The sun festered overhead like an inflamed boil while we sweltered in the train yard and waited for them to shoot Johnny.
I raised a hand to my brow to shielded my eyes from daggers of sunlight, glinting off the polished rails, and peered at those gathered to witness the affair. They were the faces of familiar strangers.
“Where is he?” I whispered to Tom, standing next to me.
He nodded in the direction of Johnny’s sisters. “Over there.”
Sherri, the older of the two, wearing a solemn expression, had Johnny pressed tightly against her chest. He was ashen and featureless. Their mother stood beside them, her face a mask of confused numbness.
It wasn’t every day that a mother would watch her son get shot on the tracks.
Sad as it was, it was a fitting way for Johnny to be disposed. He’d always had a thing for blowing shit up and burning things down. Like the time he’d set fire to the wooden walls on the inside of a boxcar with flares he’d stolen from a caboose.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The oily smell of creosote bleeding from the sun-heated railroad ties took me back to happier days. I could almost hear the creaking sway of a slow-moving line of cars being shuttled about by a switcher engine—see the younger versions of us partying in an empty boxcar with a keg of stolen beer—feel the giddy flutter of excitement while hightailing from the law.
The crunch of tires on the cinder access road brought me back to the here and now.
A pickup truck rumbled toward us.
“It’s here,” Tom said out of the corner of his mouth.
“Where’d they get something like this from?”
“Friend of Frankie’s.” Tom swiped a hand across his sweat-beaded forehead. “Guess he’s a tool and die guy.”
The truck came to a stop a few feet away from the group of us. Frankie stepped out the passenger side door, a lit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his eyes squinted against the smoke. Some guy I didn’t know got out the driver’s side. Both went to the rear of the pickup and the tailgate banged open.
Though the cannon was only about the size of an overfed poodle, I could tell by the strain on their faces when they hefted it from the bed of the truck that it had some weight to it. The two of them muscled it between a set of rails and eased it down.
“Jesus Christ,” Frankie muttered, the cigarette between his lips jerking with every word. “That little sucker’s heavy.” He massaged the small of his back.
The guy I didn’t know knelt down on one knee and tinkered with the midget piece of artillery. He ran a hand over its sleek barrel as if it were the thigh of a lover. It was easy to see the thing was his pride and joy.
I glanced over at Peanut. His face was lost inside a tangled mass of graying beard and shaggy hair. A pair of jaundice eyes—like two piss holes sunk into a dirty snowbank—stared back at me. In his shaky hand, he clutched a can of Bud. “Scuse me,” he said, the beard spreading enough for me to catch glimpse of his sparse-tooth grin.
I turned my attention back to the guy and his cannon. He stood, brushed some cinder from his knee, and gave a thumbs up.
With an air of somber formality, the sisters escorted their brother forward to meet his explosive destiny, while their mother sniffed and dabbed a tissue at her reddened, puffy eyes.
When they passed by Peanut he raised the can of Bud as if he were about to make a toast. “So long, Johnny,” he slurred, brought the beer to his whisker-curtained mouth, tilted his head back, and chugged the can dry, then crunched it in his hand and let loose another belch.
The sisters walked Johnny to the front of the cannon. With their backs toward the assembled group of witnesses, they positioned him, then stepped to the side out of the line of fire.
A current of electrified anticipation crackled throughout the group when Cannon Guy leaned forward, struck a lighter and held the flame to a fuse poking from the top of the barrel. It caught, hissed snake-like, and curled into itself on a slow sizzling burn. Everyone—with the exception of Johnny—held their breath.
The bark of the poodle-sized artillery had the volume of a bull mastiff. Ears ringing, I watched in open-mouthed shock as a gray cloud exploded into the air.
“Holy shit!” Tom adjusted the hearing aid in his right ear. “Somebody’s gonna call the cops.”
Sherri stepped back up to the cannon. She dipped her hand into the plastic freezer baggie she held, scooped out more of the powdery ash, and reloaded the cannon with another fistful of Johnny.
Terry Dawley resides in the snowbelt of Erie, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, The Cleveland Review, Soft Cartel, and Law Enforcement Today. He is an award winner of the Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition and a five-time award winner of the Pennwriters Annual Writing Contest.