by Mark Phillips
It was Joey's thirteenth birthday. It was time for the kill.
Joey sat in the passenger seat of the truck. Snow flew, kicked up by the thick tires, and splattered the side of the vehicle. Joey's breath fogged in front of him and misted into oblivion. The dark vents that normally expelled the heat were lifeless.
"Why can't we turn on the heater, Dad?"
Peter turned to look at his son. "It's tradition Joey, you know that. We go to the kill, cold."
Joey nodded and shifted his gaze ahead. Snow mounds, like massive sand dunes, dotted the landscape. Somewhere up ahead was the cabin.
The cabin, Joey thought. I can't believe I'm already going there. Me -- Joey Bailey. I'm the first.
The thought sent a jolt of emotion up his body, part of it was the lemon sting of pride, and the rest of it was fear. Would his aim be true? Would his shot hit the mark? This would be his only chance to prove himself. He had heard the stories of those that didn't make their kill.
"Don't we ever get to a road?" Joey asked.
"We're already on it," Peter replied.
Joey gazed out of the windshield. "All I see is snow."
Peter smiled. "I remember my trip out here, with my father. It's the same path. Someday, you'll take your son through here and it will all be familiar to you."
"Dad…" Joey paused. He shifted his glance from Peter to the side window. "What if I don't make the kill?"
Silence hung in the air. Joey didn't want to look. He kept staring at the snow outside. Then, when there still was no answer, he turned. His father was smiling at him.
"You'll succeed, don't be nervous." Peter brought a hand down on Joey's shoulder and squeezed. There was steel in that squeeze, but Joey didn't cringe.
Peter turned his eyes back to the path before them; in the distance he saw the building. Joey's eyes expanded. Wetness dotted the corners.
"Dad, it's the cabin."
"Yes," Peter said. "Are you ready?"
Joey drew in a deep breath. He held it for a second and then exhaled. "Yes, I'm ready."
The one advantage to not having the heater on was that the cold of the wilderness didn't come as a shock. Joey slogged through the snow behind his father.
Peter reached the door to the cabin and knocked three times. The two males stood and waited. After a second, the door opened. A bald man, with gray stubble and a patch over his left eye, looked out at them. His skin looked stretched and wasted. It was wrinkled and hung from his face like a bulldog's.
"Name?" The man demanded.
"Bailey," Peter responded.
The man grunted and stepped back from the door. Peter walked in; Joey followed behind. The old man threw the door closed, and the sound echoed in the cabin.
Instantly, sweat sprung up all over Joey's body. A large fire roared in the corner. Joey started to remove his hat and gloves but Peter was shaking his head.
"We won't be here long. Best to keep your clothes on."
"Listen to your father, Joey." The old man spoke the name with a jeer. Elongating the vowels like a taunt.
Joey's mind screamed out to action. Jump, hurt, punch, kill. He knew he couldn't. Any misstep would not only disqualify him for manhood, but now that he was thirteen he would pay the adult's price.
"Yes, father," Joey said.
Peter looked down and smiled at the boy.
"You have all the information," the man said.
Peter nodded. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small envelope. The man took it and opened the flap. He walked over to his desk and sat down. The paper rustled as he shook the contents out.
The man picked up the first piece of paper. "Birth certificate."
The second piece. "The petition for the kill." The man looked up from the paper. "I assume you have the grant of acceptance."
Peter smiled. A petition had never been denied in the history of the ritual. There was no reason why his boy should be the first.
"It's the next sheet down."
The man lowered his head and picked it up. "Ah, yes. Here it is." He put the papers down and looked up at Peter. Then, he switched his gaze to the son.
"Are you ready for this?"
"You understand that when you're done, you will report back here with proof of your kill."
"Yes," Joey said. "A piece of the animal."
"And you have your name ready?"
The old man put his hand up. "Not yet. Not until you've made the kill. You're eager to not be a Joey anymore?"
Joey nodded. His heart ached for it. Everyone else was a Joey. All his mates, and they would remain Joey's until their time of ascension. No longer would he be Joey Bailey. He would have a name, an identity.
"Are you ready for the gun?"
Peter stood next to his son, his arm around him, beaming down on his child.
Not your child for much longer, Peter thought. Soon he'll be a man.
The old man stood up and walked to a long cabinet. It was made of glass and, through it, Joey saw the gun. He had seen pictures, of course, but nothing could compare to seeing it in person. The old man took out a key and opened the cabinet. He pulled out the weapon and walked towards Joey.
The man held it out in front of him as if it were a sword he was delivering to a king. Joey held out his hands and grasped the gun. He felt the warmth of the long metal barrel. The wooden stock was cool in his hands.
Joey held the weapon and wanted to weep. Here it was, the weapon of his ancestors. This gun had been held and fired by his own father, and his father before him and so on and so on.
"Now we will go," Peter said.
The old man nodded and sat down at his desk again. Peter motioned to the door and Joey led the way out. The cold bit into them as they exited.
"Where do we go?" Joey asked.
Peter took the lead. "Follow me, son. Follow me and listen."
As they walked back behind the cabin and into the woods, Peter began to speak.
