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The Halloween Project 2018 Story 2: Fire In The Hole

The second story for Halloween season 2018.

A cautionary tale, not a horror story. Children ought to be as young as they are for as long as they can be kept in that state of wondrous innocence. Telling them too much is always a bad idea, but in the modern world it sometimes seems as if parents just want to be pals.

Hold your tongue.

“Grandpa! Tell us that story about the dog. You know, your favorite dog! Come on, Grandpa, tell! Please! Please?”

Five youngsters surged into the room where Gus reclined in a big Lazy Boy. He had his gin and tonic, nice and cold, in a Yeti cup the size of a quart bottle. His John Deere hat was tipped back on his balding head, a sure sign that he was done working for the day and feeling just this side of gonna be fine. It was Halloween night after all and they were back from trick or treating. Donna, his youngest daughter, had driven them into town and shepherded them through the raucous streets. Delivered them all safe and sound back here at the farm where they would exchange candy, watch scary movies and stay the night. His wife, Margaret, was happy as a rooster with the hens. She’d baked cookies, made a pumpkin pie and even had them bob for apples. They loved it all. From 10 years old to 14 with a set of twins stuck right in the middle they still loved coming back out here for Halloween.

“Nope, you heard that story plenty of times. It’s getting old, real old. I done told that story for the last twenty years,” Gus refused, good-naturedly.

“Mikaela never heard that story, Grandpa,” Adam, the oldest stated. Gus looked down at the youngest, his favorite by a mile. She was 10, but alert and fast and bright. He had to admit, at least to himself, that she definitely was his favorite even if he wouldn’t admit it to his wife

“Kaela, you want to hear that ole dog story?” he asked.

She nodded, a half smile, but not with enthusiasm, knowing that her cousins wanted the tale told once again.

“Well, alright then,” he paused, took a long swig from the Yeti, placed it on the side of the chair and leaned forward. They mirrored his attention and leaned in, munching candy as they readied themselves.

“When I was about 12 years old I got me a dog, just probably about the same age as you twins is now. Come from the Anderson’s farm down a ways from here, but the Anderson’s ain’t there no more. Was the runt of the litter, some kind of a beagle mix, but it weren’t nothing but a mix of this and that. A mutt for sure. But it was the goddamn most loyal dog I ever saw. It didn’t matter if I was sleeping, fishin’, tendin’ hogs, milkin’ cows that dog was right next to me. When I get off the bus he was happier to see me then my own ma and dad. We played and he’d fetch a stick all afternoon until your arm gave out throwin’ it. Once he run off a rabid raccoon that looked like it wanted to take a chunk out of me. That was my dog and he was the best dog on the earth or at least in this county.”

“What did you name him, Grandpa?” the minutely taller of the twins asked.

“Well, who is tellin’ this story, Ben? And you darn well already know what I named him. You heard this story before. I named him,” he paused for effect. This story brought out some long lost joy in the telling, “I named him… Gus.”

All five kids laughed as one.

“You named him after yourself? Kaela questioned.

“I did just that. Caused all kinds of problems here at the farm. If my mother, your great grandma, god bless her, called me for dinner, the dog come a runnin’. If my father called me for chores, I’d send the dog. In town, I’d be callin’ ‘Gus! Gus!’ and the people walking store to store all thought I had lost my marbles, callin’ out my own name.”

They laughed again. Sometimes the story changed just a bit, sometimes more laughs, always ending the exact same way.

“Now before I go on about that dog, Gus, there’s another part to this story.”

“The fireworks!” Adam, the shorter twin, exclaimed.

“Damn, who is tellin’ this story?”

They laughed again.

“Yes, the fireworks. Now I have enjoyed a lot of things in my life. And I’ve loved a couple of things as well. I love your grandmother and I love all of you. But I loved fireworks!”

“And Gus” Ben came back.

“And Gus,” grandpa echoed, “I loved Gus, and I loved the fireworks. Fourth of July for me was like Christmas. But you know that sometimes even the things you love can get you into trouble. Damn bad trouble. Sometimes.”

“Is someone swearing out there?” Margaret called from the kitchen.

