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Something moved in the bushes. It’s back. That nightmare of a cartoon-looking sonofabitch is out there again. I thought it was gone forever.
Jesus, it’s hard to turn the kitchen doorknob with a sweaty hand. I hate this kind of sweltering summer day. It feels like time stopped in hell. My head is ready to split in half. I gotta deal with my goddam Uncle Steve bossing me at the worksite for nine hours, and now I gotta deal with what I saw in the bushes. I peel off my soaked t-shirt and pour a Coke over some ice. It’s a little cooler in front of the clanging metal counter fan, so I park myself there on a stool, to stare out the window, into the yard.
There it is again. Another ripple in the bushes. Every nerve in my overheated body prickles.
No way I’m going back outside. Fear jolts through me. My throat is dry. I sip my Coke, squeeze my eyes shut, and pray it’s the wind. Or maybe a storm kicking up, moving those bushes. Glancing out the kitchen window again, I lift my eyes this time, to check the treetops. The trees are still. There’s no wind. My heart jumps. It’s back. God help us. When I see that bastard, death follows.
Last time I saw it this close to the house it was ten years ago, I was eight years-old, still a little kid. Mom was sick in her bed upstairs. That night, I slept downstairs by the kitchen door, in case it tried to get inside to kill us.
The next morning, I found Brian Botti’s cat, Maxie, torn to shreds in my yard. My buddy, Brian brought his cat and her kittens to school the day before, and the next day those tiny kittens didn’t have a mama. Later, everybody said Maxie died in a cat fight, but I knew better. The morning crime scene was the picture of a premeditated murder. That bloody fur mingled with the dew on the grass beneath her, like red watercolor rivers. That killer was a twisted artist.
I knew the carcass on the lawn was the work of the crabapplestick, because I’m in tune with its habits. Its horrible deeds follow me everywhere. It’s been after me, forever.
I saw it the first time when I was six, behind Gramps' beer fridge in the garage, out at the farm. I was clearing my sports stuff out of Gramps’ Buick. My baseball clunked from the back seat and rolled over beside the rusty refrigerator. I chased it. When I bent to pick up the ball, I noticed something moving in the semi-darkness, near the wall. At first, I thought it was a weed trying to grow in the trickle of sunlight filtering through the slatted roof. Then I thought it might be a green snake, but it was stiff, standing straight up. When I got a better look at it, I wished to God that I hadn’t. Its head looked like a rotting crabapple with a human face, staring at me. I saw eyes blinking. For the first time in my life, I felt terrible doom. Scared as hell, I dropped my bat and left my baseball. I ran to tell my Gramps.
“It ain’t nothing,” Gramps assured me. “Just a weed or a skink lizard. They can stick to the wall and give ya a scare. We got ‘em around when its wet.”
But back at the garage, we didn’t find a skink lizard and we didn’t find a rotten looking apple head on a green stick. What we found was my little dog Jackie lying dead and bloody beside the refrigerator. His head was smashed flat. I went crazy, crying and screaming about the crabapplestick and looking everywhere for that killer.
When Mom came home, I told her the awful news about the murdering crabapplestick. Gramps told my mom I created a monster in my head.
“His pup got tangled in some fishing net that caught on the garage door, Clara”, Gramps said to Mom, hugging her.
“It musta smashed its head when the door went up. Musta fell out onto the floor in front of the boy, scarin’ him shitless, confusin’ his mind.”
Mom believed Gramps, but that’s not how it happened. A bloodthirsty creature killed my innocent dog. By the way the thing looked at me, I knew it didn’t come for Jackie. I was the one it had come for. And it came for me over the years, no matter where I was.
Something else always got it instead of me. It wasn’t just Jackie and it wasn’t just that cat, Maxie. Birds and rabbits showed up dead in the yard near our house, their little skulls crushed or their tiny necks snapped. Once, a whole nest with eggs was smashed to bits after I saw that crabapplestick in a tree. Mom kissed my head and told me there must be a pack of abandoned dogs or wild barn-cats, roaming and killing for food. She didn’t like it when I told her about the murdering crabapplestick following us around, so I let her think I blamed abandoned dogs and barn cats too. It made both of us feel better.
