This is the 19th 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 “S“.
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 “S” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — Perry Broxson
(3,692 words – approx. reading time: about 14 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Sam was a mutt: half mixed, half mystery, half blind, but wholly devoted to its owner, Esther Caring. Esther received the pup on her 16th birthday. It had been her only wish. She’d hectored her parents, Rachel and John Caring, relentlessly for the pet, and was thrilled when she was handed a portable kennel with a blue bow atop.
She reached into the kennel and pulled out the wriggling runt. She pressed it to her cheek and cried. “Sam. I’ll name you Sam . . . after my older brother.”
Her parents joined her in the waterworks, because it was their mentally ill son, Sam, which had been killed that very summer on a motorcycle, howling at the moon as he careened into a canyon.
A natural nurturer, Esther quickly ministered to the homely hound, feeding it with an eyedropper, grooming its coarse curly fur, attending to its every need, real and perceived.
After two weeks, her father noticed the pup’s stunted development. “Sam ain’t seein’ out of the right eye. It’s fogged over with cataract. And I ain’t heard so much as a yip out of it. Could be its chords are paralyzed . . . maybe a tumor. Tell ya what, Esther, before you get too attached, let’s me and you go down to the Humane Society and get you another” –
“No!” she screamed. “I love Sam and he loves me!” She cradled the dog to her heart and would have fought her father had he reached.
“It’s okay,” her mother said. “Sam . . . our Sam . . . was not perfect either. He medicated with booze and took crazy risks on that motorcycle. But he was the best son we could ever have. Let her keep him, John.”
It was settled. Esther and Sam were inseparable for the next 5 years. Now 21, Esther attended Jr. College and worked part time at the Kum-and-Go convenient story. It was there that she met a man. He was older and to her mind, more mysterious than the silly suitors she’d eschewed. His name was Galen . . . Galen Gatlin. He was a stranger in Fowler County, an unknown quantity. He was tall and shambolic, muscled but not bulky, and his hair was so black it looked as if it were inked by a cartoonist.
“Good day,” he said to Esther as she processed the dollars he handed her for gasoline. He took a lighter from the rack on the counter. “Might need this too.”
“Sure,” Esther said, subtracting the price from the bills he’d given her. “Here’s your change, sir.”
He reached out with no intention to collect the coins. Instead, he curled her fingers over the cash and purred, “Keep it.”
The words were meant to be generous, but the tone was sharp and despotic. At first she flinched. Keep it. Then her Protestant politeness kicked in. “The jar,” she said. “I’ll put it in the change jar . . . give-a-penny, take-a-penny.”
There were others in line but he seemed not to care. He stood on the patron-side of the counter and regarded her. Then, casually, he brandished the lighter he’d just purchased. “Know what this is for?”
“Cigarettes,” she guessed.
He reached into his shirt pocket and retrieved a bag of weed. “Close,” he said. “Wanna join me for some high times?”
The man behind him, a regular customer named Jenkins, protested. “My milk is spoiling already . . . move along. You’re paid up.”
Galen Gatlin turned slowly, seeming to grow as he reached the 180° point. Looking down upon the man’s flakey pate, Gatlin said, “I’ll move along when I’m ready. Unless you want to move me, that is.”
A lady with toilet paper and chocolate bars called out: “We don’t act like that in Fowler County. We’re Christians!”
“Sir,” Esther said, “if you’d kindly step aside so that I can tend to these customers, I’d appreciate it.”
Gatlin grinned and turned to her. “How much would you appreciate it?”
“A lot,” Esther gulped.
He stepped aside. “Okay, just for you” . . . he leaned over the counter and leered at the tag pinned to her breast . . . “Esther.”
He then doffed his invisible hat to the winding line of customers and strolled to the exit. Just when all thought that calm was restored, he shouted: “Esther! Esther! Esther!”
Her Protestant upbringing would not allow her to ignore him. “What?”
