By Gary Alan Henson
It's the first thing Dad tells us when we’re looking around the 'new place' west of Levelland. Even before we get to check out the old two story house or the pump house out back, Dad gathers us kids up and points to the run down old building in the back lot.
"Stay away from that old barn and out of the back yard. If I catch any of you kids back there, I'll take a switch to all of you! I mean it. Stay way. There’s wasp nests, a big heap of old scrap and a big pit I've got to fill. And something in that pit stinks to high heaven." He had on his mean face, the one meant to scare the hell out of us, which it did most of the time.
Not this time.
I think 'a heap of old scrap' did it for me. I can tell that for Jess it was 'a stinking pit'. I can’t wait for Dad to go to work. Mom won’t be problem, she’s busy trying to clean and unpack. She'll be distracted for days.
The big white house is on 2 acres sitting back from its roost off Highway 385 west of town. Mom said it was a small farm house that was built in the 40's. She said each year it just grew, like a wooden cancer, piece by crazy piece. A couple of crooked rooms were tacked on the back side and a second level sits like a mushroom on top. You can see where they slapped on the second level over to one side, over the garage.
We’re moving to our 'country house' in the summer heat of 1962. It’s just 10 miles from our place on Jackson Street in the sleepy Panhandle town. That tiny little house just couldn't hold 3 boys and a girl anymore. We were like 4 cats stuffed into a dresser drawer.
Jess is 15, I’m 13, Jean is 6 and Dan is just a little smile with a big load in his diapers. No room, no fun. It was especially no fun for Mom. We drove her crazy rattling around in that old red brick town house. It had three small bedrooms and a postage stamp sized back yard. The swing set took up most of the yard or what was left of it after Jess and I tried using it for a fort.
Dad 'stole the place' or we couldn’t have moved. The only way Dad does anything is if he can get a great ‘deal’ or take advantage of something. He’s never bought a new anything. If he can’t ‘steal’ it we don’t get it.
So here we are on the front lawn looking at the big white rambling house with Dad pointing his finger at each one of us in turn. "You understand, kids? You stay in front. I'll have the back fixed up soon and you can play back there all you want. But not now. Got it?"
"Yeah", "Yes sir", "Ok, Dad". "Blub, dup". That last is Dan.
Mom is standing in the front doorway with a rag in her hand. "OK. Jess, you start moving you boy’s boxes upstairs. Alan you grab Jean and Dan and keep them busy out here on the lawn."
Jess slaps me on the back and grins. "Too bad dumbshit,” he says under his breath. His back is to Mom as he smirks at me and starts for the door. Jerk.
Dad turns and waves to Mom. "I've got to get back to the station. I'll be back after I close up." He climbs into his pickup and drives around the circular gravel driveway and back out to the highway. In seconds he’s gone again.
Mom is looking at the dust settle back down. I see her glance at the house and back to the highway. Then she ducks her head and turns back into the house.
Jean and Dan are sitting on the lawn picking at the burrs in the grass and tossing them at each other. Turning slowly I take in our new home.
The front of the house is flat and faded white. The cover over the porch is corrugated steel painted white of course. The screen door is kind of fancy with swirling aluminum flowers and vines. It doesn't quite sit square on the door frame but it seems to fit the front of the house just fine.
There's a low cinderblock fence running from the left of the house all the way to the driveway path. On the other side of the driveway is a huge garden. At least I think it's a garden. It's got big spiky, dull green plants with fuzzy stalks in the center growing in it. There’s a line of pine trees the whole length of the garden.
Behind the trees is the highway. Big trucks buzz past with bales of cotton and heaps of wheat with the chaff flying out the back. The other side of the yard has a long white, stone paved drive, up to the open garage. There are two openings. One is filled with a wood pile and a million rusting paint cans. The other has Dad's fishing boat on its trailer backed in as far as it will go. It barely fits.
"Alan". "Alan! Quit daydreaming and pay attention to your brother and sister." Mom is holding the screen door open leaning out and glaring at me. A smoking cigarette held between her two pointing fingers. She shakes her head and turns back inside. I can hear her yelling something at Jess. She looks back out of the screen from inside to make sure I'm moving.
