by J.G. Alderburke
When Viola opened her eyes, her husband was gone. She let her arm flop across his side of the bed and sighed. She supposed he could be in the shower or downstairs somewhere but the house sounded too quiet for that. Viola dressed and wandered into the kitchen. She filled two mugs with coffee then walked to the front window. Her husband was on the lawn digging at something Viola couldn’t see.
“Bob, what are you doing out here?” Viola asked when he was close enough to talk to.
“We have a party coming up, don’t we?”
“Not for the grass.” Viola handed him a coffee mug.
“The lawn is the welcome mat of the house, my love. It has to be perfect.”
Viola looked toward the front step. “Don’t be absurd, Bob. The welcome mat is the welcome mat of the house.” She stepped away from her husband. “Come inside. We have real work to do.
“I have a list of jobs for you. Each one more important than the one before.” Viola sat with her husband at a table on the porch. There were plates with pancakes, bowls of oatmeal, jelly jars, and syrup dispensers scattered in front of them.
“Aren’t you making too big a deal out of this event?” Bob asked.
Viola looked horrified. “It’s our granddaughter’s graduation party. She’s off to high school now. This is a very big deal.”
Bob yawned. “They live just up the street. Can’t we walk our presents over to her and be done with it?”
“You have no soul. I don’t know what’s happened to you.” Viola scanned her list of chores. “Have all the outdoor furniture cleaned up and ready to go by end of day, okay? The caterer’s coming tomorrow afternoon with some extra tables and chairs and of course the food so all that’s taken care of. Check to see all the outdoor lights are working. I want it to look pretty out here tomorrow evening. Once I finish cleaning the house, I have to go to the liquor store. Is there anything you want?”
“Just double the number of bottles you think you need. You know how our family is.” Bob reached for a second pancake. “Oh and I have to paint some window frames today.”
“Paint whatever you want. Just be done by tonight.”
Viola inspected the backyard looking for flaws. Surrounding the flagstone porch were plants and small shrubs then a generous amount of grass she hoped the guests would play games on, parts of it shaded by oak trees that clustered along the property line.
“Finished?” Viola asked then picked up her plate and pushed her chair away from the table.
“No I am not,” said Bob, his mouth half full of food.
Viola headed inside the house. “Yes you are. There’s work to be done.”
Viola was nearly through straightening up the house. She smelled paint fumes coming from somewhere downstairs and hoped Bob hadn’t abandoned the jobs on his list. Just to be sure she looked out the window. She saw him kneeling in the grass again.
Viola stomped across the lawn. “Whatever you’re doing, Bob, I’m sure it’s not on the list.”
Bob didn’t look up. “Sprinkler time. The lawn needs watering.” He picked up a brass sprinkler that had a dagger-shaped base he plunged into the lawn. The pointed top rose close to six inches above the ground and two brass wings adjusted the water stream. “I can’t let the grass dry out or it’ll turn brown.”
Viola scowled. “If it’s so important, why not get those sprinklers that water the grass automatically?”
Bob shook his head. “I don’t want to drown the lawn. Each area needs a different amount of water.” He picked up another dagger-shaped sprinkler. “I can adjust a pin or turn a screw and control the flow and where the water goes.”
Viola held her hand up. “I don’t really care, Bob.”
“You should,” he said. “I set these pointy sprinklers to spray out 180 degrees so they do the perimeter of the lawn and don’t get the street or the driveway wet. Then in the middle I use this rock star.” Bob held up a rotating sprinkler that had three steel arms pointing upward. “This is my Iron Lady. It spins in a circle and covers the middle of the lawn with the exact amount of water the middle needs.”
Viola looked at the makeshift irrigation system Bob set up across the lawn.
“I have errands to run,” she said. “Don’t trip over all these hoses,” she added and headed into the house.
It was more than an hour into the party before Bob had a moment alone with his wife. “It’s so crowded. Why did you invite so many people?”
“Bob, they’re practically all family,” said Viola.
“Well there’s too many of them. And too many cars. Some of them parked on the lawn.”
“Of course they parked on the lawn. Our driveway fits maybe three cars.”
“And the kids are playing on the lawn.”
“That’s what it’s there for.”
“How long until Anissa graduates from anything again?”
“That soon?” Bob held his head. “Maybe she’ll get left back a year.”
“I’m getting you a drink,” Viola said and disappeared.
Bob walked to a window and watched people impale his lawn with croquet hoops and stakes.
Bob turned to see his nine-year-old grandson.
“Come play a game with us,” Alex said.
Bob squatted to be closer to Alex’s height. “What kind of game?”
“A good one. I helped make the course.”
“Should you and I be a team maybe?”
Alex’s eyes widened. “Yes. C’mon, let’s go.” The boy took Bob’s hand and led him out to the lawn as if Bob did not know the way. They found Alex’s mother standing near a tangle of wooden mallets and striped balls at the croquet course.
