Allie listened with disgust as the door to her tiny bedroom groaned open. She turned to face the wall, trying to empty her mind. Her stepfather grunted as he shuffled toward the skinny 13-year-old, cheap plywood flooring creaking under his immense weight. Please, she thought to herself, please let it be over soon. In her mind, a soft breeze came up, gently rustling the leaves of the old oak tree and giving her a measure of comfort. She saw Arasu’s kindly face.

“Good to see you,” he smiled. “Hello.”

“Hello, my friend,” she whispered, just before…

Arasu the giant oak had lived deep in the alder swamp for centuries. He was a friend to all, especially the birds and animals that called his branches home. He was also a friend to humans in need, people like Allie who came to him when they had to escape. Like now, if even if only in her mind, if even only for a minute. His leaves rustled softly as he enveloped the waif of a girl with his magical woodland aura. He hummed gently, a soft forest tune sounding like summer breezes wafting through a sunlit woodland glade. Allie drifted away, hardly noticing what happened next.

The bed sagged as he rolled her over and climbed on top. In a minute, it was done and he was gone. Not a word was said.

After she heard him close the door to his bedroom, Allie left her safe place with Arasu and sat up in bed. She looked out the window, thinking. An idea had come to her, and if her plan worked, she’d never have to hear him come into her bedroom again. Moonlight sparkled off freshly fallen snow, glistening like diamonds. The beautiful scene made her happy. She raised her eyes toward the black shadow of the horizon. On the other side of the ridge was the alder swamp she had discovered while exploring a few years earlier. In the middle of the swamp was where her friend Arasu, the old oak tree, lived. With his help, she would get rid of the horrid man her mother had married, the pervert who made her call him “Father.” She knew without a doubt that with Arasu’s help, she’d be able to kill the disgusting degenerate. She couldn’t wait.

Just before sunrise, Allie got dressed, went to the kitchen, and began fixing toast and fried potatoes for him for breakfast. It was a task she’d done every day for the last four years, ever since her mother had died and she’d had to start taking care of her siblings and the small, dilapidated, single-wide trailer they called home.

The tasty aroma of friend food brought five-year-old Andy and eight-year-old Leslie and Lara into the small but clean kitchen. They quietly sat down while she set out a carton of milk and poured bowls of corn flakes for them. They looked askance at the closed door to their father’s bedroom. What kind of a mood would he be in today? That was always the question. On a good day, he was grumpy and quick with a hand to swat down any misbehavior. But more often than not, it was not a good day. More often he was a mean, foul-tempered bully who enjoyed picking on his stepchildren, making their lives more miserable that they already were.

“Eat up, kids,” she encouraged them and pointed to the clock. “We’ve got to leave in ten minutes.”

She had to drive them on their poor excuse of a driveway for a mile through the woods to the county road to catch the school bus. Then it was a 45-minute ride to the town of Granite Creek, where the school was located. Allie didn’t go to school anymore, an argument she’d given up on at the beginning of the school year last fall, when her stepfather had decided he wanted the seventh-grader to stay at home. “To help out,” was how he put it to the school board. To Allie’s horror, they had reluctantly agreed, believing him when he said that he was homeschooling her. Yeah, right, Allie thought to herself. If they only knew what homeschooling meant to the deviant.

Right then, her stepfather shambled into the kitchen, scratching his enormous belly as he plopped down at the table. “Get me my breakfast,” he stated, grabbing the mug of coffee she handed him. “Quick.”

She dished up his food while the kids quietly and quickly finished up their cold cereal.

“We still going to cut wood up in the alder swamp?” she asked, pushing her siblings toward their room to get their school backpacks.

He grunted, “Yeah. I told you yesterday.”

“Just checking.”

Allie smiled as she turned to the sink and began rinsing the dishes. Good. Going to the alder swamp was the key to making the plan work.

“Say goodbye to your stepfather,” she told the kids when they were ready.

“What?” he bellowed, standing. He raised his hand to hit Allie.

“Sorry,” she quickly apologized, and turned to her brother and sisters. “Say goodbye to your father,” she told them, pointedly, while ducking away from his raised hand. She glanced at him. “I’m really sorry.”

He grinned. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll make up for it later tonight.”

Allie shivered and said to the kids, “Okay, now, let’s get going.”

“Good-bye, Father,” three tiny voices said in unison.

They called him “Father” reluctantly. He was a mean man and no one liked him, not his kids or the construction crew he worked on for most of the year. It was Allie’s willingness to put up with his perversions that prevented him from abusing her siblings even more than he did, a price she was willing to pay, especially with the way she was starting to look at Leslie and Lara.

