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…
G. Lloyd Helm
Hugh Dowell sat on his high porch in a rickety grey rocking-chair. His whole house, sided with poplar clapboard, was greying, and what little paint there was, was blistered and peeling. The house was no different than any other farm house in Izard county, north central Arkansas. Dowell looked out at the road that ran before his house, not really seeing it. He didn’t notice his cousin Brody Lytle’s red dust-coated pickup truck rattling down the road until it turned into his rutted drive. A man and a boy got out of the truck.
“Howdy, Hugh…” the man called.
Dowell blinked and came out of his thoughts. “Hey, Brody…Gene. How ya’ll doin’?”
“Just dandy,” the man said, as the two came to the bottom of the steps.
“How ’bout you?”
“Makin’ it, I reckon,” Hugh said. He did not smile and that was strange. Hugh almost always had a smile on his bony face.
Gene Lytle, Brody’s son, noticed the difference in his cousin and began to pay more attention.
“Uncle Ned Johnson said you wanted to see me,” Brody said. He was a direct man. Business first, social amenities after.
Hugh ran his blue–grey eyes over the man and the boy, then raked his teeth over his bottom lip. “I need a favour, Brody. I… Well… I reckon I oughta be able to do it myself, but…well…”
Brody knew what was coming and dreaded it.
“…I want ya to put ol’ Tough outta his misery,” Hugh finished, looking at his shoes, the floor, his hands – anywhere but at Brody. At last his eyes settled on Gene.
The boy frowned. He didn’t understand what his cousin was talking about. He knew Tough – Hugh’s droop-eared hound dog. He and Tough had hunted and romped together since Gene could remember. His whole life. But ‘misery’? How could Tough be in misery?
“Man oughta take care of his own dog, Hugh,” Brody said.
“I took him out the other day,” Hugh said. “But I just couldn’t do it.” He kept looking down. There was something in his face that Gene didn’t recognize. Something odd.
“Dog’s been with me a long time,” Hugh continued. “Long time.” The rocker creaked as he re–arranged himself a little.
“I have that kind of trouble too,” Brody said, slow and soft, not condemning. He took a deep breath then and tipped his cap back on his head. “I didn’t bring no gun,” he said.
“Use mine. Only right.” Hugh relaxed visibly and began to rock a little.
August’s heat was like a great broody hen over the land. Cicadas screeched in time with the shimmer of heat rising from the baked dust of the road. Clouds were pushing in from the horizon, mashing down the damp heat.
“A’right. Get the gun,” Brody said. “You’ll do the buryin’ too.” It was not a question and left no room for doubts.
Hugh nodded, relief on his face. He went to get the gun.
Gene did not understand the gravity of the men. He felt only excitement at the prospect of shooting Tough. It was boiling in him.
Brody glanced down at Gene. He had forgotten the boy was there, and now regretted bringing him along. He could see the excitement bubbling in the child and hated it. “This ain’t no tent show for little boys to get wiggly over. You go on home.”
Gene’s face fell. “But, Daddy…”
“No ‘but, Daddy’. You don’t need to see this. Get on home.”
Gene turned stubborn and kicked at the bottom step. “But I been huntin’ and stuff. I’m eight years old…almost nine. Why can’t I go?”
Brody remembered the end of his own innocence and the kindness in him did not want Gene to lose his so soon. “This ain’t like huntin’, Gene. Not at all.”
“But, Daddy…I want to!”
Brody looked down at the boy for a long time. “Maybe it is time,” he said to himself. “Maybe it is…”
Hugh came around the side of the house carrying a single barrel shotgun and a long-handled shovel. He leaned them against the porch and took a piece of cord out of his pocket. “Here, Tough,” he called. “C’mere, Tough!”
The dog came out from under the porch. He tried to dance like a pup, but was too stiff. He ended by only wagging his tail.
Hugh dropped the cord loop over Tough’s head and tightened it. The dog shied. He was not used to having anything around his neck, and he never had been led on a leash.
Gene reached down and patted the dog’s sorrel head. He said nothing, hoping his father would not notice him anymore so that he could just tag along. Anticipation fountained in him. Joyful. He felt joyful.
