Fiction by Casey DW Jones

Six years since Ethan stepped foot in Kansas, and he’s coming in hot. Long flight from Sydney. Plane changes. Crappy airport bench sleep. One too many mini bottles of wine.

Shit’s changed. The prefab condos and well-lit retail plazas. Four lanes instead of two. Shit’s the same too. Miles of farmland. Deep pockets of wood.  Billboards of smiling babies with Down’s syndrome. Limestone bluffs chalking away in the wind. A sky to Jesus and back.

Cooper’s steering with his knee. Big Cooper. Scary Cooper with a beard now. He puts a dip into his lower lip and lights a Winston.

“The old bait shop is a Starbucks now, huh?” Ethan says.

“Been that way for a few years,” Cooper says.

Coop’s arms are brawnier now, that’s for goddamned sure. The full extent of what he’s been up to the last few years? A veritable fucking mystery. Taking Coop at his word has always been a dicey proposition. But there’s no reason to doubt he’s been doing HVAC while moonlighting as a bouncer at the Town and Country Gentlemen’s Club.

“Goddamn, it’s hot for September,” Cooper says. He strums the butt of his pistol on his hip holster with his fingers, William Tell rhythm.

“And yet nobody around here believes in global warming.”

Cooper spits into a Styrofoam cup and takes another drag. “You know, hippy, one of the new girls at the club I’m banging has hair just like you—all long and curly. I didn’t know if you were my brother or my long-lost sister standing there at the airport this afternoon.”

“You sure know how to roll out the welcome mat.” Ethan says. Atrophied limbs melt into the bench seat. Pulse quickens. Can’t breathe in deep enough. Tries hard to ground himself. Gray spotted dog in the ditch with an orange collar. Elm tree with gnarled bark. Mangled skunk’s tail flapping on fresh yellow highway stripes. Smell it. Choke on that skunky new highway tar smell. Breathe out negative thoughts. Unemployed, unattached, homeless, broke. Breathe. Thirteen miles outside of Topeka with madman estranged brother in an open-carry state. Breathe it all out. Daddy Webdon’s land will become property of Peralta development firm in the morning. Better breathe that out too.

Onto that old winding dirt lane. Tall hardwoods form a deciduous tunnel, pungent and alive— a breathing wet sock. Late-summer sun freckles through the foliage. Ethan lurches forward as the truck screeches to a halt in front of a cattle gate wrapped with shiny chains. Chains won’t stop Coop, though. No way.

“Cornbread shit,” Cooper says. He hops out of the cab and grabs a pair of bolt cutters from the truck bed. He snips off the locks and untangles the chains. Coop turns around and flashes a deranged grin and flings the gate open. “Must be Peralta’s locks,” he says and slides back into the driver’s seat. “Greedy bastards. Goddamn them.”     

A mile up the road, Cooper stops the truck and points his finger across the yellow haze of the brome field, toward Deer Creek.

“That’s where the water station’s going in.”

The cottonwoods along the creek rustle. Leaves shimmer green and gold. They’re so fucking old and tall and rooted. Outlived both his parents.

“Dad must be spinning in his grave,” Ethan says.

“He ain’t buried, dumbass.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean it literally. I just forgot.”

“That’s an easy thing to do when you’re half the world away.”

“I didn’t come back here to get lectured by you.”

“What did you come back for, then?”

“You asked me, remember?”

“Oh, yeah. I do recall sending you an email or something.”

“I need to move on with my life.”

“You already done a splendid job of that.”

“Goddamnit, Cooper. I need you to help me. I don’t even understand what happened. Like, why’d he give up?”

Cooper cocks his chin and rubs his beard. “Well, when they play the eminent domain card, ain’t much else you can do but take the money.”

“You know I’m not talking about the land.”

“He was sick—and he was in ‘Nam for Christ’s sakes. Cut him slack?”

Green caterpillar bungees up and down in the window. Ethan grabs its flossy string. Holds it out the window. Wind sucks it away, behind them.

“I’m not saying he was a bad person or what he did was bad. I do think he was a bad dad, to me anyway.”

