The Hanged Man by Tom Jolly

The Hanged Man by Tom Jolly

We all think there just isn’t anything left to trust in this crazy world, nothing in which you could put in any faith. But, there’s got to be things you can rely on, things that simply will not, cannot change. Oh, yeah? – lp

Greg Harding clutched the end of his water hose with a white-knuckled death grip, his feet dangling over infinity.

Earth was a hose-length away, looming overhead like an 8000-mile-wide balloon. In the few seconds it took for him to reorient his senses, he saw his neighbor Bob with his Pekingese Darter lift off the sidewalk and fly straight up, unwilling instant astronauts. In the distance, he could see other dots, other lives, flit up into the sky, followed by shallow-rooted trees lifting majestically upward, shedding sheets of dirt as they rose.

Greg had been watering his lawn when gravity toggled. The only thing that saved him was a kink in the new hose. He’d grabbed the hose hard to give it a good shake to work the kink out, and everything shifted. The sudden dizziness caused him to double his grip, and he swung up into the sky at the end of his fifty-foot hose. His argument with his ex-wife about the cost of this particularly rugged hose passed through his mind. The damned thing still kinked up despite the cost, but it would last forever. That’s what he needed, he had told her: something that irritated him and lasted forever.

He looked up at it gratefully now, to where it was attached to a metal faucet of uncertain mechanical integrity. Did he have plastic or metal pipes? He wasn’t sure. The new lawn, rolled out last week, was starting to peel off overhead like rotting green skin. Swaths of it smacked into him as he swung at the end of his proverbial rope. The drizzling spray from the end of the hose, which was also hanging away from the Earth, fell back onto him, just to make sure he was miserable enough.

Along with the ribbons of his escaping lawn flying past him, he could see small wooden structures, gazebos and sheds, fly up into the sky. The sound of creaking houses, straining at their lagbolts in the cement slabs, nails trying to tear away under the inverted mass of wood, groaned like tortured ghosts.

Greg swung in the breeze, the water from the hose chilling him. But the water was falling back to the Earth, while everything else — no, not quite everything — just animals? Wood? Grass and trees, biological stuff, all those things were falling up. What the hell?

Twisting around, he noticed that Andrea, from three doors down, had stopped her car just down the block. He’d had her as a student once for a basic physics course he taught at the local junior college. He could hear her screaming inside the car, even over the loud groan of the stretching houses around him. A gray haze of objects filled the air as far as he could see, including some houses that weren’t quite up to California’s earthquake code.

Earthquakes. Hah.

Andrea never wore her safety belt, despite the subtle hints Greg had provided to her about fatality statistics. She was on the roof of her car, inside, but the car remained securely on the street. People strapped down with safety belts might even still be able to drive cars. Great. Andrea continued to scream. No use trying to get her attention yet.

It had been thirty seconds since gravity changed. Greg spiraled the hose around one arm to help secure himself and tried to think.

The Giants were playing the Patriots today. Both teams…hell, the entire stadium audience, plus hot dogs, beer, vendors, popcorn, would all be falling spaceward. They’d all be dead in, what, maybe five minutes, plus or minus a bit? when the atmosphere became too thin for them to breathe, as they rose past the clouds.

He glanced in the direction of the stadium, only two miles away. In the distance, he could see a gray haze rise up out of the football stadium, like thousands of gnats. Humans, on their way to black oblivion.

But bottled beer wouldn’t fly, he thought distractedly. He blinked twice, trying to shake the image of the dying cloud of people from his mind. A glass bottle weighs more than the beer. Like the dirt. Dirt was part organic, but mostly not, so dirt stayed put. What the hell would make organic matter go gravity-negative?

He wondered how ocean life was managing. It could swim down, stay in the water. Birds could fly upside-down against the inverted pull of gravity. Lots of things could live in this altered world, probably even humans. Maybe this was local, and…aw, what were the odds?

If it was worldwide, though, that meant, what? Speed-of-light propagation for the effect? Probably. Yes, someone could find the source. He felt around his pockets for a cell phone. Crap, he thought, it was in the house on the charger. He stared up at the house and wondered how fast he could get inside, or if it was even possible.

Above him, a car approached. Andrea had seen him hanging there and had somehow calmed herself enough to slither back into the driver’s seat upside-down, seatbelt securely fastened, and pulled up next to his life-saving hose. She was twenty feet above him.

