With a strained creak from the old storm door's cold hinges, John exited his house into the morning sun, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the glaring light. The morning air was still a bit chilly and damp. In the sun's rays, a slight mist evaporated off the dew covered grass. The storm door closed hard behind John with a loud thud. The sound caused a pair of squirrels to start chattering angrily. Cupping his hand above his eyes to protect them from the bright sun, John watched the squirrels leap after one another through the branches of a tall elm tree. One of the squirrels was light grey while the other was much darker, almost reddish. The light grey one was leading the darker one by a bit when it stopped abruptly at the edge of a broken branch. It leaned over the edge, seeming to judge the distance of the next jump when the darker squirrel slammed into its backside. Both squirrels scrambled to keep their hold on the branch. Their chattering increased significantly and reminded John of his mother and David's nearly constant arguing. His mother had married his step-father David two years earlier, her third marriage… David's second. Both of them were prone to aggressive outbursts that occasionally turned physical. John imagined the two squirrels were his mom and David, still hanging from the broken branch. The smaller, light grey one was his mother. She had her hind claws dug into David's dark red fur and was having some success climbing back onto the branch. David rat-a-tat-tatted at her angrily, his hind legs dangling as he swayed back and forth. John almost wished that were actually David hanging from that branch. Let him have a taste of his own medicine for once. The light grey squirrel, the one he'd imagined was his mother, finally regained her footing on the branch. She looked down at David for a second, chirping vehemently and then bounded off, disappearing behind the Elm trunk. David finally managed to also regain his footing and scurried after his mom.
The tool shed sat near the edge of the yard against a stone wall. It, like everything else on the property, was old and in disrepair. The siding consisted of weathered tar roofing shingles covered in moss and blue lichen. Part of the old shed had been converted into a chicken coop and there was a makeshift addition of wooden posts and wire mesh. Inside the addition was a wooden ramp leading up to a square-cut hole in the side of the building. A few chickens strutted around the muddy bird-shit laden ground, pecking at seeds and insects. They seemed to ignore John as he stepped up to the shed door. The entire structure had been jacked up and rested on cinder blocks, with a log serving as the front step. John opened the shed door and peered inside. His nose scrunched in response to the acrid smell of bird excrement laced with ammonia. The inside of the shed was dry and dusty. An itch set into his nose and John felt a sneeze coming on. He held it back, rubbing his nose with the palm of his hand until the itch subsided. The only light emanated dimly from the open door as well as a small dingy window. The shed was packed with tools of varying sorts. Many of them were antiques. An old rusty scythe hung from one of the beams. A half-dozen shovels stood propped against the back wall. He couldn't see them, but John knew the axe would be near the shovels. He stepped over a bunch of engine parts and tried to negotiate the clutter without falling. Spider webs hung from the rafters and corners in a tangled mess, desiccated insects suspended in the dusty silk. John hated spiders and ducked clear of the webs, conscious of a slight tingle in his spine as he did so. Disgusting buggers. He tried to put the eight-legged monsters out of his mind.
The axe was exactly where John had thought it would be, propped in a corner of the back wall. Next to it, on a shelf, was the wetstone, wrapped in a greasy red rag. Unlike much of the clutter in the shed, the axe and wet-stone were free of dust, a result of their frequent use. Splitting the winter's firewood was a priority chore shared by his step-father and he. David had been working with wood most of his life. He'd been a logger since he was old enough to lift a chainsaw, or so he said. He'd only recently given up logging when a buddy of his, Bill Langley, was killed by a falling tree. David said his friend had died of stupidity. Bill had made a mistake and sometimes it only took one. The tree he'd been cutting had fallen against a second tree. Rather than taking the careful approach of cutting the leaning tree section by section, Bill instead decided to cut the supporting tree. One tree falling in the woods is dangerous enough, but taking down two trees at once is foolhardy. Bill had found that out the hard way. John guessed David had lost his nerve for it after that. He given up logging and took a job as a mechanic for a printing company.
John hefted the axe onto his shoulder and, with the other hand, took up the wet stone and stuffed it into his pants pocket. He exited the tool shed, dexterously avoiding the engine parts, tool boxes, chain winches and other assorted clutter littering the floor. He imagined his movement reflected in the thousands of beady arachnid eyes suspended from the shed ceiling, venom seeping from unseen fangs, intent on satisfying their voracious appetite. Reaching the threshold of safety, he stepped out from the dusty shed and closed the wooden door firmly behind him, happily hearing the iron latch fall into place. He shuddered. That place gave him the heebie-jeebies. For sure.
