I think we have more dogs in our neighborhood than kids. Whenever we take our German Shepherd out for a stroll, little hairy faces populate in the windows of every other home, yapping, barking, steaming up the glass with doggy breath. As we walk, strangers will often remark, “Hey, that’s a good-looking dog!” My wife observed that the neighbors know our dog’s name better than our childrens'. On the one hand, there may be a slight imbalance of value here – then again, I suppose I’d rather have them commenting about my canine than shouting from a passing Corolla, “Hey, that’s a good-looking kid!”
       But we have such a varied take on dogs, don’t we? Some view them as property to serve a function, others as treasured family members, while some want nothing to do with the beasts. I find it fascinating how a single animal can elicit such a wide range of reactions.
       Then there’s the whole angle of cleaning up their poop, followed by the classic stale Boomer joke, “Who’s training who? (Ayuck ayuck ayuck)” Take the case of my sister-in-law and her husband, who told us about this lady who walks her dog through their neighborhood. We’ve all seen or heard of the scoundrel whose hound drops a steaming pile in someone's yard and just walks away like nothing happened. Well, this gal will bend down and place the turd in a proper doggie bag, but in the ultimate twist of fate, she then leaves the bag in the yard like a gift!
       “Sometimes it’s our yard,” Clint elaborated. “Sometimes the guy across the street. I’ve even her victimize houses farther down.”
       “What do you think is her motivation?” I asked.
       He shrugged. “This bag smells, I don’t want to carry it, or, I’m not from this country and don’t know any better.”
       I nodded gravely – a real conundrum. “I want you to get to the bottom of this – childish minds need to know.” Clint laughed and assured me he was on it. Maybe he’ll catch her one day while he’s shaving and run her down with a straight razor and white cream dripping from his face, or maybe we’ll never resolve this mystery, but regardless, I think it’s safe to say that dogs themselves are a bit of a mystery.
       Perhaps merely a reflection of ourselves?
Danny Hankner
Danny Hankner

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(Humorous / Nostalgic / Reflective)

Dog Years
By Leon Peter Blanda
       My best friend grunts, sharpening a large bone into a lethal weapon with his teeth. He gnaws the rounded ends of the femur down to a jagged boobytrap for me to step on later. Larry is a dog, and the bone is his favorite chew toy. Though, chew toy doesn’t fully encapsulate the danger of the deadly bone dagger clenched in my best friend’s grisly fangs.
       When my bare foot falls upon the roughhewn edges of the half-chewed toy—no doubt in the middle of the night, on my way to pee—it will set off a chain reaction of excruciating pain, followed by a freight train of classic swear words, peppered with a few harmless replacement curses my kids have pitched as substitutions. When shouted in exchange for the French classics, the soft-swears transform me from Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction to Samuel L. Jackson in The Incredibles. For instance, there was an incident that once occurred in which a “piece of *** mother******!” cut me off in traffic. My young daughter, whom I forgot was in the car with me, calmly suggested, “Daddy, why don’t you say, ‘You rotten piece of fried chicken,’ instead.” (And I gotta tell ya, folks—if you grit your teeth when you say it, calling someone a “rotten piece of fried chicken” has the same mouth feel as some of my favorite four-letter words. You can really chew on those crunchy consonants. Try it. It’s fun.)
       Anyway, Larry is what polite pup owners would call an “aggressive chewer,” and those polite pup owners have never yanked thirteen inches of braided rope from Larry’s butthole like starting an old lawnmower. Aggressive chewer is an understatement. Larry doesn’t chew his toys; he eats them whole, except for the bone, which is too big, but he’s working on it.
       Larry doesn’t chew his food, either.  Rather, he inhales his meals, eating in a manner that suggests I’ve got a stopwatch running, and he’s trying to beat his best time. Because of Larry’s vacuum-like method, the vet suggested feeding him from a special food bowl. Made of durable plastic, raised walls zig-zag across the circumference of the unbreakable dish, forming a complex maze—as hostile and confusing as the hedge maze outside the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. This maze dish is designed so that the food scatters into different chambers, making it difficult for Larry to scarf everything in a single chomp. At every feeding, Larry drools over his maze plate, waiting for me to dump his food, glaring at me, wild-eyed as Jack Nicholson with an ax clenched in his meaty fists. When the dry bits of kibble scatter throughout the maze, it reminds me of a hundred young Danny Torrances running for their lives. Larry attacks, and none of the little Dannies survive. Not this time.
       It’s 2:00 a.m., and I step on one of Larry’s crudely sharpened deathtraps. An unavoidable avalanche of bad language bursts from my lips, and I’m reminded again why I never wanted another pet: it’s too painful. Not just because of the bone dagger eviscerating the arch of my foot, but also because of the broken-hearted pain that comes with the absolute certainty of knowing my furry best friend will one day die before me.
       I still feel echoes of the pain from when I lost my first dog. Her name was Sugar, and I was only a kid when her untimely death eviscerated my love of dogs. After Sugar died (and for nearly three decades), I treated dogs like toilet seats in public restrooms: no touching, and absolutely no kisses. Friends’ dogs, neighbors’ dogs, free-range park dogs—no, thank you. I proudly maintained a very “pet your own dog” attitude for years.
       Until Larry.
       But back to Sugar, our dearly departed rust-colored mutt. Studying her sharp face, pointed ears, and mid-length fur, you could find a thousand different breeds in her features. Sugar was an outside dog, unlike Larry—who thinks he owns the place—and was only invited to come inside the house on days when the southern Louisiana weather became too inclement for a living creature to survive without shelter. On the rare occasions Sugar was allowed in the house—during hurricanes and hard freezes—she, unlike Larry, had the good sense not to leave little synthetic-bone daggers lying around to crucify toes and impale the arches of feet. Sugar wouldn’t harm a pinky toe on a Pekinese. A gentle soul—if, in fact, dogs have souls…
       Also, in juxtaposition to Larry’s Hoover method of dining, Sugar ate like a normal dog with manners. She chewed and swallowed each bite before going for another mouthful. She ignored all chew toys; and showed no interest in chewing on anything, other than bubblegum, despite her inability to blow a bubble. What do you expect? Dog lips are designed for slurping their own buttholes, not Dubble Bubble.
