The road Abe was driving down was dark, oppressively dark. Street lights would have been a nice addition to the scenery since the road ran around the perimeter of a large artificial lake, not yet frozen, and some of the turns were sharp and blind. The lake was built in the late sixties to give city people a reason to come out here and spend money; what it had actually provided was a convenient place for locals to do themselves in without attracting the attention of the police.
Looking to his left, Abe saw the moon rising above the leafless treeline on the far side of the lake. His breath clouded in the air against his side window, obscuring his view slightly and making the moon look no more spectacular than a flashlight with a dying battery, flickering in a foggy campground. Abe and the moon understood each other.
He felt old. "A member of a dying generation" was his favorite expression on this same drive home the night before, after the drinks had sufficiently warmed him, loosened the corners of his mouth enough to let him smile, just a little. He was sixty-eight, a mason and carpenter until a minor stroke and a blocked artery in his leg made even routine motions a trial of concentration and stamina. He was Sicilian, a rarity here - olive skinned and built like a compressed spring. Deep creases in his forehead. Rock steady hands, even now. If it weren't for the sweat pants and loafers he habitually wore he'd look like the godfather. As it was he looked like the godfather on his day off.
It was the moon that did him in, or maybe it had saved him. Lost in the yellow sadness as he was, Abe didn't notice the looming presence further down the road until the road curved west to follow the shoreline of the lake and he suddenly couldn't see the moon anymore. Something was blocking his view that shouldn't have been. He was bearing down on it fast when his headlights caught its outline silouhetted against the encroaching darkness.
Abe slammed the brakes, spinning the wheel to the right to avoid any chance of pitching his car into the lake. A metallic crunch echoed across the water.
He got out, shaken, and inspected the damage. His battery had survived; his engine had not. The one headlight not embedded in the obstruction cast its beam out into the night, reflecting off the surrounding forest and giving him some idea as to what it was he had hit.
There was a tree growing in the middle of the road. It was growing straight out of the asphalt, eight feet around and taller than he could see in the dark. Its leaves made it out to be a maple. Its branches were thick, almost muscular, and spread the width of the road.
It hadn't been there yesterday and it hasn't lost its leaves. The thought echoed around his head.
He popped his trunk and felt around until he found three emergency flares and a woolen blanket. Wrapping the blanket around his shoulders to fight off the cold he could feel seeping into his joints, Abe lit two of the flares, leaving them on the road as a warning (though as far as he knew the road wouldn't see another traveller on it until morning, if then) and used the third to explore the trunk of the tree.
As he approached it he thought about the stories his Irish mother-in-law used to tell him about an ancient oak with spirits who lived in the trunk, granting visitors warmth, extremely good whiskey and fine tobaccos. He remembers thinking how personal those gifts seemed to her, and how perfect it would have been if this tree was dead smack in the middle of Central Park, blocks away from where she had grown up.
Walking around the tree failed to reveal any tiny doorways or stairs leading down to a warm underground lair. His second pass did turn up something - a word was carved into the very base of the tree by the split pavement. Abe was certain it hadn't been there when he walked around the first time, appearing just as the tree itself had.
The word, carved in a delicate, almost feminine script, was regret. The word seemed to glow at his touch.
A wind whipped down the road, hitting Abe full force in the chest. His legs wanted to buckle but he kept standing, the effort a severe strain. He couldn't walk for help, not with this wind and his leg, not that there was anywhere much to go. He stumbled back to the car and, leaving the flare by the tree, climbed into the back seat with the blanket. Hoping someone would come across him before too long, he curled up and fell asleep.
Outside, one by one the leaves turned golden and fell to earth.