The Tower, the Monster, and the Tree by TM Gregg
Walingford is a place rife with dark history and dirty secrets, and where Dr. Patrick Denny, renowned fiction writer, has returned to the profession he had forsaken years before—psychiatry. To the astonishment of his long-time girlfriend and ambitious literary agent, Helen Olssen, Patrick abruptly moves them from the glamor and excitement of the big city to the quaint, little backwater, abandoning a lucrative writing career from which they both profited. Manipulating his way into a job at Everston Psychiatric Hospital, or Foreverston as the more lucid patients call it, the overconfident and sometimes reckless doctor plunges into the damaged psyches of the most disturbed and hopeless—an insomniac, a schizophrenic, and a catatonic. But as he endeavors to untangle the mysteries of their troubled minds, his own tormented past begins to bleed into his present, and the macabre storyteller that still dwells within pushes him dangerously close to madness.
In this triptych of tales, psychology and superstition, reality and fantasy blend together as the boundaries between the stories within stories break down. In “The Tower” Samantha Elliot can’t fall asleep, but instead of pills Dr. Denny has prescribed a story–the diary of Alfred D. Cummings, an account of bewitchment and sacrifice. In “The Monster” one of the doctor’s fictional creations comes back to haunt him when Michael McKay, a man plagued by the horror of his childhood, believes himself to be the main character in this macabre tale of children and monsters. And in “The Tree” Dr. Denny’s own mental anguish threatens to destroy everything when he fails over and over again to free Amelia Dearborne, a patient trapped within the dark forest of her own mind.
Sam stared out the window. She gazed past her own reflection, past the giant maple that flamed orange and yellow in the late day sun, past the almost deserted parking lot, and up the steep slope of Tower Hill Cemetery. Her visual ascent continued until her eyes finally came to rest upon the top of the hill, where yellow-grey headstones jutted up like a misshapen grin and encircled the tower, a red brick giant that penetrated up into the darkening sky.
“Sam,” Dr. Denny’s voice spoke from behind her.
“Yes,” she responded without turning from her spot in front of the window, the customary post she took up at the beginning of their sessions.
“What are you thinking about?”
She shrugged. “Not really sure. Nothing.”
The wind kicked up and the branches of the maple reached out to her, tapping and scratching against the glass. A whirlwind of leaves rose around the headstones, giving them the appearance of motion. They danced about the tower, a Sabbath dance in honor of their master, an offering of the souls carved into their stone bodies.
“Why don’t you come away from the window and have a seat,” the doctor urged gently.
Sam let out a long breath, fogging the glass and blotting out the scene. “Okay.” She turned toward the doctor’s mahogany desk. Behind its great expanse sat a fortyish-looking man, his short wavy blonde hair framing a tanned face, his blue eyes sparkling even in the dim light of the desk lamp.
Curling up on the oversized armchair across from the doctor’s desk, Sam wrapped herself in the small wool blanket that had been draped over the chair’s back. A chill hung in the air of the drafty, high-ceilinged room, but she felt oddly warm and safe, nestled into the soft leather cushions, secure within the sphere of the desk lamp’s protective light.
Dr. Denny smiled at her. He always smiled. Not the same smile, but a myriad of variations on a smile. At the moment, he was exhibiting his patient, take-your-time smile. From anyone else, Sam would have found his perpetual pleasantness insincere or at least incredibly annoying. But in the short time that she had been his patient, she had quickly concluded that he was genuine. Strange, no doubt, but genuine, and she couldn’t help but like him.
“Have a peppermint,” he said, sliding a candy dish across the desk toward her and snatching one for himself.
Sam sighed at the ritual. “Today it’s peppermint,” she said as she grabbed one of the shiny pink and white confections and popped it into her mouth.
He nodded. “I felt like Christmas today. Peppermint always transports me to Christmastime.” He examined the candy, gave it a sniff, smiled with childlike glee, and popped it into his mouth, cheeking it so he could continue talking. “Candy canes, red and green and gold wrapping paper, twinkling lights. I think I’m seven years old. My mum has just finished baking cookies, ginger bread. And my pop is snoring in his recliner by the tree.” His eyes gleamed at the memory, and for a moment, Sam could almost believe he had managed to transport himself back in time. He refocused his eyes on her. “So what about you? Where does peppermint take you?”
