by Aaron Polson
Max is seven and his father, thirty years older, digs a hole in the backyard each night.
Seven is a perfect age for Max—a good age between too young and old enough. He still fears monsters, but the monsters hide inside real people, like his father. The real monsters make people do strange things. Max sleeps in a bedroom on the second floor of his house. His bedroom walls are light blue with rockets and planets stenciled in acrylic paint around the border with the ceiling. He’s too old for the stencils because they are simple and childish, but not old enough to tell anyone he’d like something else, maybe soccer balls or baseball bats. For the past five nights, Max has watched his father dig a hole in the back yard. He tries to stay awake until his father stops digging, but each night the digging lasts a little longer.
A little longer each night.
His father digs when it is dark. The house blocks the nearest streetlight from reaching the back yard. Heavy shadows hug his father, everything. If Max waits long enough, his eyes adjust and he can see his father, the shovel, and the hole. The shovel’s worked-honed edge glints silver on rare moments when his father lifts it high over his head and the metal catches moonlight.
Max wonders about the hole. He wonders about his father’s behavior. Why dig only at night? Why such a large hole?
His father pauses and looks toward the window. Max pulls away quickly, pulls away and tucks his head under his heavy denim quilt, the quilt Grandma Mary made for him with faded patches of Dad’s old jeans. Sweating and panting with fear under the quilt, Max waits. He waits for sounds. A door slamming. Footsteps. Anything which might speak of his father coming inside, plodding up the stairs and into the boys’ room.
Max imagines what his father might do, what his father could do if he catches him watching. He wonders about the monster behind his father’s eyes. The same monster he’s seen in the morning, hiding inside his mother, or the monster which uses Caleb Pickens at school.
He waits, imagining.
The house falls silent.
Eventually, Max finds sleep.
This is how the morning goes:
Max looks from his window before getting dressed. The backyard basks in early morning light, and nothing appears out of place, not single strand of grass—a thick, green rug of fat-bladed fescue. Max dresses and hurries to the kitchen and eats oatmeal and toast with a small glass of orange juice. His mother has made old fashioned oatmeal on the stove. Each morning, she mixes half water and half milk, brings it to a boil, and dumps in a cup of oats. The oats cook for five minutes.
Neither speak while Max eats. His mother cleans the pot for the oatmeal and wipes down the counters. This is how she is: quiet and efficient and regimented. This is how Max is: silent and patient and happy with the routine. If not happy, he gets by. This is good enough. When she isn’t silent, the times she pauses and looks at Max in the strange way and says strange things to him or his father, it is really the monster inside. Max knows this. He knows good enough is just that: good enough.
After he eats, Max goes into the yard checks up close for holes, but there are none. He can’t even find a small divot out of place. His hands run over the edges of the grass, seeking a seam maybe, something. He eats quickly so he has more time in the yard, crawling on hands and knees, looking for something he can’t find.
This is how most mornings go.
His father does not wake for a long time, long after Max has left for school. It’s better this way because his parents can’t both carry the monster if one of them is asleep.
Maybe that’s why his father digs.
He digs so he can sleep.
Nightmares come during the day.
Max thinks about his father and the hole and the shovel at school. He sees his father’s face, sweat-slicked and shaded with night as it turns toward his bedroom window. In the memory, his father has no eyes, just two holes where eyes should be. At recess, when Max stands on the edge of the concrete playground slab and referees the kickball game (mostly because the other boys—the bullies Caleb and Alex—won’t play fair), he thinks about his father. At recess he remembers his father’s eyes, wide and black but tangible—not holes but black like bits of moonless night pressed into the pulpy-white dough of a face. He knows the monster waits behind those eyes. He sees the shovel, the sweat. If he tries hard enough, he can hear the noise the blade makes as it cuts into the soil.
And Caleb yells at Max and calls him a dumbass because he wasn’t paying any attention when one of the big boys, a fourth-grader named Zane Bibble, kicks the red rubber playground ball over the chain link fence separating Sunset Hill Elementary’s playground with the bustle of West 9th.
“What’s your problem Plinsky?” Caleb scowls, and Max remembers a scowl on Caleb’s dad’s face, a similar sour look when Caleb missed an open goal in fall soccer. It’s one of the looks the monster uses.
