Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
When Anthony Willis pulled up to the Twisted Tree Inn, he had to check his map to make sure that he was at the right place. But, according to the map, he was. When his friend had told him that the place looked a little old fashioned, he’d thought that maybe it would look Victorian, or perhaps even colonial, but certainly not something that looked like it’d jumped straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. The dirty old cottage had a roof thatched with soiled and weedy straw, with yellowish-brown walls that had been clearly white at some point in the past, which were supported by gnarled old beams of wood bent and twisted by the cold winds of time. The only sign of life was the flickering glow of a fireplace struggling to get past the grimy old windows on the ground floor and raucous laughter issuing from within.
Parked on a patch of thin yellowed grass parallel to the side of the building, Anthony couldn’t help but admire the sleepy little valley that stretched out below the inn. The snow-blanketed little vale was packed with frosted trees that had snug little cabins nestled throughout them. It was certainly a pleasant break in Anthony’s mind from the emerging Hoovervilles and bread lines from back home. Jumping out of his old squeaky Model T, (which he had affectionately named the Tea Kettle), Anthony made for the front door of the decrepit old inn, desperate to get inside where he’d hopefully escape the frigid cold that he’d been driving in for three miserable hours. To his immense pleasure, a blast of warm air tinted with ham practically punched him in the face when he opened the door.
The front door opened into a narrow little hallway that turned left into what Anthony presumed to be the bar and dining area, though he couldn’t see it from the front doorway. On the opposite side of the hall from that was a closed wooden door. On the far wall, across from Anthony, was a thin, middle-aged woman in a grey stained dress who was fixing a loose candle bracket. Upon hearing the entrance of a new customer, she turned a tan, weather-worn face aged from a lifetime of struggle and work towards Anthony.
“Looking for a room or just a bite to eat?” she asked with a long Southern drawl.
“A bit of dinner would be great, ma’am,” Anthony replied with a polite grin as he hung up his coat and hat.
“My husband’s the cook and bartender ‘round here, so you’ll just have to talk to him ‘bout that. I just keep the place kept up and not caving in on itself.”
“Did your husband build this place?” Anthony asked curiously.
“Oh, no,” she replied with a bit of amusement in her face. “My granddaddy did. He come all the way from England. When he had my mama, he used to tell her old fairy-tales and such, and she just couldn’t get enough of ‘em. So, when he decided to build this place, he asked mama what she thought, and she told him he should make it look like an old cottage. So he did.”
“That’s quite a story.”
“Yeah, he was quite a man. And mama was always just the sweetest thing, too. She’s also the one who come up with the name. Said when she was little she used to play by a big ole orange tree up in the mountains that was all twisted up like a rope, and that’s how she came up with it.”
She paused a moment.
“My name’s Sandra Sawdford, if you need anything.”
“Anthony Willis,” he returned politely.
She fiddled with the candle bracket for a moment longer, and when she seemed finally satisfied with her work, she turned fully towards him.
“I had a cousin named Anthony,” she murmured with a sad look in her eyes. “Good kid, too. Got up an’ killed in the war. A German officer up in Belgium shot him down.”
“I-I’m very sorry to hear that, Mrs. Sawdford.”
“Yeah, well, it sure did hit us hard, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, it sure did. I had a friend who fought over in the trenches. Never was the same after that.”
“Did… did you ever fight in the war?” Sandra asked hesitantly.
“No,” he answered with a chest-pounding cough. “Heart problems.”
“Ah. Anyways, it was good meeting you, Anthony. My husband, Sinclair, is ‘round here somewhere. Just make yourself at home, okay?”
The first thing Anthony noticed about the bar and dining area was that it was unexpectedly cozy. Just based on the appearance of the building from the outside, you never would have expected the rosy glow of the windows as they caught the sun’s last few minutes of wakefulness, nor would anyone have expected the warm earthy tones that tinted the place, softened by the light of the roaring flames in the fireplace and the flickering candles. No, if judging by the outside of the Sawdford Inn, the inside should have been cold, drab, and dreary.
Over by the fireplace, Anthony spied a table of men listening intently to a bearded, burly man animatedly telling a story.
“—and I said, ‘but you’ve gotta shove that sucker up in there good, or it’ll just pop right back out again!’” he exclaimed amidst a roar of hearty chuckles and guffaws.
“Ah, a fresh face!” the man boomed, taking notice of the confused and slightly concerned man standing in the doorway. The jokester was a barrel-chested, stocky man who wasn’t tall, but not quite short, either. His chocolate-brown hair was thick and messy, and his bristling beard even thicker and messier.
