"God lives in the Tree," says the boy.
The other boy looked up. "What tree?" he says.
"The Tree. The one beyond the wall," says the girl. She is the first boy's twin. They share their blond hair and blue eyes, but otherwise don't look particularly similar to each other.
The second boy, the boy who has been fostered into their home and who does not have blond hair or blue eyes, but black hair and brown eyes, the boy who isn't used to living in a gated community or a house with stairs in it, says, "why the tree?"
To which the two others say, exasperated, "Because he's a tree god. Of course he lives in a tree."
They invite him to see. It won't just be the three of them, they promise. The other kids will come too. The two boys who live next door, the girl down the street--
"Will Maisy come?" asks the Foster Boy. He wipes his eyes; he's still unused to sting of smog.
"Probably," Girl Twin says. "Our mom won't let us leave without her."
Maisy is their youngest sister, the one without a twin, the one who doesn't talk much to family and at all to strangers, who watches the world with eyes that are distant and confused, but can be full of light. Maisy doesn't like the Foster Boy. He's tried hard to be friendly, but she shies away from him and will cry if he's asked to hold her or put her into her car seat.
He is uncertain. He doesn't really want to go, but he wants to fit in. He wants his new family to like him.
"Okay," he says.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The wall around the Community is made of tan brick that isn't really brick, but looks nice around the homes, with wrought iron bars in places and swooping patterns in others. The families within the community love the wall. It protects them, they say, though from what, the Foster Boy isn't sure of. He wonders if it protects them from the city to the front, where the sky is stained with fog and smoke. He wonders if it protects them from the forest behind the wall where the twins meet their God, and then wonders again if they ought to be going to the forest at all.
He keeps his thoughts to himself.
The spot in the wall where the children go is covered in vines. When they approach the wall, it is midday, bright and sunny. As they cross over the wall, climbing the ladder entangled by ivy and half-hidden in the growth, it becomes night. The climb takes no time at all, but the world outside the wall is dark and cool.
The Foster Boy, the Twins, and Maisy meet the other children at the edge of the woods, following a dirt path clear to their eyes but not to the eyes of the Foster Boy, who can barely make out anything in front of him, despite the starlight. They travel the path together in a herd. Though it's clear he doesn't want to be there, not really, the Foster Boy is in the center of the group, surrounded securely by the three neighbor children as the Twins and Maisy take the lead. The others chatter, but the words wash past him and are lost before he knows what they are saying. He's not certain if this is because of them, because of his own inattention, or because of the woods.
Around them, above them, the distorted shapes of twisted trees close in together, branches weaving into one another until the sky is gone.
The still air grows thick with the musk of untamed growth, and the earth becomes soft and moist beneath their feet.
The edges of the world turn dark and green.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Eventually they approach the Tree.
The God Tree is larger than any other tree around it, with a base as wide across as the living room door laid flat on its side and branches too sparse, thin, and spindly to climb. It is the only pine tree in a forest of oaks, and as if out of respect, the entangled oaks have not grown near it. There is a space around it that is clear, were the sky can be seen again. There are ribbons around the trunk of the God Tree where the children have stapled them on. Sticking out of the tree in a haphazard layer of rust and metal are nails from years of putting up paper and posters. Sometime in the past, the children have taped and glued pictures drawn in crayon and marker onto the bark of the tree.
The pictures all show the same thing: an angular narrow face with spiked, jutting teeth. It doesn't look like a tree god. Instead of being green or brown or any other tree-like color, it's black and red, with what looks like blood. It looks like a mask. It looks like a face made of wood. It looks like a red and black shadow with carved out holes.
The longer he stares at the pictures, the more certain the Foster Boy is that it is a mask.
"That's what the god looks like," says the Boy Twin. "We think. We're not sure."
"You haven't seen him?" says the Foster Boy.
"No," says the Neighbor Girl. She's holding Maisy's hand, making sure the younger girl doesn't run off into the woods.
"Come on," says the Boy Twin. He takes out a book of matches from his pocket. The Girl Twin takes out candles from hers-- a pack of pastel birthday candles snagged from the kitchen drawer. They and the others begin setting up the candles around the tree.
You here to join them, Good Blood? says a voice.
The Foster Boy freezes.
