We received nearly one short story every day since we announced our Summer Flash Fiction Contest, and the overwhelming number of submissions made the decision process very difficult. But after robust discussion and careful consideration, we have chosen “Burning Ditches,” by Longmont’s Leslie Goodwin, as the winner.
Her story is a pithy yet powerful tale of a man’s internal struggles with feelings of revenge, regret, fear and familial obligation as his father lies on his deathbed. The runners-up, “Twelve” by Boulder’s Krista Diamond and “Zoo” by Denver’s Angela Ross, can be found online.
Congratulations to Leslie, and thank you to all the writers who entered.
—David Accomazzo, arts and entertainment editorBurning Ditches
It’s 20 years, but my knees still tremble and my hands jump from my pockets to my thighs remembering the fury in my father’s voice: “You will pay son. Pay for your sins.
“God don’t forget. His wrath can strike you down. Hail to crush your crop, or he makes your best cow drop a dead calf, or lets you fall off the haystack and break your leg.”
We farmed 100 acres of homestead, land so hopeless they had to give it away. Only our father was the stronger for the fight.
Every spring he loved burning ditches. Not just to clear weeds. He even burned corn stubble. He’d laugh as we kids stared, fascinated and horrified, the gathering heat and smothering smoke sending prickly alarms up our backs. Get ready to run. Here he comes with the gas can.
For 20 years I have carried my hate like a cross.
That’s what I think as we stand here watching him die. The biggest tumor is the size of a grapefruit. He stinks of bedsore ointment. He won’t eat.
It is the last time we will ever have to come back here. We kids, we don’t talk much. Sometimes at the oddest moments, we laugh. Guilty laughter. Greedy laughter.
Ellen comes to give him morphine injections. She specializes in “terminals,” she calls them. She’s six-foot-two and weighs 190. An expert in death.
When she caught my father slashing at his eyes, like he was trying to scratch them out, she pinned him and tied him to the bed as fast as a rodeo roper tying a calf.
“They call it referred pain,” she said. “It’s his gut that hurts, but he feels pain behind his eyes.”
I know about referred pain.
I keep my hands in my pockets when Ellen’s around. See, I have no fingerprints on two fingers — just lumpy scars. I was 6. We were tamping the fire with shovels near the house. He pushes me down, holds my hands to the burning ground. Says: “Want to know what Hell is like, son?” At first, I don’t feel my fingers burning. He’s laughing: “Let that be a lesson to you, boy.”
Yet now that it’s his turn, he doesn’t believe in cremation.
Yesterday he ordered me to bring my rifle. I refused. So he said, “For once in your life, be a man.” I wanted to tell him how puny he looks tied down on his back; that his weak, spittly voice has no power anymore.
But today I obey. Just my habit. Now, I raise the rifle barrel. Raise it to his forehead. I know that in one clean shot, it will be over.
It feels jumpy in my hand. Like the first time he took me hunting.
We had walked for half a day in silence. Finally we sighted one, a young buck not more than 20 feet away, hanging from my gun sight like a Christmas ornament.
“Shoot him, boy.” I want to. To be a man.
“Shoot, damn you.” The buck’s ears flicker and he freezes. Dead still. I’ve got vomit in my throat. I raise the barrel and shoot twelve inches too high.
As if he has heard the shot, my father jerks upright, trying to break the wrist bands. Shit! Where’s Ellen? She’s late. Where is everyone?
“Damn you, boy. What’s the matter? You chicken?” My mind is a messy knot.
How long have I waited for this? Too long. I won’t look at him. I won’t show my face. I won’t let myself cry. My arms go limp and flighty. There is no time. Ellen will be here soon.
I jump up and untie him. Then I drop the rifle’s muzzle, cock it and lay it across his lap. He is silent, his eye on the gun, lusting for it. His jerky left hand latches onto the barrel just below the muzzle and he raises it to his mouth. He lets me lift his other hand and hook his index finger around the trigger.
Then I turn and walk away. Head up and steady.
Like a man.