       Thirty years—that’s human years—have passed between Sugar’s death and Larry’s reign of terrier (get it?). Thirty glorious, peaceful, dog-free years.
       While I enjoyed canine bachelorhood, many of my friends were burdened by the responsibility of a dog - dogs they loved very much and wanted me to love as well, though I did not, could not, and would not. I had resigned myself to the fact that I just wasn’t a “dog person.” Remember; I have a strict PET YOUR OWN DOG policy. I was that guy, who’d rather not pet your dog, much less let your dog sniff me with its snotty nose, or lick my flesh with its toilet-tongue.
       Say what you want about a dog’s tongue being cleaner than a human’s and I’ll introduce you to Larry’s rabbit turd fetish. He inhales every little lawn Skittle he can get in his dirty mouth. Because he eats them so fast, he chokes, and must cough them up like an old lady with COPD.
       Then, he re-eats the residue. Cute, huh?
       Not just rabbit turds, any turds. All turds. He’s not picky. He loves turds.
       Oh look—What’s this? Larry wants to give you kisses.
       What’s your move?
       Be warned: Someone—who shall remain nameless—came down with a bad case of pink eye when Larry licked their face after gorging himself on backyard brownies. Okay, it was me. I caught conjuncti-Fido-s.
       Throughout my dogless twenties, and blissfully canine-free thirties, my pet-owning friends would always goad me to pet their dog, knowing I wasn’t a fan. I always thought, it’s your dog—you should have to show it affection. You wanted the dog; you give it attention. That’s your responsibility. Not mine. I’m a guest in your home—which smells like a wet dog, by the way.
       Some of my lonelier friends often claim their dog is like their child. Well then, all the more reason you should love it. Besides, I have two children—human children. Flesh-of-my-flesh, evolved-from-apes homo sapiens that came from my loins, both of which I love with all my heart. But when we have guests over, I don’t make those poor saps pet my kids. That would be weird. They’re my kids. I wanted them. I brought them home, and it’s my responsibility to give them the affection and attention they crave. Also—and this is just an aside—I would never allow either of my children to hump your leg. Ever. Especially my friends who don’t want kids–I would never force them to engage with my children in some vain attempt to change their mind about procreating. But a dog lover will do that. They want you to love their dog.
       Even you! Yes, you, reader. You think that your dog is the best dog in the whole wide world, and that I should feel the same. You know you do.
       This scenario has happened to me on more than one occasion during my dogless years: I enter a friend’s home; it smells like many wet dogs. Before I fully cross the threshold, some stinky mutt runs up, pushing its wet snout into my business, and my visible disgust prompts an interrogation:
       “Why don’t you just pet him?” they ask.
       “Because I don’t want to,” I beg. “Please don’t make me.”
       “He’s just saying hi.”
       “To my crotch?”
       “He won’t bite.”
       “Let’s hope not.”
       (Then, said to the dog about me, as if I’m the one being obnoxious.) “He’s alright. He’s my friend.”
       “You know, if you didn’t sell me weed, I wouldn’t even come inside your house.”
       “Come on, just pet ‘em,” they insist, undeterred. “Why don’t you want to pet ‘em?”
       I always give them one last chance to stand down. One more opportunity to turn back. “Do you really want to know why I don’t want to pet your dog? Really??? I promise, it’s a hard story to hear.”
       “Yes,” they always answer, only to later regret. Why won’t you pet my sweet puppy-wuppy?”
       “Okay.” I sigh, and feel my shoulders slump. “You asked for it…”
       Sugar was a rescue with rust-colored fur and a friendly disposition. She was my first dog—my first, best friend. My only friend. I didn’t have many friends back then, and Sugar filled the role with aplomb. Brave and loyal. Friendly and playful. You would’ve loved her. And she would’ve loved you. Truly. She was the sweetest pup.
       Sugar, my buddy, my pal, my bestest friend, left this world lying in a ditch across the street from my house. I didn’t see it happen. Thank God. However, it may have been at that moment that I began to question the existence of a God that would allow something so awful to happen to the world’s sweetest dog, leaving a twelve-year-old kid devastated and emotionally scarred.
       I had come home from school and fell asleep before even doing my homework (which I wasn’t going to do anyway). My younger brother and I shared a room and an old bunk bed. When my dad erected the captain’s quarter-style beds in our room, my brother immediately claimed the top bunk. The first night he slept up top, he popped right over the railing and tumbled to the floor, his head missing the lower mattress and bed frame by inches. Like a drunk walking away from a car accident without a scratch, he miraculously avoided serious injury. This happened more than once, and when my parents could no longer tolerate being banged awake by the late-night thuds, my brother was banished to the bottom bunk, and I became a top (am I using that term correctly?).
       When I awoke that terrible day from my after-school slumber and climbed down the ladder from my big-boy bed, the house was eerily quiet. Too quiet for our house, which was old and rickety. You could hear every footstep and shouted conversation through the sheetrock and two-by-fours. Italians don’t talk to each other. They scream. Even when they’re not arguing. Which is rare.
       I found my mom standing in the kitchen, mascara running down her cheeks, unable to speak. I couldn’t find my brother, and my dad was quiet as stone, watching television with bloodshot eyes (I’d learn later in life that it may not have been from crying that reddened his eyes, but the small stash of marijuana he kept hidden in the shed. The shed was as big as a barn, but held no farming equipment, and only housed a rusted Ford F1 pickup truck, a few old tools, and my dad’s dried-out weed—which I found as a teen in a little plastic baggie, hidden in a drawer of an ancient tool box).
       What happened to Sugar was purely an accident. She dug a hole under the fence and bolted into the street. The car didn’t stop. The driver never came back.
       Stupid mutt.
