Free Story

It Ain’t Much to Brag About, But It’s All Mine

 

 

My mom was screaming again, somewhere in the vast house, or maybe outside on the verandah (it’s much too large to dare call it a “porch”). I couldn’t make out the exact words, but I knew it went something like, “Audrey, for Christ’s sake, stop running in and out so much!” or “Audrey, for the love of the holy Christ, stop making so much noise!” or, perhaps the all-time favorite, a drawn-out “Auuuddddd-rrrrreeeee!”

In my defense, I would be neither running in or out, or making any noise whatsoever. But I know, even at my tender age of twelve, that when one is sitting on the verandah at 10:30 in the morning drinking a gin and tonic out of a pitcher, any behavior I might exhibit is bound to get me into some kind of trouble.

Normally, I can manage to stay out of Mom’s and Charles’ hair. He usually fiddles on his laptop computer, looking at stock market numbers until the afternoon, when he eventually joins my mother for pitcher-emptying duty on the verandah. This week, though, I am caught in a weird kind of limbo – all of the summer people have pretty much left the island, so most of the places I used to go hang out are closed, but school hasn’t started yet either, so I am largely without anything to do. And, just ask my mother, that is always the recipe for disaster.

Next week, when I start taking the ferry back to the mainland to school every day, I don’t know who’ll be happier.

So far today, I’ve tried reading my latest issue of Smithsonian magazine, the one the island doctor started saving for me after I got caught looking at the drowned body of little Tommy Beringer, who had the bad luck to fall overboard off his family’s Cris Craft over Memorial Day weekend and then had the colossal bad luck to try to swim up to the back of the boat where the dual propellers are. As a service to the Beringer family, the doctor listed cause of death officially as “drowning,” but from what I was able to see, it looked like it sure would be hard to hold any water inside your body with all those extra openings. When the doctor flicked on the light in his makeshift morgue, and caught me with my flashlight peeking under the sheet (how was I supposed to know about silent alarms and motion detectors? I’m only twelve!), he was alarmed at first, but then when I confessed my curiosity about medicine (true), death (especially true) and science in general (whoops, false) he took me into his office and we had a long talk about science, appropriate methods of gathering data in the field and the repercussions of breaking and entering. I think he was just relieved I wasn’t after the Valium and Tranxene stashed there. Although he declined my suggestion to give me a job helping clean up at the clinic, the doctor did promise to pass along books and magazines that may satisfy my “abundant curiosity.”

I guess it’s that curiosity which got me banned for life from the Beaver Island Public Library. Or maybe it was my cutting passages that I knew to be false out of the already thin selection of books available there. I’m not allowed in the butcher shop due to the time I went behind the counter and tried to trim pork chops on my own (I was only ten then). The hardware store should be self-explanatory, as should the construction site where they are developing new “water-view units.”

In short, I am a little girl pariah, trapped on an island with small-minded people.

Actually, most of that last sentence I stole from some book I read, but it’s close to right, so why not?

After I finished Smithsonian, I kind of wandered around the house, trying to stay out of Maribel’s – our housekeeper – way. (Does she hate me? What do you think?). Unfortunately, I happened to pass in front of the back parlor window, and my mother saw me briefly.

“For the sweet love of Christ, Audrey! Can’t you stop running through the house like a herd of buffalo? Can’t you go play somewhere?” She frowned into her glass and tinkled the ice impatiently. “Maribel, I am absolutely parched out here! Did you get lost on the way back from the kitchen with that pitcher?”

I grabbed my windbreaker and headed out the side door. As I was leaving, Maribel bustled past me with a sloshing pitcher of clear liquid with some limes floating on top. She paused long enough to fix me with a sour look that I couldn’t decide was for me on general principles, or for disapproval of my mother’s lifestyle.

Since the town was pretty well dead, and most everywhere else I was banned from, I decided to go exploring in the vast woods behind our house. Living on a small island off the northernmost tip of Michigan, the woods are alive with colors in early September. I thought maybe I could find some pretty leaves for my scrapbook. According to the tree book I stole from the library, I was still short a Chinese Elm and a White Birch leaf, both trees which were supposed to be indigenous to the island, but neither of which I had ever seen.

Chinese Elm was especially interesting, because island history had it that the original inhabitants of Beaver Island – the Cree Indian tribe – had been involved in a particularly bitter war with pirates (yes, pirates) who came to the island to steal trees for the lucrative lumber trade on the Great Lakes. The story is that the Cree placed a curse on the trees, making them worthless. Well, the curse turned out to be Dutch Elm disease, which Chinese Elm trees are immune to, so the pirates supposedly planted acres of them, just to spite the Cree. Chinese Elm also have particularly aggressive roots, which tend to strangle other trees, so there was a short but nasty “war” until finally the Michigan National Guard chugged all the way up here in a new Ironclad warship to sink all the pirate boats and relocate the Cree into Canada.

Of course, the island history doesn’t exactly say that, since admitting forcibly relocating native Americans isn’t politically correct anymore. That’s why I was tearing the lying pages out of the book when I got caught by the librarian. Anyway, I was hoping to find a Chinese Elm leaf, which would at least lend some truth to the old pirate tale.

