[Trigger Warning: Animal Abuse]
By Katelyn Elwess -
I’m twelve years old when I become a man. Dad enlists my help over dinner on a cold November night. He walks into the kitchen, leans his rifle against the wall, and says, “Hurry up and finish your plate, Sam. I got a chore for you after.” Then he turns down the radio next to the stove, bringing Ronnie Van Zant’s voice to an almost-whisper, takes his seat at the table, and cracks open the can of diet Shasta in front of him.
“What is it?” Mama asks. She pours me a glass of chocolate milk.
“That’s between me and Sam,” Dad says, putting his napkin on his lap. He tells me, “Make sure you wear your snow boots. It’s thirty degrees out there.”
“They’re no good,” I say. “The soles are falling off.”
“Wear John’s, then.”
My little brother, Timmy, crawls over the table and reaches for the salt. Dad smacks his hand and tells him to go put on some clothes. Timmy’s been going through a phase for about a month now. When he’s in the house, he won’t wear pants. He sits back in his seat, only wearing one of my hand-me-down shirts and his Spiderman underwear.
Mama gives him a cookie from the Tupperware container in the middle of the table to keep him busy. Then, she grabs a plastic blue plate from the cupboard, still stained from last week’s meatloaf, and scoops spaghetti for my little sister. “Sammy’s still grounded. I don’t want him going out.”
“This will be part of his punishment,” Dad says between bites. Some of the sauce sticks to his beard.
Timmy steals Rosie’s piece of Wonder Bread and she screams. Mama yells at them both to knock it off. She sits across from Dad, holding onto her belly in one hand and the chair with the other. She’s almost eight months pregnant now. “Greg, if this has to do with the Stewarts, I don’t want Sammy involved.”
Dad shrugs. “Too late.”
“I don’t mind,” I say to Mama, smiling. I take a big gulp of milk and wipe away the chocolate mustache with my sleeve.
She opens her mouth, but doesn’t say anything. Timmy knocks his fork off the table. Rosie’s little orange tabby, Petunia, slinks into the kitchen and laps at the sauce splattered on the floor. Dad yells at her to shoo. Mama pulls herself out of her chair to clean up the mess, leaving her own plate untouched. I shovel noodles into my mouth as fast as I can. I really don’t mind helping Dad. I’m excited. He’s been planning something for days. I know he only wants my help since Uncle Bob got taken away last month and my big brother John has been in juvie since last summer, but I don’t care. I’m ready to help. I’ll show him. I take my last bite of pasta and give Petunia what’s left of my Spam.
Once the floor is clean, Mama carries Rosie to the sink and wipes her face with a wet paper towel. Rosie cries and pulls at Mama’s ponytail. Mama looks so tired, she could fall right over. Timmy runs out of the room. A couple seconds later, Scooby Doo! blares from the T.V. Dad stands up and puts on his coat. When he sees me petting Petunia, he kicks her hard and says, “I said get!”
She cries, fleeing the room. Mama scolds Dad from the counter to be nice, but she doesn’t turn around. I stack the plates and carry them to the sink. She thanks me with a kiss on the forehead, which I wipe off. “Gross.”
“Be in the backyard in five minutes, Sam,” Dad says, picking up his gun. “It’s time to send a message.”
I walk through the living room and down the hall to the room John and I shared. I open the door, still with the “KEEP OUT OR ELSE” sign John put there last year, and shut it behind me. John’s bed is still unmade from the day he left. I take my winter jacket with the hole in the elbow and his snow boots from the closet, then I find the beanie Mama knit me in one of my drawers. While I get dressed, I wonder what Dad is going to have us do.
The Stewarts are our neighbors. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Stewart, Mr. Stewart’s brother, and a boy named Bo, who’s about John’s age. There used to be a girl, too. She was in a couple of my classes until last spring. I’m not sure what happened, exactly, but John heard from a friend that she got sent up north somewhere ‘cause she got pregnant. The Stewarts moved next door two Christmases ago and it’s been trouble ever since. They do something, then we do something.
