Originally Published in Storyteller Issue 1
David J. Gibbs
Horace was a simple man. He’d worked hard his whole life. He’d been a saver too. He was the epitome of old school. Horace believed that if you worked hard enough, things would eventually turn in your favor. Idealistic perhaps, but that’s what he felt in his heart. The stooped man, nearing his sixth decade on this earth, had also realized over his lifetime that sometimes life was just a bitter bitch that would just as soon spit in your face as lift her skirt.
He had his Sunday best on, suit jacket pressed, slacks pegged, shoes shined. It looked nice, but dated, compared to some in town. Horace absently glanced down, his shined shoes picking up the dust being kicked around by the breeze while he sat on an overturned barrel. If Darla Mae were here, she’d scold him for sitting down on the barrel, afraid he’d snag his pants.
The barn doors were open wide, the tractor wedged deep between bales of hay, the tools appearing to float above the floor, the pegs hard to see in the dim light. There was a lot of work to be done, but not today, not on this day. His face crumbled into a sea of motion filled wrinkles, his eyes blue held aloft, moving with the tide of his thoughts. Barnaby, a burly mutt of a dog, was sprawled out in the dirt a few feet away, finally giving up on nudging his hand for attention. The animal’s chest expanded and then he exhaled in a snort, sending a tendril of dust around his snout.
“I know the feeling, boy,” Horace muttered, more to himself than to the dog. “Yes, I do.”
Barnaby raised his head for just a few seconds before deciding to plop it back down in the dirt. Standing up, Horace brushed off his pants, even though there were no shavings from whittling this time, he looked down at the stick he’d chosen and realized he hadn’t even made his first cut. He put it back on the barrel. It’d come to use soon enough. He’d always whittled when he had a lot on his mind.
Barnaby didn’t bother getting up, apparently not wanting to be fooled into thinking that Horace was going to actually go inside the house. Honestly, Horace wasn’t sure he could go back in there. Shivering despite the sun’s warmth on his back, he scratched the back of his neck.
He didn’t like to think much at all anymore. With more than three hundred acres of corn to harvest, Horace knew he should be thinking about things, but he just couldn’t bring himself to concentrate on much of anything.
Opening the back door, wiping his feet on the mat like he had countless times before, he stood still and listened. The house was too quiet as he knew it would be and it didn’t smell right either. It was lacking something. He immediately knew what it was. Darle Mae always had fresh cut flowers in the crystal vase he’d brought back from his trip to Maine before they’d married. She’d always hummed while she worked in the kitchen too.
It was strange the things you missed most.
Horace hadn’t had a drop of liquor in almost thirty years, but he figured nobody’d be the wiser. Polishing off the half of bottle of scotch they kept for guests, he woke up on the couch with Barnaby licking his open palm, thick darkness coating the rooms of the house.
For a moment, he wondered why Darle Mae let him sleep so long, but then the guilty pang followed that thought, knifing its way into his chest, making it hard to breathe.
“Come on boy. Stop it now,” he chided, not sure if it was to settle Barnaby or himself.
Trying to stretch, he felt the pain well up in his head and he moaned slightly prompting Barnaby to whine and lick his hand again. For just a quick second, he felt that dusty rage burst something inside, like a pipe dislodged, filling his belly with its bubbling froth. It lasted only a moment, but he still felt sick to his stomach, something slowly lolling around in his belly.
“Knock it off,” he spat, the dog’s whine beginning to eat away at the insides of his head.
The animal only looked at him, head cocked to one side.
That’s when he smelled it. He’d worked the land the better part of forty years and knew what it was. It was something damp, something wet. That’s when he realized it was raining outside, the pattering of drops on the tin roof finally loud enough for him to hear.
He reached over and turned on the lamp, realizing it was Barnaby that smelled. The dog’s legs and torso were muddy, his fur a matted wet mess. Horace frowned, realizing the dog must’ve let himself out through the doggie door while he was sleeping it off.
“Barnaby, boy you’re a mess. You chasing those rabbits again? Well, no mind, no mind. We gotta do something about that stink though don’t you think?”
