Gaston, South Carolina is a lonely little place.
Sitting just south of Columbia along 321, it’s just a small crumb off of the misshapen piece of pie on the United States plate that we call South Carolina. Its population has almost never gone over two thousand, and it is only 3.4 square miles across in all directions. It feels even lonelier when you come in from a place like Roanoke, Virginia.
After mom lost her job, we moved to the only place where the rest of our family resided—Good ol’ South Cackalacky. I had been moping on the trip the whole time on the way down here. The way I saw it, the only friends I was going to be making here were fire ants and that inferno of a sun.
Once we got settled in at 304 Dixiana Drive (I always remembered the address because the number in it was carved into the driveway, and it spelled “hoe” if you looked at it upside down), I immediately set out into the neighborhood in search of friends. I didn’t know how to ride a bike at the time and I barely knew how to ride a skateboard, so I petered down a long stretch of road directly across from the front of the house on my cheap little Wal-Mart board until I came to a small cul-de-sac that seemed to go uphill.
Sitting outside on his front porch was a chubby kid with glasses that looked about ten or eleven, about my age at the time. I really had no one else to talk to, so I asked what his name was and he told me that it was Terry. He liked being outside a lot and I didn’t, but we both seemed to like video games. With that, we would get along just fine. There was one thing that he hadn’t told me over the next few weeks that we spent riding around the neighborhood: He was into scary movies.
I was a massive chicken when it came to anything that seemed intent on forcing you to change your underwear every five minutes, so I didn’t really like this aspect of him. Even worse, he had tons of horror movie action figures and loads of VHS tapes of all the creepy movies you could think of stacked in his room. Every time I came to visit, he was almost certain to scare the living bejeezus out of me with one of those creepy Freddy Krueger dolls or force me to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with him in the dark.
His room wasn’t really that nice looking to begin with. He had a bunk bed (He was an only child, and only his grandmother lived with him) in which he slept on the bottom and all his slasher flicks and action figures slept on top. There were loads of holes in the walls and everything had a generally grimy feel to it. It made those horrifying moments of watching pure terror in the dark all the more… Icky.
One day, when he realized that I pretty much hated any kind of horror movies he threw at me, he began telling me urban legends. Some of them were about the town as a whole, but more than not, they were about our particular neighborhood. I didn’t really believe any of them.
That is, until he told me about Hanging Man Hill.
It was about a year after we had met each other and we were riding around the neighborhood (By this time, Terry had told me to “man up” and he had eventually taught me how to ride a bike). He stopped when we were riding in front of a house we had simply entitled, “The Crack Shack,” due to its residents being stoned out of their minds on a regular basis. He seemed to be peering out at a small pathway behind the place that went up the farther you went back. He was usually the leader when it came to showing me new places in the neighborhood, so I didn’t question a thing when he beckoned for me to follow him up the trail.
It was a pretty steep climb up the side of the hill, with plenty of sand and rocks to send anyone not being careful straight back down. It felt as though the trees were closing tighter and tighter on us until we reached a large opening at the top. Besides the empty soda bottles and used condoms, the only manmade thing in the area that I could see were long stretches of telephone poles going across a series of sandy, dry hills. If not for the two strips of heavy forest on either side of these hills, it might have gone on forever.
The area didn’t seem to have any particular importance. I had expected him to bring me to some awful cemetery, but in the dying light of the late afternoon sky, those rolling hills looked beautiful. I thought that he might try some desperate last attempt to scare me, but instead, he just turned to me with the most serious and grim face I’d ever seen on him.
“Here we are. Hanging Man Hill,” he whispered.
“Hanging Man Hill? Is this another one of your stories?”
“Sort of. Except, this one’s true.”
I rolled my eyes at the thought. How did he possibly expect me to believe any of his stories? He just kept staring at me with that face, waiting for me to respond.
“How could this even be a ‘Hanging Man Hill’? There’s no hanging man, and there’s at least five dozen hills here!”
