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3 – Another Hanging in Paradise
The following month was hot, the sun’s scorching rays beating down on the packed earth and sending waves through the otherwise clear air. While neither Maggie nor Otis felt it, they did notice the stillness that accompanied the extreme temperature. Even the snakes, usually so fond of basking in the sun, crawled back in their holes for fear of being cooked in their own skin. Late summer was always that way, and brought dull boredom with it as the days went on.
Adam looked up hopefully at the sound of every hoofbeat on the horizon. Whether it was a misguided prayer for rescue, or the promise of future company that wasn’t, Otis and Maggie found difficult to tell. In either case, the result was shit company and a disturbance of the tenuous peace the other two spirits worked so hard to achieve.
Maggie sat in the higher bows of the hanging tree. Her ass hovered a few inches inside her chosen branch but was close enough to make the action feel real. Too much time floating through anything and everything was enough to drive someone mad. Pretending the rules of physics still applied was one of the many tricks she had learned to stay sane. From her perch, she watched the wagons and horses cut a wide berth around Hangman’s Hill and didn’t blame them – it was haunted after all.
The sun made its way across the arid sky as she reflected on her death and the days that followed. Unlike the people hung after her, Maggie had been alone. Back then, the hill had been so quiet. While most of the deceased weren’t keen on talking, Maggie could hear their spirits rustling just beneath the crust of the earth. Most tried to find sanity, speaking with her and Otis for a day or two, but in the end, they all did the same thing.
Six feet below the ground, thirty or so odd spirits lay horizontal with their eyes closed, pretending to be dead. Feeling particularly morbid, Maggie floated through the layers of the earth to peer in at the others, but there wasn’t much to see aside from dirt and otherworldly green energy. She and Otis had taken to calling them The Dirt Nappers. Neither of them was much for creative energy. They tried their best not to disturb them, but on the occasions they did, the spirits grew violent and became every bit of a poltergeist they could muster. One of them had moved a branch in a moment of particular passion, but Maggie had been the only witness.
Maggie shook her head and floated back to the top of her tree. Watching the world slide idly by while sitting in the branches of her tree was as close to peace as Maggie had ever found. In life, there had been a profound calling for action every second to fight for every man, woman, and child on earth. In death, there was nothing to be done. Sitting and waiting for nothing was the best damned retirement she could have asked for, and Otis was right; the sunsets were fantastic.
Adam on the other hand could find no such peace. He spent his days trying to break through the barrier, enduring the painful shock that went along with it each time and finding new and creative ways to curse. The sound of his cries broke Maggie’s calm and made it nearly impossible to appreciate the serenity that was her afterlife. Otis had always been good about knowing when to shut up. Adam always assumed it was his turn to talk and spewed a continuous string of unhelpful questions.
One day, still sizzling from his latest escape attempt, Adam had fixated on the idea of pockets. “Why do we still have ‘em?” He pushed his hands through his pants for emphasis.
“Have what?” asked Otis.
“Pockets, why do we still have pockets?”
Otis for his part encouraged the kid and didn’t make things any easier. “If you really want to keep yourself up at night, ask Maggie why she’s got a still-functioning pocket watch, yet I can’t fix my damned hat.”
“Don’t start about the hat again.” Over time, Maggie learned that Adam wasn’t curious so much as eager for an opportunity to complain.
“She has a what?”
Otis laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about it, you’ll see it when we get to bettin’.”
“If he asks another question, I’m going to run into the barrier myse—” Maggie stopped, going silent. In the distance, she heard hoofbeats, followed by whoops and hollers echoing across the desert. It was the telltale mix of excitement and testosterone that only came from impending murder.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, another one?” Otis floated up to get a better look. Sure enough, a party of four men was riding toward the tree. “It’s that damned summer heat, puts the devil in men.”
“Just in men?”
“Oh, let’s not get into gender norms now, Maggie, there’s a hangin’ to watch.”
Maggie glared at him but returned her attention to the riders. “I bet that’s Reggie again.”
Otis scoffed. “Why don’t we just ask young Adam here.”
Adam floated up beside them, struggling to maintain his balance. “Reggie?” he asked.
“You probably know him by Reginald, the man that hung you.”
“Oh.” Adam paused. “Yeah, he’s none too fond of me.”
Maggie let out a slight whoop. “Told you, Otis. Could spot that man a mile away.”
“Yes, and being right is such a lovely color on you. Now why would our dear friend Reginald want you hung?” asked Otis.
“I may have…”
Maggie turned toward him. “May have what?”
