“So, you’re gonna lay down here and cross your arms like this and I’m gonna use this shovel to bury you.”
“Won’t mom be mad?”
“Can’t be mad at a dead person, right?”
Laying there in the little hole they spent all afternoon digging, looking up at his big brother who’s head was now invisible because of the intense sun that hung over everything and cast a disorienting heat, the little boy considered this notion. He didn’t know any dead people, not personally at least.
“What about someone really terrible? Can you be mad at someone like that after they die?” He asked.
“There’s no point in it, they’re dead, might as well leave ‘em alone. You only get two chances at a clean sled; birth and death,” his big brother answered.
“What does death have to do with sledding?”
“I don’t know, I think to know that you’d have to talk to somebody who’s done both, and I don’t know any dead people that also sled.”
“Do you know any dead people at all?”
“That’s beside the point, now stop talking, you’re dead.”
The little boy closed his eyes. He could feel the dirt piling over him like little droplets of rain, and this gave him a great sense of calm. It fell over his feet, his legs, his waist, and then ever so delicately dripped over his neck. He tried to slow his heartbeat, to quiet it down to the point where the angel of death would no longer hear it.
Then, around twenty minutes later, he felt death standing over him, breathing down on his face with a warm, sugary breath. This was it, they had done it, they tricked death itself. The little boy, eyes still screwed shut, felt death reach into the dirt and take his hands. It had big hands that were calloused but gentle. It yanked him out of the ground, and that’s when a terrible thought settled in his stomach like a stone.
What if his big brother wasn’t able to capture death as they agreed?
“I’m alive, I’m alive, don’t take me, I’m sorry we lied to you, I’m alive!”
The boy’s eyes took a horrible, warped moment to adjust to the intense light. As he blinked his way to clarity the angel of death who had grabbed him from the ground materialized in front of him in the form of their next-door neighbor. She knitted him a scarf once, which he never wore because of the eternal summer here. She smelled like a different flower every day. Today, it was jasmine, a light fruity smell.
“Why’d you have to wear jeans, your mom’s gonna kill you,” the woman said.
“Where’s my big brother?”
“Is he the one who buried you here?”
The little boy considered the implications of the question. ‘Your mom’s gonna kill you.’
“Then who did this to you?”
The boy thought about this for a long time.
“I don’t know.”
“I see,” the woman said, “want a cookie?”
She bent over and lifted a plate of cookies from the ground wrapped in a sheet of plastic, which she gently removed. She held out the plate. He took one, ate it in front of her, and shot her a big smile. She laughed and held the plate out again. The second cookie tasted different from the first, and the boy instinctively spit it out.
“Sorry,” he said.
“That’s alright, not everybody likes raisins.”
“What’s a raisin?”
This made the woman laugh even harder. The little boy cocked his head to the side and frowned.
“Sorry, I’m not laughing at you...I just remembered a funny joke,” she said.
“What joke?” The little boy asked.
“I don’t remember anymore,” she answered.
“My big brother said memory loss is the first sign of death.”
“That big brother of yours needs a hobby.”
“He can bake cookies, like you, just no raisins. Do you think you could teach him?”
“I don’t think your big brother wants me to teach him, I could teach you instead.”
The little boy nodded with delight and asked if he could have another cookie like the first one. The lady held out the plate to him, but he pushed it back, wanting her to pick one for him and make sure it didn’t have raisins in it.
“You put lots of trust into people,” the lady said to him as she carefully scanned the pile of cookies for chocolate chips.
“Is that bad?”
“I don’t think so.”
She handed him a cookie and he bit into it without looking down.
“Good?” The lady asked.
He shoved the rest of it in his mouth and smiled.
“I’ll take that as a yes, now let’s get you inside and give the rest of these to your mom.”
She covered the cookies up in the plastic wrap and they walked across the front yard together, leaving behind a pile of dirt, a dug-up grave, and a glob of raisin cookie behind them.
“Hi, are those for us?” their mother greeted them at the door.
“Don’t even mention it,” the neighbor said.
“Would you like to come inside for a cup of tea?”
“I would,” the little boy answered before their neighbor had a chance to speak up.
“I would too if you’ve got time,” the neighbor said with a smile.
“Of course, I have three hours before my shift starts.”
His mother removed the plastic wrap from the cookies and placed them in the middle of their round dining table.
“What kind of tea do you want? I’m afraid we’ve only got green and black,” she said.
“Green tea’s my favorite,” the boy answered.
“Black for me,” the neighbor said.
