If you haven’t read Part 1 of Rotten yet, you may want to do so here.
A crisp breeze whipped colored leaves around Jason as he and the realtor walked on a gravel path through the property Jason was considering buying. Fall was finally setting in, a little late since it was already mid October, but very welcomed just the same. It wouldn’t have been the same Trick or Treating in warm weather. If that had been the case, they may as well have stayed in Georgia instead of moving up north for the change of seasons. Laura’s family was originally from Ohio and Jason was happy to get her back to her parents home state. She’d always wanted to lay down roots here. With his business booming, Jason was finally able to make that happen for her.
Walking back up toward Laura and Dennis, their 8 year old son, Jason could see by the look on her face that Laura was keen on buying this property. First of all, it was sprawling. Twenty acres of land with a 7,000 square foot home, a pond towards the back of the property, and the most beautiful array of mature trees were included in this parcel. Second of all, a price of four hundred thousand seemed too good to be true, which was Jason’s favorite feature. It’s as if the land was waiting for them to stumble upon it. Lastly, Dennis would have all of this land to run around and be a kid. Truly the perfect childhood, for sure.
“Honey, what’d you think?” Laura asked.
“It’s got some great trees and that pond is bigger than we thought. We could definitely put some fish in there.” Jason answered.
“Awe! A fishing hole of your very own, for just the two of you.” Laura said while motioning towards Dennis. “Jason, we have to buy this property.” Laura declared. The realtor just sat back and let the wife sell this place for him. This kind of situation was his favorite kind. He had very little work to do at this point. Sell it to the wife and you’ve as good as sold it to the husband. It would be nice to have this place off his books, too. No one local would even look at the place because of some stupid folklore. He was sick of hearing about it, quite honestly.
“Why’s it so cheap?” Jason asked.
“I’m sure you folks don’t care about this but the locals think this area is bad luck. No real explanation as to why. There aren’t any stories of tremendous tragedy that I’m aware of, just superstition.” the realtor explained, without explaining much of anything.
“I’ve never been the superstitious type.” Jason said with a smirk. The realtor winked at him and they both crossed their arms and exchanged a macho type nod. The kind of nod that indicated to each of them that the other was too much of a man to fall for that bullshit.
“The way I see it, superstition makes for a great investment opportunity, doesn’t it?” the realtor said to Jason. Laura started to ask some followup questions about the origin of the bad luck belief when Jason spoke above her.
“I think we’ll take it.” Jason said. Dennis’s face lit up but Laura still had questions. She did love the place an awful lot though, so she chose to stay silent. Besides, it’s not like in the movies. No monsters were going to come out at night and torment them. This was just a great deal on a beautiful property. Nothing more.
Back at the real estate office, Jason and Laura were busy signing papers and making arrangements for their moving trucks while Dennis played on a swing set in the yard of the converted home.
“What a clever idea, making a home into a real estate office. I’m sure the playground must come in handy for families like ours, with all of this paperwork.” Laura commented while Jason read through the wire transfer agreement. She felt so lucky to have a hard working and talented husband like Jason. He’d told her twelve years ago when they married that he would make her dreams come true some day. Everyone doubted him back then but she knew he could do it. She never doubted him for a minute and here they were, buying a beautiful home on an amazing piece of property.
His parents were the first to tell him that inventing a home improvement app wasn’t a real job but he’d proven them wrong many times over. They were stuck in the past. Jason was leading the way into the future. Apps were definitely the future and he was at the cusp of it all. Yes, life felt pretty amazing as he signed the paperwork and called their bank. And Jason’s From Mess to Manor app made it all possible.
Move in day came a week later since they’d been living in a hotel while touring available homes. Everything was waiting for them to pull the trigger on a property. Jason liked to have all his ducks in a row. He was a planner, by nature. Dreams are nothing more than goals that haven’t been written down yet, right? Jason had all his dreams written and planned out They were steadily coming to fruition, not because he was lucky but because he planned for them to happen. Luck was an illusion. The idea that people passed this property up because someone else said it was unlucky was something Jason couldn’t wrap his head around. He was happy to take what someone else cast aside.
Laura had all but forgotten about the unlucky comment the realtor had made and was excitedly supervising the moving guys on where to put certain boxes. The house had a few small repairs needed but nothing that prevented them from moving in before those things were done. Besides, Laura couldn’t wait one more minute. This was truly her dream home and she couldn’t wait to decorate it and enjoy it with her family. It was just a shame her parents weren’t here to see her moving to their home state that they loved so much.