Ok. Fine. I'll explore later.
Jean is picking the burrs one at a time and dropping them on Dan's head. He looks like a little pixie in a lumpy yellow-brown loin cloth.
I start giggling. Dan turns to me and smiles even wider. He reaches up and pats his head, his hand coming away covered with burrs. I can’t tell if they hurt or not. He just looks at them and laughs. Jean is giving me that squenchy-eyed 'look at me' grin and starting to giggle too.
The day passes slower than molasses for me. Dirty grey clouds have been sneaking in from behind the house for the last hour and little bit of wind is swaying the big trees. Jean and Dan take turns pulling up weeds and making stick houses on the lawn. Mom said to stay in front but she didn’t say where so I meander over to the cinder block fence and sit down. Now I can see the back yard, the old well house and behind that the barn.
Wow, I can see the hole in the ground Dad was talking about now! It looks like it’s been there awhile; there are burnt lumber and blackened stones all around the mound. I wonder what they were digging such a big hole for. I bet the hole is bigger around than I am.
Dan lets out a blood curdling scream. Crap! Just as I turn to check on him I see something pop up out of the hole for just an instant before it drops down again. Before I can turn back to see what it was Dan screams again.
“Alan. What the hell are you doing over there? Daydreaming while your baby brother is screaming his head off!” Mom is stomping out the front screen towards Dan and Jean. “I can’t depend on you to watch them for five minutes, can I? Damn it, Alan, I swear you have the attention span of a gnat.”
She scoops up Dan and looks down at Jean. “All right, Miss Prissy, what did you do this time? And don’t give me that innocent look, young lady, I know better.” She’s standing there with that ‘I’m not leaving until you fess up look’.
“But Mom, really, this time I didn’t do anything. He was playing with the stickman I made him and he screamed and threw it at me like it bit him or something. Really, Mom, I’m telling the truth.” Jean is starting to cry. Big blubbering, snot nosed bawling. Weird. That usually means she’s telling the truth.
“I ought to take a switch to both of you. Get inside and clean up. Your Dad will be home soon and I’ve got to get supper on the table. Move!” She swats me behind the ear and grabs Jean, pushing her ahead of me.
The house is a mess, boxes and bags all over the big living room that faces the front of the house. Jess is picking up another old Havoline oil box that’s held together with duct tape. He pushes past me and heads up the stairs, two at a time. Show off. Jess never misses a chance to show me how puny I am and how strong he is. He’s built just like Dad, long and strong. He can also be an asshole, just like Dad.
“Move it or lose it, shrimp,” he sneers as he bounds up the narrow stair case. “Two more boxes and I’ll have all your stupid books and crap upstairs.” I know Jess doesn’t mean to hurt my feelings; he just doesn’t have much for role models. At least that’s what I tell myself.
Walking down the short hall I move aside to let Jean out of the bathroom. She looks around and then pulls me close by my tee shirt. “Alan, you got to believe me, I didn’t do anything to Dan, honest. He was playing with that doll I made out of twigs and weeds. We both were. The doll started to shake and I thought he was doing it, but he wasn’t. He tried to drop it and I saw it bite his finger. It had a mouth and little teeth made of weed thorns.” She was kind of shaking and her eyes were big. “Alan, I didn’t make it with a mouth, I swear. Please don’t tell Momma or Daddy, they’ll spank me and send me to bed. Please?”
Jean is a little twerp but I’ve never seen her shook up like this. “Sure, Jean, sure. Don’t worry, I won’t say anything.” I glance up the stairs and say, “Maybe you shouldn’t say anything to Jess either, he’ll just make fun of you. OK. It’ll be our secret.”
That seems to calm her down a little and she smiles. She reaches up and kisses my cheek and says, “Thanks, Alan.” Then she turns and heads into the kitchen. “Mom, can I help set the table.” I can hear her rattling silverware in the long narrow kitchen.