The woods are well kept near my family’s house, but they soon turn tangled and difficult to navigate in. Experience has taught me to follow the property line between our house and Mrs. Bissel’s up to the base of Whiskey Hill, and then head due north.

It was a pleasantly chilly day, and in the deeper parts of the forest, the parts completely shaded over by leaves, where the sun never penetrates, I could even see my breath. It was enjoyable crunching through the leaves that had already fallen and turned brown. I was lost in thinking about the propeller marks on Tommy Beringer when a voice startled me.

“Hey! What the hell are you up to now!”

I let out a little yelp of surprise, and then I saw it was our neighbor, Mrs. Bissel. If my mother had a sketchy lifestyle, Mrs. Bissel was an out-and-out juicer. She typically spent her days in a wrinkled housecoat, drinking what my parents said was ridiculously expensive pinot noir from sunup to sundown. Since she was living on her widow’s pension, her only companion was a mangy housecoat named Maurice, who sported a ridiculous pink collar. She carried Maurice everywhere with her, including her drunken ramblings across the island. Even though Mrs. Bissel hated me, she probably should’ve been grateful for my presence – since she certainly would’ve been the resident who was banned from the most island establishments if not for me.

The reason she had a special hatred for me stemmed from an incident where she yelled at me for taking some rock samples from her rock garden when I was only ten. She yelled at me so ferociously that I started crying, and then she hooked her old claw around my wrist and dragged me to my house, where she accused me of defacing her property and stealing. My mother, also in the bag at that stage of the afternoon, gladly accepted her version of the events, and also gladly took over punishment activities.

Needless to say, I never forgot that incident. So, I took it upon myself to begin collecting Mrs. Bissel’s old Pinot Noir bottles. This task was especially daunting, since she would empty two or three each day. I stored them in the old abandoned roundhouse until one day when she was having a sort of get-together for a bunch of her church buddies. The night before, I snuck out of the house, and took the gardener’s wheelbarrow. Considering I had been saving the bottles for almost eight months, I had to make a lot of trips. I placed them all in her front yard in a giant pyramid with a hand-painted sign that said, “MAYBE YOU SHOULD RECYCLE THESE.” Unfortunately, since there is only one store on the island that sells day-glo orange paint, I was discovered relatively quickly to be the culprit.

Ever since then, she has hated me more than an early frost at a Pinot vineyard.

Now, here she was, startling me while I was minding my own business, just strolling through the woods. She came clamping up through the leaves, and I had time to notice that, held by her crossed arms in the folds of her housecoat was none other than Maurice.

“What the hell are you doing on my property, you little hellcat?” she shrieked at me. “I could have you arrested for tresspassing, you know! I should!”

“Sorry, Mrs. Bissel,” I said when I had recovered from my fright, “I was just looking for some…recycling.”

“AHHH,” she screeched and tried to grab for me, but her bony old hand slid off my windbreaker, and I danced away. As if on cue, Maurice the cat hissed at me from his place clutched to her scrawny bosom.

“Fuck you, too, Maurice,” I said, throwing a handful of leaves at him. I skipped away up Whiskey Hill, to the sounds of ongoing curses and threats of prosecution from Mrs. Bissel.

I had only gone a little way, when I realized I was not following the northern face as I had intended to. In fact, I had never seen this side of the hill. Soon enough, I came to a long chain link fence that ran parallel to the rise of the hill, seeming to go on for miles. I figured that if someone put up a fence, it had to lead somewhere, so I wouldn’t get too lost. I began to follow the fence, when all of the sudden a tremendous KA-BOOM! echoed in the air and shook the whole hill. If I thought I was startled before, this time I yelled out loud and fell down in a pile of damp leaves. I could hear debris raining down through the leaves of trees, and the frightened cawing of crows.

At first I thought the marina gas station had blown up, but then I realized that this explosion was much closer. I started making my way toward the sound of the explosion, when there was another one, a little further off.   This time I didn’t fall down, or even yell. After I cleared some trees, I saw a sign on the fence. It said: NO TRESSPASSING PROPERTY OF BURNSIDE DEVELOPERS CONSTRUCTION SITE. DYNAMITE USAGE DANGER!

So, the developers were dynamiting away part of old Whiskey Hill so they could put some condos in the side. At least, that’s what I overheard Charles saying to my mother one night at dinner. Usually, I don’t give a lot of credit to dinnertime conversation, given that it has been more often that not marianating in gin all day, but anything about Whiskey Hill I listen to carefully. Because Whiskey Hill is the tallest point on Beaver Island, it always has had important strategic value. Looking out over the cold and choppy waters of Lake Superior that flow into the island’s only harbor, Whiskey Hill might as well be a fortress.

Supposedly, the Cree and the pirates fought their bloodiest battles on Whiskey Hill.

In fact, legend has it that the name came from the night when the Cree had captured several of the pirate officers and were torturing them on the side of the hill. The other pirates were so upset they hauled great barrels full of whiskey to the top of the hill, stuck rags in the side for fuses, and sent the barrels tumbling down the hill ablaze. This also set the woods ablaze, which revealed the Cree’s hiding places, allowing the Indians to be picked off at will by the pirate marksmen.