There were movers putting boxes in every room while professional organizers unpacked and sorted items. Roofers would be replacing the roof in two days time and painters were painting the inside of the house, too. Everything was happening so fast and yet, she was impatient for all these people to be done and leave her with her perfect home.
Dennis was outside, as he typically liked to be, running along the fence line. He announced to everyone that he intended to see the entire property by following the fence all the way around. Jason warned him not to cross through the fence and to stay on their land. Dennis yelled an “Okay” in reply and scooted off. Jason loved seeing his son so free and happy, not like his own childhood in an impoverished neighborhood with parents who had no vision for the future. No ambition other than getting a bigger TV for the next football season. Seeing Dennis running off to explore made Jason’s heart swell with pride.
Dennis was an adventurous boy, always looking for some new place to explore and convinced the world held treasure that only he could find. And so long as he believed that, it was surely true. Running along the fence of his new home, Dennis could only imagine what things he might find in such a big backyard. The grass quickly turned to trees, big ones perfect for climbing which he made a mental note to do once he made it back around to the house. Walking along the fence line, Dennis noticed something sticking partially out of the clay ground and paused to inspect it. Rusted and almost matching the colors in the soil around it, he took a moment to realize it was the old head of a hatchet. Cool, he thought as he worked to loosen it from the earth. His first treasure of the day. It was bigger than his hand and very dull but still worth showing his dad when he got back. Maybe it could be repaired? Now that would be cool. His own hatchet to build forts and explore with.
Holding his little treasure and continuing along the fence, Dennis notice an especially large tree ahead of him. It stuck out from the other trees because its bark was completely black and the leaves were bright green, even though the other trees leaves were changing color and falling. This tree appeared to be the same type of tree but its leaves weren’t changing or falling. Dennis didn’t know much about trees but he did know that this tree should probably be doing what the others were doing. It seemed weird but he didn’t focus on that too long once he noticed the thick branches that extended out from the tree, making this one of the best climbing trees he’d ever seen in his eight years of life. Getting a running start, Dennis jumped at the tree and shimmied his way up to one of the two lowest branches, which were probably eight feet off the ground. He stood on this branch and looked through the trees at his surroundings. This place would make a great spot for hide and seek, he thought, just as he heard a voice from behind him.
“What are you doing?” a boy asked from the other side of the fence.
“Climbing this big tree.” Dennis answered.
“My dad said never to touch that tree.” the boy responded.
“Why?” Dennis asked.
“Because it will curse you.” was the boy’s simple answer.
“I don’t believe in curses.” Dennis said with confidence. “My dad says you’re only cursed if you say you are.”
“That’s weird. What’s you name?” the boy asked.
“Dennis. What’s yours?” he responded.
“Tommy.” the boy replied. “I’m not allowed to cross the fence but I do it sometimes anyway. My dad never finds out.” Tommy said.
“Do you want to play? I’m looking for treasure. I already found this.” Dennis said as he held his hatchet head up high.
“Wow! That’s cool! Let me see.” Tommy crossed through the wide fence with ease and walked near the tree Dennis was standing in, stopping just a few feet in front of it. Dennis jumped down and handed over the rusted metal so his new friend could have a look. They both commented on how it might be fixed before Tommy handed it back to Dennis.
“Let’s look for more stuff.” Tommy yelled and both boys ran along the fence line together, staring at the ground as they went. Aside from a few nails and a piece of broken pottery, they didn’t find much of interest. When the house came back into view, Tommy said he should head back home and turned around.
“You should ask your parents if you can come over. I have lots of toys and stuff.” Dennis called back to Tommy.
“I will. See ya.” Tommy yelled back and the new friends parted ways. Dennis made a mad dash for his dad, who was helping move some furniture into the house.
“Dad, look what I found!” Dennis proclaimed as he ran up to his dad. Jason put the couch down and motioned for one of the moving guys to finish moving it for him.
“Wow, that’s pretty neat. Looks like an old hatchet.” his dad said.
“I know. Can you fix it? I want to make forts with it.” Dennis declared. The spark of childhood wonder was bright in his eyes and Jason couldn’t say no to it.
“I’m sure we can fix that up. It’ll be sharp once it’s repaired. Can you be extra careful with it? Your mom will kill me if you cut yourself, ya know.” Jason said.
“I can! I found the perfect tree and I want to make a fort under it.” Dennis said.
“Oh yeah? Well, lets see this perfect tree.” Jason said. He called to Laura that he’d be back in a little while and headed down the gravel path that cut through the middle of their land. It wasn’t too long before the deep green leaves of the big black tree could be seen above the others.
“That’s it, dad. Look how big it is.” Dennis said as they neared it.
