Too much time had passed. The carcass was soft and sparse, the eyes completely gone. A blanket of coarse grey hair surrounded the floor around it. Sad little maggots that never grew up speckled the area like rice. Jake Howard smiled.
The sagging garage rested its tired foundation amid waist-high rye. Hot dry wind rustled the weedy growths, pattering them softly against the worn whitewashed clapboards. A rusted homemade wind chime of soup cans and nails tapped hollow tinny heartbeats as it swayed from the grey eave over the carriage door. The boy extended his toes to their diminutive limits, just high enough for his bright curious eyes to reach the rippled door glass.
The man he knew as Mr. Howard was crouched around a mass of strangeness at the far end of the space. A large antique tractor filled the space between the boy and the target of his interest; the vehicle’s great knobby rear tire obscuring the details needed to complete the scene. The rumors had been part of life here for as long as the boy could remember. It was all talk, all funny little rumors over unexplained incidents or alleged incidents. It didn’t help Jake’s cause that he was a very large and tremendously ugly man of slight genetic attributes, a forty-two year old virgin momma’s boy retard.
Jake used his skinning knife to slice off a walnut sized chunk of the putrid flesh. Without hesitation he popped it into his mouth and like an oyster the thing slid down his throat. The boy witnessed this disgusting display, slipped and fell hard enough to disturb the dozen chickens feeding in the adjoining coop. Shrill cackles and clucks filled the quiet.
A week later the police knocked on Jake’s front door. They inquired, he responded, and was left alone shortly after. Dinner that night was a rare treat, a scrumptious delectable dish not often enjoyed. Jake ate heartily washing down the meal with a half-gallon of syrupy red wine. He finished the bottle, collapsed in his frayed easy chair as the old television delivered world-class wrestling. Throughout the night strange dreams made his sleep restless and when the sun crept under the stained roller shade he found consciousness painful and out of focus. He checked the shed before leaving.
“Whatcha need, Jake?” asked Fran. Fran owned the feed and farm supply.
“100 lbs of Dog Chow.”
“Jesse over to West Side said Buster died a little bit ago,” Fran inquired. “You got a new pup?”
“Um, yes. New fella.”
Fran nodded and smiled slightly as she pulled intercom mic toward her, “Henry, bring up a medium sack of Dog Chow,” she said through a hollow electric voice that carried the length of the store. She caught a beat and raised an eyebrow, “Oh!! Goodness, you hear about the Lane boy?” Jake only squinted. “Little Jimmy. Went out picking berries just over a week ago, never come home.”
“Yeah, uh, just heard about it. Jarvis and his deputy came by my place yesterday asking if I’d seen the kid.”
“And?” she asked.
“Told them no.”
Henry pulled a flat roller cart up the aisle while Jake paid the bill. When Henry offered to roll the hundred pound sack out to Jake’s truck, he said no thanks, bent down and grabbed the sack with one hand and tossed onto his cinder block shoulder.
Jake dumped the nuggets into the bowl and filled the water from the plastic jug he brought along. He heard a slight whimper as he closed the cage behind him.
The local news kept the story of little Jimmy Lane on the front page for several more weeks. When there was nothing to report about the investigation the reporters found friends and family willing to speak, and asked them intimate questions. The more seasoned news people had a manner that could almost pass for sincere.
To add insult to injury, little Jimmy’s dog Rover was hit by a truck on the long backstretch of Harlow Road heading east. The animal had run off the day after Jimmy failed to return home and hadn’t been seen since. Harry Jenkins, friend of the boy’s family, found the dead mutt on his way to town early one morning. He recognized the dog, so he loaded its stiff body onto his flatbed, turned around and delivered it to Jimmy’s folks. Jimmy’s ma was already a wreck and could only turn away and retreat to the solitude of her bedroom. Jimmy’s dad thanked Harry, then dug a grave near the honeysuckle hedge, said a prayer to Jesus and covered the corpse with dirt.