"What's wrong?" says the Neighbor Girl. She, he, and Maisy are the only ones not setting up candles. Maisy hides behind her, away from him.
"Did you hear that?" he says.
"Hear what?" says the Girl Twin from the ground.
"What are you talking about?" says the Boy Twin.
The Foster Boy tries to tell them, but out of his mouth come the words, "Never mind. Sorry."
They turn away. He looks around frantically and feels talons digging into his back. When he tries to pull them off, his hands meet empty air. The talons dig in harder.
Ridiculous, says the voice in his head. How dare they? They think that's worship? Running around here, leaving their garbage in my woods. Setting fires? Such disrespect.
Out of the corner of his eye, the boy can make out a creature on his shoulder. Or a creature who is, by the feel of it, clinging to his back and poking its head over his shoulder. He tries to look at the creature, but when he turns his head, the creature vanishes. Its weight and the feel of its claws remain.
Stop wiggling, says the voice. Instantly, the Foster Boy finds himself frozen in place.
The spirit has no lungs to laugh, but laughter floods the boy's mind all the same. That's right, it says. The boy can feel it nodding appreciatively. You're the first one with any useful blood that I've seen for a while. You're going to help me.
No! thinks the boy. Help you what? I won't do it.
He tries to move, tries to stop whatever the creature has in mind, but he can't.
You already have, says the spirit.
And then, from behind his eyes, the boy watches helplessly as his body moves forward towards the rest of the group.
His hands are glowing, as though the veins under his skin are full of green fire, and its light --though muted by his flesh-- is powerful enough to shine through. The glow is bright enough that, even before he says anything, the others are already turning to look at him.
"What--?" says one.
"Silence," snarls the God. He moves the Foster Boy's hand in a small gesture. From above, a branch of the God Tree moves. The branch, no longer thin and spindly but now whip-like and strong, strikes the Boy Twin and wraps around his neck. It launches him upwards, high into the branches, and when it suddenly stops, the woods ring with a deafening crack.
The god laughs.
The others scream.
Stop! he screams inside. His brother's corpse dangles from the branch, casting an impossible shadow on the ground despite the poor light. Stop it, please!
The god pauses. The boy feels it pressing through, feels the god trying to break away and continue slaughtering the other children, but it can't. He doesn't know how, but he's holding it off it. Its frustration and confusion burn inside his head.
You can't be here, Good Blood, it says. Don't like that at all. Having good blood isn't worth a thing if it's going to be opinionated. Get out of my way, go someplace else.
And, as though he has been hit in the chest, all the air is gone from the boy's lungs. He collapses to his hands and knees, gasping and choking for breath. He feels the spirit leave him like steam coming from his pores. His vision dims, and the world shifts like a kaleidoscope, but for only a second.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The grass beneath his hands changes. Short, dark scrub becomes longer, softer, thinner strands that almost seemed to grow between his fingers as he watches. As he coughs and finally catches his breath, he notices the air itself had become sweeter, without the edge of dust or the taste of smog, or the strange metallic taste of the forest.
"You alright, son?" said familiar voice above him. The voice is kind, and the words welcome, but the way they are spoken bends his mind. Bended his mind. Something was wrong-- is wrong, and he didn't know what.
The boy turns his head, still on the ground, and sees a pair of boots. He looks up further and finds his foster father looking down at him with a concerned expression. Except something is wrong.
The man has no face. His features are blurred, as if being looked at through a smudged up glass, but all the same the boy knows he looks concerned.
The boy jolts upright and scrambles backwards, afraid.
"Whoa there! What's wrong?" said the man that his mind said was his foster father, but clearly wasn't. Again, the boy's mind stretches to accommodate something he can't explain, but knows is wrong.
The boy thinks of the dead twin swinging in the tree, of the creeping, slithering, hateful god inside of his head and using his body, and of his real foster father with the kind face. He feels himself cracking apart.
"Hey now, sport," said the man who was not his foster father. "What's wrong?"
The boy opens his mouth, but the words won't come out. He tries to tell the Other Father everything, every strange thing that's happened, but he can't.
"Your hand is off," said the Other Father, unbidden.
The boy looks down and sees that his right hand is no longer a hand, but a strange, alien claw, bug-like in nature and covered in a hard carapace.
He ought to be shocked. He ought to be afraid, but he isn't.
