Andrew sweated as he picked a path through the brambles up the steep slope of the hill. There was no wind, not even a slight breeze and only the sound of his own breathing and the whirring of insects for company. Despite his steady pace he breathed hard and his legs began to ache.
“Almost there,” he said to himself.
Scrambling up the last few feet of rocks, he reached the peak at last. He turned around and surveyed the way he had come. The land below stretched out for miles before rising again and was broken only by the dark green ribbon of well-watered grass that suggested the presence of a stream when it rained. He turned around and leaned against a tree, a scraggly pine. The ground dropped off in front of him and tumbled hundreds of feet down a rock face so sheer nothing could find a foothold on it. Stepping up to the edge he close his eyes, exhaled, and leaned forward.
“Now why would you want to do a thing like that?” said a voice like rustling leaves.
Andrew’s eyes snapped open and he whirled his arms, fighting to regain his balance. He felt something grab his shirt and pull, making him tumble backward to the ground. Looking up he stared into an upside down face. It was kindly but wore a stern expression on a face so heavily lined it resembled tree bark. Andrew blinked. It was tree bark. Andrew jumped to his feet and stared. The man’s face, for it was shaped like a man’s, was aged but vigorous and his head was topped with leafy green hair. He had a wiry, muscular body that, like his face, seemed to be covered in thick, grooved bark.
“What are you?” Andrew asked, shaken by the man’s appearance.
“Why do you want to die?” The man said as if he hadn’t heard the question. “Seems a shame to waste a life.”
“None of your business.”
“Oh, but it is. I do not want my home tainted by such a death.”
“Indeed, I live here. Is that such a surprise?”
Andrew looked around as if he had somehow missed seeing a hovel or hole somewhere that he might sleep.
“What do you mean? Where?”
The man gestured to the tree. Andrew inspected it, half expecting to find it hollow.
“In the branches?”
“Not quite,” he said as he walked over to the pine tree standing nearby. Andrew stared open-mouthed as the tree man became translucent and then dissipated like fog. Shocked, Andrew stepped back and his heel struck a rock. In an instant, the tree man grabbed his hand, pulling him back from the edge.
“That is twice now.”
Andrew glared. “Leave me alone.”
“Why do you want to die?”
“You were going to jump when you got here.”
“I don’t know who or what you are. Just stay the fuck away from me. Why do you care anyways?”
“I do not. I am simply curious. You see, for me, life is a joy and death merely a necessity, eventually. But I do not seek death nor shun life, as you do. What can be so terrible about living that would make you end your life?”
Andrew sat down with a sigh, “That’s just it. I have a great life. Family, friends, work. It’s great. But I walk around feeling like I have this thing in my head. It’s black and it has tentacles that wrap around the base of my brain. And it won’t let go.”
The tree man smiled, “Here, take my hand.”
“I will give you what you seek. And it will be much better than jumping off a cliff.”
“You’re going to kill me?” Andrew asked as he took the tree man’s hand.
“In a manner of speaking. You will have oblivion.”
Suddenly, Andrew felt his hand grow cold and the chill spread to the rest of his body.
“What are you doing?” Andrew asked through chilled lips.
The tree man smiled, an icy smile like the surface of a frozen lake glinting in the sun. He closed his eyes.
Andrew could feel himself fading, not in strength but in substance; disappearing like a dream, once vivid but slowly forgotten. Looking down, he saw roots bursting from his shoes and leaves sprouting from his fingertips. There was no pain, just a dull pressure at the edges of his awareness. He felt his body becoming rigid, his nerves extending into the branches emerging from his shoulders, tearing his shirt. Panic gripped him as he tried to move but found himself unable to. He felt like he might fall but the roots that were now his feet had anchored him to the ground. He screamed. Nothing came out. He had no mouth. The world blurred, the sky and the ground becoming a haze of blue and green and brown. Silence enveloped him. His mind began to grow dim and foggy, like his consciousness itself was barely holding on to reality.
Suddenly, a spark flared in his mind, one word forming in the dark: “No.”
His eyes snapped open and his vision filled with the surprised look on the tree man’s face. Andrew jerked his body backward, snapping the now-dead roots from his feet. The tree man snarled and lunged at Andrew, but too late. Andrew tumbled over the edge of the cliff.
Looking down at his hands, he saw they were hands once again. He smiled and closed his eyes.