Sam shrugged, her usual way of answering his questions, and crunched on the hard candy until there was nothing left of it.
“Come on. It must bring you to some other time and place.”
She thought for a moment. “Eight years old. The dentist to have a cavity filled.”
The doctor looked mildly disappointed but didn’t let her negativity dampen his enthusiasm. “Okay. So how did you sleep last night?”
Sam winced. Wriggling deeper into the chair cushions, she tried to get as far from the question as she could.
She shook her head.
“Humph,” was the doctor’s only response.
The wind howled outside the window, its view now a mirror of the room against the darkness. The ancient radiator along the wall, a giant, twisted monster, pinged and hissed, its dusty, warm breath mixing oddly with the sweet scent of peppermint.
“Why Christmas?” Sam asked, desperate to leave behind the topic of sleep. “Why not Halloween, or Thanksgiving even? I mean, have you been outside today? It’s a classic New England autumn out there!” She pointed at the darkened window.
Dr. Denny repositioned his candy to the other cheek and replied, “No reason. I just felt like Christmas when I woke up.”
That didn’t surprise her. At their last session he “felt like summer” and handed her a grape Popsicle when she walked through the door. He had a cooler full of them. Just grape. He didn’t feel like any other flavor. And though it was the middle of October and the temperature had dropped below forty degrees, Sam obliged him and managed to chatter through the whole treat. No, Dr. Denny’s oddities didn’t surprise her anymore.
“What do you feel like today?” he asked, folding his hands on the desk and leaning more into the light.
Sam noticed the wrist brace that poked out from his right sleeve and wondered how he had injured himself. Did he play sports? she wondered. He looked athletic, good physical shape. Very good. She wouldn’t bother asking him, though. He never revealed anything about his present life. Only snippets of his past that came with his little sensory trips through time. His mum, his dad, his favorite boyhood things.
“What do I feel like today?” she repeated his question. She looked straight into his expectant eyes. He was very handsome. Tall and fit and all around good-looking. A little old for her, but not so old he that he couldn’t feature in one of her harmless romantic fantasies. Yes, she probably would have a massive crush on him if she wasn’t so damn tired and he wasn’t…well…such a freak.
He waited for her response, a glimmer of anticipation in his youthful eyes.
“I feel like shit,” she said dryly. “What flavor is that?”
Dr. Denny blinked and for a moment said nothing. Then he began to chuckle. He turned his chair to stand up, slapping his desk and pointing at her. “Ah, Samantha, you have quite a sharp wit. Even without any sleep. How long has it been?”
“This time?” She hesitated for a moment before answering, her stomach turning at the thought. “About ten days.”
“Ten days?” he repeated. “Is that all? Oh, you’ve gone longer than that before.” He turned away from her and started to search for something along the massive wall of shelves behind his desk. “Read any good books lately?”
“What?” she asked, confused by the sudden change in topic.
He looked over his shoulder and gave her a mischievous smile. “Have I got a great book for you. Just what the doctor ordered.”
She groaned and shook her head. “Dr. Denny, I can’t read right now. I’m too tired.”
He seemed to ignore her as he searched up and down the rows of books. “Now where did you get to?” he mumbled to himself.
Sam let out an exasperated breath. “Maybe it’s time to try medication again.” That thought turned her stomach as well, but she was getting desperate.
“Nope,” he sang out. “Where did I put it?”
“I don’t think I can keep going through this.” She tried to keep the quiver out of her voice. She didn’t like to show too much emotion. It made her feel weak and all the other doctors seemed to prey on that weakness. Especially Dr. Helman. Her face burned at the thought of that pompous, condescending man. He’d given her so many medications, a rainbow of pills, the side effects she was only now recovering from. But she had to sleep. Nothing else seemed to matter anymore. “Maybe we can try another benzo?”
