The Backyard Digger

By Robb White

The boy was a nuisance. Every day I’d find him digging out there with his child’s shovel and pail with happy cartoon figures bordering the tops and bottom. I was solely concerned about his well-being, not the fact he was trespassing. Two summers ago, we had two bands of coyotes raising their young and setting up opposing choruses of yips every time an ambulance siren went off somewhere in the harbor. A mature male in a russet coat once appeared out of the bush and stood fifteen feet from me in my Adirondack chair, watching, unafraid. I clapped and he calmly turned around and headed back down the slope following the same path the boy took on his digging adventures.

On the day Austin cut his hand on a piece of embedded glass, I had to do something. He seemed oblivious of the blood streaming down his wrist, dripping into the black dirt where he continued digging with his toy shovel. Years back, I had stopped cutting grass fifteen feet from where he stood owing to the steep pitch of the slope. I used to tie a rope to the handle and lower the mower, hauling it up hand over hand until the strain on my shoulder muscles became too much, and I resorted to swinging my weed trimmer back and forth in wild arcs because of the unsure footing. Two years ago, I gave up and let nature reclaim it, which took no time at all; the sumac trees sprouted wildly, pricker bushes filled in beneath, and wild mustard took whatever space was left.

* * *

Maybe my conversation with Jimmy Shaughnessy opened a portal in my neocortex—or maybe in that older part of the brain, the paleocortex, we call the “lizard brain.” I dreamt that night of a young woman in a print dress. She went from room to room, looking for what I didn’t know. She “knew” I was there, living in her house, but didn’t care. She was on a mission to find something—or someone.

I woke up, groggy, but experiencing less pain. I mused about my dream of the ghost in the print dress, laughing it off as my own hypersensitivity after the recent events, not least being Shaughnessy’s sordid photo and their testimonials of violence.

Drying off from my shower, I walked into the kitchen to make a fresh cup of coffee. I looked for the ceramic sugar bowl in the cupboard but it wasn’t in its usual place. I saw it next to the microwave. Odd, because I am fanatical about replacing items. The top was off. Sugar had been spilled beside it.

I stared at the mess for seconds, trying to recall if I had removed it from the cupboard and forgotten doing it. But leaving the top off and the sugar left there wasn’t something I would do.

Then, approaching, I froze. The spilled sugar wasn’t just scattered about—a finger had spelled a word in the middle of it. The word spelled “KILL.”

I blamed the drugs. I explained it as a sleepwalking episode brought on by the opioids working in my brain. Somewhere deep in my consciousness I wasn’t convinced. Those final few words to me on Jimmy’s ratty couch rung uneasily in my memory. I debated all day long going to see Austin’s mother. I had no idea what I would say but telling her what I’d learned yesterday and the ghostly scrawl on my kitchen counter would only add gasoline to the fire.

I didn’t know what to do. The daylight slipped from my windows as I delayed action. The hot midday glare softened to become the amber light of afternoon, a softening that did nothing to calm the turbulence of my emotions. Pacing, downing a tumbler of liquid courage, I watched the fuzzy, orange-red disc of sun descend through the treeline near the breakwall to sink below the lake’s horizon. It gave me no comfort to realize my favorite pastime of watching the sun go down was based on a perceptual unreality; it’s a mirage, a reflection, according to astronomers and physicists. If that celestial phenomenon were not real, what else could be possible? A hand writing in sugar on a countertop was hardly an equivalency in the magnitude of belief required.

Full dark past the summer solstice came around 8:30 at this latitude. By ten o’clock, to my shame be it said, I was half-drunk. Switching to beer had slowed the inebriation, but I was glassy-eyed by the time I grabbed my flashlight and headed outside. A crescent moon hid behind scudding clouds, but the air retained its mugginess from the day’s brutal heat.

Raccoons and skunks prowled at this time. I was concentrating—as much as the alcohol in my system allowed for—on what I might find over my backyard slope. The see-sawing chorus of cicadas made a racket too loud to hear anything else.

