My ex-wife’s mother is buried in my backyard. And that’s not the creepy part of the story, I’m just telling you that to add a little context to the rest of my story. So maybe you’ll understand things a little better.
It’s perfectly legal in some places to bury people on your property. I was driving down the Outer Banks a couple of years ago and I passed houses that had family members buried in the front yard. I’m not kidding about that. Little white picket fences around miniature cemeteries with crosses and all the regular cemetery stuff. It was weird. I haven’t been to the East Coast too many times so I’m not sure where else you are encouraged to bury family members in the front yard, but I know they do it in North Carolina.
At least my ex’s mother is in the backyard.
It’s a big backyard, a couple of acres and she’s tucked away in a forested corner. About a half-mile to the nearest neighbor. Pretty safe. My buddy Slim says I’m a puss for allowing it. He also thinks that calling me a puss and leaving the y off the end of the word is not nearly as offensive as adding the y to the end of the word. He says I’m a puss and that I’ll do anything my ex wants because I’m still in love with her and I’m a puss for not being able to stand up to her. But it was just one of those things, you know. After Kate, that’s my ex, after she left me she fell on some hard times, and then her mom got sick and died pretty quick and Kate didn’t have anyone else to call, never knew her dad, not too many friends, so, you know, things happened. Plus my daughter really loved her grandma and when she was a little younger she could go out there and put flowers and bracelets made of macaroni and that kind of thing on her gravesite. She’s a bit older now.
I only tell you all of this so you’ll understand that I’m a pretty straight-up guy. I don’t make things up and I don’t lie about things. My mother-in-law is buried out back and my friend Slim calls me a puss. That’s honesty. Because when I tell you what I’m about to tell you I want you to understand that it’s the truth. Not making things up, not trying to make you feel sorry for me. Just the truth of what really happened.
The kid was gone, off with Kate for the weekend. Summer was on its way out but the evenings were still warm enough for me to sit out back and stare into nothing. I have these big Adirondacks I put together a few years ago for just such occasions. Like I said, I have a pretty good-sized place. Part of the backyard is lawn, great for playing football with the kids, having some friends over for a BBQ, or sitting and staring as the sunset turns the sky purple. There’s still a big chunk of the property that is wild. Well, wild-ish. Not lawn is what I mean. There are a couple of trails off the back end that head down a gentle slope through some dogwood and larch to the Little Banjo. It’s one of the small rivers that flows out of Banjo Lake maybe ten miles up. The kind of river that kids like to float down on inner tubes while drinking a couple of shoplifted beers during the summertime.
Anyway, my daughter was gone and the sun was setting and I was sitting there thinking that life, all things considered, wasn’t so bad. Then I saw it. At first, it just caught a glint of light from the last rays before sundown. It was a small circle of metal peeking out from the taller grass at the edge of where I kept the lawn trimmed. Light, reflecting off a piece of silverish metal. When I looked closer I saw the red. A goddam Coke can. And I’ll tell you I froze. Couldn’t move for I don’t know how long. See, no one in my house drinks Coke. Even at our BBQs, we serve lots of other things, but no one drinks Coke here. Which means someone dropped it there.
I froze because there weren’t any other signs of anything. Sometimes those kids that inner tube down the Little Banjo get tired or run out of beer and they hike up the hill on those trails and cut across the backyard to get out to the street to hike back to town or call their parents to get picked up. Usually, it’s no problem. You can hear them coming from a mile away and I’m pretty friendly about the whole thing, you know, I was a kid once too. But even if I don’t hear them, I can always tell when they’ve wandered through because there will be a bit of mud tracked from the trail onto the lawn and a clear trail of their heavy footsteps across the backyard toward the front and the street. And when they do drop trash or Coke cans, it’s always right at the edge of the lawn near where the trail breaks through. This Coke can I was staring at was way over on the other side. The kids would have needed to make a special trip over to the edge and drop it there.
And since no one in my house drinks Coke and no wandering kids left it there I froze. Because it meant someone else had been in my backyard. Someone I didn’t know. When I mowed the lawn earlier in the morning I promise you that can was not there. Meaning whoever had been in the backyard had been there recently. And probably while I was home.
