“Taking place in Minnesota during the late 80s ‘Mrs. Reardon’s Garden’
Narrates the daily life of young boys and the death of a young man.”

Joelcy Kay | Editor |  Edge of Humanity Magazine



Written by Michael Hager


My name is Daniel Ash. In the twelfth summer of my life, August of 1989, Neil Porter quit the military and returned to our town on the river. He had been gone two months. His parents owned a cabin, renovated for year around use, on one of the shallow lakes on the County Line Road. Neil, who went Absent Without Leave, got as close to home as the railroad crossing, a quarter mile off the State highway, before he was hit and killed by a Burlington Northern ore train traveling south out of the Iron Range.

Billy Little Elk, in Sheriff Wheeler’s report, admitted to urinating on the shoulder of the highway, beside his motorcycle, when the stolen military truck swerved past. Lightning from that night’s heat storm crept west, and Billy, lost in the sounds of the approaching train, never noticed the headlights bearing down on him. He said the truck passed close enough to read midnight on the dashboard radio. Sheriff Wheeler publicly claimed that statement was a lie, but it went on record anyway.

Billy Little Elk said, and the Sheriff agreed, that Neil Porter had been racing the train. Billy did not witness the truck’s ninety degree slide off the highway onto the road to town, nor the acceleration into the crossing, but he described the far away cry of the engine’s horn, the crush of steel as the collision broke the night, and the wrench and scream of ore cars setting their brakes.




Twelve hours earlier, the heat of summer set on River’s Bend, Minnesota. A colorless sun pulled  moisture from the earth and the air gelled with haze. Zeke Wheeler, Johnny Reardon, and I stood on a raised section of concrete at the abandoned depot outside of town. The morning smelled of pine and dry sand, but by noon, humidity settled into clothing and mosquitoes stuck to skin like an adhesive. Johnny and I wanted to leave. There was an afternoon baseball game on television, but Zeke, the first of us to turn thirteen, wanted to throw stones at the trains.

The depot grew through with thistle and trees. Foundations buckled and cracked. Open to the environment, metal grating rusted the color of weathered blood. Posted signs on a chain linked fence warned against trespassing, but Zeke’s dad was sheriff and Zeke was certain no one would “nail our asses to the wall.” Besides, he would explain, our dads were all in the Vietnam War and those guys took an oath. Since Johnny’s dad had died of Agent Orange defoliant cancer, he could get away with just about anything.

“What are you going to do?” Zeke yelled. Train cars passed at sixty miles an hour. My knees trembled under the weight and shift of steel. I had visions of a derailment crushing all three of us. When Johnny shoved his hands in his pockets, Zeke scowled his round face and bounced a stone off a tanker car. I fell back because I also had visions of a tanker car exploding. Zeke Wheeler pointed at me and laughed.

Earlier, James Reardon, Johnny’s older brother, told Zeke about a network of Cold War era tunnels running through the countryside around River’s Bend. Zeke argued it was bullshit because he had been everywhere and never found tunnels. James said there was one under the ruins of the Scandinavian settler’s church. Zeke said he had been there, only one fence to climb to get in, and he said James Reardon was a liar.

Johnny and I got Zeke away from James, but Zeke rambled as the three of us made our way to the depot. He said James Reardon was twenty-two and had no job. James Reardon lived off his mother’s pension. James Reardon hung around with Billy Little Elk and Neil Porter and those guys were questionable at best. “My mothers says,” said Zeke Wheeler, then he recited these things his mother said about James Reardon. Soon, Johnny quit arguing.

Then, as Zeke laughed down at me near the tracks, Johnny lunged across the short distance between their bodies. I scrambled to my feet as the last of the train passed and those two clawed at one another like animals in the gravel.

Johnny and Zeke separated. Johnny, flush in the face, said, “if your dad wasn’t sheriff, my brother says he’d give Mrs. Wheeler something to talk about.” Then he made the lewd gesture James made when he said it.

Zeke Wheeler stopped. He stared cold and dead like doll eyes. Then he turned and side-armed a stone off Johnny Reardon’s head.




Mrs. Reardon, in her flowers, moaned when Zeke and I staggered out from the forest with Johnny’s arms hooked around our shoulders. Blood fell from a gash above his right eye. James Reardon leapt the porch railing in one fluid move, took Johnny by the arm, and spun him into the light. James had reckless black hair and jagged eyes. He turned, without a question kicked Zeke in the ass and ran him off like a stray dog, then pulled Johnny toward the house. “He’s fine, ma,” he said. “Take it easy.”