       Stupid driver.
       Life is stupid.
       My father found Sugar’s broken body lying in the ditch across the street from our house, surrounded by muddy crawfish holes and a light dusting of litter—fast-food wrappers and plastic cups, debris tossed from the windows of trucks lacking catalytic converters, by drivers lacking common decency.
       She was still drawing breath into her lungs. Quick, shallow breaths.
       Living so far out in “the sticks” nowhere near a licensed veterinarian, it fell to my father to put Sugar “out of her misery.”
       Though we had no gun, my dad did what he had to do (whatever that was) to end Sugar’s suffering, then dug a small hole under a three-hundred-year-old oak tree in our backyard. Everything happened in the span of about an hour and a half: The car running Sugar down. My dad finding her and having to finish her off. Then digging the hole and shoveling dirt back over her lifeless body so his family never has to see her that way. An hour and a half. My best friend was in the ground forever in an hour and a half, long enough for a nice after-school nap. 
       She was buried beneath an old oak tree. I remember the last rays of golden-hour daylight slicing through the autumn leaves, glistening off my mother’s tear-streaked face while we, as a family, surrounded Sugar’s fresh grave. My world felt… heavier?—as if the weight of existence had become leaden, burdensome.
       No words were spoken, no eulogy was given. I don’t recall walking away from Sugar’s grave, and I suspect a part of me never did.  Perhaps I left an innocence standing there amidst the dead leaves, beneath the mournful oak’s twisted branches.
       Whenever I think back on the day Sugar died, I still wonder with a heavy sense of guilt—if I had been awake at the time, would she have been with me instead of dying in a ditch amongst the crawfish holes and empty McDonald’s cups? Would she still be alive today? If so, she’d be almost a thousand years old—in dog years, of course. (Someone should check that math.)
After Sugar’s death, I never wanted another dog. Until, of course, we adopted Larry this past spring. Even then, I wasn’t so sure about that guy.
       In the years that followed Sugar’s death, I only grew colder to the affection of animals. Though I wish that was the worst of it, and that our story could end here, Sugar was not the only pet I have loved and lost.
       Tiger was a stray cat who only cared for his sister, Katy, a Siamese who did not return the affection. Katy came home one day with a bullet wound in her side and was promptly whisked away in a cage by some lady wearing khaki.
       Tiger disappeared shortly thereafter.
       I was told he left to join the circus. And why shouldn’t he? His best friend was just gunned down, maybe even dead. I don’t know what happened to Katy, as I never again saw the khaki lady with the cage. Perhaps Katy recovered, and eventually found Tiger working for the cat circus, and they reconnected. A boy can hope.
       Not long after Tiger took off for life under the kitty big top, my father thought it would be nice to surprise my mother with another cat for Christmas.
       Tinker was a bobtailed monstrosity that despised the housecat lifestyle. Above all, she desired freedom. Every time the front door opened, Tinker would dart outside and disappear for days, only to return home after we were absolutely, one hundred percent certain she was dead.
       It seemed to me that every time Tinker escaped, she’d come home pregnant.
       Because of Tinker’s promiscuous lifestyle, I was given a front row seat to the violent miracle of feline parturition. In layman terms, I once watched a cat shittin’ kittens.
       One evening, as Cheers ( a popular sitcom about alcoholics for families to enjoy) played on our living room television, a low, moaning growl grabbed the entire family’s attention away from Sam, Diane, and Frasier’s primetime love triangle. As we searched the house, the moaning grew louder and took on a human quality, like a prisoner under the throes of torture. At last, we discovered the source behind the couch—a horrendous corduroy monstrosity, the last remnant of my father’s late 70’s bachelor furniture. 
       Beige curtains with golden-threaded accents hung behind said couch, covering the bay windows facing the street. Fearing eavesdropping perverts, my mom insisted on shutting the curtains, the excess lengths of which clumped into the three-inch chasm of space between the couch and the wall. Coiled and writhing on the pile of beige folds, smashed between the wall and the corduroy couch was our Tinker, meowing in agony, suffering the effects of full-blown, feline labor.
       At first glance, I didn’t understand the feline anatomy lesson being forced into my seven-year-old brain. Something terrible was forcing itself against the soft flesh, like Freddy Krueger stretching the drywall in the first Nightmare on Elm Street.A small pinhole began to expand beneath Tinker’s bunny-like cottontail, which I thought was her butthole, having seen my own in a mirror once (another tale for another time).
       Tinker choked on a pained meow; a tiny mouth full of sharp fangs breached the womb of the tortured cat and quickly retracted.
       We jumped back, our hearts seized by terror, but slowly edged our eyes back over the couch pillows. Tinker was panting, resting between contractions. Everything was silent but for the Cheers theme song playing softly over our shoulders.
       Wracked with pain, Tinker screamed, and a small, demonic grimace punched from between her kicking legs. The veil between their world and ours began to tear, split apart, and a skinless, hideous monster began to emerge.
       Its entire head was no bigger than a golf ball that had been rolled in red mucus. Slimy, pointed ears (or baby horns) sprung atop its eyeless goblin face, as it twisted and writhed to free itself from the tight confines of the feline birth canal.
       Not far behind its horned head, a small body—pale and wet as an uncooked chicken thigh—clawed its way out of what I, as a small child, had assumed was Tinker’s sphincter; it was not. It was, in fact, what some veterinarians call the pussy’s cat, or vice versa. A crude slang term for the feline vagina. Medical professionals—especially those in emergency/trauma units—often crack crude jokes to make it through the daily horror of the job. Veterinarians, I imagine, are no different.
       One colorless demon after another tumbled out. As their numbers grew, so did the stain on the curtains. Only the gold threading did not soak up the mess. The ruined folds of crimson fabric drew to mind the image of Superman’s cape, after he fought and died at the hands of Doomsday.
       Since my introduction to reproduction, I’ve witnessed the births of both my (human) children, and can say without a doubt that watching eight kittens rip their way into our universe was far more gruesome, and this is coming from a guy who’s witnessed an episiotomy. If you don’t know what that word means, forget I said anything, and never google it. Ever.