“Sure, honey. Thank you, sweetie. You put out the forks and knives and I’ll set the plates and glasses.” Mom sounds tense but I can tell she is proud of Jean. I wish she was as proud of me. Once Dan was born I became invisible.
I slip into the bathroom and turn the faucet on with hot and cold water. The water sputters out into the dingy sink. After a couple of seconds it changes from light brown to clear. I can remember Dad saying something about this place having a well and we’d have to get used to running the water before drinking it.
The soap is a big bar of Lava from Dad’s gas station. Washing with it is like scrubbing your hands with a Brillo pad but it works. My hands are almost red by the time I’m finished.
I dry my hands on the scratchy towel. Dad’s pickup is rumbling up the driveway and stops. The door bangs shut and he walks into the house without a word.
I walk up and hand him the towel. “Here Dad, the bathroom’s open now.”
He looks at me and tousles my hair. “Good. I’ll wash up. You tell your mother I’ve got to eat and get back to the station. That hired hand is probably skimming dimes out of the coke machine right now.” He takes the towel and moves into the bathroom.
It wasn’t much but I don’t get much from Dad so it felt really good. I walk into the dining room smiling for the first time today.
Supper is quiet and quick, just like always. Mom sets out pork chops, mashed potatoes, a bowl of greens and onions, red beans and half a loaf of white bread. The tea is her special Texas sweet tea. She brews tea in her pressure cooker pot, adding a cup of sugar to the boiling water. Dad likes it sweet and ice cold.
There wasn’t any talk at the table except Mom asking Dad how the new hand was working out. “Like all the rest of them, lazy and robbing the coke machine when he thinks I’m not looking. If he wasn’t your brother’s boy I never would have hired him.”
The rest of the meal is done in silence. Then it was over and Dad stood up. “The pork chops were a little dry and you could have used some more pepper in the greens. I’ll be home after I lock up.”
Then he’s gone.
Mom is kind of staring at the table and I could see her eyes watering a little. She dries them with a napkin and stands up. “You kids clean up and then you can watch one hour of TV.” Then she grabs her cigarettes and lighter and goes out the back door to smoke.
I barely make it into my bed upstairs when the thunder and lightning start outside. Sneaking over to watch I can see the big tree outside the window is swaying and slapping the gutter. Jess is already standing there peering at something in the back.
“What are you watching?” I ask, whispering for some reason even though the wind, rain and thunder are more than enough to drown me out. “Can you see that hole out there?” I try to scoot closer to the window and see for myself.
“Watch it, bean pole.” Jess moves a little and points to the barn. “Yeah, I’m watching it. I could have sworn I saw red lights glowing from that pit. And I know I heard some kind of thumping at the same time.” He looks at me and back to the window. “Do you see anything?”
I’ve never heard Jess’s voice sound scared like this.
A flash of lightning lights up the whole backyard and the thunder hits us like a hammer, setting the window rattling in its frame. I can hear Jess suck in his breath at the same time I see it. As the lighting flash starts to fade we can see a huge dripping red eye on a stalk snap back into the hole. I hear a deep rumbling drum beat each time a dark red glow pulses under the pit.
Shaking like a leaf I turn to my older brother and look into his eyes. I thought he’d be as scared as I am but he’s grinning like a maniac. “Let’s go catch that thing, pee wee!” He jumps up and runs to his side of the room and starts putting on his jeans. “What are you waiting for, scaredy cat? You afraid of a bug eye on a stick?”
“You’re crazy, Jess. That thing was the size of dog! It was a stinking eye, Jess, an eye!”
Jess is almost dressed but stops. “Well, wuss, you coming or not? Don’t you want to know what that thing is?” He grabs his baseball bat and pushes past me. He cracks the window up, letting the rain and wind splash in. “Fine, coward, stay here and watch me knock that eye into the next county. I’m going to be a hero!” Jess steps out onto the roof and turns back to me. “Last chance, dip shit.”
I finally get my frozen feet to move. Grabbing my jeans and my BB gun I step out on the roof and start putting them on. “I’m no coward; I’m just not stupid Jess.” I don’t think Jess thought I’d go with him and he’s not sure what to do.
