Fifteen-year-old Rowan creeps into his house and eases the kitchen door closed, hoping not to alert Gary, his abusive step-father, of his arrival. He sets his backpack on the table, then tiptoes to the fridge for a serving of chilled apple juice to combat the effects of the extreme heat. The refrigerator’s cold air soothes his perspiring pores as he devours the beverage.
Rowan fails to notice Gary swagger into the kitchen. He closes the fridge, and his heart skips a beat. He locks eyes with the volatile man. Though Rowan stands several inches taller than his step-dad, his meek disposition pales in comparison to Gary’s sizable temper.
“Do you know how much that juice costs, you punk?” Spit flies into Rowan’s eye, and Gary continues to rant. “Do ya plan to drink the whole damn thing yerself? Yer one selfish kid!”
“I–I’m sorry,” Rowan begins. “I’m so thirsty. The air conditioner at school isn’t working well, so I’ve been sweating all day.”
“Water, punk!” Gary scolds. “Drink that next time, you greedy bastard!” Gary walks over to the kitchen table, clenches his fist and strikes Rowan’s backpack. The black bag flies across the room and crashes onto the floor. Gary tromps over to the pack, then gives it a kick. “Now git over there and pick up yer crap, you punk! And don’t yer dare place that shit on my table again!”
Rowan hurries to retrieve his backpack, and Gary smacks him in the arm. Apple juice spills on Rowan’s pants, shoes, and all over the floor.
“Now clean that mess up, you useless punk!” Spit flies out of Gary’s mouth. “And when yer done with that, git yer ass outside and dig up that dirt! Your mamma wants a veggie garden, and ya better do it right! Ya hear me? A perfect garden!”
Rowan lowers his head. “Yes, sir.”
After cleaning the floor to perfection, Rowan grabs his backpack and carries it to his bedroom. He changes into a t-shirt, shorts, and slips on a pair of old sneakers. Back in the kitchen, he fills a plastic water bottle and grabs a pair of gloves off the counter, then heads out to the backyard.
The birds, unaffected by the extreme heat, sing to each other from treetops. In the far right corner of the yard, Rowan spots a shovel. He slips on his gloves and heads toward the designated digging location. He notices an orange-colored rectangle spray-painted onto the lawn. Apparently, I’m not smart enough to dig a garden without the use of a visual aid. What an asshole.
The sun disappears behind puffs of whiteness, but the humidity refuses to forgive. Beads of sweat surface on Rowan’s face, and he reaches up with a gloved hand to wipe his forehead. He wishes the work could take place after peak heat hours, but Gary doesn’t care about his preferences. His step-father enjoys mistreating him, especially whenever his mom isn’t around. He prays for his mother’s early arrival from work; she’d put a stop to this.
Rowan drives the shovel into the ground and begins loosening the soil. Relieved the grass and dirt come up with ease, he continues to dig into the moist earth. He spots several worms and knows the ground is good for the peppers, tomatoes, radishes, and salad greens that his mom intends to grow.
The unrelenting humidity makes every pore emit beads of sweat. Rowan persists through the heat and reaches the halfway point of creating the required rectangle. A slight breeze forces the scent of warm soil into his face and churns his stomach. Dizziness sets in, and he begins to sway, nearly collapsing to the ground. He drops the shovel and walks over to his water bottle resting in the shaded grass. Rowan plops down to take a break and gulps down half of the water.
“No one told you to take a break, you stupid, lazy punk!” Gary’s angry voice fills the air. “When yer done, I’m comin’ out to check, and ya better be damn sure it’s perfect!”
Rowan looks toward the concrete steps and sees his step-father’s enraged expression at the opened cranberry door. He realizes his mother’s soft, purple hydrangea flowers are in complete contrast to his step-father’s contorted, red face. Gary rambles on with animated arms flailing about, and he hollers repeated insults at Rowan.
“Yes, sir.” Rowan stands, then resumes digging, unaware of when the contemptible man’s rants ceased. Over the years, Rowan learned to utilize selective hearing as a survival-mode technique. It’s helped him get through many days.
He continues to plow the shovel into the earth, breaking up the soil in the third corner. Rowan then loosens the middle area before he dares a peek at the door. With his step-father nowhere in sight, he takes a moment to rest but remains on his feet. Almost done. I can do this!
Disappointed that his mother didn’t make it home in time to stop his step-dad from another mean-spirited order, he takes a deep breath and forces himself to refocus. The chorus of chirping birds encourages him to continue on. He lifts the shovel and commits to digging up the last corner of the garden. With great effort, he drives the metal head into the ground.
The shovel meets resistance, and the impact causes his shoulder to ache. Ouch!
Rowan again lifts the shovel, aims a few inches off toward the left, then drives it downward.
He’s met with the same resistance and winces from the pain. Geeze. Must be a rock.
