Note: This was written for the Review Game's April Writing Challenge Contest. Check out the other entries and vote April 8-14. This story is dedicated to my extended family, particularly my uncle whose real-life boast about his grill always made me wonder…
Grilling With Uncle Joe
My uncle once bragged that his grill was big enough to cook a whole man on and, looking at it, I believed him. 'Course, I never thought he spoke from experience. But then one night in June I asked him if he needed any help 'round the house.
Uncle Joe eyed me kinda funny, like he was sizing me up. I was fifteen and thought I was pretty strong so I didn't know why he'd doubt me; I stood up tall and proud, eager for a chance to prove it. He looked me up and down and then he twitched his head toward the covered bed of his pickup and said, "Sure, kid. You can help me carry this out to the grill."
And Uncle Joe opened the back of his truck and pulled out a man, or actually a body of a man. He dragged the body out so it flopped onto the dirt and then he wiped at a smudge of blood that had smeared on his bumper from the guy's temple.
Now, I only saw my uncle a few days of each month when my ma had me spend the weekend but I thought I had a good idea of him and this surprised me. I ain't never seen him haul bodies in his pickup before and to look at him, you'd never suspect it. So I figured he was messing with me. "You jokin'?" I asked him and I think my eyes were so wide they near on popped out of my skull. He just chuckled.
"Don't tell your Auntie, kid, but Anna asked me to do a little favor here and I was happy to oblige. You oughta be too. It's good to help your neighbors." He nodded to the body. "Now grab his feet and let's get a move on. It'll be dinnertime soon and y'know your Auntie hates it when we're late to the table."
So I grabbed the guy's feet and Uncle Joe grabbed the guy's arms and we single-filed it down the dirt path through the woods to my uncle's firepit. It's a mighty big firepit, that's for sure. Three feet on one side and almost seven on the other with a big movable metal grill on top for when we have barbecues for the whole extended family. I've seen my aunts and uncles roast almost a whole cow on that grill, no lie. When people have had too much to drink, the kids are s'posed to watch the adults so as they don't trip into the bonfire and get torched. Now it seemed that was what we were purposely gonna do to this guy and I didn't like it too much.
"Uncle Joe," I huffed between pants as we dropped the body next to the firepit. "How come I had to help you with this? It ain't my business and if I'd known I wouldn'ta wanted no part in it."
Uncle Joe kicked the grill outta the way so it was just the big old firepit and then he rolled the body into the ashes. "You asked if I needed help and I did, kid. That's your business."
"But I ain't a killer and I don't wanna be dragged into all this," I whined. "You ought've asked Auntie May to do it."
Uncle Joe winced. "Listen up, you. She ain't heard 'bout this stuff before and you ain't gonna tell her, kid. You hear me clear?"
"Good. Your Auntie's too good for all this ugliness." Uncle Joe bent and pulled out lighter fluid and gave the body a good soaking.
"Uncle Joe," I said, curiosity getting the better of me. At that point, I figured I was so deep in I might as well know what was what. "What'd he do?"
Uncle Joe shrugged and struck a match. The guy's clothes lit up like a big old grease fire and flames danced over his skin, sending dark smoke up into the pink sunset sky. "You remember Anna Baker down the road, yeah? With the two little girls. Nice girls. Well your Auntie, see, she told me Anna said he was hittin' her. Hittin' her! Can't have none of that around here." He gave me a weighted look from under the brim of his baseball cap. "And now he done run off, see."
"No he ain't,"I argued, not catching his hint. "He's right here an'-"
"He's run off," Uncle Joe repeated, staring hard at me 'til I shifted in my sneakers. "He's run off so Anna and the kids can live good again like they deserve. It's only what's fitting. You got me, kid?"
I nodded. It seemed the right thing to do with him staring so hard.
So the clothes burned and then the skin burned and my stomach growled in spite of me as it smelled a bit like Auntie's barbecue. Uncle Joe poked and prodded wood onto the guy to make sure he burned right and threw more lighter fluid on when it needed it. We watched Anna's husband burn without talking much and I felt right angry at myself for volunteering for this.
By the time the sun was setting, there weren't much left of the guy but a bit of charred meat and loads of smoke, heavy all around us, a bit like the smoke from after fireworks on the Fourth of July. It turned the world all milky and stung my eyes and nose. Smoke irritated my eyes so much I started seeing dark spots all over my vision, big blotches of darkness that made me blink and they'd vanish, only for me to see them again somewhere else. I also kept inhaling the guy and got his ashes on my clothes and all I wanted then was to go jump in the river and swim the guy off of me. But Uncle Joe kept me busy getting wood and prodding the fire.
Well, eventually the sun fell below the tree level and the firepit area got dark but for the low flames in the pit. By then it was almost dinnertime and the guy was almost out. There was still enough smoke for me to see dark blotches all 'round, and in the deepening shadows of dusk it was starting to give me goosebumps. "We done yet?" I asked after a long quiet time with just the crackling flames for noise.
Uncle Joe eyed me across the firepit and tossed me a beer. "Yeah, we're almost done." He nodded at the beer. "Drink up, kid. It'll help."
"With what?" I asked, pulling the tab and drinking. I gagged at the taste but downed the whole can anyhow.
"With the guilt," Uncle Joe said and handed me a bucket of water.
"I ain't guilty," I said. "I ain't done nothin' wrong."
Uncle Joe grinned. "Damn right you ain't. But they'll try an' make you think it."
"Who will?" I asked but he didn't answer.
He dumped his own bucket of water on the last sizzling remains of the guy in the firepit and dense grey smoke billowed all 'round us. The blotches on my vision merged with the shadows, deepened, darkened, and went wild.
They formed up and I saw the guy from the firepit in the smoke, glaring at Uncle Joe and then turning and eying me up with eyes like angry coals. I threw my bucket of water at him, at the fire, anything to make him go away. That only brought more smoke, and more shadows that circled 'round us, all men I'd seen before, but not for a long while.
They snarled at us with fiery eyes, making violent and rude gestures, growing more and more frenzied as the fire fizzled out. One leapt at Uncle Joe and I hollered to warn him but the shadow passed right through him and landed in the firepit, only to be carried away on the flames.
Uncle Joe chuckled. "Don't worry 'bout them, kid. Can't hurt no one now."
I watched as the breeze pushed the smoke away into the woods, with the shadows clinging to it in defeat. They glared their hatred over their shoulders as the wind marched them away to mix with the rest of the dark of the forest. Their sullen bright eyes, like hot ashes, were the last I saw of them.
Uncle Joe looked on, satisfied, then put his arm 'round my shoulders. "Come on, kid. Auntie'll be waitin' on us." And we left and said nothing to Auntie May. I wanted to, believe me, but I'd sworn not to and I held to that. Truth be told, I didn't rightly know what I'd say.
But I know I ain't asking Uncle Joe if he needs help ever again.