Ironically, the developers were doing a similar thing close to three hundred years later, except this time there weren’t any Indians left to chase away.

I had a sudden thought that maybe the dynamiting would unearth some type of artifact, or maybe a souvenir – even some pirate booty long since forgotten. I scaled the fence, and dropped down over the other side. I tried to walk in a big circle around where I thought the booming had come from – I wanted to find pirate treasure, not get blown up. Huge sections of the side of the hill had collapsed, and twice I almost went tumbling down the side when some loose dirt gave away. From my vantage point, I could see the bulldozers and dumptrucks way down in the valley below. I watched to see if any of the men would leave the worksite and come up to see how the dynamiting had gone, but they seemed content to stay by the heavy equipment and talk. I made a mental note to sneak onto the construction site one night and see if I could drive a dumptruck.

I was just about to skirt around the other side of the hill, when some dirt started sliding away from me. I frantically tried to keep my balance, but the earth just kept giving way. I must’ve looked like a cartoon character, comically running in place until I finally fell headlong down the hill.

I never thought someone could fall so long and so far. It was like doing somersaults, except when you’re doing somersaults, you’re usually in a gym or maybe a backyard, and you’re not bouncing off of trees and rocks. Dirt was sliding down my pants and my shirt, and my windbreaker had come partway off, pinning my arms, which I suppose is one reason why I didn’t break any bones. I had lost all sense of which way was up, and I thought I had stopped skidding when I was suddenly falling through nothing but air. That made me scream, but before I could get going, I landed hard on the ground with a “whuff!” that knocked the air out of my lungs.

I was laying on my back, looking up when I realized I was in some sort of pit or hole. It wasn’t very deep, and it was kind of canted sideways into the ground. Slowly, I moved my arms and legs, expecting to find at least one of them broken.

Miraculously, except for some scrapes and bruises, I was fine. Shakily, I got to my feet. This pit was large, but I could easily heave myself out of it. The dirt on the side of the walls was dry, and there was some awful, funky smell. I sure wasn’t going to hang around there.

I grabbed a tree root and prepared to hoist myself out. There was something familiar about the thick, twisted root, and just as it hit me, I noticed all of the leaves which had blown into the pit. I picked one up. Chinese Elm.

I was studying it so intensely that it took me a minute to realize there was another noise. A soft, insistent scraping sound, like a persistent scratching.

In the other end of the pit, the earth was moving.

It didn’t look like any particular coordinated effort, more like some random movement, as if a hand was kneading the earth from underground.

I don’t know why, but the moving dirt gave me a bad case of the creeps. “Come on, Audrey, get a hold of yourself.” I whispered. Immediately, the moving stopped. I cocked my head and took a step closer, when a furious thrashing broke out, like something was trapped underground. I wildly thought that maybe some worker was caught in a landslide, but then a small thing broke out of the dirt, and was waving madly around.

I stared at it for a few seconds before I realized it was the index finger of a skeleton.

It was wiggling around, trying to enlarge the hole and unearth more of itself. The wiggling was a hideous parody of the “come here” gesture people typically use their index fingers for – and curiously effective – because I crept closer. The scrabbling was intensifying, and soon a skeletal thumb broke through.

Now the finger and thumb clicked together like pincers. I took a step back, ready to vault out of the pit. The finger and thumb worked for awhile, but were only able to uncover a bit more of the hand. It appeared that the rest of the fingers had been broken off, either earlier, or during the explosion, leaving only the index finger and the thumb left.

Enough of the hand was now visible that it had gone from one parody to another – this one the cliche of someone sunk down in quicksand, their questing hand the last remaining piece of humanity visible.

I walked closer to it and squatted down. The three missing fingers were broken off at various places, and dangled limply. I picked up a stick, and gingerly poked the hand. Immediately, the thumb and forefinger closed around the stick. The quickness of it startled me, and the stick was torn from my hand, and swung around by the mystery hand, which was now shaking violently again.

As I was watching it, another thought occurred to me. This hand had to be attached to something. If I dug a little, or perhaps loosened the dirt that was imprisoning it, what would I uncover? It sure beat the hell out of Smithsonian.

I clambered out of the pit, and looked around. Even though I was still pretty banged up, my bruises were forgotten. I found a large broken-off branch that was nearly as big around as my thigh. The end was tapered to a sharp point, which was the important part. I threw the stick back into the pit, and let myself carefully down into the hole.

The hand had apparently lost interest in the stick, and had flung it across the pit. I was pretty sure it couldn’t wrest the big branch away from me, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

I knelt down close to it (but not too close) and whispered, “Look, there, I want to help you get out, but you need to promise me you won’t get me or anything. Click your thumb and finger together twice for yes.”

As soon as I had started speaking, the hand resumed its violent movements. Patiently, I waited until the shaking subsided. “Hey, I’m still here, but like I said, there’s no way I’m helping you until you promise me you won’t do anything nasty to me.”

Again, the violent tremors as it struggled to free itself. I waited until it stopped and repeated what I had said. We went through this many, many times until finally there was no reaction at all when I spoke.

“Alright, that’s more like it,” I said, “now, promise me you’ll behave yourself. Click your fingers together twice for yes.” Aside from wanting it to at least make a token promise not to attack me first thing, I wanted to see if in fact it could understand – and communicate – with me.

