By Jake Kale
Having circumnavigated Kingsland Cemetery without incident—and still without sight of a single local—I find myself walking on the withered grass of the overgrown golf course where I’d spent a huge portion of my youth for the first time in sixteen long, tortuous years. Oddly, setting foot in here has not provoked a reaction anything like what I’d felt at the cemetery gates. I can’t decide if that’s a good sign or not.
I look down over the rolling hills and scattered groves of woodland, and the view is both familiar and subtly altered. Such an impression might be expected of someone returning to a place they had not visited in years, and maybe it’s the result of the muted light on this typically dreary Cranford day, but to my eyes the grass appears greyish and sickly, and the distant trees seem to have lost their lustre. Perhaps it was always that way, perhaps nostalgia accentuated colours to match my previously fond feelings of this place. But I think of the houses in Easton Avenue, and the fact that signs of recent human activity have become rarer the closer I got to the Fields, and my paranoia begins to climb again. There has been a decay here, and whether it is the result of the otherworldly nightmare lurking in the centre of the Fields or not, I can no longer deny that it is real.
I can’t turn back now. I’ve told myself that over and over again on this journey, convincing myself that it was true so that I wouldn’t turn around and leave Cranford for good. But now it is true—I can’t turn back. I’m more afraid than I’ve been since that day, yet at the same time I experience a total acceptance of my fate that allows my to make this final journey down the slope, the exact route I took when my friends were chasing me, when I thought I was running for my life. Little did I know that we were all heading unthinkingly towards death.
I reach level ground and ahead of me I see the narrow stream leading into the large grove of trees that marks the centre of the Fields, the edge of the barn just visible within.
* * *
We’d reached our destination—the long gravel path leading into the grove lay in front of us, the old barn with its missing left wall partly obscured by trees but still visible. We made our way up the path to look inside. The barn was empty as always, just a scant carpet of what I assumed was hay covering the floor, the remains of ancient wooden beams dotted here and there. The cracked ceiling hung high above us, vaguely discernible shafts of light attempting to penetrate the gloom. I inhaled and wrinkled my nose. The barn smelt musty and dank, and was probably crawling with bugs.
And this was supposed to be our home for the next few days.
I still felt deeply unsettled. The chase through the northern ridge of the Fields might have been nothing more than a cruel practical joke, but I still detected an undercurrent to this place, one that was particularly strong here. It was as if the presence I thought I’d felt was in fact real.
And observing us even now.
Next to me Ricky sniffed, and verbalized my first thoughts about the barn in his own inimitable style. “It fuckin’ stinks!”
“It’s not that bad,” Elly said.
“Just ’cos you’re used to it,” Ricky sniggered, and Elly thumped his arm hard.
“So, what do we do now?” I asked.
Elly thought about it. “We could have something to eat,” he suggested finally.
“Good idea. Kevin’s looking a bit thin,” Ian said. I ignored him.
Elly made his way into the barn, Ian following after him. Ricky and I exchanged a glance, and looking past him I saw something I’d never noticed before. At the end of the path stood the tall, thick trunk of an oak tree, and nestled within its branches I saw a conspicuously angular shape.
It looked like a treehouse.
Ricky noticed I wasn’t looking at him—he probably thought I was about to pull the same stunt Elly had in the cemetery. Regardless, he turned to follow my line of sight, with predictable results. “Fuckin’ hell!” That drew the attention of Elly and Ian, who’d been sat on one of the decomposing beams rummaging through their schoolbags, and they came out to see what the fuss was about. The four of us ambled bewilderedly up to the oak tree, staring into the branches above us at this strange new feature we’d never detected before.
It was a simple box-shaped structure constructed from grey-green planks, with a single tall entrance and no windows, at least on this side. The roof was flat with no overhang, and an extension of maybe a couple of feet jutted out from the floor in front of the doorway. The interior was thickly shadowed. It looked like a garden shed that someone had balanced within the branches of the oak tree. In a weird way it made me think of Monks Park Bus Station in town—its shape was very reminiscent of that bleak looking building.
Speaking for all of us, Ricky said, “I’ve never seen that before.” I could tell he was nervous too because he wasn’t swearing.
Elly said, “Someone must’ve just built it.”
Ricky shook his head slowly. “I dunno, it looks old.” He was right—it looked almost as old as the barn.
“Well, how come we’ve never seen it before?” Ian asked.
“We probably just didn’t notice it,” Ricky said, and Ian gave him a decidedly dubious look. I wasn’t too fond of Ian at that moment, but I certainly shared his appraisal. We’d been coming to this spot for years. The pond was just ahead and to our right, we’d fished for tadpoles there during previous summers, and I vividly remember the time myself and Elly tried to ride our bikes across it and they sunk right to the bottom, so that we couldn’t get them out. There was no way in all that time that we wouldn’t have noticed an old treehouse sat snugly in the oak tree at the end of the path!
“Why would they build a treehouse out here?” Ian said, and I wondered at the time who he thought “they” were.
“Maybe it belonged to whoever used to own the barn,” Ricky suggested.
I tuned their conversation out and looked over at Elly, and saw that he wasn’t listening either—he was looking up at the treehouse. I guessed what was coming next. “We could stay up there,” he said at last.
I was conscious of my mouth falling open as I craned my neck to stare at that odd little wooden shelter. Again I was reminded of the bus station, and I thought of the titular ghost said to roam the pathways underneath that building. The entrance to the treehouse seemed thoroughly uninviting.
“How’re we gonna get up there?” Ricky asked him.
“How d’ya think? We’ll climb up.”
I stared at him. “I can’t climb up there!”
Ian quipped, “You can stay down here then!”
