The Trickster’s Bones
By Kenneth Kao
My dog was the biggest dog in the neighborhood. When he sat, his tongue reached the top of my forehead, and when I rose up onto my tippy-toes, I could see right past his teeth down into his spotted throat. The other girls in the neighborhood were scared of Darwin’s massive size and his long, white wolf-fur and equally ghost-white face, but I, Charlene Marigold Sanders, wasn’t. Darwin was my dog, and my dog was AWESOME.
We had many adventures over those summer months. I, with the metal detector Dad gave me for my eighth birthday, and Darwin with his big digging claws that could tear through earth better than even a grown-up with a shovel. We wandered the neighborhoods, through backyards, across waist-high fields, into the national park near our house. We dug wherever my metal detector pitched, and all I had to do was point and say “Dig!” for Darwin to throw himself snout-first into the earth.
Most days we only found junk and angry adults who asked me “nicely” to go dig elsewhere, but sometimes we found toys and tools and cool things I didn’t know the names for—buried treasure. Once, we even found a whole bag of nickels.
Adults just didn’t understand that we were treasure hunters, and nothing stops a treasure hunter from exploring a lead. Darwin understood this. When Darwin thought he had something, even I couldn’t stop him.
I got home late to dinner a lot.
One day, Darwin took my hand in his mouth and pulled me through the national park like he knew exactly where he was going. And maybe he did. We found a tiny playground out in the middle of nowhere, just as if we’d planned to.
The playground had an old, rickety swing set with only one swing still attached. A crooked slide tilted so badly it almost rested against the swing set’s frame, and the slide’s ladder—legs hanging off the ground, rusted feet long broken off—was attached by one barely intact bar.
On a slight rise, a rotten old bench and a roofless, partially torn-down miner’s shack overlooked the playground. The remains of the shack’s walls stacked two or three logs high. Collapsed cedar shingles littered the earth around it.
It looked like a treasure hunter’s paradise.
I went right up to the shack with my metal detector while Darwin trotted to the playground. Before I’d taken more than a few steps inside the ruin, Darwin was digging.
“Whatcha got there, boy?” I called.
Darwin didn’t look up. I shrugged and waved my detector over the shack’s weed and dirt floor. I caught a few blips, but nothing significant. I frowned, wondering if my detector had broken. There had to be something here. I went over the shack again, and when I looked up after my second pass, Darwin’s tail was all I could see. Dirt flew, and his tail wasn’t even waving, he was so focused. I jogged over to him and ran my detector over the earth near him.
“Nothing here, boy,” I said.
Darwin didn’t care.
I wandered around with my detector until I got bored of finding nothing. Then I sat on the one swing still attached. I kicked my legs idly, uncomfortable in jeans, watching Darwin work. Wearing a skirt while digging was stupid, but jeans pinched.
I knew that not everything valuable has metal in it, so I was willing to wait and see what Darwin dug up. That’s why he was so great to have along; he could sense things I couldn’t.
Pretty soon I couldn’t even see dirt pop from the hole. I went over with my bucket and scooped up extra dirt, throwing it to the side. I heard his excited panting and his claws tearing through earth.
“Hey, be careful,” I said. “I don’t want to have to go down there and save you.”
Huffing and digging.
Purple clouds crept towards an orange sun. We were pretty far from our house, and I didn’t want to get lost going back. He’d been digging for about an hour. I was starting to think he just wanted to see how far he could go.
“Darwin, come on. We should go home.” I put my metal detector aside and squatted over the hole, peering inside. Then I pulled out my small flashlight. He’d gone really deep, and I could just make out his white-gray furry butt.
I cupped my hands around my lips. “Darwin!” He paused. I thought I saw his head lift. Then he was right back at it.
I scowled and walked the detector around for one last pass. I walked by the bench, and my detector let out a loud whine. “Darwin! I found something!” Usually, the only thing that could get Darwin to stop one project was another project. I ran over to the hole. “Come up, boy. Didn’t you hear it? Come dig.”
