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Dead Horses

by Shelly Evans

part 1 of 2

My father killed the horse with a single hollow-point bullet to the head. The police couldn’t pin the shooting on my father, but everyone knew he’d done it. He told Alex he wished he’d killed our mother’s boyfriend instead. Alex and I wished that too, because then our mother wouldn’t have left us and gone to Nevada with that bastard.

The two-bedroom apartment our father rented for us was so far south of our hometown in Colorado that it was surrounded by hayfields about as far as the eye could see. The owners put vending machines in the empty hallways and stocked them with dime candy bars and fifty-cent packs of cigarettes. The few people who lived there were single men who worked in the mine with our father. Alex and I were the only kids. We spent most of our time that summer skipping rocks on the pond that lay between the parking lot and the highway.

We went to the café in town a couple of times a week to eat, although Alex and I didn’t like to, and we couldn’t figure out why our father made us go. We always sat in the same red-vinyl booth, and we’d stare at our menus. Anything to keep from looking at all those self-righteous faces full of scorn.

An old woman in a stained apron would eventually make her way to our table and take our order. Our father would just smile at her as if he couldn’t feel the hatred that oozed out of each and every one of them. When the food arrived, we ate in silence, ignoring their whispers and snickering. Alex and I hated that town and the people in it, and we couldn’t wait to go home.

Our kitchen table was always cluttered with gun-cleaning supplies. My father spent most of his time there sipping his bottle of whiskey. The day Alex turned twelve, our father showed him how to clean his squirrel rifle. Later he took us out in the field to shoot cans he’d set up on a fence post.

When it was finally my turn, I took the rifle and pressed its butt against my shoulder just like Alex did. And although it felt heavy in my outstretched arms, I took my time to line each can up in the crosshairs of the scope. And every time I pulled the trigger, the bullet hit a can with a ping.

Alex always had candy bars and a pack of Marlboros in his pocket that he’d bought from the vending machines in the hall. We built a tent in our room with the sheets and blankets off our beds. We put our sleeping bags and pillows in it. Using a flashlight, Alex read to me while I ate the candy he gave me. When he finished, he set the book down and said, “If we lived near a river, we could build a raft and sail away just like Huck did.” Then he lit a cigarette and held it out to me. I was ten years old the summer he taught me how to smoke.

We were lying in our blanket tent one night, when Alex started talking about our mother, the clean scent of her bed sheets, and eating warm oatmeal in the mornings. We remembered her soft hands holding ours as we walked to the movie theater for Saturday Matinees and her warm smile. Alex reached over and took my hand. And we lay there together in the dark missing our mother.

“I have the perfect plan, Vince,” said Alex, breaking the silence. “I’ll give you my baseball mitt if you help me.”

“Really? You’ll give me your brand-new one?”

“You can have anything of mine you want. I don’t care. I just wanna go live with Mom. Can I count on you?”

“We’re brothers, ain’t we? And brothers stick together, right?”

“Yeah, they do. So Vince, all you have to do is let me shoot you in the shoulder, and we can blame it on Dad. Then they’ll take us away from him and send us to live with Mom.”

“That’s a stupid idea, Alex. Why would you want to get Dad in trouble?”

“Because they’ll send him to a place that will help him stop drinking, and then we can live with Mom. Come on, Vince. It won’t hurt much. And I’m a good shot; I won’t kill you. Please?”

When I didn’t answer, he said, “You know it’s the only way. And you promised! Don’t you wanna go live with Mom?”

“Yeah, but I ain’t gonna let you shoot me, Alex. Not never!”

Alex was quiet for so long that I thought he’d gone to sleep. When I tried to pull my hand from his, he squeezed it tight and said, “Then you shoot me. You’re a better shot than me anyways. You never miss.”

“You’ll still give me your mitt?”

“Yes, but we do it tonight. We’ll use the squirrel rifle. After you shoot me, put the rifle next to Dad. Got it?” I nodded my head, and we crawled out of our tent. The light in the hall lit up our room just enough for us to see each other’s faces.

