It was their only salvation.
The hanging tree.
It was only a few miles away from where they sat in their tiny room. But it was the best chance they had.
Alfred stuffed his bag full – a wad of cash he’d been saving up, a few more cans of beans, a map of the surrounding mountains he had snagged from a nearby convenience store.
Tonight he and Mattie would finally get away. Away from this room. From this house. From this whole damned town. They’d be long gone before the sun rose on Plum Valley, their parents none the wiser.
He glanced over at the meek figure of his brother, the last rays of sun illuminating his spot by the doorframe.
“Any sign of him?” he whispered.
Mattie shook his head.
He nodded, though he knew the other didn’t see. He rubbed his side as he took in Mattie leaning on that frame.
It had been the last straw for Alfred. When that boot kicked him into those hinges . . .
The bruise was almost gone, though Mattie was afraid that he had broken a rib that night. But there wasn’t a way to tell.
“Almost done?” the younger squeaked.
Alfred crawled across the floor. He pushed their mattress to the side and lifted a loose floorboard as quietly as he could.
“Mom out there?”
Cabinets slammed opened two by two. Pots and pans rattled around.
“You sure about that?”
“She must be looking for her spoons again.”
Alfred scoffed. “Or her needles.”
He ignored the glare Mattie threw over his shoulder as he slipped his bag into the small pocket under the floor.
“Think mine will hold up?” Mattie scooted back into the room, hiding his tiny self from the opening.
“It should. You patched it up yourself.”
“Superglue doesn’t always hold, though.”
Alfred pulled the mattress back to its place, hiding their secret. “How’d you get that anyways? The store?”
“Teachers’ lounge. The door was opened slightly.”
A screech sent chills down Alfred’s spine.
“What is she doing? She’ll wake him up!”
Mattie began to shake. “I-I can go out and calm her down.”
“Don’t you dare, Matthew. You know she’ll hit you.”
“B-but what if she wakes him up?”
Alfred bit his lip. “We’ll deal with it.”
“But you said this would be our best chance–”
“That won’t change. We’ll just have to be care–”
Mattie moved toward the door.
Mattie ignored his brother, pushing himself off the ground. He made his way into the kitchen.
Dishware littered the floor, some of it smashed.
A straggly, wrinkled woman spun around. “My baby,” she sobbed. “My baby. Where’s momma’s spoons? Momma can’t find her spoons?”
“D-did you clean them?” He stepped over the broken glasses. “They might be in the sink?”
“The sink! The sink!” She lunged towards the countertop.
Mattie watched as her hands dove into the week-old dishwater.
She yelped, her bare feet stumbling back onto sharp glass.
“You!” She slapped his arm, her dominate hand curled up to her chest, bleeding. “You did this on purpose!”
“Don’t mother me!” She threw a punch.
Mattie backed away, stumbling over some pots.
“You knew there was a knife in there!”
He tried to dodge her hits, ducking back into the living room.
“What the hell is going on?!”
Heavy thumping came down the stairs.
He tried to will himself to run, but he was rooted to the floor.
“It was him!” His mother pointed. “He took my spoons!”
The giant of his nightmares fell into the dim light of the front room.
Rigid brows arched up, black eyes staring down at them.
A gruff hand jerked his collar up.
“What are ya’ doin’ boy! Makin’ your mother bleed!”
“I-I d-didn’t!” He choked out.
“Don’t lie t’ me!” A fist flew.
He clamped his eyes shut, ready for the blow.
A force knocked him to the floor.
But no pain.
He looked over, catching Alfred shoving their father to the foot of the stairs.
His feet found the floor and he ran into their room, away from the screams.
He threw away the mattress and the loose floorboard, finding their bags.
Curses flew to his ears as he snatched them both.
Mattie ran to the doorframe. One peek and his brother was stumbling back, holding his side. The father must have–
Their father lurched forward, fists ready. Alfred gripped the lamp and threw it at him. Mattie looked away as the light came in contact with the man’s face.
He didn’t look as he ran towards the door.
His mother’s screams swirled in his mind as the fading dry heat hit him. He ran towards the tree line, the bags weighing him down.
“Come back! My boy, my boy! Come back!”
He didn’t look back but kept running.
The hanging tree.
That’s where Alfred would meet him.
He had to.
