Monday Myth & Mayhem: The Back Yard, Part Five

Posted on April 19, 2010


Brenda made a decision. It was a waste not to use the back yard. It was spacious and pretty, even though no food or flowers except for the honeysuckle and a few plums would grow there. She and Kenny had worked, scrimped, and saved to give their children this nice house and this big back yard to play in, and it was wrong not to enjoy it. She told Kenny what she wanted to do, and he agreed with her. He even said he’d been thinking the same thing. They were going to have a cookout in the back yard, just as other families did in the summertime.

So on the next day she had off, Brenda made Junior and Porter set up the card table and folding chairs out on the patio. She went to the grocery store and bought some short ribs and chicken. She made potato salad and corn on the cob, and Kenny cooked the meat on the barbecue.

When supper was ready, they all sat down in the back yard at the card table to eat.

Kenny, Junior, and Porter ate like hogs, greedy and sloppy. Like always, Jubal and Lola sat together at the end of the table and didn’t talk to anyone but each other. They watched everybody, wide-eyed and distrustful, and occasionally they would look around at the yard as if they thought somebody was going to sneak up and grab them. They were the first to finish eating, and they took their empty plates and disappeared into the house. They were too delicate, too full of fear. If they didn’t toughen up soon, the world would swallow them whole. But Junior and Porter were strong, and they would be good, hard men one day. The little ones were just a mystery, a pair of little ghosts hanging around the edges of things.

Suddenly, she had a perfect idea, and wondered why she had never thought of it before.

She knew what to do to put some backbone in her two youngest. It was so simple it made her smile. She really was the smartest one in the whole family.

The meal was over, and Kenny and the boys had gobbled up the rest of the food; there weren’t even any leftovers. It had been a nice meal, and everybody but Jubal and Lola had enjoyed it. But Brenda had a plan now, and those two wouldn’t spoil things again. She left the table and chairs where they were, and went to clean up the kitchen.

Now she could have some time by herself. Kenny was already in his recliner, and the kids were in their rooms. She got her smokes and went out back. She sat down at the little table and lit a cigarette, feeling the smoke fill her lungs.

She liked the back yard best in the dark. This yard was what made her talk Kenny into buying the house in the first place. They all used to enjoy it more, back when they first moved in, when Lola was still in diapers. That all changed when they found Katie that night two years ago, swinging by the neck from a high limb in the elm. After that, nobody came back here much.

The stars were out, and a warm breeze had the trees and bushes whispering. These were the only voices out here, and the only ghosts were the shadows that moved and shifted in the underbrush ringing the yard at the fence line. Sure, little kids might be afraid of the dark, but Lola and Jubal weren’t little kids anymore. It was high time they put that nonsense behind them.

She got up and walked along the southern fence. She could hear little creatures scurrying in the bushes, and the scent of honeysuckle was heady up close. The grass was thick and soft under her bare feet, and moist with settling dew.

As she reached the back fence, she had a creeping sense of eyes following her. None of the neighbors was out, and there was hardly any traffic. Her family was in the house, doing whatever they did in the evenings. She was alone with the breeze and the yard.

She turned the corner and started walking the back fence. The shadows were deepest here. It seemed a little cooler, the air a little more damp. The feeling of someone watching her was stronger, too. She looked up at the house, which appeared small and shabby from the expanse of the yard, and saw only the kitchen light on. She thought she saw a movement at Lola’s dark window, but it was only the curtain lifting on the breeze. She took a deep breath, feeling silly, and took a few more steps.

She put her foot in something moist and sticky.

“Goddammit,” she growled, and rubbed her foot on the grass that had finally filled in the old vegetable patch. But the substance clung, seeping uncomfortably in between her toes. She bent down to wipe it away with her hands.

“Brenda.” The voice was low and flat, and sounded just next to her right ear; she even felt the breath that carried it. She stood up and turned, looking around her, but nobody was there.

“All right, that’s it,” she told herself sternly. “I’m going in to wash this shit off my foot. It’s late, and I’m tired.”

She walked briskly up the yard to the patio, got her cigarettes, and went into the house, leaving a trail of shadows and disembodied voices behind her.

* * * *

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.”