“No grandma!” a twin yelled back and received a twisted smile from Gus.

“So, some years earlier, when I was younger then all of you, maybe seven or eight I was playing with some fireworks. I was with some boys, they was a bit older than me, but not much. Somehow we had got our hands on some mighty fine fireworks. Even older boys gave us a few, we scraped together some dimes and quarters and had enough to buy a couple more. Not stuff that goes all googly in the sky making cute colors and going up in fountains. Not that kind of stuff. We got some big, ole nasty firecrackers and things even bigger. We called ‘em M-80’s. Kids would spout off and say they was equal to a quarter stick of dynamite. Now I have no idea if that is a truthful fact or not, but they was loud and powerful. Very loud and very powerful. Those things would go off and if you were just a bit too close you’d have ringin’ in your ear for at least two days.”

“And then?” a voice rang out.

“And then I made a mistake. I took one of those M-80’s and instead of puttin’ it on the ground, lightin’ it and runnin’ like hell, I thought, in my eight year old brain, that it would be fun to hold it, light it and throw it. And as all of you know, that didn’t happen the way I planned.”

Gus lifted his left hand like a bishop blessing the newly ordained. There was his thumb, a pointer finger and his middle finger, but nowhere was there to be found a ring finger or a pinkie. He wore a gold band prominently on his middle finger, holding his hand aloft for several seconds, then he turned his hand, finally folding his first two fingers to make the long standing sign for “Fuck you”. The twins both laughed. Kaela looked pale. The older kids just smiled, liking this part of the story.

“Your grandmother sometimes gets a bit upset that I wear our wedding band on my middle finger, but I just say, ‘Honey, that’s the best I got left,” he explained.

More smiles from the gathered.

“But here’s the thing. Did that stop me from playing with fireworks?”

Everyone, save Kaela, chorused “Noooooo!”

“No, it did not. But I should have learned a lesson cause several years later, I learned again the hard way. It was ten years after, I was about 18 and this time it was the Fourth of July. My daddy never agreed with my love of fireworks but he couldn’t do much to stop me by that time. Some boys and I were out past the barn, way past the coops and we had some amazing fireworks. I used to say they were municipal. I had gone with a buddy to some guys place outside of Gatlinburg and we bought us, … well, I guess you could call them rockets, but really they were mortars. When these sons of bitches went off it was like you were in the middle of a war zone. They was so loud you couldn’t hear your own thoughts. People in town said they always knew when Gus and his friends were shootin’ off those mortars.”

“And then what happened?” the oldest asked, everyone silent, everyone glancing from Gus’s face to his left hand.

“Well, things just went wrong. We was shootin’ ‘em off and they were amazin’. We set ‘em up on a board and lit them with a long wood match. Careful. At least we thought. Well, I set one off.”

Here Gus pauses as he always does when telling the story. Somewhere more than fifty years ago, his eyes search back, seeing.

“That damn dog. He was all jacked up, runnin’ and scurryin’ around the field. Barking his head off. I thought he was having a good old time. He’d run in a circle, a tight circle, close in when the fuse was burnin’. It was like he knowed what was gonna happen next. This particular mortar, something went wrong. A small burn popped out of the side low down. That keeled it over and it went off. Sent a rocket straight out, horizontal to the ground about a foot high. It was like a sharpshooter had aimed that thing. It hit old Gus smack dab in the flank and when it hit him it exploded, full force. That dog pretty near blew into a thousand pieces. Stuff and blood hit all of us. Tommy Maxwell threw up in a second. It got quiet, quiet like the fields after a new mow. Pieces of Gus were rainin’ down, a paw here, an ear there. We found his jaw the next day on the left side roof of the chicken coop. It was a mess. And old Gus wasn’t just dead. He just wasn’t.“

Silence. And more silence.

“Grandpa, did you ever shoot off another firework?” Ben asked.

“The fact of the matter is that, yes, I have. But I ain’t never had another dog.”

He looked at their faces and then caught Kaela’s eyes. She was crying. Had been crying for a while. Her mouth open, teeth bared, a grimace for a 10 year old. Eyes too wide.

“Shit,” grandpa said.

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