Chapter no 23 – THE HANGMAN‌


The children were disoriented from the overdose of shock. Bordering on mania, many of their beating hearts found rhythms of excess. The next steps were uncertain. Hesitation lingered, the idea that death might lurk around any corner was now undeniable.

CJ looked on at the unglued group—it was all going to hell. The leadership role overwhelmed him. It was a position he regretted opting for.

Sadie sat covered in blood, still snug against her sister’s severed limb.

Isaac stood hunched over, throwing up a short distance from his sister’s pulverized body. The reserve of vomit he’d held back could no longer wait.

Kip cried, standing beside Bobby, watching him hold his shredded forearms against his tee shirt to stunt further blood loss.

Donnie remained by himself, seemingly oblivious to the atrocities unfolding around him.

As the maddening sound of the baseball machines continued, CJ wondered where Tanya was. Dragging his mind away from the distractions, he turned back around toward the ball pit.

Tanya stood in front of the pit, just a short distance from the tall but narrow steps. She was shaking uncontrollably, mumbling to herself as she gazed upon the hangman’s chalkboard puzzle:



Wiping the fresh tears, Tanya didn’t let her focus budge.

CJ decided detaching himself from the uncontrolled emotion of the majority was the best thing for the collective. He joined his sister at the ball pit.

“Stab him! Stab him in the head!” she yelled.

CJ looked up at the circular, kickball sphere that was the hangman’s head. His eyes then dropped to the shiny blade of the hunting knife fixed to his fluffy hand.

“You think that’s it?” he asked.

“What else could it be? Nothing else makes sense.” “Maybe that’s why the knife is there.”

Tanya bit her lip.

“But what if it’s another trap?”

“It could be. But I don’t know what else to do. I don’t think anyone’s coming to find us here.”

A question dawned on Tanya that the non-stop chaos hadn’t allowed her a moment to consider.

“What do you think happened to Mom and Dad?” “I don’t know.”

CJ didn’t feel comfortable speculating. “You don’t think they knew, do you?”

Tanya couldn’t even believe she asked the question, but everything was so backward that, as sick as it sounded, the notion seemed possible.

“What? Of course not—”

“My arms are still bleeding,” Bobby moaned.

Amid the commotion, CJ had forgotten to help his brother. Bobby appeared paler than ever before. CJ guessed that part of his transition had to

do with stress, but the excessive blood loss wasn’t without fault. From what he’d learned in school, the human body only had so much blood inside. If Bobby lost too much, it might spell his doom.

CJ rotated his perspective back to the hangman dangling on the platform. While the dummy appeared to be made out of stuffing, the clothes fixed to his puffy body looked like a normal flannel shirt and jeans.

“P—Please, I need your help,” Bobby begged.

CJ approached his big brother and grabbed hold of him. He softly guided him to the ground before helping him into a seated position.

“I’ve got an idea that should help get you patched up. You just gotta hang tight for a minute, okay?” CJ asked.

Bobby was getting weaker. He nodded his pale face, hoping his brother would implement his idea sooner than later.

CJ looked over at Kip.

“Come and hang with Bobby for a minute.” “What are you gonna do?” Kip asked.

“I’m trying to figure it out.”

CJ approached the narrow platforms that acted as a staircase to reach the hangman. He took a deep breath and looked at Tanya.

She was ensnared by the same debilitating dread that everyone else was, yet somehow, she remained operational. So much time had passed them by. The more CJ considered their relationship, the more he felt like he’d neglected it. He’d been far too focused on his hobbies and achieving his individual accomplishments. He suddenly saw the aspects of Tanya’s persona he’d overlooked. The strength and heart she possessed bordered on supernatural.

He’d never been so proud to be her brother. CJ felt his lip quiver as he spoke.

“I’ll be right back,” he said.

“Wait! What are you doing?!” Tanya cried.

