The Tale Of A Tulip Tree Part I


ali_icon.gif emily3_icon.gif

Scene Title The Tale of a Tulip Tree, Part I
Synopsis The Worship of Trees has not yet ended.
Date February 27, 2020

Sheepshead Bay

Ali: Are you awake? I need your help.

The text message came suddenly in the middle of the night. The dark letters against the glowing screen showed it wasn’t even 3am yet, and Ali never texted this late, or with such abruptness.

A few moments later there was another ding as a message appeared below the first. And it didn’t take long for a third. The beeps came in quick succession, with the … of someone working on a message between them.

Ali: Omg I’m in such trouble, plz answer.
Ali: It’s really important. I don’t know what to do. I think I’m in trouble.

It starts to … again, but then the message in progress stops and disappears as if she decided not to send it.

Or suddenly couldn’t.

The third time the phone buzzes, Emily slaps it off her nightstand. With a furrowed brow she squints against the brightness of the screen, trying to make out the letters in the dark. She does, eyes widening as she pushes herself up onto her elbow. When the typing stops, her alarm rises again.

"Teo?" Emily calls out into the house, on her feet. Then she curses, remembering he's out of town. "Fuck." She's stumbling across her room in the dark, hitting the dial icon next to Ali's name before whipping the phone to her ear. It's ringing by the time she makes it to the dresser, signal strong due to the GhostNet keeping it aloft.

"Pick up. Pick up," she prays the phone.

It rings. And rings.

Emily knows that after five rings it would go to her voice mail. She’s gone to it a few times before. But there’s a click and silence for a few moments, except for the sound of scuffling as if the phone fell to the floor. There’s some heavy breathing, but the kind that sounds like someone who just ran a lot, not the creepy stalker kind of breathing. “Emily?” it’s Ali’s voice, but she’s out of breath, voice shaky and scared, too. “I— there was— I’m sorry it’s so late. I didn’t— I didn’t know who else to call.”

The voice shakes again, as she seems to be trying to catch her breath.

"I'm here. I'm up. Just breathe." Emily's short and clipped as she pulls out a long-sleeved shirt from the dresser, not even bothering to shut it before she turns away. "Ali, where are you? What's wrong?"

The breathing calms down a little, but the voice on the other side is still quite shaky. “There was this party and— It ran really late. And I was walking back to my place and someone tried to grab me.” From the rustling, Emily can imagine she’s looking around, spinning, trying to get her bearings. “I kicked and ran and— I think I lost them? I don’t see anyone. I’m still a few blocks from my place but— What if they know where I live? You said a lot of people were going missing— what if this was them?”

Doctor Marten was in custody.

But Agent Ayers had said he probably had accomplices. He couldn’t have done all that on his own.

Fuck. Emily pulls the phone away for only a moment to get the shirt worked over her head while she tries to think of advice. There weren't exactly public places she could tell her to flee to. She grabs her gun off her desk and gets moving. "Are there any 24-hour places near you that are open? If so, dive into one and wait for me. If not, come to my place instead. Where…"

She trails off as she flicks on the hall light to storm down the stairs without tripping. "What cross-street are you at? I'm going to meet up with you if I can. Just stay on the line with me, okay?" Hitting the first floor, Emily doesn't bother with laces, finding a pair of black canvas slip-ons. She's wriggling her socked feet into them. "Where are you?"

“I think— yes, I’m near an old church… I’m on 23rd street. Near Foster? I was walking back on Flatbush, but that’s… I ran down 23rd.” Ali sounds a little more put together, perhaps relieved that she was on her way. “I’ll stay on the phone. We need to get one of those bike things, the Mantis, I think they were called. I’ve seen some people driving them around— they’re probably really expensive though.”

She seems to have recovered enough from her trauma to turn to her usual rambling, even if she still sounds shaky and out of breath. “I guess I’m further from my place than I though… How close is your place?”

Emily rumbles out as she digs for her keys in the pocket of her coat, "There's— they have rentals, but I've never used them." Now could be a very good time to change that, or a very bad time to get in a wreck.

Abruptly she pauses, drawing a mental map in her head. "Wait, you're…"

"Stay right there, stay on the line, I'm coming right to you. You're close to me. I'm off Farragut, I'm literally leaving my house now." The slam of the door shut behind her attests to it. In her hurry, she doesn't even lock it behind her. "I'm coming to you, but if you see anything weird, you bolt, and head for light. Head— south, back to campus."

Emily jumps off the porch stairs and begins sprinting, her free hand carefully around the gun she has shoved into the pocket of her unbuttoned coat to keep it from being jostled while she runs.

“I will, I will. Thank you. I’m so glad you answered and called me back, I’ve been really freaked out since Dr. Marten was taken in,” Ali says, voice working on calming down, even if she is definitely rambling now. The wind makes a small whistling sound against the microphone, but otherwise, there’s just her voice and her breathing to greet Emily. The news about what happened with Doctor Marten were still vague, due to the possibility of accomplices that were still being located and investigated. So much of his records were left to go through.

