Today, I’m going to do something completely different. I’m going to post a piece of my work and open it up for critique. Anybody who critiques my work is then encouraged to submit a piece of their own work for critique (please only submit short sections of your work….we don’t have time to critique an entire novel, today). You can either post your piece in the comments or you can email it to me at email@example.com. I can critique it privately or post it on here and open it up for public critique…just let me know what your prefer.
I’m going to start this out with a short story from my upcoming collection: Willow Moon. This is real first generation work….it hasn’t been edited at all.
(Not Yet Titled)
From Willow Moon
Written By: AC Willis
“The storm blew in, just in time.” My best friend, Jace, yells at me from across the bed of his 4×4 truck.
“Huh?” My attention is on securing the buck to the truck bed.
Jace points to the sky and repeats, “The storm…” I look up at the dark clouds rolling in. “It came just in time!”
I nod in agreement and spit out the wad of tobacco that had been setting between my lip and gum throughout today’s hunt. “Better get the tarp then.”
Jace nods his head and gets to securing the tarp over today’s kill. My head is achingly foggy…it has been this entire trip. There’s something about this place; these woods that haunts me. My thoughts turn to foreboding and I instinctively look toward the sky.
Shivers run through my body as I survey the heaviness of the clouds. “Looks like thunder and lightin’…lots of rain, too.” When my eyes meet Jace’s face, I notice that he is finished with the tarp and staring at me; his eyebrows creased. A little embarrassed, I open the door and climb into the passenger seat of his Dodge truck.
A few moments pass before I hear the click of the driver’s door handle and Jace climbs into the driver’s seat. He is too small, for a man, and I laugh to myself at the effort it takes for him to climb into the cab. For a moment, the foreboding of the heavy clouds falls from my mind and I feel right again.
Jace starts up the truck’s engine and the tunes of Willie Nelson fill the space in the cab, signifying the beginning of our drive down the mountain, toward town. As we pull away, a monstrous wave of thunder quakes down the mountainside. I turn to stone as fear wells in my throat but I fight to keep it from showing in my eyes.
Never let ‘em see you sweat.
My scout leader’s words wrack through my brain as I search the horizon for a flash of lightning that never comes. I let go of the puff of air I had been holding inside and Jace states my thoughts aloud: “Storm must be behind us.”
My nod is wordless and I know it’s inadequate but I don’t dare open my mouth or the ball of fear collecting there will roll right out. Jace gives me a sideways glance. Then, he looks back at the road and back at me, again. All the while, I’m setting motionless with my hand gripped to the center console.
After a while, Jace laughs. “Yer a scardy cat!” It is followed by a slight chuckle which slowly turns into a long round of laughter.
I join in with him just for show before defending myself. “Shoot, I’m all man! I once killed a bear from only 45 feet with just a bow and arrow! I wasn’t a scardy cat then and I ain’t a scardy cat, now!” Jace’s laughter fades and he answers my words with a nod of agreement before he ups the ante.
“Yeah? Well, I once wrastled a boar outside that cave on Forest Hill. He was a mean one, too. He woulda kilt me if it wasn’t for my Oldtimer.” He clicks his hands to his hips where the knife holster still sets.
We continue this way for most of the trip and I’m glad. This kind of banter is normal. It’s comfortable. Still, I can’t keep the thunder in my brain from rolling and I know the truth of the matter. While, I am not a scardy cat, I am afraid of storms. It’s not the unreasonable type of fear, like being afraid of dirt or some shit like that. It’s the kind of fear that comes from dark places. It’s the kind of fear that sticks to a man…the kind of fear that he can’t shake off with a few beers and the company of a faithful dog.
My mind flashes back in time to when I was about 10 or 11 years old. By the time I ended up at the Wyrick’s home for foster care, I had been in and out of so many homes that I couldn’t count them anymore. My case worker had a sick smile on her face when she assigned me to that home. I think she knew what kind of people the Wyrick’s were and she was punishing me by sticking me with them.
Now, Mrs. Wyrick was a lovely, God-fearin’ lady. She’s the one who got me into the scouts. She taught me how to do the two-step and say the Lord’s prayer. Yes, she was a fine lady indeed but I hated her. I hated her for not being stronger and for standing back and watching what her husband would do to the kids in their care without batting an eyelash. Sometimes, I wonder if she secretly enjoyed watching him punishin’ us.
