Little Joey found a bag in his back yard. Its contents were a book of matches, some rags, lighter fluid, and a Mickey Mouse hat. The air smelled like barbecue and burning plastic. Joey looked to his left. A plume of black smoke rose from behind the fence that separated his yard from his neighbors’. Particles of an unknown substance whirled in the haze, tumbling and performing somersaults as the fire below drove them upwards.
Joey didn’t trust Mr. Woodsburrow. He thought it was strange Mr. Woodsburrow hardly left the house, and no one in the neighborhood could remember how long since they’d seen Mrs. Woodsburrow. She’d stopped showing up at bingo over a month before, and she wasn’t at mass to help with the collections on Sundays, either. Mr. Woodsburrow told the pastor he’d had to sell her red 1977 Buick Century. Couldn’t afford the gas, he said. Joey was suspicious.
His mom said Mr. Woodsburrow wasn’t weird. She said he was still grieving over his missing grandkids. She said he was affected by their disappearance. She said the same about Mrs. Woodsburrow, and that’s why no one saw her anymore. “She’s in mourning,” Joey’s mom said. Joey still thought Mr. Woodsburrow was weird.
Joey was startled by a loud snapping sound; it sounded like the Black Cats he lit on New Year’s Eve. One time he threw them over Mr. Woodsburrow’s fence, and Mr. Woodsburrow came into the backyard. He stormed through the gate and grabbed Joey by the throat. He screamed and shook Joey until his mom and dad came out. Mr. Woodsburrow stopped shaking Joey then and put him down. Joey slumped against the fence, trying to catch his breath. He coughed and swallowed his spit to wet his throat. Joey’s parents talked to Mr. Woodsburrow; he lied and told them Joey threw the firecrackers at him. Joey protested and told them he’d just thrown the Black Cats over the fence, but he still got grounded for a week. Joey thought it was bullshit nobody even told Mr. Woodsburrow not to grab or shake him.
The snapping sounds made Joey curious, and he felt compelled to peek over the fence. He was afraid, because Mr. Woodsburrow was probably outside. He was always outside. If he saw Joey, there was no telling what he’d do. He’d probably come grab him again, and Joey’s parents weren’t home from work. Joey looked back at the bag he’d found laying in the grass. He looked to the fence and the plume of smoke and the particles doing acrobats in it.
Joey decided to look. He decided if he were quiet enough and didn’t stand over the fence by much, Mr. Woodsburrow might not notice. He went and took the white pool ladder from the garage. He didn’t notice his bike leaning against the ladder, and it fell onto its side with the sound of metal against concrete. Joey held his breath and hoped it wasn’t loud enough for Mr. Woodsburrow to hear. He replaced the bike and walked out of the garage with the ladder. The ladder wasn’t heavy, but it was long and bulky, and Joey had difficulty carrying it. The bottom of its legs almost touched the top of Joey’s sneakers, and he was preoccupied watching his feet as he walked. He ran headlong into something hard yet pliable. It wasn’t the fence, or the house.
Having released the ladder, Joey stumbled backward and landed on his behind. He looked up to see the hard yet pliable thing, but what he saw were Mr. Woodsburrow’s large, thick hands right before they grabbed him by the throat. Joey kicked Mr. Woodsburrow’s legs and knees, but he didn’t release the boy. He held Joey by the neck; his hands were covered in soot; his shirt smelled like barbecue and burning plastic. Mr. Woodsburrow shook Joey. He held him by the throat, and he shook him like a chicken thigh inside a bag of Shake ‘N Bake. Because no one ever told him not to shake Joey.