“Payback’s a bitch,” Paul said.
He smiled to himself and continued packing. We were both 16-years-old at the time, but he already towered over me at 6’2″. At times like those I was almost glad that he was my friend. But it also meant that I couldn’t refuse being accomplice to his schemes.
I told my parents I was going to be staying at his house for the night, and his parents didn’t give a shit where we went. We packed up a sleeping bag and some clothes and were out the door shortly after 9PM, heading to one of our old Salt Cedar tree forts on the fringe of his neighborhood.
“At midnight, we’ll hit Tim’s house,” he explained as we walked down the unlit road. Floating just over the mountain horizon, the moon looked twice its normal size. “That kid’s been trying to get me in trouble ever since junior high.”
He wasn’t wrong, I had been there during gym the day before. At lunch, they served pumpkin pie that tasted like hell, so Paul went around gathering plates of it from people who didn’t finish. After the period let out, we found pieces of pie decorating the walls outside the building.
The only person besides Paul who was missing from gym class was Tim. So we knew what Tim’s little smirk meant when the principal came and hauled Paul out of fifth period. And when everyone found him, standing on a ladder and cleaning the pie off the walls, Tim was there with his phone out, recording it.
“What are you going to do to him?” I asked.
We had our flashlights out now. The yellow beams knifed through the tall grass and the desert landscape. I could see the dark shape of the Salt Cedar, outlined like a crouching giant in the distance. It had been our home away from home ever since I met Paul in elementary school. We met each other because of a play date our parents arranged. If it wasn’t for that, I would’ve been just another one of the many people he took his frustrations out on.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “Figured I’d give him a few choices and let him decide for himself how he wants to be punished. The punishment’s got to fit the crime. Narkdom is a very serious offense, Brent.”
When we reached the Cedar, we got a nice fire going in the center of the clearing. It was old and the trunks grew out far enough to allow a mid-section to be completely open, yet covered the sky in the canopy of needles. It was then that I first saw the black duffel bag that Paul had brought. He pulled forth a bunch of weird looking tools and he revealed a long piece of rope.
I asked him what they were, but he simply smiled and said I would find out later. We left the fire burning and made back for the housing area where Tim lived. Somehow, Paul knew which window looked into his bedroom, because we crouched below an illuminated square of glass, and waited quietly. Paul reached up and knocked twice.
The square of light shining onto the ground intensified as the shades were pulled aside. But a moment later, they were shut again. Paul knocked another time. I could feel Tim’s presence above us, looking out through the window and wondering what was going on. Finally, the window creaked open and he stuck his head out.
Paul reached up and threw one hand over his mouth, yanking him from the window with his free arm. The full weight of the situation hit me. We were kidnapping him. This is kidnap, my mind shouted.
Still, without thinking, I handed Paul the bandana and rope and watched as he expertly bound Tim’s hands behind his back and covered his face.
“Shut the fuck up and walk if you don’t want to die,” he said in a low menacing voice.
Paul had to walk backwards in order to keep Tim hoisted up and one hand over his mouth. So I led the way, both flashlights in my hands. I was terrified someone would come upon us, but I almost wished that someone would. I wanted someone to catch us and stop this before it got out of hand. Paul was known for being a bully, but even I could not predict what he was going to do to this guy. And for what? For having to clean up pie he had thrown at the wall?
The fire was still alive by the time we made it back into the center of the Salt Cedar. When Paul took his bandana off, Tim’s eyes were wide and horror struck. But he didn’t look at us, instead he gazed wildly around the center of the tree fort.
“If you try yelling, I’ll make you regret it,” Paul said.
He slumped Tim on the ground beside one of the twisting trunks and tied his hands behind his back, wrapping his arms around the trunk. Then, he took the bandana out of his mouth.
“We can’t be here!” Tim shouted.
Paul threw all of his weight into his punch as he struck Tim in the jaw. I heard a sickening pop.
