I have just published my first work of fiction. It’s paranormal fiction, a ghost tale. I’m happy to report that reviews are coming back very strong. Below is chapter one of Dance of the Hanged Man, my tale of five boys struggling to survive a supernatural event in the dark woods of 1970’s Texas.
There’s a link at the end to download a free .pdf of six more chapters if you want to keep reading. Or you can order the entire book.
The summer of 1974 was hot. Across the vast sprawl of Houston, the temperature remained in the 90’s well past sundown, leaving the laundry hanging limp on the lines; slow to dry in the humid night air. By July, even the children who had grown up running barefoot down the white-hot sidewalks would creep inside after lunch to wait out the heat of early afternoon; reemerging to wander along the fence lines and tumble through the front yards, their scuffed knees damp and itchy with grass stains and sweat.
A boy climbed up into the limbs of a towering sycamore tree. Afternoon sunlight drifted down in hazy shafts through the canopy of green leaves. Cicadas droned among the winding limbs. Empty yards spread out below, silent in the glare of the hot sun. Wiping sweat from his eyes, he struggled to lift a long pine board. The trees in neighboring yards about him were utterly still in the shimmering heat, waiting patiently for a breeze to stir their leaves into languid motion. A car horn honked in the distance.
He talked to himself as he wrestled the board into place and began hammering nails. His left eye ticked convulsively. He set his jaw and pounded away with fierce determination. Sweat drifted down along his nose. He looked warily toward the back door of the distant house. He glanced up through the dazzling green leaves, addressing the empty branches above. “She’ll be out here any minute,” he said loudly. “You just wait.”
He had just turned fourteen the previous month, June. He was already awkwardly tall and lanky, his bristly hair cut short in a burr. His caste and complexion were dark, except for his eyes, which were a bright shocking blue. He had a hooked nose and thin lips, which were turned down in a scowl. His narrow hawkish features were out of place on a boy his age, but then, nothing about James was quite normal. The nail he was hammering bent. He straightened it and drove it home.
Somewhere down among the empty yards, a dog began barking in the shimmering heat, alarmed by the noise. But the barking soon faltered and fell silent. James studied his handiwork. The board had not split, despite the size of the nails he was using. He lifted himself and shifted his weight onto the board.
“What are you doing, James?”
He was startled by his mother’s voice. She stood at the base of the tree looking up at him. Her arms jutted out from the sleeves of her dress. She was all elbows and knuckles, pale hard angles.
“I want you down from this tree. It’s not safe,” she said.
“There’s nothin’ wrong with this tree…” he said, half under his breath, glaring at her angrily. He felt his skin flush.
“I said get down,” she replied flatly.
“It’s just a treehouse…,” James’ argument trailed off.
She continued to stare at him, impatient. The urge to stand his ground came in waves, like surf on the beach. He drew himself up.
His mother took a step back so as not to have to look straight up at him. She shaded her eyes with one hand. “Just come down here.”
James stared at the woman below. Go back in your stupid house, he thought bitterly. Her features darkened. He watched the play of emotions across her face. So far, there were only small indications of her irritation. He knew that every second he delayed risked far worse. Trembling, he made no move to climb down. His jaw became set, drawing his mouth into a thin line.
“This is the last time I’m gonna ask you,” she said, her voice deceptively calm.
James felt a giddy hysteria blend with his anger. A sense of anticipation grew in him. He glanced up though the leaves. “I’ll come down when I’m good and ready.”
She stepped up, planting one foot on a thick root, and clambered part way up into the tree. She was rising toward him, an awkward and spindly shape against the bright green grass below. Before he knew it, she was much too close. The skin around her eyes was rigid and trembling. She took hold of his ankle. Her grip was firm. James scrambled to steady himself.
“So help me God, I’ll yank you out of this tree,” she said between her teeth.
James struggled to regain his balance. His mother’s grip was growing painfully tight, her volatile temper creating immense strength. All rebelliousness drained out of him. He gripped a narrow branch above his head and shifted his weight, steadying himself on the board. The hammer tumbled off, falling end over end toward the ground, landing with a thump.
“Momma!” he said, growing alarmed.
“Get…down,” she hissed. Her foot slipped and her free hand scrabbled claw-like for a purchase on a nearby branch. Her thin arms became ropy with twisting muscles as she pulled herself higher into the tree. The skin on her face was rigid; drained of color. An unnatural twitching erupted in the flesh below one eye; as if a worm was writhing just below the skin, turning over and over. Her grip became stronger, her nails biting into his bare leg, grinding at his ankle.
They hung poised in the tree, the two of them staring into each other’s faces. For a moment, a shadow fell across her face, blotting it out, and then was gone. James felt goose bumps swarm over his back and down his arms. He looked away and then back, her enormous rage confronting him.
“Lemmie get down,” James cried.
He turned and lowered himself from the tree, his mother backing her way down before him. James felt her grip along his back, and firmly on his upper arm as his feet touched the ground. He looked at the side of her face. He felt dangerously foolish. Violent emotions stirred in him. Already he was in deep trouble resulting from this minuscule and agonizingly short-lived rebellion.
I didn’t do enough, he thought bitterly. He pulled wildly on his arm, hating the feel of her hand. Her grip tightened. She walked him briskly toward the house. The door to the house closed and the yard was silent. The vast old sycamore tree moved drowsily as a faint breeze stirred its limbs, a single board now spanning two lower branches.
James sat before his mother and father at the kitchen table. The table was lit by a cheap stained glass replica fixture hanging above. Matching Tupperware salt and pepper shakers sat next to a plastic napkin holder. It was Tuesday evening, which meant minute steak and green beans. The beans had pieces of bacon in them, limp and pale from being boiled.
