I knew it was a mistake the moment we stopped digging near Hawthorn Road.
We all mingled in the yard, gawking at what used to be a clump of trees. I shot a glance at dad and caught the concern etched deep in those old eyes.
“You reckon we ought’a call someone?” I stuffed my hands in my pockets to stave off the morning chill.
He shrugged and pursed his lips, but didn’t say anything.
My cousin, Bud, climbed down off the backhoe and stepped cautiously across the fresh dirt, careful to avoid the holes and jagged roots poking up like skeletal fingers. I wondered what Bud was thinking as I watched his eyes crawl across the ground.
“Ain’t sure we should’a cleared these trees,” he said.
“Maybe it ain’t a big deal.” My hollow words toppled lifelessly to the ground.
Dad squatted and lit a cigarette. “One thing’s for sure,” he squinted through the smoke, “ain’t no puttin’ ‘em back.” He acted nervous, which made me uneasy.
Bud said, “I think this ‘uns just a baby.” He kicked at a small round thing wedged in the dirt. My stomach knotted as he dislodged the tiny skull.
I thought, oh Christ, why’d we have to find that.
“What do ya wanna do, Mick?” Bud asked me. Hell if I knew. I’m the one that decided to rip out these trees so I’d have a nice, big yard. Except for the graveyard we just dug up.
“Guess we ought’a call Sheriff Snider,” I said.
Dad nodded. “Guess that’s as good an idea as any.” He never looked away from the dirty bones scattered about.
Bud just stood there.
I phoned the county sheriff’s office and within twenty minutes, Sheriff Jack Snider was pulling slowly into the driveway. Jack was a good man, but not someone I’d care to have mad at me on a drunk Saturday night. He strolled casually up to the edge of the grass, said his hellos and then asked me, “How many did ya find?”
“Three so far,” I said, “Looks like one of ‘ems a baby.” I pointed to where Bud stood. I’d known bud my whole life, and it struck me right then that something was wrong with him. His skin paled almost white.
“Ya allright, Bud?” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
Sheriff Snider said, “Bud?” Guess he noticed it too.
Bud shifted nervously from foot to foot, wobbling back and forth like he had to use the bathroom. I wondered if dad noticed.
“Bud?” I was starting to worry now. Bud’s hat fell off his head and his scraggly old beard fluttered in the breeze like moss dangling from a tree branch.
The sheriff stared at him. Dad did too.
“Bud,” I stepped onto the dirt and my foot sank a good inch into the soft soil. Nausea swept over me and for one horrid second, I caught the whiff of something rotted. I hopped back to the grass. The sheriff touched my shoulder and I jumped.
“Bud!” I yelled.
This time, Bud’s eyes shot up to mine, but it wasn’t him. My blood chilled and for an awful second, I damn near screamed. It was like staring at a portrait that was almost right, but maybe the jaw was slightly too long, or the eyes were too big.
A lurid smile stretched across Bud’s face and he laughed. He raised one mud-clogged boot in the air and stomped down onto the baby’s skull, crushing it like a clay pot. Then he stood stock-still a moment; his shoulders slumped and he plopped down on his butt right there in the dirt. The three of us just stood there, shocked and not sure what to say.
That’s been a couple of years ago, but to this day, I don’t know what in God’s name we dug up in Inwood, and Bud says he don’t remember anything. He even laughs when we tell him what he did, but there’s something new in him – something that wasn’t there before. I’ll see it flicker in his eyes on rare occasions, just a quick passing of something awful, and then it’s gone, making me wonder if it was there to begin with. My aunt said she found him sittin’ out in the pasture a lot lately… just sitting out there, as if waiting on someone.
We all try to keep an eye on Bud. We all watch him.
And lately, I’ve been watchin’ him real close.