“Hey.” Cooper slams his Styrofoam spittoon into the cup holder. Chaw juice slops over the edge. Trickles down. Pools. “You get what you put into it. I was here with him till the end. And, where were you? Digging shit ditches in Haiti on some bullshit Peace Corps mission?”

“Where were you for Mom?” Ethan says.

“I was taking the heat for you,” Coop said. “You know that.”

“They dropped the charges, Coop.”

“Well, I was locked up a long time before that happened. You know what that does to a person? You ungrateful little shit.”

“I always appreciated what you did for me. You know that. I’m just saying. I wasn’t going to put my life on hold for someone who never showed the slightest fucking interest in me.”

“And I couldn’t go back to that town more than what I did, not even for a funeral.” Cooper flicks his cigarette out the window. The butt caroms off a hedge ball into tall shocks of dried cheatgrass. Smolders.

“You trying to burn this whole place down?” Ethan says.

“Listen, Goddamnit, Son. They’re clearing out these woods next week. Then they’ll plant a bunch of little trees from Asia according to a chart some douchebag from Boston drew up. So, spare me your fucking Park Ranger sermons.”

“If I were giving a sermon, I’d tell you a healthy prairie needs fire. That this land wasn’t always farmland and woods. We just made it that way, right after our ancestors stole it from the Indians.”

“I should have figured you’d gone full libtard by now.”

The lane narrows. Tree limbs screech against the truck. Ethan runs his hand across his stubble. Like his father, he’d never grow a full beard. One more thing that bastard would never do for him.



“Don’t ever call me Son again.”

The woods clear at the top of the hill where the farmhouse sits. Cooper parks the truck under the family oak tree, next to the propane tank they used to pretend was a submarine. The farmhouse has gone straight to shit. Slouched over itself. Most windows boarded up with warped plywood. White paint flakes off wood siding. Grass in the yard is chest high. Bobs and bends with each tickling wind gust. A large oak branch, charred at the tips from a bolt of lightning, lies splayed across the uncovered cement porch. Great-grandparents built this house at the turn of the century. Used to be a fortress strong enough to survive drought, fires, floods, tornadoes, even the Dust Bowl. But now its time had come. Death knell a court order. Of all fucking things.

“Damn, this place is jacked,” Ethan says.

“Looks about the same as it did at the auction. But you weren’t here for that, of course.” Cooper gets out, grabs a sledgehammer from the truck bed. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s see what’s left.”

Standing behind those same old Coop blue jeans. Always with the chew ring worn through in the back. Always tight as second skin. Coop hoists up the oak branch and heaves it off the porch. It’s swallowed by sea of grass. Coop jiggles the doorknob. Locked. He tries a key. Doesn’t work. “God damn it all to hell.” Window shatters like a forgotten melody. That’s so fucking Cooper.

“So now we’re breaking and entering,” Ethan says. “Great.”

“Would it kill you to pretend like you want to be here?”

Surprisingly clean kitchen. Blue and white backsplash. Gray granite countertops. Brown tiled floor. Unfinished holes where appliances used to sit. A familiar haze hanging heavy and thick. Time-warp odors. Pulpy woodwork sweat, old pioneer lumber rot. That Mossvak stench: bad luck and hard living and woe is me.

“When’d they do these updates?” Ethan says.

“Wanda put it all on her credit card. Before the lawsuits heated up.”

Wanda, the second wife. What a joke. Since day one. She always made herself scarce on their near-annual summertime visits. Cooper said she fled to Arizona after the check from Peralta cleared. He hadn’t heard from her since.

“They’re gonna tear this place down?” Ethan says.

“Wanda got what she wanted, or at least what she could get, out of it. The developers ain’t got no use for it. Probably turn it into a Noodles or some such bullshit.”

Cooper takes off Webdon’s army jacket and hangs it on the doorknob. He lifts the sledgehammer above his head. Brings it down. Glorious latent rage. Granite countertop explodes, splinters into pops of shrapnel. Ethan crouches and takes cover. Walls are next. Then every light fixture. Dangling cans swing and slap the ceiling. Shattered bulbs spill onto the floor.