“Aha! There you are.” He bent down and pulled a dusty, leather-bound book from one of the bottom shelves. Turning to her with a triumphant smile, he held it out to her.
“Are you even listening to me?!” Sam exclaimed, unable to hide her growing frustration.
“Yes,” Dr. Denny answered without any change in expression. “No benzos. No meds. No more whining. Now please take this book. Quick, it’s heavy.”
Ripping the blanket off, she stood up and snatched the book from him, unprepared for the object’s heavy weight. Nearly dropping it, she gripped it tightly with both hands and glared at the doctor. “This isn’t going to help. You doctors never listen,” she snapped and plopped back down on the chair.
The doctor took his seat and ignored her protest. “Open it,” he said gleefully, as if he had just given her a present.
She set the book down on her lap. It seemed ancient, the leather cracked and musty smelling. There was no title, writing, or markings of any kind on the covers or the spine. She looked up at the doctor, who waited expectantly. “Fine,” she huffed, opened the book to the first page, and read the inscription out loud. “This is the diary of Alfred D. Cummings, Master Builder and Architect, Walingford, New Hampshire, the twenty-third of September, eighteen eighty-seven.” She frowned. “It’s just an old diary.”
Dr. Denny nodded his head enthusiastically.
Flipping through the pages, Sam found that the whole book was written in the same old fashion longhand as the inscription. “Why would I want to read this?”
“Because…” The doctor stood up and, keeping his eyes on her, moved toward the window. “Mr. Alfred D. Cummings, Master Builder and Architect, was the guy who designed and built that tower.” He pointed out into the darkness in the direction of Tower Hill. His eyes seemed to radiate their own light, and Sam half expected him to start giggling with excitement.
Looking down at the book in her lap, she responded slowly, “Okay…but why would I want to read…”
He stepped toward her quickly. “…because Mr. Alfred D. Cummings’ tower is no ordinary tower.” Taking the book from her and resting it on the desk, he flipped through the pages until he found the passage that interested him. “The thirty-first of October,” he read. “I’ve decided to end this nightmare, my dear sweet Virginia. I can no longer deny that there is a presence here, a force that beckons me, that compels me to complete this tower with an inhuman rapidity. I cannot sleep, I cannot eat, I cannot think of anything but the completion of this brick and mortar abomination. I cannot break free from its bewitchment. It has taken me and it calls for my blood.” The doctor stopped reading and eagerly awaited Sam’s response.
Slowly, she stood and walked to the window. Icicles pricked at her spine. Her cheeks burned red hot. No longer able to see past her own reflection, she stared at the distorted face of her twin, who was evidently quite angry. “Are you CRAZY!!” she shouted, turning on the overgrown child in whom she had put her last hopes.
Dr. Denny closed the diary and sat on the edge of his desk, apparently aware that a loud, lengthy rant was about to commence.
“I can’t sleep! And I have night terrors when I do! Why would I want to read that?!” She pointed accusingly at the diary. “How could you possibly…I mean…I thought you were supposed to be helping me, not driving me more insane!” She paced in front of him. “I might as well check myself back into the asylum and let them drug me into oblivion. At least then,” she jabbed a finger against her head, “my brain could get a rest from the constant thinking about sleep or not sleeping or…” Her voice trailed off, and she dropped back onto the chair and slumped forward.
The doctor remained silent. The wind shrieked against the window and the radiator hissed.
“I mean…I thought you were going to help,” she whispered meekly.
He held out the book to her once again. “Trust me.”
She wasn’t sure why, but she did.
* * *
Sam trudged down the steps of the Old Meeting Hall building with the diary of Alfred D. Cummings tucked securely under her arm. The wind thrashed the trees that lined the street and charged up her already agitated nerves with a blast of chilling cold. A torrent of fallen leaves skittered across the sidewalk, accumulating in a mound at the bottom of the steps where Sam paused to zip her jacket up to her chin. She glanced back at the newly renovated, two-centuries-old building, wondering if Mr. Cummings had ever been inside.
