Black Petals Issue #102, Winter, 2023

Home
Editor's Page
BP Artists and Illustrators
Mars-News, Views and Commentary
Betterment Day: Fiction by Malik Mandeville
Bridget Magnus: Fiction by Dean Patrick
Cemetery Road: Fiction by Richard Brown
I Quit: Fiction by Michael Stoll
Ivory Tower: Fiction by Aron Reinhold
Letter from a Poison Pen Pal: Fiction by Hillary Lyon
Neck of the Woods: Fiction by Harris Coverley
No Angels: Fiction by Kilmo
It's A Dry Heat: Fiction by Roy Dorman
Requited Love: Fiction by Travis Mushanski
Stuck in Transit: Fiction by Michael Woods
Cold Yearning: Flash Fiction by Kat Sandefer
I Married a Zombie: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
Snack Time: Flash Fiction by Zvi A. Sesling
The Boy Who Loved Bolt: Flash Fiction by Ron Capshaw
The Cutting Room: Flash Fiction by Karen Schauber
Dirty Blue Bandana: Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Bidee Bodee, Bidee Beaux: Poem by Thomas Fischer
Blood of Whitechapel: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Rotten to the Core: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Seque into Shadows: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Sensitivity to Light: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Boo Hag: Poem by Richard Stevenson
Paranormal Parasites: Poem by Richard Stevenson
Huggin Molly: Poem by Richard Stevenson
In the Morgue of Memory: Poem by Hillary Lyon
Unexpected Culinary Opportunity: Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
OI (Oo-ee): Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
Plant Eater Gone Carnivorous: Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
They Shouldn't Be There: Poem by Daniel G. Snethen
The Needle Spins: Poem by Rp Verlaine
Cold: Poem by Rp Verlaine
The Sleepwalker: Poem by Rp Verlaine

Malik Mandeville: Betterment Day

102_bp_bettermentday_okeefe.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe 2023

Betterment Day

Malik Mandeville

 

“Later, Richard,” Devin said, flicking imaginary sweat from his forehead. Rich hated being called RICHARD—and yes, ‘hate’ was a strong word. He watched Devin cross the street and remove the lanyard with the black painted key from around his neck. Devin painted the key in art class a few months back, using a thin coat of paint with an even thinner brush. It took almost an hour and Rich watched its entirety just as he was doing now.

        When Devin entered his house, he looked back and stuck his tongue out before slamming the door behind him. Rich huffed and pulled on the straps of his backpack, making them taut around his shoulders. The wind combed through the freshly cut blades of grass right before Rich left size seven and half shoe prints in his wake. He had his index ready to poke the doorbell when he noticed his grandfather sitting on the porch bench. He had a printed newspaper in hand, the Clifton Bell, and his reading glasses wired around his ears.

        “Door’s open, sport,” he said and leisurely turned a page without looking up.

        “Grandpa, I didn’t know you were coming over today,” Rich said and walked over to the bench. Grandpa’s eyes peered over the horizon of the Clifton Bell, above the headline stating: the year’s harvest up 13%.

        “As you well know, since your grandmother passed on, I don’t have anyone to spend the Day of Betterment with at the house, so your mom asked me to come by.” It was hard to miss how wide Rich’s eyes had gotten. It made his grandfather fold his newspaper.

        “Grandpa, how old were you when you spent Betterment Day with your parents?” Grandpa took a moment to lick his lips and bend them into his mouth.

        “Your great grandfather let me partake after I turned fourteen. He was adamant about it. Said it was my rite of passage into manhood, but my mother, your great grandmother, insisted that I did not have to if I did not want to,” Grandpa said.

        “So did you want to do it? Or did your dad make you?” The bench creaked as grandpa leaned forward.

        “I was uncertain. You know we’re not supposed to talk about the specifics with those of us that have not partaken yet, so you could imagine how a boy at my age, at fourteen, would feel if I was left out while all of my other friends were joining their parents for the night. But the unknown was what scared me. I am grateful that my father made me go through with it because this is how we, as a community, prosper,” Grandpa said, “Why are you so interested in grandpa’s story? You usually head inside and play your game.”

