Courage (Free Fiction)

Beneath the Sycamore Tree

A.J. Brown

I told Cassie I loved her as I pushed her on the swing that hung down from the tall sycamore at the edge of the field behind my parents’ house. There was a pond not too far away where fishing was good and swimming in the summertime was a rite of passage. It was the perfect scene for any kid growing up in the south.

“What?” she asked and brought the swing to an abrupt stop, her feet kicking up dust as they dragged the ground beneath her. She looked at me with her crystal blue eyes, her head cocked slightly to the side, her light brown ponytail dangling. “What did you say?”

A lump caught in my throat, my palms began to sweat, and tears formed in my eyes. My chest swelled with fear. “I said I love you.”

She nodded as if satisfied, turned around, and placed both hands on the ropes of the swing. “Okay. You can push me again.”

I stood there for a moment, not sure what to do; not sure I liked or disliked her reaction. I had expected more. Like maybe Cassie hopping off the swing, hugging me, and saying she loved me. Leaning forward, I placed my hands on the small of her back and pushed.

I was eight. It was the first—and only—time in my life I knew love and how strong it could be.

She left my house that afternoon, skipping the way she always did, her ponytail swishing from side to side. At the end of the driveway, she turned, cupped her hands to her mouth. “I love you, too, Joshua Turner.”

It was the single greatest moment of my life.

Three days later Cassie was dead, her mangled body found on the other side of our property, not far from Grover’s Pond. Momma told me someone had done something bad to her but didn’t go into details. The truth is—and I found this out some time later—some pervert grabbed her on the way home from Mr. Hartnell’s grocery store the day after our conversation and raped her. He couldn’t leave it at that—violating her and taking her innocence away. He stabbed her sixteen times. I won’t go into the details of where several of the wounds were. You can figure it out on your own.

Cassie—my Cassie—was gone forever.

So, I thought.

I sat at the base of the sycamore the morning after her funeral, head in my hands, tears streaming down my face, heart broken into a million tiny pieces. A picture of her lay between my feet—I stole it off a collage her parents had made for the funeral. She smiled big in the photo, her eyes shining, her hair pulled back in the ponytail she so loved. The sun beat down on the world, promising another hot summer day. My eyes were puffy, and I wiped away a snot runner. I kept hearing her voice in my head.

I love you, too, Joshua Turner.

I guess as far as last words to hear from someone, those were the best types.

Taking a deep breath, I looked up. The swing swayed forward, hung in the air for a second, swayed back. My skin swam with goose bumps and a cold chill came over me. The swing repeated the process.

Before you say it was just the wind, which I’m sure some folks believe, there was no wind. It was as dry and still as any day could be.

I stood. My legs were weak and threatened to collapse beneath me. My hands shook. The swing pushed forward again, then stopped. The branch that held it creaked. Then the swing turned sideways, as if someone were sitting on it and looking back at me.

I inched away, each step taking me further from the tree. The swing dropped back to its normal position. I turned to run and only made it a few steps before I heard her voice.

Don’t leave.

Remember, I was eight. I was terrified. I knew what I heard and who it sounded like, but it was impossible. Still, her voice stopped me, and I couldn’t have run away if the devil were standing in front of me.

“Who’s there?” My voice cracked.

Don’t leave me, Joshua.

My bladder felt heavy. “Cassie?”

Joshua.

My mouth became dry. “Where are you, Cassie?”

I don’t know. I’m scared, Joshua.

sycamore-tree-4704744_1920I shook my head and pinched my arm, hoping to wake from the nightmare. I winced at the sharp pain. 

“Cassie, can you see me?”

Yes. Can you see me?

“No.”

Silence followed.

She had to be thinking. I could almost see her head cocked to the side, her ponytail dangling, her blue eyes clouded by thought. Why couldn’t I see her? She could see me. She said as much. So why couldn’t I see her? She had to be wondering the same thing.

“Cassie,” I hesitated. “You’re dead.”

Who knew ghosts could cry? Her sobs echoed all around me. The sycamore tree’s branches shook. Some of the leaves pulled free and fell to the ground as if they were green stars dropping from high in the sky. The water in the pond rippled away from the shoreline. I pictured her dropping to her knees, her face covered by her hands, shoulders heaving up and down.

