Stepping outside Saturday morning at nine, Paul Bruin surveyed the pool of discarded color stretching out across his back lawn.

Fall cleanup was a weekly necessity on a property huddled up against a forest, but Paul didn’t mind. With raking leaves, the rules were wonderfully clear: no management issues to deal with, no conflicts to sidestep, and certainly no political hierarchy to navigate. It was just straightforward, honest-to-god work.

What made the effort even more enjoyable was that when it came to raking leaves, he was miles ahead of The Dick.

From the moment Richard Clomper (a.k.a. Dick, a.k.a. The Dick) moved in next door, he embodied the type of person Paul was predisposed to want to punch in the face. Barely 30 and practicing corporate law, he drove the latest Beamer, golfed in California, and looked like he modeled for Harry Rosen. As a final kick in the slats, his wife Janice was drop dead gorgeous, and a sweetheart to boot.

So, while staying ahead with the leaf raking wasn’t much, at least it was something.

Paul stretched under the eighth straight day of streaming sunshine.
Today, he thought, I’m going to make the work last.

Glancing next door, a contented smile slipped from his face.

The Dick was raking his lawn, and--judging by a wall of leaves piled high on the property’s edge--had been for a while.

Keep it together, Paul thought, panicked. The Dick's moving slowly. There's still a chance to beat him. But he had to move.
Grabbing the rake like a weapon, he plunged it into the first cluster of leaves squashed against the back steps, and hurled them across the yard. Working fast, he drove waves of them forward, slamming at splashes of color. Thoughts of gloves were dismissed, and the handle chafed his hands raw.

He chanced another look next door, and Dick was gone. The leaves were abandoned, and—looking absurdly vulnerable--so was his rake.
Paul doubled his efforts, revitalized. The twang of the rake’s prongs and the swish of the leaves were the only sounds in the autumn air. Cramps stitched his middle-aged muscles, but he ignored them. Victory was in sight.

Through the sting of sweat, he saw The Dick returning in a slow shuffle, a large red plastic container clutched in one hand. A red plastic gas container. The shape was as familiar as anything in Paul’s garage, something used to feed his lawnmower and weed whacker.

But there was nothing to feed on Dick’s lawn--just plenty to burn.

Paul’s eyes jerked towards the forest--towers of dry lumber over rivers of parched leaves, all lining the borders of a hundred neighboring homes. Swept by escalating winds, a blaze would be unstoppable.

Paul threw the rake down. “Dick!” he screamed.

Dick’s head turned like a robot’s. A huge toothy grin broke across his face, and he started to pour. Gas drenched the leaves and grass, slopping over his shirt and jeans.

Paul began to walk towards him. “Hey!”

Still smiling, Dick pulled a cigar from a shirt pocket.

Paul was now running. He heaved himself over the backyard’s fence as Dick flipped a matchbook open. The stink of gasoline clogged the air, poisoning it. A match sparked, lighting the cigar.

Paul came to a stumbling halt, taking in new details.

Dick’s hair was a tangled mess, his cheeks slathered with stubble, his clothes striped with grime. Welts crisscrossed his bare feet, and dirt stained his toes. The worst though, were his eyes--glazed stones nested in bruised hollows.

“Uh, Dick?” Paul said, his voice shaky.

With the match burned out against his fingers, Dick took the cigar from his mouth. Tendrils of smoke drifted lazily from his lips, as if from his brain cooking in his skull.

“Dick?” Paul repeated.

Dick’s head cocked like a dog’s. “Yes?” It was as if he was trying to do an impression of himself--and was failing miserably. A lump of ash broke from his cigar, and flakes dusted the grass.
Paul flinched. “How about we go in the house?”

Dick’s face flickered with recognition.

“Finish the cigar where it’s warm,” Paul continued. He walked backwards and Dick followed his legs as stiff as the trees.

“You’re doing great,” said Paul. Speaking as if to a pet, he had a sudden, crazy urge slap one knee. “Nice and easy.”

“Easy,” repeated Richard. His mouth twisted, as if he didn’t
recognize the word’s taste.

“Good,” Paul said, wondering where the hell Paul’s wife was. “We’ll just go inside. See what Janice is doing.”

Dick stopped dead. “Janice?” he said, and lurched back around.

Overhead, branches cracked and snapped against one another.

“Wait!” Paul yelled, but Dick was gone—a zombie on a mission.
So it was Janice, Paul realized as he rushed after him. Of course. She’d wised up, left him, and the guy had short-circuited.

Beside the leaves already, Dick held the smoldering cigar above them.


Paul darted forward, knocking it airborne. Ash scattered as it dropped end-over-end, sparks flying. Yelping, he stamped it into dry ground. “God damn it,” he gasped. “Don’t you know what you’re doing?”

“Yes,” Dick said. “I do.”

At that moment, Paul knew, too.

Reaching from under the pile of leaves was a woman’s hand--a white scar of frozen fingers against the flurry of autumn color. Cuticles were ringed with dirt, the index fingernail tacky with blood. Paul imagined what he couldn’t see--Janice’s stiff limbs bruised and broken, dead mouth choked with leaves, eyes struck with terror forever.

The smell of gas was a living, heaving thing that curdled the air, churning Paul’s guts.

Dick plucked the matchbook from his pocket, and a new flame flared.
“No,” Paul pleaded. “You’ll burn everything.”

Dick’s eyes caught Paul’s, really seeing him for the first time.

“God willing,” he said, and dropped the match.

As the flames fed, Dick collapsed into the fire--and the winds came screaming through the woods.

"Yard Work"
Copyright: © 2010 Stephen Hill

Stephen Hill's fiction has appeared on such eZines as The Broken Pencil, Thrillers, Killers n' Chillers, The
Oddville Press, Flashes in the Dark and MicroHorror. More recently, his work has appeared in the anthology Night Terrors, as well as 6 Sentences: It's All About Love.

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