       Tinker’s first litter of kittens - the curtain killers - all received names, and were as wild and feral as their mother. Come summer’s end, Tinker, and one of her original offspring, each gave birth to at least six-and-a-half or more kittens. This “baker’s dozen” of skinless sacks were born in the dusty corners of the old shed, rather than inside the house.
       Like their elder siblings, this generation of kittens were given names, though I can’t recall a single one. Most either died or turned feral, and none were allowed inside the house after the desecrated curtain was chopped and hemmed.
       Oh yes, we hung on to those curtains for many years. Is that gross? If nobody told you any different, you’d never know that a cat’s mucus plug - and afterbirth - once stained the now hemmed base. Do you think the hospital throws away the sheets after every childbirth? No. They wash them. We, at least, cut off the bad part.
       The circle of life…
       Time moves ever forward, and several generations of Tinker’s bloodline came and went.  At the height of their population, there were thirty-three felines scampering around our couple acres and a shed. Only one was not of Tinker’s direct bloodline. His name was Tommy.
       Tommy was an orange tabby that acted more like a dog than a cat, and more like a human than a dog. Imagine Garfield, but less of an asshole. He came when you beckoned him, and followed at your heels if you commanded him to do so, though he wasn’t overly excited about it. He was the family favorite. Everybody loved Tommy. Friendly and housetrained, unlike his wild step-siblings and their matriarch, Tommy was just happy to have you around, and the feeling was always mutual.
       A born loner, Tommy strolled into the woods one day and never came back. My dad found his body covered in deep gashes from either a raccoon or perhaps the neighbor’s dog (the same one that had recently dispatched all our chickens). Their small, ransacked coop behind the shed was discovered one morning, feathers and bloody chicken parts were tossed around like the prep kitchen at a Popeye’s.
       After Tommy died, new kittens weren’t given names, because they were most likely going to be killed by a wild animal, or turn mean and feral enough to remain living.
       Many of our cats died near the house. We’d often find a half-dead feline somewhere on the property, torn to shreds, a victim of some underground, raccoon street-fighting ring.
Some cats never came home at all, which—sadly—was better. If they never came home, then maybe they weren’t dead. Maybe somebody else started feeding them. Maybe they joined Tiger and Katy in the Cirque du Feline
       Regardless of the constant feline deaths and disappearances—in numbers that eventually went without count—kittens were always being born to replace the forgotten, so our herd of cats never thinned. Or, rather, clowder of cats, if you want to get technical about it.
       Beyond the never-ending cycle of young and old cats appearing and disappearing from the clowder (look at that, I used it in a sentence), there were always six to eight adult cats with scars and bobbed tails, missing chunks of ears or whole eyes. Too cunning or quick to die at the claws of a wild thing. Too dangerous and vicious to pet. Even those mean ol’ alley cats eventually became too old to fight or run anymore, and would suffer the same fate as their younger, less aggressive nieces and nephews. Those sweet, little guys died the worst deaths.
       If Tinker had shown me the miracle of life, it was one of her great-great-grandchildren who taught me the true horror of death.
       It was a fall afternoon. My mother—pushed to the limits of her sanity by me and my brother fighting in the backseat, all the way from school to the house—skidded our Ford Pinto into the gravel driveway (which, if you’ve never seen a Pinto, picture a go-kart with doors and a roof). She slammed on the brakes, whipped around in her seat and began scolding us before killing the engine, which in all fairness likely would have killed itself if she took her foot off the gas. We always had old cars that required some special skill not taught in the DMV to operate properly - the Pinto needed one foot on the gas and one on the brake to keep it idling.
       My mother exited the family-sized go-kart, still rattling off our list of offenses, angry as a cop with two perps in the backseat—when she gasped and froze solid. She’d seen something that had instantly flipped her demeanor from “bad cop” into “scared cop.”
       My brother and I – excited by the prospect of a snake - fought to see who could climb out of the car first.
       Our hearts sank at the sight of the horror our mother had already absorbed.
       One of the newest kittens—a little, white furball with a cotton-ball tail, several generations removed from Tinker, thus nameless—lay beside the tire of the old Pinto. A chunk of flesh and fur the size of a quarter was ripped from its belly, revealing its birdlike ribcage. Tiny lungs struggled to draw breath.
       I turned to see my mother hyperventilating, and my younger brother holding tight to her waist, his face buried in her belly.
       “I can’t… I can’t…” My mother could hardly form a sentence. “Leon, I killed him.”
The kitten’s mangled body was more than a foot away from the tire’s track, and could not have received the damage from the car. It would have been more merciful if she had run him over, as you will soon see.
       “No!” I screamed through a waterfall of snot and tears. “Mom, no! It wasn’t your fault! He got into a fight with something. Look!” But she would not. I tried to convince her of her innocence, but she was hysterical.
       It was the truth, though. She had not come close to rolling over the little guy.
       He was more than likely in the woods with his brothers and sisters, playing their little kitten games, when something wild got ahold of him. Something hungry, with long claws and sharp teeth.
       I imagined our friend fought valiantly to free himself from the monster, dragging himself through the woods and finally collapsing on the gravel drive, where he now lay, struggling to breathe.
       “Go inside,” I growled at my brother, my cheeks raw with tears. “And take mom with you.”
This was the day I became the man of the house.
       My father – who was still at work - had by default become the assisted suicide doctor to all the cats that didn’t quite die in the wild. We never had a gun in the house, so I had always watched my dad walk to the shed and grab the shovel to dispatch these not-yet-dead felines.
I never actually saw him complete the act, as he never allowed my brother or me behind the shed, but if I close my eyes, I can still hear the muted clang of the shovel’s blade, the leaves crunching under his feet, and the stinted sound of digging.
       But on this day my father was not yet home.
