When Jimmy, Satch and I were nine years old, two sixth-grade boys walked into the school bathroom and turned off the lights. The three of us, along with what seemed to be half the school, waited outside with baited breath. In a strange way, I think everyone wanted it to go wrong.
See, these two youngsters were taking part in a game which to this day astounds me with its stupidity. They were to stand, in darkness, before a mirror. They would repeat an incantation three times. Then, if all went as desired, a malevolent being from the unseen world would come through the mirror. I’m not sure what the plan was supposed to be at that point.
Of course, the game never actually works. I’ve since learned that it goes by many names—Bloody Mary, The Candyman—but in our school, it was known as “Skeleton Jack.” Legend had it that over three hundred years ago, a pirate named Jack washed up on the shores of our Massachusetts port town. After Jack committed some unspeakable crime or another, the townspeople sentenced him to death by skinning. They flayed him alive in the square one day, and God, how he screamed! He screamed even after all his skin was gone.
The townspeople weren’t sure what to do; after all, nobody had survived an entire flaying before. So they started cutting away his muscle, his fat, his cartilage, his tendons, his guts—everything but his bones. And when they were down to the bare skeleton, Jack was still screaming. The mob was so unnerved that Jack was eventually able to escape, fleeing into the 100-acre forest at the outskirts of our town. It’s said that if you’re alone in those woods at night, and you listen very carefully, you can still hear him, screaming in agony and prowling for revenge.
It’s not a very believable story, to say the least—our town never skinned people alive, for one thing, and if they had, nobody could possibly scream with their throat ripped out—but for a grade-schooler, it had the desired effect. That’s why a deafening hush fell over the crowd outside when those two boys began their séance in the bathroom.
Jack, Jack, Ske-le-ton Jack.
Jack, Jack, Ske-le-ton Jack.
Jack, Jack, Ske-le-ton Jack.
Then, nothing but silence. A wave of relief seemed to wash over the crowd of students waiting outside. We had all resigned ourselves to disappointment, when all of a sudden, the most frightful scream I have ever heard reverberated throughout the halls. It was coming from inside the bathroom. Things had gone wrong after all.
The crowd dissolved into pandemonium. The screams from the bathroom got louder, more intense, more agonized. People suddenly wanted to get as far away as possible. Like I said, I’m not sure anyone knew what the plan was supposed to be in the event of this game’s success. But we were all in too deep now. Skeleton Jack would burst through that door at any second, teeth bared in a bony snarl and ready to separate every last one of us from our precious skin.
There are some moments in life that you just never forget. I’ve never forgotten the sound my first car made—the crunch—when it slammed against a highway wall at 50 miles an hour. I’ve never forgotten the look on my wife’s face when she got the news that her mother had died. And until the day that I die myself, I’ll remember those two boys, tripping over each other in their scramble out of the bathroom, clothes torn and flesh covered in deep, bleeding gashes. Like Jack, they were still screaming.
“Let’s go, you jag-offs!”
Satch and I stumbled through the thick brush, struggling to keep up. Jimmy was faster than us—in fact, he would become a very good distance runner someday—and he was growing impatient.
We were at least a mile away from the frontier road, which was where our town ended. The last person we’d seen was Old Buck Billings, who threw us a friendly wave from his porch as we walked. That had been about thirty minutes prior. By this point, grass and bushes to our waist surrounded us, lots of them prickly. Poor Satch decided to wear shorts on this adventure, and I could see a couple drops of blood already trickling down his leg. Another hundred yards in front of us was our destination for the day—the forest.
I pressed forward, breaking even with Satch. “Come on,” I muttered to him. “Sooner we get there, sooner we can go back.” “This is bullshit, man,” Satch replied, breathing heavily. “We been walkin’ . . . for two hours straight.”
It was true. None of us would be old enough to drive for another seven years, so we’d had to walk the whole way. We practically staggered into Jimmy, who was waiting for us at the edge of the forest.
“Jumpin’ Christ, you guys are slow,” he said gleefully. Jimmy was a nice guy, but he couldn’t stand being second-best at anything. You could tell him it only took you fifteen minutes to finish your homework and Jimmy would do his again—do his homework again—just so he could say he did it faster.
