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Dark Circles

a horror-fiction piece by Sydney Reffeitt, Sophomore English Education Major

Content Warning: Graphic Violence, Mention of the Occult


The TV flashed to life in an instant. “This is Lydia James with Channel Six News on this tragic Monday morning. In a new, startling case, a woman has been found dead by the famous Kirkhill Grove willow tree. She was found at approximately 10:43 this morning and seems to have been impaled by a fallen branch. Investigators in The Village still don’t know what to make of this case…”

Reservation Confirmed! Please arrive by 1:00 PM on 21st March. Her phone pinged at 11:00 AM on Friday morning. Her bedroom was strewn with clothes all over the floor, painting a picture of indecision. She packed a makeup bag with only three essentials: blush, a brow pencil, and lip balm. Everything else was easy enough to pack, but she was still stuck between her favorite cardigan and favorite sweater.

Her tired, well-loved Honda Civic had a backpack and her purse in the passenger’s seat; she was a woman of few items, but what she did have she cherished. The Civic sputtered to life as soon as she turned the keys. Her keychains softly jingled as she buckled up and put the car in reverse. She caught a glimmer of the golden rings around her fingers as she checked the speed limit. Cautious, she glanced back and forth three times before turning left towards Kirkhill Grove. She was mesmerized by the rings she wore; none of them were sworn to her by another, though. Being single was still difficult.

The two-hour drive passed quickly thanks to her favorite playlist. As she parked in the gravel driveway, she came upon a Cape Cod-style home. The stucco exterior was painted a dull yet delicate gray, the paint chipping on the corners. The mahogany trim was decaying, but it held such a delicate beauty. They were nowhere near the ocean, yet the style reminded her of long beach vacations along the coast of Oregon. An elderly couple emerged from the front doors, their arms linked. They waved and beamed as they stepped into the sun, their canes making a soft thump against the earth with each step. The man wore a navy argyle sweater and khakis while the woman wore a navy cardigan and medium-wash jeans. Each of them sported chunky white sneakers that looked practically brand new. She waved right back at them and walked to meet them in between the house and her car. “Hullo! How do you do?” the man questioned. She smiled and told them she was well, making sure to thank them for letting her stay. “I’m Marshall, and this is my wife, Anne.” Anne quietly nodded in agreeance before she asked if she wanted to see the house. She replied with an astounding yes and they entered the home.

The home felt very vintage with the record player quietly spinning a track by Etta James. The walls shared the same dull gray as the exterior; the décor was black and white, though. The leather sectional couch was situated near a fireplace in the living room. The fridge and pantries were stocked with cooking supplies, the dishes had been freshly washed, and the marble countertops gleamed. She maintained a quaint smile as she walked through the house in awe.

When she finally reached her square room, she slid the backpack off her shoulders and placed it in a chair in the corner. She sat on the edge of the bed, staring out the huge window to the left of her bed. She bent over to untie her shoelaces, but quickly decided against it. What would she do? Her eyes met the bookshelf opposite to the window. The books were worn and weathered with age; the sunlight seemed to have drawn some of their original color, too. A plethora of classics lined the shelves, but she noticed some titles in a language she didn’t know. Latin, perhaps? Anyway, it made her think of the book she had brought along herself. It was her favorite copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. The book had begun to curl from being read so many times, being held by the same hands. She unzipped the backpack, grabbed her book, and headed for the door. Before she left, she was stopped by the couple. “We’ll be leaving so you can enjoy your weekend, sweetie. Just call the number I left on the table if you need anything!” Anne spoke with a smile. They waved and held the door open for her. She made her way toward the lakefront in search of the perfect reading spot.

She didn’t know how she didn’t manage to see this on the AirBNB listing, but there was a willow tree about twenty feet from the lake. Its branches swayed lightly in the breeze, the leaves rustling against one another. She took a cozy spot directly under the tree. She laid against the rough bark, feeling strands of her hair get tangled in the tree. Before she could read, she always checked her phone for emails. When she hit the power button, it wouldn’t turn on. She would have to charge it later. Listening to music had totally drained her battery. She cleared her mind and began to focus. Her legs lay straight in front of her and she opened her book to page 57. Yes, she was in the middle of reading it for the 27th time. If she finished this book, she would just have to grab another from the shelf in her room. It might take some searching to find one in good condition, though. Before she knew it, she had drifted off into a peaceful slumber. Working over 70 hours the past week pushed her far beyond her limits. There was only so much she could take, no matter how much she loved interior design.

