Mom was crying in the bathroom again. Running water didn't muffle the sound. I tugged a blanket over my head and tried not to picture the bruises. I curled my knees against my chest and squeezed my eyes shut.
"Wake up." Dad jostled me.
I groaned. How had I fallen asleep?
"Hurry up. You're gonna make us late." He flung my blanket to the floor and hefted the 30-06 Winchester off my wall. "Don't make me leave without you."
His threat chased the sleepy cobwebs from my mind. My heartbeat hammered as I stomped into my runners and thudded downstairs after him.
Hunting season always began this way.
The porch screen slammed behind him as I entered the kitchen. He'd left my rifle by the door.
I poured black coffee into my thermos.
He revved the truck.
Coffee sploshed over my hand.
I grabbed my 30-06 – nicknamed "Bronco" for its ability to kick me on my backside – and ran after him.
We didn't talk as we drove. We never did.
The mountain was nearer than I remembered. Or I was nervous.
Dad pressed his foot heavy on the gas.
The Ford chewed up gravel roads. Low boughs, broken by others on the same quest, slapped our windshield, and muddy ruts jarred our passage.
Dad cut the engine.
The Ford rolled onto the side of the road, and we sat and listened to the woods. Once Dad said he could hear elk. Over the years I began to believe him.
Just us and silence.
His flannel arm hung out the window and lifted now and again to bring smoke to his nostrils. Everything could smell him. Surely they knew to run. Then the pattern stopped. The cigarette hung limp in his fingers. "Hear it?"
'Course I didn't.
"He's a beauty." He crumpled the Players package and eased open the door.
I clutched Bronco. My heart never thumped louder. I glanced at Dad to see if he heard it.
He motioned me to the right.
I crept over crisp maple leaves, gleaming red in the morning light.
The ground ruptured.
I lurched backward.
A covey of quail took flight before my feet and landed like faded Christmas decorations in a nearby pine.
I swung my attention from them, toward a rocky outcropping. The perfect vantage-point.
This time not a sound whispered around me. I knew how to move silent. Dad took me every year. I had yet to disappoint him. I wondered if he'd be proud of me this year. I almost thought he would. I exhaled when I reached the rocks.
Spongy moss softened my step.
Cold fog curled through the glade.
I gripped my rifle. And waited.
Time's different on the mountain. It's measured in light, in the millimeters of shadows, not the ticks of a clock or flickers of a commercial. Sometimes it's so slow you fear you'll suffocate before your next breath.
Then I heard him.
He stood maybe a hundred yard away. His breath swirled the air in crystal snorts. He stepped from the shadows on limbs as lithe as a dancer's, and carried his magnificent rack as if it were nothing more than a John Deere hat.
I snugged Bronco in the crook between my arm and chest, but pointed it over his shoulder.
I wouldn't miss.
Dad wouldn't forgive me if I missed such a shot.
I scanned the leaves, unruffled by breezes, and waited. Any movement would be my clue. I was a good hunter. I wouldn't miss it.
I sucked in my breath and took aim.
The glade erupted with a single blast. The elk leapt away. Something fogged my scope, and I lowered Bronco.
A perfect shot.
I was too well trained to do otherwise.
I stared at where Dad lay. I felt nothing. I don't think I was numb. Just relieved. That's all.
In a rush, my heart started pumping, blood swooshed through my ears, and my lungs screamed for air.
I shoved through the brush to his side.
This was the part I dreaded.
I crouched beside him.
Dew seeped through my Levi's, and mossy ground wiggled beneath my knees.
I touched his neck. He was warm. I don't know why I expected otherwise. My stomach recoiled when I touched him. Still, I hefted him onto my shoulders. My legs buckled. He weighed more than I'd suspected. I locked my knees and tightened my grip.
It would be a long trek to the Ford.
I crumpled Dad's body into my seat, dug through his pockets for the keys, and slid behind the wheel.
The old engine only wheezed when I tried to turn it over, as if it knew mine weren't Dad's fingers coaxing it to life.
I closed my eyes and pictured him sitting there with his arms slack, his head tilted sideways, and the pink tip of his tongue snaking through his lips.
The engine whirred to life that time.
I spun the wheel. The truck lurched and every gear howled as we careened down the mountain. If I counted right, twenty minutes passed before I skidded the Ford into the barrier outside the Emergency Room.
I yanked Dad out the driver's side and burst through sliding doors.
"Someone help!" It was me screaming.
"Oh! Doctor! Here, honey, bring him this way."
"Let go, hon. We've got him now."
Lightning-white corridors blurred in my vision. A door swallowed Dad. Frantic voices mumbled through it. It swung open seconds later.
There was blood on the doc's blue tunic. It was thick. It didn't look red.
"He's dead?" I asked.
"I'm so sorry. There was nothing we could do. The shot killed him instantaneously."
I never let my prey suffer. Dad taught me that. Why he didn't apply such mercy to people, I never knew.
"We've had to call the sheriff. It's the law with a GSW –"
"Gunshot wound. I'll need you to come with me." He tucked me beneath his arm and led me to a cold waiting room.
Tabloids littered the coffee tables and shouted of murderers caught or murders left unsolved.
I averted my eyes.
The doctor slunk down the hall.
There wasn't a sound but my breathing – which sounded irregular, even to me. I slowed it and eased into a vinyl chair.
It might have been an hour or ten minutes before that door reopened, but the face peering in at me was not threatening.
"I need to talk to you." Sheriff Johnson said, his expression distraught under his heaving mustache. I supposed he'd gone hunting with us enough to feel responsible. "Do you want coffee – something from the cafeteria?"
I shook my head and held his gaze. This was the hard part. This morning only required a steady hand. This took a steady voice and eye, but I wouldn't falter. I rehearsed the part well, and the plot was cinch to remember.
"Well then, I guess you realize I need to know what happened, Jenny."
"He was flushing the animal to me. Up at Butte's Point. I saw movement and shot." I let myself shrug, just a helpless roll of my shoulders that looked good before the mirror.
"It just doesn't seem possible ..."
I didn't let it worry me.
"I'll need to see your rifle."
"It's in the truck." Or was it? "I left it up there. By the rocks. His, too."
"I'll send Sam, he knows the place." Johnson still looked bewildered. I couldn't blame him. He hadn't expected this. "Marvin bragged you could hit whatever you chose. Not like you, Jen, to let a shot go wild. What were you thinking?"
There was so much I could tell him. Years of pretending I didn't hear. Years of helplessness. A year of planning. The perfect murder. The only way. The escape. That was what I was thinking.
I said nothing.
I'm sure I looked horrified.
His hand clamped my shoulder. I almost flinched, but when I looked up, his expression was sympathetic, not accusing. "Guns...to God I wish they'd never been invented."
He didn't mean it. He lived for the season, just like Dad, but what was he to tell a bereaved girl?
"I'll drive you home. You'll need help to tell your mother. "
That was all. It was as easy as I
anticipated. And it was over.
BIO: DEIRDRE ERIN LOCKHART is a Canadian author with stories regularly appearing in Joyful! Magazine.