His mother moved around the kitchen with a certain clumsiness. Her hands trembled, her dark bags dragged her wrinkles down so they looked like frowns. The little boy wondered why their neighbor wasn’t offering to help, so he did.
“No, I can do this on my own, but thank you, sweetie. Now, honey or sugar?”
“Sugar,” the boy said with a smile.
“Same for me,” the neighbor said.
His mother continued moving around in her uncertain manner until three cups of tea appeared on the table and she sank into her stiff-backed wooden chair. Two cups of black tea, one with sugar and one without, and a cup of green tea for the boy. A thin wave of mist slithered out of each cup until it disappeared out of sight.
The little boy was the first to reach for the cookies. He grabbed one and held it out to the neighbor.
“Is this chocolate or raisin?”
“That’s chocolate,” she answered.
He smiled and dipped it into his tea, then quickly put it into his mouth and let it melt.
“I’m gonna learn how to bake cookies like this too, mom.”
“Yeah, I can teach him,” the neighbor said.
“You don’t have to, you’re probably busy.”
“Not at all, I’d be happy to do it if you let me.”
His mother nodded her head, wearing a smile that was both grateful and embarrassed. They settled into a long silence.
“I’m going to be a famous cookie maker one day, like famous Amos,” the little boy finally said.
This made everyone around the table laugh, and the boy beamed. They only left a couple of the cookies, so that his big brother could try them when he returned from his job. The little boy waved goodbye to the lady.
“Sit down with me for a second,” his mother said as soon as she closed the door.
The boy sat across from his mother. She clasped her hands together on the table, so he copied her. He also copied the stern look on her face, which faltered into a smile for a moment.
“Why are you covered in dirt?” She asked.
The boy looked down at himself, surprised. After an hour of drinking tea and talking he’d forgotten about the events of the early afternoon.
“I can’t tell you,” he said truthfully, not wanting to lie to his mom.
“It’s supposed to be top secret.”
“Alright, is there any way you could tell me what happened but leave out some details?”
“I don’t know,” the boy said.
“Like, what if you told me what happened, but not who did it. Would that be allowed?”
“I don’t know,” the boy said.
Her patience was running thin, like sand falling through an hourglass.
“Who did this to you?” She asked.
The boy thought for a long time. He promised his brother he wouldn’t tell.
“Jimmy,” he answered.
This hit his mother like a slap in the face, and the little boy regretted it as soon as he saw her stern look turn into the briefest moment of sadness.
“Did you big brother do it?” She asked, regaining her composure right away.
“Maybe,” the little boy answered.
“Alright. Look, sweetie, I’m not mad, alright. Let’s go get you a quick shower and then I have to go to work. Your big brother should be back in an hour, and if you need anything just go next door. Don’t let any strangers in, and if there’s a fire get out and go far away from the house.”
The little boy could’ve delivered this monologue back to her, and sometimes he did. But not today. After a quick shower he changed into clean clothes and hugged his mother before she left.
The little boy watched TV in the living room, lying on the plushy beige carpet with his legs propped on the couch and his back on the floor, craning his neck to see the show at a ridiculous angle that would’ve made a grown man nauseous. He lay like this for four hours, when a sound at the door startled him. The lock turned and his big brother returned, walking quietly so as not to disturb the little boy he assumed was asleep.
“Hi, there’s cookies in the fridge,” the little boy said.
“Hi, did you, um, did, did, did you tell mom about what we did in the morning?”
“Kind of,” the little boy said.
“I said we did something, but I wouldn’t say what.”
“Idiot!” His big brother yelled and stormed off into his room.
The ferocity with which he did it sent the little boy into a fit of tears. And he lay there crying until his big brother returned downstairs and grabbed a cup of coffee from the kitchen.
“I didn’t mean to yell, it’s not your fault. Did mom look mad?”
“Yeah,” the little boy said.
He turned away as he felt another hot streak of anger shoot through his big brother, who took a deep breath.
“You know,” his big brother said with a grin, “it wouldn’t kill you to lie once in a while.”
Lie to his own family?
“Tomorrow, tell mom I was here on time, made you dinner, and sent you to bed right away, ok?”
“Are you gonna make me dinner?”
“It’s a bit late for dinner, isn’t it?” His older brother said in a sharp tone.
“I guess so.”
“Great, now go to bed.”
His big brother turned around without another word and climbed the stairs, turning the lights out on his way.
The little boy fell asleep on the carpet.
“Morning sweetie,” his mother greeted him, “what’re you doing on the floor?”
“I snuck down in the morning to watch my favorite show,” he answered.
His mother nodded and went upstairs. It had never occurred to her that this little boy could, or at least would, lie to her. It didn’t matter, she found out about his big brothers’ tardiness anyway.
