by Sam Burnette
The church stands tall against the nothingness around it, spires sharp as they reach toward a cloudless sky. It reminds Stark of the castles in the stories his mom used to tell him.
She’s dead now.
Electrocuted by faulty wiring. His Uncle Hayes said she would’ve lived if her heart weren’t so bad. That hadn’t made Stark feel any better.
While his mom’s funeral drags on inside, he sits cross-legged out front, plucking out blades of grass one by one. Every time he blinks, he sees his mom tucked in her coffin, her face too still and her lips too pink, her fingers stiff around a bundle of fake flowers.
She always said she’d die young. A psychic at the Crown Motel told her that. He also told her the world would end on a Saturday morning in August, just as the sun crested the mountains.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in June, and Stark’s world is dead.
He drags a shaky finger through the crumbling, sun-baked dirt, tracing the shapes of his name. His mom taught him the alphabet this way. She said it was because she couldn’t afford any of the fancy learning toys at the store. The only reason she couldn’t afford them, Uncle Hayes said, was because she drank too much.
Halfway through the R, a rock hits his arm.
It’s a big rock. Smooth on one end, pointy on the other. Gray with a shock of white. He picks it up. Heavy, too. His arm hurts where it hit him. Like someone punched him. A red splotch blooms over his skin. Stark knows it’ll bruise later. If it hit him in the head, it might have knocked him out.
He’s always wondered what it’d be like to be unconscious.
When he found his mom in the basement, her body splayed out across the damp concrete, Stark thought she fainted. She did that sometimes.
Another rock lands in the pile of grass he collected, scattering it.
He looks up.
Across the street, a little yellow house sits alone, driveway empty. Garden gnomes litter the front lawn. Some look broken. A wooden fence, slats painted gray, stretches around the backyard. Something moves behind it. A dog, Stark thinks, until a head pops over the top, and another rock shoots over the street.
It dings against Uncle Hayes’ pickup.
Stark was told to stay on the church’s property, but Uncle Hayes is easy to disobey. He looks scary, all tall and muscular and beady-eyed, but he gets weepy when he has to yell, like he’s the one getting scolded. He says it’s why he never had kids of his own. Stark’s mom said it was because when they were kids, Uncle Hayes killed their baby brother in an accident.
He brushes dirt off his dress pants as he stands. They’re too short on him. His mom got them at a thrift store for his grandfather’s funeral, right before Stark’s growth spurt. There’s a rip in the knee that Uncle Hayes tried to fix by hand, the pink thread bright against the black. It made the pastor’s wife give him a pitying look, but Stark doesn’t mind. He’s made do with worse.
Rocks fly past Stark as he crosses the road. One hits his chest.
It leaves a dust imprint on his white button-up.
“What’re you throwing rocks for?” Stark says, head tipped up, hands on his hips. “You might hurt someone.”
Pale, dirt-streaked arms dangle over the fence. A face follows them: tilted, like the person’s standing on tiptoes. When they speak, their voice is weird. Bland, his mom would’ve said. “I wanted your attention.”
“You could’ve said hello.”
“Hello,” the kid echoes. Then, “That isn’t any fun.”
They disappear from the fence. A few feet away, the gate swings open. Stark watches it.
No one steps out. He remembers the day his mom told him to beware of strangers. She cupped his face, hands dirty, voice gentle: “Some people want to hurt you.”
Stark can’t imagine hurting any more than he does now.
“Come in.” The face is back at the fence. “You look lonely out there.”
His sneakers crunch against the grass as he walks toward the open gate. It’s brown along the edge of the fence, like someone sprayed weed killer along it. “I’m not lonely.”
On the other side, the yard is untidy. Junk piles high in the corner, tipped-over armchairs and smashed-up desks shaded by a tall oak tree. The grass, spotted with dandelions and nettle, grows tall, brushing against Stark’s bare ankles. Uncle Hayes’ yard used to look like this before Stark’s mom cleaned it up. Hoarder, his mom called him. Collector, Uncle Hayes says.
But Uncle Hayes’ yard never had these many holes.
They’re everywhere. It reminds him of the meerkats on Animal Planet. Only these holes are wider, and he can’t tell how deep they go. One, the closest to the gate, is filled with broken kitchen chairs, their legs planted pointy-end up. It looked, Stark thought, like someone was going to war.
