1st Place – November 2020

Thinning the Herd


JJ Rushmore

The book-laden backpack sagged off Carrie’s shoulders as she trudged home. She was late, but she still had to make a stop, and do her chores. Plus there was one last thing.
Her slender frame failed to fill out the hand-me-down dress, and the loose fabric flapped in the muggy air. She avoided eye contact with those she passed, chagrined at how poorly the jumper fit. The dress reminded her of its previous owner.
Her older sister Maggie would be home from high school by now. Carrie pictured her curled on the bed as she descended into a state of tearful depression. It was, after all, Friday.
Carrie stopped at Kowalski’s Liquor Mart. She picked out a bottle of Old Crow and presented the wrinkled note to the man at the register.
He stared at the paper and frowned.
“I told you before you’d need a new note.”
“Sorry! I forgot. I’ll bring you one next week.”
“That’s what you said last week. This worked when you were a little kid, but you’re older now.” He eyeballed her. “What are you, eleven?”
She straightened. “Twelve.”
He shook his head. “Even worse. I’ll get in trouble for selling to a minor. You need a new note.”
“You can’t tell me this now. I have to get—”
“I told you last week.”
“But you know what’ll happen! If he comes home and there’s no whiskey, he’ll go ballistic.”
“I’m sorry, Carrie.”
“Please, Mr. Kowalski, just once more, please? I’ll bring a new note next week—I promise,” she lied.
The old Pole clenched his jaw, sighed, and wrapped the bottle in a brown paper sack. “Don’t forget,” he said.
Carrie clumped up the steps and into the house. The home’s thick atmosphere enveloped her as she entered, a malodorous mix of stale food, dust, and despair. Closed windows and drawn curtains created the stifling cave she had known since birth. Her mother’s ragged snores drifted into the foyer from the living room.
Carrie peered into the kitchen at the breakfast dishes piled in the sink. The stove was cold and dark.
He’ll be pissed when dinner’s not ready.
She shrugged and headed for the cellar. That was Ma’s problem. Carrie’s chore on Friday was to check the trap line.
Carrie gagged in the basement’s putrid air, a sure sign of decaying corpses. She found the first one in a trap by the furnace. The spring-loaded device had snapped the neck of a large black one, its bulging eyes accusing her of the crime. She removed the grisly remains, dropped the carcass in her bucket, reset the trap, and moved on. The second trap clutched only the bloody stump of a leg, nothing more. The owner apparently had gnawed it off in a frantic effort to escape. She kept a wary eye out for three-legged rats.
In the end her bucket contained a gruesome pile of five dead rats. Three died in the traps, while two perished from eating the green granules of rat bait she had scattered throughout the cellar.
That should thin the herd.
She exited through the bulkhead and dumped the bodies in the weedy backyard.
She hoped the neighborhood cats would eat the poisoned carcasses and suffer a horrible death. Their midnight caterwauling frightened her. The noise was like someone murdering a baby.
That should thin their herd, too. Rats, cats—they’re all vermin.
Returning to the musty basement, Carrie cracked open the whiskey bottle, tipped it to her lips and swallowed. She screwed her face into a pained expression and shivered as the potent liquid burned through her body. Tommy Shelton was right—Old Crow was nasty stuff. She had believed him when he said it tasted that way to everyone. She had to, since this was her first drink ever. She took another swig and sat to embrace the double dose of Dutch courage.
She eyed the bottle with distaste and downed one last swallow. She examined it again, toyed with it, rewrapped it, and stuffed it in her pack.
Now for the fun part.
Carrie climbed the cellar stairs, and then continued up the thirteen additional steps to the second floor. She walked into Maggie’s room where her sister lay on the bed staring at the wall. Maggie hugged her chest, her eyes puffy, her cheeks stained with mascara.
“You look like hell, Mags.”
Maggie scowled. “So do you, Squirt.” She turned and stared at her sister’s glistening eyes. “And you look like…omigod! Have—have you been drinking?”
