Short Story Contest Winner: Syringe-Fed Ferrets
by Samuel Martin
Winner of the 2017 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Contest
“Do you know how to syringe feed a ferret?” Corbit asks.
Mrs. Wittaker laughs. “Is Corbit not feeding you?” She waves at the ferret in its wire-mesh cage on the table between them.
“No, for real,” Corbit says. “Have you ever syringe fed one?”
Mrs. Wittaker says she doesn’t have a syringe, and Corbit almost tells her he’ll grab one of Teddy’s, but Mrs. Wittaker asks about his mom’s back pain: “Have those elastic band exercises helped at all?”
“One of the bands broke,” Corbit says. “Snapped her in the eye, so she threw it out.” He doesn’t think his mom is in much pain, though. Not with the amount of meds she’s on. When she’s strung-out she hardly says boo to him.
But when she runs out, she gets rangy and starts stuffing water balloons with chopped-up baloney.
Mrs. Wittaker chirps at the ferret. “What do you feed him?” she asks. “Baloney,” Corbit says.
“You squeeze baloney through a syringe?”
He rolls his eyes. “You only have to syringe feed them when they ’re sick,” he says. “Or when they’re stressed.”
“Ferrets get stressed?” Corbit shrugs.
“What do you feed a stressed ferret?”
“Teddy’s whey powder,” he says. “Do you have whey powder?” “Whey powder?”
“For weightlifting. It’s supposed to bulk you out.”
Mrs. Wittaker laughs. “I don’t need any more bulking out.”
“I’ll get you a syringe,” Corbit says. “And some whey powder.” Teddy’s syringe is on the kitchen counter at home. Corbit used it to pop the lock on the bathroom door so he could rescue this ferret while his mom slept on the couch.
It’s almost evening now, so she should be up soon.
Mrs. Wittaker holds a knuckle to the cage. “Is the syringe Teddy’s?” she asks as the ferret noses her knuckle.
Corbit is about to say yes but the phone rings.
Mrs. Wittaker picks it up and says, “Hello?” and Corbit sees her face jolt.
She bolts upright, knocks over her chair, and rushes to look out the window over the sink, down the wooded hill that slopes into Mud Lake.
“You’re where?” Mrs. Wittaker hisses into the phone, her back to Corbit. He wants to slip into the other room and eavesdrop using the spare phone—like when he listens in on his mom’s dirty phone talks with Teddy.
Teddy is teaching his mom how to attack-train fifteen ferrets in their bathroom: an idea he got from the Internet. Corbit doesn’t like the way Teddy treats the ferrets, though. They get nicked-up pretty bad and sometimes balloons get stuck in their throats.
Used to be twenty of them.
Teddy says he sells the pelts to a trader near Bancroft, so there’s no waste. Says he gets a pack of venison meat sticks for every skin. But Corbit doesn’t like the meat sticks or hurting the ferrets. That’s why he freed this ferret and brought it to Mrs. Wittaker.
Because she’s a healer. She translates for the people in her church that start screaming and flopping around on the floor.
She translates for Corbit too.
Teaches him to swear less and make up words when all he wants to do is smash things and yell: Fucksakes!
She’s taught him to say Fraggle-rock instead, and Ham-it Chuck Berry! He came up with Jack Nut and Tit-cicles on his own.
Mrs. Wittaker doesn’t like him saying Tit-cicles though.
He watches her face as she stares at the ferret cage next to the teapot, the phone pressed to her ear. Listening. The ferret chitters, sits back, and watches Mrs. Wittaker.
She’s magic, Corbit thinks as he slips into the other room and picks up the spare phone.
Spirit-filled, like they say at her church—the calmest person he knows.
He holds the phone to the side of his face.
“You did what!” Mrs. Wittaker yells, her voice megaphoned in Corbit’s ear. He winces but keeps the phone tight to his head.
“He’s fine,” he hears a guy say on the other end.
Corbit hears heavy breathing—static.
“And you put him where after that?” Mrs. Wittaker asks. “In a trunk.”
Corbit knows the name.
Harold—Mrs. Wittaker’s son, who murdered a guy in Toronto like ten years ago.
Everybody around Mud Lake knows about him—even kids like Corbit who were in diapers when Harold went to juvie. Got out early but skipped parole. And no one’s heard from him since. Some say he joined an antichrist cult. Others say he lives like a bear in the woods, moving camp every couple of days cause he’s still wanted for killing that Toronto guy. Corbit heard the guy hurt Mrs. Wittaker, though, when she was younger. And that’s why Harold hunted him down.