“You shouldn’t lie,” they say. “It’s bad for you.”
The kid’s standing on a milk crate, covered in dirt. Their skin, their clothes, their hair.
Only the gold crown on their head is clean. It shines under the sun, white jewels glittering, and Stark wonders if it’s real. The cape tied around their neck isn’t. Just a ratty red blanket, faded from too many washes.
“I’m not lying.”
“Not lonely, then,” they say, like it’s funny. “Just alone.”
“I like being alone.”
Their mouth twists. It might be a smile, but there’s too many teeth. “What were you doing outside the church? It’s not Sunday. Is there a wedding?” They lean in, eyes wide in interest. The smell of sweat and dirt and body odor rolls off their body. Stark tries not to recoil.
“That’s dog shit,” they say. It’s better than I’m sorry.
Since his mom died, I’m sorry has become an echo bouncing in his head, the words slamming into him, a reminder, over and over, of what has happened. I’m sorry your mom died. I’m sorry you’re alone. I’m sorry you found her. I’m sorry your Uncle Hayes doesn’t know what to do with you. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. It unsettles Stark, the ease those words are spoken with, like it does anything to make him feel better.
“It is dog shit,” Stark says.
It’s nice, he thinks, to talk to someone around his age. He has no cousins, no siblings, no friends. Only Uncle Hayes. Some days, it’s enough. Uncle Hayes was his mom’s older brother. He knew her better than most people. Could answer whatever questions Stark had. Other days, Stark couldn’t stand the way Uncle Hayes spoke about his mom.
“Give me your name.” The kid steps off the milk crate. They’re an inch taller than him, their voice demanding in a way that suggests no isn’t a word they hear often.
“Stark.” They put an emphasis on the k when they repeat his name, like they’re deciding whether they like it or not. “That’s good. Sounds sharp. Call me the Rat King.”
Names are important, Stark’s mom said. Intimate. People have birth names and nicknames and dead names and chosen names and it all piles up, a little mountain of teetering sticks, to create the truth of someone. Stark doesn’t waver at Rat King. Doesn’t find it odd. His mom had friends named Phillip and Snowdrop and Doroteya and Branch. Friends who changed their names so frequently Stark made a game out of it, his guesses often wrong, often ridiculous, but enough to make his mom’s friends laugh, to make him feel like he’d done something right.
“Nice to meet you, Rat King,” Stark says.
The Rat King slings their arm around Stark’s shoulder, pulling him close. Band-aids cover their fingers. Something sticky smears across the back of their cape. It looks like sap. “I’ve decided, Stark. Let’s be friends.”
“You want to be friends?”
Stark doesn’t have friends. The kids at school think his family is weird. People always whispered about his mom because she never hid her eccentricities. She dressed in old, patchwork clothes that she stitched bells and buttons onto, everything too mismatched to make sense. She spoke openly to the wilted plants at the grocery store, hands gentle as she pruned them without permission. She tended to the neighborhood’s possum population like they were stray kittens, cooing over their triangular heads and their little paws.
He wonders if things will change now that she’s dead. Will they feel sorry for him? Will they look at his Uncle Hayes and think he’s his father? They look similar enough, and Stark has to change schools, and his real father is gone.
Somewhere in Florida, his mom said. Dead, his Uncle Hayes said.
“Course I want to be friends.” The Rat King steers him toward one of the bigger holes, their toes lined up with the edge, dirt crumbling down the side. “You can help me with my project. It’ll be fun.”
“What is it?”
The pit in front of them is deeper than Stark expected, like the Rat King is trying to recreate Holes. Shovels lean against the tall mound of red-brown dirt. The wood looks sun-bleached, the metal blade all rusty. A denim jacket drapes over the opposite edge of the pit, too big to fit the Rat King well. It’s covered in iron-on patches. Little flowers and curled-up cats and birds mid-flight. Stark’s only known the Rat King for a few minutes, but the aesthetic isn’t right—the jacket isn’t theirs. He flicks his eyes over the yard. There’s no sign of anyone else.
Even the house is still, all the lights turned off.
“I’m an archaeologist exploring the world, Stark.” They shake him, not gently, and Stark reaches for the Rat King’s cape to steady himself, heart beating fast as the side begins to crumble beneath his sneakers, the only underdressed part of him. “I want to find something cool. Will you help me?”