Galen Gatlin pointed his twin finger-guns at her and said, “You owe me one.”
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
When Esther married Galen Gatlin three years later, she always told that story differently. Her revised version had Galen coming to her rescue as Jenkins harassed her over a spoiled jug of milk.
Galen wasted no time whisking his bride out of Fowler County. That same year, his father died and he inherited the Gatlin family estate – a fallow tract of ranchland two-hundred miles from her parents. When he announced the move, Esther’s only stipulation was: “Not without Sam.”
Arguments ensued. Galen openly ridiculed the dog, calling it Shithead. When Esther protested, Galen would say: “It’s a joke, babe. What? You never saw the movie The Jerk with Steve Martin?”
She hadn’t seen the movie but was certain it was no joke. There were times she peered out of the kitchen window while scrubbing dishes, and she saw Galen spit a plug of tobacco on Sam, curse him, and occasionally kick him. She hated Galen in those moments, but hated herself more for not racing across the arid terrain and tackling him for his crime.
Esther, what’s happened to you?
It was the question her mother asked on their daily phone call. “Your father and I are worried. You’ve skipped your cousin’s wedding, Thanksgiving, and now Christmas. We miss you, Esther.”
She also missed herself. She missed the Esther that was prepared to fight her father for a half-blind, runt pup.
She dared not think of fighting. Galen was not her father. Galen would hurt her . . . had hurt her.
It was 6 months ago that he hit her. Some kids broke into Galen’s garage and stole his tools – to include his new Tekton Torque Wrench, a 4,000 dollar gadget that Galen swore was the only tool that would fix his tractor.
“Tractor’s busted,” he said, seething. “Can’t fix it now . . . somebody snuck onto Gatlin Ranch and cut my lock and stole my stuff. All while your dog watched.”
She picked up Sam and tucked him under her arm.
“Even with one eyeball, ol’ Shithead could see them thieves,” he said, cornering her in the kitchen. “He saw it. Shithead saw it all. Did he warn us? Did he bark?”
“You know he can’t bark” –
That’s when Galen hit her. It was not a slap; it was a punch thrown by a muscular man with mal intent. “Coulda been killers, Esther. They could’ve waltzed right into our bedroom and raped you and cut my throat. Is that what you want, Esther!” His voice was tame but his fists were wild.
Sam attacked, clamping his jaws onto Galen’s ankle. Galen horse-kicked the mutt across the room. “Why do we feed that freak?” he yelled. “What does Shithead do for us? Can’t catch rats in the barn. Can’t keep foxes out of the hen house. Can’t pull a plow. Can’t warn us when thieves and rapists and murderers are creeping up our goddamn stairs! What good is that fucking mutt?”
Through a curtain of tears and blood, Esther said, “He’s my friend.”
Galen knelt down and pulled her hands away from her battered face. “I’m your friend, Esther. Say it. Say that Galen Gatlin is your friend . . . your best and only friend.”
She tried, she really did. But her split lip swelled and her jaw locked.
After many minutes, Galen became disgusted with his two housemates. He left them to lick their wounds and commiserate, as he retired to his underground tornado shelter, a place where there was peace, quiet, and rye whiskey.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
The tornado shelter was Galen’s happy place – his asylum. When he and Esther were on good terms, which was increasingly rare, he’d call it his Fortress of Solitude. The first time he used this phrase, she looked puzzled. “What? Never saw a Superman movie?”
She wanted to scream: NO, I haven’t watched any movies. I told you, I grew up in the Church of Christ. We weren’t allowed to watch movies, swim with boys, dance, listen to devil music, drink, or date. Why do you think I ended up with YOU!