The wood pile that waited for John stood eight feet tall. He and David had spent the last several weeks logging the surrounding property in preparation for winter. It wasn't a job that John loved, but there were worse chores by comparison. Several months before, John's mother had told him to wash the dishes. Now dishes were a job that he really did hate. He'd stood there, defiantly; head raised high, shoulders back and told his mother in no uncertain terms that he wasn't doing the dishes any longer. Dishes were woman's work! Well, his mother wasn't impressed. She grabbed John by the back of his hair and marched him straight into the bathroom to scrub the toilet with his bare hands. She'd stood over him the entire time with her trusty wooden spoon in hand in case he'd tried to object again. Dishes weren't so bad after all.
John bent down and selected a chunk of poplar wood. The cut was about a foot and half long and maybe a foot wide. John guessed it weighed around fifty pounds or so. Poplar was an easy wood to split. It was soft enough that he could dig into it easily with the axe and hard enough to get a clean split. The hard woods, oak and maple, were much tougher to split and poplar was in more abundance anyhow. There was some pine mixed into the pile too, but pine wasn't good for burning unless you didn't mind an occasional chimney fire. Chimney fires were generally considered a bad thing. John lifted the chunk of poplar onto the splitting log, a massive slab of white oak, and turned it around until it sat relatively straight upright. He lifted the axe and, after a couple practice swings, John began swinging the blade in earnest. One hand grasped the butt of the handle while the other hand supported the weight loosely near the axe head. John twisted his body and let the weight of the axe carry itself around in a long arc. John's leading hand slid down the axe handle until both hands met and the axe was in full extension. He leaned into the arc to add extra momentum and the axe head bit deep into the chunk of poplar wood, cleaving it into two nearly symmetrical chunks that tumbled neatly to the ground. John had swung the axe so well that the blade rested snugly in the splitting log, about a half inch deep. John picked up each half of the poplar that he'd just split and quartered them just as cleanly as the first swing had done. If all of the wood split this easily, he'd be down at the creek before noon time.
An hour later, John was making decent progress but with his hair drenched, sweat beading down his face and his muscles aching, he found himself breaking with every couple swings. John's lungs burned. He stood, breathing heavily, looking at the pile of whole logs. By his estimation, the pile didn't look any smaller. He groaned defeatedly and dropped the axe. John sat down on the splitting log and stared at the ground for a bit. Sweat dripped from matted hair hanging in front of his eyes. He watched the droplets hit the ground and allowed his mind to wander.
David was holding the rabbit by the scruff of her neck. She was tiny in his large hands, kicking and scratching at his calloused skin. Her eyes were large and wide. She was angry…, or maybe afraid. John couldn't tell. He stood next to his step-father, tears streaming down his face, dirty from working at the well house all afternoon. The tears left trails of clean skin in their wake. He could taste the salty liquid on his lips. The rabbit had been an Easter gift. He and his sisters had all gotten one of their choice. Theirs had been large white rabbit with pink eyes. John had chosen a smaller rabbit though. A dwarf rabbit about a third as big as the others, with patches of gray and white and with large dark eyes. He'd named her Misty.
John followed meekly behind David as he walked Misty over to the stone wall that bordered the yard, separating it from the large overgrown pasture beyond. He wanted to be anywhere but there, at that moment. David had said that John needed to grow up and become a man. Men didn't show emotion. They didn't cry. They kept it inside. John could feel the sting of that lesson on his cheek. Men needed to make hard choices and this was one of those lessons. John had managed to stem the flow of tears but his breathing hadn't evened out, coming in short, spasmodic succession followed by long exhales. Liquid snot still ran freely from his nose and mixed with the tears on his lips. John wiped it away with the front of his shirt and tried to steady his breathing. He could see David through blurry eyes, looking down at him next to the stone wall. He appeared dark and menacing at that moment, expressionless. He still held Misty in one hand. John didn't want to look at the other hand but didn't have much choice in the matter when his step-father lifted the long rifle he'd been carrying and handed it to him. John took the rifle from David, with a mixture of awe and repulsion. The weapon was heavy and cold in John's small hands.
David indicated a small lever on the right side of the gun, "Pull the slide handle back and release it." His voice was deep and rasped. John did as he instructed. He pulled hard at the slide until the spring inside latched with a click.