Rowan decides to eliminate soil from the top and all around the sides to expose the object, which will make it easier to pry out. He removes several shovelfuls of dirt, then slides the tip under one section of the rock. Hoping for a small stone, he steps on the shoulder of the shovel and uses his body’s weight to drive it downward.
The object refuses to budge, so Rowan halts. His eyes narrow, and he squints down into the hole. What the heck?
He wiggles the shovel back and forth.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
Frowning, Rowan mumbles. “That’s not a rock–it’s metal.”
He removes his gloves, tosses the shovel to the ground, and bends down. Hidden in the dirt is a small metal door, approximately the size of a doormat. Rowan reaches for the handle, but it refuses to budge, so he grabs the shovel and clears the remaining soil off the surface.
He sneaks another peek, and realizes the door lacks hinges; it sits on a track. He places a foot on the lever and gives it a shove. His jaw drops and his breathing quickens when it slides with ease. Rowan stops momentarily to glance at his house, checking for Gary’s watchful eye.
With the coast clear, he slides the door fully open. The smell of decay rises from the opening and forces his face into a wrinkle. Phew–Nasty!
Rowan lowers his head to have a glimpse, and he sees an empty cavity that runs underneath their property. Empty, that is, except for the bones strewn all over the bottom. Holy shit!
Eager for a better look, Rowan realizes the five-foot drop is easy for his six-foot height. He slips both legs inside and readies himself for the plunge. He slides his bottom closer to the hole, then drops into the cavity.
Landing on his feet, he refrains from straightening in the shallow area. He scans the dimmed chamber, and the pungent aroma hits him in the face. Jesus! Rowan gags and filters his nostrils with a sleeve.
In the absence of a flashlight, Rowan hesitates to walk around within the dimmed tunnel. Darkness greets him from extending tunnelways, and he opts to remain static while scanning with his eyes.
Rowan whips his head toward the noise, and he spots a silhouette more than half the height of the tunnel.
“Hello?” Rowan calls out.
The silhouette moves toward him, and a gruesome creature comes into view. The beast resembles an oversized, hairless mole, and its lack of eyes disturbs Rowan. Saliva hangs from its opened mouth, and it licks the rim of its chops. It takes another step toward him, and the vile animal sniffs the air.
Rowan’s heart races, and he shifts his gaze toward the opening. He leaps upward through the doorway and digs his hands into the soil to pull himself out. The creature grabs ahold of his right leg, then sinks its sharp claws into his flesh. To Rowan’s horror, he feels the animal tug on his leg to pull him downward.
“No! No! No!” He yells and yanks with force to free his legs from the chamber.
His resistance angers the creature, and it digs its nails deep inside his flesh, tearing open a calf muscle. Rowan throws his head back and screams. He steadies his body on the surface, takes a deep breath, then pulls with great effort to free his leg.
The beast bellows and refuses to release his leg.
Rowan clenches his jaw, inhales a deep breath, then uses his free leg to kick the beast in the head. The force knocks the animal backward and gives Rowan the opportunity to yank himself free. He crawls away from the hole, stunned and gasping for air.
Rowan peeks over his shoulder and sees the creature trying to make its way out. Frantic, he jumps over the opening, then uses his uninjured leg to kick the metal door shut, and it chops off one of the beast’s claws. The muffled howls and bloodied talon remaining on the surface cause a chill to run up Rowan’s spine.
“What the hell are you laying down for, you lazy boy?” shouts Gary from the doorway. “Is that blood? You dumbass! If you think yer gonna get sympathy from me, yer sorely mistaken!”
Rowan sits up and looks at his step-father. He remains silent and tries to catch his breath before speaking to the angered man.
“Is that damn garden done yet, you punk?” Gary stomps across the lawn to approach Rowan. He glares down into his face, then inspects his work. “Yer lines aren’t straight, punk! You think this is perfect?”
Rowan sighs before speaking. “Ahhh… well, yes. Actually, sir. It is perfect.”
“How do yer figure that?”
“W–well, there’s a small door located within the garden, and I slid it open to have a look. There’s a–a bunch of money inside–lots of one hundred dollar bills.” Rowan fought against the smirk threatening ownership of his face.
Gary glares at him.
“I–I was just about to go down to retrieve it all, but I hurt myself. Sir, I’ll go get it now.”
“You just keep yer punk ass outta there. Help me down, then you get yer ass out of my way. I’ll collect it myself ‘cuz I don’t trust yer punk ass.”
“Yes, sir. Whatever you say.” Rowan stands, then slides the door open. He helps Gary to drop inside the chamber.
“Now, make yerself useful and go take out the trash! And–Aaaaahhh!” Gary’s eyes shoot open, and he reaches for the surface.
Rowan sees the creature latched onto Gary’s body, then it sinks its teeth into his neck.
“Yes, sir. The trash is officially taken out.” Rowan’s eyes fill with glee as he kicks the door closed. He covers it with shovelfuls of dirt, then limps toward the safety of his house and allows the smirk to possess his face. That really is the perfect garden.