From the author: Two brothers dig up more than they bargained for when they spend the summer making mudpies.
The boys were making a batch of grody when they found it.
They made grody every summer. The recipe varied depending on the availability of ingredients, but it always began with dirt and water from the fishpond — preferably lightly scummed with algae — mixed in a beach bucket. Then they added in all sorts of things: ground-up snail shells, worms, cat turds, leaves, pretty much whatever they could find under the porch and in the bushes.
Mickey was under the porch looking for ingredients. He wasn’t supposed to be there. Mom always said not to go under the porch. But she was at work, and Mattie was taking a nap. Besides, it was midsummer, and most of what could be gathered from near the front part of the porch was gone. Today, Mickey had gone farther than ever before. Instead of the usual plastic shovel, he had a real metal trowel Dean had somehow liberated from Mom’s collection of little-used gardening tools. Tools that were never, repeat NEVER supposed to be used for making grody.
Mickey liked going under the porch. It was cooler there; he could see the hollowed out space where their long dead dog slept during summers past. The dog had died when Mickey was a baby, the same time Dad left.
Mickey crawled right to the edge of the crater. He sifted some of the dark black clay through his fingers, then reached in his back pocket for the trowel. The wooden handle was smooth and sturdy, much sturdier that the yellow plastic shovels that always broke against the hard crust of the earth. He began to dig, flicking up clods of cracked dirt. He was soon down to a level where the earth had retained some moisture. Clumps of clay clung to the trowel. Mickey dug faster. Mattie, the black lady who looked after them while Mom was at work, would wake up soon and put an end to the grody making. Mom said it was bad for the flowers in the garden for the boys to go rooting around. Mickey didn’t think the beds looked all that great anyway. She was weird about some things.
He flicked more dirt out of the hole. Something big flipped up into the air and hit him hard, right in the middle of his forehead. It fell into the dirt in front of him. Mickey dropped the trowel. Rubbing his forehead with one hand, he picked the thing up with the other. It was pale, and dirty white and about the size of his thumb.
He wanted to shout for Dean, but then he thought about Mattie. If he yelled, he’d wake her up. But he knew that this, whatever it was, would be perfect for the grody. He scrambled out from under the porch and rushed over to Dean, who was mixing some leaves in the bucket.
“Look what I found.” Mickey showed his discovery to his older brother. Dean accepted the thing and held it in his palm. He studied it for a moment. “It’s a bone,” he said. “Probably a dinosaur bone.”
Dean was in first grade and he knew a lot about dinosaurs. Mickey nodded solemnly. He had a general impression that dinosaur bones were bigger than this, but he didn’t dare disagree with Dean. Maybe it was a baby dinosaur. That made Mickey a little sad, thinking about the poor baby dinosaur dying and getting turned into a fossil. “This will be the best batch of grody ever,” Dean announced as he dropped the bone into the bucket. That made Mickey feel good, because he’d found the bone, and he forgot all about the poor baby dinosaur. Other than going under the porch in the first place, this was one of the few times he’d actually impressed his brother.
The boys stood up. Once the grody was mixed, there wasn’t much else to do with it. Mattie would be up any minute now, anyway. It was time to go play on the swing set. The grody, hidden behind the air conditioner compressor, baked in the sun.
Mom came home at the end of the day. She was in a good mood so she made fish sticks and let the boys watch Batman before bed. Mickey woke up briefly, when he heard his mom stumble going down the hall. She said a bad word, then giggled. Things like that used to scare Mickey, but he’d gotten used to it. Mom was always bumping into things at night. She always talked about how tired she was from working and taking care of them both after Dad left. As he dropped off again, Mickey wondered why she didn’t go to bed earlier if she was so tired.
Later, he woke up again. This was a different noise, one he didn’t recognize. He had to lie in bed for a minute before he realized what it was: an urgent tapping on the window.
“Dean. Dean, are you awake?”
There was no answer. Mickey got up and punched Dean in the ribs.
“Dean, what’s that noise?”
Dean looked at him, eyes half-closed. “Go back to bed.”
“No, I heard something. Listen!”