My beam found the boy in seconds; on his hands and knees, his face blackened by dirt and sweat, the flap of soiled bandage hanging from his arm. His eyes zeroed on his task. If he reacted to the light at all, he didn’t show it.

I called his name, loud, several times but still no reaction from the tiny digger working below me. I dreaded the next step. My imagination came un-tethered at the thought of picking my way in the pitch-black darkness down that slippery earthen slide to grab the boy and haul him up. Sober, it would have been a daunting task. Addled by drink, it would take the dexterity of a mountain goat to negotiate the steps to get both of us back without risk to life and limb.

One small step on the grass slick with nighttime dew. Like a man on a tightrope, I wobbled uncertainly against the tug of gravity. There’s always one wave that destroys a floundering vessel’s moment of righting; my next step was my “wave.” The struggle to regain my footing was futile. Instinctively, I flopped onto my back and slid faster downhill. The flashlight flew from my hand.

Austin saved me from a second terrifying roll down that hill. I slammed into his small body, which deflected my course enough to propel me into a sumac tree. Before my momentum swung me around it, I hooked one leg onto it. Austin bounced into the air and landed on my chest. He flailed his arms to free himself from his human sled, but I clasped him firmly to keep us both from going downhill.

A punch to my jaw almost knocked the boy free from my grasp.

“Austin! Austin! Stop struggling!”

Leave him alone.”

The voice was a low growl in the throat, barely audible. I would replay it in my mind a hundred times later. With one fist bunched in the fabric of the back of his shirt, I hauled Austin up the slope with me. It took an hour to reach the edge of the grassline. I sobbed with relief. Another half-hour to get us both to the point where we could crawl, freed from gravity’s relentless tug.

This time, there’d be no cleaning up for either of us before taking him home to his mother. I banged on the door indifferent to who else I might be disturbing that time of night. I kept a grip on the boy’s shoulder despite his squirming. She opened the door. I shoved the boy into her and barked: “Keep him the hell off my property. This is my last warning!”

Back home, I tried watching the news, flipped through the channels, unable to calm my agitation. The temptation to drink was powerful, but I resisted. I couldn’t shake that creepy feeling that came over me every time I thought of that voice out there in the dark. It was no child’s voice, and it couldn’t have been from Austin. I kept telling myself I imagined it, imagined that ever-so-faint tint of a brogue. By that point, I’d already half-convinced myself I’d written the word in the sugar in a fugue state induced by drugs.

I shut off the TV and closed my eyes. I don’t remember falling asleep. I was already locked in a dream about my ghost girl in the print dress flitting from kitchen to dining room. I’d catch her in glimpses, the hem of her long dress, a remnant of shawl going past, or a slipper-shod foot before she disappeared out of the corner of my eye. I kept thinking of getting up to go help her find whatever she was dashing about in search of, but the inertia of sleep pinned me firmly to the couch. At last, I shook off the last vestige of sleep and sat up rubbing my eyes.

Going into the kitchen for a drink of water, I couldn’t stand the full effect of the light, so I flipped on the night light over the sink. I looked out into the blackness, saw nothing, thought of those godawful saloons and rooming houses of the past. My left hand touched grit—not grit, salt.

But not salt, either. Before I turned around to confirm it, I saw the sugar bowl and its lid askew. I flicked on the light to read “KILL YOU” where my hand had been a moment earlier. I jumped backward as if snakebit.

The computer in my brain was flashing “information overload.” I couldn’t process another thing. I stumbled up the stairs to my bed and fell on face-first on my mattress. I was out immediately, sucked into a black void. Sometime in the night, I opened my eyes to read the digital clock: 3:00 a.m. The time Catholic medievalists called “the Dark Night of the Soul,” a time of great spiritual depression and the beginning of “enlightenment” to a new reality.

The creak on the stairs was so slight I’d never have heard it if I’d succumbed to my mental exhaustion. A second creak, higher up, closer to the landing where the carpeting would suppress all sound. I got up and went to the door; my hand hit the light switch just as a figure emerged from the hallway with an upraised arm about to strike.