       My brother took my mom by the arm and led her inside the house. I was alone now, with a dying kitten at my feet and an old shovel in hand. I raised it over my head, the dull ax of a novice executioner. There it stayed risen as I waited for bravery to force my hand. When bravery never came, it was my willpower - or perhaps empathy - that brought the shovel down.
My aim was true.
       The crunching snap of little bones, and the pained, croaking meow that escaped the kitten’s lips sent broken glass up my spine, and will haunt my waking days until I meet my furry friend in the Foreverafter.
       Unfortunately, my eight-year-old muscles didn't have the strength to pass the blade of the shovel all the way through the kitten’s thin spinal cord on my first attempt. So, the action had to be repeated, twice more, until the gory thing was finally freed from its earthly pain.
       I cannot unsee what I have seen. And now, it’s in your head, too.
       When it was all done, my eyes fell upon the blade in my hands, then drifted slowly to the ground, where the headless kitten lay at my feet—its snow-white fur, stained crimson as a beige curtain after cat birth—and only then had the thought occurred to me.
       Man, I wish I had dug the hole first.
       Years later, I told my dad the tale of this mercy killing.
       With the distance of time, I was able to describe with some levity how intense the situation was for me, as a child, to commit such a horrible—yet ultimately merciful—act; stepping forward amongst the chaos and confusion to be the “man” and “handle business.”
       Tragedy plus time, and all…
       My father was in stitches, doubled over laughing—as I have a knack for making light of incredibly horrific experiences—until I got to the part about how difficult it was for me to decapitate a kitten.
       “Jesus, Leon.” My father’s laughter collapsed into a judgmental silence. A dark pall had suddenly fallen over my humorous retelling of childhood trauma. “Why’d you chop its head off?”
       “What do you mean?” I got defensive. “Whenever a cat got attacked by a raccoon or whatever, you always took it behind the shed. I could hear you with the shovel. I just assumed…”
       “—Assumed what? I was cutting the heads off cats?” His disgust was radiant, but I couldn’t tell if it was with me or the mental fresco I had just Michelangelo-ed onto his brain. “You don’t cut their flippin’… Jesus.” He shook his head in disbelief.
       “Well—I don’t know! What was I supposed to do?” I felt like I’d just chopped my own head off with a shovel and felt the guilt oozing freely from the wound.
       My dad said, head still shaking in disapproval, “You just bash ‘em over the head. You don’t chop it off with a dull shovel. What the hell, Leon?”
       “Well, I didn’t know,” I shouted. “You never let us go behind the shed when you had to do that sort of thing.”
       “Yeah—‘cause I didn’t want you to see that stuff.” My dad hung his head. “I didn’t want you to turn into one of those weirdo psychopaths that gets his rocks off cutting the heads off cats.”
       For the record, I never “got my rocks off” ending that kitten’s misery. In fact, as an adult, I don’t think I have the bravery it took for young Leon to do what he did that day. Sure, that kid had some problems, but at least he didn’t “get his rocks off” killing cats. That is a timeline I hope never tears open.
       In the same year I committed the mercy killing, my parents decided to purchase my brother and me a very special Christmas gift—a gift my parents hoped would erase the memory of what I had done and seen that day, which, as you have read, did not work.
       I suspected something big was coming and was certain it was new bikes, as we had outgrown our old bicycles the summer prior. My mom kept telling my dad we needed bigger bikes, and I agreed wholeheartedly. A new bike would be the perfect way for my dad to say, “Sorry you had to do that, son. I guess you’re a man now, and deserve a man-sized bike.” Even though a man-sized bike would be too big, as I was still only eight years old. Still.
       Christmas morning was chilly, and we opened our gifts sitting before the gas heater in the living room. Mom and dad sat on the couch, sipping coffee while A Christmas Story played on the television. It was a good memory: the room plastered in torn wrapping paper while decorative stockings hung bursting with candy. However, when we finished unwrapping our gifts, there were no bikes.
       Growing up, money was tight, and we understood this. So instead of barking a complaint, I kept my mouth shut. Besides, we had already received a ton of great presents: Batman action figures, pajamas that looked like karate gis, an inflatable punching bag with the Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on it, and even a couple of surprises.
       Without my mother’s knowledge, my father had purchased two Red Ryder BB guns, just like from the movie on television (a mistake he would later regret when watering his hanging flower pots, or when the power company had to replace a streetlight bearing conspicuous little holes. Which of course I knew nothing about and still don’t to this day, thank you very much).
       “Leon!” My mother scolded my father, after whom I am named. “The boys can’t have guns!” She was pissed.
       “They’re not guns, Gina. They’re pellet rifles.” Dad smirked, and I thought she might stab him in the throat with a candy cane.
       Standing from the sofa, careful not to spill his coffee, my dad sauntered to the window, putting distance between his throat and my mother. Triumphantly sipping his steaming chicory blend, he pretended to watch the first colors of sunrise peeking over the oak trees, but something stole his attention. He turned to my brother and me and interrogated us with the gusto of a C-list TV detective.
       “There’s a light on behind the shed. You boys know anything about that?”
       Neither of us were snitches, so we kept our mouths shut.
       “Did y’all leave the light on behind the shed last night?” he needled, already knowing the answer.
       “No, sir,” my brother and I answered in unison, then glared at each other with distrust, each suspecting the other to be the liar. Obviously, I knew it wasn’t me, but I wasn’t so sure about him, and by the look on his face, he wasn’t buying my story either.
       My dad took a big sip of his coffee and swallowed hard. “Hmmm. Maybe Santa left something behind the shed that was too big to squeeze under the tree?”
       My mom stood up from the couch, harder to read than any of us. “What’s behind the shed, Leon?” She asked, still hot that my father purchased his young children what, in her mind, might as well be assault rifles.
       “Maybe you boys should go check it out,” Leon Sr. started to say, but we had already bolted out the back door. It was a race to see who would be the first to mount their two-wheeled steed.
The shed was half a football field from the back porch, but the distance disappeared in record time. Mental plans were laid in the short sprint: we’ll do some wheelies, then make a ramp using an old piece of plywood and some bricks and grab some big air.