Everything changed between Mom and me when Lorna Miller, the bony old lady who lived next door, got murdered. My mom and Mrs. Botti shook their heads and cried in our freezing cold front yard, while they watched the police cars drive away. They said bony old Lorna slipped and hit her head on the back steps, hard enough to kill her. Mrs. Botti said she couldn’t believe it, but I could. That animal-killing crabapplestick switched to humans and slammed old Lorna’s head into the concrete step. I saw its nasty, rotting little face peeking out against the downspout around the corner of her house the day she died. When I told Mom I saw the crabapplestick, it made her mad as hell. She said if I ever talked about a green stick with a crabapple head again she’d send me away and I could never come back. Then she called mean Uncle Steve to come over to teach me a lesson. He pushed me and yelled, punched my face, and beat my ass raw for saying out loud I saw the thing, right before bony old Lorna turned up dead.
By the time Uncle Steve was done with me, I didn’t look any better than the dead old lady next door. I missed two weeks of eighth grade because of that beating. I got the message. I never told another soul, and I didn’t bring it up again to Mom, or to Gramps. He died of a heart attack the next year, in the same garage where we found poor Jackie. Uncle Steve gave Mom Gramps’ old Hellcat .380 pistol, for protection. Gramps sure didn’t need it any more. Life was nice and quiet for a peaceful, five year stretch after that.
But now, the sadistic little killer is back. I let my guard down, thinking I was free of it, but there it is, lying in wait, hiding in the thick bushes, between the house and the driveway. I told Mom we should chop down those goddam bushes. It’s the perfect place for that murdering crabapplestick to hide.
Even though she’s at work, I text Mom to warn her. She texts back real mad and tries to call, but I’m not in the mood to talk now. Telling her was enough. It’s out there in the yard, waiting to kill again. I need to protect us. I don’t want either of us to turn up dead.
It’s time to make my move. I’ve been sitting here, barely moving, watching that killer shuffling in those bushes for an hour. I’m so thirsty. There’s nothing but a couple drops of coke-flavored, melted ice left in my glass. I can’t let that freak hurt anyone or anything else. My heartbeat is in my ears. I can hear blood rushing through my veins. I’m electric with purpose. I fumble around in the bottom drawer, but I can’t find Mom’s pistol, so I get out the biggest, sharpest knife I can find. I’m quiet opening the kitchen door, sneaky, with the knife pressed against my leg. It’s time for this to be over for good. Slowly, I let the creaky old door come to a rest against the frame, as softly as possible. It doesn’t quite close, but at least it doesn’t make a sound.
Low and silent, I creep over to the rustling bushes. Once there, I’m instantly down on my knees, careful to keep the knife in my sweaty grip. I crawl on the dirt, around the low branches where the murdering little shit’s hiding. I begin breathing pretty heavy. I’m terrified. I move further in the bushes and raise my knife, so I can strike the evil thing when it shows its rotting face. I wait for it. It never takes that murderer long to start its terrible work. Then, I hear something in the yard. Peering through the bushes, I see it. Its shriveled eyes glare at me.
“Come and get me,” I croak. My voice, rough and strange. I think of my dog, Jackie. I think of the cats and birds and rabbits and bony old Lorna and I think of how goddam scared I’ve been all my life of this monster that brings death near me and Mom, year after year. I’m through. Staring it down, I raise my knife to have my revenge.
Suddenly, it moves. I lunge from the bushes, jabbing my knife and trying to scream. I hear a bomb go off. It turns everything red. It knocks me down and sets me on fire.
I can’t move, but I see Uncle Steve, towering above me, his finger still on the trigger of Mom’s smoldering Hellcat .380, sneering at me.
“You stupid, crazy sonofabitch,” he says.
I open my mouth. I want to warn him the murdering crabapplestick is in the bushes, waiting to kill somebody. I want to tell him to keep Mom safe from it. But I can’t speak. And then I can’t see.
And then, finally, it is over.