The rain is getting heavier, the wind blowing it into our faces. I’ve managed to get my wet jeans on and hold up my BB gun. “Well, I’m here, what do we do now?”
Jess gives me another grin and laughs, “I’ll use you for bait and then bash him when he pops back up to look at your skinny ass.” He turns and starts down the wet roof to the tree branch that sticks out over the roof. I can see him shimmy down during the flashes of lightning. They seem to be coming more often now. The wind is picking up too.
Just as he slips down below the roof top he looks up to me and yells, “Come on, Alan, it’s an adventure man! Fun! You know; something exciting for a change.” Then his face is gone. The next time I see him he’s bent over running across the yard and around the pump house.
“Damn it, you jackass, wait for me!” I yell and I start slipping down the roof towards the big branch. I grab for the branch and stop. I can see that dark red pulsing light coming from around the pump house and a thumping rhythmic beat coming from the back. Then I hear a high screeching sound. I don’t know what it is but it sounds like weird laughing coming from the where Jess just went. And then I lose my grip and yell as I drop the last 8 feet to the ground.
“Oomph, Ow!” I fall on my back in the damn bushes. Lucky I guess, but damn that hurts. That crazy screeching laugh starts again, higher this time. I roll over on my knees and stand up feeling a little shaky. The rain is coming harder now and the lightning is brighter, the thunder louder.
I pick up my Daisy model 99 and start toward the pump house; I don’t want Jess to think I’m chicken now. I grab the side of the low brick house and feel my way around to the back where I saw Jess run.
The next flash lights up the whole backyard and I freeze. Jess is standing next to the big red and black pit like a frozen white statue. He’s covered with dirty red and green vines all tangled around his legs and pants, all the way up to his neck. His whole body is shaking like he’s holding onto an electric fence. His face is a foot away from a dark red-green eye the size of a basketball. It’s dripping some kind of black and red slime. The stalk is as big around as a baseball bat and covered with those same slimly vines.
Jess strains his eyes toward me and opens his mouth. That high screech is coming from Jess! His eyes are bugging out now and his mouth is wide open. It looks like smoke is rising from the skin around his neck. “Shhooottttt,” he screams at last. “Shoottttt it, stupid!”
The eye slowly turns towards me and it starts to pulse again. A white bolt of lightning strikes a big tree in the back lot, sending bark and wood chips flying. The thunder clap slaps us like a fist and suddenly I can move again. I raise my BB gun and pull the trigger. Click. Damn, I forgot to pump it.
Like a maniac I furiously pump the handle, counting to 30, the most I’ve ever pumped it up. I slide a pellet into the breach and raise the gun again.
“Hurryy, Alan, hurry! It’s eating meeee!” Jess is screaming and shaking like a rag doll.
I aim and pull the trigger. Pop! I can see the BB smack the big eye right in the dark red middle. A thin fountain of sick green goo shoots out from the hole. The eye jerks back and the vines around Jess flail out from his body, showing burning strips all over his chest and back. A horrible hissing sound comes from the pit and the pulsing red light turns almost solid bright red. Before I can move a vine shoots out at me and grabs me around the waist and starts dragging me towards the pit. Jess turns and starts to run but the vines snap around him again and pull him back towards the dripping eye.
It’s pulling me closer and closer, all the time the goo is dripping out of the BB hole. The rain is pouring down now and the flashes of lighting are like fireworks all around us. Jess is struggling to get loose, reaching down into his pants for something. “Alan! Your knife! Get your knife before it wraps up your arms. Now, stupid, now!”
It’s got one of his arms wrapped up now but I can see he’s got his big Case pocket knife in the other hand and he’s opening it with his teeth. I reach in to my pocket, grab my knife and open it just as the vines start wrapping around my chest. I’m almost side by side with Jess now, looking into that basket ball eye. Oh my god it stinks. I puke right into the eye and watch the puke run down the stalk.