Austin’s mother . . .

I punched her arm aside and the knife flew against the wall. She stood there in a nightdress, rocking on her heels, blinking at me, her eyes glazed like a dead bird’s.

“Why am I here?”

Stooping to pick up the knife, I showed it to her—one of my own kitchen knives.

She rubbed her arm where I’d struck her.

“I think you came to kill me.”

“I would never—I don’t understand. Why am I in your house? Did you . . . bring me here?”

She looked down at her night clothes, checking, questioning, and suddenly I was put on the defensive.

“Where’s Austin?”

“He’s in bed asleep.”

She said it as though she wasn’t sure.

“What’s happening?”

“I don’t know that I can explain it, but you and Austin are in great danger.”

It sounded like a cheap horror movie. In some way I could never have explained to her, I was certain my ghost girl had saved my life. That dire warning kept me from being stabbed to death by a woman not in her right mind. What if I had told her that her autistic son was in thrall to the Taggart clan, people who lived and died over a century ago? What other explanation could I give that made sense?

“Go home,” I ordered her. “Get Austin. He’s in danger. Go now!”

She fled down the steps, more terrified of me than discovering herself inside my house in the middle of the night with a butcher’s knife in her hand. I paced for an hour. I couldn’t unwind. My shoulder muscles were knotted with tension, and my stomach felt as though I’d swallowed a chunk of ice.

Unable to wait for dawn, I had to know what was happening over there. I dressed and headed out the door, my thoughts jumbled and chaotic. I knocked on the door. I peered through the sheers over the picture window on the porch but saw nothing out of order. I started to go back home but turned around and went back. This time, I banged louder and bellowed both his name and hers. I shoved my shoulder against the door, but it wouldn’t give way. I ran around back and tried a screen door. Same result.

Whatever compelled me, I can’t say. I hammered on the door. The silence inside terrified me. I regretted not going home with her. I drew back my leg and kicked the door open. Glass shattered, wood splinters flew—but I was inside.

Running from room to room shouting Austin’s name, I took in the messy condition of the house—clothes strewn on the floors in every room, food boxes left on tabletops, stacks of dishes in the sink, and most ominously, crayon drawings and scribbles on the wall. I didn’t linger to study them. I had to find the boy and his mother, ensure their safety from the diabolical forces polluting this house and using that boy as a conduit for their malevolence.

Searching upstairs yielded nothing but the same unkempt condition of rooms. I stood listening to the house. When it happened I don’t remember now, but voices—male and female voices—penetrated the walls. I could not discern words but the voices overlapped, spoke growls, hisses, and whispers.

Bolting down the steps, I had one room left to check—the basement. I heard a fiercer brogue than the one I’d heard last night over my hill. The voices grew louder, more insistent. Taking the last steps too rapidly, my right ankle folded and I flew headlong onto the concrete floor slamming my chin. The pain as like a bolt of lightning through my brain.

I tried to get up but couldn’t. The room off to my right held a washer and dryer, a metal shelf holding boxes and plastic jugs for washing clothes. Concussed but aware, I saw a group clustered in one corner, dark shapes; my brain took a snapshot of them in their outdated clothing. A fierce-looking old man with a long white beard, two young men with long hair and moustaches, a woman in her late twenties with crimson lips and a corseted waist in silk.

A woman’s shriek from the other room. I rose to my feet. Austin and his mother huddled in the corner. I staggered over to them, placed my arms around them, and led them to the steps. When I looked back, the washer room was completely empty except for a red 5-gallon can of gasoline with a rag sticking out of the spout.

“You have to leave,” I demanded of her.

She appeared to be in shock. I gripped her by the shoulders and shook her hard.

“Get the boy and get out!”

It was like shouting in a field of cotton; she heard nothing. I propelled them both out the front door, the mother holding her son’s hand. We were on the porch steps when the explosion erupted and shook the house.

I shepherded them to my house and put the boy on the couch and covered him with a blanket. Austin was shaking. His hands made fluttering motions, and his mouth opened and closed soundlessly. I led Austin’s mother into the kitchen.

