The Alder Tree

Dwyer’s Hollow is idyllic, peaceful, and nothing ever happens. But for such a quiet, unassuming little town, its roots are buried deep in blood and darkness. Catch up on the story here.

drawing by me

drawing by me

         Bryony shoved her hands deep in the pockets of her coat as the wind picked up. Zander was quiet as he walked along, the snow crunching under their boots. It was strange to be walking these familiar streets with him again, Bryony thought. Years ago, they scampered up and down the roads of the Hollow, dodging adults running errands, dripping ice cream on the hot pavement, laughing at the stodgy old men and women who strolled down Main Street like it was the Champs Elysee. Most of the town itself in the Hollow was within easy walking distance. Darkmoor was a bit more of a trek, but Bryony remembered peering through the ivy-veiled iron gates at the large stone house, giggling with trepidation as she and Zander recounted stories. She shivered.
         “Cold?” Zander asked, looking down at her.
         “Not really. This place still gets to me,” she laughed, embarrassed.
Zander shoved up the sleeve of his shirt and grinned as he revealed the goose bumps that ran up his pale forearm.
         “The Hollow has a hard time letting go,” he said, jerking his head towards the giant tree that hunched in the center of the square, like some kind of ghoul guarding the town.
         Bryony nodded; December brought all of the old stories to the forefront of everyone’s mind.
         The ancient alder tree, centerpiece of the Hollow, was stark and devoid of foliage this time of year. Several families, fleeing the panic and confusion of the Salem Witch Trials, founded Dwyer’s Hollow in February of 1692. Thinking they were safe from the persecution and superstition, they built their small town and began to have families and farmsteads. They set up their village council—the Conclave—and it seemed that the idyllic town was safe from the dark terrors of Salem.
         Their peace lasted until the night of the Winter Solstice in 1693. The gruesome slayings began and continued every month on the night of the new moon—the darkest nights. The gristly carnage seemed to be more the work of beasts than men, but the ritualistic nature hinted at a darker intelligence. The Conclave was outraged, the town in panic. One of the founding members of the Conclave began his own, secret research into the lore and superstitions of his homeland—Ireland. Word began to spread that these attacks were neither man nor beast, but an unholy combination—lycanthropes. Werewolves. The townspeople, perhaps fed by the panic in Salem, several mourning the loss of friends, neighbors, and even relatives to the Trials, believed. Some feared the people of the Hollow had been cursed for leaving Salem—perhaps even that one in their midst was a real witch, visiting this horror upon them. A town wide hunt began—neighbors spied on each other and families were rife with distrust.
         The day after the Winter Solstice of 1694, the Conclave captured the Lukan family and all their kin—claiming to have seen them shed their wolf’s skins just before dawn. The deep sleep that allowed the capture of the Lukans and their overwhelming weariness bore evidence that they spent the night running in wolf form—gorging on human flesh. Every male was flayed, drawn, quartered and their bodies hung from the alder tree in the town square. Alder trees are members of the birch family and everyone knew birch was harmful to werewolves. The Conclave hung the animal pelts found in the Lukan homes on the tree as well, after piercing them with nails, festooning them with wild roses and dousing them in wolfsbane. They humanely slit the women’s throats—many thought they were merely the mates of the men—and hung them from the tree as well.
         Every year on the Winter Solstice, from 1695 onward there was a festival. The townspeople wore wolf masks and robes in the night and lit a great bonfire at the foot of the Alder tree where birch wood and wolfsbane burned—all to remind the people of the scourge they faced and defeated. The next day the Alder tree bore lights, glass snowflakes and clear glass orbs filled with wild-rose petals and wolfsbane. The festival drew visitors each year—those interested in the paranormal, the occult, and a smattering of journalists and historians. After the murder of the O’Connell family by the undiscovered serial killer, the festival reached new heights of fame as crime buffs and amateur detectives pointed out the links between that murder and the so-called werewolf killings. The papers tried to sensationalize the story—calling the murderer the “Wolf of Dwyer’s Hollow” or the “Wolf-Man”. However, the residents of the Hollow knew that their werewolves were in the vein of Salem’s witches—the unfortunate result of superstition and the panic of a mob.
         “Hard to believe what a little fear can do,” Zander said as they skirted the great tree.
         Bryony never felt any fondness for the town square or the gnarled tree. Some people thought it was pretty—especially during the festival. But it only made Bryony think of blood and burning.
         “I still remember sneaking out here that one night to see if we could speak to the ghosts,” Bryony shuddered dramatically at the memory.
         “We had half the candles lit in the witches’ circle before my father found us,” Zander’s lips twitched in a half-smile.
         “And we thought we’d raised one of the Lukans when he appeared from behind the tree like that,” Bryony said.
         “I remember I didn’t care how long he yelled at us because anything was better than if we actually raised a ghost,” Zander shook his head.
         “We were trouble weren’t we?” Bryony cocked her head to look up at him.
         Zander snorted and Bryony caught a brief glimpse of the boy she remembered. Suddenly he paused, a hand on her arm.
         “Speaking of trouble…”
         Bryony looked up. Standing in the shadows cast by the alder tree’s skeletal, grasping branches was a figure, dressed in dark clothes that made it nearly impossible to distinguish him from the shifting shadows.