There was no response, no movement at all for quite a long time. I was starting to wonder if whatever I had seen had been some sort of involuntary reaction, maybe a muscle contraction of some sort, when, very slowly, the finger and the thumb bones clicked together twice, quite distinctly.

“Oh man,” I whispered to myself, then raised my voice and spoke. “Tell me again.”   There was another shorter wait, and the signal was given. This thing could understand me! My heart was racing as I grabbed the branch and wedged it point-first deep into the ground next to the hand. I leaned my weight on it, and broke open a large clump of dirt. Yanking the branch out of the earth, I jammed it into the ground a few inches away from first spot. I repeated the process until I had tilled a small circle around where the hand was protruding from the ground.

“OK, can you do anything?” The hand straightened and began to shake itself back and forth. Soon enough, a good portion of the forearm was visible. When it was clear nothing else was happening, I stepped forward with the branch again. “Hold on, don’t move, I am going to dig some more. Do you understand?”

Click, click.

I did the same levering trick, this time digging up more earth. As soon as I gave the word, the arm renewed its efforts, looking like nothing so much as a macabre butter churn. At one point, the wrist straightened, and the entire thing slipped down into the earth.   I was alarmed, thinking it had retreated to wherever it had come from, but suddenly there was a burst of dirt exploding upward, and I involuntarily yelled and fell back.

When I looked again, the entire arm and most of the shoulder was free. I could see part of a rib cage, but there was more to it than just bones. Dirty, gray stuff that looked like flesh clung here and there. It looked like some remnant of clothing also was still attached somewhere. Laying there, with the ball of its shoulder and part of its torso exposed, and the rest still buried, it looked like a picture you would see in National Geographic – or maybe Smithsonian – about an archaeological excavation in progress.

I crept back over. “Can you hear me?” I asked.

With a speed faster than a striking cobra, the arm shot forward and the hand grabbed the front of my windbreaker in between its two digits.   It gave a huge tug, whether to yank me closer I don’t know, but the result was that still more of the thing came free. As I lunged back to get away from it, it used my leverage to hoist more of itself free. I fell back yet again, and in doing so, pulled it free all the way from the ground that had held it prisoner.

The force of my efforts, combined with the fact that it had attached itself to my windbreaker, brought the rest of the thing hurtling towards me. I hit the ground on my back, and on top of me it landed. I was staring right into, for lack of a better word, its face, which was actually resting on mine.

This time, I didn’t yell, I screamed. It reared up on its spine like a hideous inchworm, and I grabbed it by its bony shoulders and threw it off of me, across the pit, where it landed, writhing, in a pile.

I skittered backwards until my back was touching the side of the pit. I hadn’t realized it, but I was crying. Right then and there, I made a decision to smash it – whatever it was – to pieces with the big branch.

I went to retrieve the branch, giving the thing a wide berth. Picking it up, I raised the branch over my head in true caveman-with-a-war-club fashion and prepared to bash the thing into harmless bone splinters.

I looked at it closely. The thing had landed on what would have been its stomach, and was trying to flip itself over, onto its back. It was not having an easy time of it for several reasons. First of all, the thing had no legs. Its body consisted of a trunk that ended in a partially-crushed pelvis. The pelvis twisted and gyrated in an attempt to gain a purchase on the dirt floor of the pit in a futile manner that still would have made Elvis Presley envious. Furthermore, its other arm was also missing, meaning the only limb it had was the original arm with its reduced supply of fingers.

The trunk of the body was mostly covered in that gray, papery-looking flesh I had seen earlier. Here and there, there were sad little holes where pieces of dirty bone could be seen – a rib or maybe part of the clavicle. Parts of the collarbone stood out clearly through the gray flesh, although I could detect the remains of what apparently had been some sort of vest that still clung, tattered but stubborn, to the torso.

But the true wonder was the head. While the neck was almost entirely covered with the gray skin, the head itself was mostly a horror-movie skull. The cheeks and forehead had some flesh, but there was no nose, only a gaping hole. And the eye sockets were as empty as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard itself. Perhaps most dramatically, the jaw was still affixed, and it moved rhythmically, grinding together the upper and lower sets of yellow teeth.

At last, it succeeded in raising itself up halfway with its arm, and then whipsawing it around to flip over. For what reason, I don’t know, since then it began writhing helplessly on its back, unable to move in any direction.

I lowered the branch. This thing was pretty ugly, but it looked pretty harmless as well. Although, I had to admit, those clamping jaws looked kind of creepy.

For quite awhile, I watched it mindlessly moving, its twisting pelvis drawing bizarre figure eights in the dirt.

I knew I had to have it.

What it was — or what it had been once — wasn’t important. What was important was that I could have it all for myself, that I could take it out of this hole in the ground, take it and make it mine.

Maybe I could tame it, like a wild raccoon my uncle Charlie found near his fishing cabin. He raised it from a baby and it used to stand on its hind legs, begging for potato chips that it would hold in its paws like hands and munch. Uncle Charlie kept the raccoon around his fishing cabin for three or four years until the summer there was a rabies scare and the old man up the way shot it and made a bicycle seat cover out of its hide. No more munching potato chips.

