Storytime: Homegrove Park.

June 14th, 2017

A big budget is better than a little one, her mother had joked when they got him. Well, that was easy for her to say. Who ended up with the slap-happy mutt, her? No, no, no, it was Shelley, good ol’ Shelley. The responsible child, the dutiful daughter, the
“God DAMN it Budget DOWN DOWN DOWN good.”
Budget licked his nose aimlessly and made himself apologetic as Shelley attached the leash.
By the time Shelley was out the door she already knew the walk was a mistake. The full sunlight she’d glimpsed out the windows just a minute ago was already souring, skimming through a sky half-full of light, half-clotted with faded blue bruises.
But Budget had cleared the door-
“Budgie! SLOW.”
-and there was nothing for it now but the long haul, both ways.
Oh, the fun of a Saturday. Oh, the leisure of leisure.

Some people put a lot of thought into their dog-walking; planning routes, routines, rotations. Some people paid someone else to do it. Shelley didn’t have the patience for the former or the payments for the latter. She didn’t like it, but it had to be done.
Luckily, Budget’s tastes weren’t exotic. Go fast. Go long. In a straight line, preferably. For a good ways.
“Budget! HEEL.”
All the way.
So past the light and the parking lot of the little generic ‘mart’ of sugar and caffeine and milk; and on through the concrete slabs of suburban sidewalk. It was nicer on this side of the tracks; better-maintained by the city. On either side of her were dozens of half-million-dollar McMansions with extra cheese, topped with a little pickle of a weathervane apiece.
The lawns were too covered with pesticides for birds. The trees were too obsessively-guarded for squirrels.
But the ditches, despite the best efforts of their owners, collected a little bit of leaf litter, and a sip of water. And Shelley saw the bathing bird just a second later than Budget did, which meant by the time her fist was clenching the leash was already free and skating away across the asphalt like a startled snake.
“BUDGET YOU FUCK” she shouted, and from then there was no air left for anything but running.

All the way down the street. Past half-opened garages playing meandering radios set to slumped music from decades long dead. Over driveways filled with shined boat trailers, half-deconstructed playgrounds. Swerving around a man with no shirt, no hair, and a scorched-lobster tan that was heading home the other way.
There was a certain kind of trash that only the upper-middle-class could afford to buy and be.
Budget was Shelley’s goad and spur as she gasped through the too-humid, over-cooked air. He ran ahead at easily twice her speed, but he stopped every few steps out of excitement and passion.
A fence! Bark bark bark.
A car! Bark bark bark.
The sky! Bark bark bark.
But no matter how hard Budget ran, his minutes were numbered. Already the treeline was coming up – the wall of green and branches that barred the very end of the road and marked the end of suburbia; already over-filled and gushing with the last juices of spring. May flowers in early June.
Budget ran up to that solid living barrier, stood there grinning like an idiot
and turned left and was gone.
Momentum kept Shelley going through the surprise. By the time she was able to think over what had happened, she was going through it herself. THERE at the end of the road, LEFT on your heel like a soldier spinning on parade, UP behind the ivy-grown chain-links of someone’s carelessly neglected fence (they’d never get away with that in the middle of the street), and THROUGH a little green tunnel with a dirt-and-woodchip floor, under a darker shade of shade than the sky had provided.
Up ahead, Budget’s barks had settled into a steady rhythm. He’d found something good and exciting to yell at, and he wasn’t going anywhere until it did. Shelley let herself come to a slow stumble of a stroll, skin prickled with sweat and eyes running.
Around the corner she found Budget, and his new friend. It was a large wooden sign, new in a worn-down sort of way. The rust attacking its screws had the look of fresh neglect rather than old wear.

Municipal Parks & Recreation

And past it was a low-mounded field, with copses, and hillocks, and a playground, and in the near-distance was Budget already galloping away.

