Molly would be excited to see him. She’d be waiting, sighing to the empty house and shaking her blonde hair into a mess. Hugo smiled at the thought, turning the wheel to follow the gentle curves and raises of the road.
Fog sat heavy on the pavement, reflecting the headlights back at his 2002 Neon. It didn’t bother Hugo though. He’d driven through the rural forest roads so many times that he knew them like the back of his hand. Hugo turned up the radio as he drummed out a rhythm against the faux leather steering wheel.
He was singing along to Billy Rae Cyrus in Old Town Road when another pair of headlights appeared. They came over a blind hill, lighting the fog to eerie white before slipping over the ridge. It was an old Mercedes, late eighties if Hugo had to guess.
Hugo hugged the right side of his lane, giving plenty of space in case the Mercedes was as blinded by his headlights as Hugo was by theirs. He didn’t drop a single note of the melody until the Mercedes swerved into him.
Just before the world erupted into squealing metal and screeching rubber Hugo glimpsed a man and woman through the windshield of the other car. The woman’s mouth was open, but not in fear or surprise. She was shouting, pulling at the driver’s hair and beating him with her fists. The man had one arm up in defense, the other white-knuckled on the steering wheel as he tried and failed to keep control.
Then there was noise and jostling darkness. Hugo’s Neon was flung through the guard rails that lined both sides of the road. It was the old metal sort – the ones that were illegal now. The cement walls that were replacing them state-wide still too expensive for Appleside County.
Branches crashed and snapped against the windshield as the Neon tumbled down a short hill, coming to rest against a wide cedar tree with a thud. The airbags erupted from the steering wheel with a bang and a hiss, adding to the pandemonium but saving Hugo a broken face as he flew into their waiting embrace.
The engine cut out, its usual rumbling replaced by the pained whine of escaping heat. The radio was still belching out the odd line of Old Town Road between reams of static. Somewhere behind him, Hugo could hear the man and woman shouting.
Car doors opened and closed a minute later. Hugo waited for the feel of hands on his body, pulling him from what he was sure must have been a wreck. They didn’t come. The shouting stopped. Car doors opened and closed once more, and an engine complained as it was pushed back into motion. The sound of rubber on wet cement receded.
Tourists. Hugo thought blearily as he fought to sit up, blinking swelling eyes into focus. The iron tang of blood sat on his tongue and after a moment’s investigation Hugo realized his nose was bleeding. Outside, the world was quiet.
At least, for a moment.
In 1890 a man named William Jackson died, and willed the land around his favourite tree to the tree itself. The white oak fell over in a storm, but a seedling inherited its land and the tree that owned itself continued to be a quirky tradition of Athens, Georgia. That lasted until October 27, 2021. The day, ten years ago, when a group of rowdy teenagers killed Hugo Turnbull.
The kids didn’t know what they were doing – couldn’t have known that their actions were going to cost thousands of lives. They thought they were only costing one, and that the one of a tree. As a pre-Halloween prank, these children took one of their parents’ chainsaws and cut down the tree that owned itself.
That was the day that mankind learned its most important lesson: Humanity was being tolerated because we were ignorant.
But when the forests of the world picked up the call from their fallen comrade, they were finished with our bullshit. By human law that tree had rights, and when we ignored even our own rules, it was the final straw.
The Christmas tree farms were hit first and hardest by the uprooting. Governments were quick to respond, burning and cutting as much as they could before being cut down themselves. It was an uphill battle that had ended in an uneasy stalemate.
This is why, on that foggy hill, Hugo wet himself a little when the cedar his front bumper was splintering began to creak. The groan of wood mingled with increasing sounds of protesting metal, letting out a chorus of pain and war into the night. As tendrils of root poked out of the CD slot, even the static cut out.
Hugo fought against his seatbelt with panic rising in his throat. Humans still held supremacy on the road, but this… The thought was cut short as the front of the car buckled. A branch as thick as Hugo sent cracks spiderwebbing across the window as it imploded the hood of the car. The seatbelt clicked open under his fingers as the blow came, and he flew with the impact, driving his head into the roof of the Neon.
Disoriented, Hugo reached for the sunroof, standing on his seat to avoid the searching shoots curling in around the base of the driver’s door. By the time he broke the hinges and forced it fully open, the rear window shattered under the crushing force of the roots working their way throughout the vehicle. It was like watching a time-lapse of the forest reclaiming abandoned places.
Hugo wriggled onto the roof of the car and found himself in a windless gale. The trees whipped and swayed, branches lashing at the car and punching Hugo with enough force to put him on his back. Pinecones were flying fast and furious, hurled by a fir with remarkable aim. The ragged edges tore lines of shallow red wherever they hit exposed skin.
The metal under Hugo’s back creased, its groans deafening even above the sounds of the wooden storm. Unsure how he was doing it, Hugo flipped to his stomach, kicking his feet under him in a desperate need to live. He leaped, clearing the worst of the squirming bed of roots surrounding the car and landing hard in one of the uneven tire treads he’d left on his way down.
Hugo didn’t remember making it to the road, only collapsing when his feet found pavement. There was a trail of shattered plastic from his headlights, orange and white, leading to the gaping wound in the metal guard rail. The cement was cool on his cheek.
As the fog atop the hill lit white, Hugo thought of Molly. The car would see him. He’d be home in time to see Molly’s wagging tail. No time at all.