Dion wanted to trap one of the feral cats that skulked around the abandoned building that sat alongside the old train tracks near the river, an old meat packing plant. We stole the trap—metal, foothold clamp—from Dion’s dad after he’d announced his departure to visit friends somewhere in southern Iowa. He was supposed to be back within a week. Near a month later and no one had heard from him.
Dion’s dad had rough, alligator skin, and he beat his boy in public if he ever got out of hand, ever said the wrong thing. Once, I saw him pull Dion’s pants down on the corner of F Ave and Sixteenth Street, unlatched his own belt, which he’d named, “The .40 Caliber,” ripped it off his waist, and whipped Dion right there in front of passing cars.
“Step here,” Dion said to me. The trap was rusted, but not rusted shut. He pried the jaw apart while I stood on the handle. “Don’t let your foot off,” he said. “Motherfucker’ll snap a finger in two.” I stayed balanced, steady. We’d just finished the sixth grade and already Dion’s mouth was permanently clenched.
“I got you,” I said.
The air around the building was a slow, stagnant backwater channel collecting and pooling all the airborne crap. The entire area smelled of dead carp and Penford Mills and Quaker Oats. The sky turned hazy orange, that color that indicates heavy humidity or inclement weather. But neither of us cared much about the weather, and we didn’t think much about where to place the trap, we just wanted it set, as if setting it were the accomplishment; as if setting it would guarantee us some result. Dion’s plan was to toss a feral cat on his dad’s face while he was sleeping; said that an injured animal is vicious and unpredictable, and would tear his face off. My own father was already long gone. He was no one I knew. Living in some town I’d never heard of, and that’s why me, my mom, and little brother lived with my grandparents. At that point I still thought I might see him again.
We staked the trap next to the building, beneath the broken-out windows. We sprinkled pieces of a peanut butter sandwich around the shattered glass. Bait to lure our prey.
That summer, Dion and I would shoot hoops almost every day on a lone basket with a chain net on the other side of the lot, across from the abandoned building, except after we set the trap we had five consecutive days of rain. After those days had gone by, I’d completely forgotten about the trap. We went there on day six and shot around for a while before Dion remembered and raced over.
“Motherfucker,” he said.
“Holy shit,” I said.
A ball of indistinguishable fur, sopping with rainwater and blood, was scattered on the ground next to the trap and shattered glass. A foot was still stuck in the jaw, and that’s how we figured out it was one of the strays. We concluded, after a few minutes of conversation, that while it was held hostage, something else, another cat, came and tore it apart. We thought it was sad, the way it couldn’t defend itself properly while being attacked.
Of course we weren’t entirely sure if that was the case, but that’s the story we told ourselves before removing what was left of the carcass and setting it next to the weeds that grew between the cracks in the blacktop.
“Let’s reset it,” Dion said.
“It’s pointless,” I said. “We ain’t got bait.”
Dion walked back to where we’d dumped the stray, and ripped off the only body part that still resembled itself: the foot and leg.
“This is fucked,” I said. “Forget about it.”
He ignored me at first, broke off chunks of mangled flesh and fur, and sprinkled it around the trap. His eyebrows scrunched into a scowl. “Go then,” he said. “I’ll set it myself.”
He tossed what was left of the leg onto the ground, and wiped his damp, bloody fingers off on his shorts. He tried to set the trap on his own, but he needed my help. I stood on the clamp. He fumbled around with the pin to get it just right. I could tell he was desperate—wanting so badly to lure back whatever had ripped apart that defenseless stray. I understood then, and more so now, how much lasting damage one animal could cause.
Keith Lesmeister is the author of We Could’ve Been Happy Here, a collection of stories forthcoming with MG Press, early 2017. His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Slice, Meridian, Columbia Review, Gettysburg Review, and many others. He teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College.