Falling Trees
By: Dylan James Harper

Whether it was alongside the rolling hills packed with vineyards, or over the dark green Russian River, Sonoma County was not wanting for beautiful drives. None were better, however, then cruising under Old Lakeville Highway's aging eucalyptus trees. At least, that's how Nathan felt as he jetted along in their direction.

Marked by a bright yellow road sign labeled Falling Trees, the trees were somewhat controversial. Planted in 1905, the three-hundred or so blue gums had a death count: one. Maybe not much of a death count, but still, enough to make a few people uneasy as they embarked down the natural tunnel the giants formed over the road.

After a falling branch resulted in the trees only known casualty, followed by another branch landing on a police cruiser and injuring the officer, the county finally stepped in and cut down half a dozen it deemed unsafe, and trimmed close to fifty more. This was able to appease most of the nervous drivers, but save the menthol smell they produced that welcomed anyone driving slow with their window rolled down.

Nathan grew up not far from the falling trees sign and had driven past it hundreds of times. The highway was the fastest route to San Francisco, where his family spent many weekends at Giants games, musicals, or just strolling around the city. Nathan eventually went to college in San Francisco, and now was attending graduate school in Vancouver.

Between San Francisco and Sonoma County, Nathan felt he was going to be hard pressed to find somewhere he loved more but fell in love with Vancouver almost the instant his plane had landed. It was a very different type of city compared to the ones in the United State, but this only added to its charm. While his future had surprised him before, he felt it likely presented a new home. Still, he would always feel a certain type of way about the Bay Area.

He hadn't visited home as much as he had wanted to, and unfortunately this trip was far from ideal circumstances. The devastating fires had destroyed his childhood home. His parents had already relocated with relatives in New Mexico, as the prospect of rebuilding was daunting. They had finally agreed to sell off the lot, where all that had remained with a mobile storage unit. Nathan and his siblings had been called back to town to make sure to gather any belongings they didn't wanted sold, donated, or tossed in the dumpster.

Realizing that he wouldn't have much motivation to visit again after this, Nathan tried hard to make the most of this trip. Before going he made what in hindsight was a supremely naive spreadsheet of sights to see and places to go. Once he arrived, he realized that he really should have checked to see what had been impacted by the fires beforehand. The beloved historic Round Barn, and old red barn that delivered exactly what its name promised, had been burned to the ground. The bizarre Flamingo Hotel, compete with a giant statue of a pink flamingo on its roof, was closed for repairs. Safari West, the wildlife preserve that felt very out of place in the ever-developing county, was still trying to take inventory of its wildlife. No loss hurt more, however, than Fitch Mountain Eddy's.

The comfort food diner, which had been the first drive thru restaurant in the county, despite its food being far above drive thru quality, was more than just a local favorite. It was tradition for high schoolers to congregate at the famously open-late establishment after prom. The juxtaposition of the formally dressed teens, and the casual eatery's atmosphere made for an extremely photogenic environment, the type that social media loved. Nathan had been a sucker for the tradition and obliged in taking his date there to meet up with the rest of the class after the dance. Whether it was the soothing grilled cheese, or the pitcher of their homemade root beer that had almost certainly been spiked, Nathan somehow worked up the courage to push through the tense feeling in his arms and ask her to be his girlfriend, to which she said yes.

Veronica and Nathan weren't exactly the talk of the town the following Monday in school, as Brandon and Kelly, the default it couple given their respective roles as prom queen and football team captain, had very publicly broken up after Brandon, possibly in a drunken stupor, sent Kelly a snapchat asking if she wanted to make out in the bathroom with the helpful promise that "Kelly will never find out." There were screams, laughs, and at some point, a chocolate shake was thrown, but the mystery, which would be solved less than a week later when Brandon started dating soccer team captain Lizzy, of who Brandon had meant to message lead all stories the following week.

Still, Nathan wasn't completely unnoticed. He had been senior class treasurer, a role he cherished, and Veronica was to be the first student in the school's history to attend Harvard the following fall. When they were finally spotted holding hands, it traveled around school fast enough to make Nathan and Veronica feel somewhat valued in the crowded social ecosystem.

More importantly, however, was that they really liked each other. Nathan hadn't ever felt any sort of way about Veronica, until he found out, to his horror, that the rest of his friend group had dates to prom. One of them mentioned that Veronica was still dateless, and so he didn't waste a second in asking. The concern of being the last to get a date overwhelmed what usually would have been a nervous affair. After she said yes, Nathan was so relived he barely even put thought into who had said yes.