“Are you hurt?”

“No . . . no.”

“Drink this.”

I poured her a shot of whiskey. She sipped, coughed but drank half.

“You and Austin have to leave. You can’t stay here.”

The boy had to be removed from my backyard. I didn’t want to explain my own house’s haunting.  

The caterwaul of sirens came from all directions. A fire truck raced past my front window and pulled up to Mrs. Donato’s house.

One look at her vacant expression and the cops would notify Child Services. She’d lose her son forever.

“Come with me,” I said to her. “I’ll take you to a motel.”

I carried Austin to my car and put him on the backseat. More sirens were splitting the air with their tremolo shrieks. Leaving the driveway, I glanced up at the second-floor bedroom window. The ghost girl parted the shade and stared down at us. Her oval face was pale, her chestnut hair parted down the middle. She was expressionless—but so intensely real up there in the window that I almost called out to Austin’s mother.  

Driving past Austin’s house, I saw flames licking the fluttering sheers dancing in the draft off the porch. I drove ten miles to a Ramada on the outer edge of the township and booked a room.

“Relax for a while,” I told her. “I’ll be gone for a half-hour. I’ll bring back some food.”

I didn’t want to be responsible for this damaged family, yet I didn’t know how to extricate myself. At some level, I felt responsible. Looking for fast-food franchises off the interstate, I had time to compose myself. I hoped the mother would be receptive to my suggestions without demanding much explanation. The only ones I had involved the supernatural and that wouldn’t go far with her or law enforcement, much less a family court judge if I were called to testify as to her fitness to raise a special needs child.

I made three stops, buying a variety of foods, hoping the boy’s appetite would relish some of my choices. Clutching the paper sacks and styrofoam containers clumsily against my chest, I worked the key into the lock and pushed open the door. The lights were out; neither bed was occupied. Light seeped from under the bathroom door. I heard no running water.

I called to them that the food had arrived. Pushing the night tables together at the foot of one of the beds, I set three places and began sorting out the food.

“Hey, you two, the food’s getting cold,” I called out.

Nothing, no response. I hesitated, not wanting to knock on the door or interrupt a private moment between mother and son.

Growing uneasy, I went to the door and rapped on it.

The doorknob turned in my hand and I pushed the door open.

I saw them in the mirror first, Austin’s face at a similar height to his mother’s. He was standing on the edge of the tub, an arm bar under his mother’s chin, the knife in his hand looked huge.

“Austin, what are you doing?”

He stared at me. The boyish face replaced by one older—much older.

“Put the knife down, Austin.”

No.”

“You can speak. Austin, listen to me—”

Bricky brave of a sudden, ain’t you? Thought we’d all pig-together in bed, eh? Was you Plannin’ on some hogmagundy with her. You ain’t got the bowers for it, I reckon.”

His sudden acquisition of speech in whole sentences stunned me; the smut-laden brogue in the mouth of a ten-year-old boy was beyond comprehension.

“Austin, I’m begging you.”
            “Beg away, you goney. Take her.”

The red smile that opened beneath her chin was so sudden and so terrifying that I reeled from it. Rushing to her, I threw a forearm at Austin to knock him backwards into the tub, the knife clattering free. She lay on the tile gurgling. I tried to stanch the wound by pressing my fingers against the gash but blood spurted between my fingers. I grabbed a towel from the rack but it was soaked in seconds. He’d severed the carotid. She thrashed about and then looked at me, her face a blanched mask of horror.

When I recovered my wits, I found Austin sobbing, lying in a fetal position, trying to tuck his body under his arms. Whatever foul spirit had taken possession of him released him. I did not know how to comfort him. I did not know how to comfort anyone.

Fastidious to the last, I placed a clean towel over the edge of the bed before sitting down. My lower half was covered in her blood. I called 9-1-1 and waited for the police.

* * *

Three days of interrogation, one lasting from morning to night, and my cooperation meant little to deflect their attention from me as a kidnapper and murderer. I refused to “lawyer up,” as they say, because I wanted justice for the mother and son involved in this horrible tragedy.

