“i-shot-the-sheriff-town” by David Henson was originally published by Problem House Press and won their 2016 Fiction Prize.
Check out Henson’s newly released fiction micro-chapbook, An Explanation, out now with L’Éphémère Review.
The treehouse is outgrowing the tree. It leans and sways like the neighborhood pendulum. Inside, the shelves are lined with jars that briefly held glowing bugs each summer night. They lent their light for poring over newly purchased comic books. The light dulls, and dies, and the boy can’t bear to catch more. As summer ends, he sits in the dark, cross-legged on a scrap of shag carpet, and reads the comics plastered to the inside of his skull.
The boy opens an eye. Sun grazes the shag jungle. He sits up and rubs the indentations in his cheek. A new day began without him.
Below the ticktock treehouse, a girl sends a torn baseball to her hulking dad. The dad crouches like a catcher and she winds up big. The boy listens. The dad is pretending he’s a bartender. Every time she fires a strike into the worn leather he sneers, “We don’t serve that here!”
Someone tosses a handheld radio like a grenade into the tall grass. An R&B song escapes. It sounds like it was recorded as the singer was committing suicide. It’s a little over the top. The boy feels embarrassed for everyone involved in the production of such a monstrosity.
The boy peeks out the unevenly cut window. He spots an amusement park behind the yards. Children are strapped to wild animals. So that’s where everyone keeps disappearing to. The boy digs through his chest for binoculars. Upon closer inspection, the animals are ten feet tall and probably puppets, but they are still wild, pouncing on the kids that fall off and dragging them around. He remembers seeing Matt “Manhandler” McGuiness taking off on his dirt bike early in the morning wearing an oversized tiger head. It wasn’t a helmet or some new form of terror. It was a summer job.
For the time being, the future is no further away than tomorrow.
The adults stampede back. Ties are tightened. Garage doors lowered. Things need deciding. Order isn’t so much restored as satanically conjured from the hole it was buried alive in. Voting on issues is immediate and they always vote on whether something is fair or not. Fair to who? the boy wonders. Wooden signs plunged into green lawns display the outcomes of the votes. They vote on whether they can turn the treehouse into a Museum of Wonders. Yes they can. It’s unclear whether the boy is supposed to leave. He did not cast a ballot.
Corporations move in immediately and build everything out of broken down cars. More rooms, entranceways, and a parking garage. The boy can barely sit for all the broken glass. It is not long until he is found, roused and evicted.
Later, he was younger, it was night. An older friend comes over and brings wine. The light hanging above the kitchen sink is a glowing planet in the solar system of the windowpane. Steam is present independent of food smells. They play a hockey videogame. The characters speak in the boy’s voice. He hears himself trash-talking and grunting on the screen. He thinks it’s very conversational for hockey. Another guest arrives. He’s an even older friend. It is revealed that he drinks all the time. Thirsty even when he isn’t thirsty. They give him the short tour based on his personal interests.
“I know this isn’t your regular wine set up, but damn!” he says.
It’s enough. Teeth are temporarily purpled in real life and blacked-out pixel by pixel onscreen after a bloody scrap. Something inside the boys is glad to erupt. Chaos commences. The boy welcomes an elbow to the temple with a roar and a punch to the thigh. A cacophony of violent joy strolls through the house, awaiting the inevitable misinterpretation.
The parents. The parents are not happy. The children are out of control and the parents are trapped in the house with them. Work was abominable. Now this noise. There’s no room for the parents to discuss problems or solutions. The commute from the brain to the pit of the stomach is always jammed. An expensive safari is booked to hunt elusive me-time. They decide to get drunk and go in the pool. The backdoor slams and the boy half-returns to himself. The bear climbs back over the fence, puts his hat on and pretends to be the zookeeper again.
“We should keep it down,” he says aloud, to appease the exasperated specters still haunting the kitchen.
In the morning the boy walks past the pool. The parents are sound asleep, adrift on inflatable beds.
At the park the boy steals three different flavors from the Sunkist machine. A woman takes off her trench coat to reveal a stunning red dress. A little kid yells, “She’s got huge jugs!” and everyone laughs. At the pavilion there is some sort of presentation about a white-haired lady’s life. It is unclear which decisions were her own. At the picnic table in the back, all of the refreshments are too large to swallow.
The boy and some other people leave before it’s over to go to his old friend Nick Ski’s place. It’s a little shack on a country road in the middle of endless cornfields, close to the boy’s grandma’s house. On the way, the boy tries to convince everyone the ocean will be there. No one believes him. He isn’t surprised. When they arrive, he heads out back through the towering corn and strips down to his shorts. He can hear the party behind him. As he floats on his back he remembers what it’s like to swim alone at sunset, risking death and feeling peaceful.
The boy is finally getting out of the hidden ocean. There are only cricket noises. He pulls his shirt from the drooping stalk. His old friend Michael comes plowing through. A girl has just broken up with him. He is ripping his shirt and rooting around in a bag of groceries. Once, in band class, all of the trombones lost their sheet music for the song “Pharaoh” and the director noticed when they missed the trombone feature. Michael quickly wrote out the melody but still no one played.
