By Barry Yedvobnick
Carter was downstairs. His hands were still shaking as police and ambulance attendants milled around.
Two hours earlier, while working the night shift, he received the neighbor’s call.
“Get home right now, Carter. Your alarm went off. There’s something going on at your place, police and ambulance. They’re not letting anybody get close. I told them I’d call you.”
Why hadn’t Lori called? he’d wondered anxiously. Now he knew.
“Do you need anything, Mr. Caldwell?” asked one of the policemen named Lee.
“No,” he replied with his eyes focused on the floor. “Just, what can you tell me?”
Lee sat down on the couch next to Carter and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Came in through the upstairs study and then into the bedroom. She was still in bed when we found her. Probably asleep when it happened. She didn’t suffer any. I’m not sure that helps, but maybe it does.”
Carter didn’t look up as her body was carried out, but the policeman saw his expression change.
“You probably shouldn’t go upstairs until they tell you it’s okay to,” he said.
“What about the…?” said Carter, without finishing the question.
Lee took the hand off Carter’s shoulder and leaned his head down to face him.
“Third case on your street this year, Mr. Caldwell. I think it’s time you and your neighbors became a bit more proactive. I can recommend a few people, if you like, who can look over your property and advise you on how to go about it. I don’t know what else to tell you, except that I’m sorry,” said Lee.
As Lee headed outside, he saw another officer walking around the property.
“What do you think?” asked Lee.
“Looks real sick to me, maybe the sickest one I’ve seen,” he replied. “I spoke to a few of the neighbors. They said they saw it coming. It was just a matter of time. Been hanging very close to the house for a couple of years, and even more so the last few months. They tried to warn him, but he ignored them. One guy thought Caldwell didn’t want to spend the money. Just bad luck that she was home. The other houses that got hit this year were empty.”
“Yeah, it really sucks, but we can only do so much for people,” said Lee. “They’ve got to take some responsibility.”
Carter couldn’t enter his home again for a long while. It took lots of repairs to make the house livable after the damage. Even then, it took time for him to feel emotionally ready to return and go upstairs. When he finally did, it appeared perfect with no sign of the horror. But he wasn’t even close to perfect. After the initial shock of losing Lori, his thoughts transformed from anger to guilt and revenge. It was his job to keep her safe and he hadn’t. He replayed it over and over. It was right there in front of him. All the warning signs. He hadn’t listened. Lori trusted him. This was his fault.
But he would have revenge. He knew there had to be others, and after months of research, he was confident that he could identify them. One of them had killed Lori. He swore the rest would never get the chance to hurt anyone else. What he held in his hand would guarantee it.
He stood outside with his back facing the roof and upstairs window of his study where the intrusion first occurred. It was all back to normal like nothing happened. As he gazed across his property, he thought how he and Lori loved this place and felt so secure here. They’d both worked hard to earn it, and he couldn’t accept how it was taken away in an instant.
He looked at the trees whose leaves were just turning during the fall transformation. They’d loved this view, but now he stared at it with a different perspective. It was one of calculation that stripped beauty from the colorful mosaic. He felt like a physician ignoring a flawless human physique while searching for a disease. A single tree grabbed his attention.
Way too few leaves for your size, old boy, he thought. I can see that now. Not doing so well, are you?
He walked down the slope from his home towards the oak. It was huge, the largest on the property, and it leaned uneasily over the adjacent creek. There was a small wooden picnic table sitting comfortably between it and the creek. He and Lori spent parts of many Sundays there beneath the tree’s shade.
He looked at the base of the tree. It was populated with mushrooms growing on the rotting bark of the trunk and roots. From his research, he realized this was a red flag for a diseased tree.
“There we go. Mushrooms all over you. You’re a real sick son of a bitch.”
Then he struck the trunk with a rubber mallet and heard a telltale hollow sound.
Dying from the inside out, he thought.
“You were just waiting for the right time to topple over and kill us both. Weren’t you!” he said loudly to nobody.
“Just like that other damn oak up the hill was. When it crashed down through the roof and killed Lori,” he continued, pointing towards his house.
He walked around the tree a few times, decided on the angle, and started the chainsaw.
“But you’ll never get a chance to fall on anybody, you bastard!” he screamed, as he made the first cut.