For as long as he could remember, the boy thought the old wooden barrel was some sort of pet. Three times a day, his father would take a jumbled plate of scraps out to the back yard and leave it right at the opening of the barrel. After the boy and his father were finished eating, his father would go back out into the yard and return with a plate to empty and clean it was as though it had been swabbed with a gigantic floppy tongue.
The boy often tried to imagine what it looked like when the barrel was eating. He could see it from the window of his bedroom, could just see what he thought must be its black gaping hole of a mouth. Did a long, pink, sticky tongue come out and delicately lap food off the plate? Did some sort of hose protrude at mealtimes to suck the food off the porcelain surface of the plate, like a vacuum cleaner extension, or the way mouths of the tiny tank snails worked in the fish tank at the doctor’s office? He could only imagine the answer, because whenever it was time to feed the barrel, he was already seated quietly at the table, waiting for his own food to be served. He didn’t dare ask his father if he could come out and feed the barrel with him. He didn’t dare ask his father anything.
Sometimes, when the boy was outside playing, he’d think about the barrel. The barrel was in the back yard, and the boy was only allowed in the front. A giant wooden fence surrounded the back yard. The only way into it or out of it was through the back door of the house. The boy’s father was the only one with a key. “Stay out of the back yard,” he’d say to the boy, any time he saw the boy looking at the big, locked door.
Once, the boy woke up in the middle of the night to noises in the back yard. He got out of bed and went to the window. His father was in the back yard, kneeling beside the barrel. He was saying something, but he was speaking so quietly that the boy couldn’t understand the words. He thought he could hear noises coming back to the man from the barrel, sounds that sounded like crying. After a while, his father stood up. He patted the barrel awkwardly before marching briskly back to the house.
The boy would often spend the long, empty hours of the day wondering about the barrel. He drew pictures and wrote stories of the backs of scratch paper about going to the back yard and making friends with the barrel. He was too little to go to school, and had no other children to play with, so his imaginary friendship with the barrel became his only friendship.
One day, his father caught him drawing pictures of himself and the barrel playing together. In the picture, the little boy was pushing the old wooden barrel on the rusty swing in the front yard. The boy’s father’s face grew red and angry as he looked at the picture. The little boy shrank into his chair, confused and frightened. His father was often angry, and the little boy had learned early on to stay out of his way. He did not understand why the picture made his father so angry.
“Stay away from that barrel!” his father finally shouted, crumpling up the picture and throwing it in the garbage. “Don’t even think about the barrel!”
After that, the barrel was all the little boy could think about. He would lie awake in bed long after his father put him in his room for the night, waiting for the house to go quiet. As soon as he was sure his father had gone to sleep, the little boy would creep across the room to look out his tiny window at the old wooden barrel in the back yard. If he put his ear to the window, he was sure he could hear the barrel singing, or crying, or making wet, blubbery, nonsense noises to itself. Every once in a while, the barrel would suddenly jerk, just a little, as though trying to roll away.
During the day, the little boy tried his best to not think about the barrel. He tried to make up new imaginary friends to play with in the front yard, mostly other children like himself, sometimes fanciful talking animals. He’d give them all conspicuously manly names like “Tom,” and “Peter,” and “Randall,” as his father seemed especially pleased with him when his imaginary friends had boy names. When he drew pictures of his imaginary friends, he made them all little boys like him, although, not having seen many other children, he often drew them with purple skin and green or pink hair. His father would frown slightly at these pictures, but since he didn’t actually say anything, the boy went on drawing his imaginary friends in rainbow hues.
The night alone was dedicated to imaginings about the barrel. In his dreams, the barrel sprouted legs and arms and could run about the yard like a person, or on all fours like a dog. When it was on all fours, it sprouted a long, wet tongue like a dog, and panted, and drooled, and barked. When it was on two legs, it laughed, and shouted, and said nice things to the boy, like, “You’re my best friend,” or “Do you want to run away with me?”
The dreams were so alluring to the boy the he began to think of ways to make them come true. The little window in his room had been nailed shut long before, but he began to see how easy it would be to take the nails out. He carefully dug at the soft pine windowsill in his room with the tines of a fork, and slowly, over the course of many nights, the nails began to come out. He was so careful not to make any noise. He was careful not to scratch the glass. He was careful not to scratch the wood too much with the fork so that if his father happened to look at the window, he wouldn’t see splinters and scratches on the frame. Unless he counted the nails left in the window sill, he would never know what the boy had been doing.
When all the nails were finally out, the little boy scarcely dared to push the window upwards. When he finally did, the wood screeched so dreadfully his heart stopped. He carefully, quietly, pulled the window shut again and jumped into bed, waiting for the sound of his father’s footsteps. Sure enough, a few seconds later, the door to his room opened and his father’s silhouette filled the doorway. “Was that you?” the man asked, quietly. The boy kept silent, eyes tightly closed, unmoving in his bed. After a few seconds, the man turned away and shut the door behind him.
As soon as he was gone, the little boy quietly crept out of bed and went back to the window. This time, the pane slid up easily, silently. The window gaped open to the back yard. The barrel loomed in its corner of the yard, its dark mouth open in a frozen scream.
The little boy squeezed out the window and tiptoed across the yard. He could see his father sitting at the kitchen table through the small window in the back door, an open beer bottle in one hand, his attention focused on the newspaper spread out on the table before him. The boy held his breath and ran as fast as he could to the barrel. Any minute, his father would turn around and see him. He would reach the barrel before his father turned around.
“Hello?” he whispered, dropping to his knees and peering inside the dark of the barrel. It was much larger up close than it had appeared from inside the kitchen, almost as big around as he was tall. He could see something moving inside, something way in back. He crept closer, until his head was almost inside the barrel. “Hello?”
Long, thin arms reached out and grabbed the boy. He squeaked and squirmed and tried to get away as the arms pulled him completely into the barrel. Pendulous breasts and long, matted hair brushed his skin. Thin arms pulled him close to a body that smelled horrible yet familiar.
“Shhh,” whispered a voice near his ear. “Shhh, baby. Shhh.”
“Let me go!” he managed to get out before a hand clapped over his mouth.
“Mine, mine, all mine,” the voice began to softly sing. The body rocked back and forth, clutching the boy tightly, rocking him, too. “Mine, mine, all mine.”
The little boy began to cry. He wanted out. He wanted back in his bed, the safety of his room. He wanted his father to come and get him, to rescue him from the stinky darkness of the barrel.
“Don’t cry, little one,” cooed the voice, still rocking, one hand still over his mouth. Finger combed through his hair, brushing it back from his forehead. “Don’t cry. Someone will feed us soon.”