She hurried the kids out the door and said over her shoulder, “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.”

He grunted in response. God, she’d be glad to be rid of him. She loaded her siblings in an old pickup truck and drove through the woods to the county road, where she made sure the they got on the school bus. Driving home, she took pleasure in the satisfaction of knowing that by the time she picked them up at the end of the day, the depraved human being who was their stepfather would be dead.

Back at the trailer, she parked the truck and noticed he was in the pole barn working on one of the snowmobiles. He motioned her over, and as she got closer, he reached out to grab her. “Let me have a little feel,” he leered at her. Sometimes after the kids went to school, he came at her again.

She shook her head. “No way. You said we had work to do.”

He raised a fist to strike her, but then lowered it, having another thought. “Okay, but then that’s more you owe tonight.”

She tried to derail his one-track mind. “Let’s get going and get started on that wood. Up in the alder swamp, right?”

It worked. He took a deep breath to calm down and then said, “Yeah, like I already told you. I’ve got an order.”

He sold bundles of firewood at the gas station in town to help make ends meet during the winter.

“I’ll put the breakfast stuff away. When do you want to leave?”

“Soon. 15 minutes. Pack some sandwiches and coffee, too. We’ll be gone all day.”

Inside, she washed the breakfast dishes, wiped down the counter and table, and put together thick sandwiches of lunch meat on white bread slathered in mayonnaise. She filled a thermos with coffee and then went to her room to change. It was the middle of February and the temperature was cold, hovering around zero. It’d feel colder in the woods away from any filtered sunlight so she put on heavy socks, long underwear, flannel jeans, a T-shirt, a long-sleeve flannel shirt, and a wool sweater.

She was all set, except for one thing.

From under her mattress, she took out her most prized possession: a bone-handled hunting knife with a six-inch blade, protected by a thick leather sheath. She’d bought it last summer at the hardware store in town. She lovingly slipped the knife and sheath onto her belt and buckled it, loving the feel of the weapon against her hip. Then she put her dark-blue snowmobile suit on over all her clothes and zipped up. She was ready to go.

Her father opened the front door and yelled, “You ready? We’ve got a lot to do today.”

“Yeah, just about.” She went into the kitchen, grabbed the sandwiches and thermos, and put them in a backpack. “Now I’m ready,” she told him and headed out the door. “Let’s go.” She felt the blade of her hidden knife against her leg and smiled. She was more than ready.

They started their snowmobiles, gunned the engines, and took off, her stepfather riding in front dragging the sled, Allie following close behind. Even with the noise, Allie could hear Arasu talking to her, calming her. “Bring him to me,” he was saying. “I will help you take care of him.”

Allie smiled. It wouldn’t be long now.

The ride to the alder swamp took nearly two hours and it was mid-morning by the time they arrived. Her stepfather immediately began sawing up trees while Allie trimmed their branches. Then they stacked the wood on the sled. Nearby, the old oak tree watched over them.

They worked steadily for a few hours, taking a break for only a couple of minutes to eat the sandwiches Allie had made. They worked up a sweat, even in the near0zero weather.

In the early afternoon, Allie heard Arasu’s firm voice. “Allie,” her friend said. “It’s time. Bring him closer to me.” He didn’t have to ask twice.

“Let’s move over there,” she pointed. “Over by that oak tree.”

He looked up from cutting a soft-barked aspen. “What? That big rotten piece of crap?”

Allie saw Arasu shiver in fury, branches rattling and leaves trembling. She knew he was mad, but she played along. “Yeah, over there. I see some birch nearby we can cut.”

Her stepfather shut off his chainsaw, went to the backpack, took out the thermos, and poured a cup of coffee. He reached into his inner pocket of his overalls, took out a pint bottle of whiskey, and added a generous slug. He drank and pondered for a minute before saying, “You know, that oak would make for some great firewood. We could use it in the wood stove at home. I’m going to cut it down.” He put the pint away, took out a pack of chewing tobacco, and stuffed some in his mouth, working it into his jaw.

Allie was aghast, “No, don’t do that!” she screamed.

He turned to her, grinning with brown, stained teeth. “Why not?”

Her mind suddenly went blank. How could she explain “why not” to him? He spit a generous stream of tobacco juice toward her feet and laughed. Then he started up the chainsaw and advanced on the huge oak tree. She could feel Arasu shiver and shake, not in so much in fear, but in fury. She had to protect her friend. She also had to do what she came here to do: she had to kill her abusive stepfather.