"You know why we no longer have weapons like the one you're holding,' Peter said.
"Yes, because of the violence."
Peter nodded. "But now you will hear the rest. This you can not tell anyone. If you wish to discuss it with an elder that is acceptable but no Joey must ever hear this. This is information that is forbidden until the time of ascension."
"Because it can only be heard by men, not joeys."
Joey felt his heart swell. He was becoming a man.
"Long ago our people lived with these weapons. They were sometimes dangerous and sometimes people got hurt, but for the most part things were fine."
Joey looked at the weapon and wondered what it would be like to keep it.
"Slowly, things began to deteriorate. Weapons like these became more commonplace. People started to use them more and more. Our people became violent. They were poisoned by things like that."
Peter pointed at the gun in Joey's hands. Joey looked down at it himself.
"Many, many people died. Our world emptied out. Horrible weapons were used. When the war was over, our people decided to destroy all of our weapons."
"To prevent killing?"
"Yes, but it didn't work. Killing continued but it was more barbaric, uglier. Instead of killing with guns, people killed with their hands."
"So then the kill began."
"The kill is a release. A way to purge your youthful soul of our capacity for killing. The kill means that you are no longer a child, you are a man."
"Do you remember your kill?"
Peter paused. He turned to his son. "Of course I remember."
"Do you ever want to make another kill?"
Peter's eyes narrowed. "No. That is behind me."
"And what happens if I fail to make my kill?"
"You don't think you'll be able to?"
"No…I just want to know what happens. There's a lot of stories."
"If you fail, you are sent away. You don't become a man. You stay a Joey and you go east. Over there," Peter pointed to the wilderness past the trees. "All the Joeys go there. They live with their shame, maybe they kill each other, I don' know." Peter knelt down, his knee sinking into the snow. He took both hands and placed them on his son's shoulders. "I do know this though; you won't be one of them."
Joey smiled. "I know." They continued to walk.
"What name did you chose for yourself?"
"Your grandfather's name?"
"Yes. I wanted to be Peter but…"
"You can not be."
They had advanced into the woods. A fallen tree trunk lay before them. Peter stopped and bent down.
"Here. This is where you face your test."
Joey knelt in the snow and held up his weapon. "How do I fire?"
Peter touched the weapon. "May I?"
Joey handed the gun over.
"You hold it like this." Peter put the butt of the gun to his shoulder. He looked through the scope. "Looking through this, you can see very far away. Make sure what you're looking at is in the center."
"Like in school?"
"Yes, that is what that practice is for. When you want to shoot, you pull this trigger. A bullet will come out and hit the animal."
"There are four bullets. Hopefully, you only need one."
"Where do the animals come from Dad?"
"I don't know son."
"What do they look like?"
Peter sighed. "My ascension was a long time ago. You'll see soon enough what they look like. Just be ready."
Joey leaned against the tree stump and waited. Time spun out like a spindle. It wove a tapestry of boredom that Joey suffered through.
He was about to open his mouth, when he heard noise. Joey turned to look at his dad but Peter was pointing frantically at the forest in front of them.
Joey lifted the lens to his eye. When he did his elbow slipped and broke a piece of bark off. The gun jerked up to the sky, and Joey leveled it again.
"Not yet," Peter said. "Let it settle son. See what you are killing."
Then the animal did slow down. It stopped and seemed to examine the bottom of a tree. It had two legs that rose, hairless, to a torso. The skin was dark. Joey took the sight in; his mouth felt dry.
"Dad," he whispered. "That's not an animal, that's a person."
"That is your kill," Peter said.
Joey lowered the gun and looked at Peter. "Dad, I can't kill that, it's a person. Everything we've ever learned has told us that taking a human life is wrong."
Peter looked into his son's eyes. "Is that your decision then, are you rejecting your kill? Are you willing to risk being sent away?"
Joey looked from his father to the animal. Finally, he raised the gun to his shoulder again. He placed the animal's chest between the crosshairs and he pulled the trigger.
There was only a dry click. Joey pulled the trigger again and again and again. Click, click, click. He dropped the rifle and looked at his father. There were tears in Peter's eyes.
"Dad, I tried but…"
A report sounded and a red blossom sprang up on Joey's chest. His mouth opened and closed like a fish. His arms beat spasmodically at his chest. Then, he collapsed.
Peter stood up and looked down at his son. His eyes were ringed in red and his cheeks were wet.
The animal walked towards Peter. He lowered the rifle in his hands as he approached. Peter recognized the man, even with all the grease paint on his face.
"You got out here fast from the cabin," Peter said.
The old man nodded. "Sorry about this Mr. Bailey."
Peter shook his head. "I really didn't think Joey was going to do it. I thought he'd pass."
The old man put an arm around Peter and the two of them walked towards the cabin.
"So many of them are pulling the trigger nowadays," the old man said. "It's not like it was in our time."
Peter glanced over his shoulder and ventured one last look at his son. "It never is," he said.
© 2008 Mark Phillips
Bio: Mark Phillips has been writing for the past ten years. He has been previously published in Down in the Dirt Magazine.
E-mail: Mark Phillips
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