The sun beats hot against the back of Stark’s neck. He thinks of his mom, who gardened in her silk pajamas, a fresh coat of sunblock on her face every two hours. He liked gardening with her. Liked sifting through the soil to place seeds. Once, he found a little doll, the porcelain face smashed in from the trowel, its dark hair matted with dirt. His mom kept it. Placed it in a shelf beside her desk, a tag attached to its left foot—doll, June 2021, garden. Stark imagines this is the same, but bigger. More intimidating. He thinks his mom would have enjoyed it, if she were here, so he says yes, and the Rat King grins, slapping him hard across the back.
Stark catches the shovel the Rat King tosses to him, nearly tumbling headfirst into the pit. He clutches it to his chest. Wonders if there are blisters hidden underneath all the Rat King’s band-aids. “We’re working on this one?”
It’s so deep already. When the Rat King jumps down, the edge rises high above their head—six, six and a half feet. They don’t seem disturbed by it. Instead, they smile up at him, teeth too straight, too white, at odds with the rumpled mess of the rest of them.
“I have a feeling about this one,” they say.
When Uncle Hayes talks about his mom, gullible slips out often, the word full of disgusted exasperation. He says Stark follows in her footsteps. When he says this, it’s kinder, Uncle Hayes’ voice gentle as he explains the terribleness in the world—you can’t be kind to everyone, Stark. Stark understands this better than his uncle thinks.
It is not out of kindness that Stark climbs into the pit.
It is not out of kindness that he drives the shovel into the dirt.
When you suffer a loss, his mom said, sometimes it consumes you.
Stark is consumed.
Tears burn at the corners of his eyes. Slip down his cheeks. Drip from his nose. The muscles in his arms turn watery as he hefts the dirt-filled blade over the edge. Most of it tumbles back. Gets in his hair. Smears over his suit. His mom would be proud—she spent half her life with her hands wrist-deep in the dirt, tending to flowers like they were his siblings, the smell of the earth clinging to her hair, her dress, her skin.
“Have—” Stark sniffs. Wipes his face on his arm. His after-cry headache settles in at his temples. A tiredness into his bones. “Have you ever found anything?”
The Rat King doesn’t mention the tears, the snot, the choked-back sobs. “I found a skull, once. Would you like to see it?”
Stark pauses, one foot on the blade, a chill seeping through his too-small suit. When he looks over his shoulder, the Rat King is looking back, their eyes too wide, too focused, the barest stretch of a smile on their face. It looks forced. A person unaccustomed to company. He thinks of his own face. Wonders if he stares too long, if he doesn’t stare long enough. His mom never cared. Uncle Hayes cares too much.
Don’t stare, he says. It’s creepy.
Look at people when they talk to you, he says. It’s disrespectful when you don’t.
The Rat King sets their shovel against the side of the pit, stepping back, then leaping forward, reaching for the edge. They’re taller than him, but Stark’s still surprised when they make it, pulling themselves out with the ease of someone who’s done this before. They don’t say anything before they disappear, red cape whirling.
Encased in dirt, Stark lets his shovel tip to the ground, aware he has done everything adults warn against—do not go off alone, do not trust strangers, do not leave yourself to their mercy. He touches a wall. Digs his fingers in. Watches them sink into the earth.
After the funeral, his mother will be buried in a pit like this.
Without her, danger doesn’t feel quite real. It doesn’t matter if the Rat King comes back to pelt him with more rocks. Doesn’t matter if they plan to leave him here forever. Doesn’t matter if they bury him alive.
He tugs his hand free. There’s dirt stuck under his nails.
He sits. Lies back. Stares up at the blank blue sky, hands folded over his chest. He wonders why people are buried like this. His mom always slept on her side, legs curled up to her chest, knuckles pressed to her lips.
When the Rat King returns, they have a skull cradled in their hands. They pause at the edge of the pit. Tip their head as they take him in. “Is this your funeral, now?”
“I want to know what it’ll be like when they bury her,” Stark says.
The Rat King hums. Holds the skull high above their head. It’s small—a raccoon or a cat or an opossum—and clean, the bones an off-white. They clack its jaw. Says, “He wants me to bury him. That wouldn’t be very archaeological of me, would it?”
“I’m sorry.” Stark props himself up on his elbows, a flush on his cheeks. “It’s—”
“You’re not supposed to interrupt a king,” the Rat King says, more to the skull than to Stark. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it. I’ll just say it’s a temporary career change. From archaeologist to gravedigger. Or grave-filler-upper, I guess.”
