"Are we there yet?"
The words every father expects to hear. Invariably, at every ten-minute interval, my eight-year-old daughter Cynthia, would peel her face from the car window and ask the same question. And dutifully, I would respond, "Almost, sweetie." We had been driving for almost two hours (which should give you an idea of how much I'd had to put up with) to drop Cynthia off at her mother's. Lisa and I had been divorced for about three years, and doggedly, she still demanded to see Cynthia for a month every Christmas. Now, Lisa wasn't exactly Mother of the Year material, but hell—I'm no angel myself. I'm thirty-seven, I smoke, and have a nasty penchant for cursing like a sailor. But dammit, I love Cynthia, and it still kills me every time I drop her off for that dreaded month of December.
Needless to say, I was in no hurry to get to Lisa's. So this year, I decided to take an old backwoods route. I figured it would be a good chance to show Cynthia the beauty of nature while squeezing out a little bit more time with her before I had to leave her for four and a half weeks. She was so engrossed by the passing scenery that she would only ask the periodic "Daddy, what's that?!" or "Are we there yet?" before replacing her round little face on the passenger-side window. And I would indulge her every question, explaining "It's an old grain silo, sweetheart," or "Almost, dear."
After a while, I flicked on the radio for some quiet background noise, and began to slip into the quiet, meditative trance induced by long-distance driving. However, my calm was soon disturbed by a shriek from Cynthia. Slamming on the brakes instinctively, I brought the car to a lurching halt, looking over at Cynthia. "What is it? Cynthia, what's wrong!?" I asked, panicking. My mind raced with all the things that could go wrong—heart attack, pulmonary edema, kidney failure (all of which were outlandish, seeing as Cynthia was perfectly healthy); but Cynthia just kept staring out the window, transfixed by whatever was out there.
As I looked past her small, childlike head, I began to see what had elicited the shrill scream.
It was an enormous white birch tree in the middle of a snowy field. Now, aside from the unusually large size of the tree (birches don't usually grow much bigger than a foot in diameter, this one had to be at least four or five), something else struck me as odd about the leaves of the tree. It was a good distance into the field (about thirty yards) and I was still looking from behind Cynthia's head (which was firmly plastered to the window at this point), but I could just barely make out the shape of the leaves themselves.
It didn't even register at first, but after looking carefully, I realized that the leaves of the tree weren't leaves at all… they were… shoes. Hundreds of them. Hanging from the branches by the laces, every shape and size imaginable. I slowly opened the door and stepped out to get a closer look. The sheer size of the tree was impressive, and the spread of its branches was unbelievable. By a rough sizing-up, I guessed there to be about six or seven hundred pairs hanging all in all, some from even the smallest branches. I began to walk around the front of the car, unable to take my eyes off the bizarre spectacle before me. Then, without warning, I heard the other door open, and Cynthia shot off toward the tree, giggling with childish laughter.
Now, aside from the fact that this was a field, in the middle of nowhere, it was also the dead of winter. So as Cynthia ran off toward the tree, wearing just a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, my first reaction was to go get her coat (Lord knows she wouldn't put it on, even if it was fifty below). I turned around to grab her snow jacket from the car, and when I turned back, coat in hand, to yell at Cynthia to wear it… she was gone.
My eyes searched the snow frantically for her, tracing her footsteps directly to the tree's base. "Cynthia!" I called. I heard a girlish giggle in response. "Cynthia, we don't have time to play games!" I took a step towards the tree, and as the snow crunched underfoot, I heard her giggle again, unmistakable. "Cynthia, come here right this instant!" I shouted, my voice becoming slightly more hoarse. To my immense relief, she revealed herself, dashing out from behind the shoe tree. But there was something off about her, something I couldn't quite put my—
She was barefoot. "Fine, Daddy, I'm here! Do we have to go? The tree is so warm and nice!"
I grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking her small frame, nearly trembling from fear, "Cynthia, where are your shoes?"
Nervously, she answered, "The nice man told me to take them off, Daddy—look, he gave me a pretty necklace!"
My heart sank to the pit of my stomach. Sure enough, there, around my daughter's neck, was a small heart-shaped pendant. I clenched my jaw, grabbed the pendant, and snapped it off.
"Daddy? What's wrong?"
"Cynthia, I need you to get back in the car, and stay there. Now."
"But Daddy, my sho—"
"NOW, Cynthia. Get in the car, and lock the doors. Don't open them for anyone, until I tell you so, okay?"
"Okay… if you say so…"
Cynthia walked off nervously towards the car, throwing glances back at me over her shoulder. I watched every step she took until she finally got in, and locked the doors. Then I turned to confront this "nice man". Whatever sick fuck set up this little sideshow attraction, I wasn't about to allow him to go around luring little kids in with cheap baubles just so he could get his rocks off. I followed Cynthia's tracks straight toward the tree, until it loomed before me, larger than life. It was then that I noticed something about the shoes: they were all children's. Not a single pair larger than a kid's size 7. I shuddered and placed my hand on the tree for support.
To my shock, it was warm to the touch. I peeled back some of the papery bark to get a closer look at what might be causing this phenomenon, and was surprised to see what looked like initials carved in. Now, that wouldn't have been terribly unusual, were it not for the fact that right next to those initials were more. And next to those, even more. As I peeled back more and more of the thin, waxy bark, I discovered dozens of initials carved in, then hundreds. I took a step back. I began to get an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, the twisting, wrenching knot that forms when you know something's wrong. I glanced back up at the shoes, and the knot tightened. I saw Cynthia's sneakers dangling there, like tiny little cadavers, dangling languidly by their laced entrails.
Thoroughly creeped the fuck out at this point, I turned and ran the fuck back to the car, my breath forming heavy clouds in the sharp, cold air. I grabbed my key, unlocked the driver's side door, got in, and locked it behind me. I turned to Cynthia and asked her, "Are you okay sweetie? Did anyone hurt you, or touch you?"
"No, Daddy, I'm fine! Mr. Smiles is funny, he makes me laugh. He's got a funny face!"
That knot in my stomach twisted and squeezed, sending icy tendrils of fear creeping up toward my heart. "Who's Mr. Smiles, Cynthia?"
Cynthia remained wordless as her eyes slid to the backseat. My heart froze solid as I slowly turned my gaze to follow hers. It lounged casually back there, only barely human. Bony talons, clasped neatly together, protruded from underneath the rotting flesh of its fingers. Its "funny face" was a mass of decaying skin, stretched tight over its bleached white skull. The corners of its mouth had sloughed away, leaving only a sickening grimace permanently etched beneath its eyeless sockets. The grotesque smile widened, and it reached into a jar at its side, grasping a tiny piece of candy between its decrepit fingers.
"Care for a piece of candy?"
I stared, frozen with terror, as Cynthia's hand reached out and snatched the candy from its clutches, and began unwrapping it. The creature's eyeless gaze seemed to shift to meet my own horrified stare, its disgusting grin widening ever so slightly. I tried to scream, but curiously, found that I couldn't. Funny, I hadn't even noticed his other hand creeping up my neck. A creeping chill entered my veins as his icy talons clutched my throat. Warm blood spilled down my chest as my last breaths wheezed through the freshly torn hole in my neck. Cynthia looked at me curiously, suckling innocently on that piece of candy. Her voice echoed around me as I spiraled down into darkness.
"Daddy? What's wrong? Daddy…? Daddy…"