        “Well…I just turned thirteen and my friend Devin’s parents, the Howards across the street, are letting him join them for Betterment Day. And I was wondering if you think mom would let me join too?” Rich asked. Grandpa sent out a discouraging stream of air from his nostrils and then said, “Probably not. I’m sure your mother wants you to wait another three years as required by law.”

        “But Devin’s parents are letting him join. Are they breaking the rules?”

        “Well the law states that everyone must start to partake annually by at least sixteen, but I know that there are some parents that let their kids join them before that age like Dr. Cole, the dentist, his girl. She’s a little older than you now, but when she was about your age, I heard she eagerly attended,” grandpa said, “So it’s possible your parents will let you join. As long as you pitch a convincing argument.”

Rich found his mother beneath the chassis of a Nissan Sentra. It was Mrs. Holden’s car and mom had been working on it for the past two days. Her private auto repair business was more like a hobby, taking as little as $20 sometimes. Mom enjoyed using the skills grandpa taught her to help out the people in Clifton. The dolly wheeled her from beneath the car as she heard Rich approach.

        “Grandpa’s here,” she said as she wiped sweat from her brow, only to leave a streak of dirt and grease on her forehead.

        “I said hi, he’s on the porch. He said he’s here for Betterment Day,” Rich said.

        “Yeah—hand me that water.” Rich grabbed a plastic bottle that sat on the floor next to his mother’s tool chest.

        “Did you know Devin’s parents are letting him join them for Betterment Day?” Rich said as he handed his mother the bottle. She took a large gulp, making the bottle parallel to her body.

        “I did not know that,” mom finally said and there was that expression of knowing she had in her eyes whenever Rich was not being completely honest. It was best to just come out and say it.

        “Can I go with you and dad for Betterment Day?” Rich asked.

        “You don’t want to wait until you’re sixteen? I’m sure some of your other friends are waiting until then. What about Calvin? I spoke to his mom and they said he was going to wait until then,” his mother said.

        “I’m not really friends with him. We just had that one project Mr. Jones made us do together. He’s weird,” Rich said

        “That’s not nice. He’s not weird.”

        “Mom, come on! Can I?” Rich asked. His mother looked sullen and for a second he thought he was about to hear a big fat ‘NO’.

        “You sure you want to do this?” she asked. Rich thought about Devin’s teasing on the walk to Worth Street as well as on the school bus, the way he rallied the other kids around him. Devin always made himself look bigger than he truly was by belittling everyone else, especially Richard Berry.

        “Yes, I want to,” Rich said.

        “Alright. I still have work to do and your father is going to be home late so ask grandpa to help you prepare for tonight,” she said.

        Rich glided to his grandfather’s side who migrated to the kitchen. Grandpa was fixing himself some iced tea from the glass pitcher in the fridge.

        “She said yes!” Rich cheered. 

        “I’m surprised,” grandpa said with furrowed eyebrows, “We’ll get started after dinner then.”

The sun struck the horizon at half past seven, leaving purplish abrasions upon the cloudless sky. Rich usually spent this evening in his room playing video games and blasting music with the curtains zip tied, but tonight he followed his grandfather to the porch as the old man burped off the rest of the roasted ham they had for dinner.

        “It’s almost time, but there are some things you need to know first,” grandpa said. They were not the only ones out at dusk. The Smiths across the street were slowly pouring out of their yellow paneled house. Mrs. Holden was letting her yapping Chihuahuas back inside one by one. Rich gazed towards Devin’s house and the lights were on, but there was no sign of the Howards.

        “When the binders come, it’s important that you don’t move or else you will disgrace the family and people will be talking about us for the rest of the year,” grandpa said.

        “What? Why would I move?”

        “Just do what I tell you to do—hey, you understand me, Richard?” grandpa placed a wrinkled hand on Rich’s shoulder, reeling in his attention from Devin’s house.

        “Y—yes, grandpa. I understand. I can’t move.”

        “Keep your eyes open and whatever you do, don’t scream,” grandpa whispered and the words slivered through Rich’s spine.

        “Why would I scream?” Rich asked. His grandfather was silent. He had never seen his grandfather like this. The way he tapped his index and thumb together and stared off at the sinking sun. It was unnerving.