Coop takes the carnage upstairs. Ethan’s in the living room, transported unwillingly, a strange sleepwalk. Gazes out the bay windows to overrun pasture while ceiling plaster rains on him. The last summer he spent here, he was what, fifteen? Webdon drank coffee every morning and watched the hawks hunt. Grunted with every circle and swoop. Squealed with delight when one ensnared a vole or a snake in its talons. Webdon disappeared a few times that summer. He’d come back after a day or two, stinking of fish guts and campfire, eyes bulged out like a bullfrog. Coop would never let him call Mom to tell her. Ethan mentioned the vanishings later that year. She just shook her head and said, “Story checks out. That poor guy.”

A black-and-white portrait: Grandpa and Grandma Mossvak. Hanging above an empty aquarium, molded up and mottled green and gray. Grandpa looks like a wife-beating dick with a moustache. He died on the railroad tracks drunk, when Ethan was two. Ruled an accident. Ethan doesn’t know much about Grandma. She died while giving birth to their Uncle Ray. That sonofabitch overdosed in the tractor shed at seventeen. Webdon found him.

Ethan turns around. Cooper’s right there. The yellow handle of the sledgehammer splotched with blood. Coop wipes his mouth and motions at the portrait. “Grab it and throw it in the truck.”

“Nah, I have like zero memories of them anyway.”

Coop rips the picture from its mount and leans it against the wall, facing them. He cocks his head and grins.

“They sure look like some depressed fuckers, don’t they?” He hands over the sledgehammer to Ethan. “It’s not too late to make some new memories.”

“Sorry, but that’s not really my style.”

“Suit yourself, Zen master.” Cooper rips the hammer back. “That’s not the Ethan Mossvak I know.”


Ethan slides the portrait into the pickup bed. Slams the tailgate shut. Sonofabitch. It’s one of them good ole boy Kansas sunsets, the kind that sucks everything bad into it. Weariness. Anger. Travel. Time. Regret. Takes all of that and churns it back out into something pretty. If you stare long enough. This evening: streaks of pink and purple and orange cumulus spiraling over the graying line of trees. Those old Mossvak woods back there. Dark and spooky. Where Deer Creek bubbles up through the limestone and winds itself across the land. Same creek that nursed four generations of his bastard family. Some suckled harder than others. Not Ethan, though. Never asked for anything. Never got anything.

“You got your whole life in there?” Cooper’s voice is startling. He asked that exact question about Ethan’s giant North Face backpack at the airport earlier that day.

“Pretty much.”

“Grab your jacket and a light. Leave the rest of that crap here.”

“What about my sleeping gear?”

“I wouldn’t plan on doing much sleeping tonight.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s our last night out here – ever, goddamn it. And we still have some unfinished business. We got to find Dad’s tree.”

Ethan pulls his fleece out of his backpack and slings it over his shoulder. Somewhere out in those darkening woods his father ended his own life six months ago. Where exactly did it happen, though? What kind of tree was it? What was the color and groove of its bark?  Would it be worth finding? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Either way, tonight’s his last chance to find out.

“Why didn’t you go on your own yet?” Ethan says. He straps his headlight around his forehead and chucks his pack into the truck bed. “You’ve had plenty of time.”

An owl flitters up into the elm canopy. Cooper spits on the ground and rubs it into the gravel driveway with his army boot. “I was waiting for you, dumbass.”

Ethan walks alongside Cooper down a tractor trail bisecting the elm grove. Thick tire ruts scabbed over with grass and weeds. Tree roots snaking in and out of the dirt. Spider web speed traps. Ethan stops and picks the sticky tendrils from his shirt. Cooper sighs, takes a sip of whiskey from his flask.

“Let me have some,” Ethan says.

The soothe of warm whiskey. Scratchy throat coated. Night woods noise growing and building. Ethan focuses in on a single katydid. Attempts to locate it in the darkness. Over there. Behind that rock. In those weeds. Every time he has it pinpointed, he loses track of it. The katydid moves, changes frequencies, and gets interrupted by a different katydid. Then he starts all over again wondering if this a new one, or is it the same one? Did Webdon ever play this game? Would Cooper understand what he was doing if he tried to explain it to him?

Above, an owl hoot. Another howl returns the call in a lower octave from the other side of the woods. Hoot-two-whit-whoo! Ethan cries out. Jolt to the temple. Head rattles from Cooper’s hand.