“Yeah, that’s some tree alright.” Jason immediately noticed the black color of its trunk and moved in for a closer look. His first concern was that there was some kind of weird mold present but he found no evidence of that. Next, he took notice of the leaves which were bright green when they should’ve been yellow, orange, and red. The other trees of this same type were doing as they should but not this one. In fact, this tree had green leaves with strange red veins running through each one. A peculiar tree, indeed.
“Isn’t it big? I already climbed it. It was easy for me.” Dennis puffed up his little chest as he spoke.
“I’m sure it was easy for you. You’re a good climber.” Jason agreed. “You know what would be great in this cool tree you found?” he asked.
“No, what?” Dennis asked.
“A tree house.” Jason said as he watched his son’s face light up.
“Yes, dad! Can we build that? I want to use my hatchet to build it!” Dennis was beside himself with enthusiasm for this new idea. Jason couldn’t think of anything else he’d rather do and quickly agreed to the task.
“This can be our special project.” Jason said and his son’s face beamed with happiness. This is why he’d worked as hard and consistently as he had. His app was on autopilot now and he had the freedom to do as he wished, for the most part. Maybe one day a week was spent running his business. The rest was his to devote to whatever or whomever his wanted. Yes, life was good indeed.
Dennis ran ahead of Jason as they neared the house, anxious to tell his mom of their plans for the giant tree. She hugged Dennis as he barreled into her arms to tell her what they had planned. The tree house sounded like an amazing way to make this place their home. Laura supported the idea completely and smiled at Jason as Dennis went on and on about what it would look like and how they would chop the wood with his little hatchet, once dad fixed it of course. In fact, he was so excited about the tree house that he completely forgot about his new friend, Tommy.
Saturday came around and Dennis was watching his dad attach a new wooden handle to the old hatchet he found. He promised Dennis that he would sharpen it as soon as it had a proper handle in place. Despite Dennis being eight years old, he still possessed a certain childlike wonder that typically started to fade around this age. Jason was glad his boy still saw the amazing intricacies of the world around him. There was an endearing innocence to it that Jason loved to see in him.
“Dad, can Tommy help us build my tree house, too?” Dennis asked.
“Who’s Tommy?” Jason asked.
“Oh, he lives next door. I met him on our first day here. Can he help?” Dennis asked.
“I don’t see why not, as long as his parents say it’s okay.” Jason answered.
“Great! I’ll ask him if he wants to but I bet he will.” Dennis said as he hurried out of the room.
“Where are you going?” Jason called after him.
“To the tree.” Dennis yelled back.
“Don’t talk to strangers.” Jason reminded Dennis just as he was clearing the doorway. He was a sweet kid but very trusting, which always made them worry. They taught him well enough to stay away from people he didn’t know, though. Hopefully, he would remember those lessons.
Back at the black tree, Dennis was calling Tommy’s name. Hopefully, Tommy was playing somewhere nearby and would hear him since he knew he couldn’t cross the fence and look for him. Sure enough, Tommy came running up a minute later.
“Hey, Dennis. What are you doing?” Tommy asked.
“My dad is gonna help me build a big tree house in this tree!” Dennis began. “Do you want to help us build it? We’re gonna use my hatchet and everything. I bet your dad can even help, too, if he wants to.”
“I don’t know. Let me ask my parents and see.” Tommy said wide eyed as he rushed off to ask for permission.
“Okay, tell me what they say.” Dennis yelled as Tommy faded into the trees. Later that day, a knock at the door surprised Jason and Laura. He’d been finishing work on Dennis’s hatchet so Laura answered the door.
“Hi. I’m Rob and this is Shelley. We live just on the other side of your property. I believe our son, Tommy, met your son the other day.” Rob said.
“Ah, yes. It’s great to meet you. Dennis is very happy to have made a friend so quickly. Come on in. I’m afraid the house isn’t quite put together yet since we’re still moving in. Excuse our mess.” As Laura stated this, Shelley looked around and wondered exactly what their house looked like clean if this was considered messy. The house looked very well kept and there wasn’t a moving box in sight.
“I’m Laura and my husband is…” she began before Jason chimed in as he entered the room.
“I’m Jason. Nice to meet you. Dennis should be around here somewhere.”
“Oh, that’s okay. We actually wondered if we could talk to you without him for a moment.” Shelley said.
“Certainly. I hope everything is okay.” Laura answered as she showed them to a sitting area in the main living room of the house.
“Everything is fine, I’m sure. The boys seem to have really hit it off. There’s no issue there. We just wondered if you know much about this piece of land or the history of it?” Shelley asked.
