The Hangin Tree
The note said to meet her at the hangin’ tree at a quarter to midnight. He shone his flashlight on it again just to be sure. It hadn’t changed. Jimmy circled around the tree with his light off, following the path of the moon.
The full moon hung low in the late night sky. It had risen late and not quite reached above the horizon. Helped that the hangin’ tree sat in the center of a clearing. Woods all around, but the old oak stood tall and proud by itself next to Black Rat Creek and a walking path that lead back to the main road.
Wouldn’t be any hikers out here, not at this hour. Jimmy had the whole place to himself. The whole creepy place with no one to share it but his own thoughts. Funny the places a mind can go out in the middle of a moonlit clearing next to a tree where they once hung murderers and thieves. That’s right, murderers and thieves, even as he acknowledged the thought he knew he wouldn’t be able to get rid of it.
Sound from the woods surrounding didn’t travel in the still night air. But the creek gurgled and bubbled next to him. Where was she? The least Arica could have done was to show up when she said she would. Damn her, she always did this to him. Left him hanging, waiting, looking the fool while she did god knows what. And she always showed up at least 15 minutes late. Make that 20 tonight, his watch read 12:05.
He swept the flashlight’s beam up and down the walking path but could see nothing but the dark grass and dirt path. The whole thing had been lost to the trees at the end of each side of the path.
He pushed his flashlight into his pocket and gathered up the package he had brought with him and turned toward the path back to his car. He couldn’t wait anymore and the time when he might have waited longer for Arica had long passed.
A movement along the base of the tree in the shadows caught his gaze. He didn’t think much of it at first, a trick of the moon most likely. But as he turned his head away he saw it again. He swung his gaze back, slowly this time. Probably a squirrel or a rabbit making a quick run in the night but he wanted to be sure.
The moon had risen behind him and cast his shadow to the side of the tree. It stretched down to the bank of the creek. The hangin’ tree’s shadow joined his with a branch that hung just above his head in the dark tapestry. He caught the movement dead on. Under that shadow branch his shadow swung side to side.
He never felt the wind kick up but a chill assaulted his spine. The flesh on his arms puckered and he shivered. The sound of the creek dropped into the distance as the sound of a creak and twang of a taut rope filled the air. At that moment he did what any sane man would do, he made a beeline for the side of the road where he parked his car.
The moonlight didn’t follow him into the woods. Jimmy pulled his flashlight out of his pocket and its light flooded the path in front of him. The sounds of the creaking rope chased him, badgered and harassed him through the woods. The sight of his car, where he left it on the side of the road comforted him. To hell with Arica, she didn’t even bother to show up.
He saw the second car when he stepped out of the tree line. The beam from his flashlight confirmed it was Arica’s red Fiesta. She loved that car, even had the interior custom upholstered; pink and black camo print over everything inside the car. What’s more, he saw her in the front seat.
Tension drained from his upper back and shoulders. At least she had shown up after all. Jimmy skipped past his car and knocked on the driver side window of Arica’s car.
She didn’t move.
She lay back in the seat, like she was sleeping. He knocked at the window harder and then tried the door latch. Still nothing, not even a budge. The beam of the flashlight reflected back at him through her eyes, her unblinking, glassy eyes.
The blood that had drooled out of the slice in her neck trailed down the front of her coat to end in a pool in her lap and the seat. Jimmy backed up, away from the car, back toward his car. He swung the flashlight back and forth and around the area. The killer could still be out there, hidden in the shadows, hidden in the trees.
He fumbled with his keys and nearly dropped them under his car. Fingers trembled and shook as he sought the car key and the fob that would open the door. He jammed it in and thrust himself into the driver’s seat. His car roared to life and he slammed it into gear.
He glanced at his passenger seat as he passed out of the woods and onto the open road beyond. Moonlight flooded the front of the car and illuminated his gloves in the seat beside him; his bloody gloves and his hunting knife still unsheathed.
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