Prime Number Magazine, Issue 113, Oct-Dec 2017
Guest Editor–Short Fiction
Issue 131, April – June 2018
Ray Morrison is the author of In a World of Small Truths (Press 53 2012) and is currently working on a new collection of short fiction. His fiction has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Ecotone, Aethlon, Carve Magazine, Word Riot, Night Train, and others. His stories also appear in a number of anthologies, including The Mix Tape: A Flash Fiction Anthology (Fast Forward Press). He won first prize in the Short Story category of the 2011 Press 53 Open Awards, judged by Chris Offutt, and he has twice won Honorable Mention in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition.
LAID TO REST
Carson stood outside the barn and stared down at the dead dog. The coonhound’s head tilted back in a wide pool of thick, clotted blood, and her red-slickened tongue drooped from a slack jaw. Carson’s eyes locked on the gaping slit that ran across the dog’s throat, following it from where it started underneath the exposed ear to the point it disappeared into the spongy mess below. He threw the bowl of kibble he held through the dark mouth of the barn, barely registering the clatter of the metal pan as it hit the dirt floor.
Behind Carson, the late summer sun was just cresting the ridge and the tall, dewy tobacco plants glimmered in the front field. He crossed the yard to the house. As he stepped up on the porch he smelled ham frying, which told him that Jessie was awake and in the kitchen.
He stood in the kitchen doorway watching his wife turn the thin slices of meat in the pan.
“You’re up early,” he said. “Is your back acting up again?”
“No, just had a bad dream,” Jessie replied. “Didn’t feel like staying in bed, is all.”
Carson rubbed away a sheen of sweat from the back of his neck. “Dixie is dead.”
Jessie turned and looked at him. He could tell she was gauging the truth of his statement.
“What’re you talking about?” She stepped back from the stove and turned fully toward her husband. “How? Can you tell what from?”
Carson nodded and looked down at his boots. A smear of Dixie’s blood stained the tip of one.
“Someone sliced open her throat.”
“Oh, my God. Who on earth would do something like that?”
He lifted his gaze and held her eyes. Neither spoke. The ham started to smoke and Jessie flipped the knob to shut off the gas, sliding the pan off the burner.
“I think we both have a pretty good idea who did it,” he said. “And I intend to do something about it.”
“You don’t know for sure. Don’t go off half-cocked and end up doing something stupid before you’ve got all the facts.”
“Who else would want my dog dead? You know yourself Sulley’s a crazy ol’ coot.”
Jessie’s lips tightened. “Well, I didn’t until last month.”
Carson nodded. He had never thought Sulley would have actually used the sledgehammer on them, that he only brought it to their house to intimidate them. Which he did well enough, especially Jessie. But now, after Dixie, Carson wondered if he’d been naïve.
“You should call the sheriff. Let him handle it,” Jessie said.
“You really think Jack Mabry is going to give a shit about a dead dog? I ain’t wasting my time.” Carson glanced again at his boot, at the trace of blood. “I’m going out to bury Dixie now.”
Carson turned and walked through to the front of the house. As he pushed open the screen door he heard the frying pan clatter in the kitchen sink.
When he reached the curing barn, the sky had brightened considerably, and the scene of his murdered dog was harsher in the clearer light. A sudden tightness seized inside Carson’s chest. He stepped around the dog’s body, giving a wide berth, and headed to the tool shed that sat behind the barn at the edge of the woods on the south side of his property. When he came out of the shed carrying a pickax and shovel, a jay squawked above him from a branch of a poplar tree. He paused to peer at the bird.
He picked out a spot beneath the large oak under which Dixie had spent most of her days sleeping. The ground was compact, but yielded easily enough when Carson swung the pickax hard into it. He roughed out the rectangular shape of the grave, pitching the blade into the soil over and over until the entire top layer was loosened. He paused to catch his breath and to mop his sweaty forehead with the hem of his t-shirt. He traded the pickax for the shovel and scooped the broken dirt into a pile at the base of the oak.
When he was up to his hips, Carson figured he’d gone deep enough. His shirt was soaked with perspiration and caked, along with his jeans, with red clay. Breathing hard, he gripped one side of the grave and hoisted himself out. As he brushed loose chunks of dirt off his clothing he noticed Jessie across the yard standing on the edge of the front porch watching him, her arms folded tightly across her chest. After a minute, she walked back into the house. Carson waited until his breathing slowed, rubbing at a burn that had settled into his right shoulder from the effort. When he’d got his wind back, he walked back to where Dixie’s flaccid body lay. A small cloud of flies buzzed around her head and neck while others lighted atop her smudged coat. He had to straddle the puddle of dark, maroon blood in order to lift Dixie’s head out of it. The hound’s head flopped awkwardly and Carson reached instinctively to catch it. When he did, his fingers slid into the gaping wound on her neck.