“Right down there. Look.”
He pointed his finger toward the nearest telephone pole, sitting between the two closest hills to us. A small creek, no more than five feet across, ran between the two hills and went onward into that never-ending forest. There was no hanging man, but the pole itself seemed more ominous than the rest.
“Roy Terrance,” he whispered.
“It wouldn’t be Hanging Man Hill without a hanging man, would it?”
He bolted down the first hill on that blazing orange bike of his. I tried to keep up, but Wal-Mart and sporting goods don’t seem to mix. There was a faulty chain on my cheap dull red bike. The sticks from the surrounding trees had rooted themselves to the ground and were now snagging onto the dangling chain. With one mighty tug of a huge root on the bike, I was head over handlebars all the way to the bottom. I landed on my knees with a small sploosh sound as my legs hit the water. It couldn’t have been more than a few inches deep.
I almost called for help from Terry when I realized that he had stopped at the bottom just before I had tumbled to the creek alongside him. His head was peering upwards, looking straight at the top of that dark and shadowy looking telephone pole.
“Little help?” I squeaked.
Terry broke his gaze with the pole just long enough to wrench me from the creek and get me to my feet. After that, his stare continued to be fixed on seemingly nothing at the top of the pole for the longest time.
“What is it-or who is-that you’re looking for again?”, I grumbled in frustration. I was going to be pretty pissed if he had taken me down here and all I had gotten out of the trip was a banged up knee. I hadn’t noticed the pain before because the water in the stream was cool, but now it stung like the dickens.
“Roy Terrance. Owner of that small shed just beyond the trees over there.” I hadn’t noticed the shed before. It sat just behind a large oak. It couldn’t have been bigger than five outhouses put together.
"After his wife and kid left him, he hung himself on the wires just above us. Cops didn’t find much, just a charred husk of what used to be a man. Legend says that whoever is out here at his exact time of death gets strung up on the wires with him."
“Oh, and do tell, when would that be?”
For once, he broke his serious tone to give me a goofy “I dunno!” shrug, and then he was back to that grim attitude.
“And you’re suggesting that we stay here and wait for him? Despite the many excuses I have to dispute this, I think I’m going to go with ‘It’s late and mom is making dinner, so I have to go home.’”
“Fine. Tell your mom that you’re sleeping over at my house tomorrow night, and I’ll do vice versa with my gramma. Meet me here at seven.”
Against my better judgment, I decided that I might as well come. What harm did it do? Obviously, he was lying and, if nothing else, it would set my mind at ease to see that he was. While none of his stories actually seemed to be true up until this point, his sudden change of tone had made it slightly more believable. When he had told his other stories, he was giggling so hard that one might think that he had snorted at least a pound of Happy Crack.
When we were headed home, just as the last tint of orange had left the sky, I asked him:
“Why did you get so serious back there? You’re always such a total goofball.”
“I lost my grandpa to Roy Terrance. My gramma was with him when it happened. Haven’t you ever wondered why she’s so grumpy all the time?”
His grandmother was, in fact, very crotchety. I had never bothered to ask why she was that way. If this was all some elaborate hoax by Terry, I was going to slap him into next Thursday when this was done.
That night, I had a horrible nightmare. Like most people, I couldn’t remember much about it, but it had Roy Terrance written all over it. Even though it was roasting on that hot South Carolina night, I had woken up with the chills.
By the time 6 PM had rolled around, I had already packed my old school backpack with basic equipment like a flashlight and a few bags of Chex Mix in case we got hungry. By 6:30, I had rolled out into the neighborhood as fast as an overweight 11 year old could. I had to admit, I was actually pretty excited. Finally, at around 6:55, I arrived at the small creek where Terry had already set up a small fire and was roasting marshmallows. If I hadn’t decided to show up, I would have disappointed him like hell.
“How is this exactly going to work out? Are we just going to camp out here all night? We don’t know when he’s supposed to show up,” I said.