       As we rounded the corner to the rear of the shed, my brother and I saw the glow of the work light my dad hung in the chicken coop back when we had chickens, before the neighbor’s Doberman Charlie Manson-ed the entire flock. What a sick son of a bitch that dog was (see what I did there?).
       Pellet rifles in hand, we climbed through the post and rail fence that had begun showing signs of rot and decay. A warning perhaps, gone unheeded. The anticipation for our new bikes boiled all reason from our minds. We were giddy. Elated. Looney as toons.
Our joy faded quickly. What greeted us in the abandoned chicken coop was not two bikes. Or even one bike.
       It was no bikes at all.
       Under the sick, yellow glow of the dangling worklight stood a four-foot-tall, five-hundred-pound, bedraggled pony. Yes, I said pony. As in, a little horse that a five-year-old girl might request as a birthday present… in her freaking dreams! Who actually receives a pony as a gift upon request, much less without so much as an indication of ever wanting one?
Nobody. That’s who.
       Its shaggy, off-white mane hung over its dejected black eyes. Matted fur, as dingy as its mane and tail, covered the rest of its meatloaf-shaped body. He didn’t look strong like a horse. He looked homeless, and may have been until the moment my parents ferreted him into the old chicken kill-room. How they did, I never asked. It’s not like this fuzzy monster could have squeezed into our Ford Pinto. He must have been delivered. But when? Was it…Santa? Ol’ Saint Nick must not have received my letter, because I most certainly did not ask for a pony.
I looked at my brother, like, Did you ask for a pony? But he was clearly as bewildered as I. The beast matched our gaze with the same level of confusion. None of us understood the situation.
In the befuddlement, our parents had snuck up behind us, their faces carrying those excited, “Whataya think???” expressions.
       Though I never verbalized it, my thoughts were as follows:
       Did y’all forget you had boys?
       Did they run out of bikes at the store?
       I thought we were poor. Surely, one pony must cost more than two bikes.
       We would’ve shared a bike.
       What’s the return policy on ponies?
       If memory serves—and it does less and less these days—I recall mounting the wretched pony once for a very short trot before dismounting, forever. Even typing the words “mounting and dismounting the pony” feels as filthy as his coat.
       Beau, as the old chap was named, became the main attraction for my brother’s birthday party that following January. My father walked the pony in circles as each child—besides me—took his turn. Peeking through his overgrown mane, Beau looked sad. But Beau always looked sad. All ponies look sad. Look at a pony if you ever get the chance. They’re miserable. Too small to be a regular horse, but too big to be an adorable mini horse. Trapped in a medium-sized equine hell, like a donkey or a mule.
       At a certain point in the birthday festivities, ol’ sad Beau became annoyed with being the carnival ride and bucked my brother, the birthday boy, off his bare back. He was fine, but nobody else wanted to ride Beau after that, and I could’ve sworn he winked at me.
When summer arrived, my father had Beau professionally sheared, as his matted coat was too thick for the Louisiana heat. Within weeks the dirty tangle of hair returned to full length. Turns out the rapid growth was a symptom of a terminal liver disease.
       Beau died before the next Christmas.
       I don’t remember having a funeral service for Beau, or where his body was laid to rest in our yard, but I know his death hit my father the hardest. He loved horses since he was a kid, growing up watching Westerns and idolizing cowboys. Beau was his attempt at getting his boys interested in the pop culture stuff he liked at our age. It’s the same thing I do with my own children, except my annoying childhood obsession that I’ve dragged into adulthood is focused on fantasy and sci-fi movies from the 80’s and 90’s. So, I’m constantly trying to slip Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story, and Willow into our movie nights, while they’re very happy not watching any of those films, ever.
       Beau’s death did not thwart my father from his Wild Wild Western dreams. No, indeed.
One day, we came home from school to find She-ra trotting around Beau’s small pasture beside the cursed chicken coop. She-ra was a full-blown horse, about fifteen hands tall, with a milk chocolate coat and tail that shimmered in the sun like a shampoo commercial.
       I hated She-ra.
       My brother hopped on her from time to time, but my dad rode her daily. He hadn’t owned a horse since his twenties, and She-ra filled that void in his heart that we humans could not. My dad and She-ra began riding in parades together. His “posse” wore Mariachi suits with matching sombreros. This may be an uncool thing to do nowadays, but back then, it was also not cool—but less in a cultural appropriation way and more in the way that nothing dads are into is ever cool. Think about your dad for a second. Picture him doing what he loves most. See what I mean? Not cool.
       She-ra lived with us for a few years, and I never so much as brushed her chocolatey mane. My fear of horses began with the pony and solidified when Christopher Reeve was bucked and paralyzed. If a horse could stop Superman, I was no match.
She-ra died on a beautiful fall day.
       Our neighbor—an idiot of little to no importance, other than his role in her death—thought it would be nice and neighborly to treat our horse to a snack. Being that She-ra was such a big animal, and ol’ Hillbilly Willy was about as bright as a busted taillight, he reckoned she might enjoy an entire loaf of white bread.
       As you may or may not know, horses don’t eat very much. Not all at once. They graze all day on grass, but as far as feed goes, it’s one scoop in the morning and one scoop in the evening. A loaf of bread is too much for a horse’s stomach to break down efficiently.
       My dad found She-ra fallen over, writhing in anguish. It’s never good when a horse can’t stand, and worse when they won’t. He held her head in his arms as she died.
       Teenagers by this point, my brother and I arrived home from school  just as my dad and a couple of his friends were hooking a chain to the back of our old Ford F1 pickup.
       “Boys, grab a shovel!” he shouted, rolling from beneath the rusted bed of the antique truck, dead leaves poking wildly from his prematurely grey hair.
       He led us to a small hole in the yard that needed to be widened and deepened, where we dug for what felt like a semester of school, yet the sun was still up when we finished.
