Copyright (c) 2018 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
My best friend, Sam, and his family had only moved out of the house next door to ours for two weeks when I noticed the Real Estate agent’s SOLD sign go up. Three days later, as I was walking home from school, I saw a moving van was backed into the driveway unloading furniture. I looked for any children my age but all I saw was an overweight bald man viciously fling a baseball that had landed on his lawn and a crooked nosed woman frowning and shaking her head as she pointed to a flower bed. I called “Hello” but they both ignored me.
I could smell cookies baking when I walked in the kitchen. “Wash your hands,” Mom said. “And then you can have some of those and a glass of milk.” She pointed to a plate of chocolate chip cookies sitting on the table covered with Saran wrap and decorated with a blue ribbon that said WELCOME in gold letters. Pretty fancy for a twelve-year old who’d only been gone six hours. Mom’s face was turned away as she scrubbed dishes in the sink her voice sounded hushed and somehow small, as though she’d been crying.
After doing my homework for an hour I asked Mom if I could go outside and play catch. She said. “Okay, just make sure you stay in the backyard and away from the new neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Fisk. I don’t think they like children … or grown-ups either.” I grabbed my mitt and ball before I remembered that Sam had moved away. Jelly wasn’t home yet. Sometimes she and Susan Davis stayed after school to play on the swings.
I leaned an old basketball hoop against the trunk of a maple tree and practiced pitching through it, careful not to bang balls into dad’s masterpiece. Dad had worked as a Foreman for the Comanche County Lumber Mill for ten years before he died. Someone cut down a large tree from inside Motha Forest illegally and the mill’s owner bought the wood without knowing where it came from. The log had already been sawed into lumber by the time he found out. The two by six planks sat in a drying rack for over two years. No one would touch them when they found out where they came from. The mill owner eventually gave the wood to my father who was overjoyed. Dad said the wood was from a huge and ancient Juhar tree that was very rare in this part of the world.
Dad came from a small town in Montana. He said a gypsy woman lived there who had a small box carved out of the same kind of wood. Something magical happened each time an object was placed in the box and after the lid was opened.
My old man labored every night after work, digging postholes and sawing and hammering the strange wood. Two weeks later he had his fence built and it was magnificent … six foot tall with intricate scroll work at the top. The wood took on a satiny glow without varnish and the boards never warped. Father used to bring people home from work to see his fence … until that one day when he never came home.
I was retrieving the ball from the hoop when I heard voices. I climbed on a box and looked over the fence in the corner where I could see the front yard. Jelly was standing on the sidewalk talking to not one but both of our new neighbors. They were all smiling like they were friends who hadn’t seen each other for years. Funny, they had completely ignored me. Mrs. Fisk put her arm around Jelly as they led her inside. I heard the old woman say something about cake.
I ran in the house to tell mom.
Mom was talking on the phone and she shhhhhhh’d me with a finger on her lips when I tried to tell her where Jelly was. I decided to go upstairs and look out my window. I could see into the Fisk’s back yard … perhaps they were out there. There was nothing on the other side of the fence except an overgrown garden that hadn’t been planted for two years, a crooked picnic table and a tire swing hanging from a willow tree. When I came back downstairs Jelly was sitting at the kitchen table eating a cupcake with pink frosting and yellow sparkles; Mom was asking her questions. “I can’t believe they asked you to come inside after Mrs. Fisk slammed her door in my face when I brought over a plate of cookies as a welcoming gesture!”
“They’re really both very nice Mom. They have a daughter two years older than me named Hamilton but she wasn’t there.”
“I want you to promise me you won’t go back over there unless you tell me first!”
“I mean it!”
I asked Jelly if she’d come in the back yard and play catch with me and she said okay, probably just to get away from Maw’s questions.”
“They have a black cat named Asmodeus,” Jelly said as she dug a mitt out of the closet. “But it doesn’t eat cat food like regular cats.”
“Maybe Scooter and Asmodeus will become friends.” I pushed away the long haired cat the breeder called a cream sickle rubbing against my leg.
“I don’t think so,” Jelly said. “Asmodeus is a feline can a bell.”
“Yes, I think that’s what Mrs. Fisk said. It means they eat their own kind.”
“You throw like a girl!” I told Jelly for about the zillionth time as we tossed the ball back and forth. She didn’t laugh.