“Er’ll wert erl nert hurr erf er herft ter.” He had stuffed his face with a marshmallow.
He crammed the marshmallow down his throat. “I said, ‘I’ll wait all night here if I have to.’”
“Whatever,” I retorted as I plopped down next to his fire (he had thrown 3 lighters in to keep it lit) and began to pull out my snacks.
After about three hours, the first of the crickets had begun to sing their endless chirping song as the last streak of sun had reached its end. I had begun to grow irritated, and a little bit tired. Terry was wide awake, his hand glued to the bag of marshmallows. He had begun his eternal gaze on the top of the pole again.
“Terry..? Man, I’m tired. If I don’t see a crispy dead dude in the next hour, I’m out.”
“Mmmfkay.” His cheek stuck out like a squirrel’s with another marshmallow.
I snuggled up to the fire and began to doze off. Just as I was about to slip into unconsciousness, a loud, crusty, brittle peeling sound echoed through the hills and out into the forest. I immediately sat up. My vision was pretty blurred from having almost dozed off, but I could make out Terry’s shape. He was gaping, wide eyed, at the top of the pole. If there had been a bit of moonlight, I might have seen what I was sure to have seen up there, but the crescent moon sat just beyond the trees, like the shed.
In an instant, Terry was on his bike and flying up the hill, bag of marshmallows in hand. I managed to pull myself up and get to my bike. I began peddling like a madman when I realized that my chain had popped off. Stupid damn bike. With my eyes adjusting to the dark, I peered back at the top of the pole one more time before I bolted to the top of the hill.
Roy Terrance was not so much of a person as he was a sagging shape. His flesh, dark as the night, was clinging to his bones for dear life. His facial features, though not entirely evident, seemed to be in a constant state of both agony and ecstatic joy. And that eye… That one eye he had left, deep in its socket, gazed upon me with absolute hatred and insatiable want. Just when it seemed that he was ready to climb off of the wire and come for me, the weak spine that had been holding his head to that molten pile of flesh and bones snapped, sending what was left of his skull tumbling into the fire Terry had started. It gave me one glowing, burning satisfied grin before disintegrating into a wisp of ash.
I had been halfway up the hill before I had realized I was moving. I followed the bike tracks Terry had left, which led further into the hills instead of off to the side, where the trail led back to the neighborhood. Just as I clawed my way to the top of the hill, I saw a thin shape, dangling from above.
“Oh no,” I croaked.
Terry’s bike, that blazing orange bike that he loved so much, was left wrecked at the base of a telephone pole. Above, Terry’s body hung limply. Although, it didn’t look much like Terry anymore.
Terry hadn’t been on the wires as long as Roy, which made it even worse. He was charred, but not entirely. His eyes bulged from his head in constant shock. What was left of his hair stood out on end, still smoking. The seemingly endless wires above entangled Terry’s neck like a boa constrictor. Dangling from his scrawny, burnt little arm was a bag of marshmallows, melted to his hand from the heat.
The police investigation hadn’t dug up much. They had scoured all throughout the area and had not found any evidence that anyone was ever there. I begged them to search the telephone wires, but they continued to state that there was no evidence that anybody had even touched the wires. The search continued for 3 weeks. After police had finally given up, Terry’s grandmother passed away. For those last few days, she hadn’t said anything to anyone at all. She only sat and stared at the picture of her and her husband for the remainder of her life.
After the house had been cleared out, the contents of Terry’s room were offered to me. His entire collection of horror movies, action figures and all else was donated to Goodwill. My request.
I went back a few years later. We had gone to Gaston to visit with our family for a while, and I had requested that we stop by the neighborhood. Any evidence that we had ever been there those few fateful years ago had been swept away by police or the weather. Now, like before, there was only useless garbage and telephone poles. Just as I was getting ready to walk away, I caught a glimpse of something in the corner of my eye. I only saw a tiny bit of it before it fluttered away.
It was a melted marshmallow bag.