“Mom, look who I found,” said Alex. “Grandpa and I are a team.”
Angela smiled at her son and her father. “Lucky you. Alex, why don’t you go help daddy finish setting up the hoops.”
Once Alex ran off Angela said, “Thanks for playing, Dad. Alex feels a little overshadowed today. Everyone’s focusing on his sister.”
“He’ll have his own graduation party one day,” Bob said and tried to hide his shuddering at the thought. “Where is the family’s newest graduate by the way?”
“The last time I saw Anissa she was gossiping with her cousins on the porch.”
Bob nodded. “Once this game is over, do me a favor and try to pry your sisters away from the bar.”
“I tried already,” laughed Angela. “Didn’t work. But I’ll try again. They can always walk to my place if they can’t drive home.” She picked up a mallet she might use in the game. “You haven’t seen Mark yet, have you?”
“Your brother moves to his own schedule. Frankly, I’m always a little surprised when I see him at family events.”
“I can’t believe he’d miss his niece’s party.”
“Mark probably had to work this weekend.”
“Yeah right,” Angela scoffed. “He’s off chasing some girl. Ever since his divorce he’s been unreachable.”
“Your sisters are here. Anissa’s friends and cousins are here. Why not focus on what you have instead of what you don’t?”
The sound of a different voice derailed their conversation.
“The course is ready. We can play whenever you want.”
Bob and Angela turned and saw Donald, Angela’s husband, and Alex standing next to the upright stakes of the croquet course.
Alex picked up a mallet with several orange bands on it. “Let’s be this color, Grandpa.”
The adults determined an order of play and started the game. No one had perfect aim so though the mallets swung again and again, the wooden croquet balls took longer than usual to go through the hoops. Some swings missed the balls entirely and instead crashed into the lawn. At one point the players looked more like paleontologists using the mallets as excavation tools to uncover something underneath the lawn.
Once the orange ball ran through a few hoops, Bob relaxed. Soon he became so focused on winning he no longer cringed when a mallet smashed into the lawn bringing up large clumps of dirt and tufts of grass with it. It’ll grow back, he told himself. That’s the miracle seeds, fertilizer, and the well-positioned sprinkler can perform.
The morning after the party Angela and Donald woke up groggy and dressed for work slower than usual. As they made breakfast, Anissa and Alex appeared, sat on the stools along the center island and waited to be fed.
“I have a 4:00 meeting today so I might be home a little late,” said Donald.
“I’ll be home the normal time,” Angela told the children. “No visitors in the house until one of us gets home.”
“Yeah, yeah. We know the drill,” said Anissa without looking up from her breakfast.
“Try not to spend all day on your phone,” said Donald. “Or watching TV.”
“What else is there to do?” asked Alex.
His parents had lots of options. “Garden needs weeding.”
“Sweep out the garage.”
“Practice your piano lessons.”
Anissa rolled her eyes. “Sure. We’ll get right on those.”
Donald looked at his watch. “I’m late.”
“Me too,” said Angela. She turned toward her daughter. “Watch your brother and stay out of trouble. If you can do that, it’ll be a great day.”
“For you maybe,” Anissa muttered.
Not long after their parents left, Alex turned on a video game and Anissa texted her friends. They were staring at screens when the doorbell rang. The two looked at each other as if they weren’t sure what to do.
“Well, answer it,” said Alex.
“You’re closer to the door,” said Anissa.
“You’re older. And Mom left you in charge.”
Anissa went to the front door. On the other side of it she saw a delivery box on the porch and a FedEx truck pulling away from the house. The box had her name on it.
“Look what I got,” she said when she showed the package to her brother.
“I don’t know,” said Anissa.
She ripped the tape off the box, rifled through the bubble wrap, and found another box, this one expertly wrapped in silver paper and tied up with a rainbow of colored ribbons. An envelope dangled from one the ribbons. Anissa grabbed it.
“It’s from Uncle Mark.”
Alex held out his hand. “Let me see what he said.”
Anissa tossed the card his way then tore through the shiny wrapping paper.
The card had handwriting Alex didn’t recognize. He read it out loud: “Happy Graduation to my favorite niece. Sorry I missed the party. Hope you’re not too old for a toy. Open it when your parents are around so they can show you how it works.”
The card ended with “Love, Uncle Mark” but Alex didn’t read that part out loud.
“It’s a drone!” Anissa yelled excitedly. She held the box up for Alex so he could see it better.
“Awesome,” said Alex, his words slow and reverential.
Anissa opened the box and touched the drone delicately, like it was some kind of precious work of art. She set the drone down on the dining room table.
“Where are the directions?” asked Alex.
Anissa ignored him. Instead, she stared at the drone, its white rectangular body and the four thin arms protruding from it, each one ending with a black propeller. It looked like a hard-shell crab that could fly.
“Look in the box,” she told Alex without turning from the drone. “The directions have to be there.”
