I've posted a couple of very small examples so far. They were primarily shared as they were the first things I'd written which made it to publication (and paid publication at that).
To be brutally honest, they were pretty crap and not what I wanted to be known for, so it was time to move into more substantial short stories.
My next cab off the rank hasn't been published, but it was the next story I'd written. It has been short listed at publications a number of times. It has been rewritten more times than I can count. It has been submitted to so many places, my spreadsheet stamped her foot and refused to keep updating its status.
This is one of those stories which should have gone to Aaron Polson's TLODS site, but I was never able to bring myself to retiring it from the submission rotation.
This story taught me a great deal about the writing caper. I learned how to take critiques as this passed through Critters, Author's by Design, a number of beta readers, and even a few close writer cyber-friends. They all had different things to say about it. A number of editors who said close but no cigar also had comments for me.
This story was one I always wanted to find a home for but never quite got there. I hope you like it.
Jed squatted to look closer at the line of red fire ants trailing away from the fish guts he’d thrown under the table. Most of them were scurrying from the mountain of offal, carrying a morsel of meat in their pincher's. Lightning flashed and a distant rumble of thunder heralded a change. Jed scanned the heavens where a dark line of rolling clouds approached rapidly. A storm would break soon.
Jed stood up next to the worn wooden bench where he’d been cleaning catfish all morning. At sixteen, it was his job to catch and clean dinner. He glanced towards the ramshackle two-storey building his family had called home for the last three generations.
“Daddy, please don’t!” he heard Chrissie plead.
“Don’t you be disrespect’n your Pa now, young’n,” his father yelled, the heavy southern accent slurred by moonshine.
The sound of a hand striking skin was sharp, causing Jed to flinch. He looked up to the second floor window, where the gathering wind played with the delicate lace curtain. “You shouldn’t hit her that way, Pa,” he whispered. “You should leave her alone. It ain’t right.” Jed drove the cleaning knife into the bench point first, his hand sliding down the handle and across the blade. He flexed his fingers, the sharp bite of the knife only a minor annoyance soon forgotten. Turning toward his home, he balled his hands into tight fists, not noticing the trickle of blood from his wound. “It ain’t right, Pa,” he said a little louder to the window. “She’s still little. She ain’t even of age yet!”
An angry red flush crawled up Jed’s neck. His knuckles cracked under the strain as he squeezed his fists tighter. He didn’t want to upset his Pa, but he loved his sister deeply and didn’t want to see her hurt. And Pa was hurting her. After each of Pa’s nocturnal visits, Chrissie had snuck down the hall to sleep with her big brother.
Since the last time, she’d slept every night in Jed’s bed. Only this morning he’d had to apologise for poking her with his hard-on. He’d been embarrassed, but she’d turned her back to him and cuddled up, drawing his arm over her shoulders. It had been very uncomfortable at first, but it sure felt nice. It hadn’t taken long for him to fall back to sleep, pressed up against her.
A terror-laden scream erupted from the house, ripping through the quiet isolation, and caused a pair of nesting ibises to take flight from the nearby moss-covered oaks. Jed ran to the back porch.
He burst through the screen door, skidding to a halt on the grease-streaked linoleum. His Pa’s pistol sat on the dinner table, a cleaning kit lying next to it. Jed picked up the gun. The sound of breaking glass made him jump.
Voices drifted down the stairs. “C’mon, Chrissie, just kiss it a little, maybe pretend it’s a lollipop and suck it like you did last week. That was so nice and made your Pa real happy.”
Jed reached over and picked up the ammunition box. Always keep it loaded, son, you never know when you’re going to need it, was his Pa’s saying. Jed dutifully loaded the pistol and turned toward the stairs.
The pastel pink door to Chrissie’s room was open. Jed could see his Pa standing in front of his sister, with his bib-and-braces pooled around his ankles. His back was turned toward the door, but Jed could see Pa’s erection pointing straight at Chrissie’s belly through the reflection in the dresser mirror. Chrissie stood naked in front of their Pa, partially hidden from Jed’s view. Scattered around them were shards of glass from one of Chrissie’s favourite ornaments.
His sister saw him approach, her big brown eyes at odds with the angry red welt across her cheek. Her gaze slid down to the pistol in his hand.
The concussion of the unexpected gunshot shocked Jed. He hadn’t realised he’d squeezed the trigger. He shook his head to clear his vision, preparing for the wrath of his Pa.
The round entered the top of his Pa’s butt crack, and exited front row centre, savagely removing his feeble claim to manhood, and most of the accompanying baggage. A bright spray of crimson blood covered the bed, the wall, and Chrissie.
Pa collapsed into a foetal position, his hands grasping between his legs. Chrissie still stood, eyes wide, as she clutched her middle. She smiled as she doubled over and fell on top of Pa. Jed dropped the pistol and ran.