Satch, on the other hand, was a slow kid. Truth be told, I probably could have kept up with Jimmy, but I was better friends with Satch and I didn’t want him to feel bad. His dad was an absolutely hulking black guy who nearly became a pro baseball player, and he wanted his boy—named after the great Satchel Paige—to follow in his footsteps. But Satch had asthma, and he was about as athletic as a dirt clod, and as I watched him take a pull from his inhaler, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. The kid would always feel like a disappointment to his old man.
The three of us stood on the edge of the forest, the cusp of legend. This was the last place where the bones of Jack the pirate were ever seen.
“Man, this is it,” Jimmy said, hands on his hips and surveying the imposing woods before him. “He’s in there. Skeleton Jack.”
“Nah, he ain’t,” Satch said, gasping for breath. “How . . . would he even move . . . without any muscles?”
“Get bent, man,” Jimmy said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I wanna see it for myself.”
And with that, Jimmy took his first step forward into the shadows. I looked at Satch reluctantly, and he looked at me the same, and neither of us wanted to follow Jimmy but we followed him anyway.
Of course, none of us were really expecting to find Skeleton Jack. The day after the bathroom incident at school, the principal went around to all the classrooms and explained: the “blood” those boys were covered in when they ran from the bathroom really wasn’t blood at all. It had been an elaborate prank, and neither of the boys would be returning to school for the rest of the week. Or the week after.
Myself, I thought the prank was brilliantly effective. So did Satch. But when the principal visited our classroom, Jimmy just looked put out. The rest of us had merely been thrilled by the prank; Jimmy had actually been excited.
I suppose it was at least a little exciting to be a part of something like that. And I suppose that’s what got me and Satch out in the woods that day, two months later, struggling to keep up with Jimmy on his undying quest to scare the shit out of himself. The kid was an adrenaline junkie, and it was the beginning of summer. He needed an adventure; so it fell on us, his two best friends in the world, to help him find one.
This was all for fun. None of us actually believed in Skeleton Jack. But the moment I stepped into that forest, the moment I began to feel the dank and suffocating air within, I believed a little bit more. I looked at Satch, and despite our rapidly darkening surroundings, I could see on his face that he wasn’t ruling out an encounter with Skeleton Jack either.
Jimmy was only fifty feet in front of us, but we could barely see him. There was no path to speak of in those woods; just wild, untamed growth. Boulders to climb over, roots to trip on, and the darkness cast a gray tint on even the greenest of leaves—it was little wonder that everyone in town seemed to avoid this place. I gazed nervously upward at the thick ceiling of foliage through which the sun was just barely visible.
“How we gonna find our way back?” Satch asked, and I looked behind me. We had been in the forest for a mere two minutes and already the outside world seemed like a memory. I wondered how far Jimmy intended to go.
“Let’s catch up,” I said. “We need to stay together.” I picked up the pace, and Satch reluctantly followed suit—but by the time we reached Jimmy, Satch was at the very end of his very short rope.
“Dude, it’s creepy as shit in here,” he gasped. “Stop walking for half a goddamn second, will you?”
Jimmy stopped. There were no birds chirping, no crickets cricketing, nothing except the sound of our own heavy breaths and the crunch of our footfalls. We were alone, surrounded in gray, and the eeriness was almost palpable.
“Maybe we didn’t think this through,” I said to Jimmy, trying to be diplomatic. “There’s nobody out here—not Skeleton Jack, not anyone else. Which means that if we get lost, there won’t be anyone to help us. You really wanna spend an entire night out here? Maybe more?”
Jimmy turned and pointed. “All we have to do is keep walking back the way we came, and we’ll get out of here,” he said, his tone half indignant, half pleading. “I’ll slow down, though. And if Skeleton Jack comes for you”—he looked pointedly at Satch—“I got your back.”
“I ain’t scared, man,” Satch said, and marched ahead. Jimmy, smiling, followed. I didn’t speak, but I should have. I should have told them to turn around, that something was wrong, that we weren’t supposed to be here. I should have told them that despite our apparent solitude, I felt like somebody was watching us. But I didn’t. I just walked behind Jimmy, eyes trained on the ground, willing myself not to wuss out. There’s some shame a nine-year-old just can’t recover from.