——————————

         Bryony recognized the faded black jean jacket a moment before the figure vanished from view, striding away down one of the alleyways.
         “It’s only Connor,” she said, trying to still her thundering heart.
         Seeing him lurking behind the tree after their eerie conversation made her realize how jumpy she was. Zander stared after Connor, a strange look on his face.
         “Connor?” he asked.
         “Connor O’Malley—he’s Emmaline’s nephew from the city. He’s here for punishment—he’s been working at the café all summer and then his mom decided to enroll him at the high school,” she said. “He’s not a bad kid…just a little undisciplined, I guess. He was a good worker all summer but the last few months, he’s skipped out on shifts or showed up late. His attitude was never what you would call friendly, but we got along okay.”
         “You think he’s into drugs or something?” Zander raised a dark eyebrow.
         Bryony laughed, “Drugs, in the Hollow? How long do you think that would last? I remember Dylan Jenkins was caught with a joint my senior year and you would have thought he had a meth lab. You’re forgetting what it’s like here,” she nudged his arm.
         He didn’t smile back, staring instead at the toes of his leather shoes. She noticed suddenly that, simple as his clothes were, they looked expensive. Bryony crushed the tendrils of jealousy that crept up. Zander’s family always had money—now that his parents were gone, he likely had much more. Losing parents was nothing to envy.
         “I didn’t expect to come back,” he said suddenly, looking up from his feet. “If my mother and father…well, there was Darkmoor and it’s been vacant for years, it’s about time someone did something with it.”
         Bryony thought he sounded like he was trying to convince himself; she didn’t respond.
         “It’s bigger than I remember. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” his laugh sounded forced.
         “It must be strange, living there. Even if all the ghosts are gone,” she remembered his words in the diner.
         “I think,” he hesitated, looking towards the edge of town where the road soon turned into a gravel ribbon. “I think it’s strange because it feels like coming home.”

Return

Strangers are not a common sight in Dwyer’s Hollow–unless they’re passing through or attending one of the Hollow’s historic festivals. Once people leave the Hollow, they rarely come back to visit, much less to stay. Read the beginning of Dwyer’s Hollow here.