At Jake’s house the flies swarmed. Jimmy swatted them away from his bowl as he crunched the last of his kibble. The odor of his slop bucket no longer registered even with a week’s worth of excrement and urine. The Dog Chow had given him loose bowels for the first several days, but finally his gut balanced. He spent a lot of time looking at his excretions.
The moon was blue and enormous the next night. Jake was watching a spandex clad steroid freak render a soufflé on his opponent and then deliver a series of fake kicks to the downed wrestler’s face. At midnight the TV flickered and the lights went black for a millisecond as outside, the howls of hounds carried sorrows from miles away. The cries were faint, morose. Only Jimmy heard them and their familiarity made him cry. That night was a collection of nightmares and dreams of better times; a blend of bittersweet wishes and remembrances sandwiched between dark realities of the here and now.
The television blared screams from the crowd as the victor raised his massive chiseled arm, his opponent face down on the mat, unmoving. Jake took another deep swig of wine directly from the bottle. He stumbled into the bed that would hold his corpse by sunrise.
Jimmy’s dad found the disturbed earth the next morning. Best he could tell, a pack of coyotes likely dug their way into Rover’s final resting place and discovered an easy meal. The plot was empty and paw prints patterned the fresh dirt. Perhaps had he been in his full and right mind he would have noticed that only one set of prints was there, and the footfalls only went in a direction away from the grave. Perhaps he would have noticed that was his son not missing.
For a moment he believed it was a phantom spirit wind that called. The leaves of the hedge bristled delicately, the scent of the honeysuckle a delicious accompaniment. Then again, “Dad.”
He turned. The sight he beheld, enough to drop him to his knees. His son limped forward in a state of confused exhaustion, his hair matted and stringy, clothes stained beyond recognition. Tear marks ran streaks downward from his eyes, leaving clean trails of young pale skin between soiled and blackened cheeks, the whites of the eyes, the color of an albino rodent. The boy collapsed into his father’s arms, a heap of bony billowy delicate frame, warm dead weight finding rest and safety in a cocoon of paternal embrace.
Constable Jarvis stood by while the photographs were taken. Muddy paw prints littered the floor, the tracks of what looked to be a dozen animals. Where they weren’t muddy, the marks were bloody. The figure on the bed was a prone hulk of matted crimson goo; the limbs and lower torso basically intact, but the chest area and face were only rumors. The crime lab tech did get an interesting picture of a single human tooth, glued to the wall next to the bed by means of a spectacular blood splatter. It was a poor tooth, nearly half of it constructed of dental filling, dark and iron-ish in appearance.
It wasn’t until years later that Jimmy told his father the truth. His dad was an old man when he went to his own grave long after, finally admitting to himself what he had suspected but never spoken of. When he was laid to rest that early spring afternoon, the reverend reciting the gospels from God’s book, Jimmy took a deep breath and chanced a glance across the graveyard.
Far off, amid the antique headstones sat a shabby mutt; its head tipped downward, a sorrowful posture of an exhausted best friend. At the moment the vicar offered his final blessing, the animal lay down in the grass and rested its muzzle between rough shaggy paws. Jimmy’s eyes welled until his vision clouded with salty grief and he closed his lids, saying a final prayer for his father. Moments later he opened his eyes. The coffin now resting in its eternal home, a deep mahogany sculpture of pristine finish amid the rough crumbly terrain six feet under. The box nestled in the comfort of dust to dust; Jimmy blinked and looked out among the city of the dead. Only headstones, crypts and monuments met his gaze.
After everyone left, he sat alone by the headstone bearing his father’s name, and recalled that day thirty years before when he dragged his weak little boy body home and fell into the embrace of this great man. A few more silent tears fell and he rose to leave. As he reached his car and grabbed the door handle, a faint and familiar howl crept in with the northern wind.
William Paquet is a writer living in Virginia.