       My dad backed the truck up to the carcass—which we had not yet seen. With a chain securely wrapped around the crest and croup of the dead beast, the horse was dragged a hundred yards from the place it died to the place it would rest eternally, a jagged hole dug in the middle of our backyard, close to where Sugar was buried (but not too close).
       Usually, when you see a horse run across a plain, the word used to describe the beauty of its long stride is majestic. Now, I don’t know the antonym of the word majestic, but whatever that word is, the definition must read: what a horse looks like when its lifeless body is being dragged behind a rusted, old truck.
       Deftly maneuvering the old Ford past the hole, the hefty mass of horse fell into its massive grave with a loud, weighted thud. However, significant time had lapsed since the horse’s demise, allowing rigor mortis to set in, evident by the stiffened legs shooting straight up from the hole like four, hairy straws punctured through a big dirt milkshake.
       In a fit of madness and desperation, my father leapt down into the hole. Rage had stolen him from me, and he jumped with both feet onto the horse’s stiffened limbs, bounding up and down on the springy joints until bones broke and the legs folded unnaturally across the beast’s bloated torso. Sweating and breathing like he’d just run the Crescent City Classic, my father climbed out of the giant grave, sweat and dirt streaking his brow. He was offered a hand, but refused it.
       As with Sugar, no eulogy was given, no words were spoken. We simply dumped a sack of lime out onto She-ra’s broken body and watched her powdered face slowly disappear beneath each shovelful of dirt.
       I still live in the house where I grew up. My own children run and play in the same yard where I once ran and played with equal abandon, though I can no longer remember being so innocent, or so carefree. Little do they know, with only a shovel, and a little bit of elbow grease, they could easily unearth the skeletons of one beloved dog, one sad pony, a full-sized horse, and several cats of all shapes and sizes, most without tails—one, without a head.
       While I ponder this, I think about Larry. Our sweet, rambunctious Larry. I think about how much my kids love him, how much I’ve grown to love him. Regardless of the deadly bone daggers he leaves lying about, and his aggressive eating habits, he has become an irreplaceable part of the family, our fifth Beatle. Just like Billy Preston did for the Fab Four, Larry makes our band better.
       I pray when Larry’s number is called, my kids will be grown and have already moved out. Maybe even started their own families with their own little furry monsters running about. I hope that they never have to suffer Larry’s loss face-to-face. I pray that I never have to do for Larry what I’ve had to do for other pets, that I never have to put him out of his misery. Hell, I hope I die first, save myself the heartache of losing another best friend. I think my kids might even handle that better.
       Wow–that sure was a lot to process. Thanks for letting me get all that off my chest. I feel much better. As for you, dear reader, after bearing witness to all these atrocities, the morally questionable acts of euthanasia and redneck burial procedures, the question remains:
       Do you still want me to pet your dog?
About the author:
         Leon Peter Blanda is a New Orleans-born writer, stand-up comedian, musician, and podcaster. His work has been published in Out All Day: New Orleans, Raised By Whoops, and Story Unlikely. As a stand-up, Leon performed at Caroline’s on Broadway, toured with Dave Ross, and featured for Tom Segura, Hannibal Buress, the Sklar Brothers, and SNL’s Darrell Hammond. He once ate tacos with Bill Burr.
High Moon, his debut horror novel, is available now at LeonBlanda.com.

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Society's expectations
Hello world of Story Unlikely!
       I've been really fascinated by your origin story. Just today, I had this irreconcilable feeling that I am too soft - I started expanding that thought and criticizing myself for what society wants me to be and what society asks expects me to write about - my boyfriend told me that trends come and go and that what's more important is to stay true to myself.
       After reading your story on your website I realized that I was feeling bad because I couldn't live up to the society's standards/expectations. But after your story I asked myself... but do I care? Should I really care? Why give up the things that I've built with so much love and thought? Because society is looking for something else? This month or next, another theme or way of thinking will be popular, and I don't give a flying shit about that. If it interests me, sure, I'll write about it, but if it doesn't I will not give up on myself in order to gain others around me.
       And I was sure, editorial team or whoever I am speaking to, that I found the place that I didn't know I was looking for. So thank you for the reminder. And thank you for striving to be yourself in a world full of people that are trying to drive far away from their own person, while hiding under the mask of an overinflated individuality.
       Diana Marosan

The Importance of a Logline
by Wulf Moon
Screenwriters call it a logline. Writers call it an elevator pitch. Tomato, tomahto. Well, almost. I'll explain.
A logline is a one or two sentence summary of a television show or movie used to describe what the story is about. Screenwriters also use them as a tool to focus their scripts on the heart of their stories before they write them. Writers call it an elevator pitch, because they practice summing up their stories in one or two sentences to pitch them to agents and editors.
Why is an elevator involved? The thought is if you're at a convention and an editor is riding on an elevator with you and asks you what you're working on, you've only got a sentence or two to capture their interest before the elevator reaches their floor. A fast hook is critical, whether the pitch happens in the opening of a pitch session, in a hallway, at a banquet dinner, at bar con, or yes, riding up an elevator to your room. A well-planned pitch can pique the curiosity of an editor and move them to ask for more details, and hopefully, to give you their card.
I like the term logline because screenwriters use it the way I encourage my masterclass attendees to use it: to provide focus to their stories and novels before they write them. An effective logline can keep a writer on track, aiding them to remember why they decided to write the story in the first place. Focused stories are powerful. They don't wander all over the map because the logline acts like a pin in the map that marks the destination. When you know where you're going, it's less likely you'll get lost.
Elements of a Logline
In several of my masterclasses, I have attendees take their story idea and interesting main character and do a brief stream-of-consciousness session, putting words down on anything that comes to mind. This provides raw material to build their story from. Next, I ask them to sift through that material and create a sentence or two about who and what that story is about. Their logline must include the name of their character and some idea of who they are, where the story is set, what's their Heart's Desire, and who or what is trying to keep it from them. Boom. That's a logline.
