Danny couldn’t help but to look at the massive tree every time he went to bat. There was so much shade under the tree it seemed to block out the sun completely. Looking at it kept his mind off all the neighborhood kids moving closer to him, some yelling “Easy out, easy out.”
Crazy Joe wound up the ball, exaggerating his moves in slow-motion for comic effect, then tossed Danny a gentle, underhand pitch.
Danny swung, feeling the weight of the bat pull his arms. The ball connected and he watched it fly into the air, sailing over the outfielders heads. He tried to not laugh at himself as he chugged around the bases. As he rounded third, he watched his teammates crowding together, motioning him to run faster.
He glanced at the fig tree as he trotted over home plate.
There was something moving in the leaves, something quick and dark that knew Danny was watching.
All the kids were jumping all around him, cheering him on. His first home run ever and he was more concerned that he saw something in the fig tree. It was probably just the shadows and the wind, as the leaves were thick and a slight breeze rushed the air. Danny raised his hands, triumphant, while Crazy Joe came over and shook his hand. They worked on the basics after school throughout the year, hitting the ball, catching the ball, throwing the ball. No, he would never be an ‘easy out’ again.
Crazy Joe walked over to the tree and picked a fig right off the branch. He ate it on the spot, right in front of Mr. Katz, on patrol in his lawn-chair for fig tree infractions. Old man Katz jumped up and ran over to Crazy with a rolled up newspaper, the flesh under his left eye twitching like he was about to have a stroke, shooing him away, kicking and screaming. The kids all got a kick out of it, but Mr. Katz was serious.
When Mr. Katz put out a large hand-painted sign by the fig tree that read LAST HARVEST FIGS, TAKE THEM WHILE YOU CAN a few days later, everyone was surprised, and it was open season.
Danny, Matt, Crazy Joe, Micah, and her sister Chelsea grabbed brown paper sacks from Matt’s garage and walked over to the fig tree. All the Moms on the block wanted a bag full of figs. The city fair was in just a week and there was barely enough time to gather the ingredients to make fig cakes for the contest.
Mr. Katz was on hand to supervise, of course. Wearing navy shorts with black socks, he chewed on his cigar and showed the kids the difference between a ripe fig and a bad fig. Bad ones were dented and atrophied. The taste was horrible, so no use even throwing them into the sack. He pulled up his lawn-chair close by and barked orders to Mrs. Katz. Soon a giant pitcher of sweet tea and glasses were placed on the hood of Mr. Katz brand-new Caprice Classic.
Danny was reluctant at first, but once Micah sat underneath the tree and started pulling the figs off, he decided he had been scared long enough. And scared of what, a shadow? Crazy filled his bag the quickest, and still managed to eat half the figs he picked. Always the comedian, he would pop one in his mouth, chew it up, and let the reddish juice leak from his mouth like blood. He leaned over Chelsea and Matt, dripping the juice on their T-shirts, saying, “I want to drink your blood” in the worst Dracula accent ever.
Danny noticed Mr. Katz standing over them, glancing up every few seconds, watching the sky. The sun was well into ascent, though it was still several hours before it set. When the shadows grew long, each kid filled at least two sacks and there seemed to be no end in sight. Mr. Katz knelt down and reached deep into the thick leaves, plucking a large fig and holding it up for all to see. “The really big ones are deep down in those leaves. Go ahead, reach in there, plenty of big ones to get.”
Micah, reached in and picked one that was almost as large as the fig Mr. Katz picked. “Wow,” she said, holding it by the stem. All the kids reached and began to pull out some of the largest figs of the day.
His arm buried deep in the leaves, Crazy rummaged around then pulled it out quick. “What was that?”
“What?” the kids asked.
He reached inside again, leaning closer to the tree. Danny looked over and laughed at Crazy, who was making a face like he was in pain. Danny reached inside, wondering if even larger figs were buried deeper. His fingers brushed over something that felt like a fig, smooth and velvet, but it was much too large to be a fig. He tried to look through the leaves. It was so dark he couldn’t see where his hand was. Looking over to Micah, he watched as she pulled her hand out holding a brown misshapen fig in her hand that was moving as though alive. On instinct, Danny pulled his hand back, but found whatever he touched was now touching him, gripping his hand, gently tugging at his fingers.
Crazy jumped back and fell over, pointing at the fig Micah was holding. He started screaming, though Danny couldn’t make out what he was saying.
“What are you saying, Crazy?”
