“Today’s the day,” Lauren said, “I’m gonna hop Old Man Ernie’s fence and dig up one of his wife’s bones.”
“From his tomato graveyard?” Jose squeaked.
Exasperated, Lauren replied, “She’s buried under the tomatoes, right?”
Jose nodded. “That’s what my sister said.”
“Cool,” said Mark. He pulled a piece of graph paper from his pocket. “I drew a map of Ernie’s yard for you because of all the bushes along the perimeter of the fence.”
Jose ignored the map. He looked confused as he whispered the word perimeter to himself. He remembered learning it in school. It had been one of their vocabulary words, but he couldn’t think of the definition. Of course Mark remembered it and knew how to use it correctly in a sentence. He was good at everything and everyone knew it, including him, especially him.
All the kids in the fifth grade hated when Mark used big words like perimeter. Unlike all those other kids, Jose was the only one who had the guts to ask Mark what the big words meant when he used them or question Mark when he disagreed with him.
“What’s a perimeter?”
Mark sighed. “A boundary, you know something you can’t cross.” Looking quite smug, he returned to his briefing. “The tomato graveyard is on the right side where the shed is. The dogs are chained up on the other side.”
Jose gulped. Every single kid on the block, even the teenagers, were afraid of Ernie’s dogs: two, large, black, sleek-skinned Doberman pinchers named Demon and Killer. The word on the street was that Ernie had traded his wife’s soul to the devil in exchange for the black eyed beasts.
Jose shivered. “Are you sure the dogs are chained up?”
Mark rolled his eyes. “I watched Ernie put them out there this morning from my window.”
“Oh, but what if–” Jose said.
“You worry too much, Jose,” Lauren said, flashing Mark an adoring smile. Jose frowned at her, but kept quiet. Like every other kid in the neighborhood, Lauren admired Mark and did everything she could to earn his approval. Lauren turned back to Mark’s neatly drawn lines and perfectly colored perimeter. “Is the shed unlocked?”
Mark nodded. “There are lots of shovels in there, too.” He eyed the backpack Lauren was wearing. “Did you bring the beef jerky for the dogs?”
“Do you really think jerky will keep them quiet?” Jose asked.
“My dog loves meat,” Lauren replied.
“So does mine, but she eats jerky really fast. Don’t you think…”
Mark glanced at his watch and cut across Jose’s question. “It’s 11:30. Ernie’s car is gone so he already left for work. Lauren will hop the fence and you and me,” he continued, staring at Jose, “we’ll be the lookouts.”
Jose gulped again. “This is a bad idea.”
“Shut up, Jose,” Mark said, “If we find his wife’s bones we’ll be heroes.”
“We’ll be famous,” Lauren said, “My aunt works for a newspaper. She could write about us.”
Eyes shining, Mark said, “And put our picture in the paper, too. Let’s go!”
“You’ve already had your picture in the paper, two times,” Jose said to Mark.
“So?” Mark and Lauren chimed together.
“Whatever,” Jose mumbled.
“You can always go home,” Lauren said, “No one is making you come with us.”
Jose wanted to go home. He thought this whole idea was stupid, but if he bailed out now and everyone found out they’d think he was a chicken. Kids would tease him for the rest of his life. He could hear their jokes and laughter ringing in his ears already. “I’m coming.”
The trio trooped over to Old Man Ernie’s house and peered at the fence. Tall shrubs, wild and overgrown, poked through the fence and blocked their view of the yard.
“Where’s the gate?” Jose asked.
“There isn’t one,” Mark replied.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“I have bad feeling about this,” Jose whispered.
Smiling, Lauren began to climb the fence, but as she got to the top her smile vanished as she lost her balance. With a scream, she dropped and disappeared into the bushes.
“Oh, no!” Frantic, Jose paced back and forth, trying to find a smarter way into the yard. “Are you okay?”
“My ankle hurts,” Lauren gasped.
Jose looked at Mark. “What are we gonna do?”
Suddenly pale, Mark shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” Jose spat.
