Welcome to Monday Myth & Mayhem! This will be a regular weekly feature where I present new pieces, or at least installments of longer new pieces, as I’m doing with this one.
“The Back Yard” appeared several years ago in Bewildering Stories Magazine. So this one isn’t new, but it has pride of place as my very first publication. I’m happy to present it as the inaugural entry for MM&M. Enjoy.
For the house to be so small, the back yard was vast, almost half an acre large. It extended from a small patio crowded up against the house and lay in a perfect square. Thick grass covered it, punctuated with clumps of dandelions and wild, tough weeds that thrived in spite of all attempts to poison them. A medium-sized elm tree sheltered the patio, and closer to the back fence, a young cedar had sprung up overnight, out of nowhere. When it rained, which was often, the center of the yard became a swamp, a standing pool six inches deep, which drew the mosquitoes like pollen drew bees.
The family made many attempts to grow things around the edges of the little swamp, on the higher ground. At first, by the back fence behind the elderly clothesline, there was a vegetable plot where tomatoes, turnips, and green beans struggled to live. When that failed, they let the youngest daughter plant morning glories and zinnias on the south side of the patio behind the barbecue pit where they would get the best sun and where the morning glories had an aging trellis to climb up. This lasted for three seasons until the weeds won the war and overcame the flowers. Along the northern fence were two plum trees that grew as they wished, and gave a meager yearly harvest of pale green plums, which the birds made more of than the family did. Honeysuckle, the youngest daughter’s favorite, grew in bushy clumps along all the fences, and gave a sweet scent to the almost-wild yard in the springs and summers.
The back yard was haunted. Only the youngest brother and sister knew it, and they only whispered of it among themselves, never to the two older boys or the adults. They knew very well that any mention of the ghosts would get them only ridicule from their brothers, scorn from their mother, and perhaps a good whipping with a switch snapped off the elm from their father. So they kept their silence, except for those times in the evenings after dinner when their parents collapsed in front of the television and the brothers were squabbling in the tiny attic room they shared. In those times, they often tiptoed out the back door and sat on the steps with the back gate open, the light of the carport behind them tethering them to the house, and kept watch.
The yard stretched before them as they sat vigil this night, black and empty, the trees and bushes rippling in the warm summer breeze. The moon was dark, and there was only the light from the kitchen window now, a wan square of yellow that lay flat and unknowing beside the house.
“Katie saw them once,” the girl, Lola, said, her chin resting in her hands, elbows propped on knobby knees. The boy, Jubal, glanced aside at her, and she sensed a shiver run through him.
“Don’t talk about her,” he said, and then, “What did she say about it?” Lola chewed a hangnail, speaking out the side of her mouth.
“You remember when I was six, before Katie… before… you remember the night she woke up screaming bloody murder and got everybody so upset?”
Jubal nodded and did not speak.
“The next day after it was all over, and Mama and Daddy were at work, Katie and me were in the bedroom by ourselves, and she told me what scared her. She said she woke up to go to the bathroom. She sat up in the bed and the wind was blowing the curtains, so she held the curtain open to get some fresh air. She looked out the window and… and… she saw them.”
The boy’s breath stopped, his heart thumped. He looked out at the darkness, at the waiting shadows, picturing what his sister Katie, the oldest of them, had witnessed that night. He made himself take a breath.
“Go on,” he whispered.
“She said they were tall and dark, just a part of the night that moved,” she said softly. “There were two of them. She thought they were robbers, or bums that got into the yard through the side gate. She didn’t make any noise, but they saw her anyway. When they did see her, they came up the yard right at her. She said they moved like the wind, quick, and without any feet. Then she was screaming, and they were gone like a puff of smoke, and the lights came on, and Mama and Daddy were in there with us raising hell.”
“Don’t say hell,” the boy said. “I saw them, too. Not that night, but later, after Katie died.”
“Don’t say died,” the girl said. “When was that? When you saw them?”
“About a month after Katie… passed away. I couldn’t sleep one night, and I was just looking out the window, thinking about her. Then I saw something move, out there by the back fence. It looked they were digging in the old vegetable patch. They didn’t see me, and I watched them for a few minutes. After a while it looked like they found something in the ground, and they bent over whatever it was. They… they looked like animals eating something they hunted.”
He shuddered, put his arm protectively around his little sister, who was silent.
“The next day, I went out there to the vegetable patch, and the ground was all turned up, so I knew right then I wasn’t dreaming or making it up in my head. Then Daddy caught me there and blamed me for digging up the yard. ‘That’s why nothing ever grew right back here,’ he told me. He whipped me good for that, even though I didn’t do anything. And that’s partly why I’m the one who has to mow the grass now.”
“I remember that day,” the girl said. “I felt so bad for you. Now I feel worse, knowing what made it happen. And you couldn’t tell him the truth, or he’d have whipped you worse.”
She looked out at the far edge of the yard, at the rear fence, and thought she saw something shift beneath the bushes. Her brother’s arm stiffened around her shoulders, and she knew he had seen it too.
“Let’s go watch the television,” she said, and they got up and hurried inside, shutting the door firmly against the darkness.