The following excerpt occurs early in Eunice's adventures along the highway where she encounters a pestilent generational tree and the pitiful creature who cultivates it.
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“A tree!” she exclaimed. “It’s a tree.”
“That’s it,” Joseph shouted over his shoulder. “A tree! That’s always the first thing.”
But this was unlike any tree she had ever seen. It lay across the highway like a dying sea serpent, mangled limbs sagging earthward, cancerous digits spread in appeal to a waterless sky. Oily sores marred the tree’s flesh and withered translucent sacks dangled from its leafless branches like foul ornaments. Its roots had caused a great upheaval, leaving the highway cloven with gaps and buckled concrete. The earth was charred and blasted there, as if nuked into infertility. And the stench—
She hurried to Joseph's side, unable to look away from the decrepit thing. “What kind of tree is this?”
“Not a healthy one, that's for sure.”
“Can’t we go around?”
“You can never get around it. Not in a hundred years. You’d just keep goin’ in circles. Besides, there’s someone waiting.”
“A person?! Here?”
But Joseph kept slogging forward.
The odor became more oppressive as they went, a gaseous haze rising from the earth and blanketing the area in a thin veil. Eunice gagged. “Joseph, please!”
“If you stop, you'll lose her. I’m telling you—you will never wanna come back. No one does. When they see the truth of it, no one ever wants to come back.”
She pulled her shirt up over her nose and, afraid to get too near the pestilent tree, angled her way toward the periphery of its branches. Splattered fruit had stained the ground under its umbrella, leaving a demented abstraction on the blackened earth. The spilled juices had flowed together in spots and turned to tributaries forming a single black stream that sludged its way into the distant basin. Only then, under that baneful canopy, did Eunice realize the aura of death that clung to that place. Something malignant grew there, something so diseased that the very earth was tainted by its sickness.
Joseph and Eunice navigated knuckles of roots and crumbling concrete until the tree’s branches became a tangle atop them, a skeletal frame weighted with the wretched pods. She began to worry that one of the poisonous fruits would drop on them and, as they picked their way across the terrain, she kept glancing anxiously overhead.
“C’mon!” Joseph stood on the opposite side of a gnarled root. “Don’t slow down.” Then he added, “And don’t think about it!”
She glowered at him.
Suddenly a commotion sounded above and brittle limbs exploded, showering the area. Eunice threw her arms over her head to protect herself, but not before glimpsing strange forms—humanoid, winged creatures with tiny round heads and long legs, skating into the eventide. Twigs clattered to the ground around her. Yet at the moment, Eunice was not worried about getting clubbed by an errant limb. There were others here—things not human.
Up to that point, her journey had been more like a fantastical experiment or a test of wills. Heck, if she was free to go back whenever she pleased, what real risk was involved? Yet under the shadow of this death tree, it seemed like the stakes were changing. This adventure was no longer about catharsis or subconscious play-acting. It was about survival.
“Hey!” she shouted to Joseph. “You said I can go back. Right?”
He poked his head from behind a moldering fallen branch. “We just started.”
“Yeah, but—” She stared up through the branches and the haze, trying to locate the winged creatures. “You didn’t say there were flying monkeys here.”
“Monkeys?” He followed her gaze upwards. “Those aren’t monkeys. They’re sentries.”
She squinted into the sky and saw the creatures in a tight-knit formation, making a beeline toward the raging sunset. Eunice scrabbled over a block of asphalt and joined Joseph. “What does my mother need sentries for?”
“They’re not your mother’s.”
Eunice peered at Joseph.
He replied, “Someone else is worried about you, Eunice. They don’t want you here.”
For a moment, she stood stunned. Someone else is worried about you. What was that supposed to mean? Who else could be that worried about her? And what were they doing in her mother's world? The raging sun. The tree of death. The winged sentries. And now, an angry watcher bent on sending her packing. She wasn’t a genius, but it didn’t take one to know that this trip would only get worse.
As Eunice struggled to suppress a rising dread, something moved ahead of them—something squat and nervous and completely inhuman. Her breath caught in her throat. For underneath the rancid tree scurried a creature that looked, for the life of her, like the largest grub the world had ever seen. Wearing overalls.
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Winterland is currently available for Kindle for 99 cents.