The Back Yard
by Gracie Motley
Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
part 2 of 4
* * *
Junior would be thirteen in two weeks. He was the oldest now, since Katie died. He and Porter, who was eleven, slept in the attic and forbade anyone else to enter there. That made them kings, because Jubal slept on Junior’s old, creaky bed in the converted den. Lola had to sleep with the memory of Katie in the second bedroom, something nobody wanted.
When Junior and Porter played, they did so in the front yard. They rode their bikes up and down the driveway; they sat on the back of Daddy’s car and yelled at the cars driving past. They would follow anybody walking along the sidewalk to the edge of the neighbor’s yard. They enjoyed this game best when the two girls who lived a block down were passing. Those girls were about Porter’s age, and they feared the boys.
Junior was big for his age. Porter was, too, but Junior was the biggest. He always won at wrestling matches, and he never got in trouble for being too rough, even when he gave Jubal a bloody nose and almost broke his arm. Daddy just told Jubal to be more of a man, and told Junior not to play with Jubal like that any more. Now Junior just wrestled with Porter, and he was a better match for him and a better sport about it, too.
Lola was afraid of Junior. She stayed out of his way most of the time, and that was just fine. There was something about her blond curls and her wide brown eyes that irritated him. She looked and even acted like Katie, and thought she was better than he was somehow. That was enough to get on his nerves even if she never said anything to him. Sometimes he had dreams about wrestling with her, and in the dreams, he always snapped her like a brittle stick. He never told anybody, not even Porter, about those dreams.
Today he was sitting on the back of Daddy’s old Impala, throwing pebbles at the cars passing by. The sun was in the west, glaring right in his face, getting ready to set. It was hot summertime, and he was sweating. Summer school was over, and there was another month before regular school would start. This was his favorite time of year.
Porter came back from peeing in the bushes in the back yard, and jumped up on the trunk of the Impala with him. He was sweating, too. “Mama's late again,” Porter said.
“I guess,” Junior said, and hit an old Volkswagen with a palm-sized rock. It connected with a hollow bang and left a dent. His aim was getting better. His luck, too; the Volkswagen didn’t even slow down.
“Good one!” Porter yelled, laughing. He picked up a smaller rock and threw it at a big black Mercedes, which was in the wrong part of town and probably lost, and missed.
“I win,” Junior said, grinning. Porter shrugged and leaned back on his elbows.
“I seen a cat in the back yard just now,” he said. “It was just sitting there by the old vegetable patch like it belonged there. It watched me pee. I even ran up to it waving my arms and hollering, but it didn’t move. Ain’t that strange, for a cat?”
“I hate cats,” Junior said. He smiled slowly, turning to look at Porter. “I think the Lord just gave us a way to have some fun before the sun goes down. Come on.”
They slid off the car; Porter followed him into the back yard. They could see the cat, a big grey tabby, still sitting by the failed plot. It ignored them, washing its front paw. Junior picked up a rusty hoe, and Porter picked up the aged rake. They walked around the elm and straight through the soft middle of the yard towards the cat.
“You go down behind him, and I’ll sneak around the cedar in front. If he goes toward you, try to hit him, or herd him to me,” Junior ordered, and Porter veered off to the left.
They had played other, secret games like this before, once with a squirrel, and once with a nest of baby robins they found in one of the bushes. There had been a stray dog, too, a month after Katie died, which they had buried here in the vegetable patch. The next day, Jubal had gotten a beating from Daddy for the overturned earth, and Junior and Porter still laughed about that to this day. Nobody ever found out about these little games.
The cat looked up as Junior approached, his green eyes full of contempt. I know you, those eyes said; I know what you have done. That just made Junior mad, and he balanced the hoe on his shoulder for heft.
“You got him?” Porter's voice was thin and eager.
“Quiet, don’t spook him.” His own voice had a hiss like a snake, soft and deadly, only too late a warning. The cat’s ear flicked back and forth, judging the distance between voices, but otherwise, he was perfectly still. Junior took another step toward him.
The cat growled deep in his throat, and his fur started to lift along his spine. Junior shifted the hoe a little, getting ready to strike, but at the movement, the cat leapt sideways into the bushes, startling Junior so that he dropped the hoe. “Get him!” he screamed, and he and Porter went after him, crashing into the hedge a second after the cat cleared the fence into the next yard.
