Ms Bannister’s house was at the far end of the cul-de-sac. It was barely a cul-de-sac as there was almost an acre of empty grassland between her house and the nearest neighbors and Ms Bannister’s house stood alone at the very end of the street without a garage or much space to turn a car. The street just sort of stopped at her front door.
It was a little past noon as Cake drove by the last house on the street. It had a limp sign advertising Turnop for president in 2017 decorating an otherwise neat and minimalist yard. A small boy was crouched down behind the sign. He was playing with action figures, beating the dolls’ heads together.
Cake cruised to a stop next to a red pickup truck in his clunky -92 Buick. The door made a sad creak as he got out. The car needed a check up and some new dampers. Don’t we all, Cake’s heart sank as he thought of the additional costs. He walked around the car kicking the tires; they seemed to be holding up even if they weren't looking like it. He decided to rotate them in the evening.
He didn’t even want to think about everything that might be hanging by a hair inside the hood.
The front porch was low and dim. Cake stomped up the steps in his pink khakis and a white tee like a man determined to get his hands dirty. The khakis really belonged to his brother, passed down through a few years of disuse, or whenever someone needed clothes that could get dirty. This usually meant Cake had them. Brutus had worn them once at a Pride and they’d gotten permanently stained with a multitude of colors. The pants had quickly gotten demoted to work clothes. But technically, they were still Brutus’ as he would point out.
The house was immaculate but not exceptional. The gutters were clean and the front had a fresh paint job. There were small streaks of a dark paint on the very bottom corner of the door frame, but everything had a neatly uniform white and gray sheen to it. The door opened before he had the chance to ring the doorbell.
“You’re right on time, kid!” Ms Bannister squinted up at him. She was holding back two white goats wearing pajamas. One had bananas on it, the other owls. “Hold on a mo’, I’ll put these two ingrates in the basement and then I’ll show you the lawnmower!” She slammed the door to Cake’s face and there was a silence. A short cacophony of swears and broken glass sounded through the door before another silence.
The door opened again.
“To your left!” she marched past Cake waving her cane like a drill sergeant off to show some privates some ditches. “Your car!? Looks like a hearse!” she pointed as they passed the Buick.
“That’s why I like it, ma’am,” Cake said.
“Gertie! Everyone calls me Gertie!” Gertie quipped over her shoulder. “Even those Turnop fuckers over there!” She gestured over to the closest house with the sign on the front lawn. “Well, not the father! I think he calls me That Fucking Cunt!” Gertie chuckled.
“That’s a nice truck you have there,” Cake tried changing the subject as they passed around the side of the house to the back yard.
“It’s my ex husband’s!”
“Oh..,” Cake started. “I figured you didn’t get along with him much.”
“I didn’t!” Gertie waved her cane ahead of her. “There’s the tool shed!” She pointed at a tiny, worn shed at the far end of what looked like yet another football field of empty space.
“You sure have a lot of space here.” Cake ran his hand through his hair.
“Yeah! I bought the houses on either side and tore the ugly fuckers down! I don’t need no damn peeping toms and their spawn running under my windows all day!” Gertie pulled open the shed door. It was barely the size of a portable toilet, with a loose light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a myriad of illegal wiring criss-crossing the wall next to the door. ‘Wall’ seemed like a charitable term to use in this context, Cake thought.
“There’s the lawnmower!” Gertie pointed at a rusty little thing. It was a push mower. It was a push mower with sad, rusty blades turning over each other in a cylinder of brown despair and a set of ill-fitted wheels. One of them the original black and the other a dirty yellow half the size.
Cake fell silent. He could feel the wind drying out his open mouth.
“Ha! I’m just fucking with you!” Gertie burst out. She pulled the covers from another lawnmower, this one with an engine and a shiny orange coat of paint. “Works every time! You kids always think I’m some old coot crazy enough to mow the entire 20 acres with a fucking push mower!” she giggled. “Hell no! Use this! Oh and there are some old shrubberies at the east side of my plot! They’ve been cut down already, but if you could be a doll and dig the roots out while you’re there!” She pointed at a small shovel in the corner.
Cake sighed rubbing the back of his neck. “Sure thing, ma’am.”
He mowed the lawn.
And after that, Cake mowed more lawn.
The noon sun had long since peaked and was making it’s way into the evening streaking the sky with brilliant reds and oranges. Sparrows, robins and nightingales were chirping up a storm in the woods framing Ms Bannister’s plot, digging and swooping after insects come out to play in the evening. Even with the lawnmower grumbling like a broken rhino in the grass, Cake could hear the discordant symphony of the birds. And beyond the woods, the steady hum of the interstate a few miles away.
