Monday Myth & Mayhem: The Back Yard, Part Four

Posted on April 12, 2010

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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 comer, 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…

“Daddy!”

His head jerked up, and his heart pounded painfully in his chest. “DADDY!”

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.

* * * *

They sat by the window in Lola’s room, staring out at the twilight and the shadows. Jubal was holding Lola’s trembling hand.

“They almost got him,” she whispered. “Just like Katie. He was looking right at it, and he thinks we made it up.”

“I know. But we saved him.” He breathed deeply, shaking his head. “I don’t know… maybe we should have just let them take him… it was because of him and Junior that Katie gave herself to them.”

Lola’s head turned, and she looked at him. “He’s our daddy.”

“Yeah, he is. And Junior and Porter are our brothers. And Mama is our mama. But you know just like I do what Daddy did to Katie … the teachers at school say it’s wrong, that kind of thing… and he made Katie unhappy. So did Junior. That’s why… ”

“That’s why she got up in the middle of the night and went out to the shadows,” she finished. “She just didn’t want to live like that any more, and we were the only ones who knew she was telling the truth. And we were too little to help her.” She looked out the window again.

“Our family don’t change much,” he said. “You think Daddy’s going to be different with you than he was with Katie? You think any of them will ever believe us?”

She shook her head, and her eyes filled with tears.

“I been thinking for a long time they don’t really care about us that much,” she admitted.

He put his arm around her shoulder.

“We got each other,” he said. “I won’t let anything bad happen to you.” “I’ll take care of you, too.”

“Next time, let’s just him out there.”

Just then, they heard their mother yelling that it was suppertime and to be quick if they wanted to eat. They left the room, and did not see the shadows crowding the window, looking in.

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