HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
Marta was sitting on the porch steps in the midmorning sunshine, reading a bit of Tennyson, when she heard her front gate swing open and bang shut again. Looking up, she couldn’t hide her surprise at seeing the oldest Moore boy in her yard. Like all those Moores, he had ratty black hair and a mean, scrunched face, wicked squinty eyes and a perpetual scowl. He walked rather timidly up the stone path, past the orderly rows of blooming marigolds. He paused before her, lips trembling, avoiding the impassive gaze of her sunglasses.
“I thought you all went on vacation,” said Marta coolly, placing her book aside regretfully.
“We did. I mean, everybody else went, but I got – grounded,” said the twelve-year-old, swinging his arms and blinking hard.
Marta took a sip of lemonade, hesitating. With her other hand she fiddled with the loose strings of her fraying cutoff jeans. The pieces of ice clinked melodically as she set the glass beside her. Finally she asked, “Are you alright?”
“It’s my dog, Bug. He’s dead,” blurted out the boy, turning away briefly to wipe his eyes.
“Oh. How’d he – what happened?” asked Marta.
He opened his mouth but seemed incapable of speech. Instead, he stared intently down at the bottom step where a plastic bucket had been left, a wet rag slung over its side.
“Hey,” said Marta quickly. “How about some lemonade? Come sit and we’ll talk.”
The kid shook his head. He took a deep breath, trying to regain control. “Got run over. Come and look,” said the boy. He walked to the gate and looked back at Marta, who hadn’t yet moved. “Marta?” he said expectantly.
She had no choice but to follow him through the gate, past her gleaming pickup, out to the narrow country road and down the hill to where the Moore’s decrepit grey farmhouse was situated on the corner. Chickens scratched in a dirt yard among discarded footballs and rubber boots. There, in the gravel beside the ditch, lay Bug. Dead.
A silent moment passed as woman and boy stared at the dried-up hound. Even in life he hadn’t been a handsome animal. Several patches of hair were missing due to a spreading ringworm infection. His already filthy fur was matted with dried blood, and the gravel was stained with it. One leg stuck out in an unnatural angle. Sightless, filmy eyes watched through half-closed lids. The mouth was open in a toothy grin, tongue hanging out.
“I’m sorry, um, Mat,” she said gently.
“Max,” he said quietly. Taking a deep breath, he choked, “I’m staying with Gramma, so I come to feed Bug and found…”
“He got ran over,” finished Marta. “He probably died instantly, at least not suffering…”
Max shook his head jerkily, blinking fiercely again. “See how he scratched up the rocks? I think he was tr– trying to come home,” he whimpered, pointing at the blood stains trailing from several yards down the road to the place where the dog had died.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, but the boy remained silent. “Look, he shouldn’t have always been running loose, you know? You should’ve had a fence around that yard. It was bound to happen eventually. I mean, I’ve seen him chasing cars, bicycles…”
“I–I know. I should’ve took better care of him.” He stared at his feet.
Marta crossed her arms a bit impatiently. She listened to the whining of an insect. “Well…” she said very slowly. “I’ve really got to go–”
“Won’t you help me bury him?” asked Max anxiously.
“Oh, but I–I’ve got to–” spluttered Marta, casting about for an excuse good enough to leave a kid alone to dig a grave for his own pet. “I’ve got to go to town, because… Don’t you want your grandmother…?”
“She can’t walk so well,” said Max. “She’s got an oxygen tank, too.” He gazed at her hopefully, his dark eyes intense. At last Marta nodded. He gave her a watery smile before running off toward the shed for shovels. She sighed, lifting her sunglasses to press her hands over her tired eyes, groaning inwardly.
The afternoon crawled by as Marta, with her shovel, trudged from corner to corner of the lot searching for the ideal location to dig the hole. Marta’s conscience wouldn’t allow Max to tear up his stepmother’s feeble flower garden. The dusty front yard, with its soil baked solid, turned out to be impossible to work. Marta spent a good twenty minutes trying to convince Max to put the grave somewhere out of sight, behind the pump house, or even in the northeast corner with the burn pile and the discarded toilet and the rusted out car. Finally, she suggested the patch of soft grass in the backyard under the maple tree. Max had reservations but Marta, wiping sweat from her brow and pushing her sunglasses higher on her nose, had already begun to dig. The hole grew as the sun reached its height in the sky. Marta was glad for the tree’s shade. Her bare arms were already prickling with sunburn, and the job wasn’t easy. The hole needed to be extraordinarily big. Marta only supposed that the Moore family had an unexpected sense of irony when they chose the dog’s name. Bug’s breeding was a mystery, but the neighborhood had agreed he must have been some kind of Pitbull-Rottweiler-Mastiff cross. At last they returned to the road to get Bug. They each took two of his stiff legs and lugged the big guy to the back yard, followed by lazy black flies. Marta rushed to drop Bug in the hole and brush a flea off her hand. With their shovels, they scooped the earth over him, patting it down firmly.