“Climb up!” she shouted from her car window. She’d parked with the car window open behind the driver’s seat, adjacent to the hose.

He unwound his arm from the hose and started climbing, inadvertently jerking the metal faucet with each foot of progress upward. The faucet, straining under his weight, started to pull free from the dirt.

The hose was tough, but what about the pipe buried in the ground under the brass faucet?

“Throw me your phone!” Greg shouted.


“Throw me your damn cell phone, the pipe’s going to break!”

She reached back into the car, and thank God, didn’t question the causal relationship between the two parts of his sentence. He was only five feet away when she tossed the phone to him, and despite their truly screwed up orientation, he snatched it out of the sky with the elegance and precision of a leaping baseball outfielder. He heard Andrea shout a PIN number at him.

The white PVC pipe, now exposed like a white bone in the corpse of his yard, gave up with a snap, and Greg fell away from his home, clinging to the phone for life, trailing fifty feet of rubber hose and a section of broken pipe. He let go of the hose. It meant falling faster, but he needed to concentrate on the phone.

He bent his body over to protect the phone and his face from the sudden terminal-velocity wind, carefully entered the PIN, and called General Harold Manning, a close friend working with Homeland Security a few states away. What were the odds he’d answer his phone with this crap going on? Or that he was inside when the inversion struck?

Greg could barely hear the phone ring over the rush of wind, and vaguely heard a click of sound when Harold picked up, the rush of wind drowning out the sound of his voice.

“Harold,” Greg shouted into the phone, “I can’t hear you worth a damn, I’m falling up. Listen, this thing has to be speed-of-light propagation, so you should be able to locate the source if you have good time-stamped video. Or maybe seismic data? If it’s not permanent, you can take out the source and…” he heard three beeps from the phone. He looked at the tiny display. Signal lost. Well, hell. He hoped his message made some sense. They had smart guys in Homeland Security. Chances are, they already knew where the source was.

He pocketed the phone and looked around at the other debris headed spaceward. Above, he saw a huge magnolia tree approaching quickly, apparently moving slower in its death-journey away from the Earth, each broad leaf acting as a small drag chute. A steady spray of flower petals left a broad trail behind it. He aimed his body toward the tree, and soon smacked hard into a branch. He clutched desperately at it, slipped off, and then hit another branch that snagged his clothing, jabbing him in the side. Struggling, he straightened himself and held on tight.

Maybe two minutes left for the Giants and Patriots, if that much. He didn’t know when the air would get too thin to breath, or too cold. He wasn’t sure how fast he was falling up, either. Climbing up the hose hadn’t been as difficult as he thought it should have, so this probably wasn’t a full one-gee force.

The people from the stadium might be dead already. In the arms of this slow-falling, broad-leafed tree, he had maybe five minutes max himself.

He sat in a branch and looked around. He saw an airplane in the distance, and wondered if the pilots would be able to land okay with their mental orientation inverted as it was. Perversely, he got out the cell phone and started taking pictures. Confused birds trying to fly toward Earth, planes dodging trees, entire houses within sight with trails of inorganic debris. A vertical tornado of Ozian surrealism. What on Earth could someone have been thinking to make a device that would convert organic matter like this? And how could it distinguish organic from inorganic? Was the effect permanent or could it be shut off? This was nuts.

The view became more intense and the air colder as the tree pushed up through the thinning atmosphere. The curvature of the Earth started to manifest itself. In the distance, a bright flash lit up the horizon, then another and another and another. A dozen or a hundred, it was hard to tell. He turned his eyes away from the sight as it brightened. A haze of nuclear sunshine, a thousand miles away. Carpet bombing with nukes. Whatever they used to locate the source wasn’t quite as precise as he hoped it would be. Fast work, though, good going Harold, if it was you that pulled the trigger.

Greg started as his weight shifted, and he clung tighter to the tree. There was a second of stomach-churning free-fall and a momentary ominous silence as the tree changed direction, massive trunk pointing earthward like a frayed arrowhead.

Now that I have saved the planet, I shall rest, he thought. He sighed and crawled carefully into the more flexible upper limbs of the tree as the winds battered him.

Even before he landed, bodies started falling past his tree. A live one grabbed at the tree as he got close, but Greg had no way to help; he glanced at the man’s panicked eyes as a few leaves came off in his hand and he continued his plummet to Earth. Farther away, the haze of falling organic debris, wood and plants, blocked the individual horror of the dead and dying.

