The flies found it first.
David slid down the side of the ravine, intent on wading in the shaded stream at the bottom, but the buzzing flies stopped him. He made his way to the swarm by a scrub of brush. As he got closer, the brush grew legs.
David stopped, coughed, said hello, but the legs didn’t move. He waited a minute or two before moving toward the legs again. Flies bounced off of David’s face.
The legs belonged to a body dressed in jeans, boots, and a red flannel shirt with no sleeves. Dried blood matted its blond hair. The eyes and mouth were open and squirmed with maggots; they crowded a bullet hole in the man’s head. The light scent of spoiled meat drifted by and David waved it and the flies away from his face.
David sat on his knees next to the dead man, leaning forward a little so he wouldn’t go somersaulting backwards down the incline. His fingers itched along his thighs in indecision.
Should he go for help?
Well, no. The guy was way beyond help. He was dead.
He should tell somebody, though. The guy had been shot. Maybe he’d been murdered. Maybe this guy got into a fight with Earl Ray at Fibber’s Pool Hall and Earl Ray, who still bullied kids for their lunch money even though he was in his thirties and hadn’t seen a classroom since the eighth grade, shot him in the parking lot. Then Earl Ray and his buddies, since he always had two or three in tow, dumped this poor, dead guy in the back of his pickup, drove him out here, and chucked him into the ravine.
David leaned forward even more, inspecting without touching. There was more dried blood and gunky stuff on the scrub.
Rolling away from the body, David slid the last few feet to the stream. He poked around down there, tossing a few stones into the water, before spotting what he needed on the opposite bank. He jumped the water, not quite clearing it and drenching his socks and sneakers. Half buried in the mud was a good-looking stick. David pulled it out and washed it off. He tested it a few times, swinging it around, slinging dirty water from the end of it, and then hopped back across the stream.
David came up on the man’s left side and knelt down. He jabbed the body, poking it first in the leg and then in the side. The body was hard. David levered the stick under the man’s left arm and lifted it up. The effort made him sweat; the arm was stiff and hard to move. Underneath, David saw metal, a dirty little .22 pistol. He pulled the stick away and the arm dropped.
The guy had shot himself, sure thing.
For an hour, David circled the body, poking at it with the stick, trying to lift the limbs caught in rigor mortis, watching the flies swarm and the maggots churn.
Pappy Deke would have called him summer rot. He said it about the apples that fell from the trees and sat on the ground too long, going soft and filling with worms. That’s what this guy looked like.
Of course, Pappy Deke was summer rot now, too.
It had only been a week since they put Pappy Deke in the ground, but he really started rotting back in June, the day after school let out. It was hot, the humidity only beginning to drop hints of how miserable it was going to get. David came home from catching crawdads in the ravine and stopped on the mud porch long enough to slip off his socks and sneakers. He walked through the kitchen, warm in the late afternoon, promising sweat with supper, down the hallway, and up the back stairs. The floorboards of the upstairs hallway were sticky.
David tiptoed down the hall, stopping at the first room on the left. It wasn’t dark but the light was dimmed by the shades, filling the room with shadows. Two fans were on and the windows were open. It was much cooler in the room than in the hallway.
Pappy Deke lay on the bed, on his back, his mouth open and his eyes closed. The breeze from one of the fans ruffled his thin, white hair. The sheet across his bony chest rose and fell a little. Pappy Deke was sleeping. He’d been sleeping when David first left that morning to do chores. He was sleeping when David came in for lunch. He was sleeping when David left for the ravine. Pappy slept more every day.
Soon he’d be sleeping forever. Mama was sure Pappy Deke wasn’t going to see David’s thirteenth birthday in August. The cancer was going to take him before that.
Mama was almost right.
David walked down the hallway to his room, the last one on the left. It was small, barely enough space to walk around the bed and the dresser. There was only one window, which was wide open, and no fan; he’d given it to Pappy Deke at Mama’s request when May turned hotter than it should have.
“You’re coming up on being a man, Davy,” she had said. “Time you start learning how to do right no matter the cost.”
David didn’t argue, just said, “yes, ma’am”, and gave up his only means of staying cool at night, which had cost him hours of sleep and would have made his grades suffer if he was a better student. He didn’t ask why Brenna and Molly, who were older, weren’t asked to do right. He didn’t protest about being too young to become a man. He just did what Mama asked.
