Monday, July 07, 2008

"The Hanging" by Benjamin Boulden

Okay, this is a one-shot deal. I'm not into self-publishing, other than reviews and other meanderings I guess, but this is a story I wrote a few years ago for a horror anthology with an Introduction by Ramsey Campbell. Oh how I wanted to make the cut for no other reason than it would be cool to be on the same contents page as Mr. Campbell. The editor asked for the ending to be re-written so it was "stronger," and somewhere between the first re-write and the third we decided it wasn't going to work.

Then I proceeded to submit "The Hanging" to several other magazines and anthologies and the usual response was: Too dark. So here it is, with its original ending, and I promise there won't be any more of my unpublished short stories around here. And this one only runs about 1,000 words. But if you don't want to read it come back in a few days—I have another edition of Zingers nearly in the bank.

It was dark in that part of the yard. There was an old walnut tree that needed pruning and behind that was a wooden fence missing some planks so you could look into the backyard and see the weedy, yellowed grass behind. That's why Jimmy didn't see the animal at first, because of the shadows. It didn't help that his cat, Sergeant, was black and wore the darkness like a cloak.

Jimmy didn't notice his cat hanging there until he turned the corner and felt, rather than saw, a shade of movement. He was more curious than scared that late October afternoon and so he turned back towards the tree to investigate. A brisk wind nipped at his face, pulled his curly blonde hair away from his forehead and swung the dead cat in a wide arc. Its neck was stretched out, long and narrow; the yellow-flaked eyes empty. A thin length of orange twine was wrapped around its neck just below the jaw, and at the opposite end the twine was attached to a low branch a few feet above, wrapped around it several times like a hitching post.

"Sergeant?" Jimmy stood still. His legs wouldn't move. His feet were planted in the overlong grass like roots. He leaned forward a little, brought his small hand down close to the ground and shook it. "Com'ere Sergeant." His bottom lip quivered. A tear was blown from his cheek by the autumn wind. He walked slowly, like an old man at his wife's funeral, toward the hanging cat. He was scared, sad and angry all at once. Jimmy's father had given him Sergeant just before he died of cancer the previous year"to remember me," his father had said. And the cat meant everything to Jimmy. It was his only friend and companion. It kept him warm at night and dried his tears with its sandpaper tongue.

When Jimmy finally reached Sergeant he put a hand out and gently stroked the thick fur of its belly. The cat didn't move; didn't direct those beautiful golden-black eyes at Jimmy. It just hung there: mouth wide-open, neck stretched and dead. Jimmy took the cat in his arms and cradled it like a baby. He pulled the knotted twine from around its neck and pulled it over Sergeant's head.

"Sergeant," he whispered. A cold shadow crouched in his stomach and tightened. The grief flashed like a supernova. He stumbled to his knees, the cat held firmly against his chest, and cried.

"What a baby!" The words were spoken three times before Jimmy heard them and looked up. When he did, Jimmy saw his neighbor Brax Wild.

Jimmy didn't say anything. He tried to focus on his neighbor, but the empty weight of his dead cat pulled at his attention.

"Cats are for girls anyhow." Brax laughed so hard tears rimmed his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. "Should 'a seen it Little Jim. Ran so hard. Gawd." Brax snorted like a pig when he laughed. "But I got 'em. Stupid cat just sat on the fence. Didn't think I could. But I did, you bet."

Jimmy looked up at the older boy. The tears dried on his face. A pinch of heat smeared across the back of his head. "You?" His voice was shallow and weak.

"You should see yerself Little Jim. Gawd. The look in your stupid eyes."
"You?" He looked down at the dead, broken body of his cat, then back up at Brax. He saw a devil. All the rage and hate that had settled on Jimmy from the teasing and the torment of his father's death exploded in his head. "You—did this?"

Brax straightened up and stopped laughing. "Yep." He rubbed his ample belly with his left hand while flexing his right. "You gonna do somethin'?"

Jimmy looked back down at the cat. The flare of cold rage blossomed in his head. First his father died and now Sergeant. His buddy, his little friend always purring and licking, always wanting attention, giving some love and hope to a little boy that didn't have much.

Jimmy put Sergeant down gently on the grass and stood. He was skinny by any standard, but hate puffed him up. Brax suddenly didn't look quite so cock-sure. There was doubt in his eyes. Maybe even some fear.

"Well?" Brax shouted. "You gonna do somethin' or not?" He backed away a step, stumbled over a pile of loose leaves and nearly fell. When Brax looked up, Jimmy was on him. He yelped in surprise and grunted when a clenched fist hit the soft flesh of his belly and doubled him over.

Jimmy was crazy with hate. The hard slaps of flesh on flesh echoed in his mind like a mad symphony. His eyes didn't see. They were closed tight against the violence. His arms propelled themselves. Brax stumbled to his knees and then fell face down on the wet grass. Jimmy found the soft places: the stomach, the shoulders and finally the head. He kicked until Braxton quit moving. Then he leaned down and slapped his face over and over.

He stopped. The cold flare of hate settled lower into his shoulders. Its heat cold and silent. He turned away from the heap that was Braxton Wild and walked slowly back to his cat. Its poor limp body used and destroyed. The tears began to flow again as he clutched Sergeant to his chest.

Jimmy looked back at the mess that was Brax and smiled. The coppery smell of violence coy in his nose. All the hate and fear the world had thrust on Jimmy lay in that smear of life. He turned back to the dead cat and held it close, trying to feel something. Anything other than the electric fear that pulsed and jagged all around him, but there was nothing—only an empty pain of loneliness and the bite of a crisp autumn wind.

(c) 2006 Benjamin Boulden


Anonymous said...

Ben, that was great. Your writing is amazing. I felt such anger toward Brax, really authentic dialog.

Anonymous said...

Good job on the story Ben. Poor cat.

Mathew Paust said...

Love this, Ben. Sam Peckinpah would have loved it, too!