I thrust my flashlight down the hole, but I couldn’t see him. The hole angled toward the bench on the hill. I put my head down and got halfway inside, hesitating as the sound of everything—insects, birds, the rustle of the wind—disappeared, as though sounds only worked with light. I swallowed, and my eardrums pounded louder, but I crawled inside.
Bits of dirt danced ahead. I couldn’t believe how far Darwin had gone, like a gopher. He had to be ten feet ahead of where he started, maybe three feet down. It felt really tight inside, and it was hard to breathe. I wormed forward. As I got close to Darwin, dirt flew into my face. I held up a hand to shield myself. “Boy! Quit it.”
He didn’t stop so I reached out, grabbed his tail, and yanked. He yelped. “Let’s GO.”
He growled and kicked.
Claws scratched my inner arm. I jerked back. “Darwin?” He’d never hurt me before. My arm burned fiery lines. “You quit right now!”
Darwin was digging again.
“I’m going to get really mad if you don’t come out this instance,” I threatened. “I will leave you.” I backed up on my knees awkwardly until I was out. I glared into the hole. “Fine! I hope you get something good, because if you don’t, I’m never taking you treasure hunting again.” But I already knew that Darwin couldn’t care less. “Stupid dog.”
I was supposed to be home before dark. We usually were a little late, but we hadn’t even left the site yet. I was in huge trouble. I thought about leaving the flashlight; he could see better than I, but not even dogs can see in pitch black.
I finally turned around and left. If he got scared when he realized he was alone, he deserved it. I sniffed. Using my compass and the stars and my flashlight, I found my way home without much trouble. By the time I arrived, I had snot and tears dripping down to my chin.
I opened the door and stood in the doorway, crying. Mom and Dad both got up as soon as they saw me. “Charlie! Where have you been?!” Mom demanded. She saw my tears, and Dad took over.
“Where’s Darwin?” Dad knelt beside me. He took my metal detector and my flashlight and clicked them off. I’d forgotten to turn off the detector, even though it’d been pitching and whining the whole way back.
“He wouldn’t come home,” I sobbed. “He found something and dug really deep and wouldn’t quit. I tried to make him come, but he ignored me.”
Dad looked at Mom, and they both sighed. “I’m sure he’s fine. Just let him dig it out,” Dad said.
“C’mon, Tiny,” Dad used his nickname for me. “Let’s get you washed up, and we’ll find him tomorrow. I’ll take off work to go with you.”
Mom offered to make me something to eat, but when I shook my head, I saw Dad give her a look; she didn’t push it. I let myself be led to the shower.
After turning off the shower, the sound of pouring water didn’t stop. I burst from the bathroom without drying off and ran to my window. It was raining as heavily as I’d ever seen. I grabbed a towel and charged downstairs where Mom and Dad were cleaning up.
“It’s raining!” I yelled. “He’s in a hole, and he might not get out! I have to go back!”
“I’m sure he’s fine, he’s a smart dog,” Mom said.
“You don’t understand. Darwin never quits! If he’s after something, he’ll drown before he realizes it.”
Dad looked at me for what seemed like forever. His eyebrows eased, and I felt like a princess; it was the look Dad always gave me when I cried. “Fine, Charlie. Dry off and put on some clothes. We’ll go find him.”
I loved Dad more than anyone right then.
I ran upstairs and put on my sturdiest clothes. I didn’t dry off because I figured I was going to get wet again anyway. In a minute, I was back down and ready to go. Dad was putting on a rain jacket and had a big flashlight and a shovel with him. He handed me my rain jacket. I took it and shrugged it on as I led the way outside in my high boots. We trekked fast through muddy and treacherous landscape, and I could see Dad fidgeting and looking around. “How far out did you two go?” Dad asked.
I knew that we were only halfway there, but I answered, “Not too much farther.”
This had been one of our furthest spots, and by Dad’s expression, I’d never be going out this far again, and he’d probably take away my metal detector. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to make sure Darwin was okay.
We got to the playground. Rain stormed even heavier here than at our house. I found the hole streaming with water. “He’s down there!”
Dad pulled out his shovel.
“He’s really far, and the hole goes that way,” I said, pointing at the bench. Dad nodded and began digging at the spot where I estimated Darwin would be.
It was taking too long.
