By Marie Anderson
I’m doing a crossword puzzle when squeals mangle my peace. I look out the kitchen window. The brat is back, shrieking and galloping through my backyard garden, looping around my flowers like a crazed little monkey.
He stops at my black-eyed Susans, begins yanking bright yellow blooms into a sloppy bouquet. A weird glow backlights him, yellow as the flowers.
Hugh. Five years old. The spoiled little murderer who lives next door.
Whatever had put him into an ambulance a few days ago had evidently not been dire.
Damnation. I take a deep breath. Will my heart start palpitating again? Will a migraine flex its claws? I don’t need this aggravation. I’d woken up this morning feeling better than I had in a long time. Yesterday’s nausea, lightheadedness, and back pain had vanished. I grit my teeth, wait. Nothing. My body stays light and pain-free. Nevertheless, I’m not about to march outside now and yell at Hugh’s clueless mother, who’s probably sitting on her deck paying more attention to her phone than to her trespassing kid.
What had she yelled at me the last time I called her a bad mother? Something about how the only people who know how to be perfect parents are people who don’t have kids.
Well, I’d loved my Taco like he was my kid. I couldn’t have children—it’s why my husband left me years ago—but I had my Taco. My rescue dog, a mutt who’d rescued me more than I’d rescued him.
We’d been together 15 years. Taco was deaf, going blind, but he’d still had a lot of life and love to enjoy.
Then Hugh took that away.
It happened last year on a beautiful summer afternoon much like today. I was reading in my backyard hammock. Taco dozed nearby. I’d just closed my eyes when I heard Hugh shout, “Taco! Hi, Taco!”
The little terror was barreling toward us.
“Don’t touch him!” I yelled. “He’s sleeping! You’ll scare him!”
Hugh tripped and fell hard onto my slumbering old dog, who yelped awake and began defending himself the only way he knew how.
Hugh shrieked. Blood flowed from his ripped cheek. Taco cowered under the hammock as Hugh’s mother grabbed her kid and screamed at me.
Police and lawyers.
I was forced to put my sweet, gentle Taco down.
Four days after that, I answered my doorbell to find Hugh’s mother standing there. Her eyes were wet, and her voice shook. She spoke fast, a machine gun spraying bullets. “My son’s upset, Mrs. Dowd. He’s blaming himself for that dog being put down. So I’d like to bring him here because there’s something he needs to say to you. He’s drawn a picture of that dog in heaven. He wants to give it to you, and I want you to tell him you’re not mad at him, that the dog is happy in doggie heaven. My son’s face may be scarred for life. So I feel this is the least you can do.”
For a moment, shock paralyzed me. Then I erupted. “Don’t you dare bring that kid here. I will not say such lies. Your son was trespassing. As usual, you weren’t paying attention. And my Taco has paid the price.”
I slammed the door in her face. That was the last time I spoke to her.
But it wasn’t the last time she spoke to me.
A few days later, I stepped out my back door to do some gardening, holding my four-claw weeder in my right hand and a trowel in my left. I saw Hugh. He was sitting on his backyard swing, moving slowly back and forth, a snake of black stitches on his cheek. He looked so small. So fragile. Something inside me loosened. “Hugh!” I called out
He looked up. I lifted my right hand, waved. Tears spilled from his eyes. Shockingly, I felt tears fill my own eyes, too. I waved again.
He bolted off the swing, ran to his house.
It was as though rubber bands had been squeezing my chest, and they were now snapping apart, and a heaviness I hadn’t even known was there was whooshing out. I decided I’d go next door and ask for Hugh’s drawing of Taco in heaven. Maybe I’d even frame it, then invite Hugh over to see it hanging on the wall. I went back inside, combed my hair, began applying lipstick, laughing because it had been so long since I’d worn any makeup.
But then my front doorbell rang, followed by pounding.
Once again I opened the door to Hugh’s mother who began shouting at me.
“Stay away from my son! I don’t want you to talk to him, to look at him, to scare him with your crazy meanness. He’s hysterical right now, hiding under his bed. Terrified! Whatever you did, you crazy old witch, it ends now! Stay! Away! From! Us!”
I opened my mouth, but before I could say a word, she stormed off.
I shut the door, leaned against it. My heart raced. I felt dizzy.
So. The kid had lied. Had the kid lied? Or just misunderstood my wave? No. How could a wave be misunderstood? More likely he’d told some awful lie about me to his mother. My instincts about the brat had been right all along.
It’s not easy to insulate from next-door-neighbors, but I managed. Not a word or a look had passed between us over the year since Taco had been put down. I hadn’t set eyes on Hugh.
Then, a few days ago, I heard a siren, hurried to my front window, and watched the ambulance take Hugh away.
Now, from kitchen window, I glare at the little monster who is tormenting my backyard flowers. I pound on the window. He stops, sees me, smiles, and holds up a fistful of black-eyed Susans. There’s not a mark on his chubby face. Ha. So much for being scarred for life.
My front doorbell rings. I scowl once more at the little thief and shake my finger at him, but when I answer the bell, I’m confused to see Hugh standing there. “How’d you get here so—”
“For you,” he says, holding up the bouquet of flowers.
“Get away!” What new lie will he say about me? “Go!”
I suddenly realize that cars are pulling up, parking, people emerging, dressed in dark colors, their faces solemn or wet with tears. They are all trudging to Hugh’s house.
“What’s going on?” I call out to them. No one answers. No one lifts their eyes toward me.
I look back down at Hugh. “What’s happening at your house?”
“I was playing climber,” Hugh says. “And Daddy’s shelves fell and crushed me.”
Dizzy, confused, I stumble back into my parlor, away, away from this craziness, this dream, this . . . ghost?
A gray-haired woman is slumped on my sofa.
Something touches my arm. Flowers. Held by Hugh.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Dowd,” Hugh says. “Now I know you were just waving. Now I know you wanted my drawing, and you were going to frame it and hang it on your wall and invite me over and—”
“Hugh.” My voice is a whisper. My body is bubbling, like I’ve swallowed a fog. “I don’t understand. How do you know all that? What do you want? Why . . . why are you here?”
“Follow me,” he says. “I’ll take you to Taco.”
Hugh holds out his hand. I look back at the gray-haired woman slumped on my sofa. Lifeless. Empty.
I take the flowers. I take his hand.
Marie Anderson is a Chicago area married mother of three millennials. She is the founder and facilitator of her local public library’s writing critique group, going strong since 2009. Her short fiction has appeared in over 50 publications, including Woman’s World, Sunlight Press, Lamplight, City.River.Tree, and After Dinner Conversation. Being retired and an empty nester, she has lots of time for reading, knitting, Scrabble, cooking, tidying, and TV. And now that she and her husband have received their second Moderna vax, maybe some road trips will soon join the mix!