July-August 2020 | Short Stories & Essays

The kids are all right

2020 Short Story & Essay Contest: First Place, Adult Short Story Contest

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The thwacking sound rang harshly in their ears as they huddled against each other in the cold darkness. Each boy felt the loud clack of the shot ring and reverberate against his skull like the harsh pounding of a snare drum. The kickback of the gun was much stronger than any of them had anticipated, and the echo it left in its wake felt like an insult to the soft and subtle sounds of the nighttime. Jordan barely registered the hooting of an owl and the skittering of small feet through the tree branches above their heads.

They stood over the limp form with a mixture of fascination and feigned disgust.

“Do you think it’s dead?” Jordan asked, his round eyes widening with concern. He pushed his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose.

The doe lay still against the hard dirt. Underneath its body was a smattering of leaves that glistened like tinfoil in the moonlight. Even in the darkness, the boys couldn’t fail to notice the thick blood oozing onto the ground like rainwater. They stood in a semicircle around the defeated form, shielding the body with a human tent made of their heavy winter jackets. The aggressive early December air hissed through the trees in Lachlan’s Forest, and 12-year-old Billy Riderman curled his fingers defensively around the large Timber Classic Marlin 336C he’d stolen from his father’s shed.

“Yeah, it’s dead.” Billy put his hands on his hips definitively. “My dad says you can tell when their eyes don’t close anymore.”

“No, look,” Charlie whispered from somewhere behind Jordan. “It’s still breathing.”

Jordan bent farther down. Though it was faint, the deer’s belly rose and fell ever so slightly as it tried to breathe. The boys had shot a clean hole into the upper edge of the animal’s chest, but it still clung to consciousness with an upsettingly calm disposition.

Jordan put his hand on the doe’s taut stomach. The deer shuddered in response to his touch and flicked its eyes aggressively onto his face. The doe had wide, brown, marblelike eyes, and he could see into her pupils, enlarged with fear. For a split second, Jordan felt a wave of nausea fall over him. She forced her eyes back and offered her body in final surrender to the group of confused boys desperate to prove something insurmountable to no one in particular.

Earlier that day, Billy had approached their lunch table with a deeply set smirk stretching across his speckled face. He sat down at the edge of the gray table with a self-assured thump and pulled out the crinkled brown paper bag he’d had stored in his backpack. Before he began unloading the innards of his lunch, he looked over to Kundan’s small Tupperware container of yellow rice and crinkled his button nose.
“What the hell is that, Condom?” he asked, pointing at the plastic box.

“Basmati rice.” Kundan didn’t look up from his food.

Unsettled by the lack of attention his statement had gained him, Billy began to pull out the squashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich Jordan could only assume he’d made himself. He knew Billy’s mom worked night shifts at the hospital, and the image of Billy’s father packing a bag lunch made Jordan want to laugh. The sandwich was the only thing in the brown bag apart from a neon green bottle of Mountain Dew and three long silver bullets that Billy smacked onto the middle of the table proudly.

Everybody bounced backward in shock as the bullets rolled against each other on the table.

“What the f**k, Billy? You can’t have that here.” Charlie leaned forward to shield the bullets with his body. He began pushing them back toward Billy, who only grinned.

“They’re my dad’s.” The dimples he had on the side of his face poked out from behind his wide smile.

Without fully realizing what he was doing, Jordan placed his finger over the bloody hole they’d shot into the deer’s chest and watched as his pale finger turned dark and stained by the animal’s blood. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in blind fascination as the slick liquid ran through the ridges of the skin on his hand. Behind him, he heard retching, and the sharp stench of bile stung the air.

“Ew, Condom. What’s wrong with you?” Billy jeered.

Jordan lifted himself from his haunches and wiped his finger on the corner of his jacket. Turning back toward the group, he watched Kundan stand crouched over and unmoving.

“Hey.” Charlie took a step toward Kundan and gently put his hand on his shoulder. “Are you OK?”

Charlie’s dark hair shone in the moonlight as it fell over his forehead in shaggy clumps. He was one of those boys who would always be handsome, regardless of age, with light hazel eyes and a gentle demeanor that made him exasperatingly approachable. Although Charlie was an indisputably pleasant kid, Jordan had spent the greater part of their friendship trying to understand why everybody loved him so much. It was an unsettling bemusement that fed hungrily on the moments in which Billy would say outrageously mean things to him.