“Let me climb in,” I said. “Just far enough to make sure he’s okay.”
“Not a chance,” Dad said.
I paced and paced. At this rate, it wouldn’t matter if Darwin was still alive. I knew that Darwin dug faster than Dad could, and it would take even longer for Dad because he had to dig a hole that he could fit into. We would be too late.
Before Dad could stop me, I dove headfirst into the hole, flashlight shining in front of me.
Dad yelled, but I was already too far for him to catch me. I crawled as fast as I could, calling Darwin’s name. About fifteen feet in, I started sliding, slow, then faster. I pressed my hands to either side of me, but it did no good. Sharp rocks scraped my palm and fist, and mud squished between my fingers. I screamed, and my face suddenly splashed into wetness. I dropped my flashlight. My entire body was submerged in mud and water. I fought wildly, my rain jacket tangling my elbows so I couldn’t get my arms to move. My boots caught on the walls. My mouth kept instinctively opening. I could barely keep myself from sucking in a breath. I balled up as small as I could, and somehow, I turned.
I thought I heard Dad’s voice. I kicked and thrust my neck above water, but my feet slipped just as I gulped a breath. I was under again. I did it again and again, kicking and scratching at the walls only to fall back under muddy water. I didn’t want to die. Red dots blistered my vision. Right before I opened my mouth and sucked in water, ’cause I had to, my foot caught on something soft but solid, and I pushed off of it. I gasped as my head popped above the liquid. I managed to grab a root of something. I held on, chugging wet air. My flashlight at the bottom of the watery pool emitted a soft glow.
Dad’s voice. “Tiny! Can you hear me?”
“He’s,” I coughed, “down here! Darwin’s…” I couldn’t say it.
With the glow of my flashlight, I could see dog-claw marks scarring the dirt, fur, a tail or foot, the shadow of Darwin’s snout. I guessed that unlike me, Darwin hadn’t been able to turn at the bottom of the tunnel.
I carefully worked my way out. Dad pulled me straight into his arms. He hugged my soaked and dirty body tight and kept saying how worried he was, how mad he was at me. I felt his heart beating fast then gradually calm. I knew exactly how Dad felt, except in my case, Darwin died, and my heart slowed for a different reason. My heart was broken.
He carried me as I cried into his shoulder the entire way back. When we got home, he had Mom stop asking questions, and he let me get into bed, after only drying me off, without showering. He tucked the sheets tight around my body and sat beside me holding my hand and speaking gently to me until I forced myself to close my eyes.
I fell asleep.
The next morning I got up and left without telling anybody. I went to the abandoned playground with my shovel. When I got there, I was too afraid to go back inside the hole, so I dug. The ground was still soft, and I made good progress, but I knew there was no way I could finish the hole by nightfall. I wasn’t Darwin or Dad with a big shovel.
But Dad appeared a few hours later with his shovel. Without saying anything, he got to the opposite side of me and started digging. He didn’t even scold me for leaving without telling anybody.
Dad broke through first. The earth caved in and dropped a bunch after he’d stabbed it. I got to my knees and dug with my fingers until we could see the rest of the tunnel’s opening. I crawled in, holding Dad’s flashlight in front of me.
I found my flashlight. It glowed dimly, but I couldn’t see Darwin’s body. It wasn’t like you could lose something in a dead end, so where was he?
The earth was muddy. The pool of water I’d almost drowned in had drained. I scooped at the mud. Maybe the rain had filled some dirt and covered Darwin up. I scooped and scooped and found nothing.
I climbed out.
“Find him?” Dad asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t know where he is.”
“Was he covered?”
“No. He’s not there. I found my flashlight, so I know how deep he should be.”
“Are you sure you saw him?”
I hesitated. I’d stepped on what I thought was Darwin’s body. I’d seen a glimpse of fur and his snout. But what if…
“I’m sure I saw him,” I said.
Dad shrugged. “You never know. Dogs are smart and tough; he might have made it. He might even be home now.”
We left, looking for paw prints or any other signs of dog nearby. A part of me hoped Dad was right, and maybe, just maybe, I’d been wrong. Maybe Darwin was alive.