“Cassie?”

I went to the swing, my legs still weak and my insides buzzing. It was much cooler by the swing. I reached for the rope, slid my hand down to where I thought her hand might be. Fingers. I felt her fingers gripping tight to the rope. In that instant I saw her. She faced me, her legs bent in at the knees. One of her shoes was missing. I saw the many stab wounds, her torn dress and bruised face; her split lip; the tears in her eyes. She released the rope, took my hand, and opened her mouth to speak, but said nothing. Instead, she stood and embraced me, putting her head on my chest. I shivered, and my teeth clacked together as her cold body clung to mine. Then I was pulled into her world, her final few minutes of life. She barely saw the man who grabbed her, catching only a glimpse of jeans and old brown work boots before a potato sack was shoved over her head. He dragged her down to Grover’s Pond, Cassie kicking and screaming until he leveled a heavy hand to the side of her head. The rest, the pain, the fear, the very life bleeding from her, I endured as well. I couldn’t pull free and I couldn’t scream. I could only feel.

Then, as if she knew I couldn’t take anymore, she released me.

I fell to my knees. Freezing and scared, I crawled a few feet away, then vomited. Dropping onto my back, I tried to regain some sense of where I was, who I was. Cassie knelt beside me. Her body was a mutilated mass of flesh and torn clothing, but her eyes—even the one swollen badly from a punch to the face, the same punch that had split her lip and broken her nose—held the beauty I had fallen in love with before she died.

I tried to sit up but couldn’t. After several minutes of a silence between us that felt too heavy to bear, I managed to roll over and get to my knees.

“Do you know who killed you?” I asked between deep breaths.

No.

“I’m going to find out.”

How?

“I don’t know.”

It was the truth. I had no clue how I would find her killer, just that I had to, that no one else would be able to.

The next few weeks I spent looking at people’s feet, hoping to catch a glimpse of badly scuffed brown work boots. When I wasn’t searching for her killer, I spent as much time by the sycamore tree as I could. Cassie sat on the swing and I watched it sway forward then back. A couple of times I asked her to take me there, to take me to her last moments again. I felt bad for asking her to do this—she had to relive it so I could be there, so I could try and see something different, or so I could remember those boots. Each time I threw up after revisiting the horror, after seeing the girl I loved raped and murdered.

And each time she pulled away a little more, as if I were killing her all over again.

Almost a year into my investigation, I found her killer. Tommy Tillman—the deputy sheriff. He was young, not even in his thirties at the time.

I found out by accident.

Back then our little town had donation drives for the police department. It was nothing more than canvassing neighborhoods, Jehovah Witness style, but instead of tracts about their religion, the adults received donation cards, and sticker badges were given to the kids. Sometimes they came around in their uniforms, but more often than not, they showed up in normal, everyday clothes. This was done to give the impression the cops in our town were normal, everyday folks, like you and me and Mom and Dad and Grandma across the river and Uncle Earl down at the bar. If people believed the police were no different than anyone else, then they would be willing to give more. It was a trick that worked. Heck, one year Bobbie Joe down on the farm not too far from us cracked open her piggy bank and gave them every penny she had saved up that year.

Tommy Tillman and one of the other deputies—I forget his name—knocked on our door one Saturday morning. Cartoons were on and Dad had let me skirt my chores until later that day. I don’t really remember what I had been doing or thinking, but I remember Momma saying ‘hello’ in her most polite way possible. I got up and walked to the door. She didn’t try to block my view when I stuck my head between her arm and waist. Officer Tillman was there with his best salesman smile on. And that other guy was right there with him, pitching their ‘give to the police of your town’ spill in his best ‘awe shucks’ manner.

I don’t know why I looked down at their feet. They were the law—I had no reason to suspect them of anything. They were supposed to protect us, not hurt us. I glanced down and saw those brown scuffed boots at the end of a pair of blue jean cuffs. Right then there was nothing else in the world. Momma was gone. The house was gone. The other cop was gone. The coming summer was a myth, and I swear, the world could have ended right then and I wouldn’t have known it. I looked up, following the blue jean pants and white T-shirt up to Tillman’s toothy smiling face.