By 6pm he was finally done with the mowing with just the single muddle of roots to pull out.
The sheared stump stood defiantly in the middle of the field. It was black and dead and definitely housing some sort of a bug infestation. Cake stood for a moment estimating the right angle to begin his approach as the tangled mess of roots poked out of the ground here and there creating almost a moat around the former shrub. Finally he spotted a good enough in and dug the shovel into the roots with his boot. He twisted the shovel. The ground gave a cursory budge but the stump stayed put.
“Well shit...” Cake was wiping sweat from his brow.
He dug the shovel into a different spot and twisted again. The stump lifted and he could hear small roots snapping under the turf. But most of it remained unmoved.
“Really? After all this mowing? This is what you give me?” Cake cursed gesturing at the field. Irritated, he grabbed the little stump with his hands and almost immediately regretted the decision. The bark was dry and flaky and kept slipping in his palms. Whatever had built nests in the wood instantly went on the defense and he could see streams of black dots marching towards him from inside the stump and the air getting darker as their aerial comrades took flight. He squeezed tighter, rapidly blinking until he felt something lock between his hands and the wood. Cake dug in his heels and pulled. The dry bark disintegrated in his grasp and the remains of branches that had provided such a good grip dug into the sides of his palms. The harder he pulled, the deeper the withered remains pushed into his skin. It stung. Then it stopped stinging. The stump got firmer to grip as the blood from his hands wet the wood and the tiny roots kept snap snap snapping in almost a rhythm as he pulled and the mess of wood and blood and soil inched away from the earth until finally. A thick and satisfying pop. The stump, and Cake, flew back in an impressive arch, throwing earth up in the sky only for it to rain back down on him. Earth, stones, little creepy crawlies and then larger white chunks that bounced off his arms and landed on the grass as he was trying to shield himself from the onslaught of soil.
Cake brushed his beard and sputtered bits of grit from between his lips. The white t-shirt was decidedly not white anymore with dirt and streaks of blood from his hand making a postmodern pattern on it.
“Oh, fuck me.”
Cake looked down on himself as he got up. The skin on his hands was red and puckered up with blood seeping through which was a small blessing. At least that would clean the wounds a little bit. He wondered if his tetanus shot was still effective. Had he gotten a tetanus shot?
He bent down to pick up the stump to drag it off to the composting heap when one of the larger chunks laying on the ground caught his eye.
It had a beak coming out of it.
Cake picked up the watermelon sized lump and turned it around. Yup, that was definitely a skull with a beak. A very large skull with a beak. Almost like a human crossed with Big Bird. A goth Big Bird. The cousin of Big Bird, who was actually into death metal and didn’t like anyone on the Street except Oscar for shared bonding over garbage.
The eye sockets were huge and empty. The beak was a prominent outgrowth looking nothing like a nose, and very much like a beak. It had small serrated teeth-like things running along the edge of it. The back of the skull was a smooth creamy globe with barely visible light brown or yellow patterns, like animal tracks on a snowy field. But there was a very definitive jawline that pulled the bones into an oddly human-like shape.
Cake ran his hand over the skull brushing away loose dirt still clinging to the nooks and the almost soft surface of the skull.
“Wonder if this is real..”
He shook it upside down to see if there was anything inside it. Nothing seemed to rattle around and nothing fell out. The underside of the skull looked almost porous, like the edges of it had been burned with acid or decayed and the cell walls had worn thin exposing the empty cavities they were surrounding.
He sniffed it quickly.
It smelled of dirt and grass and gasoline.
Cake lifted the skull up to his face, brought it close and pinched his nose. He hesitated... then quickly pecked the skull with the tip of his tongue.
He stood still for a moment wondering what he was hoping to taste.
“I’ve been mowing this lawn WAY too damn long,” he muttered to the skull. “Do you know what a skull tastes like? No, no you don’t know what skull tastes like. What’s wrong with you?”
Stumped, he kicked the grass only to hit what looked like a piece of a spine. A little further off from that, a small femur-like bones and talons scattered white splinters shining between the fresh grass. He picked up a few and turned them over in his hands. They looked the same: bones picked bare, some with corrosion exposing cell structures, mostly in shapes he couldn’t identify. This was why paleontologist studied for many years, he figured, and he’d studied exactly zero years of How To Put Together Unidentified Bones.
“Whatcha got there, kid?!”
Gertie had somehow appeared behind him. Cake could’ve sworn she hadn’t been anywhere near the side of the yard he was pulling roots from.
Then again, it was getting dark and Ms Bannister was very short, so she could’ve easily sneaked up on him through the undergrowth, he thought.