Caleb’s chest puffs out. “Just dreaming about your boyfriend.”
Other boys laugh.
Max looks past Caleb and finds Mrs. Annis. She moves a whistle to her mouth.
“Just thinking,” Max finishes as the whistle sounds.
Caleb puts both hands, palms open, against Max’s chest.
Max tumbles backward, arms circling at his side as he loses his balance, and he falls, butt first, on the hard pavement. Laughter rises through the fleeing crowd. Classmates scurry for the sidewalk near the building as pain weaves along Max’s arms from his asphalt-burned palms to his shoulders. Caleb’s lips roll from a sneer to a smile.
“Pussy,” he says.
Max frowns. His guts twist into a knot. His hands hurt; his wrists hurt.
“Stupid pussy.” The monster laughs behind Caleb’s eyes.
Routine owns Max’s life.
After school, he walks home three blocks, leaves his backpack on the kitchen floor, and goes into the backyard. His parents won’t interfere because Mom is at work and Dad is in his office. Maybe, he imagines, just maybe grass and his father’s digging will look different in the afternoon sun. He walks around the yard, pacing the perimeter of their fence and counting, slowly, under his breath. When he gets to seventy-six, he pauses.
Maybe it’s a trick of the light.
Max drops to his hands and knees. His wrists still sting from hitting the blacktop.
A section of the yard looks different somehow. Darker. He squints. The damp soil starts to soak the knees of his jeans, and cold trickles down his legs. He lowers his face until the grass tickles his cheek.
Routine owns Max’s life, but something else has slipped in.
Something has slipped in which creeps with his father and the shovel in the dark shadows at night.
His father is in the kitchen when Max comes back inside.
“What are you doing, buddy?”
His father takes a long drink from a glass of water. “Looks like you hurt yourself.”
“Just an accident at school,” Max says. He doesn’t want to look at his father’s face, afraid he will find the monster behind his eyes.
“Let me see. Looks like you had a nasty spill.”
“I just fell down.”
His father pushes back his shoulders and examines the boy, sizing him with a drawn-out gaze. “You just fell down?”
“Did another boy do this to you? Did somebody knock you down at recess? At PE?”
Max’s eyes linger on the dirt packed beneath his father’s fingernails. “I just fell.”
“If somebody did this to you, buddy, you have to stand up for yourself. You have to do something about it.”
Max feels the monster’s hot breath. His neck tingles with heat. He smells the stench of old meat and blood. He closes his eyes and nods.
That night, Max cannot sleep.
He props his desk chair against the window, positions a pillow on the back of the chair, and balances there, watching the grass below, waiting for his father. The house is silent save for the tiny hum of television spilling from under his parents’ bedroom door.
He holds his breath.
He sits and waits until the back door opens with a soft, almost inaudible click. The house shakes when if shuts. Max hops from bed and scurries to the window. He counts to ten, thinking about whether or not he has the courage to look into the yard. His imagination has built a case during the day, a wild story about valuables his father must be hiding in the yard. Like pirates, Max reasons, even though he thinks he should be too old to think about pirates—especially to hope his father is one.
His father works from home, something on the computer.
He’s worked from home since losing his job eight months ago, but Max’s brain isn’t developed enough to start connecting the dots. He doesn’t have the abstract faculty to think about the backyard, his father, and the computer, and this is perhaps the most frightening piece of all.
No one knows what Max’s father does at home during the day, not even his wife.
Certainly not Max.
Max only knows about the backyard digging and only suspects as of that afternoon: someone has been tampering with the yard. Someone must sneak into the backyard while they’re all asleep, even after his father puts away the shovel and goes to bed. Someone must bring fresh grass and roll it over the yard like carpet—like the big rolls he saw on a flatbed trailer once.
“That’s grass,” his father had said. “They call it sod. They just roll it over the yard and water it.”
Someone must bring sod on a big flatbed trailer and roll it over his father’s holes. It can’t be the monster because it sleeps inside his parents at night and worms into Caleb’s skin during the day.
Max makes a vow to watch all night. He will watch until his father goes to bed, and then later still. Max plans to hold vigil until the sod truck comes and men roll a new carpet of grass over his father’s dig.