The tree skewered a two-story house, fortunate for Greg in that the buckling roof helped reduce the sudden impact of landing. The branch he was perched upon bent and broke, slamming him into a larger branch below, but by then, he’d come to a stop. He checked for broken bones, then the crash of another object onto the house reminded him that the show wasn’t over yet, and he had to get under cover.

He didn’t recognize the inside of the house. It was a stranger’s house. “Hello?” he called out, but there was no response. Tables, dressers, mirrors, and paintings, everything had been lifted to the ceiling and thrown back down as though a giant had picked up and shaken the house. There were wide cracks in the walls where the 2×4 studs had strained upward against the foundation that held them in place.

Once he was under cover, under the thick bracing of a door frame, he listened to the intermittent crashing thunder of everything returning to Earth. He could see out a front view window, the glass panes now shattered by the house’s unsuccessful attempt at a launch into space.

Outside the window, he saw a human body smack into the street, then another and another. Suddenly, an entire mat of human bodies tangled together in rope and some unreadable banner slammed en masse into the street. At least a dozen, he thought, and he turned his head away from the carnage. But out of the corner of his eye, he caught some movement, and saw a single large figure struggle up out of the center of the twisted mass. He wore a helmet and large shoulder pads. He looked like a giant. The number 92 stood out in one-foot tall letters on his back. A football jersey. The huge man stood up slowly from the pile of broken flesh, then stumbled and slid down the stack, trailing a loose pink sweater snagged around one of his legs. He looked up into the sky, then made a slow lope toward a nearby intact house where he hid inside until the rain of debris stopped.

It was another five minutes before all the large objects had returned to Earth. Particulates still filled the air like a green-brown fog. Greg made his way out of the house, climbing over a toppled bookcase and scattered books. He hesitantly made his way to the pile of bodies in the street.

Splashes of blood and worse surrounded the pile. It was obvious there were no survivors, many of the twisted faces suggested that their necks were broken. Some were shirtless. At the top of the stack was a loose pile of clothing with the indented imprint of the football player’s body.

Greg turned away and threw up into the street, then, gasping for breath, crying and coughing in the hazy air, he ran down the street, looking for his home, lost in this Hell.


Number 92.

That number burned a hole in his head. Someone had gathered up a bunch of bodies and used them as a pad for their landing. Took clothes from them, probably killed some or all of them, broken their necks, looped them together with a snarl of rope mid-air, and saved himself. He’d even torn off some of their clothing to make a pad to cushion the blow. It looked like a giant bird’s nest made from cloth and corpses.

He shook violently when he thought about it. His nightmares were filled with giant vultures feeding their chicks with regurgitated human flesh in their bloody nests.

Greg received no thank-you call from General Manning; Manning had been inside the blast radius when the nukes took out the source. No hero parades. The radioactive cloud had blown southwest; bad for Texas, good for California. The dying wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot.

After a period of radio pundits blaming any number of radical groups as the culprits, it turned out that the guy was just someone who’d lost his job to the economy, his wife to cancer, and his savings to a con artist, just pissed off at the world and with the scientifically mad genius to do something about it. Misdirected hate, evil spawned by fate. If he had to suffer, so would everyone.

Greg returned Andrea’s cell phone to her two days after the event, braving the dangers of the cluttered streets and potential reversal of gravity. They hugged and cried for their dead neighbors and relatives, and then he told her about the football player.

She pushed him back and stared at him in disbelief. “He killed some of the people in the stadium to save himself?”

Greg nodded. “As far as I could tell. His landing was…” he bit his lip and shook his head sadly. “It was too planned. I mean, I suppose all those people could have conspired to save him, offered up their bodies as a cushion, but it sure didn’t look like it. The man, Alec Fort, shouldn’t be alive. Doesn’t deserve to be alive.”

“What are you going to do about it?” Andrea asked. “Tell the police?”

Greg shrugged. “They have their hands full. I’ll…think of something.”

“Talk to me before you do anything, okay?” She reached out a hand to him and he took it, squeezing it.

“I will. I promise.”

He knew he was lying when he said it. From the frown on her face, Andrea knew it too.