She took out her knife and advanced on him from behind as he positioned the noisy chainsaw to cut into the thick bark of the massive oak tree. He never had a chance. As he steadied himself to make the first cut, Allie made her move and plunged the knife into his back, right between the shoulder blades. She felt the blade glance off a bone and then go deep. Arasu spoke and said, “Turn it.” She did. She turned the handle and felt the blade tear through flesh and muscle. Then the blood started flowing, only a little at first, but when she pulled the six-inch blade out, the blood came fast, shooting out like a red gusher.

Allie jumped back, dodging away from the spray so she wouldn’t get splattered. Her stepfather screamed in pain and fell to the ground. When he dropped the chainsaw, it automatically shut off and the woods went blessedly silent. Silent, that was, except for the man who’d abused her for four years rolling in the snow, howling in agony at the top of his lungs.

“You little bitch,” he swore at her. “You’re nothing better than a whore.”

Allie stood over him and laughed in his face. “You ugly, filthy pervert!” She screamed and stamped a heavy boot on his chest. His eyes went wide as she took her knife, bent down and cut his throat, nearly decapitating him. Then she knelt in the snow and began stabbing his chest over and over and over again until he was a mangled, bloody pulp. Then she collapsed, exhausted.

How long she lay there, Allie didn’t know. When she came to, she looked up to see the sun low on the horizon. She jumped to her feet in a panic. Her first thought was that she had to get home to pick up her brother and sisters at the bus stop. Then she looked at the gory mess that had been her father. What should I do about him?

As if reading her mind, a kindly voice whispered, “Allie.” She turned to Arasu and he said, “Allie, drag him over here.”

She glanced at the massive body. “I don’t think I can,” she said, tears of frustration beginning to form. “He’s too heavy.”

“Don’t worry,” Arasu smiled. “I’ll use my special powers to help.” He pointed a branch that looked remarkably like a crooked finger and incanted a short but melodic phrase, “Veni santce spiritus, veni santce spiritus, veni santce spiritus.” Then he told her, “Okay, Allie, the spell has been cast. Now you’re ready. Pull him over here and put him by my roots.”

“Okay,” she wiped her eyes, glad to have some guidance, not to mention the help.

She rolled and dragged and pulled the body though the snow. Aided by the magical power of Arasu, the task went fairly easily. On the far side of the trunk was a hollowed-out root system. “Just put him there, dear,” he said. “I have friend who will take care of him. Turok the wolf and his family will see to the remains.”

Allie grinned to herself. Eaten by wolves. Good. He deserves it.

“What about the snowmobile and sled?”

The old oak tree chuckled, “Don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of them.”

Allie wasn’t sure she knew what he meant, but she trusted her friend.  He obviously had powers she was only beginning to understand.”Okay,” she said, happy to have someone she could trust for the first time in her life.

She left her father’s gear and sled full of wood to the power of Arasu. Then she started up her own snowmobile and drove home. Without the burden of having to worry about her stepfather and what he would want to do to her that night, she seemed to fly.

She made it home in record time and picked her brother and sisters from the bus stop. The next day, she called the police and told them her stepfather had stayed in the alder swamp to cut more wood but had never returned. A search party was sent looking for him, but they found nothing. All trace of him had vanished, even his snowmobile and sled. It was as if they had disappeared from the face of the Earth. After a week of half-hearted searching, the authorities gave up and never spoke of it again. No one much cared for the guy, anyway.

Allie and her brother and sisters were raised in foster care by a nice family in Granite Falls. Allie got a degree in education from the college in Duluth and became a well-respected teacher at the Granite Falls high school. She was a stern but fair teacher and beloved by her students and their parents alike. She taught biology and was especially passionate during the unit on trees.

A highlight of the school year was a field trip where she took her biology class deep into the woods to the alder swamp, where the old oak tree still lived. She’d gather her students around the massive trunk and say, “Just close your eyes and take a minute to feel the tree, its energy and it’s power. Feel its strength. If you concentrate hard enough, it’s like the tree is talking to you. Listen. Do you hear it?”

Most of the time, the students would write her request off to the quirkiness of their well liked teacher. But sometimes one of the students would respond and nod their head and say, “Yes. Yes, I can hear it.”

“Good,” Allie would smile a knowing smile. And then, on the way back to school, she’d take the student aside and talk about magic and unseen powers and putting your faith in the natural world, especially trees. Then she’d watch the student’s eyes light up and know right then and there that it was only going to be a short matter of time before the student would come back to spend some time with the old oak tree. And that was good. Because if the student needed help, that’s what Arasu was there for; to help the student do the right thing. Just like he’d done with Allie so many years ago.