Six months after the battering, Galen descended the 13 steps into the cool room. He could smell rye and peat and oak and all the delicious liquor scents. He’d given up grass. It had lost its effectiveness. For Galen Gatlin, that meant that it no longer calmed the beast that dwelled within him. The beast had made a grand appearance last Fall, when it had punched Esther and kicked Sam. He did not want to release the beast again . . . no way . . . not unless it was to strangle the thieves that had stolen his Tekton Torque Wrench. He’d fought with his insurance company, but the slimy cheats cited missed premiums and lapsed coverage.
The crops were failing because his tractor was busted and the livestock were failing because grain was scarce. All he had was his rye – the sturdy grain he processed through a homemade still in his Fortress of Solitude. There, he produced a whiskey worthy of Satan’s envy.
He told Esther that he’d sell the whiskey . . . to make ends meet . . . until he won the settlement with the Zionist insurance assholes. She’d agreed, but he could feel her righteous condemnation. Why had he married such a church mouse? He could’ve chosen any bitch. He was cool and suave and . . . according to his 7 conquests, quite the lover.
Esther wasn’t good in bed. Fearful, timid, lifeless, stiff. Might as well be dead.
It was her fault that his penis was . . . unreliable. If she’d show some passion, some amorous enthusiasm, he’d have no trouble below the belt.
He took another drink from a jar. He toasted the booze with the booze. “To Gatlin Rye, the best whiskey in . . . in . . . in my fucking gullet,” he finished, and laughed.
He heard a knock on the door above him. He froze like a boy with Playboy. The knock persisted. There was a voice . . . her voice . . . Esther the church mouse. Esther the dead fuck.
“What,” he answered curtly.
“Galen,” she called, cracking the slanted door. “Can I come down? I’ve got something for you.”
“Busy,” he said, hiding his jar. “Later, maybe . . . I’m in the middle of”–
It was too late; she had accepted an invitation not offered. Carrying a black bag, Esther descended the steps carefully; too careful for his liking.
“Dark down here,” she said, sharing the space.
He switched on the mechanic lamp. “Yeah, what’s up?”
“This is the still?” she asked, caressing the length of looped coils. “Wow, you built this?”
“Yes,” he said, defensive and proud. “I built it. I can do some things right.”
She put her cold hand on his cheek and said, “No, I didn’t mean it like that. It’s beautiful. Tell me about it.”
Off guard, he stammered. “I had to, over there, see that, knock that wall out, extend it, to make room, for the still, for the supplies.”
She observed the brick wall that he’d demolished. Beyond it, was a small space in which Galen had stacked sacks of rye and barley and jugs of distilled water.
She pulled his face to hers and kissed him. “You’ve worked hard for us. I’m so proud of you. I have a gift for you.”
“A gift,” he said.
There was another noise at the top of the stairs. They both looked up. It was Sam, panting, peering down at them.
Resuming the conversation, Esther said, “I want you to have this.” She reached into the black bag and extracted a long box. “Daddy loaned me – us – the money. It’s the torquey tool you need to fix the tractor.”
Galen looked at her with utter disbelief. The beast within him stirred as he slowly ripped the packaging. “Your daddy,” he said, grasping the handle of the 16-inch steel tool. “He gave you the money?”
“Us,” she repeated. “Gave us the money. It’s a loan.”
“You told him?”
She cocked her head. “Told him what?”
“You told him that your husband was a loser,” he said, seething. “That he allowed kids to steal his tools. That he allowed Zionists to steal his claims. That he allowed his wife to steal his dignity – his virility – his manhood!”
She stepped back, tripping over something. “No, Galen, that’s not what I told him.”
He took a drink to appease the beast. He then dropped the torque wrench onto the stone floor. “Keep it,” he growled. “I don’t need your family’s Christian charity.”
Esther snatched up the tool, eyes ablaze. “Take it, you stubborn fool. Fix the tractor. Grow the grain. Feed the livestock. Save this cursed farm . . . save Gatlin Ranch!”
