Autumn is not all nostalgia and happiness.

A little short fiction break.

“You give him back to me!” Ginny squealed.
     “Walter's helping me look for the baseball card you lost,” Nico spat back as he clutched the tattered rabbit doll and scrambled away from his sister.
     “I told you I didn't take your stupid card, now give me Walter, you're scaring him.”  Ginny moved recklessly over crawling roots near the old oak tree in their front yard.  Tears began to appear, “I'm gonna tell Mom on you Nico and then you'll be sorry.”
     Nico's outstretched arm wrapped around the rough bark of the tree as he circled it and headed towards the large leaf pile his father had raked up earlier.  A full four feet tall and twice as wide, the mound simply begged to be scattered.  A vision struck Nico, his little sister on hands and knees rooting through the grimy pile for her rabbit.
     Nico held the stuffed doll to his ear, “Walter says he left my baseball card inside the leaf pile, and he is off to fetch it for me.”
     “But Nico,” Ginny cried as she saw her brother's arm swing toward the nearby leaves, ”Walter’s afraid of the dark.”
     Nico saw the doll sail into the mound of leaves and disappear as he sprinted by.  He slowed to a jog after he heard a second, larger crunch into the leaves.  He turned, expecting to see Ginny thrashing about in the pile for Walter.  The dormant pile was there, slightly mussed, but not Ginny.
     He circled the pile at arm's length, just in case Ginny suddenly burst forth to pelt him with dirt and wet leaves.  Nico crouched as he continued his wide circle.  He looked intently at the leaves for any sign of movement and then stopped abruptly.  Near the leaf pile's edge, Ginny's white shoe lay upturned with a broken strap.  Splatters of crimson dotted the shoe's sides.
     “Gin,” Nico said slowly, “you OK?”  He received no response from within the pile and inhaled sharply. A crisp breeze tumbled the top layer of leaves to the side but the pile remained otherwise still. Nico dove towards the mound, arms wide and the pile exploded into disarray.
     “Ginny!” he yelled, both hands clutching damp leaves as he repeatedly plunged them into the pile and threw the contents in all directions. Nico spread the pile over a wide area in a matter of moments. The clumps of leaves were no more than an inch deep with patches of grass showing in many places. Nico spotted something shiny and dark near his foot. He picked up a small button, one of Walter's eyes and squeezed his hand tight around it. His heart raced as his eyes darted around the yard, searching for the source of the trick.
     Nico leaped from his filthy knees and sprinted towards the old oak tree. Its broad trunk was at least five feet across, covered in overlapping scales of gray bark. He expected to find Ginny curled up on the other side, clutching a one-eyed Walter with a suppressed giggle. He reached the far side of the ancient wooden sentinel, but was greeted with nothing except grass, a few leaves and smattering of acorns. His vision blurred and the air left his lungs as his back struck the hard earth, eyes rolling upwards.
     His parents would later say they found him at the base of that oak tree.  The police would have the yard surrounded in yellow tape that flapped and bowed in the late October breeze.   His parents would listen to a blanket-wrapped Nico tell the officers his story for the third time as they hoped this telling might contain a forgotten clue.  The search of the property would yield only the single, spattered white shoe.

     Nico never showed anyone the button.

     The time turned from days into months, but the grieving didn't diminish.  Nico's parents would alternately blame him for not watching her and then console him that it wasn't his fault.  The authorities labeled the case as 'probable kidnapping', but with no leads or new evidence, the folder sat in a faded green file cabinet for years before eventually it was retired to the basement archive at the precinct.
     Nico's parents couldn't bear living on the ten acre property aside State Route 3 any longer.  An out-of-town developer gave them enough money for the land to move into a nicely restored Victorian home, miles away from their old house.  Nico would only glimpse the wretched oak briefly from the car window on their monthly trips to Aunt Melissa's.  He'd silently grimace at it as he fingered the worn button in his pocket.
     In time a strip mall was built on the property, a product of its prime location just off the highway and the town's steadily increasing consumer appetite.  In a bit of green thinking they even left the old oak as part of the new landscaping, a curbed island surrounded by an ocean of asphalt and parallel white lines.  The town even went so far as to declare it 'historic', erecting a nearby pedestal with a bronze plaque.
     Nico, now old enough to drive himself, would visit the strip mall often but never to shop.  He always arrived long after the stores had closed for the night and bearing used motor oil, or antifreeze, collected from his job at Vance's garage downtown.  He'd tried to poison that sinister tree with gallons of industrial waste, even got caught trying to start a fire once, but still that ancient oak stood mocking him.

     Until tonight.

     Nico lowered the dented tailgate of his well-aged Ford truck, reached in and pulled the long machine in the bed towards the edge.  His left hand gently rubbed the smooth button he had worn as a necklace for several years now.
     “Remember me?” Nico quipped at the old oak. 
     The wind stirred his hair and made the leaves of the old tree emit what sounded like long, low growl. 
     Nico grinned and then returned his attention to the idle chainsaw resting on his tailgate.  He took a firm grip on the handle as the steel teeth roared to life and vapors of gasoline assaulted the inside of his nose.
     “You've got something that belongs to me,” Nico howled maniacally over the blast of the engine, “Now give her back!”

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