here are few things your dad can do that will surprise you, but sending your cat back to the shelter and claiming to bury a bunch of money in the backyard, in the same day, about do you in. He does both during the last day of sixth grade while you’re still at school. When you walk down the steps of the school bus, he is waiting for you at the end of the drive with a shovel and a piece of paper. He tells you he’s got a treasure map and — if you want to leave Highland County so badly — you’d better start digging. His smile makes you wince. The paper is blank.
You know when your dad gets an idea that doesn’t make sense stuck in his brain that you gotta play it out. Otherwise, there’ll be no dinner and you’ll have to sleep in the closet. You’re tired from school and your yard is two and a half acres, but you’re a strong boy, had to be ever since your momma died. If you dig as much as you can before nightfall, your dad should leave you be.
You begin with the vegetable garden because it’s the likeliest place to bury something. You slip the blank paper into your bag and get to work, not daring to put it down until your dad goes back into the house. The ground is still soft in the garden from spring’s tilling and makes the digging less painful. But when you dig up the carrots, you regret your decision. It isn’t until you’re under the soil that you realize the vegetables are still slivers of orange root, born too early. The leafy carrot tops trick you, making the roots appear more mature than they really are.
You dig until the sun sets. You’re careful to put the shovel back into the shed, on the rung where you know it goes. You leave your book bag here too, afraid your dad might steal it again and throw it on the roof, forcing you to climb up and get it, like he did in early spring. Moths and mice are easier enemies than hot roof tiles.
Inside the house, your dad has ordered takeout from the Chinese restaurant in town and has left the empty cartons scattered across the kitchen counters. You throw them away and then get the peanut butter and bread from the cupboards. You take your time washing your hands, picking the dirt out from under your fingernails. You wonder where the cat is. When you make your sandwich, you pretend you are a chef in a fancy city restaurant and spread the peanut butter over the bread with quick flicks of your knife, thinking about what your dad often said to you when your momma was still alive. It’s all about presentation, son.
When your dad walks into the kitchen, you freeze. He asks you if you found anything. You shake your head, afraid to talk about the carrots and the other vegetables you’ve destroyed. It’s only now that you think about the damage you’ve done. Your dad closes his eyes and sighs. This makes you feel small, worried. He approaches you, yanks the butter knife out of your hand, throws it against the wall. You squeeze your eyes shut until you feel your dad’s hand come down on top of your head like a claw. He steers you, wide-eyed, toward the window and points out at the garden. The back porch light shines across the gashes in the dirt. He presses your face against the glass, whispers in your ear: You’re lucky I don’t skin you alive, boy.
He throws your sandwich in the trash, finally telling you the cat is gone. He makes you get in the closet. As you cry, before sleep overtakes you, you wish you had given the cat a name—nameless because your dad wanted it that way, even when your momma was alive.
The next morning he wakes you up by yanking open the closet door and throwing the shovel at your feet. You do not get breakfast. Today you will do nothing but dig and nowhere near the garden. Your dad locks you out of the house. You yell and pound on the door until your throat is hoarse, worried at the same time he will get tired of this and come out and beat you.
You know your dad is right; you do want to leave Highland County and never come back. When your momma died he was heartbroken and crazy with grief. She was the only one he knew how to love and without her the little bit of good that was in him shriveled up. He tried to push you off onto your relatives so that he could focus on his business, burying himself in stacks of papers piled around him on the desk and floor. You were hopeful that your uncle in Vermont would see the change in your father and take you or that your older cousin in Wisconsin would need help on her ranch and would ask you to work there. But none of them wanted you. They wanted your dad to want you.
Your dad doesn’t come outside and eventually you give up banging on the door and take up the shovel. The only way to end this is to do as your dad says. You are thirsty, though, so you sneak to the side of the house and drink from the spigot. Then you pick a random spot in the backyard and begin to dig. The roots of dandelions and barnyard grass slow you down. You don’t dig deep, hoping to cover a wider area faster. You wonder how long it will take to satisfy your dad this time.
That night, your dad lets you eat dinner and sleep in your bed.
You repeat your actions every day of the summer until all the grass in the yard has been dug up. There are whole days during this time you are too sore to do more than gently push the shovelhead under the surface, a metal nail picking at scabby wounds in the earth. Your skin turns from pale to angry red to mottled brown. Your hands blister and bleed and you have to wrap them up with gauze you steal from the first aid kit in the bathroom.
But even when the yard is dug up, your dad says there is still more yard and makes you dig around the trees near the pond. Your shoulders and back ache. Your hands callous. When fall ends, you’ve uncovered most of the roots, leaving all the ash trees ravaged by emerald ash borers even more unsteady. Still, you have found nothing.
There is still more yard, your father says.
The only place you haven’t dug is around the pond. In the chill of early winter, the soft ground near the water is a mercy. Your dad, wearing his warm winter coat, brings a lawn chair outside and sits among the trees to watch you like some guy at a high school football game.
You dig halfway around the pond before your shovel strikes something hard. At first, you think it is a rock, but then you see that it is white. You try to dig around it, but it’s wider than you first thought. You wonder if you’ve found some hidden vein of quartz or limestone.
It takes you a moment to realize it is bone.
Your dad stands up from his chair when you pull the little skull from the ground and brush away the dirt from the four saber-like teeth guarding the jawbone.
See son, your dad says. You may want to leave—heck, you may want a lot of things—but the world doesn’t work that way. Just like me, you only got what’s given to you.
A winter wind stings your bare face, makes it impossible to breathe. The cat and your momma are the same, shrunken to bleached bones. You’re acutely aware of the fact that there is no one left in this world who loves you. You have the urge to follow them, to lie down beside the small skeleton and be buried alongside it, to cover back up this unwanted thing you have found.