“Why can’t we be here?” I asked. “And be quiet about it.”
“This is the Bleeding Hollow,” he said, more quietly.
Paul and I both laughed. “We’ve been coming here for years,” I told him. “This is our home.”
“…but have you ever stayed the night here?” he asked, blood flowing from his mouth.
As a matter of fact we hadn’t, but we never said that. Paul just looked at me with a condescending smile and walked back to his tool bag. By the way Tim was looking at me, I could tell he was going to try to prey on me as the weak link. He knew I wasn’t hard like Paul.
“Is this about the pie?” Tim asked. Paul looked up and nodded at him. “My dad’s the janitor, you asshole. What else did you expect? For me to let him pick up after your stupid, shitty pranks?”
“Why is this place called the Bleeding Hollow?” I asked him, ignoring his pleas.
“Oh, you don’t know?” he asked, turning his attention to me. “This is the perfect place for homeless people to come and stay the night. If it wasn’t cursed, there would be an entire mob of them here, for all of the bum population we have in town.” He looked at me in complete seriousness. “But they don’t. Because they can’t, dumbass.”
“Why can’t they?”
“Well, they can,” he iterated. “They did in the past. But they all wind up dead.”
“The fuck do I look like, the village herald or —”
He was cut short by Paul’s fist again. Paul wasn’t the brightest, but I could see the wheels were moving in his eyes now. He was intrigued.
“Answer his question,” he said. “The best you can.”
“Because,” he said, resentment now curdling in his voice. “They all started killing each other. Every time. The police came out here four times and found a bloodbath here four times. Now, no one even tries to come here. Except for you idiots.”
Paul was still skeptical, I could tell. But something about the authority in Tim’s voice had me unnerved. Still, Paul sauntered back to his black bag and pulled forth something that looked like a pointed pair of pliers. He clamped them threateningly at Tim.
“I think you’re full of it,” he said.
Just then we heard the sound of a twig snapping outside the treeline. I thought for a moment that I had glimpsed headlights streaming through the branches. A deep, gruff voice called out to us:
“We know you boys are in there! Where is Timothy?”
Paul cursed and dropped his tool back into the bag. He told me to stay and that he would take care of it. But how? I didn’t believe that he could. The man sounded like a police officer or something. Suddenly I saw myself in the juvenile detention center, explaining to my parents why we were in the wilderness, holding a boy hostage.
I looked up and caught Tim’s gaze. “You know what you have to do,” he said. “If you untie me now, I can run the other way and explain that this was all just an accident. You don’t need to go down for Paul’s mistake.”
I couldn’t refuse his offer. Paul may have grown accustomed to this kind of thing, but my record was clean and I was determined to keep it that way. So I slid down beside Tim and untied the rope around his hands. He nodded at me and ran off in the opposite direction that Paul had gone.
Only moments after he had left the sprawling glow of the fire, Paul re-emerged, looking perplexed.
“No one is out there,” he said. His eyes found me, kneeling down where Tim was just moments ago. “What the hell, man?”
“It sounded like the police,” I explained.
For years we had been friends, and I’d never seen Paul look so furious as he did then. He looked like he was considering taking the tools to me now. I rose up and tried to explain further, but before I could begin, Tim popped back into the clearing. He looked even more confused than Paul.
“How?” he stammered. “How did I wind up here again?”
With a last terrified glance at me and Paul, he sped off the direction he had come. But how could he have gotten lost? The sprawl of the Salt Cedar was big, but not that big. It was just several long paces from the center and you were out. Still, Tim came back upon the clearing, this time beside me. Meanwhile, Paul was frozen in disbelief.
Tim looked like he was going to cry. “I swear to God!” he growled. “I swear to God I ran for the exit.” Boldly, he took a step towards Paul, explaining, “I didn’t make a turn. I should be out of the fort.”
His features waxed pale beneath the firelight. Realization struck his watery eyes.
