At the Bottom of the Burlap

By Christopher O’Halloran

From CHM #33 March 2023

You watched Dad in the floodlit backyard, standing beside the swing set you didn’t really use anymore. He would look over at the neighbour’s; look up at the sky. The burlap sack at his feet stood open, ready to be filled. Hungry.

“Go tell Dad dinner’s ready.” Mom hovered above the pot of beef chunks. Boiling them. Feeding you all the meat one night, the water the next. Cheap meat—the kind sold just before closing—needed to be boiled, according to Mom. The germs in them, the little bugs, needed murdering.

You hated the meat but stopped whining about it after pushing Mom a step too far. Apparently, they had enough to worry about. They didn’t need your bullshit on top of it.

The meat took forever to chew. At least the next day’s water went down smooth, filled with hunks of potato and carrot soft as mud.

“Go,” snapped Mom. “I won’t tell you again.”

The kitchen door banged against the outside wall as you pushed through to the backyard. Mom would have something to say about that, but if you stayed out long enough, she might forget about your “attitude”.

The grass was soft beneath your bare feet but grew in sparse patches. You had to jump from one to another to avoid stepping on the baked dirt ground.

“Dad,” you said. You kept your eyes on each consecutive patch. Always looking at the next step. Looking too far ahead was dangerous. And depressing.

“Dad,” you repeated when he didn’t answer. You looked up to see if you had his attention, but his eyes were fixed over the three-foot picket fence and firmly on the back of the neighbour’s house. A sharp-edged toy bulldozer sat on the trampoline there. Ready to roar to life and make rubble of anything in its path. Jake’s favourite.

Your next jump landed you on the hard dirt. Pebbles dug into the soles of your dirty feet, but you didn’t cry.

Something glimmered in Dad’s hand. Something metal. A tool about six inches long.

“Mom says dinner’s ready.” Your voice was smaller than you meant it to be, but you didn’t want to risk making Dad upset. He’d been in a funk since losing his job, so you kept your words chocolate-smooth. The way teachers spoke when you got hurt. “What are you looking at?”

He glanced down at you, then over the fence again. He stretched his foot out and knocked down a bottle so that the grass covered it.

“Nothing,” he said. “Not a damn thing.”

You peered over the short fence to the neighbour’s house just as Jake’s dad opened the door.

His eyes scanned the backyard, locked onto Jake’s toy, then met Dad’s. Something flickered between them. A weird energy. Jake’s dad retreated, pushing Jake back inside the house.

Jake’s whines became squeals as the lock turned hard. He wouldn’t get his truck that night.

You wanted to ask Dad if he was mad at Jake’s family but thought better of it. It was bad enough that Mom was annoyed with you. Best to just keep your mouth shut.

“I’ll be in soon,” said Dad. “You start without me.”

You reached out and squeezed his hand. He didn’t squeeze back.

“Okay,” you whispered. You returned, ashamed at leaving your father alone, but silently preferring Mom’s sniping to his strange stillness.

“I’ll be in soon,” he said, under his breath.

You looked over your shoulder one last time to see him reach up with the metal instrument. In the light, you recognized it.

The ice cream scoop. The one you had begged Mom to get, in the good times. So you wouldn’t keep bending the spoons trying to dig slivers of vanilla out of the freezer-bitten pail.

The scoop had one of those thumb pieces. A little flipper that kicked out the ball of ice cream into your bowl.

Dad scooped at the air then brought it down and used the flipper to kick a ball of sky into the open bag at his feet.

* * *

Dad spent most nights in the backyard. You didn’t visit him often. You didn’t play with Jake anymore.

Eventually, you started to miss Mom’s boiled beef. You started to grow tired of saltines, of stale cereal, of microwaved potatoes with margarine.

A week after Mom never came back from bingo, your aching stomach made you brave the backyard again. Night fell, and dinner was still only an idea. You waited until the hunger pangs were too loud to ignore.

The grass in the yard was all dead now. Dad stopped hiding his bottles. Without Mom there to yell at him, he had no reason.

His bag was swollen with whatever he had been scooping out of the night sky. Bugs? Was the burlap filled with bugs? You were afraid to ask.

You were afraid to even say his name.

“Dad?”

He pressed the trigger on the ice cream scoop and dumped another load into the bag.

