This is the 18th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “R“.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the first of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “R” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — Gary Broxson
(3,927 words – approx. reading time: about 15 minutes based on 265 WPM)
I wasn’t the best of kids, but I wasn’t the worst of kids—that would be Warren Gillman. He stabbed me with a Ticonderoga fatboy pencil in second grade and I’ve still got the gray dot on my thumb 15 years later. That sombitch ended up eating the gun when life didn’t bend to his aggressive behavior (Jeeze, this is no way to write an introduction paragraph).
Damn, I get so easily side-tracked (might be my ADHD or my PTSD or my ABCD-FU). Look back at my grabber sentence though. See what I did there with my first line? I Googled the greatest Grabbers in literature and I sampled this one by a dude named Dickens—Never heard of him. Good thing this is just my rough draft. I’ll clean it up before I turn it in to that battle axe, Professor Sparrow. Maybe I should re-check that first line; is that plagiarism, allusion, or just good old fashion para-fuck’n-phrasing?
Back to the ‘theme’ of this virtual essay assigned by that old queen Sparrow, my online instructor: Write about a key time or event in your youth that you believe was a pivotal turning point in your life, something that affected you enough to help make you the person you are today.
I know I should have jumped right into this ‘triggering’ project with a pick-your-switch ass-whipping from my semi-abusive, almost alcoholic Old Man or re-imagine a Scout Master’s overt attentions in a pup tent, or even tear up over a really rough ear-thumping experience on school bus number 28, but none of those came immediately to mind. As I sit here in Camp Anaconda, Balad Air Force Base, Iraq, I think a little deeper, beyond the trivial tripe we often declare as life-changing. Without a doubt, the pivotal turning point in my life was my time deer hunting with my sister and my Old Man and the big, bad Brantley clan. Those were truly formative years for me; some might say deformative.
In my mind, those early days pinging pellets and BBs at furred and feathered critters with my Crossman pump air rifle subtly but inexorably marched me toward my new now, my current day job. This is the one that pays the bills as I notch up the kills. Here in the Army, in Iraq, I sleep with my iron lady and life-partner, Windsucker, a .50 Cal sniper rifle with a Leopold scope that I liked to call The Eye of God.
In country, it boils down to this: shooting is shooting, killing is killing. Whether it’s a bird, squirrel, deer, or the Four of Diamonds in George Bush’s deck of Desert Storm cards, it’s still lead poisoning with prejudice. Paradoxically, my days in the smelly swamps of northwest Florida somehow, someway, prepared me for the dusty-dry deserts of Iraq.
But those Panhandle days of my youth are behind me now, because there was Meredith, my crazy kid sister. She gave me a unique perspective on things; she grounded me. A boy sees life through a self-centric lens, like a sniper peering through a scope. Without a female viewpoint: a mother, a sister, a girlfriend, we become boxed into our limited, testosterone-induced ideology. The saying goes: everything is a nail to a hammer. My mother and father encouraged my male dominance, but my baby sister Meredith kept me in check as my alter-ego. She was the proverbial angel on my shoulder, whispering naïve words of wisdom and reminding me that I was all too often a lumbering jackass.
Uhg. I just re-read this rough draft and I realize I’m not nearly as focused as dirty-bird Sparrow instructed. He expects exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution, like a 20-minute sitcom of Gilligan’s Island. I’ll take my meds and get back to the story tomorrow. It’s not so much about me, me, me, as it is about old Rambler.
Today is Tomorrow: Okay, I’m actually medicated now and relatively calm this time (the army prescribes Motrin for everything from sunburn to a bullet hole). The army also has some super good getcha-by meds that take the edge off and improve my focus; something a sniper (and a writer) really needs.
Back to the real story; back to Rambler. Rambler was my Grampa’s old deer dog. The best hunting dog that ever tracked a trail, raced a rabbit, or treed a coon. She could sniff out a day-old, rained-out deer track and have that buck up and running just as the sun came up, when it was legal to hunt.
Her mom was, of course, a bitch. That would be Tina (I know; a weird name for a hound dog); she had once, unfortunately, stumbled into a bear trap and was forced to gnaw off her forepaw. She survived and became a happy animal, too happy. She loved to greet us grandkids by jumping onto us with that raw, pink stub poking into our frightened faces. After that chewing-off-the-paw incident, Grampa could not ‘bear’ to put her down; so he bred her. My uncle Haymaker had a black and tan stud named Poncho and they whipped up a batch of pups that would grow up alongside me in my formative years.
There were a couple of identical male pups that Uncle Haymaker scooped up and drunkenly dubbed Bud and Weiser. But my Grampa kept the girl, the runt; he would call her Rambler. Even as a blind pup, she rooted and inched her way around the outdoor dog box, sniffing and following scents all over the pine straw pen. With a little training, Grampa told his posse, she would be the best half-breed hound in the county.
