“Backyard Holes” by Brandon Layng, orig. published in Gentlemen of Horror 2008
The hole was almost the right size.
One thing Jackson had learned about digging holes for the dead was that they had to be done proper or else you were paying a disrespect to the dead, at least that’s what his boss always said. Grass had grown over the others, seventeen in all, eighteen including the one he was digging. The yard was twenty feet squared and the back five by twenty was what he affectionately called; Pet Cemetery. Spelled proper, not like the Stephen King book way. He was a big fan of King and if his mother would let him, he would have put up tombstones with catchy epitaphs like they had in the movie. Something like: Spot will fetch no more, he’s dead as a door. Or Goldie was a fish out water not long after I got her.
There was a nice little pile of dirt beside the hole he was digging. The low sodium cracker’s box sitting on the ground beside his feet was a suitably sized coffin for his once pet rat, Smoky Jack. He shaved down the sides of the hole, making sure the sides were a clean cut, out of habit from his summer job helping to carve out resting places for bodies down at the Fields of Grace Cemetery. At work they used a back hoe for most of the dirt hauling, especially where there were layers of clay, but the last bits at the bottom always had to be shoveled. That was Jackson’s job, for which he was paid ten dollars an hour (half of which went to his dealer by the end of the week).
He put down the round-edged shovel which had been the tool of preference for making the graves of ten pets of the past. Jackson had used a small garden shovel for the remaining six, not including Goldie.
Goldie had been his first pet, won at a fair, he had tossed a ball into a fish bowl and took her home in a plastic baggie. During the car ride home an unfortunate event occurred as he smacked the bag in an attempt to convince the fish to look at him. Goldie responded by playing dead. Which turned out to be her one and only trick. She was flushed down the very same toilet he had pooped in only moments after her informal burial at seat.
Smoky Jack’s grave was shallow, only a finger’s length of clearance from the top of the box to where the dirt would sit when it was filled in. But he had a new Ramones tribute CD to listen to and he hadn’t wanted to spend all day digging a hole for a rodent, especially since he wasn’t getting paid for this. Jackson had never shed a tear at even one of the numerous funerals he’d attended for one of his pets. Smoky Jack’s was no different then that of Spot’s, Goldie’s or the other four fish, the three cats, the three hamsters, the two chinchillas, the iguana, the cockatiel, or the hedgehog. He always figured that if it couldn’t say your name — it wasn’t worth your salty tears. Not that he had no affectation towards the animals and to his credit he lit a joint in Smoky Jack’s honor. Jackson just had responsibility… issues. He liked having pets, just hated having to remember to feed them, clean their cages and take them for walks.
He stood over his dead rat’s new home of ever after and puffed on his joint. Bending down, he lifted the box slightly and opened one end. Inside, the rat lay sprawled out with his tail curled under the distended belly with a bloody tumor protruding from his neck. Smoky Jack died when the tumor had burst, becoming infected with the feces left in his cage after weeks of not being cleaned.
Jackson put the tight-wrapped two-paper joint to his lips, inhaled deeply, held it for the count of two heart beats, and blew it out into the cracker box.
“Still smokin’ Jack. Too bad rats don’t go to Heaven, you and me could’a smoked some chronic with Jesus.” He closed the box end, the joint in his mouth, red-hot cherry in a hurry to introduce itself to his lips, and placed the cardboard casket back in the hole almost reverently.
He filled the dirt back in and thought about how cool a guy Jesus must have been. The guy walked on water, turned it into wine and even though he couldn’t understand a word he said Jackson would help him drink it. He put the two pape out with a gob of spit on his fingers and dropped the roach into his shirt pocket before packing down the dirt. Without a look back or a moment’s hesitation of his lanky legs he lit a cigarette while walking to the back of the two-story bungalow.
His mother was in the kitchen writing something on a Post-It note when he opened the door and Jackson instantly wished he’d used to the front door. She looked up from what she was writing.
“What were you doing in the backyard?” She asked.
“Burying the rat.” He replied and tried to edge his way to the front hall and the door to the basement. There was no escaping his mother though.
“What happened to Chunky Pete?”
“Smoky Jack, mom.”
“Whatever his name was,” she said, waving her hand at him. “It’s too hard to keep up with the names of all your pets Jackson and don’t try to change the subject. What happened to the rat?”
“He had a tumor and it exploded.” He took great pleasure when he saw her cringe at the visuals. “ I think I’m going to get a snake next. They have a real cool one at that new pet store.”