“Ah.. uhm. I dunno. A really big bird?” he shoved the skull to the small woman in exchange for a can of lemonade.
“Where you get this?!” she stared at him unblinking over the skull. He tiny eyes seemed to glow in the settling dusk.
Cake pointed at the hole in the ground.
“I don’t recall leaving this here!” her eyes narrowed. She peeked into the hole as if to check if there were more of the same kind there. The darkness in the hole squirmed.
“That’s some Halloween costume,” Cake laughed nervously still holding the unopened lemonade can in his hand, the condensation soothing the angry welts in his palm pleasantly. The way the woman was staring at him though, felt much more unpleasant than the welts and there was no can of lemonade big enough to sooth that.
Gertie winked at him under her brow.
“Halloween. Yes! Right! Well done! Nicely shaved grass! Come along now!” She hobbled off towards the house with the skull tucked under her arm, waving her cane.
“But the.. hole? Skull?”
Cake hurried after her. The back yard was slowly filling with evening sounds again. He hadn’t noticed how silents everything had gotten there for a moment. A cricket chirped hesitantly and soon birds were letting out their night calls in the distance, like the whole yard had held its breath until now.
“Yes! You’ve earned your twenty bucks! Good job!” Gertie shouted from her back porch while Cake was still lumbering after her a good 15 feet away. She was surprisingly fast for someone with the stride of a two-legged corgi.
“You did good!” Gertie blinked rapidly at the youth on her door step.
“Yeah, no biggie,” Cake brushed his hair back then remembered his hand was still covered in dirt and blood and that was now in his hair too. He needed a shower. Then he remembered he couldn’t take one at home because he didn’t have one anymore.
A slightly awkward silence fell as reality briefly took hold of Cake’s thoughts. Then he noticed a collection of eyes staring up at him from the darkness around the corner. They all blinked out of sync.
“I like your cats,” he said, nodding to the eyes.
“I don’t have cats!”
“Uhm,” Cake flustered. He looked back at the eyes in the dark and they were still there, staring at him, blinking whenever the hell they felt like it.
“If you don’t mind, you can probably take out the trash since you’re going that way?!” Gertie handed him two large black plastic bags. “My back’s not what it used to be!” she grinned.
“Oh, sure-” The door slammed in his face. Cake folded the crisp 20 dollar bill into his pocket and grabbed the trash bags. They both weighed much more than he’d expected. He started pulling them off to the curb while digging his phone from his pocket with a free hand. A few messages from friends about a bowling night he’d completely forgotten. He thumbed a short rain check in the group chat. No missed calls.
The trash bags plodded after him like they were filled with jelly and left a streak of wet on the asphalt. Most of the other houses were dark, with a few windows at the other end of the street lit up. The street lights were slowly lighting up as moths, lacewings and mosquitoes started congregating under them. The sun had already disappeared behind the horizon.
Cake stopped at the curb. The Toters were full. He sighed and pushed the plastic bags as close to them as he could with his foot. The bags yielded then sprung back without having moved an inch.
“Fine, stay there.” he stared at them angrily, then looked at his phone again. He flicked the Called Numbers up and picked the first one.
The phone rang like it was under water; a metallic, static, ear-bleeding ring that still felt like it came from inside a stuffed turkey.
“Doctor Duke’s office, how may I help you?” a distant female voice answered.
“Yes. Doctor Duke’s office. Can I help you?” the metallic woman repeated.
“No... no, I’m good. Thanks,” Cake hung up. “Asshole,” he sighed under his breath. A night wind suddenly rose up and blew goose bumps on his skin. The hair on his neck stood up as he looked around the empty and quiet cul-de-sac. The streetlight drew a friendly circle around him but outside it the front lawns looked just part of the shadows that had bled from the walls on to the ground. The houses were lumps of gray and the dark windows made it seem like no one lived there. Maybe no one did. Only the distant hum of the interstate and a faint salsa echoing from someone having a house party in a different part of the development reminded him of other people still being there. The phone in his hand felt comforting.
He thumbed it open again.
This time a warm female voice answered.
“Mom? Hey, you mind if I come over a day early? Yeah, nah, everything’s cool. No, I’ll tell you when I get there. I could just use an extra day of getting pampered by the world’s best mom before a whole weekend with Brutus,” Cake grinned at the phone. “Yeah, the key is still in the same place? Cool. I’ll start heading that way tonight. Alright, I’ll see you then! Love you too, mom.”
He stuffed the phone back in his pocket and traipsed to his car. After turning away from the cul-de-sac and reaching the edge of the city center, he stopped to drop off a thick envelope in a collection box