Release Date: April 19, 2016
They called it the murder tree.
In 1995, twenty kids went in to the woods. Only three came back.
There are monsters in the woods.
Twenty years later, what happened is still a mystery.
The monsters are back.
Now, the town of Silk faces its greatest threat in over two hundred years. No one is safe.
Not even the monsters.
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They called it the murder tree.
The kids did, anyway. To the adults, those people who no longer believed in ghost stories and things that went bump in the night, it was known as the old Litz tree. The last living monument to the family who founded the town before Georgia was even a state, giving their money and lives in the process.
The adults liked to gloss over that particular part of the story when discussing the history of Mulberry.
The kids preferred to linger on it.
Most of them knew the story of the night the Litz family lost their lives before they were even able to read the decades old textbooks grudgingly provided by the Department of Education. By the time they graduated to junior high, all the kids—the cool ones, at least, the ones you wanted at your party or it wasn’t really a party—had camped out next to the murder tree. More than one high school girl had allowed her boyfriend to “comfort” her in the shadow of the ancient mulberry after listening to the story of the Litz family yet again.
You weren’t a part of Mulberry until you had spent your time at the murder tree.
It was the only reason Elias Crenshaw could think of for why he was freezing his balls off on what was shaping up to be the coldest night of the year.
That and the fact Mandy Jones had promised him she’d be there. The way she’d told him, with just the tiniest smile of her bubblegum pink lips and a flutter of lashes, was enough to keep him warm.
But only for another hour. After that, he was going home. The guys could rag him all they wanted on Monday morning. They’d be the one with bug bites and frozen fingers and all the other stupid things that happened when you spent the night in the frickin’ woods. He’d be warm and rested and all studied up for the big biology exam in sixth period.
Man, if he didn’t get at least a C his parents were going to flip. They’d already been on the fence about letting him camp out the Friday before a test. If he failed, they wouldn’t let him out of the house again until the end of the school year. He’d be the only kid not allowed to go the eighth grade prom.
Mandy Jones would never go out with him if he was the loser kid who didn’t go to the prom.
“Your face is going to freeze like that.”
Elias snorted. “No, it won’t.”
“Yeah, it will.” Shephard Jackson widened her already big brown eyes—bug eyes, Mandy called them—and nodded solemnly. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Probably the wrong thing to say when we’re next to the murder tree.” Elias tilted toward her, leaning in with his whole body before hunching his shoulders and shivering. “What are you doing here? I thought you weren’t allowed in the woods after dark.”
“I’m not.” She huffed out a breath, the puff of frosty air doing nothing to dislodge the white blonde hair seemingly glued to her forehead. She’d bleached it the week before on a dare, just like she’d pierced her nose last month and broken in to the library the month before that. “But that’s Kelly’s stupid rule. She keeps trying to act like she’s my mom or something.”
“Well, she married your dad.” Elias winced when she reached over and smacked him on the back of his head. “Jesus, Shep.”
“You’re not supposed to take her side. You’re supposed to take mine.” She sniffled and swiped her hand under her nose. “That’s what best friends do.”
“Fine, whatever.” When Shep sighed, Elias rolled his eyes. “It’s a stupid rule and she’s a bitch and she should stop trying to act like she’s your mom.”
“Thank you.” The pseudo sniffling immediately stopped and she leaned in to him, her slight frame weighing next to nothing. After a moment, she said, “What are you doing here?”
“Rite of passage.” He nodded at the small group clustered around the carefully constructed fire. Albert had insisted they follow all the safety rules for lighting a fire in the woods, reminding everyone of Smokey the Bear’s immortal saying. “Supposed to be more people coming. Real party.”
“Oh, please.” She scoffed, the harsh exhalation shaking her entire body. “You’re here because Mandy Jones said she was going to be here. Her and her little group. They’re so… ugh.” She shook her head before turning to scowl at him. “You couldn’t fall in love with some girl who can actually have a conversation for longer than five minutes without mentioning cheerleading or makeup?”
“First, I’m not in love with her.” Elias returned her scowl, narrowing his eyes to slits. “We barely know each other.” Truth, even though he’d spent countless hours imagining what it would be like to kiss her. “Second, just because she’s not fighting the power or whatever you do when you’re not pissing off your stepmom doesn’t make her stupid. She’s really smart.”
“Eli, she said it was ridiculous to have the term ‘african-american’ because if you were born in America you obviously couldn’t be from Africa.”
“Well.” He paused, racking his brain for an explanation even as he winced. “You know, there are a lot of adults who feel the same way. Like we should all just embrace our current culture and let of our heritage.”
“Right.” Shep snorted and rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” She jerked her chin at the fire. “Let’s go. Story time.”
“Oh, come on.” He groaned, digging in his heels half-heartedly when she tried to drag him toward the group. They both knew it would be impossible for her to move him unless he helped. She was a hundred pounds soaking wet, barely topping five feet while he’d gained twenty pounds since school started. The only reason he wasn’t as fat as a turkey was the corresponding growth spurt, the new six inches putting him dangerously close to six feet. “Not again. We’ve heard this thing a million times.”