“What’s wrong with Pete’s Pets? It’s where you got most of your other pets.” He tried to look away and even though he was sixteen he could not help drawing circles on the linoleum with the toe of his shoe like he was still a kid. “Well Jackson, why can’t you go to Pete’s?”
“He won’t let me get no more, that old dick says I can’t take care of my pets good enough so he banned me.”
“Don’t use language like that Jackson,” she said, finishing what she was writing on the yellow square of paper. “Maybe Pete is right.”
“Yeah, well screw him. I’m going to my room.” He tried to head for the hallway and she stopped him with a hand holding the note she had written.
“This is a list of phone numbers in case of emergency. I’m going out with George tonight –“
“Not again mom! I hate that guy. He’s always trying to give you tongue when he knows I’m right there. It’s disgusting.”
“He’s a nice guy Jackson. I really wish you’d give him a-“ She sniffed at the air and looked up at him her eyes all a rage and full of the wrath of mom. “Is that pot I smell? Jackson Theodore Preston have you been smoking pot?” She cuffed him a good one up the side of his head and he stepped back with his arms raised to fend off any further blows. Jackson stood a foot taller than his mother but he feared the sting of the five foot nothing woman’s open hand.
“No ma! I swear I don’t smoke weed.” She leaned back and looked up at him with one doubting eyebrow raised.
“Smells like pot to me. I may have missed the sixties but they still smoked marijuana in the eighties and I know the smell of pot when I smell it. Don’t you lie to me Jackie.” He flinched at the childhood nickname.
“Its just cigarettes. A friend of mine buys them from the Reserve. Some of ‘em smell like pot.”
Her shoulders relaxed a little. “Okay but that better be all it is and not any of that wacky-tobaccy.”
The door bell rang and she turned around to check her hair in the kettle on the stove before sticking the note on the fridge and giving Jackson a quick peck on the cheek. “Listen don’t stay up late, you have school tomorrow and I want those dishes done before I get home.”
“Yes mom,” he said it with a mock tone of submission and followed her to the front door. She opened the door which revealed a heavy-set middle-aged balding man with glasses that hung off of the end of a bulbous nose. It was George and he represented his professorial profession well with a tweed jacket complete with suede elbow patches. He smiled at Jackson, who returned a one fingered salute while his mother’s back was turned. George dropped the smile and gave Jackson’s mother an open-mouthed kiss with evident tongue.
“Pig,” he said under his breath.
“What was that Jackie?” His mother asked. He feigned confusion as if he hadn’t known what she was talking about. She decided to ignore it. “I’ll be back late so don’t wait up.”
“One of these days Jackie you’re going to have to start taking responsibility or you won’t like the consequences. Now I’m off. Make sure you’re in bed before eleven.” She waved good bye and closed the door behind her.
When the door was closed and he could see through the window that she was in George’s old Buick LeSabre, he removed another joint from his cigarette pack and lit it with a wooden match he struck with his thumb. His stomach gurgled and a weight settled into his bowels.
He looked at the new edition of High Times magazine sitting on his lap while he puffed on the spliff in his mouth and lessened the weight in his bowls. The toilet seat cut into his cheeks and he rocked from side to side every now and then so his butt wouldn’t fall asleep. He was getting frustrated with his greasy brown hair, which fell in front of his eyes as he tried to read about the best way to get a good crop out of your hydroponics lab, and soon decided to finish up his fumigation and commence the evacuation so he could go downstairs and watch TV.
He laid the magazine out flat so he would be able to still read while he gave a healthy push. He was rewarded with a quacking fart and a heavy plop. He felt satisfied with the new relief on his gut and wiped his butt with the two ply toilet paper before he stood and pulled his pants back up. He outed the roach in the ashtray on the bathroom counter and flushed the toilet.
Something orange swam out from under the canopy of brown-smeared toilet paper floating in the bowl. He had taken a double take, turning his head so fast he thought he pulled a muscle in his neck, but the American Standard’s contents were already guzzled down the pipes and the water was refilling. He wasn’t sure of what he’d seen, but Jackson would have sworn it had been a goldfish.
At eleven o’clock, Jackson’s purported bedtime, he was cutting up grams of weed and watching scrambled porn on the pay-per-view channel. Alternating between rolling up single paper spliffs and two paper joints, he watched a pair of breasts flash up and down on the television screen, which would almost come clear enough to see a blue skinned (the image was always tinted one of the many Technicolors) woman pay lip-service to a man in a postal worker’s uniform. Then the image would jumble again and he had to strain his eyes to pick out individual body parts. His crotch was hard as he cut the little green buds up with a pair of key chain scissors.
