The Alphabet Challenge: “W” Story No. 3 of 3 — “Wild Things”

This is the 23rd 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 “W“.

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.

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.

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.

Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “W” as submitted by its author.

Wild Things

Copyright 2020 — (added after voting closes)

(3,950  words – approx. reading time: about 15 minutes based on 265 WPM)

Arnold Crossman died peacefully . . . unlike the countless woodland creatures he’d slaughtered throughout his actuarially average lifespan.

            It was a heart attack, of course. Old, fat, affluent, American males seldom perished from peril or malice; unless one allows for malice associated with gross indulgence, to include: bourbon, buffets, and Bolivian cigars.

            On the morning of his demise, Arnold was excited to attend his grandson’s 10th birthday party. He’d purchased the perfect gift for little Bubba. After wrapping the long box in camo paper, he realized he had three free hours to kill. Never one to waste wasted time, Arnold retired to his man-cave to watch the fourth quarter of the Lakers/Celtics game. Surrounded by a menagerie of taxidermied animals, he lit a cigar and poured a neat, three-finger bourbon. As he glugged, guilt pricked him. The marble eyes of the mounted moose-head seemed to judge him.

            “Bullwinkle,” he grumbled. “I bagged you fair and square. Got frostbite on my pinky toe, for Christ sake.”

Bullwinkle’s lifeless brown eyes reminded him of his dead wife, Gladys. She’d be appalled by his sad habits: boozing at noon; smoking in-doors.

            Arnold showed the moose his middle finger. He recalled the kill. It was in Durango, Colorado, in an Aspen forest. He’d tracked the animal for 46 hours, praying for a shot. Freezing, starving, exhausted, exasperated, he’d finally squeezed the trigger of his rifle. It was 260 yards, through dense thicket – ill-advised at best, immoral at worst. The slug missed the heart and lungs. It lodged, instead, in the animal’s spine, paralyzing its haunches. The beast drug itself through the Aspen forest, crippled, bellowing in pain. The howls and the steady trail of blood, led Arnold to his prey. He watched its wild eyes roll and its chest heave. Then he shot it through the heart. Later, he would tell friends that this was the first and only shot.

            Arnold tipped his tumbler to the stuffed effigy. “Sorry, old boy. Life is a zero-sum game.”     

As was the basketball game. It was a nail-biter, a barn-burner, a bona fide donnybrook. At 72, Arnold had witnessed the heroics of Russell, Cousy, Hondo, and Bird, and this game had all the hallmarks of a classic.

In double overtime, a willowy kid named Tatum rose up and launched a 33-footer as the clocked ticked down.

            As the buzzer blared and the crowd cheered and the ball threaded the nylon net, Arnold’s heart exploded.

            Arnold slumped into his lounger and surrendered to the serenity of death. He’d lived a big and blessed life. Had fished and hunted, drunk and reveled, smoked and joked. He had no regrets, no fear of posthumous punishment. After all, he’d ticked all the boxes. Loved his wife, made babies, worked hard, paid taxes, and was considered by his hunting buddies to be a first class mensch.

            As the Celtic crowd wagged green foam fingers, Arnold did not think of his son or his daughter or his deceased wife – it was Bubba, his only grandson, which occupied his mind. Ten years of movie reel footage streamed in the dimming theater behind his eyes. Bubba, the newborn. Bubba, the crawler. Bubba, the toddler, walker, talker, bike-rider, base-baller. Bubba, the small vault in which he’d deposited all the treasury bonds of his love.

            The film blurred and burned and Bubba’s beaming face melted. Arnold’s final, mortal thought was one of anger . . . anger at himself for ruining his grandson’s birthday. One more day, he croaked. Lord, I beg of you. One more day. Don’t let me die on Bubba’s birthday. Please, Loooooor . . . .

***

            Arnold’s first immortal thought was: Wow, I’m being carried to Heaven by angels.