Her eyelids fluttered as she woke up from her peaceful nap. She found herself on page 89 with a small vine of leaves across the page as a bookmark. Where had it come from, though? She looked up, her head leaning further against the tree. She hadn’t noticed the hollow in the tree before. Something looked like it was poking out, though. She rose to her feet and took a peek inside to find a leather-bound book. The corners were decorated with metal pieces and there was an engraving of a tree. She gently brushed the dirt away, watching it fall to the ground. “Huh, interesting” she said to herself. She slowly opened the book, the paper being gently forced apart. The text switched back and forth from English to another language she didn’t know.

The book explained the history of the Village of Kirkhill Grove, which immediately caught her attention. The town was founded in 1686 and used the willow tree as the landmark of the town. There were illustrations depicting what was once the village, the straw-thatched roofs lining the waters. The townspeople learned to fish in the lake and hunt in the nearby woods, which was truly what kept them going. Hundreds of years later, the tree was finally recognized as the town’s landmark based on a newspaper clipping from 1908. The text was barely legible, but there was a footnote on the side of the journal explaining it. There was a picture of a group standing beneath the tree tucked in the middle of the book. It was dated 1973, but she knew by the bell bottom jeans that it had to have been taken in the 70s. Eventually, the history came to an end; instead, the other half was filled with strange symbols, drawings, and words she had never seen. She traced the symbols with her finger, realizing these were all hand-written. The pictures depicted black and garnet-robed figures standing around the tree, but she knew not what for. The tree was everywhere, though. She kept glancing through the pages, but she quickly found herself unable to stop.

The sun was quickly setting, but she continued to look through the pages. The darkness made it much harder to read, so she squinted and drew her face nearer to the book. She noticed not the passage of time nor how many times she had read this. She just wanted to know what the symbols meant. As she traced the symbols of circles, strange shapes, and letters she had never seen, she felt herself understanding it more each time. She read over and over and over, never daring to look away.

When the sun had risen the next morning, she was still reading. The alarms on her phone went off, yet there was nothing. She had no knowledge that it was Saturday. Well, she may have, but she chose not to concern herself with it. Her body was fatigued from not sleeping, her eyelids slowly sinking. Her eyes were filled with gloom, her under eyes looking darker than ever before. She carefully flipped each page, realizing this tree meant something to the Village of Kirkhill Grove.

The sun was beginning to set yet again, but she had not changed. She focused on a photo of dark-robed figures around the tree, carefully observing each one as if they would move on the page. Footsteps were approaching her, but she did not care. The soft thump of two canes against the earth were slowly approaching her, but she didn’t look up until Anne snatched the book. She saw a void of garnet before she saw the elderly couple standing in their own cloaks. She tilted her head to the side but said nothing, her entire body shuddering.

As a scream finally escaped her body, her mouth was covered by rough, calloused hands. All she could see was a black robe, but the figure had no identity. The book seemed to have drained her of her energy, leaving her defenseless; she couldn’t writhe her way out their grip. She felt herself being shoved against the tree, the bark leaving bloody scratches on the back of her arms. Black-robed figures tied her arms to the tree, the knots in the rope causing her to lose feeling in her hands. She observed the lighting of the candles and watched as the robed figures placed the candles on the rocks. They illuminated only enough so she could see two looming garnet figures in the distance.

The flames quietly danced as the preparations were finished, mocking her inability to fight. Before the ceremony began, the two garnet figures revealed the book she had read only an hour earlier and a small wooden box. The mahogany box was covered with dirt and grime as though it had been buried; the wood was rotting away. Anne, the smaller of the two, struggled with the metal latch. The box screeched open with the sound of the rusty bolts, revealing a crown with six peaks. The crown was covered in thorns and decorated with the leaves of the willow tree. In the center, it held a circular piece of tree bark. The ragged crown was held high in the air, the observers crying in awe of its beauty. As Anne walked, her hood slowly fell down, revealing her face once more. She kept her composure until she placed the crown on her head, smiling as the thorns pierced her scalp. Anne grinned and walked away, leaving her to cry in pain. She shut her eyes tightly and felt tears run down her face as she opened them. She could feel the warm blood trace her temples, causing her to cry harder. This was not the escape she asked for.