Something like fear skitters up Stark’s spine and drapes itself around his neck. He lays back down. Stares up at the Rat King, outlined by the bright blue of the sky, their smile too sharp, too eager, for someone about to bury a stranger. Stark lets his eyes flutter closed. Thinks about what his mom might say, if she were here. Maybe, Not everyone has your best interest in mind. Or, I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to be a worm. Or, Do you trust them, Stark?
He opens his eyes. The Rat King is bending over, placing the skull at the edge of the pit—letting it watch. They pick up a shovel. Scoop up some dirt. Hold it over the pit. Stare down at him with those unnerving eyes.
Says, “Let me know when you want me to be an archaeologist again.”
They dump the first shovel full onto Stark’s legs.
It reminds him of the beach. Less grainy than sand, but somehow more intolerable, every little pebble jabbing into his skin. He forces himself still. To keep his legs together. To keep his hands on his chest. To breathe as the weight on his body grows. He knows this isn’t what’ll happen to his mom. She’s in a box, he isn’t. She’s dead, he isn’t.
But he has to know. Has to come close.
Dirt sticks to the tear tracks on his face.
He closes his eyes again. Lets the dark fold over him. This dirt isn’t the right kind for gardening—it’s much too loose and dry and mineral deficient—but it drapes over him, a cold blanket, the smell of it invading his nose, and he thinks his mom could’ve made it work.
We just need to feed it, she’d say.
A pile of dirt hits his chest, high up, like a cat settling down for a long nap.
Surrounded by the earth, Stark thinks about death. Despite her certainty that she’d die young, his mom never thought to prepare him for this. To her, death came with the plants withering in the winter, with the possums mowed down in the middle of the street, their guts splattered across asphalt. She held a funeral for everything. Told him the world was as cruel as it was kind.
His legs are pinned. The weight creeps up and up and up.
He fights off the rising panic.
Know your enemy, his mom said, and she meant it in relation to weeds, to insects, to poison—not God, not death, not the earth itself. But no one else will give him the answers he needs. And, as the first layer of dirt sweeps over his head, Stark learns what it’s like to die.
There is a stillness to it, at first. An aloneness that’s almost peaceful. But then he can’t move. Can’t breathe. Can’t claw his way out. Dirt spills into his mouth. Crushes him whole. He’s trapped, underground, and his thoughts spin, frantic, an uncategorized rush. An ache builds in his lungs. He thinks about his mom in her coffin. Thinks it’s best she has that separation. The wood will rot eventually. So will her skin, her muscles, her bones—just like the opossums in the backyard.
In school, his science teacher has a fake skeleton that sat in the back, all its bones removable. Stark liked detaching them. Liked twisting them around in his hands. Other kids scrawled across the white in marker, nicked it with pencils and teeth. He imagines his mom’s bones hung on a rack, picked apart by his classmates, their fingers wrenching at her ribs, poking at her eye sockets, yanking at her legs.
At his sides, his arms jerk, trying to make their way up to his face, to claw the dirt away from his mouth, his nose, but the dirt doesn’t give around him. His heart is loud. A rush in his ears. A bang against his chest. He wants to scream. To plead for the Rat King to dig him up.
Turn back, he thinks. Turn back turn back turn back.
Something stabs him in the face.
It takes him too long to realize it’s the Rat King’s hands.
“I found you,” they say, as breathless as he is. “I found you.”
Their hands are cold and rough against Stark’s face. They’re wiping away the dirt, the tears, a mangled grin slashed across their face, their breath stale as they lean in, laugh bubbling from their throat. Stark watches them, dazed, lungs still convinced he’s suffocating, as the Rat King pushes at the dirt mound on his legs. They keep whispering something as they work, too quiet for Stark to make out, but his mind is mid-panic, thoughts a tangled mess of rope.
When his arms and legs are free, Stark wobbles to his feet. Dirt slides off his suit. Lingers in his hair, a layer over his scalp. He’s going to get Uncle Hayes’ truck all gross.
“What was it like?” the Rat King says, still knelt in the dirt.
“Heavy,” Stark says, peering down at his trembling hands. “Dark.”
