The following story is the answer to a writing challenge from Paul Montgomery, and inspired by the this prompt: “An old bachelor, having just moved to the country, discovers something strange in his back yard.”
By David Accampo
Finding no further answers, I called Mrs. Macready. Phone picked up on the second ring.
“Oh, Bill — I was just thinking about you.”
“I’m sorry to bother you, Mrs. Macready–”
“Please, call me Helen, Bill. No one except the kids at school call me Missus. Haven’t felt like a Missus since Tom died anyway, really…”
“Helen…sorry…listen…I found something at the house today. I’m…I’m not sure what to make of it.”
“You know old houses. They do tend to collect little histories, don’t they? If they could talk, I wonder what they’d say.”
“There was something…buried…in the backyard.‚”
“Ah. I see‚” She stopped then. I could hear rustling. After a moment, she spoke again, “Well I’m sure it’s nothing, Bill. Just old buried treasures, you know? One man’s junk, all that.”
“Listen, Helen…would you…would you maybe like to have tea? Over here?” It was a dirty trick, but I knew it would work.
“Oh, well. Yes, of course, Bill! When…when…do you mean now…? I mean, I could, I just have to, well, sure, I mean…”
“Now would be great, Helen. I’ll put on a kettle.”
“Oh! Yes. Yes, sure Bill. I’ll, uh, I’ll see you in a few!”
I rummaged through the boxes, still packed. Wasn’t even sure I had a pot for tea. It was dusk; long shadows crawling across the cluttered living room, still dim from the lack of electrical lighting. A brisk wind rattled the old windows, blew open the flimsy screen door to the back yard. I wasn’t used to it all, the space, the wind, the shadow. Nothing’s every truly dark in the city. Someone shines a light on everything. Here, lights are just dim stars on a black canvas. A mirror to the night. Somewhere, a dog barked three times and was quiet again.
I was still fidgeting with the gas stove when Helen came rumbling up her her dead husband’s old Chevy. The bald tires slid across the dirt and gravel as the truck clanked to a stop. It was already a sound I was beginning to hate.
We sat. Drank tea. Helen did most of the talking. She asked a lot of questions. About the city. About what it was like working on Wall Street. About how I liked the country now. My answers were brief. I spent the rest of the time fiddling with the old coffee mug I was using for the tea. She wasn’t going to say anything unless I brought it up. You could see it in the way she’d watch my face as I answered, and then, when I was done, look away quickly, trying to form a new question before I could say anything else. It was awkward and a little sad.
“Your daughter lived here before me, isn’t that right?” I asked.
“Yes, yes…‚” she said, “our little Becky, bless her heart. Grew up in our little neck of the woods, and never left it. She and her husband bought this house just a mile up the road.”
“Must have been nice.”
“Oh yes…well, you know the boys went off to school and such. But Becky…she…this was always her home, was always going to be. Boys so often run off, you know, but girls — we do like to settle, don’t we?” She looked at me and smiled as she said this. She was wearing red lipstick. A little was smeared across her yellow teeth.
“She was happy here, then?”
“Even as a little girl, she’d spend all her days out in the woods. We’d have to holler for an hour to get her to come on home for supper! More at peace there than anywhere else at all.”
“Why’d she leave, Helen?”
Helen pats her hair, looks away. She puts her hands in her pockets, the motion of a smoker looking for her pack. She catches my stare and stops. She smiles in defense.
“Oh, Bill…” she sighs. “You know how it always happens. Alex, that was her husband, he got himself a job upstate a ways and they just had to move is all. Believe me…it wasn’t easy for her to leave.”
“Can I show you what I found?”
The smile doesn’t drop on the widow’s face, but I can see the light’s gone out of her eyes. She’s frozen still, one hand still in the pocket of her purple sweater, one hand still holding the tea cup I found in one of the boxes.
Quietly, I rise from the sofa, walk into the kitchen, and grab the box. I return to the living room, carrying it in front of me. Helen is no longer staring at me. She had slumped in her chair. She stares now at her tea cup, tracing one finger slowly around the chipped rim.I tell her I was mending the fence, the one she said was “torn up real good in the last storm.”
The post-hole digger I was using struck something solid. I thought maybe it was a gas line or water pipe. It wasn’t. It was the box.
“It’s old and rusted but I don’t think it was down there for a very long time,” I say.
“You never know in these parts.”
“Had a lock on it, too. Thought that was a bit odd. I was able to snap it off with the post-holer.”
As I say this line, Helen’s tea cup clatters to the ground and shatters. The warm liquid pools on the worn floor, seeps into the cracks in the wood. She apologizes profusely; I wave it off, grab the nearest towel from a box — a bath towel — and throw it over the mess.
“I’ll clean it up later‚” I say. And then I open the box and set it down on the coffee table.
Helen doesn’t look inside, so I keep talking. It’s my turn for the questions.
“I wasn’t sure what I was looking at at first, Helen. It looks a little like a small animal. But here…these bones…the skeleton here…this is a baby.”
Helen stifles a little gasp.
“Except…it’s not, is it? Look…is this…what was this…? A tail? Is this a barb at the end? This tiny bone? What are these…these…fibrous tumors twisted all the way through the rib cage? And then…and then…the shape of the skull. That’s not a baby. Look at the length of the incisors. And the way it opens…the way it folds out.”
“Some kind of monster,” says Helen.
“Some kind of joke‚” I say. “But who would play such a horrible prank? College students? The local boys? The type who make up crop circles for fame and fortune?”
“Nobody ‘round here would do that,” she says, her voice little more than a whisper now. She twists her hands together.
I reach into the box, pull out something metal.
“And then I found this in the box‚” I say. I hold up the spoon.
“A little baby spoon, right? Is that what this is? I’ve…I don’t have any kids, Helen, so I don’t know.”
“Yes‚” she says, tears welling in her eyes. She coughs as she speaks, “Yes, yes. That’s what it is, it’s a silver spoon. An ornament.”
“The kind of thing that someone engraves, is that right? A message to the baby. This was covered in filth. the box must have leaked. I cleaned it up, though. I cleaned it up. There’s an engraving there.”
”Yes‚” says Helen.
“It says: ‘To my precious little one, love Grandma.’”
“She was so precious,” says Helen, “I didn’t even see the forked tongue or the tentacles. She was just my little grandbaby, Bill. How could we have known? Becky, little Becky…she loved those damned woods so much. How could we have known the trouble they would cause?”
Helen begins to cry then, the old widow, alone in the night in the dim light of my house. I look at the terrible thing in the box, I try to imagine its inhuman, mewling cries. We are silent for a long time, Mrs. Macready and I, until the wind kick up again and slams the screen door against the wood siding, startling us both. In the distance, in the dark, the woods loom.