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“They say the tree bleeds when you peel off the bark.”
Liz’s eyes flickered in the orange light. Her lips curled into a small smile, as if she enjoyed that particular detail.
“That’s ridiculous. There’s no way a tree could bleed,” Tucker said, yanking his burning marshmallow from the fire.
“There are photos, though. I’ve seen them all over Instagram. Bright red blood, oozing from the bark.”
“It’s supposed to be the blood of Monstruo’s victims,” I added. “The legend goes, the tree absorbed all the blood spilled at its roots. Now instead of sap, human blood pumps through its veins.”
Tucker let out a peal of laughter. “Absolutely not! That’s ridiculous. Come on, you guys were in my Biology class. You know there’s no way human blood is pumping through the xylem and phloem –”
“It’s true,” Liz said, shooting him a glare.
“You know what? I bet the whole thing is a myth. I bet Monstruo himself didn’t even exist.”
I glanced at the tree. It stood in the shadows, several yards behind us. Blackened bark. Leafless branches. A sore thumb in the forest.
The Hanging Tree. Or el árbol del ahorcado, as some of the locals called it.
“It’s nothing more than a tourist trap,” Tucker continued.
“A tourist trap only the locals know about? Doesn’t make much sense to me,” I said.
Tucker sighed. “You know what I mean.” His marshmallow fell into the fire with an unceremonious plop. “It’s an urban legend to tell around campfires like this one. A spooky haunted tree. The legend of a perverted, cannibalistic killer. It sounds like the plot to a Stephen King novel. I guarantee you — Monstruo wasn’t real.”
“He was real. Every single person in this town who’s old enough to have seen it, says it happened.” I glanced over at him. “And this tree is where he hung his victims’ bodies.”
Tucker laughed. The sound echoed off the trees, making it sound like a chorus was laughing with him. “Yeah, and those same locals just call him ‘Monstruo.’ The Spanish word for ‘monster.’ If he’s real, why don’t they call him by name?”
“Because they don’t want to give him the dignity.”
It was Liz speaking, now. The smile had faded from her face. She scooted closer to the fire; the black shadows faded from her face. “He did such terrible things. Referring to him by name would only glorify that.”
“That’s a clever lie. But it doesn’t fool me.”
I shifted closer to Tucker, who was plucking another marshmallow from the bag. “Come on, Tucker. Ever notice how this part of town is basically abandoned? And no one ever builds on the empty lot a few feet over, even though it’s dirt cheap?” I laughed. “The things Monstruo did are so terrible, even money won’t get anyone near it.”
“So terrible. So, so terrible. That’s what I keep hearing. Yet, funny how I’ve never heard any details or facts.”
“You want facts? I’ll give you facts. He killed 17 men, women, and children. And you do a hell of a lot of disrespect to those people, when you claim he didn’t exist.”
Liz nodded, her dark eyes glancing at Tucker.
“Look, I’m not trying to disrespect anybody. I just –”
“I’m not done.” My voice cut through the cold air like a knife. Tucker jumped. “He didn’t just abduct and kill those people. It was a lot worse than that.”
Tucker’s marshmallow burned and crackled. Liz shuffled her feet across the dry leaves.
“He led each victim, blindfolded, to the tree.” I glanced down from their faces, and into the blinding flames. “Then he killed them, and strung their bodies up in the tree as if they were trophies to show off.”
Liz’s eyes shone brightly in the orange glow. She wiped her sleeve across them.
“And then he eviscerated them.”
“Oh,” Tucker said, softly.
“Then he took them back to his house. But not before he removed their right shoes — and added them to his creepy-ass memento box. And then… do I have to say it?” I asked. The pillar of smoke billowed up between us, shrouding Liz and Tucker in a gray veil.
“He ate them,” Liz whispered to him.
“Oh, come on! What a load of nonsense.” Tucker stood up and rolled his eyes. “I can guarantee you, there is not a shred of truth in that story. No Monstruo, no cursed tree. Someone probably just made it up on the internet.”
“You just think you’re so smart, don’t you?”
He laughed, blowing on the blackened marshmallow. “Yeah, you bet I do.”