There it was again. A tapping sound at the window. Dean sat up and scrambled out of bed. He rushed to the window, Mickey trailing behind, not wanting to go to the window, not wanting to be too far from Dean. Both boys held their breath as Dean drew back the curtain. But nothing was there.
The next morning they went into the backyard again.
“Let’s go look under the bedroom window,” said Dean. “Maybe we can figure out what was making that noise last night.”
“It was just a branch,” said Mickey. It was always a branch in the movies.
“What branches? There’s no trees over there. Now come on.” Dean walked toward their window.
“Don’t go,” said Mickey.
“Big baby.” Dean disappeared around the corner of the house. “Mickey, Mickey come quick!”
Mickey was afraid, but he didn’t want to be called a baby again. So he went. Slowly.
“Look.” Dean pointed to a white pebble on the ground. Only it wasn’t a pebble. It was the dinosaur bone. “Our grody brought the bone to life! It was in the bucket yesterday, and now it’s under our window. You have to find more dinosaur bones under the porch,” Dean said. “We’ll need to find some more buckets, too. I want to make a bunch of batches. If we do this right, we can bring the whole dinosaur back to life and be the most famousest paleontologists who ever lived. They’ll probably name a dinosaur after us and everything.”
Mickey didn’t think having a dinosaur named after you would be all that big a deal, and he wondered if the dinosaur might try to eat them or the cat that lived next door. But he knew Dean would never let him back out now.
“I’d go after the other bones,” said Dean solemnly, “but I have to make sure I mix everything just right.” Dean never went under the porch, for any reason, even to tag somebody if they were playing hide-and-seek.
He handed Mickey the trowel and Mickey crawled under the porch and began to dig. The pit was getting pretty deep now; he could crawl into it. But he didn’t find anything. He was about to give up when another little bone appeared. He put it in his pocket, and kept on digging. Another bit surfaced, then a cluster of several more. He wasn’t sure how many there were; he couldn’t count very high.
Dean knocked on the side of the steps.
“Hurry, Mattie’s going to wake up soon.”
Mickey scrambled out from under the porch.
“I found a bunch,” he said, digging the fragments out of his pocket.
“Wow! I bet that’s almost the whole dinosaur — if it was a small one.”
Mickey was very proud. This was the second straight day he’d impressed his brother.
Dean had several batches of grody ready. In addition to the pail, he’d rounded up an old cereal bowl, a milk bottle, a toy muffin tin and a water bowl, all filled with raw grody. One by one, the older boy dropped the bones into each of the containers. There were some left over; Dean poured them into the original bucket.
“There,” said Dean. “Let’s go play Hot Wheels.”
Mickey wondered how Dean could just go inside and play Hot Wheels when they were about to make a real, live dinosaur, but his brother was like that. Patient. Mickey wanted everything to happen now. Dean could wait and wait, even at Christmas time. That’s just the way he was.
Mickey couldn’t sleep. He was waiting for the bones to come and tap on the window. But they never came. Eventually he dozed off.
He woke up feeling very disappointed. He looked over at Dean’s bed. Dean must have gotten the recipe wrong. Mom came in to help them get dressed. She looked tired again, but at least she was up before Mattie came.
“You’ve grown,” Mom said, wedging him into his too-tight underwear. He couldn’t understand why Mom was always so grumpy about him growing. How could he help it? Mom got mad for reasons he didn’t understand.
The front door opened and Mattie called out, “Hello? Mrs. Wheeler?”
“I wish she’d ring the damn doorbell. I never should have given her a key.” Mom stomped out of the room to greet Mattie. Mickey pulled on his shoes, but left them untied.
It was easier today knowing there was no dinosaur. Mattie got them their cereal, and Mom had coffee and a cigarette before heading out the door for work. With no worries they could play all morning, then maybe make a batch of regular grody while Mattie took her nap. Mickey wouldn’t even go near the porch today. There probably weren’t any bones left anyway.
They played cops and robbers with their Hot Wheels, until Mattie got tried of their sound effects drowning out her stories on the TV and sent them outside.
“Let’s go swing,” said Dean. Maybe he was disappointed about the grody not working, too. They went down the steps. Suddenly, Dean threw his arm across Mickey’s chest, stopping him on the next-to-last stair. “What’s that noise?”