The bushes bit and scratched them just like a cat would. Though the hedge was not thick, they had trouble getting free of it. The bushes snagged their clothes, pulled at their arms and legs, slapped at their faces. Finally they stumbled clear, and found themselves bleeding in places.
“Damn,” Junior spat, wiping blood from a cut over his eye.
“Shit,” Porter echoed. “What’s this black stuff all over me, Junior?” Junior looked up at his brother, and saw something sticky and black as tar clinging to his body.
“I don’t know,” he said. He reached out to see what the substance felt like, and saw the same black sheen on his own hand.
“Junior, it’s all over you, too,” Porter whined, rubbing his hands on his jeans.
“I can see that.” He tried to wipe it off his hands, but it only smeared like dirty car oil. The harder they tried to wipe it away, the more it smeared, until the sticky film covered them. It got into their eyes and mouths, into their ears and noses. Panicked, they fell onto the grass, shouting for help, but the black muffled their voices.
Junior, unable to breathe now, saw stars explode behind his eyes. All he could think was, the cat won. The goddamned cat beat me. He gave up, lay still, and waited for death.
Then, just like that, he could breathe again. He opened his eyes and saw Porter lying next to him, gasping for air. He raised himself on one elbow, and saw the black sliding down his legs, away from him and Porter. He watched as it receded beneath the hedge and disappeared.
He got up and pulled Porter to his feet. They were relatively clean again, just bleeding from their scratches and covered in grass stains. He looked at Porter, and Porter looked at him.
“What was it, Junior?”
“Don’t know. Tree resin. Mosquito farts or something.” Porter giggled, looking nervously at the hedge, now full of shadows.
“Come on,” Junior went on. “We’ll go clean up our scratches. Mama’s late again, so we need to feed the little ones.”
“Daddy’s going to kill us when he sees what a mess we are.” They walked up the yard to the house. “Don’t you worry, little brother. He’ll be so glad to get something hot to eat he won’t notice us.”
Junior closed the gate behind them, sparing another glance at the hedge, hoping he would run into that cat some other day. Then he and Porter went inside to get supper ready.
* * *
Kenny hated this time of year. It was hot, the air conditioner only halfway worked, all the kids were hanging around, and Brenda came home late at night three or four times a week. That left him to take care of everything by himself. It wasn’t right. She was the mother, she should be here to corral those kids, to cook and clean up after them, to take care of him. He was sick; he had no energy for it. She was cold and unfeeling to neglect them like that.
He only worked at the car lot three days a week since he got sick. He came down with the diabetes the year after Katie died, and had wound up in the hospital in one of those diabetic comas for a whole week. After that, he never really got his strength back, even though his doctor said there was no reason he couldn’t get back to his normal schedule right away. But Kenny knew better. He had to take it easy now. So he cut his workweek, and when he came home, he rested. He would lay in his recliner and watch television, and the kids would mostly leave him alone. His days off were the same. He would make Jubal and Lola do the grocery shopping with him, and Jubal cut the grass now. And thank the Lord for Junior. He was a good boy, and looked after his brothers and sister like a man. And Porter was faithful to Junior and helped him cook supper every night. One day Junior would be a good father.
Kenny still missed Katie, though. She was such a pretty girl, and her woman curves were just starting to fill out when she died. She would have grown up to be even prettier than her mama was, and she was smart, too. She got good grades all the way through school until that last year, when she went crazy and started talking about ghosts in the back yard. He had whipped her for talking like that, and she never mentioned ghosts again, but his discipline hadn’t really helped her. She stopped talking to him, didn’t want to come near or sit on his lap after that, and she constantly stared out the window in her and Lola’s room. It broke his heart for her to cut him off like that, to watch her mind fall apart.
One bad night she woke up screaming about the ghosts again. After she woke the whole house up, he had whipped her again for talking crazy. Junior had held her down so she couldn’t fight back, but they hadn’t been very rough with her. She had some welts on her back for a few days, nothing serious. And he tried to explain to her how it was his duty as a father to teach her what was right and wrong, to show her how to think so she would have a good mind, but she wouldn’t even look at him any more. A week later she died.
