It was night, and the combined light from the waning moon and the streetlights left stripes of light across the hallway through the open doors. The house lights had been off long enough that Isaac’s eyes were accustomed to the dark, and he could confidently walk down the hall without any fear of stubbing his toes on hidden obstacles.
He wasn’t really certain why he was awake. He’d been tucked in bed and dreaming of something, and then he was awake. The dream slipped away like water through his fingers, and he was left with a vague memory of needing to be somewhere to do something.
The feeling remained as he left the warm bed and shivered in the cool of the fall night. With no real idea of where he needed to be, he pulled on some slippers and started the journey down the hallway to the kitchen. He paused as he passed Charlie’s room.
He stepped inside and looked around. Everything was gilded by the light from the window. Charlie’s slow, even breaths sounded loud in the quiet room. Nothing looked out of place.
Isaac shuffled across the room and looked out the window. The backyard looked different at night. It looked like it was waiting for something to happen, something magical and mysterious. Even the sunflowers and cornstalks that were so cheerful in the daylight were now tall and brooding in the shadows.
His gaze skimmed across the yard, but his eyes returned to the oak tree in the back corner. Something was not quite right. The shape of the shadows was wrong. Was someone hiding back there next to the tree?
He leaned closer to the window. His breath fogged the glass, and he wiped the condensation away with his sleeve. Holding his breath, he looked at the extra shadow in the back corner again. It wasn’t the right shape for a person. Too tall and straight and thin.
He’d have to go outside and check it out. He left Charlie’s room and traded his slippers for boots at the front closet and put a coat on. He crossed to the kitchen and filled a glass with water at the sink while looking out the kitchen window.
The shadows were a little clearer from here. It looked like there were two oak trees in the backyard now. The new tree looked decades old, tall and straight next to its fellow oak.
Isaac drank the water in a few gulps and left the glass in the sink. It was time to go see what was going on. Would he need a flashlight? He took one from the kitchen drawer, just in case.
The plants were quiet in the dark. They were sleeping or hibernating or whatever it was that plants did while waiting for the return of the sun. They’d all been slowing down as the air grew colder as the seasons changed.
But, if he listened closely, he could hear a quiet murmur from the lawn and a slow humming from the garden. He walked towards the oak tree, and as he approached he could hear the familiar whisper. But there was only one whisper. The other tree was silent.
The new oak tree looked like an oak tree. In fact, it was almost an exact copy of the other tree, with maybe fewer branches. The ground around it was undisturbed, except for the new layer of brown and yellow leaves that had settled there over the past week. It looked like the tree had always been there.
It hadn’t, of course. They’d have noticed the extra tree. But how long had it been there? Was it there yesterday? Had it slipped in after dinner when they were in the living room watching dinosaur movies, or had it been there even longer than that and he hadn’t noticed it?
He set his hand on the trunk of the new tree. It felt like an oak tree, even if it didn’t sound like one. He looked up. The branches swayed in a slight breeze just as the branches of the other tree did.
The plants were all calm and sleepy. They weren’t frightened by the newcomer. It wasn’t doing anything alarming. Isaac yawned. This could probably wait until morning.
He patted the trunk of the new tree, and then the trunk of the old tree just to be fair. Then he shuffled back to the house and left his boots by the back door. He hung up his coat and stepped into his slippers and went to bed.
In the morning, Isaac woke up. The sun was shining brightly through the windows. His dreams faded away like mist in the sunlight. He made the bed and got dressed. He could smell breakfast cooking and could hear Marianne and Charlie in the kitchen.
He joined them with a smile. He took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water at the sink as he listened to them planning out their day. He glanced out the window as he remembered the extra tree.
It wasn’t there.