"Go ahead and release it," David urged. John let go and the slide sprung forward. "Now there's a round in the chamber. On the left hand side, just above the trigger, there's a red button," David pointed. "Pull that button back to release the safety." John's fingers trembled as he released the safety.
"The gun's loaded now. Keep it pointed at the ground, away from people."
John's attention had been focused on the gun but when he looked back up at David, he saw that the big man had bent over and was tying Misty to a stick that he'd pushed into the soft earth. The tiny rabbit urgently pulled against the tether around her neck, but only succeeded in tightening it. She shook her head back and forth, tiny white ears laid back against her fur.
David stood up straight and stepped over next to where John was standing. Beneath is step-father's gaze, John could feel his whole body shaking, "Please…, no…."
"That's enough of that shit. Lift the gun up to your shoulder and aim it at her. Hurry up before she gets loose," David ordered without sympathy. His eyes narrowed, glaring beneath a furrowed brow. When John hesitated, David responded with a slap to the back of John's head that sent a jolt down his neck and back. He grunted in response. Tears were flowing freely again and John's vision had suddenly gotten very blurry. David didn't have a lot of patience. He always said that life was hard and so should its lesson's be. After all, his parents had taught him the same way and that's what it took to make a man. John lifted the gun and seated it against his shoulder, aiming it at the tiny blurred target desperately trying to get away. John looked down the sights but had trouble keeping the gun steady. His arms were shaking and he sobbed uncontrollably. He closed his eyes.
"Shoot the fucking…," John felt his finger touch the trigger and sound exploded in his ear. The gun slammed into John's shoulder, twisting his upper body. His eyes remained closed for what seemed like an eternity. Sound seemed muffled and strangely drawn out behind the piercing ringing in John's ears. His heart pounded, reverberating throughout his body. And then just as suddenly, everything came back at once. His hand felt lighter and he realized that he'd dropped the gun on the ground. David was shouting something but John wasn't paying attention. His eyes were focused on the tiny white animal laying on its side, fur stained red near the middle of its back. She was still moving, struggling violently to move. He'd shot her but she was still alive. Her mouth was open and there was a sound like an infant wailing. The sound was coming from Misty. She was… she was…
John hefted another piece of the wood he'd quartered and stacked in with several other pieces cradled in his arm. He had trouble seeing over the armful and had to cock his head to one side in order to watch his footing. He hated David for making him kill that rabbit…, for making him hear her dying scream. The sound is something John expected he'd never forget. It'd only been a few months, but it was just one of those things that you knew would always be burned into your mind. He wanted to think about something else and since he'd already stacked most of the wood he'd split, John decided it was time to hit the brook for a dip.
John walked slowly up the narrow path from the stream. The water had been just what he'd needed after a long morning splitting wood. It'd been cool and refreshing. He'd spent the better part of an hour, or so it seemed, jumping from an outcropping of rocks into the swimming hole someone had dammed up years ago. He could feel wet dirt clinging to his bare feet. As he came around the large copse of white oaks, John could see that his step-father, David's, car was parked in the driveway. A knot began to form in his stomach. He scanned the yard beyond the tree line for any sign of David. The wood pile was obscured by a line of low dogwood saplings. John found a nearby rock and sat down. He sat his sneakers down beside him and leaned over to clean the dirt off his feet. John's feet were black with dirt and grime, even after the loose dirt had been brushed away. Sockless, he pulled his left shoe on followed by the right. The cheap shoes didn't even have a manufacturer label. The sides were blown out and he could see his bare foot through the fabric. A bang sounded through the trees, wood on wood. It was the storm door to the house. It was David. John could see his tall, muscular frame standing at the rear of the house. David wasn't wearing a shirt. He never wore a shirt when he was home. His skin was brown and patchy where the skin had peeled away. It glistened with sweat. David walked toward the wood pile, disappearing behind the large dogwood leaves.
John took one last glance at his shoes and stood up. He didn't look forward to seeing his step-father but decided it best to get it over with. As he left the security of the tree line, John squinted in the bright sun. The open yard was several degrees hotter than the forest shade and John could feel the droplets of water from his swim begin to evaporate. He looked around for David and found him sharpening the splitting axe at the wood pile. He was bent over with his back facing John. As he approached the wood pile, David didn't look up from sharpening the axe. The wet stone made a harsh sound as it slid over the metal blade. John bent over and picked up several pieces of split oak and began stacking them on the shortest row of firewood. The wood was rough and splintered in his hands. It dug into the bare skin of John's arms as he loaded several pieces into one arm.