“So this will be a million and one. Come on.” She yanked his arm harder, grumbling something under her breath about ogres. “It’s tradition to tell the story at every campout. Besides….” She trailed off, smiling up at him and batting her lashes. “I’m pretty sure Mandy finally arrived.”
“Well, in that case.” He laughed when she gasped, using her moment of feigned shock to scoop her up and toss her over his shoulder in a fireman’s hold. “You know what’s really great about having you as a best friend? You’re easy to pick up when we’re fighting.”
“You’re such a troglodyte.” Shep pounded on his back with her fists, biting back a scream when he took a step forward. “If anybody sees me, I swear—on my mom’s grave—I will make your life miserable for the rest of the year.”
He paused, not at the threat, but the oath. After a minute, he dropped her back to her feet, brushing a speck of something off the shoulder of her jacket. They stared at each other, the awkwardness of the silence nearly tangible. Finally, he said, “Sorry, Shep.”
“Whatever.” Spinning on her heels, she stomped toward the far side of the group, the laces of her combat boots slithering over the dead leaves like a snake. She slid between Albert and Jacob, sneering at something one of them said. Elias watched for another minute before shoving his hands in his pockets and trudging over to join the growing group.
“Hey, Elias.” Mandy half walked, half skipped up to him as he neared the fire, linking her arm with his. “I thought you were going to spend all night talking to that weirdo.”
“She’s not a weirdo.” The defense was as automatic as breathing. “Her mom died, remember? Like, right in front of her. She’s just, you know, grieving.”
“Right.” Mandy sighed, the sort of huge, exaggerated sigh Elias knew meant annoyance at his supposed ignorance. His older sister made the same noise every time he asked her a question. “Whatever. I didn’t come out to these stupid woods to talk about her.” She smiled at him, the fire casting shadows over her normally light and bright face. “I came to hang out with you.”
“Dude, we’re waiting.” Isiah Graves, Elias’s second best friend—but number one guy best friend, as Isiah was quick to point out—raised his voice to an almost shout. Since he’d been the one to propose the campout, he’d insisted he get to tell the story of the murder tree. Elias didn’t bother reminding him it was a hollow honor. “Story and then party. Rules are rules, man.”
“Nobody cares except for you.” Jacob Wesson had the honor of being the oldest person in the group by a month and the first to have a voice which didn’t crack at random moments. “Just get this boring ass shit over with before I die of fucking boredom.”
“Okay, okay.” Isiah hunched his shoulders and shuffled his feet, shooting a glare around the group at large before straightening to his full height. “The year was 1748. The town of Mulberry was struggling, just as it had been since the Litz family arrived from Germany with a dream of producing silk and other luxury goods.”
“He sounds like a really dorky version of Mr. Young.” Mandy’s breathy whisper smelled like cinnamon and Elias closed his eyes for a split second, inhaling deeply. When he opened them again, she was watching him with a knowing look.
“Everybody else in the town wanted to use the land for rice, something they could use and sell. But the Litz’s refused to give up their dream.” Isiah paused, drawing out the attempt at suspense. “Finally, the people of Mulberry decided enough was enough.”
Even though everybody knew how the story went, how it ended, every last one of them inched closer. The next part of the tale was always told in a voice barely above a whisper, as if the long dead participants would hear and interrupt to correct the teller on some minute point. Tonight was no exception.
“The entire town, everybody except the children, marched out to the Litz homestead. Josiah Litz tried to talk them down, make them see reason, but he failed.” Isiah stepped back and pointed up at a thick limb jutting out from the trunk in a crooked line. “They strung him up here but the fall didn’t break his neck. So he watched while the town slaughtered his entire family.”
He paused again, the group holding its collective breath. The leaves, long dead but stubbornly clinging to their branches, shivered as a faint wind blew through the forest. Mandy moved closer to Elias and he put his arm around her, ignoring Shep’s eye roll.
Isiah waited a beat longer. “Or rather—almost his entire family.
“They forgot the oldest son was returning from New York. Franz Litz had been gone so long, it was possible the town had forgotten he even existed.” Isiah rapped his knuckles on the tree trunk, nodding solemnly. “But Josiah hadn’t. And while he slowly suffocated to death under the weight of his own body, he swore his family would have their revenge. And they did.
“While the town burned the house and the trees and buried the bodies of the Litz family, Franz, who’d witnessed everything from the safety of the woods, rode in to Mulberry.” Isiah stepped back in to the circle, his low voice forcing everybody to move closer in order to hear. “And hung every last child.”
The wind gusted through the woods again, stronger this time, the trees rattling their limbs in protest. Somewhere in the distance, some animal let out a single short cry, quickly cut off by the crunching of something larger and more dangerous. Elias glanced around the circle, surprised at the number of pale faces and large eyes, even as he reminded himself it was only a story.