Mr. Wyrick was a coal miner. His eyes were small and his eyebrows thick. A deep wave of fear shudders through me as I remember the way his eyes would narrow and his eyebrows would crease just before he was about to get onto us for something. He was big with broad shoulders and the strong arms of a workin’ man. Those arms were covered in tattoos from his time in the Navy and when he would swing his miner’s belt at us kids, his muscles would flex and the sailor pinup on his arm would do an, almost amusing dance.
Well, it would have been amusing, if not for the sound that his belt would make as it cut through the air in the room on the way toward whomever he was swingin’ it at. It would make a roaring sound, like that of howling wind. The sound still haunts me to this day.
I was a precocious boy, back then. I soon found out that precociousness wasn’t worth anything at the Wyrick’s except a good lashin’ and a night in the confined chambers of the old outhouse. This wasn’t all for nothin’, though. While I was at the Wyrick’s, I learned a thing or two about how to keep my mouth shut and how to walk the straight and narrow. Still, I found myself on the receiving end of Mr. Wyrick’s miner’s belt more times than I cared to.
The worst of it came right after my scout troop’s annual camp-out. I was nearly 12 years old and I returned home full of excitement about everything I had done on the trip. I guess I should have known that Mr. Wyrick was in a sore mood because Mrs. Wyrick’s eye was swelled almost completely shut. Still, I couldn’t contain myself and I bounced into a chair in the kitchen where she was workin’ on dinner to tell her about it all. She smiled kindly at me and asked me to hush my voice a few times.
I tried to do this but my voice was still pitchy and it carried through the house more than it shoulda. I caught her, a few times, making nervous side-glances at the bedroom and I should have realized what was going on. I didn’t even realize that Mr. Wyrick was home until he busted through the kitchen door cussin’ about the “damn kids that live here.” His belt was wrapped around his hand and without a direct word, he jerked me up from the kitchen table and put that belt to my back.
All the while, he was mutterin’ about how he couldn’t get a good day’s rest. “How’s a man supposed to work with you kids talkin’ loud and wakin’ me up during the day?” He yelled in my ear before letting that belt go, right across my face; the belt cracking thunderously against my ear. I didn’t hear much out if it, after that but I remember looking into his face that day. His eyes were wild, his hair disheveled and his body heaved from the exertion of whippin’ me. He was unapologetic, although my ear was bleedin’ and my face was weltin’ up from where he had hit me.
He wiped the sweat from his brow, as if it was just another day’s work, picked me up by the collar and carried me out to the old outhouse. As he locked the door, I allowed my mind to drift past him. I thought of the camping trip and clung to my best memories…I will not let him see me cry. I will not let him break me…I declared to myself but as soon as I could be sure he was back in the house, my body became an aching pit of sobs. I cried the hardest cry I ever had in my entire life; harder, even, than when my momma died.
In ‘the pit’, passage of time could only be measured by the amount of light shining through the cracks of rotting wood that made up the structure of the rickety outhouse. I lay on my back, covered by the dampness of my own sweat and tears and starin at that crack in the roof until I saw the light of day gradually fading. Then, the appearance of the moon’s glow and appearance of a few stars would signify the coming of Mr. Wyrick.
I had been in ‘the pit’ enough times to know the routine: I would hear Mr. Wyrick as he opened the back door of the house, walked to the shed and gathered his bank cap and battery light, then his heavy footsteps would carry him past the outhouse. He would shake it a bit to rattle me and then walk toward his truck, laughing. The roar of his old Chevy down the gravel road by our house would signal Mrs. Wyrick to come outside, let me out of ‘the pit’, clean up my wounds and give me dinner and ice cream.
When the time came, I counted his steps. 14 heavy steps to the shed…rumbling…door closing… Then, he was headed toward the outhouse. It should have been 4 steps from the shed to the outhouse. I held my breath as I counted them. I would not make a noise as he rattled the outhouse…not this time…
1 heavy step…I will not cry
2 heavy steps…I will not scream
3 heavy steps…still holding my breath
But that was it. His steps had stopped. I could see his muddy work boots through the cracks in the outhouse. He was standing still. Why is he standing still? Fear gripped me and I turned to stone. I watch his heavy foot as he carefully moves it backwards, away from the outhouse. Mr. Wyrick was a man of routine. For all his flaws, at least his actions were predictable. My thoughts raced as I tried to figure out what was coming next…what new horror does this man have in store for me?