And he wasn’t talking. They’d tried to get a warrant to bring in a telepath, or use some other means to get him to speak, but his lawyer blocked everything citing his rights. They would need to find more evidence, go over everything in his files. They didn’t have as much as they wanted to have.

Evidence was hard to come by, even in the age of superpowers.

“I don’t see anything but shadows and— do you think it would be okay if I sat down? My legs really hurt. And I lost a shoe a few blocks away. It was a nice one too. Remind me not to stay at parties this late— but I totally lost track of time.”

Jesus Christ, Emily would breathe out, but she's not quite figured out talking and running yet in any way that doesn't sound like a gasp. At each cross-street she lets her head turn for just a moment to check for oncoming headlights, not even performing a rolling stop. She needs to get to Ali. Even if it wasn't Marten's accomplice, someone tried to grab her. Period.

"I'm— almost there," she gasps out, lungs burning. "At… 29th."

Fuck. She's not used to going like this. Her teeth grit as she powers through. Emily takes in another sharp breath while her feet echo on the pavement down the dead streets.

She only looks one way as she prepares to sprint across the next crosswalk. "Don't sit— if you need to run, you'll…"

“Okay okay…” There’s a whispered voice through the phone and then she suddenly says, “Wait— I think I hear something.” For a moment Emily can hear the rubbing of fabric near the microphone, it causes a kind of static that grates over the line, drowning out the girl’s breathing entirely. Then the call drops. Silence.

Ali's voice is gone.

The wind howls around a building, sending chills through her. The tree branches caught in it sound so much louder than they should. The city buzzes softly around her, but there’s far too much darkness everywhere. The streets are far too empty.

There’s no screaming. No sounds of running. No sound of a struggle. She’s so close. But she can’t help but feel so very far away suddenly.


Emily's stomach drops, and she feels dizzied for just a moment. What was the intersection, again? She tries to keep from dread crawling up through her and arresting her movement. No, no, no! Her left hand fumbles the phone away into her pocket and she pulls the gun from the other.

"Ali!" she screams with all the air in her lungs.

She doesn't even remember coming up on Flatbush, but the screech of tires and the honking of a horn as she sprints across four lanes announces plainly to her that she's made more ground than she thought she had, and completely missed seeing an oncoming driver. She doesn't so much as pause. Emily passes underneath the light of a streetlamp on the other side of the road and runs back into darkness again.


She can see the intersection her friend should be waiting at well before she comes up on it, and sees it void of her person. No. No!

Gun still in hand, Emily's pace slows as she approaches the corner. Her eyes go up to the sign posted with the cross-street, confirming she's in the right spot. Panic takes hold as she whips about, trying in vain to see what's happened, where Ali's gone— who's taken her. At a loss for anything else to do, she screams out again into the night. "Help!"

Maybe someone would see. Maybe someone would come. Maybe someone would find her and whoever's grabbed her.

Two things immediately catch the Junior Agent’s attention as she reaches the corner. The bushes, where someone could easily hide in the green space where the old run-down church was never quite rebuilt. And a van not too far away, parked on the street, engine off, doors closed and windows tinted dark. A big lock sits on the back, like work vans tend to have, ones that carry specialized equipment for construction and tools that could be easily stolen.

Or locks that could keep someone from escaping.

It’s not the van that holds her attention the longest, though, but the bushes, where the dim street lights illuminate a dark object laying on the ground. A phone that catches the light. A phone with a green plastic case. Ali’s phone. And next to it, something bigger, darker. Something that looks to be made from sticks.

A triangle of bound sticks, with two holes in the middle like eyes.

A sketch artist had drawn it at Kaylee’s description. A monster from a girl’s mindscape. A demon made of trees, with a voice that sounded like blood and horror, with fathomless black eyes.

It holds her attention for a moment until she hears a noise to the left.

“I’m over here,” a familiar voice says.

Ali. Standing across the street in dark clothes, half-obscured by shadows cast by the street lamp.

In her pacing, the lamp above catches the case and draws Emily toward the bush. Oh, god, no… she thinks to herself, heading for it.

She's not sure when, but she began crying at point, which she's only aware of when she turns her face down to the phone and the tears streak down her cheek before falling away. She crouches messily, beginning to reach for the familiar phone … and her eyes catch on what lies next to it.

The chill of the night grows more oppressive around her, the night the more silent as her cries out go unanswered. As she leans in closer to see the object for what it is, her hair slides forward off her shoulder, long bangs sweeping forward in a veil over one of her eyes.

But then she hears Ali's voice and her head jerks up from the cluster of sticks on the ground, stopping her just before she reaches out and picks it up. Emily's features relax into relief, and she comes to her feet in a start. "Ali!" she breathes in joy.

It's short-lived.

Her shoulders slowly slope down, bangs still hiding one eye. The one that's visible shows the shift she goes through, from relief to confusion, slowly putting together the details here that don't quite make sense. Dazed, she might as well not have that gun in her hand at all.

She's wearing both of her shoes. Emily sees this— knows that it's incongruent with her story. But in this moment, she can't move past that detail, all her cleverness failing her because she can't make that shift in her mind she so desperately needs to in this moment.

She's hung up, unable to flip the switch between friend and threat. All she manages for her efforts is to take a short breath in, but no words come in her shock.

