This story is by Andrew Morgan and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“He’s a fuckin’ psycho.”
These were the words Tommy Pitts used to describe the man of many years in the yard below.
“A right old maniac…”
Tommy was prone to crassness any day – his track record, a collection of detention slips, demerits, and parent-teacher conference reports, was testimony enough. But despite all that, he was “no bad kid.” He was certainly no brute. He never lit fireworks on any neighbors’ porch or volleyed eggs at unsuspecting cars. He was, as his mother often said at the parent-teacher conferences, “a rowdy boy.”
“—and at least he isn’t violent,” the counselor would attest.
So, when Tommy Pitts leaned his elbows on his handlebars and declared that Old Man Maple was a “fuckin’ psycho,” his chums found little reason to disagree.
He was, after all, not a bad kid.
Tommy and his friends had followed their usual route, spending an afternoon wading near the lake outside the gates and adjacent to the placard bearing “LAURELWOOD: Settle in!” They had hoped to fish but it was far too chilly. It had been a breezy fall that year, which made for a splendid Halloween. It was late November, yet some houses still had their cobwebs, some dashed by black and orange lights wrapped loosely around gutters while jack-o-lanterns rotted on windowsills.
But before returning home, they always visited Olympus Drive to gawk at Old Man Maple. He lived at the bottom of a hill in a house Tom’s mother described as “dated,” or really frickin’ old. It was an appropriate description: a two-story Tudor with none of the majesty to be found, the grass dying, the stones breaking, wood splintering, the windows dusted yellow, and the exterior covered with that black slime accustomed to the buildup of dead leaves and rainwater.
Really frickin’ old was also an appropriate description for Old Man Maple, whose shambled and crooked frame seemed to bend along with the house’s warped walls. It was as if Quasimodo was finally let down from the bell tower, an observation Tommy’s teachers might have found impressive. On the days they saw him, they kept their distance and observed from the hill’s peak.
Today was one of those days and they watched as the old man struggled to move dead branches to the driveway for the trash. Strapped to his side with a leather rig was a large, dull, old axe. He proceeded to break them down.
“More branches,” Sal whispered.
Every day, it seemed, Maple would drag heaps of brambles to the side of the road, accounting for the boys calling him “Maple.” No one knew his real name—not even their parents. Just Old Man Maple of 3013 Olympic Drive.
“God, he’s so creepy,” Kyal squeaked. “Who knows what those branches are about?”
“Oh, I know,” Sal confided, to the boys’ derision.
“No, really!” Sal had been known to lie—just a bit. He would tell tall tales in order to avoid trouble or punishment or to appear impressive or piss people off, and there was no more enticing a subject than Laurelwood’s oldest, crotchetiest crotch.
“No, no, I got this from a primary source! It was an upperclassman, too” he boasted, his voice as shaky as his reputation.
“I’ve heard plenty of stories.”
“Oh, not this one,” Sal insisted. “This one’s special.”
“Oh, ho ho—well, spill it,” Tommy said curiously.
“Alright…” He began.
“So Old Man Maple used to be a big bachelor. Ladies’ Man, yeah? Gigolo. He used to bring all these girls back to his house, that house— “
He pointed to the house that was far too big for any one man.
“—young girls too. So, he’d have his way with these girls and stay shacked up all day, doing who knows what… Then one day, he disappeared. When he got back, he was married alluva sudden.”
“And this chick was a complete stranger. No one had ever seen her before—just popped out of nowhere. And really, she was a witch. She would go all over town muttering under her breath and glaring at people. Casting spells, man. People say she and Maple started this cult, too, like Rosemary’s Baby shit!”
“What people?” Kyal scoffed.
“Everyone, man. Just, people…”
“Go on,” Tommy urged.
“Well, she must have tried something bad, ‘cause Old Man Maple had had enough and killed her. With that axe. Messed up his eye in the fight, too. She’s buried under a tree in his backyard, apparently, and those branches, the ones he’s always dragging out, are her witch hands stretching out of the ground to get him…”
“What bull!” Kyal roared.
“That’s what I heard!”
“I say bull. Gee, let’s go already!”
The two of them rolled off bickering, but Tommy stayed just a moment to watch the old man swing his axe.
“He’s a fuckin’ psycho!” Kyal cried when he saw his friend’s bike soar down the hill. The two of them screamed for Tommy to come back as he dropped his bike to the curb and approached the old man mid swing of his axe. Kyal and Sal were not aware just how captivated Tommy had been by the Old Man Maple story from last week. He had made up his mind that the next time he saw him in his yard he would demand the truth: was his wife really a witch, and was there really a cursed tree in his backyard?
He flew down the hill; no, fell. Fell like one falling down a well or cliff, knowing he could only go down and face this scary old man who was really frickin’ old and apparently really frickin’ dangerous. But what was scarier? Confronting Maple, or tromping uphill in a panic as he swung at his neck like a fly? But he kept on riding.
Now there stood two people on the dead lawn at the bottom of the hill, and old man and a stupid boy. The sun was blinding but Tommy at least could make out Maple’s features. Sweat drenched his face, filling all the creases and folds of his long mouth and labored eyes like canyons-ways. He had as many scars as he did wrinkles, and his right eye looked messed up, like Sal said. He breathed with a wheeze and stood there fixed, his axe low against his knees.
They stared at each other for too long a time.
A minute or so passed before the axe fell to the ground.
The old man turned around and walked to the house, as if to say to the young boy, “Alright, you comin’?”
The two boys on the hill reeled as they watched their friend disappear into the house.
Tommy was shocked to see everything was clean and inviting. This could not be the home of such a mealy old grunt like Maple, could it? It was just too clean, too proud a house to be the home of someone as devilish as he.
Old Man Maple bent down and removed his shoes, bidding a perplexed Tommy to do the same. He was lead down a long, brightly wallpapered hallway decked with framed photographs of happy places filled with even happier faces. There was an earthy smell. Flowery.
The two arrived at another door. Maple opened it to reveal a garden with a large tree in the middle. It was a cherry tree, blossomless. The entire garden was filled with sweetness, though, despite the autumn bite outside.
Maple appeared beside Tommy with a scrapbook and opened it to an old portrait of a man and a woman. The description read, “Lt. Grisham and Sakura.”
“Is this the witch ya heard about? You prolly heard ‘bout her mutterin’… spells. People say she starin’ an’ glarin’, huh?” He chuckled. His voice was dry as dust but hearty.
“Well, she had a bad eye, jus’ like me, see, an’ she felt some real shame. Her home was ravaged in the war when we had met. Messup her eye. And she only really spoke Jap’nese. My poor Saki couldn’t even speak English good enough to buy groceries. No one could talk to her but me.”
He rested his hand on the trunk with some difficulty.
“She brought a tree branch over here when we left, after I proposed. Wasn’ easy for her. People so unfriendly to her. She made this garden, then. Kept it till she died. I tried to take the tree down but it jus’ kep’ growin’. She had a real green thumb, alright.”
Old Man Maple took back the scrapbook and guided somber Tommy back through the house.
His hands were soft.
He opened the door for him. “All good?” he asked, his eyes wet. Tommy nodded and reared his bike. Before pedaling away, he asked if he could come back. The old man nodded.
Tom climbed up the hill to his friends.
Thinking fondly of his wife, the man said:
“Not a bad kid, hon.”