A shadowed mass stumbled out of the reeds. A skunk, pawing at nothing in particular, winced at the sun and shook unsteadily under its own weight. Rocco, always playful, nosed the creature while dancing around the dazed animal.
Isaac ran up the stairs, gun in hand. Jason had escaped his grasp one too many times; today, Isaac would finally lock him up for good. If Jason got away, aliens would invade the Earth . . . or something. But Isaac was the best superhero-slash-policeman there was, and he was right on Jason’s trail.
They reached the top of the stairs and rounded the corner sharply, one right after the other, into Jason’s bedroom. The midday sun fell through the window onto Jason’s shoulders.
“You’ll never get away with this!” shouted Isaac, pointing the gun with one hand and shielding his eyes from the sun with the other. “I’m gonna lock you up in jail forever!”
“Isaac,” said Jason, exasperated, relaxing his grip on the sword he held. “I’m the good guy. You’re supposed to say something evil, like, ‘I will take over the world!’” Jason did his best evil laugh.
Isaac pouted. Jason was always the good guy when they played together. In fact, Isaac never got a word in about what they were playing at all and when he tried to disagree with Jason, he was always ignored. He stood, silent.
“Baby,” said Jason under his breath. It was said still loud enough for Isaac to hear, however, and that was the last straw. Isaac closed one eye, aimed his gun at Jason’s head, and pulled the trigger. A foam dart flew across the room and hit Jason in the eye. Jason screamed out, holding one hand to the injured eye. Isaac was unsure if Jason was faking for effect or if he was actually hurt. Either way, for a moment, Isaac was happy.
Jason pulled his hand away from his eye and gripped the plastic sword with two hands, staring at Isaac with teeth bared. His right eye was a little red.
He lunged at Isaac and swung the sword at his torso with all the strength he had. It made solid contact with Isaac who dropped to the ground, curled up in a ball, and covered his head in his hands. He knew that when Jason got like this, the best thing to do was to minimize the damage and wait until Jason got tired or bored. Besides, the sword didn’t hurt that much.
Jason whacked Isaac a few more times before placing one foot on top of Isaac’s back in a triumphant, victorious pose.
From downstairs, they heard their mom shout, “Lunch is ready!”
Jenna and Frank listened to the thunderous footsteps fly down the stairs. When they entered the room, Jenna, cutting some sandwiches, asked, “Jason, can you let Rocco out?”
Jason nudged Isaac in the back with his elbow, propelling Isaac towards the sliding glass door. Isaac opened the door while Jenna pretended not to notice, and the dog wandered out sniffing at the ground.
Jason sat beside Frank, who sipped coffee and, with a pair of glasses hanging onto the edge of his nose, scrolled through his phone at the kitchen table. Isaac joined them after a moment, and Jenna placed a sandwich down in front of each spot before sitting down herself. The family began to eat.
Frank asked, “What did you boys think about Mass today?”
“Father William fucked up a couple times.” Jason was an altar boy, often critical of the aging, forgetful Father. Jenna condemned Jason’s language at the table, Isaac chuckled to himself, and Frank nodded knowingly. Outside, Rocco barked.
“Isaac?” Frank took a bite of his sandwich, studying his youngest.
“I liked it.”
“Come on,” said Jason coldly. “You were playing on mom’s phone the whole time.”
“Jase . . .” Jenna stared incredulously, but Jason continued. Rocco barked once more.
“You know Father William asked me if you were retarded this morning? I told him—”
“Jason.” Frank looked up from his lunch at Jason and saw a reflection darkly. Rocco growled. Jason knew better than to continue when his father inserted himself like this. “Go check what Rocco is barking at.” Jason kicked at Isaac’s shins under the table before standing up and walking to the sliding door.
Jenna leaned over to Isaac and tried to gauge his feelings. He wore a neutral expression and remained focused on his meal. She hoped he might forget anything Jason had said. “What did you like about the service today?” Isaac shrugged his shoulders.