“Then how about this? The day after Monstruo died, the tree died. Then all the foliage, within a few feet of it. Nothing grows there to this day.” I gestured to the tree, barely visible from our spot near the campfire. “You can’t deny that, Tucker. You can get your lazy ass up and see it for yourself.”
Tucker didn’t reply.
“Go on. Look at it,” Liz said. Her smile was back. “Or are you too scared?”
Tucker grumbled and turned around. “I can see it from here. And you’re right — but, obviously, the tree died because everyone peeled off its bark.”
“Okay, so that’s why the tree’s dead, maybe. But what about the fact that nothing grows around it?”
“The tree’s roots probably choke everything out. Or the soil’s too compacted, from all the teenagers visiting and stomping it down.”
“Right. Let’s talk about those teenagers.” I smiled, leaning closer to the fire. My face grew uncomfortably warm. “They climb it, decorate it, make out under it –”
“Hang effigies from it,” Liz added. Even now, a stray piece of rope hung from the lowest branch, swaying in the wind. I tried not to look at it.
“Yeah. And do you know what happened to those teenagers?”
“Adrian Keller climbed it to take a selfie. A month later, he was committed to a mental hospital because he violently attacked his mother.”
“Okay, so? He was probably crazy before he even saw the tree.”
“I’m not done yet,” I snapped. “On a fine Wednesday afternoon, Greg Patel skipped school to hook up with Aria Stewart underneath the tree. She got pregnant — and, months later, miscarried something so terribly deformed, the doctors refused to call it a fetus.”
Tucker didn’t have a snarky reply for that one.
“And Sidney Taylor. Let’s talk about her. After hanging an effigy from the tree, she started sleepwalking. At first, she’d wake up under the tree. Then she’d wake up in neighbors’ lawns. Finally she woke up in one of their houses — surrounded by a pool of blood and two corpses.”
“That’s enough,” Liz muttered. “He gets the point, you don’t need to repeat it –”
“She’d taken off the right shoe of each corpse and stripped them naked. And each one… each one was missing large chunks of flesh. When doctors pumped her stomach, they found –”
“John, okay! You’ve made your point!” Liz snapped.
A thick silence fell over the three of us.
Finally, Tucker said: “I still don’t believe it.”
“So touch the tree, then,” Liz shot back. “We’ll write you at the sanitarium, we promise. Right, John?”
I raised my eyebrow at her.
“Fine. I will.” Tucker heaved himself up off the ground. With heavy footsteps, he started into the darkness.
“Shoot. I didn’t think he’d actually do it. Wait! Tucker!”
I followed them through the trees. Soon enough, the three of us were standing before the Hanging Tree.
Swaths of bark were peeled off, and a thick sap — almost blood-like — oozed from the wounds. The bits of rope swayed in the wind. Initials and hearts were carved all over the bark that was still intact. I noticed a faint marking that read Greg+Aria, near the roots, and my heart dropped.
“Tucker, please, don’t do it.”
Tucker stood on the border of the dead circle — where the weeds and shrubs dwindled into sticks, leaves, and rotten mud. His arm was stretched out, fingers inches from the trunk.
“Tucker. I was just joking. Don’t do it.” Liz tugged at his sleeve.
“Relax, Liz. It’s just a tree.”
Of course, Tucker was going to do it, now. He’d always had a crush on her. No way he’d pass up this chance to impress her and be some sort of macho man.
“Tucker, please, don’t.” Liz looked at me expectantly, as if she expected me to dissuade him. I was silent. “Come on, let’s just go to sleep. This whole idea was dumb.”
“I want to touch the tree, Liz.” Tucker took a step forward. “I want to prove to you I’m right. That this whole thing is an elaborate hoax.”
He took another step forward, arm outstretched.
Liz grabbed his shoulders.
But it was too late.
His fingers pressed into the bark. When he pulled them back, rust-red sap covered them.
Liz stepped forward, eyes brimming with tears. “No. This is all my fault. Now you’re going to go crazy and kill people and –”
“Get a hold of yourself, Liz,” Tucker said. “It’s just a tree. And a dead one at that.”
The three of us walked back to the tent in silence. Tucker handled the fire; I cleaned up a bit around the campsite. By the time I got inside, Liz was already asleep — only her messy hair poked out from the sleeping bag.
