At the beginning of that summer, our father told my older brother and me the news that our next door neighbor’s mother had died. I had seen Ms. Jensen a few times through the open windows of her house after she got real thin and her hair had fallen out. I heard for the first time strange new words like chemotherapy. Her son, Eric, was my friend. I saw him on the street the day after my father had broken the news. I didn’t know what to say to him.
Throughout the hottest months, my older brother and I went back to the bayou that ran behind the fence in our subdivision. We went back there to practice shooting cardboard targets with our air rifles we had both gotten as Christmas presents. We had to sneak them back there wrapped in towels as we walked along the street because some of neighbors didn’t approve of pellet guns. I invited Eric to go with us many times, but he hadn’t wanted to do very much after his mother died. He had a pellet gun, too, but he just never seemed interested. One day, however, to my surprise, he accepted my invitation. He came over to our house in his old blue jeans and an old T-shirt and sneakers. I could see Eric had brought along his wrapped-up blanket and he also had a trash bag. He said there was something in the trash bag for target practice. Tim and I changed clothes and we wrapped our guns in towels, and then we all started walking toward the fence at the back of our subdivision. On the way toward the fence, with Tim several steps ahead of us, Eric told me about his dad’s decision.
“Dad and I are moving,” Eric said.
He told us he and his father were going to move out of the state. His dad had already found a buyer for their house. The movers were coming in two weeks. The new school year was just about to start.
The three of us squeezed through a spot in the fence that was missing a few boards. Then we took the trail down to the bayou. We found a good spot along a sandy bank. Eric put the trash bag down at his feet.
“What’s in the bag?” I finally asked.
“Target practice,” he said. He opened the trash bag and reached inside. “Don’t need these anymore.”
Eric pulled out a Styrofoam wig head. There was also a wig. Eric had the wig in his left hand. The hair was black, shiny and straight, but along the part, there was a slight curl to it. With his other hand, Eric tossed me the Styrofoam head. I caught it. I held it up. I looked at the blank eyes pressed into the foam. Below the nose there were some ridges that were supposed to be lips.
Eric took the head back from me. He put the wig on it. I heard it slide over the Styrofoam. Then he carried it down the bank. At about thirty yards from us, he put it near his feet. I saw him grind the base of the head into the sandy bank so it wouldn’t fall over. When Eric returned, we all looked down at the white face on the sandy bank.
“Go ahead, take your best shot,” Eric said, waving his arm impatiently. Tim raised his pellet gun and shot at the face. He missed.
“Come on, now you,” Eric said to me. I raised my rifle, but my hand was shaking a little and I missed. Eric laughed at me. Tim didn’t say anything.
Then it was Eric’s turn. Eric reached down for the wrapped blanket at his feet. He unfolded it, but instead of pulling out his pellet gun, he held up his father’s shotgun. Pump action. Twenty gauge. Tim and I glanced at each other. Eric pumped the gun once and then he closed an eye and aimed down the barrel. He pulled the trigger before we had time to cover our ears and in the moment of the deafening blast, the target exploded into a shower of Styrofoam pieces and sand. The wig flew up into the air and fell into some weeds along the bank.
With my ears still ringing from the shot, I just had time to notice the unfamiliar smell of gunpowder when my brother bolted and ran over to inspect the destroyed target. I followed him.
But when I looked back, I saw Eric standing under the leafy canopy of the trees. Eric cradled his father’s shotgun in his arms. He was crying, his face red, full of pain. He turned, grabbed the blanket, and started walking back up the trail. I looked back at my brother. He had found the wig in a thick clump of weeds.
I looked down at some white Styrofoam pieces floating in the water. I wondered if that was how icebergs appeared to airplane pilots flying over arctic seas. Then I heard my brother say something. I turned and saw him hold up the wig. I looked into his face and saw that my brother didn’t know what to do with it. He was my older brother. I felt like he always knew what to do, but at that moment, I could see he had no idea. He came over to me and he tried to give it to me, like he wanted me to take it. I didn’t want it. I stepped back. He thrust it out at me again and it made me angry so I grabbed it from him and threw it out toward the water. It landed on top of a large Lily pad. It didn’t look right out there, sitting on top of that Lily pad. It seemed like the wasted pelt of an otter, or some other skinned animal, but we left it there that day, after we gathered up our things and went home.
That fall, after Eric and his father had moved away, Tim and I decided to go back to the bayou one Saturday afternoon. We got through the fence and took the trail down to the water’s edge. When we got to the spot, I looked out at the Lily pads. A plump bullfrog sat on one of them. The frog was a perfect target for a pellet gun. But Tim and I had only brought our fishing poles and the frog didn’t have to worry about us.
Short fiction by Bryan Jones has appeared recently in Chicago Literati, Ink & Coda, Atticus Review, The Cossack Review and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. He lives and works in Texas.