“I’m gonna get the hangman down. We can use his clothes for Bobby’s cuts. The puzzle says we have to anyhow.”

“I don’t want you to go.” Tanya’s voice was cracking.

“Just make sure the others don’t go too far,” CJ said.

He made a quick arm gesture toward puke-drooling Isaac and the rest of the kids.

“Hold on! Maybe you shouldn’t,” Tanya cautioned.

She didn’t have to say it; CJ could see it in her eyes. He knew that she wasn’t prepared to see him potentially take his last steps. He wasn’t prepared to die either. But for a soul of his nobility, no matter how terrified he was, the sacrifice of absorbing the risk that lay ahead wasn’t even a choice.

CJ stepped toward his sister, not wanting to alert the others to what he was about to say.

“Bobby’s bleeding a lot. He looks pale. I need to get those clothes,” he said.

“I’ll go,” Tanya said.

Her bravery astounded CJ, but the excitement of avoiding the dangerous task was a fleeting one. As athletically underrated as Tanya was, CJ had the best chance at getting to the hangman without issue.

“I’ll be right back, Sis,” he replied.

As CJ turned away from Tanya, she looked at the long bleeding streaks running down his back. The ride down the sharp slide looked to have done a number on him. But upon closer inspection, the mass bloodshed made the damage look worse than it was.

“Be careful,” Tanya said.

CJ focused on the task in front of him and blocked out all the mayhem. As the crying, chatter, and loud shooting sounds of the pitching machines died out, suddenly, he found himself alone in his head.

CJ wondered what the fall into the ball pit might entail. What could’ve possibly lingered below that wasn’t visible to the naked eye?

“Forget about that, you’re not gonna fall,” he whispered to himself.

He squinted at the slim, circular platforms in front of him and held his breath.

CJ had always been relatively balanced whenever he needed to be. But this wasn’t a time that he could just hope for the best. He needed to be perfect.

Trying not to overthink the challenge, CJ exhaled and extended his leg to the first platform.

The stand wasn’t more than a foot or two from the ground, but its size was the tricky part. He wobbled side to side a few times before planting his other foot successfully next to the first.

Feeling stable enough, CJ shifted his focus to the next platform. It was no higher than when he hurried up the stairs at home and went two steps at a time. However, there was far less room for error.

Coming off the solid surface allowed him room to balance. But the tiny platform he was on made the next step even more difficult than the first.

CJ’s leg shook and his muscles grew tense as he lifted the limb up from the circle. He dropped his heel down on the next platform, regaining his poise. With his legs parted slightly, he tested his equilibrium.

Believing his stance to be steady enough to ascend further, CJ repeated the successful method on the next four steps. He found himself several feet high in the air gazing downward. As he calculated the length of his potential fall, his knees wobbled.

Shifting his view away from the goal was a mistake. CJ’s focus blurred the moment his concentration transitioned from the task at hand to the worst-case scenario. As he aimed his head at the hangman, his legs buckled. He was now faced with an all-or-nothing opportunity.

CJ reacted by taking his best shot. He vaulted forward and attempted to bounce back and forth between each of the remaining steps to reach the hangman’s platform.

His first foot planted strong, causing relief to blossom in his chest. The generational athleticism he was blessed with could potentially be the deciding factor in CJ reaching the hangman.

While his agility may have been superior to his peers, it didn’t matter so much when his second foot came down too close to the edge of the platform.

Panic pulsated through CJ’s body as his sneaker slipped. He fell sideways with his shirtless, blood-drenched back closing in on the army of colorful balls below. As his body sailed downward, reality slowed. The fall felt much higher than it was. Flickers of CJ’s brief life manifested before his starry eyes.

The first images to occupy his sights were telling—a patchy compilation exclusively made up of the many moments CJ had lived for others. The long hours he’d spent in a grassy field under the sun. The hundreds of times the baseball found his glove. The ping of the metal Easton bat launching the ball over the chain-link fencing. The countless curses and scowls that crimped his father’s face.