Though most of the building’s narrow windows were dark, light shined from Dr. Denny’s office on the second floor. She pictured the doctor sitting at his desk, writing up the notes for their session: Samantha Elliot, 19, pathological whiner. Her face flushed with embarrassment at her childish outburst. It wasn’t the first, of course, but each time it happened she wanted to kick herself for behaving so immaturely in front of him.
The bell from St. Michael’s began to toll the hour, and Sam set off on the relatively short walk home, sticking to the diffused glow of the street lamps that hung from poles every six-or-so feet. She looked up at the quaint reproductions made to resemble the old gas lamps of turn-of-the-century London. “Damn historical society,” she grumbled. In her present agitated state, she would have preferred the former fluorescent lights that lit up the sky like a night game at a football stadium. Then there would be none of the shadows in which the monsters of her imagination now lurked.
She plunged ahead into the path of murky light and shadow, moving like a machine, arms riveted to her sides, her strides even and rhythmic. The streets were deserted. All the businesses closed up shop at five sharp, leaving the heart of the town empty and quiet. The sound of the church bell rang out through the lonely night, calling people into a community of prayer, trying to remind her that she was not really alone. But for Sam each echoing toll was a death knell, announcing to her the end of day and the beginning of a long sleepless night.
The diary dug into her ribs painfully, but she couldn’t stop to adjust it. She had to keep moving, sure that even the slightest hesitation would invite attention from whatever lingered in the shadows. The bell struck its sixth and final toll and Sam’s nerves lurched into overdrive. She rushed forward, well aware that even in the warmth and safety of her childhood home there was no relief waiting for her. No comfort. No sleep. Yet still, she raced homeward, away from the anxiety and fear, attempting to escape the inescapable, the torment of her own sleep-deprived mind.
She turned a corner and caught her breath. Halfway down the deserted road a street light was out. Her determined pace slowed and she stared wide eyed into the dark chasm that lay before her. Each step she took was now accented by a sharp surge of fear, like a crash of a cymbal, its reverberations traveling right out through her fingers and toes. Silence pushed against her eardrums until the only sound she could hear was the thumping of her heart.
Finally she came to a complete stop just a few yards from the gap in the light. She stared intently, unwilling to blink lest something in the shadow might take that instant of opportunity to make its move. The cold air stung at her eyes and tears began to roll down her cheeks. The darkness wasn’t opaque. She could still see through it to the light on the other side. And the more she scrutinized its murkiness, the more she was sure there was something in it. Yes, something was there, churning up the emptiness, skulking about, and waiting for her. She took a step back. Maybe she could find another way home. Her mind raced through the possibilities. She took another step back. But the only other feasible way would send her by the entrance to Tower Hill Cemetery. She took a step forward. Maybe if she hurried, held her breath, kept her eyes focused on the light, she could slip by…
It moved toward her, a mass of amorphous black that undulated and roiled and slunk forward like an oil slick come alive and having broken the bonds of its two-dimensional existence. Every part of her stood at attention and her mind ceased to analyze possible routes home. Instead it shrieked for her to run, and she obeyed, spinning on her heel and sprinting back toward the center of town. She rounded the corner in a wide arc, nearly crashing into one of the street poles, hoping desperately to see a light in Dr. Denny’s office. But as she approached the Old Meeting Hall building, her heart sank. Except for a dim light in the lobby, the front of the building was completely dark.
Maybe he’s in the parking lot, she prayed, stopping in front of the building and scanning the lot across the street. But it too was empty. Dejected, terrified, and unsure where to turn next, Sam’s eyes were drawn from the parking lot up to the top of the hill. There the tower looked down at her and the words from Alfred D. Cummings’ diary boomed in her head. “I cannot sleep, I cannot eat, I cannot think of anything but the completion of this brick and mortar abomination.”
Mesmerized by its awfulness, its power to dominate the night sky, she stumbled toward it. And it seemed to grow before her, pushing itself upward and outward until it loomed overhead, crushing her into the ground, pushing her under the earth, a live burial, an eternity without air or light or warmth. She suppressed the primordial scream that rose up from deep inside her. Her knees buckled, and as she crumbled to the street, the diary tumbled out in front of her, its pages flapping in the wind, shrieking up at their master.