It’s a war, Dad says. Mama calls it a pissin’ contest. She says Dad is being a hard-headed ass raising hard-headed kids, but he don’t care. He says the Stewarts started it, and they did.
It was the January after they moved in. Mama had the station wagon running, waiting for the ice to defrost from the windshield so she could take us to school. John had already left with his friends. The heater in the car hardly gave any hot air, so Mama sent me and Timmy back inside to put on an extra layer of thermals. By the time we came back to the car, a truck was blocking part of our driveway. It was a nice truck. Real nice. It was a big dark grey Ford that almost looked blue from a distance. On the left side of the bumper, there was a sticker that said, “Without Men, Civilization Would Last Until The Oil Needed Changing.” It was nice—too nice for our street or the house it was in front of. Mama told us to go wait in the wagon while she asked the driver to move it. I followed her next door.
Two men, Mr. Stewart and his brother, Liam Stewart, stood outside the house, laughing and passing a bottle of vodka back and forth. Mama stopped half way up the driveway and said hello. There was a “NO TRESPASSING” sign tacked on the fence. In the front yard, an ugly green couch with a missing cushion sat next to a deflated Santa decoration. Behind the men, the 3 in the address numbers hung upside down. I stood behind her while she tugged at her windbreaker and asked if the truck belonged to them. Liam Stewart hocked a loogie and said it was his. Mama asked him to move it. She told him it was blocking her in.
“So?” Liam Stewart asked. Both men smirked an ugly, awful smirk that made me want to punch something.
Mama crossed her arms. “So, I need to take my kids to school.”
“Yeah?” Liam Stewart said, stepping forward. “Tough shit.” Then, both men cracked up and went inside the house.
Thirty minutes later, they left in the truck. I’d missed a good part of my first class. When Mama told Dad about what happened at dinner that night, he got a look on his face that hasn’t gone away since, a look that said game on.
“Sam!” Dad yells, banging on my door. “What are you doing, putting on a damn dress and makeup? I said five minutes! Let’s go!”
I look around for my mittens, but they’re nowhere in sight. I put on my hat, then head to the door. When I pass John’s dresser, I consider taking his tactical knife with me, but I decide not to. Whatever we’re going to do, I hope I won’t need it.
When I get outside, Dad’s waiting under the porch light with his hands in his pockets. He gives a lazy smile and rocks on his heels. His rifle leans against the house next to a couple shovels. He seems drunk. I look over at the shed where he got the shovels from. The windows are still broken, and the front is still covered in four-letter spray-painted words.
Mama’s wrong. It’s not a pissin’ contest. Maybe it started out that way, back when Liam Stewart blocked our driveway, or when Dad got revenge by revving his truck at four in the morning for a week straight. Maybe it even was when Mr. Stewart knocked over our mailbox with a baseball bat, or when John shot at the Stewarts’ house with his BB gun. But it’s a war now. It was a war last month when Mr. Stewart got in Uncle Bob’s face about looking at his woman wrong, all but forcing Uncle Bob to throw the first punch. It was a war when Uncle Bob got hauled off to county jail while Mr. Stewart and his brother laughed from his porch, smoking cigarettes. And it was a war three days ago, when Bo Stewart vandalized our shed. Tonight, me and Dad are ending the war.
“What are we doing?” I ask, shivering. Snow is still falling, and the air is so cold, it stings like a wasps’ nest. I tug my beanie down further over my forehead. I wish I could have found my gloves.
Dad looks toward the Stewarts’ home and says, “Wait here.” Then, he goes to the garage. He stops halfway and turns back to me. “This is important, Sam. Remember that.”
I nod and move under the awning, away from the snow. I put my hands in my pockets, trying to get the feeling back in my fingers. The Stewart’s porch light is out, and our own doesn’t offer much light. The air is foggy and the whole backyard looks like the scary movies John used to let me and Timmy watch when Dad and Mama went out. I hear Dad’s footsteps, then a cry. It sounds like a child.