By the time Carson carried Dixie over and laid her in the grave, it was approaching noon. He yanked off his shirt and wiped a slime of blood from his wrists and forearms before picking up the shovel to fill the hole. He lifted a shovelful of dirt from the pile and hesitated only briefly before dropping the soil on top of the dog’s body. Just as Carson was patting down the last of the topsoil on the grave, Jessie came and stood at its near end and waited for him to finish. Neither of them said anything. Carson nodded once and walked over to collect the pickax from where it leaned against the oak’s trunk. Without glancing back, he carried the tools to the shed. The sun burned hot on his bare back. After stowing the implements, Carson latched the door to the shed and then stepped around it to let his eyes fall on a narrow path that cut through the woods, the path that led to the wire fence marking the south border of his farm and which separated his property from Clint Sulley’s.
When Carson stood on the front porch of his house the next morning he was surprised to see the thick mantle of fog that lay across the front field, so dense he couldn’t make out the silhouette of his Ford pickup in the drive just off to his left. The mist brushed his bare arms, cool and moist, raising goose bumps under the thick hair of his forearms. Carson hadn’t thought about the possibility it might be chilly that morning, distracted as he was by his plans. He considered going back inside to grab his jacket, but knew the sun would be rising soon and that it would almost certainly start burning off the fog before he’d even reached Sulley’s place.
Carson cracked open the barrel of his shotgun to verify both chambers had shells loaded even though he’d just checked it before coming outside. When he snapped it closed, the sound echoed dully in the humid, hazy air. He patted the back pocket of his jeans to make sure the flashlight was still there.
He lingered on the top step and looked toward the expanse of the front field, invisible in the gloomy fog. He’d planned that morning to begin the summer’s first cutting, and still harbored hope he could settle this thing with Sulley in time to make decent progress. At last, he stepped off the porch and toward the path, well-worn and familiar.
Carson clicked on the flashlight in order to navigate the path. He trained the beam of light along the ground so he wouldn’t trip over a root or an unexpected pit in the ground. Carson could hear small animals skittering in the leaf litter around him and the chatter of startled squirrels in the branches above. His nostrils filled with the heavy, damp smell of the dense vegetation.
Carson tried to focus on how he’d plan to approach Sulley, but a jumble of other thoughts distracted him. Try as he might, he couldn’t ignore the uneasy feeling he got remembering the argument he’d had with Jessie as he dressed that morning. In all of their twenty-two years together, Carson could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen his wife cry, and most of those had been shortly after the doctor had informed them she’d never be able to have children. So it was difficult for Carson to rid his mind of the image of her sitting on the edge of the bed, amid the rumpled sheets, yelling that he was about to make a huge mistake, that she feared Sulley, a tear sliding down her freckled cheek. It was the closest he’d come to abandoning his plan, but he told Jessie this wasn’t about a grudge by a sentimental man who’d lost his favorite dog, but about the bigger principle of protecting their property and not being intimidated by the likes of Clint Sulley.
Close by, a rooster crowed and its jagged yawp startled Carson. The sky was lightening and the path ahead began to appear like a developing photograph. Carson shut off the flashlight and shoved it back into his pocket. He switched the shotgun to his other hand, the metal warm and damp where he’d been gripping it.
Whether from the nebulous light or the distraction of his thoughts, Carson nearly ran into the welded wire fence separating his land from Sulley’s. Standing at the fence he felt his pulse hammering in his ears. Across a wide mown field he saw the dark silhouette of Sulley’s house, a light glowing dully from one upstairs window. Carson canvassed his neighbor’s property, his head arcing slowly from right to left. Back behind the house he could just make out the clapboard lean-to that housed the hutches which Sulley used for raising rabbits. Not long after that stretch where a dozen or so rabbits were found torn up, some with their heads missing, Clint Sulley had seen Dixie running in his field, so he’d fixed in his mind the idea that the coonhound was guilty of attacking the animals. One evening after suppertime, Sulley had come by Carson’s place to voice his accusation, armed with the sledgehammer.
A shadow moved across the shade of the lighted window. The profile was slight, reaching barely halfway up the window, so Carson assumed it was Marie, Clint’s wife. Although they’d lived side-by-side for more than twenty years, the two families never became friends. In the early years, Jessie would stop by with a banana loaf or pecan pie she’d made, but the Sulleys made no effort to reciprocate, not inviting the Carsons into the house even once, and after a while Jessie quit trying. Clint and Marie Sulley had, in fact, been rarely seen off their place in the past five or six years, ever since their only child, a daughter, had run off at seventeen to marry a boy over in Stoneville.