Now, I don't expect them to go hop on the nearest elevator and pop it on the next editor heading to their suite. I expect them to craft a logline that will tell the writer what their story is about. If they can figure out how to sum up their story and the conflict in one or two sentences, they've got their pin in the map. They now know who their story is about, what their name is, where they are at, what they care about dearly, and who or what that's trying to take their Heart's Desire from them.
Pantsers--those writers who like to write by the seat of their pants--will say, "Wait just a minute, Moon! I write by discovery. These things only appear to me after I wander around the map at my leisure until I find the story. Don't tell me I have to plan something. I'm not one of those."
I have no problem pantsing--I do a lot of it myself. But not before I know who my story is about, what my story is about, and where it's supposed to go. Otherwise, that's exactly what my story will do--wander all over the map until it finds itself. And when a story wanders, it's boring. It frustrates readers because they too are wondering where is this story going? Are we lost?
A good logline fixes all of that. If you can lock down a character, in a setting, with a Heart's Desire, and the opposing force putting it at risk, all in one or two sentences, it's unlikely you'll forget that as you write. Especially if you jot it on a sticky note and fix it to your monitor. Your story now has a purpose in your mind, and that purpose is going to keep your story on track.
Here's my logline for my story in Writers of the Future, Vol. 35. "Super-Duper Moongirl and the Amazing Moon Dawdler is a story about Dixie, a twelve-year-old disabled girl that lives on the moon, and her life support robodog that comes into great danger trying to protect her."
One sentence, right? Note that in that sentence, I named my main character: Dixie. I got in her age: she's twelve years old. I established her condition: she's disabled. I listed that which is most dear to her: her life-support robodog. And I stated that the thing most dear to her will face opposition when it tries to protect her. I could have named who in the story would cause that opposition, but in this case, I don't want to give that away. It's enough that you know Dixie's dear companion that keeps her alive is going to face great danger. A girl on the moon with a life-support robodog? And there's danger involved in this story? Yes, please! Count me in.
That's a hook. Not just for an editor that the writer may one day pitch the novel to, but to hook the writer into the purpose of their story so that while they're writing it, they keep their plot on track.
I've watched many writers try to describe their novel or story idea in a sentence or two. They can't. You ask them to give you a brief description of their novel, and they'll list every warring faction in their kingdom and start citing off their main character's begats all the way back to the Flood. You've watched the Battle of Wits in The Princess Bride where the Man in Black faces off with the Sicilian? I want to say to them, "Truly, you have a dizzying intellect." But I'm afraid they might say back, "Wait till I get going!"
I'll give them this: they certainly know their world. What they don't know is where their story is going, because they can't describe it to me in a few simple sentences. And if they don't have that fixed firmly in mind, their mind can't put it on the page. They haven't forced it to hunker down and figure it out. And until they do, they won't have a story. All they've got is an encyclopedia of their world.
Want to know a great place to study smart loglines? Pick up your TV remote and push Guide. Or go to your streaming networks and read those brief descriptions they give you of their movies. Better yet, practice writing a few loglines of your favorite movies, and then go to the streaming channel it's on and read what the pros came up with. See if you can do better. Learning to create strong loglines will help you boil shows down to their essence.
If you can learn to do that with the movies you love, you can learn to do that with the story you're about to write. And then you can go galivanting across the map on your pantsing steed.
But at least you'll know where you're going.
(The above article was published in chapter 15 of Wulf Moon’s bestselling book How to Write a Howling Good Story, Copyright 2023 by Wulf Moon Enterprises)
Moon teaches the award-winning Super Secrets of Writing Workshops and is the author
of The Illustrated Super Secrets of Writing and the runaway bestseller, How To Write a
Howling Good Story. He invites you to join his free Wulf Pack Club at

Literary Spotlight
       Hello there—I’m Blaine Eldredge. I’ve had an eclectic background, from working on various farms and a few literary journals to founding several podcasts and magazines, including And Sons and Mount Vigil. Right now, I live on a homestead in central Colorado. 
       I write about history, the supernatural worldview, and Christianity. I feel a greater affinity with skalds and troubadours and Central Asian magi than with modern historians, in large part because I'm committed to the old archetypes: good and evil, life and death, sin and salvation.
       Here, in the company of storytellers, I hardly need to say Late Modernity has failed to supply its occupants with a story worth living, but it has failed, and that is not innocuous. As the legendary Viktor Frankl observed, humans are able to thrive so long as they are able to situate themselves in a rich and meaningful and resilient story.
       That’s why I wrote a book about such a thing. Call it a recap of the Biblical narrative: a retelling of the main events through a storied lens. In Late Modernity, most people prefer the now as a matter of instinct, and that is a troubling kind of ignorance. It makes it hard for us to grasp both the sophistication of the Biblical worldview and the beauty of its invitation. I wanted to make those more accessible. But also, I enjoy telling stories and cultivating my own capacity for wonder.
       If that sparks your imagination, then give it a read. It’s called The Paradise King, and you can buy it right HERE.

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The Excrement List
Disobey our submission guidelines, 
and find yourself amiss.
Disobey the guidelines,
wind up on the list.
(It's like when restaurants used to post bounced checks on the wall, but for the digital age)
As a publisher, we have rules that writers must abide by if they want to get published. Some of these aren't that big of a deal, but others, like ‘if you submit to our contest, don't submit this story anywhere else until the reading period is over,' or ‘don’t mark our emails as spam', are a major no-no.  Offenders get put on our ~dun dun dun~ Excrement List, aka lifetime ban on getting published. We keep this list to show people that - for once - we're not joking. Don't be like the perps below - you're much too savvy for that:
Gillian W, Cat T, Adam M, Olasupo L, Mick S, Leslie C, Patricia W, Tim V, Andrew F, Sam P, Aaron H, N. Kurts, Paula W, Marcy K, Mark301078, carnap72, N. Phillips,  A Bergsma, Sharon S., Mfaulconer, Mikeandlottie, Rebecca C, Nathaniel L, Maxine F, Patrick W, Brendan M, William S.
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