The thing had quieted its movements now, just kind of writhing calmly in the dirt, arm waving weakly, head turning slowly. I crept over to where it was, and knelt near the head – well out of reach. I knew it could hear me, even though it didn’t have any ears that I could see.

“Hey, hey you…do you remember me? I’m the girl who pulled you out of the ground,” I said. “I’m your friend.”

Immediately the head whipped around and the arm made a grab in my general direction, but I was anticipating this, and I brought the branch down hard – really hard – on the thing’s skull. If it couldn’t play nice, I didn’t have any qualms about bashing it to pieces.

“NO!” I scolded, as if speaking to a naughty puppy who had just wet the carpet. “Bad thing! Bad!”

It craned its bony neck back and snapped at where I had struck it with the branch, no doubt hoping I had been foolish enough to leave my hand there. This time, I stood up and used a modified golf swing, smashing the branch against the head so hard that the thing spun halfway around. “FORE!” I yelled. I jumped up over it, and used the tip of the branch to pin it down by the neck. With my left foot, I stepped on its arm, and gradually let my butt sink until it was resting on the moldy ribcage with its taunt gray flesh. As a leveraging tool, its pelvis was now useless, and the thing was completely immobilized.

“Well now,” I said, pleased with my efforts. “it looks like Mr. Bones (I had already picked that out as the thing’s name) is in a little pre-dick-er-ment.” I giggled, and it echoed off the walls of the pit, sounding unpleasantly unhealthy.

The thing finally stopped thrashing, and fixed its empty eye sockets on the place in the air in front of it where my voice was coming from. It was eerily like it was looking at me, paying attention. And, that was what I wanted – its attention.

I leaned close, so close I could smell the slightly overripe smell coming off the thing – kind of like a bag of apples left way too long in the cool dark of a basement. “Listen to me, Bonsey, listen to me real good.   I like you, you’re kind of cute. I think we can be friends. But, in order for us to be friends, you have to stop trying to get me. If you try and grab me again, I am going to take this big old axe I have with me, and break you up into little tiny bone chips and you’ll end up in somebody’s hot dog. Do you understand me? Click your fingers together twice for yes, once for the hot dog.”

It seemed like an eternity, but finally, the thing slowly brought its skeletal thumb and forefinger together twice. I had already known it could hear and understand me, so what really pleased me was the discovery – just as I suspected – that it couldn’t really see out of those empty eye sockets. Big old axe, indeed.

“OK, Bonsey, I am going to get up slowly now, and take my foot off your arm. If you try anything funny, you know what’s going to happen. It’s up to you.” I waited to see if there would be some reaction, but it just lay there, still and unanimated.

Using the branch as a crutch, I gingerly rose to my feet, keeping my foot firmly planted on its arm the whole time. When I was once again standing and could jump out of the way if I needed to, I removed my foot.

The thing turned its head slowly from side to side, and made a somewhat comical gesture mimicking flexing its wrist where I had been standing on it. I knew then we were going to get along just fine.

“Good job!” I said, trying to reinforce the positive behavior. I looked around the pit. I didn’t think I would have any trouble in wrapping the thing in my windbreaker and hoisting it out of the ground. “OK, I’m going to wrap you in something and get you up out of this hole,” I said, looking at my Bugs Bunny watch, which said it was almost lunchtime. “Then I have to go away for awhile, but I’ll leave you somewhere safe. OK?”

I had already started removing my windbreaker when I noticed that the thing was slowly shaking its head from side to side in a “No” fashion. That was surprising.

“No?” I asked, a little irritated. After all, who was the pet here? “What do you mean ‘no?””

To my even greater surprise, the thing stretched out its long index finger, and began drawing in the dirt. For a moment, my breath caught in my throat, and the only sound in the pit was the rasp of the dirt against the old bone as the thing moved its finger. I leaned over, no longer mindful of keeping a safe distance, and looked at what symbols it was making. It was, of course, writing. The letters were shaky and oddly shaped, but still perfectly legible. The thing was only writing one word, and, due to my high intelligence and keen perception, I was able to figure out where it was going long before the completed the last letter. When it was finished writing, it turned its head to me, as if waiting for my reaction. I just stood there, staring at the one word looking up at me from the bottom of the pit.

“HUNGRY.”

 

*****

 

While I was eating my tuna fish sandwich, watching my mother draw figure eights in the ring of moisture left by her glass on the table, my mind was turning furiously. There was a September wind blowing across the porch, and I was chilled without my windbreaker. Of course, the knowledge that Bonsey was nestled in it snug and warm in the hayloft made me feel a little better. I wondered if Bonsey would like some tuna fish sandwich. What does a girl feed her pet monster?

Maribel bustled out onto the porch with another pitcher for my mother, and I asked sweetly if I could have another tuna fish sandwich. The maid nodded once, curtly, and disappeared back into the house.

My mother’s head snapped up from the condensation drawing she had been studiously working on. “Another sandwich? For the love of the holy merciful Christ, Audrey, where do you put all that food? If you’re not careful, you’re going to end up fat and lonely, like your Aunt Jessica.”

