The Back Yard
by Gracie Motley
Table of Contents|
Part 3 appears
in this issue.
* * *
They were not prepared for what Mama had in mind. They were keeping watch against the shadows in Lola’s room when she got home, only an hour or so late this time. They heard a commotion of shopping bags, of Junior and Porter whooping and laughing the way they did when they chased the neighborhood girls. They even heard Mama and Daddy laughing together as if they liked each other.
“What’s going on?” Lola said. Jubal looked at the closed door, shaking his head.
“I don’t know. Never heard any of them act so happy before.”
“Should we go see?”
The bedroom door opened just then, and Daddy came in.
“Come on, you two, your mama’s got a real nice surprise for you. Don’t sit there looking at me like idiots, get moving.” He left, leaving the door open, and they looked at each other.
“I don’t like the sound of this,” Lola said.
“Me neither,” Jubal agreed. He stood up and pulled her to her feet. “But if we don’t go, he’ll whip us.”
They went into the front room where the television was, but no one was there, only large, empty plastic bags that had the words “Donny’s Sporting Gear” printed on them. They went into the kitchen and saw that the back door was open, and heard Mama and Daddy talking in the back yard. Jubal took hold of Lola’s hand, and saw that her face had turned pale as moonlight.
“It’s not dark yet,” he told her. “It’ll be okay.”
“No, it won’t.” She followed him outside.
The card table and some chairs were still out, and there was a bucket of fried chicken sitting on the table. Mama sat smoking a cigarette, watching as Daddy and the boys tugged at a large piece of canvas, some rope, and metal poles. When she saw them, she put out her cigarette.
“Let’s eat,” she ordered. “You two sit down. Kenny, that can wait till after we have supper.” Everyone obeyed her and gathered around the small table. She passed out paper plates, plastic forks, cans of soda. They helped themselves to chicken and coleslaw, biscuits and mashed potatoes with gravy. They ate in silence, listening to the blue jays and mockingbirds, the cars in the street going home.
“I was thinking,” Mama said at last, looking at Jubal and Lola. “I work hard to do my share for this family, and so does your daddy. We’ve had hard times like every other family, but life goes on.”
Lola and Jubal exchanged a glance, and Lola looked over her shoulder at the back fence. Mama saw this and grabbed her elbow, jerking her sharply around to face her again. Junior and Porter giggled with their mouths full.
“There’s no ghosts back here. There’s no boogey man, either,” Mama said calmly. “Your sister went crazy and hung herself in this tree right here, and that’s too bad. But it has nothing to do with the yard. So I decided to prove to you two that this yard is just fine.”
Daddy was smiling, chewing chicken. He said, talking around the meat and the grease, “You two got to stop being such crybabies. You ain’t little kids any more, and it ain’t proper for you to be so scared of everything on earth. You have to listen to your mama now, because she’s gonna fix you up right.”
Lola gripped Jubal’s hand under the table. They were both speechless, fearful of the unknown thing that was about to happen to them.
“You better eat that food on your plates, you two,” Mama said. “I paid good money for that chicken, and you won’t waste it. Finish your supper.”
“I’m not hungry any more,” Jubal said.
“Me either,” Lola echoed. Porter grabbed both their plates and divided the food between himself and Junior.
“That just means more for us, then,” he said, and Daddy chuckled.
“What are you gonna do to us?” Lola said.
Daddy finished his chicken. He got up and walked to the pile of canvas lying on the edge of the marshy part of the yard. He fitted one of the metal poles into a hole in the canvas, and pushed the other end into the ground. He stood the pole upright, and the canvas hung in flaps on either side of the pole, forming a crude triangle.
“This here,” he said, “is a tent. Your mama decided the best thing for you is to spend the night out here in the spooky back yard. Ain’t you grateful you got such a thoughtful and loving mother? Instead of beating some sense into you like I’m ready to do, she’s giving you the privilege of camping out like normal kids.”
Jubal stood up, knocking his chair over. He faced his daddy, his hands making furious little fists at his side.
“Boy, you better...” Mama started to bellow, but Jubal cut her off.
“We won’t do it.”
Lola stood up next to him, just a little slip of a girl, shaking like a reed.
“We never lied to you, and neither did Katie,” she said. “There really is something out here. It wants to get us all, but it hasn’t yet because Jubal and me are always watching for it. And we won’t give ourselves to it like Katie did.”
“You act like we made it up,” Jubal went on. “Every one of you has seen it. We know because we watch. When Mama comes out here at night, it’s waiting for her. When Junior and Porter went after that cat, the shadow nearly had them, but it saw us watching and went away. When you came out here the other day, Daddy, it almost got you too, but Lola saved you. You pretend you don’t see it, but it’s there. We know what it can do, but you don’t because you ignore it. Now you want to give us to it. We know you hate us, but we won’t spend the night out here.”
“You’ll do what we tell you to!” Daddy yelled. “Brenda, I ain’t listening to this any more. I’m getting the switch and I’m gonna beat the shit right out of both of them.”
“You little liar, we didn’t do nothing to no cat,” Junior said. Lola turned her head and stuck her tongue out at him.
“Shut the hell up, all of you,” Mama commanded. “Your daddy’s going to set up this tent, which cost more money than you deserve to get spent on you. Then, you two will go inside that tent and stay there the whole night. In the morning, you’ll see I was right, and we’ll all start using this yard again. There'll be no more bullshit about a haunted yard. You won’t even think it again. Am I clear?”
“We won’t do it,” Lola repeated. “We’ll sneak in after you’re asleep. We’ll run away. You can’t make us do it.”
Daddy was next to her in an instant. He slapped her, backhanded, across the face, and she fell in a heap on the ground. Jubal fell across her, shielding her.