Kundan straightened and wiped the excess sick off his face.

“This was stupid,” Charlie remarked as Billy began to close in on him.

“Are you crying, Charlie?” Billy nudged closer to his face.

“No.” Charlie pushed him back and Billy stumbled.

“It’s just a stupid deer.” Billy sneered and struggled to catch his footing as leaves and sticks broke under his pattering feet. He almost fell over, and Jordan would have laughed if Billy hadn’t tried so desperately to pass it off as purposeful.

“Stop being a d**k, Billy. This was a dumb f**king idea.” Charlie moved his hand back to Kundan’s shoulder.

Jordan suddenly felt very angry toward Charlie.

“Don’t be gay, you f*g,” he shot at Charlie resentfully.

Charlie ignored him. Instead, he turned to Kundan and asked again, “Are you OK?”

Kundan’s dark irises flitted toward Charlie. The rest of his head turned slowly as if underwater. He put his hand over where Charlie’s open palm rested on his sleeve. Even in the moonlight, Jordan could see the strain in Kundan’s fingers as his knuckles bulged and his hand wrapped desperately around Charlie’s.

“The damn thing is still alive,” Billy spat. The sound of his spit hitting the ground made the leaves crunch.

“We have to drop a rock on its head,” Billy announced.

“What?” Jordan asked, disgusted by the idea. “Why don’t you just shoot it again?”

“I can’t, dumbass. If people hear another shot they’ll come looking for it.” Billy had never looked smaller to Jordan than he did right then, standing with his tiny fists pushed into the pockets of his red fleece. The darkness only seemed to illuminate the spray of freckles across his pale face and the slightly jagged twist of his two front teeth. Posing in front of Jordan angrily, Billy looked ridiculous holding the oversize rifle against the ground.

After Charlie had slid the bullets across the cafeteria table, Billy grabbed them and sneaked them back into his paper bag with a smirk.

“They’re your dad’s?” Jordan asked.

“Yup. He just left them out on the counter.” Billy took a bite of his sandwich before adding, “Dumbf**k.”

Charlie snorted in agreement, causing Billy to glare at him icily.

“What?” Billy asked threateningly.

Charlie only smiled back.

“Anyways,” Billy spoke through a mouth filled with peanut butter. “I think we should go hunting tonight.”

“No way.” Charlie shook his head, causing his long mop of swishy brown hair to shake and stirring sudden annoyance in Jordan’s stomach.

“Well, what do you think, Condom?” Billy leaned his small torso across the table to look at Kundan’s face.

Kundan shrugged passively. “It sounds more like sitting outside in the forest freezing my balls off.” He took another bite of his rice and grinned.

“Kundan doesn’t even sound like Condom, Billy.” Charlie pulled a water bottle out of his lunch box. “You sound like an idiot.”

“Sure it does.” Billy rolled his eyes. “Besides, aren’t the Trojans from Persia or somewhere?”

“I’m Pakistani.” Kundan flicked a pea from his rice across the table at Billy, who smiled and squashed the pea under his thumb, spreading green mush out onto the table.

“A terrorist’s a terrorist,” Jordan interjected, regretting the words immediately as they left his mouth. Although Kundan chuckled with the other boys at the joke, Jordan could see the tired hurt in his face.

Billy laughed. “Jordan? What do you say? Do you want to shoot something?”

Jordan thought about it. He stared at the squished pea on the edge of the table. The green gunk would soon crust over and probably stay there until the next year when he was in eighth grade. Probably all the way through high school.

“How are you even going to get a gun?” Kundan asked dubiously.

“My dad’s going over to his girlfriend’s house tonight. It’ll be easy enough—he never locks the toolshed.”

The boys looked at each other expectantly. Maybe it was the suspicious hesitance painted across Charlie’s face, or the way Billy’s eyes gleamed mischievously under the fluorescent cafeteria lights, or Jordan’s own doubt that they’d actually be able to catch anything, but he felt himself begin to nod yes.

“Sure.” He grinned shyly.