From inside the yard, the dogs started barking, their chains clanking as loud as a car alarm.
“Help me,” Lauren cried.
Looking less sure of himself, Mark called, “C-can’t you climb back out?”
“I’m stuck,” she replied, shaking the bushes.
“We’ve got to get her out of there,” Jose yelped.
As Mark hesitated and fell back, Jose scaled the fence and leapt over the bushes, landing in the yard. He glimpsed the dogs, snarling and straining against their chains, and began pulling on Lauren’s arm at once.
“Stop,” Lauren yelled. She was wedged into the hedge, her bag twisted and tangled through the branches.
“I’ll cut your bag off with shears.”
Jose dashed through the tomato graveyard and toward the shed. He whipped open the weather worn door and rummaged through the lawn tools, the dogs’ barks louder than ever, echoing up and down the alley of fenced yards. Knocking over shovels and buckets, Jose spotted a pair of hand shears lying on a table and scooped them up.
“I’m coming, Lauren,” he shouted.
“I don’t think so,” a voice rasped.
Eyes glaring, nose flaring, Old Man Ernie stood in the doorway. He was a short, wizened old man, brown as an acorn and just as nutty.
Jose paled and dropped the shears.
Ernie shoved his beaky nose into Jose’s face. “Do you know what I do to kids who sneak into my yard?”
Frozen, Jose eyed the tomato graveyard and gulped. Desperate, he pointed at the yard front bushes. “My friend is stuck.”
“There are two of ya in here?” Ernie growled. He stomped toward the front hedge, poking and prodding at it with a long stick. “There ain’t no one here.”
Jose gasped, staring in horror at the empty bush and front lawn. “They left me?”
Ernie threw down the stick and stomped back. “Why are ya here?”
Jose gestured at the withered vines in the tomato graveyard. “I wanted a bone…I-I mean a tomato.”
Ernie gave Jose a knowing look. “You believe those rumors about my wife.”
“Don’t ya?” Ernie barked.
Jose gave a guilty nod.
Muttering, Ernie went to the shed, picked up a shovel, and threw it at Jose’s feet. “Go on then, dig ‘er up.”
White-faced, Jose croaked, “I don’t want to.”
“Dig her up,” Ernie growled, “or I’ll put your bones in there, too!”
Jose jumped with fright and obeyed. Hoping that a quick pace would get him out of Ernie’s yard faster, Jose began digging with zeal until a horrible thought struck him and he stopped dead. What if he couldn’t find any of Ernie’s wife’s bones? Would Ernie get angry? And then Jose had a more terrifying thought. What if he did find her bones? Would Ernie get even angrier? Finally, Jose had a such an awful thought he almost feinted on the spot. What if it didn’t matter whether he found the bones or not and Ernie was really making Jose dig his own grave?
“Come on boy get diggin’.”
Jose thought of making a brash escape. If he was quick about it, he could knock Ernie over the head with the shovel and be back over the fence in no time, laughing at his daring dash to freedom and bragging to everyone about he did it. They’d think he was a hero. Ernie must have sensed what Jose was planning to do because he unchained the dogs. The two long faced canines ran at Jose, circling him and sniffing at his heels like he was a big, juicy sirloin steak. Jose’s stomach sank to his ankles. He’d never make it to the fence in time now.
At Ernie’s command, Demon and Killer growled low in their throats, nipping at Jose’s feet. Jose began digging like a madman, dirt and stones flying every which way. Before long the shovel banged against something hard. Panting from fear and hard work, Jose stopped.
Ernie smirked. “What did you find?”
A nasty shade of green, Jose pointed at a white shard poking up through the dirt.
Ernie eyed the white shard. “Get it out o’ there.”
After a few reluctant tugs, Jose held a long, white bone as it broke free of the ground. Shrieking, he dropped the bone, and backed away from it shaking all over.
Ernie chuckled, a look of relish on his weathered face. “That’s not my wife.”
“Wh-who is it?” Jose asked.
“Millie,” Ernie replied.
Ernie’s mouth split into a smile. “My wife’s dog.”