Mrs. Reardon stood in the turned earth of her garden; waist deep in an island of color. In the thickening gray of afternoon, with hands seized to her side, amongst blood root and goldenrod, long-stemmed hollyhocks and thorned rose bushes, she trembled as if weeping. Mrs. Reardon’s flowers mushroomed with summer. From porch side across the yard to the forest, her garden radiated a silence. The pines grew close and, with no distinguishable lawn, only that garden kept wilderness from overtaking the house.

I realized that James had taken Johnny inside and that I was alone.




I ran past mailboxes at the ends of long driveways, over broken tar leading east to the highway, past the fenced off Scandinavian settler’s church and the Wheeler’s road, through a history of sumac and pine, and returned to my own home choking for water and stained with Johnny Reardon’s blood.

I crossed the ditch alongside our house where a wall of lilacs encircled the yard. Their purple buds had dried, withered, and fallen, but their leaves and limbs, many times my height, stretched snarled, dark, and impenetrable at the edge of the forest. Billy Little Elk said the widows of killed warriors haunted lilac patches. He said their scarecrow arms tangled in the overhanging branches; indistinguishable and waiting. I hurried by and found Dad staring from across the lawn.

Back from one of Old Man Olson’s fields, Dad had already gone two shades white. As I told him about the depot and Zeke Wheeler’s rock, he flattened out as if the air had been removed. He shook his head and told me to not let Mom see my shirt.

“Dad?” I stopped him as he turned toward the house. “Zeke says that guys who went to the Vietnam War took an oath…”

Dad cut me off with a sharp laugh. He stared as if I were a stranger who had stumbled into his yard. “Danny,” he said, “Never mind Zeke Wheeler. Everything he tells you is bullshit.”




Inside, I hid the shirt under my bed and had a late lunch with Mom. She told me Dad was in a mood because Olson picked up another dog.

The old man had a hole in his throat from surgery, the result of smoking cigarettes since the Second World War, and the rasp it made when he spoke caused animals to cower and growl. Despite this, a series of cabins built around the lakes near his farm brought traffic into the country, so he was after a dog to guard his property. Dad would get the call, then walk down Olson’s driveway, like a criminal from the Cities, to see how the new dog would react.

Mom sighed and shook her head. The first gray hairs nearly glistened as she stood before the window behind the kitchen sink. She spoke, as if to herself, about farming, about River’s Bend, and about Dad standing up to that old man.

I left her like that, then found Dad in the garage, layered in sweat, as he bled black oil from the tractor into a catch pan on the floor. I offered to help.

“It would help,” Dad said, “if you could make it rain.”

“Billy Little Elk knows a guy who can make rain,” I said.

“Right,” Dad said. “Ever see him do it?”

When I did not respond, Dad stopped and frowned at himself. He wiped his forehead. “I’m not sure how I feel about you hanging around James Reardon and Billy Little Elk. There is nothing wrong with those boys morally, but they are prone to wildness and you can’t believe a word they say. I don’t want it rubbing off on you.”

I thought for a moment. “Why do you help Old Man Olson with his dogs if it bothers you?”

Dad flattened out like earlier. “Olson fought in the Second World War and we farm his land for nothing.”

“But the dog will be gone soon anyway,” I said, “since he goes through so many of them.”

“Olson will be gone soon, too,” said Dad. “Don’t be a smart-ass.”

“Why should you care about the World War,” I said, “or about who fought in it?”

Dad, as if throwing a door closed, said, “sometimes we have to do what we don’t want to do and it is best to just do it already.”




Johnny Reardon threw his glove to the ground as another baseball cracked into the woods behind my back. Johnny’s eye swelled. The medical tape James glued to his forehead lost its grip and sprung away like a large brow. Still, his pitching stung through the glove and I could not stop his throws.

“I’m not a catcher,” I said.

“I can tell,” said Johnny Reardon.

I had returned to the Reardon place after leaving Dad in the garage. Mrs. Reardon paced the aisles of her garden like a sentry. A morning dove cooed, somber and angelic, in the trees above her shoulders. James Reardon’s Cadillac replica, acned with patches of rust the color of dried lilac, took up space in the driveway.

James watched from the shadows of the porch. “It’s too hot for baseball,” he hollered.

“It’s never too hot for baseball,” said Johnny Reardon.

James Reardon’s laugh echoed in the trees.

Suddenly, a tire screamed on tar. We turned. Sound billowed from the road as Billy Little Elk, on his motor bike, careened to a sideways stop. Billy, visiting from the reservation, gripped the accelerator, braced his leg, and began spinning circles in the gravel. His hair flew. He whooped as dirt and stones peppered the porch and car.

