Click to see the Spooky Legends Master List with links to all the previous posts and giveaways
Spooky Legends day two features Joan Frances Turner’s take on The Hanging Tree urban legend. Joan’s upcoming release is Frail, which is the second book in her zombie post-apocalyptic Dust series. The first book in the series is Dust. Thanks to Abigail, one of you will win a copy of the book! See details below.
“The Hanging Tree”
By Joan Frances Turner
When there’s nobody left to talk to but yourself, and nobody to look at except yourself staring back at you from the mirror, it’s easy to start seeing what’s not really there. Around every corner, in every house window you don’t look into because all you’ll see are the bodies of everyone who didn’t survive the plague, down every deserted nighttime road where there’ll never be streetlights ever again, your eyes and your brain start conjuring up imaginary people, dancing in to take the place of the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of dead.
Lepingville was always a quiet place, a tiny Chicago suburb where nothing happened–except for that whole thing with the Beale Street tree, but that was before I was born–but now, it’s dead quiet. The hunger plague swept through here last fall just like it swept through everywhere. The lucky ones died within days. Famine consumed the others from the inside out, they gorged themselves sick and it still wasn’t enough, they ate and ate but the end, their own bodies starved them to death. I never got sick. I don’t know why. The whole town, except for me, they all died. Both the living, and the undead–the zombies that lurked just outside the town gates, the ones we were never supposed to talk about, they got just as sick as us human beings. And died all over again.
But not me. I don’t know why.
Sometimes, late at night when there’s nothing but silence around me and I feel things that aren’t really there staring back, I find myself composing my own obituary. In my mind.
HOLLIDAY, Amy, 17, of Lepingville, Indiana. Sole survivor of the still-unnamed great plague of 2010.
(It’s no use asking me what happened to the other one, the other Lepingville plague survivor. Because there was one. But I can’t think about that right now, I won’t, and it won’t do you any good to ask me anyway because there’s no more police left. No more judges. No point.)
Beloved daughter of the late Michael Holliday…
(Who disappeared when I was five years old, when he had car trouble driving home from the steel mill and the undead got him. Dragged him away. But we were never supposed to talk about that. Or about the time he, or what was left him, tried to come back.)
…and Lucy Holliday…
(Who disappeared too, when I was fifteen, went out walking one night right up to the town gates and just kept going. She’d been depressed, everyone said. She didn’t know her own mind. She’s never tried to come back. But she will. I know she will. She has to.)
In lieu of flowers, please leave donations of food, medicine and winter clothing at the foot of the Beale Street tree. If she can’t use them, something else that lives there will.
That’s what they say, anyway. Said. I have to get used to the past tense now.
I don’t feel good. I think I’ll go for a drive, to distract myself.
I drive around town now, when I need to calm down. There’s certainly enough cars left with nearly full tanks, and only me to drive them; near the end of the plague, when the awful, all-consuming hunger finally gave way to mass starvation nobody tried to flee, nobody did anything but lay down and waited to die. They couldn’t help it. I picked one of my favorites, a green Toyota from the driveway four doors down–I always return them to their rightful owners, afterward–and went around the block, up and down the route to the post office, down the main road that once led to the highway and then it was time for my usual visit, sharp left down Beale Street to see the famous tree.
The Beale Street tree is only famous locally, but it was all Lepingville had to distinguish itself. Back during the Depression, when this area was still cornfields, a farmer named Johnson went crazy from economic ruin and shot his wife and sons there in their farmhouse, then took his infant daughter and hung her from an oak tree out front. They found him there, dangling next to his poor daughter from a bigger noose with his feet swinging through the air. They kept talking about chopping down the tree, but they never got around to it; it’s still standing, alive, even as everything around it’s dead. Just like before. They did tear down the farmhouse, though. Now 180 Beale Street is a tiny town park. That old oak is its only tree. They tried planting others, but they always died.
There used to be a horse path that went right under the tree, but they say so many horses would stop when they got below the branches and refuse to budge that they finally gave up, moved the path–later, the road–to loop around and away from it. No cops to stop me now, though, no fear of hitting kids playing, so I drove up over the curb and straight for the tree and kept going until I was right underneath it, the thick heavy branches blotting out the moon.
I’d always just looked at the tree, from a safe distance, but now I wanted to see if it were all true. All the old stories. I don’t remember actually stopping the car, but just as I got under those branches the engine turned over and died, it refused to budge no matter how many times I stuck the key back in the ignition.
Just like those horses. Just like the old stories.
I sat there in the car, waiting. Watching. They claimed you could hear it, if you listened closely at night, that poor dead little girl crying. I had the windows rolled down but I didn’t hear anything but branches rustling in the wind, a bird calling out and then going quiet. The car could’ve stopped out of coincidence, because I flooded the engine. Was lower on gas than the needle made it look. I got out and ran a hand over the tree bark, rough deep furrows like any big old tree, and then I turned around to walk back–
And I heard something behind me. Not crying. Just another rustling sound, like a rabbit or possum in the bushes. All I had to do was turn around, it’d get scared and run away. Like animals do. So I turned around.