“Dad?” The rest of the family turned to look at Jason.
“Rocco’s chasing after something in the brush.”
Frank pushed off of the table, stood up from his chair, and walked over to the door, his mug of coffee in hand. He eyed Rocco who ran in and out of the tall grass, pausing briefly to wag his tail before diving back in.
A shadowed mass stumbled out of the reeds. A skunk, pawing at nothing in particular, winced at the sun and shook unsteadily under its own weight. Rocco, always playful, nosed the creature while dancing around the dazed animal. Jason scrunched his nose anticipating the foul smell that he knew would cling to Rocco like moss. Jenna, gently craning her neck, asked, “What is it, hun?”
“It’s rabid,” stated Frank, and he got into action. Opening the double doors that housed the kitchen pantry, Frank reached for the top shelf and grabbed a sleek, plain hunting rifle. He then walked over to the kitchen cabinets and opened the furthest one on the right, pushed aside some coffee filters and unused mugs, grabbed a box of bullets, and placed them on the counter, taking out two and putting them in his shirt pocket.
Standing up now, watching her husband, Jenna said, “Jason, take your brother upstairs.”
“Now, Jason,” Jenna interrupted. They were all watching as Frank walked brusquely into the backyard and, while circumventing the skunk as best as he could, grabbed Rocco by the collar and began pulling him indoors. Jason, without a thought about Isaac, sprinted up the stairs. Isaac watched and wondered at his dad, gun slung casually over his shoulder, reaching into his shirt pocket, returning outside and staring stone-faced at the skunk. After a moment, he chased Jason upstairs, wondering why he had acquiesced so quickly.
Isaac found him standing at the bathroom window looking down onto the backyard. Pulling the seat lid down, Isaac climbed onto the toilet just in time to hear the crack of the gun, the echoes of the shot cascading throughout the countryside. Following his brother’s gaze, he looked and saw his dad standing still, staring down the barrel at the skunk now lying motionless on the grass. For several moments, time stood still; no one in the house moved or made a sound. Frank brought the heel of the rifle down from his shoulder.
Jason ran downstairs and, ignoring his mom, opened the glass door to get a closer look. Frank, turning to see who had joined him, said, “Grab a shovel from the garage, will you?” Jason, excited to be trusted with such an important task, ran around the side of the house toward the garage. Frank walked inside, put the extra bullet into the box, and placed the box back up into the kitchen cabinet. He then put away the rifle on the top shelf of the pantry and pulled a trash bag from beneath the kitchen sink. Finally, Frank grabbed a pair of rubber gloves from the bathroom closet and returned outside. Jenna sat at the kitchen table holding Rocco by the collar, petting him and trying her best to contain his excitement. When Frank shut the sliding door on his way out once more, she let the dog go, and he went to watch with his nose pressed up against the glass. Upstairs, also with his nose to the glass was Isaac, who still stood balanced upon the toilet lid, unmoving, staring at the skunk with a hole through its body and foam at the mouth.
Jason returned from the garage with a waist-high garden shovel. Frank, donning the gloves, grabbed the shovel and told Jason to return inside. He protested, but arguments never got far with his father. He returned inside, careful not to let the dog out.
Using the shovel, Frank picked up the skunk as cleanly as he could and slid it into the trash bag. Then, with the shovel in one hand and the bag in the other, he walked into the small maple stand behind their house. Orange leaves covered the ground. Finding a spot on even ground, Frank dug into the Earth until he felt the hole was deep enough so no curious animals (including Rocco) would find the skunk. Then, turning the bag upside down, he poured the creature out and covered it with humus. He paused for a moment in the woods before he walked back. Frank remembered when he tossed a handful of dirt on his father’s coffin before it was lowered into the earth; his father had taught him how to hunt. Soon, he would teach Jason to fire that same rifle. In a few years, he would teach Isaac the same. Frank silently asked God to pity the skunk in death, then he turned around and walked home.
