Only other time I buried something on this land I was seventeen years old. My daddy had a couple head of cattle struck rabid. We shot them where they stood and after, I spent the whole day with him digging a hole wide and deep before using the tractor to push their bodies in. He covered them in diesel and we burned them.
Tried to tell Emma and Jack that story once, how animals can get sick on a farm. It was just after their mother died and I couldn’t think of another way to explain what cancer was. Don’t think they understood though. Kid’s don’t know about the bad in the world. You try to hide it, though. Because that’s what a father is supposed to do.
But sometimes the bad finds them anyway.
Jack was the first to notice she’d gone quiet. Come up to me one night. Said, “Daddy, I think Emma’s gone deaf.”
I laughed. Told him that girls that age are strange.
“She’ll be back to fine,” I said. “Promise.”
But when they’re truth, thoughts don’t run. And Jack was right. Emma’d been acting different.
Almost May, she should have been talking about summer things she wanted to do. But she hardly spoke at all. Didn’t see her friends. Didn’t go to Church or even watch TV.
One night I went to her room and opened the door. Emma was curled up tight, asleep. She looked peaceful to me and I wondered if maybe I was crazy, that nothing was wrong.
But then I saw the walls.
All the posters of that boy band she liked were gone, little shreds of them still stuck with tape to the walls. Photos of me and Jack and her mother turned over on her dresser. All the old stuffed animals she’d put in the closet a couple years ago were out now, lined along the sides of her bed.
I knew then. I was missing something bad.
Next day I kept her home from school. We sat around the kitchen table. Me staring into my cup of coffee, unable look her in the eye.
Then I started to to ask questions.
The answers were slow to come, but when they did, tears came with them.
She begged me not to tell. Said it was her fault. That she wasn’t right with God. And all the while, I sat there, ready to kill. Shocked.
“I wish mom was here,” she said.
I reached over. Took her hand in mine. “I do too.”
Yesterday, after I drove Emma and Jack into Omaha and put them on a plane to my brother, I called Kirby and asked if he could help me with some work. Told him I was finally ready to get some of my wife’s things out of the house.
He said he was happy to help.
Kirby Westin’s been in my life going on around twenty years. I can remember the first time I saw him. Short kid in glasses wearing a white dress shirt with a cross hung by a leather strap across his chest. Thought to myself he was asking for an ass-kicking.
Miracle he didn’t get one. Somehow he fell in with me and my friends. He was all right. Mostly normal. But sometimes when we’d be drinking beers in the back of my daddy’s pickup he’d start going on about his favorite stories from the Bible and we’d have to tell him to hush. Like I said. Mostly normal.
He pulled up around noon.
I waved. Put down my beer. Stood up on the porch. We started walking towards the barn.
He was smiling. “Gotta say, Frank, I think it’s good you’re finally moving on.”
“Bout time we all do,” I said.
The doors of the barn were open and we walked in together. I stood back while he walked to the piles of boxes I’d laid out. He lifted one. Said, “Doesn’t feel like there’s much in here.”
I smiled. Turned. Went to the corner and reached under the tarp spread over the workbench.
Don’t think the bastard even saw me pick it up.
I ran to him quick and put the axe in his skull as hard as I could.
Kirby fell on his knees. Like he was praying. Right then I remembered that kid in glasses telling his favorite Bible stories. How I’d worried about him. But then I remembered him telling those same stories to my kids in Sunday School. How he was mostly normal. How I’d trusted him all those times he asked if Emma could stay late Sunday and help clean up.
I brought the axe down again. Into the base of his neck. Deeper this time. And when I dug it out I swung again.
I hacked at Kirby ’til I couldn’t feel anything. When I was done, I wrapped him in a tarp and drove him out to a far corner of my field, to the hole I’d dug the night before.
As I lifted him out of the truck bed, I thought that with some luck, Emma might believe me. I’d promised her I wouldn’t hurt him. That we were only going to talk. I supposed she might believe Kirby’d gotten scared and run off.
I prayed she’d believe it. Promised I’d make it up to her.
I started to bury Kirby, thinking all along, while I threw that cold black earth down on him, about my children. About them down with my brother in Tennessee and how, now that they were gone, I didn’t think I could bear to bring them back to this. But then I thought better of it. In the bed of the truck, I had a ten gallon of gas.
Down in the hole, I doused Kirby with the diesel fuel just the way I was taught.
Like my daddy said, when something that bad comes around, it has to be burned.
Bio: Paul J. Garth is the writer of numerous short stories. Others can be found at Shotgun Honey and in the forthcoming collection, “Badlands: Trouble in the Heartland”. He is perpetually in transit between Nebraska and Texas and can be found online by following @pauljgarth