“The Bleeding Hollow,” he said.
“Bullshit,” said Paul, taking a step towards him.
But before he could reach him, Timothy dove for the duffel bag. He pulled out an old, rusted machete. Tim wielded it fiercely, telling Paul to stay away.
“You packed a machete?” I asked him.
“Just shut the fuck up, both of you,” Tim said. “I’m in charge now. And I know how the legend goes…”
As Tim spoke, I felt like the lights in my mind were flickering off and on. It was almost as if my eyes were blinking for minutes at a time. Everything before me was snapping in and out of focus. And his words were breaking off and burst forth, almost as though someone were covering and then uncovering my ears.
Then I heard a sound like a whisper. I jumped when it came, but I found no one beside me. Meanwhile, Paul and Tim were speaking to each other in words I could not hear. All I heard was the low muttering coming from I know not where.
“Listen to me,” said the voice. “I’ll show you the way out. You do not need to die here with them. You do not belong here.”
And I did listen, numb and barely conscious. The voice was like a lullaby singing me into a soft kind of daydream. I turned where I stood and walked away from the center of the Salt Cedar, into the churning darkness.
The only thing I remember after that was a long, vivid dream. I dreamt I was floating inches off the ground, over the roots and the weeds of the Salt Cedar. The night air felt cool and cleansing as I left the clearing. I turned, still hovering, and a hole opened up into the exterior of the fort.
Through the hole, I saw Tim and Paul, standing several feet away from each other and yelling. All the while, Paul was moving deft hands over the rope, twisting it into knots and turns. As I watched him, I too felt a rope in my hands. I was mirroring his actions. I watched as Paul finished the rope and slung it over a high hanging tree branch, and then started climbing.
As he climbed, Tim was still talking wildly. They seemed oblivious to the actions they were performing. Even as Tim started digging a hole in the ground and solidifying the handle of the machete into it, with the blade turned up, did he speak aggressively to Paul.
I remember floating farther away from the scene. As I did, I saw a body drop from the branches. I saw a body fall straight down onto the ground. Then, I awoke.
Sirens were going off around me. Daylight was bleeding through the branches. The outside world was slowly encroaching on me and I was aware of the hard dirt beneath me. Slowly, I lifted myself up and I found that I was lying directly in the center of the Salt Cedar.
Paul’s body was dangling from a tree branch overhead. His neck snapped and his feet swung loose as he slowly turned clockwise, then counter-clockwise. He was attached to the branch by a noose fashioned out of the same rope he had packed last night. Just a few feet away was Tim, slumped down with his back arched, the bladed tip of the machete splitting his skin open wide. The handle was bored into the ground. They were both dead.
“Ho-ley shit, not again,” came a loud voice. It sounded the same as the voice we had heard last night; the one that Paul had gone out to investigate. “Guys, in here. The neighbors were right, someone else found their way here.”
As the officer approached, he looked at me almost as though he expected to find me there. He had long, braided hair and brown skin that was dried like tree bark. I realized I had seen him before at family gatherings. His family name was Sitting Wolf.
The other officers poured into the fort behind him and approached the bodies. Meanwhile, the man I recognized came up to me and spoke in a hushed tone, crouching in front of me.
“I knew your great uncle, Sheshone,” he said, putting a big hand on my shoulder. “You have the blood of the Mojave Tribe in you.”
I just looked dumbly up at him, unable to process what he was saying.
“If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be alive right now.” He put an outstretched finger to his lips and hushed me. “You were here to kill yourself too, but you couldn’t go through with it like the other two could. They wouldn’t believe us about the Bleeding Hollow anyways. They never do,” he glanced behind him, where the deputies stood watching the bodies.
“There was a brutal murder here,” he said. “When the West was expanding. A chief was bled out here. His Spirit never stopped bleeding. This is why one does not camp in Salt Cedars in the Mojave Desert, boy, for the spirits in them are ever-watchful in the dead of night.”