We walked for what felt like another hour before I had the guts to speak up again—I finally became more scared of dying out in that forest than of receiving a disapproving glare from my friend. I looked pointedly at Jimmy. “We’ve gone far enough,” I said, hoping I sounded much braver than I felt. “We’re not even supposed to be out here in the first place. If we don’t make it back before dark, then we’ll really be in shit.”
Jimmy paused, contemplating the wisdom of my argument. He seemed almost ready to give up on our adventure when his eye caught something in the distance.
“The fuck is that?” he muttered as he walked past me. I turned around. I could see what he was looking at—a tangle of jet black branches off in the distance.
I sighed. “Come on,” I said to Satch, who looked almost delirious from exhaustion.
A minute later, the three of us stood before a tree that was unlike any we had ever seen. In contrast to the grand oaks which surrounded us, this one was short, frail, and withered. It grew no leaves; that would have been unthinkable. It was solid black throughout—a dark black, if there is such a thing.
I learned from a science class a few years later that black is not actually a color; rather, it absorbs all colors and reflects none of them back to the eye. But if I had not seen this tree, I never would have fully comprehended such an idea. For while all other trees within this forest were brimming with life, this one seemed to absorb life. To steal it. Even the air around it felt darker.
“Ho-ly shit,” Satch whispered, almost reverently.
Jimmy let out a low whistle in agreement. “You seeing this, man?” he asked me.
I did not answer him. I had heard something, and I was listening intently. Trying to hear it again.
“What’s he doing?” Satch asked Jimmy, who shook his head.
“Shhh!” I hissed at them. I tapped my ear to indicate that I was listening for something. Everyone was quiet for a few seconds, but whatever I had heard seemed to be gone.
“I don’t hear nothin’, man,” Jimmy giggled. “You must be losing your marbles.”
“Losing your marbles!” Satch repeated, perhaps grateful to not be the butt of this particular joke. But I didn’t care. I was too mystified by this otherworldly tree. I found myself wanting to investigate it and run from it at the same time.
We all gazed at the tree for another moment or so. Finally, Satch broke the silence. “Dare you to touch it,” he said. Jimmy’s eyes lit up. This was what he had come out here for.
Myself, I became more frightened of this tree with every second we remained near it. Something about it just seemed . . . mean. Malevolent, even. And I had heard something before. And I still felt like we were being watched.
I cringed as Jimmy approached the tree, but I knew better than to say anything. He was going to touch it, no matter what. The only question was whether I’d get out of this situation without seeming like a scaredy-cat. Jimmy reached his hand out, placed his palm on the surface of the tree, and nothing happened.
Satch let out a breath. Even Jimmy looked a little relieved. I myself began to loosen up a little bit—have fun, dummy!—but then I heard it again.
Breathing. Nearby. Angry.
“You guys hear that?” I asked, the panic now unmistakable in my voice.
“Hear what?” Jimmy asked with a sigh.
I paused and strained to hear the breathing. But it was gone.
“I heard breathing,” I said, sheepish. “I think there’s someone else out here.” “ Yeah, and I think you’re hearing things,” Jimmy laughed. He pulled out a small pocket knife and handed it to me. “Carve your name in the tree,” he said. “I dare you.”
Shit. I’d been dared. He might as well have held a gun to my head. The social pressure of dares among nine-year-olds is nothing short of enormous. I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath, and walked toward the tree.
It looked even stranger up close. Its edges seemed not quite solid—almost fuzzy, like a picture taken by someone who wasn’t holding still enough. I could only form one thought: I should not be here.
I threw a pleading glance toward Satch. He tried to help me out—“Hey, it’s getting dark,” he said—but Jimmy hushed him. His eyes were trained on me. He came out here for an adventure, and damn it, he wasn’t going to leave without one.
Reluctantly, I raised my arm to the tree, remembering what I had told Satch earlier—the sooner I did this, the sooner I could leave. But as I pressed the blade against the almost ceramic surface of the tree, I heard it again. Breathing. Right in my fucking ear.