Meanwhile, Jenna was on the phone with the local veterinarian. With the phone pinned between her ear and shoulder, she asked if there were any availabilities today while searching Rocco with her hands for bite marks. Satisfied there were none, Jenna walked upstairs in search of Isaac while she listened to herself get put on hold.
“Isaac?” She found him stepping down from the toilet, silent tears on his cheek. “Oh baby,” she muttered, wrapping her arms around the child, phone in hand.
“Why did he kill it?” Isaac asked, looking down, frowning, his forehead scrunched. Jenna heard the receptionist at the veterinary come back on the line.
“It was sick,” she said, putting the phone back up to her ear and grabbing Isaac’s hand. She confirmed Rocco’s appointment for that afternoon and returned her attention to Isaac. “We’re going to bring Rocco to the vet later, but when we get back, want to get takeout from La Vera?”
Isaac had not even considered that Rocco could have been hurt by the skunk; when he heard his mom say they were bringing him to the veterinary, that was simply all too much, and Isaac began to sob. Jenna hugged him tightly and whispered that Rocco would be alright, they just needed to make absolutely sure by checking in with the doctor. Isaac tried to speak through snot and tears but couldn’t get the words out. They heard the downstairs door slide open.
“Let’s go talk to dad, okay?” Jenna tried gently to pull Isaac out of the bathroom but, for a moment, he held his ground and shook his head. Jenna tilted her head to the side questioningly. “Come on,” she said kindly, and Isaac followed her downstairs.
The family, with Rocco panting at their feet, returned and stood at the kitchen table. Jason had returned the shovel to the garage, Frank had thrown away the trash bag, and Jenna had wiped Isaac’s tears. It was decided at this point, through rapid conversation between Jenna and Frank, that the two of them would take Rocco to the veterinary while Jason and Isaac stayed at home. They began to stand and get ready to leave. Jason, however, was unsatisfied.
“Will Rocco die?” He asked. Frank and Jenna eyed each other.
“There is a chance,” Frank began cautiously, “that Rocco will die if he has been bitten.”
“But even if he has been bitten,” Jenna added, “we can get him a booster shot and he will probably be alright.”
Jason thought about this for a moment, then said forcefully, “I want to come with you.” Once again Jenna and Frank looked at one another, speaking a silent language that only they could understand.
“Alright,” said Jenna softly. “Isaac, do you want to come?” Isaac did not know the answer to this question. He wanted to make sure Rocco would be fine, but he also wanted never to see anything that looked like that skunk again, and if there was a chance that Rocco could die. . .
Isaac shook his head. A final glance was shared before Jenna and Frank put on their shoes and coats, attached a leash to Rocco, and left with Jason in tow, locking the door behind them.
Isaac was left alone.
He watched the car pull out of the driveway and into the street from the living room window; he saw Rocco sitting in the rear of the SUV, his tongue hanging out. Even after the car rounded the corner and disappeared out of sight, Isaac still looked out the window; even as his breath fogged up the glass in front of his face, he stared out over the front lawn; even as daylight waned and the wind picked up, Isaac watched cars go by and clouds roll in for the better part of an hour.
In his mind, he saw Rocco wagging his tail and barking at something in the brush. Then, in his mind, he saw the skunk lying rotten in the grass, his dad standing above it so still. Isaac’s mind kept swapping back between these two images until, in a flash, they conflated, and it was Rocco who lay there in the backyard with a gunshot wound. Isaac rubbed his eyes to wipe away the vision. No, he thought. No, Rocco may be sick, but he isn’t shot. But he could still die. His dad had said so. Could Dad die? He had also been near the skunk. Could Mom die? Could Jason? They’re all in the car with Rocco. What if they get sick? They’re all in the car, and I am here, all alone.
Then it dawned on Isaac, in a moment, that he had never been left home alone before.
