My favorite park to visit as a child was called Twilight Willows; it definitely sounded like a location you’d find in a game. It wasn’t a particularly large park, the entire span maybe covering 2-3 acres, and it didn’t boast any type of playing equipment or amphitheater. Its sole attractions were the massive willow trees. And at twilight, when the sun began its plummet into the horizon, the spears of amber brilliance that webbed through the tree’s tangle of hanging arms was breathtaking. My friends and I would jump and tumble through the light, turning the impossible act of dodging them into a game. I eventually started sneaking out at night to go there by myself, especially when I was feeling troubled or anxious about something; single alcoholic fathers weren’t notoriously vigil. I would sit under my favorite of the trees and just think. The only lamps in the park were lined along the pathway, with my favorite tree nestled in the dark, about a hundred feet from any of them. I was about 14 years old when I started talking to the tree. About 2 weeks later, it started talking back. I told what few friends I had about it. They didn’t believe me of course and stopped speaking to me all together. I knew how crazy it all sounded, but I didn’t care. For the next half a year, the tree was the best and only friend I needed.
We spoke almost every night about anything I wanted: my frustration with my parents or the girl at school I had a crush on. The tree would listen and sometimes give me advice, even suggesting I bring the girl I liked here for a little moonlight rendezvous. I was far too afraid to ask the girl out, but the tree was understanding, simply reminding me that I won’t be young forever, and that to live is to risk it all. I told him “that’s strangely inciteful for a tree. I mean, how much living can a tree do while stuck in one place?” He told me he hadn’t always been a tree, that he belonged to a race of ancient beings that used to flourish in a time before mankind. He said his species would hibernate for centuries in a tree form, often citing intrusive humans as the reason they prefer to stay hidden. He said I was different, though. I was the first kind human he had met since rooting in this park. And when the time was right, he would show me his true form. I told him we’d been friends for several months now, and that I didn’t want to wait. He made me a deal:
“Get the courage to ask out that girl you like, and when you bring her here, I’ll transform right before your very eyes!”
The tree even said he’d use his powers to create gifts for our magical evening. I asked her out the very next day. I understand the absurdity of this but didn’t care. The tree was my only friend, and I needed to believe in something.
She agreed to meet me at the park about a week after we started dating. I didn’t tell her about the tree (the tree warned that she would likely think I’m insane) and had mentioned I has prepared a surprise for our ‘1-week anniversary’; children are utterly ridiculous. I led her through the park by her hand, her hugging tighter to my waist as we left the comfort of the lighted trail. I told her she had nothing to be afraid of and that this park was my home. We reached the willow and couldn’t believe our eyes. There was a picnic blanket laid out with several plates of sweets, and a tall bottle of grape cider was iced in a metallic bucket. The girl I was with gushed with excitement and sat to indulge. I remember smiling up at the tree and being thankful that I wasn’t insane. We popped the cider and toasted to our puppy love before digging in.
I awoke on an EMS stretcher with a paramedic flashing a light in my eyes. She loudly announced that I was conscious and backed away, allowing two police officers on either side of me. I began to prop myself up but was immediately urged to relax by one of the burly investigators. They started asking me questions about why I had been in the park and who set up the picnic items. I lied at first, saying it was all me and that it was to impress a girl. When they told me that the cider was drugged, I broke down and told them everything about my best friend: the tree. They listened intently and hastily jotted notes down in their flip-pads, informing me that my father was on the way to get me. When I asked what had happened, they told me to just relax and everything will be explained when my father got there.
The investigative report was all over the news the next morning. The snacks and cider had apparently been laced with some homemade variation of Ether, which is what knocked me out. The police also uncovered a small hole on the upper base of the tree that led to a hovel within its trunk. They found dirty clothes, food wrappers, traces of the drugs used on the food we ate, and several polaroids of me pinned around a peephole that had been carved to reveal my favorite place to sit. Further investigation led the forensics team to almost a dozen more trees that had been similarly hollowed out, some of which were connected below their bases with narrow tunnels. It’s in one of those tunnels that they found a scrunchie belonging to my still missing girlfriend.