Well, there were worse places for it. At least here he could wear himself out pretty well, and he wasn’t bothering anyone. As far as Shelley could see, she was the only human in the park. Nothing moving but Budget, no sound but Budget’s barking, and…
Hmm. That.
Something was clinking – faintly, yes, but very insistently under the running salvo of Budget’s sudden enthusiasm for a new friend. Metal-on-metal in the swelling breeze.
Oh, there it was. Blending in with the treeline at the edges of the pine copse. Budget was already tearing past it, on his way to newer and better things.
Shelley trudged up for a better look, figuring it’d make more sense up close, and was made completely wrong. She didn’t quite understand what she was looking at. A free-standing heavy metal birdbath? A biker microbarbeque? It looked like a maypole with chains dangling from it, lashed to a basin at its waist.
A worn label on the thing’s stem still held a logo that must have taken a few million dollars to produce: Catch.
Catch what?
She rubbed at it, hoping for more details, but the words came off with the grime. The same sort of fresh-baked neglect that had filled the sign had been at work here. Who built a park – a big park, she could see that now from here – and then abandoned it? And when? She hadn’t heard word of any construction. Twenty years growing up here, and she’d never heard of Homegrove Park at all.
The wind was picking up again. The pines were rustling, and the blue mess had covered most of the sky now. Budget was a darker blotch on a darkening field of green, running excitedly in circles around the faraway swingsets and the little restroom station and back again.

There was a water fountain at the restroom. It was dry. June and the taps weren’t on.
There was a sign encouraging people to come for the July fireworks. It had no year posted.
There was a bulletin up besides the pavilion, asking if anyone had seen a lost cat four years ago. George. Siamese. The wrinkling at its corners spelled out an answer.
There was a sign thanking the generosity of the donors that had made this place possible. “Our past provides for our future.”
And on a placard next to another one of the mysterious poles, there were instructions for Discus Golf, which was Frisbee Gold without the legal implications.
Catch. Shelley nodded. That made sense. The world made sense. She glanced into the basket and immediately stuffed her fist into her mouth.
Little bones had filled it. Squirrels? Birds?
Catch. Must’ve come to drink and bathe, but the chains got in the way.
Still. That was a LOT of bones. And it was getting too dark out, and Shelley was still the only person in Homegrove Park, and she still had no idea why she’d never heard of it, or why it looked like it had been set up and forgotten.
So she yelled “BUDGET! C’MERE.”
And felt very foolish that she was so frightened. The pines seemed to stare at her from all their little forests that circled the big field. They weren’t healthy-looking trees; they’d been planted much too close together so that their lower branches had shriveled and only their crowns bore healthy green heads. They looked like arboreal skeletons, or starved orphans. As neglected as everything else here.
“Budget,” Shelley called, quieter this time. “C’mere. Come on Budgie! Let’s go.”
There was no sound.
No barking.



And then quiet again, this time for good.

Shelley didn’t like Budget much. But the reverse was not true, and there was a certain wrenching obligation there, as much out of peer pressure as anything else. Man’s Best Friend. A Good Boy. You didn’t ditch your friends right in front of your peers, even if they were terrible freeloading drooling hyperactive malcontents with big brown eyes. It made you look callous.
Thankfully, there was no one watching, so Shelley turned on her heel and started running again.
There was still wind missing from her last sprint.
There was still that guilty stitch in her side, making her stumble every other sprint and huff-puff.
There was still even the reasonable, rational, adult mind in the back of her head calmly telling her that there was nothing to worry about, only children were frightened of being alone when they were on a public path, in a public park, in the heart of a (small, but still) city.
But overwriting all of that was the knowledge that Budget didn’t stop barking halfway, and that Budget was, as her mom had reminded her, a Big Boy. One hundred pounds of dog, and no fat thanks to her grudging efforts.
Anything that shut him up, she didn’t want to be near.
And she still hadn’t seen a single other person, and the air was too quiet, especially for a Saturday. Even if nobody was out picnicking, where were the cars? Where was the background noise? Why were the pines staring back at her?
One of the pines ducked and moved away from her gaze. A branch snapped.
Shelley had thought she was running before. Now she started again, this time properly, and she did good until the pines moved again and this time they were right in front of her and oncoming, so she veered hard left and fell into the pit.