            Looking down on the shingles of his roof, he saw a baseball. He recalled the day he and Bubba had played catch. Bubba flung a wild one. He’d cried, had Bubba, cried until Arnold promised to get the ladder and climb onto the roof – a task he dreaded.

            To Arnold’s relief, Gladys appeared with fudge popsicles. Bubba quickly forgot about the ball and Arnold’s promise.

            Higher, Arnold flew. Higher, he ascended, until his house was a stamp and the ball a dot.

            Going up, he thought. That’s good.

Wings beat the air, carrying him upward. Angels, he presumed. God has sent an entourage of angels to escort me to my heavenly home. 

            As he passed through a bank of cumulus clouds, he noticed that his escorts were not angels. They were birds. Dozens and dozens of birds.

            On closer inspection, he was revolted to see that the birds were in various states of decay. Dead birds: some wingless, some headless, some bereft of peckers and feathers – all putrid and ghoulish – mockeries of the mortal flocks he’d admired in life.

            Twisting, he resisted, but their black talons held fast. They cawed and squawked and carried him through atmospheres, into the airless void of space. As he passed through the frigid blackness, he screamed. As he screamed, he recalled all the wails of all the animals he’d ever killed.

***

            Arnold landed abruptly on his butt.

“This way,” the fox said.

            Rubbing his eyes, Arnold sought the source of the voice. It was a fox, he saw, a languid regal beast with a spectacles and a clipboard.

            “Whaah,” Arnold gasped.  

            “This way,” Fox repeated. He pointed his paw at the stately gate, wrought by ornate iron. Beyond it, was a violent grove of jungle, forest, and wilderness. “Arnold Jeffery Crossman, 72. Right on time. The Jury is expecting you.”

            “Jury?” Arnold asked. “Are you talking to me?”

            Fox lowered its spectacles and looked around. “I don’t see any other Arnold Jeffery Crossmans, do you?”

            “No,” Arnold replied. “But, but, I’m confused. Where am I? Is this Heaven?”

            “Heaven,” Fox mocked. “No, no, no. Only Saints go straight to Heaven. Are you a Saint, Arnold J. Crossman?”

            Arnold shrugged and said, “Well, I wasn’t half bad.”

            Fox raised its eyebrow as it studied the clipboard. “No, you were not half bad . . .”

            “What’s that’s supposed to mean?” Arnold gruffed. “I was no worse than any other joe-blow. I paid taxes. Gave change to panhandlers. Never cheated on Gladys. Played catch with my grandson . . .”

            Arnold broke down. “Today’s Bubba’s birthday. This is going to affect him all his life. Every year, on his birthday, he’ll be so sad . . . thinking of his dead Pee-Paw.”

            “Pee-Paw,” Fox laughed. “He called you Pee-Paw?”

            “It’s not funny,” Arnold growled, confronting the fox.

            Instantly, Fox’s serene features became feral. Snarling, its eyes blazed and ears flattened and teeth bared.

            Arnold backed up, wagging his hands conciliatorily. “Down, boy,” he coaxed. “Nice fox. Friendly fox.”

            “You’d be wise,” Fox said, “to step through those gates and follow the animal trail, Mr. Crossman.” As he spoke, the massive gates creaked open.

            Warily, Arnold stepped through the threshold. Before he began his journey, he shook his head and looked back at Fox. “Do I know you?”

            Fox looked up from his clipboard. “Pardon?”

            Arnold gulped and repeated, “Do I know you . . . like . . . from my life?”

            Fox grinned menacingly, and then slowly lowered the clipboard. In the center of the white blaze of fur on its chest, was a single red blot.

            Arnold knew what the badge signified. He’d seen it a thousand thousand times. Had caused it a thousand thousand times.

            It was a bullet hole.

***

            Having fought briar and bramble for hours, Arnold reached his destination. The edifice was a colossal structure, built in the semblance of a county courthouse. Yet, there was no steel or masonry . . . the building was constructed entirely of sticks and twigs, knotted with thongs of vine.

