“Burying Little Annie”
Brian James Freeman
Illustrated by François Vaillancourt
When the man was just a little boy, his family’s beloved dog was already very much in the twilight of her life. The golden fur on Ginger’s face and snout had long gone gray, and the arthritis in her hips was bad enough that she could no longer jump onto the living room couch she wasn’t supposed to be on anyway.
Then one day, the boy came home from school to find Ginger was gone. His parents didn’t have much to say on the topic, and he has never forgotten how he felt that night and for many nights to follow. The hurt, the anger, the despair…and most of all, a sense of betrayal at the hands of the people he loved most in the world.
In time, the boy grew up to be a man and get married and start his own family, and he vowed he would never lie to a child, not even a lie of omission. That is why, on a sweltering hot August morning some twenty-five years after Ginger vanished from his life, the man decides that his son should help with the burial of their beloved Little Annie in her favorite place in the woods.
As the man explained to his wife, eight years old is old enough to be told the truth about life and death. It’s important their son know that we all have an obligation to the things we love, even after they’re dead. Maybe especially once they are dead. His wife doesn’t necessarily agree with his thinking, and they argue, but in the end she concedes.
Now the man and the boy are approaching the forest behind their house. The man isn’t in the best shape of his life, and he’ll pay for that today. He has a shovel strapped to his back. He’s carrying a large plastic storage tub and the muscles in his arms are already twitching. The dead put on weight, he once read, and he believes it.
The man and the boy do not speak as they walk.
The boy is still processing how quickly your best friend in the world can go from running wild and carefree in the backyard, to panting her final labored breath on the kitchen floor in a pool of her own blood and pee, to being wrapped up in a black garbage bag inside a container once used to store Christmas decorations. Echoing in the back of his mind is the memory of his parents arguing about what to do, while all he could do was stare at Annie’s dull eyes. He had actually seen the light in them go out. The eyes of the dead.
Like his son, the man is thinking about the contents of the plastic tub. His wife had picked the name Ann, and when he asked her why, she said she had loved it ever since reading Where the Red Fern Grows as a kid. From time to time over the years, while the man watched Ann digging in his wife’s flower garden or lying in the grass soaking up the sun, he couldn’t help but think of what had happened to her namesake in that book. Maybe that was why he had started calling her Little Annie instead. A small difference, but maybe enough to shake the feeling she was doomed to die young. Or maybe not.
“Daddy,” the boy says. The man doesn’t think his son has called him Daddy in three or four years. “Why’d she have to die?”
Knowing this is just about everyone’s first question when they learn that death stalks the living and always catches its prey in the end, the man has been carefully planning an answer.
“Well, son, everything dies. Animals, plants, everything. These trees giving us so much shade today won’t be around in fifty years. Cats can live for maybe fifteen or eighteen years, assuming they’re indoor cats. Barn cats and feral cats live rougher, meaner lives and most don’t see the age of ten. Mr. Howerson down the road has all those dairy cows and they could live to be twenty years old,” the man says, not adding that Mr. Howerson’s dairy cows won’t ever see the age of seven because their milk production will have diminished so much by then that it’s more cost-effective to have them slaughtered.
Instead of saying more, the man closes his mouth. He had thought hard about a proper answer, to try to be honest in ways his own parents never had been, and yet he ended up saying almost none of what he had planned — and he doesn’t even like what he actually said or where his train of thought had been headed.
Screwed that up, the man thinks. Dammit.
The man and his son walk in silence again, the day’s heat rising all around them. Bright beams of sunlight cut through the openings in the forest canopy above. The weight of the plastic tub increases the spasms in the man’s muscles, but he pushes on. He can hear his son following behind him. He wants to look back, to try to read the boy’s face for any clues of what he’s thinking and feeling, but instead he focuses on making each step land firm. The last thing he wants to do is stumble and drop the tub, potentially causing the lid to pop off, spilling out the black garbage bag inside.
“Daddy,” the boy says, “does everyone die?”
“Yes, son,” the man replies gently, remembering how Ginger’s disappearance and presumed death made him realize for the first time that his parents would someday die, too. “I hate to have to tell you that, but it’s the truth. Some people die on the very day they’re born and some live to be more than a hundred years old. I think the oldest person ever might have been a hundred and twenty.”
The man has more thoughts to share, but he finds it difficult to speak as the path begins to slope upward. The growing heat of the day wraps itself around him and squeezes. The man stops and puts down the plastic tub so he can wipe the sweat off his forehead with his equally sweaty hands. He wants to take a break, but he knows it’s too soon. They must keep moving. He picks up the tub and begins to walk again.
Fifteen minutes later, as the path gets even steeper, his son asks the question that might be as old as humanity itself: “But where do we go when we die?”
“No one knows,” the man says, forcing out the words. “Some folks believe different things, but no one really, truly knows…”
The man nearly trips over his own boots but steadies himself just in the nick of time. Between the sticky hotness and the burning in his lungs and the way his arm muscles are screaming in agony, he cannot continue like this. He carefully lowers the tub to the ground. His back twinges, telling him that he’ll be paying for today long after they’re home.
“I’ll need your help for this next part,” the man says, turning to face his son. “I’ll do the hard work, but you’ll still need to help. Do you understand?”
His son nods, but neither of them makes a move to follow through. The man needs a break and the boy isn’t too keen on touching the plastic tub. Instead, they listen to the woods and they look around, as if they’ve never been here before. There are birds calling. A twig snaps. Leaves rustle above. Something darts through the underbrush. Time passes. The man had hoped maybe his heart would slow a bit with a short rest, but it thuds in his chest like a galloping racehorse. The sensation is unsettling.