“We don’t know much but it’s a beautiful area.” Laura answered.
“We know it’s an amazing piece of property that we got for a ridiculous price. That’s all we really need to know, right honey?” Jason said while motioning toward Laura.
“We did get a great deal but I’m always interested in the history of places. Please, tell us.” Laura said, gesturing toward their new neighbors. The two of them exchanged an odd glance that didn’t seem to fit the lighthearted feeling of a causal meeting between new neighbors. Laura picked up on this and felt an small knot in her stomach. Strange.
“We are both born and raised in this area…” Shelley began. “The land your house is built on and surrounded by is pretty infamous in the area.”
“Oh, we already heard about the bad luck superstition about our land.” Jason interrupted. “We aren’t bothered by it.”
“It’s not bad luck and it’s not superstition.” Rob cautioned. “There is a tree on your land, in particular, that brings death. It can’t be explained but anyone who messes with that tree doesn’t last much longer after that.” Rob continued.
“Let me guess, it’s a big black tree?” Jason asked.
“Yes. I understand your boy wants to build a tree house in it?” Rob asked. Laura shook her head yes and Rob continued. “I’d strongly advise against it. That tree is no good. Rotten down to the roots, not just in a physical sense but in a spiritual one, too.” Jason chuckled and Laura shot him an irritated look, afraid he might offend the only neighbors they’d met so far.
“I know how crazy this must sound, especially to people new to the area.” Shelley said.
“Why is this tree so cursed?” Laura asked. She was genuinely interested and that bothered Jason. He didn’t want these people putting crazy ideas or beliefs in her head.
“I don’t know if you noticed but the two lowest branches are pretty warn down. It’s suspected the tree was used to hang people from and the warn parts are were the ropes were always placed.” Shelley barely finished her sentence before Jason interjected.
“Okay, well we don’t believe that kind of stuff. Every man makes his own fortune. Luck and curses have nothing to do with it.” Jason stated as he stood to excuse himself. Laura, embarrassed by his dismissal of what they were saying, spoke quickly to smooth things over.
“I don’t know, honey. I’m terribly interested in all of this. What an interesting history your town must have.” Laura said.
“We have no desire to be the crazy neighbors. We just felt a responsibility to let you know before you chose to alter that tree without being well informed. We’ll get out of your hair now.” Rob said, looking a bit irritated.
“Please reconsider touching that tree. We’ll not stop you, of course. It’s your land now, but we sure hope you rethink it.” Shelley added.
“And we’re happy our Tommy and your boy are friendly but we do not want our boy on or near that tree. Ever.” Rob said with a much more stern sounding voice than before.
“He’s your kid. You can teach him what you want. We will respect your wishes and not invite him into our future tree house. He is welcome anywhere else on our property, I assume?” Jason asked with a tinge of sarcasm in his voice.
“Of course he is and your boy is welcome at our place, too.” Shelley quickly answered while handing Laura a card with their phone numbers on it.
“Oh, let me get you our numbers, too.” Laura said as she hurried for a piece of paper and pen. Jason was already exiting the room when Laura was handing their numbers to Shelley. Both women looked equally embarrassed by their husbands and hoped no harm had come to a possible friendship.
As they excused themselves and said their goodbyes, Rob turned to Laura one last time and added, “Seriously, though. Call either of us if you run into any trouble. If anything strange starts to happen, we might know someone who can help.”
“I will. Thank you very much for caring. I’m sure everything will be fine.” Laura said with a smile.
“I’m not.” Rob said as he walked off the front porch. “He’s so dramatic sometimes. I’m sorry.” Shelley said. “But do call if you need us.”
Laura stood on her front porch and watched them walk down the road towards their own property. What a strange interaction. And also a worrisome one, too. The belief about this land must be substantial for people to come warn newcomers knowing how they would appear by doing so. She continued to stand on the porch after they were out of sight, leaning against one of the supports and thinking about what she’d just been told. Should she discourage her husband from building the tree house? Knowing Jason, he would only build it quicker and bigger if she pushed him too hard in the opposite direction.
Later that evening, Jason came into the living room where Dennis and Laura were watching some TV and presented Dennis with his newly refurbished hatchet.
“Remember, it’s very sharp. We are going to keep it in the garage. Only use it where your mom or I say it’s okay and only when we are with you. This is not a toy. It’s a tool and must be respected as such. Okay?” Jason instructed.
“Oh, wow. That looks brand new!” Dennis said, seemingly missing all that Jason had just said about safety.
“Did you hear what I said?” Jason asked.
