Marlene was my very first friend, as well as my first love.
When I grew up, I had no real friends. I guess I was a bit too odd. I was always dreaming, had my head in the clouds, and was living in a world of my own.
During summer break, I didn’t go to the local soccer field and hang out with the other kids. No, I was always on my own, exploring the vast forest behind my home.
Out there, I imagined myself the king of the forest and would go on magical adventures with imaginary friends.
It was by sheer accident that I found the tree house.
It was a strange construction, nestled between a bunch of close-standing trees and almost completely hidden by their heavy trunks.
To say I was excited would be an understatement. I felt as if I’d uncovered the biggest secret of the forest, and I’d done it all on my own.
As I stood there, I was apprehensive. Who knows who the place belonged to? For long minutes I scanned the forest to see if anyone was nearby.
When no one showed up, I got closer and moved up the small hidden ladder, leaning against it. The place was old, the wood dirty and withered, but it was also surprisingly sturdy and much bigger than I’d thought from the outside.
I’d hoped it would be filled with hidden treasures, magical items, or other similar things only kids can think of.
Instead, all I found were two empty bottles, a piece of clothing, and a dirty, discolored blanket. The moment I picked it up, a strange smell reached my nose. Disgusted, I threw it into the furthest corner and a few moments later, I pushed the rest of the items there as well.
It was at this moment that I’d decided that this tree house would be my new hideout.
Over the next couple of days, though, I was still apprehensive. I was constantly scanning the area around the tree house via the small cracks in its walls. Yet no one ever showed up.
Eventually, I grew more relaxed, and filled new hideout with my favorite things. Toys, comics and snacks.
Standing in front of my new secret forest home and all the treasures I’d brought there, I nodded to myself and felt incredibly proud.
I’d been hanging out at the tree house for about a week when I met her for the first time.
A voice reached my ears while I was reading a comic book and munching on a milky way bar. I jerked up.
“Who are you?” I quiet, high-pitched voice asked.
I carefully made my way to the entrance and peeked outside. A girl with long dark hair, about my age, was standing there, right in front of the tree house.
“I’m Andy,” I answered her.
Then I realized that this tree house had to be hers.
“Oh no, I’m sorry, I didn’t know this place belonged to someone!”
“It’s not my place either,” she brought out.
I gave her a nod.
“Hey, do you want to read some Spiderman?” I asked her and, without waiting for an answer, I rushed back inside to find my very favorite Spiderman comic book.
When I returned to the entrance, mere moments later, she was gone.
And so I stood there, all on my own, wondering about that strange little girl.
And so I stood there, wondering where that strange little girl had gone before I went back to my comic books. Still, as much as I read of Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk, I couldn’t stop thinking about her.
From that day onward, I spent every single one of the long summer afternoons out at the tree house. I guess I was lonely after all and hoped to meet her again.
Eventually, she appeared at the tree house again, coming out of nowhere like she’d done before.
I learned her name was Marlene, and that she was a year younger than me.
Over the course of that single afternoon we became quick friends and soon enough my feelings for her turned from friendship to something more.
She wasn’t there a lot, but whenever she was, I stayed until the early evening. During those hours, we’d talk about everything, about school, about TV, and of course, about comic books.
There was one thing, however, I wondered about. If she was playing out here, she had to be from around the area and yet, I’d never seen her at school, never seen her around town before. Eventually, I’d mustered up the courage and asked her the question I’d been wanting to ask for days.
“Hey, Marlene, do you live around her? I thought if you did, then maybe, we could, you know, I could walk you home, in case you,” I broke up, cursing at myself for rambling on like an idiot.
She smiled at me, but for the first time, her smile was different.
“I live far away,” she eventually brought out in a weak voice.
“But if you live far away, how do you come here?”
She was quiet for a while and her eyes turned from me toward the forest, as if they were searching for something.
“It’s not important,” she finally said.
I wanted to press the issue, but of course I couldn’t muster up the courage. Even worse, the way she’d talked about it. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was mad at me. So instead of talking, I buried my face in my comics.
On my way home, I told myself that I was stupid and that I’d ruined it all. She wouldn’t be back now, would she?
Out of fear and my mind busy with all things related to first love, I couldn’t muster up the courage to return to the tree house for an entire week.
When I finally went back, I found the snacks I’d left gone, the comic books torn apart, and the toys broken and discarded.
As I stared at the place that had been my secret little hideout and at my destroyed treasures, I felt the tears coming to my eyes. Someone had found the place and had destroyed it. And then another thought came to my mind, one far worse that stabbed at my young heart. What if had been Marlene? What if she hated me?
“You can’t come here anymore,” I suddenly heard a voice from outside.
“Marlene!” I called out as I jumped down the little ladder and raced to meet her.
When I saw her face, however, my steps slowed down before I came to a halt.
“Leave, Andy, and you can never come back here.”
“But, but why?” I asked, and even though I fought against them, I felt tears coming to my eyes.
She was quiet. Once more, her eyes wandered from me to the surrounding forest.
“This place, it belongs to a very bad man. I thought he was gone, but he’s back now.”
My eyes darted around before I picked up a stick, holding it in my hands like a sword.
“You don’t have to worry about him, I’ll protect you,” I brought out in my best rendition of what I thought was a tough-guy-voice.