"Why's it like this?" he asks. His voice sounds distant and tinny to his ears.
The Other Father shrugged in a way that makes the boy's mind want t o rip in two. "It's always been that way," he said, as if it made sense. "You just couldn't see it before."
The boy stares at his hand, wanting to deny this other father's words. He can't. Instead, he says, "I have to go back."
"Back where?" the Other Father said. "To Foster care? Listen, we've been through this before." The man with no face knelt down beside the boy, at what would be eye-level had he any eyes. He placed a hand on the boy's trebling shoulder. "You don't need to go anywhere, we want you to stay here. Kiddo, we care about you, all of us. And if anyone gives you a hard time, then let me and your mom know, and we'll take care of them."
"Where are the others?" the boy says. "Where are. . . " he stops. What were his siblings' names?
What were the neighbor kids' names?
A cold thought brings chills down his neck. What was his name?
"Where's Maisy?" he says at last. She's the only one he can conjure up.
"She's with Jen and Rob," the Other Father said. "Out in the front yard."
The Foster Boy thanks him for the information and runs.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
In the front yard, The Boy and the Girl were standing with Maisy, looking at something she'd brought them. She held out her cupped hands and giggled, but stopped when she saw the Foster Boy coming.
She dropped whatever she was holding and hid behind the sister.
"Hey!" says the Foster Boy.
They looked at him, their brows furrowed.
"We know you," said the girl, uncertainly. The Other Father had called her Jen.
"You're different now," said the boy. Rob. "There's more of you."
The Foster Boy feels as though his head is going to burst. "I don't understand!"
"You look more solid," Rob said. "You're usually all washed out and faded. Now it's like, you're here."
"But your timing's off," added Jen thoughtfully. "How did you get here?"
"Your tree god sent me," says the Foster Boy.
The twins frowned and exchanged looks.
"Tree god?" said Rob.
"The one behind the Community, in the woods."
Jen gasped. "We don't go there" she said. "That place is cursed!"
"It's evil," said Rob. "Nobody with sense goes there."
Through the entire exchange, Maisy had been watching the Foster Boy with large, fearful eyes. He looks down at her, then at himself.
"Maisy," he says. "Are you scared of my arm?" He holds up the bug claw.
Maisy yelped and hid her face in her sister's skirts.
"I'm sorry," he says. "Is the other Maisy afraid of it, too?"
Maisy nodded her head, her face still obscured by the dress.
"I have to go back," says the Foster Boy. He wants to scream, to cry, to run as far away as he can, but the image of his brother's corpse fills his mind. The image of a boy he had wanted so badly to be friends with, and now never will be. "How do I get back?"
The Rob looked at him thoughtfully. "I think," he said slowly, "I think it's the same woods. That's how you got here. The worlds might be different, but the woods are the same, and kicked you out from the other side. I think if we go in there from here, we can get him."
"I'll go get the others," Jen said, turning to run across the yard. "They'll want to help!"
It didn't take long for her to return, and when she came back, she had several other children with her. Some, he recognizes as the doubles of the neighbor kids who'd accompanied him into the woods. Others, he doesn't know, or knows only by sight in the other world.
They all went to Rob and Jen's garden shed and arm themselves with bicycle helmets and gardening tools from the garage; shovels, rakes. One girl, the double of the neighbor girl whose name he never learned, but whose name in this world is Sonia, carried a short set of hedge clippers. The Foster Boy is the only one without a weapon; everyone had agreed that his claw would be enough.
Then, they go to the wall.
The ivy on this side of the wall grows just as thickly as the ivy on his side, and all climb awkwardly over, tossing their tools first or carrying them up on their backs.
Once they were all down, Rob stood aside and gestured for the Foster Boy to take the lead. he has the most experience, after all. he takes a deep breath and strides forward. He does not know if they will succeed, but he knows they have to try. Together, they enter the woods.
* * * * *
The journey is much the same.
To his surprise, he knows where to go. He knows the location of each jutting root, of each branch threatening to poke his eyes. He knows where to step to avoid the mud, where to duck to avoid the brambles, how to slip between plants to save time. The others followed his lead, with worse results, but still, they progressed, until finally, they came to the tree.