I whirled around and ran from the tree at a full sprint. I blew past Jimmy and Satch and ran for my life, and I barely even heard them chasing after me, calling my name. I didn’t even begin to care about the social repercussions of my actions until I stopped, almost half a mile from the tree. From that breathing.
Jimmy was laughing when he reached me. Even Satch had an amused look on his face.
“Man, I ain’t seen pussy like that since I found my old man’s girlie magazines!” Jimmy shrieked with mirth.
Like I said: there’s some shame a nine-year-old just can’t recover from.
After two weeks of merciless teasing (and yes, I mean merciless—if you’d known Jimmy, you’d understand), I decided to do something drastic. That’s how I ended up by myself, in the middle of the night, at the edge of the forest, with little more than a flashlight and thin jacket to keep me company. The sky was deep and full of clouds, only illuminated by the partially concealed full moon. A thin mist hung in the air. It was a dark and not-so-stormy night.
Over the course of my life, I’ve noticed that bad decisions come far more easily to me during the hours when I should be asleep. The night in question was my first inkling of that truth; for as I stood on the edge of disaster, waiting to take my first step into the jaws of hell, adrenaline coursing through every vein in my body, I did not feel scared in the least. I felt alive.
I coolly walked into the shadow, not having any idea how I would find the tree and not caring in the least. The absolute silence of that forest should have unnerved me then. It unnerves me now, to think about—but nine-year-olds just aren’t equipped to notice some things, I suppose. No, I walked obliviously through those woods, leaves crunching and twigs snapping beneath my feet, and not one cricket sang to me. Not one owl hooted. That should have been enough to get me to turn around.
But, of course, I didn’t. I was determined to rid the word “pussy” from Jimmy’s vocabulary, once and for all. So I pressed on, and even with my adrenaline high and my inhibitions low, I began to realize something: I was being led.
Led by what? I didn’t know. But as I stopped to gather my bearings, I looked around at my surroundings. I had not the faintest of ideas where I was, yet remained perfectly sure I should head in a southwesterly direction. I felt as though I were being guided by some unseen force.
That feeling gave me pause. I could turn back, yes, and nobody would know I had chickened out yet again. But I would know. Even worse, my friends would never hear of the courage it took to get me to this point. This would have all been for nothing! I kept the taunting faces of Jimmy and Satch in my mind as I marched onward, doing my best to ignore the growing suspicion that something wanted me there.
The final fifteen minutes of that walk was harrowing, to be sure. But when I finally came upon the tree, nearly invisible in the dead night, I was filled with the deepest sense of dread that has ever plagued me. And as the breathing began to surround me once again, and as the breaths turned to indiscernible whispers, I shook with fear.
I could do this. I was just imagining things. I pulled out my pocket knife and stared at the tree with fierce determination. Run there, carve, run back. I was fast. Not Jimmy fast, but I was fast. I could outrun something if I needed to. I took a deep breath. It’s now or never, baby.
Before I even knew I was going to, I began a mad dash toward the tree. Just before I reached it, my ankles caught on something and I hit the ground hard, putting my hands in front of myself to brace my fall. The knife twisted from my grip and its blade ran a deep slice down my palm. The pain was instantly blinding. I curled up on the ground, holding my hand—but when I heard the whispers around me grow louder, I scrambled to my feet. Blinking back tears, I grabbed the knife, used my bloody hand to brace myself against the tree, and began to carve.
The wood gave easily, as though I were slicing into a piece of fruit. I was done in seconds, and I had no interest in admiring my handiwork. I turned to run—but I couldn’t. My bleeding hand was suctioned to the tree, and I felt the blood pulsing from it at an alarming rate, as though it were being sucked from me. I tried to pull my hand away gently, but the pain was too great.
The whispers around me turned to laughter. Quiet, at first, but the longer I was stuck to the tree the louder it became. A woman. Hysterical. Eventually I felt as though she were cackling right in my ear. In exquisite panic—pain be damned!—I yanked my hand away from the tree, freeing myself and tearing off a huge chunk of my palm in the process. I howled in agony and turned to run.
I fully expected something to stop me. What? I’m not sure. I didn’t care then, and to be honest, I’m not sure I care now. All I cared about in that moment was getting as far from that tree, and that forest, as possible. And luckily, whatever else was in there with me allowed it.
