Willard lived in the woods, not far from a small lake that attracted city folks like gnats to a banana. Two hundred feet of plastic pipe carried water to his kitchen sink. He didn’t have a toilet or bathtub and just made do with an occasional dunk in the lake.
Willard liked to read books that he bought by the sack in nearby Addison. He was stout with a belly from greasy collard greens and cornbread with buttermilk, which he let go sour and clot. His face featured a bulbous nose and ears that hugged the side of his head like an elephant’s. He collected a disability check that he cashed religiously on the first day of the month.
Willard sat on his front steps made from old railroad ties. It was warm and he was barefoot. A praying mantis was on a bush just there, and he let it crawl onto his hand, admiring God’s handiwork and then he put it on his head, on top of his greasy brown hair that he kept combed. He took a look around, noticing the stone path he had built and his garden, which got too much shade from the pine trees. The garden kept him busy, and the only thing he missed about being the janitor at the middle school was the sighting of an occasional camel toe. He got plenty of good looks at the lake, though, at the city girls in their bikinis. What he liked best were their bellies. He had a thing for bellies.
It was about noon and being hungry, Willard scraped into the small cabin that was covered in plywood sheeting. There was just the one room and a small kitchen, the whole thing heated by a pot-bellied stove. He had a table made from an old door and chairs he’d scavenged off the streets of Addison. The lone rug was just a scrap of old maroon carpet.
He first grabbed an apple that he’d stolen from a neighbor’s orchard, and then carved off a hunk of salt-cured meat that he kept on the tiny kitchen counter. He stubbed his toe on the propane bottle for his little stove and said, “Criminy!” He chewed the meat, feeling the muscle fibers wedge between his teeth. And he heard a noise, a loud vehicle of some sort, and slipped the knife into the back of his waistband.
He went to the porch and it was a teenager on a four-wheeler. He felt a little thrill.
“Hey, old man, you got any gas you could spare?” said the teenager. His name was Bart and he was shirtless without a helmet and needed a haircut.
“Why sure I do,” said Willard. “Name’s Willard. And I guess I’m an old man.” He slapped his thigh and laughed.
Bart smirked. His back was a bit bowed and he had a face like a girl, soft and luminous. “Yeah, sorry about that. You really got some gas?”
Willard took the steps down one at a time and pushed his chest into the air. “Well, it’ll cost ya. This ain’t no welfare gas station. I hope you’re not in a hurry. Ha ha.”
“I just need about half a gallon is all, um, sir.” A little line of sweat was running between his breasts. His muscled belly shimmered in the light.
Willard stepped on a pinecone, crushing it with his bare foot. “Chop me some firewood, and the gas is all yours. Need it for when the cold comes. Got me a pot-belly stove that turns red with the fire. I spit on it and it sizzles away just like nothing.”
“Huh, I’m not really up to chop your wood, sir.”
“Sure you are. You got some muscles on you. I can see ‘em.” He took a few more steps and inhaled the boy’s essence from a few feet away. Got me a sharp ax. Needs to be used to stay sharp. Just come around back here and I’ll show you.” Willard laughed, showing his tiny corn teeth.
As if magnetized, Bart swung his leg over the seat and followed Willard around back of the cabin. There was a band of sweat on his shorts just below his belly. Willard stopped by a wood pile and gazed at the boy’s flesh.
“Got you a nice little belly, nice and flat, with a line of hair descending below the waist,” said Willard. He laughed.
Bart stood there like a deer. “I’m just visiting. My folks are down at the lake. Probably getting worried about me. Probably should be going.” He walked backwards and tripped over a pine stump.
“Careful now,” said Willard. “No need to hurry away. You need gas, right?” He loosened the ax from a section of log and held it to his body like a flagpole. He gazed beyond the woodpile to the woods to the unmarked graves there. “Come to sweet old Willard and take this here ax.” He held the ax forth like a red sucker.
Bart trembled but couldn’t resist and his feet took him toward the ax. Bart handed it to him and pointed to a chunk of pine.
“Show me what you got, boy,” said Willard. He touched the knife behind his back.
“I need to pee,” said Bart. “Real bad.”
That startled Willard, and he watched the boy walk into the woods and pee. He suddenly realized that the boy was human and his bloodlust waned. He kicked himself in the brain, ashamed of his intentions.
Bart returned with the ax and with a single swing caught Willard in the neck, breaking it. The boy left without taking his gas, and Bart gazed at the big black ants marching up his paralyzed arm.
Best American Short Stories nominee Russell Helms has had stories in Sand, GFT Press, Temenos, Drunken Boat, Litro, Versal, Bewildering Stories, The Moth, and many other journals. He writes, designs books, and holds a lectureship in English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.