Sitting cross legged on the river bank, Jed rocked back and forth, unconsciously cleaning fish guts from beneath his fingernails, shaking his head.
“Hi there, Jed. What you doing out here?”
He looked up into those brown eyes he knew so well. “Chrissie? Is that really you?” He scrambled to his feet, tears flowing freely down his cheeks. “I thought I’d hurt you bad. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, you big goof. You stopped any more hurt from being done to me. But I gotta go away soon.”
“But I don’t want you to go nowhere, Chrissie! I wouldn’t know what to do.”
He looked down into her angelic face. She looked real pretty in her Sunday dress, even if it weren’t Sunday. “You better not let Pa catch you wearing your Sunday best.”
“Pa can’t hurt us no more, Jed. You killed him good. He’ll be roasting in the pit of Hell tonight, and serves him right, too. I’m supposed to go to that other place, but I can stay for a little while to help you out. We could go on a trip and see if we can find some people.”
Jed scratched his head. “What people, sis? What we need people for?”
“Well, you’ll need someone nice to look after y’all, and I need someone to play with and come with me when I have to go away. I don’t wanna be by myself either.”
“But people don’t like me, Chrissie. No one’s gonna want to stay with me if you leave.”
“If you took Pa’s gun, then they’d have to listen to you. You can bring ‘em back here, and once they got to know you, they’d be happy to stay, I reckon.”
“I don’t want to shoot nobody, no more. I didn’t like that.”
Chrissie smiled like she’d always done when Jed couldn’t make up his mind. He felt sure she was about to give him good reasons. “This morning was a accident. I know you didn’t mean to kill Pa, even if he did deserve it. That don’t mean you have to kill anyone else. I just want to find a friend to play with. Honest, Jed, that’s all.”
“Okay, Chrissie, but how will we find these people?”
“I’ll just know, Jed. Something inside me will just know. Trust me.”
Jed tried hard not to notice the red stain that marred the middle of her white dress as she glided back toward the house.
Chrissie glanced back over her shoulder. “Go and get the car. I think I know where we can find my playmate.”
Tired and hungry, Jed reached past Chrissie and popped open the glove box of the family’s old Plymouth Satellite. He pushed the various papers and highway maps aside and pulled out their Pa’s revolver. Chrissie smiled at him as she snuggled further into the faded orange blanket he’d found in the garage.
He sat up straight behind the wheel and opened the pistol’s ammunition cylinder. One round expended. Jed knitted his brow and leaned back toward the glove box. After exchanging a live cartridge for the spent one, he snapped the cylinder back into place.
Outside, the wind blew in cold gusts that gently rocked the car and whistled through Jed’s partially open window. Menacing grey clouds hung low overhead. Across the road, the gusts blew the swings as if pushing invisible children.
For the last two hours Jed had driven the family car, following his sister’s directions to a small playground he’d walked her to a few months back. It had taken the whole day to make the round trip on foot. He’d only got his license a month ago, so he was extra careful. Until now, he’d never driven further than the mailbox.
"Maybe your playmate won't come, with the weather and all," Jed said as he stroked the wooden grip of the pistol. “Besides, you don’t look well. I think you’d be better tucked up in bed. I could make you Ma’s chicken broth. You always said you liked Ma’s chicken broth.”
"I think, as long as the rain holds off, someone will come," his little sister mused. “Maybe you can make me chicken broth later?”
Nodding, Jed smiled at his sister. “I know where Pa keeps his money. We can take some and buy some of that crusty bread you like too.” He turned in his seat to face his sister. “Chrissie, I don’t want to do this. I could hurt someone again. Please let me take you home.”
Chrissie freed an arm from the confines and picked at the blanket. “Soon, Jed. We’ll go home again soon, but I need a playmate. You always said how sad it was that I never had anyone, my age, to play with.”
Jed looked down the wind-swept road into the distance. It was true, he had always said it. He nodded his head once in firm resolution. “Okay, Chrissie. We’ll get you a playmate and then we’ll go home and I’ll make you Ma’s chicken broth. But I sure wish they’d hurry up.”
As if summoned by thought, an old man and a young boy, bundled up against the cold and holding each other’s gloved hand, emerged onto the blacktop. There was a look of excitement and wonder on the kid's face, while the older of the two looked grim and determined—as though he wasn't about to let Mother Nature steal this precious time away from him.
They crossed the road, entering the playground on the opposite side to where Jed waited. The kid ran ahead of the old-timer. A subtle shift in the wind carried their words to the car.
"Come on, Gramps, push me, push me!"
Gramps raised a hand in acknowledgement. The boy was already on the "older kids" swing, vainly pumping his legs to and fro, trying to establish momentum.