The weeks lead up of talking and texting about plans and food and dresses and corsages had revealed that Veronica had a sharp sense of humor that Nathan admired. Once more, her attendance at Harvard, which would have been cause for any reasonable person to be at least a little egotistical, instead gave her license to be the most critical of the Ivy League institution, which made Nathan, who had applied and been promptly rejected, feel better about his settling for a respectable replacement in San Francisco.

Through all the communication, what had initially been a happy coincidence that both had been in need of prom dates, had turned into somewhat of a burning crush for Nathan. He found himself asking her questions throughout the day about herself, about her life, and about her family. He found out she had spent most of her life living in San Francisco, in the now world-famous Mission District. Her parents had run a locally beloved Mexican restaurant which claimed, somewhat dubiously so, to have invented the Mission style burrito, something that had migrated all the way up to Sonoma County.

Eventually, skyrocketing rents and a shady landlord had forced her parents to sell the liquor license and move in with her aunt and uncle who had a big plot of land in what was once unincorporated Sonoma County. Veronica remembered the day they had left the city as residents for the last time, and how it had been exceptionally foggy. Nathan reacted to hearing this with the appropriate display of dismay and frustration at the cruel economic system that doomed her family, but internally was grateful it had resulted in their chance meeting at a high school she was never supposed to attend. He felt a little guilty about that, so he kept it to himself.

The two dated through the summer, and a semester while at two different colleges, but as often happens in such situations, the distance mixed with seeing their peers enjoy the fruits of being young and unattached away at college, they began to drift. Over the winter break they mutually decided to call it and remain close friends. Of course, knowing how people usually react when someone says a breakup was mutual, they both told their friends and family that they in fact had been the one to initiate the parting of ways. Neither held it against the other person though, and the friendship did come to pass, and both followed each other's academic pursuit closely.

Veronica had flown through Harvard, staging several protests and joining several groups of wildly distinct political affiliations. She then returned to the Bay Area to attend Cal Berkeley's Law School. Nathan, meanwhile, had excelled at the less prestigious University of California San Francisco, enough so to land him a coveted spot in the University of British Columbia's PhD program where he was studying preventative medicine. This work proved more difficult than anything Nathan had ever academically experienced prior, however, and it was taking him a lot longer to finish his dissertation than he had hoped. At one point, he vented on Facebook about his academic difficulties, and Veronica had promptly reached out, telling him it's something many people in graduate school experience, and that he's not really racing against anyone.

This had been an extremely kindhearted and meaningful gesture, and Nathan was really moved by it. When he booked his flight for Sonoma County, his first message after his family was to Veronica to ask if she wanted to get together while he was back. She was living in San Francisco, working in a tenants' rights law firm. She had long expressed this desire to prevent people from experiencing what her parents had, and what place better than California's beacon of wealth inequality that was the ostensibly progressive San Francisco. She responded to Nathan with an enthusiastic yes and asked where he wanted to meet.

Feeling nostalgic for Sonoma County, Nathan had suggested Fitch Mountain Eddy's, to which Veronica agreed. Unfortunately, when Nathan had driven past there on his way home from the airport, he saw in its place a housing development under construction. Evidently, Eddy had died shortly after the fires, and his kids didn't see rebuilding and reopening the place as a possibility. Veronica quickly suggested an alternative in San Francisco, to which Nathan agreed, but the sting remained. Still, Nathan thought even then that he would be glad for the opportunity to drive to the city, taking his favorite falling trees route.

As Nathan exited the freeway, and turned onto Old Lakeville Highway, he noticed that it was exceptionally foggy, almost to the point of impairing his sight. Nathan didn't like driving, but he was always a confident driver, so it wasn't nothing when he decided to slow down to a crawl for fear of hitting a car in front of him. Almost worse, was the fact that this fog severely obstructed the view that he had so been looking forward to.

The eucalyptus trees were still several miles up the road, however, and Nathan remained optimistic that the fog might clear before then so he could fully experience them. He took advantage of the highway's only stop sign to text Veronica and tell her he might be a few minutes late because the fog was causing him to drive like her infamously slow driving mom. She responded with a "lol" and reassured him that it was no problem and informed him the fog was pretty rough in the city as well.

Almost as chilling as the fog, Nathan was now starting to realize, although it had been hard to notice at first, that a lot of what had once been empty fields of beautiful yellow grass had been replaced with more developments. This wasn't going to be a scenic drive for much longer by the looks of it.