Crazy took a deep breath and yelled again, “BATS!”
At first, Crazy’s yell didn’t register with Danny. Bats? Baseball bats? Looking over to Micah, the awful realization she wasn’t holding a squirming fig in her hand sunk in, and he tried to move away from the tree. The leaves fluttered, then the air around him turned black and grey, alive with piercing squeaks and pelting his arms and face. Hundreds of bats took flight from the bowels of the tree, and yet Danny was unable to move. Whatever he touched in the leaves tugged at his hand, gently keeping him in front of the tree while his friends scampered away, waving their hands in their hair, over their heads, doing everything they could to make the bats go away.
Mr. Katz leaned back in his lawn chair, laughing heartily. Danny realized Old Man Katz knew all along about the bats, knew that if they reached deep into the leaves they would awaken them.
They had been set up from the beginning.
It only took a few seconds for the bats to escape the branches and leaves. Mr. Katz wiped a tear from his eye from laughing as Crazy, Matt and Micah came back to get their sacks of figs. Poor Chelsea was still screaming as she ran down the street, her legs pumping furiously to the safety of her house. Danny just sat there, his hand finally released from whatever gripped it under the leaves. He looked up at Mr. Katz, who was staring at him, his left eye twitching. Finally, Old Man Katz nodded at Danny and went inside.
Later that night, Danny crept through his house in the dark, opened the front door without making a sound, and slowly made his way to the lot, the tree. He stayed close to the houses in the shadows, unafraid of anything at all except maybe a patrol car cruising the streets. Last thing he needed was to be mistaken for a burglar.
Kneeling in front of the tree, wondering if the bats were back, he reached inside, feeling around for what he felt earlier. Leaning in close, he touched something warm and leathery. It pulsed in his hand. The leaves rustled and he leaned back, watching as the branches parted and the dark thing inside the tree stepped out.
Even as his eyes adjusted to the dark, Danny couldn’t make out any details of the thing. The shadows kept most of it hidden, though he could make out legs, withered and crooked, ending in feet with yellowed and broken claws. What looked like a shredded wing lay at the creatures shoulder, and around its neck was a rusty metal collar, partly corroded into the thing’s flesh.
Pale eyes watched him intently.
“What are you?” Danny asked.
A tickle started in his head, a feeling much like when water fills the ear canal. The skin under his left eye began to twitch as the creature spoke to him. “Time,” said the creature, though Danny was sure the sound came from inside his head rather than the creature's mouth. The voice, more female than male, did not scare him. In fact, he felt soothed, calmed.
“How long have you been here?”
“What do you want?”
The word reverberated in his head, though he didn’t understand. “Are you going to kill me?”
“No. I do not kill.”
“Then what are you doing?”
The thing reached out and gently tapped Danny on his chest. “Your heart is pure.”
“You like people with pure hearts?”
“So it’s good?”
The creature was silent for a while. Finally it bent its legs and leaned against the bark of the tree. Danny peered into the shadows, unable to see anything other than two pale eyes staring back at him. The eyes grew larger until they were so close to him he could smell the creature. The odor of burnt vanilla filled his nostrils. “Love me,” the creature said.
The thing stuck out its hand, pointing at Danny’s chest. Nothing more than three fingers covered in black fur with long, curving nails, but Danny got the point. “From my heart?”
The creature stood, easily towering over Danny, and anyone else for that matter. It bent and laid a hand on Danny’s shoulder as though performing an accolade into knighthood. And in an instant, the lives of everyone he knew flashed before his eyes.
He saw Chelsea, a much older, beautiful woman, walking across a street, and the car speeding through the traffic light. She never saw the car.
Micah in the backseat of a dirty car, crying as the man on top of her wrapped his hands around her neck.
Crazy Joe loading bullets into a gun, a crumpled letter next to him on the couch. He moaned as he put the barrel in his mouth.
“No,” Danny whispered.
“My friends, what about them?”
The creature lifted its hand from his shoulder. “Protect me, I protect.”
Danny hung his head. He didn’t know what he needed to do. “But you said you do not kill. I don’t understand.”
“Life kills, time heals.”
“Life kills,” Danny repeated.
Danny reached across to the thing, wrapping his arms around its legs. After a few minutes, he let go, and the creature climbed back into the tree. When he finally stood, he turned to face Mr. Katz. The old man had been watching him the whole time. They stared at each other, then Mr. Katz smiled.
Danny smiled back, feeling the skin around his left eye move, twitching.