That night, Mom and Dad gave me the talk I’d been expecting. They told me they wanted to be supportive, but they couldn’t let me go digging around by myself again. They said that if I wanted to go out, I would have to go with one of them.
I told them that I didn’t want to treasure hunt anymore.
I could tell they were relieved.
Almost a whole year passed, and Darwin never showed up. I secretly visited the spot throughout the year between homeschooling with Mom and helping with chores and Mom’s gardening, hoping to find a clue to where Darwin might have disappeared to. Instead of hanging out with other neighborhood kids, I brought a shovel and dug around the playground. I never found his body.
On the night of the first anniversary of Darwin’s “death”, I woke up and decided to go back to the playground one last time—to say goodbye. I didn’t take my shovel.
The holes I’d made had become one big ditch with sprouts of grass and flowers everywhere. The night was clear and bright, and it was warm enough to sweat just by walking. I circled the playground and then sat on the swing, looking at the spot I’d last seen Darwin and remembering how much fun we once shared, remembering how he’d growled and kicked me, how I’d threatened to leave him, and then how I’d left.
I wanted to know what he’d been digging for.
With no shovel, I had to get on my hands and knees and dig my fingertips into the earth, pulling through roots and greenery and ripping at the ground. I didn’t get far before my fingers were raw, and I was tired. I sighed and lay back, staring at the stars.
I heard a sudden huff, and the sound of claws digging. I jerked up and stared. There was Darwin in the moonlight, sniffing and tearing at the ground. He looked at me unconcerned, and all I could do was gape. I tackled him.
“Darwin!” I cried. “Where the heck have you been?!”
He wagged his tail and licked me. When I got to my feet, I saw that I stood as tall as him. I hugged him, and he bounced his front paws up onto me, pushing me back. I wrestled with him, not believing it as my hands ran through his long white fur. He was exactly as I remembered—his fuzzy tail, his narrow face, and his nasty breath. “I’m sorry for yelling at you and leaving you,” I said.
It looked like he grinned at me. We played for a bit, and I thought I heard faint sounds of laughter in the distance. We chased each other around. I pointed at random spots for him to dig. He dug happily. I giggled and kissed him, and his wet rough tongue came right back over my chin and lips.
When we were both tired and panting, we rested. I stared at the night sky for a long time before I got up.
“C’mon Darwin, let’s go home.”
I stepped away from the playground. Darwin suddenly seemed to forget about me. He became interested in dirt and digging again. I walked back into the playground, and as soon as I did, he perked up, frantically wagging his tail like he hadn’t just seen me seconds ago. He charged and jumped on me. I laughed a little, but I managed to disengage and step back a few feet. As soon as I crossed some invisible border, he forgot about me. When I stepped close again, he sprinted toward me excited as a pup.
Each time, back and forth. I must’ve tried it thirty times that night. Calling to him across this invisible border, standing halfway between. I tried everything I could think of to get his attention while I was outside the border. I threw twigs and rocks at him. He never figured out where they came from. I even tried to drag him from the site, but I was too small. When I shoved him really hard, he let out that low growl I’d heard so long ago.
I went back into the playground and stayed with him through the night. I wondered if it was some kind of brain damage that made him forget about me when I left. It would explain why he’d never come back. I didn’t care. I’d get Dad to come tomorrow and he’d help me bring Darwin home.
I fell asleep with Darwin’s warm chest as my pillow.
The next morning, he was gone. I searched and called his name, but he just wasn’t there. The next two nights, I went back to the playground, but I never saw him. It was almost worse than losing him the first time. I worried about him and got depressed that I hadn’t tried hard enough to bring him home. I felt that somehow I’d missed my chance.
Almost another year passed. I occasionally returned to the abandoned site. But I had a lingering suspicion that his reappearance had something to do with the anniversary of his death. It was like a Halloween story. Maybe Darwin was a ghost that only appeared on the day of his death.
So the night of Darwin’s second anniversary, I woke Dad up. He stumbled from his and Mom’s room.
“What is it?” Mom called.
I shook my head.
“Nothing,” Dad called back. “Charlie just wants to talk.” He closed their door. “What’s going on, Tiny?”