The box Greg had created for CJ was big, but still a box, nonetheless. Within was the long, grueling path his father had carved out for him, and no finish line.

Next, CJ witnessed recollections of Tanya, Bobby, and Kip. While he didn’t always get along with his brothers, a forgotten flood of good times rushed into his mind. There wasn’t an abundance of memories of doing things he enjoyed, but when they all came at once, there was enough for CJ to completely reconsider their sibling dynamic.

The late-night ghost stories in the walk-in closet. The exciting games of tag and manhunt in the neighborhood. The countless trips to the video store. The cooperative games on Super Nintendo. The choreographed wrestling matches in the living room.

CJ considered that he might’ve spent too much time focusing on the things that perturbed him about his family. Looking back, they were much better than he’d given them credit for.

“CJ!” Tanya cried.

She instantly rushed toward the edge of the ball pit.

He had expected a somewhat cushy connection initially, followed by whatever sick trick the old witch had in store afterward. But to CJ’s surprise, the balls that filled the pit weren’t the standard. While the skin on them looked the same as any pit he’d ever seen, it wasn’t.

As his bloody back crashed into the heap, he realized their exteriors were far thinner, almost balloon-like. The weight of his body landing full force caused them to erupt, and a white grainy substance fluttered outward.

Underneath the spheres laid the same hardwood flooring he’d just left. Except, instead of the marbles, there was more of the white substance from inside the balls.

The substance became less mysterious when the agony arrived. It spread like flames on a dry day all over CJ’s back. Not only did the grainy pieces coat his backside, but the popped balls shot some of the sprinkles up into his mouth.

The taste reminded him of the ocean. “Ahhhhhh! It burns!” CJ bellowed.

The salt crystals wormed deep into the wounds on his slimy back. The combination of blood and sweat hugged the stinging sand and acted as a bonding agent. In just seconds, the once snowy salt had become tainted by

his fluids. As it sank further into the lengthy crevices, scorching burns stretched across the symphony of slashes.

“CJ! Are—Are you okay?!” Tanya asked.

He powered through the pain and crawled over to the platform. Forcing himself to his feet, CJ cried out in anguish. He tried desperately to use his arm and wipe off the crystals congealing to his back, but he was only pushing them deeper into his cuts. He just hoped that what he was experiencing was the worst of it.

“It hurts like hell, but I—I think it’s just salt,” he said.

CJ’s back was suddenly beet-red. The flaring irritation on the surface wounds was the ultimate distraction, but his watery eyes darted around, calculating his next move. When they arrived on the backside of the hangman’s platform, he noticed a small steel ladder had been affixed to the rear. It led all the way up to his destination.

“I think I found a way up,” CJ said. “Be careful,” Tanya begged.

CJ pulled himself up each rung of the ladder until he reached the hangman’s platform. He took hold of the blade in the dummy’s hand and lifted it above his head. Sawing the knife side to side, he severed the rope after a few revolutions. When the hangman’s lightweight body fell into his hands, he measured the toss.

“Everyone step back, I need to throw it down,” CJ said.

The small group of children now cluttering the entrance quickly backed away, making space for the hangman.

As CJ wound his arms backward, he realized he finally was ready to throw a pitch that he actually cared about. And just like on the baseball diamond, his aim was true. The blade of the knife scraped across the floor, while the body of the hangman landed in front of Tanya.

With the salt still burning up his back, CJ made his move. Descending the steps would be far easier than climbing them, but he still had no desire to go for another swim in the salt. He bounced side to side, landing each foot rapidly in a plunge toward perfection.

But as CJ went tumbling to the floor near the hangman’s limp body, he saw something unexpected. His eyes widened and a gawk of deep disturbance clung to him. A faint sparkle remained in his pupil, but it wasn’t a sparkle of hope. It was the light reflecting off the twinkling blade whizzing toward his face.

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