He did take it. And he did use it. He struck his wife with it. When she fell, he drank his hooch and watched her bleed. The beast was released.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Galen Gatlin awoke 5 hours later. Moonshine had replaced sunshine. He looked around the small shelter. Something had happened . . . something bad . . . oh, shit, it was Esther.
In drips and squibs, the memory returned. He’d struck her. No, it was the beast. The beast had struck with the torque wrench. He went to her and jostled her body. Lifeless, always lifeless. He panicked and plotted: Chop her up . . . Throw her down the well . . . Feed her to the forest’s scavengers? No, no, and no.
He looked around the cellar, desperate for inspiration. The wall! He’d place her behind the demolished wall and brick it up. No one – not even her mommy and daddy – would look for her there. He worked through the night and the deed was done.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Three days passed.
The phone rang at Gatlin Ranch . . . as it had every day at the same time. This time, Galen took a shot of rye and answered.
“Galen,” the voice said, “it’s me, Rachel . . . Esther’s mother.”
“Rachel,” he said, “that’s a weird greeting for a mother-in-law.”
“Sorry,” she said. “It’s just that we never talk, you and me. And we need to talk . . . I’m worried.”
“Worried about what?”
Silence. Sobbing. “Esther. We talk every day at 3:00 and I haven’t heard from her.”
“You’re right, Rachel,” he said, “we do need to talk. Esther left me. Drained our savings, grabbed her mutt, and scrammed. I’m sorry, I thought she would call you from wherever-the-hell she went.”
“That’s not true,” Rachel said. “Esther would contact me . . . if she were able. I’m hanging up now, Galen. I’m calling the police. I . . . I think you’ve harmed my daughter.”
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Thirty-five minutes later, Sheriff Doris Gritt knocked on Galen’s door.
“I’ve been expecting you,” Galen said. “Esther’s crazy mom seems to think the worst of me.”
“Yep,” Gritt said, “thinks you may have something to do with the disappearance of her daughter. Mind if my deputies and I look around?”
“Be my guests,” he said, ushering her into his untidy home.
After a full hour of searching, Sheriff Gritt approached Galen who was drinking from a jar. “She was in a helluva hurry,” Gritt said. “Left her clothes, toiletries, and this.” She showed him the framed photo of her family in Fowler County. “You’d think she’d take that, right?”
Galen grunted, “You’d know more about how ladies think than me.”
The Sheriff pressed, “Where’d she go, Mr. Gatlin? Did you hurt her? Her mother, Rachel Caring, says that Esther told her that you were violent. That you’d beaten her.”
Galen Gatlin bolted from his chair, spilling the rye in the jar. “I never,” he started, then bit his own teeth. I never hit her . . . that was the beast, not me.
Sheriff Gritt touched her sidearm to remind him that she was not a defenseless female. “Touched a nerve, did I?”
“We fought,” he conceded, “verbally. Arguments. We’ve had a rough run of luck.”
Gritt balled her fist and punched her palm. “But you never . . . you know . . . had enough of her silly girly shit that you just . . . you know . . . POW. . . straight to the moon?”
Galen looked at the empty jar. He needed a drink to quell the beast. “No, ma’am. Now, if you’re finished, I’d ask that you and your deputies vacate my property and not return without a warrant. I’ve been very patient and”–
“So you have,” she said. “And I thank you.”
Galen held the open door, simulating a gentleman.
Sheriff Gritt walked out on the porch, then turned. “I noticed that you have a storm shelter around back. Just to put ‘paid’ to this visit, mind if I take a quick peek?”
“You’ve seen enough, Sheriff,” he said. “You’ll have to get a warrant.”
“Won’t take a minute,” she assured.
“No,” he insisted.
She took a step into his space. “That rye whiskey you’ve been sippin’ – that’s bootleg. I caught the Dooling brothers with it last week. Now I don’t mind a fella making his own swill but the revenuers sure do. You’ve got a still down there in that cellar, don’t you, Gatlin.”
He was caught. No words could erase the guilt sketched on his face. He nodded.