Blood dripped from my palm as I fled through the woods. I only stopped running once, to pull my shirt off and wrap it tightly around my hand. Nobody had taught me to do that, it was purely instinctual—a biological yearning to keep my blood inside me. I wept without knowing it until I reached the edge of the forest. It was only when I finally came to the vast, open field at the outskirts of town, that I relaxed enough to turn back toward the woods which had held me hostage, smile, and raise the middle finger of my not-bleeding hand.
Despite my best attempts to stay quiet when I got home that night, my father heard me fumbling around and came downstairs. He was, of course, concerned about my mangled hand, and promptly disinfected and bandaged it. Then, when I was no longer in immediate danger, he demanded to know what the hell had happened. I hadn’t had enough time to think of an excuse, so I told him the truth, the whole truth, from Skeleton Jack onward.
His face, angry when I started, looked nothing short of terrified by the conclusion of my tale. I had fully expected to be grounded or even had my ass whooped for lying, but my old man hung on every word I said. He didn’t even interrupt me, although he let out a despairing groan when I first mentioned the black tree.
He was silent for a long time even after I had finished. He seemed to be gathering his thoughts. Finally, he spoke in a quiet, measured tone. “Son, you didn’t know. You couldn’t have.”
Not what I was expecting. “Didn’t know what?” I asked.
“That tree . . .” his voice trailed off. “My father lived in this town his whole life, and his father before him. When I was very little—maybe even your age—my grandfather told me a story.”
“Was the tree in it?” I asked, suddenly fascinated.
He nodded. “Your Skeleton Jack story is nonsense, as you know, but it’s loosely based on something that actually happened. Have you ever heard of the Witch Trials?”
I shook my head.
“Many, many years ago, before America was even a country, most people around here weren’t as reasonable as they are now,” he explained slowly. “They were superstitious—scared of a lot of silly things. One of the things they were most scared of was witchcraft. It’s very sad to us now, but in those days, many women in this part of the world were killed because they were accused of being witches.”
“But witches aren’t even real!” I said indignantly.
“I think, for the most part, you’re right,” he said. “People usually accused a woman of witchcraft when they didn’t like her. Most of the girls who were killed didn’t have a drop of actual magic in their blood.”
“But you think some of them did?” I asked, eyes wide.
“Yes,” he replied. “One of the women killed in this town was named Jacqueline Strong. I’ve read the journal entries about her myself—you can too, if you go to the library. Folks said she was the most beautiful girl they had ever laid eyes on, but even the most rational thinkers in the town believed her to be evil.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because she was,” he said simply. “She came from out of town—just showed up one day. And once she did, strange things started to happen. People got sick, people she didn’t like. The crops of a man who had made a pass at her withered overnight. Snakes began to appear everywhere in town—even poisonous snakes that don’t usually live in Massachusetts.”
“So they killed her?” I said.
“They killed a lot of other women for a lot less,” he said. “Especially over in Salem. There wasn’t much of a justice system in those days. Folks didn’t hire lawyers and go to court and have a judge tell them if they were guilty or not—it was all decided by the people. Eventually, enough of the town became frightened of Jacqueline that they marched her out into those woods and strung a noose up in a tree.”
I gasped. I knew exactly what tree Jacqueline Strong had been hung in.
“Before they dropped her, she looked her executioner in the eye. He later wrote in his journal that she was so beautiful, he could hardly bear to carry out his task, and that he wished he could follow her into hell. He ended up taking his own life at that very tree a week later. Before he hung her, she told him, ‘I could stop you if I wished.’ The executioner asked her why she didn’t. She just smiled at him and said, ‘I have a better idea.’”
“He dropped her, but she didn’t die,” my dad continued. “Her neck had broken, but she just hung there, eyes open, blinking at the townspeople, a smirk on her face. They picked her up and dropped her again. The rope even scraped most of the skin from her throat, but again, she didn’t die. She just stared at all the townspeople, smiling calmly. This scared them all so much that they eventually just walked back to town, leaving her to hang overnight.”
“But when they went back in the morning, she wasn’t there,” my dad went on. “Neither was her rope. All they found was the tree they had hung her from, black and withered and filled with evil.”
