The Hangman’s Tree

There wasn’t much for a young boy to do in my hometown. It was all long stretches of tired looking strip malls and gated communities for the snowbirds to flock to when autumn set in up north; very South Florida chic. It was the kind of place where an eight-screen movie theater opening up at the mall was cause for celebration and high school football games were the big Friday night draws.

Wholesome. Quaint. Boring.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I were more interested in fishing or surfing, the favorite summer pastimes of my friends, but a fear of deep water (or rather, what lived in it) and an inability to swim kept me firmly planted on dry land. My parents preferred it that way. Transplants from New England, they’d seen Jaws one too many times and were convinced that a giant shark would gobble me up the moment I stuck a toe in the ocean.

So, while my friends were off enjoying themselves at the beach, I’d be stuck at home, trying to ignore how miserably hot it was despite our ancient air conditioner thrumming noisily through the vents. I read every book and comic I owned, I went through our entire VHS collection, I visited the convenience store down the street at least twice a day for ice cream and a soda. It did little to ease the stifling dullness that was my summer existence.

My dad was the one who suggested I start going for walks along the trails of the nearby park after I spent an entire dinner complaining about another day wasted at home.

“If you’re so unhappy, bud, do something about it.”

“What am I supposed to do there? Get eaten by mosquitoes?” I grumbled. Walking in parks was what old people did while they waited to die.

“You’re almost thirteen; I think that’s old enough to take some initiative and figure it out for yourself,” Dad said.

“The nature trails are nice. You can take my camera and get some pictures,” Mom added helpfully.

I huffed and pushed my peas around my plate, an unfortunate youth whose parents just didn’t understand his suffering.

By the next day, after a few hours of lying on the couch with game shows playing endlessly on the TV, I had rethought my stance on walking through the park. After digging Mom’s Nikon out of her closet and making sure it had film in it, I slung it around my neck, slapped my baseball cap on, and tugged on my sneakers. The dark clouds building on the horizon barely registered as I wheeled my bike out of the garage. Afternoon storms were a common summertime occurrence and, while they could be fierce, they tended to pass quickly.

Heat and humidity wrapped itself around me like a thick, damp blanket the moment I stepped outside. The further I peddled away from my driveway, the heavier it became until I was almost convinced I should turn around and retreat back into my house, where there was at least a small bit of relief to be had. The only thing that kept me on course was the sight of the sign welcoming me to Oak River Park.

I’m already here, might as well get some dumb pictures for Mom, I thought.

I left my bike chained to the rack at the entrance and wandered down the sidewalk, over to the empty playground, and then towards the wooded trail that veered into a nature preserve. Signs erected around the entrance warned hikers to stay on the path, beware of snakes and gators, not to feed the wildlife, and to pay attention to the weather. A small map marked my location and the winding routes that ran through the preserve.

I popped the cap off the camera lens and trekked onward, trying to convince myself that I was interested in what lie ahead.

The woods on either side were a dense tangle of underbrush and palm fronds. Little lizards darted to and fro across the path in front of me, deftly avoiding the webs, only visible because of the large yellow and black spiders sitting so still in their centers, that were strung between low lying branches. It was quiet there, except for the occasional rustle of something skittering in the distance or a bird call overhead, and the air seemed even more still and sticky than it had out in the open.

I paused every so often to snap a picture of something I thought looked cool, trying my best mimic photographers I’d seen in movies and on TV. I’d crouch low, twist myself this way and that, I even went so far as to lie on my stomach so I could get a photo of a shiny beetle crawling slowly across the ground. I made a game of it, pretending that I was some kind of wildlife photographer sent out into the wilds of Florida to capture elusive creatures on film.

When the first roll of thunder sounded in the distance, I didn’t pay any attention to it. The sun was still shining and I figured I’d have plenty of time to book it back home. I continued on, crossing a wooden walkway that stretched over a length of swampland, and followed a black snake I found until it disappeared beneath a thorny bush.

Thunder growled again, closer now, and with it came the warning pitter pats of raindrops.

“Aw, man,” I groaned, annoyed that the weather had caught up with me so quickly. I hadn’t even noticed when the sun was swallowed by the clouds.

In response, the sky opened up and it started to pour.

Rain doesn’t fall gently in Florida summers. It comes down in buckets, lashing you with heavy winds and casting a gray curtain across the world. The forest that had seemed so warm and unthreatening in the sun was now all dark shadows and looming shapes. I tucked my mom’s camera under my shirt to try and keep it dry, but there was no escape from the storm.

I ducked my head and turned around, hoping that it would be easy to backtrack to my bike, when the howling wind picked up, almost pushing me from my feet, and I stumbled into a nearby oak tree. As I steadied myself against the trunk, thunder rumbled, long and loud and all around, and just beneath it, I heard something odd.

“No, please!”

A woman’s voice, panicked and afraid, screamed from the other side of the wide trunk. I froze, one hand still resting on the tree, and listened to the heavy footfall scrambling through the underbrush.

“No!” She screamed again and it cut through me like ice.

Twigs snapped, fallen leaves rustled, the woman started to scream again, but it was cut off sharply. By the way she sucked in a desperate breath, I could only guess she’d been punched in the chest. When Tommy Winigan had hit me, I remembered making a similar sound and my ribs ached with a phantom pain.

“Please,” I could barely hear her over the rain, so weak and defeated, “please, no.”