“What’s wrong, kid?” he asked, that salesman voice still trying to make the politician’s pitch. “You look like you saw a ghost or something?”

I shook my head, pulled free of Momma’s arm and backed away. I stumbled, caught myself. I tried not to run, but by the time I was at the bottom of the steps leading to the second floor, I was in full sprint.

I went to bed early that night, telling Momma I wasn’t feeling so good. She checked my temperature, said I felt cold to her. Of course, I did—I had found Cassie’s murderer and there was nothing I could do about it. Contacting the police would do no good. Telling my parents? I thought about it. They wouldn’t have believed me. How many adults actually believe their kids about these types of things? Back then, not many. Instead, I kept an eye on Tillman, watching to see if he would strike again. During that time he didn’t, and Cassie’s death appeared like a random murder. That’s probably how Tillman wanted it to appear.

Dad died two years after Cassie. Mom moved us away, closer to her family in Nebraska. Years passed and seven other little girls, around the ages of eight to twelve, disappeared from around my hometown in the south. None of them were found. I knew who had taken these girls, and more importantly, I knew they were all probably dead. I didn’t find all of this out until I left home at eighteen and headed for a small college in South Carolina—less than a hundred miles from where I had spent the first eleven years of my life.

We still owned the old house and farm, but time and the elements had worn it down. Windows were broken, and a wino had moved in. The inside was a wreck.

Down at the sycamore tree, the rope that had once held the swing was frayed and the swing itself was missing. I got on my hands and knees, searched through the decaying leaves and found it not too far from the base of the tree itself. It was wet, but still solid enough to hold in my hands without it crumbling, to hold close to my heart.

“Cassie?”

I waited, repeated her name and listened. My heart sank. That familiar broken feeling crept into my chest. I had been away too long. She was gone.

Joshua?

Like the first time I heard her voice after her death, I almost ran away, not believing what I heard. At the same time, I thought it was just my desire to see her, to believe she was still there. My emotions ramped up.

Then it came again, soft and hollow, like an echo. Joshua.

My heart lifted.

“Cassie?”

You came back.

“Of course, I did—I never wanted to leave.”

I’ve missed you, Joshua.

The frayed rope swung slightly. I reached out, grabbed it. I saw her. She was still eight, still had that shredded dress on and all those stab wounds. I hadn’t expected that. To be honest, I don’t know what I expected. She died when she was eight. It’s not like she could have aged as a ghost, but part of me thought she would have been the same age as me. It was a ridiculous notion. The dead don’t age a day after they die.

“I’ve missed you too, Cassie,” I said, paused and then blurted out the only thing I knew to say. “I know who killed you.”

You do?

“Yes—and its time he got punished.”

We talked for a while, me and the ghost of the girl I still loved. Then I went back up to the house. The interior was wrecked worse than I thought it was and the remnants of where the bum had slept at one time remained in the corner near the back door. I searched the house, found it empty.

Instead of waiting for the homeless person to come back, I called the police from my cell phone, told them I wanted to speak to the sheriff. Turns out the sheriff was Tillman. An hour later, he met me on the front porch of my childhood home.

“What’s all this about, Mister …?”

“There’s a bum inside my house.”

“This is your home?” Tillman raised an eyebrow. He had changed some during the eight years since I had last seen him. His hair was still dark, but he wasn’t as lean as he had been—good eating had filled his body out. He didn’t wear his sheriff’s badge prominently on his shirt like I thought he would, and he certainly didn’t flash that car salesman’s smile.

“It belongs to my family,” I said. “I want the bum gone.”

“When was the last time anyone lived here?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I reckon not.”

Tillman walked inside, his thumbs tucked in his belt loops as if he were going to just stroll on in there and have a word of peace with some drunk and that would be that.

“There’s no one here,” he said after searching the house.

“Maybe he went out the backdoor when he heard you pull up.”

He gave me a curious look, a suspicious look. “You said he was in the house.”