The void of black cheered on and began to dance around the circle, the garnet figures joining in much later. She could hear them speaking, but it was difficult to remember what the words meant. Their monotone voices came together in unison, “Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni!” She groaned in pain, feeling her body go numb; it was as if she only existed as a head in this moment. As the town clock struck 3:00 AM, the figures came to a halt, their robes rustling. She closed her eyes, trying to imagine the pages she had focused on for hours. All she could see was a plethora of blank pages, one turning after the other. She opened her eyes and looked down at her body, her jeans and ripped cardigan stained with blood. A figure, who she recognized as Marshall, lifted her chin to meet his eyes. She began to call for help, but he placed his finger on his lips and shushed her. “You’ll upset the spirits further if you continue.” He turned to meet his wife only a few steps away. They stood directly in front of her as they held the coveted book open once more. The surrounding figures joined hands, creating an unbreakable circle around her.

“Please d-don’t do this. Let me join you. I-i-i already know the rituals and I want to keep this tree safe.” She stumbled on her words. “I’ll do as you tell me to do so long as I c-can become one of you. Trust me, I hate what the world has done, too. The big corporations have destroyed so many forests, but we can keep the most important one alive!” She had pleaded her case and exhausted her strategy. “If only you had read between the lines, young one. You think we are environmentalists? No, no no. We worship the one who gave us nature, the one who planted this tree. Do you recall where this tree leads?” Anne turned her head to the side, observing her quietly. She shook her head and Anne spoke once more, “The Underworld, Hell, however you may deem it. It leads to a place unholy.” Anne shook her head and held the book with Marshall once more. Marshall began to declare, “Sceleste, offerimus tibi vas hoc. Non iam munera terrea delebit humanitas tua.” As he finished his sentence, the tree sounded as though it had moved. The branches rustled together, one falling towards her. Suddenly, the branch had impaled her stomach. She could feel pain once more as her ribs broke and heart pumped faster than ever before. The last thing she saw was the robed figures closing in on her. When she had drawn her last breath, the candles were no longer lit.

Marshall chopped the branch from the tree as short as possible, untied the ropes, and left her to rot on the ground. Meanwhile, the figures picked up the candles and placed them in a mahogany wicker basket. The stones were piled away and they fled the scene. However, Anne stuck around to snatch the book. She sighed as she stared at the lifeless body sprawled on the earth. As she made her way back to the house, her cane thumped softly against the earth. She had to plant the book somewhere new.

He arrived on Monday at 10:30 AM. He was finally on vacation. He walked into the house and admired the dull gray and mahogany trim. He took a deep breath in and exhaled before he made his way up the stairs. He had brought an entire suitcase, but he had no need for most of the items in there. He was so used to overpacking. As he set the suitcase back on wooden floor, he strolled quietly into his room.

He immediately sneezed upon entering the room, the dust from the books causing his allergies to flare. As he went to put his suitcase in the corner, he tilted his head to the side. He didn’t recognize this backpack and it certainly was not his own. He distanced himself and his suitcase from the bag. He took off his coat, revealing a forest green and black flannel. He glanced around the room, not bothering to read the titles of the books. He heard a strong breeze pass through and looked through the window. His eyes widened as he saw her body on the ground, a patch of blood-stained grass surrounding her. His breath quickened and he scrambled to find his phone in his front left pocket. He nearly dropped it as he dialed 911.

“911, how can I assist you?...A body, you say?...Sir, I need you to calm down. Are you anywhere near it?...For the meantime, we are going to ask that you stay in the house. Dispatchers are on their way right now, sir. Please stay on the line…Dispatchers have arrived. Thank you for your cooperation.” He hung up the phone and held his head in his hands, warm tears falling down his face. As he looked down, he saw the corner of something underneath his bed. He bent down to pick it up, the leather book covered in dirt. He brushed some of it off before wiping his hand on his jeans. He sniffled as he stared at the tree on the cover. He peeked out the curtain one more time before he carefully opened the front cover.

“We are currently at the scene of the incident where a man renting the space discovered the body. The man claims he wanted a “peaceful getaway”, but he is as far from that as he can be. He had barely unpacked his bags before he found the body. He first claimed to have seen it out the window. He has asked for no more questions from the news. Meanwhile, we are joined by property owners Marshall and

Anne Hughes, who were left in shock. Anne and Marshall, how are you feeling about this? I mean, did you know this guest?” Before the elderly couple could answer, the TV turned off.

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