He stripped off his dirty t-shirt and shorts and tossed them on the floor. Sprawled out on his bed, he stared at the ceiling and tried to catch a breeze from the window. His thoughts and the heat nearly lulled him to sleep twice before David peeled himself off of the damp sheets and put on a clean set of play clothes. He picked up his dirty clothes and went down the hallway, stopping just long enough to see that Pappy Deke was still sleeping, still breathing. Downstairs, David tossed his dirty clothes into the utility room and scrubbed the dirt off of his face, neck, and arms in the bathroom.
Dinner was fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, biscuits, and homemade applesauce for dessert. A huge pitcher of sun tea sat sweating in the middle of the table. The kitchen was stifling. David could barely breathe, but Mama insisted that they always eat supper in there.
“This is dinner, not a picnic,” she had said once. “We eat at the table.”
David worked at cleaning his plate. Hot food for a hot stomach in a hot kitchen was hard to swallow. He finished as fast as he could, forcing down the last bite.
David excused himself, putting his plate and glass in the sink, and took a tray up to Pappy Deke. Mama had asked him to do it the first time Pappy Deke wasn’t feeling up to coming to the table and David had done it ever since. He liked spending supper with Pappy Deke, looked forward to it.
Pappy Deke was still sleeping when David set the tray on the table next to the bed. David nudged him. Pappy Deke’s breathing stopped, hiccupped, and his eyes opened. He blinked a few times and looked at David.
“Dinner, Pappy,” David said.
“Oh, good.” Pappy Deke struggled to sit up. David helped him get settled. “I was just dreaming I was hungry.”
David smiled and handed him a napkin, which Pappy Deke tucked into his pajama top. David set the tray on his lap. There was a plate with mashed potatoes, chicken, and a biscuit and a glass of tea. Pappy Deke gave up on corn sometime over the winter.
“Your mama must like taking me to the john,” Pappy Deke said. “Always giving me this damn tea.”
David laughed and Pappy Deke smiled.
“What you been up to today, boy?” Pappy Deke asked. His hand shook as he scooped some mashed potatoes onto a spoon and into his mouth.
“Been down at the ravine,” David said with a shrug.
“Anything good down there?”
Pappy Deke shook hard and dropped his spoon onto the tray. David watched him pick it up on the second try.
“Nah,” David said. “Crawdads are kinda weak this year.”
“Yeah? You know we had a place like that when I was a kid,” Pappy Deke said, his lips smeared with potatoes. “Your daddy had a place like that, too. I used to go down there with him some days.”
David believed that. There could be acres of room at the adult table, but Pappy Deke always wedged himself in with the kids.
“Your birthday’s coming up,” Pappy Deke said, wiping away the potatoes and picking up the biscuit. “What did you ask for?”
“New bike,” David said, watching crumbs fall from Pappy Deke’s lips. “Mine’s getting too small.”
Pappy Deke nodded. “You are growing. I think you’ll fill out better than your daddy by the time you’re done.” Pappy Deke wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Gonna have a party?”
David shrugged. “Dunno. Mama hasn’t said.”
“You got to have a party, Davy,” Pappy Deke said. “I know your mama’s got a lot on her mind, but you gotta celebrate. You’re growing up, becoming a young man.”
“I don’t want to be a man, Pappy.” It was a whine and David flinched at it.
Pappy Deke chuckled, but it wasn’t mean.
“Now why do you say that, Davy?”
“Because I’ve seen it. It’s not fun. You work all the time, you get old, and you die. That’s it. It’s the end.”
This time Pappy Deke laughed.
“Well, boy, you do got some things right,” he said. “But you have fun when you’re grown.”
“Not that I’ve seen. Not too many grown people down in the ravine looking for crawdads. Not too many teenagers either. They’re all riding around, drooling over girls. It’s gross. I don’t want to go crazy like that. It’s more fun being a kid. It’s not fair that I have to grow up.”
Pappy Deke looked him over good and smiled.
“There ain’t no hard and fast rules to living, Davy,” Pappy Deke said, voice soft and light. “You have fun any old way you want to. We’re all just rottin’ anyway. Might as well have a good time doing it.”
