It was a Marlin .22 rifle. Simple, nothing special. Brown wood and black steel. Cas held it in his hands like a newborn and waited on the porch for his father. He opened the box of bullets, copper and new, soon to be coated in gunpowder residue. He rolled two of them across the palm of his hand.
His father came through the front door and motioned for him and he followed. They piled into a dented pickup truck and rumbled toward Dealer’s Field without talking. His father’s eyes were slitted, focused. He kept reaching across the seat while driving and adjusting the gun so the long black barrel pointed out the window instead of to the roof of the cab. Just before pulling into the field, his father turned to him.
“Always point the end away from you or anything else. Point it in the air, away from other things. Guns can turn on you, Cas.”
They left the truck on the edge of the field and made two sets of slick tracks through the frost-coated grass. His father pulled a pair of thin leather gloves from his pocket and handed them to Cas.
“When I entered the military, they gave me an M-16 assault rifle,” his father said. “They told me to keep it with me. I did. I kept it outside my shower and beside me when I went to sleep. I cleaned it every morning. I learned that gun like the back of my hand. When I left the military, the last thing they took from me was that M-16.”
Cas looked across the field and spotted the rail he and his father had put up yesterday evening. They had lost sunlight then, but today was different. It was warmer today, brighter. Rays of sun spiked through thin winter clouds, and Cas tracked across the field to place sixteen-ounce pop bottles across the rail. He then paced the ten steps back to where his father was sitting on the ground.
“We’re gonna lose light if we don’t get started,” his father said, and reached his hand out for the gun.
Cas took it from his shoulder. His father then popped the small black magazine clip into the palm of his hand and dropped it in his jacket pocket. He then pulled out another clip, a yellow clip that was much longer than the other.
“This is a banana clip. It holds more rounds,” his father said.
He handed the clip to Cas and watched him slide the copper bullets in one at a time. Cas handled them like tiny sticks of dynamite, pressing down softly on each one until it clicked into place.
“I was what they call a high marksman in the military,” his father said and pulled the gun from Cas.
He lifted it to his shoulder, aimed for the briefest second and then squeezed the trigger. Instantly one of the bottles exploded in a flash of sound. Shards of glass spun away. Layered clumps shifted and then dropped beneath the rail.
Cas was enamored by the cold and calculated accuracy of his father’s shot. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the stance. Head tilted slightly forward, eyes lowered to the sights, left arm relaxed and bent, right hand, the critical right hand, tense and locked.
“Don’t forget to keep your right hand gripped just a little. But remember, the trigger finger should be the most relaxed part of your body. You’re gonna squeeze the trigger, Cas, not pull it. That’s very critical. Okay?”
Cas nodded and took the gun back in his hands. It felt heavier now, and the smell of gunpowder was coming off it in waves.
There were four bottles left.
“You’ll just need four shots for this,” his father was saying. “Take each one out at the neck. That’s what we’ll call our head shot. Understand? Get that shot and you’ll just need one bullet.”
Cas raised the gun to his shoulder. At once his vision became blurry. In focus, out of focus. It felt like the gun had been pushed against his shoulder for an hour. The bottles looked like smudges across a dirty window.
“Jesus Christ, Cas,” his father said and snatched the gun out of his hands. It happened so fast Cas was left standing with his arms still in position, his legs still perfectly poised. He sucked in a fast breath and felt his heart battling the inside of his chest.
“Dammit! You’d done had your head took off. End of game! Understand!”
Cas muttered and nodded slowly.
“It’s gotta be like this!”
Four shots rang out in quick order. The bottle necks split in half and toppled domino-style onto the ground.
“What are you thinking about? They’re just bottles. No pressure. And even when there’s pressure, you’ve got to maintain. You can’t lose it. Can’t afford to.” He grabbed Cas by the arm. “Here, I’ll show you pressure.”
Cas was suddenly about to urinate, and he found it frightening that his bottom lip had started to quiver. His father’s thick fingers clamped across the muscles of his upper arm and strangled off circulation so that by the time he had positioned him standing in front of the rail, his arm was full of needles spiking and tingling from elbow to shoulder.
Once his father had him situated to his satisfaction, twisting and adjusting him by the shoulders like an early television antenna, he turned and marched back to his spot.
Cas could hear himself pleading, but the sound was low and pathetic and blended with other sounds, natural sounds coming from the nearby hillside and some place over the ridge where the lively hum of a car engine throttled up and down. Cas’s whimpers weaved into this, moving up and down and then breaking. After ten seconds or so, even he was ignoring his own sobs.
“Grab the bottom half of the bottle in the middle, right there behind you, and put it on your left shoulder.”
The numb spikes had spread from his arm to the rest of his body. His skin was dried glue. His fingers grabbed the thick bottom half of the bottle while his arm craned it up and dropped it on his shoulder. His eyes watched quietly.
His father gave the gun a shake and pulled the butt against his chest, steadying the barrel. The end of the barrel stared dumbly at Cas, an unwavering pitch black eye that could swallow him whole.
He was about to reach back and get the second piece of bottle when the one at his shoulder exploded.
The bones in his shoulder vibrated against the muscles. He could feel glass, small pieces, hanging from the side of his face. And there was an immense pain there. He slumped to the ground, removed his glove and ran his fingertips across the side of his face. They came away warm and slick and the pieces of glass, the largest about the size of an aspirin, fell onto his coat. They were the smooth color of new raspberries.
His father had taken the head off the bottle—a kill—but friendly fire while Cas was in the line. End of game, and thank someone.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of the collection, The Same Terrible Storm, recently nominated for the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award. His work has been published widely and been four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and was a judge’s selection winner in 2012 for the Still Fiction Award. He survives in Eastern Kentucky. To find out more, visit him online at sheldonleecompton.net.