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He Goes into the Woods and Digs a Hole by Eric Hawthorn

The door closes and a deadbolt slides into place. The man is alone in the alley on the shadow side of a dumpster, a rolled paper bag where his money used to be. The man slips the parcel into his suit jacket, stiff-legs it to the car and locks the doors. He inspects his purchase. He’ll have just a taste. The chemical whispers him home.

     His daughter waits at the door with her reading chart and bursting grin. They have a deal: 30 stickers and he buys her Sparkles (the name precedes the animal). They make these books too short, he thinks. Should’ve made it 60 stickers. When he hugs his daughter, she’s momentarily pressed against the parcel in his jacket.

     Sparkles. The yipping keeps him up most of the night, but that’s not the problem. It’s the other thing, his system. Over the months, he’s established a rotation of hiding places: garage, air vent, basement rafter, sock drawer. He’s learned his wife’s sleeping patterns—out by 11:30, sometimes up for a glass of water at 2 or 3—and knows how to cross every floor without a creak. Sparkles complicates things.

     They have a mouse problem, his wife is pretty sure. Sparkles is pawing at the garage door and whining at the air vent. Sparkles goes crazy whenever she’s in the basement. He changes the system—attic, tool shed, left boot, geraniums—but the animal follows. His wife wants an exterminator.

     He goes into the woods and digs a hole.

     Each night, once the house is asleep, he goes out back to his hole. The floodlight on the house burns across the backyard but stops at the woods. On his knees, he clears away a patch of dirt and twigs and leaves. He lifts a scrap of wood and removes a metal box. Within, his substance is sealed in a freezer bag. He preps and consumes it with slow, tiny movements, then sweats and twitches in the dark. Crickets and tree frogs carry on around him.

     There are sensors on every door. A polite computerized voice broadcasts entrances and exits on speakers throughout the house: Front door open. Back door open. Each night, he climbs out and in through an open window.

     No matter how careful he is, his return always wakes Sparkles. He rushes to the animal’s crate to soothe her, to whisper assurances as the street-lit room spins and compresses. This doesn’t always help. Sometimes the whimpers become growls. The growls become barks. Sometimes Sparkles crashes against the side of her crate, panicked tail beating as if they’re in the middle of a home invasion. She smells an intruder.

Eric Hawthorn lives in Philadelphia. He works full-time as a blogger and researcher for a real estate company, but would rather spend more time writing stories. Recent publications include Timber, Thrice Fiction, & Metazen. He studied writing at Naropa University. To read more of his work, go here.