James rose to his feet with widening eyes. His yell of protest could not overcome the bike’s engine. Billy whirled tightening rotations until the front tire dug in and a piece of metal spat out from underneath. It put him on his back and the bike corkscrewed to a stop against a tree.

“You son of a bitch!” James Reardon gripped the railing with white knuckles.

Billy got up, examined his bike, and swore. He waved at Mrs. Reardon. “Sorry Mrs. Reardon.” Then he stood the bike on its wheels.

I stomped around in the weeds, found the baseball, plus a rodent chewed remnant of one we had lost before, then returned to the porch where James and Billy leaned over Johnny.

“Look at it,” said James. “Probably be a scar.”

Billy shook his head. “What are you going to do?”

“You’ll see,” said James Reardon.

“You won’t do anything.” Johnny shoved himself away from James. “You drive Zeke Wheeler crazy with bullshit stories about tunnels.”

The mosquitoes hummed as James looked sidelong at Billy. “That’s what this is about?” He laughed a cascading laugh. “Doesn’t even believe his own brother.”

Johnny made a move to get inside the house but James blocked the door. “If I had any feelings,” said James, as he muscled Johnny into a sitting position on the floor, “that might really hurt.” He looked at me. “You believe me, Danny Ash. Don’t you?”

I shrugged. “My Dad says there is nothing wrong with you boys morally, but I can’t believe a word you say.”

“Ha!” Johnny perked up from the floor. “Ha ha!”

James looked punched. He slugged Johnny’s shoulder with a fist, then turned back to me. “Your Dad said that?”

I shrugged again.

James shrugged in mockery, then fell back in his chair.

Billy Little Elk put up his hands. “Let’s not get off track here.” He crouched into a corner of the porch and rubbed his chin. “Those tunnels.”

“Right,” said James Reardon.

Billy cleared his throat. “My Grandfather tells me that the United States military moved here in the nineteen-fifties. Here. In this town.” He pointed to the ground around us then leaned forward and stared into himself. “In the old church, James and I found a hole in the corner of the basement. It is big enough to squeeze through.” He shared a frowning glance at James. “The walls are smooth, unnaturally smooth, and they go further than our flashlights reach.”

“We’ve never explored it far,” said James. “All those dead settlers in the cemetery above our heads make him nervous.”

“There is a stink of mold and roots,” said Billy. Then his voice went soft and his body seemed to age. “A wet, slick floor, like the banks of the Mississippi river in spring. The passing trains vibrate like a growl from the earth. Their horns at the crossing moan through the ground like some miserable ghost.”

When Johnny and I looked at one another, James Reardon and Billy Little Elk doubled over with laughter. James scoffed. “Why don’t you go see for yourself?”

He finished that sentence when a movement caught his attention. His mouth widened and he cursed under his breath. We turned. The first gust of a hard wind flicked sand into our eyes as Sheriff Wheeler’s police cruiser rolled up the driveway to a stop.

The Sheriff threw his door closed. He looked past the porch to Mrs. Reardon. She went on with her back turned as if he were not there. James Reardon’s face twisted. He lurched headlong. “Are you here to talk about what your kid did to my brother?” He took Johnny by the arm and pulled the bandaged and swollen face toward the Sheriff.

Billy Little Elk moved in front of James. “Wait a minute, Reardon.”

James brushed him back. “Or do you want to talk about your wife’s big mouth?”

The Sheriff went scarlet. The air quickened. The porch creaked beneath the strain of a new prolonged rush of wind. Pine needles and sand, kicked up and thrown from a suddenly restless forest, swept away the mosquitoes. Out of that roiling came the wail of an engine’s horn, carried from a mile off, as it hurried through the crossing.

Once again, the Sheriff looked to Mrs. Reardon. She moved further off and the red drained from his face. There was no edge to his voice. “Neil Porter has gone AWOL.” He looked James in the eye. “Stole a truck two days ago.”

The Sheriff let his words sit, then said he had been to the Porter residence, and now here, to remind everyone that it was a crime to help a runaway soldier. “Now,” he said as he turned to Johnny Reardon. “How’d you get that wound?”

“What wound?” said Johnny Reardon.

The Sheriff lowered his head and swore under his breath. “I’ll talk to my boy.” He turned and walked back to his car. He opened the back door and motioned to me to get in.

I hesitated.

“When this storm gets here,” said Wheeler. “I don’t want you caught in it.” He turned to Billy. “You too Little Elk.”

“Threw the chain on my bike,” said Billy. “got to fix it.”

Sheriff Wheeler shrugged. “Whatever it takes.” He gestured once again for me to get in the cruiser.

“Wait.” Hair blew over James Reardon’s face.

The Sheriff reddened once more. This time, when Billy stepped between, James gave in and sat back in his chair. I left the porch and took the Sheriff’s ride home.