Aunt Jessica weighed about 140 pounds, and had never married, due to the fact she was a confirmed lesbian. This didn’t stop my mother, who weighed all of 110 pounds soaking wet, of attributing Aunt Jessica’s singlehood to a chronic weight problem.

I knew my best strategy was just to sit there quietly until Maribel returned with my tuna fish, so instead of replying, I busied myself wrapping up some slices of honeydew melon and cantaloupe in a linen napkin, just on the off chance Bonsey was vegan.

When I wrapped my sandwich and was fully outfitted with supplies, I quickly excused myself from the table and dashed off to the old barn, which we had been meaning to convert into a guesthouse for years, but had just never gotten around to actually converting.   When there’s just three people banging around in a 27-room mansion, guesthouses tend not to seem real important.

I went through the side door and stuffed the rolled napkins in my shirt so I could climb the wood ladder up to the hayloft. I liked the hayloft as a spot for old Bonesy, since a) I knew no one — especially our old and lazy “caretaker” Herman — would ever venture up there and b) I knew even if Bonesy thrashed around to his heart’s content, he still couldn’t get into any mischief up there.

I had reached the top of the ladder and was about to shout a sunny greeting of “Hey Bonesy, guess what, it’s lunnncccchhhhtime!” when I froze.

I had left him wrapped in my windbreaker in a little hay alcove, but he had tossed it aside. The thing was up on its elbow, head lowered, leaning forward, looking for all the world like a nightmare version of a cat stalking its prey.

I followed the line of sight it would’ve had, and, sure enough, there was a large field mouse, sitting on a block of hay, munching on some scrounged piece of something.

With infinite patience, the thing pulled itself forward, a centimeter at a time, dragging its body with that one arm. It moved so slowly, the hay underneath it barely whispered. The broken pelvis it dragged behind twitched periodically like a tail. Perhaps most amazingly, even though I had taken him for a dried up old husk, Bonesy was drooling like Niagara Falls as he closed in on the unsuspecting field mouse.

At the last moment, the mouse must’ve sensed something was amiss in the hayloft, because it turned suddenly and dropped whatever it had been chewing. But then – and at the time I thought it was the most horrible thing I had ever seen – Bonesy pounced. With that same terrible speed that the thing had used when it grabbed me, it sprang forward onto the poor mouse. The arm shot out, lightning quick, and snared the mouse between the thumb and forefinger.

It had time to squeal, but only once.

In a horribly fluid motion, the arm bent and delivered the mouse to the drooling mouth, where it stuffed half the squirming body in, and then clamped its jaws down. The mouse’s hind legs, which were sticking out of the mouth went absolutely rigid, and blood splashed out of the mouth in an amazing flow. The thing worked its neck once, presumably swallowing the first half of Mr. Mouse, and then tossed the back half in, where it again gave one mammoth chew and swallowed.

The entire mouse had been disposed of in less than five seconds.

I looked down at my napkin-wrapped gifts of melon and tuna fish, and felt sick to my stomach.   They seemed kind of a moot point now.

The thing was banging its head against the floor in some kind of happy rhythm, clearly pleased. Even more so that when it grabbed me that second time, I wanted to smash its filthy skull to pieces.

Well, part of me did. The other part was fascinated by such a monstrosity. Especially that it was mine, all mine. It could only catch mice as long as I let it. It could only live as long as I decided. If I wanted to bash its head in, I could, and no one would be the wiser.

I climbed up the last few rungs of the ladder and tossed the linen napkins over to where it lay banging its head on the floor, blood and drool staining the large teeth and running freely off to soak into the hay. “Here ya go, Bonesy, some extra chow that you might want. Not as tasty as a mouse, but what the hell, huh?” I sat down with a sigh and watched it tear into the napkins, greedily masticating the tuna fish and shoving huge pieces of melon into the whole mess. There I was, less than two feet away from this abomination, but I had no fear. I knew deep in my heart that it wouldn’t hurt me.

We were pals.

* * * * *

            The next several weeks were actually pretty uneventful. Since I spent most of my time in the barn, I stayed pretty much out of my mother’s hair, so I think she actually began to forget about me altogether. Maribel frowned even more severely that usual about my odd pilfering of food from the kitchens, but apparently decided not to risk infuriating my mother by squealing on me.

I tried all types of things to feed Bonesy, and – without exception – he ate every single thing I put in front of him. Including, on one memorable occasion, an entire Swanson’s “Hungry Man” Double Salisbury Steak Dinner – meat, potatoes, corn, green beans, apple fritter and microwavable tray. He could eat as much as I could provide, and his appetite was never satiated.

Even more disquieting to me, though, was the traces of unfortunate animals that I found in the hayloft. Mice, rats, barn swallows, and even a raccoon all appeared to have met untimely ends at the singular hand of Bonesy.

Like any pet owner, I was indulgent towards his little quirks. I would chide him for what he had done, but nonetheless clean up the mess and try and find a way to keep animals from getting up into the hayloft.

As I said, it was a pleasant few weeks, right up until the time I climbed the ladder and saw Bonesy chewing on certain tattered pink collar that still legibly read “Maurice.”

