A Story By
The silhouette of the man hulking over the small boy in the front yard of the farmhouse, as lightning flashed in the grey, stormy sky behind him, seemed intimidating even to Nasir Abboud. How must it feel to a seven-year-old, he wondered, shaking his head in disgust. With the much older, bigger, stronger brother gone now, the man could do as he pleased, with no one to stand up to him.
Abboud stood by his mailbox, watching. The two figures were almost a quarter mile away, but there was only a meadow between the two properties, and the old man's eyes were as sharp as a hawk's. He was thousands of miles from his homeland, immersed in a different culture, a different life, but some things never changed. And so he stood there considering possibilities he hadn't considered in many years.
Some things were not right, some men had no honor, and all little ones' pure hearts should stay that way.
He walked up the hill toward his house, where he would sit and have tea and contemplate the world as he knew it.
The ranting was beginning to wind down, becoming muttering. He'd apparently tired himself out again. Boone, the Evil Stepfather, as brothers Blake and Benji called him when he wasn't around.
But Blake was gone now. And Benji was small and shivering, crouched in the dirt under the backdoor steps, his arm draped over a huge, carved Halloween pumpkin.
He reached into his mind for a memory. A week ago? Or was it two? He couldn't remember. It seemed so much longer. Back before his big brother left on the bus that took him someplace far away, where guys in uniforms would teach him to drive tanks and fly chopters and jump out of airplanes and stuff like that (and was there any better stuff in the world, Benji wondered?).
That day, he'd lifted Benji onto the hood of the truck as he stood beside it, big farm boy hands resting on bony 7-year-old shoulders.
“Survive. That's your job. My job is to go get all soldiered-up, maybe go to Afghanistan and help take care of business, then use the college money to start us on the way to an awesomely cool life. And then your job can be to be a kid. But until I get back, your job is to survive. Every single day. Stay out of his way when he's looking to hurt someone, turn off your ears when he starts yelling, don't listen to the words, the filthy stuff he says. Tune it out. Stay a kid. If I get back and you're a burnt-out, old-before-your-time, trouble-making little version of him, then he'll have won. And we don't want him to win, do we?”
With a solemn shake of his head, Benji had tried to show just how strong and brave and determined he was, deep down inside.
Right now he wished it was back on that day, back when Blake was here, not gone.
Shifting position, Benji silently sang to himself, making a game out of the big, mean man's ravings. (...and that rhymes with duck, which can get stuck in all the muck and that's bad luck and ...) He ran out of -uck words. But that was fun. Blake was right. The good world, the fun world, the kind world, can be in your head when the world outside of it turns bad.
That meant either Boone was done and would plop himself on the couch in front of the TV and drink himself into a stupor ... or he was waiting. Sometimes he liked to pretend he was done, so he could lure Benji out and have a living, breathing human being to berate and terrify. The chickens and barn cats weren't impressed with him anymore. They just scattered and went on their merry way.
Benji had a bad feeling this time. There seemed to be something hanging in the chilled October air, something behind the silence.
So he stayed put. Wait it out. That's what Blake said to do. Just wait it out. Sooner or later Boone would get bored, and need a drink.
Benji hugged the pumpkin, rested his cheek against it, swore he heard a heart beating in there. Okay, it was probably his own heart, he knew that. He'd scooped out pumpkin guts himself, after all. Still. Tha-dub, tha-dub. Wouldn't that be cool?
He'd lugged the huge, rotund Jack O'Lantern home in his wagon only yesterday, too big and too heavy, even emptied out, for him to carry. It was a gift from his favorite ... and only ... neighbor, Mr. Abboud, who always wore a knit cap with odd, colorful shapes all over it, and spoke with an accent that sounded wise and mysterious and playful, all at the same time. Benji liked him a lot, and stopped to buy an orange from his fruit stand after school at least a couple times a week. He'd listen to Mr. Abboud talk about the date trees his family grew back home when he was little, or the donkey he once had, or how in some parts of the world water was a luxury. The fruit stand was right by his gate, and although his house was set back a long ways, up on a hill, you could still hear the tinkling of a couple dozen wind chimes that hung from the porch roof. Sometimes, standing there listening to the melodic chiming and Mr. Abboud's soft voice, Benji would feel himself start to drift away, off to a calm place of sand dunes and gentle winds and indecipherable voices. Then a truck would rumble by, or a customer would drive up and ask about melons or some such, and Benji would snap out of it and look at Mr. Abboud, who would nod and smile as if he knew that place and went there often himself.
Benji suspected Mr. Abboud didn't quite get the point of Halloween, but he was a nice man, so last year he gave out candy to any kids who came by, costumed or not, and this year ... wow. He'd presented Benji with the biggest pumpkin he'd ever seen. Using a knife with a curved blade and a dark wooden handle with magnificent lions carved into it, he swiftly sliced open the top and gave Benji the job of emptying it of seeds and pulp. Afterward, between waiting on customers, he used that same knife to create a ferocious face — a creature Benji could not identify, but which was so life-like, he would not have been surprised if it had roared.
A small, sharp snap brought the little boy back to the present-day world now. A twig snapping? Under muddy, size 12 boots?
Benji could barely breathe, his heart pounding so forcefully he was afraid it was loud, so loud that whoever, whatever, was in the backyard would hear it, and discover his hiding place.
He hugged the pumpkin, his head against it, his tears flowing down its side, dripping into one of the eye holes.
Please don't let him find me, please don't let him find me, please don't let him find me ...