“Here, pull up a chair. What’s your name, my friend?” he asked courteously, his voice a loud, gravelly mess.
“Anthony…. Anthony Willis.”
“Well, Anthony Anthony Willis, welcome to the Twisted Tree Inn. M’name’s Sinclair Sawdford, and I reckon you’ll be wanting a bit of a pick-me-up, right?”
“Do you always ask new customers this?” Anthony asked, surprised by how brazen the man was about selling alcohol.
“Well, of course!” he thundered jovially. “Makes me good money! And don’t you worry, it ain’t none of that bathtub shit you find other places. I’ve got good connections. You name it, we’ve got it. And it’s real, I tell you.” He stared at Anthony intensely.
“You… you aren’t worried about being shut down?”
Mr. Sawdford gave out a cacophonous bark of laughter.
“Ha! Why, that’s the sheriff over there sippin’ on some of my brother’s moonshine!” He leaned forward with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “We’re in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the mountains. Trust me, ain’t nobody gonna give a damn. Now, what’ll it be?”
“You got any cider?”
“Hardest damn cider there is, my friend. And please, call me Sinclair. Oh, and got some ‘taters and just cooked up some ham, too, if you want any.”
“If you could, please,” Anthony said as he took an empty seat opposite from Sinclair.
“Comin’ right up,” he affirmed, striding back into the kitchen behind the bar.
“So,” the man to Anthony’s right said after a moment, “what brings a city man like you all the way out here in the boonies?” He sounded slightly suspicious, as if Anthony’s presence suggested illicit activities of some kind.
“Oh, my family lives on the other side of the mountains, and I said that I’d be there for Thanksgiving tomorrow, and my friend told me that there was a shortcut that trailed from the main road up ahead.”
“Oh, sure there is,” a haggard looking man grumbled from across the table, taking a massive swig from his mug. “But you’re better off takin’ a few hours to take the long way through. That shortcut’s plumb dangerous, it is.”
“Well, I can’t take a few more hours, because it’ll be a few more hours already once I get through those mountains. I’m already cutting it close as it is. I also haven’t been able to see them for about a year now, ever since the market crashed.”
“Then what the hell’re you doin’ stopping off here for?” exclaimed a small fellow to Anthony’s left.
Anthony shrugged and said, “I’m hungry, and it’s cold.”
The little man shook his head in mild disbelief, looked back up, and barked, “How you ‘ffording gas?”
“Well, I was lucky enough to not lose my job.”
“Hell, I heard there weren’t a man in the city who ain’t lost his job yet. What’s your job?”
“I’m a pharmacist.”
“Ah, okay. I see now,” he smirked with a knowing wink.
“Besides,” Anthony continued, “what’s so bad about this shortcut, anyways?”
“Well for one,” the man to his right answered, “people go missing up there all the time, and not once has anybody who’s disappeared up there ever been found. No, not once.”
“Plus,” an old gentleman in a black turtleneck added, “this time of year, the whole path’s all iced up, and you’ll be going through some rough mountainside, and so si-goggly you’ll never make it. And you’ll be making that drive with a drop to your right almost the whole way through.”
“First drink’s on the house!” a booming voice bellowed in Anthony’s ear as a large hairy fist came crashing down in front of him with a slopping mug of hard cider, followed by a mountain of steaming mashed potatoes and great slabs of ham.
“Er… thanks, Mr. Sawdford,” Anthony said, amazed by the enormous pile of food in front of him.
“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry ‘bout it. Now get the hell up out o’ my seat,” he barked at a small fat man with a doltish grin on his face, whose shiny bald head looked a little bit like a pale pink sausage.
“Was keepin’ your seat warm for you, Mr. Sawdford.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure you was, chucklehead. Now get the hell up.” Fittingly enough, Chucklehead then gave out a short burst of shrill girlish giggles before removing himself from the seat.
•• • ••
Drunk and pissy (he was always pissy when he was drunk and alone), Anthony Willis was seriously regretting drinking all those pints of cider and was cursing himself for allowing time to slip by like that. He glanced at his watch and swore profusely under his breath when he saw that it was already ten o’clock.
Better be one helluva shortcut, he thought to himself bitterly.
