You're twisting my words again. As I've already said a hundred times, I have no simple answers for your questions. You can't expect me to respond "yes" or "no" to questions about complex matters that I haven't begun to recover from. Jerry, you know better than any of these assholes that I'm not the kind of guy who rattles easily. I don't belong in this loony bin!
Yes, I did agree to cooperate. If I have to answer you straight, then I will, but only if you'll let me explain the details. I admit to spending the previous weekend with Arthur and Samantha Duncan at the old Schall estate on Riley's Rock, and I confess to the property's hasty demolition. The Duncans' murders are thankfully not on my conscience, but my inability to prevent them is. The bullet was mine, but I didn't kill Sam; she was already dead. I just killed the bitch that stole her body. Not sure what that adds up to in court. And I didn't do it all in a raving mania. You got to believe me, through this whole incident I was perfectly sound in mind until I uprooted that damned tree. It was that final horror that sent me off the deep end and ultimately landed me here.
I really don't expect any of you to believe what I'm about to disclose, but I've got the right to explain myself. I need another whiskey before I start, Jerry, if you don't mind.
The Duncans wanted to turn the estate into a vacation resort. God knows the place had more rooms than anyone knew what to do with. Art never told me how he got his hands on the property, just that he wanted me in charge of hotel security. I needed the money and hadn't had a steady income since the war. Art had better luck in that area, the rich bastard. Besides that, he felt like he owed me one for that bullet I caught in his stead.
He and the wife had to bring their own hired help — four foreigners who didn't speak a word of English — because they couldn't find any in town. The locals weren't crazy about the place. We were told that centuries ago a tribe of druids tainted the Rock with ritual blood-spilling, which none of us considered very seriously at all, though it still almost turned Sam off of the place. Sweetest lady I ever knew, but a little too sensitive sometimes, even for a Catholic. I have to cut her a little slack, though. After her last stillbirth she stopped taking her meds and her neurotic lapses got more frequent.
Efram and Jozsa Schall were Jewish immigrants who migrated to the 'States a century ago and built the hotel on the Rock with the same dream as the Duncans of running a vacation resort and raising a family. And like the Duncans, the Schalls had trouble birthing children. They tried as hard as they could to have a baby, but nothing seemed to work and by the time they moved to that little hick town by Riley's Rock they'd all but given up. Some of the locals said Jozsa wasn't meant to spawn — even now they always say it quietly like they're afraid Jozsa will overhear.
Yet shortly after they arrived Jozsa became pregnant, and for a while the Schalls had more spring in their step than usual. Explains how Efram managed to get the hotel built so quickly. Jozsa spent her pregnancy planting and nursing a garden on the west end of the property, and surrounded it with a beautiful cherry grove. A nice way to celebrate the new life she would soon bring into the world, if you ask me. But the baby never got a name. Stillbirth, you see.
The Schalls buried the baby in the grove near a young sapling, and Jozsa let it all grow out of control until the Rock had itself a nice toupee of greenery. Efram tried to forget they ever had the baby, but Jozsa must've felt like she'd been robbed of her motherhood because she visited the grave every day to keep the poor kid's spirit company. For the next ten years tenants heard her singing out there for hours at a time.
One day Jozsa led Efram into the grove and neither of them ever came back. Then the Schalls' tenants started disappearing, rumor has it the same way Jozsa did: one by one, like in a trance, they walked into the grove and ceased to exist. The locals shunned the property for fear they'd disappear, too. They closed off the roads to Riley's Rock until the trees and foliage covered them up. The grove withered and decayed and the house degenerated into a mausoleum for the Schalls and their nameless baby.
In spite of its history, the Duncans loved the place. It was a fixer-upper for sure: everything was caked in dust, the furniture had all but fallen apart, and the ceiling had collapsed in two rooms and let the spring drizzles damage everything inside. But they loved it and they couldn't wait to get started. I'll admit I was just as excited: eight bedrooms, four bathrooms, dining hall with an ocean view, the sweet smell of the sea in the air. A little polish and it would've been a beautiful place.
We set to work right away, dusting the countertops, polishing the windows, clearing the busted furniture out to make way for the new due to arrive that weekend. The carpenters were supposed to show up today, actually. We spent the rest of Friday cleaning, then drove into town for dinner and beds at the local inn.
The dream changed everything.
God, I remember it perfectly. I walked through an endless void of white mist, like I was standing on the ocean surface on the coldest night of winter. I walked on and on for what seemed like days until suddenly the fog lifted to reveal a blood red sky and an ancient, crooked tree towering over a field of shriveled greenery and sterile earth, with eight or nine limp bodies dangling from its naked branches like trophies. Not from nooses, Jerry: that damned tree gripped their broken necks like a child would his playthings. And there was a woman in a tattered house dress with long, tangled locks of black hair. She stood ahead of me, facing the tree, singing to it in some foreign language.