“I don’t want to shoot you, Alex.” I wiped the tears from my face with the sleeve of my shirt.

Alex turned me towards him and put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eyes for a long time. Then he hugged me and patted my back. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Let’s go see if there’s somethin’ in the fridge to eat.”

I followed him into the hall. We stopped when we got to the bathroom. Our father was lying on the floor before the open toilette. Vomit ran down the side of the toilette and pooled on the floor under his head. He was naked from the waist up with his greasy hair hanging over his unshaven face. Seeing him lying there like that, and the awful smell, made us gag.

“Drunken bum,” Alex sneered.

I thought we were going to the kitchen, but Alex led me to our father’s bedroom instead. He opened the closet and searched through the dirty clothes on the floor until he felt the barrel of the rifle. He pulled it out and checked to see if it was loaded.

“Go look in the top drawer over there for some bullets,” he told me.

I found a box of .22 shells and gave them to Alex. He loaded the rifle and tried to hand it to me, but I wouldn’t take it. He stood up and walked past the living room and into the kitchen. I watched him through the bedroom door as he laid the rifle on the kitchen table.

“Come on! Don’t be a pussy, Vince!”

Every time he said that to me I could feel my face turn red. I stomped into the kitchen and picked the rifle up off the table.

“Good,” said Alex with a smile. “I’ll stand over there in the middle of the living room. Use the table for a rest to steady your hands. Don’t shoot until you’ve lined the crosshairs up with the mark on my right shoulder.” He took a pen from the counter and drew a circle on the front of his shirt, so I wouldn’t miss.

I placed my elbows on the table and lifted the rifle to my shoulder. I looked through the scope and lined the crosshairs up perfectly with the circle on Alex’s t-shirt. Alex’s knees began to shake and he squeezed his eyes shut, hands balled in fists at his sides. But I couldn’t do it. I set the rifle back down on the table and looked at the floor.

“When are you gonna stop acting like a girl?”

“How come you got to be such a jerk, Alex?” I yelled.

“Cuz I got a sister for a brother. That’s why,” he sneered. “Mom wanted a girl so bad, she turned you into one. You’re nothin’ but a wuss!”

I placed the rifle against my shoulder again, pointed it at Alex, and pulled the trigger. The thud of bullet against flesh sounded nothing like the ping of a bullet against a metal can. The report of the rifle was much louder inside too.

Alex grunted as he spun around and fell to the floor. He tried to get up but was only able to roll over onto his back. He lay there gulping like a fish. A small red stain slowly spread on the front of his t-shirt. I tried to call his name, ask him if he was alright, but no sound came out of my mouth. I could not move. I could not breathe. Something warm spread down my legs. It left a puddle at my feet.

My senses slowly came back to me when I heard someone screaming. It was me. I had dropped the rifle on the floor, and I was jumping up and down flailing my arms in the air then hitting myself on the head with the palms of my hands.

The front door crashed open and a man and a woman ran in. The woman ran up and grabbed me. She pulled me against her; my back against her chest. I watched the man rip open Alex’s shirt. There was a small hole in his shoulder oozing blood. The warm, ammonia smell of the urine on the floor mixed with the alcohol fumes coming from the woman’s breath made me light-headed.

The woman turned me around, and hugged me to her. I buried my head in her breasts. The last thing I remembered was the man yelling at my father to wake the hell up.

I dreamed I was in our old house. It had all the familiar smells. I walked into the backyard, and saw our dog and the hawk Dad had tamed and tethered near the doghouse. Dad was waiting for me with a smile on his face. He held a leather glove out to me.

I put the glove on and placed my hand under the hawk’s breast and lifted up. It stepped off my Dad’s hand onto mine. The talons of one foot dug into my arm where the glove didn’t reach. I held my arm up, and the hawk flew up into the sky. I watched it soar up and up. I heard a gunshot, and I jumped backwards when the hawk fell dead at my feet.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Shelly Evans

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