He stays in the chair past one… past two…
Sometime after three in the morning, sleep comes for Max. He wakes at seven with his forehead pressed against his bedroom window’s cool glass. Stiffness nags at his neck.
The yard looks fine again, smooth and green and complete, but the idea of strange men with a strange flatbed trailer of sod bothers Max. It frightens him almost as much as the monster inside his father, mother, and Caleb. He can’t shake the thoughts as he gets dressed and tromps downstairs to breakfast. His mother has her back turned at the counter. Max plops into his chair and takes his spoon.
He pushes an oatmeal lump around his bowl. “Do you know what Dad does at night?” he asks.
She faces him and frowns. Talking is not part of the routine.
“At night?” her voice is smooth and robotic.
“Yes. Late. Like midnight or even later. Do you know what he does?”
His mother drops her gaze to her hands. She studies the backs of both hands laid on the table. She won’t look at Max.
“Eat your breakfast,” she says.
“He’s out there every night.”
“You don’t want to be late.”
On the playground that morning, Caleb trips Max. Max falls to the asphalt and hits hard, a sudden, jarring jolt, on the heels of both hands. It’s not the first time he’s felt the sting of playground asphalt. It’s not the first time Caleb has pushed him to the ground while Mrs. Annis and the other teachers faced away.
This time, Max’s hand starts to bleed.
“You going to cry, pussy?”
Max doesn’t look at Caleb’s face. He knows the monster is there; he can hear it now, hissing under Caleb’s eight-year-old voice. The pain throbs through Max’s hand. A small strip of skin hangs loosely from his left palm while blood, dark and rich and red, swells from the wound. It burns. He holds his wrist with his right hand, squeezing tightly—so much he could lose feeling in his fingers, but the pain tells him to squeeze.
“You going to go tattle, Pussy?”
Max shakes his head. “No,” he says.
He’s been afraid of Caleb since kindergarten—afraid and aware of how cruel Caleb could be. Still, still he doesn’t think about Caleb the way he thinks about the hole his father is digging in their backyard. Caleb might be a bully, but he isn’t a stranger rolling out new sod in the middle of the night. He’s a boy, just another boy, and the worst he can do is hurt Max. Even when the monster is inside Caleb, he still has an eight-year-old body. The worst he can do is make Max bleed.
Max looks at the blood on his palm.
He’s already hurt. He’s already bleeding.
Caleb stands only a few feet away, his eight-year-old face smashed together like a latex rubber mask, like some mock-up Max has seen hanging in Mr. Willy’s Magic Shop on Grand. Caleb’s just a kid, like him. Caleb’s weaker, in a way, because the monster can get inside him. Max wonders what Caleb would do should his father start digging a massive hole in his backyard.
Would he have nightmares?
Would he worry about what his father planned to hide under the sod?
Does he know about the monster? Can he feel it in his skin?
The whistle sounds, and Mrs. Annis waves an arm from across the playground.
“Damn you’re weird,” Caleb mutters as he backpedals.
Max loosens his grip on the wounded wrist and starts for the building.
Max walks home with a bandage-wrapped hand. He spent fifteen minutes in the school office with a tissue held over the wound before the secretary put on her nurse’s hat. He can’t move the hand much, and the tips of his fingers feel numb. A pair of scissors waits in third kitchen drawer at home. Max plans to cut the bandage free. He thinks about the bandage, the throbbing, and the numbness as he walks.
Before he finishes the second block, he finds the dead bird. It’s a robin with pale yellow-orange breast and wings frozen in a half-flap, lying in the middle of the sidewalk. The upward-facing eye still shines, slick and fresh. Max pauses. A breeze rattles the branches in the trees overhead. The sky stretches away, blue and calm and steady, in all directions. He looks, but there’s no sign of blood, no sign of struggle.
The bird just died. It died and fell to earth.
Max finds a sheet of paper, old math homework with a hand-scribbled “good job” from Mrs. Annis. Even without blood, Max is afraid of touching thing with bare hands. He folds the paper and uses it to scoop the dead bird from the ground. The lightness surprises him. Feathers flutter in the wind as Max holds the bird for closer examination.