Anissa charged the drone’s batteries while she read how to fly it. She learned about the stabilized gimbal camera, the remote controller, and the video feed that connected to her laptop.
“Let’s see how it flies,” she said after she connected the battery pack.
“Uncle Mark said to wait for Mom and Dad,” Alex countered.
“We don’t have to listen to him, he’s not our father.” Anissa pressed buttons and moved levers on the control panel. The propellers whirred and the drone shot straight up from the table, crashed into the ceiling, and fell to the floor.
Alex collapsed into a chair. “You really suck at this, don’t you,” he laughed.
“Shut up. That was practice.” Anissa rushed to the drone lying upside down on the floor. Her next flights lasted longer and longer before the drone crashed into a wall, ceiling, or a light fixture. Anissa learned how to balance speed and control as the drone travelled farther from the dining room table, the propellers making a humming noise that sounded like a great swarm of bees flying through the house.
“How’s the video look on the screen?” Anissa said to Alex who watched the live feed from the drone on the laptop computer.
“Boring,” said Alex. “It’s just house stuff. I’ve already seen everything in this house.”
Anissa brought the drone back to the table. “Then let’s take it outside.”
Anissa guided the drone over bushes and alongside trees; she disturbed birds and squirrels then tried to sneak up on a rabbit nibbling grass at the edge of their property but the noise of the drone made it dash out of sight. Bored with nature videos, Anissa let the drone wander into the neighbors’ backyards but found no people to watch.
“Who can we look at? No one’s home,” she complained to her brother once the drone landed safely at her feet.
“I know who.” Alex said. “They’re always home.”
The lawn looked like it had been mauled by bears and rabid rodents. At least to Bob it did. Almost everywhere he turned he saw ruts in it from baby strollers, divots from the errant swings of misguided mallets, tracks from the treads of tires, or the general trampling marks from people’s feet; visible scars in the land he intended to heal with grass seed and water.
Bob spent the morning patching holes and smoothing out the gouges in the grass. After sprinkling new seed on a few bald spots, he started setting up his network of sprinklers. A few of the dagger-shaped sprinklers were already in the ground shooting out streams of water. Bob picked up the three-pronged circular sprinkler, threaded the copper sleeve to the hose, and turned on the water. The arms of the sprinkler spun in a tight circle and showered the lawn in a small halo of water. Bob always turned on the hose slowly so he could gauge the reach and height of the spray and adjust it up or down.
Before he could fiddle with the water, he heard some kind of buzzing. Or no, once he listened harder it sounded more like a humming sound, a frantic beating of wings as if a giant swarm of bees headed his way. Bob gazed into the sky. Some kind of noisy white miniature plane flitted just above the treetops and headed down the street.
“What kind of idiot is flying that thing?” he muttered.
The drone wobbled and looked like it could crash into the trees at any moment. Those things are what some stupid companies want to use to deliver packages, he thought. Bob pictured a sky filled with drones. Imagine the mayhem, not to mention the noise.
“Go on, get out of here,” Bob yelled at the drone. He shook his fist at it and when the drone’s flight path didn’t change, he started waving his arms toward the far side of the neighborhood like a grounds crew member directing planes to the other side of a runway.
A few houses away, Anissa and Alex watched their grandfather on the computer screen.
“Look—he’s waving to us,” Alex said and waved back. “Hi Grandpa,” he yelled as if his grandfather could hear him. “He’s so small. Can’t you get closer?”
Despite Bob’s gyrations the drone continued toward his house. “What the hell,” he said and scratched his head.
The drone slowed and for a moment Bob lost sight of it as it passed behind the trees. He scanned the sky, turning in circles trying to find it, the sun blinding him when he tilted his head at certain angles. When he spotted it, the drone had stopped high above him and wobbled as if it might fall.
Suddenly the drone swooped down toward him like a hawk spotting prey. Bob put his hands up in front of his face and tried to get out of the way. He took a few steps back then tripped over his feet and fell backwards onto the circular sprinkler, the force of the fall embedding the prongs into his upper back and shoulders.
A few houses away Alex screamed. “You knocked over Grandpa!” The boy pounded the palm of his hand against his thigh. “Why isn’t he getting up?”
The drone moved closer. Anissa and Alex saw their grandfather’s shirt darken, soaked first by water then by plumes of blood that grew as if they were living beings.
Alex screamed again at the sight of blood and ran out of the house.
Anissa’s eyes stayed on the computer screen as she watched the shirt turn a disturbing crimson hue.
For a few moments, the drone hovered over Bob as if frozen in place. Then it rose slowly into the sky as if lifted up by a warm draft of air which then carried it off to place no one would ever see.
J.G. Alderburke once won a T-shirt in a writing contest sponsored by a beer company. Other wins include having work appear in White Wall Review, Coffin Bell, Please See Me and Toasted Cheese.