Mr. Wicker was a strange old man.
When I was a child, I lived in the picture perfect definition of American suburbia. Across the street from my house lived Mr. Wicker, an elderly man who was all alone, rotting away at the same rate as his estate. He wasn’t the stereotypical “get the f off of my lawn you no good stinking kids” geezer, but neither was he the “let’s go fishing and I’ll tell ya about the good ol’ days cuz my grandkids aren’t around” type. Mr. Wicker just… was. He would sit on his porch and watch us. Day in and day out, smoking pipe after pipe.
I recall asking my mother once why that was all Mr. Wicker would do, and why he never interacted with anyone else or had visitors over. She explained that sometimes when people come back from the war, they aren’t the same as they used to be, and that sometimes people bury themselves away because it’s more comforting for them like that. I sort of understood at the time, but it didn’t change the fact that his creepy stare and weak, slightly open-lipped-and-half-toothed smile would nudge me the wrong way. Every kid in the neighbourhood felt similarly, and so the part of the sidewalk in front of his house was detoured as much as possible by the youth of the cul-de-sac.
If the word “pedo” is possibly springing to mind, I’m afraid you’d be wrong (though that may have been more preferable). He never called out to the kids, never offered us cookies or sips of beer; he would just sit there quietly and watch us pass by on our skateboards and bikes. The sidewalk there was in pretty poor shape as well, so we’d often fall off and get scratches or bumps. But even though he saw it, Mr. Wicker would never offer a bandaid or some help. He just puffed, puffed, puffed away on that old pipe.
So imagine my surprise and discomfort one day when my parents answer the phone, only to tell me that tomorrow I’m going over to help out around Mr. Wicker’s yard. He had said he was offering fifty dollars per day worked, which was quite a lot of spending money in my preteen brain. But the aspect of how I was obtaining that money still cut through, and ruined the short moment of lottery ad dreams dancing through my mind - it was yard work at the end of the day. I huffed and pouted and complained about why I had to do it and why Mr. Wicker’s family wasn’t taking care of it, but my parents informed me that his family was busy and it was a nice thing to do for a man of his age and ability.
The next day, I was walking across the overgrown path to the old man’s porch. He was seated there, and gave me that weird smile he always had. “Hello there, Jonathan,” he remarked softly. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“Hello, Mr. Wicker,” I responded quietly. “Yes, it’s very nice out.”
“Well then, let’s get to it, shall we?” Suddenly, Mr. Wicker rose out of his rocking chair and pulled out a cane I hadn’t noticed earlier, before quickly making his way down the steps and around the corner of his house. He moved so much faster than I was expecting… so why did he need my help?
The backyard was just as much of a mess as the front. The grass was high enough to scratch at my knees in some places, and lawn ornaments resembling animals peeked out from the cover of the blades, startling me as I passed them. In the very back, next to the fence that outlined Mr. Wicker’s property, was a shed in the same state of disrepair as his house. After trying to open the door and failing, Wicker beat at the grass for a moment and kept on yanking, before turning to me. “Jonathan, would you mind opening this door for me? It seems to be a bit stuck.”
I sighed under my breath. “Yes, Mr. Wicker,” I replied as I approached the door. I wrapped my hands around the handle, feeling flakes of rust fall off against my hand. Begrudgingly, I began pulling it open in large yanks, stumbling and almost falling backwards on the last large tug.
“Thank you, Jonathan.” Mr. Wicker did his signature smile technique and entered the shed, but I wasn’t concerned with that.
My attention was fixated on the cluster of old nails sticking out of the shed, just about penetrating my spine. Goosebumps wriggled all over my body and my back became arched, as I was jammed between the door and the nails coming out of the wall of the shed. I slowly moved myself away and came out from behind the door, while still holding it open. “Mr. Wicker,” I called out. “You have some… some nails sticking out by the door, they almost stuck me.”
“Hmm?” The elderly man wobbled out, carrying out a pair of hedge shears. He looked around the corner of the door and gasped. “Oh, I’m so sorry! I should’ve warned you about that. I used to use those to keep the door open.” He took hold of the door and motioned for me to back off, before shoving the door against the nails so that it was stuck open. “It’s been so long since I’ve been out here, completely forgot about it. Ha ha!”
He tried to give me a light hearted smile of apology, and for once I accepted it. It seemed reasonable enough, considering that everything he said rang the bell of truth to various volumes.