I stared at the shimmering end of that Coke can and couldn’t move. I hate that feeling of not being able to move. Like a really bad dream except I’m awake. The sun kept going down and the can stopped shining and the red part of the can got darker. It turned the color of, well…never mind.
The person that left it there obviously wanted me to see it, wanted me to know they’d been there. And I seriously wondered if the person was still out there somewhere, watching to see if I’d respond to their calling card.
My eyes continued to move even though the rest of me couldn’t. Scanning for anything else out of place. The arches of my feet began to hurt. Cramp, from being clenched so tight. I know my yard, my house, where everything is supposed to be. I know when something is missing and when something isn’t right. That damn can. I had to concentrate on breathing because when something appears that has no business appearing, you’ve got to concentrate on the basics.
The sun dipped then and the light coming from the house behind me was all that was left. My shadow blended with the chair’s and slowly crept across the grass. That shadow was almost as bad as that Coke can. Almost. I could explain the shadow, I couldn’t explain the can. I curled my fingers around the end of the Adirondack’s armrest and pulled myself forward. I had to move, I couldn’t stay in the backyard all night staring at the Coke can and waiting for whatever left it there to grab me. Plus, I wanted to show whatever was watching that I wasn’t scared of a Coke can.
I stood up, not too fast, not too slow, just kind of normal like, sending the message to myself as well as anyone that might be watching that everything was okay. I walked to the edge of the lawn where the Coke can winked at me, although now it reflected the light from the house instead of the light from the sun. I’m certain that whoever left it there put it in place for just that reason. To make sure it would sparkle from one light source or the other, to make sure it was visible, and to make sure that I would see it and know they had been there.
The cramps in my feet hadn’t relaxed, if anything the knots tightened as I approached the can. There was no way I could let it stay in the yard. But I had to be careful because whatever left it there could have been hiding in the taller grass or the milkweed waiting for me to come over and investigate. Maybe a little further back where the trees stood, large and dark. Plenty of shadows there. Had I been thinking properly, I would have headed inside and grabbed the rifle first, you know. Someone that leaves a Coke can in your yard is clearly making a statement and sometimes a rifle is the only answer.
My feet stopped moving when I got closer, my body blocked the house lights and the sparkling blinked out again, making the can harder to see. But I had its location memorized after staring at it for so long while the sun went down. I was still a good ten feet away when my feet decided close enough was close enough.
Anybody there? I called out. I was talking to my own backyard and I bet the guy who left that can there thought it was pretty funny. Like he was going to jump up and say, Yeah man, I’m right here, flipping through my Field and Stream, and watching you all alone in that big house and big yard for the last three hours.
No one answered.
But see, I had a decision to make. Force my feet to keep moving or head back inside and make sure all of the doors were closed and locked. Windows too.
Who had been watching me?
Something moved out in the trees. Probably the wind, but it wasn’t the leaves and pine needles waving, it was a shifting shadow. The little finger on my left hand twitched, a sure sign that I was out of my depth. It’s the reason I don’t play poker with Slim anymore, he just waits for my finger to twitch and he knows he’s got me. It means my body knows better than my brain when it’s time to get out. I had to get to the house, and settle myself down, but that meant I had to turn my back on the can and the forest and whatever shadows moved out there.
It took everything I had to not run. To walk normally with a twitching finger and cramped feet. I heard a tree branch snap behind me. I shut my eyes and kept walking, figured if I didn’t turn or look, whatever was back there couldn’t be real. I kept walking like everything was alright.
I don’t usually freak about this kind of thing, you gotta believe me. Somehow I knew the Coke can was bad news. I slept on the floor in the spare room that night, you know, in case something came into the house. And I really didn’t sleep that much anyway.
The next morning I took my rifle to the backyard. Kate would be dropping the daughter off in an hour or so and I wanted to make sure everything was safe. The sun was up but the section of the yard where the Coke can had been ggot morning shade and only really starts to see sunshine later in the afternoon. I carried my rifle real casual, no big deal, but it’s hard to carry a rifle without looking like you intend to use it for something. I moved past the Adirondacks wondering why I hadn’t faced them in a slightly different direction the night before. Then I never would have seen that damn Coke can and I definitely would not have spent the night curled up on the floor imagining every noise was something coming to get me. I’d probably have been a little less groggy too.