My dad made me swear not to tell Jimmy and Satch about any of this. “There’s still a chance nothing will happen,” he had said. But he refused to elaborate much further. I wanted to honor his wishes, I truly did, but not sharing my bravery with my friends was simply too much to ask.
Jimmy, always ready for an adventure, was enthralled by my tale. Satch less so. I think he felt somewhat responsible for what had happened to me—he wasn’t as bad as Jimmy, but he had teased me as well. Still, both of them agreed to help me search in the library for information regarding the death of Jacqueline Strong.
So at the end of our summer, all three of us found ourselves poring over books a few days earlier than we had expected. The library was the oldest building in the area, and it contained a dizzying amount of information about our town’s history.
Sarah Sayles, the assistant librarian, was an exceptionally pretty lady. She also loved to see children in her library. It was a slow day, so she was eager to help us.
“What are you trying to find?” she asked, eying the stack of photocopies on our table.
“We’re looking for information about the Witch Trials,” I said. “A lady named Jacqueline Strong was killed back then and we heard some crazy stories about it.”
A flicker of recognition, and perhaps fear, crossed her face, but she forced it away. The subject matter was macabre, but we were interested in learning. Perhaps she was motivated by her love of teaching, and of children, as she smiled and said, “Well, then, let’s get to work.”
We were glad to have her. To us, the writing was almost illegible. But strange penmanship and even stranger spelling was no obstacle for Mrs. Sayles, who would soon become herself a victim of this ultimate wickedness. We didn’t learn much more than bits and pieces, but it was enough to string together an idea of the secrets that tree held.
Evidently, Jacqueline Strong’s executioner wasn’t the only person who died at that tree. After his body was found slumped at its base, a string of suicides followed. Hangings. The overwhelming sentiment was that the men who strung themselves up in that tree were normal, everyday, good men. The shock and sadness of the townspeople permeated the pages we read.
One instance was particularly intriguing. Catherine Keene, wife of the recently deceased Christopher Keene, wrote of her husband’s last days that he had seemed distant, less affectionate, and she feared he had been taken by a woman more beautiful than she.
We also learned that when the executioner’s body was discovered at the tree, wrists cut vertically, any trace of his blood was conspicuously absent from the scene. One superstitious town leader suspected vampires, sucking his blood in the dead of night. I thought that particular theory unlikely, but still half-consciously traced my fingers over my bandaged palm.
After a while, Mrs. Sayles seemed to realize that researching suicide with nine-year-olds was probably not the best use of her time, so she bid us farewell. But as she walked away, she turned back around, perhaps eager to justify our morbid studies by delivering some semblance of useful education.
“History is an amazing thing, kids. Never lose your passion for it. Without it, the past would be completely forgotten.” Then, almost as an afterthought, she added, “That tree’s still out there, you know,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “We know.”
Jimmy, Satch, and I made a sacred pact to never enter the forest again. Still, the horrors began anew on one chilly September night, just weeks after school had resumed. Old Buck Billings, always armed with a smile and a wave, suddenly went missing, and nobody could find him for three days.
“Probably fell down and got stuck somewhere,” my father theorized one day. “Somewhere nobody’s thinkin’ to look.”
“You really think that?” I asked him. I had an image in my mind of poor Buck, all strung up in that ungodly tree, the wind swaying him back and forth. Back and forth.
“Good a guess as any,” my old man replied. But he looked worried.
When they found him, the town was in shock. Old Buck was the last one you’d expect to off himself. Something wasn’t right, and I think people could sense it.
The night after they found Buck, Clint Redding rolled out of bed and told his wife he’d be right back. She woke up at about 4:00 in the morning to snakes slithering through her sheets. She screamed bloody murder, but of course her husband did not come, because he wasn’t there. I don’t think I need to tell you where he was.
By this point, the town was in a panic. They even held a meeting somewhere, and I think most of the grownups were invited—I know my dad went, at any rate. At the meeting, there was little, if any mention of the supernatural. It’s funny how different kids and adults are. At school, a “natural” explanation for this suicide epidemic would have been laughed off the playground in derision. We knew what was up.