The driveway lit up from the headlights of dad’s Buick and Rich jumped from the sudden flash of illumination. His father slid halfway out of the car and paused with a perplexed expression on his face.

        “Joanne said he can join us for Betterment Day,” grandpa said to Rich’s relief. He felt like he was doing something he wasn’t supposed to and that did not change when he saw the confusion on his father’s face melt away, revealing a layer of fear.

        “I see,” dad said, shutting the car door. He entered the house, but not before patting Rich on the head and sharing a strange look with grandpa.

        The evening brought on a cool breeze as the streetlights flickered on. Rich heard his parents’ voices rise and fall from inside the house. He knew they were arguing and he was certain that it was about him. Now he truly felt like he was doing something wrong and that he would be forbidden to partake with them. Don’t scream, his grandfather had said. Maybe it will be for the best.

        “Don’t worry about it,” grandpa said, reading his mind, “This is your coming into adulthood.” Rich nodded halfheartedly.

        Mom and dad joined them on the porch with a noticeable five-foot distance between them.

        “Richie, if you’re doing this then there are some things you need to know,” dad said.

        “I already gave him the rundown. He knows everything he needs to know,” grandpa said.

        “Coming from you, I’m sure my son is well prepared,” dad said. He placed two large hands on Rich’s shoulders and bent down, eye to eye. “You sure you want to do this? You don’t truly know what you’re asking here. It’s alright if you want to wait until you’re sixteen. I did and I felt like I was a little bit more prepared.” Rich’s stomach turned. The roasted ham had been sitting pleasantly in his belly, but now it stirred violently from fear.

        “Maybe—” Rich began to say.

        “He’s fine. Right, Richie?” grandpa said.

        “I—” Rich muttered and Devin Howard stepped out of his house across the street. His cocky eyes met with Richard. “Yes. I’m fine.”

        “Good. I think it’s going to start soon,” grandpa said, pointing down the block. A pickup truck rolled a couple of miles per hour up the road. A litter of masked men and women strolled beside it brandishing mallets and bundles of rope. Grandpa descended the four porch steps and walked out onto the yard. Rich detached from his father’s embrace and walked with his mother to join his grandfather. Dad had his hands in his pockets as he followed, five feet, behind. More and more people began to come outside, mostly adults and a few teenagers.

        As the truck rolled closer, Rich could see the pile of wooden stakes piercing out of the flatbed. One by one the masked men and women formed an assembly line, pulling stakes out, handing them to the next person until it reached the closest lawn where the final person speared it into the ground to then pound it with the mallet. This went on, pull, pass, stab, hammer, all the way to the Berry’s front yard. A masked man pounded the stake into the ground, ruining the yard. Rich cringed, but he was the only one to react in such a way. Even his father who had mowed the grass just the day before was unfazed by the vandalism.

        “Come on,” grandpa said.

        Four stakes stood tall before them and Rich knew he had to stand in front of one, just as the rest of his family had done. He chose the one next to his grandfather or was it that his grandfather had chosen it for him when he instructed him to follow? One of the masked women—binders grandpa called them—started to tie his parents legs to the post and then their arms were next. When she came to Rich, grandpa halted her with an outstretched hand.

        “It’s the boy’s first time, let me do it,” he said. The woman said nothing and then handed grandpa the rope. Rich’s grandfather groaned as he kneeled to bind his ankles to the post. A splinter pricked his skin, but it was a tiny speck in the cauldron of fear brewing inside of him. His arms were next and the friction from the rope pulled his skin as it was tightened at his waist and elbows. When grandpa was sure everything was secure, he retreated back to his post and the masked woman continued her duty with a fresh set of rope. The binders proceeded down the rest of Worth Street and finally turned the corner. Rich looked over at the Howards’ house and Devin was already bound and pouting at Rich once they made eye contact again. Rich grinned. The triumph slowed his heartrate for a moment and the air did not feel as thick, but moments like these left as soon as they came. Just like the streetlights overhead.

        A tarp of darkness was thrown over the neighborhood. Even the lingering glimmers in the homes were mere needles of light in a haystack of blackness. Rich could no longer see Devin or the trees or even the sidewalk.