“Don’t mock him.”

“I wasn’t, Goddamnit. You know he was the state owl calling champ four times. It was a tribute. And don’t fucking hit me again.”

“Let’s just focus on finding this tree, all right?”

“Hey, question related to that. How will we know which one it is? There are thousands of trees out here.”

“We’ll know, all right. We’ll just know.”

Ethan shines his headlamp up and down every tree. Inspects the lower branches for signs of wear and distress. Inventories them all out loud. Sugar maple seven, no sir. Dogwood four, uh-uh. Red elm six, I don’t think so. Cooper keeps pace, works with his own flashlight.

A mile and a half up the trail, the headlamp reflects off a metal structure. The shape is eerily familiar, but long ago forgotten. A shadow of a ghost. Coffee-can shaped. Roof like an upside-down funnel. Big old augur jutting out.

“Coop, look.” Ethan doesn’t know why he whispers, but it feels right. “It’s the grain bin.”

“Of course. Wanda said he was living out here, at the end.”

Cooper cranks the vaulted door open. Clangs it against the side of the grain bin. Insect skeletons crunch beneath Ethan’s hiking boots. Rodents scurry and claw against the ruffled tin walls. Cooper lights a propane lantern and sets it on a weathered card table. He plops down in an old plaid recliner near the woodstove. Dust and dander swirl in the hissing lantern light.

Webdon’s army cot in the corner, with a blanket folded back. The things he last touched scattered around it: books on war and philosophy, a mess kit, empty cigarette boxes, some fishing poles, a hatchet, the wood stove. When was the last time he touched his father? What kind of touch was it? A hug? A pat on the shoulder? When was the last time he even saw him? It must have been when Webdon brought a bag of groceries to his house, when Ethan was at college just down the road. Came by out of the blue. Hadn’t seen him in a year. Could that have really been the last time? Seven years ago? What did he say to his father as he was leaving? Certainly not I love you, but did he at least say thanks for the food?

“Why didn’t you wait for me, Coop?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

“That wasn’t my call.”

“I just needed a couple more days to get here.”

Cooper shrugs. “I don’t know what else to say. We stopped relying on anything from you a long time ago. The arrangements were already made.”

“But I’m still your brother. He was still my dad.”

Ethan flings his father’s mess kit whirling past Coop’s head. It strikes the wall. Bangs like a gong reverberating up through the roof. “Go to fucking hell,” Ethan says. “I should have never come back, Goddamnit. Nothing I do will ever be good enough for you, or for him.”

Outside the grain bin, there is no moon. The stars are visible. A million pockmarks of light. Fireflies flash and streak. Loop and dive. He knew better than to come back here. It was a mistake. It always has been a mistake. A mistake to be born. A mistake to be Cooper’s brother. A mistake to try to make things right. Always would be. Father never wanted him. Cooper can’t stand him. Punched him in the face first thing when Mom brought him home from the hospital. What was any different now? Life one mistake after another, until you die. Maybe Webdon was on to something, dying on purpose. Maybe killing himself was not a mistake. Maybe it was admirable.

The feeling that something is watching. Followed by a rustling and scratching in the woods. The patter of animal feet drawing near. Adrenaline wallop. Ethan turns and runs. The animal follows, getting closer. The door to the grain bin is still open. He slips inside and shuts the door quickly behind him.

Cooper is sitting in the plaid recliner, smoking another cigarette. Claws scrape against the door.

“Something’s following me,” Ethan says.

Cooper stands up and draws his pistol. Then there’s the unmistakable sound of a canine whimpering.

“No way,” Cooper chuckles and opens the door. A scraggly and limping spaniel runs over and nuzzles into his legs. “I can’t believe it. Dodo,” he says. He pets the dog’s dirty and dreadlocked coat.

“He scared the ever-loving shit out of me,” Ethan says.

“I can’t believe Wanda would just leave him here,” Cooper says. “Well, now maybe that you’re done running like a sissy from this monster, perhaps we can get back to work. I got a little something here that will help us pick up the pace.”

