The King of Dirt Hill (A choose your own ending story)
It is early in the morning and your dog, Mister Crackers, is barking.
Clare, your life partner, named the dog Mister Crackers. You never really liked the name, but you like Clare. Mister Crackers is a Bichon Frise. He looks like a roll of toilet paper with a head.
Clare rolls over in bed, stripping the sheets from you in the most casual way, as if it were a mistake. "Mister Crackers wants out," Clare says and starts snoring again.
You are a light sleeper and Clare's snoring keeps you awake most nights, so you are awake anyway. You've been married for 25 years, and you feel like you haven't had a decent night's sleep since your wedding night. You have become used to being tired.
"I hate that dog," you say, which really isn't true at all because, actually, you really love Mister Crackers. You pay for his grooming treatments, you dress him in little booties and a coat before his "walkies" in the winter, and you bring home vile dried pig's ear treats from the pet food store. Mister Crackers loves the pig's ears, but everytime he gets one he throws up on your carpet. This drives you crazy. They are his favourite treats, though, and you enjoy seeing him wiggle his little bum when you hold one in front of his nose. Mister Crackers is the only meat-eater in the house. You and Clare are vegetarians.
You hate to think about the poor dumb beasts in the abattoir; you hate cleaning half-digested dried pig's ear from your carpet; you hate being tired all the time; you worry that you might have high cholesterol. Otherwise, life is mostly good.
You hear a woof and more scratching at the back door.
"Quiet now, Mister Crackers. You'll wake Clare," you say.
Clare's nose and throat bubble as the snoring stops. You think, if the peace lasts, you might be able to fall back to sleep.
"I hate that dog," you say again, but you really don't mean it.
Clare chokes and sputters into another loud snore. You think of the radio report you heard on sleep apnea and the negative effects it can have on one's health. You worry about her.
With a huff you twist yourself upright and rub your hands over your face. You yawn and stretch. Your slippers are lined neatly by your bedside. You put them on and stand up. Your bathrobe is hanging from a hook on the bedroom door. You put it on. You open the door and walk down the hallway, past Clare's office and the bathroom, and into the kitchen. You notice the coffee pot dripping and steaming. You do not remember setting the timer on the coffee pot last night. Nonetheless, you are pleased that there will be coffee to drink. The sun is rising. Your garden is in full bloom, your grass is green and freshly mowed, and your bird bath is full of chirping birds. It's going to be a great day for the Renaissance fair at Cherry Park. This is an event you look forward to every year.
Mister Crackers looks at you and wags his tail. His white coat is freshly washed and trimmed in anticipation of the Renaissance fair where he will sit at the feet of Royalty (you and Clare) and dine upon turkey legs and pickles on a stick.
You open the sliding glass door, and then the screen door, and Mister Crackers tears into the yard, growling and yipping, his nose to the ground. You wonder what he is after. Mister Crackers runs right through the backyard, and out the back gate into Cherry Park. This is when you smell something. Something smells like burning plastic.
"Darnit," you say. "Who left the gate open?"
"Mister Crackers!" You yell out the back door. "Mister Crackers!" But Mister Crackers is nowhere in sight. "Clare!" you want to shout, feeling desperate and in need of some help, but you stop yourself. You can handle this alone. There is no need to wake Clare. Quickly you discard your slippers and throw on your outdoor shoes, which are set neatly on a mat beside the backdoor. You go out into the backyard, past your azaleas and rose bush, all around your manicured and neatly edged English style garden, to the back deck underneath the shade of your red maple tree. There you pause momentarily, the call "MIST ... " on the tip of your tongue; something is wrong though, something is missing. You cannot place what it is.
Something stinks like burning plastic. The air is full of it. It smells like a warzone in legoland. You go to the gate that opens up into Cherry Park, and as you do you see it. On the baseball diamond, right on the pitching mound, past the jungle gym and climbers and swing set, there is a smouldering black mass. You check your yard, the deck, you count your new patio chairs: one, two, three … where's the fourth one? Oh no. It can't be. You count again. Three. There should be four. The Hawaiian print green and white patio set you paid over a thousand dollars for.
They've taken it. The little bastards have taken it!