            “Crossman,” a duck quacked. “Crossman, Arnold Jeffery.”

            “That’s me,” Arnold said. “And you are?”

            Angrily, the duck quacked and walked in a wonky circle. “If I walk like a duck and quack like a duck, what am I, Mr. Crossman?”

            “A duck,” Arnold guessed.

            “The Jury will love you,” Duck said. “So smart.”

            “Everyone’s so sarcastic around here,” Arnold whined. “The fox insulted me. Now you’re being snippy . . . it’s like I’m not welcome. I didn’t ask to come here?”

            Duck shat and pointed its broken wing to the doorway. “Yes, Mr. Crossman. You’re the victim. Tell it to the Jury.”

            A rusty-colored bear intercepted him as he entered the courthouse. The bear wore boots and a flapped hunter’s cap. “Hold out your hands,” Bear said. “Palms together.”

            “Why?” Arnold asked, watching Bear wind his wrist with organic cordage.

            “These trials get a little heated,” Bear said. “Trust me, it’s for your own safety.”

            With his massive paws, Bear searched Arnold, patting him down. “Any knives, guns, needles?”

            “No,” Arnold said.

            Bear pulled a Werther’s caramel candy from Arnold’s pocket, sniffed it, and ate it – wrapper and all.

            “Come with me,” Bear said, tugging the man down a bramble path.

            “Excuse me,” Arnold said, “are you a Cinnamon Bear?”

            Bear said nothing.

            Arnold admired the tawny red coat. “Late 80’s, my pals and I spotted a Cinnamon Bear on the Canadian border. Bob took a shot. I told him not to. We didn’t have a tag for Canada.”

            “Bob,” Bear said, licking his snout.

            “Bob wanted to chase the Cinny,” Arnold said, “but there were too many Wardens on that border. I told Bob to give it up.”

            “Bob,” Bear growled.

            “Beautiful creatures,” Arnold said, lost in reverie. “Bob wanted a Cinny for his den.”

            “Bob,” Bear snarled.

            “Funny,” Arnold said, “he had a cap just like yours. I remember, his wife insisted that it be placed on his head . . . you know . . . in his casket. Said it wouldn’t be Bob without that cap.”

            Bear pushed through a thatch of double-doors. He flung Arnold to the ground and addressed the assembly. “Esteemed beasts of the Jury, I bring you Arnold J. Crossman . . . Hunter.”

            “Your hat,” a raccoon chided. “Show some respect, Bear.”

            The Cinnamon Bear solemnly removed the flapped cap. It was then that Arnold noticed two things: the top, left portion of the bear’s head was missing. And the cap, now held in the bear’s crossed paws, bore an embroidered name. That name was, of course, Bob.

             “Stand,” Raccoon demanded. “Stand and be judged.”

            Arnold stood, spun slowly, and beheld tiered galleries filled with wildlife. There were thousands of animals in the rotunda, and all of their eyes were on him.

            In the front of the room was stately bench, behind which, Raccoon presided. “Gentle beasts of the Jury,” Raccoon intoned, “I present to you Arnold Jeffrey Crossman. The man accused of murdering you.”

            Immediately, the animals began to hiss and jeer and growl and howl. The noise shook leaves and seeds from the branch-thatched rafters. Elk bugled, turkeys gabbled, rabbits squealed, deer bleated, coyotes yowled, fish flapped, squirrels chirped, and gooses trumpeted.

            Mammals raised their hackles and bared their fangs. Animals with appropriate appendages, flung feces down upon the man.

            “That will do,” Raccoon said, bashing his gavel. “Order! I will have order in my court.”

            Arnold approached the bench. “Mr. Raccoon,” he started.

            Bear snorted and advanced on Arnold, raising its clawed paw.

            “You’ll address me as Your Honor,” Raccoon said.

