The ball flew towards the boy.
With a cry of alarm, the boy dropped to the floor.
“Damnit Jimmy, you’re supposed to catch the ball not hide from it!” a fat kid with a glove on one hand cried.
A skinny boy with glasses turned from the pitcher’s mound to look at the undersized boy, disdain clearly seen on his face, “This is the third run you’ve allowed, and you wonder why we never let you play with us. You’re dog shit! Actually, I apologize to all loads of shit out there, you’re even more useless. I’d prefer to have Roger Morris on our team and he can’t see a damn thing with those bug eyes.”
An easy-going boy with blonde shaggy hair and a confident smile plastered on his face strolled up to Jimmy, “Here let me help you up. After all, you’re the best player on our team. MVP hands down. Come on boys, give him a cheer!”
The boys chanted Jimmy’s name in a mocking parade of triumph.
“I don’t need your help nor do I want it, David,” said a thoroughly embarrassed Jimmy.
The small boy covered in dirt attempted to climb to his feet. The hand extended to help, struck lightning-fast, catching the smaller boy squarely in the chest. With a groan of pain, the dirty boy hit the ground for a second time.
“Well, if I knew you liked to eat dirt so much, I never would’ve offered to help you up,” said a grinning David.
A chorus of cruel laughter echoed all around the boy laying prone.
“I hate you David Baxly,” said a wheezing Jimmy Hanson.
David looked at the cringing boy with disgust and gave him a savage kick to his left kidney.
“Why don’t you do us all a favor and die? I doubt even your family would miss you.”
David and the rest of the boys walked away leaving the younger boy whimpering on the ground.
Soon enough the crying boy was left alone in the roughly cut grass of the makeshift baseball field.
Jimmy, no longer crying from pain but seething anger, slowly began to crawl to his feet.
“I wish I could go somewhere else. Just pick up and move and never have to see those shitheads ever again,” exclaimed the bloody boy.
The boy thought of ways to get even. He daydreamed of revenge and the praise of adoring fans. He wished for a place where he could be accepted, somewhere he would have a seat saved by the other boys.
A place of honor.
Girls would giggle at his jokes and twirl their hair for him.
He wouldn’t be the last person picked and he definitely wouldn’t have to eat his lunch in the bathroom anymore.
No one would make fun of his acne marks or buck teeth; they would hang on his every word.
The dirty, bloody boy was still fantasizing about these things, when he found himself staring at the intersection of Jackson and main street in the sleepy town of Brookhollow, Tennessee.
Brookhollow is one of many rural towns that is so microscopic that it doesn’t even appear on a map. There are 876 residents in the tight-knit community, according to the 2008 census. Main street boasts one general store, a gas station, the town hall, and Debbie’s Diner.
It was on the outside of the later building that he saw the missing sign of Jack Dunkin, a 12-year-old boy from a neighboring town a few miles to the west.
Jack was from Polk, a slightly larger town and known rival to Brookhollow. Even though Jack was in the same grade as Jimmy, they had never met.
Jimmy looked at the picture and saw that the boy had been missing for nearly 3 months.
He wondered how his mom would react if he was missing that long; he reached the conclusion that she probably wouldn’t even notice.
Ever since Jimmy’s mom took a third job at Debbie’s to help pay for the only reminder of his father they had left, his gambling debts, he usually doesn’t even see her.
She is gone when he wakes and doesn’t come home too well after he is asleep.
The only time Jimmy has any communication with Laura Hanson is on Sundays. Even this small exposure is tainted by the bone deep exhaustion. She may be present, even so, she isn’t there. Laura wakes, eats, drinks, uses the bathroom; yet she isn’t really living.
She reminds the boy of those cheesy horror movies they sometimes play late at night.
The walking dead.
If Jimmy was honest with himself, he would have to admit there is no one in his life. He has no friends in school, there is no one waiting for him at home, and he is not a part of any extracurricular activities.
He goes to school, comes home, does his homework, makes dinner for his mom, and goes to bed.
It has never occurred to him that he is lonely, the fact is he has never known anything else.
Jimmy doesn’t actually live in Brookhollow, his house is about two miles north up highway 29. He lives outside of the school’s jurisdiction, so he is unable to take the bus.
He walks to school every day.
The walk is peaceful and he actually looks forward to it.
Jimmy possesses an overactive imagination and gets lost in his fantasies.
A little less today, his ribs ache with every step. But not even this inconvenience can ruin the solitary 2-mile trek back home. He makes no turns, highway 29 is main street. All he needs to do is walk straight and he will arrive at his house.