I looked to the sky and saw the quick movement of heavy storm clouds. A storm was brewin’ and for some reason, Mr. Wyrick was backing up away from it. That’s when I heard the thunder. It came slowly from the forest behind the outhouse and rumbled forward, without stopping. As the thunder drew closer, I turned my attention to the muddy work books. They moved backwards again.
1 step…slowly inching backwards…
2 steps…feet carefully placed…
Finally, the feet were out of sight but as they became lighter and more hasty, I could tell that Mr. Wyrick was running…away. Away from the woods, away from the outhouse, away from the storm. The thunder grew louder and a dark shadow fell over the outhouse and the world around it, making it nearly impossible to see the moon, stars, or anything else out of the cracks of the rickety outhouse.
For a moment, the shadow loomed and the night was silent. Then, the thunder came again. This time, it was as if it was closer to the ground…as if it was in the air around the outhouse. The flashes of lighting came in quick succession and Mr. Wyrick’s screams rose through the bursts of thunder and drifted into the outhouse.
Perhaps it was because of my lack of perception but this storm didn’t seem to be like any I had ever seen before. The lightnin’ was comin’ down too hard and the thunder lasted too long. It seemed almost directed…almost purposeful. It was all very quick in reality but in my mind, it seemed to happen gradually…it seemed to drag out. I couldn’t see anything between the cracks and crashes of lightning but my mind struggled to paint a picture of what could be happening.
Finally, the lightnin’ stopped and the thunder faded back into the forest behind the outhouse. Now, I don’t know a lot about storms but I do know that they don’t change course like that. Once they get to blowin’, they’re supposed to blow in one direction, to wherever it is that they are headin’. I hadn’t then, or to this day, ever seen a storm come and go from the same direction. I lay in the pit and listened as Mrs. Wyrick came outside to discover the source of commotion. I could hear her sobs and exclamations toward my foster brothers to call up the police because something terrible has happened. Just like always, I was forgotten.
It wasn’t until the police and ambulance arrived that I was rescued from the outhouse. My limp body was discovered by the strong arms of a volunteer firefighter; undoubtedly made known by my broken sobs. I was trembling and wordless as he picked me up and threw his jacket over face, as to shield me from the scene. The last thing I saw was a quick glimpse of Mr. Wyrick’s charred body being lifted upon a stretcher.
I don’t remember much else from that night, except the frantic sobs of Mrs. Wyrick as she tried to explain the storm and, more importantly, what a young boy was doing locked in the outhouse. I remember the whispers of the police as they tried to make sense of what happened. Apparently, the storm hadn’t touched any other part of the countryside. Most of all, I remember the strong brown hands of the volunteer firefighter who stood by my side the entire time.
Everyone was sent back into the system, on account that the state found out about the abuse in the home, and Mrs. Wyrick was left alone. As for me, I found a home with the volunteer firefighter who discovered me. His name was Chaska but everyone called him “Charlie”. He was a quiet man with a stone face but he taught me how to hunt and fish. He taught me much more than the scouts ever woulda…some of it stayed with me and some of it didn’t.
Thoughts of Charlie turn in my brain as we continue our descent down the mountain. I know he wouldn’t approve of my friends or this hunting trip. I know he would lower his head in shame if he saw the discarded skin and antlers from the dozens of deer that my friends and I had killed over the past week. In his mind, huntin’ was a means of survival. In mine, it’s a sport…a way to exercise my human superiority over the animal kingdom. He never understood that and he went to his death bed, never knowing how important he was to my own survival.
We wind down the mountain path to the country road which leads us to our small camp, nestled between the forest and rock of the mountain. We bounce down the driveway and a small white pickup truck comes into view.
“Warden,” Jace grumbles in detest as he shifts the gears of his own truck to park. He gets out of the truck and wipes his sweaty hands on the front of his faded blue jeans. As he does this, two men step out of the white pickup truck to greet us. One of them is younger, with shorter hair and kind, brown eyes and the other is older with long, dark hair and deep wrinkles of wisdom on his face. Both sets of eyes dart from Jace to me and then to the bed of our own truck, where the unchecked buck is secured.
“Damn ‘Ingines.” Jace spits his tobacco on the ground before planting a fake smile on his face and then offering his hand to the older gentleman. It was a low grumble and not loud enough for the game warden to hear but the stoic expression on the older man’s face tells me he knows. His hand rises to meet Jace’s and they stare into each other’s eyes for a second too long. It is not the warm greeting of two men separating their differences.
