“Just tell me how much,” Steve Jankin says to the clerk at the nursery.
The clerk taps on a calculator. “Well, there’s the load of topsoil, delivery charge, labour —”
“How much?” Steve raps the counter.
“… taxes. Altogether that comes to … an arm and a leg.”
“One pickup load of dirt delivered and spread on the depressions in your yard will cost an arm and a leg. A hand and a leg if we dump the dirt in your driveway, and you wheelbarrow it around back yourself.”
Steve’s phone jars him out of the strange dream. Feeling on the nightstand, he knocks over what’s left of a glass of whiskey. He licks his fingers and answers the call.
“What do you want?”
“Hello to you, too, Dad. Put Mom on.”
“Volunteering at the centre today.”
“I thought she went Wednesdays?”
“Maybe somebody called in sick.”
“Well, have her phone me.”
“What do you need to talk to her about?”
“Tell me what the hell you want, Peter, and I’ll let you know.”
“For God’s sake, Dad, your birthday’s coming up. Laura and I want to go in with Mom and get you something special for your fiftieth. Happy now?”
“I don’t want anything. She knew that.”
“Truthfully, Dad, I don’t know why any of us tries to be nice to you. One of these days, Mom’s going to go through with her threat. Just tell her I called.”
Steve puts down his phone and kills the whiskey.
“No, Mr. Jankin, you don’t have a mine subsidence rider with your policy. I’m not one to turn down business, but I don’t think it’s necessary. There’s no history of underground mining in your area.”
Steve looks out the kitchen window into the backyard. It backs up to a small woods and is screened by a wooden privacy fence on one side and shrubbery on the other. Seven areas in the yard are sinking. He looks back at his phone. “Just tell me how much it would cost.”
“Hold on …. let’s see … for a home in your price range … in your zip code … that’s going to run you … an arm and a leg annually. Or you could make two semi-annual payments of one arm then one leg.”
Steve sits up in bed. Whiskey dreams, he thinks. I need to cut back. Too late. He reaches for the bottle on the nightstand.
“Wake up, Sleepyhead. You didn’t think I was going to let you stay in bed all day, did you?” Steve’s wife says. “Get dressed. I’ve got a birthday surprise. Join me out back.”
Steve is in the backyard where Emily has spread a blanket. On it are two place settings with fruit, muffins and toast.
“A brunchnic for my birthday baby.” Emily hands Steve a paper cup of Champagne and touches it with hers. As she does, Steve feels the ground tremble beneath him. Before he can move, it opens, and he and Emily are falling down an open shaft.
“Old mine,” the rushing air is puffing out Steve’s cheeks.
Steve reaches for Emily, but when he grabs her arm, it comes off in his hand. His wife shrieks. He flings her arm away and grabs at her again. This time his wife’s leg separates from her body and begins somersaulting down the shaft. His wife’s other arm and leg fly off her body. Then Emily’s head separates from her trunk and howls with laughter.
Body parts from Emily spinning ‘round him, Steve wonders if he’ll ever hit bottom. He—
The knocking startles Steve. Even his naps are haunted. He uprights the recliner and goes to the door. A woman with a clipboard greets him.
“Mr. Jankin,” she says, “I’m from the Census Bureau. Mind if I come in? Won’t take long, I promise.”
Steve leads the woman to the kitchen table.
“First question … how many are living here?”
“Two. The missus and me.” Steve looks out the window at the back yard.
“Can I speak to your wife?”
“No, it’s her volunteer day.”
“I thought she volunteered Wednesdays.”
“Sorry? How’d you— ”
“Will she be home soon?”
Steve watches as the depressions in the yard begin to grow. “Not for a while.”
“No worries. I’ll wait.”
The sinkholes gobble their way toward the house. Steve jumps up, knocking over his chair. The woman stands and looks out back.
“I see. This is serious indeed. Do you know the punishment for lying to the Census Bureau?”
“Look out!” The back wall of the house starts to cave.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to give us one of your arms as well as a leg. My boss will be by to collect.” Steve feels as if he’s going to pass out. A ringing in his ears becomes a roar.
“I don’t think I heard you right?” he says, fighting to keep his balance.
“I’ll save my boss a trip,” the woman says. She grabs Steve’s right arm and leg and yanks them loose.”
Steve’s thigh tingles. Still on the recliner, he’s awakened by the phone vibrating on his lap. Or is he still dreaming? Sweating and shaking, he answers the call. “Don’t ask, Peter. She can’t talk to you.”
“Where is she?”
“She’s not here…I couldn’t let her leave.”
“What? Dad, I don’t know … What? I’m driving down. I’ll be there in a couple hours.”
Steve wipes his eyes and clears his throat. “I want you to know she didn’t give me any choice, Peter. No choice.” Before his son can say anything, Steve disconnects the call and tosses the phone to the floor.
He goes to the garage, starts the car and considers driving as far away as he can get. But when he hears the muffled growl of the chainsaw buried in the back yard, he lowers the door, closes his eyes, and braces for one last dream.
David Henson and his wife have lived in Belgium and Hong Kong over the years and now reside in Peoria, Illinois. His work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net and has appeared in numerous print and online journals including Fictive Dream, Pithead Chapel, Moonpark Review, and Literally Stories. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.