Life settled down over the next month, but everything had changed. The death toll was much less than half; most people on the night side of the planet were in their beds and asleep when the change rolled through. Almost everyone in cars or planes survived, though traffic accidents took a huge toll. Those at work in skyscrapers made of steel and cement generally made it through. Bruised and battered, but alive.

The survivors buried their dead. New graveyards were planned.

It wasn’t unusual to see people hauling around a kid’s wagon full of water or bricks, enough to weight them down. Still, hauling around twice your own weight was tiresome, and generally, people just stayed inside.

Tether-lines became popular. Clip your personal tether onto a house-to-car tether, then get into your car. Drive to a public tether mounted in the sidewalk or any other chunk of cement, clip on, and walk into your place of work.

The plans for the organic gravity reverser, the “Ogre”, went online the same day that so many humans became unintentional astronauts, placed on the internet by the same madman that created the original device. Millions of people downloaded the plans before the site was shut down. The threat still existed, but it was only a matter of weeks before tech start-ups announced a one-man antigravity belt that could compensate for any irregular and unexpected fluctuations in the gravity field. The start-ups were snatched up by larger companies, and the designs settled down to a standard you could even afford to buy for your dog.

Greg did his research on Alec Fort, the quarterback who wore jersey 92. Built like a fort, people would quip, and not realize what he’d done to survive the Great Gravity Disaster. Most of the football players on both teams had died that day. A few got lucky and hit water, surviving. And one murdered a bunch of people and used their corpses to cushion his landing.

When the antigravity belts came out on the market, Greg bought one. Most people did. He bought one of the early, bulky, expensive models before mass production and miniaturization made them easy to get. The best of Mainstream Technology’s line. And then he took it apart.

Teaching physics included a lot of electronics and how to wield a mean soldering iron. The early design of the belt meant it was sloppy construction with some extra space inside, meant to get to the market fast and first. Space to do some modifications. A timer circuit set to trigger a tiny solid-state relay squeezed in easily. As he tinkered with it, he thought about Andrea. Would she agree with this plan? Probably not. Would he eventually tell her about it? Sacrifice a friendship over it? Maybe more than that?

He put down his soldering iron and sighed, staring at the circuitry, flux fumes drifting up from his soldering efforts. He could stop now, maybe talk to the cops. Tell them what he saw. Hope for justice.

After a minute more, he put the belt back together. It was ready.

Alec Fort lived across town in a big house that survived the disaster. Greg showed up on his front doorstep with a bright yellow jacket and knocked on the door, assuming the electric doorbell wouldn’t work. Power around the city was still sketchy.

The door opened and Greg had to look up. Alec was huge. “Alec Fort?” he asked, businesslike.

Alec looked down at the wrapped gift in Greg’s hands, curious and interested: a greedy look. “Yeah, that’s me,” he said, jerking his head at the gift. “What’s this?”

“I work for Mainstream. They sent this gift for you. Top-of-the-line gravity belt.”

He scratched his chin. “Why?”

“Something about you being an American Hero. I think they want you to do a commercial.”

He slowly grinned as the hook was set into his vanity. “A hero, huh? All I did was live through the disaster.”

Greg shrugged. “As did we all. I didn’t get a belt, myself.”

Alec leaned over and took the package. “We can’t all be heroes,” he said. He turned around with the package and closed the door.

Greg stood there smiling for a moment, no longer uncertain about the path he had taken, glad that Alec seemed to be a complete and unrepentant asshole. He turned, got into his car, and drove home.


The next morning, before Alec’s usual 7am jog, Greg went over to his house, parked a block away, and waited. Right on time, Alec came out of the house in his jogging suit with his fancy new gravity belt secured around his waist. Greg got out of his car and watched him from a distance.

Most people kept the belts dialed in just a little negative, so you felt light on your feet as you walked along. That would defeat the purpose of jogging though. Alec might even have it cranked up to load him down, like carrying a lead belt while he ran. It didn’t matter. After five minutes, the timer circuit switched on and sent a current through the coil of the tiny relay, a control voltage went to maximum, and the man shot into the sky.

Greg turned up his own belt to full negative, and shot into the air a few hundred yards from Alec, then closed the gap. He wanted this to be as personal as he could make it.

“What the hell?” Alec shouted, futilely trying to adjust the knob on his belt. “Is this another event? Why isn’t my belt working?” He looked up from the control knob and realized that it was Greg flying alongside him, well out of reach. “You!”

