"Hollow"

Jimmy was my best friend. He was tall for his age–taller than me at least, and I was about average for a boy my age–with gold-flecked brown hair and wide brown eyes that grew wider whenever they were presented with new and exciting things. On our first day of school, five years before, he’d bounded up to me and thrown a ball in my lap and said, “Come play with me!” I’d gone, mostly out of shock than out of any desire to play.

He grew on me, and we came to spend all our time together. If I wasn’t asleep or in a different class, I was with him. In the summer, when school was out and our parents were eager to get us out of the house, we were inseparable. In winter, we huddled together for warmth and told each other ghost stories. At bedtime, his arms would wrap around me tightly enough that a tiny, high-pitched whimper would flee from my lungs, and we’d laugh.

I stand in front of a dead, petrified tree in the middle of this cold forest, looking into the dark hole in its hollow trunk. It’s Halloween, and the hole grows darker then. I’m holding a leash, and attached to it is a panting dog. It’s sweet–the dog. It came right towards me when I tempted it with small, dry treats. It didn’t complain when I tied a leash to its collar. It only panted, its lips spread into a smile, while I pulled off its tag and tossed it into a nearby trash bin.

On Halloween night, Jimmy showed me the tree in the forest behind our neighborhood. It was creepy–the only tree in the forest that hadn’t grown any leaves. The hollow was at its darkest then, though I wouldn’t know that until later. Jimmy wanted to play hide-and-go seek that night, instead of joining my sister for trick-or-treat. We did what Jimmy wanted, as that was the custom.

Jimmy counted first–he loved to chase me. I thought about hiding in the tree, but my stomach twisted into a knot at the thought of it. Instead I ran, and I was caught easily. When it was Jimmy’s turn to hide, he didn’t hesitate to choose the sinister tree. I heard him yelp in surprise. He called out to me, his voice swiftly fading. I followed him into the tree without thinking, and the darkness inside fell around me, grabbed me, pulled me close, and touched an outstretched claw against my chest and cheek. “So full. Come back next year,” the darkness whispered, and I was thrown out of the tree with a force that knocked the wind out of me. I ran as soon as I could manage to stand.

The dog growls with its leg between its tail as I push it into the hole. It will be full–like it was when it took Jimmy. I hear the dog’s desperate whines rise and fade.

Neither the sheriff nor the mob that followed him with their rifle and their futile cries found any sign of Jimmy. Only I, and the dogs that vehemently sniffed the base of the tree, knew where he’d gone.

Behind me, from the house that I grew up in, I hear my children laughing. They’ll be safe this Halloween, as long as the thing in the hollow of the tree is full.