“Would you come with me to the playground?”
Dad sighed. “It’s two a.m. Can’t it wait ’til tomorrow?”
“He died two years ago tonight, and I’d really like to go back. Please?” I hadn’t told them that I’d seen Darwin alive the year before.
“You’re going to have to let him go,” Dad said. “I know it’s hard, but death is a part of life. We all go through grief, but it’s how we move on that matters.” He took my hand and held it between his fingers. “Two years ago was the most frightening day of both our lives.”
“But I didn’t die,” I said. “And…and Darwin did.”
Dad nodded. “I know, and I celebrate every day that I didn’t lose you.”
“I just want to visit him, one last time–to help me get over him,” I added.
I noticed that my vision was blurry, and I was crying. I didn’t want to lose my chance again. Dad blinked and ran his fingers through his hair. Then he hugged me. He pecked me on the cheek. “O.K., Tiny, let’s go.”
This time, I brought rope and extra flashlights and shovels.
“What’s with all that?” Dad asked.
“Just in case,” I said.
He looked at me curiously but didn’t argue as we walked back to the abandoned playground. I kept moving so fast ahead that I had to wait for Dad to catch up several times. Unlike last year, it was dark and cloudy, and the moonlight didn’t show much. But right as we got there, I spotted Darwin with my flashlight. I whooped and yelled. “There’s Darwin!” I ran toward Darwin, but Dad grabbed my arm just as I was about to pass the invisible border.
“Be careful,” Dad said. “That’s not Darwin.”
“Yes it is! I saw him last year just like this. We played together all night. That’s why I brought the rope, to bring him home, because last time I wasn’t big enough to drag him home, and then he disappeared the next day. I think he’s got something wrong with his brain.”
Dad wasn’t listening. He had a really big frown on his face and was staring hard. “It looks like…can’t be…” He twisted his flashlight to see better.
“It’s him!” I yelled. I tore from Dad’s grip, running inside the playground. Just like before, Darwin saw me, and his tail went wild as he ran for me.
Dad dashed in front. “Get back!” he yelled. He kicked Darwin across the head.
I cried out as Darwin yelped, his neck bending sideways. Darwin shook his big head and snarled. His hair bristled. His ears dropped flat.
“It’s not Darwin,” Dad said. “It’s the biggest hyena I’ve ever seen.”
“He looks nothing like a hyena! Hyenas don’t even exist here.”
“I don’t know what you’re seeing, Charlie, but get backNOW.”
Darwin lunged at Dad, and Dad swung his flashlight at my dog. It struck and flashed and went out. I whipped my own flashlight toward them. Darwin had grabbed Dad’s hand like he did when he was playing. Except that Dad was yelling in pain.
“Darwin! Let go!” I screamed.
Dad kicked at Darwin over and over, and then he tripped. Darwin dragged Dad across the earth. My dog was big, but I never imagined he could pull someone like Dad. I ran forward, but as soon as I came near, Darwin snapped at me.
Dad rolled and almost got his feet underneath him, but Darwin bit an ankle, yanking Dad across the playground. I threw the rope at Dad. Darwin somehow intercepted; he caught it between his teeth, and I was thrown to the ground. By the time I got back up, Darwin had dragged Dad to the playground’s boundary. Dad screamed at me to run, his fingers clawing at the dirt. They crossed the border, and like mist, both disappeared.
I still heard Dad’s screams, though, and a hyena’s maniacal laughter.
I ran forward, tracking the ground with my flashlight. Paw prints evaporated past the invisible line.
The screams abruptly stopped and with it, the laughter.
I felt sudden wetness at my fingertips. Licking. Darwin licking my fingers. I jerked away and stumbled, falling.
Darwin whined. He sniffed my face and licked my forehead. I cried out and rolled, running blindly for the border. Darwin stayed right behind me.
I crossed the border and put my elbows on my knees, panting. Dad! Where’s Dad? What happened?
Darwin still looked at me. He wagged his tail. I took another step back from the border. And another. Darwin followed. I bolted, running as far as I could. But Darwin loped right beside, grinning and bounding in the air as joyous as could be.