The going was excruciatingly slow. The dirt road was windy and icy, and the nearly-hidden path that branched off to become the shortcut was even windier and icier. Though he hadn’t yet reached the pass, the road was already steep, with a nasty drop into the valley on the right. One false move, and he’d be sent tumbling down into the valley below. His blurred and dizzied vision didn’t do much to help his nerves, either.
Anthony’s original estimation of taking about ten minutes to reach the pass had been agonizingly stretched to forty-five. Looking back behind him, the Twisted Tree Inn seemed pathetically close behind.
What the hell was I thinking, staying so goddamn long?
Looking back again, it appeared to be gone, though he couldn’t quite tell if it was just a trick of the light.
•• • ••
It was nearly midnight now, and Anthony was starting to panic. Snow had begun to fall steadily, and his windshield wiper kept jamming up. At this rate he wouldn’t get through the mountains until nearly dawn, and he still had a five-hour drive after that. Good thing he thought to bring gas cans with him, or else he really would be royally fucked.
•• • ••
The snow was picking up hard, and so was the wind. His car, which was made in 1915, had unfortunately been made just before they added heating systems, so even though Anthony was wearing several layers of clothing, he could feel every drop in temperature, especially in his fingers and toes, which felt as though they might snap off any second now, and the portable burner he had next to him might as well have been nonexistent. Visibility was quickly dropping, too. To Anthony’s left was sheer rock face, to his right was a steep drop of several hundred feet, and in front of him he could see about ten feet of path before the whirlwind of snow blocked his field of vision. Pretty soon he could only see about five feet in front of the car. At the point when he could no longer see in any direction at all, Anthony cried “Horse-shit!” and called it quits. There was no way in hell he could drive in snow like this. However, right as he was about to put his foot on the clutch, the car lurched downwards, though not so steeply for Anthony to think that he’d gone over the side. This would be fine if there wasn’t just one problem: the path was glazed with so much ice that the brakes were rendered completely useless against the car’s rapid acceleration.
“Fucking Christ!” He roared at the windshield, slamming on the clutch and yanking the handbrake repeatedly to no avail. Pounding his fist on the horn didn’t seem to do much either, but at least it felt good.
Out of nowhere, the car smashed into a monstrously huge boulder that was blocking the path. The car hit the boulder at such an angle that the car was sent spinning counter-clockwise off the road, knocking over the burner, which sent the blankets up in a roaring, swirling blaze, tumbling down, down, down, and —
•• • ••
He awoke to the gentle touch of a snowflake on his cheek. At first, when he found that he couldn’t see anything, Anthony thought that he was blind, but then realized that he was just looking up at the night sky.
“Damn it, Tea Kettle,” he murmured to himself with vague remembrance, hazily admiring the way the snowflakes were dancing lazily through the air.
As he gathered his wits about him (his head hurt an awful lot), he slowly realized that he was still in the car (which was on its side), half-covered in snow, looking up through a broken window. Snow must’ve put out the fire, he mused absently. Numb from the cold, his first few attempts to crawl out headfirst through the window were unsuccessful, but eventually, with humongous effort, he managed to flop into the snow outside. He laid there, eyes closed, enjoying the numbness he felt. It felt good to just lay there….
Eventually, he mustered up the will and energy to lift up his head. Just steep, rocky mountainside.
Shit, he thought, filling with dread as he scanned the area to his left.
All he could see was more mountainside and wreckage of the cars and buggies from the countless other poor souls who’d toppled over the side. He turned over onto his back so that he could look behind him.
Just sheer cliff.
He sighed, watching the snow drift lazily in the harsh light of the car’s right headlight, which somehow hadn’t broken in the fall. He let his eyes follow the beam of light to his right, and gasped at what he saw.
It was a tree.
It was a tree Anthony’d never seen the likes of before. Its trunk was gnarled and twisted like a rope, with roots sprawling out from the base in all directions, crawling over rocks that were mysteriously free of snow and then diving back in again. The thing that made the tree truly remarkable, though, were the patches on the bark that had a deep, orange glow, as if light were passing through skin. He stumbled stiffly towards the tree, and up close Anthony could see that veins and arteries lined the inside of the skin, past which were pulsating and throbbing organs.
“What the hell is this?” he whispered to himself in horrified wonder.
Something poked his leg. Looking down, Anthony saw that to his horror a long, thin tentacle of slimy pink flesh that was extended from the end of a root was slowly wrapping itself around the bottom of his left leg. He yelped and kicked his leg clumsily, but the tentacle tightened with the force of a boa constrictor and yanked Anthony off his feet. Others followed suit, incapacitating him by wrapping their slimy pink bodies around his arms and legs. While he lay there, struggling uselessly against the tree’s fleshy tentacles, one appeared before his face. A hole opened up at the end of it, out of which squirmed hundreds of little electric-blue threads.