He ran through the dark woods, the dim light barely piercing through. He tripped over branches, stumbled into potholes, smacked into low limbs. But he kept running. He needed to.
He looked back, pleading. He didn’t spot Alfred. Not yet.
“Keep–keep going.” He huffed, his eyes scrambling for the path.
A gunshot rang through the air.
His legs kicked up, racing him forward.
As he hit the clearing, he spotted the tree. He took comfort in the nooses that hung from its branches.
He ran to its trunk before collapsing to the ground.
Heaving, he looked back the way he came.
But no sign of Alfred.
Should he go back?
Should he try to find Al–
No. He had to stay here.
Alfred will come.
Alfred will make it.
Mattie curled his small hands around his brother’s bag, preparing himself to jump up and run when Alfred broke through the trees.
He squinted, forcing his eyes to focus in the near black. The sun was on its last life. Soon he’d be sitting in darkness.
The hairs on his neck raised. Cool air whispered in his ear. The night was setting in.
His sanctuary was about to become his dread.
He hated the darkness. He hated being alone.
Mattie looked down at Alfred’s bag. He had to keep brave.
He had to.
His brother would be here. Soon . . .
A hand laid on his shoulder, making him jump.
“Alfred! Don’t do th–”
Rotting fish shot up his nose as a man loomed over him.
He squeaked, bumbling away across the grass.
Mattie couldn’t see who it was, the sun already died out to only a few stars. The waning crescent moon was not enough to help his eyes, but he knew this man was taller than his father.
“S-sorry,” he squeaked out. “I-I’m just h-here for my b-brother.”
The words gurgled. “T-tree.”
“T-the tree? The hanging tree?”
Something gripped Mattie’s heart as the man pulled out a thick rope, it tied into a noose.
“N-no!” Mattie jumped up and ran back towards the trees. Rotting fish followed him, but he refused to look back.
He hit the trees.
Where was Al–
Alfred ran up to him.
Gunshots rang through the forest.
Alfred grabbed Mattie’s arm and pulled him forward.
They ran back to the hanging tree, the man gone.
Mattie eyes shot this way and that, but never found the man.
He must’ve imagined it.
He shot for Alfred’s bag, which he had left.
“Where are you?!”
“Let’s go!” Alfred snatched his bag from Mattie’s hands.
The bullet shot between them, grinding everything to a stop.
Mattie could hear his and Alfred’s hearts race.
“Not another step, y’ damned brats!”
Their father ran towards them, shotgun in hand.
Alfred grabbed Mattie. “Get out of here. I’ll catch up.”
“He can’t catch us both!”
Alfred pushed Mattie towards the marshes, getting in between him and their father.
Alfred charged forward. Mattie stood in awe and fear as Alfred lunged for the gun. The two struggled for the weapon.
A fist hit Alfred’s side.
A knee struck his father’s gut.
The gun wretched between them.
Mattie’s feet moved.
He had to stop this.
He had to help Alfred.
He had to–
Rotting fish smacked his senses.
His head whipped around, eyes locking with black ones.
The man lurched forward.
Mattie staggered back, before being pushed aside.
No hand had touched him, though.
The man trudged towards the fighting.
Mattie sprung up.
The other kept fighting.
Two ropes shot out of the man, wrapping around the men’s necks.
Shrieks filled the air as Mattie rushed to Alfred.
The rope tightened around Alfred’s neck, his face turning blue.
Mattie mustered his strength and shoved himself into the large man.
The man tipped to the side, the rope releasing Alfred and their father.
Mattie grabbed Alfred’s wrist and they ran to the hanging tree.
They snatched up their bags and raced for the marshes.
A root caught Mattie’s ankle, sending his face to meet the ground.
He twisted around.
A rope corkscrewed up his leg.
Alfred snatched the rope and pulled.
It hissed and latched onto him.
He grabbed and pulled, releasing Mattie.
Mattie caught sight of the large, shadow man lurching towards them.
“Just go! Run away!”
Mattie leapt up.
He reached for the rope.
Alfred smacked him away.
Mattie glimpsed at the man, coming closer.
“Do this,” Alfred said through gritted teeth. “For me.”
Mattie swallowed a lump as he grabbed his bag one last time.
To the marshes.
And didn’t look back as his brother’s screams filled the night.
© E.N. Chaffin 2017. All rights reserved. Any reproduction without author permission is against the copyright laws of the United States of America.