He marches through the snow, yanking Honey, the Stewart’s Golden Retriever, by the collar. She pulls away from him with a whine. When I see her, I get excited and yell, “Honey!”
“Shut up,” Dad says back. She twists out of his grasp and runs up to me. She jumps up, paws landing on my shoulders, and licks my face. The Stewarts got her when she was just a tiny little runt, but someday, I think she’ll be as big as a horse.
I get her down and rub the top of her head. The silver tag on her collar with her name engraved on the front gleams in the light. “Why did you have her in the garage?” I ask. “Do we get to keep her?” She closes her eyes while I scratch behind her ears. Then, she runs to the yard and licks at the snow. I follow her and pet her between the shoulders.
“No,” Dad says. He walks to the porch and grabs his rifle. He’s breathing hard, but I don’t know if it’s from wrestling Honey or ‘cause of the air.
Suddenly, I’m cold all over again. I feel Mama’s noodles creep up my throat. “What are we doing?”
Dad takes off his hat and wipes his forehead with his arm, then puts it back on. He points his rifle at Honey. “That damn mutt’s been in our yard every day this week. I told them to do something about it or I would. I warned ‘em.”
“Dad,” I say, but I can’t think of any other words. Honey snuggles up next to me. She looks like she’s smiling. Her tongue hangs out of her mouth like she’s got no idea there’s a war going on. I stop petting her and ask again, “What are we doing?”
“You hold her still,” Dad says, aiming it right at her. “Hold her by the collar so she doesn’t squirm away. I’m not chasing the damn thing all over the yard again.”
For a second, I think I’m going to piss my pants. “What if you hit me instead?”
“I won’t,” Dad says. “As long as you hold her still. Come on, get a hold of her. Let’s make it quick.”
“Dad, no,” I say. I hold Honey close to me, like it’ll help, like it’ll make any difference at all. “Can’t we just let her go? Drop her off in a field somewhere or something?”
He lowers the gun, just a little. “God damn it, Sam. If I wanted a little baby girl’s help, I would have asked Rosie. Now, hold her still.”
I shake my head, but he just aims the gun again. I hold on tight to the side of Honey’s collar. She squirms, and I grab it tighter. Her dog tag bounces against her neck. She lets out a cry. I put my hand on her paw.
“Keep her still, Sam,” Dad says, inching just a little closer. “Still and steady.” I hold on to Honey as tight as I can. I look away when he does it. I stare at the ground, at the snow that Honey was just licking up. It’s over quick. He shoots, and I think I feel her jump next to me, then go slack. I think I hear her cry, but it could be me. Dad sets the rifle back against the house, then grabs the shovels. He hands one to me. He smiles and says, “Well, I think it’s pretty clear who won that round.”
I try to stand up, but my legs are all weak and they buckle right from under me. Dad sees me slip and he laughs. “Get up,” he says. “It ain’t the time to be making snow angels.”
“Dad,” I say. My voice sounds like I got a bunch of gravel in my throat.
“You did good, it being your first time and all,” Dad says. He takes off Honey’s collar and tosses it a few feet away. “Maybe next time, you won’t even cry.”
I stand, using the shovel to help me balance, and turn away from him. My ears hurt from the sound of the rifle shot, and my stomach feels funny, like when Mama catches me in a lie. I plant the shovel in the ground and use my foot to pull up snow and earth. I don’t look at the hole I’m digging. Instead, I keep my eyes on Honey’s dog tag. It looks almost white under the porch light, except for the flecks of red.
Katelyn Elwess is an emerging writer from California. In 2019, she earned her MA in English (Creative Writing) from CSU Sacramento. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her partner, petting her cat, Shakespeare, drinking coffee, and reading great stories. You can find her on Twitter @readinthegardn.