She stopped abruptly, looked over her shoulder and shot me the meanest glare I'd ever seen. She had no color in her face, just a sickly stone gray. And Jesus, her eyes: solid white like golf balls, yet somehow expressing hatred and malignance rivaling Hell's. She didn't want me there, but I couldn't turn away. My feet had grown roots. The dream was vivid to all the senses: I smelled damp earth eons old and the cold of the fog bit my flesh like mosquitoes.
Those horrible eyes were suddenly inches away from mine, piercing me like gunshots. I woke up in a cold sweat, so badly shaken I couldn't sleep the rest of the night.
We all must've had the same dream, because everyone started acting weird the following morning. The workers kept whispering to each other, and whenever I asked them what the problem was they clammed up and went on about their business. Sam was particularly jumpy, and the first to lose it. We hadn't been working more than two hours when we heard her scream. Everyone rushed to the source and found her shivering in her husband's arms on the ladies' room floor. She'd gone in there to wash her face, looked in the mirror and saw someone else looking back.
Sam just wasn't the same after that. All day Saturday she wasn't much use to anyone — a nervous wreck keeping mostly to herself, incapable of sitting still for more than two seconds like she was constipated. Twice I caught her staring out the dining hall windows toward Jozsa Schall's grove of dead trees. She just stood there, staring. And when I said her name she'd snap out of it and go about her day like it'd never happened. She didn't even remember walking into the room.
Art wasn't happy, let me tell you. Sam's neurotic behavior had been grating on him for months, but this was the worst she'd ever been. He started losing his temper at the drop of a hat. Shouted at her a lot. Smacked the workers around from time to time, which didn't improve their odd behavior much.
The new furniture arrived late in the evening and none of us had the strength to bother with it, but Art and Sam were set on staying the night at the hotel this time and I wasn't willing to leave them alone at night in an eerie house with no electricity. So we dragged the Duncans' bed into their room, and I put one of the new lobby couches in the hall just outside their door and parked myself on it. Said goodnight, cleaned my sidearm, then read Arthur Conan Doyle until I passed out.
The damned dream haunted my sleep again that very night — the fog, the tree, the hanging bodies. I woke up with a sissy yelp this time, catapulting off the couch and onto the floor. I sat panting in the corridor for a long time, blind as a bat because the place had no electricity, like I told you. I took in a deep breath to calm my nerves, and held it fast when I heard another set of lungs breathing only a few steps away.
Someone was standing there in the dark, watching me. Sam's voice asked if I was all right, and for a few minutes I just stammered like a fool while she blindly felt around my face to see where I was, then took my hands and helped me to my feet.
That's when I noticed how dirty her hands were. My fingers came away caked in soil like she'd been out digging holes with her hands all day. I asked her about it while searching my pockets for my flashlight.
"I've been in the grove," she said.
"The grove?" I said. I started to ask what she was doing out there in the cold so late at night as I fished out the flashlight and flicked it on. Instead of Sam's pretty face I saw that hateful white-eyed scowl from my nightmares and I dropped the light and screamed and screamed.
You should've seen me, tripping over my own feet, crashing headlong into walls. I about threw myself into the car and pressed the gas pedal to the floor all the way to town. Damn my cowardly ass to hell. I left poor Art alone with that...with that God-knows-what.
Would I be telling you this if I'd killed them all and burnt the place down to cover my tracks? Would I make up a story if I knew full well you wouldn't buy it? That would be pointless, wouldn't it? Besides, one little ghost isn't what made me liberate that place. Yeah, that's right, I said "liberate" because that's exactly what I did: I liberated Riley's Rock from an ancient, unspeakable taint. A fluke of the natural world that I still can't wrap my head around.
When the workers set off for the hotel Sunday morning I didn't go with them. Scared too far out of my wits. But eventually guilt kicked in and I started thinking about how good the Duncans had been to me all these years, and ditching them seemed a lousy way to pay them back. Mind you, at the time I still wasn't sure what I saw. At the time I was beginning to think my imagination was just having a little fun with me. So I drove back, composing and rehearsing an elaborate apology in my head.
Riley's Rock had put on a biting cold while I was gone, like winter had hit early. The minute I walked into the hotel lobby Art greeted me in hysterics: his eyes rolled around in his head like marbles and he kept saying, "Something's got my Sammy, Brad. Something's got her." I didn't understand until I saw it for myself.
Art had been organizing his new office when he suddenly noticed how quiet the old house had gotten. He searched the hotel from top to bottom and couldn't find a trace of his hired help. Instead he found Sam standing at the dining hall window, staring out at the dead grove, singing a sullen lullaby to nobody at all.