When you think, little bastards, you are referring to a gang of juvenile delinquents who call themselves "The Anthill Crew." First, they spray painted obscenities on your fence, then they shat in your lupins, but now this. This is a criminal act!
"That's it. They've gone too far!" you announce.
That is your chair. There is no doubt in your mind. The little bastards have not only taken your new chair, lugged it out to the baseball diamond and set it ablaze, but they left the gate open and Mister Crackers has run away. It's that Tommy from across the road. He's the leader of that gang. You know he is the one responsible for orchestrating this. He's the one who spray painted your fence, T-Max. Tommy Max. The Anthill Crew.
"Mister Crackers!" you yell, but the dog is nowhere in sight. A bead of sweat starts at your temple. You feel dizzy. You feel like you should probably sit down.
"What are you doing out here?" A voice behind you says. It's Clare. "What stinks? Is that our?"
"They took our patio chair," you say.
"Who did?" Clare asks.
"And Mister Crackers has run away again."
"Again? For god sakes. That dog. He's up on the tracks with those homeless men. Just go find him."
"Don't make me," you plead. "I hate it up there."
"Well, maybe he'll just come home this time. Let's go phone the fire department. They'll need to clean this mess up before the fair starts. Our insurance will cover it? Won't they?"
The Renaissance fair starts at noon, and you have spent the morning on the phone with the police and the insurance company. Clare took some pig's ear treats and went looking for Mister Crackers.
"I didn't find him," She says, and shuts the back door. "He's up on the tracks again."
You wish she would stop saying that.
You are worried. Mister Crackers has run away before, true, but this time it feels different. You saw a video on the internet about giving mouth to mouth resuscitation to your pet and you cannot unsee it. Worried and anxious are your normal states of being, but this time you think you might actually have something to worry about.
While waiting on hold with the insurance company you have dressed yourself in your costume for the Renaissance fair. You are wearing a long purple velvet robe with white faux fur trim. An elaborately decorated crown rests upon your brow. You bought the costume years ago after being told that you would be reimbursed by the Cherry Park Neighbourhood Association, but to this day you have never seen a dime.
Clare is dressed in much the same way.
"Why do I even have home insurance?" you angrily blurt into the phone before you hang it up.
"What'd they say?" Clare asks.
"Same thing they said when he painted our fence. Our policy doesn't cover vandalism. She gave me the number of a company that installs security systems."
You hear something. A loud banging. You can see out the bay window at the front of your house. Tommy Max and his friends are riding their BMX bikes on the street. They are jumping their bikes over a metal garbage can and laughing when they hit it with their back wheels.
"It's the Anthill Crew," you say. "That's it! I'm fed up." You make for the front door prepared to give them a piece of your mind, but you stop before you open it. You think: They'll come tonight and break our windows.
Your forehead is damp with sweat and your stomach feels like it is full of ball bearings. You wish you were someone else, someone stronger, someone with power.
"I swear if anything happens to my dog! He needs a spanking. That’s what he needs! A spanking," you mutter as you move from the door and position yourself behind the bay window curtains, peering out at the Anthill gang.
"Dear, calm down. You need to calm down. Where are your pills?" Clare says. "Let the police handle it."
The rage in you subsides quickly. You feel embarrassed and unhappy. You want to curl up in a corner and be left alone. You hear a loud bang, the metallic scrape and skitter of the garbage can on the asphalt, followed by the laughter and raucous profanity of the pubescent boys as they egg one another on, encouraging more destruction. It is like they are marking their territory with the fumes of their engorged egos.
"Where's our garbage can?" Clare asks. "That's not our … "
You are standing in your backyard with Clare at your side. The sun is beating down on you. The sweat on your brow is causing your crown to slide forward. You right it. Usually, this is your favourite day of the year, but you are getting more and more anxious about the disappearance of Mister Crackers. You fear that the noise of the Renaissance fair will push poor Mister Crackers further and further away from home. You have argued this with Clare, but she says Mister Crackers will smell the turkey legs cooking at the fair and come home.
"Or he'll be up on the tracks," Clare says. "We'll find him." But she adds, "Why didn't we just buy a lock for the gate? I've been telling you for years that we need a lock."