My first job was to take the shears and begin cutting down some of the taller areas of grass around the outside of the estate so that it could be cut later without clumping up in the mower too much. I took a deep breath as I was given the hefty hedge clippers, and began doing as I was told to the best of my ability.
Snipping and clipping, I wandered the property randomly trimming sections of plant life that rose above my knees. Even with my hat on my head, the summer heat was starting to boil me alive, and the sounds of other kids playing and laughing next door began to form the desire to rush in my heart, so I too could be free to spend my day as I wished. I looked up to see where Mr. Wicker had gone to, and sure enough he was just standing on his back porch now, watching me work.
The temptation of freedom built up until I could no longer resist it. I started to hurry along, clipping the grass faster and bumping into hidden objects in the lawn, stumbling here and there. Then, as I approached a section of vegetation by one of the oak trees, something flew out from the tall grass at me. There was a howl, and my face was scratched by whatever had jumped out.
I shouted and stepped backwards, tripping over a tree root in the process. I landed straight on my side, scraping up my left arm pretty hard. But I was jolted back onto my feet as the shears came crashing down next to my hand, mere centimetres from sticking through my palm. I swallowed the lump in my throat, staring in shock at the clippers. Then my eyes turned to see what had leapt at me in the first place.
The growling and hissing came from a scraggly looking cat, with patches of fur missing and scratches all over the bare spots that I could see. It hissed at me for intruding on its territory, before scampering off up another tree by the shed to leap over the fence and into another yard. Now calmed down a bit, I looked to see Mr. Wicker still watching me from his porch. As soon as my head turned towards him though, he suddenly found the ability to walk again and hurried over to me. “Jonathan! Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. There was a cat…”
“Agh, that damn thing, it’s always crawling around here scaring the Jesus out of me.” He shook his head, then looked around to see what I had gotten done. “You’ve gotten a lot done today. Why don’t we call it and you can come back tomorrow for more? It’s getting pretty hot too.”
I was about to protest and ask if he was really sure, but the fifty dollar bill he was holding out to me answered that in an instant. I forced a moment of gratitude between the pulses of pain coming from my arm, happily accepted the bill, and began to walk home. Looking over my shoulder, I caught the old coot watching me yet again, before wandering off into his shed.
My parents naturally asked what happened when I came in the door, and then scolded me for not being more careful when working with equipment because that’s parents for ya. Though the pain was subsiding, and I was all bandaged up now, I was still bothered by how he just stood there and watched me.
The next morning, I was back over to do some more work. Mr. Wicker gave me his typical weird old man smile and led me to the shed again. He asked me to open it again, but this time I was much more careful to avoid the nails. He almost seemed upset by this, as his brow furrowed and his smile turned upside down. He entered the wooden shack and came back out with some gardening gloves, then pointed over to the nearest tree. “That damn cat from yesterday has been stuck in that tree all day. Go get it down.” His command was gruff, but I didn’t talk back.
I could see the small animal just laying limp on a branch that was a few feet above me. There were a series of branches leading up to the one in question, so I did what any other thirteen year old boy would: I started climbing. As I began getting closer, I got a whiff of the cat - it stank to high heaven. No surprise, considering the state I last saw it in.
In order to get a hand on the cat, I had to turn around and reach outwards to the branch. I was careful not to wake it up, and gently but quickly placed my hand on the back of its neck to lift it up. My tug did not move it. Confused, I pulled harder. This time, I noticed the roofing nail sink deeper into the cat’s corpse, hiding in its mangled fur, and the trails of dried blood that stained the branch, initially hidden in the mid day shade.
The revelation made me lose my grip on my supporting branch, and my other hand slipped off the bloody branch as it had slimy bits of cat flesh stuck to it. And so down I fell, six, seven, maybe eight feet to the ground. Another crash onto my side, and the wind was knocked out of me instantly. I was coughing and gasping for breath, and after a few minutes of lying there, a shadow stood over me. Mr. Wicker stayed silent until I began to stand back up and shuffle around him as he continued to give me that fucked up smile. “What’s your deal!?” I screamed. “What the hell is wrong with you, old man?” I then booked it out of there, across the street, and straight into my house.
