By mid-December everyone’s lawn had been laid out into a grid of stakes and strings. Most of the fencing had been removed and minor excavations dotted the yards. Students from the University of Houston and the University of Texas in Austin came and went.
They arrived almost every day in dark blue vans and old beat up cars to dig through the ground. They crawled across the properties on their hands and knees with small spades and picks. A man from the state kept track of everything that they brought to the surface. He wrote the names and location of what they found on a map of the cul-de-sac.
Plastic soldiers, screws, pennies, quarters, dimes, broken bricks, and faded beer cans suddenly became labels with arrows drawn to positions on the grid. The dirt was sifted and everything was bagged and carted away. One day, they found a wristwatch that was still keeping accurate time. It was noted on the map.
The map which was large and weighted down with rocks had been set up on top of a plastic table beneath a tarp erected near the lip of Biggs’ partially dug bomb shelter. The skull that he’d found almost two months ago had long since been carted off to some museums archives for further study. It was very old.
When they’d turned it over to the police, there had been a perfunctory search of the ground as well as a minor article written about the find in the paper. For a few weeks everything had gone back to normal in the neighborhood. Digging resumed on the hole, Thom locked himself away in his study and Kinkaid had an old corroded ’67 Stingray Vette backed into his garage. Markoff had even had to go out and fight minor issues at the Taj Mahal in order to prepare for the grand opening.
It wasn’t until the skull had been analyzed by a professor at one of the local colleges that things started to go haywire. The man had taken measurements of the cranium and jaw line and compared them to those of other skulls. He made a model and wrote numbers on the clay to tick off distinguishing features. He called his colleagues and asked them for their opinion. No one knew what to make of it.
Carbon dating was inconclusive. According to the samples the skull was somewhere between a few hundred years old and three-hundred thousand. Everyone in the scientific community began to talk about it in broad and curious terms. It was called the Shady Acres anomaly.
In November the Taj Mahal opened at half its occupancy. By early next year it was expected that three-fourths of the shops would be filled. They were making plans to use overflow parking on Christmas Eve because Black Friday had been such a madhouse. The structure was quickly replacing the mall as the favored place for people to gather and shop.
Markoff had gone to the grand opening held one week before Thanksgiving and he’d even helped cut the ribbon. They’d strung it across the entrance to the courtyard with the sun at its center. This was the hub where all the avenues met. The large fountain had made a great backdrop for the ceremony.
One day after that, an archeologist had showed up in the neighborhood flanked by a lawyer and a police officer. He went to each of their doors, made apologies and told them all that they were no longer allowed to touch anything in their yards. Kinkaid had been the most vocal opponent of the injunction. He’d threatened to beat the man with a tire iron until he was told by the cop that he could be arrested for it.
The state set up signs banning any and all disruptions to the land where their houses sat. Even mowing the grass was off limits should some valuable artifact integral to solving the mystery be destroyed. Thankfully, it was a turning out to be a dry winter so their yards looked shabby but not overrun.
The digging started on the week that followed Thanksgiving. It began suddenly and without warning. They were greeted one morning by young people chiseling at their yards. They were covered in mud and wearing hats with wide crumpled brims.
Markoff was the last one in the neighborhood to put up his Christmas lights.
Kinkaid stood at the bottom of the ladder looking up at the builder as he worked along the first tier of his roof. “I tell you what I think.” He said motioning up at him with a beer can as he spoke. “I think Wells probably got tangled up with one of them big assed fish that he keeps going after and came out the other end all chewed up.”
“I heard he can’t walk.” Markoff said as he fumbled to untangle a strand of lights.
“Fish could do that.” The older man nodded. “I read in the paper that some dumb bastard got himself bit in half by a shark while he was wade fishing off of Corpus.”
“Wells don’t wade-fish.” The builder argued shaking his head. “He hires guides to take him out on charter boats. Maybe something on one of them fell on him.”
“Something sure as hell got him!”
Dan Wells had recently come back from a trip bandaged and missing an ear. There was much concern over what had happened but he kept to himself and his wife wasn’t talking.
“You think he’ll ever be the same?”
“Well, if he can’t walk then that’s pretty serious.” Kinkaid answered turning to look at a young, portly girl who was scraping away at a hole in the grid six or seven feet away. “Of course, he’ll never grow back his ear.”
Markoff sighed. “That’s got to be tough.” He said shaking his head. “He was a good looking guy.”
“I feel for him!”
They watched as a bearded, long haired kid carried a bucket past them. He was wearing a shirt that said “DAYUM” in big yellow letters underneath a patched flannel jacket.