No sign of struggle at all. No sign of foul play. The bird just died.
Max shivers. It’s an ancient shiver, one borne through evolutionary fear of the dark, fear of the grave, and fear of non-being. A seven-year-old boy doesn’t understand; he knows. The fear settles in his veins and stomach like ice, like something worse than ice, a frigid sludge which forces his blood away. Warmth and happiness become myths. Max’s chest tightens. He feels like puking. In that moment, he brushes the monster’s cape, and the monster pauses.
But there is more. A horror story cannot simply be about death.
The monster wants more than death.
Thoughts of his father’s digging come to Max, and he starts for home with the tiny corpse cradled in its makeshift paper coffin. He doesn’t go through the house. The backyard gate stands open, and Max edges around the undisturbed grass. He sets down the dead bird and drops his backpack. His fingers slid under the lip of the grass and pull it away from the inlaid brick border. Grass blades tickle his fingers as he rolls the sod away like a rug or play mat.
The dirt beneath is loose. Max shoves his right hand into the soft, black earth. He cradles his wounded and bandaged left to his side. The dirt is cool and loose, very loose from all the digging. With one good hand, Max scoops the loose dirt into a small. Again, he lifts the dead bird with the morning paper, and dumps the lifeless shape into the hole.
After pressing mud in place over the corpse, Max dusts away as much mud as he can before going inside and rinsing his hand. While the tap runs and cool, clear water pours over his hand, he starts to think. He realizes he could have never buried the little bird if his father hadn’t dug the soil. He could have never cleared as large a hole if it wasn’t for his father’s work. Max wants these thoughts to bring comfort, but they don’t.
They don’t bring comfort because he feels them like the monster’s sour breath on his neck, and he realizes the monster can travel without a body.
Sometimes, Max wonders if Caleb knows about the monster. He wonders if his parents know, too, but he figures they must because they are so much older. Adults surely know about the thing which crawls into another’s skin and makes a person do bad things. Adults surely know.
Max knows the monster hasn’t been in his skin. He knows because he’s never felt it—never felt the cold rot inside, in his own body. He’s touched the monster through his father’s hand, his mother’s arms, and Caleb’s little fists. He knows what it feels like. He knows now the monster is everywhere, waiting.
His parents fight after dinner, rare flare because the usually don’t talk to each other at all. His mother barks about his father’s flagging spirit and lack of initiative. His father speaks in cold clear tones about being nagged to death. He emphasizes the phrase “to death” like they are magic words. A disagreement over toothpaste—which of them left the cap off the tube—sparked the fight. Max clears his dishes from the table and starts washing them by hand, wearing a yellow rubber glove on his wounded left and running the tap for the duration to cover their voices. Their voices carry anyway.
He shuts his door and buries his head under the big quilt.
He tries to sleep, to shut out the voices, but even after they stop, he hears them. Phantom echoes, he would call them had he the vocabulary. Phantom echoes. The door slams downstairs. Max’s eyes find the bright red numbers on his alarm clock.
10:43. Early for digging.
Max glances at the window and imagines his father’s black shape moving up and down, up and down as the shovel sinks into the already softened soil. The room is quiet; the quilt hot and uncomfortable, but Max can’t move. He’s lead like a sinker on a fishing line his Uncle Greg showed him how to use two summers ago. He might sink into the mattress, straight through the subfloor, the floor below, and burrow into the mud and dirt and gravel below the house. If he burrows deep enough, there’ll be no more fighting.
At least he wouldn’t have to hear it.
Before he falls asleep, Max thinks about burying himself in the soft, well-turned earth in the backyard. It might feel cool, much cooler than the stale, stuffy bedroom air.
There is blood the next day, but not Max’s.
When Caleb mean-mugs him on the playground and taunts him with “pussy” again, Max fights back. Max comes at Caleb. His mouth peels back into a snarl. He swings tight little fists like packages of stones, like iron balls. They feel like iron balls to Max. He’s a wrecking machine. An animal. He knocks Caleb to the ground and keeps swinging until his fingers go numb and he’s forgotten if it is his blood or Caleb’s all over his little wrecking ball fists.
