By Thomas M. Malafarina

© 2018 Thomas M. Malafarina

The old tree stood alone on an island of dirt in the middle of the corn field, the only tree remaining of the original crop of more than a dozen. The others had all died out over the years. This tree with its gnarled, twisted trunk and dried out branches looked as though it would soon be joining its brothers in death. Scores of crows flew through the fields but seemed to do their best to avoid the tree. Perhaps this was because of how the tree resembled a giant scarecrow; or perhaps for other reasons only they knew.

Jessica had never understood why these strange islands of trees and underbrush were scattered throughout various farm fields. She always thought a more open uninterrupted field would make the farmer’s job a lot easier. That was until Jacob had explained it to her.

He had told her,”Sometimes the trees act as wind barriers. Other times if the right vegetation is planted on among the trees it can lure insects away from the crops. And sometime, especially in the old days, these areas even served as family burial grounds.”

Jacob had been the fourth generation son of a farming family. He also considered himself Jessica’s fiance; although she would be most certain to disagree. Their relationship was rocky at times and complicated at others. They had been friends since junior high school and even back then in the eighth grade Jacob announced he would marry Jessica someday. She never thought he was serious, even though he continued to insist they would marry all through high school.

Jessica liked Jacob a lot, but only as a friend. It wasn’t like they had ever actually dated or for that matter had even kissed. In her mind they were just good friends. Jessica had big plans for her future. She was going to go away to college. After that she hoped to land a high-paying job somewhere far away and would never return. She knew she could never settle down and be content to be a farmer’s wife, pumping out a brood of farm kids. She tried to explain this to Jacob, time and time again, but he wouldn’t listen.

“It’s our destiny to be together Jessica.” He would insist. “You can say what you want and believe whatever you choose, but I know it’s you and me forever.”

No matter how much Jacob frustrated her with his endless talk of love and marriage, Jessica never had the courage to say the words Jacob needed to hear. She truly didn’t want to hurt him but somehow she had to find a way to get him to understand.  She did her best to avoid him during the final months of high school. She had thought perhaps this cold shoulder treatment would be a subtle way of not only distancing herself from Jacob, but maybe making him lose interest in her as well. She thought her plan was working until a week or so after high school graduation.

She had been coming out of a clothing store at the local shoping center when Jacob pulled over to the curb in his pickup truck and asked her to get in.

“Sorry Jacob, I can’t now. I have things to do.” She told him.

Jacob gave her that lost puppy look She had once found cute but now just found annoying, “Come on Jessica. It’s stupid to be avoiding me this way, especially with us getting married and all.”

“For the last time Jacob, we’re not getting married.” She said trying to remain calm but feeling her temper growing.

“But of course we are. We’ve been talking about this for years.”

“No WE haven’t Jacob, you have. Not us, just you. I’m not marrying you or anyone else. I’m leaving for college out of state in two months and never coming back here!”

“But Jess. You and me have to start making babies, lots of them. And we can’t do that without getting married.”

“You’re such a dope Jacob. You don’t have to be married to have babies or to have sex.”

“Maybe not everybody, but I do Jess. That’s how we do things around here. You know that. That’s why we’ve been saving ourselves for marriage all these years.”

Jessica went suddenly silent and had trouble meeting Jacob’s stern gaze. Jacob said, “Jess? You, you have been saving yourself haven’t you?”

She knew her answer would break Jacob’s heart, but she had no choice. He wouldn’t leave her alone. She took a deep breath and murmured, “No Jacob. I haven’t saved myself for marriage or for you. In fact, there have already been many boys. I’m sorry Jacob, but that’s just the way it is.”

Jacob looked as if Jessica had reached inside his chest and pulled out his still beating heart, crushing it between her fingers. He never said another word to her; he just turned his head away and drove off. She never spoke to him again. Two weeks later Jacob was killed while working on the farm in an accident involving a piece of heavy equipment.

His parents had his body cremated and his ashes scattered beneath the old twisted tree on the island in the cornfield. Jessica attended his memorial service held at the base of the tree where Jacob’s ashes were spread. After that day she always thought of the hideous tree as Jacob’s tree.

Jessica spent the rest of the summer getting ready for college. Occasionally she had made a few trips past the cornfield where Jacob’s tree stood but never left her car or ventured out to the island. She would often imagine him saying to her, “”It’s our destiny to be together forever.” But she always managed to put the thoughts out of her mind.

With the exception of those creeping thoughts of Jacob, that summer was an exciting time for her as it marked the start of her adult life. She was going away to college. She was going to make something special of her life. Yet nevertheless every so often she would still hear Jacob’s voice in the back of her mind saying, “It’s our destiny to be together forever.”

The day before she was to leave for college Jessica realized she needed to do something to find closure. She had to find a way to put Jacob and her past to rest before she could begin her new life.

She drove out to Jacob’s family farm and parked along the dirt road leading back to his parents’ farmhouse. She crawled over the split-rail fence and walked out to the island and to Jacob’s tree.

She stood before the gnarled and twisted thing and said, “Jacob. I’m so, so sorry. I tried to explain to you for years that we could only be friends. I should have been more honest with you but I didn’t want to hurt you or risk our friendship. But in the end, I lost both and for that I will be sorry for the rest of my life.”

“It’s our destiny to be together forever Jessica.”

Jessica breath caught in her throat as she heard Jacob’s voice again, more clearly than in the past. She also was certain she not only heard the voice in her mind but in her ears as well. Yet she knew such a thing was impossible. That was when she heard a scraping sound like some creeping creature slithering along the ground. She looked down and saw several long vines rising up from the ground at the base of the tree and working their way toward her ankles. She stood stunned for a moment then began to slowly back up.

As she did she felt something press hard against her back and looked up to see the tree leaning down toward her with its long branches extended like twisted arms. She saw a face forming on the surface of the tree’s weathered bark. It was Jacob’s face. She felt a tightening in her chest and saw that some of the smaller branches had grabbed her around the waste and chest like hands, their grip vice-like, driving the air from her lungs.

Within seconds she was lifted high into the air and brought toward the trunk of the tree where she was held tightly by branches and vines. Soon the creeping foliage had encircled her, tearing off her clothing and leaving her naked and bruised in its grip. As she hung in the air she felt the vines crawling up her legs and invading her most private of areas. She burned with an agonizing pain. She wanted to scream out but more of the invasive things had found their way into her mouth and were crawling down her throat, choking off her air supply.

As nightfall engulfed the remainder of the day, so Jacob’s tree swallowed Jessica, bringing her back to him. Her last thoughts were that Jacob was right. She would now be his forever.

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