By Michael Poore
They were going to hang John.
John was five. He lived on a farm with his aunt and uncle and some cousins, and an eighty-year-old grandmother they called Big Ma.
Big Ma wasn’t big. She was a frail old lady, and they all treated her like she might break at the slightest touch. She never did, break, though, until John broke her.
Running around the house like a wild Indian, he plowed right into her eighty-year-old knees. Down she went, and banged her head on the old maple floor.
Cousin Edward, the oldest, was crying mad. Scared. With the aunt and the uncle gone to the city until Monday, it was all on him.
The law and the house rules, he thought, were clear.
“If she dies,” he pronounced through tears of rage, “I’m going to hang him.”
The younger cousins might have thought this extreme. Certainly John did.
“Get me the cribbing rope,” he told Ned. “I’ll show you how to make a noose.”
Hanging John was going to be a family project.
Teresa’s family had Greek roots. They insisted that she grow up with strong virtue. How else would she marry well?
That’s why it was such a big deal if she behaved badly. That’s why she rarely did.
That’s why, when she did a bad thing in eighth grade, she chose to lie about it.
“I’m going to Kerri’s house to do homework,” she told her parents.
Then she went off to Kerri’s house to call boys on the phone.
One boy had a bitch of a mother. His mother called Teresa’s mother.
When Teresa got home, her mother was crying. Her father stood in the kitchen door, turning red. Then he jerked Teresa over to the mantle, and wrapped her hand around a statue of the virgin.
“Swear on the ikon!” he demanded. “Swear on the ikon, you will never do this thing again! Good girls do not call boys. You know this. Swear it!”
Teresa couldn’t do it. Too much church ran in her blood, in her thirteen-year history. Nothing could move her to lie with her hand upon the virgin’s ikon.
“No,” she said, lip quivering, a tear on her cheek. “It wouldn‘t be true.”
Her father slapped her. Hard.
She cried out. So did her mother.
Neither parent had ever hit Teresa before.
Her father fled the house. Got in his car and drove away, tires squealing.
There is an ancient legend about a bad dude called ‘the Fool Killer.’
The Fool Killer is a monster of sorts.
“If you don’t eat your vegetables,” mothers would tell their children, “the Fool Killer will come with his chopper and chop, off goes your head.”
Perhaps the best illustration is the story of The Boy Who Took Things.
Once upon a time, there was a boy who liked to take things. He lived in a small house with his mother and father and sisters and brothers, at the edge of a village near the edge of the deep, dark woods.
Sometimes the boy took little things, like the cornhusk dolls his sisters played with, or shiny things found by his brothers. He hid these things in a secret place in the forest.
The Fool Killer was drawn to that part of the forest by a smell, a smell peculiar to bad children. And he followed the smell with his long nose until he came upon the boy in his secret place.
When the boy saw the Fool Killer standing over him, he said “What the hell do you want?”
The Fool Killer wasn’t a big talker. He sliced off the boy’s head.
People searched the woods, but gave up after a minute or two. The Fool Killer’s victims are rarely missed.
Ian thought he was using common sense the day he met the Mean Dog.
A big white dog came running at him when he was walking home from school, and growled at him and showed its teeth.
Ian backed off slowly, and went three blocks out of his way, going home.
When he told Mom why he was late, she took his dinner plate and kicked him out of the house.
“You get out there and walk home the way you always go,” she said.
His mother had no tolerance for sissies.
On the way, Ian picked up a stick, and that made him feel better until the dog came charging at him, big as a house. Ian dropped his stick and ran.
The dog bit him badly in his rear end. Tore his pants, tore flesh. Seemed encouraged by Ian’s screams.
His mom had the common sense to take him to the emergency room for stitches, hinting that he’d better not say a word.
John kicked and screamed when they dragged him out to the barn. Edward got
him by the hair, and pulled him across the floor. The other hand held the long, coiled
They tied him to a post up in the hay mow, and Edward made sure he watched while he tossed the rope up high over the rafters. Twice. Tugged it, made it snug, and left the noose dangling between sunbeams.
“You can’t do it,” he whimpered. “You ain’t supposed to do something like this.”
They left him alone.
It was really going to happen.
He puked all over himself.
Teresa wasn’t virtuous at school one day.
Called her teacher a “Hoe.”