Voices fill Max’s head. Playground supervisors shout. Mrs. Annis’s voice cuts through the cacophony, but Max keeps swinging. Something makes a wet snapping sound like a green twig broken in a summer camp fire.
Strong hands circle Max’s bandy arms.
He lifts into the air.
On the ground, Caleb cries for his mother.
Max spends the day in the school office. Both hands are wrapped and bandaged.
The school secretary tries six times, but can’t reach either parent on cell phones or their home line.
There are no dead birds on the walk home.
There is only the sidewalk, Max’s bandaged hands, and a cool broad expanse of blue sky. There is the hope, a tiny hope, in Max’s chest that his father will be away from his office so Max can brag of his conquest. Max wants to tell his father of Caleb’s bloodied face. His insides pinch together when he thinks of it. The trees are afraid to rattle in the breeze. The breeze has lost the courage to blow. Max walks with power and grace and confidence, a conqueror surveying his plunder. The child who shivered and felt cold when he held the dead robin the day before is gone. The cold muck in his veins has solidified. He’s a giant now, a stone monster.
Monsters are not afraid.
Monsters do not fear adults fighting.
Monsters do not wonder about the strange digging in their backyards or lie sleepless waiting to hear the door shut again.
He holds these fleeting, seven-year-old thoughts in his brain like precious metal in a hording crow’s beak. He holds them until he arrives home, pushes open the door, and tosses his backpack to the floor in the dining room. The seven-year-old dies as he crosses the threshold. Something is wrong.
The odor of death lurks in the house. The cold feeling drips into his gut.
The house listens to him.
Max rubs his nose with the rough, gauzy cotton bandage on his right hand.
“Mom?” he asks even though he knows she isn’t there, she shouldn’t be there. His mother always works until after five.
The silence observes him. It watches him like a scientist with a bug wriggling on a specimen pin. He feels the cold touch, the invisible fingers running along his skin, and Max the conqueror disappears.
“Mom? Dad?” he calls, moving from room to hallway to room.
The house almost laughs. Almost.
What do you expect to find?
What do you want, little boy?
They are in the last room.
Max enters his parents’ room. He finds his father on the bed, fully clothed, and cold. There is no sign of a wound or cut, but he is cold. His father is dead like the robin was dead. No glimmer remains in his eyes. He died before Max’s victory over Caleb. He couldn’t answer the phone because he was dead. But his mother hadn’t answered the phone, either…
Max moves around the bed, circling the foot to the side nearest the window. His heart pounds. His mouth dries. She is there, on the floor, one hand bent over her head and cocked at a funny angle. Again, there is no blood. No sign of struggle or wound or cut. Her skin is as cold as her husband’s.
The world slides through a slit in the sky. Max is left with the corpses of his parents.
His chest shakes. He stifles a sob. His veins break open, and the cold sludge slides to the floor, pouring over his arms and legs and torso. He wets himself a little. He swallows vomit, hot and acidic. He gnaws on anger and sorrow and other things for which a child can never have a name.
There are things seven-year-olds should never see.
There are things no one should ever see.
The monster doesn’t care. It tossed aside their bodies when it was through. Maybe the monster was never inside them. Maybe the monster doesn’t live inside anyone. Maybe there are only people trying to do the best they can when the monsters are near.
Max slumps to the hallway floor and cradles his chin between two bandaged hands. He thinks long and hard about what to do next, big thoughts no seven-year-old could think.
He closes his eyes and imagines Caleb’s bloody face.
He imagines his parents’ lifeless bodies and sees a robin fall from the sky.
He thinks of holes in the ground covered with a layer of carpet-like sod.
After a time, Max sloughs off his old skin and heads for the stairs. His victory over Caleb has prepared him for hard times. His parents, each in their own way, prepared him for the hard times. His mother trained him for silence; his father taught him the value of digging, of hard work. By the time Max stands in the backyard with his father’s shovel between bandaged hands, the sun has already kissed the horizon. The sod rolls away with ease. The soil—softened after so much of his father’s digging—gives with ease. He makes the hole big enough for both of them, and well after dark, drags the bodies to the waiting earth.
Maybe the monster wasn’t in his parents, just there, in the house. There are only people trying to do the best they can when the monsters are near. Maybe his parents only tried to prepare him for the monster.