The little girl standing there in her dirty gingham dress, seesawing on her feet like toddlers do, couldn’t have been more than two, three years old at most. She wasn’t translucent like ghosts in stories but there was a certain….nothingness to her, something about her that refused to catch your eye even as you looked straight at her, that told me she wasn’t really alive. She’d had red hair, then, Farmer Johnson’s poor murdered daughter. Just like me. I wasn’t afraid of her. After everything I’ve seen–and done, but we won’t talk about that–a little dead girl can’t scare me now.
“I’m going home,” I told her. And turned and started walking.
A few yards down the street I heard not rustling but actual footsteps. Too strong, too steady to be a little toddler. The skin on the back of my neck twitched and something inside me kept quietly repeating, Don’t turn around, don’t–It could be some out-of-town survivor, set on robbery or rape, who’d wandered in and now had the jump on me. I had to turn around.
The little red-haired girl was taller now, ten or eleven, no more baby roundness in her face. Her eyes were gray, gray-eyed redhead just like me, and her expression was reproving and sad.
“I know what you did,” she said. “Everybody knows.”
My stomach twisted. I waited until I’d caught my breath again to speak. “And there’s nobody living for you to tell,” I said. “So go away.”
I turned and started to walk. The footsteps behind me came closer. And closer.
I started to run. Feet clattered behind me right on my heels, like something living and out to get me were breathing straight down my neck, I had to run faster, get away down the deserted dead-forever nighttime streets, just don’t turn around, whatever I do I can’t turn around–
She was fully grown now, seventeen or eighteen, short and skinny and staring me right in the face. My face. She had my hair and my eyes and my face and my clothes and I was staring back into a mirror, the little Johnson ghost-girl was me. My identical twin, who I’d been watching grow up right behind me without ever knowing. The ghost I saw was me.
I clapped my hands to my mouth, my head spinning, and she laughed at me, that little twin ghost, she reached up and clapped her own hands to her mouth like it were a great joke to pretend to be my mirror. Like Harpo Marx, in that old movie.
“Who are you,” I said. My voice shook and I couldn’t steady it.
She just smiled.
“Are we related?” I said. Maybe we were and the family just never talked about it. Thought it was too embarrassing. “Are you…my ancestor?”
She shook her head. Smiled wider.
“I’m you,” she whispered. “Whether you like it or not.”
My skin was prickling. My feet tensing up to run. “You aren’t me. Because I’m alive, and you’re not. You died eighty years ago. You can’t possibly be me.”
“But maybe I will be,” she said. “Maybe I will. If you don’t watch your back. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, like I was eighty years ago.” Her voice dropped down lower. “If anyone ever finds out what you did, to survive the plague.”
I was backing away, feet moving of their own accord, down the middle of that dark empty street in the remnants of my old town. Shaking my head, without meaning to. She threw back her head, her face exactly like mine, and she laughed.
“You know what they used to do to murderers!” she shouted. “They did what my daddy did to me! You think about that, Amy Holliday! Think about that, and run!”
She was laughing wildly now, my own laugh coming out of a ghost’s throat to taunt me, and I ran sobbing and breathless and there was another of my cars just a block away, a silver Honda with the keys in the ignition where I’d left them, and my hands were so shaky it took me four tries to start it. I took off going sixty down the empty unlit street, drove until the gas gauge went from three-quarters to half full trying to collect myself, and when there were miles between me and Beale Street I stopped the car and pressed my forehead to the steering wheel, taking in deep breaths. I am alone here. I am alone. Nobody standing in the street, nothing lurking in the bushes but the animals, nobody to know what I did but me. I dreamed it. I hallucinated it, from being alone for so long. That’s all. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it–
I started the car again, just to make sure it’d go, and sat with the engine running looking all around me, making sure I was alone. Nobody else was there; just myself, that little sliver of my face caught and framed in the rear view mirror. My eyes, nose, the top edge of my lip. That’s all.
If it really were me, myself, I was looking at. And not someone else.
I turned the mirror as far away from my face as I could. Then I drove home.
When there’s no one left anymore but yourself, you don’t ask too many questions.
Joan Frances Turner is the author of Dust, forthcoming from Ace Books on September 7, 2010. Dust is a story of the undead from their own point of view, as they battle time, decay, the loved ones they left behind, encroaching humanity and each other. Or, think Watership Down with zombies instead of rabbits. She is currently working on a sequel, tentatively titled Frail, from the all-important human perspective.
Joan was born in Rhode Island and grew up in the Calumet Region of northwest Indiana, which fellow Region Rat Jean Shepherd famously said “clings precariously to the underbody of Chicago like a barnacle clings to the rotting hulk of a tramp steamer.” Like Mr. Shepherd, she aspires someday to have a local community center named after her against her will. A graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School, she lives near the beach with her family and a garden full of spring onions and tiger lilies, weather permitting.
Want to read more from Joan Frances Turner?
This giveaway is provided by All Things Urban Fantasy
One winner will receive a copy of Frail by Joan Frances Turner
Available on October 4, 2011 from Penguin/Ace Books
About the Book:
Being human is a disadvantage in post-apocalyptic America…
Now that the Feeding Plague has swept through human and zombie societies, it seems like everyone is an “ex” these days. Ex-human. Ex- zombie. Except for Amy, that is. She’s the only human survivor from her town-a frail. And if the feral dogs, the flesh-eating exes, and the elements don’t get her, she just may discover how this all began. Because in this America, life is what you make it…
Click HERE to read an excerpt
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.