“There’s something in Mrs. Treadway’s root cellar,” I said to Mama’s back. “Something gruntin’ and groanin’ like an old hog.”
The paring knife stopped circling the tater in Mama’s hand. She turned around and stared at me, frown lines gouging furrows between her eyes. “April May Lollis, didn’t I tell you to stay away from there and not be bothering that poor woman?” She waved the shiny blade in my direction. “She’s got enough on her shoulders without you snooping around, asking silly questions. What with her husband up and dying and Jesse joining the Army right after, I don’t know how she runs that place by herself. Course, truth be told, Jesse wasn’t much help to begin with.”
“I ain’t said nothing to her.” I bit into the pear I’d picked from the scrawny tree out behind Mrs. Treadway’s outhouse. Juice ran down my chin, and I wiped it off with the back of my hand. “She didn’t even see me.”
Mama pointed the knife at the half-eaten pear in my hand. “Where’d you get that then?”
I sighed great big. “Off her tree, but she didn’t see me. I didn’t go nowhere near her house. But you know that old root cellar way out behind her garden . . . something’s in there. I heard it. And there’s a new lock on the door and—”
“April May, how many times have I got to tell you to quit making stuff up?”
“I ain’t making it up, Mama.”
“Or imagining it or telling stories, whatever you want to call it.”
I didn’t know why Mama just didn’t say I was lying—though I wasn’t, not this time. But she put stuff nicer than Daddy; he always said plain out that I was lying. And most of the time I guess I was ‘cause the things I thought, well, they wasn’t always so.
“Go play outside and let me finish supper,” Mama said. “And don’t you go telling your brother and sisters this foolishness when they get off the school bus.” She turned around to the sink. Another go-round of the knife on the tater. “And for heaven’s sake, don’t say anything to your daddy either.”
“Mama, there really was…I mean…”
I stomped across the cracked, green linoleum and pushed open the back-door screen, letting it bang shut behind me.
Sometimes I got so mad. Why wouldn’t she believe me? Jeeze…
I tromped around in the back yard, every once in a while kicking amongst the big piles of leaves Zack had raked up the evening before, scattering them all back out again. He’d be mad at me when he got home from school, but I didn’t care ‘cause I was mad too. Mama didn’t believe me, and this time I knew I’d heard something. And it didn’t matter if I told Daddy and Zack and Evie and Nora, none of them would go look in that root cellar and see I wasn’t telling no story.
What was in there? It had sounded kind of like a pig, but maybe it was a dog, and maybe it was starving. Maybe that was why it had sounded so funny. Yeah, it was a dog, alright. I just knew it was.
I liked dogs. They licked your face and grinned and wagged their tails. But we didn’t have no dog ‘cause Daddy didn’t like dogs. But maybe if I got that dog out of the root cellar and he saw how hungry it was—probably its ribs was sticking out—he’d feel sorry for it and we could keep it.
But the root cellar had a padlock on the door with a keyhole in it and I didn’t have no key. How could I open it without going and asking Mrs. Treadway for the key? Mama would call that “bothering her”.
A picture jumped into my head of Daddy sawing off a lock like that one. When Grandpa had died a while back, Daddy couldn’t find the key to the metal box Grandpa had kept under his bed with his important papers in it, so Daddy had used the hacksaw to cut through it.
And I knew right where that hacksaw was.
It wouldn’t be long before Zack and Evie and Nora got home, and Daddy a little while after. I didn’t have much time.
I raced to the barn, grabbed the saw off a big, rusty nail driven into the wall, then ran into the woods. I’d get that dog out. I’d show everybody I wasn’t lying.
In just a little while, I was back at Mrs. Treadway’s place. Staying just inside the woods, I circled around the house, down the length of the garden that was now just a bunch of weeds and dying plants, all the vegetables picked and canned and stored away for winter. I stayed hidden at the edge of the trees until I was right behind the root cellar.