I withheld all knowledge of the Taggart-Atwood connection, the sordid history of the two lovers, and how Austin’s frenetic digging in my backyard woke the vengeful spirits. When the police and the prosecutor summoned me for a fourth interview—check that, interrogation—and began attributing the most vicious of motives for my abducting a child and his mother, setting fire to their house, and fleeing with my hostages, I protested my innocence and walked out of that small room, informing them that my cooperation was over and any future contact would be through my lawyer, although I had yet to engage one.

My isolation and neighborhood reputation worked against me. People who once spoke to me, even casually, spurned any contact. The gossips around me went wild, wagging their tongues, passing on rumors, and inventing stories of my contempt for the American flag and patriotic holidays to the point that one man I’d only waved to from across the street a couple times told police he saw me burning American flags and holiday bunting in a 55-gallon barrel in my backyard! Many of these gossips volunteered false stories and lies to the police. I was accused of occult practices and meeting “suspicious looking people” at all hours of the night.

The death threats began as soon as the Northtown daily, The Herald-Tribune, began connecting the news of Austin’s mother’s death in the motel with the house fire. My name was mentioned as “a person of interest.” When subsequent articles began connecting me to Austin’s mother in a way that looked suspicious—for example, two neighbors saw me escorting the boy “roughly” back home; another said she saw me “pounding furiously” on the front door, while the boy looked “frightened” and wanted to “escape.” I was soon unable to leave the house without being followed and harassed. I tried to do further research in the library and was jumped and beaten by three men in the parking lot. I lost three teeth and both my eyes were blackened, two ribs broken. But the worst of it was when a kick sent a bone spur into my left lung and I nearly suffocated to death from a blood-filled lung.

Arriving home, I discovered my car had been torched in the driveway and my house broken into and vandalized. Words like “MURDERER” and “SCUM” were spray-painted throughout the house in Day-Glo orange and black. Some epithets were obscene, others expressed threats or wished for my death. “YOU SHOULD KILL YOURSELF YOU SCUMBAG was splashed in red paint across the front of my house. All of this was a shock as none of the nurses or doctors who tended to me in the hospital informed me of this vandalism, nor did anyone let me see a copy of the paper.

Pressure was put on the county prosecutor by the media to convene a grand jury before I was released from the hospital. Three news vans with whip aerials and their channel logos on the sides were parked in front of my house. Reporters jammed microphone sin my face while I unlocked the front door, screaming questions at me from all sides—all accusatory and some “demanding” explanations, as though my guilt were a foregone conclusion.

It looked bad, I had to admit. No one—cops or citizens—believed a harmless, 10-year-old autistic boy incapable of speech was capable of slicing his own mother’s throat. In my final interview, a detective jumped out of his chair, screaming in my face that it was “physically impossible” for a boy with puny arms to control a 150-pound woman with one arm and cut her throat with one “perfect swipe without leaving a single hesitation mark on her neck—all while perched on the rim of a bathtub.” He accused me of taking Austin and his mother to the sole motel on the interstate with bathtubs so that I’d have this excuse for blaming the boy for my own premeditated murder.

A secret grand jury was convened in the fall. I was indicted and charged with first-degree murder and first-degree arson. The kidnapping charge was reduced to felony abduction of a child. The trial was a litany of disaster; my lawyer failed to adequately rebut the testimony of every witness, even the gossip-mongers. Jimmy Shaughnessy’s testimony about my “unnatural interest in murder” was a nasty surprise to read about in the Trib. He obviously relished the attention he received from the press.

I was found guilty after four hours of jury deliberation. The judge gave me life without parole.

After a month in the general population at the penitentiary in Youngstown, I was placed in SHU (Segregated Housing Unit) for my own protection. Convicts have a peculiar sense of honor; they consider men who harm women or children to be deserving of savage beatings or even killing. After I’d been hassled in the chow line a couple times, it was open season on me. One attack resulted in an ugly, zipper-like scar across my neck.