“Your breath reeks!”
“Jesus, not so loud.”
He was to stay in his room and await further punishment. His mother stomped down the stairs and entered the living room, standing over the little boy who was still lying on the carpet.
“You lied to me,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” the little boy answered.
She looked at him for a long time, disappointed, until a single cinematic tear rolled down his cheek.
“You’re supposed to go to the neighbors’ house and bake cookies now. You’ll be punished after, alright?”
The little boy nodded. She kneeled in front of him and wiped the tear away with her thumb.
“Look, I know your big brother can be mean sometimes, but he really loves you, and you should love him too. He just hasn’t processed all of this yet.”
“Mom,” the little boy said, “what was he like?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Good. Also, don’t bring up Jimmy in front of your brother, he got him as a gift from your dad.”
“I won’t,” the little boy said.
Feeling a strange, faceless sense of dread inside, the boy left his house and turned left to go bake cookies. He didn’t know what to make of this feeling inside him, a sort of primal fear that he could only trace back to something his mother said, ‘He just hasn’t processed all of this yet.’ Processed what? The little boy was worried, how was he supposed to process all of this if he didn’t even know what all of this was.
He rang the doorbell, and his mother’s friend answered right away. This time, she smelled like tulips, which the boy mistook for apples and told her so. She asked if he liked it, and he said he did.
Her small kitchen counter held as much dough as it could, and next to it were several oven trays.
“That’s a lot of cookies,” the boy said.
She smiled and nodded.
They worked side by side until the sun began to set, rolling out the dough and using steel cookie cutters to shape it into circles. She sliced up bananas and they added them to the cookies.
“Where are the raisins?” The little boy asked.
“I thought you didn’t like raisins.”
“I don’t, but my big brother and mom do.”
“Alright, we’ll get raisins next time.”
“Can you bake other things too?”
“Yeah, I can also make muffins, brownies, and cake.”
The boys’ eyes teared up with excitement.
“Want me to teach you?” She asked.
He beamed and nodded.
She told him he could take all the cookies home, but he insisted on leaving some for her. He left with two large bags filled with chocolate chip banana cookies.
At night, long after the sunset and their neighbor went to sleep, she felt tormented by the empty space of her tiny house, the empty space on the other side of her tiny bed. Her life had actually been a pleasant affair. She married, had kids, and when her husband died, earlier than anyone expected, it was a rather peaceful and loving ordeal. She saved up well and retired early, and now she was free to live.
The problem was that she didn’t see a reason to continue living, up until an old friend, recently divorced, moved into the house next door with her two sons.
She grabbed a packet of seeds from a drawer in her nightstand and headed to the garden she kept in her backyard, as she always did on sleepless nights and slow mornings.
The shovel she liked to lean by the side of the fence was missing.
Somebody was there with her, swaying side to side like a crazy animal. She turned and saw her friend’s older son.
“It’s all your fault,” the boy yelled.
She felt a ping of guilt. Several months ago she had seen the house next to hers for sale and encouraged her friend to make a bid. She convinced her friend to end the marriage and start fresh here.
“I’m gonna kill you,” he said.
The boy tried to walk towards her but fell over.
“No, please,” she said.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t. You’re the reason they divorced.”
“Your dad used to hit her, do you know that?”
“Stay out of my life you bitch!”
This hit her harder than she expected and mixed with her unbelievable feeling of loneliness, sending a bitter aroma into her heart. She started crying, and through her tears, she could see the expression on the boys’ face grow very uncomfortable. He dropped the shovel and walked closer to her.
“Sorry,” he said.
For some reason this made her cry harder.
“I’m not going to kill you,” he added.
“I, I won’t tell your mom about this.”
“Thanks,” he said.
He returned the shovel where he’d found it and began walking out, but she stopped him.
“You buried your little brother in the front yard, right?”
“Yeah,” the boy answered. She could see him blush even in the dark.
“That’s pretty funny, how’d you get him to go along?”
“I told him we were setting a trap for death, and as soon as it tried to take him away I’d catch it.”
“He looks up to you.”
“I guess so,” the boy answered.
“Be better to him than your dad was to you.”
For a moment he turned around and she felt his anger. Concerned for her safety, she jumped to her feet and grabbed the shovel. The boy took a deep breath.
“You should go now,” she said.
“I know, um, I’m sorry.”
For a moment, with his face all twisted from sorrow, he looked completely harmless, like his little brother.
“You can make it up to me,” she said.
“Come back tomorrow, after lunch, and help me plant some seeds.”
The boy nodded and stumbled away.