Her teacher was having a bad day, it was obvious. Collecting homework, she snatched Teresa’s paper out of her hand.
“Jesus,” gasped Teresa, “you old hoe!”
The principal gave her a detention. When she got home, her mother was waiting for her in the middle of the living room.
“Basement,” said her mother.
Teresa went cold. She hated the basement. The basement gave her the willies.
“Maybe your aunt,” said her mother, “can teach you something about respect.”
No! thought Teresa.
Her mother’s firm hand propelled her to the stairs. Locked the door behind her.
Teresa remembered Aunt Anna’s funeral. The first funeral she’d ever been to. Anna in her black dress. Open casket for the funeral, and then she’d be cremated. Teresa had been seven, and all she could think was how Anna didn’t look like a person anymore. Looked like a model of a person, like wood or wax. Looked evil, somehow.
Anna’s ashes, on a shelf down there in the basement, waiting until the day they
could afford a vacation trip to Greece, where Anna wanted to be scattered in the surf.
Anna scared the hell out of Teresa. Even up in the girlish safety of her second floor bedroom, she could sometimes feel the ceramic urn and its terrible contents way down here in the dark, in the catacombs of the house.
“You’re a hoe,” she told the dark, told her mother. “You’re a hoe, you’re a hoe, you’re a hoe.”
The middle of the twentieth century was a lean time for the Fool Killer.
If you chopped up someone’s kid in the 1950s, they didn’t shrug it off the way they once had. They had ideas about justice which made justice a difficult thing to accomplish.
Besides, what a confusing time. The whole idea of behaving badly took on new dimensions once the atom bomb came along.
Still, the Fool Killer persevered.
Still came hunting the day three southern white boys slipped into Watertown after dark, and made a little black girl chew broken glass. Left her by the wrong side of the tracks, barely breathing.
Chop. Chop. Chop.
He put the heads in a bag, shuffling down the railroad tracks beneath jet contrails and the first satellite. People were still grateful, deep down, but they raised a stink anymore if he left heads lying around.
Orin Butts took Ian’s pen.
Ian had a huge orange rocketship of a pen. It played music and wrote in six neon colors. He left it on his desk when he got a pass to use the bathroom, and when he got
back, it was gone.
Ian knew Orin had his pen. Had to be in his backpack, on the floor by his desk. Nowhere else to hide a monster pen like that.
“Give me my pen,” he whispered.
The teacher asked if there was something she could help Ian with. Ian sighed. Said “No.”
Let it go.
At home, Ian’s mom asked where his rocket pen was.
Lost, he told her.
But mom knew his lies, and before a minute passed, she had him in the car. Drove him three blocks to Orin Butts’ house.
“Don’t come back without your goddamn pen,” she croaked, and waited, engine idling, while he went to the door.
“I want my goddamn pen,” he said when Orin came to the door.
Orin looked puzzled.
Orin said “What?”
Ian had thought he might say something like that, and he had decided ahead of time what to do.
He twisted his body boxer style, and let Orin Butts have it right in the belly.
Thought he might encounter spring steel, and was astonished when Orin’s belly plushed and folded like any other belly.
Didn’t hurt him much, though. Orin’s fist shot upside his ear and knocked him sideways into the shrubbery.
Ian climbed free just in time to see his mother’s taillights fade upstreet, and disappear around the corner.
When he came to the breakfast table in the morning, his mother hadn’t set a place for him.
“When you get that pen back,” she said, “you can eat.”
He cried hot tears all the way to school. An empty space, more than hunger,
yawned inside him. Mother-shaped and full of minus signs.
No dinner that night.
No breakfast again, either.
Orin sat next to him at lunch, and asked why Ian didn’t have a lunch, or lunch money, and Ian told him.
During Science, when he got up to use the pencil sharpener, the pen reappeared on his desk.
That night, he decided, he would show his mom the pen, and then refuse to eat anyway. He’d refuse to eat until he collapsed from not eating, and then the police would come, and then…lots of things, then.
Mom just nodded, matter-of-fact, when he showed her the pen.
Then she put tuna casserole on the table.
Ian, without hesitation, wolfed it down like a caged animal.
John grew feverish, in the night, in the barn.
He thought about heaven. Found out he didn’t believe in heaven enough for that to make him feel better.