Mickey listened. There was a clinking sound, like metal against rock, coming from underneath the porch.
“What is it?” asked Dean. “Go look!”
“No. “I don’t want to.”
“Well, I’m not going under there.” Dean looked at Mickey for a moment with the look he had when he couldn’t decide whether to punch him or ask him nice.
“I’ll let you drive the police cars next time we play Hot Wheels.”
That was a pretty good offer just to stick your head under the porch. Mickey nodded slowly. “Okay. Only I get to be the good guys two times.”
Mickey stepped off the last step, brushed aside a stray piece of ivy and poked his head under the porch.
He sucked in his breath, and opened his eyes wide.
The hole was bigger and deeper — much deeper. There were more bits of white bone showing, and the trowel lay in the dirt. He pulled his head out.
“The hole where I found the bones. And there’s more there. At least I think there are.
“Wow” was all Dean could say.
“Should we tell Mom?”
“And admit we were making grody, and crawling around under the porch?” Dean looked at Mickey as if he thought his little brother was an idiot. “No way. Besides, we only brought one bone back to life. What could one bone do?”
Mickey wasn’t sure, but he didn’t want to fight with Dean.
“Let’s go play.” Dean said. “We’re just hearing things, like in the movies.”
Mom came home and made them TV dinners and went to her room while they watched Batman and ate supper. On TV Moms usually ate dinner with their kids, but Dean had explained to Mickey that TV wasn’t real. After TV, they had to go to bed, even though it was still early. She always made them go to bed early.
The doorbell rang after a while. Mickey wondered who would be coming to visit so late at night. He could hear a low voice like a man’s. Had Daddy come back? He wanted to get out of bed and see, but he was afraid. Mommy had said Daddy was a bad man. He wondered what Daddy had done to be bad. Maybe he was bad like strangers were, who gave kids poisoned candy and took them away from their mommies. Bad could be so many things. It was probably better to stay in bed. Mommy would come and get them if Daddy came home. Maybe he was hearing things, like today when he thought he heard something under the porch. Or the paper man was collecting his money. It was quiet now. Mickey fell asleep.
He woke up again. Was somebody yelling?
He rubbed his eyes and sat up in bed. Dean was still asleep. Mickey slipped out of bed, padded across the floor and poked Dean in the ribs.
“Hey,” Dean said. He threw a blind punch at Mickey, but it missed.
“Wake up!” said Mickey.
“Why? Is the dinosaur back to life?”
“No, but I’m scared.”
“Go back to sleep. You’re a little kid and you should be in bed.”
Dean was very good at rules, if they applied to Mickey.
“I want Mommy.”
“So go see her.” Dean rolled over, pretending to be asleep.
“I will,” said Mickey, sticking out his tongue at Dean’s back.
Now he was afraid. Going to Mom’s room meant walking all the way down the hall, across the den and through the kitchen. Alone. In the dark. But he’d already told Dean he was going, so he had to go or be a baby. He wished Dean would change his mind. But Dean was already snoring.
Mickey took a deep breath, and went to the bedroom door. He put his ear against the wood. It was quiet, so he carefully pulled it open. The hall was long, and dark. He tippy-toed across the hardwood floor, pausing every few steps to listen.
It was still quiet.
He moved into the den. It wasn’t so bad. There was a light on the back porch that cast a glow into the room through the window. The couch looked like a couch. The TV looked kind of like a one-eyed monster, but he already knew it would look like that. If he just repeated “it’s only the TV, it’s only the TV” over and over, he could get by. He ran across the carpet as fast as he could, just in case he was wrong. Monsters could disguise themselves, like that Martian guy who could look like a regular husband in a monster movie he’d seen when Mom had fallen asleep and the boys had sneaked out of their room to watch horror movies. Boy, that movie had scared him so bad he had to sleep in Dean’s bed for the whole night.
Mickey was in the kitchen now, and safe. There was only a little bit of rust-colored linoleum to cross. It was cold. He was glad to step into the soft carpet of the hall in front of Mother’s room.
The door was slightly ajar. Mickey went up to it, and knocked gently.
There was no answer.
He knocked again, a little harder, and the door opened a little wider.
