“Blood Off Rusted Steel” – Brooks Rexroat

It’s awful as hell to see a set of flashing lights off in the distance and know immediately that they’re coming for someone who shares your last name. I was barely even out of the driveway, on the way to school just before dawn broke when I saw them: red and blue flickers off in the distance but moving fast, and I wondered what it was he’d done this time, which of those poor creatures had got loose. Instead of heading straight down Birch Pond Road, I took a left onto the state route because lights moving that fast toward his place meant school would be canceled without question. I figured I ought to go over and see what the damage was this time.

I was steamed, too, as I drove, because we had a game that night against Clear Valley. That game had been circled on my calendar for months; they hadn’t won in two years, so it was almost dead certain I’d finally get to play varsity. The night before, Coach even let me practice with the offense instead of playing dummy defense like I had every practice for three years. I’d been working on my three-point shot in the driveway, ready to impress Dacie Lindt—ready to play some string music if the ball found my hands, ready to prove I existed, even if my heroics came during garbage minutes at the end of a blow-out.

I had it all planned out in my mind: I nail a few pretty shots, enjoy the concept of having some sweat from my own palm involved in the handshake line, then clean up and bolt toward the cafeteria and the post-game dance where Dacie would stand at the center of a crowd, still in her pleated orange and black skirt, and I’d walk up to her and ask her out. I didn’t bother to daydream her portion of it—the result was her business. But I knew my part and I was ready.

Of course, whenever school got canceled, whether it was for snow or flooding along the river or one of my uncle’s animal escapades, it meant games were canceled. And meaningless three-pointers at the buzzer. And dances. And daydreams.

I took the turns too hard that morning, my old Ford swaying side-to-side as I fumed about how Uncle James found a way to ruin things one more time. I turned the radio to something fast and loud, cranked it up to keep from thinking hateful things about him.

When I pulled around the bend and saw all those lights, all those cars, saw the distant pinpricks of light coming from the ends of shotguns, my gut curled up into a ball.

Again and again, the pinpricks came, some in isolated flashes, others in the small bursts of an automatic. The sun was starting to rise in earnest, but it was still dim enough that each flash was shocking. Each flick, I knew, was another one of those poor, ridiculous creatures catching its end. The first one I saw was right at the edge of the property, before I even got the truck stopped. A Bengal tiger, endangered as hell, and there he was with his head in the ditchwater and a dozen red pockmarks staining his belly. I swallowed back a gag then took a deep breath to pull myself together because the guns were still popping and I figured I was about to see a lot worse.

Sheriff Martin stood in the middle of the road with his hands up.

Even in that small of a town, most people my age only knew the look of him from his reelection posters, except maybe the serious delinquents. I brought the truck to a stop and he came to my window, pointed a flashlight at me. “Morning, Davis,” he said. “You can pull on through, but I have to tell you it’s ugly. Your aunt’s over by the first barn with some of your folks. You need to go see them first, you understand?”

“It’s not just the animals, is it?”

“Like I said, son. You need to go speak with your kin.”

I parked between two of the satellite trucks—there were dozens lining the road, which was a new thing. An escaped bear or two usually fetched just the local newspaper and a couple of cops—guys I knew from school, a few of them classmates of mine who dropped out and took the GED so they could get on with becoming a cop before someone else beat them to the open job. If you didn’t get on with the force and wanted to stay in town, your best options were trash collector, fast food cook or car salesman. Being a cop was the dream gig for a lot of the guys I knew: walk around with a loaded gun and a uniform, look tough, and occasionally shoot at one of my crazy uncle’s animal herd—maybe even get your picture in the paper standing hero-like over a lion or two.

That day, they all got their pictures taken. And even though they tried to act later like it had been a solemn and regrettable occasion, I knew better. Those boys made like they were on safari and blew away everything they could, whether it was legitimately dangerous or not. All those animals were just deer-in-season for them, and Sheriff Martin was handing out licenses. They hit everything that moved, even a couple rabbits, a squirrel and Aunt Linda’s cat.

That morning, all those boy-deputies got their moment of glory, got a big story to exaggerate for their eventual grandkids and newspaper clippings to validate it. I can just picture one of them retelling the story to some dumb kids, turning a sweet-tempered tabby named Princess into a vicious panther, coiled and ready to pounce.

Before I got to the barn where my family was gathering I saw mixed in with the cop cars and ambulances a black sedan with white letters on the side: County Coroner. I decided to skip the chat with Aunt Linda, decided I’d seen enough of the whole mess. I got back in my truck and drove fast toward home, those little flashes following me in the rearview mirror the whole way.