Like all boys, he’d heard about the ghosts of hanged men.
They’d hanged a man downtown, once, outside the county building, the same county building they had now. Said the man they hanged had a brown eye and a blue eye. Even now, if you went down by the county building at midnight, you could see an eye, a blue eye, open up in the ground at your feet.
He wondered if a ghost is like your actual self, with the things you knew and what you thought, or if it was just like a recording your sadness made when you died.
The barn creaked against itself in a light, midnight wind.
Eating like a pig was a mortal sin. Teresa knew this.
Even so, when Karri found a cheesecake in Teresa’s family freezer and suggested they eat the whole thing, Teresa thought it was a good idea.
Dinner was very late that day, because her parents were late. They’d gone into Chicago that morning, and weren’t back yet.
They could have eaten anything in the fridge; it’s not as if they had to eat cheesecake.
It went down so easily. Then Karri went home.
Later, when her parents got home she didn’t want to eat. Felt almost sick, in fact. Sick enough to tell them about the cheesecake. Could you get cheesecake poisoning? She hadn’t thought of that.
Teresa’s mother took Teresa’s chin in her hand and glared into her eyes.
“You can go to hell for that,” she reminded her daughter.
Teresa nodded, sniffling. Wanted to throw up.
“We can help you never to forget like this again,” said her mother, and ordered her to the dinner table.
Ordered her to eat.
Teresa gasped. It wasn’t possible. Her mother reminded her about hell.
Teresa ate lasagna, then had to run to the bathroom.
Now that she was sick, she thought her mother might let her go to bed.
No. There was more lasagna. More commands. And salad. For a minute or so, beginning anew on an empty belly, Teresa was almost hungry. But her stomach was shell-shocked by now, and before long there was only pain.
A glass of water. Another.
Teresa’s mother made her eat until midnight.
Cooking eggs at ten o’clock. Fixing rice in a bowl. Rice which swelled and expanded.
That night, for the first time in seven years, Teresa woke to discover she had wet
She just lay there, wishing the bedclothes dry, the beginnings of a fever stirring behind her eyes. And she tried to hate, a blue-hot, directionless hate, but couldn’t manage. Too much had been built up inside her, too much erased or forbidden.
At least she wasn’t going to hell. However that worked. She thanked the virgin and the virgin’s child. Her love for God squirmed in her like a tapeworm.
The new century was going to be the death of the Fool Killer.
It was a jagged age, these fast new years.
The Fool Killer had always been focused. Now he slept more than he should. He took a pill that was supposed to keep him from feeling anxious, and another pill to help him sleep.
One day he was at the superstore, buying toilet paper, when he overheard a daddy yelling at his kid to “Put that down and come on!”
The kid ignored his dad.
The dad yelled louder. The kid put down whatever it was he had, and picked up something else.
And the dad, out of ammo and out of energy, gave up. The dad walked over to his kid and asked “Whatcha got there?”
Watched the dad buy it, whatever it was, for his kid.
And the Fool Killer understood.
Followed them into the parking lot, into the semi-dark between sodium lights.
The chopper chopped.
The kid watched his dad’s body slap headless to the pavement.
“It’s all his fault,” the Fool Killer explained to the kid. “Not yours.”
Then he chopped the kid’s head, too.
“Old habits,” he whispered, sniffing the dark.
Ian wouldn’t do it.
“Give him a kiss,” commanded his mother. Her voice was a hiss, trying to stay low-key, avoid a scene.
Ian, and Ian’s mom and dad, were at the funeral home, wearing their best. His mom’s dad lay front and center, looking nasty and dead in a mahogany casket.
Ian had never seen a dead person before.
First, the news: Grandpa had a heart attack.
Ian had cried. So had Mom. Then they’d prepped him for the funeral.
“Lots of your relatives will be there,” Mom had told him. “And Grandpa will be there, too.”
He’d be in a casket. It would be like he was sleeping.
Except Grandpa did not look like he was sleeping. He looked pinched and hollow and dead.
What if he walked up to the casket and the old man — this evil old dead man — lurched forward and grabbed him, and then folded himself back inside the casket, trapping Ian in an iron, dead grasp. What if they couldn’t get him to let go, and they had to bury Ian with him, sad as that might be?