But he is not walking in rural Tennessee anymore. He is a pioneer exploring the Great Frontier. Native Americans and wolves stalk him at night, he must be aware of the danger that lies beyond every turn. He can see his way through any situation with the help of his trusty companion and best friend, One-eyed Pete.
Pete used to be an outlaw that robbed and cheated people, but changed his ways when Jimmy saved him from being hung on the hanging tree.
A shutter runs through Jimmy’s body when he remembers the hanging tree.
It’s the largest oak he had ever seen. He loves to climb trees but would never dream of climbing that one. It is twisted, not a single leaf on its branches. If evil was ever a location, it would be at the heart of that gnarled tree.
Jimmy doesn’t like to think about it. It always seems to ruin his mood. Poison his mind. His fantasies always turn darker when he thinks of the oak.
Suddenly he is aware of exactly how alone he is. He is already a full mile away from the town and is out in the woods with no one around. Just a boy lost in the clutches of his own tormented imagination. He wished he wouldn’t have thought of the hanging tree.
He thinks of how nice it would be to have a dad to walk him home from school.
“The hanging tree is in your mind, Jimmy, it isn’t real,” he tells himself over and over as if to ward evil away.
Perhaps, that’s exactly what he is doing.
In the primal portion of his mind, he has been waken to the scent of danger. The same skittish feeling the antelope experiences shortly before the concealed lion pounces and feasts on flesh.
“Trees don’t hunt,” murmured the frightened boy.
“Maybe so, yet that oak could hardly be classified in the same league as other trees,” responded his own treasonous thoughts.
The boy’s mind splintered; warring factions jockeying for supremacy.
The fact is danger is certain.
It’s in the air, thickening it to the point of claustrophobia.
A young boy unaware of the inward mutiny happening amidst his own wits. Completely left to his own demented imagination. Yet, the stakes of this adventure are a great deal higher than any he has experienced before.
His mother was fond of telling him, “What you think, you become.”
Does that mean the stories his mind conjures could gain reality too?
This thought overwhelms the boy.
His eyes shift back and forth searching for threats.
The boy’s senses are keen; he looks for phantom monsters in the murk of shadows casted by the trees. Every twig snapping, a creature stalking. Every bush rustling, a hungry beast ready to devour the sweet meat of an underage boy.
Still, the petty fears of a child’s tormented mind pales to the unearthly wrongness of the hanging tree.
“What if mom is right?” said the concerned boy to the emptiness.
At this unwelcome thought the boy slammed his eyes closed in a futile attempt to banish the horrific idea.
“The hanging tree isn’t real,” the young boy cries out in the dead silence.
Yet in the back of his mind, the boy is certain that the moment he opens his eyes he will see it.
He will see the strands of rope dangling from the gnarled branches.
He will smell the smell of decaying bodies.
He will hear the creak of rope swaying gently in the cool breeze.
The boy doubles his efforts in a vain attempt to keep his eyes closed.
He sees red due to the strain he is putting on his muscles.
He hears the steady pulse of his blood rushing in his head.
The boy also understands that all this effort is for naught.
He must open his eyes at one point.
Jealousy creeps into the boy’s heart. Envy for the man born without sight. For the boy understands the moment he sees, there will be no coming back.
The moment has come.
Jimmy can no longer keep his eyes shut.
Seconds before his eyes fling open, he feels the gentle touch of someone’s hand on his shoulder.
This touch startles him, and the boy throws wide his eyes.
Sure enough a few hundred yards in front of him and to the left of the street that would lead him home stands the abomination.
A lone tree on the top of a bald, scarred hill. Not a living thing to be seen. No vegetation growing on the hill, no squirrels scuttling about, just a great oak, standing; an obscene gesture to the god of this world.
The only fruit of this tree is the decaying flesh of dead men, and likewise, the only cup is the curdled blood of those hanging. A final meal set for the boy, an unholy communion of gore and rancor.
The hand, whose was it?
Was it even human?
The little boy left visibly shaking at the touch of the unknown.
Is this death?
The icy grip of the Reaper himself here to harvest with his scythe.
No marriage, no children, not knowing the pleasures of true friendship.
Life cut short, a lamentable state of affairs.
It was in this line of thought, where true courage was mustered.
A strength measured not by the size of his muscles or the amount one could lift, but the more impressive type, the type quantified in the amount of shit one can wade. Identified in the amount of crap hands dealt without bowing out altogether.
Young Jimmy Hanson did the unthinkable, he turned and faced death looking it in the eyes.
Eyes, yes, but death perhaps not.
It was no titan of horror, nor was it the poster child of demented evil.