“What should we do?” Markoff asked suddenly. He pulled a staple-gun from a clip on his new hunting jacket and shot two staples into the lip of his ceramic tiled roof. “Do we send him flowers? Maybe buy him a get well card?”
Kinkaid took a swig off his beer. “You can send him something if you want.” He said letting out a loud belch. “That kind of thing is too gay for my liking. I personally think that he just wants to be left alone.”
“I wonder if he’ll ever come out.” He said looking over at students digging in the Wells’ front yard. The house was dark and the blinds were closed. Two big bulbed strands of lights had been wound around the granite columns which flanked the front porch and a wreath had been put up over the beveled glass of its redwood door.
The older man shrugged.
The builder stepped down from the ladder and with the help of his neighbor, moved it a little along the length of the house. Technically, he wasn’t even supposed to have it sitting out on his lawn. The rules which the state had given them specified that no one was allowed to stray even one inch off of the designated pathways that the archeologist had marked off. They were basically confined to parking their cars in the driveways, going through the front doors and walking out to check their mail.
“Something like loosing an ear to a fish has got to mess a guy up.” Kinkaid spat picking his beer off the ground and taking another swig off it.
Markoff climbed up and once again began fiddling with the strand. “I wonder what Clara thinks about it.”
“She’s probably already looking for another boy toy.” The older man laughed. “I’m pretty damned sure that she only kept Dan around for his looks. You don’t end up with a handsome dude like that and a butt ugly chick like her unless there’s some kind of sexual slavery going on.”
“You don’t think its love?” The builder smirked.
“I think its love about as much as I believe that Thom and Jill are in love.” Kinkaid said with a snort. “They’re the most unhappy couple that I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Markoff shot two more staples into the side of his house and climbed down.
Everyone else had already put up their lights. They’d done so by all sorts of alternate methods beyond creeping along the edge of their rooflines with a ladder. Most had just used the space of their driveway to get up on the top of their homes where they crawled along dangerously on the edges to string them. Markoff would have done the same but he’d seen too many people fall and break their bones during his time in construction to feel confident doing anything that stupid.
Christmas decorating was the last of the un-gentrified aspects of the neighborhood. Biggs may have liked to dig holes but no one mowed their own grass or fixed their leaky sinks themselves. For these tasks and others they employed an army of landscapers, plumbers, maids, laundry services, and general repairmen. They had achieved a level of comfort in their finances that allowed them all to exist in a state that could best be described as domestic leisure class.
“What makes you think that Jill and Thom are unhappy?” He asked after they’d moved the ladder and he’d scaled to the top once more.
Kinkaid shrugged. “I don’t know.” He admitted. “It’s just a feeling really. Thom’s got a textbook case of depression if I’ve ever seen one and every time I see her I swear that she looks just like each one of my wives had done right before they left me.”
“Concerned.” He answered thoughtfully. “She looks like she’s concerned about their relationship. She walks around looking like she’s eat up with worry about it all the time these days.”
“That sounds like love to me.” The builder said shooting the staple gun.
Despite living a life unattached to household duties the men in the neighborhood still hung their own lights. Kinkaid, who’d long utilized a plywood cut out dotted with lights of Santa riding a Harley had moved the seven foot tall placard from its usual spot on his lawn to the first level on the two tiered roof of his house. Biggs had spelled Happy Holidays along the ridge of his roof. Even Thom Grey, sad as he apparently was, had managed to rouse himself from his perpetual bitterness enough to run over thirty multicolored strands of lights.
“That ain’t healthy love.” Kinkaid said shaking his head. “Trust me, I know. She’s lost her shine to him and there ain’t no weird assed way that she can do her hair that’s going to change it. Thom’s going to have to come out of it on his own. The more that she pushes him the further away he’s going to go from her.”
“Why would he do that?” Markoff wondered jumping down the final rung.
“He’s the same age now that his father was when he climbed up in that tower and shot all them people.” The older man replied. “I don’t know for sure if that’s what it is but I’d imagine that something like that would hit a man pretty danged hard.”
The builder looked at his neighbor. “Myrah said that Jill bought him a gun.”
“Well that’s a pretty stupid thing to buy for a guy like Thom.”
“She never gave it to him.” He continued. “I think she also bought him some golf clubs too.”
“She needs to buy him a fishing trip.” Kinkaid spat. “Let him get his ass handed to him by some big fish. Maybe if he ended up like Dan he’d get a whole new perspective on his life and quit feeling so sorry for himself all the time.”
“Do you think Dan would agree?”
“No.” The older man muttered shaking his head. “Dan’s been so good at everything for so long I’d imagine that he’s going to have a hard time adjusting to being so earless and beat up.”
“He can’t walk either.” The builder reminded him.