Hugh took the shovel and started across the field. Brody hesitated a moment, then picked up the shotgun and followed him. Gene hurried to step beside his father. The man glanced down at the boy but did not forbid his coming along.
Hugh looked back, saw the boy beside the man and stopped until they caught up. He examined Brody’s face, looking for a reason Gene was coming along. He found nothing. No permission, no prohibition, nothing. After a moment he turned and went on.
The three walked in silence, the men taking long strides so that the boy had to almost run to keep up. They walked toward a grove of pines Hugh and Brody had planted when they were boys. The trees were tall, but not too big around, being only twenty years old. The branches wove together and made the shade beneath the trees thick. Clouds flickered the light and Cicadas screamed, their rising and falling rhythm hypnotic. Thunder grumbled far off.
Deep in the pine thicket they came to a clearing with a single tree standing in the midst of it. Hugh led Tough to the tree and tied him there. T Tough whined a little then lay down and was quiet.
Hugh leaned the shovel against the tree and drew tobacco sack and cigarette papers from his overalls bib pocket. “Smoke, Brody?” he asked, taking a paper from the package and folding it.
“No,” the other answered.
Hugh looked at the tobacco, mulched it with his fingers and put it away unused.
Flies buzzed, but their hum was mostly lost in the scream of the cicadas. Gene’s heart was beating fast. His cheeks were beginning to ache from grinning. He was excited and happy. There was no sadism in him – no more cruelty than in any small boy, but there was a festival rolling in his chest; a celebration for the end of old Tough; and the beginning of something else too. Something Gene could see far off, but did not understand.
Hugh began digging a hole at the side of the clearing. Thunder grumbled almost overhead, and a few drops of rain spattered down. Hugh took no notice of the small wet. Perspiration stained his armpits and made a dark delta down the back of his shirt.
Brody opened the shotgun and pulled out the shell for no good reason. He looked it over and thunked it back into the breech. He cradled the opened gun over his arm and wiped his hands on his shirt front, then pulled the shell out again, looked it over and again returned it to the breech. This time he clicked the breech closed. The noise made Tough raise his head, but then he laid it down on his outstretched paws again.
Gene watched his father and recognized the out-of-place nervousness of him, but he did not understand it. He looked from man to dog. Gleeful blood pounded in his ears. Anticipation was a coppery taste on his tongue.
Brody lifted the gun to his shoulder, delayed a moment, trying to take careful aim, but Tough’s head was down. Brody let the gun down from his shoulder. “Hugh, call him when I say to,” he said.
Brody brought the gun up again and pushed the butt tight against his shoulder. He wanted this quick and precise and merciful for Tough. He didn’t want to quiver and miss. He cocked the hammer and the thicket became silent. Cicadas stopped their screech and flies stopped their humming. The air was thick and damp.
Hugh heard the click of the hammer and stopped his digging. He saw the tightness growing in Brody’s trigger finger.
“Now,” Brody said.
“Tough,” Hugh called.
The dog lifted his head…
The blast shook the sounds loose in the thicket. Birds whirled up; flies hummed; cicadas began their ululation. Half of Tough’s head was gone. Blood spattered on the sapling and on the ground. Smoke from the shot, blue and misty, dissipated in the still air.
Excitement fled from Gene when the shot exploded. An aching, sick hollow opened in his stomach and forced itself toward his throat. Tears started. He felt desolation and shame and horror at what he had been only a second before, and he turned away. He ran into the woods and did not look back.
Brody saw the change in his son, but he did not follow the boy. His arms ached to hold the child and tell him everything was alright, but he knew Gene would never be the same again. Gene could never be coaxed back into the belief that everything was the same in the world as it had been a few moments before.
Hugh moved Tough tenderly to the shallow grave. He laid the dog in and began slowly scooping dirt over him.
Brody broke open the shotgun and pulled out the spent shell. He dropped it and cradled the open gun in the crook of his arm. He watched Hugh shovel for a little while then rubbed his hands over his face and squatted down, putting the gun over his knees.
Rain began pelting down, but neither man noticed or hurried. After a time Brody said, “Hugh, I’ll take that smoke now.”
G. Lloyd Helm is 69 years old and was born in Arkansas. The writer has travelled around the world, and now lives in Lancaster CA.