First, he was excited. Isaac turned away from the window, hopped up the stairs, and ran into Jason’s bedroom. His toy gun lay on the carpeted floor where he had dropped it earlier. Isaac picked it up and began searching the room for anything valuable. It turned out that there was nothing too interesting; either Jason was boring or he had hidden his valuables too well. Isaac did find four dollars and twenty-two cents, including a quarter with a scene from Arkansas engraved on the back, which he promptly pocketed. He moved on to the next room, leaving the gun on Jason’s bed.
In his parents’ bedroom, Isaac grew more melancholic. He remembered how, when he was younger, he would climb into their bed in the middle of the night when he had a nightmare. Isaac wondered what time they would be coming back. On the floor, he saw one of Rocco’s toys. When they came back, would they open the front door, their eyes glazed over, bearing bad news with Rocco’s leash in hand? Would they tell him they were all sick with the same disease the skunk had? Isaac returned downstairs.
He opened the double doors of the kitchen pantry looking for a snack and saw the stock of the gun peering out from the top shelf. Isaac backed away with a terrible thought: what if his family never came back? He knew that thought was ridiculous; even if everything had gone wrong, they would still come back at some point that night. But it was getting dark now, and the dark clouds had turned to rain and thunder, and surely, even if everything had gone wrong, his family should still have been back by now, right? Isaac had to dismiss the thought once more. He sat down on the couch and turned on the television in the living room. He squinted into the television glow. As he flipped through the channels, Isaac worked through more and more despicable scenarios in his head and cried quietly to himself as night fully enveloped the suburban town.
Something hit the front door. The thumping woke Isaac up from half-sleep and, after a brief pause, began again in increased intensity and frequency. Isaac tiptoed over to the door; it shook violently once more before ceasing. He stood still and held his breath. A darkness—a shadow backdropped with storm clouds and streetlights—moved past the living room windows. Isaac, deciding he did not have much time to act, ran towards the stairs hoping he could find a good-enough hiding place in his bedroom before the intruder made their way upstairs. The shadow began to move past the kitchen windows. As Isaac rounded the corner into the hallway, he watched the figure move behind the kitchen and spotted the open double doors of the pantry. With one foot on the bottom step, Isaac’s mind raced. He thought of the toy gun on Jason’s bed upstairs—and he thought of his father’s hunting rifle. Isaac ran toward the kitchen.
The pantry doors framed the boy as he looked up at the gun; Isaac needed to climb to grab it. The shadow, still moving slowly around the side of the house through the pounding rain, was nearly at the back door. Isaac acted fast. Using the pantry shelves like a ladder, he stretched his leg as far as it would go and stepped up, reaching out for the gunstock. Isaac’s fingers brushed it, and the gun inched away from him. He strained to reach it once more, his knuckles white where he held onto a lower shelf and standing on his tiptoes on a shelf lower still. Isaac had just gotten his small hand around the stock when the shelf beneath him gave way; it had broken beneath his weight, snapping in two with a sharp snap. Isaac fell backwards onto his butt. Canned vegetables and clipped bags of chips fell around him, and from the top shelf, the gun fell twisting in the air, landing on Isaac’s lap. He gripped the gun.
The sound of the pantry shelf breaking had spurred the shadow into action. It had heard the noise inside and ran to the sliding glass door, slipping in the mud and tripping over itself. When it got to the door, it pushed it open and took a few steps onto the linoleum floor. Isaac stood up and pointed the gun at the figure, his finger on the trigger and his hand on the forestock. The shadow turned to look at Isaac, took a step back, and slowly raised its shaking hands.
When Isaac and Jason relayed what had happened to Frank and Jenna later, over La Vera’s takeout, the ending of the story was never in question. Jason sat before them animated as he described his search around the side of the house and his shock at looking down the barrel of a gun that Isaac held. Isaac sat beside him nodding in agreement, occasionally interrupting with his interpretation of events.