The dog panted and pawed at him, mud streaking his Sunday best.
“Dammit!” Horace yelled, the backhand quick and sharp against Barnaby’s snout, making the dog yelp and back pedal into the kitchen. That turgid rage was still boiling, the pipe pouring into him, slowly filling him. He knew why and he hated it.
“You messed my pants up!” he snapped, his voice cracking, his throat desert dry.
Quickly, he walked to the sink, the old linoleum cracking under his feet, sections threatening to come up along the edges. Grabbing the wet rag hanging on the faucet, he dabbed at the mud on his pants, hissing, “Stupid mutt.”
Twenty minutes later, after carefully hanging his suit back in the closet, he ran a bath and clumsily fought with Barnaby to get him in the tub. The dog didn’t sleep in the barn anymore and he couldn’t have him be a muddy mess and sleep in the house, so Horace lathered the dog up quickly and cleaned him up as best he could.
“That’s better, isn’t it boy?” he asked, roughly rubbing a towel all over him, trying to dry him off. “I’d say worlds better. Yes sir, definitely better.”
Of course, Barnaby always thought it was a game and nipped at the towel several times before Horace gave up and tossed the towel into the hamper. The dog looked between the corner of the towel hanging over the hamper’s lip and Horace.
Standing up, his knees cracking loudly, Horace looked at the clock and realized it was almost midnight. He’d slept nearly ten hours right on through the middle of the day. That never happened to him. Shaking his head, spotting the empty scotch bottle by the couch, he stooped to pick it up and tossed it in the garbage can. Liquor had always been an easy friend to him.
He climbed into bed a short time later, careful not to crowd Darle Mae’s side of the bed. At that thought, his face tumbled again into a steep pile of wrinkles again, his body wracked with sobs for a few moments before settling down. Barnaby joined him a short time later, the hint of shampoo coming with him, the dog curling himself into a ball at his feet.
He had no idea what time it was, and for the first time in years, didn’t much care. There was no chance he was going to walk the fence line this morning or hurry to the stables. As sleep slowly fell away from him, becoming more aware of the room around him, he felt something wet against his feet, a chill working its way through his lower legs. Moving his legs, he realized it was Barnaby. He sat up, the early morning sunlight filling the room with its warmth, noticing the drops on the window. Horace couldn’t tell if it was raining or not, but Barnaby definitely had gone out sometime in the night to do his business. He should’ve remembered to lock the door.
“Barnaby, dammit boy. Down. Get down!” he yelled getting the dog off the bed, but it was too late. The comforter was covered in mud, his muddy paw prints covering the floor from the back door to the bedroom.
Darle Mae would not stand for this at all.
Standing, his fists clenched at his side, he remained still, when her smiling face came to him. He could see Darle Mae in the kitchen scolding him for tracking in mud in the same tone she used when she shooed Barnaby outside for doing the same thing. She frustrated him to no end, but he didn’t want to think about that right now.
The phone rang, a sharp barb snagging in his heart, startling him. Horace picked it up on the third ring, his heart still rattling away unevenly in his chest.
“Pop? It’s Dale. Are you doing okay?”
Horace didn’t say anything.
A long exhale came across the line followed by his son saying, “I’m sorry, Pop of course you’re not doing okay. I’m not very good at this. I was just calling to talk see if you might want to get together this weekend?”
He hadn’t seen Dale, his two grand kids or his son’s wife Addy in almost ten years. Interesting how he wanted to get together now.
“Dale, I’m just tooling around the house, taking care of this and that.”
“You need to get outside, you know? Get some fresh air. Let us come get you and we’ll all have a picnic,” his son said, hearing a few whispers just out of range of the phone. He figured it was Addy coaching him on what to say.
The boy had always bowed to women; his mom, his teachers and now his wife. It was no secret what they wanted. They were just waiting for the day Horace kicked the bucket so they could swoop in and sell the farm for a quick buck.
“I don’t think so son,” Horace said, turning on a burner for some eggs. He’d always liked the snapping sound as the gas burner ignited, the blue flame dancing under the insert.