“The townspeople caught him right after he hung his last victim, a baby barely a month old. They hauled him, kicking and screaming, back to the murder tree.” As one, they turned to look at the ancient mulberry. “Even as they put the rope around his neck, he fought. His last words before the noose broke his neck were ‘A cursed ground bears only poisonous fruit’.”
“Or so they say.” Jacob snorted and shook his head. “Whatever, dude. Stupid story about a whole bunch of dead people.” He nudged Shep with his shoulder and laughed. “Fuck’em. Let’s party.”
The circle broke up in to smaller groups, twos and threes and fours, each cluster wandering away from the murder tree. Mandy gripped Elias’s arm tighter and shivered. “That was so scary, right?”
“Right.” He wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not and the smell of her floral perfume was too distracting for him to try and figure it out one way or the other. “So, uh, did you want to go for a walk or something?”
“A walk?” She laughed and shook her head. “Uh, no.” Still laughing, she slipped away from him, reaching up and pushing her shiny lemon-yellow hair behind her shoulders. “I actually need to go talk to Shanna about the routine for the game tomorrow.”
“Right.” Elias nodded dumbly. “Uh, right. Good luck with that. I’ll just… go… talk to Isiah.”
Elias hunched his shoulders, stalking over to the base of the murder tree. Isiah studied his face, rocking on his heels before sucking air through his teeth. “Man, that was an epic crash and burn. Epic.”
“Shut up.” Elias punched him, pulling back at the last second. Isiah was nearly as skinny as Shep but more fragile looking, as if a good solid blow would break him in two. “She had to go do cheerleading stuff.”
“Cheerleading stuff.” Isiah snorted. “She’s such a fucking tease.”
“Dude, stop.” Elias looked up as another gust of wind shook the branches, a handful of leaves falling down around them like confetti. “Did you have to pick the coldest night ever to do this thing?”
“Nah, that was just luck.” The other boy grinned and attempted to wiggle his eyebrows. “Pretty spooky, right?”
“Whatever.” Elias nudged him with his elbow. “You bring any good snacks or what?”
The crying woke him up.
At first it was just part of the dream. A good dream. A dream where Mandy Jones was dancing with him at prom, telling him how awesome he was and how great he looked and how much she loved him. And then he heard crying but when he looked at Mandy she was still smiling and telling him how she couldn’t wait to kiss him.
“Elias, wake up. Wake up, Elias, wake up.”
“G’way.” He rolled over, smashing his face in the lining of his sleeping bag. “Sleeping.”
“Wake up, please, Eli.”
At the use of his childhood nickname, he rolled back over, opening his eyes until he was able to squint through heavy lids. “Shep?”
“Quiet.” She cupped her hand over his mouth, leaning down and pressing her lips to his ear. When her cheek touched his, he realized the smooth skin was wet. “We have to run before he finds us.”
He tried to speak again, glaring at her in the dark when she dug her nails in to his jaw. After a moment, he realized she was attempting to turn his head. Rather than struggle, he let her, blinking in an effort to get his eyes to adjust to the nearly non-existent light.
At first he thought someone had thrown a sleeping bag over a branch. Stupid kid stuff. But the longer he stared, the less sense that made and the more details he began to see. Like how it—whatever it was—was thinner at the top, like a rope, before becoming pudgy and then narrowing down to a gentle v shape. How it swung back and forth slowly like an overweight pendulum. How it made a wet, gurgling sound which raised the hairs all over his body.
And then the moon broke free of the clouds and Elias realized it wasn’t a sleeping bag. Not even close.
And it wasn’t the only one hanging from the branches of the murder tree.
He started to scramble to his feet—to run or hide or help his friends—only for Shep to yank him back down. Her voice was tight and thin when she said, “They’re dead. They’re all dead. We have to go.”
Nodding dumbly, he let her pull him further away from the tree, deeper in to the woods. She’d begged and pleaded and whined until he’d agreed to sleep next to her, as far away from the fire as possible while still being in the clearing. The tangle of bushes had provided extra coverage against the northern wind, something he’d been thankful for as the fire died down and the cold set in.
“My shoes.” Even though he knew he spoke, he was barely able to hear himself through her hand. “Shep.”
“There’s no time.” As if to prove her point, she stomped her own bare foot on top of his. “Come on.”
In the darkness behind them, someone giggled.
Elias glanced over his shoulder, nearly tripping and falling when he saw a fire, this one easily twice as big as the one Albert had so carefully built hours earlier. And standing around it were a half dozen figures, lit by the ghoulish flames.
The faces—long, narrow, big-eyed, slack-jawed, smiling, drooling—were the last things Elias remembered for a very, very long time.
About the Author:
L.M. Pruitt has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember. A native of Florida with a love of New Orleans, she has the uncanny ability to find humor in most things and would probably kill a plastic plant. She knows this because she’s killed bamboo. Twice. She is the author of the Winged series, the Plaisir Coupable series, Jude Magdalyn series, the Moon Rising series, and Taken: A Frankie Post Novel.