The Possum by Kevin Winchester

Donnie Flowers liked Budweiser beer, every song George Jones ever recorded, and his job. He liked his brother’s kid, James, too, just not as much as George, Bud, or his job dispatching the trucks at the dump, but those were beyond compare. In one sense, he felt sorry for James, even pitied him a little, but Donnie realized those feelings weren’t really directed at James, but had more to do with his brother being such a tool.

Over the years, Donnie tried to compensate. His brother and his sanctimonious sister-in-law adopted James as a toddler, just in time for his first birthday, and immediately began to scar the kid with their worldview. The summer James turned ten, they sent him for a week at Math & Science Bible Camp hoping James would gain an outside perspective on guilt while learning the fuzzy math needed to properly calculate the age of the earth to explain dinosaurs and disprove evolution once and for all. Donnie rescued him on the fourth day, claiming a family emergency. He spent the next two days teaching James to chew tobacco and shoot empty Bud bottles with a .22. Donnie dropped James at the camp’s front gate on the last scheduled day and drove away, making James swear he’d not tell his parents when they arrived an hour later to take him home. It was a bonding experience for both and a tradition was established.

Donnie saw James and that black kid walking along the back fence of the dump, climbed on the four-wheeler and rode to meet them. “Hidee-ho James. Colton, what’s happening, homey?” He held up the black power soul brother fist for Colton. “You boys shooting rats today?” he asked.

“Hey Uncle Donnie. Which yard’s open?”

“East lot. Nobody’s working over there until end of the week. Won’t nobody bother you. Fresh stuff, too. Stinking like a dead polecat in August. Be plenty of rats out.”

James and Colton kept walking. Donnie eased the four-wheeler along on the opposite side of the fence. “Must be something heavy on your mind,” he said. “You ain’t been out in months.”

“Thinking about a career change, is all.”

“Well, shooting rats’ll sure clear your mind. You remember where I cut the fence for you, right?”

“It ain’t been that long, Uncle Donnie. We got it. Want us to leave you a couple beers in the usual place?” Colton held up the twelve pack, which now held eight beers.

“Naw. Much as I’d like one, better not chance it. Old Barack Hussein Obama’s got the economy so screwed up, they’re even laying off County workers. Best not give them a reason. No offense, Colton. I don’t care that he’s black nor that he’s one of them Muslims, you understand.”

“None taken, sir. I know what you mean.”

“Good, good. I best get back to the dispatch shack. You boys have fun.”

James and Colton settled in. They positioned themselves on a small pile of garbage partially covered in dirt. The ground was uneven, but James found an old cooler and Colton a five-gallon plastic bucket for seats. They wedged them into the dirt and trash, trying to get a stable foundation for aiming. In a few minutes, the first rat crawled to the top side of a freezer that lie on its side forty yards away. James took a pull from his beer and pointed at the varmint with the can. “Fat one. You take him.”

“You can have the first shot if you want it.”

“Go ahead. I’ll take the next one.”

Colton raised the .22, sighted and squeezed. His shot plinked off target by a couple inches and hit the rat in the hindquarters. It fell spread-eagled, its front claws trying to gain traction on the slick sides of the freezer as it slid toward the edge. It caught itself on the rubber gasket where the door once connected and hung by its front paws, swinging slightly left to right as it tried to haul itself to safety. Colton sighted again. The force of his second shot knocked the rat inside the freezer.

“Good one,” James told him and took the rifle. “Extra points for style.”

“So what’s next?” Colton asked.

“It’ll come to me. You just got to stay open to the possibilities the universe offers, C-note. Chill-ax. You worry too much.”

James wanted life to be just that easy, as easy as shooting rats. Spot your target, aim, squeeze, and done. The past week, like most of his life, proved that untrue. It started last Sunday evening when he dropped Brittany in front of her house and pulled away as she stumbled up the walk and inside, where her parents waited. An hour past curfew and more than one Smirnoff Ice past her limit. After her father calling his father, and his father saying “it’s the last straw” over and over, after taking the Marine Corps entrance test yet again, after failing it yet again, James was essentially homeless, jobless, and according to Britt’s dad, girlfriend-less. He ended the week with a night of celebrating his newfound independence, which led to Colton picking him up from the Mason County Jail this morning. None of it fazed James, not really. It didn’t count as real, not yet. James knew that somewhere his real life waited, concrete and three-dimensional, all he had to do was find it.