“Dad?”

“What?”

You didn’t want to ask. He wouldn’t get mad, but something about his task seemed important. To him, at least. You didn’t want to interrupt him collecting his bugs. Maybe he would sell them. Maybe this was his new job.

Turned out you didn’t have to say anything. Dad must have seen something in your face. A certain gauntness. Maybe he saw your shrivelled belly or heard the growling that crawled up and out of your throat.

“Probably hungry, eh?” His eyes softened. There was a bit of your old dad in them. The dad who would order pizza every Sunday. Who would take you swimming even when it wasn’t Toonie Tuesday. Who kept the pantry stocked and the cable bill paid.

You nodded and tried not to cry.

“I’ll scrounge up some grub.” He dropped the scoop and picked up the burlap sack, cinching shut the drawstring at the top. Then he walked away, dirty feet grinding pebbles and dead grass down to their molecules.

After he left, you picked up the ice cream scoop. As far as you knew, he didn’t ever wash it. You expected to find it caked with bug guts, but it was spotless. It reflected the stars in its concave cup. Amplified them somehow, cutting through the light pollution and making them brighter as a reflection.

You were about to touch one when Jake spoke.

“You’re not allowed to jump on my tramp anymore,” he said. His arms were crossed, and his mouth was screwed up in a scowl. “My dad says so.”

“You’re not allowed to swing on my swings,” came your retort. “I says so.”

“I don’t even want to. They’re rusty.”

“Shut up. They are not.”

He sniffed and wiped his nose with his sleeve. Jake’s nose was always runny.

“Your dad doesn’t ride to work with mine anymore,” Jake said. “Do you think they had a fight?”

“My dad doesn’t work with yours anymore, dummy.” You wanted to take the words back right away. Whatever troubles your family went through were not for Jake’s ears, but you were surprised that Jake didn’t know.

“My dad won’t let me play back here anymore,” said Jake, ignoring the insult. “Not when your dad is out. He watches your dad. He’s in your yard every night.”

“No he isn’t. Shut up.” He was, but you weren’t going to let Jake be right. The thought that you two had been friends once upon a time made you sick. Made your stomach growl even louder.

“He is,” Jake said. “He’s out there drinking.

You made to throw the ice cream scoop at Jake. He yelped and ran away. His door slammed shut. Nobody would yell at him about the noise.

Nobody yelled at you anymore. Nobody talked to you anymore. The plans you had made for the summer—the wild dreams of moving from one grade into the next—were as dead as the backyard. You couldn’t ask Dad to take you to the movies. To go camping.

He had all the time in the world, but none for you.

You thought about bringing the ice cream scoop inside but decided not to. Dad would need it, anyway. For whatever he was doing back there.

You stooped to gently place it in the spot where the bag had been and noticed the ground there was burned. Not black and charred like the inside of your barbecue, but noticeably browner than the surrounding dirt.

Crispier.

* * *

Dad went to the bathroom a few days later and never came out. He ran the bath so hot that condensation sneaked around the thin cracks where the door met the frame. You knocked—so gently, trying not to set him off—but received no answer. You shuffled away, patient as ever.

In the kitchen, mail was piled up on the chipped, round table the three of you painted together. One night for the table, one night for the chairs. A summer project that left you with two paint-flecked shirts and a pair of sweats with a white handprint on the butt.

Many of the envelopes said “PAST DUE.” A few said “FINAL NOTICE.”

Dad was losing the house. You were going to have to move out east to live with Grandpa in his stuffy apartment. You thought you’d be going back to school in a week, back to your friends. Back to the things you could control.

You sat on the painted chair and picked at the flakes, making your own pile next to the letters.

Your stomach woke you up from a nap you didn’t remember choosing to take. You jiggled the knob to the bathroom. It had been a long time. Was Dad still in the bath? It would have been cold by then. Maybe he ran the hot water again while you were in the kitchen looking for something to eat.

He’d be out soon. All you needed to do was kill time. Maybe hop on the swing set again, just like the old days. There was nobody to push you, but big kids didn’t need pushes.

The sun was just over the horizon when you stepped into the backyard. It set the sky on fire, but only to a certain point. Above that, it was dark. Smokey black, stars barely distinguishable behind shifting clouds.