“Leave her alone!” he shouted. Then, suddenly, his face smoothed out, and his eyes filled with an odd light. He got up and pulled Lola to her feet. He put his arm around her, and she hid her face in his shoulder.
“All right, then,” he said softly. “If you leave us out here, you’ll kill us. Fine. But we’re telling the truth, just like Katie did.”
Daddy swung at him; Jubal ducked, and he missed.
“STOP IT RIGHT NOW!” Mama screamed. “I don’t want to hear another word! Kenny, put the fucking tent up. You little bastards WILL sleep out here tonight, and you won’t sneak in later or run away. I’m going to take a bath. Honestly.”
* * *
The tent went up. Daddy, Junior, and Porter went into the house, and locked the gate and the kitchen door behind them. Mama and Daddy watched from the kitchen window until Jubal and Lola crawled into the tent. They huddled close to each other by the open tent flaps, and waited for darkness to come.
“We’re going to die tonight,” Lola said.
“Maybe,” Jubal said, “but maybe not. We won’t get much sleep, that’s for sure. We could play a game to make the time go by.”
“I don’t feel like playing a game.”
So they watched as the sky turned violet, as shadows filled the yard and the fireflies started blinking. The scent of honeysuckle hung in the humid dusk, mingling with the sweet smell of grass and the aroma of rich, loamy earth. The last birds flew home to roost, singing, and the last cars passed in the street. Then there was quiet.
“Mama’s right about one thing,” Lola said. “It’s a pretty yard at sunset, if you don’t know what lives out here in the dark.”
Jubal put his arm around her and did not answer.
They listened to Junior and Porter wrestling in the attic, and heard the noise of the television in the front room. When the kitchen light went on, it cast a dull glow on the side of the tent, and they closed the flaps and moved to sit in the glow. They could hear Mama talking on the phone in the kitchen. When she hung up and left, she turned the light off, stranding them in the dark once more.
Before long all the noise in the house faded away as their family settled for the night. Now there was only silence.
“This is it,” Jubal whispered. “Are you ready?”
“No. I guess so. It don’t really matter, does it?”
“Don’t worry, Sister. Whatever happens, I’m here with you. If we die, we die together. We have to be brave now. You can be brave for me, right?” He felt her nod in the dark.
“I... I just hate them. They’re my family, and I know it’s wrong. We watched for them and kept them safe, and they’re throwing us away just like Katie. So I hate them for it.”
“Yeah, I know. I feel the same way.”
There was a soft movement of leaves and undergrowth in the bushes at the back of the yard. Lola took his hand.
“It’s starting,” she whispered, and they fell silent, listening, waiting.
They heard the grass shudder as though a large bird was flying low just above it. They heard a quiet breeze ripple along the side of the tent. A moment later, it was murmuring through the leaves of the elm tree.
Something touched the tent then, just enough to make the canvas tremble. It moved slowly around to the tent flap, and pulled it aside. Jubal and Lola clung to each other, unable to move or tear their eyes away from the shadow at the open flap. They watched the shadow enter the tent, pouring inside like water. It stopped just before it touched their feet, which they drew up close to their bodies.
Then the shadow receded into itself. It withdrew from the tent and dropped the flap. They were stunned that they were not dead.
The shadow was still out there. They heard it drifting slowly over the grass toward the house.
Then Jubal understood.
“They’re not after us,” he said to Lola. “Come on.”
They left the tent and stood up. They saw the shadow reach the house, where it stopped and gathered itself into a tall, smoky column. It hovered beside Lola’s window.
They felt the cold chill at the same time, and whirled to see other shadows flowing between and through them, then past them. The yard filled with them, a sea of black, roiling shapes. The children were rooted where they stood; there was nowhere to go. They watched as the shadows gathered and took form and floated, waiting, beside Lola’s window.
“They’re going in the house,” Lola said. “We’re not there to stop them.”
She moved, almost broke into a run. Jubal stopped her.
“We’re locked out, remember?” He took hold of her hand; it was cold as ice. Lola stared at him, this truth settling in her eyes like stones.
“They don’t believe us anyway,” she said, and Jubal shook his head.
They watched as the shadows disappeared through the window one by one. Soon, the yard was empty, slumbering in the warm summer night. The shadows were all in the house now.
Junior cried out, and the shadows swallowed his voice. They heard a thump as Porter fell out of his bed. Another hoarse shout before the black claimed and silenced it.
Through the bathroom window, they saw a faint glimmer as the light went on in their parents’ bedroom, too late. Kenny and Brenda uttered no protest, and the light went out.
The house was dark again, silent again. Jubal and Lola waited, breathless, and saw the shadows issue like smoke from the windows. They dispersed across the yard and lingered behind the children.
They heard a loud electric snap, then a sizzling sound. In a moment, they saw flames lick along the cheap carpet in Lola’s room, then spread down the hall, past the bathroom and into the kitchen. When the flames reached the gas stove, there was an explosion that knocked them onto the ground and woke the neighbors.
The fire trucks came quickly, but it was already too late. The house was small and made of wood, and the fire devoured it whole in a matter of minutes. Jubal and Lola stood in the back yard and watched grimly until the skeleton of the house groaned and collapsed on itself. As the flames slowly died in a thick cloud of smoke, they saw the shadows withdraw to the hedge at the back of the yard. Jubal took Lola’s hand and looked at the rubble, where the firefighters were beginning to search for bodies.
“We told them, but they didn’t listen,” he said.
“Everything will be all right now,” she said. “We’ve got each other.”
She looked back over her shoulder. The shadows lingered under the hedge, watching them.
“Thanks for saving us,” she whispered, and saw them shift like water, like smoke. The back yard belonged to the shadows, as it always had. She turned away and went with Jubal toward the fire trucks, where the future waited.
Copyright © 2005 by Gracie Motley