Cooper reaches into his shirt pocket and takes out a cellophane wrapper filled with coke. Ethan’s intestines coil like woody vines at the sound of the crinkle, the sight of the white powder. Cooper splits it into two lines with a joker from Webdon’s card deck and motions for Ethan to take a seat at the table.

“You know I gave this stuff up a long time ago,” Ethan says.

“I know, but this is for us, together again, out here. And for Webdon … the biggest coke-snorting bastard this side of the Kaw River!”

Ethan takes the rolled-up dollar bill from Coop. Gums go numb. Stands up tall. Looks up to the vaulted ceiling and raises his arms. He stretches and yells. Elbow joints pop. He punches Coop in the shoulder. Sees Webdon’s hatchet behind Coop, by the woodstove. Sweet purpose through his veins as hand meets handle. “Let’s go find that fucking tree.”

Cooper slams his fist on the table. The lantern pops off onto the concrete floor. Shards of glass clink and tinkle in the dark. Ethan charges, laughing, out into the night woods.


Webdon never used a flashlight, so why should he? The night has many colors, he would say. The night is purple and blue and gray. Real night is not black.

Each tree is still the wrong fucking shape, though. Or an unworkable size, inappropriate height. Most simply doesn’t seem all that suicidal. They reach the barbed wire fence at the end of the property, and double back. Discouragement mounts. Fatigue reappears. Back near the grain bin, Ethan leans on the hatchet handle, ready to give up.

“I don’t know,” Coop says, and sits down with his flask. “Maybe it’s a lost cause.”

 At that moment, Dodo pierces the woods with a series of ragged yelps. Ethan had forgot all about his father’s dog.

“Probably cornered a coon or something,” Cooper says.

“That old bastard? Not likely. I think he wants us to go find him.”

 Coop begrudgingly follows Ethan toward the sounds, into the far back reaches of an ash grove, near the cornfield, somehow overlooked. Dodo paws at the gnarled trunk of a large, sprawling tree.

“A white ash,” Ethan says, pointing to the white undersides of the tree’s purple leaves. “Already near its color peak.”

“It looks like a gumdrop on a toothpick,” Coop says. Ethan laughs. Webdon made trees for his model train set with stale gumdrops and old toothpicks.

Cooper circles the trunk and kicks it. Cranes his head up. “This branch here—it’s pretty damn horizontal.” He stands on his tippy-toes, grabs the long limb with both hands, and pulls himself up on it. “Pretty sturdy too.”

“Look,” Ethan says. “It’s one of the old fishing stoops from the creek.” Ethan drags the stump under the branch and steps onto it. His hair grazes the underside of the branch. Stomach churns. “Webdon was about my height.”

“And it looks like there’s a piece of a strap still tied to it,” Cooper says. “Yep. Sure enough. Looks like part of a dog leash. They said that’s what he used.”

Ethan drops the hatchet. Wraps his tender arms around the trunk of the white ash. Grizzled bark scrapes his flesh. A sour essence fills his lungs. He sees it all now: Webdon standing on the tree stump, looking through the leafless branches over the corn stubble, the sunrise sherbet dribbling across the sky; Webdon’s stubby hands fumbling in the cold February morning, pulling Dodo’s red leash over his head; Webdon’s hot breath cutting foggy shapes through the chill air as he secures the strap around his neck; Webdon nudging the stump out with his heels; Webdon refusing to struggle; the voices pouring out of his eyes.

Ethan’s palms are two giant blood blisters. Stiff elbows ring. Pain tremors through his forearms. He turns around to hand Coop the hatchet, to give him a turn at the tree, but he isn’t there. Ethan shouts into the woods. Nothing but frenzied bellowing of bullfrogs. The buzzing grind of a million cicadas.

Ethan cries out again. Now the trampling of twigs, the snap of saplings, and a rough crackling trod of army boots. Cooper appears. Firefly guts streaked from his forehead to his chin, like war paint, four glowing green lines.

Lightning bugs, not fireflies, Webdon said to Ethan when he was maybe three. Webdon plucked a lightning bug from the air. He held it by the abdomen, the insect’s legs protesting as it flickered green. Webdon smeared the insect across his arm, spreading its innards into a glowing “E” shape. E is for Ethan, he said.