Clare is right. You've been asking yourself this same question all morning long.
She nods to the two sentries stationed at your backyard gate. They are dressed in armour and hold long stage-fighting spears with rubber tips. The two sentries open the gate, and you and Clare, the royal couple, begin your journey into yesteryear.
This is the moment when you become royalty. You become your character and you forget that you are actually a retired schoolteacher who lives in a tidy little bungalow on a cul-de-sac with your partner, Clare. It is a role that you relish, but this year all you can think about is Mister Crackers. Poor Mister Crackers. The park backs onto a few acres of untouched greenspace, wilderness really. There have even been coyote sightings. You know that coyotes will eat small dogs. You also know that there are a set of train tracks back there and a tent city where homeless men sleep. Mister Crackers has pitched up with the band of homeless men before. You've found him there, rolling in filth and sharing bites of old rotten hotdogs with the men.
The sound of lute music fills the park. Bards are reading their poetry on small stages. The mudman approaches you with his palette of mud, but the sentries surround him. They toss him back to the crowd. The village drunk comes staggering towards you and Clare, shouting, "My Liege! My Liege!" and trips over the mudman. The crowd laughs. Most everyone is dressed in costume this year. Many more than usual. The sun is bright, but not too warm. It's a great day.
All you can think about is Mister Crackers sitting on the lap of a homeless man. The man's fingers, black with soot and filth from garbage bins, patting his clean white fur and scratching his chin.
You and Clare are led to your thrones. They've moved the stage this year. It used to sit on the baseball diamond, by the pitcher's mound, but that part of the diamond has been sectioned off with police tape. A pool of water sits atop a black stain that had been your patio chair.
You plop down onto your throne and the festivities begin.
Clare claps as the royal bard reads an announcement on a crackling wireless microphone. "Welcome one and all. The tournament will begin shortly! This year we present to you the story of a maiden fair ..."
People are seated on makeshift bleachers all around the staging area. The Princess (young Philomena from Cherry Street) is a comely young waif with a slight acne problem. She will be the tournament winner's reward. All the knights are standing by the stocks waiting for your word, "Let the tournament begin!" You announce it every year. But this year will be different.
Before you stand to make your announcement you scan the crowd and you see him. He's perched on one of the bleachers wiggling an oversized pickle in front of his crotch as his cronies all laugh. Tommy. Tommy Max. You stand and gaze across the field of honour where the brave knights will do battle for the hand of Princess Philomena. A gust of wind hits you in the face. You suddenly feel powerful and strong, as if you are a battle flag in the centre of a map. You know that this moment has been drawn for you. Destiny is calling. You are royalty. It is happening. This is your moment, perhaps your one, and only, moment.
You call all the sentries and knights over. You know them all, you have rehearsed your act with all of them: Don, playing knight number six, is a young dentist who everyone suspects has a drinking problem; Prakesh, playing the white knight, is the owner of VC Auto Body; Vito, playing the foil, the dark knight, is a college student who invests online and impregnated Prakesh's teenage daughter last year. These men, among probably fifteen other sentries and knights, are your neighbours and castmates. The Cherry Park Renaissance fair is one of the top summer attractions in the tri-city area, and you know these men will stay true to their roles. That is why they were cast. It has been drilled into their heads by the fair's director and president of the Cherry Park Neighbourhood Association, Dr. Neville Donald: "Never break character."
You point, your arm shuddering with all the strength of your new identity, and you shout: "Seize him!"
The knights and sentries all stand confused for a moment. The White Knight comes up to you. "What is going on?" he says.
"The filthy little wretch making the lewd gestures with the pickle," you say. "Bring him to me." You point towards Tommy and the Anthill Crew.
"What are you doing?" Clare asks. "This isn't in the script."
"Trust me," you say.
After a brief conversation with the other men, the white knight gathers six sentries and four of the other knights and they storm towards Tommy. There is a brief scuffle with the rest of the Anthill Crew. You can hear some swearing going on, some idle teenage threats, the expression, "YO Bro! Step off!" being thrown around a great deal. The crowd is on your side, however. Already sick of the antics of the gang and their vulgar jokes, the crowd cheers as the white knight tosses Tommy's pickle to the ground and brandishes his stage sword. You can hear the white knight shout, "The King and Queen request your presence. MOVE IT!"