“He was, but he might have gone around back.”

Tillman made his way outside and down the steps. He turned around in a half circle, scanning the yard or maybe just appearing like he was. His hands went into the air and he was about to say something when I yelled.

“Over there. He ran behind the sycamore tree.”

“What? Where?”

“The sycamore tree. He ran behind it. I just saw him.”

Some things in life I’ve never been good at: Math. I hated the subject growing up and barely passed every math class I was ever in. Social gatherings. I’ve always been somewhat of a loner. Affection. I’ve only told one person other than my mom that I loved her, and she was dead. Lying. I’m just not good at it. And I think Sheriff Tillman saw right through my attempt at getting him out to the sycamore tree.

If he knew, he didn’t completely let on. He walked slowly out that way, through the tall grass and unleveled ground. He neared the sycamore tree where a picture had been nailed to it. He yanked the photo free.

“Recognize her?” I asked.

He glanced toward me as I swung at him. I caught him below the left ear. He fell to the ground, rolled onto his feet and into a crouch. He drew his revolver, aimed at me. “What do you think you’re doing, boy?”

“Her name was Cassie. You murdered her eleven years ago.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, punk, but you’re under arrest for assaulting a police officer.” He spoke the typical cop words in the typical attempt at intimidating me. 

“The other girls—you murdered them, too, didn’t you?”

Full recognition dawned on Tillman’s face. His eyes grew slightly bigger than normal, and then he squinted. A smile—yes, the same smile he used on women to get them to donate money to the police department—appeared on his face. He laughed. “You think you’re smart, kid?”

I shrugged. I don’t know what I was thinking not having a weapon with me. Maybe I thought love would protect me. Maybe I thought I was tougher than I really was. Tillman pointed his gun at me, pulled the trigger. The bullet tore through my shoulder socket, shattering bone and coming out my back. I fell to the ground, blood seeping into the hot earth. Tillman’s shadow loomed over me, the sun behind him. Shading my eyes I saw the revolver a couple of feet from my head. I was going to die, and I was okay with that. Then I could be with Cassie again. For a brief second, I hoped I would be eight as a ghost and not eighteen.

No!

Startled, Tillman spun around. I didn’t see her as clearly as I had before, but Cassie was there, a blur of gray and white. She rushed at him, sinking both of her ghostly hands into his ribs. Tillman fired several times, the bullets striking the ground near his feet but doing no damage to Cassie. His mouth dropped open and his eyes—full of amusement earlier—grew wide in fear. I hope it was the same fear Cassie had felt as he raped and then stabbed her to death.

She held him there as his body shook. Another round was fired from his gun. I think he tried to scream, but nothing came out. Cassie did scream, her voice the same hollow sound, but so much louder, as if there was a microphone to her mouth. Her hands stayed buried in his ribs until his face turned blue and he collapsed, dead at her feet.

Somehow, love did protect me.

I dropped my head to the ground and closed my eyes. I welcomed a death that never came. Instead, I heard Cassie crying for several seconds before the sound faded. I opened my eyes and caught a glimpse of tears in her eyes before she vanished.

Folks around here say Tillman up and left. Turns out another cop had the same suspicions I did and had gathered enough evidence to prove the things he had done. It was enough in the eyes of the townspeople to believe he was guilty even though they haven’t seen him since.

That was nearly four years ago.

I have since moved back into the old family home and have been renovating it the best I can. I hung the swing from the same branch it used to be on. Each day I walk out to the sycamore tree and sit in the shade. I call for Cassie, but she’s gone, this time probably forever. I hope I’m wrong. I hope one day the swing will sway again; that I’ll hear her voice, and maybe, she’ll tell me she loves me one more time.

__________

A prompt-based contest story. The original version was much shorter than the one here. Sadly, I can’t recall what the prompt was, but I can say with certainty the story won that particular challenge.

It originally appeared on the now defunct House of Horrors website back in November of 2009. It can also be found in the short story collection, Southern Bones.

If you enjoyed Beneath the Sycamore Tree, please share this post to your social media pages and help me spread my stories to the world. Thank you, in advance!

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