The old man took up position behind the swing. "Okay, Malcolm, ready?" Gramps yelled so he could be heard over the wind. Before the child could reply, the old man warned, "Hold on tight!" and pushed.
"Go now," Chrissie whispered.
"If you really loved me,” she said pouting her bottom lip. “You’d have gone already. Besides, something tells me he’s like our Pa."
“What you mean, sis? You mean he’s hurting that little kid?”
Chrissie nodded her agreement. “A little voice inside my head tells me so, Jed. Why, you’d be doing poor Malcolm a favour by shooting dirty old Gramps. I reckon he’d be happy to come with me so he didn’t have to play lollipops ever again.”
"But I don’t want to hurt no one, sis. Maybe I could scare him with the gun and take the boy away from him. What you think? You think I could do that?”
“You can do whatever you want, Jed. I know you’ll do what’s right, for me.”
He pushed open the driver's side door. With one foot on the tarmac and the other braced against the door to keep it open, he looked back at Chrissie. “But I’m only doing this because you want me to.”
Jed carefully slid the pistol into his jacket pocket as he exited the car, but with only one hand resting on the car door, the wind ripped it from his grasp and slammed it shut. He raised his head to see the old man looking at him. No point in trying to be sneaky now. He strode directly toward the swing set, his hand closing around the grip of the revolver.
As Jed stepped over the two-foot-high fence, he saw Gramps grab the swing and jerk it to a halt.
Malcolm complained. "Aw, Gramps, what'd you stop for? It's not raining yet! It's not time to go home yet!"
Jed removed the pistol from his pocket and pointed it in their direction. The grandfather shook his head and stretched out a hand, as if the simple gesture would be enough stop him. "Please don’t, son."
“It’s okay, Gramps, I’m not going to hurt you, but I’ve heard what you do to the boy. I’ve come to take him to a better place.”
Malcolm looked up.
Jed’s finger twitched.
In slow motion, Jed watched the 45 calibre bullet tear through the young child's throat and continue into the old man's groin. Both of them fell, the boy landing on top of his Gramps, one foot still on the swing seat.
The old-timer was screaming, his hands frantic on the neck of his grandson, trying in vain to repair the damage. With tears running down his round cheeks, Jed used his free hand to wipe his nose. “I’m so sorry, Gramps. I didn’t mean to. It just went off.”
The old man’s eyes were wide; his false teeth had been jarred loose and lay on the ground beside him. A pungent fecal smell came from beneath the boy. Jed recognised the signs of an animal in distress; he’d seen it a dozen times when out hunting with Pa.
Every time Pa had only wounded an animal he’d made Jed administer the final shot “to put God’s creature out of its misery” his father said. Jed stared into the old terrified eyes, and aimed the western style revolver between them.
He squeezed the trigger, just as his Pa had told him. "Don't pull it, son, gently squeeze it, as if you're curling your finger under a pretty girl’s chin, only in slow motion." Dutifully, Jed squeezed once more to be sure.
"Oh, Jed, what have you done?" his sister said from behind him.
He turned, trying again not to see the bloodied stain in the middle of her dress. It never got bigger, and it never got darker. It stayed the same crimson red, just like the spray of blood he’d seen on her bedroom wall. Thankfully it didn't seem to bother her. "What, Chrissie? What's the matter?"
"How am I supposed to play with a boy whose head is half hanging off?" she asked with her hands on her hips.
"I'm sorry, sis, it just kinda went off." Jed could feel the tingling in the end of his nose which always happened when one of his crying fits were about to start.
His sister had wanted him to protect her, and he’d hurt her instead. Now she’d asked him to find her a friend, and he’d done that wrong too. He was dumb and no good for nothing, just like everyone said. He slowly worked the toe of his boot into the playground dirt as tears and snot ran down his face.
Chrissie walked over to her brother. "It’s okay, Jed. Maybe we'll have better luck in the next town. Just remember, you have to shoot ‘em in the belly, just like you did with me, okay?"
“I don’t want to go to the next town, Chrissie. I don’t want to shoot nobody else. I can’t do it. I’m sorry, Chrissie, I can’t get you a playmate your own age.”
The silence stretched out, only broken by the sound of the wind and Jed’s sobs. Jed sniffed and looked up at his sister who had stepped away from him once more. She stood patiently waiting for him with a sweet smile of innocence on her face. The blood stain had disappeared too, leaving the pristine white of her dress rippling lightly in the wind.
Jed wiped his nose. “I can’t get you a playmate your own age, but I can get you a playmate who loves you more than anyone else in the whole wide world.”
“And who would that be, you big goof?”
Jed raised the pistol and placed the muzzle firmly against his chest. Chrissie’s smile grew larger, showing off her perfect teeth.
He squeezed the trigger as a clap of thunder sounded overhead and the rain began to fall.