“Yeah, I did. Keep it in the garage and only use it when you say.” Dennis rattled back Jason’s instructions while turning the hatchet around in his hands to get a good look at it. “This is so cool, dad. Thank you!”
“You’re welcome, son. We’ll start working on the tree house tomorrow.” Jason added.
“Yes! Can I put this in the garage now?” Dennis asked.
“Yes. Just put it on the work bench for now.” Jason answered. Dennis ran off as both parents scolded him not to run with a sharp object.
“I was thinking, why not just pick another tree to put the tree house in?” Laura asked, trying to approach the subject carefully.
“That’s ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with that tree.” Jason snapped.
“But it sounds like that tree is significant to the locals here, even if it is in a negative way. It might be best to respect their wishes and leave the tree alone, don’t you think?” she gently argued. She hated to admit it but she was a little shaken by what their new neighbors said. Why tempt fate?
“No, I don’t think that at all. No one is going to dictate what I do with my land because of their own ill informed beliefs. My son wants a tree house in that tree and I’m building him one.” he answered with anger in his voice this time. “And I’m building it in that tree.” he added as he walked out of the room. Well, that went well, Laura thought. Her husband had many great characteristics but patience was not one of them. When he was done discussing something, he was done. She knew him well enough not to push any further. All she could do now was hope the locals were wrong about the tree.
The next morning was an exciting one for Dennis. His mom didn’t even have to wake him. He was already up and getting dressed when she tapped on the door. Dad said they were starting the tree house and Dennis wanted to be in the garage as soon as dad was. He didn’t want to miss anything. Sitting at the table eating cereal and fruit was a small form of torture to an eight year old promised a tree house by his dad. Mom insisted that he finish his breakfast so he wolfed it down at an impressive rate. She asked him to slow down only once. She knew what his hurry was and thought it was adorable, even if she was still a bit nervous about them messing with the supposedly cursed tree.
Jason and his son loaded supplies onto a flat cart for Jason to pull while Dennis pulled a smaller cart behind him. It was a bit inconvenient that the chosen tree was so far from the house but it was a matter of principal now. A tree house was getting built in that tree, if for no other reason than to show Jason’s new neighbors that curses aren’t real.
Nearing the other end of the property, Dennis could see that Tommy was already standing at the fence waiting for them. Instead of looking happy and excited, though, Tommy looked nervous, almost afraid. Dennis thought that was strange but shifted his focus to unloading the carts and quickly forgot all about it.
“Are you guys really going to build a tree house in that tree?” Tommy asked.
“We are, son.” Jason responded to Dennis’s knew friend. “I’m sorry you can’t help or even play in it but your parents have asked that you not. You’re welcome to play with Dennis in the yard but stay out of the tree, please.” Jason said, hating every word of it. What utter nonsense they are teaching their kid. Next thing you know, he’ll be telling Dennis that Santa is real, too.
“That’s okay. I don’t wanna help. I’ll just watch.” Tommy said. Jason shook his head and kept unloading supplies with Dennis. Separating out all of their tools, Jason picked up one of the smaller cut boards to use as ladder steps into the tree. He motioned for Dennis to hold it against the tree as he readied his nail and hammer. One swift motion and the nail went halfway through the board and tree. A second motion with the hammer finished the job and the first nail was in place. As Jason was hammering the second nail into the board, he noticed something red dripping slightly from the first nail.
“That’s a strange sap.” Jason mumbled to himself. “Hope that doesn’t stain. Dennis, be careful not to get that on your clothes.”
“It’s okay, dad. Mom had me wear play clothes. She said I can mess them up if I want.” Dennis replied.
“Good thing. This stuff looks messy.” Jason said as he dabbed one finger into the red substance. If he didn’t know better, he’d think that was blood. Without saying a word to Dennis, Jason used the back end of the hammer to remove the nail and take the board off, thinking maybe something was under it or living just inside the tree trunk or something.
Nope. Nothing. Still, the red fluid trickled out of the opening where the nail had been. Tommy was studying Jason closely so he decided not to make a big deal out of some weird looking sap. No need scaring the boy any more than his own parents did. Jason replaced the nail with Dennis’s help and continued nailing boards to the tree trunk to form a little ladder or sorts for Dennis to climb up, ignoring the slight appearance of red fluid coming from under each board. Once the ladder was complete, Jason encouraged Dennis to try it out. His son happily obliged.
“Tommy, you should come up here! This tree is so tall!” Dennis yelled from almost eight feet off the ground. Tommy just shook his head and stared wide eyed at Dennis, then at Jason as he began to build the legs that would further support a floor for the tree house. When Tommy looked back at Dennis, though, he froze. Dennis was climbing even higher in the tree but it was very dark up there. It was as if the light was blocked within the tree but it was a bright, sunny day. Some light should’ve been getting through. At least a little.