The sound of her name was all it took for her strangled cry to be loosened upon the night, a throat-shredding wail that echoed through the empty street like the howl of an angry banshee.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” yelped the old man. “What is the matter?”
Sam looked up at the terrified priest, who shook with the aftershock of her scream. She glanced back up at the tower. Somehow it had shrunk back down to its normal size and receded into the darkness upon its hill. The diary had settled down, its pages fluttering gently in the cold night breeze. She snatched it up and let Father Owen help her to her feet. As the elderly man bent forward, a large gold crucifix dangled from around his neck, and she quickly looked away.
“What is it, my girl?” he asked, his voice still a bit unsteady.
“I…I guess I just got spooked.”
He glanced around the deserted street and up at the cemetery and tower. With a nervous laugh, he said, “I guess I can’t blame you. It’s one of those spooky nights when one wishes to be in the company of other people, preferably somewhere well lit.” He raised his eyebrows to emphasize the point, then offered her his arm. “Why don’t I walk you home?”
She took his arm and nodded with relief. They stepped up onto the sidewalk and she tucked the diary back under her arm. If only he could come home with her, sit up all night watching over her, and never leave her side. Then she might finally find the relief she so desperately sought. But she doubted Father Owen would be up for such a job.
He started to lead her back in the direction from which she had just come.
“Can we take the long way?” she implored as she tugged him in the opposite direction.
“The long way?” he questioned.
“By…by the cemetery,” she stuttered, now willing to endure the unpleasantness of that route.
“That’s three times the distance!” Father Owen protested in a high-pitched voice.
“Please,” Sam said, her eyes darting past him toward the imaginary shadow thing she was still afraid approached.
“Well, okay,” he agreed, slightly irritated, and let her lead him on the longer journey. He eyed her curiously as if he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure if it would be okay.
“Is there something you want to ask me, Father?” she asked, slightly surprised by his reticence. Being the family’s pastor since before she was born, he probably knew more about her than she knew about herself. He’d baptized her, given her first communion, confirmed her, and if she ever got married, would most certainly officiate. He was there through both of her parents’ illnesses and deaths. And she had vague recollections of him praying over her when she lay in a drug-induced stupor in the hospital. Not last rites, she thought as they walked along. No, the sacrament was really called anointing of the sick. Not quite as hopeless sounding a phrase.
“How’s the job hunt?” he finally asked, as matter-of-factly as possible.
Sam shook her head. She hadn’t really been looking, but she didn’t want him to think her slothful or lazy or whatever they called it now.
He grinned. “Tough times for everyone, I guess.”
She nodded and tried to walk at the old priest’s excruciatingly slow pace.
“So you’re doing better now, aren’t you,” he asked tentatively. “New doctor, right?”
“Sure…I’m better. The new guy is a little…well…different. But I like him.”
“Yes, I’ve heard he’s a bit unorthodox, but if he’s helping you…” He left the thought unfinished and patted her arm. “Your mother would be very proud of the progress you’ve made. I’m sure of it.”
Sam sniffed. “Yeah, Mom would be so happy her daughter managed to escape the nuthouse.”
“Now, Samantha,” Father Owen said sternly, “you shouldn’t look at it that way. It was a brief hospital stay and you worked hard to get yourself well enough to be discharged. Anyone put under the kind of pressure…well, a young girl shouldn’t have to bear so much responsibility on her own. Two sick parents, school, a job. You did a remarkable thing taking care of them the way you did. It’s no wonder you got sick afterward.” He ended his speech with a self-affirming huff.
They turned off Main Street, and Sam was relieved to see cars and people and fluorescent lights again.
“Maybe I should move to the city,” she said absently.