Still, the trees surely would still be there as he certainly would have heard if all three-hundred or so had been torn down for some jam-packed suburban complex or god forbid a slew of Arrested Development style McMansions, the likes of which were beloved by the type of techie bro that loved to come to Sonoma County for the wine on the weekends.

Maybe it was the fog keeping him on edge, but Nathan was also starting to notice that he hadn't seen another car on the road for some time, and once more, his phone had lost service and the radio had stopped working. This wasn't the weirdest thing necessarily. The service out here had always been bad, and his brother's late 90s Toyota, while reliable, had a shoddy radio since someone took it through the carwash without putting the antenna down. All these things as a pattern though were at least enough to put a tense feeling in his arms.

Nathan, squinting ahead, eventually saw the bright yellow falling trees sign, and a flood of comfort rushed over him. He knew exactly where he was now. To his left, a small man made pond that ran the length of the tree tunnel, to his right a kitschy statue of a cow giving a thumbs up with horrifying hands that marked the start of one of the dairy farms in the area, and soon to be above him, the beautiful eucalyptus trees.

As he drove underneath them, Nathan lowered his head down by the steering wheel so he could see higher up above his car. The fog was still incredibly thick, thicker in fact that it had been when he first noticed it, but he could just make the trees out, swaying in the gentle breeze. Continuing on, however, he noticed that the swaying began to escalate, and eventually, it seemed like the trees were shaking.

Nathan had thought he must be imagining this until there was a particularly loud thud that shook not only the tall trees, but his car. With no room to pull over, and a strong desire not to stop lest the foggy driving conditions result in someone rear end him, Nathan pressed on nervously, unsure of what could possibly be causing this; then he saw it.

To say Nathan "saw" whatever was however may have been a bit hyperbolic. He saw something, but its size was so absurdly huge he couldn't possibly comprehend all of it from the limited view provided by the car's windshield. He saw something, something so large its single step was shaking the trees miles up the road. The fog was too thick to see where it started and ended and what it was made out of, and as Nathan, frozen in shock, was carried forward by the car, he figured his brain must be playing tricks on him because the fog looked like it was emitting from this figure.

Finally, Nathan regained himself to some degree, and realized he had been driving along down the road towards whatever this was. All thoughts of San Francisco and Veronica and even the eucalyptus trees pushed from his mind, Nathan promptly pulled over to try and turn around. There was hardly any room to do so, however, and the road had a pretty steep drop off, so turning around was a process.

Nathan tried to keep his head on a swivel, watching the figure creep closer, and trying to complete what was shaping up to be at least an eight point turn on the narrow road. The thing was so large it was hard to tell if it was even walking or moving with any deliberation. If the shape hadn't been vaguely humanoid, Nathan would have first guessed that a skyscraper from the city had broken loose and was just casually rolling up north to Sonoma County like a glass and steel tumbleweed.

There was a deliberation to this thing, however, Nathan decided. There had to be. The steps were too rhythmic. It was walking, certainly, and straight down the road at him. Was he being chased? It was impossible to know, but it was hard to imagine it was even aware he existed given the sheer scope. Its jet-black silhouette was just vaguely rounded off, like a child's drawing of a person; its legs, if those were in fact legs, just sort of glided along.

The car was turned around now, and Nathan, abandoning all previous attempts at caution, was pushing this late 90s Toyota as fast as it could go. Now that his brain was catching up, he opted not to look back, but couldn't help but doing some mental math. The thing had covered a lot of distance with each step, and surely would be right on top of him in seconds. A now thundering crash landed just behind the car. One of the eucalyptus trees in front of him came falling down over the road. Nathan slammed on the brakes, but too late, the car tried to jump the tree, but got stuck partway over. Nathan pushed the gas, but the wheels kept spinning in air.

There was a moment of complete silence, which Nathan knew meant the beast or creature or entity of some kind had lifted up its leg, like the eye of a hurricane with the walls of the storm on all sides barreling towards him. Was it aiming for him? Would it harmlessly step over him? Did it even know he was there?

Nathan never found out the answers to any of these questions. Later that day, Veronica, feeling betrayed at the restaurant, would shriek out in terror as she happened to look up at the tv in the bar to see Nathan's face on the news over footage of a tow truck loading up a crushed car. The sound was off, but she saw the words "fatality" and "falling tree" scroll under the reporter.

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