She smiled when I said this, but it was the same smile I’d seen before. One that was sad, sad and wary.
“That’s sweet, Andy, really sweet, but you can’t,” she brought out after a long while.
I was about to protest again, but she cut me off right away, telling me again that I had to leave, that I couldn’t come back and pressed me repeatedly to promise her.
And so I did.
Even though I was a boy, a boy who was in love. A few days later, I set out for the tree house and for Marlene again.
When I reached the tree house I found it empty, and so I turned and started calling for Marlene. I was desperate, lonely, and missed her dearly.
When the bushes nearby started shifting, my eyes grew wide and my mouth changed to a smile.
“Marlene, you’re,” I started, but my voice broke up when a bearish man pushed himself from the bushes.
“What are you doing here, you little shit?” he called out to me.
He was unkempt and his clothes were dirty. In an instant, fear washed over me. His boots sounded hard on the forest floor as quick steps led him towards me.
I opened my mouth to say something, to ask who he was and to apologize for having come here. But his face, contorted by rage, and his wild eyes, pushed me into a state of panic.
“I’m sorry,” was all I could bring out before I turned and ran.
After only a handful of steps, I felt a big hard hand getting a hold of me. I felt myself being turned around and pushed to the ground.
“Thought you could run away, didn’t you?” he asked with a mad grin.
I screamed, called for help, tried to fight, but he was so much bigger and stronger than me.
He pushed one of his hands over my mouth and brought his face closer to mine.
“No, you’ll stay right here,” he whispered into my ear.
His breath stank and was heavy with something reminiscent of medicine.
As he dragged me towards the tree house, I fought again, tried to get free, but it seemed futile.
Somehow, though, I could free my mouth and bit down on his fingers.
A quiet curse escaped his mouth before he started laughing again.
Then he pulled out a knife and held it up in front of my face.
“You want to try this again, boy?” he asked, waving it around.
A whimper escaped my mouth, and I desperately tried to shake my head. When the point of the knife dug into the skin on my cheek, I started crying and a second later my bladder gave way.
The man burst into laughter and with one swift motion, he pulled me up into the tree house and threw me into a corner.
My head hit the side of a trunk with such force, dark spots appeared in front of my eyes. As I lay there, all the strength left my body and all I could do was to curl up into a ball.
In front of me, the man was staring at his knife, then back at me, then back at the knife before a manic grin appeared on his face.
“We’re going to have a lot of fun together, oh yeah we’ll,” but he broke up.
The manic grin on his face had vanished and was replaced by an expression of first confusion and then terror.
“You? But how can you-? No, get away, get away!” he began screaming.
At that moment, I noticed a blurry figure out of the corner of my eye. It was hovering over the floor. I saw torn cloths, long dangling arms and dirty hair.
Before I could make sense of the situation, the figure dashed forward at the man. I watched as he lifted his arm, waved the knife, as he retreated backward.
“No, get away!” he screamed in sheer and utter terror.
The figure screeched up, releasing a terrifying, high-pitched sound, and in that moment, I saw the man falling backward as he tumbled down the small ladder.
There was a sickening crunch before silence returned to the forest.
A moment later, the ghastly apparition turned in my direction.
As it did, it sank to the floor. Its arms grew smaller, thinner. The hair became normal and torn clothes seemed to patch themselves back together.
Then I found myself face to face with Marlene again.
“What is,” I started, but broke up when I saw the look of misery on her face.
“That’s why I didn’t want you to come here, Andy,” she brought out.
“But, how did you do this? How did you-?”
“Go Andy. This time you have to go for real. This place, it’s a bad place, a very bad place.”
As she said this, she reached out to me with her hand. When I took it, it felt so small in mine, small and icy cold.
I looked up and when I stared at her, I saw the tears in her eyes.
I wanted to say something, wanted to desperately to tell her how I felt about her, that everything was going to be okay, but I couldn’t.
She led me to the entrance of the tree house and then outside.
For a moment I cringed when I saw the terrible man at the bottom of the ladder, his neck twisted and broken.
“He won’t hurt you anymore,” Marlene brought out. “He won’t hurt anyone anymore,” she added soon after.
“Then it doesn’t matter, does it? It means I can return and we can-“
“No,” she brought out, shaking her head, giving me that same sad look.
“This is wrong, it’s all wrong, this place, this, here, all of it,” she mumbled.
“Marlene,” I started, reaching out for her.
“No!” she suddenly screeched at me, brushing my hand aside.
Then my eyes grew wide, as she transformed again, and watched her turning into a terrible apparition.
When I saw her ghastly face, the empty eyes, the wide open mouth and those long, dangling arms, all I could do was to run, to run and never look back.
I didn’t know what happened that day and I didn’t understand what had happened to Marlene and how she’d turned into this thing.
The answers I sought soon came to me.
It wasn’t long before someone found the bad man’s body.
He was soon identified as a convicted child molester and when they checked the tree house, they soon uncovered much, much more about him.
Marlene had been right. That tree, it really was a terrible place. Below the tree, tree I’d played at for so many days and weeks, they’d found the buried remains of four children.
When I saw the newspaper article and I also saw the pictures of his victims. Two were young boys, one was a girl with blond hair, but the last, the last, was a little girl with dark hair and about my age.
It was a little girl I knew very well.