        Bryony nursed her beer, tracing patterns in the condensation on the chipped Formica counter. She was one of the few people in MacNally’s; the dinner crowd cleared out early. People looking for a real drink usually went to O’Neil’s—the pool hall outside town that sat just off the interstate. Bryony preferred MacNally’s. Since she was eight, she always ordered a burger smothered in ketchup and a side of Mac’s homemade fries. Bryony lingered, not ready to return home. The little bell above the door chimed and someone slid into a seat at the counter a few stools down.
        “What can I getcha?” Mac asked, his voice warming the air.
        “Got anything harder than beer?” he asked and, at Mac’s nod, ordered, “Vodka, straight. No ice.”
        Bryony arched an eyebrow at her beer and took a sip, sneaking a glance at the stranger. It was the man she saw walking that morning—still wearing his plaid shirt. His dark hair was thick, tumbling over his forehead as he stared down at the counter top. Mac brought the glass of vodka and slid it across the counter. The stranger handed over his card and sipped the chilled liquor. Bryony suppressed a shudder.
        “You want to leave this open, Mister…Thorsen?”
Bryony heard the tremor in Mac’s voice and sat up.
        “Aleksander Thorsen?” Mac asked again. “Unusual name.”
Bryony stared at the dark-haired man, searching for something familiar. His nose was slightly crooked and his dark eyebrows were thick and sat low over his eyes. She was almost sure it was him. His eyelashes were longer than she remembered–a cause for envy even at age ten–but the eyes were the same grayish green and the skinny face was an older version of one she remembered vividly. He met her eyes for a long moment and she looked back, frozen. His thin lips gave a little twitch and he turned to Mac.
        “You can close it,” he said.
        Bryony turned back to her beer, hoping the color didn’t rise in her cheeks.
        “Hey,” his greeting surprised her in the act of gnawing her bottom lip. His voice was deeper than she remembered, but she knew it all the same.
        “Hey,” she said back.
        The way she mimicked his tone brought an almost-smile to his face. Bryony finally took a good look at him. He didn’t look well. His skin had always been fair–thanks to his Swedish heritage–and he had always been on the small side, but the way his shirt hung off his shoulders didn’t look healthy. She could see the bones in his wrists.
        “How are you, Zander? It’s been…a while. Sorry, do you still go by Zander?” Bryony cursed her lack of tact; she hadn’t seen him for almost fifteen years.
        “Zander’s fine,” he shrugged, fiddling with a silver ring on his thumb. “You know we moved to Sweden, when we left, I mean.”
        “I remember. How was being back?” Bryony asked, leaning forwards slightly.
        She barely remembered living in England with her parents, although she retained the accent. They lived there for five years before moving to the Hollow. Her parents knew the Thorsens in England—their fathers worked together
        “It was fine; my parents really enjoyed being near family.” His lips twisted. “I don’t know if you’ve heard—they passed last year. A boating accident.”
        “I hadn’t heard, I’m so sorry, Zander,” Bryony almost reached out to touch his hand.
        “Thank you. I know our parents lost touch, but my mother spoke to yours sometimes,” he said, taking another swig of vodka.
“After Mom moved out she went to Oregon—about as far away from here as she could,” Bryony wrapped her fingers around her beer.
        “My mother mentioned something about that. I’m sorry,” he said.
        When her mom finally broke under the strain of small town living and moved to Oregon to live with her boyfriend, Bryony’s dad seemed more determined than ever to stay in the Hollow. Sometimes Bryony wondered if that was why she just couldn’t leave—if he passed that genetically on with his fair hair and eyes.
        “So, you’re back for good?” she broke the silence.
        “Yeah, I just started moving into the Estate,” he stared into his glass.
        “Not Darkmoor?”
        “Know of another Estate around here?” a flash of the smile she remembered so well before the shutters came back down.
        “Well, no, but…”
        “You remember it was the Thorsen family home?”
        Bryony nodded, trying to keep her jaw from dropping open. Again.
        “We never lived there before because it wasn’t Mother’s taste. But the old house sold years ago and I don’t fancy living in what there is to offer these days.”
        She briefly pictured her tiny apartment with a bathroom the size of a broom cupboard and no closet to speak of—above Emmaline’s garage and blushed.
        “It certainly is…roomy,” she fumbled with her warming beer.
        “It is that,” a hint of white teeth again. “Besides, it’s been long enough that the ghosts will have gone to their eternal rest, don’t you think?”
        The clatter as the glass Mac was cleaning slipped from his hands and ricocheted off the side of the sink made them both jump. Mac hurriedly wiped his hands on his greasy apron.
        “Either of you want another? Fixing to close up,” he said.
        Bryony glanced at her watch. It was barely nine o’clock. She drained the rest of her beer and slid the cup across.
        Zander raised a thick, black eyebrow at her before tossing back the rest of his vodka without so much as the flicker of an eyelid.
        “Thanks,” he said, waiting until Mac met his eyes.
        “Goodnight, Mac,” Bryony said, shrugging into her coat as Zander held open the door, setting the bell ringing again.
        She couldn’t help but wonder, as they walked out of the diner and into the clear, crisp night why Mac stood and watched them until they turned the corner and disappeared out of his sight.