        “Attention!” a voice called from the darkness. “Tonight is an honorable night indeed.” Rich recognized the voice as Principal Greene. His voice was not filtered through a loudspeaker like Rich was accustomed to and sounded only a few feet away even though he could not see him.

        “The Night of Betterment,” Principal Greene went on, “Our town has held and partaken in this sacred day for decades and we hope to keep this tradition for many years to come after tonight. We celebrate this day to maintain the wealth and prosperity of our wonderful little town.” There were verbal affirmations all around, including Rich’s family. “We take notice and honor those who have sacrificed for us all and our children to come. Now without further ado, let the evening commence!” Silence poured all around them, slow and as thick as honey. At first Rich felt a tingle on his neck, but it was a line of sweat navigating through the rising goosebumps.

        The first scream pierced the shroud of darkness so abruptly that Rich nearly ripped his arm from the socket.

        “Stay still and stay quiet,” grandpa instructed.

But Rich couldn’t. He pulled at the restraints, feeling twisted fibers dig into his wrists and ankles.

        “Just try to relax,” dad whispered.

But Rich couldn’t. His face was sweaty and all the oxygen in the world could not sate his lungs right now.

        “Untie me,” Rich said.

        “We can’t,” mom said.

        “Please, untie me,” Rich’s voice cracked.

        “Knuckle up, boy! It’s too late for that. This is what you wanted, right? Ride it out like the rest of us,” grandpa said. Rich pulled once more, this time he fruitlessly tried to saw through the post with the rope, but only managed to prick himself with even more splinters. He froze.

        The red glow was a dot when Rich first noticed it, he thought he might have been seeing spots because his lungs were flooded with air. But then it crept closer, like a car with a single taillight reversing up the street.

“Be still,” grandpa said. The ominous light swayed as it approached, growing with each swing until it shined redly on Devin Howard’s face. Devin was crying and it was entirely unbecoming and strange to see this kid, Rich’s rival in all things, look so terrified that he would shed his skin and slither away if he could. Rich was staring so intently at Devin that it took him a moment to see the light was contained inside of a lantern held by an arm that was far too long for any human torso. It was hard to make out who or what the arm was attached to. It seemed as though the arm was reaching out of a pit of darkness. Another arm broke through the blackness, just as long and double jointed. In one instance Devin was there, bound to the post, crying large tears that absorbed the reddish hue and then he wasn’t. Devin’s sharp scream haunted the air, but he was gone. The top half of the stake swayed on a thread streaked with blood, garnished with frayed rope. The remaining Howards were quiet and still. If they showed any emotion under the red light to the loss of their son then Rich missed it.

        The light began to move. Closer. Careening towards 64 Worth Street. The red came for him and Rich held his breath. If he opened his mouth the scream of a lifetime would escape. Rich shut his eyes and he could hear the lantern jangle before him. The light was heating up his face and seeping through his shut eyelids.

One peek. One peek. JUST ONE PEEK, he told himself.

        Its eyes were two voids that went on forever. Its face was disfigured, jaw pushed too far to the side one way while its crown pivoted the other way. Its leathery skin was pale and spotted with blood. Devin’s blood. The thing extended its free arm and Rich regretted opening his eyes, regretted letting his grandfather tie him to the post, and regretted asking to go through with this in the first place. The arm came down and Rich screamed. It was one of those first time meeting a clown at your sixth birthday party type of scream that lasted long and the entire body took part in it. Rich felt sensation melt away from his face and urine warm his pants. He was still attached to the post and the thing was moving on, dragging a sullen sack behind it. He was still alive. Rich felt that now was a good time to breathe. His chest heaved rapidly. He looked at his parents. They were both quiet, but their silhouettes were still there. Thank God! Rich thought. He looked towards his grandfather, but all that remained was half a bloody stake and grandpa’s shoe with his foot still tied into it.

The End

 

Malik Mandeville was born in Brooklyn, New York where he first developed his passion for writing. He graduated from Arcadia University with a degree in sociology and has given back to the community through the various non-profit work he has done. Malik had his first work My Nighttime Parents published in Black Petals Magazine Issue #89 and hopes to further his writing career in the years to come.