Anthony screamed as if the very gates of Hell had opened up. Immediately, he knew that it was a huge mistake, for right then the wriggling blue threads shot out of the hollow tube as one and plummeted down his throat and into his lungs. The other tentacles then opened up as well, and the threads squirmed into his ears, nose, and even through the spaces around his eyes and directly into his brain. He could feel them inside groping his organs and pulling him headfirst into one giant, hollow root.
It was warm inside of the root. It was dark, warm, and Anthony was scared shitless. Though the warm, nebulous darkness seemed to last an eternity, Anthony eventually found himself being pulled into a skin-tight sac that seemed to burn his skin, and past his raw, tearful eyes, he could see in the deep orange glow the throbbing, twitching organs at work, and suddenly Anthony had a grim realization: he was in the tree’s stomach, being digested alive. He knew that his life was over.
That this was the end….
But then the tree sent images of the Great War into Anthony’s brain using the bright blue threads. His head was a whirlwind of trenches in Europe, dogfights, propaganda, and U-Boats. Some images he’d seen before in newspapers, while others he’d never seen at all. The threads wriggled deeper into his brain, and more scenes from the war flashed before his eyes of air raids and chlorine gas. Now the war was over, and people were cheering in the streets. Then he saw the Palmer raids and labor strikes. Prohibition began. Germany was in a deep depression with practically useless money. The Soviet Union was established. Mussolini was gaining power in Italy. Lenin was dead.
Anthony knew that he was approaching the present day, however, because Herbert Hoover was elected president, after which the stock market plummeted. People were losing everything they had, many of whom were jumping out of buildings. Banks were failing, shantytowns and bread lines were rampant, and children lived on the backs of trains. Almost all of the Midwest was nothing but a vast ocean of dust and dirt clouds.
It was at this point that the tree began to show him things that had never occurred during Anthony’s time… things that hadn’t happened yet. People, thousands of people known as the Bonus Army were marching the Capitol, and President Hoover sent infantrymen to go and implement tear gas on them. Then there was a new face in the Oval Office, a face of hope speaking of a New Deal to pull America back out of its depression… but back in Germany, there was a different face. And like Franklin Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler too wanted to pull his country out of a devastating depression, but unlike Roosevelt, his philosophy was built upon pride and discrimination…. He wanted to build an empire for the “master race.” Meanwhile, south of Germany, Italy was busy invading Ethiopia, while to the west Spain had erupted into civil war. Over in Asia, Japan was pushing hard to expand their empire, which Germany was also now doing, pushing into Czechoslovakia and Poland. Anthony watched in horror as the blitzkrieg unfurled before his tearful eyes. Towards the north, Stalin was pushing into Finland, and Hitler into Norway and Luxembourg. Eventually they seized France, and used this position to barrage London with bombs night and day. Back in Poland, the Nazis were herding people into camps. He imprisoned not only Jews, but also gypsies, homosexuals, communists, socialists, the handicapped and more. Anthony saw them being beaten, starved, tortured, shot, burned, gassed….
In America, a naval base in Hawaii was suddenly attacked by the Japanese, thus thrusting America into the war at last. As a result, however, Japanese-Americans were moved into internment camps against their will. Meanwhile, in China, tensions were mounting between nationalists and communists. Blood, death, and genocide was all Anthony saw for the remainder of the war, until he saw America set a plume of fire blooming out like a fungus over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the war.
In Germany, tensions were high and blockades were being set up in Berlin. A few years later, civil war erupted in Korea, in which the US intervened. Eventually, the civil war reached a stalemate with the communists, after which the country was split into North and South Korea. Back home, people were drenched in a plague of paranoia and fear of communism. A man named McCarthy was taking advantage of this, making accusations against people which some compared to the Salem Witch Trials. After the McCarthy hearings, Anthony had yet more visions of the future. He saw the Bay of Pigs… the construction of the Berlin Wall… a bus in Alabama full of protesting African-Americans being blown up… the Cuban missile crisis… the Kennedy assassination…. in Birmingham, he saw African-Americans beaten, attacked by dogs, and sprayed with firehoses because of the color of their skin. All over the country, people were protesting the abuse of African-Americans, and he even witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Finally, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, and the Voting Rights Act passed the next year.