Carson reached across the chest-high fence and propped the shotgun against the opposite side while he hoisted himself up. The fence wire swayed wildly when he lifted his weight onto it, and Carson thought he was going to flip over but he managed to hang on until he could get both legs across and hop to the ground. His right knee throbbed from the jump, a painful reminder to Carson that he was no longer a young man. He retrieved the shotgun, and marched across the dewy grass toward the house.
The rickety front porch boards moaned under Carson’s weight. He pulled open the flimsy screen door and knocked. Soon he could hear the sound of heavy footsteps thumping down a staircase not far beyond the foyer. When the door opened, Clint Sulley stood nearly filling its frame. Sulley had been an all-county linebacker in high school, and although in twenty years he had softened around the middle, he was still imposing. He stood a full head taller than Carson, with massive shoulders that had undoubtedly intimidated many a quarterback back in the day. Sulley’s face was covered with an ample beard, thick like fur, which extended down his neck and disappeared beyond the collar of his undershirt. The only things that were small about Clint Sulley were his eyes. They were dark, like a rodent’s, and they looked down at Carson with obvious surprise.
“What is it?” Sulley asked.
Carson noticed the big man’s eyes had locked on the shotgun dangling from his hand. Carson lifted the weapon, grasping the barrel with his left hand, angling it across his body.
“I reckon you know why I’m here, Clint,” Carson said.
“Well, you’d be reckonin’ wrong then. Why don’t you tell me.”
“It’s about Dixie, my dog, and what you done to her yesterday.”
“Your dog?” Sulley scratched at the whiskers on his cheek. “And what exactly is it I supposedly done to her?”
“You know damned well you snuck onto my property and sliced her throat. All because you got it in your head she killed those rabbits of yours.”
The two men eyed each other and Carson tried to read Sulley’s face, but the heavy beard made it impossible.
“I’d rather not get the law involved,” Carson added. “I just want to know what compensation you are willing to make. We had that dog a long time and she was pretty special to both me and Jessie.” Carson flexed his fingers to stop from gripping the shotgun so tight. “Like I told you, Dixie had nothing to do with killing your rabbits.”
Before Sulley could respond, Marie’s voice hollered from inside the house asking who was at the door.
“It’s Mr. Carson, from across the way,” Sulley called back, his eyes shifting to meet Carson’s.
“What’s he want?” Marie answered.
“Says someone killed his dog. He thinks I done it.”
There was a long pause then and Carson thought the woman had not heard her husband.
“Oh, no,” Marie said finally, her voice so quiet now that Carson almost didn’t hear it.
“Please leave now,” Sulley said. “You’re trespassing. And from the looks at that gun, you’re threatening me, too. Way I figure it, I’m within my rights to defend myself.” The big man crossed his arms across his wide chest.
“I ain’t leaving until we settle this thing fair and square. I’m not looking for trouble, Sulley. But what you did was crossing the line in my book.”
Just then, sounds of a commotion came from inside the house and when Sulley turned to check what was going on, Carson could see Marie halfway down the stairs struggling to hold back a young boy who was clearly attempting to get down to the main floor. Even at a distance, with a limited view, Carson could tell something was not right with the child.
“Get back to bed, Robby, please,” Marie pleaded. “Mommy will make you French toast if you do.”
The boy was too strong for Marie to constrain. He broke past her to run down the stairs, over to where Sulley and Carson stood. Sulley bent and grabbed the boy’s arm to catch and restrain him. Up close, Carson could see that the boy, whom he guessed was no more than nine or ten years old, had several physical deformities. The back of the boy’s skull bulged, as big as a melon, and one eye, twice as large as the other, stared up at him dully. The boy’s lower jaw hung open, his tongue protruding lazily from his mouth.
Sulley spoke softly to the boy in a voice that belied his massiveness. “Robby, be good and listen to your mother now and go on upstairs.”
Robby rocked against his father’s grip and seemed not to hear the command. After almost a full minute where no one spoke, the boy stopped rocking and stood still, his chin dropping against his small chest.
“I didn’t realize you had a son, Sulley,” Carson said, breaking the silence.
“Ain’t no one’s business that we do,” Sulley said. “And we’d like to keep it that way.” He loosened his hold of the boy’s arm and then wrapped his arm around Robby’s shoulders, pressing the child against him.
Suddenly, Robby jerked away from his father and began to swing his arms rapidly, his closed fists pinwheeling punches into Sulley’s chest and gut. When Sulley stepped back to move away from the attack, Robby ran to him and began to bite his father’s arm with sharp, crooked teeth. Sulley winced, but made no sound. He reached down, struggling to pull the boy off him. From the stairs, Marie cried out.
Outside, Carson leaned the shotgun against the house beside the door and hurried in to help. He grabbed Robby’s waist and tugged him away, surprised at the strength in the boy’s wiry frame.
