The romantic dinner Katie had planned in order to propose to Brian, her lover of seven years hadn’t gone smoothly. He’d stormed out and drove off in his Porsche after saying he didn’t feel ready to make that sort of commitment, leaving her alone with Barney, her chocolate Labrador. He’d never leave her. He’d always be by her side. No matter what. Unconditional love, that’s what they had.
“If Brian didn’t feel ready after seven years, well then he never would,” said Katie, to the dog as much as to herself, as she sat on the swing bench on the porch. Barney sat next to her, close enough so she could tickle his chin. She felt safe and loved when he was around. She couldn’t believe she’d wasted all those precious years for a dead end relationship. Well, she wasn’t to know it would turn out this way. Truth be known she hadn’t expected it. He’d declared his undying love for her to her best friend Rhonda, only last week, at Bobbi’s and Tom’s barbecue. Rhonda had told her word for word, of how he wanted to get married and start a family. Oh well, back on the shelf where she’d probably stay now. At thirty two, she thought it would be too late to meet someone and fall in love all over again. Especially after the oncoming lengthy healing process of picking herself up from this rejection.
Her parents had a log cabin in Wales surrounded by a beautiful tranquil forest and a lake practically on the doorstep. It would be the perfect place to gather her thoughts and get her head together. She stocked up on groceries, dog food, and wine from the local supermarket and loaded up the Range Rover that Brian had brought for her birthday three months ago. Barney jumped into the passenger seat and curled up as best as he could. He loved road trips. She listened to her and Brian’s favourite songs on the three hour drive. Big mistake. By the time she got there she’d cried herself dry of anymore tears and had been tempted to crack open a bottle of red.
She produced the huge brass key that unlocked the cabin door then proceeded to unload the car of her shopping and a suitcase full of her clothes and toiletries. She didn’t know how long she planned on staying but she’d booked two weeks off work in any case. Her parents had called her yesterday. Her dad proclaiming he’d never liked Brian from the very start, even after spending numerous golfing weekends together, and once a whole week in Portugal. They said they’d pop up at the weekend but they’d give her a couple of days to herself first.
She ran the huge standalone bath, filling it with bubble bath, and lit the fragranced candles she’d spread around the bathroom. She put the groceries away and poured herself a copious amount of wine in the biggest glass she could find, which happened to be a pint glass.
“What a classy girl I am,” she tittered. Barney barked in agreement.
She wandered from the pine kitchen through the open plan space into the living and straight to the old stereo. She rooted through the cabinet, tossing old CDs and even cassettes aside, until she found the mix CD her and Brian had compiled for their last visit here last year. She pushed play and about thirty seconds in, ejected the CD and threw it in the bin.
“What I am doing” she thought. She selected the FM wave band and searched until she found a station playing more upbeat music. She danced around the living room swigging back her wine and Barney jumped up to join in. A few moments later she was scrubbing the carpet after Barney got a little excited and had knocked her off balance spilling at least half a pint of red wine on the cream rug.
She soaked in the bath until her fingers and toes were pink and wrinkly. She dried and dressed herself in some old jogging bottoms and sweatshirt.
“Come on boy. Let’s go out for a walk,” she said to the dog.
Barney’s ears pricked up. He knew that word. He gave a deep woof, got up, and trotted to the back door with his tail wagging furiously.
It was dusk now. The birds were retiring to their nests in the trees. The odd duck quacking was the only noise that broke the silence and its mate returned the call a few seconds later. Katie stood looking out over the lake watching the last of the sun go down over the silhouetted skeletal frames of the trees on the other side.
Katie and Barney walked slowly around the lake. Kate pausing now and again to take a drink from the remains of the wine bottle or to skim some stones across the calm waters. She thought of the dream wedding she’d always wanted but would now probably never have. She imagined her children here now, a boy Harry, and a girl Tara, running through the woods, or boating or fishing on the lake. She’d never have them now either. She sat down as these thoughts enveloped her and started to weep. Sensing this Barney came and rested his head in her lap as she stroked the top of his head. She put her arms around him and hugged him tight and cried until Barney’s fur on his one side was soaking wet.