“How about if I put a little pepper on it?” she said winding up like Sandy Koufax in the last inning of a no hitter. The ball went high and wide banging into dad’s fence. I saw something fly, most likely a splinter or a piece of broken wood. I ran to where the ball hit sure that I would see damage. A knot in one of the boards had fallen out creating a hole about the size of a quarter about a foot from the bottom of the fence. I don’t know what made me look when I reached for the ball but I put my face up to the hole and stared into what was once my friend’s backyard. It looked the same … or so I thought at first. The tire swing swung slowly in the breeze. A bird had landed on the picnic table and was searching for bugs in the rotted wood between the boards. Something seemed a bit strange and it took me a moment to realize what it was. The overgrown garden was gone and in its place a perfect circle in the dirt, as compact and as smooth as a skating pond or skin stretched over a drum
I could have sworn the smooth circle wasn’t there when I looked before from my upstairs window. Perhaps you see what you expect to see and the new neighbors were very industrious. I picked up the wood knot and stuffed it back into the hole in the fence.
“You sure have a funny look on your face.” Jelly laughed. “What did you see in there?”
“Nothing,” I told her. “Our new neighbors are finally doing something about that old garden.”
It was a busy week. I had baseball practice every day after school. The one time I didn’t stay late I came home early and caught Jelly talking and laughing with Mr. and Mrs. Fisk in their front yard. They all grew quiet as I approached and our new neighbors turned and walked back into their house without saying a word to me. “I might have a job,” Jelly said, skipping happily as we went into our own home.
“Doing what?” I demanded.
“The Fisk’s have a twelve year old daughter with problems,” Jelly said. “They need someone to watch her while they go shopping and other places.”
“It’s called a disability,” I told her. “What’s wrong with her?”
“Mr. Fisk said a doctor told him Hamilton’s mind was wired all wrong. Mrs. Fisk says her daughter just needs time and she’ll grow out of it.”
“You’ll have to ask Mom but I’ll bet she’ll say no,” I said. “Our new neighbors haven’t exactly been friendly to her.”
I knew Jelly had asked Mom and she had said no. They weren’t talking when I came down to dinner. We were having fried chicken with potatoes and gravy… Jelly’s favorite. Jelly said she wasn’t hungry and took a piece of toast up to her room.
“Daughters,” Mom sighed in exasperation. “They don’t realize just how careful you have to be these days.”
Two days later Mom and Mrs. Fisk were laughing and talking like old friends in our front yard when I came home from school. Mrs. Fisk had bought Mom some petunias as a way of saying she was sorry about being so rude the first time they met and was helping her to plant them. “This was so kind of you,” Mom said as she bent to tuck soil around a freshly planted clump. Mrs. Fisk used the opportunity to stare at me. Her murderous eyes dared me to say anything bad about her.
I was still shaking when I went in the house and headed for my room. I met Jelly on the stairs. “Mom and Mrs. Fisk are now friends and I’ve got the job,” she gushed.
“When do you start?” A feeling of dread was sweeping over me.
“Hamilton comes home from the hospital on Friday,” Jelly said.
I lay on my bed long after dark trying to figure out what was going on with the people next door. It was hot and I had my window open. I could hear voices coming from the Fisk’s backyard but they must have been sitting on the grass I couldn’t see them from my window. I heard my little sister’s name mentioned a couple of times along with someone they only referred to as she. I thought it was important enough that I went into my backyard and lay on my stomach next to the fence. I removed the loose knot and peered through the hole in the board.
Mrs. Fisk and six others were sitting on the ground around the circle where the garden used to be. They were all wearing black robes with hoods that covered their heads. Mr. Fisk appeared from the house carrying a lit candle in one hand and some kind of limp animal in the other. One of the men in the circle stood up with a hammer and a long shaft of what looked like black iron sharpened on both ends. He drove the stake into the ground in the center of the circle and Mr. Fisk impaled the animal on the spike. There was a shriek as the animal began to thrash and wiggle … yellow and white fur being saturated with blood. The men and women all began to chant over and over. “Le ricompense della morte sono vita … Le ricompense della morte sono vita!” One of the men filled cups with blood and they were passed around.
I ran to the house to get Mom. I was out of breath and had to explain several times what I’d seen. I could tell she didn’t believe me. “We’re just becoming friends,” she insisted. I dragged a six foot stepladder into the back yard and she reluctantly climbed up one side while I climbed up the other. Mr. and Mrs. Fisk were on their knees pulling weeds from the overgrown garden. There was no one else there. “Is there a problem, Naomi?” Mrs. Fisk looked up smiling.