But, Daddy, you killed it for their paint, Ethan said. Webdon caught another lightning bug. He plucked off its wings and told Ethan to open his hand. Webdon squeezed. The lightning bug exploded into a green bioluminescent puddle in Ethan’s palm. It’s just a bug, his father said and placed his hand on Ethan’s shoulder, and squeezed. I’ll squash you like a bug. I squash myself like a bug. Your guts aren’t green. If they were, I’d squish you. If mine were, you could squish me, or maybe I’d just squish myself.

The trunk of the white ash is a mish-mash of crisscrossed hacks. Their thrashing has barely pierced through the outer layers of bark. Ethan drops the hatchet and sits down. Rubs his aching hands and catches his breath. “Shit,” he says. “I’m fucking shattered.”        

“Well, I feel stupid as fuck.” Cooper lies on the ground, his chest heaving and falling. “I mean, I should have known we wanted to destroy this thing, right?”

“Oh, we’re still gonna kill this tree,” Ethan says.

Cooper stands up and draws his gun. His eyes become small slits, and his lips curl at the corners. He fires six quick shots into the tree trunk.

“Will that work?”

“No,” Ethan shouts. Ears screech. Burn.

“Well,” Cooper says and lies back down. “I don’t know what else to do. You were always the smart one. You figure it out.”

Ethan glides without thinking. Knows where each tree root, gopher hole, and rock is, exactly how to position his feet, the perfect placement and rhythm of his strides. He can’t straighten his fingers. They are curled up, dead stiff. As if they still clutch the worn handle of his father’s hatchet.

He follows the tractor ruts past the grain bin. Across the lane to the tractor shed. The 1930s Case International sits like a dinosaur skeleton in an abandoned museum. Useless junk everywhere. Tractor keys are nowhere to be found. Not that it would start anyway. There’s not a single tool of use in the whole fucking joint: not a chain saw, a tree saw, or even a hacksaw. Just a red can of gasoline. Ethan picks it up. Nearly half full. That will have to do.

Gas sploshes back and forth in the metal container. Cooper slouches against the trunk, eyes closed, flask in hand. Dodo snores, paws twitching, in his lap. Ethan shakes his brother by the shoulder until he stirs.

“That’s all you could find?” Coop says.

Ethan shrugs. Coop stands up and Dodo moans, and they both move slowly over near the corn. Ethan douses gasoline around the tree trunk, down onto its roots. He sloshes it up into the leaves, and pours a trail out toward his brother, into a row of a corn.

“Give me a smoke,” he says. He quit when his mom died of lung cancer, but tonight he wants to feel his throat burn. Cooper lights two Winstons and hands one over. They smoke them all the way down, to the butts. Cooper flicks his cigarette into the gas trail, but it doesn’t work like it always does in the movies. He uses his lighter instead. Flames dart through the corn row, up the trunk of the tree, and flare around the roots.  

Dodo snores and wheezes through his snot-packed nose. Cooper walks up to the sleeping dog, draws his gun, and pins its head down with the pistol barrel. Dodo whimpers. Ethan screams Stop. Cooper shoves him away. Makes a gunshot noise with his mouth. Slides the pistol back in its holster. Laughs and pulls his flask out. Passes it to Ethan.

“You really thought I was gonna do it, didn’t you?” Coop says.

Glug. Glug. “Shut up and give me another smoke, Son,” Ethan says.

Cooper smirks and slides one out of the pack. Singeing purple leaves hiss. Bark crackles and embers pop loose. This Winston goes down smooth as the flames shrink into themselves. Orange glow drops from the corn stalks and saplings. The hanging tree whispers white noise and sweats out a thick sugary smoke.

The Mossvak brothers drink whiskey and hoot at the owls until a pink dawn raps on the eastern sky. They fall asleep at the same time, side-by-side, next to Dodo, in the wet dew, breathing in the sweet plumes of the tree skeleton. Though it won’t last much past mid-morning, it’s the good kind of short, deep sleep you only get from cozying up to the cool earth. Neither of them even stirs when the construction equipment rumbles down the lane. Right on time.

*** END ***

The Hanging Tree originally appeared in Stoneboat Literary Journal volume 8.2. in 2018. You can purchases copies by emailing [email protected].