The Hanging Tree
By Robert J. Peterson
By Robert J. Peterson
Mickey Graves liked to eat flies.
Scott met him on the first day he moved into the new neighborhood. He and his mother had moved in the middle of the school year, the previous night, taking a five-room cottage by a forest and near a river in a no-stoplight town halfway across the state. As his mother unpacked a box in the small front room, Scott walked down the single hallway. The cottage smelled like wet phone books and dried cigarettes. Paint peeled away from cracking wood. Floorboards creaked. He was already missing his old bedroom, with its big windows and room for a sitting couch. He turned and looked at his mother, who was staring at the cover of a book she had unpacked, her eyes glazed over.
“Can I go out and play?” he asked.
She blinked, then set the book on a stack. She looked at him and said, “Do you promise to be back before dark to help unpack?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
She nodded. “You may go out.”
Scott jumped over a pair of boxes as he ran out the door, the screen door slamming shut on one hinge. He checked his watch, an analog one his father had given him. When they moved, his mother had asked him to get rid of the watch, but Scott said he preferred watches with hands.
“The hands cut shapes,” he told his mother on the drive, the back seat packed with suitcases and cardboard boxes filled with their stuff. “It’s easier to tell how much time I have by the shapes. Digitals don’t work as well.”
“All right,” she said. “You may keep it for now. But I want to buy you a new one.”
Scott figured he had plenty of time before dark, plus it was after 3 o’clock, so there might be kids his age out playing. He ran down the street. Immediately his kid-radar homed in on someone his age down the block. He was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of a cottage that stood at the foot of a steep hill. Clay pots littered the front porch, some empty, some sprouting brown sticks. Scott stopped in the street in front of the house. They looked at each other. Scott started to wave, then stopped. He realized the kid was older than him. Not by much, but he felt weird waving at an older kid. The older kid waved back. He had blond hair – almost white – cut close to his head. Cowlicks made it spike out in different places. He wore a sleeveless black T-shirt, white-faded jeans with holes in the knees, and sneakers. He had a dark tan and light colored eyes – Scott couldn’t tell what color.
“Hey,” the older kid said. “Ain’t seen yew before.”
“Yep,” Scott said. “Me and my mom moved in a few houses down.”
“You wanna hang out?”
Scott bounded across the yard and sat on the porch. That was when the smell hit him. He remembered the smell from when his his father was alive. Cigarettes. The older kid pinched one between his first two fingers. Scott sat.
“I’m Mickey Graves,” he said. “Who’re yew?”
Mickey nodded and took a drag.
“Don’t your parents get mad?” Scott said.
“He don’t give a fuck.”
Scott’s nose twitched at the swear word.
“Won’t they—he—your dad hear you?” he asked.
“Don’t you live here?”
Mickey chuckled around his cigarette and said, “Naw, I’m jest hangin here awhile. I live through thar.”
Mickey said and pointed at the woods by the house. A trail sliced through a cluster of trees and into the forest. “Goes all the way to my house. Git home in ten minutes if I run.”
“Cool,” Scott said.
“You wanna smoke?” He shook his pack so a cigarette jumped out.
Scott looked at it. “No, thanks.”
They sat in silence while Mickey smoked. Scott didn’t know if it was rude to talk while someone smoked. They watched a few cars roll by. Suddenly Mickey clapped. But it wasn’t a full, flat-palm, end-of-show clap — it was hollow. Mickey was cupping his hands around each other, peering between his bent thumbs with one eye.
“Got him,” Mickey said.
“What?” Scott asked.
“Fly,” Mickey said and worked his fingers around. As Mickey moved his hands, muscle-cords thick as lipsticks popped out of his forearms. He took a drag on the cigarette and blew the smoke into his hands. Smoke spumed between his fingers. Mickey smiled.
“Lil’ fucker’s squirmin,” he said.
“What’re you going to do?”
Mickey spat his cigarette onto the ground, placed his puckered lips on his thumbs, and sucked. When he opened his hands, the fly was gone. Scott noticed that Mickey’s cheeks were round with air, like a blues musician playing the trumpet. Scott’s face made a question, and Mickey pointed at his cheeks with one hand and waved him over with the other. Mickey hooked his arm around Scott’s shoulders and pulled him closer. His armpits smelled like burlap and wet, old socks. He put his domed cheek against Scott’s ear. Scott could hear the fly buzzing around inside.
“Wow,” Scott said, and Mickey bit down with a small crunch. Scott sat back. Mickey chewed twice more and swallowed.
“Crunchy,” Mickey said. “Like Chee-tos.”
“Yeah,” Scott said.
Mickey stood and took out another cigarette. He made a sour face, squinting as he worked his tongue around his mouth, mining something from a molar. He stuck out his tongue. A bright green bit of fly gut sat on the tip of the blood-red muscle. He spat out the fly’s remains and stuck the cigarette in his mouth.
“Come on, I’m bored,” Mickey said and walked toward the trail. Scott followed.
Two huge oak trees arced over the beginning of the trail, their branches casting lattices of shadow on the leaf-covered ground. Mickey led the way, ambling down the trail, smoking his cigarette. Scott followed a few steps behind. He wondered if he was allowed to go in the woods. His mother hadn’t said anything about not going in the woods, so it was probably OK. But he hadn’t actually asked. What if she got mad?
The last time his mother got mad, it was at their father. The last time his mother got mad was also a secret. He and his mother shared a lot of secrets.
“Because of dad,” she said.
He had never seen his mother angrier. Her hands shook as she kneeled next to his prone form, sweat glistening along her brow, lips grimacing around set teeth. She said little ohs and Gods as she wiped his wounds with weird-smelling cotton swabs. He winced and whimpered with each wipe.
“Ow, mom,” he said. “Hurts.”
“Stop moving. I need to clean your wounds,” she said. “Oh. God. Oh.”
Scott rolled his head away from the swab and onto glittering shards of broken glass that dusted the floor under him. He hissed and rolled his head the other way. She pinched his jaw between her thumb and fingers to hold his head still.
“Stop. It,” she said. “You’ll hurt your eyes. God.” She sopped up blood that had collected under his lower lip, revealing a deep cut. She pulled the cut open with her fingertip and saw teeth. “Goddammit. Goddammit. Where’s your father?”
“I dunno,” Scott said. “He went out.”
“Scott, listen to me. God. I love your father very much, and he loves me very much. And you love us both, right?”
“Yes. Mommy, it hurts.”
“Now, Scotty, I’m ... I’m very angry with your father right now. Very. But I don’t, I wouldn’t ever want anything to happen to him. We’ve made a bad mistake, you and me, letting this happen. We might lose daddy because of it.”
“I don’t want to lose daddy,” he said. “Why would they take daddy away?”
She started crying, one of the few times he could remember. “You beautiful child. I don’t want to lose him, either. We’ll—”
Her eyes got big and her pupils got small. Her face turned white from inside and out. Headlights flooded the foyer. She scooped him into her arms.
“He’s home,” she said, already running up the stairs.