“It’s dark up there, Dennis. You shouldn’t go up that far.” Tommy called to his new friend. Jason looked up to see what Tommy was talking about. Dennis was indeed climbing higher but it wasn’t the darkness that caught Jason’s attention. It was the blank expression on Dennis’s face. His eyes were wide open and not blinking. He wasn’t smiling as he normally did most of the time. Just a blank look as he scaled one branch after another.
“Okay, Dennis. That’s high enough for now. Come on down so we can get started on the base.” Jason said. Dennis ignored him completely. “Dennis, come down now. You hear me?” Jason called, getting a little worried now. Dennis climbed another branch in the time it took Jason to speak. He put down the wood and hammer and stood under where Dennis was climbing now, beginning to think he might have to catch him if he fell, or at least break his fall. He was getting precariously high up now. “Dennis! You stop right now! Come back down or we will not be building this tree house today!” Jason demanded. Dennis halted but stood still on his current branch. “Come down slowly and carefully. You’re too high up.” Jason carefully stated. He didn’t want to scare Dennis while he was so far up in the tree, at least thirty feet or so. That would be a tough fall and surely hurt them both.
Dennis lowered himself to the branch below him and Jason held his breath for a moment. His son was going to have some explaining to do once he reached the ground again. Another branch lower and Dennis was making good progress, all the while still remaining silent and completely expressionless. When he got down to the lowest branch, Jason expected that Dennis would use the newly made ladder to climb down but he jumped from the eight foot high branch instead. However, he got only a couple feet into the jump and he jerked to a stop as if a rope were tied around his neck. Twitching and choking, Dennis hung suspended in the air by this invisible rope until Jason grabbed him and lifted him up, as if to free him of the rope that clearly didn’t exist. Jason’s mind tried frantically to explain away what had just happened. Dennis was in his arms, okay but still coughing and confused. The mystery rope disappeared as soon as Jason grabbed his son. It had to have been a twig or rogue branch or something. Invisible rope is not a thing, Jason told himself.
Tommy was already halfway to his house, running at full speed to tell his paranoid parents what happened, no doubt. Jason didn’t bother putting Dennis down. He just started the walk back to the house with his son in his arms, afraid to put him down for fear of what might happen. Such an illogical fear. Bleeding trees and invisible ropes aren’t a thing. Why was this messing with his mind so much? Logic always prevails. His neighbors probably just got in his head a little too much. That’s all.
As they neared the house, Dennis finally spoke albeit a little raspy from whatever happened to his throat. “Dad, why are we going home?” he said.
“I asked you to stop climbing and you didn’t listen. We’re taking a break for a while. Maybe next time, you’ll do as I ask. You got hurt because you didn’t listen.” Jason reprimanded.
“I didn’t climb the tree. I was just standing there and then I fell and my throat hurt. Something was around my throat, dad.” Dennis said.
“You most certainly did climb the tree after I asked you to stop and a tree limb caught your throat when you jumped out of the tree. Maybe that will teach you to be more careful next time.” Jason shot back at him. He didn’t normally speak to his son this way but, in fairness, he didn’t usually have to. Dennis was normally a well behaved little boy. This was all very out of character for him. Jason put Dennis down as they entered the house. Laura and Rob from next door were there waiting for them.
“What is going on?” Laura asked as soon as they cleared the doorway. “What happened to his neck?” she then exclaimed as she pointed to Dennis’s bruised neck. “Is that a rope burn?”
“Our normally well behaved son decided to climb thirty feet up into the tree and then jumped down the last eight feet and got caught by a tree limb or something on the way down.” Jason explained, almost believing his own story. Surely, that must’ve been what happened, he thought.
“That doesn’t look like a scrape. That looks like a rope mark around his neck, Jason.” she said, looking concerned. Rob just stood behind her and watched this unfold in front of him. Probably great entertainment for him, Jason thought. Freak the new guys out and watch the chaos.
“What happened, baby? Why did you jump out of the tree?” Laura asked Dennis.
“I don’t remember. I thought I fell out.” Dennis answered.
“His voice is raspy!” Laura yelled as soon as Dennis finished speaking. “We should take him to the doctor to make sure his throat isn’t damaged.”
“And tell them what, that an invisible rope almost hanged him? He jumped out and a limb must’ve caught him. I’m sure he’ll feel better by tomorrow.” Jason said. He had no intention of getting child protective services called on him today, or ever. This was all just a misunderstanding. Something happened but it wasn’t what it seemed. Just an accident. That’s all, he thought.