It wasn’t much more than a knee-high bump with a wooden door and frame set into the grassy top of it. And just like I’d remembered, locked up tight. I didn’t hear no noise, but between the door and frame, I saw light.
And that made me notice it was starting to get dark.
Better hurry. I was gonna be in enough trouble as it was.
I hunkered beside the door and starting sawing. And that’s when it started up again.
I stopped sawing long enough to say: “It’s okay, doggie. I’m gonna get you out of there and take you home with me.”
I thought that would calm it down, but it only seemed to make things worse. Jeeze, it started carrying on awful, and now thumps and bangs joined the gruntin’ and groanin’. If it got much louder, Mrs. Treadway might hear it, and it would bother her.
I put everything I had into dragging and pushing the saw blade against the lock, while around me, night settled in.
Mama and Daddy was gonna be real mad at me for being out after dark, that was for sure. But maybe when they saw the poor, hungry dog…
With a loud clatter, the lock gave way. I pulled it out of its hasp and opened the heavy door, settling it against the ground as quietly as I could. Light and a jumble of noises raced up the stairs and smacked me in the face.
I had to hush it before Mrs. Treadway heard and got bothered. “I’m coming, doggie.”
I clomped down the steps and into the root cellar that was mostly just a big hole in the ground. And in the middle of the dirt room was a chair with a man tied to it. Not a dog. A man! He had a rag stuffed in his mouth, and jeez, was he ever dirty and smelly.
He yelled behind the rag, shook his head from side to side. Then his wild eyes met mine, and I knew who he was: Jesse, Mrs. Treadway’s son.
“Ohmygod, ohmygod…” I dropped the saw. “What…why?”
I stepped closer and pulled the wad of cloth out of his mouth.
“Help me,” Jesse said, his voice a raspy whisper. “Mama. She’ll come…”
I stumbled around to the back of the chair and tore at the rope tied around Jesse’s wrists, loosening it enough that he was able to pull his hands out. Then he leaned over and untied the loops around his ankles.
His legs trembling, he stood up. He braced a hand against the wall, then looked down at me. “Thank you…er…you’re April May, ain’t you, Dave and Libby’s youngest?”
I nodded my head, “Y—yes.”
“Thank God you found me. I thought I was gonna die in here.”
“How did you…” I swallowed hard. “…get here?”
“Mama. She went crazy. Killed Daddy and put me in here.” He smiled. “If you hadn’t of come along—”
“Dear Lord above, what have you done, child?”
I sucked in a startled breath and turned toward the stairs. Mrs. Treadway stood halfway down the steps, a shotgun cradled to her breast.
I had bothered her, and now she was gonna to kill me.
With a scream that didn’t even sound like it could come from a real, live person, Jesse Treadway pushed me aside—the saw blade passing right in front of my nose—and made for his mama.
“No, Jesse,” Mrs. Treadway said, backing up the steps. “You don’t know what you’re doing. No, son. Stop!”
She didn’t even try to raise the shotgun. Tears running down her cheeks, she stood on the top step and closed her eyes as Jesse took her down.
“You bitch!” he screeched.”You fucking bitch!”
I heard gurgling sounds and ripping sounds. He was sawing on his mama like I had the lock. And if I didn’t get out of there, when he finished with her, he’d start on me.
Quiet as a mouse, I climbed the steps. At the top, I eased around Jesse—who was still screaming his head off—and his mama. She wasn’t screaming, though; her throat gaped open like a big red mouth.
When my Keds hit the grass, I took off running. And as the woods closed around me, I heard Jesse Treadway call out: “April May…come out, come out, wherever you are…or I’m coming for you.” Then he laughed, but it wasn’t no nice laugh. It was a mean, low-down, dirty laugh, so scary it made me wet my britches.
I had to get home. I had to warn Mama and Daddy and Zack and Evie and Nora. I had to tell them Jesse was coming, and he was gonna kill me and them too.
Please, God, make them believe me. Please!
“Come out, come out, wherever you are…”
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