I knew exactly where the Coke can was from the night before but I had some trouble finding it. I figured the morning dew weighted down the longer grass and covered the damn thing. I walked back and forth at the edge of the mowed part of the lawn but I couldn’t see anything that looked red or silvery. I used my foot to push the taller grass back, I used the tip of the rifle sweeping it in circles expecting to hear that metallic clink as it came in contact with the Coke can. After about fifteen minutes I started to worry. The guy who put the can there had come back and taken it away. To ensure that if I told anyone about it, they wouldn’t believe me. Cans don’t just appear and disappear on their own. My little finger twitched and I clenched my hand and pretended to ignore it. I half walked, half ran back over to my Adirondacks and sat in the one I’d been sitting in the night before. I stared at the spot at the edge of the lawn where the Coke can was. Had been.
I used a tree as my guide and stood up and walked carefully toward the spot. I’m telling you it was gone. Last night it appeared, now it was gone. Shit like that doesn’t happen on its own. I could hear my breathing now. It was coming short and shallow and that was a little freaky, hearing my own breathing. Not a sound I’ve ever heard before.
Before my ex-wife left she used to complain about my snoring. She said it was just loud enough to be annoying to anyone with the misfortune of sleeping next to me. Early in our marriage, she’d laugh when she said it, later, not so much. But when I heard my own breathing that morning, looking for where the Coke can was, I knew what she was talking about.
I distinctly remember telling myself to relax. Calm down, idiot, I said out loud, talking to no one in my backyard again. Because if there is someone out there they can see your rifle and know not to mess with you. I said that last part, you know, just in case.
I stepped across the taller grass, leaving the mowed part behind and using the tall hemlock as a guidepost. Adirondack, Coke can, hemlock. The three things would have made a straight line and I figured if there had been someone in the backyard, someone intent on watching me watch a Coke can, that standing a few feet behind that hemlock tree would be the perfect place to stand. The light would have a harder time filtering through the trees and the larger bushes in that part of the property. If the guy had been standing perfectly still he might even be confused for a shadow. My footsteps slowed as I got closer to that tree but I made them keep going.
I don’t really have any enemies, me and Kate get along well enough, Slim’s not one for pranks and such. The only explanation for this whole thing was something bad.
I didn’t care anymore if my breathing was annoying.
From the hemlock I started walking in half-circles, back and forth, carefully examining the ground. It was soft, not quite mud, and covered with a layer of forest leftovers, pine needles, smaller twigs, dead leaves. That kind of stuff. On my fourth half-circle, I found it. Or them, I guess. Footprints. Not very large, probably a kid about the age of my daughter. Maybe a small adult, but there they were. The Coke can culprit’s footprints, side by side, just a minor depression in the ground. Clearly made by a person standing in the forest and watching me. A few more half-circles and I found the branch. It had obviously been broken recently, the wood inside the bark still clean and white, not aged and grey like wood that has been out in the elements for a time.
But that was it. No evidence of footprints approaching the area, no evidence of footprints leaving the area. I made several more half-circles, each one getting wider than the one before, until I was standing about twenty feet away from the hemlock, knee deep in some other bushes, additional hemlocks and a few other trees surrounded me then, the forest was pretty dark, even in the morning light, the branches of the trees forming a canopy that was like a huge sheet of burlap. And there was nothing.
No sound of birds calling to each other, no insects whirring. No wind moving through the trees. Nothing. Just the sound of my own breathing.
I looked back toward the house, toward the manicured part of the backyard, toward those Adirondacks. My eyes stopped at the little depressions, those footprints of my peeping tom with the Coke can, at the base of that tree, it had to be at least a hundred years old because its trunk was easily five feet in diameter. I don’t know why, maybe it was the pattern in the bark, crevices running up and down looking more like the skin on the back of my grandma’s hand than the bark of a tree, but I started following those lines upward. Branches started popping out from the trunk about ten feet up, much higher than I could reach anyway, and my eyes kept going up.