David wanted to protest, but Pappy Deke was seeing the past, a look of bliss on his face. That’s when David realized, truly realized that Pappy Deke was on his way out. He was just waiting around until his heart quit, sleeping all the time to get used to the big sleep coming, looking forward to dreaming about those happy memories forever. They sat in silence for a few minutes until Pappy Deke looked down at his half-full plate, the bliss fading. There was a time when Pappy could have eaten twice that and pie. It all made David’s heart hurt.
“You finished, Pappy?” David asked.
“I think I am,” Pappy said. He sounded old. “Go tell your mama I’m ready for my pills.”
David reached out to take the tray and Pappy Deke closed a trembling hand around his glass. His eyes sparkled.
“Leave the tea.”
The month passed with the same routine: ravine, home, dinner, Pappy Deke.
David would rush his dinner to sit with Pappy Deke while he ate his. He ate less and less all the time. He was always sitting up now, propped up by pillows. He couldn’t breathe lying down anymore. And there was no more tea. Bathroom trips were too much now; Pappy Deke used a bedpan.
David would tell him about his day and watch Pappy Deke’s eyes light up and his mouth quirk before he launched into a story of his own. David listened, his amusement tainted by sadness. Burning with love, he treasured every second and every word.
A week after the Fourth of July, David came home from the ravine to find a strange car in the driveway. He ditched his socks and shoes on the mud porch and his sister Molly met him in the kitchen. Her eyes were red and her face was puffy.
“Davy, where have you been?” she asked.
“At the ravine. What’s going on?”
“Davy, Pappy Deke took a turn for the worse.” Molly’s eyes welled and tears started falling. “He’s not dead, but he won’t wake up. The cancer is eating up his insides. Mama and Daddy are upstairs with the doctor now.”
David felt sucker punched. He’d been expecting it, but not that day. Knew it was coming, but didn’t want it to be that day. David wasn’t ready. Not that day.
He nodded at his sister and left, walking out of the house in a daze. His bare feet took him to the barn and he climbed the wooden ladder to the loft.
There, sitting on dry straw, breathing musty air, and nearly suffocating in the heavy heat, David cried.
The rest of July passed with the same routine.
At home, David ate dinner and then went up to sit with Pappy Deke even though Pappy wasn’t eating anymore. Sometimes David would tell Pappy about his day, even though he wasn’t sure if Pappy could hear him. Sometimes he cried, his back to the door so no one could see his face. He kissed him goodbye everyday.
Pappy Deke had tubes going in and coming out of him. He rattled when he breathed and sometimes the pauses between breaths lasted a minute. Gray and loose skin just covered his bones and his once round belly was flat, starting to sink. Sometimes Pappy’s eyes would be half open and David would close them. Summer rot. David realized that’s what Pappy was, even if his lungs were still breathing and the tubes were feeding him. Summer rot. Just like the guy David now poked with a stick down by the creek in the ravine. Only the smell of Pappy Deke’s death was just a suggestion then, not a fact like this guy’s stench.
A nurse came twice a day to check on Pappy Deke. Mama told David that they couldn’t get him a new bike for his birthday because they needed the money to pay her. They wanted Pappy Deke to be comfortable for his last few days. Mama once again asked David to do right. David did, without question.
But he thought Pappy Deke would be more comfortable if they just let him go.
Even with Pappy Deke rotting in the upstairs bedroom, Mama and Daddy still planned a birthday party for David. A small group of friends and family out in the backyard for hot dogs, chips, soda, and ice cream on the day he turned thirteen.
But Pappy Deke died.
Instead of a party, David spent his birthday watching Mama and his sisters cry and Daddy try not to and the undertaker take Pappy Deke out of the house on a stretcher covered with a sheet. The doctor and nurse came later that day to get all of the medical things that helped Pappy Deke die comfortably. Between crying spells, Mama promised David that he could have his party the next week. David just said okay.
David wore his best suit, his only suit, to Pappy Deke’s funeral three days later. Only seven days ago now. It was hot and muggy; sweat ran down his face while tears ran down everyone else’s. He threw a handful of dirt on Pappy Deke’s casket as his family walked away, leaving Pappy to sleep.
David gave up on the body, flinging the stick back down to the creek where he found it. He gave up on the crawdads and the creek and the ravine and the day. Someone was probably looking for this poor guy and even if they weren’t, David couldn’t leave him here to rot like an apple gone bad. He’d had enough of rotten things.
David went home.