An animal lay on its right flank, black and blue wounds crawling in a line up its back. Jack, only eight years of age, had never seen such a sight. He stepped in closer and gripped his hands tightly around the bars, cradling his chin between them. Two men, muscular and dressed in all black, appeared suddenly. They dragged the animal out of its cage.
“Are they going to help it?” he whispered.
Mr. Schmidt turned over his shoulder to find his son staring deeply into the habitat. Jack was startled by the firm grasp of his forearm.
“Get it together, Jack. It’s not safe to be doing that.” Mr. Schmidt bundled himself tightly in his fur coat, the strong February breeze jabbing at him like a crystal blade.
Jack trailed slowly behind as his mind wandered, his older brother, Finn, complaining about which flavor to buy at the ice cream stand.
“Do you think this concerns me?” Mr. Schmidt asked, throwing his protests to a halt. Mr. Schmidt crossed his hands and traipsed off the pedestrian walkway. “Shut up the both of you. You’ll get the flavor I choose for you. Like you always do.”
“I don’t even like ice cream,” Finn said. Jack’s older brother, who was tall and skinny, was downtrodden. His teenage face was smeared with grease like a frying pan. He took his hands out of his jacket pockets and rubbed them briskly together, blowing warm air onto them from his lips.
“We’ll take three cups of vanilla,” Mr. Schmidt grumbled, stroking the light stubble on his jawline. He wore a grin of false enthusiasm creeping from his mouth to his forced-up cheekbones.
The Schmidts walked away filled with edginess and fatigue.
“That’s the last food you’ll be getting until breakfast,” Mr. Schmidt said.
Jack didn’t say a word. “Give me that cup!” Finn shouted at Jack.
Mr. Schmidt ripped the cups out of their hands and tossed them directly into the pavement. Jack and Finn watched as the last of their ice creams’ melty remains drained through the sewage bars.
“Good riddance,” Mr. Schmidt said.
The Schmidts sat in a cobblestone circle around a sizable, empty stage. People quit shuffling about and found their places in resin chairs. They faced the platform against the backdrop of a low-hanging curtain. The voice of the crowd softened to a low whisper.
Mr. Schmidt yelled, “When’s the show going to start?” He rolled up his sleeves to feel the fresh air. With his bare skin exposed to the cold, tousled hair stood like a stiff flag from his arms. Lights of bright colors flashed from projector heads into the sky where a vermillion-violet sunset was quickly fading.
“Silence everyone! Let the show begin!” The slow and bone-weary clapping of the audience in their huddled stances was muddled by their mittens. The master of ceremonies was revealed in a man looking to be over six feet wearing striped red and white slacks and a long-sleeved shirt of the same distinction. “I am Mr. Williams, foreseer of many truths and daredevil of courage and adventure! We’d like to start tonight’s show by asking for someone to accompany us on stage!”
Hands were raised from a few of those seated. Mr. Williams searched acutely among the crowd’s faces, faded by a screen of their vaporous breaths, and found Jack whose size and age stood out from the rest. Stepping from the platform into the seating area, Mr. Williams knelt by Jack’s side like a giant coming down from the clouds. He asked, “Will you be my volunteer?”
Jack merely stared at the man.
“Go on then,” Finn whispered. “Don’t be a chicken.”
Jack was near speechless, he gave a quick look to Mr. Williams and slightly nodded his head, keeping his mouth shut. Mr. Williams offered Jack his hand, wrapped in a silk glove, and they walked together back to the stage. The center was marked with an “x” by two pieces of duct tape.
“Do you know how to hold one of these, son?” Jack looked from Mr. Williams to the pistol he was holding. He had seen this kind of gun before in an old Western.
“Yes, sir,” Jack said as he took the weapon, placing his tiny index finger on the trigger.
“Woah, there!” Mr. Williams cried. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
He turned to face the crowd. “What you are about to see is a live slaughter, performed by this brave, young man. In a moment, an animal will be brought out for us. And the boy will be permitted to fire the weapon.”
Jack stared at the spot on the stage before him, marked by that “x” in fear of what was to be released there. Jack was near petrified. Two of Mr. Williams’ assistants, muscular and dressed in all black, walked behind the curtain to get the animal.
Upon their return, they brought with them a creature about the same height, weight, and age as Jack. Two arms, two legs with a boyish face. His skin looked as though it could crumble like chalk. His hair was spotted and raggy with a dirt tint covering his bloody torso. His hands and feet were shackled with rusty manacles and thick metal chains drew down his bare chest.
The assistants gripped the boy tightly around his shoulders as he floundered and punted at the men’s shins. They threw him directly onto the “x”.
“I hope you don’t mind, dear boy. We thought it not right to have this animal killed by someone much stronger or larger than itself.”
Jack raised the weapon to aim. He looked at the boy across from him, waving the tip of the pistol narrowly in his direction. It was now that the shackled boy had lifted his chin, exposing his face to the crowd in their wave of diluted whispers. The boy had luminous green eyes that shined clear across the squalls of swirling sleet.
Jack wrapped his hand around the pistol and locked his eyes shut.
“Now, boy! Do it now!”
Jack stood still with fear, his wintry gumboots clinging to the floor. He quivered from the consternation, the trepidation.
“Come on, what are you waiting for? Fire!”
And then, Jack pulled. Taken aback with full force, shock waves rippled through him.
The shackled boy had not yet realized the bullet had passed through his skull. He touched his finger to his forehead and witnessed as a drop of blood strolled down his finger. Eyes wide open, he fell lifeless to the floor. Those rosy pink cheeks faded forthwith to an ash gray.
“It is deceased!” cried Mr. Williams, and the crowd turned into a frenzy.
Jack and his brother stared incredulously at each other from across the circle. And their father who was never impressed was mildly impressed, something the boy rarely saw. On Jack’s face, a tear fell to which he immediately lifted the cuff of his shirt. He wiped his face clean to see the joy and excitement of those that surrounded him.
Everything was calm as if a glowing golden light had shined down upon him in the gorgeous winter’s night. Snowflakes began to fall from the rimy clouds landing on the shoulders of a boy who was now a killer. Jack looked at his father’s approval and was at peace.
Ervin Brown is a writer from Southern California. His other works can be found in Art Block Zine, The Dillydoun Review, Beyond Words Literary Magazine, Grime Prophet Mag, Aurtistic Zine, and Drunk Monkeys.