I was getting so sick of his smartass comments that I finally broke my self-imposed swearing ban. “Piss off, Ian!” I snapped. He looked surprised, but didn’t stop smirking.
Ricky was too busy studying the treehouse to notice I’d joined him on the dark side. “It looks a bit fuckin’ rickety,” he said. Actually it looked like a small breeze would send it, and us, tumbling to the floor.
“That’s just ’cos it’s old,” Elly told him.
“Exactly!” I said, “It’ll probably fall to bits.”
“You mean it won’t take your weight!” Ian said.
That was the last straw—I’d well and truly had enough of Ian Farmer. It was probably his idea to play that trick on me earlier. I whirled on him and shouted, “I said, fuck off, Sambo!” I’d heard Mr. Northcott call him that, and I knew he hated it. The smirk disappeared and his eyes went wide. I’d crossed a line, but at the time I didn’t care.
Number ninety-eight on my list.
Elly had apparently had enough of both of us. “Oh, just shut up, you two!” Then to me, “Kevin, we can either stay here or go back to the barn. It’s up to you.”
I stared up at those dull grey beams, that murky, mysterious entrance, and silently cursed Elly for forcing me into this. Twice. All I wanted was to go home. “Alright, we’ll stay here!”
“That’s if you can get up there!” Ian said, but his tone didn’t sound particularly humorous this time.
“Ian, shut your fucking mouth!” Elly said, and Ian finally took the hint. Elly shook his head. “Right, you three can wait here, I’m gonna climb up there and have a look inside.”
Elly sauntered up to the trunk, and I wondered how he was going to do it on his own, but he obviously wasn’t in the mood to ask for help. Instead he reached up for a low branch, gripping the rough bark with his fingers, and tried to haul himself up. He misjudged his grip the first time and had to let go. Then he tried again and this time he managed to lift himself partway up so that he was hanging from the branch, his legs flailing against the tree as he struggled for purchase. I thought he was going to fall, but he managed to find a foothold and yanked himself up so that he was draped over the branch. He then turned awkwardly sideways to lay on top of the branch, and used the trunk to steady himself so he could stand. I worried that the branch wouldn’t take his weight, but it held firm. From that point Elly had little difficulty clambering up to the treehouse entrance, though I knew there was no way in hell I was going to get up there. Rather than risk pissing him off even more I kept my mouth shut and watched as Elly reached out and grasped the lip of the entrance, pulled himself over it and disappeared inside.
I stood with Ricky and Ian, waiting anxiously. We heard scuffling coming from the treehouse floorboards, then nothing for a while. I was about to shout up to Elly to see if he was alright when a muffled cry came from within. “It’s empty!” Half a second later Elly was grinning audaciously down at us, holding something in his hands. “Look what I found!” He let go and a long rope ladder unfurled, enough to reach to the ground with some to spare.
“Nice one!” Ricky said, and he ran over to it and started to climb up to the treehouse, somehow making a clumsier ascent than Elly had done without the aid of the ladder. Ian followed him, his weight helping to stabilize the swinging ropes so that Ricky’s climb was easier. I stayed where I was. My suspicion had been roused the second I saw Elly unroll that ladder, and alarm bells were ringing loudly now. This was all too easy, too convenient, and I swear in could feel that otherworldly presence from the cemetery so intensely I almost expected to turn and see it.
I knew we had to get the hell out of there.
“Elly, I really don’t think we should stay up there,” I shouted up to him.
“Why not?” Elly called back. “It’s OK, it’s strong, it’s probably been here for years.”
“’Cos I don’t like the look of it, alright?” I said.
“There’s nothing in here!” Elly replied, a slight edge creeping into his voice.
“What if whoever built it comes back?”
“There not gonna come back! They’re . . .” He didn’t finish, probably because he didn’t want to spook me any further, but I knew he was going to say, They’re probably dead by now.
Joining Ricky and Elly at the entrance, Ian said, “Oh, leave him out there.”
Ricky agreed. “Fuckin’ chicken,” I heard him say as he went inside.
But I ignored them and focused on Elly Eallis, my best friend since I was five years old, because I knew I had to convince him to come back down. But he was looking at me now with undisguised contempt, and I suddenly realized that all the times he’d stuck up for me against the taunts of the various bullies we’d encountered, including Ian and Ricky, deep down he had shared their opinion of me. He had actually thought all along that I was a useless, fat coward. He sighed and said, “Look, Kevin, either come up here, or fuck off home. You just better not tell anyone we’re up here.”
With that he turned away from me and went inside, and I heard Ian and Ricky ripping into me unchallenged. I stood pathetically staring up at the entrance of the treehouse, slowly beginning to appreciate that the longest and closest friendship I’d ever known had just come to an end.
Then something happened that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Inside the treehouse I heard Ian say, “What’s . . ?” but he didn’t finish, and instead his question turned into a long drawn-out scream of pure terror. I heard Elly yelling something, then Ian stopped screaming and I heard the sound of scuffling, followed by a loud, wet crack and the thump of something hitting the floor, and the treehouse began to shake violently and Ricky was sobbing, I couldn’t hear Ian or Elly anymore, just Ricky pleading desperately, and I stood unmoving at the foot of the tree, listening as my single surviving friend’s cries turned into screams, then cut off so suddenly it took my breath away. The treehouse stopped shaking and I heard the shifting of some ponderous object inside, and I knew it was the thing from the cemetery, the thing that had tracked me and my now dead friends through the Fields, and that it was going to come out to get me. So I turned and I ran, away from the treehouse, away from the barn, through the Fields and all the way to Abbeyville, not daring to look back.
The Treehouse by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.