The musty air caught in his nose, creating a wrinkle on the bridge. Surveying the space lit only by a single bulb hanging from the ceiling where the sides of the roof met at the highest point, he weighed his options in the narrow swath of his flashlight. An old buggy once used for horse drawn carriage rides on cool summer evenings filled one dark corner. Next to it was an antique sleigh whose useful life ended with a broken runner many years earlier. It would have been ideal to dig the hole under one of those half-forgotten vehicles, but he would need help moving them away from the corner and back again. Eager to get started, he decided on an area next to the far wall where tools hung neatly.

The dirt was hard packed, cool, and gritty, and the digging arduous. Not what he was used to doing. He hoped it would only take a couple nights, only daring to dig when the rest of the town was asleep. Padlocked doors during the day. No one in. No stupid questions to answer.

Shovelful after shovelful, he thrust the blade into the soil, scooping and heaving it onto the pile. The hole began to take shape. The depth was more important than the other dimensions. Shovel in, dirt out. The mound grew taller. Throughout the night he toiled, leaving the door open a crack so he would see the first sign of morning light. A couple feet in, he ran into rocks; some mere pebbles, others the size of his fist. They trickled down from the top of the pile after he tossed them.

Fluttering above his head drew his eyes away from his task. A barn owl had returned from a night of prowling, slipping in through the missing slats in the vent at the top of the eaves. Inspecting his work, he decided he’d dug more than halfway. Done until the next night.

Wiping sweat from his brow, he shoved a hand deep into his pocket and pulled out a ring of keys. Slipping it onto his left hand, he sized up the pile of rocks and dirt as he twirled it around his first two fingers. Once. Twice. Three times and then back in again.

© 2021 Penny Goetjen