“I guess we should say something,” said Max, giving Marta a look out of the corner of his eye. She didn’t take the hint.
“You start,” she replied, fanning herself with her dirty hand and remembering longingly the glass of lemonade she’d left on the porch. It had surely warmed by now, and she’d neglected to refill the ice cube tray. She fidgeted, hoping Max would make it quick.
“Okay… Bug was a good dog. I guess he was my best friend ’cause he was always here for – me–” He gulped and nodded at Marta, expecting her to say something. Marta bit her lip.
“Well…” she began, stalling as she struggled to find something, anything, to say about the stupid dog. “Bug was definitely… I mean, what can I say about Bug? Bug… Ah! He was a very lively dog! It was like he couldn’t sit still. Even when he was sitting he was still moving, though probably that was because of the fleas. And he was always chasing something – livestock – kids – cars – and that was his downfall. Some people, those that Bug mauled, might’ve even said Bug was a vicious dog, a delinquent of the dog world. There was that one time when he scared old Marge half to death, I swear he would’ve killed her if I hadn’t whacked him with a two-by-four. I’m pretty sure that’s why she moved away that same year. And I remember one time he chased your dad right into the corner of the yard and wouldn’t let him leave until you came and dragged the brute away…” But her voice faltered and faded away as she finally noticed the shock and hurt on the boy’s face. His eyebrows were drawn together, chapped lips parted. So Marta quickly added, “Well, maybe he wasn’t so bad as all that. Herding instincts. Bug probably had some sheepdog in him, and he just wanted to hurt – I mean, herd something. He wasn’t a pure breed, but if you think about it, that really only made him even more talented! And the best part about Bug was we never had to worry about burglars around here, because Bug would’ve torn the throat out of any person he found sneaking around at night, which is also why we never have any Christmas carolers. A definite plus. And…that’s all I have to say,” she finished, somewhat lamely.
“Thanks, Marta,” said Max, gazing at the mound of dark dirt dismally.
“Welcome,” she replied, patting him once on the shoulder then turning away at last. She would have gladly sprinted away from there but she forced her steps to appear natural and slow.
“I know you killed Bug.”
Marta tripped a step and stopped. The day felt as if it had lost its heat. She could nearly see her own breath as she turned, her steps crunching on the icy grass. “What?” she asked, with a laugh.
“There’s a big band-aid on your leg,” stated Max, also turning to look at her, his eyes shining but cold.
“He musta bit you.”
Marta wiped her sweaty hands on her shorts. “No, that’s from barbwire, I was crossing the back fence and…” But her mind went quite blank.
“I would’ve knowed when I saw that dent in your nice truck,” said Max, eyes narrowed. “I guessed it was a fender bender–”
“That’s been there ages!”
Max’s eyes grew wider and he stepped back as if he’d been shoved. “And you even just washed your truck! You’re getting blood off, weren’t you?”
“Look kid, I don’t have to get interrogated every time I wash my truck or mow my lawn or–”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” he demanded angrily. Marching forward, he bellowed in her face, “WHY’D YOU HAVE TO GO AN’ KILL MY DOG?”
“It was an accident!” she yelped, backing away with her hands held protectively before her.
“No it wasn’t! You’re a dog murderer!” He pointed an accusing finger at her.
“Fine, I killed Bug! He was a bad dog, he was vicious–” yelled Marta, hair flying as she gestured wildly. “If it hadn’t been me, it would’ve been someone else! The whole neighborhood was scared to death of that–”
“He was just territorial!”
“Well, he never stayed in his own territory, did he? Terrorised the whole–” shouted Marta with her hands on her hips.
“He was just playing!” yelled Max, his voice cracking.
“Oh, playing with his teeth?” she scoffed.
Max raised his hand to strike her, and for one fearful moment his fist remained poised, shaking. Then with effort he dropped it, his face tormented.
“Get out of here! Get home, Marta!” he spat, and she ran then, first to protect herself, then to be far enough away to not hear him, hating how the kid sobbed and cursed. When he yelled again it hurt like a punch in the gut, and she covered her ears but there was no keeping the words out.
“You know why I stayed at Gramma’s? So I wouldn’t be with him! You know why Bug ch-chased him in that corner? You know why Bug slept in front of my door at night? You know why Bug was my best– my best friend? Huh? You know why, Marta?”
Up the road, past the pickup she flew and through the gate. She leaped the steps in one bound, sending the glass of lemonade flying in her hurry, yanked open the screen door and slammed the heavy wooden door shut behind her, stumbling over the pile of sandals and shoes to look out the front window, but the yard and the road were empty. Tiptoeing to the kitchen, she drew the yellow curtain back and dared peek out the window that faced the Moores’ place. Through the yellowing leaves of the parched hydrangea, beyond the pasture where a few of her sheep lounged, she could see a single lonesome figure. The boy was still in his backyard, under his tree, kneeling beside the grave of his dog and shaking with sobs, because everything was lost.
Gasping, Marta turned away and slid down the wall to sit on the linoleum floor, finally removing her sunglasses and snapping them in two.