"Stop stacking the wood," David said from behind him. John turned around and saw David still hunched over the axe blade. David's head was tilted up slightly and his piercing blue eyes stared directly into John's. Clearly, David wasn't pleased.
"But I can finish it all up before dinner," John said nervously. With several logs still clutched in his arm, he stood waiting for David to respond. The response was slow in coming. David was looking back down as the axe, running his thumb over the blade, inspecting it for sharpness. He spit in his palm and rubbed the wetness onto the short hair of his bulging forearm. Then David grasped one end of the axe head and slid the blade over the wet spot on his forearm. When he lifted the blade, a patch of hair was missing from his arm. He seemed pleased with the sharpness of the blade and set it down on the splitting log next to the wet stone. David lifted himself up off the log he'd been sitting on, stretching his back as if he'd spent hours hunched over. An intimidating presence, David stood nearly two feet taller than John. David walked to the wood pile and placed his right hand on the short stack. John watched as David gave the stack a small tug. The row of wood began to lean dangerously and finally collapsed, just missing David as he stepped back. Angered, John asked, "Why'd you do that?"
"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times," David said, "the rows need to be straight. If they're leaning, you'll restack them," David stepped up onto several chunks of fallen wood and began to pull another stack down. "You'll stay out here and restack it until it's done, dinner or not."
"That's not fair. I worked hard on that," John exclaimed, throwing the logs in his arms onto the ground heatedly. He picked up one of the logs David had knocked down. The piece of wood had a large knot protruding out of the side. "They're twisted. They don't stack well," he said, holding the chunk of split wood out for David to see.
"I don't want to hear excuses. I told you to stack the wood so stack the fuckin' wood!" David's eyes had narrowed and seemed to grow darker. He stared at John, muscles bulging and hard…, tense. Sweat beaded one his furrowed brow.
"But…," John turned away, looking at the ruined pile. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw David raise his hand, leaning toward John. The palm of David's hand faced away over his shoulder and he appeared on the verge of striking John with the back of his hand.
"Give me a reason," David threatened. "Give me one good reason!" John recoiled from David's threat but in a sudden moment of courage…, or perhaps stupidity, he straightened his back and set his shoulders firmly.
"No!" John said, arching his eyebrow defiantly, "I'm not going to."
David's eyes widened slightly and his mouth hung open. He wasn't used to being challenged, especially by a scrawny whelp of a boy. For a minute, it seemed, he didn't know what to make of the challenge, then his face lost all expression. There was anger in his eyes, but he didn't show it in his expression. John thought he'd suddenly become more dangerous than he'd ever seen him before. Like a hunting lion, invisible in the tall grass, ready to make its next kill. John suddenly regretted being brave. His shoulders sagged and his eyes detached themselves from David's menacing stare. He looked for the nearest piece of wood to start stacking and bent down. David's hand suddenly gripped John's shoulder tight, digging sharply into his skin.
"No," David said tightly. "Go fetch my razor strap and meet me at the picnic table. You have two minutes." He watched as John reluctantly did as he was told.
The razor strap was hanging from a nail in David's bedroom, next to the gun rack. Razor straps were normally supposed to be used for sharpening straight razors. John had seen Barber Bob use one in town whenever his mother would drag him down there for a haircut. David didn't own a straight razor though. His razor strap was used to teach those hard lessons that he was so fond of; to teach John how to be a man. He'd had a lot of lessons with that length of leather, but John didn't feel any more like a man than before David had married his mother.
"You're an idiot," John chastised himself, angrily. "Why can't you keep your mouth shut?" John lifted the strap of leather off the nail and headed off to face his punishment.
David was where he said he'd be, at the picnic table. He was sitting on the edge of the bench, waiting. He took the razor strap when John handed it to him and looked him square in the eyes, "You know what to do.., over my knee." His voice was flat and monotone. He didn't sound angry. He didn't sound like anything.
John knew what was coming. He unbuttoned his pants and then slid the back down so that his bare bottom was exposed. David insisted on bare skin after John had tried stuffing thin books in his pants to reduce the sting of the razor strap. The trick had worked a couple of times but then David had caught on and insisted on bare skin. Nervously, John bent down and lay over David's legs. His heart was beating rapidly and he could feel his entire body flush with adrenaline. His throat went dry and he had a metallic, iron taste in his mouth. He felt his step-father getting ready for the first lashing and John tensed all of his muscles in his body. His eyes were closed tightly and his mind was racing. Spots of white light flashed behind his closed eyelids. David raised the leather strap. John dug the balls of his feet into the ground and clenched his fists tight. David brought the belt down hard but John was no longer there. John launched himself off David's knees explosively. He didn't know what had come over him. He hadn't planned to do it. Instinct perhaps, but it had never happened before. He felt the razor strap just graze his back and then he was running as fast as his legs could carry him.