It stinks like hell burying the week-old corpse of a tiger, a monkey, a leopard, a bear, a tabby, a horse. Each body has its own tint of rotten and when the sun does its work on a six-acre killing field, it’s the embodiment of foul with different stinks blending from different directions. By the third day of work, I could pick apart whether I was near a cat or a monkey without even looking. I got stuck with the bulk of the cleanup duty when I proved to be the least skilled at evacuating. The professionals did it first, put their trucks into gear as soon as they could and hit the interstate. Sure, the cameras hung around for a few days. The reporters with their thick make-up got real practiced at saying the word tragedy and talking about how this small Ohio community will be forever changed, as if they knew a damn thing about what it was like before. They should’ve asked me. Instead of wilting on cue and talking about how I never imagined something like this happening here, I would’ve said the truth: this place is and always has been weird, whether it’s dead animals or live people. Nothing’s going to change that.

When the humane society people came in a day later, they shook their heads a lot and said Oh, how terrible, but couldn’t figure out anything productive to do. In the end, their best guess was to spray paint a big black X on each bloated body to prove the animals were actually deceased, then they tacked an embossed license on Aunt Linda’s front door that showed we had permission to bury the bodies.

The county engineer’s office sent out a couple men and a backhoe to dig a pit, and the state Environmental Protection Agency showed up long enough to line the pit with thick black plastic so the decomposing tigers didn’t foul up anyone’s drinking water. Then, the important people left with their equipment and their rules.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to take it from here,” one of the EPA workers told Aunt Linda, who nodded and evacuated into her house. Everyone else in the family claimed they were busy preparing for his funeral—one the rest of the town was thinking up reasons to avoid. Dad said everybody was really more worried about protesters at the cemetery than they were about proper grieving. My folks would’ve helped, I suppose, if I’d really pushed it. But they were three weeks behind getting ready for spring planting on our own farm, and I wasn’t about to beg them away from that.

I asked a couple guys from the team, and in the cafeteria they thought the project sounded cool—but I guess once they told their parents where they were going it all got shot down, because no one showed and there I was, left alone with the mess. Just me and the shovel, some lime dust, a saw, a straw baling hook and my poor old truck.

I could describe the whole operation, but let’s leave it at this: animals of that size can’t be moved in one piece. There were tools and a strained elbow, two days of coughing afterward from the lime, a couple of mistaken steps that led to regret and a pair of perfectly good hoops shoes getting burned off in a wood pile.

It’s irritating as hell when nobody wants to talk to you anymore, except about one thing. Take Billy Thiggens. He’d been in my math class all the way through school (even though he was supposed to be two years ahead of me). Now, Billy strikes me as the sort who would cower in a corner if a white bunny rabbit got too rambunctious within five yards of him. But he was one of the first ones on the scene that night, and to hear him tell it he was fierce as Rambo out there. He may well have been, too: with those night-vision goggles on, it must’ve seemed like one big, hilarious video game.

He used to be an okay guy—a little goofy, but the type you’d be okay talking with now and then if you passed each other on the sidewalk or something. Now, though, all he ever does to try and start a conversation is shape his hand into a fake pistol and point it at me, then wink. I guess it’s his moment of glory and I should let him live it. But what really irks me is this: just about everyone else at least has the level of decency to start off their recollection with something about how awful it had been, how sad that the man unlatched each and every one of those cages before he turned a gun on himself. Everyone else had some empathy about it. But Billy just used misery to turn himself into a hero, and every time he points his index finger my direction, I want to snap it at the first knuckle. Instead, I’ve gotten good and practiced at nodding and giving a fat, fake smile that says, “Yeah, Billy, you’re real clever, and I’m just going to keep smiling so you don’t follow me around looking for excuses to write me a ticket.”

My teachers weren’t any better than Billy, writing “Okay” next to answers that were clearly wrong so my test scores got bumped up.

“Let me know it there’s anything I can do for you,” Miss Henderson said in passing at least once a week. She said this because she was a freshman science teacher, and there was absolutely nothing she could possibly do for me. Coach Thornton didn’t give me any playing time, but he took to patting my shoulder a lot at practice. Mr. Anderson, the guidance counselor, pretended to check his watch every time he passed me in the hall. I guess he was afraid that if we ever made eye contact, I’d ask him for an appointment so I could spill my guts. Thing is, I’ve never seen the man actually wear a watch. These were the people in charge of my future, and they couldn’t even be bothered to let me finish high school without treating me like I was as broken as that poor tiger in the ditch.

It’s hard as hell to scrub blood off the rusted steel of an eighty-four Ford pickup. I know: it sounds useless, scrubbing blood off rust. One of them’s no better than the other. In fact, you’d have to be strangely attentive or maybe a little deranged to even notice the difference. I would’ve left it there, except for that one spot, that one splatter on the top of the left sidewall, positioned just so that I couldn’t help staring right at it every time I looked in the rearview mirror, as if the crazy cook and all his animal mess was chasing me around.