I didn’t understand. Darwin was a hyena. Darwin had kidnapped and maybe murdered Dad. Darwin was able to leave the playground and follow me home, when before he couldn’t.
I sprinted the entire way home, tripping a lot. I went straight into the house and up the stairs. Maybe it was a dream; maybe I was sleeping right now. Maybe, if I got into bed and ignored the light panting and the happy tapping of Darwin’s tail on the wood floor beside my bed and the sudden weight as he jumped beside me as I hid under the covers, and maybe if I pretended that Dad was sleeping, and I’d never woken him up, and maybe if I just went back to sleep. . . Maybe none of it was real.
I squeezed my eyes shut; Darwin’s warm body pressed against me in quick rhythmic comfort.
“Look who I found,” Mom’s voice woke me. She pulled the covers off my head. I saw Darwin standing right next to Mom. Light flooded through the windows, and Mom patted Darwin’s head. “Look, Charlie! Darwin’s home. I found him in the house wandering around like he’d never left.”
I stared at Darwin.
“Aren’t you happy to see him?” Mom asked.
“I–where’s Dad?” I demanded.
Mom shrugged. “Work, I assume. Why?”
“Didn’t you see him?”
“You know he always leaves before the break of dawn. What’s wrong, Charlie?”
I stared at my dog. “That’s Darwin.”
Mom nodded eagerly. “Yes, sweetie, I already said that.”
“You see Darwin? Not a hyena?”
“A hyena?” she frowned. “Of course not, silly! I wonder where the mutt’s been these last years.”
“Oh my god oh my god oh my god…” I said. I was crazy. I missed my dog so much I wasn’t even living in reality anymore.
“Call Dad,” I said.
She frowned. “Sweetie, you’re being strange. Your dog’s back. Aren’t you happy?”
“I KNOW HE’S BACK!JUSTPLEASE CALL DAD!”
Mom withdrew. She wore a worried frown as she picked up the phone and dialed. She spoke with someone for a while, and then she hung up. “That’s strange, he didn’t go in to work this morning. Do you know something?”
I put my hands to my face and cried. Mom just stood there. And when Dad didn’t come home that evening, she pestered me with questions I couldn’t answer. What could I say?
The next day she called the police and reported Dad missing.
A woman psychologist from the police came to speak to me. I didn’t answer her questions, either.
Darwin found the metal detector and laid it at the foot of my bed. He whined at me. I ignored him and hid deep in my blankets like I was in a tunnel. As long as I put my head down, nothing outside my tunnel existed.
I told Mom to lock Darwin out of my room.
He begged and scratched incessantly. When I worked up courage to leave my bed, I got onto my computer and looked up information about the hyena. There were tons of stories about it–myths that it was a shapeshifter, a trickster, and a collector of bones. The more I learned, the more frightened I became.
After a few weeks of Dad still missing and my fear increasing, I realized that I couldn’t hide forever. My dog–or my hyena–showed no intention of leaving. I opened the door and let Darwin in.
He came in as excited as ever and as affectionate as I’d let him be. I tried looking at him through a mirror or staring at him out of the corner of my eye. I tried everything to see the hyena that my father had seen. But there was no indication that Darwin was anything but my long-lost best friend. I almost felt like he was.
But there was one more thing that I wanted to try. A way that might prove he wasn’t Darwin.
Dad kept guns around the house. He’d told me where they were, taught me how to handle them because he said it would be better for me to know than to accidentally hurt myself.
I got one of Dad’s handguns out from the case under the sink. The gun was shiny, polished, and heavy. I’d never used it without Dad’s big hands around mine. I found the bullets in the sink drawer, got my shovel, and pulled out my old metal detector.
When Darwin saw the metal detector, he bounced with excitement, and it was everything I could do to keep him quiet. I left early in the morning before Mom woke, leaving behind a note saying I’d be home late and asking her not to wait up.
We walked towards the abandoned playground, and Darwin followed me like always. Once there, I went right over to the bench and turned on the metal detector. It pitched like it had that first day with my real dog. I realized that Darwin had been digging straight in this direction. Whatever Darwin had been digging for, I would find it.
