Joe by Laury A. Egan
The rabbit's legs twitched furiously as the animal tried to find footing in air. Joe parted white starbursts of Queen Anne's lace and stalks of wild mustard so he could observe the small body, its muscles rippling in spasms, its eyes flashing panic. Kneeling, Joe stroked the silky fur and leaned over to sniff the salty metal smell of blood. Intoxicated by the scent, he could not resist a taste. He lifted up a front paw and brought the tip of his tongue to an ooze of red below a hole in the quivering breast, savored a single drop, and stared up at the sun as his left hand drifted to the hardness filling his shorts. Then his fingers stopped. The rabbit was dying. He had things to do before it did.
As he walked home after burying the rabbit, Joe knew that when he was lying in bed tonight he would replay the animal's last throes and feel the hot flush rise again. Only then would he allow himself sexual release. After all, it was necessary to abide by rules of restraint, at least for a while, until he earned certain rights through experience. He wasn't altogether sure of how this would all work out, but Joe recognized that practice was essential to achieving the perfect act. He considered this as he rinsed the blood from the fillet knife, his hands, and shoe tops; coiling the pale green garden hose on its rack. Yes, practice, he whispered to himself. By tomorrow, maybe the day after, the thrill of the rabbit's death would fade. It would then be necessary to start again.
Joe reckoned his future held exceptional promise. He had been singled out, given special powers to see behind the dark curtain, which would only open when he was alone, usually late at night. Each time it parted to reveal his next subject, Joe was filled with awe and a sense of responsibility. After his assignment was given, he planned. The planning was fun. The killing was even more fun. The rabbit had been good, easy to shoot down with his BB gun, easy to dispatch to rabbit heaven after a little experimentation. In the library, he had read up on rabbits: Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Cordata, Class Mammalia, Order Lagomorpha, Family Leporidae. His was a plain old Cottontail: Sylvilagus floridanus. Joe wondered with a name like that if the rabbit came from Florida. That was a hell of a hop from there to Lahaska, PA. Whatever, the bunny had been zapped, and Joe had four of his feet to store in his special suitcase, a blue-and-green plaid with black leather trim that he kept in a basement closet.
Now, as he took a tiny silver key from his pocket and opened its lock, his hands trembled. They always did whenever he viewed his collection: a couple of birds, chipmunks, rats, mice; a squirrel's tail he liked to brush that against his cheek; a seagull's head, and now the rabbit's feet, which would bring good luck. Except for today's additions, the sweet smell of decay had dissipated, but even so his nostrils flared as he inhaled the aroma of death. "Joe's Starters" was what he called his treasures.
As he added the newest mementos, he considered the whole killing proposition. It was chicken shit to use the BB gun. A more hands-on approach was next on the agenda, especially since the gun wouldn't be much use for bigger subjects, which he was darned sure would be on the schedule in a few days, maybe a week at the outside. It all depended on the curtain when it would draw back and reveal a really serious target.
He itched to tell someone about his achievements, but Joe realized he was still an amateur, working on a small scale. More accomplishments were necessary. First, however, house duties needed his attention this afternoon. The stalls needed to be mucked out. He hated to touch dirty straw. Dirt was different than blood. Blood was clean and beautiful. Salty, like the sea. He'd been to the ocean once and liked the taste of it, liked that it was like blood. He had floated along on the waves for hours, imagining the water was red. A real deep ruby red that he could dive into for as long as his breath lasted. That evening, he had bagged a rat as it scurried underneath the boardwalk pilings. A rock well-aimed. He nailed a seagull the same way, both of which he saved as souvenirs of Wildwood, NJ. Joe was plenty proud to get them, but then again, he had practiced.
On Wednesday night, things were pretty quiet around the farm, but up in his room, Joe was wide awake with his eyes closed. That was how it had to be for him to see behind the curtain. As close as he could figure, the images were printed on the inside of his eyelids. Tonight, he saw a cat. A yellow stripy thing. He wasn't positive at first, but the more he concentrated, the surer he was that he saw Mrs. Bonillo's old flea bag, Butterscotch. And the more he considered the cat, the more he warmed to the idea, and the more he warmed up, the more excited he got. A tin of tuna fish would work fine as bait, he decided.
Late the next afternoon, Joe moseyed around the Bonillo place, looking for his subject. Finally, he saw Butterscotch sunning herself by the clothesline full of laundry. Trousers, bras, socks, and boxers blew in the breeze and smelled of soap and springtime sun.