About this time, things began to get a little fuzzier and less detailed, as though the farther into the future the tree’s visions went, the harder it was for it to see with clarity. Nonetheless, Anthony still had plenty enough to figure out what was going on in the world. In Vietnam, the US was flying in to fight the Vietcong, and people were shocked as the US military doused villages in napalm and sprayed the countryside with Agent Orange. In protest, monks set themselves on fire in the war-torn country, while back home America’s youth was in an uproar against the war. After the war finally ended, things began to speed up and get hazy, eventually slowing down enough for him to see the MOVE bombing and the Gulf War, with the CIA training terrorists to further their cause. Then, on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorists flew planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, killing hundreds in the process. Almost immediately afterwards, the president announced a war on terror, though instead of going directly after the ones responsible, the US military decided to invade Iraq first and overthrow their government with the promise of finding weapons of mass destruction, though none were found. Things began again to get fuzzy, but Anthony could still see the decline of Al-Qaeda and the rise of ISIS. In the late 2010’s, The US began to fuel tensions between themselves and North Korea, ultimately leading into a war with them, with China staying neutral for economic purposes.
West of North Korea, ISIS, somehow, was managing to take over the entire Middle East, and were recruiting followers by the thousands. At the same time, a terrorist cult was gaining power within the US, and they called themselves The Disciples of the Wyrm. In 2030, North Korea nuked the US president’s hometown of Winston, soon after which the US successfully managed to take down North Korea with minimal civilian casualties. A couple of years later, ISIS, using research provided by the recently deceased founder of The Disciples of the Wyrm, released a biologically engineered flesh-eating bacteria that caused zombie-like symptoms and was enriched by the same kind of radiation that was emitted by cell-phone towers. In the resulting chaos, and by withholding the cure, they successfully pushed their way into mainland Europe, and eventually the British Isles. At last, the cure was stolen and the pandemic was over, but the Islamic State was left unchallenged for nearly ninety years before it began to fall due to widespread rebellions, though in the years between, the ocean’s animal population was devastated by pollution and over-fishing, and the ice caps melted, resulting in massive flooding all over the world’s coastlines.
Over four hundred years later, NASA discovered a planet nearly identical to Earth in gravity, temperature, atmosphere, and even in the lengths of its days and years. NASA wanted to announce this exciting new planet, named Discovery, to the public, but the US military made them keep it a secret for the time being. A few decades later, the military developed almost instantaneous space travel using artificially created worm-holes. They then used this to secretly set up research facilities on Discovery to conduct Nazi-like experiments. In the 2700’s, despite measures already taken, over-population was reaching a crisis on Earth, and many countries conducted mass-sterilization, though Anthony watched as the more radical nations conducted mass slaughter against the poor. The wealthy, however, had underground colonies built on Mars so that they could escape the discomfort of Earth. The remaining lower class, meanwhile, were stuck in concentrated ghettos and internment camps to make more room for the middle class.
Several decades later, there was an outbreak of black plague on Earth that ended up leaving five billion left, just one twentieth of the population before. Almost a century afterwards, a group of people escaped Discovery and exposed the horrors being conducted there. After colossal public outcry, the prisoners of Discovery were “freed,” though they were still heavily oppressed, and the experiments continued in even heavier secrecy. More than two hundred years later, the people of Discovery led an armed rebellion, which prompted the military to ultimately nuke most of Discovery and entirely abandon the forsaken planet.
It was at this point that the tree seemed to be approaching its limit. Life grew back on Discovery, and Mars fell into a dark age, during which an alien parasite devoured all life on Earth and unsuccessfully threatened to do so on Mars.
For a few thousand years, Anthony saw very little of humanity’s ancestors, though eventually, out of seemingly nowhere, Mars was destroyed remotely by an underestimated military on Discovery thousands of years later, the pieces of which collided into Earth, effectively destroying almost all of the remaining life on humanity’s home planet. A long lapse in the tree’s prophetic vision presented itself once again, blurring over everything until our descendants were forced to take refuge in an enormous spacecraft that was left to decay for millions of years, the people reverting back to a hunter-gatherer society, until eventually they crashed onto a desolate Earth, and were transported to another world, which was itself ultimately destroyed by a single man in a bizarre suicide attempt.
The visions now over, so too was the life of Anthony Willis. The tree’s purpose complete, it digested the unfortunate man’s body, taking only the nutrients it needed and pouring the rest back into the earth around it.
CREDIT : Frank Phillips