I opened my own sleeping bag, snuggled in, and closed my eyes.
* * * * * *
I jolted awake.
For a second, I couldn’t place where I was. It was cold, colder than I’d remembered it being that evening. I fumbled through the darkness for my cell phone.
The light from my phone lit the inside of the tent. I saw Liz, sleeping peacefully in her bag. Her mouth hung slightly open, a wet spot of drool on her pillow.
The other sleeping bag was empty.
“Tucker?” I said. Softly, at first.
“Hey! Tucker!” I called. Liz stirred next to me.
I slowly stood up, careful not to rustle the sleeping bag too loudly. With one hand, I peeled back the entrance of the tent.
Everything was pitch black.
I pressed the flashlight button on my phone. It lit the clearing in a bright, white glow. The charred remains of our campfire; depressions in the dirt, where we’d left our folding chairs.
And in the distance — a silhouette. Standing right under the tree, facing away from me.
“Tucker?” I shouted, running towards him. I stopped a few feet away; he didn’t turn around. “Tucker, are you okay?”
Silence — save for a schlick, schlick sound.
I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Tucker, what –”
The entire tree was covered in carvings. Hundreds of them. All in Tucker’s handwriting, all of the same word:
“Tucker! Hey! Are you okay?”
As if waking from a deep sleep, Tucker jolted and glanced around. “Uh, yeah, I’m fine.” He glanced at the trees. “Why am I out here?”
“Doesn’t matter. Come on, let’s get you back to the tent.”
I didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night.
* * * * * *
Liz and I were incredibly worried about Tucker. But days, and then weeks, passed without incident. We began to believe that the Hanging Tree really was just a tree, and he was right all along.
Until that fateful Saturday night.
I was sitting in my house, eating a late dinner alone, when someone knocked on the door.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
I jolted upright. “Who’s there?” I yelled, glancing at the deadbolt. Locked.
“It’s me! Liz! Open up!” Her voice warbled with emotion.
My heart sank. Something was terribly wrong. “Liz, are you okay?” I called, as I hurried to the door.
“I’m okay. Just open the door, John. I need to tell you something.”
I grabbed the doorknob. Yanked it open.
Tucker stood next to Liz on my porch, smiling. The barrel of a gun poked against her skull; he slowly turned it, so that it pointed at me.
“I’m so sorry,” Liz said to me, starting to sob. “I didn’t want to. But he said he’d shoot me if I didn’t. I panicked… I’m so, so sorry.”
Tucker motioned for me to step forward. “Come on, John. Or are you scared?”
“Okay. Okay. Calm down, I’m coming.” I held up my hands and stepped into the cold. Tucker grinned.
“In the car,” he said. “Backseat. Both of you.”
I climbed into the backseat. Liz cried against my shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” she kept repeating, over and over.
I felt numb. Like I was watching a terrible movie, watching s scene unfolding in front of me, utterly powerless to stop it.
The car tore through the night. My shoulder hit the door, hard, as we made turn after turn. “Where are you taking us?” I asked, trying to keep my voice as calm as possible.
He didn’t reply.
But I didn’t have to wonder long. Soon enough, I saw the empty lot approaching. The forest rose up behind it, shrouded in shadow.
“You’re taking us to the Hanging Tree, aren’t you?”
Silence, save for Liz’s soft sobs.
He drove right across the empty lot, through the weeds and shrubs. We skidded to a halt at the forest’s edge. “Out,” Tucker grunted, as he swung the door open.
We trudged through the forest in silence. My feet rhythmically crunched the dry leaves and sticks with each step. Like a clock, ticking down to the moment of our death.
We stopped in front of the blackened tree. Its branches twisted and crossed the indigo sky. A cold wind blew; the shreds of rope swayed.
“Stand over there,” he commanded Liz.
“Why are you doing this?” she cried.
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing, Liz. He’s sleepwalking.”
“I’m not sleepwalking.” Tucker snapped towards me, his blue eyes wild and dark. “I’m not doing this because some cursed tree infected me. I’m doing it because two of my friends betrayed me.”
“What are you talking about?” Liz shouted.