Since he could stand behind all the clothes and no one could see him from the house, not unless they looked real hard, Joe felt fairly safe. He grasped a pair of Mrs. Bonillo's slippery pink undies and sniffed them, but the human scent was almost gone. For a second he was disappointed, but then he remembered his assignment and popped the tuna can's lid, pushing half of it vertical so the oily fish odor wafted around him.
At first old tabby didn't do much, just raised a fat head in his direction, nose up a few inches, smelling the fish. Joe went behind the tumble-down shed and waited. Patience was as important as practice. By and by, the cat came along and rubbed Joe's legs on the way to the tuna. No sweat to pick up kitty. Joe and Butterscotch went for a little walk in the woods. A nice grove of maples, their leaves all pale green and shimmery. Pretty place, he thought, as he twisted the animal's neck.
Joe felt strong and powerful. Like a king or an emperor. He unbuttoned his red-checked shirt so he could press the warm body against his bare chest, rubbing the orange fur against his skin, up and down, working himself into a frenzy of excitement until the heat drained from the cat. He held the animal for a few minutes longer, letting the pleasure ebb and trying to decide on what kind of investigation to do. Then he heard Mrs. Bonillo yelling her face off down by the house. It sounded like she was coming his way. There was no time to improve his anatomical knowledge of Felis catus. Sighing with regret, Joe cut off a triangle of ear and curled kitty in the grass beneath a tree so the sun dappled light on her fur. The body looked perfect except for the ear. But Joe had to have something to put in his suitcase. That was one of his rules.
All the next week, Joe was busy. His Uncle Cal and Aunt Mary were visiting. He didn't want them around, but there wasn't much he could do. They'd sit on the front porch gabbing and drinking beer, insisting on his company. Joe could squeeze himself up to being sociable, but it didn't come natural.
Monday night, after his relatives departed, the house was still. Joe slipped on jeans and sneakers but left off his shirt since he might want to hold something against his skin, though he didn't know what that something was. The curtain hadn't opened for him yet, but he was so frustrated, so crispy hot to go cruising for a subject, that he couldn't stand being in bed a minute longer.
Keeping to the shadows of trees, he walked along by the river. No one could hear him. His Reeboks were quiet like an Indian's moccasins. In fact, he was nigh on invisible, a ghost traipsing through the bushes. When he stepped out into the moonlight, he was as white as it was. There was no seeing him this fine June night!
Around the bend in the river, he heard voices. An argument of some kind. Joe walked up and stood behind a big poplar tree. On the grassy bank about sixty feet away, he saw a guy and a gal. The guy had his trousers off and the girl was naked. They were on a blanket, the man pushing away at her, but she was shouting at him, trying to knock him over. As Joe was getting into all this, the guy tumbled back and started cussing. Then he made a fist and whacked the girl on the head. At first Joe thought the man would finish what he was doing, now that the girl was lying there all peaceful. Maybe even do what Joe would do. Perhaps the man was like him?
Joe peeked around the tree with hope spurting hot fire in his chest. But no, the guy wasn't like him. Instead, he bolted upright, jammed on his pants, and took off through the woods. Well, Joe thought, this is really something. He came closer, stealthy-like, because he didn't want to be heard. When he was standing at the edge of the blanket, he recognized Cherilyn Lee, her blond hair tumbling all over the navy blanket. She had a slim body, white and smooth, with nice tits. Not too big, big ones kind of scared him, although he didn't know why. What really interested him, though, were the spots of blood down below, where the guy had been pushing.
Joe felt dizzy. His head was light and heavy at the same time, spinning like a wobbly top. This is a test, he told himself, as he clenched his hands into fists, his fingernails digging into his palms. Concentrate! He inhaled deeply, at first to calm his nerves, then because he wanted to smell her, but only a whiff of damp moss mixed with dry forest dust reached his nose. He bit his lip and squinched his eyes shut, desperate to see the curtain of his magic theater, his special place. A shiver charged through his body like an electrocution. Slowly, he saw the cherished image painted on the inside of his eyelids. The black curtain opened and there she was, just like he figured she'd be. All spread out like Thanksgiving dinner. Permission granted.
He knelt beside her and laid his hand on her neck, feeling for the pulse, relieved that it was still throbbing away, and took in a flowery perfume below her ears. Gardenia? He was pleased to recognize the scent, but then again he had done his homework at Woolworth's Department Store, checking fragrant oils and women's perfumes so he could identify each.