“Come on, let’s go into the woods and see if you can chase any pheasants before they go up to roost,” Katie said to Barney as she jumped up. Barney woofed twice and ran ahead.
To most people the woods would have been out of bounds at this time in the evening, but not to Katie. She had grown up around these woods and had often played in them alone as a child until it got dark. It was eerily silent save for the odd crack or rustle of a badger or fox padding among the fallen twigs and leaves. Barney raced around following the trails of these nocturnal creatures. They wandered through the woods and Barney stopped dead when he heard the hooting of an owl.
“It’s just an old owl. Nothing to be afraid of,” said Katie kneeling down to stroke Barney’s neck. “Come on boy, this path will lead us back around to the house and we can pig out on some snacks. How’s that sound?”
Barney whimpered, then growled, before racing off in front of her along the dirt track.
She could hear Barney barking just up ahead. He’d most likely found a hedgehog or something but when she rounded the corner she saw him staring at a huge oak tree. Its boughs barren of any leaves. His heckles were up and he barked and growled while pacing up and down and around the trunk of the tree.
“What is it boy? A squirrel? A pheasant?”
Barney whimpered and ran circles around the tree. His barks growing louder and his growls more prolonged. Katie approached the tree and placed her hands on it. It was their tree. Hers and Brian’s. Although it looked decaying, as if the best thing for it would be to chop it down. They’d carved their names on here when they first started dating all those years ago. But where was the carving? It had been a long time but she was sure the bark wouldn’t have grown back. Her hands searched around the trunk but she couldn’t find anything. It was definitely the right tree. Barney continued with his grumbling and howling. Katie looked up towards the canopy of the tree, trying to see what was up there. It was too dark now even with the glow of the moon. Something brushed her ankle and she screamed in surprise.
“What was that?” she said aloud.
Barney was now barking with ferocity at the tree. Katie began to get scared but of what she had no idea. She’d never seen Barney this spooked before. She jumped again as something else swept along her leg then started to climb up her shin and slither up the inside of her thigh. Was it a snake? It felt pretty big to be an adder. She let out another scream as whatever it was tightened around her upper thigh. She tried to run but its grip was so tight and she only got a couple of yards before she could move no further. Her hands moved down quite unwillingly but she had to try to get this thing, whatever it was, to loosen its grip. Her hands felt the hard, deep ridged object. At first she couldn’t figure it out, then she realised it was a branch from the tree. She relaxed a little. She’d somehow gotten herself tangled in the darkness. The branches’ hold tightened still and others came and wrapped around her other leg and lower torso. She screamed again over and over. Barney barked and snarled then leapt up and latched his jaws around one of the branches, thrashing his head from side to side and pulling with all his might to get it to loosen its grip on his mistress. Smaller branches and vines reached out from the depths of the dark and lassoed Kate’s arms while she continued screaming. This couldn’t be happening she thought. I’ve passed out after too much wine. I’ll wake up in a minute. The tree, it couldn’t possibly be alive, could it? But it was. The vines grew longer and thicker and bound her arms by her side. They wrapped around her head and across her mouth muffling the screams that were up, until a seconds ago high pitched. Barney continued with his barking and biting but couldn’t get near Katie. The branches thrashed at him, making him release his now bleeding jaws. A thicker branch swung from above him and caught him in his side knocking him several feet away. He lay there winded, whining from his broken ribs. The branches drew her in, closer now to the thick trunk of the tree. The bark rippled and peeled back, revealing the creamy white of the tree. With her back to it she felt herself sinking into the tree. That same feeling when somersaulting on a bouncy castle. That squishiness when you’re swallowed from all sides. As she sank deeper the bark moved back to the same spot it had parted from, as if it had never moved. Little shoots of leaves sprouted amongst the branches. The only thing remaining of Katie was a solitary Reebok classic trainer amongst the leaves at the foot of the tree.