As soon as I put my shovel to earth, Darwin–the hyena–let out the low growl that had once frightened me so much. I swallowed and looked at him. His hair bristled like when he’d attacked Dad. “You don’t want me to dig here?”
Darwin’s lips peeled back, and he showed me his teeth.
“So you’re not going to pretend to be my friend anymore? I wonder what’s down here,” I said. My hands shook as I nudged the shovel’s tip into the ground.
Darwin snarled and clicked his teeth.
I leaned the shovel against my collarbone and pulled out the gun and loaded it carefully. I cocked it, pointing it with both hands at Darwin. “Do you know what this is?” I asked.
“You think I won’t do it?” I looked at Darwin, seeing his every mannerism mimicked perfectly. He was my dog.
Except that he was willing to hurt me.
I took a shaky breath, angling the shovel with my shoulder, and then I pushed down as hard as I could with my foot.
I pulled the trigger.
The bullet hit Darwin in the chest, and I dove to the side. His body hit the shovel, and both crashed to the ground. An awful whine emerged.
I got up and shot him again.
The force of each shot whipped into my neck. A chilling sensation washed over me like the cold water of the tunnel. But each time, I reminded myself that this wasn’t my dog, but an evil hyena.
My fourth bullet struck Darwin in the head. His body shifted into a giant hyena’s and then into Dad’s body, to Darwin’s again, and back into the hyena’s. A high pitched laugh echoed without a source, like it came from inside my skull.
The body disappeared.
I shivered. But I resisted the urge to cry and run away. I’d cried enough. I’d been afraid long enough.
I lifted the shovel and pushed it back into the earth. From time to time, I ran the metal detector for guidance, and it pitched louder as I dug. It took all day, the sun almost set, but I found what I was looking for–what the real Darwin had been looking for. I found a massive pile of bones–birds, mammals, even fish in a pile of bones so dense that there wasn’t much dirt within them. There were a lot of skeletons I didn’t recognize, exotic bones so oddly shaped that I couldn’t begin to imagine flesh over them. I wondered if this was what had attracted Darwin originally or if it was a spell that had hypnotized my dog. From what tiny section I’d exposed, I saw one of each kind of bone. Just like the stories said, the hyena was a collector.
An hour later, with my small flashlight stuffed into my mouth, I stopped.
I found a small golden figurine of a hyena, exquisitely detailed and magically untouched by any grime. And underneath the figurine, I found the rotting, worm-riddled body of Dad and the skeletal remains of a dog.
It was my first confirmation that Dad and Darwin were truly dead.
I took the figurine and stared at it and gripped one of its legs in a tight fist. I couldn’t look at my dad or dog’s body.
Once upon a time, digging up the golden figurine would have been a dream come true. It would have been the discovery to fund the rest of my adventures as a professional treasure hunter.
But this figurine, this cursed thing…
I went home and tried to melt it in the oven.
It didn’t work. I thought I heard the hyena’s laughter. I couldn’t think of any other way to destroy it, so I put it on my desk and stared at it. I refused to cry.
I woke Mom and told her how I’d found Dad.
She did cry.
We called the police and met them at the bones. And when Mom saw Dad’s body, she ran right over to him and threw herself on his maggot-ridden remains. She didn’t notice Darwin’s remains.
The police pulled her away. They began an investigation that I knew could only lead nowhere. It was the biggest mystery our small town ever had; the investigation only made the hyena’s collection more mysterious.
They turned the place into a tourist spot.
Another year passed. I kept hearing the hyena’s laughter like a soundtrack in my mind. No one else seemed to hear it, so I pretended it didn’t exist. I told myself that it was my imagination.
I never returned to the bones, but every day, I stared at the figurine on my desk, wondering.
It was the anniversary of Dad and Darwin’s death. I had to return to the playground. So I got up and went to that place where everything horrific in my life had occurred, where my dad and my dog were murdered.
They’d built a railing around the ditch and put signposts with eerie retellings of Dad’s death and information on some of the strange and extremely rare bones found there. They’d turned the old miner’s home into a tourist lounge, and they’d built a walkway over the graveyard so that tourists could stand above it to view and photograph the many bones. The swing set was the only thing untouched by the changes.