            “Sorry, Your Honor,” Arnold corrected, “I don’t know if this is just a bad dream or if I’m” –

            “Dead,” Raccoon finished. “You are dead, Mr. Crossman. As are we. The difference being, you died from a diet of hotdogs and well-whisky. We died untimely” – Raccoon looked around at his fallen comrades – “at your hands.”

            “I object, Your Honor,” a weasel with an eyepatch said, sidling up to the defendant.

            The gallery groaned and the Judge sighed. “Weasel,” Raccoon moaned, “are you really going to defend this man . . . this Hunter?”

            “Yes, Your Honor,” Weasel said. “Even two-legged beasts deserve justice.”

            “Thank you,” Arnold said. “I’m not a bad man. On earth, in my life, I was a husband. A father. A grandfather. If you check my wallet, I have photos of my grandson, Bubba.”

            The one-eyed weasel spoke softly from the side of its snout. “Don’t get it twisted, Arnie. I despise you. You shot me and made mittens from of my hide. But if I win one case, I get reincarnated and sent back to earth.”

            “Wow,” Arnold said, “is that how this works?”

            The Judge interrupted. “Mr. Crossman, to the charge of animal holocaust, how do you plead?”

            “Not guilty, Your Honor,” Arnold said.

            Weasel approached the bench and whispered to the judge. Raccoon nodded and then announced the official plea. “The defendant pleads innocent, by reason of insanity.”

            “Insanity,” Arnold shouted. “I’m not insane. Your Honor, I do not” –

            Weasel bit him on the calf. Arnold leapt and remonstrated, cursing and shrieking.

            “See, Your Honor,” Weasel said, “he’s barking mad.”

            “We’ll see about that,” Raccoon said. “Bear, escort the first witness to the chair.”

            Bear carried a member of the gallery to the witness stand and placed it in the chair. It was small blue fish.

            The Judge said, “The record indicates that you were Crossman’s first victim. Please, tell us your story.”

            In a surprising baritone voice, the fish spoke. “Arnie was just a boy. Six or seven. He wanted me. He pleaded with his parents. Swore he would care for me. Feed me. Clean my bowl. He named me Bluefish, because, as you can see, I’m a fish. And I’m blue.”

            “I object, Your Honor,” said Weasel. “The accuser is obviously teal with an azure tint”

            “Over-ruled,” the judge said. “Continue, Bluefish.”

            “He did,” Bluefish said, “take care of me. You know, at first, he fed me, cleaned my bowl. But then he got bored with me. His friend Bob introduced him to B.B. guns. He changed when he got his first gun. He no longer saw me as . . . (sob) . . . as . . . as a friend. Sorry, Your Honor.”

            Bear offered Bluefish the flap of his cap. Bluefish wiped his tears and blew his nose.

            “Is that when he flushed you?” the Judge asked.

            “Yes,” Bluefish sniffled. “I tried to be his pal, tried to express my love. But like I said . . . he changed. Arnie changed.”

            “Your Honor,” Weasel said, “it was my client’s deranged – dare I say, insane mental state – that led him to believe that he was returning Blue . . . er . . . Tealfish . . . to the ocean, via the family toilet.”

            Laughter exploded from the gallery. A murder of crows cawed, heckling the defense and the defendant.

            The Judge pounded the gavel. “That’s enough. Bluefish, you may be seated. I now call Quail to the witness stand.”

            From the lower tier, a brown bird flushed, flying low and slow. It landed awkwardly in the witness chair.

            “Quail,” the Judge said, “the record indicates that you were Crossman’s 37th victim. However, you were the first victim to be shot and eaten? Is this correct?”

            “It is, Your Honor,” Quail said, nervously pecking at the ivy-twined chair.

            “I object, Your Honor,” Weasel said. “It’s my understanding that humans can purchase entire buckets of luscious, yummy, fat-fried chickens. Would a sane person stalk, shoot, pluck, gut, broil, and devour a scrawny bird such as this?”

