An excerpt from Death and the Dream by J.J.Brown, deliciously dark short stories for Halloween.
It’s so unnaturally quiet inside the old wood shed. And dark. It’s so completely dark inside, even at midday, as if buried above ground. Spiders hang in front of webs so thick on the dirty windows that they form lace shades and wait. They wait for the door to open.
Something awful will surely happen today.
Spider egg cases on the window tremble then bounce on the window glass with the shock of the old wood door opening as it hits the wall. The shed floods with light. Three-year-old Luna, her long braid swaying, steps over the door step into the shed and pulls the door closed behind her. She is momentarily blind in the darkness. She lifts her shirt to cover her nose and filter out the strong acid smell left by raccoons and mice. The shed is a closed box, damp and dark as a coffin.
Luna can just make out the field tools lining the interior of the dark shed, a watchful crew, some taller than she is. A scythe leans against the dirty window, steel-cold and rusty. Luna brushes her hand against the blade, raising a pearl of blood. A startled mouse races in front of her and disappears under a mound of old grass.
Inside the feeble structure of the old house, Granny has sunk deep into a soft, upholstered chair. She sits by the window and watches her garden. A smooth and polished cane leans beside her.
Across the bare main room, Grand Dad bends his knees slowly to fold his tall frame into a sitting position on a low wooden stool. His father made the stool long ago here in the basement workshop. Grand Dad works his arthritic fingers on the stubborn leather boot laces.
“Where’s Luna?” he asks.
“Luna,” Granny whispers and she looks across the garden to the wood shed.
“Not with you?” he asks, “Shouldn’t you be keeping an eye on her? It’s bad enough we’ve got to tell them the dog got run over when they get back. We’ve got to keep track of Luna.”
Granny’s swollen ankles hang limp in front of her. She can’t follow Luna around outside. Everything was fine before Luna could walk; it was easier then. “Looking for the dog again, I imagine. It’s what she’s been doing all week, since Amelia and Johnny left her off,” Granny answers.
“That’s not so good,” Grand Dad stands up, swings on his coat and heads for the door.
“She knows the dog is dead,” Granny says and she pats her full skirt, smoothing it over her legs.
“Yes. But does Luna know what ‘dead’ is?” he shakes his head.
“No, do you? Who really knows?”
“She’s three” Grand Dad calls over his shoulder on his way out.
“Bring her a chocolate,” Granny says and she reaches for the table drawer, pulls it open and searches under letters and hairpins. She stops when she hears the door pull shut.
Granny reaches for her cane. She struggles to get to her feet, swaying on swollen legs. She grips the chair arm and stands to look out the window to where Grand Dad walks past the barren garden, through the overgrown yard, past his garage and over to the wood shed by the road. Why couldn’t her parents have taken Luna with them? The country is good for children but only if you have someone to watch over them every single moment.
Granny looks up and down the road. No one seems to be out this time of day, but you never know when a truck will barrel by and run over something. Like their dog Precious last week. Not even time for a whimper, just the roar of the truck, the glare of sunlight and then darkness, silence. Of course they all missed Precious. What was she going to tell Luna’s mother? Neither she nor Grand Dad could bear to see a dog on a leash. She could tell them that but they wouldn’t understand and they wouldn’t like it.
An old pitchfork rests by the wood shed door, tines shining golden in the intermittent glow from the dirty window. Beside the pitchfork, an ax blade glistens. Little Luna feels the rough wooden handle and tries to pick up the ax. She sits down in the straw and winds her long braid around the ax blade. Luna pulls the braid back and forth. She severs it and tosses the end of the braid into the straw. Her hair unwinds and curls around her shoulders. Luna drags the old heavy ax, pulling along a mound of dead grass. She disturbs a nest of newborn mice hidden beneath the scythe. The tiny mice wriggle, pink and helpless, exposed in the soft straw circle. Luna wonders if the big mouse will come back for them. She pushes some of her cut hair over the baby mice with her foot.
Luna tries hard to remember their dog. Precious smiled when Luna smiled. Precious ran when Luna ran, rippling out in front of her in the sunlight like a mirage. Precious ran through the long grass like the breeze. Her fur was soft, she smelled sweet. And then she was gone.
Where did she go? Did she go somewhere dark, dark like underground or dark like inside the wood shed, or did she go somewhere light?
Luna remembers how Grand Dad cuts a log. Set the log upright on the tree trunk and then swing the ax over the shoulder. He let Luna practice with him, holding the handle together, but he never let go. She can be the log. She can get up on the step stool. She can go there too where creatures go when they die. Luna opens a wooden step stool from the corner of the shed and climbs up to the top step. She drags the ax behind her. The ax is heavy for her and it seems to take forever trying to pull it up on the stool. Pulling, panting, wobbling. The stool breaks under her weight, rotted wood crumbles beneath her feet and she falls.
The shed door swings open and bangs on the pitchfork. The shed fills with light. The pitchfork topples to the ground, calling with an awkward steel melody.
“Luna?” Grand Dad bends to look inside the dark shed.
“Fell,” Luna answers quickly.
“What’re you doing in there? Granny’s worried about you. I can’t see a damn thing,” he speaks slowly. He stoops to step in over the doorway.
“Looking for Precious,” Luna says and she brushes straw and cobwebs off her pants.
“You think she’s gone in the shed?” Grand Dad asks.
“No, I know Precious died. Looking for her.”
“Here?” He picks up the pitchfork and leans it carefully beside the scythe under the window.
“In heaven,” she frowns, holding back tears, looking at the broken step of the stool.
“Come on out now, it’s dirty. What have you got there?” Grand Dad looks at the tool behind her. He reaches out his large gnarled hand to her.
“Grand Dad’s tool,” Luna says.
“For wood, child, not for you,” he says sternly.
“Works for wood. Let’s clean you up, come on,” he says.
“Can’t see Precious?” Luna’s lips tremble, her nose runs.
“No, you can’t see Precious. What happened to your hair? You cut your hair yourself?”
“Sad,” she says, and puts her tiny hand in his.
“What happened to your hair, Luna? What’s your Mommy going to say?”
Luna begins to cry, “Mommy and Johnny gone. Precious gone to heaven.”
“Who told you that?”
“Granny told me.”
“What’s she know about heaven,” mutters Grand Dad.
“Said I go to heaven too. If I’m a good girl,” Luna cries bitterly.
“Going in the shed alone is not being a good girl. Is it? No. No more shed. Let me put that back for you; it’s heavy. You come on inside and clean up.”
“I want Precious,” she whines miserably shaking her head and she steps over the ax.
Grand Dad lifts the little girl over the doorstep and out into the sunlight, setting her down gently. He closes the door behind them securely. He looks up to the house and sees Granny waving at them from the window.
“Look, Grand Dad, she’s up! Granny stood up!”
“Yes, she was looking for you.”
“I’m sorry,” Luna wipes her cheeks clean of tears, “I know. She can’t get up more.”
“Never mind now. Just don’t go back to the shed. No shed.”
“If I’m a good girl, I go to heaven?”
“Just be a good girl,” Grand Dad says, and they walk hand in hand away from the wood shed, past the garage, past the barren garden and back up to the house together.