“No, Edna.” the embarrassment in my mother’s voice was like snow falling down the back of my shirt. “Just an overactive imagination on my son’s part.”
Mom refused to help me carry the ladder back to the garage as she stomped back into the house.
The worst part was as I lay on my bed I got up and walked to my window several times. The Fisk’s back yard light was on and I could see the old picnic table and the tire swing. The overgrown garden sat at one end, the weeds the neighbors had pulled were lying on the grass nearby. Was I going crazy? I hoped not … and yet I thought that might be easier.
After lying on my bed for a while I reconsidered … I hope I am going crazy … for Jelly’s sake!
I was almost asleep when Jelly came into my room … tears were drowning her eyes. “Have you seen Scooter? I can’t find her anywhere.”
We searched everywhere for my sister’s cat. Mon even called the Fisks; they were more than happy to help. They had just returned from a shopping trip and showed Mom a white dress they had bought as an employment present for Jelly. Mom was delighted. I thought it looked like a damn wedding dress.
I had my own suspicions about what had happened to Scooter, but no one wanted to listen. When I heard my mom shriek, I knew they’d found my little sister’s precious pet. When I ran into the garage, my mother had the lid off the garbage can. “Jim! Have you lost your mind?” she accused. “How could you do this?” The limp body of Scooter lay on top of several bags of garbage. A pair of my last-summer work gloves lay next to the body along with my dad’s old hunting knife … both were covered with blood. Mom’s eyes were frantic as if staring at a homicidal stranger; Jelly came in the garage her eyes full of trust like always … and then she wouldn’t even look at me.
I went to my room not sure if I was really the person I thought I was. I had to be sure. I crept out of the house after midnight and into the garage. I used the stepladder to look over the fence into the Fisk backyard. Everything was as it should be under the light of a full moon … tire swing, broken table and weedy garden. Then I got down on my belly and looked through the knot hole.
The garden was gone and in its place a round altar of stone. A torch burned inside a glass globe on each side of the sharpened stake where the remains of Scooter dripped blood.
Before I put everything back the way it was, I removed the plank with the knothole from the fence and replaced it with an extra board from the garage. I walked to the end of the yard and carefully used a hand saw to cut the piece of board with the knothole in it so that it would fit in my hand. It looked kind of like an amulet so I attached a small chain and wore it around my neck.
I climbed the stepladder and looked at my neighbor’s suburban yard then I held the piece of wood up to my eye like a monocle. The weedy garden was transformed into a platform that could be used for satanic rituals … you just had to know how to look at it. It didn’t make me feel better to know I wasn’t crazy. There was too much scary stuff going on for me to feel better about anything.
I had a hard time going to sleep that night, when I did the sun was about to come up.
My mom woke me from the doorway going into my bedroom. “I’m sorry,” she said. “There are some people here to see you.” The woman from Social Services said they wanted to hold me a week for observation. My mother was crying, but she didn’t protest, or even try to defend me. Mrs. Fisk stood behind the attendants smiling.
Jelly must have been hiding. I was almost out to the van escorted by two men in white jackets when my little sister ran from the house. She gave me a big hug and kissed my cheek. “Please get better,” she sobbed. It broke my heart to see the look in her eyes.
I was in the so-called mental hospital for a full day and night answering countless questions and undergoing various mental health evaluations. Each question seemed designed to make me feel bad. Lucky for me or unlucky for me, however you want to look at it, they thought the small piece of wood with a hole in it was just a piece of costume jewelry and let me keep it.
Right after I finished lunch (raw bacon and soggy blood pudding); I decided to look through the knot hole at my surroundings. Most of the residents were sheep with tiny rats riding on their backs being herded by dogs towards a darkened room that smelled of death. The attendants were all upright walking goats, bloody rags streaming from the horns on their heads like county fair prize ribbons. They all carried pitchforks dripping something that looked like intestines.
I knew I had to escape. Wherever I was, this was not a hospital. There were steel bars bolted inside my fourth floor window but they were loose and I thought I could remove them. After lights out, I began to tear the sheets on my bed into strips to make a rope. Whoever she was, would be visiting the neighbors tomorrow night along with the Fisk’s strange daughter.
I knew Jelly was in danger … and it seemed I was the only person on this side of Hell who could save her.
TO BE CONTINUED …