            Insulted, Quail began to cluck and strut and bob its topknot. “I’m delicious,” Quail protested. “In France, I’m considered a delicacy!”

            As the Judge called the next witness, Quail flushed frantically from the chair, circled the rotunda, and repeated: “I’m delicious. I’m delicious. I’m delicious.”        

            Up from the row of the seventh tier, a coyote leapt and caught the bird in its jaws. In one gulp, the bird was gone. The coyote picked feathers from its teeth and agreed, “Yes, quite delicious.”

            Raccoon addressed the crowd. “This is not a zoo! We will maintain order and refrain from predator-prey behaviors. Now, for the final witness, I call Spike to the stand.”

            A small white-tailed deer darted from the gallery. It was slim and tawny and adorned with two short horns. The deer was bashful, embarrassed by its unbranched antlers.

            “Spike,” Raccoon said, “take a seat and tell the Jury your sad story.”

            “Hello,” Spike said with a raspy voice. “My name is Spike.”

            The crowd replied: “Hello, Spike.”

            Spike shied, dashing behind the bench.

            “It’s okay,” the Judge said. “You’re safe here. Tell your story.”

            Spike gathered his courage and told his tale. “I was in the forest, playing with my big brothers. They picked on me because I’m . . . well, you can see for yourselves. I’m small. And my antlers are . . . Judge, do I have to do this?”

            Raccoon nodded sagely.

            “The Hunter was in a tree stand,” Spike said. “Up in a tree! Golly, it never crossed my mind that a predator would be in a tree. He’d put out a trough of corn. We ate and played and played and ate. It was a great day . . . until.”

            “I object, Your Honor,” Weasel said.

            “This better be good, Weasel,” Raccoon said.

            Weasel scrambled onto Arnold’s shoulder. “Spike testified that my client fed wild animals. Your Honor, this is an act of charity. I ask that this act of kindness be reflected in the record.”

            “Noted,” Raccoon said. “Continue, Spike.”

            “Until he shot us,” Spike said, and broke down.

            His three buck brothers called out: “We love you, Spike!”

            Encouraged, Spike lifted his head and continued. “Hunter must have been nervous. He blasted us with bullets, missing mostly, wounding my brothers. They ran away and died slow, agonizing deaths. I was so afraid, I froze. Hunter climbed down and approached me. He pointed his rifle and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. I should have run, but I couldn’t. He fumbled with bullets and finally reloaded. I remember his wild eyes and evil grin. With no hesitation, he shot me in the throat.”

            The crowd gasped.

            Spike coughed and continued: “As I was lying on the forest floor, bleeding, gasping for air, Hunter gutted me.”

            The Judge dabbed his bandit eyes and asked, “Did he eat you, Spike?”

            Spike’s head dropped. “No, Your Honor. As he was field-dressing me, he became angry . . . disgusted with my lack of good meat. It was then that he made the decision to decapitate me. To take my head and leave my body to scavengers.”

            The crowd growled and grumbled, signaling outrage.

            “Your Honor!” Arnold interjected.

            “Quiet,” Raccoon shouted, and pointed to Bear. “Maul him if he interrupts again.” He turned to Spike and said, “There’s more. Isn’t there, Spike?”

            “Yes,” Spike said. “He turned me into a trophy. He stripped my skin, scooped out my brains, scraped away my flesh, stuffed me with sawdust, and sewed me back together. Not before replacing my eyes with black glass.”

            The crowd winced as one.

            “Then Hunter mounted my head on the wall of a dark room,” Spike said. “He showed me to his friends. They laughed at me, calling me a runt, a fawn, a jackalope. When Hunter killed bigger game to display, he put me in the attic, where I remain to this day.”

            “You Honor,” Weasel protested, “what could be more insane than chopping off heads and mounting stitched effigies on walls? My client is undoubtedly insane!”

            The crowd vacillated between fury and pity. Some wept, some poised to pounce.

            The Judge had heard enough. “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty as charged!”