A few more whispers before Dale said, “We’re going to come out and see you, Pop. Just to stop in for a short visit.”
“I’ll be out in the fields most of the day,” Horace said dismissively, “Have to get the corn in. Good talking to you son.”
After hanging up the phone, he stared out the window toward the fields and watched the wind play with the corn, the hiss of the burning beside him. It was always hypnotic to watch the corn sway like that. He had shared countless glasses of lemonade on the front porch with Darla Mae by his side watching that very same dance.
He heard tires on gravel and turned to see the dust plume of someone making their way up the gravel road toward the house. Using his thumb to push up the brim of the straw hat higher on his head, he looked down and shook his head when he realized who it was.
It was Dale.
The car came to a stop in the shade of the barn, a dusty swarm drawing off the car. His son popped out of the driver’s side door and looked at him over the top of the car.
“Pop. We called you on the road. We were already on the way. Sorry, we thought we’d surprise you.”
Horace stood quietly, fists on his hips looking out at the corn again.
“Dandy,” he said quietly.
His grand kids, Dottie who was seven and Roland who was five hugged his legs fiercely. Drawing his fists from his hips, his fingers rustled their hair a few times.
“How are you Roland, Dottie?”
They both talked at once and it was hard to follow their conversation. He knew it didn’t matter. Horace just nodded in the right place and smiled here and there and that seemed to placate them both.
“Oh, my,” Addy said as she shut the car door, arms folded her body leaning against the car.
“Addy,” Horace said coldly, not looking at her.
“Horace,” she said curtly from behind stylish sunglasses.
Horace wondered how long the ice would stay in the air between them, but didn’t have to wonder for very long.
“Hey, look a dog!” Dottie yelled and bent down as Barnaby ran toward them.
“Oh, my God don’t touch that filthy thing,” Addy said, pulling her children back.
Horace cringed seeing how muddy he was again.
“Barnaby still around, huh?” Dale asked, walking around the front of the car.
“Yeah, he was your momma’s dog though and doesn’t want to mind me none,” Horace said, patting the large dog on the head. “Keeps getting filthy”.
“What’s that in his mouth?” Dale asked.
“Mommy, it’s a flower,” Roland said, his voice excited.
“A muddy flower,” Dottie said, adding, “that’s gross.”
Horace hadn’t noticed and looked down to see that Barnaby did indeed have a long stemmed flower clenched in his jaws.
“Don’t touch it,” Addy said, Horace realizing she was talking about the dog, not the flower.
“What kind it?” Roland asked, trying to squirm out of his mother’s grasp.
“A filthy mutt,” Addy said.
“No, mom I meant the flower,” Roland said.
“I think it’s an orchid,” Dale said, “Isn’t it Pop?”
The slight smile he had on his face quickly melted away as Horace looked more closely at the flower. Dale was right. It was an orchid.
“Uh huh,” he managed, a chill working its way through his chest.
“Kids, that’s your grandma’s favorite flower.”
“Cool,” Roland said.
“Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom,” Dottie said, suddenly breaking the spell of the moment.
“Do you mind Horace?” Addy asked.
“No, no, of course not. Up those steps and to the left down the hallway little lady,” he said, motioning toward the house.
“Okay,” she said, sounding a little unsure, but racing up the steps none the less, the screen door slapping the frame a moment later.
“Can I look in the barn?” Roland asked.
“Sure, that’d be fine. Right Pop?” Dale asked.
“Sure son, go ahead, just be careful of the farm tools on the wall.”
“I couldn’t find it!” yelled Dottie, peeking out from behind the partially opened door.
He turned and head toward the steps, Addy close behind him. His hand was on the doorknob when he saw it, his chest lurching with an uneven heartbeat. Horace was shaken, by the muddy footprints marking the back steps. Opening the door slowly, Dottie now dancing from one foot to the other, he realized there were more in the kitchen. Abby fought past him in a rush.
“Just down there,” Horace motioned, his tone stern.
“What a mess,” Abby muttered under breath.