"Don't do this," Clare says to you.
An omen you ignore completely.
You stand and grab the crackling microphone from the bard. You speak into it. It buzzes and fades, but you smack it on your palm a couple times and it seems to come back to life.
"This boy has committed many crimes against the kingdom," you announce. "He has defaced the royal palace. He is guilty of arson. He has befouled the royal gardens. But worst of all he is responsible for the disappearance of the royal hound."
The crowd gasps.
The sentries and the knights bring the boy towards you. Tommy stares up into your eyes. He acts aloof and cool, but his quivering lip and the amount of phlegm in the corners of his mouth give him away. He looks like a twelve-year old boy. He is scared.
If you would like to continue seeking revenge turn to the ###. If you would like to let Tommy go turn to the ~~~.
Scared. Now he's scared, you think. You bend over to speak into Tommy's ear. "You know who's scared? Mister Crackers! He is one who is scared. Sitting with those homeless men. He's going to get fleas!"
"Who the fuck is Mister Crackers?"
"Put him in the stocks!" you cry.
The stocks are the most expensive prop in the entire fair. They were made by a master carpenter in Breslau and are a working replica of a medieval stocks. The are stored in a facility on the eastern part of town and only see the light of day once a year when they are hitched to a trailer on a big Ford pick up truck and hauled to Cherry Park. It takes two volunteers an hour-and-a-half to secure them to the stage and affix the chains and locks.
You speak into the microphone: "This boy has caused grave and serious injury to this kingdom since he was a little tyke. So, it's time for him to be punished."
The crowd cheers.
A feeling of great power is rising in you. You feel like you are in control.
The village drunk, with his immaculate comedic timing, staggers into the fighting grounds and everyone laughs as he drops his flask and knight number two kicks him in the rear end. The drunk goes sprawling.
Tommy Max hollers for help as the sentries force his neck down into the stocks. Knight six and eight lock his hands in.
Slowly you approach.
"I'm gonna fuck you up," Tommy threatens.
"First, Tommy, let me explain to you what the horrors of the stocks truly were," you say. "It is not just an awkward punishment by which you were made to feel uncomfortable for a few hours. No. It was a torturous few days out in the hot sun. Some people died. Others were just humiliated and spat on. People would throw feces at them. Pull their pants down and expose them, as it were. Some were even buggered in the stocks. Not an enviable position, is it?"
The crowd laughs and cheers.
"Let me out of here. You're crazy!" Tommy yells.
"The point of it was humiliation," you continue. "That was the torture of it. To be made a spectacle of, to be shamed and ridiculed."
The microphone sputters and spits. You smack it on your palm again.
"Unfortunately, Tommy, we don't have time to leave you to die from the elements, and we don't have any rotten vegetables to fling at you, and nobody wants to bugger you, so let me just tell you what I will do.
A woman is fighting her way through the crowd. You recognize her. It's Tommy's mother.
"Stop her!" you tell the sentries. They rush over and hold her back from the stage.
"Are you mental?" Tommy's mother shouts. "What in god's name do you think you are doing?"
You point at Tommy's mother. You yell until your voice goes hoarse: "This is for the fence, and the shit in my garden. This is for the boomboxes and all the rapper music. This is for my new chair, and the peaceful retirement that I cannot have. And this. THIS!" you shout, "IS FOR MISTER CRACKERS!" You run around to the back of the stocks. Tommy Max's behind is facing you. You pull down his pants and underwear and rip them off his legs.
You hear screams and a wailing sound as Tommy struggles in the stocks. His penis is exposed for the entire fair to see. Some gasps come from the audience. You move around to look Tommy in the eye. You point at his crotch and laugh out loud. "It looks like a dew worm," you shout into the microphone. Then, for good measure, you slap his butt cheek as hard as you can, leaving a red mark. You do it again. It makes a smacking sound. The crowd is stunned. Some are laughing. Some are shouting at you to stop. Tommy is struggling in the stocks, trying to cross his legs to hide his exposed penis. There are tears in his eyes.
