CROAK TREE • by Matt Athanasiou

Thirty feet above the yard, Jake’s old man hung from the dead oak, a rope around his neck. The tree had overshadowed their home since Jake was a brat. Had been dropping its bare branches since about then too. Smashed the clothesline. Toolshed. Lawnmower. Which was why Jake had spent the past half hour climbing it. He had to cut his pa down before the branch snapped and speared the roof.

He crouched on the limb below the old man’s. Cramps stiffened his knuckles, but only twelve feet separated father and son. A lofty spit away, Jake thought, remembering his pa spitting on him for chopping firewood alone, and stepped forward.

Sharp snaps popped from the tree. Jake stilled and told his heart to slow before it agitated the snag more. “It comes down after you,” he whispered at the old man’s toes dangling over his branch.

When Jake had found him this morning, he had imagined his pa’s ghost grinning, saying, “Come on up, you want to get rid of me.” The image faded once he got close enough to notice his pa’s flat expression, the calmest he had looked in a while. Lately the old man had even grimaced while lazing in the tree’s shade, like he feared Jake replacing it with saplings. Younger, Jake had climbed the oak and sat in it, those thick branches holding him like his pa’s arms once had. Then Jake started working, focused on school — his pa was a dropout — and finished housework that his pa neglected, only giving the old man attention to complain about things like the oak losing branches. His pa noticed this.

The oak tilted, and Jake flattened himself to the limb. Pain ached his clenched teeth. His branch breaking over the house was a risk now too; repairs were not in the budget, so he couldn’t wait for the drunks at the volunteer fire department to bring a lift to this part of nowhere. Not after yesterday.

They had gotten canned from the factory, his old man for snapping at new employees, and Jake for his old man’s mouth; his pa told the young manager to watch his back, said Jake would retaliate. Guy fired both of them without question. Jake’s anger lasted until dusk, when the old man took an axe to the tree.

His pa had eventually started belting him for mentioning that they should cut it down, whapped him harder if Jake called the oak dead, a croak. His old man said it had been keeping the early sun out of their rooms before Jake had been around. “Drops its arms to remind you to watch out for it,” he said. “Some things need to be mean, but they do what they can for you. They stayed rooted here.” Last night, though, his story changed with the axe: “Useless twig. Losing everything.” Jake choked back insults about selfishness and left him hacking away.

Jake noticed how pale his pa looked now. The brown-gray skin that Jake had likened to the oak’s color was gone. He thought about the old man calling the snag mean, and wondered if his pa would find a way to be cruel in death as well.

He readjusted his footing, waited for a breeze to quit rocking the tree, and stepped another inch. A creaking noise held, and heaviness pushed on his chest like his old man’s calloused palms. He nearly shuddered himself off balance but fought through it, moved forward, and reached him.

He gagged. The soiled stench reminded him of the flu his pa had from every side one winter. Jake had passingly joked that his pa should wear a diaper, and the old man knocked him to the ground. And he kept shoving him down until Jake stopped trying to stand. Both had watery eyes by then. Jake watched out for his dad for weeks afterward, expecting a stiff arm to swing from out of nowhere.

Jake’s branch trembled, and cracking started along with the endless creaking. The shaking vibrated his boots, rattled the bones in his feet. He stood, focusing on steadying himself, and pulled the hunting knife from his belt.

Movement near his waist froze him, and he glanced at his pa’s limp hands. His insides twisted, as he ridiculously feared the corpse pushing him. Getting off the ground would be a hell of a lot harder this time.

The knife shook in his grip. He told himself to cut the rope but leaned back. Those hands had torn up Jake’s homework. Those hands had burnt a new sweater Jake had gotten from a girlfriend. Those hands had pinned Jake to the grass beneath the oak last month.

His old man had tied one off and ranted about the fifty-cent raise Jake had gotten at work. He told Jake to get a casket ready if his son planned to take his job away, and the old man attacked him. “Think you’re something? You’ll end up worse. Get your stuff. Get out of the house.” His voice cracked, tone shifting between pleading and threatening.

Sweat ran into Jake’s eyes, and he wiped them with his sleeve. He would not have wished his pa’s anger on anyone, but at least the old man had stuck around, whether for himself or for Jake.

The tree groaned behind Jake, cutting his reflection short. Pressure returned to his chest. His branch bowed, and the groaning grew into a jarring crack. Everything blurred.

He smashed his side on a thick limb and hugged it, gasping. Somehow he had shot backwards to a nearby branch; his had fallen and broken the eavestrough, where he should have landed. Above, his old man swayed, hands stiff at his hips and well out of Jake’s reach. An afterimage of his pa shoving him appeared whenever he blinked, and he felt overwhelmed by the thought that, for the first time, he hadn’t hit the ground.

Matt Athanasiou‘s writing has appeared in Danse Macabre, Menda City Review, Blotter Magazine, and other publications. Visit his website to read more of his work.

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