He rolled himself a four pape cannon and watched what could have been a man and woman having sex like a pair of Jack Russels or a rooster and hen doing the funky chicken. He shook his head and the screen went blue. He lit the jumbo joint and waited for the blue screen to pass. It hadn’t changed after another five minutes.
“Damn! Just when it was getting good, too,” he said and reached for the remote on the table.
He flipped channels and stopped at one he knew always played half decent late night movies. Movies like Lost Boys and Naked Lunch. Naked Lunch was a messed up movie in Jackson’s opinion. When high, he was always tripped out by the buggy typewriter and the way you had to finger it to make it work. Crazy shit.
When a commercial for yeast infection cream finished and the movie came back on Jackson recognized it instantly. He took a hard pull on the joint and settled in to watch the remaining part of Pet Sematary in a very mellow mood.
As the clock reached the witching hour and he watched the good doctor give a lethal dose of medicine to Church the cat, Jackson’s buzz was wearing off a little and the dark damp basement had started to feel disturbing. He had a room upstairs on the top floor which he never slept in because he felt guilty smoking pot only a bathroom away from his mother. And even though he spent every night curled up with his blanket, stoned out of his mind on the couch, at that moment he felt… unsettled.
On the TV, Church was growling as the needle jabbed into his side and outside the basement window Jackson heard the wailing cry of cats and he jumped off of the couch. His arms covered in goose bumps he ran over to the window to look outside.
All he could see was the metal window-well protector and dead leaves half covering a Doritos bag. When he bent his knees to get a better he had seen a sliver of moon and a cloudy night’s sky. On the driveway something moved just beyond the edge of the metal protector. He stumbled back and couldn’t stifle the cry of alarm before it escaped his lips and almost kicked himself when he saw the leaf flutter against the window.
“I have to lay off the dope,” he said to the flashing room. The lights were off and the changing images on the television cast abrupt alterations of illumination. He walked back over to the couch and looked back at the window warily, sweat had begun to trickle from his armpits and soak into his “Take Me To Your Dealer” t-shirt.
Jackson looked back over at the television screen and saw Mr. Creed walking through the house of the guy who played Herman Munster. All of a sudden he couldn’t remember the character’s name, he had been watching the movie for an hour (plus he’d seen the movie at least two dozen times before not to mention the four times he read the book) and it escaped him. A thought was gnawing at his brain, in the time it takes the second hand to click three times on a clock Jackson had it in his head that all of his dead pets, goldfish included, were waiting under the couch for him. He shivered and leapt at the sofa bed he had recovered from a neighbor’s trash pile and he curled himself into a ball against the wall.
His mind was crowded with images of Spot; who he had found frozen to the patio one December morning after being left out all night, with his teeth bared and hunger in his frozen white eyes. Then his dead cat Church, who had himself ended his time on earth beneath the wheels of a transport truck, and he waited for a paw full of claws to bury into his foot. If he looked beneath the couch, he felt certain there would be three goldfish, and two Siamese Fighting fish. The last two fish had met their demise when Jackson failed to understand the meaning of their names and had placed them in the same aquarium. They would be under there with the iguana and hedgehog and wing flapping cockatiel and the other two cats and the remaining six rodents, which included Smoky Jack, and he expected to see the fish flopping and gasping for air.
While Gage stumbled down the hallway of Mr. Crenshaw’s or Rickshaw’s Jackson didn’t give a damn who’s house it was because he was suddenly overcome by the intense and urgent need to evacuate his bladder. It always seems that when you are scared shitless you never have a shortage of urine.
And it was as his need grew more demanding and Gage said, “no fair”, on the television that he was forced to make a decision for or against pissing himself. Jackson felt certain that if he put his foot down on the cold concrete floor he could kiss that foot good bye and the rest of him would end up pet food too.
His aversion to embarrassment soon overcame his desire for survival and he launched himself off of the couch and ran head long like a line backer to the end zone towards the stairs. He stopped running when he reached the top floor and stood in front of the bathroom door. He turned on the light switch. It took a few minutes for his eyes to adjust to the glare and he stared at himself in the mirror while waiting for them to adjust. Seeing his bloodshot eyes with the week’s vacation worth of baggage beneath them was enough to momentarily distract him away from his need to pee.