"Alright, enough already," Prakesh says as he tries to wrest Tommy's pants and underwear from you. You snatch them away and, like some heel wrestler, you jump down from the platform waving the clothes in the air. A buzz of activity surrounds Tommy as everyone, including all your knights and sentries, go to help him.
Tommy's mother comes flying at you, and tries to snatch the clothes from your grasp. You fight her and shove her down into the mud. You run. She pursues. Other people are chasing you. As you run past the throne stage you catch Clare's eye. Clare looks right through you. It's like you two have never met. The mudman comes out of nowhere and tackles you at the waist. Even then, as you go flying, the smile on your face stretches from ear to ear. The angry mob descends upon you. Gleeful, you hug the clothes tightly to your chest, refusing to let go.
The sentries and the knights bring the boy towards you. Tommy stares up into your eyes. He acts aloof and cool, but his quivering lip and the amount of phlegm in the corner of his mouth give him away. He is scared.
You can't go through with it. Whatever the boy has done he is still just a child and he will grow out of it. You can't take revenge on a child.
"Take him away," you say.
"But …" Knight number four protests.
"I thought I could, but I've changed my mind. Take him back to his seat. It's just a joke. Go back to your seat, Tommy."
The fair goes off without a hitch. The crowds are into it, and the atmosphere is joyous. The pickle booth sets a record for sales, and The Cherry Park Neighbourhood Association makes gobs of money. Everyone is very happy. It is now dusk. Clare went home hours ago while you stayed behind to look for Mister Crackers.
You are wandering in the forest behind Cherry Park. You know Mister Crackers is up on the tracks with the homeless men, so that is where you are walking, through the deep dark woods past the coyote scat and rustling shadows.
When you reach the clearing in the woods you see them. There must be at least ten homeless men sitting around a roaring fire. They look like zombies, grey and coated in a layer of grime. You walk up to their circle. Right away you see Mister Crackers. He is sitting in the lap of a man with long hair and a distant stare.
They all watch you as you approach.
"What the fuck do you want?" one man growls.
"My dog," you say, making certain to avoid eye contact with the man. You walk towards the man holding Mister Crackers. He is sitting in a tattered and broken aluminum lawn chair. You sit across from him on a log. Mister Crackers is sleeping in the man's lap. The man pets him gently, his fingers are thick with grime. When Mister Crackers left this morning his fur had been bone white. Now Mister Crackers is filthy. He will need a flea bath. You can hear the distant rumble of a train.
The man is mumbling something to himself. He does not even seem to notice you.
"Mister Crackers. Wake up," you say.
Mister Crackers hears your voice and wags his tail before he opens his eyes. The man holding Mister Crackers notices you. He won't let Mister Crackers down off his lap. He keeps stroking him with his dirty hands.
"That's my dog," you say.
The man shakes his head, "no."
"Yes it is. You must give him to me."
"No," the man shakes his head again, pinning Mister Crackers down in his lap.
"I'll trade you for him," you say. You stand and take off your crown and your robe. You lay them down at the man's feet. "You can have these."
The man's grip loosens as he stares at the robe and crown. You reach over and take Mister Crackers from his lap. The man relinquishes his hold and he stands and picks up the crown. He laughs.
All the other homeless man begin to gather around the man with the crown. You slowly back away, eyes to the ground, careful not to make eye contact. One man makes like he is going to punch you and you flinch in fear. They all laugh.
"Come Mister Crackers. Clare misses you. Poor Mister Crackers," you whisper into the dog's ear. "Poor baby. Where has our baby been? Why do you always run to those nasty men, Mister Crackers? They are not nice to you. You are such a bad dog. Sitting with that bad man all day. You must learn to stay home." As you reach the path that leads back into the forest you turn and look at the homeless men. The man who had held Mister Crackers has the royal robe on. He is admiring it as potential usurpers glare at him. "He's nothing, Mister Crackers," you whisper into the dog's ear. "Nothing. He's not royalty. He's nothing but King poopyshit. King Poopyshit of dirt hill."
Matthew Fries's writing has appeared in Thuglit, The Windsor Review, and The Crime Fiction Anthology Danger City. He lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada with his wife and child and two cats. Connect with him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tonydelanomadsm
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