I doubt people will ever stop asking me to tell the story, so within a couple days, the reality set in that my uncle’s final streak of madness will always follow me around. But I didn’t want it actually following me, especially that weekend. And so I scrubbed at that truck, scrubbed until my shoulder and elbow were numb, tried to rid myself of every trace of it. Tried to make myself as normal as possible.

By the time things calmed down, I lost my shot with Dacie. They never rescheduled the game—both teams were so bad it didn’t really matter. Consequently, I never made it off the bench, never had my moment of glory except the last home game when all the seniors got to start, and then as soon as somebody caught the tip-off, coach called time-out and people clapped and our parents took pictures while the senior benchwarmers trotted back to our rightful places and the skillful sophomores took back the court for the remainder of the game.

Even if that moment had produced equal parts glory as it had embarrassment (at least Mom let it rest with the camera once I took a seat and put back on my nylon pullover), it wouldn’t have been worthwhile to bother with Dacie. By then, she was already seeing one of the senior wrestlers, a squat little muscle-bound guy named Logan whose senior year was just a big countdown to the army. I guess Dacie had her sights on escaping the town and seeing the world one base at a time, so she latched onto him hard, and from the start it had the look of something permanent, hand-holding in the hallways and the exchange of various stuffed animals and so forth. I was busted up about it for a couple days after I heard, but that’s the sort of thing you can’t let weigh you down too long. In a town this size, if you don’t go off to college or find someone to marry by the end of high school, chances are you’ll have to wait a good four or five years before the first round of divorces kick in, and even then you’re stuck dealing with someone else’s brats and you’re probably handling four or five years’ worth of pent-up bitter—anger you didn’t put there, but that you’ve got to live with every day.

So I took after Abbie Greenway. She wasn’t blonde with big, pouty lips like Dacie, but she had cute brunette ringlets and she was the sort of kind, quiet girl you can see yourself getting along with for a good long while, the sort you don’t imagine ever having to pick up from the bar at two in the morning because she’s taken off all her clothes and started swinging her stiletto heels at the bouncer.

I pressed and scrubbed with Brillo and Scotch-Brite pads and torn-up t-shirts and even a little heel of sponge. I tried solvents and detergents and vinegar and that orange smelling stuff with lava rocks in it—I tried everything I could to erase that spot and to remove it from my rearview, to put it as far out of site as all those poor decaying beasts. I scrubbed until my shoulder and elbow went numb, then I switched arms and scrubbed some more until Mom came out and shouted, “Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” and I looked up to see the sun had already slipped halfway below the horizon.

It was time to shower—to clean myself instead of my truck. I stopped before I pulled open the screen door, though, and looked at the deepening tone of the sky, a sky that within the course of moments had turned itself from clear and pristine to deep and foreboding red. Like rust, like blood. The things that surrounded me, encapsulated in that sky. For a moment, I considered calling Abbie Greenway and thinking up the kindest way to tell her to forget it. But I did what I do—what we do around here—I shrugged it off and pushed forward, showered and dressed, and looked around the basement for an umbrella big enough for a pair. I picked up her corsage from the Kroger on the way to her place, even bought a couple of sodas while I was there, since I figured we’d be facing a solid wait at the Olive Garden.

I waited for her to say something about the truck, about how clean it was maybe, but I guess it was too dark by then for her to notice. As we drove and the drops started to fall and the wipers started to swish she just wanted to know things like what I thought might be on the geometry test and where we might work once school finished for good.

She didn’t ask me why we took the roundabout way to the prom, the three-mile detour that had become habit in the three months between. Abbie just kept up the conversation through the ride and through dinner. On the last stretch before we got to the school she reached with her left hand and held onto mine. The purple-dyed carnations that circled her wrist tickled my arm and I told her it felt nice. We reached the parking lot, full already of SUVs and pickups and a couple of rented limousines. After the dance, there would be new and important things to consider, large things not easily undone. But for a moment we sat quietly, said and did nothing. It’s comforting as hell to sit next to someone who can ignore what your last name means to the rest of town. Who doesn’t see the difference between blood and rusted steel. I peeked briefly into the rearview and saw nothing important.

“Ready?” she asked.

I nodded and got out to open her door, to help her down onto the asphalt in those precarious heels of hers. I lifted the umbrella over her head and as we walked past the truck bed and toward the doors of the gymnasium, all I saw was rust.

_

Thank you to Brooks Rexroat for sharing the complete text of his story “Blood Off Rusted Steel” for free on the web.  The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Brooks Rexroat writes and teaches in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Southern Illinois University and a B.A. in print journalism from Morehead State University. His stories have been published in more than twenty journals and magazines including Weave Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, Revolution House, The Montreal Review and The Telegraph Newspaper’s (London) 2012 International Story Competition. Visit him online at www.brooksrexroat.com.