Child it was, but this boy was familiar. Not anyone from his class, yet he knew the boy.
It was the missing kid, Jack Dunkin.
He looked identical to the poster on the side of Debbie’s Diner. He wore the same black and white Van’s tee shirt, ripped blue jeans, and some tattered Nike tennis shoes. The thoroughly terrified Jimmy stood staring at the missing boy, mouth ajar.
Jack with an easy-going grin plastered on his face said, “It’s about time, someone comes looking for me. I’ve been waiting for you Jimmy, far too long.”
With an audible click the boy shut his gaping mouth and responded, “Ja- Jack, you’ve been missing for nearly three months. Have you been out here all along? Are you alone? Are you hurt?”
Jimmy fired these questions in rapid succession, growing more suspicious with each word.
“I’ve been right here, waiting for you to come and play with me. You see, I am like you. I never had anyone to play with either. Now you are here, and you must stay with me,” said the bigger boy with a smile on his face.
Jimmy’s mind quieted, for the first time in his life he saw himself clearly. A boy with no friends, no father, hardly a mother, bullied every day, and no way of escape. Clarity revealed the harsh truth. A day had not gone by that he wasn’t lonely. There was no one in his life.
The undersized boy looked at the other with longing in his eyes. He thirsted for a friend, like a man lost at sea. He hungered for companionship, like a man stuck in the wilderness. It wasn’t just a desire; he was desperate for a friend.
If the bigger boy would leave, Jimmy felt as if his soul would tear in half. His heart would shatter into a thousand pieces unable to be put back together. The boys’ eyes were a mirror reflecting the same sad truth, they understood each other. Both had lived, and neither had anyone to share it with.
The boys bound by shared hardships grasped onto each other refusing to let go.
Jimmy was comforted by finding someone who suffered greatly as well. The combined burden of loneliness lessened by two backs, instead of one.
With few words exchanged, the two of them created soul ties. Not the ties of lovers, but of lifelong friends. The type one dies for. The rare type of friendship that most people never form in their entire life. It was rich. It was wholesome. Jimmy felt as if his life was complete. The one thing he always desired truly fulfilled.
Jack grabbed the smaller boy’s hand and guided him towards the tree.
Jimmy, not wanting to get anywhere near that monstrosity, tried to pull back.
“Don’t worry. The tree is a good place. It will take us to a new land filled with boys and girls just like you and I. No David’s or bullies like him,” said a smiling Jack.
“How did you know about David? You’ve been missing all this time,” said a concerned looking Jimmy.
“Jimmy, I hear whispers. My friends tell me things. They will tell you secrets too. If you want to be friends with me, that is.” The bigger boy looked down at his ragged shoes.
He looked so pitiful and Jimmy was so starved for companionship, how could he not follow the boy.
Jack led the two of them to the scarred trunk of the tree. Here he let go of Jimmy’s hand. Telling the boy to, “Do exactly what I do.”
Jimmy’s fear bottled up deep in his guts. He felt as if he was going to explode. The tree was sinister and twisted. Evil through and through. Yet, the little boy had never had a friend. He was not willing to throw that away so easily.
Jack walked to the lowest hanging branch. He reached up and grabbed one of the dangling nooses. He wrapped it around his neck and looked at Jimmy.
“Don’t worry Jimmy, no pain is felt. The hanging tree is magic. You’ll close your eyes on this world, and wake up in a better place with me and all of my friends,” said a smiling Jack.
“Ja-Jack, I don’t think I can do this. It seems dangerous. I will need to make it back home soon. My mom will be waiting for me,” said a terrified Jimmy.
A heartbroken Jack looked at the smaller boy and said, “Jimmy, I can’t believe you would lie to me. Your mom isn’t home and won’t even notice that you are missing. Come with me. I am the only one who cares for you.”
Tears streaming down the smaller boy’s face, he responded, “Please don’t make me do it! This place frightens me. Can’t you just come home with me?”
“No! This world despises people like me and you. We weren’t made for it. We were made for the hanging tree. This is where you belong,” snarled the bigger boy.
Jimmy, eyes still running, reached with trembling hands for the dangling noose.
He seized it.
With one final glance at his friend, the little boy placed the loop around his neck.
Immediately the noose drew tight. It felt as if the tree was hauling him up by it.
The boy kicked and squirmed. Trying to shout for help, but his airflow was cut off.
He managed to make a choking noise, then with one final twitch all was still. Still as the glassy surface of a lake on a spring day.
Little Sammy Hanson had finally made a friend.
The two boys remained dangling together, gently swaying in the stale autumn breeze.
Credit: John Westrick
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