“Mom?” No answer. Cautiously, Mickey peered around the door.
He didn’t know which scared him more — the stranger lying on top of his mommy, or all the redness sprayed on the lilac sheets.
“Get off her,” he yelled. Part of him wanted to push the man off Mommy and part of him wanted to run and hide. He settled for yelling again. He didn’t even hear the footsteps behind him as Dean ran into the room.
Dean tried to scream, but nothing came out. Mickey was crying now. Why wasn’t Mom coming when he yelled? Why wouldn’t she get up?
Then he felt Dean’s hand on his shoulder.
“We need to go to Mr. Krieger’s. He’s a policeman.”
Dean was right. Mom always said that if something happened, and she wasn’t home, they should go to the Krieger’s because he was a policeman and Mrs. Krieger was a nurse.
Mickey felt Dean grab his wrist and drag him toward the front door. Mickey let himself be pulled. He had to. He didn’t want to be in trouble.
They were at the front door now, and Dean fumbled with the lock. He yanked with all his might, nearly falling over backwards. They ran down the front steps and across the cool, wet grass. Only as they rushed up the cement steps of the Krieger’s house did Dean at last begin to yell. “Help! Help! My mom is sick!”
Somehow, Mickey and Dean found themselves wrapped in blankets on the Kriegers’ blue sofa. Mrs. Krieger sat with them, her heavy arms around their skinny shoulders. She said nothing, and every now and then she had to choke back her own tears.
There were sirens outside, lots of them. Ordinarily, Mickey would have wanted to go and look, but not tonight. He sat on the couch and tried not to cry. A few minutes later, Mr. Krieger came back. He knelt down in front of the boys.
“Dean, Mickey, I know this is tough, but I have to ask you some questions. Okay?”
“Jeff, let them be. They’re both in shock.”
“Mary Beth, the boys know me. Better now than down at the station with some stranger.” He looked at the boys. “Now, did either of you hear or see anything unusual tonight?”
Dean shook his head. Mickey thought Dean was lucky. He really had been asleep. Mickey wanted to lie, to say he’d been asleep too, but he knew from TV that policemen could tell when you lied and then you got in big trouble.
“I heard a man talking. I thought it was the paper man.”
“After bedtime.” He started to cry.
“Jeff, that’s enough for now.”
“All right. The voice was probably the other vic, Frank Pickett from over on Redmond Street.” Mr. Krieger stood up. “Thanks boys, you’ve been a big help.” A rap on the door got his attention and he went and opened it. A big man in a dark suit stepped into the room.
“Hello, Phil,” said Mrs. Krieger from the couch.
The man lifted his pen in an informal salute. “Mary Beth. Jeff, can we talk?”
“Yeah, in the kitchen.” Mickey watched the two men move across the living room and through a swinging door. He could tell they were trying to talk quietly, but he could still hear.
“Boys any help?”
“Not much. Younger one says he heard a man’s voice after he went to bed, my guess it was the vic, her letting him in.”
“This is a weird one. Whoever this sicko was, he left a pile of dirt and bones in the bed. Why the hell would he do that?”
Mickey stopped crying. He sucked in a deep breath and screamed. Mrs. Krieger wrapped her arms around him tighter and yelled. “You fools, he can hear everything you’re saying.”
Mickey wailed louder and louder.
“There, there, it’s all right.” Mrs. Krieger pulled the boys to her again.
Dean began to cry, too. It didn’t make Mickey feel any better. Mr. Krieger and his friend left the house again.
Mickey woke up. He was still on the Kriegers’ couch. Mr. Krieger was talking in the kitchen.
“Damnedest thing, Mary Beth. We got under that porch and dug down about three feet. Found a whole skeleton. We won’t know for sure until Doc Freeman checks the dental records, but we’re pretty sure it’s Will Wheeler. What I can’t figure out is how all the bones from the right hand ended up in that bed, almost like they were wrapped around the handle of that trowel. If those boys were a little older, I’d suspect they did it, but no kid could decapitate an adult with a garden tool.”
Mickey stuck his fist into his mouth to keep from screaming.
This story originally appeared in Playthings and Past Times, Knightwatch Press.