Oak Trees in Late Afternoon

If You’d Like To See Him, Come In by Corey Farrenkopf

The following story received an Honorable Mention in our Scary Short Story Contest.

The hole in the backyard opened when Ralph stopped calling Chris during summer vacation. It was roughly the size of a small fist, but deep, deeper than Chris could tell. It lay beneath an oak behind the swingset his father built from repurposed telephone poles. He’d only seen things drifting into it, never coming out. Wasps and honey bees, caterpillars, squirrels, chipmunks, a singular opossum. Chris imagined the creatures trapped below, tangled in spider silk, wasps laying eggs in their mammalian brains. He’d read about parasitic insects, scanning through pages of ants overtaken by fungi, of butterflies with hornet larva burrowing through their abdomen.  

Chris’s hypothesis was guess work. He hadn’t peered into the hole. That was what Ralph would do.  

You’ve got to check this out, Chris texted Ralph, accompanied with a picture of the hole, angled like an infinite tunnel into the earth.

Maybe tomorrow. Hanging out with Cynthia. Can’t make it.

Cynthia’s arrival corresponded with their crumbling correspondence. She was short and skinny, hair always tied back in blond braids. Chris and Ralph were nearly identical, messy brown hair, olive skin. But Ralph was five inches taller. It wasn’t hard to see the advantages that leant. Chris disliked thinking the distance was fed by jealousy, but the alternatives were depressing. 

Ralph couldn’t have grown bored with Chris, not after ten years of friendship, countless campaigns of dungeon crawling video games and science fiction marathons. One month couldn’t eradicate years, best friends downgraded to past acquaintances. 

***

Ralph didn’t show up the next day to check on the hole. 

Chris crouched at a distance, determining if it had grown wider. 

It had. 

The small fist was now the circumference of his torso. If he wished, Chris could slide inside, flashlight clenched in teeth, spelunking, letting the earth envelop him. 

He pulled out his phone, bringing Ralph’s number to the screen. His finger hovered over send.

“Screw him,” Chris muttered, stuffing the phone inside his pocket. He knew his friend wouldn’t pick up, most likely half-dazed from a handjob by the kettle pond where they used to swim.

Chris approached the hole, slow, as if stealth was required. He tested the ground with a leading foot, making sure sinkholes wouldn’t open beneath him. The oak’s shadow splayed across the ground like bloated veins and arteries. He bent, squinting into the darkness. That morning a neighbor’s cat drifted into the empty space. Chris watched for fifteen minutes. The cat hadn’t emerged.

“Lemington,” Chris called tentatively. 

The neighbor’s cat had the worst name he could imagine.

Where he hoped to hear a mewling, a dry rasp climbed the cavern as if it were a parched throat. 

“If you’d like to see him, come in,” the voice groaned, windlike lungs pumping fetid air. Dirt around the hole’s edge collapsed inward as Chris ran back to his house, the voice echoing in his ears, his stomach in his throat.

***

He texted Ralph once his pulse slowed and the taste of bile slid away from his tongue.

Ralph didn’t respond.

***

Their summer plan had been to run every morning, a five mile circuit around nearby ponds, tracing the bike path for half its length. They’d both wanted to lose the baby fat softening their silhouettes. Myths of nerds and endless virginity murmured in the back of their minds, pop culture bleeding social fears into their subconscious thoughts. They had each other, but an incessant loneliness clung to them like a thick fog, obscuring reality, any true sense they could have of themselves. 

The running lasted one week before Cynthia joined them. She lived a few streets over, saw them ducking through trails behind her house. They shared a second week of sprints before Chris was left to run alone, the drone of classic punk through cheap headphones his only accompaniment. 

***

By late August, Ralph hadn’t replied to a text in weeks. Chris still ran their morning route. Shin splints seared his bones. The weight hadn’t come off. He’d soaked in a thorough tan, but that did nothing to fill the growing emptiness he felt, abandonment carving caverns in his chest.

I miss you, he texted Ralph. 

The screen went blank and remained that way as Chris reclined on his back porch, sweat drying across his forehead. Behind the swingset, the hole had grown broad. It was wide enough for two teenage boys to fit side by side. 

The irony wasn’t lost on Chris. 

He left the deck, no longer testing the ground around the opening. If it gave, it gave. All the leaves on the oak had burnt brown, crisping two months ahead of the surrounding forest. From inside the hole, a dim droning emerged, the call of a beehive in agitation. Something writhed in the darkness, a mess of tangled limbs opening, offering embrace. A steady stream of insects trickled into the cavern, ants and spiders clawing over one another, falling from sight.

Chris stood at the edge, sneakers inches away from the darkness.

“If you’d like to see him, come in,” the rasping voice offered.

“See who?” Chris asked.

“Do you have to ask?” the voice replied. 

“No, I guess not,” Chris answered, dropping to his knees, bending double, fingers gripping the ledge, peering at what lay just out of sight.

Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. His fiction has been published in Catapult, Redivider, JMWW, Slushpile Magazine, Third Point Press, Cotton Xenomorph, and elsewhere. His work has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net award. To learn more, follow him on Twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com

Lead image: “Oak Trees in Late Afternoon” (via Flickr user John Morgan)

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