The green needles of the tree reaching out to touch the arms of the other trees, losing their color and drifting into shades of grey and black. That dusky light when the sun goes down and you can’t be sure of all the things you see because the light plays tricks on you. And that’s where he stood. A kid. He didn’t look any older than my daughter. Standing there holding a can. Sixty feet up in the air surrounded by the still branches. The bottom of his shoes floating out over nothing. For a second, for a really quick second, I thought he was hanging there. From a rope. But there was no sway, no wobble. The bottom of his shoes, visible even from so far below, the rubber soles of his sneakers were smooshed with his weight. As if he was standing on a pane of glass. But there was no glass, just a kid with a Coke can sixty feet up.
Standing on nothing.
The frozen panic from the night before flooded back. My skin tightened under my clothes and compressed me into a smaller version of myself. The canvas of my old work shoes creaked under the strain as my feet clenched into knots. I think that’s probably when I dropped the rifle.
The kid was facing the opposite way, so all I could see was the bottom of his feet and his back. His hair was dark and shaggy. He slowly began to turn toward me, his feet taking miniature steps. He could have been standing on the floor of my kitchen.
My arms were at my side and I could feel bolts of electricity jumping back and forth between all the joints in my body. Fear growing with every one of my rapid heartbeats. And once again I was a statue, just like the night before on those chairs. It was the same feeling as when you jump into a lake that is twenty degrees colder than you expected and every part of your body refuses to cooperate. Unable to move, speak. Run. Anything. Only my eyes could move and they were held by the slowly turning shape of a child in the forest.
He finished his excruciating turn and his neck tilted, slowly, and his face looked down at me. From the darkness, his features were nothing more than shadows. There were hollows where eyes would be, the seam of a nose, a thin jaw line. He held this position for a moment and cocked his head to the side, just a bit, studying me.
Then it smiled. It was the smile of a grown up that knows something that kids should never be told.
Everything unfroze and I ran. Without thinking or knowing or seeing. My feet were working, so I used them.
I crashed into the old hemlock tree, full speed, with my shoulder and face. The force of the impact spun me and as I twirled, before hitting the ground, I could see the child. He seemed to be moving. Stepping. Like walking down a spiral staircase. Down.
I hit the ground face first with much less force than I hit the tree. Pine needles pressing into my cheek. I managed to roll my head and my eyes, just enough you know, to make sure I was still seeing what I was still seeing. The child’s slow descent continued, its demonic smile swirling with my vision.
I pressed myself up, shoulder throbbing, found my feet and pushed forward. I heard, I’m pretty sure anyway, from behind me the crinkle of an aluminum can being crushed and a shrill laugh. I didn’t turn to check, just kept my watery eyes forward on the lawn and house just ahead. I staggered onward, everything hurting, pretty sure I could taste blood in my mouth from the collision with the tree, trying to run, not wanting to look back, not wanting to see the thing standing behind me.
I made it to the tall grass, then to the lawn, past the Adirondacks, and inside the house. I slammed the kitchen door shut, managed to lock it, and fell to the floor. My breathing refused to slow down and I debated popping my head up, pushing the curtain aside to see if the kid from the tree was still coming. Or if he’d disappeared.
There’s a chance I’d gone crazy, of course. Managed to turn my brain inside out over nothing. Which almost comforted me, compared to the alternative. But then from the backyard, I heard the distinct crack of my rifle. It’s a little .22, but it has a pretty specific sound when it fires. The window in the door shattered inward. Glass and curtain fabric rained down on me. In the quiet that followed the crashing glass was the unmistakable crinkle of aluminum. I couldn’t tell how close it was, or if it mattered. I scrambled like a dog toward the other side of the kitchen, ignoring the splinters of glass slicing into my palms. I felt another shard cut through my jeans and into my knee. I didn’t care. I’d dropped five shells into the rifle earlier which meant the kid still had four shots left.
I wasn’t interested in how it knew how to shoot, how good its aim might be, or why it was coming for me. Only that it was. Leave me alone, I screamed over my shoulder. Dots of blood already showing on the linoleum from my hands. Leave me alone!
I saw the staircase and the hallway leading out of the kitchen. Upstairs would be a dead-end of bathrooms and closets where he thing could slowly track me down, hunt me in my own house. Kill me with my own rifle. Slim would have a field day with that one. Going up those stairs was suicide.