            The crowd repeated the verdict, chanting and ranting, enraged by Arnold’s high crimes.

            Raccoon pounded the gavel for the last time. “It is time for punishment. I ask Moose to come forward and commence sentencing.”

            The crowd parted. From the midst, a great lumbering beast emerged.

            “Bullwinkle,” Arnold gasped.

            The 1000-pound bull strode through the crowd of its peers, acknowledging their admiration with the tip of its massive rack. When it reached the dais, it bowed to the judge.

            “Gentle and esteemed beasts,” Raccoon announced, “Moose will now pronounce punishment upon Arnold Jeffery Crossman . . . our mutual murderer. Moose, you have the floor.”

            Moose accepted the responsibility with a shrug of its coat. He then approached the hunter, towering over the two-legged butcher. “Arnold,” Moose spoke, “my name is not Bullwinkle. My name is” –

            Moose made a long, guttural, rumbling, musical sound.

            “For 25 years,” Moose continued, “I watched you from the wall of your man-cave. I watched your gluttony, your sloth, your avarice, your woeful disregard for all living things – all living things, except your grandson, Bubba.”

            “Bubba,” Arnold whispered, tears welling in his eyes.

            “I suffered great indignities at your hands,” Moose intoned. “I was kissed by drunken revelers. Used as a coat rack. Named for a doltish cartoon character. However, I was moved to see your love . . . your genuine love . . . for the boy.”

            “Yes,” Arnold sobbed. “I love little Bubba so much. And today is his birthday.”

            “So it is,” Moose agreed. “We beasts are not all claws and fangs and wild things. We have a capacity for forgiveness. Do you wish to say anything before you are sentenced?”

            Arnold trembled with remorse. He turned and addressed all of the animals in all of the gallery rows. “I didn’t know,” he blubbered. “I didn’t know you were . . . real. You’re not just game – things to be chased and slayed. You’re not just prey, food, trophies, or pests. You’re real. You have . . . had . . . lives. You have feelings. I am so sorry. Please forgive me.”

            As Arnold sobbed, Weasel twirled his toe-finger around his head, indicating Arnold’s state of crazy.

            “For High Crimes Against Wild Things,” Moose pronounced, “we the Gentle and Esteemed Beasts of the Jury, pronounce you Guilty. We hereby sentence you, Arnold J. Crossman, to one more day.”

            Arnold looked up. “One more day?” he asked.

            “One more day,” Moose lowed, “with your grandson.”

            “What?” Arnold rejoiced.

            “Does that mean I win?” Weasel asked.

            Moose surveyed the denizens of the rotunda. “So say one, so say we all.”

            “So say we all,” the crowd echoed. And Arnold disappeared.

***

            Instantly, Arnold reappeared. Although, not in his human body. Arnold was a wren – a bird in a tree in the backyard of his son’s house.

            He was tempted to fly, but the view was so remarkable, that he sat on a branch and watched the birthday party from above. Bubba was the center of attention, of course. He played with friends, ate cake, and opened presents. Arnold jived and whistled as Bubba tore through the camo wrapping paper, into the package that he’d gifted.

            Utter awe stamped the boy’s face as he reverently lifted the Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot, range-model air rifle from the long box. He watched as Bubba filled it with BBs and shot a paper target. It was all that he could hope for – more happiness than he deserved in life and afterlife. He tweeted his gratitude to the woodlands and open skies.

            When the party ended, Arnold reflected on his life. He regretted his aggression toward animals . . . the gentle beasts that shared the earth. He sang of his sorrow. He used his music to lament his past actions. When the songs were sung, he wiped away his tears with his wings. It was then that he saw his grandson, Bubba, his beloved.

The hunter suddenly the hunted, Arnold froze. Shocked, all he could do was watch, as Bubba leveled his brand new Red Ryder rifle on his feathered chest.

The End

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:

Witness <<Link

The Weatherman <<Link

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