My appeal is pending, and my new lawyer is hopeful of the verdict being overturned on “two major technicalities.” I’m not. I’ve asked her to keep me informed about goings-on in my old neighborhood. I had to sell my house—at a huge discount—to pay for legal services. Austin is in foster care; his fire-ravaged house was razed and the property sold for a paltry $11,000. The new owner is from Mahoning County and is building a summer vacation home.

My lawyer told me the current owner of my former house refused her permission to check out the backyard at night. She didn’t understand why but she agreed to make the request. The owner doesn’t want to have anything to do with me, which I understand. The whole neighborhood, she told me, remained under a cloud of suspicion, although the curious have stopped driving past to gaze at the two now notorious properties.

She did me one favor, however. She spent time among the archives and discovered a photo, which she reproduced and sent me. It was a grainy, black-and-white photo of Beatrice Taggart. She looks at the camera with a mocking, confident arrogance. Even without today’s cosmetics, she was a beauty. She looks at me with her cold light eyes, which I imagined to be green for some reason.

Convicts who never read a book in their lives send kites—messages in code—up and down the tiers all day. Mostly gossip, much of it related to their criminal enterprises within the prison. They think the staff’s gang intelligence unit is too thick to know what they’re up to. Often, that’s the case. Male cons love to solicit letters from women on the outside as pen-pals. Women find dangerous men appealing as long as they’re confined to a 12-by-10 cell. Nine months into my sentence, I received a letter from a woman in Terre Haute, whose name I didn’t recognize. She said that she read of my case online. She claimed she was the former owner of the house Mrs. Donato bought from her. She said a young woman arrived on her porch one day. The woman came to enquire about the house, but she told her the sale was about to be closed in a few days. The woman insisted.

What was more unusual to her, however, was the young lady’s apparel. The owner happened to be a skilled seamstress who created her own dresses for cosplay events. She said that fact helped to ease her suspicions about the young woman despite her “pushiness” in seeing the house. Her dress was period-perfect, said my correspondent, who explained the differences among a ball dress, a dinner dress, and a “traveling” dress for visits in late-Victorian times. The skirt she wore was floor-length, had a low neckline, included a taille, which meant a cross between a tight-fitting jacket and a modern blouse. She was “perfect,” the letter writer said, right down to her shoes, gloves, and parasol.

Once inside, however, the woman became giddy and demanded to be shown every room in the house, often commenting on “changes” she could not possibly have known about. I quote from the letter: “My hands shook. I was that frightened. When she asked me for a glass of water, I was glad to get away so that I could call the police. I had never seen such beauty or felt such malice wrapped up in one human being.”  

 The final paragraph was the most telling. She came into the living room to hand the visitor her glass of water, but she was gone. No sound of door closing—just gone. That night, she had a nightmare about her strange visitor. In the dream, she lay in a lucid dreaming state paralyzed, unable to move but aware of everything around her. That’s when the young woman in the Victorian dress from that afternoon appeared by her bedside. She wore a petticoat and bustier that exposed too much cleavage. Her face was “painted” in heavy rouge and ruby-red lipstick. She stared down at the woman with an expression so evil, she wrote, that she tried to scream. When the young woman raised a large knife to plunge it into her, she came awake screaming and weeping.

“I’ll never forget her,” she wrote me. “Even living in another state, I’m terrified of her. I can hear her in my sleep. She speaks with an accented English.”

-END-


Robb White has published several crime, noir, and horror stories as well as hardboiled novels in various anthologies and magazines such as Down & Out, Mystery Tribune, Yellow Mama, Mystery Weekly, Hoosier Noir, and Close to the Bone.White has been nominated for a Derringer. “Inside Man,” a crime story, published in Down and Out Magazine, was selected for the Best American Mystery Stories 2019. “The Girl from the Sweater Factory,” a horror tale, was a finalist in The Dark Sire Magazine’s 2020 awards.  He has two series private eyes. He has also published on The Yard: Crime Blog previously. His books can be found on his website or in our bookstore.



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