I knew they’d removed Dad’s body and the bones of an adult human female and a little girl found way at the bottom. I wondered if they were the original residents of the miner’s shack. But Darwin’s remains still lay near the top. I’d seen them in the early photographs and newspaper clippings.
Tonight, Dad stood on the walkway right over where his body had been found. I wasn’t surprised. He didn’t spot me until I crossed the border. And when I did, he startled like I’d appeared from thin air.
“Charlie!” He rushed off the walkway and swept me into his arms.
I hugged him back, feeling the familiar tickling sensations of his hairy forearms. How his hands were strong and gentle around me, holding me like a cradle. How it wasn’t Dad at all, and his arms around me felt like he might crush me at any moment.
“Dad,” I said.
“How’s your mother?” He grinned at me too big, his lips unnaturally wide.
“Heartbroken, always afraid. She never leaves her bed.” I’d had to go to public school because she wasn’t homeschooling me anymore.
I didn’t answer. Even if I wasn’t crazy now, I was becoming crazy. “Are you real?” I asked. If anyone else saw us, would they see a hyena standing next to a girl?
He patted himself. “I’m not sure, to be honest. I feel real.”
“Do you know that you’re dead? That we buried your body and had a funeral?” I challenged.
“I do. It’s strange, isn’t it?” He looked at me. “You’re much taller, beautiful. You’re not tiny anymore.” He said it like proof that he, the hyena, actually knew me. “Hey,” Dad said.
“Do you remember how when you brought me here, Darwin was resurrected? He could leave this place?” He hovered closer. His chest rose and fell like he panted.
I nodded. I remembered how Dad was murdered, yes.
“Do you know how it works? I’m stuck here, Tiny. I’ve been stuck here this entire time, hoping that you’d visit me and rescue me.” If Dad could bristle, this was how he would look. His eyes narrowed, and his grin grew toothy; his fingers flexed like they were pawing the air. I felt the threat.
I nodded again. I wasn’t afraid of nearly anything anymore. “Yeah, Dad, I’ll see what I can do. I’ll bring a boy,” I said, knowing that the hyena’s collection had lacked a young boy’s skeleton.
“I miss you, Tiny. I can’t wait to get back to our life.” His fingers relaxed, and his smile eased into a more natural expression.
I knew, then, that he wouldn’t hurt me. “I miss you, too,” I said.
We spent the rest of the night talking and reminiscing. We talked about some of the bones. “Dad” knew a lot about them. He called them unusual names in languages I didn’t know. A few he looked at with affection. When I asked him how he knew so much, he shrugged and told me that he just did. But it felt good, and it was like talking to my real dad, even if it wasn’t. I stayed up the whole night and watched as the sun peeked over the horizon and felt my eyes moisten as Dad faded and disappeared from my arms, held in one last hug.
I left the boundary of the playground and came back with lighter fluid and matches.
When I’d examined the bone graveyard’s pictures, I’d noticed a skeleton more distinct than any of the others, one with a huge skull and gigantic jaws and a rounded hind lying at the bottom of the mountain of bones. It was the skeleton of the hyena, twice as big as Darwin had been.
Dad would never have asked for another life to replace his, just like Darwin would have never attacked Dad.
I loved Dad and wanted both him and Darwin back, but I also knew that they were gone forever. If I didn’t end this, I’d keep wanting them back. I’d keep hearing that laughter. I’d never move on.
I might actually one day bring a boy here. “We all go through grief, but it’s how we move on that matters,” real Dad had said.
The hyena, the collector of bones, must store its power in them.
I set fire to the bones.
A loud, mournful howl emerged. Flames consumed the bones, exploding upward with supernatural force. As I watched, the fire climbed high enough to touch the wooden walkway and envelope it. The whole structure collapsed with a shuddering impact, the howling faded, and the fire died. Nothing, not even scorched remains of bones could be seen. Just an empty pit of black.
I didn’t hear any more laughter.
The next year, when I returned, there was only a swing set, an unused tourist hut, and new life budding across steep hills. Dad and Darwin were nowhere to be seen.
And as much as I missed them both, it was exactly how it must be.