That makes Harold Corbit’s hero, like a real-life Conan the Barbarian. “I bought him a blanket,” Harold says, voice crackly on the other end. “What?” Mrs. Wittaker snaps. “For the cop you assaulted?” “Apprehended,” Harold says.
“They won’t see it that way—blanket or no.” “He’ll be fine.”
“And you”—Mrs. Wittaker’s voice quavers—“how are you?” A knock at the door.
Mrs. Wittaker calls for Corbit— asks where he is. But he keeps quiet. Maybe she’ll think he snuck out the garage door. Another knock and Mrs. Wittaker hisses into the phone, “There’s a cop outside now.”
“What—already?” Bristled silence. “They must’ve found him then.”
“Where are you?” Mrs. Wittaker asks her son. “Heading north.”
Three sharp knocks at the door.
“If you’re coming” she whispers, almost too low for Corbit to hear, “remember to stoke the fire.” And then she hangs up.
But Corbit stays on the line—hears Harold’s breathing.
Mrs. Wittaker opens the door and says, “Hello.” And the cop—his voice familiar—asks Mrs. Wittaker something, but all Corbit hears is Harold’s phone-breathing.
Then Harold’s voice, quiet in Corbit’s ear: “Mom?”
Corbit backs into the bathroom. Leaves the door ajar so he can see through to the kitchen—the block of steak knives there.
Harold breathes in his ear.
“Have you heard from your son recently?” the cop asks. “No,” Mrs. Wittaker says.
And Harold says to Corbit over the phone, “So who are you?”
Corbit watches the cop lean against the sink. Sees it’s Mitch Dugger—his mom’s ex. Constable Jack Nut himself.
When his mom’s out of pills and angry she moves this manikin that Teddy got her into the bathroom. The manikin has a blow-up of Mitch’s Facebook pic taped to it. And little baloney balloons stapled to its neck and nuts. The ferrets start chomping on their cages when his mom rolls the manikin into the room. And they shred the baloney balls when she lets them loose.
Makes his mom feel better, Teddy says. And Corbit can see that for himself. Which is why he doesn’t say anything. Even though he thinks it’s weird as fuck.
Fraggle-rock, Mrs. Wittaker says in his head.
“Do you have a recent picture of your son?” Mitch asks. “No,” Mrs. Wittaker says. “Haven’t seen him in years.” “How many years?”
Corbit wants one of his mom’s ferrets to bite Mitch in the nuts—payback for that time Mitch dragged his mom into the bathroom and locked the door. His mom had to buy a new toilet after that cause the bowl was cracked and water kept running down the air vent and shorting out the furnace. That’s why she got on painkillers, because of whatever Mitch did to her in there.
They hooked up after high school, Mitch and his mom, after Corbit was born. Corbit knows that much from his mom’s yearbooks. He’s been through all of them and knows Mitch and his mom were together while Mitch went through the police academy in Peterborough. She has pictures of him still. In the box where Teddy keeps his stash.
Mitch stopped coming around after the broken toilet. And it’s taken some time but Corbit has pieced the story together. From things his mom has let slip.
She lets a lot slip when she’s drunk. Or high.
Like that one detail about Mitch that Corbit’s sure his mom doesn’t know he knows.
Something he wants to tell her but can’t. Hasn’t found the right moment. What he knows, though, doesn’t change the way he thinks of Mitch. Not one bit.
He’s glad Mitch buggered off.
It’s given Corbit time to bulk out—work-outs with Teddy’s dumb-bells in their living room, push-ups and swimming in the summer. Running all the way in to Lemming’s Lake and back through the bush to Mud Lake—like a barbarian. Like Harold hunting down that Toronto guy who hurt Mrs. Wittaker all those years ago.
And now Mitch is in Mrs. Wittaker’s kitchen, asking questions about Harold, who’s on the phone with Corbit in the other room.
Harold’s voice, soft in his ear: “Is Mom still with that cop?” Corbit taps the receiver twice.
“Does that mean yes?” Harold whispers. Corbit taps twice again.
“What means no?”
One tap—he hears Mitch ask about the ferret. “I hate ferrets,” Mitch says. And Corbit thinks, Yup, right in the nuts.