Hunting back then wasn’t really hunting; it was more of a social event that sometimes ended in a deadly deer drive-by. Dad took Meredith and me out to Eglin Forest every November to experience the thrill of the hunt, yes, but more so, the trivial traditions of the hunt. To parody the point that my Old Man didn’t take it seriously, we three squeezed into Dad’s rusty red Volkswagen Bug, the worst hunting vehicle since archers on Shetland ponies. Although my father thumbed his nose at the tradition, the core Brantley brethren took this season seriously. They motored up in jacked-up Fords and suped-up Chevys, and they all had heavy artillery hanging in their gun racks.
Yes, we got up ugly-early, because that’s a hunting thang. We blindly dressed in plaid shirts, orange vests, and wore ear-muff hats, even in Florida because cold is cold. Other than an occasional deer chase interruption, lunch was often the biggest event of the hunt. Because we had gotten up way too early, chowtime usually began around 10:30, the traditional Brantley Brunch. We all had CB radios back then, and when we heard the code 10-22; Report in Person, we stopped everything. This was our rally cry to an early lunch.
The popping and peeling lids of a Vienna Sausage can or the strenuous metallic twist and roll of a sardine tin were sounds of modern cavemen feeding. These were cherished gourmet meals for the likes of Meredith and me. We slurped up the jellied juice of the sausages and half-gagged on the tiny spines of the sardines. But throw in a few Ritz Crackers and some spicy mustard, and we were in primordial paradise: fat, dumb and happy with a glisten on our chins.
These Brantley gatherings were dual purpose. The food was memorable, but the meetings for collective strategy were intense. The oldsters had arrived in the forest at or near O-dark thirty and had located several deer tracks on the virgin red-road dirt. They judged antler size by measuring random hoof prints with their thumbs, much like randy women judging a man’s manliness by his shoe size. Some things are just beyond calculations. You hear that, Professor Sparrow? You can’t judge this story by its title. If that were the case, I would have named it Rainbow or YMCA just for you (Meredith, please remind me to take that out!)
It was at one of these boring Brantley bruncheons that Meredith and I slipped away for some target practice with my new Crossman air rifle. She would throw up a tin can when I said pull, and I would attempt to shoot it on the fly. I usually hit it 8 out of 10 times—a sniper in training. She wanted to shoot but I rarely allowed it. Although Meredith was a bit of a Tom Girl, girls were supposed to be girls back in those days. Sorry for my ignorance Mer’.
Meredith finally refused to toss the tin any more unless I gave her a shot. As we debated the issue, we looked up together and saw a wondrous thing. Just a hundred yards away from the deadliest hunters in Santa Rosa County, stood a twelve-point buck, staring at us as we stared at it.
I was only 13, so I couldn’t hunt with a real gun, but I did what any hunter would do in my circumstances—I took aim. A Crossman air rifle is hell on birds, squirrels, and even a rabbit slayer, but this buck was 180 pounds on the hoof. Bigger than me.
The deer was majestic, honey brown fur, bright white accenting trim and a remarkable rack of antlers that could grace a fireplace for decades. I leveled my iron sights between the unblinking eyes. I took a deep breath (not a good technique; good snipers squeeze off in the subtle pause between shallow breaths). I flinched a hair and the BB went high. I heard a tick sound, and realized that I had hit an antler. The big buck only looked at me even more intensely, perhaps wondering what the hell I was doing. I slowly pumped the Crossman up, 1, 2, 3 (enough to kill a finch), 4, 5, 6 (that might drop a yapping Blue Jay), 8, 9 (now the squirrels should take shelter) and 10 (maybe kill a fat rabbit at close range); I pumped it 18 times.
I leveled my sights lower and squeezed again. There was a flurry of motion this time. The huge deer snorted and instantly spun on its hooves, knocking down branches and disappearing into the dense flora, its tail a white flag of surrender. I’ll never forget the popping sound I heard as I pulled the trigger. It had to be the eye. I had scored a bulls-eye on a bull buck.
We told the Brantley oldsters about our encounter with the big buck and the shots I had taken with my BB gun. There was much laughter, even guffawing, if that is still really a word. But I was a Brantley, although young and dumb, and that gave me a tiny bit of credibility, even as the elders gazed across the meadow where we had gathered for lunch to where my father and uncle were sipping something cool from a thermos while reclining on the hood of Dad’s 1968 Volkswagen.
Our outlandish story was confirmed the following month. A spotter from the Brantley clan had been out beating the bushes dawn and had rousted up a family of deer. As a beautiful doe and two autumn fawns sped away, the big buck stayed behind, a centurion, ready to defend. He sported a 12 point rack and a dead, dull-gray eye, still red-rimmed from my BB assault. Make that 11 points. There was a bony tip that had been obviously chipped from the otherwise perfectly matching pair of antlers.