Joe paused, appreciating Cherilyn and the privilege that had been bestowed upon him, yet worrying that he might be skipping ahead of schedule. Have faith in the curtain, he finally told himself. It would not have shown him Cherilyn unless he had exhibited superior skill on his previous experiments. After a second of hesitation, Joe moved his hand to her breasts and squeezed their tips, circling around the dark pink area and returning to the knobs, which fattened the more he pinched them. He loved that he could control them and played with one and then the other, until it was time for more serious work.
As his hand began to trail down below her belly, Cherilyn came to, her eyes slowly focusing on his face until she was looking at him with surprise.
"Joe! What the hell are you doing?" She stared at his fingers. "Hey! Knock it off, do you hear?" She swatted his hand, sat up, and snatched a corner of the blanket to cover herself.
"Hey, Cherilyn," he said, rocking back a few inches. He was used to subjects that were either unconscious or stunned. And none of them could talk. This wasn't going right, Joe thought.
She backed away from him. He put his hand out to stop her.
"Let me alone, you creep!" she cried.
"Oh, come on, I don't mean no harm."
"I don't care! Quit looking at me like that, with those moony eyes." She reached for her underwear.
Joe had to follow his heart. But his heart wasn't being clear with him. He knew it was not okay her getting dressed. He wanted Cherilyn like this, naked, smelling flowery near her neck and breasts.
"Cherilyn, what's your hurry?" Her feet were poking out of the underwear. As she was about to scoot up her panties, Joe grasped her arm tight. "It's just no good. You're put here for me. You know that."
"What're you going on about? Are you crazy? I was out with Don, and he got out of line. Now you. Jesus!"
She fought off his hand, but he grabbed both of her arms and fell on top of her, breathing in the mix of frilly gardenia with the faint sour scent of dried perspiration. Joe was getting very excited. Pressing hard against her body, he brought his fingers up to her throat and felt for the throb. Yes, there it was. Just like that old yellow cat. Joe closed his eyes to be sure, to see if Cherilyn was still present beyond the curtain, and she was. Go for it, it said. So he did. He encircled that sweet-smelling neck with his hands and watched as her green eyes lit up, little fireworks going off in them. He had surprised her, had used his experience to catch her off-guard.
When the air had gone out of Cherilyn, sort of like a popped balloon, Joe was sad. He took out his knife and cut off the rosy breast tips. He wanted to do more, much more, but he didn't feel entitled since this was his first Homo sapiens. Standing in the bushes nearby, he unzipped his fly and came. He couldn't help himself, but he reasoned this was a special day and the usual rules didn't apply. Then he cleaned off his knife on the wool blanket and went home to bed.
The next morning his mother called him from downstairs. Seeing his specimens on the table beside him, Joe jumped out of bed in alarm. There was no way he could hide them in the basement, so he quickly slipped them in a brown argyle sock and stuffed it in a drawer. He hoped the tits wouldn't smell much.
"Good morning, Joe," his mother said when he walked into the kitchen. She was wearing a yellow dress, looking like a giant sunflower.
"Good morning, Mom."
"So, this is your big day, isn't it?"
It had been his big night. Even the thought of it got him stirred up under the table. He repeated a passage of scripture in his head. That usually worked.
"Yeah, it is," he agreed, reaching for the pitcher of orange juice.
"Goodness, I wish your daddy had lived for this"
They both pretended daddy was dead. He might as well be, but he wasn't. Daddy was in prison, doing life for killing some little girl six years back. Daddy hadn't practiced enough, Joe thought.
"Imagine. Your eighth grade graduation." His mother smiled, as a tear formed in the corner of her eye. "My, how proud your father would be!" She set a plate of eggs, scrapple, and toast in front of Joe.
Joe picked up a fork and nodded, still conjuring up the thrilling vision of Cherilyn Lee. "Yes, ma'am, I think you're right. Daddy would've been very proud"
Laury A. Egan has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and a Notable Story award. Her story, "Fergus," was selected for "story of the week" by Short Story America, where it was read in 56 countries and will be included in the 2010 anthology. Her work has also appeared in Tryst, The Battered Suitcase, In the Mist, Paradigm, Leaf Garden, The Maynard, Broomstick Books, and is forthcoming in Blue Moon Literary & Art Review and anthologies published by Static Movement Press, Rebel Books, and Sephyrus Press. Her full-length poetry collection, Snow, Shadows, a Stranger, was issued by FootHills Publishing in 2009. In addition to writing prose and poetry, she is a fine arts photographer. Web site: www.lauryaegan.com