“Slept with his wife.” Despite the circumstances, Adam still had a tinge of pride as he said it.
Maggie scoffed. “To think, Otis and I were both unjustly strung up, and you’re just here because you couldn’t keep it in your pants. Well, The Hanging Tree really does take all types.”
“Shut up, kid, it’s time to bet.” Otis watched the riders carefully. “He’s got a bag over his head, just like this one.” He jerked a thumb to Adam. “But he’s making a lot less noise, probably conserving oxygen.”
Maggie looked down at the men, sizing up the victim. “This is a tricky bet.”
“What are we betting on?” Adam hovered closer, still correcting for a constant, slow forward spin he couldn’t seem to shake.
Otis ignored him. “You know he’s not getting enough air in that bag. Means he’s going to be quicker.”
“Don’t think he does his core exercises?”
“As a matter of fact, I don’t.”
“What the hell are you talking about?!” Adam’s form glowed bright before settling to muted green.
“We’re betting on how long it’s going to take this man to die once they string him up.” Saying it out loud made Maggie feel shameful, but not enough to stop taking mental measurements in her head. Besides, Adam would be a dirt napper before long; the crazy had already begun to eat into his brain.
Adam made a disgusted noise.
“Look, kid, we’re stuck, can’t do nothing about this poor bastard’s fate, might as well have a little fun. Think they’ll use a bucket, Otis?”
“There has to be something we can do. No one should suffer a fate like this.”
Maggie ignored him. “I’m going to say four minutes on the nose. Less if there’s a bucket, for obvious reasons.”
“That is a long time to sway on the rope.” Otis thought it over. “I’ll take that action. The usual bet?”
“You’re both pathetic. I’m going to do something about this.”
“Have fun, kid.”
Adam floated away from the other two spirits, towards the approaching party. Had they been able to see him, he might have cut an intimidating figure. The image of a spirit floating down from a hanging tree to greet bandits would have sent anyone running. Fortunately for the greasy men, confident atop their horses, they saw nothing but an empty tree.
“Oh, this is perfect. You’re going to love this place, Larry” said the man in the lead with a hearty guffaw. “Bill, take his bag off.”
“That’s not Reggie.” Maggie could tell immediately. The leader was too round about the middle, and Reggie only laughed once a job was done.
One of the horsemen stepped down.
Adam walked up until he was right between Bill and the to-be-hung. “Hey, get out of here!” he yelled.
“Well this is new.” Maggie watched eagerly.
Bill, a thick barrel of a man, took no notice, passing right through Adam on his way to remove the victim from his horse. There wasn’t even a shudder of acknowledgment or a cold chill.
Adam yelled. “Screw this!” His spirit glowed bright once again.
“How is he doing that?” asked Otis.
Maggie didn’t answer, but was instead watching the horsemen, one of whom twitched when Adam’s form glowed. She couldn’t be sure, but it almost looked like the man had seen him. “Holy shit,” she muttered. “I don’t believe it.”
Adam paid neither of them any attention and ran full speed at Bill. His spirit reached a blinding level of brilliance and then disappeared. Bill looked momentarily sick, his hand still wrapped around the rope connected to their prisoner. Then, his arm jerked out to the side, violently, snapping the rope taught and pulling the victim off the horse.
Maggie watched as the bagged man fell in slow motion with a muffled cry. He twisted, trying to right himself, but landed firmly on his head. There was a sickening crunch as his neck cracked against the hard-packed dirt. Adam reappeared in the same instant, moving at high speed as if Bill’s body had shot him out like a cannon. His spirit smacked into the barrier, sending up a huge burst of energy, outlining the upper portion of the dome in its entirety.
“What the hell did you just do, Bill?” The leader hopped off his horse and walked around to where the hanging victim now lay slumped. “Ah, Christ.”
Bill looked around wildly, confused. “What just h-happened?” He ran his hands over his skin as if it were someone else’s.
Maggie didn’t have to look closely to understand the position of the victim’s neck wasn’t healthy. It was slumped to the side at a forty-five degree angle, and the man gave no movement other than slight twitches of his feet.
“Hell, he’s still alive. No point in hanging him now, Bill. He probably can’t feel shit.” In a surprising act of mercy, the leader pulled out his pistol and shot the twitching man in the head.
At the same instant, an older man appeared, lying on the ground, right next to his body, neck still bent at an odd angle.
“Holy shit,” muttered Otis.
“Did Adam just possess someone?”
“He sure did, and you lost the bet. Time to pay up.”
Otis shook his head. “That one’s going to be a handful.
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