“We’d better keep moving,” the man finally says, positioning himself so the tub is behind him. He crouches down, reaches back and curls his fingers under the container, and then he stands up. A moment later, he feels the back end rise off the ground. His son exhales forcefully at the unexpected heaviness. The man considers telling his son that the dead put on weight, and then he thinks better of it.
They slowly navigate the trail as it winds up the hillside. The man can hear his son’s labored breathing and the occasional grunt when a footstep lands wrong. They continue upward, sweat soaking through their clothes and running down their faces. The man blinks away the burning in his eyes, and although he wants to stop again, he does not. Perhaps, he thinks, the pain is a reminder that he should be grateful to be alive.
Finally, just when the man fears that his arms and legs might truly fail him, the path levels out and soon they reach their destination: a beautiful clearing overlooking the valley below. The man drops to his knees and his son groans with relief after they set the plastic tub down. The man wipes his sleeve across his eyes, which does nothing to stop the burning, and he checks on his son. The boy is lying in the grass, holding his shaking arms across his face to block the sun.
The man follows his son’s lead, not even bothering to remove the shovel from his back. He simply rolls over onto his side, closes his eyes, and sucks in big, deep breaths, trying to cool his struggling lungs and calm his frantic heart, which seems to have gone out of control.
Within a few moments, the man has dozed off, even though he would have thought that to be impossible in his current state.
In the dream that rises, he’s back in the kitchen, watching as Annie begins to die all over again on the linoleum floor. His son and his wife aren’t there yet, and he must quickly think up a story to explain what happened because he will never, ever tell them how solid his boot felt connecting with Annie’s face. She had peed under the table and he was so mad he lost control, just for a second, but that was all it took. Now she’s on the floor, shaking like she’s having a seizure and blood is pouring from her mouth. His wife and son arrive in time for her last gasping breath. Then she is gone.
The man startles awake. The sun beats down on him and his head feels like it’s in an oven. How much time has passed? He looks around. His son is sitting and watching him in silence. The man wonders if he was talking in his sleep, something his wife has told him happens when he has been stressed. What might he have said? What might his boy have heard?
The man sits up and stares out at the valley, taking in the view and worrying about the questions he doesn’t want to ask. The river below splits the lowland and the blazing summer sun shimmers across the muddy water like a mirage. That sun is baking the man and his son, but still, they do not move. There is more to do, but the weight of the morning is heavy upon them.
Eventually, though, the man forces himself to stand, and he removes the shovel from his back. He forgot his work gloves, but it’s too late to worry about that. He digs for half an hour, telling himself that he’s dug longer and in hotter weather to plant some of the fruit trees around their home. He doesn’t look at the plastic container he’ll be planting here like a Dollar Store coffin.
By the time the hole is big enough, the man’s muscles feel like they’re full of coiled snakes trying to leap out of his body. Blisters have broken open on his hands. His chest is throbbing, and pain is pouring into his left arm.
“Daddy,” the boy says. The man is certain his son will now confess to knowing the truth about how Annie died. But instead, he points at the tub and asks: “Why are we burying her in this?”
“Because,” the man says, out of breath and burning up, thinking maybe he is the one who died and now he’s in the fires of Hell, “we don’t want the critters digging Ginger up and eating her. Because we loved her.”
The man doesn’t even realize he’s said the wrong name, and he wants to say more, but he has no words. His vision is blurring and his heart is racing erratically. He needs to get back to the shade for whatever relief it might offer. Much like his work gloves, he also forgot to bring any water, but he’s not even thinking about that.
The man drops to his knees and shoves the tub into the opening he has carved out of the land. He pushes at the clumps of dirt with his blistered hands, and they thud down on the plastic lid. His son joins him, helping move the soil until the hole has been filled, and then spreading away the excess dirt.
The man knows there’s another step involved in the burial process, but he can’t think. His chest is booming and he’s not sure how he’ll manage to get back to their house. The distance is only a few miles, but it might as well be on the moon.
“Son,” he croaks, finally remembering, “we need to say something nice about her.”
His son is silent for a long moment. The man leans heavily on the boy, his mind going blank as his heart pounds fitfully and the pain in his arm grows. He barely even feels the burning sweat in his eyes now.
After what feels like hours, his son says:
“Annie, you were the best little sister a guy could ever hope to have.”
Brian James Freeman is the author of Walking with Ghosts, The Painted Darkness, Blue November Storms, The Echo of Memory, The Halloween Children (with Norman Prentiss), Darkness Whispers (with Richard Chizmar), and four mini-collections of his short fiction. He has written two children’s books: The Zombie Who Cried Human, illustrated by Glenn Chadbourne, and The Girl Who Builds Monsters, illustrated by Vincent Chong. He’s also the editor of Midnight Under the Big Top, Dark Screams (with Richard Chizmar), Detours, Reading Stephen King, and the Halloween Carnival anthology series. Thanks to the support of his readers on Patreon, he now writes and publishes full-time. Find him online at http://www.brianjamesfreeman.com
Francois Vaillancourt is a Montreal artist who specializes in images illustrating dark worlds and stories where horror and macabre meet. His images are characterized by a highly textured, emotionally evocative, and sensitive universe. Even through his darkest images, we can feel a certain beauty and fragility. Although trained as a classical artist, his work and creative methods have been transposed into the digital world, allowing him to rework images in a more fluid way until the desired result is achieved. His website can be found at: http://www.francois-art.com