“Yeah, me,” Greg shouted against the wind. “Bearer of gifts. I saw you land on that pile of people a couple months back.”

Alec gaped at him dumbly, gears working slowly, then he shouted, “I found that mass of people. You really think I could have done all that in five minutes?”

They flew silently together, headed toward space. Good god, Greg thought, what if he’s telling the truth? Alec drifted closer while he thought. Greg was torn between doubt and anger.

“Whatever you’re thinking,” Alec shouted, “is wrong. Are you going to kill me because of your screwed-up idea of what happened? You weren’t even there when I found them!”

Alec suddenly tilted himself so the wind pushed him toward Greg and grabbed his shirt. Greg twisted the knob on his gravity belt all the way counterclockwise, jerking him down. His shirt tore but held, and Alec grabbed him with his other hand, grinning. Greg cranked the knob the other direction, and he shot upward, the top of his head smashing into Alec’s chin. Greg flipped end-over-end, and Alec’s grasp finally tore free.

Greg maintained a safer distance while Alec cursed at him. It was true, though; Alec couldn’t realistically have put together that mass of people by himself in the few minutes he had. So what had happened?

He tried to dredge up the vision of the dead mass of football-game spectators. The bleeding, smashed faces, twisted limbs, and…and what? What was missing? Why would they join together to make a…a life raft? Women and children—the children—there were no children. The mass of people had grouped together, knowing they were all going to die, and put their children on top as they fell. To let the children survive.

Greg closed the gap with Alec and shouted, “What the hell did you do to the children?”

Alec looked away from Greg and remained silent, then looked up as the sky got thinner and the stars started to appear, his hand on the belt, trying to decide between two deaths. In the end, Greg slowed down as his breath became short, and Alec pulled away from him, rising into a dark graveyard.


Closure. Closure meant telling Andrea what he had done, what Alec had done, and expecting forgiveness. There wasn’t any. Not right away.

Closure was meeting the people who owned the house with the tree in the roof, and thanking them for the accident of survival, even though they really had nothing to do with it.

Closure was a dozen funerals for close friends, graveyards surrounded by anchored tethers, mourners linked by hands and carabiners, tears all falling the right direction, into the moist earth.

The House Reclamation Act moved a lot of homeless people into vacant houses, at least the ones where the roofs hadn’t flown away. Two of Gary’s neighbors were complete strangers and looked at him like he was the interloper. Change and closure fought against each other, change opening up fresh wounds and painful reminders.

Houses were rebuilt. Cement-based boards and tin roofs were used for the new construction, weighting the houses down against new organo-gravitational fluctuations. No one really understood yet how the belts worked, how the science behind them functioned, how the first attack had occurred. It was crazy, most scientists said. Impossible. But they learned to make them and use them anyway.

It was a year before Andrea would talk to Greg, and she showed up on his doorstep with a bottle of cheap apology-wine.

They sat together on the lawn out back in lawn chairs strapped down to a dozen cinder blocks, safety belts secured, looking up at the night sky.

“You know what I thought when I saw you,” Andrea asked, “hanging on to your hose for dear life?”

He laughed at the mental image. “I can’t imagine,” he said.

“I thought of The Hanged Man. Like the Tarot Card,” she said.

“The Hanged Man?”


“What does it mean? I mean, in Tarot-ish.”

“I don’t know. The cards have a lot of different meanings. I think a Tarot reader can make them mean anything they want.”


They sipped their wine quietly for a minute. Then Greg said, “He’s up there somewhere, you know.”

“You were right,” Andrea said. “What you did.” Her speech was a little slurred. She’d started before she’d come over.

Greg said nothing in return and let the silence stretch until it slowly became comfortable again. “Someone’s making a pod now, so you can go up into space,” he said. “We can look around. Dodge satellites. Check out all the aliens spying on us.”

Andrea laughed softly. Greg sipped some of the tart wine.

“Why would you want to go?”

Greg shrugged in the darkness, which Andrea couldn’t see. “We, humans, could build stuff up there, I guess. Maybe live there.”

“You want to live in space?” she asked.

“Not really. I just want closure. I just want things to be the way they were.”

After a minute of silence, Andrea reached out, wiggled her fingers, and felt Greg’s warm grip close around her own, and they remained that way for a long while, watching the stars.



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