“I’ve told you about that old tree,” his mother said, smiling levelly. James wondered for the thousandth time what it would be like if he had brothers or sisters at the table with him.
“You never let me do anything,” he said. Then more loudly, “My friends won’t come here.”
“James…,” his father said. A threat hung in the air. The man’s expression was sour, the corners of his mouth pulling down just a touch. Who is he more irritated with? James thought, Her or me? The older man’s expression twitched.
James looked down at his food. The plastic dinner plate had a single paper napkin folded to the left of it. James never used napkins, yet there it sat at every meal. Cleaning up after dinner each night, James gingerly cleared away the used napkin next to his father’s plate. Folded the same way. Wet in the same place.
James turned to his father, imploring.
“That’s all she ever says. It’s not safe,” he said.
“Jimmy,” his mother said in a level voice. “You give this up or you get up right now and go without your dinner.”
James looked at his mother and then spoke to his father. “Ask her why the tree’s not safe… ,” he said.
“All right, go upstairs,” his mother said, her voice rising. She leaned over to place a hand on the back of his chair, ready to pull it away as he stood. James stared at his father as he rose, tears welling up in his eyes. The tears of frustration disgusted him. He angrily wiped them away.
“Ask her!” James cried out. James’ father looked away, as if from a doctor in the moment the needle penetrates his arm, closing himself off from the words. James glared at his mother, growing frantic. She calmly returned his gaze.
“Go to your room,” she said flatly.
“Please, Momma,” James whispered.
“God dammit, Jimmy!” his father barked, turning back, half rising from his chair. James stared directly at his mother as he rose from the table.
“I wish you were dead,” he said.
James had been punished for his outburst. His father had paddled him, using the wooden sorority paddle kept for just that purpose. It had the name of his mother’s college on it. As always, James had to bend over and hold his ankles. He had gone to his bed utterly humiliated, regretting the pathetic apologies that tumbled out as the painful blows fell.
At 3 AM that night, his mother passed away.
His father had slept on, aware only later that his wife had grown cold and still in the bed next to him. James, asleep in his room, dreamt of a kettle squealing on a stove. He awoke to hear his father rushing through the house; yelling into the phone in the predawn darkness, and then returning to their bed to flail about over the cold form of his wife. It was later that a doctor told them a brain embolism had killed her. A vein in her head had burst, flooding fragile sections of her frontal lobe with reckless blood.
A few days later, her husband and her son stood side by side as her hulking dark coffin was lowered into the ground. James Hatch Sr. was stoic. James Hatch Jr. was pale. The boy’s eyes had a dull glazed quality. The boy stood as the coffin disappeared into the dark earth, exhausted and shivering in the July heat.
James sat upright in the middle of his bed, keeping his feet tucked safely underneath him, his toes, and fingers far back from the edge. He was wide-awake; trembling; listening intently for any sound in the pitch-blackness. It was the kind of absolute darkness that caused tiny firefly sparks to wander along the edges of the boy’s vision.
The clock in the living room chimed twice, distant and faint and fell silent. The more he concentrated on the door he knew to be across from him, the more the darkness deepened. A single patch of moonlight, no more than a foot square, lay across the middle drawers of the dresser to his right. The watery blue light was slashed into thin strips by venetian blinds hanging at the head of the bed.
Time passed. He heard the distant water heater in the kitchen ignite. The burner flared for a few minutes and then fell quiet. A car passed on the street outside. The silence returned. Finally, James began to pray, clasping his hands and silently mouthing words. He felt a hard burning in his chest. Sweat ran down off his arms and face. He prayed fervently in the darkness, twisting his fingers into hard knots.
Eventually, the stream of words wound down to a halt. He drew his aching fingers apart and licked his dry lips. He pulled the sheets up closer around him. His neck and shoulders ached. His legs were numb. He became aware of how sweaty he was. The space beneath the sheets was like a furnace. The odor was acrid as he lifted them and let the stale air waft up past his face.
Maybe she’s not coming, he thought.
He heard the sound, only barely audible, from across the room. A familiar prickling swarmed across his arms and neck. There was the faint click of the bedroom doorknob, once turned, being released. For a frantic moment, he thought of lurching off the bed toward the lamp on his dresser, then, an old reflex took over. He lay back on the bed, dragging the sheet across his exposed arms, and pretended to be asleep.
He heard another click as his bedroom door was gently pushed closed. A coolness swept across the room. He felt the sweat on his face chill. He remained motionless, splayed out at an odd angle on the bed, trying to breathe normally. His eyelids began ticking convulsively.
The door to his closet opened. He heard a scraping sound as hangers were moved listlessly along the wooden dowel. He heard a faint scuffing as shoes were straightened on the floor. The door closed. There was a silence. Then the drawers of his dresser slid gently open one by one; the middle drawer groaning plaintively.
He was facing the dresser. Even under the covers, he could feel a bitter chill spreading across the front of his body. The sounds at his dresser ceased. There was a prolonged silence. He eased his eyes open to tiny slits. Before him were the familiar bands of moonlight but closer now by three feet. The bars of light illuminated the front of a woman’s dress. One hand was visible, cold white in the moonlight, rhythmically clenching and unclenching. The other, partially in shadow, held a long straight kitchen knife. He closed his eyes again. The hairs on his neck crawled like a hive of bees. A voice whispered urgently, fading in and out like a weak radio signal. A twitch under his eye became more and more pronounced.
“…not safe,” the voice hissed. “….not safe…”
Large trembling teardrops ran across his nose and down a cheek toward his ear. The tick in his face spread to his arm and down the right side of his body. The boy began to convulse.
End of Chapter 1