they’d been burned. Each morning the wounds would return, as if he spent his afternoons and nights abusing himself with fire.
Again, I had no luck when I asked about these things. No response other than the turning away of that achingly blue gaze. I told myself that the boy needed to keep some things to himself. God knows I’d learned that in the past fifty years.
I would sit and rub my arms and tell him about my day, my clients at the firm, and the old days with Fred and our other friends, before they broke up or settled down or moved away or—a handful of us—fell ill. I cried a couple mornings with him, bringing up these old memories, but he neither drew back from me, nor did he try to comfort me. And somehow, that felt right.
While I felt the old, unhealed scars inside me heal, I realized I was getting soft in the belly again. Too many skipped runs. I wondered if Fred would notice.
The strange young boy didn’t seem to notice. Though without fail, each morning, just as I was about to check my watch or glance at the rising sun, he would simply turn and wander off without a word. He headed deeper into the woods and entered a clearing of broken and burnt tree trunks bordered by leafless oaks. When he dropped to his knees, I would fill with guilt, watching him like a voyeur as he tried to push his hands into the frozen ground. I tried to breathe through my mouth so I wouldn’t smell the stink of something burning that filled the morning air.
I would turn and run then, hot with shame as the dogs led me back home to Fred, still tossing and turning in our cold bed. I ached to join him there, to tell him all about the boy out in the cold and alleviate my guilt. But instead I fed the dogs and drank my coffee on the back deck, watching the forest and shivering, alone.
* * * * *
The next week, winter hit us with a day of snowfall and wind that drifted the snow around our back deck and painted the trees white that lead into the forest. For Fred’s sake, I still kept up my pretenses at running, dragging the dogs out from under their musky, chewed blankets and leading them onto the crunching layer of snow covering the dead grass and undergrowth in the forest.
The boy was there each day, always outside his cave waiting for me, always shirtless and silent. I knew, of course, by that time that he wasn’t human. I figured it was a trade-off—I felt all too human with my back acting up along with the ten pounds I’d gained since first meeting him. I’d lost all interest in running, living instead for my time with the boy, aching for his undivided attention and the serenity it brought me.
I felt something begin to melt inside of me—something I’d never even known was frozen—as I told the boy about events that I thought I’d forgotten forever. From the day I tried to tell my brother about the way I felt about the other boys at school, to the long nights in the hospital with Alan in the late seventies, a good five years before I’d ever met Fred. I talked about my life’s adventures, like the trips around the world, the friends I’d made who were more blood to me than my own family, the mad rush of meeting a new man whose body fit mine as we danced, kissed, and made love.
But the boy seemed most interested in the hardships. He would nod along, as if agreeing with how much it all hurt. As if he could relate, at such a young age.
One morning after talking for an hour, I tried reaching out to him, but he simply pulled away and seemed to fade into the trees around us. The following morning was even colder, and I begged him to come back to our house, not caring about all the questions Fred would ask. But the boy just shook his head at my invitation and gazed deeper into the forest, touching his blue-tinted lips with the burnt fingertips of his hand.
* * * * *