Did I mention that Dad’s ’68 VW was the worst hunting vehicle since terrorists on tricycles, or something like that? And did I tell you that we blasted a hole through the floorboard? This was an incident my father pinky-swore us to secrecy on. How could he tell his hunting buddies and kin, or Mom, that he ‘accidentally’ discharged his 12 gauge shotgun into the floorboard of his Bug with his two kids in the car?
But it truly was an accident. Dad was driving that old standard shift; Meredith was in the cramped back seat, and I was riding shotgun (the perfect pun intended). Dad’s old double-barrel Remington was wedged between the seats, the business end toward the floor, between my canvass Keds. We heard on the CB that the hounds were running a big one toward Boiling Creek, and Dad knew a short cut.
That old timber trail was studded with pine roots and we felt like we were on agitation mode in the clothes washer. It happened so fast, but I’m pretty sure Dad reached across to downshift and snagged one of the triggers. Now, I have been lucky enough to avoid IEDs here in Iraq, but I’ve heard descriptions from several who have survived those explosions. That’s exactly what it felt like for us.
But we never slowed down. Dad rolled down the window on his side to let the smoke out. I followed suit. He said something to me but my ears were ringing too loud to hear the words. But I noticed that he was smiling, grinning madly, as we bumped along the trail. When my hearing came back, I heard what he heard, Rambler baying. Just as we pulled off to a small clearing on the roadside, we heard another blast. This one was outside the car.
Dad had found the perfect spot to intersect with the racing deer and the chasing hound, but Uncle Haymaker had gotten there first in his big F-150. Haymaker stepped out from the tree line and hollered at my dad. “Get yer ass out here and help me field-dress this deer.” Dad said a few expletives of his own and pounded on the steering wheel, but got out and disappeared into the woods.
Twenty minutes later, they dragged the gutted deer out onto the trail and hoisted it onto the hood of Uncle Haymaker’s Ford. They synched it down tightly by the hooves and horns, and we made our way back out of the thicket onto the main dirt road. I didn’t look at Dad as he drove; I looked down at the fist-size hole between my feet and the roots passing below us.
Two seasons later, things were different. I had my learner’s permit and Dad’s old double-barrel shotgun, a right of passage. He had also allowed me to drive his VW into the woods; Meredith now rode shotgun. Dad had hitched a ride with his brother, my favorite Uncle Preacher, the chain-smoker, and was supposedly keeping an eye on us while sipping shine from a thermos.
Now at 12-years old, I don’t think Meredith was really thrilled about the hunting aspect of our Saturday expeditions; I think she merely enjoyed our family time together. I was so busy with girls, sports, school, and friends, that we rarely had quality time anymore.
I’ll never forget that day. It was a chilly November morning, the weekend before Thanksgiving. We had finished an early lunch with the Brantley clan when my cousin T.J. drove up to say he had spotted some fresh tracks down by Wiley’s Bog. Grampa nodded to Uncle Haymaker and they followed cousin T.J. to the Bogs. Bud, Weiser, and Rambler were released from their pens and they set out immediately onto the hot trail. The rest of us waited, listened for the dogs, and monitored our CBs.
Only ten minutes later the sharp barking of the pack turned into baying—they had jumped a buck. The CB crackled, “Looks like they are headed towards Brantley Branch,” Grampa announced. It was a place he knew well, his father had lived and died there a long time ago. Brantleys sloshed out steaming coffee from silver thermos cups and jumped into their trucks. The race was on.
Meredith and I followed the cloud of dust as best we could, my windshield wipers fanning back and forth. She stuck her head out the window to make sure we didn’t run off the road. “Sounds like they’ve split up,” Uncle Haymaker’s voice came through the CB. Sure enough, Bud and Weiser were heading east and Rambler was heading west. “My pups are headed for Johnson’s Bluff. Follow me,” Haymaker commanded.
As the main convoy turned east, Meredith and I headed west in Dad’s old VW. We couldn’t possibly keep up and there was an old meadow just off the trail that we knew well. As kids, we would lay face-up, very still in the knee-high grass and pretend to be dead. Circling buzzards would get lower and lower and lower, attempting to verify our health status. When they started making kite-size shadows over us, I would ever-so-slowly raise my BB gun and try to shoot one of the hideous birds out of the sky.
I actually killed one once using this tactic. I immediately cut off its foot. I took it to school the next Monday and showed it to my friends. If you pulled on the exposed tendon, you could make the claws contract and grab things like fingers or pencils. It was great fun until I clamped it into Annie Franklin’s hair, the girl that sat in front of me. I know I said that Warren Gillman was the ‘worst’ kid, but that day poor Annie was convinced it was me.
