Whatever theme had inspired the park originally had been lost through time. Music from sections unseen clashed against each other in the air. The main shop, boasting a sign that read “TICKETS,” was so filled with novelties that some dangled on strings from the ceiling, creating an obstacle course just to get to the front desk. James sighed and squeezed his daughter’s hand.
“You sure this is what you want to do?” he checked again.
Everything about this place repelled him. Still, Millie had been an angel through the morning of driving, and this was the least he could do. If the job interview went well, he’d be asking a lot more of her than a day of driving. The new city wouldn’t be the safe, sheltered forest town Millie had known all her life. She’d be thrown into a new school halfway through the year… but it didn’t serve to worry about all of that right now. The main thing was to get there and see if it was the right decision. The rest would follow. It felt good to stretch his legs, anyhow.
“Welcome welcome!” chirped a woman, appearing from behind an open door.
She was painted up with bright makeup and a hairstyle that matched what was probably the fashion the year the park had been built. Her smile was wide but her eyes held no welcome in them.
“It’s happy time, all the time!” added a man who stepped in behind her.
He was her male equivalent, his hair plastered into an impossible swoop and a bright bow tie and suspenders that matched her shade of lipstick. He strolled to a jukebox and slid a coin in, doing a quick dance step to the song that came on. Between the warring theme park tunes outside and the jukebox inside, James decided he was working on a headache.
“Hi, um, two tickets please,” he said, wanting to be done with this time-forgotten rest stop theme park and on the road already.
“Okey dokey,” chirped the woman, chiming open the register and making change.
Millie laughed as the man performed a new dance and tapped the hanging trinkets with a cane that had manifested in his hand somehow. Between the music, tapping shoes, trinkets and chiming register, James realized he was working on a powerful headache. No, not an ache exactly. It was the pressure of a headache without the pain. It was starting to feel desperate, though, the need to run back to his car and breathe in silence.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
He wasn’t sure why he’d said it, but when the woman and man fell silent he was glad he had. The couple shared an uneasy glance.
“I didn’t hear anything,” chirped the woman, but James had actually heard something in the lull before she spoke.
“It’s…” he said, finding no words to pluck out what he’d heard. It was under the cacophony. Something… soothing.
“Singing,” Millie finished for him. “It’s pretty,” she said.
The difference in the woman and man was of night to day. It was as if masks had been removed.
“What do you hear, honey?” the woman asked, and this time her voice was gentle and comforting.
“It’s a lonely song,” said Millie, “but it has hope in it. Do you hear it, Daddy?”
James squeezed her hand again and nearly laughed aloud. When had they left behind sanity? When they stepped through that door, he supposed.
“I do,” he said. “I’ve never heard anything like it.”
The couple exchanged another gaze before the man walked to the jukebox and switched it off. The woman reached under the counter and the warring theme park tunes outside ground down to silence. James felt like weeping at the relief of it. Then he heard it clearly. The sound was faint, and he wasn’t sure he was even hearing it with his ears, whatever that meant.
“It’s chosen you,” the woman said solemnly. “Follow me, please.”
She disappeared through the door and the man held it open for Millie and James to follow. They walked through an apartment that was surprisingly sparse compared to the clutter of the front office. Another set of doors led them through machinery tunnels. More doors opened into an interior space that was vast. James stood at the threshold for some time, though Millie immediately ran to the enormous tree at the center and dropped to her knees in the thick moss between its roots. Butterflies dotted the air. Flowers bloomed in every shade from secret nooks.
“What is this?” he asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.
“We wondered when someone might be chosen,” said the man.
“We thought this was the last singing tree until a few weeks ago,” the woman added.
“Singing tree?” asked James, though he could hear it. It was a deep, resonant sound that played through him as if his body were the instrument.
“There used to be forests of them,” said the man, “if you can imagine such a thing. Sacred places those were.”
“Axes made no differentiation,” said the woman, “and the trees refused to sing while their families were being slaughtered.”
“Our ancestors managed to save this one,” the man said. “For generations my family has been guardian to it. Recently, it has been singing of family.”
“We didn’t know what to make of it, until we found the sprout,” said the woman.
“If it’s the last of its kind…” said James, but the man’s chuckle cut him off.
“We thought it was, but even after generations of caring for it, seems we don’t know much of anything at all.”
“It turns out there are more,” the woman said, “with guardians of their own. They’ve been sharing songs for who knows how long. They want the new sapling to find a good home. Good guardians.” She leveled a sober gaze on James and held it.
“How do you guard something like this?” balked James, already imagining trying to convert a city condominium garage into a tree nursery. It didn’t fit.
“It’s no small task,” said the man. “We own this land and aren’t in need of money. The theme park covers the sound.”
“And everything you do is built to keep people away,” muttered James.
The woman nodded. “It’s a lot to ask,” she said. “The tree seems to think you can do it, though.”
James watched Millie laughing as the butterflies tried to land on her.
“It sings life,” said the man.
James nodded. Somehow, he had already put that together. The couple hung back as he stepped into the space, padding across the cushion of moss and flowers to where his daughter sat.
“Daddy look,” she said, holding her finger out so a butterfly could land on it.
“I see,” he said.
“The tree’s asking us to take its baby somewhere safe,” she said. “We can protect the baby, can’t we Daddy?”
James reached out and brushed the rough bark with his fingertip. He felt the song swell within him.
“Sweetheart,” he said, “what do you think about turning that car around and making it work back home?”
Millie smiled and gave him a hug.
“I think you’re the smartest, best man in the whole world,” she said.
“How do you suppose we’ll keep people from hearing it sing?” he wondered.
“Can’t you hear it?” she laughed. “The baby has a tiny little voice, Daddy. We have time.”
James thought about his options back home. “You know what our town needs?” he asked. “A concert hall. With the forest as a backdrop, don’t you think that would be nice?”
An hour later, James and Millie drove in silence, listening to the small hopeful song playing in their hearts.
Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome at http://www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog and buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!