“Better job prospects,” Father Owen responded. “But we’d miss you here.” He smiled at her kindly and patted her arm again. She wasn’t sure who “we” referred to but was glad at least one person in the world would notice her gone. They approached the entrance to the cemetery. Sam stayed to the right of Father Owen, closer to the street, though she could still clearly see the name over the gate. Tower Hill Cemetery was an old graveyard, and now that Dr. Denny had given her the diary she had a better idea just how old. But there was still ample room for new tenants, and she could almost pick out her parents’ headstone about halfway up the long slope of the hill.
“You must miss them terribly,” Father Owen said, and Sam realized that she had stopped them right in front of the gate.
“I can’t believe it’s already been two years,” she said almost inaudibly. The day of her mother’s funeral was a cold fall day much like this one. Her father had died a year before that during the winter, so the outside activities were rushed and a blur to her now. But her mother’s funeral was crystal clear. Few people attended. Sam had no real extended family and both her parents had been sick for so long that they hadn’t many friends or colleagues left. Father Owen was there, of course. He stood by her at the wake and said such beautiful things about her mother at the Mass.
She had remained solid through the whole ordeal, resolved to move forward in the world on her own. It wasn’t until she watched the casket being lowered into the ground, the smell of the dirt, the tower looming above against the grey sky, that she really understood she was alone. And that night, in her big, empty house, that night was when it all started.
She moved them on their way again. “Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, you know,” she said to Father Owen as they left the cemetery behind.
“Still having a lot of trouble with sleep?”
She nodded. “Have you ever had insomnia, Father?”
“Oh, I’ve had my troubles with sleep. In my line of work, you tend to hear a lot of people’s problems, and sometimes that sets the mind racing.”
“How do you deal with it?”
“Well, prayer of course eases the mind, but if I’m still having trouble, a little brandy helps.” He smiled conspiratorially. “But don’t tell anyone else.”
“Unfortunately, alcohol just makes me sick.”
“Pity. Well, after that scream you greeted me with, I’m probably going to follow my own advice when I go to bed tonight.”
Her pulse quickened at the mention of bed, and she was sure Father Owen could sense her distress. They walked the rest of the route in silence until they finally came to her street. Her house sat in the middle of a row of identical nineteenth-century Victorians. But hers stood out. Tall and intricately detailed, its clapboard siding was a dusty pink rose, the scrolling trim work purples and yellows and greens of all shades. An oversized dollhouse, possessing the unburdened joy of a child, with the more serious adult houses around it looking on sternly. The porch light spilled its warm glow over the front steps like a welcome mat, and she knew she had to let Father Owen go. St. Michael’s parish house was a few blocks back and she didn’t want to make the elderly man go even more out of his way.
“I’m okay to go the rest alone,” she told him, relinquishing his arm.
He smiled at her with relief. “Goodnight, Samantha.”
“Thank you, Father.”
He started on his way, paused as if to say something, thought better of it, and commenced toward his home once again. Sam watched the priest, her only friend, her only family, amble away until he disappeared around a corner. Reluctantly she walked toward her house and climbed the front steps, careful to avoid the loose boards that needed fixing.
Her happy house was tired. The paint was peeling, the porch was leaning, the yard overgrown with weeds. It needed a lot of work, but she had neither the money nor the energy to do much about it. She looked out into the night and somewhere a distant neighbor’s dog barked, probably enraged that someone dared to walk by its house. Her heart sank a bit. She knew eventually she would have to give the house up, that someone else would eventually call it home. The dog barked again and she understood its torment.
TM Gregg is an American author who lives on the east coast with her family. She spends her days reading, writing, and hanging out with her dog, Chester. A child of the seventies and eighties, Gregg grew up on Saturday afternoon monster and sci-fi movies, paperback horror novels that her mom bought her at the grocery store, and creepy television programs like Night Gallery, In Search Of, and The Outer Limits. A former nyctophobic (that’s just a fancy way of saying she was afraid of the dark), Gregg looks back on those torturous sleepless nights of imagined spooks and boogiemen with a sort of twisted nostalgia, with a desire to be creeped out by ghosts and ghoulies and to have her heart beat fast at the thought of what might be lurking behind the closet door.
Website URL: http://tmgregg.blogspot.com/
Book Trailer URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXnEpe80PjE
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