PARCHED RIVER, 1980 • by Justin Cox

I’ve never shot a gun, and suddenly, Quinton is pressing the grip of a long-nosed revolver into my palm.

I don’t anticipate its weight. The chilly steel.

We’re cousins, but I’m new to life in Parched River.

I’m used to AC and packed lunches. Sidewalks and shrubs. Khakis and private school. I didn’t realize there were still people out there who lived without electricity, let alone indoor plumbing. Or places where school buses wouldn’t come, and scraps of corrugated metal served as roofing for people’s homes. But Dad is dead now, and Mom is a grieving zombie in some facility that’s supposed to bring her back from living death. So, here I am — four months and counting with a maternal aunt and her two fatherless sons I’d met just twice before, one of those occasions being Dad’s funeral. They are kind but aloof. Quiet folks my father once described as “hardscrabble but decent.”

“You’re gonna shoot him right on top the head,” Quinton tells me in his laconic drawl.

We’re standing in the dirt out back, next to a meager pigpen made of rusty wires and knobbed posts where our dinner oinks and snorts its curiosity at our presence with an upturned snout and pricked forward ears. He’s about a quarter as big as the two bathtub-sized hogs in the enclosure with him. I want to ask why he’s been chosen, but I keep my trap shut. I always seem to get answers I don’t want around here.

“Drop some that corn on the ground right there,” Quinton croaks, nodding to a crate of rotting corn heads while pointing to a rutted section of dirt just a few feet from us, beyond the sharp cables.

I do as I’m told, and the pig eagerly darts to its putrid last meal.

I’m surprised at how pink and tightly wound his tiny coil of tail is. How he’s seduced to happiness — and death — so simply.

“Come on now,” Quinton instructs through a barely unclasped jaw.

He’s seventeen, just three years my senior, but time moves differently here. An unlit cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth. His hands are thick from labor, calloused and cracked. He’s the primary breadwinner of this hand-to-mouth outpost, and has a baby somewhere who he visits on alternating weekends.

I don’t move, so Quinton takes my forearm and hoists it toward the unwitting animal’s head. When he lets go, my hand starts to shake bad. The gun suddenly weighs a ton. In my hesitation, the pig gobbles up the corn then looks at us, sidling up and sniffing my pant leg. He thinks I might feed him again. I can feel his warm breath, and he reminds me of my old dog.

I grit my teeth.

If I’ve learned anything lately, it’s that everything dies anyways — everything.

I flex my muscles against the tremors, try to focus the sight on the creature’s skull, but he’s weaving back and forth, looking for the corn he figures I have on me.

“I can’t get a good look,” I say, lowering the pistol.

“Here.” Quinton scoops up another rancid tube of corn and saws it into one of the pen’s wires. It hangs there just right, so the porkling will have to still its head to get it.

My mouth wells with saliva like I’m gonna puke.

I raise the pistol again.

I don’t have to swing my arm around anymore to get the barrel facing the flat triangle of the pig’s pate. I don’t know how else to describe the sounds he’s making other than those of a cute, little pig.

I drop my hand to my side.

“Sorry…”

A solitary “huh” escapes Quinton’s lips, traced with subtle lines of bemusement. He plucks the revolver from my grasp and — in a quick, fluid motion — settles the muzzle between the animal’s eyes and blasts it dead.

The screech is like nothing I’ve ever heard as the thing keels over, legs stiff and stuck out straight as poles. Its cloven feet quiver, then it gives up the ghost with a final grunted breath that cyclones the dirt around its mouth. There’s a slight dribble of blood leaking from one nostril. A nostril that, only moments ago, was nosing me up for another treat.

Bile crawls into my mouth.

Quinton flicks open the cylinder and dumps the remaining bullets into his palm, shoves them in one pocket, the gun in another. He digs a lighter from his chest pocket, kindles his cigarette, draws hard on it, then pushes a thick garland of smoke out of his nose.

“Grady!” Quinton shouts after his twelve-year-old brother. “Come get this pig with James and bring him round front.”

He cuts me a look before stalking back to the trailer. It’s not frustration or even disappointment. It’s like wonder, questioning how something like me comes to be.

Everything considered, I can’t help asking myself the same thing.


Justin Cox teaches Algebra in NYC where he lives with his fiancee. He has ABI (Acquired Brain Injury) and is an advocate for spreading awareness about this invisible malady. His story “Larry” achieved #1 status among EDF’s “Top Stories” category.


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