Both the shoes can be heard as she steps forward, one of her hands in the pocket of her hoodie. Not something a young woman would often wear to a party. There’s so many details that are coming to Emily now, flashing through her mind. And suddenly she remembers.

The bonsai trees.

Ali had always had bonsai trees in a row in her room, adding new ones every so often. Emily had never looked at them very closely. One had looked just like the painting in the Professor’s office. Just like the tree that Ali had led her to. The tree that had once been a young woman, who superficially matched Emily’s own description.

“I was hoping you’d find me,” Ali says in a voice that seems a little too whispered. Almost like an echo of her normal voice. Her mouth curls into a smile.

Then her hand leaves her pocket and Emily has a few moments to notice the taser headed toward her midsection, flashing with sparks and popping with noise.

That breath catches in Emily's throat as the memories start coming back to her, one thing after another lining up. Her brow crinkles, giving a short shake of her head. "No," she whispers in denial, feeling a crushing weight sweep over her as Ali steps forward.

"Let's talk about killing people."

There really was no way to gently segue into a conversation about so heavy a topic, as Teo already knew from all the other times he'd tried to start this discussion. Emily realizes arguing with him and insisting that she wasn't going to be in a deadly situation was pointless, maybe even untrue, so she opts to let it just happen. “What do I need to know?”

She should've had her phone out. She should've fucking called someone. She should have known better than to chase this down on her own, no matter the perceived stakes.

"You need to know when you'd shoot someone. You want to protect your boy, you need to think about what that actually looks like. In real life. You don't want to fuck that up either way, action or inaction. You know what I mean?"

Because when the stakes were high, that was when it was most important not to be alone.

"There's easy scenarios, I mean. Relatively speaking…"

Like when your friend called you just shy of 3 in the morning saying someone was after her life, and then she turned out to be the transmogrifer who claimed the lives of so many girls who looked just like them both.

When she takes a step forward toward you like that.

In her head, she goes over the hypotheticals. What if she could simply stop them? What if they could neutralize them, gain information out of them? What if—

It would be nice to live in a hypothetical world where she reacted that fast, that smartly. But she can't bring herself to lie even by optimism. She has to go with the truth, as best she knows it.

"How could you?" Emily asks, tears still in her eyes.

"If someone is coming at us with the intention to kill us, there's no negotiating with that." Anyone, her tone implies."It's life or death. I choose mine.

In the dark, she notices the draw of the taser just a moment too late.

"I shoot."

Emily's gun arm snaps up in an instant, trigger pulling multiple times. The fire of it echoes in the empty street. It's too soon when she does, it's—

"Okay," Teo says. "I'm gonna hit you with my ability. It's going to feel like electrocution, but that's just a neuro-electric charge. You ready?"

And then— for better or worse, Teo doesn't actually wait for her to finish her nod or to say yes, or for her eyes to slide a lock onto his stare. He does it. He reaches through the space between them, ramping up the energy in his own mind, snaps it out toward her. A psychic outlash that knocks her vision into darkness for an instant, even as she feels a pseudo-electric jolt through her limbs, the neurofeedback monitor beeping rapid-fire alarms, her breath discharging in something that nearly has her voice in it.

The room disappears.

She disappears.

She's on the ground. Emily can hear Teo standing over her. She did well— so well that he keeps forgetting not to speak Italian. Va bene, sei al sicuro.

Her eyes roll in her head, seeing only blackness even when they're open. She hears the breeze through the branches down the street, catches just barely the glimpse of the streetlamp nearby.

Bucaneve, Emily thinks she hears his worried murmur.

Get up.

The gun's slipped from her hand, but she doesn't need it to fight for her life. Her hand closes into a fist, and she comes upright swinging with all her might.

The shots ring through the air, loud enough that if the screaming for help hadn’t worked, some people were probably getting up from their beds to investigate, to call the police, to text their neighbors. Ali staggers back, dropping the taser to the concrete with a clatter just like the gun. She reaches back into her pocket and pulls out a small bottle with a rag stuffed into it, pulling the rag free and letting the bottle drop. As Emily comes up swinging, she meets the attack with her arm, injured arm coming up to grab at the girl’s light hair, shoving the soaked towel over her nose and mouth with her good arm.

The rag smells sweet.

But it’s not sugar water.

“I can’t believe you actually shot me, Ems,” she says with a voice that doesn’t quite sound like Ali’s normal voice. It doesn’t even sound that pained. As if the pain is an old friend whom she missed. “She would have shot me too, though. That’s why it has to be you.”

Not breathing is a futile effort, because Emily realizes too late what's soaked into that rag. She's already taken in teeth-gritted gasps of air, still winded from the sprint from her home, from being tazed by someone she thought was her friend.

Her gaze flickers in fear at hearing the shift in Ali's voice so much more clearly this close, at realizing she failed to make the shot, at…

… at…?

She doesn't realize she'd started screaming again at all until she feels it taper off, the sound dying in her throat. Emily's eyes disappear back under her eyelids again, this time for good.

Her head hits the concrete, blonde hair splaying in a loose halo around it.

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