“Oh, come on. What do you think I am? Some kind of an idiot?” He reached into his bag and pulled out a length of thick rope.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, don’t act so innocent!” he spat. “You and Liz have been hooking up behind my back for weeks, when you knew I was in love with her!”
“That’s not true,” Liz said, softly.
“Oh, don’t deny it. And then you take me for some kind of idiot just because I don’t believe in a cursed tree! What kind of friend does that?”
He grabbed me roughly by the waist. In one swift, strong motion, he looped the rope around my shoulders. “A fitting punishment for a fitting crime, don’t you think?”
I tried to wriggle free. I thrashed and kicked and shouted. But Tucker, standing six inches taller, had all the leverage. I didn’t have a chance.
After fumbling with a knot, he looped the rope over the lowest branch and tugged. My feet left the ground. Slowly, inch-by-inch, I was hoisted up the tree. The blackened, leafless branches came closer into view.
And then I noticed the scratches.
Hundreds of them. White like scars, covering the bark. Desperate. Anguished. Human.
“Monstruo didn’t hang dead bodies from this tree,” I muttered. Liz looked up at me, eyes wide.
“He hung them alive.”
I tore my eyes away from the bark. Below me, Tucker was looping the rope around Liz. She wasn’t crying anymore; instead, she was thrashing. Kicking. Fighting.
But she wasn’t strong enough. Moments later, she was hanging next to me.
Tucker dragged his bag over the ground. With a zip, he pulled it open and reached inside. A steel knife glinted in the moonlight. Then he walked over to us.
First he gently pulled off my right sneaker.
Then he pulled off Liz’s boot.
“Please. Tucker, don’t do this!” Liz pleaded, one last time.
I remained silent. Instead, I wriggled against the rope. Jumped. Thrashed. Tried everything in my strength to get free.
The rope began to loosen.
Liz met my eyes. I tried my best to make a face at her, to signal what I was doing. Catching my drift, she put our plan into action. “Tucker, listen. I’ve only ever liked you. Not him.” She forced a smile. “Look at me, Tucker. I’m telling you the truth.”
He took a step towards Liz, and, finally, tilted his head up to look at her.
I fell to the ground, charged, and tackled him. After getting in a few good punches, I leapt up and pulled down Liz’s rope.
“We need to call the police,” Liz said, latched onto my arm. “We need to –”
Tucker collided with her.
The scene played out before my eyes as if in slow-motion. Tucker grabbed her by the wrists. He dragged her across the mud. In one frenzied motion, he pressed her hands against the tree trunk.
I leapt at them. But it was too late. Liz was shrieking, looking at her hands. They were covered in sticky red sap.
“I touched it! Oh, my god, I touched it!” she cried out in disbelief.
“Come on, let’s go!” I cried, grabbing Liz’s wrist and yanking her towards the lot. “We need to go!” Tucker was already reaching for the knife, his face twisted in an expression of anger.
“Liz! Come on!”
We ran through the forest, through the empty lot, and into the night.
* * * * * *
That night, Tucker was arrested for assault. The following morning, they found his cellmate dead, on the floor, lying n a pool of blood. Missing chunks of flesh.
Liz started sleepwalking a week after the events. She committed herself to a mental institution the next day. We exchange letters sometimes, but I don’t think she’s ever going to leave that place.
So that’s my experience with the Hanging Tree. And, listen — I’m not telling you this tale to scare you. I’m telling you because I need your help.
A week ago, builders broke ground on the empty lot. As we speak, they’re cutting down bits of the forest — including the Hanging Tree.
To build a daycare center.
Toddlers and caregivers will be on that cursed ground. Learning, playing, growing. Utterly unaware of the darkness that once stood in its place.
Maybe everything will be fine. But if Tucker and Liz are any indication, it won’t.
I’ve called everyone on the city council; I’ve spoken to the mayor. I’ve tried getting through to the daycare company. I’ve even tried protesting in the streets.
Nothing helped, and no one believed me.
So now I’m telling you.
If you live near El Bosque, Texas, do everything in your power to put a stop to it. If enough people complain, maybe they’ll get discouraged and give up.
If not… well, I won’t be here to see it. I’ve done my part, and I’ve got enough blood on my hands already. I’m leaving town tomorrow.
God help us all.