“Okay,” Harold says. “If I ask you to do something, will you do it?” Two taps.
“I need some boots.”
Mitch, in the kitchen, tells Mrs. Wittaker that her son visited the wife of the Toronto man he murdered ten years ago and she called it in. “The OPP are looking for him now,” Mitch says. “We think he might try to contact you.”
“Hasn’t in forever,” Mrs. Wittaker says. “He assaulted an officer, you know.” Apprehended, Corbit thinks.
Mitch moves from the counter to the table, out of Corbit’s line of sight. The ferret hisses and the cage rattles and Corbit hears Mrs. Wittaker’s soothing voice as he slips the phone in his back pocket and dodges out of the bathroom, flings open the front door, and swings himself silently outside, clicking the door shut and gripping the knob so he doesn’t fall—socked toes on the door sill, heels mid-air. Hanging from a second story door.
The ground a muddy mess below.
Mrs. Wittaker’s house is built into the side of a hill, and there ’s supposed to be a porch on this side. But there isn’t one.
Harold, still on the line, says something into Corbit’s butt. But Corbit can’t answer because he needs to jump ten feet without twisting an ankle.
He turns slightly, then leaps and lands in a muddy sprawl. Jumps up and limp-runs toward his house, wet socks slapping the ground as he pulls out the phone.
“You there?” Harold says.
“Yeah,” Corbit pants, wincing, thinking he could sneak into Mrs. Wittaker ’s garage and snag her dead husband’s boots. But he doesn’t want Mitch to catch him.
.I could give him Mitch’s old boots, he thinks, the ones he left at Mom’s. He likes that—giving a cop’s boots to a convict.
“I’ll be there soon.” Harold’s voice crackles—the signal breaking up this far from Mrs Wittaker’s kitchen.
“It’s getting dark,” Corbit says.
“I’m crossing Mud Lake,” Harold says.
Corbit stops on his mom’s porch. Looks through the woods at the blue-streaked white of the lake. Half-thawed, he thinks. Does he know there’s open water on this side?
Corbit takes another step. Hears the phone fuzz. Then it dies in his hands.
“Why do you have Mitch’s boots?” his mom says, tapping her smoke out in the mudroom.
Corbit glances at the boots in his hand. Hears a jacked-up truck roar down their road. His mom peers at him, then staggers back into the kitchen—and he follows her. Sees her pass a hand over the manikin’s ferret-chewed shoulders as she looks out the window.
“Sounded like Farley’s truck,” Corbit says.
She glances back at him. “Is that Mitch parked next door?”
He’s seen his mom’s face when they pass Mitch’s cruiser in town. Knows what she does after. She looks sober now. And the syringe is still on the counter.
He knows Teddy is getting her into heavier stuff. He ’s found a couple of scorched spoons and he’s not stupid. Even they have Netflix.
“Mitch didn’t ask ya for those boots, did he?” His mom tucks a greasy strand of hair behind her ear, still looking out the window. “Well!” She turns on him. “Did he send you for his goddamn boots or what?”
“N-n-no,” he stammers. “They’re for … someone else.” “Who?”
Harold Wittaker, he wants to say. But doesn’t. His mom knew Harold in high school—he signed her yearbooks. And Corbit’s heard her talk about him on occasion. He can guess what she’d say: that Harold was fucked up when he killed that guy in Toronto.
Corbit looks at his mom. Presses his back against the bathroom door. “What’re you looking at?” she snaps.
She hates it when he stares at her. So he keeps staring.
Ferrets whir in their cages.
She glances at Mitch’s cruiser out the window. Clutches her throat with one shaking hand, then fixes on Corbit. “What’re you into?”
Operation Castration, he wants to say.
That’s what he calls it when he practice-shoots Mitch ’s manikin in the nuts with his pellet gun while his mom’s in a medicated coma in the other room—the blackout curtains pulled.
He moves for the back door but his mom tells him to leave the boots. The ferrets in the bathroom rattle their cages and hiss.
His mom steadies herself—hand on the manikin’s chewed neck. She leans on the thing— the crinkled blow-up of Mitch’s face an inch from hers.
“Gimme the boots, Corby.” “No,” he says.
She cuts him a sharp glare, then hurls the manikin at him, but he swings open the bathroom door and knocks the manikin over.
