“Who said that?” Preston said, spinning in a circle as his flashlight flashed over the trees. He saw branches and leaves, the occasional flash of the path, but nothing that looked like a person. All the same, he heard his name again, being whispered from somewhere in the forest, somewhere close by. “Where are you?”
He dropped the flashlight and jumped to the side, rubbing at his ear. He could have sworn that last one was said right into it, not shouted, but not whispered, and there was still no one there. The flashlight lay where it had fallen, shining on a single tree. It was a thick, gnarled thing, like something out of a book of fairy tales. He half expected it to light up on its own, for a door to appear, something, but it just sat there, in the spotlight.
Whatever, whoever, it had been talking was silent now, so Preston crept forward. His steps crushed fallen leaves, the crinkling sound loud in the night as he strained to hear anything that might be his voice, might be whoever it had been saying it. He picked up the flashlight again, letting the beam trail up the tree even as it trembled in his hand. The moment he took the light off the tree, he heard it again.
He jerked back, shining the light on the tree and panting in the silence. It looked normal. An old tree, an uncommon one perhaps, but still a normal tree. Preston crept forward, keeping the light on it, circling when he reached the base of the trunk. This close, it almost seemed as though the trunk were made of smaller trees or vines, twisted up to become something larger. He wished he’d paid attention in school, that he might have had a hope of identifying what it was, though he doubted that would have solved the mystery of the voice calling his name.
It wasn’t until he’d circled it twice that he finally noticed the carvings. They were above his eye-line, written by someone taller, but the faded names were familiar.
Ruby + Mac
His parents’ names. Preston reached up, ran his fingertips over the carving, and gasped as he jerked his hand back. It was like touching the tines on a plug while it was still in the socket, a jolt of electricity not enough to hurt but impossible to ignore. He cradled his hand to his chest all the same, kept the light focused on the names above his head, and tried to figure out what was expected of him. Why he had been called here and what the tree meant to his parents.
Before he could do anything, the flashlight flickered ones, twice, a third time, and then went out.