Once again my parents asked what was going on, and I told them the truth, that Mr. Wicker asked me to climb a tree to get a cat down that he had nailed up there. And once again, my parents barked at me for not asking for a ladder, for not being careful, and that I was being ridiculous about Mr. Wicker nailing a cat to a tree branch. They demanded that I go back over and apologize to him immediately and finish the job, but I refused. I kept myself locked in my room, even missing dinner so that my parents wouldn’t try to drag me back across the asphalt to be this sadist’s play toy.
The cycle continued. My mom came up to tell me the next morning that Mr. Wicker had called and actually apologized since he should’ve been the one responsible for me, and was going to be more hands-on as our guardian. Wait, our? Yes, because he gotten my best friend Jeremy roped into this charade. But there was a glimmer of hope to this; perhaps Mr. Wicker wouldn’t try anything with two kids, since we could corroborate our stories. And maybe the jobs would be less dangerous if there were two people doing it instead of just one being watched by a weird old man.
Maybe. The word of wishers, but never certainty.
Jeremy was already there waiting for me, holding a shovel. His face read the same level of discomfort that I felt in my gut. We just nodded at each other for acknowledgment, then turned to face Old Man Wicker, who was bringing a motorized push mower out of the shit shed. “Ah, Jonathan! Just in time. You’ve used one of these before, yes?”
My stomach was already doing flip flops seeing him bring out the mower, based on the last two days. It tied itself in knots upon realizing that his people-watching meant he had definitely seen me mowing my lawn dozens of times, which meant I had no way of denying my use of the device.
Mr. Wicker just gestured for me to go over to it. “My daughter got this one for me last year. Haven’t used it too much, but it’s got that button start mechanism thing. Oh, and be careful, it clogs up easy.” With one hand in his pocket and the other on his cane, he hobbled back onto his porch to gaze down upon us, probably hoping for some sign of injury to gawk at.
Jeremy walked up close and whispered to me. “Hey, you alright? You look pretty bruised up.”
“Blame the old fart. Just, be very careful around here.”
Jeremy gave me a look, but nodded and walked off to do whatever he had been asked to do. I started up the mower, similar to the one my family had, and began pushing. Slowly, the backyard began to be tamed, with Jeremy tearing up weeds and myself evening out the grass. Occasionally though, there were landmines hidden in the lawn. Loud noises would sound from the mower, and I’d immediately let go of the handle as a large rock or small lawn decoration would go flying out of the side. I didn’t care if I looked like a scaredy cat in front of Jeremy for letting go of the mower so often - by now, Wicker had me worried that he had strapped a bomb to the underside of this thing, ready to detonate it any moment.
Soon enough, as Mr. Wicker had said, the thick grass had clogged up the mower, and now nothing was coming out of it. I turned off the motor, and then just stood there, looking up at the man in charge. He wasn’t sitting down anymore; instead he was up against the porch railing, gripping it tightly. I could tell he was watching me. And that made me concerned about cleaning out the-
“Yo, Jon! What’re you doing?” Jeremy came over and pointed at the mower. “Clogged up?”
“Huh? Y-yeah, but wait a m-“
“C’mon man, this old fool’s paying us fifty bucks a day.” My friend was already kneeling down, reaching into the blade’s opening. “We can’t be messing arou-“
The mower started. Jeremy screamed, and I screamed before trying to pull him away from the machine. He was crying for help as blood and tears were pouring from his body. His fingers were all snapped like baby carrots, either broken off by the blade already or dangling by fragments of skin, some stretching too thin and falling off as well. I yanked off my short sleeve sweater and wrapped it around Jeremy’s bloody forearm, before gazing at the villain who was standing before us. A homemade device was clenched viciously in the geezer’s hand, and saliva foamed at the corners of his mouth. His eyes were wide in excitement, satisfied with the current horror show going on before him. Tears were beginning to spill from my own eyes, and my throat choked up, stopping me from cussing the bastard out. My heart was thrust into deeper despair as he dropped two more bills on the ground before us, Jeremy’s leaking blood staining the money. “Good work, boys…”
Obviously after this, Jeremy was hospitalized, and Mr. Wicker was rightfully taken away. He was going to be put into some kind of home, hopefully far enough away that I’d never have to hear about or see the miserable old bastard ever again. My parents begged for my forgiveness when they heard about what happened, but at this point it didn’t matter. Mr. Wicker was smiling the entire time he was taken away. He was a strange old man, but he had gotten what he wanted.
Written by RedNovaTyrant