There's a lake in North Carolina, and if you swim across, you're in Virginia. My extended family built a house there in the 80s. We all got together in the summer for a reunion. There were other houses, but we didn't know the neighbors well.
One summer, the old man next door shot a dog in his yard. The man claimed the dog was foaming at the mouth. I think the dog was just panting. My cousins and I had been playing with the dog right before the neighbor shot it. I know plenty about my family, but I don't know anything about that old man. He's dead now and unknowable to me.
Casey Hannan lives in Kansas City and writes stories. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Annalemma, SmokeLong Quarterly, and others. He is found at casey-hannan.com.
On the midnight before we leave for home, we come out from behind the trees like children from behind tall legs. We swim across the lake to Virginia and piss on the sand of a stranger's private beach. The stranger watches from his porch and all we see of him is a hot cigarette tip and a hard shadow.
We have our bottles. Tonight, my bottle is Jim. I kiss Jim and tip him up. My family whistles. Take any man to a lake like that and he'll compete with the water to prove how full he can get.
The stranger whistles back. It's a big whistle and just for me. My family knows it and they all get back in the lake under the covers. It's that time of month when the moon is dark and you can hear wings beat over you, but you can't see what flies. Everyone is married but me. I worry I'm being hunted because I'm alone.
The only violence my family has ever seen is the beheading of a snake. It happened early in the week when we were cleaning the spiders out of the house and the kids were swimming and the snakes came out to see us. My nephew poked one with a stick. He didn't know the long reach of angry snakes. How they coil up a strong arm and punch with teeth. We used a shovel and had lunch while the head died. A snake can still bite even an hour after it loses its body. My nephew was out of it when he said, "God works in mysterious ways."
The stranger whistles again. I start for the porch with Jim who's almost empty. The stranger whistles more. He's a songbird with a gun to his head. I have never been so scared of a stranger. I go up on the porch with Jim. At least I'm not alone.
The stranger is wearing a hat. I can see that now. He's sitting in a rocking chair with a cat in his lap and a cigarette dying in his mouth. He tells me to sit down, but there's nowhere to sit. I sit on the porch railing and the stranger says, "Not there. You'll fall. Sit on the floor."
I say, "What about spiders?"
The stranger reaches over and pulls a chain. A light comes on. The floor is clean. The cat in the stranger's lap is not a cat but a sleeping fox.
I say, "Oh my God."
The stranger puts a finger to his lips and makes the sound of rain if rain were slowed down to sizzling bacon. He points to the lake. My family is swimming back across without me.
The stranger says, "You'll stay here. You're too drunk to swim like that in the dark."
"They're drunk, too," I say.
"But they're not too drunk."
They make it just fine. My brothers and their wives sit on the dock with their feet in the water. The lights are on in the house. The kids are up playing cards.
The stranger puts the fox on the floor and the fox makes a hollow noise like a closet door.
The stranger says, "How about that?"
I say, "That's good taxidermy."
"Yes," the stranger says. "It's good. I'm good. God, I'm good."
I ask if he's done snakes and he says of course he's done snakes. He says it's almost impossible with little snakes, though. They turn out like sausages. But with big snakes he can really get in there and make them look alive.
I undo my shorts and the stranger says, "You're drunk."
I empty Jim and say, "Well?"
"Kid," the stranger says, "there's an entire house behind us for that sort of thing."
"And out here is all the great outdoors."
The stranger watches my display. He asks why I pissed on his shore. He asks if it's because of the story. I say I don't know the story. The stranger says he won't tell it, but he undoes his own shorts and I see the story all at once like a beautiful flower that's been trampled by a crowd.
"The war," he says.
"The war," I say, but I'm drunk and I don't care.
by Casey Hannan