Dad’s burlap sack was propped against the neighbour’s fence. The drawstring wasn’t fully cinched.

The bugs were going to get out; you had to act.

You hurried to the bag, swing set once more pushed to the underground of your mind where childish memories lived. A small animal behind your fence sprinted off. The sun continued burning up the future.

When you reached the bag, you stopped. You never had the chance to look inside, but now that you did, you didn’t know what to make of it. There were no bugs within. Instead, there was a dark substance. A black as deep as the void of space. Flecks of white-hot plasma swirling in nebulous drifts of cosmic smoke. The finger of creation, poking stars and birthing worlds.

“Hey.”

Dad?

You looked up, but the man’s voice was Jake’s dad’s. You were left holding the bag, and he had his eyes on it.

“Hello.” You closed the mouth of the bag.

“Is everything okay?” He leaned against the fence and looked toward your house. Trying to get a glimpse inside, past the drawn curtains. “I saw a notice on your front door.”

“We’re fine,” you said, face hardened.

“Okay.” Jake’s dad sighed, looking around. “If you need anything—”

“Did you tell on my dad?” You couldn’t help the question. According to Dad, this was the man responsible for all the bad in your life. The hunger, the loneliness, the silence. Mom leaving. All because of this man.

“Is that what he says?” Jake’s dad ran his fingers through thinning hair. He had a shadow of a beard, hair running down his neck to his open collar. “It’s not like that.”

All you did was look at him, gritting your teeth and holding the bag.

“It’s complicated. There was…an accident at work. Your dad was driving a forklift and—I couldn’t lie for him. It’s not like I told on him, I just couldn’t lie!” Jake’s dad’s mouth hung open, showing off silver fillings in his molars. “You know how he is. What he does. If I lied, I’d have gotten in trouble.”

You wanted him gone. More than anything, you wanted him to disappear. Fall into the earth and just stop talking. He was an adult, so you couldn’t tell him to shut up, but you wanted to so bad.

“What’s in the bag?” he asked. “Is it drugs? Booze?”

Wouldn’t he like to know.

“If your dad is doing that stuff now, if he’s getting worse…” Jake’s dad shook his head, eyes darting to your house. “Why don’t you give me that bag.”

You wanted to hurt him. Make him stop his lies.

“Give me—”

You opened the mouth of the bag and hurled its contents at him.

Inky blackness spilled out and through the air, an amorphous puddle like black paint. Jake’s dad held his hands up to protect his face, but the darkness consumed his upper half entirely. It slid over his arms, his head, down his hairy neck and down his chubby body. It burned him up like the sun, wholly devouring him up to the hips. It left behind nothing. No smoke, no ash.

His feet stumbled on the ground, shaking legs running up to half a pelvis. The legs trembled once and tipped. They hit the grass—there was still grass on Jake’s side of the fence—and gave a couple more twitches. His hip bones gleamed in the light of his backyard. Pale white in raspberry jam. A cartoon cut of meat that would have looked straight out of Tom and Jerry.

The smell of popcorn hung in the air, making you hungry. Was Dad making popcorn? Had he hidden some away as a treat for the two of you?

“Dad?”

Jake came sprinting out of his house. He slid to his knees and wrapped his arms around his dad’s legs. He could barely move them. They must have been heavier than they looked.

“No, no, no…” He squeezed his eyes shut. His face was a mess of wrinkles, his sobs making him ugly. “Please, no.” His keening needled your ears like a smoke alarm.

You looked into the bag. Most of the sky had poured out onto Jake’s dad, but there was still a smidge of tar at the bottom of the burlap. A single star bounced around like a happy child. Ready to begin its new life.

You picked up the ice cream scoop. The metal was cold and solid in your hand. A universal tool. It was time to make up for a lost Summer.

End.

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CHRISTOPHER O‘HALLORAN is a milk-slinging, Canadian actor-turned-author with work published or forthcoming from Kaleidotrope, No Sleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, The Dread Machine, and others. His novelettes are in anthologies Howls from Hell and Bloodlines: Four Tales of Familial Fear. He is Reviews Editor-in-Chief, Social Media Co-Manager, and Discord Mod for the most active horror book club on the web, HOWL Society. Follow him on Twitter @BurgleInfernal or visit COauthor.ca for stories, reviews, and updates on upcoming novels.

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