In Michael’s convertible that same man is still dying on the radio. They don’t laugh about it. The boy tells Michael about the time his uncles killed some puppies for fun and then played football next to their graves. The boy had tackled the biggest uncle as hard as he could, even though he wasn’t playing. Michael tells the boy his thoughts on charity. He will give out free bottles of water, but not to any nameless people. They both agree that movies with subtitles give them a greater understanding of their souls. Michael keeps missing exits but the boy doesn’t feel lost or late. The two of them are their own exit.
They pull over and explore the woods. The woods are familiar. It’s getting dark. Someone turns on the light and the boy realizes he’s in a basement. The shrubbery was really just a bunch of laundry machines pushed together. Michael never stays forever.
Upstairs the party is still going strong. Jeff Buckley flies up to the second story window and knocks to be let in. The boy was expecting him because apparently he’d done the same thing the last year. He says he’d been knocking for a while, and he was surprised that no one had missed him and no one cared he was there. His boots drip. He asks what kids do these days and the boy says, “Play video games.” He says, “Well what do they write songs about,” and the boy says, “Playing video games.” A few people get murdered at the party and the murderer disappears. It ends like all good parties do—at a funeral.
During the funeral the boy finds three bullets in his back. They clank on the floor and roll toward the casket. It sounds like the preacher is just making shit up.
Someone rattles a tambourine. The woman sitting next to the boy grabs his hand and puts it on her stomach. There is fierce kicking.
“He wants out of that casket,” she says.
“Not here,” says the boy.
He keeps his hand on her stomach to make sure.
“Does anyone really live in The Hamptons?” she asks no one in particular.
“I think they prefer to call it I-shot-the-sheriff-town these days,” says the man next to her. “Or maybe that’s only amongst themselves.”
The preacher leans over the pulpit with a hand shading his eyes like he’s some kind of goddamned explorer.
The boy somehow ends up at the head of the interstate funeral procession. It goes so slow that he has to abandon his bike and walk. Some kids start throwing snowballs. They hit the green road signs and burst. There is frozen dog poop inside and it bounces off the sign and hits the boy in the throat. He coughs once and marches to the closest kid. Remembering a proper headlock from after-school wrestling, he wraps his arm around the kid’s neck and continues walking. The kid is big but doesn’t put up much of a fight. First thought, worst thought, but the boy won’t prove anything by letting go now.
Everyone passionately hums the song “Pharaoh.” Some people brought kazoos. The high harmony drifts out of the head under his arm.
There is a war between animals in the next county over. It is not captured for reality TV.
Before all of this, the boy had been to the doctor. He had to pretend to be Lithuanian to receive free care. A big burly male nurse with hieroglyph tattoos on his arms blew zerberts into the boy’s neck and the side of his head for a long time to see what was wrong. When he was done, he said the boy was more like an ancient civilization than a modern one. He was regressing. Other than that, he was fine.
“Bones of an erector set,” he stated proudly.
On the way out, the boy noticed a fresh snowman that looked a lot like himself.
Eventually the boy became the town banker. He found it embarrassing to know so much about everyone’s financial transactions. How could upkeep of an indoor pool cost so much? Doesn’t it make you an idiot to pay that much for a car when everyone else in town gets around just fine? The boy got sad. A man came in and asked some questions about how people spent their money. He also seemed to be confused and uncertain about important things. The boy thought the man was a fabled “kindred spirit.” He told the man things. Too many things. The man was a detective. He said the kind of information the boy was giving out was illegal.
“I can’t keep all this to myself,” said the boy.
“It’s your job,” said the detective.
“Do we burn the money now?” asked the boy.
“Not now,” said the detective.
“Do I take it with me?” asked the boy.
“You won’t have anywhere to spend it,” said the detective.
They didn’t put the boy in a cell, just took away his keys. A nurse gave him an experimental shot that let him see people’s energy. That was his sentence, but the real punishment was figuring out why they would do that to him. He sat and thought so hard that old people thought he was a ghost figuring out his next move. Ghosts have all the time in the world, you know.
Energies were roughly the same. Nothing stuck out. The boy wished he would run into a celebrity to see if they were made of something different. When everything is the same there are no clues, just a landscape. It was hard to focus. Night and day mixed and made a tan paste. Some people asked him who was truly happy because they thought he could see it. He stopped noticing. The phone rang and Grandma said the family had buried her again without her permission. The boy thought that was a careless thing to do. He was transforming but no one knew it. He never thought to post on the internet. There was a dark red slide that dropped him off at the hidden ocean in the cornfield. It was so easy to float. The water entered his ears and everything distorted. He felt at risk, but peaceful at the same time.
David Henson has previously published work in Queen Mob’s Tea House, Occulum, Philosophical Idiot, and more. He won the 2018 L’éphémère Review Overture to Memory Prize in fiction, the 2017 So Say We All Literary Prize in Fiction, and the 2016 Problem House Press short story contest. He writes and records music under the name Shadows on a River, which can be heard at his bandcamp, and tweets from @davidbhenson.
Image: Flickr / Zoë