It wasn’t a very deep pit, but she rolled far enough to make up for it. Dust and grit and plastic against her back. Surrounded by red pulped rock fibers. Something was standing over her on the edge of her vision, at the edge of the pit, a great unblinking eye of – no, it was gone, its colour had escaped her before she noted it.
Something about feathers.
Shelley tried to slow her heart down even as she wondered if that was a skill that could do more harm than good and rolled over on her side to pant more thoroughly. Plastic against her cheek. Plexiglass. Smooth. Warm from the dying sunlight.
And as she lay there, she tried to figure out precisely what the fuck was going on.
It’d had her. It’d been right there. Looking at her. And she bet dollars against donuts (a sucker’s bet) that it had been the thing that took Budget. But it turned and walked away when she was helpless, and it did that because….
Shelley rolled over again, face down. And she looked into another face, one a good deal more weathered and fleshless than hers. Minerals had infiltrated it; time had cracked it; wind and dust had buffeted it. Sealed in stone from outside and within.
She wondered what colour its eyes would’ve been in life, and strongly suspected she’d just missed a chance to find out.
Well then. Shelley resolved to ignore however this had happened because it would probably drive her insane and decided to think about boring, humdrum facts.
It had probably eaten Budget.
It was bigger than she was. Taller at least. Definitely longer. Very much outmassed her.
But still…. If it was anything like the thing lying frozen under her in its plexiglass-sandstone cradle, it was mostly bones and air. Thin. Budget would’ve been quite a feast for something that had probably been eating
little mouthfuls. She was even bigger. Therefore, as long as she didn’t do anything stupid like run or scream or panic it should be too full to care about anything she did and it wouldn’t try and
A bunch of objections rained down on the little bubble of logic thus produced, screaming about food caching and play-sport (god, the things her cat had done to a mouse for kicks when she was ten), but its creation had made her too peaceful to notice them and she quietly stood up and brushed herself down.
There were little buckets in a bin at the edge of the site (a label, not a logo: ‘dig ‘till you drop!’). Each had a baby trowel, an eensy pick, and a battered toothbrush.
Shelley carefully nested three of them inside each other as snugly as she could then threw them full-force. They arced gently over the entire field and smashed into the swingset with full force, making a sound like a pot and pan eating each other.
Something made an indescribable sound from what sounded to be six inches away from her, jumped, and the pines around the dig pit suddenly seemed a lot more empty.
Well, good. She could still pitch.
Shelley pulled herself out – an easy lift, this thing was meant to be accessed by under-teens – stood up, and began the casualest, slowest stroll she’d ever imagined having in her life. This was what her ideal walk would be, without Budget. A mosey’s mosey; a perambulation without peer. Each foot lifting off without much of a motive beyond boredom, each sole slapping down like a lazy man’s burger-flip.
God, she could walk a thousand miles this way now. No leash burning her hand, no anger flushing her face, no throat raw from NO or HEEL, no Budget.
No more Budget. Because something had gone and Catch him. Bones in a Discus golf, in a metal birdbath.
Shelley thought about that harder, filling her soul with empathy. Poor, poor Budget, who always wagged and barked and never meant any of the harm that came her way from him. Dense, lovably Budget, giving of unconditional affection and unavoidable fur clumps. She was on the verge of tears which was excellent because if she stopped feeling bad about the stupid dog for one second she might think about what had eaten him and that could be very, very bad.
There was a cough and Shelley ran like she was on third base again for the first time in ten years.

Even so, she was much too slow. Much too slow. But maybe it was a little full, maybe her legs were kicking a little furiously, maybe she was a little bigger than its usual meals, and when she lunged past the sign, down the green tunnel, and cleared that little chain-link fence, she was only bleeding a little.
Her back hurt.

She looked it up that night. Homegrove Park. A single link at the backwash of her search engine’s mouth, a single page that was serving as the appendix of the Parks and Rec department.
“Our past provides our future,” sitting at the top of the page above a waterfall of dead images, placeholder text, and already-dated web design.
‘Dig ‘till you drop! Learn while you play! See our town’s prehistory under your feet!’
And some articles, back-page fodder if she’d ever seen them.
Shelley recognized the face in the photos. Both with and without its eyes. Or feathers.
Our past, provided and served up for our future. What if it didn’t like what it saw? What if it shut itself away, in the dark hours between the picnics and the smiles? Hidden and invisible until it hungers for something more and it…steps back in. For a squirrel, or a woodchuck. Or a loud, happy dog.
While she was at it, Shelley looked the claw up too. Hard to tell without a PhD., but it was a beautiful piece of bone. Dakotaraptor.
She mailed it to the nearest museum with no return address. She’d had enough.

Homegrove Park must’ve agreed with her. Shelley walked that road now and then, once a month. Just to check. But she never again saw that little path into the green wall behind the overgrown chain-link fence.

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