I huddled against the oak tree, barely breathing, too frightened to move or peek around the trunk, and I hugged my mom’s camera tightly to me. The storm raged overhead and it raged just behind me, cracking thunder and muffled shrieks, flashes of lightening and thrashing in wet leaves. On and on it went until I had to clap a hand over my mouth to keep my own screams from escaping.

Her cries turned to whimpers and then her whimpers into silence.

Footsteps again, the sound of something large and heavy being dragged across the ground. The creak of a rope bearing a great weight, swinging, back and forth and back and forth.

And then nothing.

The storm, as most in Florida do, passed over as abruptly as it had started and the sun was out again. I stayed crouched and pressed against that oak for a long time, well after the rain had stopped and the path leading back to the park became clear again. I listened carefully, strained my ears, but I didn’t hear anything that indicated anyone was close by.

No screams, no footsteps, no creaking rope.

I rose on shaky legs, almost unable to support myself, and I inched around to the side of the trunk, telling myself I had to check on the woman, that she needed help and I was the only one around. That thought didn’t help and the fear twisted my stomach until I felt like I was going to throw up. I counted to three, and then to ten, and then to twenty, and then I forced myself to peer around the trunk of that tree to the other side.

I wasn’t sure if I was more terrified or relieved when I found absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.

I ran all the way back to my bike and sped home, where I hid in my room until my parents got back from work.

I didn’t mention The Incident to anyone. I thought I was crazy enough without having it reinforced by any adults. For weeks, I let what had happened stew in my brain until the events played themselves out in recurring nightmares that had me waking up in a cold sweat. I was at a loss, unsure of how to cope, exhausted from sleepless nights, on edge and irritable.

I took comfort in TV, which was bright and loud and normal. Even when I was home alone, it filled the silence and helped keep my mind off of whatever had happened in the woods. I tried to keep it light, just cartoons and game shows and after school specials, but sometimes there wouldn’t be anything like that on and I’d have to settle.

That was why that true crime show was on. I wouldn’t normally have left it on, but I was feeling particularly lonely and the narrator, despite his grim subject matter, had a rather soothing voice. I let it run in the background while I tried to read one of Dad’s copies of The Hobbit, hoping the combination of Bilbo’s adventures and the TV’s sound would drive out my anxiety.

“Our next story takes us to idyllic Oak River Park in south Florida,” the narrator said in his soothing voice.

I stopped reading and shot upright to look at the screen, where the welcome sign to the park was just fading from view. I let the book, all but forgotten, slip from my hands to the floor while I grabbed the remote to turn the TV up.

“Now a peaceful place in a family oriented community,” the narrator continued over footage of the playground and nature trail, “but between 1974 and 1976, it was the sight of almost half a dozen grizzly murders.”

An oak tree, one that I was sure I knew, was shown next and I sank to the floor and scooted forward, like I might miss something by being more than a foot away from the screen.

In 1974, fourteen year old Paula Ann Humphrey had vanished on her way home from school during a terrible storm. Four more would disappear after her, all in the middle of heavy rainfall. The park and nature preserve didn’t exist then, it was just a wide swathe of thick, unruly wilderness beside a small town that few had reason to venture into. It wasn’t even really an area of interest for the police; none of the missing girls had ever been seen anywhere near the woods.

It wasn’t until a dog emerged carrying a decayed hand that attention turned to Oak River.

Days were spent cutting paths through the dense landscape following cadaver dogs, who guided the police to an oak tree almost in the very center of what would be the nature preserve. From its branches, the bodies of five girls ranging in age from nine to twenty had been hung. Examinations of all the bodies, which were in various stages of decomposition, revealed that each girl had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

Police assumed the hand that had been found by the dog had fallen off after one too many animals had made a meal of the body.

The last to die, twenty year old Rachel Jackson, had only been killed a few days before the discovery. Although bloated and blackened from the heat, a fist sized bruise was still visible on her chest and a broken rib was found beneath it.

I thought of the girl I’d heard, of how her scream had been cut off and she’d gasped for air. I remembered the sympathy pain I’d felt in my own chest. The room seemed to tilt slightly and I sat back heavily, trying to keep myself from toppling over completely in my confused shock.

The case grew cold quickly and, despite a massive, expensive manhunt, the killer was never found. Without any leads, officials were forced to give up the active case after eighteen months.

“Attempts to cut down the oak, dubbed the Hangman’s Tree, were futile, as chainsaws and axes mysteriously broke when they came in contact with the trunk. Scorch marks can be seen in the bark where equally unsuccessful attempts to burn it down were made. The murders that once rocked this small town have largely been forgotten in the decades since, but the tree remains, a dark reminder of its bloody past.”

I switched the TV off and stared at the black screen, at my own pale face reflected in it. If I were older, maybe I would have tried to convince myself that I hadn’t heard the ghost of Rachel Jackson playing out her last few minutes. Maybe I would have been able to make myself believe it had just been the wind and the rain and my own imagination and the show was only a coincidence.

But I was twelve and I knew what I heard.

I learned to swim after that day. I started to fish and surf just like my friends. I made every excuse to not ever go back to that park. When my parents asked why I was suddenly so adamant about it, I just told them it was because I was tired of being bored and alone during the summer.

The truth, though, was that I was far less afraid of deep water and what lived in it than I was of the Hangman’s Tree and those who had died in it.


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