* * * * *

I swooned, actually swooned, like those women in bad old movies do, except they aren’t twenty feet off the ground clinging to a rickety wooden ladder. Bonesy was banging his head against the floor in what I now knew to be his “post-kill celebration.” There was less blood that usual, but some very incriminating tufts of fur that had not been ingested.

“Oh my god, what did you do? What did you do, Bonesy?” Like a dumb mutt, the head swiveled around at the sound of my voice, no doubt expecting food. The collar slipped from between the jaws and the bell on it made a forlorn little ping! as it struck the floor. The first thing I could think of to do was to grab the collar and stuff it in the back pocket of my jeans. “Bonesy, you dumb ass, don’t you know who the first suspect is going to be? Me! And if they come looking around the grounds for that damn Maurice….” Well, needless to say, I would have a difficult time explaining Bonesy.

The thing flipped itself over, and gave me a mouth slightly-open expectant look. Like I should throw a ball for it to fetch or something. This was getting too out of hand. “Bonesy, that’s it. You’re going to have to go. That old witch from next door Mrs. Bissel is going to know for sure somehow we’re responsible for this. I am going to get in so much trouble! All because of you!” I sat down in the hayloft and started to cry. Bonesy heard me weeping, and began to clump and scratch over to where I was sitting. It cocked its hideous head at me curiously, and then tentatively reached out the bony hand, and gently squeezed my shoulder.

That only made me cry harder. “Why did you have to go kill Mrs. Bissel’s cat? Now she’s going to get me in big trouble, and I’ll have to get rid of you forever.” Abruptly, I realized what exactly it was that was giving my shoulder a comforting squeeze, and I fiercely batted the arm away. “Get away from me you monster!” I shouted. “You freak!”

The empty eye sockets regarded me for a moment more, and then Bonesy turned and clumped his way back to the little nest area he had carved out, looking like nothing so much as a dejected hound dog from hell.

* * * * *

I thought I was home free when it came to the matter of Maurice. I could leave Bonesy in the hayloft for the time being, since nobody would ever look for Maurice up there. I did tell him to bury himself in hay if he heard strange voices, but I’m not sure he understood me.

I disposed of the incriminating collar as part of (what I thought to be) a highly seasonal and chummy bonfire that I made for the whole family. My mother was so impressed, she even ruffled my hair the way she had undoubtedly seen a sitcom mom do to a precocious sitcom tyke.

All was quiet for a few days, so needless to say I was quite surprised when my mother yelled, “Audrey, for the love of the eternally vigilant sweet Christ, get down here right NOW!” and I went downstairs to find the sheriff and two deputies sitting in our second living room.

All three of the policemen regarded me coolly. That old harpy Mrs. Bissel must’ve given them an earful about me.

“Audrey, these police are here about…” my mother began, but the sheriff neatly cut her off.

“Hello Audrey, I am Sheriff Thompson, and these are two deputies, Deputy Kyle and Deputy Simmons. We’re sorry to bother you like this, but we had heard from some of the other neighbors that you often had…disagreements with Mrs. Bissel, the lady who lives the next house over.”

“Yeah, sometimes we got into it, but it was no big deal,” I said. Inside, I was thinking, boy, I’d love to pan fry that old battle axe over a big bonfire.

“Well, Audrey, we understand. But, you know, with the disappearance and all, we need to try and find out as much information as possible.” Sheriff Thompson was giving me his “let’s all-play-ball-with-the-nice-cops” routine, but I wasn’t having any of it. I mean, really, I know crime is slow on the island, but three cops for one faggy kitty? Come on.

“Look sheriff, I’m sorry, but those things happen. If people took more care, they wouldn’t happen as often. I know it might offend you to hear me say this, but I’m sort of glad. I mean, everybody hated that smelly old thing anyway.”

I thought that sentence might shock them, but in no way was I prepared for the reaction it garnered. There were indeed satisfying shocked expressions on the face of the policemen, but my mother went, “for the love of the merciful sweet Christ!” and fainted dead away, thump on the floor.

There was a moment of silence in the room before the deputies jumped up as one to try and revive my comatose mother. Sheriff Thompson, however, never took his eyes off me. Under that level scrutiny, I felt my comments needed to be amended somewhat, so I added, “I mean, it was just an old cat.”

The sheriff continued to gaze at me with his seemingly unflappable concentration. “I think we need to talk some more, Audrey. We don’t know anything about a cat disappearing, we came to see if you knew anything about Mrs. Bissel’s disappearance.”

* * * * *

After I got home from the police station, I took off my dress clothes and raced out to the barn. Even as I climbed the ladder, I knew what I would find. Under the harsh light of the lantern, I could see it all now: the hay piled up in the corner, partially covering the loose boards that allowed Bonesy to drop down onto a pile of hay and sneak out of the barn on foraging expeditions; the many, many little pelts and body parts from what must have been scores of animals; more than one pet collar; and, finally, a thoroughly gnawed ankle, still encased in an old lady’s slipper.

“OK, this time is finally it, Bonesy. Did you know the police suspect me in Mrs. Bissel’s disappearance? Nice going! All they’d have to do is find this,” I picked up the slipper with its grisly contents and flung it at the thing, which had started shifting and cringing in the corner. “All they’d have to do is find this, and I’d be in jail for the rest of my life. FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE! Do you understand that?”