Jess is screaming at me again. “When I tell you, you stick it on the left and I’ll stick it on the right and we’ll pull our knives together. Got it?” He’s shaking again and now I know why. There’s some kind of burning acid coming out of the vines and burning my skin. I start screaming with pain and start shaking too.
“Alan! Alan!” Jess screams as he raises his knife. “Come on, we’ve got to do it now! Come on!”
I barely have time to raise my knife when Jess plunges his deep into the eye on the right side. I jerk forward and stick my knife as hard as I can into the dripping mess of the eye and start dragging it to the middle.
The hissing sounds like a train whistle right next to my ear. The eye jerks back taking my knife with it and gushing stinking gooey pus all over Jess and me. It whips forward and slams into me, sending me flying back to the ground. Rolling over I see Jess stabbing the vines around his chest, ripping them apart.
Jess falls down and scrambles like a crab towards me. “Get back! Get back!” We scramble backwards to the edge of the pump house watching the thing the whole time. The vines are thrashing around like thick ropes and the goo is pouring out of the eye.
There’s a boom and flash just above our heads and the eye explodes, sending gobs of stinking goo flying through the pouring rain and all over us. Dad is standing there with his 12 gauge. He pumps it and fires again. What’s left of the eye is cut off at the top of the stalk. The stalk drops to the ground like a cut rope, flailing all around the pit.
“Get behind me, boys. Now!” Dad is reloading his shotgun and pulling Jess to his feet. “Get behind me, Alan.”
The sounds have stopped and the red glow is gone. The stalks have stopped moving and there’s some thick green smoke rising from the pit.
“What was that, Jess?” Dad has his shotgun up and pointing at the pit. “What the hell was that and what were you boys doing out here.”
Jess looks at me and back to Dad. “We saw something in the pit, Dad. There were red lights and some kind of thumping coming from it. We just wanted to see what it was, that’s all.” Jess is shaking again.
Dad lowers his shotgun and looks at both of us. “I don’t know if I should whip both of you till you bleed or hug you. Dan or Jean could have wandered back here and who knows what would have happened.” He looks at the pit and back to us. “We’ve got to make sure that thing doesn’t come back. Stay here and shoot anything that moves.” Dad hands the shotgun to Jess and runs towards the pump house.
I can’t stop trembling but I scoot over behind Jess, looking over his shoulder at the smoking, stinking mess in the pit. “Jesus, Jess, what the hell was that thing?” I can’t keep my teeth from chattering.
“I don’t know. But we killed it, little brother, whatever the hell it was.” The gun never moves from the pit as he stutters back to me, yelling above the wind and rain.
I start as another flash shows Dad running back to us, some sticks in one hand and a shovel in the other. “Jess, come with me. You keep that 12 gauge ready to blow away anything that moves you hear me boy?” Jess nods. “Alan, you stay behind Jess and watch out for those vines. Can you do that?” I shake my head up and down and step behind Jess again.
“Ok. You two step right over there and watch the pit.” Dad moves towards the pit and Jess and I step to the side. Dad drops the sticks and plunges the shovel into the smoking vines and pus. He digs and scopes four or five times before he throws the shovel to the side. He picks up the sticks and jams them into the hole. “Ok. Run back to the pump house. Now, boys, and don’t look back!”
Jess and I run to the edge of the pump house, but Dad almost beats us there. He grabs us, picking up both of us and whipping us around the front of the building just as a big boom erupts from the pit. Scraps of lumber, dirt, green goo and vines rain down all around us.
Dad pulls us back around the corner and we look at the hole in the ground. It’s 20 feet across and smoke is pouring up from its center. Dad drops to the ground with us and starts laughing, hugging us and holding us like he hadn’t seen us in months. “Damn and double damn, boys.” He can’t stop laughing and Jess and I start laughing with him. The rain is pouring like it will drown us but we can’t stop laughing.
Then we hear it. A low soft thumping is coming from the ground. It’s getting louder. But it’s not the pit. All three of us turn as one back towards the house. Another lightning flash lights up the yard and the back of the house. Standing in the rain holding Jean by the hand and Dan in her arms is Mom. She’s looking at her feet where a dark red light is pulsing.