Jace opens his mouth to speak but before he can start, the warden turns his gaze toward me. He greets me in a much warmer manner than he did Jace, with one open hand in my own and his free hand resting on top of out cupped handshake. Just as with Jace, he made significant eye contact with me but it was different; less implicating. A quiet smirk flashes on his face just before we break connection and he steps back, giving his partner a sideways glance.
“We were just stopping in to see if everything was going okay for you guys. These woods are quiet and when we have new campers, we like to stop by to bring greetings from town.” The younger guy speaks up, taking a few steps toward Jace and myself. His face is smoother and his smile brighter, as if the weight of knowing hasn’t yet taken a toll on his face. Following his partner’s unspoken cues, he asks to set on the porch for a while and talk with us.
Through gritted teeth, Jace agrees and as we walk along the side of the truck, Jace notices that the decal on the door. “Latoka…are y’all from a reservation?”
Before the men can answer, I instinctively correct his mistake. “It’s LaKota”. He stops in his tracks and raises his eyebrows at me, a mocking smile creeping about his face. The old man nods appreciatively in my direction before he and his partner take a seat on the old wooden chairs just outside the door of our cabin. Jace goes inside to get the whiskey while I step around the side of the cabin to drain the dragon. The hushed voices of the two men carries around the cabin and to my ears. Most of the Lakota language is unfamiliar to me except one word: Wakiya.
That word creeps into my head and pokes at the fuzzy memories of the night Charlie carried me out of the outhouse and into his home. He had said it to his wife and then again, later, to his friends but he would never tell me what it meant. The old man says it as carefully and with as much reverence now as Charlie did then and although the conversation was quietened by the return of Jace, it bounces around inside my brain the rest of the evening.
By the time the whiskey runs dry and the two men file into their pickup truck and head back up the mountain, night is falling around the cabin. The full moon peaks above the tree line and Jace and I work to unload our buck and carry him deep into the woods, where our other trophies are hidden. Once the hard work is complete, Jace ends the silence between us.
He is setting underneath a tree in the forest with the glow of the spotlight bouncing around him when he takes a shot of whiskey from his flask and lets out a deep laugh. His face is red and his eyes are glassy. I glare at him in annoyance. He is drunk and I can tell the words that are about to come out of his mouth are going to rub me the wrong way.
His eyes meet mine and he takes another large shot of whiskey before letting out a belch and a long, loud burst of laughter. “I didn’t know you were an Ingine lover.”
I stare at him silently, while my mind ticks back in time. Charlie took me in, when he didn’t have to. He made me feel like I finally belonged to something. I felt this again, when the old man shook my hand earlier today. For someone who has never belonged these memories carry more weight than a thousand in the bucket with Jace. It only takes a moment for my brain to decide that, with Jace, I don’t belong; for me to realize how much I hate him.
I look down at my hands and body. Bloody…why are they so damn bloody? I look around at the scene around me. Through Charlie’s eyes, I can’t help but to see the deer hangin’ in the trees as sacred; to see that we had slaughtered them. I feel the weight of what we had done…what wantin’ to belong with Jace had made me do. I glare at him. He’s sitting by the tree and havin’ himself a good laugh. He’s laughing at me.
I hate bein’ laughed at, my mind roars at him and the sound of thunder comes from the distant woods. The ancient name creeps up in my head, as fresh as it had been when the old game warden whispered it to his partner. Just as it had been when I heard Charlie speak it, years ago…and with as much ferocity as I had thought it all those years ago, just before the storm that took my foster dad’s life.
Wakiya… it feels like a calling. The word repeats over and over in my head until it beats to the sound of the thunder. The roar of it fills the space around Jace and I but I no longer feel fear toward it. I know what’s coming and by the time Jace realizes it, the thunderous bird is already upon him, shooting lighting down on the ground around him.
“What the hell?” He screams as he tries to run from it. I stand in stone silence as I bask in the glory of Jace’s demise. I watch as the lightning strikes him, again and again, until he is nothing more than a charred and bloody mess. Finally, I calm my breathing and the bird disappears into the tree line from which it came. The spotlights burn on me and I can see a group of human shadows on the edge of the mountain.
I walk toward them, until they come in full view. Most of the shadows are lifeless spirits. Charlie is there and he stares at me with pride. Out from the edge of the treeline steps the old Lakota Game Warden. With an outstretched arm, he reaches for me. As I step toward him, he whispers, “Welcome Home”.
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