After the brothers had finished their story, Frank and Jenna began theirs. They had sent Jason home to tell Isaac that they may be stuck waiting at the veterinarian for a few hours. After some grumbling, Jason acquiesced and agreed to walk home to warn Isaac. The walk wasn’t too long—just over a mile—and the storm clouds had not rolled in until it was too late.
As for Rocco, the veterinarian told Frank and Jenna that even if Rocco hadn’t been bitten, they could still administer the booster shot to be extra precautious. Because this was not an emergency, however, it would take a few hours to schedule them in on such short notice. The parents decided to stay, and Jason was sent off.
In the end, there was no real danger: the gun wasn’t loaded, the safety was on. It was even unclear whether or not Isaac had pulled the trigger. For all it was worth, the gun may as well have remained sitting on the top shelf of the pantry. The night continued, the boys did their homework, and after watching half of a movie together as a family, they were sent off to bed.
Jenna found Frank seated at the kitchen table dismantling the hunting rifle to its individual parts to clean. She sat down next to him and blew on her tea. “Can we talk about what happened today?”
“Pretty crazy, huh,” said Frank, looking down at the gun through the glasses hanging onto the edge of his nose, wiping down the barrel with a rag with weathered hands.
Jenna took a long sip from the mug, and said, “I want you to get rid of that thing.”
“I’m not getting rid of this,” said Frank without looking up, continuing to clean the rifle. Jenna had been trying to remain calm, but she was immediately set off.
“Jason nearly died today, Frank.”
“He was fine.”
“And you scared Isaac half to death just by killing that fucking skunk. Do you think he will just forget what happened? Either of them? Frank—look at me. Frank, what would you have done if Isaac had shot Jason?”
“He couldn’t have,” shouted Frank, his face red, “because he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing. He only found out the gun existed today.”
“The only reason he knew that gun existed is because you needed to go on an ego trip and shoot a wild animal—”
“What would you have had me do? Tell it to fuck off?”
“Something, Frank, but not shoot it ten feet away from our house!”
Jenna and Frank glared at one another, their eyes bulging and their necks strained. Jenna relaxed and put her head into her hands. “Please get rid of that thing,” she said, demoralized.
“They will be safe—”
“They can’t be.”
“I will keep them safe,” said Frank, reaching across the table and grabbing Jenna’s hand. “I will keep us safe.
“And I’ll fix the pantry shelf in the morning.”
The sun sank lower and lower each passing day. Frost began clinging to the sliding glass door in the mornings when the family awoke, and Rocco spent shorter and shorter in the backyard when he was let out.
One winter day, Isaac heard shuffling outside; it sounded like someone was putting out the trash. Isaac assumed that his parents must have returned early from visiting Aunt Susan. The shuffling continued, however, and no one had entered the house. A sudden crash signaled that one of the bins had been knocked over. Isaac stood up from the living room couch and walked to the kitchen window. Crouching beside the fallen trashcan was a raccoon. The creature ducked back into the can and, after a moment, emerged with an apple core. Rocco had heard the commotion and was standing beneath the window barking. The raccoon was either oblivious to the dog or did not care, and it remained where it stood.
Jason, listening to the events unfolding downstairs, got up from his bed. After joining Isaac and spotting the animal, he began to execute the steps as his dad had taught him over the past few months. Opening the double doors of the kitchen pantry, Jason reached for the top shelf and grabbed the hunting rifle. He then walked over to the kitchen cabinets and opened the furthest one on the right, grabbed a box of bullets, and placed them on the counter, taking out two and putting them in his pocket.
Isaac remained where he was, holding onto Rocco’s collar to keep him in place. He watched through the window as Jason walked through the backyard with the gun slung casually over his shoulder. Jason reached into his pocket, pulled out a bullet, and loaded the rifle. Isaac averted his eyes just in time to hear the crack of the gun, the echoes of the shot cascading throughout the countryside.