by William J. Cobb
For Christmas my sister Monica gave her creepy son Phillip a mystery gift—the biggest box under the Christmas tree, wrapped in glossy black paper with ghostly white Scream mask faces on it. The whole family always thought Phillip was a little off and we generally tried to avoid him as best we could, but he was Monica’s only child so what can you do. The only thing remarkable about him was he liked to reconstruct elaborate war-game scenarios, such as the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of the Alamo, or the Battle of Austerlitz. He bought little soldier and general figures from Michaels or Hobby Lobby, along with horses and barns and cannons and little carts and villages, and constructed these whole battle-worlds on a huge table in their den.
He seemed to take an inordinate interest in the village maidens clustered around the village water well, with their baskets of uniforms to wash, painting their yellow pigtails and touching up their low-cut peasant dresses. He’d crouch over that tabletop battlefield for hours, whispering to himself and moving the soldiers and horses around like they were real. Monica was all giddy about this new gift and she told me it was going to be a huge surprise. She was on her fourth rum-and-eggnog drink and said, “He's going to friggin love it. You wait.”
Phillip was a morose teenager who tended not to look anyone in the eyes and went around the house without saying a word, staring at his iPhone or laptop with his black hair in his face, scratching his neck like he had a rash. Without a smile or jumps of joy he unwrapped the big black box to reveal a life-size, interactive Assassination of JFK kit.
“Well that's different,” said cousin Rita, and snorted.
Monica’s husband, Brian, made a conspiratorial face at me. Brian was a bit of a creep, and never wanted to have anything to do with Phillip, who was not his child, and whom he resented for being a reminder that Monica had loved someone else before he came along, and how. Brian owned a swimming-pool installation business on the north side of Dallas and was part goon, part blowhard. But about Brian I possessed one unholy secret: my brother-in-law was a Porch Pirate. He told me he’d stolen all his gifts from the porches of other people, which he thought was very funny and shrewd. No buying expensive gifts for him! Made me swear not to spill the beans. I was aghast when he told me, but when he saw the look on my face, he assured me he wouldn’t get caught: he’d raided the porches of neighborhoods several miles from his own. “We’re good,” he said, smiling like that solved it. That’s how he got his hands on the JFK Assassination Reenactment Kit. “Just wait till you see this thing. It’s awesome.”
It was super elaborate: the costumes included Mission Impossible-style face masks and a cardboard Cadillac that came in a box the size of a flat-screen TV (that’s what Brian thought he was pinching): Once you put it all together, the cardboard Cadillac looked just like the one JFK was riding in when he was shot, only smaller. There were even three little trees to construct a grassy knoll to hide the other shooters. We had a vote as to who would play John F. Kennedy, and I enthusiastically supported Brian for the role of JFK, but was voted down, in favor of Phillip being JFK—after all, it was supposed to be his present. I volunteered myself for the role of Lee Harvey Oswald, plotting to get a rifle in my hands. Brian owed me a couple grand, which he borrowed three years ago and has not mentioned since. That Porch Pirate would be breathing through a metaphorical hole in his throat when I was done with him.
Monica did her hair up just like Jackie-O and put on the pink outfit, complete with pillbox hat, and took her place beside Phillip. Brian played John Connally, the Governor of Texas, and put a tray of Swedish meatballs beside his seat in the cardboard Caddy so he could eat while we were all working out our parts. He’d had a few too many and the red MAGA hat was on sideways, until told he’d have to remove it to wear the John Connally mask. He wasn’t even paying attention to what was going on. Monica had to nag him to get the John Connally mask on his head, tugging at the corners as he said, “Enough already. It hurts.” He went back to eating as soon as the mask was on and sat there chewing, his mouth covered with meatball sauce and his eyes kind of freaky through the holes in the mask. Upstairs I replaced the fake Carcano Infantry rifle that was made to look like Oswald’s original with Brian’s own paintball gun, loaded with blood-red paintballs.
Everyone took their places in the front yard: Monica’s dog Ajax kept barking at the cardboard car and shaking this stuffed rabbit toy in his jaws until all the stuffing flew out. People driving by slowed and gawked. Monica was drunk and kissed Phillip on the head but he just pulled away from her. She stumbled and caught herself, said, “I'm good.” When Ajax managed to bite the head off the stuffed rabbit and leave it on the hood of the cardboard Caddy she laughed so hard she told everyone, “Oh my god! I peed myself!”
Phillip sat there morose and embarrassed, staring at his smartphone, looking just like JFK while playing some game called Active Shooter. I appeared in the upstairs window and took aim at the Porch Pirate who owed me money.
Everyone smiled up at me.
It came time to squeeze the trigger.
Brian lifted his Connally chin and waved, smiling. At the last minute, right before the faux-blood splattered across his wide and stupid forehead, in his eyes was the shock of the revenge that was to come.
"The Assassination of President Phillip, My Nephew" is a story about gag gifts, porch pirates, and familial resentments. William J. Cobb is an expat Texan living in Pennsylvania, where he teaches at Penn State University. His short stories have twice won the Best Story of the Year Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, and he has published three novels and two books of short stories, including the novel Goodnight, Texas.