“Rob came running over saying that Tommy said the tree got Dennis.” Laura said and immediately regretted saying it. Jason’s face hardened even more than before.
“The tree didn’t get Dennis, Rob. It’s a tree. Dennis acted the fool and got hurt but he’s fine now. That’s all.” Jason said with great irritation in his voice.
“I just wanted to make sure everyone was okay. I can see that you are so I’ll see myself out.” Rob said as he hurried towards the door.
“Thank you for checking in, Rob. That was very nice of you. Tell Tommy that Dennis is okay, would you?” Laura said in another failed attempt to smooth things over. Rob mumbled that he would and closed the front door behind him.
“Why do you have to act like that to our new neighbors, Jason?” Laura fumed.
“He’s talking crazy. God only knows what his poor kid thinks happened, with all the nonsense they’ve probably pumped into him.” Jason answered.
“Are we going to work on the tree house some more, dad?” Dennis asked in his hoarse voice. “I want to cut the wood with my hatchet.”
“Let’s take a break. We’ll start again after lunch.” Jason said. He needed some time to process the morning’s events. As soon as Dennis went to his room, Laura was on Jason again.
“So what really happened out there? I’ve never seen you so rattled and those are rope burns on his neck. I need answers.” Laura insisted.
“We started working on the tree. I nailed a little ladder into the trunk and Dennis climbed up to the bottom limb. Then, he started climbing higher and higher. He wouldn’t stop and he wouldn’t answer me when I yelled at him. I finally told him we wouldn’t build the tree house if he didn’t come down and he started coming back down. By then, he was probably 20 or 30 feet in the air.” Jason explained. Laura listened intently.
“When he got to the bottom limb, instead of climbing back down the ladder steps, he jumped.” Jason paused.
“But what happened to his neck?” Laura prodded.
“He just stopped falling and choked. I guess something caught his neck. I didn’t see anything but something must’ve caught him by the neck. I grabbed him and lifted up and whatever it was released and he was okay.” Jason finished and just stood there, staring and wishing he had a better explanation.
“Those are rope burns but there was no rope? Did he just hang there in the air or something?” Laura asked.
“It all happened so fast. He just got caught by a branch. I’m sure of it.” Jason said.
“I don’t think you guys should mess with that tree anymore.” Laura blurted out.
“What? Do you think the tree is cursed now, too?” Jason mocked. “Should I hang a horse shoe from it to counteract the bad luck with good luck?” He laughed under his breath as he walked away from his bewildered wife. This property was supposed to be their dream home but it was turning into a headache because of the damn neighbors. Filling his family’s heads with nonsense.
After lunch, just like Jason promised, he called Dennis to come help with the tree house again. Dennis slowly came out of his room sporting a red ring around his neck. Jason took one look at him and thought school for the next week was out of the question. There’s no way they’d be able to explain that away without sounding like child abusers.
“You ready to get back out there?” Jason asked his son.
“Yeah. Can I use the hatchet?” Dennis asked. Boy, do kids have a one track mind, Jason thought.
“Yes. I’m sure we can find something for you to practice on.” Jason answered. Dennis was happy with that and they began the short walk to the other end of the property.
Tommy was no where in sight this time and Jason was glad. That kid was just freaking them out. They’d make better progress without him watching and warning of supernatural curses and killer trees. Jason showed Dennis a small baby tree to cut down with his little hatchet. He figured that would keep him busy for a while.
Building the base and floor of the tree house would be time consuming since there needed to be several sturdy vertical boards to support the back end of the little house. Jason was busy getting those in the ground when he heard a hacking noise that didn’t sound like wood but something softer. And wetter. He turned to check on Dennis and gasped. Dennis was hunched over a rabbit, chopping it repeatedly and slowly. It was long since dead but he was still delivering blow after blow to the poor thing. The most disturbing part, however, was not his son chopping a rabbit to bits. It was the way the ground absorbed the little bit of blood that was coming out of the rabbit, as if it was sucking the red liquid into the ground.
“Get away from that!” Jason yelled as he lunged for his son.
“But it’s hungry.” Dennis said.
“What’s hungry?” Jason asked as he pulled the hatchet from Dennis’s hand.
“The tree.” Dennis answered.
“That’s enough. We are done with this tree.” Jason announced as he began throwing wood and supplies onto the carts. A sharp pain shot up from his right leg. He swung around just in time to see his son pulling the hatchet away from his leg and drawing back for another blow.