The back door opened somewhere behind me. I stayed on my hands and knees, even though crawling hurt to all hell. But standing up to run would give the kid a target. A little pain is better than getting shot. And I figured I could make it down the hallway, you know, past the laundry room and into the garage before it caught up to me. I keep a small pistol hidden in the garage, I’m not one of those gun nuts, but you never know when something bad might go down. I think this qualified.
Footsteps from the kitchen crackled across a floor of broken glass. Accompanied by laughter.
I twisted the doorknob into the garage. Not wanting to waste time looking behind me I tumbled onto the cool concrete and kicked the door shut. I stood, relief for my glass-filled knees and hands and hustled around my old pick-up. Its faded blue paint seemed grayer than anything in the dim garage. At my workbench, I slid the toolbox out of the way and pulled the small staple gun box out from behind it. I always thought it was clever to hide an actual gun in the staple gun box. Didn’t seem so funny now. I yanked that pistol out and turned toward the door into the house. Pointing the gun at the door I’d just come through, sure that at any moment I’d hear my rifle fire and a hole would splinter into the garage.
There was nothing but quiet. The door into the house didn’t open, there wasn’t another shot. Nothing. I stood in that garage for a full minute, waiting, feet curled, pinky finger twitching. And I’d almost given up, lowered my pistol and was about to convince myself that I could have imagined the whole thing, when the garage door behind me started to lift.
Morning light seeped in as the overhead garage door opener whirred to life.
I spun and brought the gun back, not sure what to aim at. I lurched sideways into the fender of my truck. It helped to steady me because whatever it was that had put that Coke can in my backyard, whatever the thing was that could stand in a forest sixty feet above the ground, the thing that knew how to fire my rifle, could also open a garage door. And it was coming in.
Without even thinking I lifted my arm and fired two quick rounds into the automatic garage door opener. In my panic, I thought it might buy some time. The motor exploded into sparks and plastic shrapnel and the door stopped raising. The bullets buried themselves into the unfinished drywall covering the garage ceiling adding a fine powder of gypsum to the flying shards of plastic. With the morning sun pouring in from the whole scene might have been beautiful. You know, if I’d had time to think about such things.
I heard the laughter again, from the driveway, loud and shrill, and then something banged against one of the panels of the unmoving garage door, open maybe eighteen inches. Enough space to crawl under. That’s when I saw it. The shadow from that thing in the woods. Standing maybe a foot in front of the garage door, the morning sun behind him, casting the shadow of his feet and legs into the garage. The shadows moved, the high-pitched laugh came again, although almost a sound I recognized, something I might have heard before, but I knew better. Another ploy like the Coke can, meant to throw me off. The kid hit the garage door again, the whole thing shuddered with a metallic urgency. I started squeezing the trigger.
It’s not a real powerful gun, but it went through the garage door easy enough. When I stopped firing the morning grew quiet again. I waited, knowing that if the kid came under the door now, it was over, I had nothing left. So I stood and waited. I counted to one hundred. Did it again, just to be sure, and crept toward the garage door. The morning sun was directly in my eyes when I knelt to look under but could just make out the soles of the shoes, no longer standing on nothing, now laying in my driveway. So I crawled under the garage door.
That’s what happened, straight up. I’m an honest guy and when I rolled into the driveway from the garage and stood up, Kate’s body was sprawled awkwardly on the driveway. My daughter next to her. Blood spattered Kate’s Subaru and stained the white cement driveway. A fly landed on my daughter’s face and she didn’t move or brush it away. I fell down and sobbed, right there. When I stopped sometime later, the sun was already going down and the kid from the forest was nowhere to be seen.
That’s the truth.
I have a big yard and you know it’s perfectly legal in some places to bury those you love on your property. So far no one’s stopped by. Tomorrow or the next day the police may show up, but I’m not sure. Or how long it will take before someone notices Kate and my daughter missing. My heart is broken. I haven’t slept in three days and I’ve spent most of that time walking in circles in the backyard. Certain that I’ll find that Coke can and it will explain everything, sure that kid from the tree will show up and I can get a hold of him and get him to confess that this is all his fault. Verify what happened. Absolve me. I think tonight I’ll make a macaroni bracelet and take it out to the back corner of my property.
I hope I find that Coke can soon.