“You give me three minutes down there without a warrant and I don’t make a phone call to the IRS. Deal?”
The beast stirred, elbowing his organs, shaking his rib cage. Aching, he walked with her to the tornado shelter. “The lock,” he said, slapping his forehead. “I lost the key when I was plowing” –
“Not a problem,” she said. She motioned to a deputy. He retrieved bolt cutters from his cruiser. “Send us the bill for the lock,” she said.
Galen tried to laugh but his gut cramped. He lifted the sheet metal door and said, “Ladies first.”
Flashlight in hand, Gritt descended the steps. Galen noticed that she was not as careful as Esther. Perhaps she’ll fall.
Admiring the still, she said, “Love the smell of homemade rye. Mind if I?” she asked, pointing to the still’s copper spigot.
“As I said earlier,” Galen gestured, “be my guest.”
She poured a healthy level into a jar and kicked it back. “Not bad,” she said.
“Thanks. It’s a hobby.”
She walked the perimeter of the cellar. What should have taken 20 seconds, took 2 minutes. “Not much to see here,” she conceded. She slapped the bricks and said, “Fortified. Keep you and Esther safe in case of a twister.”
Galen made the mistake of looking at his watch.
“You holding me to 3 minutes, Mr. Gatlin?”
He stammered again. “It’s just, well, you said yourself, nothing much to see.”
Sheriff Gritt took a step left, then right, looked up, then down. She then rapped the brick wall with her flashlight. “I did say that,” she said. “Was I wrong to say so?”
Despite the subterranean chill, Galen’s too-black hairline seeped sweat. “Time’s up,” he declared. “Call the IRS; call the fucking FBI, CIA, and PTA for all I care. Get out and get off my ranch!”
“You’re a stick of dynamite, Gatlin,” she said unfazed. “Explosive.”
She rapped on the brick wall again. “Hear that?”
“I don’t hear anything except my lawyer laughing as we sue the PD for unlawful search.”
She rapped again, harder. “Scratching sound,” she said. “Mice. Bugs. Ghosts.”
“We’ve got mice,” he said, thinking for the first time about Esther’s useless dog, Shithead.
Gritt pursed her lips and pressed her ear to the wall. “Probably nothing.”
Gatlin looked at his watch, at the wall, at the square of brooding sky above him. And then he snapped.
“Of course, it’s nothing,” he shouted. The beast would not be appeased. It rose in his throat like hot vomit. “Do you have shit for brains? Are you a shithead?”
As the sheriff reached for her weapon, the unmistakable howl of a hound emerged from the space behind the brick wall. It was loud and long and its tone was pitched with agony and accusation.
“Get down here, boys,” Gritt said on her collar radio. Leveling her weapon on Gatlin, she added: “Bring the sledgehammer.”
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
“Hello, this is Sheriff Doris Gritt with the Kanagy PD. Is this Mrs. Rachel Caring?”
“Yes,” Rachel said. “This is about Esther, isn’t it? Let me put you on speaker with my husband. I can’t hear this by myself. We’ve had so much grief in our family.”
“That’s fine, ma’am.”
Rachel raged, “Galen’s done something . . . that son of a bitch has done something to our Esther, hasn’t he, Sheriff?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Caring,” Gritt said, “he did do something. That son of a bitch bashed her on the head and bricked her up in a storm shelter. But Esther’s going to be fine. Once the medics got some fluids in her, she recovered consciousness. You can be proud, Mr. and Mrs. Caring. Your little girl is a fighter. She didn’t give up. And neither did her noisy little dog. Not sure if it was accident or design, but Gatlin made the mistake of bricking him up also. He saved her life, Mr. and Mrs. Caring. I’m not a lady of faith, but if you ask me, that dog is her guardian angel.”
After a long pause, the relieved parents looked up and uttered a single, sacred word: “Sam.”
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
Simon Says <<Link
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