The footprints continued down the hallway into the bedroom. His mouth was suddenly dry and for some reason he wished he would’ve have finished off the scotch the night before. He saw something else that almost made his legs buckle, the chilled water sensation filling them up. It was another muddy orchid in the hallway.
He moved down the hallway slowly, making his way to the bedroom, careful to not step on the flower. As he rounded the corner, Abby and Dottie both walked past him toward the kitchen, but not before Abby snorted taking a peak into the muddy chaos that was the bedroom.
The comforter was stained dark with muddy slop. The floor was as well. It smelled horrible, the wet, damp mud covering the carpet holding a thick stench in its grasp. His hands gripped the edge of the dresser to steady himself.
It wasn’t the stains on the floor or the ones on Darla Mae’s side of the bed that chilled him so deeply, it was the mud smeared handprint on the wall.
“Not now,” Horace said quietly.
“Is everything all right?”
He could hear his son’s footsteps crackling on the linoleum and then down the hallway. Horace quickly moved to the door and slammed it shut.
Knocking on the door his son said, “Pop? Abby said the room is a mess. What’s going on? Do you want any help? Can you let us in so we can clean it up for you?”
“Leave. Leave now Dale,” he said, the confidence in his voice surprising.
With his back against the door, he slipped down to the floor, his eyes not leaving the handprint. This couldn’t be happening. It just couldn’t be happening.
The scratching was persistent. Sinking lower in the sky, the sun had turned the glass in the windows to golden fire. It woke him up. At first, he wondered if Dale had come back, but he soon realized as he became more awake that it wasn’t Dale.
A chill ran the length of his spine as he listened more closely. At first, he didn’t hear anything, the scratching stopped, the house quietly breathed around him and the sun quietly colored the windows.
That’s when he heard the whining and knew that it was Barnaby, trying to get in to the bedroom. He could hear sniffing sounds too.
Opening the door, he bent down and asked, “Miss me boy?”
Barnaby licked his face, and that’s when he noticed something light colored on the floor. It was mud stained and almost lost completely in the darkness of the hallway.
“What do you have there, boy?”
He bent down to pick it up, the fabric light and feathery against his skin. It was silk and pink. Shivering he let it slip between his shaking fingers. He knew what it was.
Thunder was his companion as he raced through the mud. Barnaby bounded behind him, mud flying, the rain falling in heavy sheets driven by the wind. He didn’t feel any of it, his eyes looking in the dark for familiar landmarks, his flashlight trying to cut through the stormy blackness around him.
The gate was open, as it always was. He didn’t waste time. Instead, he forged ahead and walked among the dead, their places marked by chiseled stone. Horace despised this place and what it meant. He hadn’t been back since the funeral. It just didn’t feel right for him to be there. Something about the place seemed to reach out to him, linger on his clothes after he left.
A simple marble rectangle wedged above the freshly turned earth, claimed Darla Mae’s grave. The freshly turned earth, piled up along the edges of the open grave, was rutted from the rain. He was able to see the exposed coffin, the wood splintered, the sarcophagus gaping, the silken interior soaked with rain.
A tiny bit of fabric clung to the edge of the headstone. It was just like the one he found at the house. He’d recognized it for what it was, but didn’t want to accept the truth.
The coffin empty, Horace looked around the cemetery, terrified by what he might see. He didn’t stay long, looking around, the rain soaking him completely. Leaving the cemetery, the rain still pelting him, Horace made his way back home. Barnaby leapt ahead, barking. He constantly would rush ahead and then come back, as if to make sure Horace was still following.
At the house, Horace paused, the lights blazing, just as they always were when Darla Mae was home. Opening the door, he stepped inside, noticing the muddy footprints scattered across the floor. There were more orchids scattered on the floor too, the same ones she’d been buried with.
“Did you miss me?” she asked in a voice dipped in ice.
She walked into the kitchen from the hallway, her progress slow but steady, her eyes alive with impossible light, just the barest smile teasing her dead lips.
“Aren’t you going to answer?” She asked, the ice crackling along her words.