At the very instant that he realized he smelled Evil Stepfather breath, stinking of cigar smoke and pepperoni, he turned and saw beefy fingers swipe at him, less than an inch away from his face. Boone couldn't fit through the opening at the side of the steps, but as he knelt in the dirt, his long arm and thick, strong fingers brought him close, so close, to his quarry.
Benji wanted to back away even farther, well beyond his reach, but he was frozen in place, big brown eyes staring, lips forming a silent, “Nooooooo ...”
“I gotcha now. Oh, I gotcha now. Nowhere to go, boy."
Boone was right. Each side of the steps had boards nailed vertically, a few inches apart. On this side, Blake had removed the nails at the bottom of one, so his little brother could swing it aside and squeeze in when he needed to hide. Benji's mind told him to kick out a board on the other side, so he could escape. Would his little legs have the strength? It didn't matter. He couldn't move. Couldn't speak. Could barely breathe. Fear had hold of him; icy fingers that clutched at him as cruelly as Boone was trying to do.
Warmth emanated from the side of the huge pumpkin, and he leaned harder against it, wishing it could melt the iciness inside of him.
There was raspy breathing now, and Evil Stepfather cussing, as the big man shoved against one of the slats, bringing himself closer, his fingers just a hairsbreadth away as he grasped at the air in front of Benji's tear-streaked face.
Benji frowned in confusion.
Who said that? Not out loud, there hadn't been a voice, not even a whisper. But he'd heard it.
It was in his head. A voice. A comforting voice.
“What? Who are you? What do you mean?” Benji asked.
And then jumped back, as Boone took another swipe.
“Who am I? Are you blind, you little retard?” Boone snarled, as he rammed his shoulder against the slats. The steps shook.
The warmth of the pumpkin had increased, and there were soft patches of amber light glowing across from it, on the underside of the steps. Now they sharpened, jagged gold.
Benji knew the light had to be shining from within the pumpkin. Yet there was no candle in there, no glow stick, no flashlight.
Benji felt a painful tug. Boone had snatched a few wayward tufts of his hair and yanked. Benji pulled free and scrambled around behind the pumpkin, pushed it closer to the opening, turning it so the fearsome face would look the Evil Stepfather in the eye and scare him away. As he did, the beams of golden light from within played across the underside of the steps, across the slats, and the hidey-hole that had seemed so protective now just seemed tiny, suffocating.
Boone had seen the pumpkin, but had also seen more than that. He hesitated, his hand no longer reaching for the little boy. In fact, he began to pull his arm back.
But not fast enough.
Teeth that had been jagged orange pumpkin rind had transformed and were now as enamel and smooth as Boone's, although much longer, cruelly pointed and curved. With one swift, smooth motion, they latched onto the big man's hand, up to the wrist.
It wasn't so much a scream that followed; more of a gagging sound, a pained grunt that expressed utter confusion.
Then the pumpkin leaped upward and Boone's arm was inside, past his elbow, halfway up to his shoulder. There was the crunch of bone, and a sound not unlike the slurp of a dog gobbling up a bowl of Alpo.
At the same time, a shrill screech emanated from Boone, so loud and sharp in this small, enclosed area that Benji slammed both hands over his ears. He squeezed his eyes shut as blood spattered onto Boone and the wooden slats that now trapped him, instantly coating them with crimson, running down into the dirt.
Boone tried to pull himself free, howled in pain, but pulled again and again, panicked. He couldn't get loose -- the pumpkin was attached to his arm, chewing its way upward, and it was much too wide to fit through the opening.
More crunching sounds, more blood splattering. The underside of the steps was now dripping with it.
Benji spun around on his backside, his feet kicking frantically at the slats on his side of the steps, kicking more forcefully than he would have believed possible. Behind him, he heard thudding, then wood splintering, and the screams became high-pitched, the sounds accompanying them, wet and horrific.
Another kick, and two of the slats broke free and fell outward. Benji opened his eyes and scrambled over them, stumbling as he tried to get to his feet and run; run somewhere, anywhere.
Spread across the backyard on the other side of the steps was something he knew he shouldn't see, sounds he knew he shouldn't hear. The smacking of strange, gore-covered lips, the tearing of flesh, splashing of blood. And beneath that, a sound that may have been a moan. Or a plea. Or part of a prayer. Then, low gurgling. And silence.
Benji gained his feet and raced for the house, toward the things he wanted most at this moment. A door. A lock. To crawl under his bed and stay there until the world seemed real again.
The two brothers walked toward the dark sedan parked by the cemetery gate, the older one in full dress uniform and the younger in his Sunday best.
“Bigfoot?” Blake asked.
“Yep.” Benji answered, having decided that some secrets were meant to remain secrets.
“Bigfoot? You're sure?”
"'Cause, you know, the sheriff said mountain lion.”
Little boy shoulders shrugged.
It had been a short service. There wasn't much point in going on and on when only five people showed up for a funeral, the pastor had decided, knowing, as he did, that virtually no one was heartbroken over the loss. The two brothers, their neighbor, and two of Boone Freeman's drinking buddies stood there with no pretenses — attending the burial service of this wretched, abusive man was the proper thing to do, so they were here. Now it was over and they would go on their way. By tomorrow, Blake would be back at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and Benji would be staying with their late mother's sister, Naomi Harris, in Tuscon.
As the car pulled out past a grey Buick LaCrosse, the little boy looked over at the driver and smiled.
Mr. Abboud nodded and smiled back.
Benji leaned back against the seat, contented.
Both cars drove away.
Copyright ©2012 Nik Barnabee. All Rights Reserved.