When Cobin finished sweeping around the pool, he pushed a wheelbarrow down to the woods at the rear of the property.
Old Man Jennings let the woods grow wild, amused by the deer and raccoon that occasionally emerged. Given the choice, Cobin would cut it all down and plant grass, but he was only permitted to maintain the thicket so it wouldn’t look shaggy and morbid.
While he was dragging out dead branches, something caught Cobin’s attention. He waded back into the brush to a small clearing where trash was piled. Thirty empty wine bottles, cheap stuff that only a tramp would savor. The bottles leaned against a stout log.
The clearing had an unobstructed view of the house. Cobin pictured the tramp sitting on the log, getting wasted, and staring at the three floor-to-ceiling windows on the second floor.
Cobin happened to know what occurred behind those windows every night.
A path meandered away from the clearing. Cobin surmised that it led to a gap in the fence or an easy way up and over. He could follow it back and plug that hole. But he had a better idea.
At 10:15 pm, Cobin heard a twig snap somewhere in the heart of the woods. He waited.
The trespasser appeared. Tall and lean, too young for the role of a derelict, but well on his way to the requisite seediness. Oblivious to the removal of the empties, he sat on the log with a new bag from the liquor store and looked up at the light shining from the second floor windows.
Behind those windows a young woman with long blonde hair was performing ballet exercises. Graceful and strong, she danced rapturously to music only faintly heard from the woods. Cobin could not deny the enormous allure of her performance.
Her name was Sue Jennings, current wife of Cobin’s employer. The vagrant’s name was Derek Chambers, and he was her ex.
“Stand up, Chambers,” said Cobin.
Cobin stepped into the clearing, pointing a handgun. The vagrant slowly rose to his feet.
“Grab your stuff.”
Derek picked up his liquor store bag. Cobin waved the gun and Derek stepped through the leafy threshold. Cobin followed.
“It’s not like I don’t got a right, Cobin.”
“How long have you been out?”
“About a month.”
“Short time for vehicular manslaughter.”
“Two years — for a traffic accident!”
Cobin didn’t bother to argue the point. What’s fair punishment for the death of a mother and two children?
“Head to the right,” Cobin said, directing his prisoner off-trail, where the pungent odor of freshly-turned soil hung in the chill evening air.
“Hey, Cobin, what’s this about?”
Derek stumbled on loose dirt. He scaled a grimy mound and looked down at what Cobin had waiting for him.
It was a hole, a deep, man-sized pit, freshly dug in the middle of the woods, with heaps of dirt piled on either side, ready to be pushed back in to close it up. In the bottom of the pit, shattered glass from discarded wine bottles reflected in the moonlight, a glittery bed of eternal rest.
“Throw your bottles in there with the rest,” said Cobin.
“Are you serious, man?”
Derek dropped the bag and it hit bottom with a heavy clang.
“Okay, Chambers, now it’s your turn. Get in.”
“What?” exclaimed Derek.
“Get in the hole.”
The young vagrant got to his knees, swung his legs over and lowered himself in. He cowered in the hole, looking up at Cobin’s gun.
Derek started pleading and blubbering. Cobin grimaced and tried not to listen. As soon as I saw the bottles I knew it was you, he thought. I knew you were coming back to reclaim your old life. You came in the back way tonight, but you’ll be coming in the front door tomorrow. And Sue, sweet-natured Sue, won’t be able to resist you.
Is this enough to frighten you away? For a normal man it would be. But your kind has a special talent for amnesia. No matter what the humiliations or punishments, you soldier on like you’re kings of the world. And fools admire you for it.
A cloud passed over the moon. Derek lunged for Cobin’s ankle and pulled him into the pit. Cobin collided with a side wall and landed on the glass. Derek kicked him twice, then scrambled out. Cobin looked up and saw Derek standing on the rim of the pit, pointing Cobin’s gun at him. Then the moment passed and Derek dashed off.
Cobin stood up, wincing at the sting of broken glass on his back. He struggled to climb out of the hole, dragging great avalanches of dirt down before he reached the surface.
He raced down the path to the fence, but reached it without finding Derek. The house, he thought, and backtracked in that direction.
He found Derek in the clearing, aiming the gun at the windows. Aiming it at Sue, who could be seen resting on a bench.
The young man’s chest was heaving. He had difficulty lining up his shot. Cobin almost reached him before he pulled the trigger.
Click! The hammer landed on an empty chamber. Click, click, click. Derek kept trying to fire a gun that hadn’t been loaded in the first place, because its owner had no plans to use it.
Cobin tackled him and brought him down. He started punching him, furiously alternating right and left, not listening to anything Derek tried to say, just listening to the sound of his own fists, until there were no more words and Cobin had no more strength.
The groundskeeper crouched in the clearing, gasping for breath, regarding the unconscious form of his adversary. At a loss for what to do next, and thinking of the grave that was already dug, and wanting an occupant.
Joe Zabel is a comic book artist and writer living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He is best known for his work illustrating American Splendor, by the late Harvey Pekar. He has recently been published by Every Day Fiction, and has done illustrations for Story Shack.