His mom lunges at him but he slams the door and locks it. And she yells at him to open up and quit being a little shit.
But he’s not listening to her—can hardly hear her as he flicks open all the latches on all the cages—the tears in his eyes making the room thrash.
He flicks the last latch, jumps up on the toilet, opens the window, and kicks the stacked cages before jumping out the window into a dirty snow bank.
Cages crash inside.
He shuts the window quick. Sees his mom through the hallway window, staggering to the couch—flicking a lighter as she goes.
He thought she might’ve picked the lock with the syringe. She’s done it before when he’s told her off and tried to hide in there. But if she had, what then?
His socked feet ache in the snow.
He looks at Mitch’s old boots and wants to pull them on to warm his toes. I’ll get that old pair from Mrs. Wittaker’s garage, he thinks. Harold’s dad’s boots. He sits in the snow and rolls his wet socks off his feet. The sun has set and the temperature is dropping.
Woods are silent.
Then ice cracks and something thrashes in the water.
Corbit runs the dark shoreline, tripping on roots—frantically looking for a body in the water— when he’s bowled over.
He rolls to his feet—spits muck and pine needles—blinks. Sees the man who knocked him over.
Wet and shivering in the cold. Tangled hair matted to his beard. Teeth chattering. And naked.
Corbit takes a step back. “Why’re you naked?” The guy stammers, “You g-g-got the boots.”
Corbit nods—slowly—realizing this is Harold Wittaker. He’s thinner than Corbit imagined.
“Did you cross the lake like that?” he says.
Harold hugs his arms and stamps his bare feet. “I gotta g-g-get some clothes,” he says. “I f-f-fell through the ice.”
Corbit fell through the ice once, up to his knees. He knows to survive you got to get out of your wet clothes. Fast. Everyone who’s ever grown up here knows that.
“C-c-clothes,” Harold stammers. “I need clothes.” His wet things are balled up in his fists—soaked shoes, jeans, and a hoodie.
“Follow me,” Corbit says.
And they scramble up the hill toward the lights of Mrs. Wittaker’s house. They duck behind the woodshed beside the outdoor furnace, and Corbit opens the creaky door and Harold gasps and sticks his hands inside the furnace.
Corbit thinks the guy might reach in and grab one of the flaming logs when a screen door claps shut and he looks up the hill to see Mitch Dugger’s silhouette.
Mitch says something into his radio, the rising moon behind his head.
Harold hides behind the furnace, the door still open—firelight pulsing on the wet ground. “Is that the cop?” he whispers.
And Corbit looks back at Harold cowering in the dark.
Sees he’s afraid.
Corbit’s afraid too. But he feels heat in his head, like when Mrs. Wittaker prays for him.
Like all the fire he’s imagined in Harold—his mom’s rage—is catching inside his own skull. “I’ll be right back,” he says, face burning.
And Harold hisses after him, “Where’re you going?”
“I’ll distract him,” Corbit says. “Then you can get up to the house.” “Up to the house?”
“They’re boots in the garage. By the workbench.” “But you have boots in your hands.”
“They’re bait,” Corbit says. “Bait?”
Corbit heaves one of the boots at Mitch Dugger and clips him in the back of the head.
“What the fuck!” Mitch yells as he reaches for his Maglite and shines it on Corbit. The light bounces a bit as he rubs his skull. “You’re Becky’s runt,” he says.
Corbit doesn’t say anything. Just gives Mitch his stone-stare. Like Conan facing a jackal.
Mitch keeps the light trained on Corbit as he picks up the boot that struck him. He looks at it, turns it over in the light. Then grins. “Becky tell ya to give me these back?”
Corbit grinds his teeth.
The guy is an asshole.
Mrs. Wittaker has told him not to call anyone an asshole. It’s not nice to call people buttholes, she says.
But that’s what Mitch is.
“You’re an asshole,” Corbit says.
Mitch grins, crouches down, and he shines the Maglite right in Corbit’s eyes. “That’s where your mom liked it, eh.”
Corbit fists the boot tighter—knuckles white—wishing it was a screwdriver he could gouge into Mitch’s Dugger’s eye.
Mitch straightens and flicks the light from Corbit to the woods, panning left to the outdoor furnace and woodshed, then back to Corbit.
“You know there’s a psycho in these woods,” he says. “Best scamper home.” He winks at Corbit. “And tell your mom I said hi.”
