"What the hell.... Would you look at that! Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?" Jon stared at the birch tree.
Susan's eyes were wide and her mouth hung open, but no words came out.
"It's a woman... a perfect woman. How can a tree grow in the shape of a woman? I've never heard of anything like this. Here is this amazing tree hidden away back here in the woods. The world needs to see this. They won't believe it. I've got to go get my camera," Jon said, as he reached out and touched the tree letting his fingers trail along the rough bark that composed the leg.
"Jon, let's go. I don't like this. I've got this eerie feeling something's wrong. This isn't natural. It's too real. Look at me. I've got chill bumps all over."
"Susan, we own this place now. Can you believe it? It's ours, free and clear. Uncle Sidney probably never even knew this tree was here. He's been sick for so long. I'll bet he hasn't even been back this far in these woods for twenty years. We may be the first people who've ever seen this."
"I don't care if your uncle did leave you this place. I don't like it. He was a weird old man. There is something supernatural about his house and this whole area. I'm not comfortable in these woods. They're spooky. You know I couldn't stand being around him. He gave me the willies."
"You and your so-called clairvoyant feelings! You know I don't believe in that stuff. This place is worth a fortune. There's three hundred acres here. We're lucky I was his only living relative. This place has been in the family forever. I want to keep it for our kids when we have kids. I'm going to take a picture of this tree. I'll bet it'll make the National news."
"If you come back out here, I'm not coming with you. I'm getting in the car and going back into town. I don't want any part of your crazy relative's place. There is something evil in the air. I think he murdered that girl they accused him of killing."
"Would you get off that, Sue. They didn't find him guilty of anything. That was thirty years ago. He was acquitted. They never found a body, so they couldn't prove he'd killed anybody. They accused him just because he happened to be the last person she was seen with. She was a stripper. She probably left the country with some gigolo and grew old in Mexico or somewhere."
Susan fell silent. Lost in thought, the two trudged their way back to the house through the thick undergrowth. Deflated by his wife's moodiness, Jon avoided any further mention of the tree. Susan realized she'd said too much and dampened Jon's enthusiasm over his newly acquired inheritance. Somehow, she had to persuade him to put the place up for sale. She couldn't bear the thought of actually moving here. Back at the house, Jon and Susan entered without speaking.
The house, built in the early 20's, was Victorian style. The Oak paneling had darkened over the years giving it a gloomy atmosphere. As Susan walked into the library, the eyes of the portrait of Jon's great-grandfather, which hung above the fireplace, seemed to follow her every move. The smell of mildew and old books hung heavily in the air. She walked over to the window and pulled back the heavy faded drape. A cloud of dust escaped into the room causing her to sneeze. She tried the window but found it stuck. Jon walked up behind her and put his arm around her shoulder.
"OK Hon, you don't want to stay here and I can't blame you. The house hasn't been aired out in months. The dust will aggravate your allergies. Uncle Sid was in the nursing home the last six months, and I'm sure he didn't have anyone looking after the place. I'll get someone out here tomorrow to clean."
Susan smiled. "I'm sorry. I guess I said too much. How about that motel we passed on the way in? I think I saw a restaurant near by. Maybe I'll be in a better mood after a shower and some food."
Jon spent a restless night. With the first light, he was up. He left a note for the still sleeping Susan.
I didn’t want to wake you. I’m heading back out to the house to take care of the cleaning and some other things. I’m sure you’d rather not come. Have a good breakfast and visit the library or the park. They’re within walking distance. If you need me, you can reach me by cell. I’ll try to be back soon.
Armed with his camera and a shovel he’d found in the tool shed, he headed straight for the tree. The thought that perhaps Susan had been right about his uncle caused tightness in his chest and throat. It wouldn’t be the first time her uncanny ability to sense things had proven true. She believed the image of the woman was supernatural. He needed to know for sure. What if a body could cry out for justice in such an unusual way?
Today the tree looked even more life-like than he remembered. He felt a cold sweat forming on his brow. The stillness of the woods made him wish he hadn’t come alone. After taking several pictures from different angles, he started to dig around the roots, praying desperately that he wouldn’t find anything. It had rained recently and the soil, mixed with sand, made the digging easier. He examined every rock he unearthed and breathed easier as each one proved to be just a rock.
By noon, he was exhausted and ready to say the whole thing had been Susan’s imagination, when his shovel again hit something solid. He reached down with bare fingers and removed the dirt hoping to once again find a rock, but this was different. As the soil fell away his heart pounded so loud he could hear it beating. His worse fear had come to fruition. It was part of a human hand.
Thoughts flashed through his mind at lightening speed. What to do? What to do? Can I just walk away? It’s been thirty years. Who would know? Why bring disgrace on the family at this late date? My uncle is dead. What difference can it make? I can’t tell Susan. I can’t tell anyone. It will be my secret. I need time to think. He rose and began to pace in circles. The cell phone rang, startling him to the point he tripped and fell. It was Susan.
"Hey, I thought you’d be back in time for lunch. Did you get much done?"
"Uh...Hey. I guess time slipped up on me. I’m coming back now. I’ll be there in about twenty minutes. We have to talk." Why did I say that? I wasn’t going to tell her. But I have to tell her. She’ll know what to do. I can’t keep a secret from her.
The second Susan saw him, she knew something was wrong.
"What happened to you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. You’re the color of chalk, and your eyes are wild. Are you sick?"
"It’s true. You were right. He killed her. Uncle Sidney killed that girl and buried her. Her body is under that tree."
It was Susan’s turn to pale. Her hand went over her mouth. "My God! Are you sure?"
"Yes, I’m sure. I dug and found her. What should we do? I don’t want anyone to know. I’m so ashamed. I didn’t think he was capable of committing a crime. There’s a murderer in my family."
"We have to go to the authorities. You can’t live with that secret. She needs closure. She may have family who have to know what happened. It’s not your fault. You don’t have to feel ashamed."
Jon knew in his heart that Susan was right. It wasn’t a secret he wanted to live with. He would have to brace himself to face the publicity and interviews and get it behind him so he could move on. He wanted to be as far away from the place as possible. It could never be home. As soon as this ordeal was over, he’d contact a real estate agent. It should bring in enough money to buy something they both wanted.
The police and forensic experts were anxious to visit the site as soon as Jon and Susan told their story. They were able to locate the records buried deep in the cold case files. But the search had to be postponed temporarily due to a violent thunderstorm that afternoon.
As soon as the storm passed, Jon led them into the woods. When they neared the tree, the remains were still smoldering. Lightning had struck it, leaving the image splintered into what looked like a pile of partially burned kindling. Now that her remains were found, the lady had at last gotten closure. Her wooden image was erased forever.