Blood trickled from an arc of puncture wounds on Sulley’s arm, but the big man didn’t seem to notice his injury as he came over to where Carson struggled with the flailing child. Robby had begun screaming, a high-pitched, bestial howl that unnerved Carson. Sulley grasped both of Robby’s arms and pulled him fully against his body, encircling his enormous arms around the boy and pressing him tight there until, several long minutes later, the boy had calmed down and quit struggling.
During the time that her husband soothed their son, Marie made her way downstairs and stood next to Carson. Her skin was pale and pasty, and she appeared to have lost a good deal of weight since Carson had seen her last. Up close, Carson could see the white edge of a large bandage on her neck, poking from the collar of her housedress. There were rows of red scratches on one forearm. She clasped her bony hands, rubbing each in turn restlessly, and looked up at Carson.
“He’s getting worse,” she said. “More violent, I mean. And awhile back he took to wandering, so now we try to keep him confined. Sometimes he escapes, though. The doctors don’t know what to do. Lord knows he’s takin’ enough medicines to choke a mule.”
Sulley gave her a sharp look, but then looked away.
“I’m so sorry,” Carson said. “I’m sure they’re doing all they can for him.”
“I suppose,” Marie replied, nodding. “They keep wanting us to put him in a special hospital. An assisted-care facility is what they call it.”
Carson saw Sulley glare at his wife and shake his head. All the while he stroked Robby’s hair until the boy’s eyes closed, his arms going limp at his sides.
“Now, Clint, you know yourself Robby’s getting to where we can’t care for him proper anymore,” Marie said. “We have to lock him in his room at night so he don’t hurt himself.”
“That’s enough, Marie,” Sulley said.
Marie ignored her husband and looked up at Carson, who could see that her lip had begun to quaver.
“Or hurt anyone else, either. It took us awhile, Mr. Carson, but we figured out it was Robby here who’d killed Clint’s rabbits. Even chopped off some of their heads and hid them in his room. I only found out when I smelled ’em one day about a week later.”
There was a long silence as Carson looked in turn from Marie to Clint and, last, to Robby, whose breaths had become so slow and deep that Carson figured the boy had fallen asleep standing against his father.
“We know what we got to do,” Marie said, breaking the silence. “Don’t we, honey?” She looked then at her husband, who continued to stare at the top of his son’s head. “It’s doing it that’s the hard part.”
Clint Sulley scooped his son into his arms and Robby dangled limp, like a rag doll, reminding Carson uneasily of Dixie when he’d carried her to her grave.
“I’m putting him back in bed now,” Sulley said. “I didn’t kill your dog, Carson. If you want, though, we can talk later. About compensation, I mean.”
Carson met Sulley’s eyes and he struggled to find words, but none came. Marie began to cry softly, covering her face with her hands. Finally, Carson shook his head.
Carson walked out of the house, collected his shotgun and headed across the yard toward the fence and the path through his woods. The fog had mostly cleared and the sun peeked above Clint Sulley’s barn to his right. Already he could feel its warmth on his bare arms, promising a hot day ahead.
When he emerged from the woods back at his own farm, Carson headed straight to the house, glancing once at the slight mound of loose dirt near the oak tree. The leaves of the tobacco plants in the front field, still damp from the morning’s heavy mist, gleamed like a thousand emerald arms, each waiting for an embrace. Carson found Jessie sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, the first one he’d seen her smoke in years.
“It’s settled,” he said.
Jessie paused, the cigarette halfway to her lips. He saw her eyes scan him up and down, checking for damage. She was in her nightgown, her hair still uncombed and tangled from bed. When she looked at him, with fear and worry plain on her face, he was able to glimpse for the first time the old woman she would one day become.
“And?” she asked. Her lips tightened.
“Sulley didn’t kill Dixie. I’m sure of it. You were right.”
“So, now what?”
Carson pursed his lips and studied his boots for several long seconds before meeting his wife’s eyes.
“We’ll probably never find out who killed her, I suppose.”
“Dixie was as fine a dog as ever lived,” Jessie said. “It’s not fair, honey.”
“I know. But who said life’s fair?”
Jessie stubbed out the cigarette on a saucer and stood.
“You want me to cook you some eggs?” she asked. “You haven’t had breakfast.”
“Sure. That’d be good. Then I need to get to cutting the front field.”
Jessie walked over and put her arms around Carson and kissed him lightly on the lips. She went to the refrigerator to get the eggs and butter. As she started cooking his breakfast, Carson walked back outside and sat on the top step of the front porch. He thought about the unexpected events of the morning and of the chores waiting for him. He noticed the shotgun still leaning against the railing where he’d left it on the way in the house. He stood and took up the gun, staring at it for a long time. At last, he cracked it open and removed the shells. He lay the shotgun back against the rail and walked down off the porch. Without hesitating, Carson cocked his arm and threw the shells as far as he could, watching them arc across the cloudless, crystal blue sky until they fell lost among the waiting tobacco plants.