Cut off from the rest of the world. Smothered in silence. Alone in a way that feels absolute. He will dream of this tonight. Buried beside his mom. Trapped in her coffin as she rots.
As she dies, over and over, right in front of his face. When he wakes, there will be no one there to comfort him, to make him warm milk, to press a kiss against his forehead.
He steps back as the Rat King gets to their feet, dusting dirt from their bare knees. They have a dazed, delighted look on their face, cheeks pink from the exertion, forehead a little sweaty. They scale the edge. Lean back over the pit, their hand outstretched. It takes Stark a moment to grab it.
The Rat King pulls him from the pit.
They both flop over on the ground, limbs splayed, skull in between them. A thick silence stretches between them, and Stark is stuck, his eyes on his dirty hands. It reminds him of the afternoon before he found his mom in the basement. She was in the garden, gloves draped over her shoulder, fingers deep in the soil, loosening it for the new tomato seeds she bought. When she spotted him watching from the covered porch, she beckoned him over. Smeared her hands over his T-shirt. Laughed as he protested, a fake pout on his lips. She told him he might as well help, now that he was dirty, and he did.
After, his hands looked just like this.
Dark under his nails. Gritty as he rubs his fingers together.
“You should plant a garden,” he says, voice soft, more to himself than to the Rat King.
Uncle Hayes isn’t going to keep Stark’s mom’s house. Everything Stark loves, gone in less than a week, no time to say goodbye, no time to remember. He’ll never recreate her garden. Or the height wall. Or the perfect little birds painted across their living room, wings outstretched.
She’d tell him it’s time for something new, something just for him, but that’s easy to say when you’re the one who leaves.
“Archaeologists don’t plant gardens.”
“Some do,” Stark says. “It could be like a trade.”
“You take something from the earth, then you give something back.”
The Rat King hums to themselves. Sits up. Surveys their pit-ridden yard, their arms draped over their propped-up knees. Like this, they look even younger. “I suppose it might work.” Then, voice small, un-kingly, “Would you help me?”
There’s a box of leftover seeds on Uncle Hayes’ table. An assortment of tomatoes and cucumbers and dahlias and lavender. His mom was saving it for next year, once she could afford to expand the garden. He knows Uncle Hayes will never use them. His hands, dirty with engine grease, never soil, are too impatient to tend to the dramatics of plant life.
Some days, Stark doubted Uncle Hayes was his mom’s brother.
Stark rips at the dry grass. Watches it crumple in his fist. “It’ll take awhile.”
The rest of summer stretches in front of him, a long, terrible passage of time, the days riddled with reminders of his mother. He thinks of how often he’d be alone—Uncle Hayes off to work, no school friends to visit—and it makes his breath catch, fresh tears stinging, unwanted, at the corners of his eyes.
“You can come over whenever you want,” the Rat King says, eager, crown slipping in their dirt-colored hair, its edge tipped too far to the left. “We could be co-kings.”
“Co-kings.” He has never dreamed of being a king. Not even when his mother’s bedtime stories detailed castles and knights and dragons. He always thought he’d be someone small. A cook. A stable boy. A gardener. But the Rat King has given a glimpse of something new. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
They stand tall. Hands on their hips. Confidence returned, like their insecurity never bled through, their smile that sharp, too-wide slash. “My kingdom’s plenty big enough for both of us.”
The Rat King’s house doesn’t look much like a castle, the walls a sun-bleached yellow, the window duct-taped in place, the yard pockmarked, but his mother would say it suits a young king with an untended kingdom. She would say, take care of them, and they’ll take care of you.
For all their theatrics, Stark thinks his mom would love the Rat King.
He climbs to his feet. Reaches his hand out.
Dirt crumbles from their skin as they shake on their shared kingdom.
It’ll go like one of his mom’s stories. They will rule, benevolently, over this tiny square in this tiny town, dirt smeared up to their wrists. They will dig pits. They will uncover artifacts.
They will watch their garden grow.
by Ronald Walker
Sam Burnette is the author of one chapbook, A Trail of Ducklings. Her short stories have appeared in Pendulum Literary Magazine. She lives in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Walker works in a painting style he terms “Suburban Primitive”. This style combines his interest in the origins and functions of art along with life in the suburbs, which he views in both a physical and psychological manner. His work has been shown in 45 solo exhibits and numerous group shows over the years. He holds both a MFA and a MA degree in painting and drawing.