This short story was first published in 2007, in 303 Magazine.
©2007 Keith Martin‐Smith
3 minute read
The Mississippi sun was still low on the horizon, yet the coolness of the night had long passed. Elderly trees lined the street in stoic columns, their leaves sagging in the oppressive stillness of the morning. Everything everywhere was dry from the long summer drought, and seemed weary of the heat.
The young man walked with a confident swagger that belied his age, his right hand wrapped around the weapon. Soon they would meet, but this time he was armed, this time it would be different. With his chest pushed out and chin held high the boy walked on without fear, feeling easily three times his age.
For days he had told himself that violence wasn’t the answer, that there might be a solution short of murder. Compromise, though, proved impossible, and there was no reasoning with his enemy. The last straw had been two days before, when his opponent had attacked him again, this time in front on his friends and his girlfriend. Everyone had laughed. The young man’s ears still stung when he thought of it, and he had resolved to make sure it would never happen again.
He made the left turn by the Lenderfield’s old barn, which had nearly fallen in on itself after a big thunderstorm some weeks before. Mr. Lenderfield was too old too fix it himself and too poor to hire any hands, and the barn seemed sadly aware of its fate. A lone cow stood near the crumbling rear wall, chewing cud and watching with a disinterested gaze as the young man sauntered past. A breeze emerged from behind the Halver’s shrubs and moved into the street, disturbing the packed dirt of Richard’s Lane. It tousled the boy’s wet hair and made dust cling to his arms and the nape of his neck.
Up ahead was a white post, marking the intersection of Richard’s Lane and Derrick Court Road. There he would turn right, and shortly up that road his rival lay waiting, ready to run out and attack like the simple-minded fool he was. It had been the same everyday since the start of school, almost three weeks running. The boy had tried to fight back, but he wasn’t good with his hands and was awkward on his feet. His pants, three inches too short for his body, attested to the growth spurt that had left him far taller and thinner than he’s been just a few months before, making him an easy target for someone so short.
The young man narrowed his eyes, mimicking the tough look he’d seen on his older brother’s face after a long day in the fields. Today it would end, for he would not be relying on merely his body but on his mind, and the weapon. He knew there must be no witnesses to his retribution, for even at his young age he knew that to kill in public would be to open oneself up to public retributions. He had no fear of the sheriff, or of prison, or even of defeat, but did fear the back of his mother’s hand and the crack of his father’s belt. Therefore he had to kill in anonymity, and hope his friends would believe him when he whispered what he had done.
The signpost was now directly in front. The boy looked about, eyes scanning the surrounding farms, confirming that he was alone and his plan secure. His heart beat faster as his palms grew slippery, the sweat making it hard for him to keep his grip. The street here was heavily shaded, lined with ancient oaks and sycamores that stood as high and wide as anything the boy had ever seen. They had brought in pictures of the new Empire State building to his classroom, but he doubted it was as tall as the biggest trees of Derrick Court Road.
The breeze died as quickly as it had begun, stifled by the swelling heat of the morning. The young man reached around and peeled his shirt off the small of his back where it had stuck. He walked a few more steps, turning the weapon over in his hand, feeling its weight tug on his arm. The smell of fresh-cut grass, probably from the Macalester’s farm, came across the lane. He took a deep breath, telling himself he was ready.
He moved down the middle of the street, exposed on all sides, resisting the urge to dash through the gutters as fast as his legs would take him. He knew, from hard-earned experience, that running didn’t work, and that displaying fear only encouraged the bully to attack him even more viciously.
The young man’s head cocked from one side to the other, listening. Somewhere a cricket, oblivious to the passing of the night, chirped busily to itself. There was the rumble of a wagon over a far hill on the Macalester’s land and a few birds twittered in the bushes, but otherwise the morning was quiet.
The young man stopped. The trees on either side of the road stood immobile, their arms drooping in the heat. The ancient fieldstone walls on either side of the lane, the height of a man’s waist, offered up no sounds of movement, no indication that anyone or anything crouched behind them. Maybe there would be no fight. Maybe his opponent was a coward. This was, after all, the first time he welcomed the fight instead of avoiding it, and perhaps his confidence was the only weapon he had ever needed.
He heard something scrambling onto the road behind him and turned so quickly on his thin legs that he nearly fell over. With a scream his opponent appeared from under a thick scrub of a rose thorn, and was now dashing towards him, only two-dozen feet away. The boy stepped back with his right foot, eyeing the narrowing distance between them. He hardly had time to take aim, and knew he would get but one shot.
He raised the weapon, something it had taken him almost twenty minutes to find. It was a smooth black rock, perfectly sized to fit the palm of his hand. With his expert throw, it could be as deadly as any bullet, and he had brought down many raccoons, squirrels, and possum in the last few months alone. He choked down a whimper of panic, refusing to give the rushing, kicking madman the satisfaction of hearing it.
Its ugliness repulsed him. Standing just over two feet tall, it had a huge, red flap of skin that dangled obscenely from its neck. Tufts of dirt flew up behind as its claws dug into the earth, and he could see the spurs, shaped like scythes and twice as sharp, even from twenty feet away. The young man thought of the exposed white socks that stuck out from beneath his pants, and wished he had put on his father’s denims, even though he knew in his heart he couldn’t go to school in old, battered grownup clothes.
He dropped his lunch bag at his feet where it raised a small cloud of dust, then cocked his right hand behind his head, squeezing his left eye shut as the right took aim. His right arm rocketed forward in a flash, losing the stone halfway through its swing. It whistled through the air, turning over as it sped away from him.
The young man’s right arm stayed by his left waist where the follow-through had left it; his left eye was still pinched shut. The rock closed to within an inch of the bird’s head, ready to knock its brains out. The rooster was finished, dead, until at the very last instant it bobbed to the left and the stone passed harmlessly. It drove into the ground, skidded, and rolled gently into the gutter.
The young man’s closed left eye popped open along with his mouth, and the whimper that had been waiting below his vocal cords jumped free. He turned to run, but the rooster grabbed a hold of his scabbed left leg and scratched, kicked, and pecked into the shin. He fell, screaming in pain, trying to get his hands around the bird’s neck to wring the life from it. It drove beak and burr into the naked flesh of his hands and legs. The boy struggled and kicked, flailed and shouted, but still the bird held on.
It paused and looked up: the school bus had turned the corner, and was rumbling up the block. The boy, sensing his chance, lunged, but the bird easily jumped out of harm’s way. The young man dove with outstretched hands, but the bird simply fluttered a few more feet away. Struggling to his feet, the boy tried to wipe the blood from his legs and hands and get the dirt off his face, but it was too late. He could hear the laughter already and, turning, saw his some of his classmates’ heads sticking out the open windows. Some pointed and all laughed, even Mrs. Evans, the driver.
The rooster and the man looked at one another, the victor and the vanquished. The bird contemptuously scratched some dirt onto the young man’s shoes, and then strutted off towards its own yard.
He watched it go, and reached down to retrieve his lunch.