Burn Barrel

by Alyssa Striplin

The burn barrel is in the corner of the lot, out by the kennels where the newborn pup tails were seared off before their eyes opened. That was back when Paula still bred show dogs. The cages used to be full of the damn things. All squirming around like overgrown maggots looking to suck on a free tit. He had liked to stick his fingers through the bars and scratch their half-grown ears. The electric knife is still dangling from the socket on the wall in the kennels, right above the gas can. It’s just as rusted as the barrel, all black and burnt and flaky. Little pieces of rust are all over the floor. Looks like someone spilled fish food on the rug again. The squiggly-looking vein in Paula’s neck will burst if she sees. Need to grab the broom right quick before he forgets. 

Stay, he sets the gas can down in the man’s lap. Hold this

He runs back to the house. The broom is on the porch leaning on the grill. The bristles are covered in charcoal. Not often you see a grill out in November, but Paula has venison now and the power is still turned off in the house. 

He gives the broom a good whack against the side of the house. Clean enough. He runs back to the kennels and sweeps all the dirt out into the grass. Go ahead and sweep the whole kennel. It was his job, after all. Do the dirty work. Should have been out here earlier. But the pigs were needy. Needed to be fed. To be watered. To have their shit shoveled out so they could shit some more. It was blue crayon day, too. He’d be squatting down in the mud all night, marking the boars with the blue crayon. Always working the marker, never the knife. 

Puppy tails ain’t ballsacks, Carl would say. A hellova lot messier. 

Hard to believe. His hands are still stained black from the stuff used to cauterize the stumps. Stayed that way, even after the last litter. Paula wouldn’t let him touch the silverware in the house. Had to eat with his hands. Food tasted like shit and metal for months. Then Paula sold the silverware and everyone ate with their hands. Everything still tastes like shit. Didn’t help there wasn’t much food left. No more trips into town because there is no town. Just a bunch of empty buildings, dead stumps, and rusty mills. 

No trees, no money, Paula would say. 

He didn’t need money, just food. Paula let him have the piglets that suffocated when their mommas rolled over on them. Tenderized. If there were pigs, the family could survive. 

He leaves the broom in the kennels and gets back to work. The man is still sitting in the grass with the gas can in his lap. His hands and legs are tied up in the Navy Seal knots Carl made. He reaches down and tries to pull the gas can up, but the man hugs it close. 

Let go of the gas can, he says. 

The man shakes his head. It’s swollen still. The pus from his eye is all dried up. Kind of looks like he overslept on a pillow full of bees. He reaches down and tugs at the can again. The man wraps around it like a snake strangling a chicken. 

Give me the gas can, please.

The man doesn’t budge. He’s almost naked, just a vest and undies. His other clothes were soaked in blood and piss. Had to be thrown in the barrel yesterday. The rifle he’d come with is locked up in the house. Paula promised it to him afterwards. The vest is dull, but it had been bright orange when the man showed up days ago. 

He’d been dumping a bucket of slop in the trough when he heard the gunshot. Scared the pigs so bad, they nearly knocked him on his ass. The man came from the treeline behind the shed, dragging the dead doe behind him. 

You folks have a telephone? I left my mine in my truck. 

The truck was sitting in the shed now. 

Give me the gas can. 

The man won’t move. Not fair. Gotta finish this job before sundown or else no supper. 

I’ll get Carl.

Not so brave now. He picks up the gas can and dumps half the gas into the barrel. Carl has already cleaned it out and stuffed it full of newspaper and twigs. He turns towards the man. He’s much lighter than he looks. Lighter than a full-grown sow. 

That’s when the man starts crying. It’s worse than the puppies. Worse than the pigs screaming when the knife comes, blood and balls flying every which way. Those were the screams he could handle. Like a chorus of angels compared to this. The man is kicking as he’s carried, calling out for someone. Police. 911. Emergency. Marines. Park Rangers. Somebody. Anybody. He doesn’t know there’s no one for miles. 

Stop it or I’ll get Carl. 

More screaming. 

I can’t hear myself think

What if Paula hears? He hasn’t eaten anything other than pig in years. 

Think, you idgit. What do we do when the dogs howl at night? 

The muzzle is on the workbench on the other side of the kennel. It needs a wipe down with a wet cloth, but the sun is starting to set. Smoke’s rising from the porch. Carl says deer tastes better on a grill. Maybe he can find some corn that isn’t too mealy in the field. Grilled corn and venison steak is a meal fit for a king. But he’s a farmhand first, and he has a job to do. The straps of the muzzle have to be loosened to fit, but they do the job. 

The man stops crying. Not a peep when he’s picked up by the scruff and put in the barrel. 

Good boy.

Alyssa Striplin is the former coven leader of a gaze of raccoons that pilfered curbside trashcans in the Missouri suburbs and the future chairman of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau of the Midwest.
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