Two more rats appeared and crawled inside the freezer to inspect the damage inflicted upon their cousin. After a minute or two, one waddled out and started edging its way along the backrest of a broken sofa, its body silhouetted in the slanted rays of sunlight.

“Not worried about me,” Colton answered. “I took deferred enrollment, remember? I start classes this fall.”

“Oh yeah. Almost forgot. Gonna be a college boy.” James pulled the trigger and the rat fell out of sight behind the couch. “Lectures, classes, tests, reading, for God’s sake. Bor—ing.” He handed the gun back to Colton.

The second rat followed the same path toward the sofa and Colton tracked him through the scope. “You could take some classes at the community college,” he offered. James grunted. Colton squeezed off the shot. The rat squealed as it died. “You know, learn a trade, if nothing else, something to draw a paycheck. We’re not high school kids anymore.”

“Got bigger things in mind, a real payday. Something’ll come along.”

“What about Brittany?” Colton reloaded the magazine, slid it back in place, and chambered a shell. “How you gonna patch things up with her?”

“Britt?” Yeah, that was a question, even before the latest interruption by her father. There’d been plenty of hints and innuendo the past few months. They’d been hooking up for well over a year, since James graduated but, with her own high school graduation looming, Brittany now mentioned things like the future, responsibility—a job, often enough that it made James uneasy. She wanted to be a photographer, she had plans. Sure, she was a hook-up, at first, but somewhere along the line he realized that, even when she wasn’t around, he thought about her, remembered something silly she’d said, the way her forehead furrowed just so when she concentrated on getting the right angle or focus for a shot. But that wasn’t the kind of thing he could tell Colton, or anyone else.

“That stuff’s there any time I want it,” James said. “Naw, I’m thinking older, a cougar maybe, one with a paycheck and an itch needing to be scratched. Damn, look at that one.” James stood and pointed to the corner of the garbage pile where a larger rodent had just come into view.

“Yeah, you keep thinking that, it’ll be you and Rosie.” Colton looked through the scope. “Ain’t a rat. That’s a possum.” He stood up for a better look. “Yep. Possum.”

There. Right there. Plan on shooting rats, along comes a possum. No point planning on anything, the universe didn’t run on, or care about, any plans.

“My shot, gimme the rifle,” James insisted.

Colton took a step toward James with the gun outstretched. The rubbish beneath him shifted and he lost his balance. When the .22 hit the ground, it went off and the shell Colton had chambered rifled out of the barrel and through the top of James’ right foot and out the bottom before burrowing into a discarded bassinette. James grabbed his ankle with both hands and started hopping around yelling, “ow, ow, ow,” until he finally fell over backward. He let go of his ankle, but kept his foot in the air. Colton got up, walked over, and leaned in for a closer look. He inspected the top side of James’ shoe where the bullet entered and which was now staining red. He grabbed James’ heel and turned his foot to inspect the bottom where the shell exited. James “ow-ed” a couple more times.

“Ha. Went right through,” Colton said.

“What’s it look like on the bottom?” James asked.

“You remember that commercial where they shot an apple or some kind of fruit in slow motion? How it kind of exploded out, all jagged, and stuff? Looks like that.” He took his thumb and pushed on the sole of James’ tennis shoe an inch below the wound. “That hurt?” he asked.

“You bastard,” James said and jerked his foot away. “Help me up.”

Colton looked toward the trash pile, and then picked up the rifle. “Hang on a second,” he said.

The possum never saw it coming.


About the Author:

Kevin Winchester is a North Carolina native and now lives in the Waxhaw area. He holds a BA in English from Wingate University and a MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University. He is currently the Director of the Writing Center at Wingate University where he also teaches Creative Writing. His short story collection, Everybody’s Gotta Eat, released in the summer of 2009. Other short fiction has recently appeared in Gulf Coast Literary and Arts Journal, Story South, Barrelhouse, Southern Hum, and the anthology Everything But the Baby. His creative non-fiction has appeared recently in the Novello Press anthology entitled Making Notes: Music in the Carolinas and also in Tin House Literary Magazine.

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