There was an opening in the stone wall leading to the pasture beyond. John knew the pasture better than anyone. He practically lived out there, catching creatures of all shapes and sizes, from snakes to fireflies. The pasture had been in disuse for many years. The grass was tall and juniper bushes had grown up like wildfire, evergreen islands set amidst the long grasses, milkweed and flowering Indian paintbrushes. White-tail deer frequented the field and had trampled down paths through the grass. John felt the rush of air on his face as he sprinted along one of these paths. He knew David would be in pursuit but he didn't want to slow down to find out. The ground was soft beneath his feet and seemed to propel him like a springboard. John didn't think he'd ever moved so fast in his life. He felt free.
As the pasture sloped uphill, the juniper bushes became thicker, with their prickly branches reaching like outstretched fingers, brushing up against John's legs. The junipers were thick with purple berries that emitted a strong Gin-like smell. John had made an error and lost the deer path. The grass slowed his progress but only just. He weaved his way around the juniper bushes and, as he did so, he caught a flash of dark hair and muscular body behind him. David. He wasn't far behind and John suddenly lost all sense of freedom. He felt panicked. The lion was back and it was about to make its kill.
John knew he couldn't outrun his step-father. David was bigger and stronger. His legs were longer. John felt his pursuer gaining on him. He could hear David's heavy footsteps right behind him. The juniper bushes seemed to be getting thicker than he remembered them. John found himself darting through narrow openings between bushes. He could feel their sharp needles stabbing through the fabric of his pants. He thought he felt David's breathing on his neck. Was he was that close. Any second now he'd snatch John by the neck and it would be all over for him. David's rage would be unparalleled. He'd be out for blood this time, like some sick horror movie or something.
And that's when John's luck ran out. The juniper bushes had closed in all around him. He was trapped. They were so tightly packed that John could find opening between them. They were massive… eight feet or more across and waist high. John knew there was no escape but he kept running anyway. "Stop!" he thought, but his legs kept moving. What the hell?!! Why wasn't his body listening to him. First his mouth challenging David and telling him, "No!" Then bolting when he should have laid there and taken the whipping that was due him. Now, when all hope was lost… when there was no escape in sight… why wouldn't his legs just stop, damn it! No, John felt that he was actually running faster. An eight foot juniper bush lay straight ahead of him…, feet away and he kept running. At the last second, when he was about to rush headlong into the juniper's needled branches, John crouched down and launched himself into the air, propelling himself over the juniper bush. He looked down and could see the long branches beneath his feet as he glided over them. The bush thinned out near the center and John could see the spider-like root system below. Thousands of those purple berries covered the green branches. The entire bush looked like some giant had found a hemlock tree and squashed it nearly flat. And then the other side of the juniper bush passed underneath just as his leading foot touched ground again, carrying him onward. He couldn't believe it. He'd cleared the entire bush in one leap. No time to revel though. He was lucky and this was little more than a brief respite. David was still behind him.
John felt a surge of renewed energy at having escaped certain death. He turned downhill and could see the stone wall leading to the forest. The juniper's on this side where thinner and he'd have no problem reaching the woods. Then he heard a hard thud behind him followed more blunt impacts and a series of explicatives, "Ow, shit! Mother fucker! God damn it!" There was a long groan. John slowed down and chanced a look behind him. David was nowhere in sight. He stopped and turned around, listening. He could hear the chirping of crickets and bird calls and then he heard more groaning coming from the bush he'd just cleared.
"Ahhhhhhhhhh," came David's dull voice from within the thorny juniper branches. John cautiously approached the bush and could see David sprawled out in the center of it. His naked upper body was red with abrasion and a couple cuts, not to mention the bushes sharp needles. John realized he'd tried to clear the bush in two steps rather than John's single leap. When David had landed the first step, his foot became entangled in the roots, causing him to fall.
David looked up and saw John. He was clearly in pain but then, quite unexpectedly, a grin broke out across his face and he began to laugh, a deep, throaty sort of laugh. There was no anger in his voice at all. "You got me," he said. "You got me."