It was no use. I knew what I had to do. What I should have done a long time ago. Again, that rebellious part of me rose up against the thought of abandoning Bonesy, especially now that he had become so tame and used to being fed. But, I knew it was the only answer.

Before I could change my mind, I opened the old blanket I had brought with me, and flung it over him. He writhed and struggled, but I used my weight on his chest, and my foot to pin down his flailing arm. Twice around with the twine I held in my other had, and he was secure. The blanket flopped around, every while emitting a muffled “bonk” when the thing’s head struck the floorboards. Seeing him all tied up like that made me sad, and I knew I had to act before I lost my nerve.

I grabbed Mrs. Bissel’s foot and shoved it into the folds of the blanket. I threw the whole package over the side and heard it thump on the floor below. I took a deep breath, and climbed back down the ladder.

The blanket was still madly thrashing, and now I brought out the large garden plastic trash bag that the groundskeeper uses for leaves and branches every fall. I managed to get the blanket (and the foot, which had gone rolling behind a cider barrel) into the bag without too much difficulty.

The plastic was so slick that I could easily drag it on the ground as I made my way toward where I knew the old well was. When I got to the boards with the red kerchief suspended above them, I stopped a moment to rest. Dragging Bonesy was hard work. Still, I knew I had to finish before I changed my mind. I hunted around for a few heavy rocks and put those in the bag too, although I knew Bonesy would have a heck of a time floating to the top of this deep well. Just, with him, I knew it was best not to take any chances.

I figured I had thrown in enough rocks, and I tore the boards covering the well hole away. Spiders and centipedes came crawling out of the darkness, perhaps seeing the night sky for the first time. I sure felt bad sticking Bonesy in such a horrible place, but what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t have him eating the neighbors all winter, now could I?

Everything was ready, but I still felt so horribly guilty, I felt I owed him some explanation. I sat down next to the bag. “Bonesy,” I began softly, and at the first murmur of my voice, the bag began to flop about wildly. “Bonesy, I’m so sorry. But, it’s better this way.” That sounded lame. I decided to try a different approach.

“Bonesy, believe me, if it was up to me, I would keep you. But, it’s my mean old mother and her boyfriend Charles’ fault. They already promised to send me to military school next semester, just because they know I’m guilty of something.” This part was true. “So, my mom and Charles are making me get rid of you. They want to hurt me, and they know the best way to hurt me is by making me get rid of you.” This part wasn’t exactly true, but it sounded good, and, more importantly, for some reason it made me start crying, which made the rest of my speech even more heart-wrenching. “So, Bonesy, this is it. Just remember, remember,” I was really bawling now. “Remember I’ll love you forever, Bonesy.” I hugged the bag tightly, and then threw it over the dark blackness where it plunged to the bottom of the well. I heard a muffled splash quite a ways down.

“Goodbye, Bonesy” I said, and hastily threw the boards back on the old well. I wanted to get back inside before I was missed.

Of course, no one had even noticed my absence. I changed into my PJs and lie on my bed, trying not to think about poor old Bonesy, stuck in the cold water of that well. Still, he must’ve been partially encouraged by my speech. All in all, I thought, a job well done.

* * * * *

That last part was just a little over six hours ago, and now I realize how wrong I was – about everything.

Because I know so much about the island history, I am of the mind that Bonesy must’ve been one of the pirates who tossed the flaming whiskey barrel on the Cree Indians. Except, maybe he was one of the guys who got caught by the justifiably pissed-off and scorched Indians. So, maybe they torture him for awhile, no biggie, but maybe also the medicine man lays some big curse on him, you know, the “you’ll-suffer-and-suffer-but never-die” kind of curse. Just like in the movies, but this time, the curse actually takes. So, there is Bonesy, all shut up in his little prison, until the developers come along and dynamite him, not only out of wherever he was, but also in pieces.

Then, here comes this snotty little girl who takes him in and shows him some affection, perhaps the first affection and human contact he’s had in a couple hundred years. Then, this little girl, his only friend, tells him about the mean old lady next door. Well, what do you suppose happens next?

But, then, it gets better. Instead of helping, he just gets the little girl into more trouble. And now the little girl’s mean mother and guy pal are making the little girl miserable and making her get rid of her friend Bonesy. Now, what do you think happens next?

I awoke at about four a.m. to the sound of my mother screaming. Not “for the love of the benevolent sweet Christ” this time, just screaming. It didn’t go on for long, though. I thought I heard Charles make some kind of noise, but that didn’t last long, either.

Their bedroom is all the way across the great hall, but I could still hear sticky chewing sounds, and the familiar banging noise of a certain bony head bouncing off the floor in pure pleasure.

I decided I would close my eyes, and when I opened them again, everything would be okay. The trouble is, with my eyes closed, I can hear even better. I can hear the thump and drag as that one arm pulls the rest of its eager body forward toward my room. I can hear the dry clicks as the finger and thumb creep up my door and turn the knob. I can hear the rustle of the duvet as the thing climbs onto my bed and curls comfortably against my leg, completely contented.

©1999, 2017 Bill Breedlove