She was different. I can't say how. Sam just wasn't Sam anymore. When we came in she turned and glanced at us with disinterest, like we were strangers to her. She gave us a tiny smile with no heart in it, the kind of routine smile you give someone when you've had a really bad day and don't want to talk about it; but while the pretty smile was unmistakably Sam Duncan's, the eyes behind it belonged to another person, like someone was wearing Sam's face as a mask — one that didn't fit quite right.
All I knew for sure was that the frigid air enveloping Riley's Rock emanated from her.
After watching the woman sing stupidly to the window for several minutes, Art and I decided one of us had to approach her and ask her who she was. I didn't have the courage, and Art was married to her anyway, possessed or not. Up close she seemed to finally recognize her husband, smiled warmly and held his hand like they were high school sweethearts all over again. Goose-bumps swept up his arm like she was icy to the touch.
"Come with me to the grove," she said. "Come and see our baby."
He kept at Sam's heels in a dog-like trance as she went out the door, maybe enslaved by that dreadful urge to see what horror was yet to come. The same urge that goaded me into following them. God help me, I followed them, Jerry. I followed them into that sea of shriveled trunks and crooked branches to the barren garden in its belly. I followed them to that horrid black tree — the one that'd tortured me in my sleep for two nights, the only still-living thing in the entire garden — whose bald boughs perked up when it felt the three of us approaching. Sam kept singing those damned lullabies while the tree somehow swayed in-time.
A terrible unseen force beckoned us. Art walked right up to the ugly thing and put his hand on its trunk. He suddenly jerked his hand away in horror and looked at me with a dismayed expression I'll never forget, his mouth opening fish-like as if trying to find the words to share an awful revelation with me.
Our eyes instinctively fell to the ground. One of us screamed, but I don't know which.
The Duncans' missing servants hadn't wandered far: four pale, shriveled faces peeked up from the soil at our feet like sprouting cabbages, their dead eyes gazing blindly toward the stars. As the great tree twitched, one of them shifted slightly and sank another inch.
Jesus, it was like a nightmare. Art's feet vanished. Something took hold of him and pulled him down into the earth. He clawed at the air for something to hold on to, unable to tear his eyes away from that hideous crop of human heads. He was gone in moments, consumed by the garden. Nothing left of him but his endless earth-smothered screams.
The tree stood still for a moment, as if surprised. Sam continued singing.
Something brushed my feet — something alive, a barracuda taste-testing its prey. Suddenly my limbs thawed and I turned and ran. I ran through the house and into the woods. Thorny bushes and sharp branches thrashed me bloody and I didn't care. I ran and I didn't stop for breath until I made it to a telephone.
You're giving me those funny looks again, but I'm telling you if you'd only been there with me your hands would be shaking as badly as mine. Hell, you probably wouldn't have the guts to talk about it again, let alone make the return trip to do what I did. To do what had to be done.
Jerry, give me another whiskey or I'm not going to make it through this.
I came back with the oil later that evening. More than anything I wanted to get Sam out of there in one piece, but if I went back to that hotel and found somebody else in her skin I was going to shoot her right between the eyes. Judging by the charred remains you recovered from the ruins I think you know how things turned out.
She tried to lead me into the grove, Jerry. She would've done it to me, too. You know I loved Sam. I couldn't let that thing parade around in her body. Just the thought of it turns my stomach.
I cremated her with the rest of the house. I burned the grove, too, and boy all that dead foliage just lit right up like tissue paper. That nightmare tree was the last to go when all the others had turned to ash. It crackled and blazed and snapped back and forth like a hooked fish. As it wilted in the fire something cried out from beneath the ground — a piercing, child-like wail that nearly shook Riley's Rock out of its seat!
The next morning, when the flames finally died, I rented the crane to tear that monster up by the roots and make sure it was dead, and had only just finished the job when you all arrived at the scene and found me raving and cackling in the courtyard. Judging by the way you've treated me not one of you must've laid eyes on that abomination. But the forensic team is combing the ruins as we speak, right? They're bound to find it right where I left it. I can't wait to see the photos. You'll believe those, I bet. You'll take one look at those roots and my guess is you'll all be raving and cackling, too.
I counted around fourteen bodies tangled in them, dry and black and shriveled like prunes, every drop of fluid sapped out of 'em. There might be as many as twenty or even thirty, but I stopped counting when I found the husk that used to be Jozsa Schall. She was easy to identify because her baby — that monstrous infant-thing the roots sprout and slither out from like a sea anemone — was hugging her close like a crusty old teddy bear. Kinda precious when you think about it.