And while he stared at his eyes with the brown irises and the lightning bolts of red veins obscuring the whites he heard a splash from the toilet. He stopped fidgeting at the mirror and his head turned slowly towards the toilet from where more sounds of splashing came. He reluctantly took a step forward and he tried to tell himself he was just really stoned and he wasn’t really looking at six little fish swimming in the toilet water. But when he saw the already mangled fighting fish continue to rip and tear at each other, taking off chunks of scaly flesh and fins, he threw up the entire contents of his stomach in a fantastic and volatile projectile vomit. The fish continued to splash in the water even as Jackson ran from the room, thoughts of urinating far from his mind, and he heard one of them flop out of the bowl and onto the floor. He had run down the stairs two at a time and nearly slipped headfirst into the railing at the bottom. He rushed down the hallway towards the kitchen with intentions of getting the phone number he could reach his mother at when he fell on his hind-end trying to stop on the linoleum tile in socked feet. A set of muddy dog prints lead away from the dog door and as he watched, the flap opened. The black squared head of a Bombay cat pushed past the flap and Church’s luminous eyes flashed at Jackson as a low growl started deep in the cat’s throat.
Jackson’s dam burst and warm urine soaked the legs and seat of his pants.
While Church dragged his mangled hind legs through the dog door there had come another growl from behind. The two bean burritos Jackson had eaten for dinner beat his stomach like a piñata as his fear intensified and his throat filled with spicy bile. He could not bring himself to turn his head to look at the source of the sound. He knew what stood behind him, if Church was struggling to get inside the kitchen then Spot was the owner of the paw prints and he could not stomach seeing his dead dog.
On shaking legs he had tried to stand up and he cast frantic looks around the kitchen for something to use as a weapon. He had grown desperate when his eye caught the broom by the door his mother used to sweep dirt off of the patio. He lunged at it and hooked the end of the handle under the cat’s stomach, which still bore the faint traces of tire treads, and he flung the cat against the kitchen wall, where it smacked against the drywall like a wet Nerf ball. The sound of Spot’s nails on the linoleum approached slowly from behind him and the growl deep in the dog’s throat grew like the sound of a muscle car barreling down the blacktop. With the frenzied fear that turned his burritos into spicy bean dip in his stomach he reached forward and turned silver knob of the back door. He swung it open and stepped into the opening.
The last five feet of the backyard was riddled with holes of various sizes piles of dirt were scattered here there around them. A larger pile of dirt laid a backdrop for the largest and newest hole in the middle of his Pet Cemetery.
Jackson only had a moment to hear the sound of overgrown nails clack rapidly before he turned around and raised the broom handle. The Dalmatian’s skeletal frame launched into the air at Jackson’s chest, his ribs exposed on the one side where his fur had sheared off when Jackson had pried him from the patio stones.
Jackson protected himself from Spot’s muddy teeth with the broom handle but he was knocked off balance. He twisted to the side and put his hand out to grip the doorframe when Humphrey the cockatiel flew into his face. Jackson shot his hand up to grab hold of the flapping bird with its nails clamped onto his nose. He detached the only aviary pet he ever had from his nose only a fraction of a second before his face smashed into the concrete patio stone. The very same stone where he’d found his dog curled up waiting to be let back inside after being let out to go to the bathroom. Contents of Jackson’s stomach mixed with the blood that gushed from his decimated nose and mouth. As everything had started to fade to black he watched Spot come over to his face and lap at the mixture with a partially rotted tongue. The cockatiel picked up a half-digested bean and flew away with it in his beak.
When he came to the moon was hidden at the front of the house and he was enveloped in the smell of fermented dog food. Smoky Jack chewed on his bloody lower lip and had eaten through roughly half of it. Jackson’s ears were filled with a gristly scraping sound and when the bushy end of a tail thwapped him in the eye he knew it was the sound of his dead chinchillas chewing on his ear. He shakes his head and they stop briefly (with the exception of the rat who only bites harder of the plump tissue) and then hop back on while he screams.
He tries to move his hands to push himself up only to realize the pain as the stubbed ends of his knuckles have more dirt pushed into the bleeding stumps. He screams again.
The three cats sit in front of him with a finger each held between their rotted and muddy paws. They chew on the skin at the crimson ends and pull off strips, which they chew in a way similar to an old man with dentures trying to eat chewy sour candy. Spot sits in the middle of the cats with a foot in his mouth chewing on it as if it were his old raw-hide bone. When Jackson whimpered he only raised his head momentarily to look at him with dripping eyeballs. The iguana fought with the hamsters over his other ear while he stared in horror.
Smoky Jack nuzzled his snout in close to Jackson’s mouth, the sweet smell of marijuana familiar and welcoming to the rat, and looked as if her would give the boy a kiss. His curved rodent teeth sunk into the soft skin and juicy liquid of Jackson’s lip.
He screamed and neighbors turned on lights and opened windows enough to yell out to keep the noise down. And the pets made up for missed dinners while the maggots and worms wriggled in their ears and guts.