The squad car in the yard brought both of my parents out. They sent me inside when convinced I was not hurt or in trouble, but they had a twenty minute talk with the Sheriff out in the wind and bluster on the driveway. Both sat quiet at dinner. Dad stared at the table and Mom stared at him.

Finally, I asked about Mrs. Reardon.

Dad winced. “Mrs. Reardon is none of your damn business.”

Mom put up a hand to stop him. “Mrs. Reardon keeps to herself because she likes to keep to herself and it really is none of your damn business.”




After dark, a cool front crossed the State and the sky tensed with electricity. Wind shook the walls of my bedroom. Through the window, lightning flashed in blue and black pockets like a flickering television. There flowed a continuous undertone of thunder. Still, the air through the screen was dry. Soon, the phone rang downstairs and Dad wrestled his way across the yard to the car and on to Old Man Olson and his dog.

I lay back on the bed and dozed until a noise brought me up with a start. The heft of the storm wall passed above. I returned to the window and went numb. Zeke Wheeler, lit intermittently with lightning, threw pitch hardened pine cones up from the lawn.

I went downstairs, as if to use the restroom, but instead slid out the side door. The night roared and the air had gone chill. The lightning was dizzying but I found Zeke shivering under the window. He spoke loud to overcome the wind. “You and your big mouth had to tell about the depot.”

“I didn’t tell anyone anything.”

“Someone did!” He yelled.

“Be quiet,” I said. “My Mom is inside.”

“To hell with your Mom.”

I tried to leave but Zeke took my shoulder. “You’re coming with me. To that church.”

“James and Billy lied about those tunnels,” I said. “They laughed about it.”

Zeke made one move and hurled me down, pinned me by the throat, and leaned in close. “Danny Ash,” he bared his teeth,” you are full of more bullshit than anyone.”

I kicked like pedaling a bicycle and Zeke lost his grip and fell back. I spun to my feet but he got up and ran. I chased him through the scarecrow arms reaching out from the lilacs, down the ditch, and up to the road. I stopped, gagging for breath and caught up in the storm, until Zeke faded into the dark.

I suddenly imagined Dad walking down Olson’s driveway, the row of haunted and abandoned  machinery rusting in the ditch, the tilting farm house, a dim orange yard light sifting through the trees, and somewhere, waiting in that one hundred year homestead, the dog.




I made my way back to our house and Dad was there. He went wide eyed as he took my arm and pulled me into the garage. He looked to the house to see if Mom noticed, then shut the door.

In the dark, through the smell of oil, Dad found a small flashlight and looked me over. I was covered in dirt and pine needles. “Have you seen Neil Porter today?”

“What happened with the dog?” I asked.

His voice went hard. “Is he in town or not?”

“I haven’t seen him,” I said.

“He’s not hiding out at the Reardon’s?”


Dad shook his head and dropped back heavily into a seat. The light fell into his lap. “You just keep away from the Sheriff for awhile.”

“Zeke says Mr. Wheeler can get away with just about anything,” I said.

Dad shook his head. “Don’t listen to Zeke Wheeler, Danny. Everything he tells you is bullshit.” He stood again and moved with the light deeper into the garage. “The dog is worthless. And don’t let your mom see that shirt.”

I hurried back to my room. The storm flashed but further along now. The shivering dry breeze lessened.  Upstairs, I hid the shirt with the others under my bed and lay awake for many hours.




The train’s engineer testified that the truck, driven by Neil Porter, overtook his engine along the stretch of highway near River’s Bend, Minnesota. The red tail lights accelerated like a pair of mad eyes beyond a curve where the routes separated before the closed depot. When the engine cleared a line of pines near the intersection, the head lights of the truck, now on a perpendicular aim, bore down out of the darkness. The engineer said he grasped the horn, braced himself, and, as the truck’s interior brightened in the forward beam, Neil Porter dropped his hands to the side, a surrender, and surged into the crossing.

Sheriff Wheeler said he had been patrolling for storm damage. He arrived at the crossing moments after Porter hit the train. He found the cab of the military truck, the rear half sheared off and carried away, a trail of dark motor fluids marking the tar one hundred steps back to the crossing, but no Neil Porter. Billy Little Elk arrived on his motorbike and Sheriff Wheeler sent him up the tracks to check on the engineer. Wheeler then took his flashlight and followed blood through the grass and into the woods. He found Neil Porter’s body one hour later, after a mile of swamp and pine, lying in a flower bed in Mrs. Reardon’s garden.


Text © Michael Hager


Michael Hager

Michael Hager lives

with his wife,


in a cabin in






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