That’s the kind of thing Ian thought about until his dad said “Let’s go,” and it was time for them to walk up and pay their respects.
They went forward, Ian, Mom, Dad, one three-pronged happy family, and halted about a foot from the casket. Unreasonably close, Ian thought. Inwardly, he turned to water. Up close, you could see the swirls of makeup on the dead skin. And all around this thing of horror, burnished wood and flowers.
He wanted to gag when his mother leaned down and kissed the horror on the lips.
“Kiss him,” she said, straightening, nudging Ian forward, into the grab zone.
Ian finally knew what it felt like to really be cornered, and he learned the thing that cornered animals know, the thing cornered animals feel.
“No,” he said.
His mother’s eyes were a tightly controlled inferno.
“Do as you’re told,” she said. “It’s your Grandpa. It’s the last time –”
“It’s not my Grandpa,” spat Ian, feeling floaty, feeling far away from himself. “It’s just something dead.”
People were looking.
His mother pushed him. Not hard, just a little, with the back of her hand, but it was enough to unbalance him, just enough to tip him against the casket, just enough that he had to reach out, grab hold of the mahogany the way he might grab hold of a tabletop or a desk at school.
And it didn’t tip over. Didn’t spill Grandpa all stiff and waxy onto the carpet.
The casket did rock a little on the bier. Grandpa did wobble, just a little, enough to cause gasps, cause grownups in the room to feel, just a little, the same macabre dread which filled Ian.
Ian straightened and recovered.
Again he said, more quietly this time, “No.”
His mother had already backed up, already composed herself, put on her ’normal’ face.
Later that night, when his mother told him to bend over the back of the sofa, and approached with an extension cord, Ian wasn’t afraid, not too much. Not enough to cry, anyway.
The sun came up.
It was the exact kind of day you see when they hang someone on TV. Cloudy and foggy. A little chilly.
And John woke up slumped sideways, still tied in the hay mow.
The first thing he saw was the noose, and his heart accelerated. They hadn’t come out to get him in the night, which meant Edward hadn’t changed his mind. Which —
Here they came. He heard them. Heard the screen door slam, heard feet clambering down the wooden steps to the yard. Heard their voices, raised and determined.
John almost passed out. He wondered if being hung was going to be half as bad as being afraid of being hung. If he could have just vanished into oblivion, then, with a magical, obliterating thought, he would have done it.
And hung by his cousin, not a judge or even his uncle or Big Ma, but just…
The barn door opened. Dust stirred.
Four figures walked across the floor, boots and bare feet thumping.
Edward. The cousins. And Big Ma.
Oh, thought John. Thank God he thought. Then his second thought, right away, was that he knew it all along. Your cousin couldn’t hang you, for Christ’s sake.
“Cut him down outa there,” croaked Big Ma, a wicked blood blister just below her temple.
She held cousin Gene, the youngest, by the ear. She held cousin Ned, the middle, just older than John, by the elbow.
Edward climbed into the hay mow and worked on John’s ropes. He looked scared, but not so scared he didn’t take time to whisper that John had to know it was a joke, and wrinkle his lip at John’s vomit.
Ned struggled briefly, and Big Ma kicked him still.
Big Ma reached for a bullwhip, a black old serpent hanging in cobwebs from the
centerpost. And as John and Edward inched their way down the ladder, her eighty-year-old arm flexed and winked. The whip curled and snapped, left a weal down Ned’s rangy little arm.
“Teach you–” she barked, but before she could continue, there was a flurry of motion in the mist and the dust and the half-light, and Gene was gone out the door, into the grass, toward the woods.
Big Ma’s eyes were wide and bright like the eyes of someone in the Bible.
Her head jerked.
Edward and John exchanged a look, then leaped to the floor to join Ned, and the three of them took off.
Hunting Ned down like a dog, to bring that little bastard to justice.
Michael Poore is the author of the novels Reincarnation Blues (Del Rey, 2017) and Up Jumps the Devil (Ecco, 2012). His short work has appeared in Agni, Southern Review, Fiction, and Glimmer Train, and anthologies, including The Year’s Best Science Fiction and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. Poore lives with his wife, poet Janine Harrison, and daughter Jianna, in Highland, IN. He is a seasoned expert at performing stupid, unimpressive magic tricks.