The last time I ever saw Billy he stood on my porch scrawny as a coyote. It was morning, but already the late August sun was up there in the sky pissed off and furious. Billy, I remember, had a shiner, a big ol’ plum under his eye that I should have asked him about but didn’t.
“Grab your Dad’s shovel,” he said. “Today we’re going to do some real digging.”
That summer, the stretch between fifth and sixth grade, that’s all we did was dig. Burying any evidence of childhood. Our old marbles we had planted in the rich soil of my mother’s garden. Shallow graves beneath the tire swing, unmarked and packed smooth by the neighborhood kid’s shoes, held our GI Joes. In my father’s well-manicured lawn, we had gone through great pains to dig small holes for our Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Then we took great pains to blame the holes on the poor family terrier, Rocky.
Billy explained that we’d need a bigger hole this time. A secret hole that we’d dig in his father’s shed; the shed his father had forbidden us to enter.
“I’m not crossing your dad,” I told him.
“Old man’s out of town,” Billy said. “Won’t be back for a while.”
Billy’s mom had passed away a few years back. And it was true that his dad left him alone sometimes. Last summer he had chased a woman down to Memphis leaving Billy to fend for himself for an entire week. But it was also true that Billy’s dad was a nasty drunk, that he’d stumble around the yard half-cocked, aiming to fire off on anything or anyone he could get a bead on.
I nodded and Billy followed me into the house. The AC unit rattled in the living room window, Transformers blared on the television. Embarrassed, I shut it off. Billy no longer watched cartoons. In the kitchen, I grabbed a couple Pop-Tarts. They were unfrosted, and therefore according to my mom, healthier.
As we crossed the street and headed toward his house. Billy held up his Pop-Tart to inspect it. “Seems like some bullshit,” he said.
I brought my dad’s shovel to my other shoulder, scanned Billy’s yard looking for any sign—cigarette smoke, a shadow staggering in the window—of Billy’s dad, and took a nibble. It wasn’t that the Pop-Tarts tasted bad without frosting. They were still processed with refined flour, and high fructose corn syrup; in other words, still delicious. But the two of us were raised on commercials, connoisseurs of mass consumption, and without the frosting, the crunch of the rainbow sprinkles, the Pop-Tarts didn’t live up to the glorious product we had been promised in the commercials. Looking back, it should have been a revelation, but at the time, it felt like another in a long line of betrayals.
The garage door of Billy’s house was closed, his Huffy dumped on the lawn. In the backyard, the shed waited for us like a dare.
When Billy opened the door, the hinges creaked and I grabbed Billy’s shoulders.
“Dude,” he said quietly, shrugging me off. “It’s fine.”
“Why, then,” I asked, “are you whispering?”
Billy ignored me and stepped inside. The shed was cool and dark and mostly empty. In one corner the sad flat tire of a Harley peeked out from a green tarp caked with mud, in the other corner we began to dig.
We spent the entire day carrying dirt out in plastic sand castle buckets and tossing it amongst the dandelions in his yard. Around noon, we took a break. Billy told me to wait outside, while he assembled bologna sandwiches. We chased them down with a couple Mountain Dews, then got back to work.
When I heard my mom shouting across the street, telling me that dinner was ready, we stopped digging. The two of us stood there for a moment assessing our work. We had done well, the hole was massive. We could bury just about anything in there.
Biography: Richie Zaborowske is a dad, librarian, and author from the Midwest. He puts a contemporary twist on traditional library offerings; his monthly Short Story Night packs the local brewery and features trivia, comedy, and author interviews. His writing appears in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, New World Writing Quarterly, Brevity, The Los Angeles Review, HAD, X-R-A-Y Lit, Cease Cows, Jet Fuel Review, and others.