Corbit feels his rage hush.
Like Mrs. Wittaker’s prayer-trembling hand is the heat inside his head— the tongues of flame she’s told him about.
He takes a step toward Mitch, hoping Mitch will match him, close the gap between them.
Mitch takes a step. Corbit eyes his target.
Right in the nuts.
Then he swings the boot and ploughs into Mitch and knocks him flat in the mud. Mitch yells and tries to brain Corbit with the Maglite, but Corbit dodges the blow and bites Mitch’s wrist. Mitch barks and Corbit jumps up—hoofs the guy in the crotch—and runs.
Mitch screams after him but Corbit doesn’t look back. Just runs. He tears around the corner of Mrs. Wittaker’s place—praying for Mitch to follow. Praying that his mom left that syringe by the sink.
He leaps onto his back porch and spins to see Mitch limping after him. Sprints barefoot into the kitchen, bloody frozen feet steaking the linoleum.
He sees the syringe and grabs it. Pops the lock on the bathroom door—ferrets chittering as they scurry over fallen cages.
Mitch calls him out.
Corbit kicks the fallen manikin out of the way, flings open the bathroom door, and shuts it behind him. Ferrets scurry up his legs in the dark and he flings one off and bats away another as he crashes over the fallen cages, cuts his numb feet, skids, and almost slips on the toilet seat as he reels up the window and dives out into the snowbank.
He scrambles and yanks the window down before any ferrets can get out.
Grabs a branch and jams it on an angle against the top pane, bending it into place— praying the make-shift lock won’t snap.
He sees light through the window—hears Mitch’s voice: “Just you and me, runt!”
Mitch is inside the house, opening the bathroom door, so Corbit peels around the end of the house, leaps up the porch stairs, races through the mudroom and back-tackles Mitch into the bathroom.
A ferret bites Mitch’s lip and he screams—and Corbit back-peddles out of the room and slams the bathroom door shut. Flicks the eyelet lock into place. Grabs a chair and angles it under the rattling doorknob—Mitch screeching on the other side.
Corbit touches his neck, sees blood on his fingers—the syringe on the floor by the manikin’s torn face. He picks it up. Hears his mom down the hall:
“Corby? Is that you?
His mom squints at him when she steps into the light.
Mitch yells and fires off three shots. Corbit and his mom hit the floor. Cages crash. Four more shots—one punching through the door and cracking their kitchen window. The door vibrates. “Jesus!” Mitch screams.
“Corby …” His mom looks at the pulsing door. “Is that … is that Mitch?” “Yeah,” Corbit says.
They both hear Mitch radioing for help, screaming at the dispatcher to fuckin hurry or the ferrets will eat him alive. “Yes, I said ferrets!” he screams, banging on the door. “Get me out of here! There’s fifty fuckin ferrets and a psycho in the woods!”
Fifteen, Corbit thinks. Geez.
His mom looks at him. “What psycho?”
Corbit shrugs, trying to work out what they need to do before the cops get here. Hack off the manikin’s limbs and stuff it and Teddy’s boxed stash in Mrs. Wittaker’s outdoor furnace.
Along with his mom’s Mitch pics.
Then head up to Mrs. Wittaker’s to wait for Jack Nut’s backup to buzz in the yard—tell the cops they’ve trapped an intruder in their bathroom next door.
Harold won’t be there, at Mrs. Wittaker’s—Corbit knows that. Not with cops on the way.
And Mrs. Wittaker won’t mention her son: that she’s seen him, hugged him for the first time in ten years.
That’s what Corbit hopes.
But he knows Mrs. Wittaker won’t say anything, not to him and not to the cops, even though her dead husband’s boots will be gone from the garage—those boots and the insulated coveralls. He can picture that much. But not the female constable who’ll see his mom’s shaking later tonight and say nothing, only share this look with Corbit—a look he’ll spy between Mrs. Wittaker and his mom on the way to the rehab center in town tomorrow—hallelujah music playing on the radio and that one saved ferret nosing the syringe in his hand.
Mitch bangs on the door and screams. Corbit looks at his mom, the fog in her face. “Corby,” she says. “What did you do?”
He blinks and shrugs. Hangs onto that syringe.
I can tell her now, he thinks. Let her know what I know. “I gave Dad back his boots.”
Image credit: Emily Stokes, white and black charcoal on gray paper.