The tree has grown larger, but not in the normal way. The trunk has swollen outward in irregular, tumor-like lumps. The Foster Boy's arm aches, and he knows with complete certainty that the other children are inside them, like malformed cocoons.
And sitting atop the bulbous growths is the tree demon.
The tree demon has crafted a body. It's a small body, oddly doll like, and comprised of gnarled roots and spindly branches. Even when it stands still, the roots and branches that made it twist and writhe like snakes; even still, it is constantly in motion. It turns as they approach, and he sees that it's made a face similar to the drawings of the twins-- pointed, wooden, leering.
There's a shadow of a hanging corpse. He doesn't look up. Rob, the other Rob, is still swinging
"Oh," says the tree god. "You're back."
The lips of the mask don't move when he speaks.
"What did you bring me, Good Blood?" it says. it rolls onto hits belly, propping itself up to look at the troupe. "Oh, you brought me more toys!"
Rob steps forward, brandishing his shovel.
"Get back inside your tree!" he said.
The mask moved for the first time, widening into a smile. "Hello, Other Corpse. Would you like to join yourself?"
The branch holding up the dead twin lets go, and the Other Rob's corpse falls to the ground, crunching when it lands.
The living Rob paled, but did not back down.
The tree demon laughs. "Oh good, you're brave. It's always fun watching the brave ones die."
Before anyone can say or do anything else, the trees around them suddenly loom impossibly close, blocking out what little light there had been. Branches and vines strike at Rob like whips, and the shovel in his hands snaps in two. Rob cried out as more and more of the vines hit him, and when they finally stopped, he'd dropped to his knees and cradled his bleeding face. There's a rumble in the ground, and the dirt shifts as snakelike roots burst out and wrap themselves around his wrists, holding him down.
The other children yell out and surge forward, but the vines and roots attack them too.
There is a blur of motion as everyone tries to fight off the trees, and the tree demon's laugh echoes around them.
The only one who was not attacked is the Foster Boy. He doesn't know why, and doesn't have time to question. he goes to Rob, who is being pulled into the dirt as though it were quicksand, and tried to yank him out. it doesn't work, and for a moment, he despairs that he's lost him, when he hits the roots with his bug-clawed arm.
Not only do the roots he touch severe immediately at the contact, but the remaining roots shy way too, releasing their hold.
He stares for a moment, then goes to the others, leaving Rob to pick himself up.
Jen was struggling with the vines; they had wrapped around her in such a way that the rake she had was now tied to her arm. The roots swarmed at her feet, knotting around her ankles and tripping her up. He comes in quickly, slicing through vines and scattering the branches. but there's no time to rest; the others are still being attacked. When he moves to help them, Jen grabbed his arm.
"Kill the tree!" she said. Then, she took up the rake and began thwacking at the oncoming vines.
He wants to help them, but knows she's right; if he kills the tree, then maybe the tree demon will die or leave. He runs for it.
The tree demon shouts at him, but Rob hits it with part of the shovel, distracting it. He approaches the tree unmolested.
He goes to the nearest bulging tumor. Using his bug-claw, the Foster Boy rips open the base of the tree, and the bark splits like aged paper. Brown liquid reeking of mud and stagnant water rushes out of the tear, the pressure of it opening the hole wider and wider until a child's shape flows out with the rush. The Other Sister lands on the ground, coughing up brown water. He doesn't stop to help her, there's no time, so he goes to the next bulbous root of the tree. One by one, he tears open the tree, and one by one, the Other Children spill out of the bark.
Stop! screeches the tree god. But he doesn't. Instead, while the strength flows through him, he takes his claw to the trunk of the tree itself and presses through.
The tree god screams in pain, and the ground shakes beneath him, as if the entirety of the Earth is trying to shake him off, but he cannot be dislodged; his bug-arm is in too deep.
The place where his claw entered behinds to darken, as though blackened by fire. Bark and wood become charcoal, and when he brushes it with his free hand, it crumbles at his touch. The darkness spreads through the tree, charring it all, and suddenly there are craws digging into his back. The tree demon tries to throttle him, tries to wrap its twiggy fingers around his throat, but even as it tries, the branches and brambles that make its body fall apart, nothing but charcoal.
The tree crumbles away at the same time, collapsing into dust by the time it hits the ground. When it's all over, there's nothing left but an angry, wooden mask.