Carrie sat on the bed and grinned. “A little.”
“What’s wrong with you? And what’re you so happy about?”
“Nothing,” Carrie said. “Just glad it’s Friday, that’s all.” She regretted the words immediately.
Maggie glared at her. “You wouldn’t say that if—if…” Maggie twisted away and began to bawl, hiding her face, shoulders quaking.
Carrie huddled beside her sister and wrapped her arm around her.
“Oh, Mags, I’m so sorry. Don’t cry. I wasn’t thinking. It’ll be all right. Please don’t cry.” Carrie also began to weep, her cries turning to sobs.
Maggie sat up and pushed her away.
“I can’t—stand it any longer!” Her voice came in gasps, wheezing between words. “Every Friday—he gets drunk—and—and then he—comes to my room—and…”
Carrie soothed her. “I know, Sis, I know. Don’t worry, please. It’ll be all right—I promise, okay? I promise. He won’t hurt you anymore. I won’t let him.”
“Don’t be stupid! There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Carrie commiserated with her sister over their common enemy. After a time, the weeping subsided.
Maggie grabbed her younger sibling by the shoulders. “You have to get out of here, Squirt. Leave! Run away! Before it’s too late. Before…”
Carrie sniffed. “Before what? Before I fill out your old dress?” She raised her hand. “I know. I see it in his eyes. But I won’t leave you alone with that rat bastard.”
The front door banged, announcing Pa’s return from work. Soon loud voices reverberated through the house, echoing from the living room to the kitchen. Pa’s roars easily drowned out Ma’s screams, their mingled cries culminating in several crashes, and then silence.
“Carrie?” Pa bellowed up the stairs. “Carolyn Jane! Come down here right now, you little brat. Now, you hear me?”
Maggie shot her sister a warning look, but Carrie didn’t move.
“Carrie!” Pa’s footsteps stomped up the stairs and he burst into the bedroom.
“Where are you, you little—why didn’t you come when I called? Where’s my bottle? You didn’t forget, did you?” He stepped toward her.
“No, Pa. It’s right here.” She rummaged in her backpack and extracted the bottle in the brown paper sack. “I just forgot to leave it downstairs.”
Pa snatched the parcel from her hands, peeled away the covering, and stopped.
“Hey! This is open!” He slid the bag down farther. “And it’s not full.” His eyes narrowed and flicked toward Carrie. “What’re you trying to pull, Brat? You been drinking my whiskey?” He took another step toward her. “You been stealing my whiskey?” he said softly.
She leaned away. “No, Pa, no! Sorry! I just tried some to see if it was okay. They ran out of Wild Turkey, so I got you something else.”
Pa glared at his youngest as he took two large gulps before coughing and swearing.
“What the hell is this crap? It tastes like kerosine.” He ripped the bag away. “What the fuck? Old Crow? Why’d you buy this rotgut?”
“It’s what Old Man Kowalski gave me! I don’t know! If you don’t like it take it back. Next time get your own damn whiskey.”
Pa’s backhand sent Carrie tumbling across the bed.
“Mind your mouth, Brat. You’re getting too big for your britches.” He stared at her with a thoughtful look. “Yeah,” he whispered, “any time now.” He rubbed his beer belly, made a face and spun around to Maggie. “What’re you smilin’ at, Mags? Don’t you worry none,” he sneered. “I’ll be back for you later.”
The smirk faded from Maggie’s face as he took another long pull from the bottle and staggered out.
Maggie shot a wild-eyed look at her sister. “What are you playing at, girl? Are you crazy?”
Pa’s footsteps stopped. “Christ…oh, fuck,” he moaned, “Ohhh…”
Carrie could picture him at the top of the staircase, doubled over, grasping the newel post for support.
There was one last cry, followed by a series of dull thuds that ended in a much louder thump.
Not quite thirteen. He must’ve bounced a couple times.
Ma yelled. And then she screamed. And screamed some more.
“Omigod!” Maggie said. “What happened?” Her eyes widened. “What did you do, Squirt? What did you do?”
Carrie smiled as she flicked a couple of green granules off her backpack.
“Just thinning the herd, Mags. Just killing rats.”
And cats. And rat bastards. They’re all vermin.

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