“What are you doing?!” Jason yelled, blocking the next swing as he fell to the ground, blood pumping from his calf. Roots from the black tree bulged up from the cracking earth in gluttonous search of his freshly spilled blood.
“It has been so long since we took our due.” his son said, but the voice was not his own. It seemed higher in pitch and the accent wasn’t right. When Jason looked up again from his bleeding leg, his eyes fell upon a child he no longer recognized. It was still Dennis but his skin was pasty white, his eyes were entirely black, and tears of blood ran down his face. With the hatchet held high above his head, Dennis quietly swung at his father again and again. Jason was able to block some of the attempts but when Dennis landed one good blow to Jason’s right shoulder, Dennis began landing swings one after the other. Jason begged with his son to stop but the sharpened blade kept coming down on him. Black crept in from his peripheral and he lost consciousness.
Laura quickened her pace when she heard Jason yell out. It wasn’t a sound she’d ever heard him make before. Desperation rang out in it and she thought something must be wrong with Dennis again. She wasn’t wrong in that assumption but it was so much worse than that. She’d come to check on them after she’d begged him not to go back out today. She had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach about the whole endeavor but when Jason decides to do something, God himself can’t change his mind.
Nothing on this earth could’ve prepared her for what she walked up on. Jason lay motionless on the ground, deep wounds on every part of his broken and bleeding body. The bloody hatchet lay on the ground a few feet away, obviously the weapon of choice. Laura screamed for Dennis, hoping he’d been able to hide from whoever had done this to her husband. Her wild search for her son ended when she looked up into the black tree and saw Dennis standing on the lowest branch. Deep worn spots were on both of the lower branches just like the neighbors had said. Good God, they did look just like wear marks from ropes. Her stomach churned and she thought she might throw up from all that she was being forced to face in this moment. She finally lost herself when she looked up to meet Dennis’s gaze. His skin was white as a ghost, milky almost. Blackness was where his eye balls should’ve been and tears of blood stained his pale cheeks down to his chin.
He stood perfectly balanced on the branch and stared down at her like he wasn’t even her son. From the distance, she heard Rob yelling for her to back away from the tree. That’s when she noticed tree roots wiggling through the broken clay soil like earthworms after a good rain. About five feet to her right, she saw a small blowtorch that Jason often used to give wood a burnt finish. A shuffling sound caught her attention just long enough for her to notice the child who used to be her son scurrying down the tree like some kind of possessed spider. She lunged for the torch and fumbled with the lighter for a moment before a flame puffed into existence on the torch. Laura aimed it at the tree and the demon child jumping from it. The torch wasn’t super strong but it was enough to make the child jump back onto the trunk and recoil from the flame.
Rob must’ve had the same idea because he finally reached them with lighter fluid and matches in hand. He’d likely planned to burn the damn thing down before anyone could get hurt. His timing was a bit off. Without a word between them, Rob sprayed the ground and trunk of the black tree with lighter fluid and Laura touched her flame to the ground, sending a flame spreading across the ground and up the tree. It spread slower than gasoline would’ve but the child didn’t attempt to escape the tree. On the contrary, Dennis climbed higher and wailed as the roots and trunk burned. It was as if he was also on fire even though the flames hadn’t reached him yet. He scampered from branch to branch until the entire tree was in flames, a red liquid dripping down it’s trunk. Fire spread through the roots until they met Jason’s body, still splayed out on the ground beneath the tree. Laura started to pull him free of it but Rob stopped her. The tree roots were angrily flailing and he warned her not to be caught by them.
Laura crumpled into a sobbing heap as her husband and now her son burned along with the tree. Black smoke rising in the afternoon sky. Rob tried to usher her away from the carnage before them, urging her not to look but knowing she’d already seen too much to be okay ever again. Households nearby didn’t come out to see what was burning. It’s as if they knew to stay away. Windows began to close and doors locked tight. Mothers hurried their children indoors to avoid the smoke which lingered in the air instead of rising into the clouds like it should’ve. One would even think the smoke was searching, combing through the area for an acceptable place to go. Before long, the nearby woods were filled with the a black, smoky fog so thick the wildlife began to flee into the nearby neighborhoods. Rob sat and comforted Laura while staring into the wooded area at the end of the road. He’d hoped burning the tree would release whatever was in it and it did. He hadn’t, however, anticipated that it might simply move to another location.
Now, the town didn’t have to worry about one tree. They had to worry about a small forest of trees.
I hope you enjoyed the second of my three part story for Halloween weekend 2022. I make them annually for my podcast, True Hauntings & Scary Stories, every Friday before Halloween! You can find part 3 of Rotten here.
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Spook ya later….