Sorry, I’m rambling again. Stick to the meat and potatoes, Sparrow says. I had heard he loved the meat, not sure about his predilection for potatoes. Don’t serve side dishes before the main course, he instructed. Meredith, please clean this up as best you can. You know it’s hard for me to edit; I love everything I write. Back to the hunt.
I turned off the CB and Meredith and I caught up on school, friends, futures, and general gossip. I remember telling her that day that I had decided to join the army as soon as I graduated high school. She told me that a boy at school had asked her to the eighth-grade MORP, kind of a backassward PROM, she explained. We were chatting away when she suddenly stopped. “Did you hear that?” I listened and sure enough, old Rambler was heading our way.
We walked to the edge of the clearing and peered into the thicket. I found an old firebreak that I used to inch my way deeper into the woods, Meredith at my elbow. Rambler was getting louder and her pitch had changed, we could feel the excitement she must have felt. I hinged the shotgun up until it snapped shut. Loaded and deadly. That’s when Meredith touched me on the shoulder. I looked and she pointed to a big oak. Under it stood a doe and a speckled fawn. This brilliant buck had doubled-back, fooling Bud and Weiser; he was coming home.
We heard crashing in the woods as the deer and the dog fought their way through the brush, both running for their life. I raised my shotgun, pointing down the alleyway created by the firebreak. They would have to pass through this point. “Don’t do it,” Meredith breathed, barely audible. “Please, don’t.”
I looked at the twitching ears of the young fawn, then back at my line of fire. I clicked off the safety and waited. The huge buck burst out from the brush, pausing in the firebreak trail for an instant when he caught sight of the doe and fawn. Instantly I knew it was old Buckeye from the near-perfect antlers and the glazed eye. I aimed center mass and squeezed both triggers simultaneously; that’s what killers do. That’s when Meredith hit me.
Just like when we were kids giving Cootie shots, Meredith knuckled up and punched me on my shoulder. “Don’t!” she screamed. “They still need him!” Fire shot out from both barrels. My gun swung right with the blow. In that instant, Rambler caught up to the buck and my buckshot caught up with Rambler. There was a sharp yelp, then silence. The deer looked down at the dead dog, nudged the noble hound with his antlers, and then walked majestically over to the big oak. The family joined him and they trotted away into the woods.
“Jesus, Meredith. Why did you do that?” Before she could answer, trucks started roaring into the meadow. Grampa and Uncle Haymaker were the first to arrive on the scene. Grampa went out picked up Rambler and carried her back to his truck. Brantley men never cry but I swear I thought I saw a shine in Grampa’s eye.
Uncle Haymaker charged me; he snatched the old shotgun out of my hand and threw it aside. Meredith stepped between us as he raised his meaty hand to me. I shoved her aside and took the blow, a good one to my jaw. But not quite the haymaker punch of legend.
That’s when Uncle Haymaker buckled up and went down hard, face first , with vengeance. There behind him stood my Old Man. He was holding a broken tree limb and he was grinning again. That’s when the rest of the Brantley bunch circled us and started moving in. Dad bunched us together and swung the remaining club like a torch for warding off vampires. It was about to get ugly.
Blam! Everyone froze. We all looked at Grampa. He held his smoking shotgun up high, like a solitary finger to God and the universe. “Good, Bad, or Stupid, Kin is kin. Leave ‘em be,” is all he said. He crunched another shell, climbed up into his truck and drove away with Rambler in the bed. A couple of cousins combined to drag Uncle Haymaker back to their truck. One of them looked right at me and winked.
For the first and only time in our family history, Dad, Meredith and I hugged each other for real in that meadow. Meredith was crying, Dad was laughing, and I was dumb-struck speechless. And that, Professor Sparrow, was the definable moment in my youth that made me realize that family is the most important thing in this big, shitty, rotten world.
And when I signed up with my Uncle Sam, I became a part of an even bigger family, but not a better one. As flawed as my families are, both of them, I will always be ready to stand, fight, or die for either of them. And that has made me the super duper paratrooper I am today (is it okay to put a smiley face emoji with a gunshot wound between the eyes here? I’m asking you, Meredith, not Sparrow).
Okay, Sis, you promised to edit my stuff before I submit it to class. I hope this little time-travel tale makes you smile. I loved going back down that twisted, rutted trail with you. Let’s get together when I get back stateside.
Got to go. Got a late date tonight with Windsucker and the Four of Diamonds. If I told you any more about it, I’d have to kill you—too.
Meredith reread the story, their story, for the third time, and then she closed her laptop. She dabbed at her mascara and stood up straight, smoothing her black dress. A flag-draped coffin was arriving early today from Baghdad into Pensacola. Huge pickup trucks and a singular VW Bug were already lined up for miles on Highway 90, flags waving, horns blaring. The entire Brantley family and more were there to say goodbye to Rambler 6, the call-sign for Captain David Glen Brantley, KIA.
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