“Yes,” he said, clearing his throat before shrugging and saying, “I missed you.”
His entire body shook, as he looked at her, taking it all in. The tangle of hair was choked with muddy earth, her skin sunken and pitted, her body impossibly thin with decay. He shuddered as he dripped on the floor.
“How? Why?” he tried to ask.
Barnaby sat beside her, licking her hand as she looked down at him. “That’s a good boy. You always were so good to me weren’t you boy?”
Horace merely blinked, his words lost.
“He came looking for me every night and when he finally found me, he started digging. It took him awhile, but Barnaby definitely missed his momma. Missed me a lot more than you ever did, Horace. You never came once. Not once.”
“Darla Mae,” he began, unable to finish.
“So you do remember my name,” she said, her voice slick with spite. “It’s not whore or bitch or stupid? You actually remembered my given name. I forgave so much Horace, so much.”
“I know you did. I know I wasn’t a good man.”
“Stop that now, you’re a man not a sniveling little boy. All those times you hit me and all those times you stayed out all night, I kept waiting for you to see the light, Horace, but you never did. It was always just Barnaby taking care of me. Keeping me company at night when I hurt so much I couldn’t get out of bed after you showed your appreciation. You know, I honestly don’t know why they call them man’s best friend. He’s definitely not your best friend, is he?”
Barnaby growled, Darle Mae’s fingers roughly moving behind his ears. “Sic ‘em boy.”
A blur of fur covered motion flashed toward him, knocking him down. His fingers filled with pain, fighting Barnaby off, moments before he felt something wet spill from his throat as Barnaby struck.
“Look, Dale, I’m so sorry you have to deal with any of this,” said the police officer standing in the kitchen. “Losing your mother so recently and now your father. I’m just sorry.”
Dale just kept shaking his head, his eyes wide taking in the scene. He was in shock, his mind reeling with what he found at his parent’s house.
“It’s okay Roger. I was worried. He’d thrown us out earlier today, but Abby had been concerned about the way the house looked. Dottie had to use the bathroom and so they came inside. There was mud tracked everywhere, bedclothes ruined. Barnaby was filthy, just roaming around the house covered in it.”
“Did you have any idea your dad was have so much trouble dealing with things?”
“No. He was never a warm and fuzzy kind of guy. I mean, come on Roger, how many times had you peeled him off a bar stool down at Digby’s or respond to a call out here at the house when he was on one of his rampages, beating mom? He was not an open book by any means and not a very nice guy. I mean sure, he was probably hurting, but you know him, he was never an easy man to talk to, unless he wanted to do the talking.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Roger said, nodding to Dale.
The two men were quiet for a few moments, as a group of other men finished gathering evidence throughout the house.
“So you had no idea he’d been going over to the cemetery, digging up her grave?”
“Come on, Roger. Really? Well, of course not. You don’t think I’d have told somebody if I’d known that? I didn’t even think he’d ever go back there after the service.”
Roger nodded, clearing his throat, obviously not sure what to say to that. He asked, “What do you make of all the footprints all over the house? Think it might’ve been kids running through here?”
“Could be,” Dale said, though he honestly didn’t think it was kids. The next farmhouse was over half a mile away and had no kids. Besides, the footprints were familiar. His mother had lost the big toe on her left foot when she was a young girl after getting it caught in barbed wire. Every one of the footprints in the house was missing the same toe. What he couldn’t figure out was how they were made. Was his father really that far gone that he’d walk around with her in his arms, making footprints after he dug her up?
He shivered at that thought, his eyes constantly drawn back to the silent portrait in the family room. The mantle had several framed family pictures on them and each one had a muddy hand print on it, with a distinct smudge, like a thumb print, effectively marking out his father in each one.
Dale stared at his mother’s body sitting upright on the couch, perfectly positioned, almost as if poised, waiting for guests. Her arm was extended, palm facing downward, resting on Barnaby’s head, as if petting him. It was a chilling. Shivering again, he looked at Barnaby and offered a weak smile. He always had been her dog.