He shifted in his recliner and opened his eyes, staring blankly up at the ceiling. He had that dream about Katie every now and then, and it always made him feel blue. He had done the best he could for her, but it wasn’t enough.
He could hear Junior and Porter in the attic, rolling around and bumping into things, laughing and hollering. The other two were quiet, off in some corner, no doubt, whispering nonsense to each other. Brenda was home for a change, rattling around and cooking in the kitchen, just the way it should always be.
He got up and went through the kitchen to pick up a pack of cigarettes, but he didn’t speak to her. She didn’t even look up at him. He took his smokes and went out to the back yard so he could have some peace and quiet for a few minutes.
It was just getting dark now. The sky was purple and the yard was full of shadows. The elm was still in the windless twilight, and there were fireflies blinking in its branches. He could hear the next-door neighbors in their kitchen, cooking and laughing with each other. They were newlyweds, no kids yet, and they still had things to laugh about. Give them time.
He sat down on the side of the barbecue and lit a cigarette. He saw a couple of birds hurrying off to roost for the night, and a few early stars peeking down. It was nice back here. They should put up the chairs and the card table and have supper outside sometimes. Then he thought of Lola, who wouldn’t get over her dumb fear of the yard, and Jubal, who hovered over her like a mother hen, and he knew they would spoil a cookout.
There was no such thing as ghosts or boogey men. That was just hogwash. Those two had listened too much to Katie’s craziness in those last months, and didn’t have enough sense to get over it, not even after two years. No amount of whippings would beat it out of them. They were lucky they never let him hear them talking about it.
A shadow rippled in the underbrush by the back fence and caught his eye. He had heard Junior and Porter talking about a stray cat they saw back there the other day, and he assumed it had come back. But he heard nothing, saw no glowing eyes. As he looked, the shadow seemed to bleed out onto the grass and grow.
“What the hell is that?” he muttered to himself. He got up and walked out into the yard to investigate. The shadow lay on the ground by the fence, waiting for him. He came toward it, trying with his eyes to mold it into something recognizable, something he understood. He couldn’t. As he watched, the shadow seemed to rise up until it was the same height as he was. It was no person or animal, just a blacker part of the deepening night. He stopped, staring at it, and it seemed to return his stare, even though he saw nothing like eyes in there.
He heard a girl’s laughter, and thought it was the neighbor bride. No, it sounded too young...he heard it again, and recognized Katie’s giggle. The sound wrenched his heart, and he looked down at his feet, shaking his head; he would never forget that laugh, the one she saved just for him...
His head jerked up, and his heart pounded painfully in his chest.
Suddenly the shadow and the memories were gone. He was standing in the middle of the back yard, and the voice calling him was real. He turned toward the house and saw Lola standing at the open gate, screaming at him.
“Why are you hollering like that, girl? I’m right here.”
“You have to come inside RIGHT NOW, Daddy. Don’t look back, just hurry!” He began walking toward the house.
“Shit, I’m coming, settle down. Is it suppertime already? I was just having a smoke.” Lola stood at the gate, hugging her arms to herself. Jubal had run out of the house at the sound of her voice and stood behind her now. They both stared at him as though he were himself a ghost.
He felt a strange chill, out of place in the balmy summer night, rise up his legs and spine to make the hair stand on end at the back of his neck. Lola began to squeal, and she and Jubal both reached out to grab him by the arms. They dragged him into the house as though Satan himself were chasing them. Jubal slammed the door and leaned against it, panting, and Lola stood shaking in front of Kenny, crying. The chill vanished.
“What the hell have you done to them now, Kenny?” Brenda bellowed over the girl’s wails. “Shut the hell up, Lola, you’re pissing me off with that noise. Can’t you see I’m busy here?”
“Mind your mother, girl, or I’ll get the switch.” Lola’s sobs ceased immediately, and she looked past him at Jubal, who came to put his arm around her.
“Come on, Sister, it’s okay,” he said gently. “I’ll read you your favorite story, and then it’ll be suppertime.” He led her to her room and shut the door behind them.
Brenda glared at Kenny for a second, and turned back to her cooking.
So Lola was going to be crazy just like Katie, getting hysterical for no reason and upsetting everyone. All that fuss, and it wasn’t even suppertime yet. Kenny went back to his recliner and turned on the television.
To be continued...
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Copyright © 2005 by Gracie Motley