At the meeting, a recent college graduate named Timmy Fletcher volunteered to stand guard in a night shift by the tree, lest another citizen fall prey to its branches. Apparently this seemed like a good idea to everyone involved, but the next morning, I’ll be damned if John Roberts and Vern Sayles weren’t strung up in that tree, from the very same limb—along with Timmy Fletcher, of course.
The next night, there was a knock on our door. My father answered it, then called for me. The expression on his face was grave. It was Sarah Sayles, the beautiful librarian, recently widowed. If any woman in town could have seduced her husband away from the wiles of Jacqueline Strong, it would be her. No question about that.
Tears soaked her face, and she spoke to me in desperation when I appeared in the doorway. “You knew,” she said through sobs. “You knew this was going to happen again! How did you know?”
My father gently nudged me aside. “Come in, Sarah,” he said. “I’ll explain everything.” He motioned for me to go—this was not a conversation for children. Or perhaps, both of them being recent widows (my mother had unexpectedly passed a couple of years prior), he hoped they would find comfort in each other. I hoped that too, a little bit—but it was not to be.
For one blessed week, the suicides stopped. People started to breathe a little easier around town. Things started to get back to normal, if there is such a thing. Despite what was quickly becoming an overwhelming guilt, I even remember feeling a little normal myself. But as I slept one night, near the close of my fall break, a sound awoke me.
My father was out of bed, stumbling around in the dark. He had knocked something over—I’m not sure what, but it must have been rounded, because I heard it rolling around on the floor. Whatever it was, he didn’t pick it up. I rubbed my eyes, wondering what he was doing. I squinted at the door of my bedroom, which was open just a few inches so that I could see into the dark hallway outside. The moonlight pouring in through my window gave only the slightest illumination to the shadows.
I heard whispers. Indistinct. I tried to sit up, but I could not. I felt as though I were tied to my bed. I sat there, paralyzed, as the whispers grew louder: “Come with me. Come with me, I’m lonely too.”
Footsteps. Only one pair. My father’s boots, I could tell. So who was he talking to? Who was whispering? I need not wonder long, for at that moment a shadow appeared on the floor in the hallway.
I could do nothing but watch in horror as the silhouette of a woman stepped in front of my doorway, looking directly at me, only lit by the feeble moon from my window. She was overwhelmingly beautiful, that was true, but she radiated such evil as to be completely unattractive. Her head perched atop her neck at the most unnatural of angles. I tried to scream, but could make no sound. She smiled cruelly, raised her finger to her lips, and walked silently down the hallway.
Footsteps followed her. My father walked down the hall, passing my door without even glancing inside. He was holding a length of rope. Silent tears streamed down my face. I was powerless to do anything except watch as my father followed Jacqueline Strong into the forest.
My father was the last one. When he was discovered, I told the authorities everything. They, of course, were skeptical (or at least acted like they were), but felt it better to be safe than sorry. They asked me if I wanted to watch. I told them I did not.
Later that day six men (very brave men, I thought) rode out to the edge of the forest with axes and picks and shovels. They walked to the black tree and chopped it limb from limb. They dug out the roots and carried the entire wretched thing away. That night, they burned every last piece of it in an old industrial furnace.
And thus ended the terror Jacqueline Strong wrought on our small port town—or so I thought. You see, I’m a grown man now, with a wife and children of my own. And after many years of avoiding this place, I took them all on a vacation to see the town where their father grew up. I showed them the baseball field I played on, the school I went to, and even the edge of the forest where Jimmy, Satch and I hunted for a silly myth rooted in a terrible reality. I never told them the real story of how my old man died, and I never intend to.
But as I say, there’s some shame that no nine-year-old can recover from. Six men died years ago in this town, and if you had to pinpoint a responsible party—well, it would probably be me. That’s why I walked out into the woods last night. I wanted to see the place where the tree used to be. I wanted to know it wasn’t there. I needed that closure.
It was like riding a bike for the first time in a long time. I knew the way. I felt the way. And when I reached my destination and stood in the place where my father and so many others had met their end, I knew I stood before evil. I was baptized in fear on that spot, for there, protruding from the cold, unforgiving earth, grew a small tree—a sapling, fragile, less than a foot high, and as black as a raven’s wing.