The world was different where I came from. At the rise of the blazing sun—the start of a broken record—the people awoke in preparation of night. They donned their wide-brimmed hats, clicked their cowhide leather boots, and locked their loaded revolvers in well-worn holsters from quotidian gun-slinging. Because unlike the cliches of the wild wild west, of which most of my dusty town proved true, there was something that made this world different—something we all fought that redefined how we lived our lives.
In the neighbouring cowboy towns, no men were allowed guns. There were no duels, whether it be under the sun or in the darkness of night. Most people died from diseases and at the hooves of their own horses—rarely would one see gaping holes in their abdomen. Occasionally, a band of bandits would pay an unwelcome visit but that was as rare as justice. The most exciting thing you would find is a tumbleweed, and even that was a sign of peace.
My town, unfortunately, had no peace. And ever since I was old enough to wield a fork, I was taught to wield a weapon. When the rooster crowed, my father would holler for me and my sister. He had a shooting range of old cans and glass bottles set beside the barn with loaded pistols ready to be fired. My sister and I would spend our mornings firing and reloading. But when my mother called for lunch, training for the day was over. My father would then head into town for the daily town meeting, while the rest of us cleared the mess from the night before—salvaging everything that could be reused for the coming dusk.
For the first twelve years of my life, this repetition was normal—boarding up the windows and sleeping with our guns under our pillows was what we called life. But everything changed the evening my father returned with dreadful news.
“I pulled a long straw,” he said to my mother.
My mother’s eyes widened. She didn’t know what to say. What did the news mean to our family? Neither my sister nor I fully understood. As far as I knew, those who drew long straws didn’t all come home. The family across our field had drawn long straws many times and once, their second son didn’t return. However, as much as such information should be made privy to everyone in our town, nobody told the children—I had learned of it from watching my neighbours and eavesdropping on the murmurs between my parents. Still, I found it strange that it was the first time my father uttered those words.
“I can’t buy out of this one,” my father added.
“Then we leave. There’s still time,” my mother replied. She took a quick glance around the living room before reaching for me and my sister. But before she could do anything further, my father pulled her to a corner.
Their murmurs began. They often thought we didn’t understand or that we couldn’t put the pieces together. And for the most part, we couldn’t. But that evening, we knew something was wrong—terribly, horribly wrong.
“We cannot abandon this town,” my father stated.
“Then who should I send tomorrow when you don’t return?” my mother retorted. “Myself or the children?”
“I will return.”
My father reached for the brown sack he had tucked beneath the old bookshelf. He often said that the sack was filled with coal, dousing my curiosity to peek inside.
“I want to go with you,” I uttered. I didn’t know what I was signing up for but I hadn’t miss a shot since I was ten. There were echoes of gunfire every single night—I could help my father shoot whatever it was they shot under the moonlight.
“No. You stay home. I will return in the morning,” my father said. “Don’t worry. It’ll just be like last night.”
Not waiting for my mother to protest, my father gave us each a peck on the cheek and left. For a few minutes after, my mother stood staring at the closed door. But the second she snapped out of her daze, she boarded the door up. That night, the gunfire sounded different—they were loud and never ending. The hours of the night also seemed to tick slower than the night before. And when day finally arrived, I had not rested even for a minute.
My father came home as he said he would. The first thing he did was refill the sack with coal. That morning, I learned that it was true. My father wasn’t lying—it was indeed coal. It was the only matter that protected him. But from what, I didn’t know.
Today, I pulled a long straw. It has been three months since—representing my family at the daily town meeting. And tonight, I would see what we’d been fighting. It might sound crazy that no one has ever spoken about what the night brought to our little town in the desert. But at the very least, my late father gave me a reason—the purpose behind our battles in the dark.
“We fight in the darkness for the light of day,” I told my sister. “And if you ever draw a long straw, a single coal can light your way.”
12 Genre Months © 2019 by Jeyna Grace. All rights reserved.
(Click HERE for the list of stories in this writing challenge.)