“I’m going home,” Charlie said. He was still holding onto Kundan.

“Don’t be such a taint.” Billy rolled his eyes and walked over to the deer. He put his finger in the same spot Jordan had and waited for the blood to coat his finger, at which point he began to paint two straight lines over his eyes and across his cheeks.

“It’s like Pennywise,” Billy explained and continued to mark his smooth round face with blood. He turned around and smiled at the boys menacingly.

“Are you scared?” He smiled.

“What’s a taint?” Jordan asked.

“Whatever. This is f**ked up.” Charlie had lost interest. He and Kundan turned around and started their way uphill toward the warm blinking lights of civilization. With each step they took, Jordan watched them twist through the trees and over the brambles and vines, conflicted by the idea of leaving with them or staying back with Billy in the cold forest. Charlie didn’t let go of Kundan’s hand the entire walk.

Jordan was made aware of Billy’s presence only once he spit onto the ground again. The sound ricocheted sharply against the thick mulch of the forest. The crunching of Charlie and Kundan’s footsteps faded until Jordan was completely alone with Billy and what was definitely a dead deer.
“C’mon,” Billy demanded. “Let’s go get a rock.”

He crouched down and began to search along the forest floor.

Watching Kundan and Charlie walk away, Jordan was struck with a greater sense of separation between all four boys than there’d been before they walked into the woods that evening. Looking back toward the deer, Jordan felt a flare of guilt boil up into his belly, and his head began to spin with a multitude of thoughts.

He wished more than anything to be at home watching TV with his brother under the fuzzy red blanket his mom kept on the couch. He wished that he’d chosen to turn around when Billy and the other boys walked into the forest at 6:47—right before sunset. Or that he hadn’t been so easily seduced by his fascination with the idea of killing something. More than anything, he wished that he hadn’t felt so satisfied as he did when Billy pulled the trigger and hit the deer. That his heart hadn’t leaped at the sound of the bullet catching flesh, or that some sick part of him didn’t revel in watching the animal die at Billy’s hand.

It was a feeling he didn’t realize he’d continue to chase guiltily all the way through adolescence, a feeling of conquest that hung over his head like a waning moon. It was a restlessness that became most visible in the empty hours of the night, and a frustration only temporarily relieved in moments of primitive release. Like standing up and screaming in the bed of John Dawson’s moving truck at age 16, relishing the feeling of the unforgiving wind pushing his body against itself as he threw empty glass beer bottles behind him. Or putting his fumbling hand up Elizabeth Jessup’s skirt that same year at Jack Millburn’s homecoming party, watching her round eyes widen in confusion and barely waiting for the smallest nod of consent before sliding his sweaty palm up the inside of her pale thigh.

He stared off into the enveloping darkness, feeling choked by the weight of the overwhelming black air that cloaked and held him against its foreboding chest. He looked back down at the drying blood between his fingers and at the dead doe, collapsed against the cold earth. Her head was lolled back like an empty puppet, and her glazed, unblinking eyes stared up toward the mass of dark leaves on the thick branches. Jordan registered that his own eyes had finally adjusted to the darkness and wondered nervously what this moment would make of him as he inhaled what felt like his first real breath since they’d shot the gun.

Breathing, Jordan turned around and began to lazily search for rocks. He scanned the gravel of the forest even though the idea of bashing the doe’s head in made his stomach churn. He jogged to the spot where Billy stood perched over something, trying to pick it up, and it wasn’t until he caught up with him that Jordan recognized the acidic smell of urine running off a small stain on Billy’s puckered corduroy pants.

Emily Ray

Hometown: North Potomac

Age: 20

What she does: Rising senior at the University of Maryland studying English language and literature with a minor in creative writing, and working as an assistant drama teacher for Imagination Stage’s early childhood program.

How she got her start: “Always a voracious reader, I rediscovered my love for creative writing towards the end of my freshman year as an undergraduate. Encouraged by my workshop leader, I began to submit my work for publication.”

How she got the idea for the story: “I’ve always been interested in observing how gender roles and expectations manifest themselves in social interactions. In writing this story, I hoped to evaluate the ways in which young boys may feel pressured to behave when faced with a morally conflicting, fairly adult situation.””