At first I thought maybe it was me, some dark cloud of dying that was hanging over my head, but when Shirley and I sat there on the embankment and I tried to convince her of things before the sun went down, she told me that there was never any rhyme or reason for death coming, and she didn’t believe in any god or fate or destiny or bigger plan. Shit happens, she said, and as it was we both figured we’d probably freeze to death once night came, and we were in about the deepest shit there could be.
My father went out for cigarettes and orange juice one Tuesday morning when I was five years old and never came back, and it had been my mother and me together since as long as I could almost remember, except for a hazy image of him tying my shoes, explaining to me again how the rabbit ears go in and out of the hole. My mother burned all the pictures and remnants of him in the weeks after he left, and there was nothing to anchor me to him.
When I was eight my babysitter was a ten-foot piece of rope knotted around my wrist and the other end tied tight to a leg of the couch. I could watch TV, sleep, get in the refrigerator, have access to two cupboards, and pee in a bucket—the bathroom was twenty-two feet away and we had only one length of rope. By the time I was thirteen my mother had four DUIs and a way of walking slumped over like she was carrying something heavy on her back. She had a boyfriend named Tyler and he had been in and out of “the program” for years—AA, NA, AA again—he went back and forth every time he failed, so she quit vodka and announced that she was off the drink, for me, for Tyler, for the sake of a normal life, but then the plastic bottles of Listerine started showing up around the house in places where they didn’t belong—under the couch, behind the TV. It was the original kind, which burns so bad you can’t swish it around in your mouth for a full thirty seconds, but she could do more than swish it; she could drain half a liter bottle in a day, empty three in a week, and smelled like medicine but not bad breath. She and Tyler pulled the blinds, drew the curtains, and decided to see whose liver would kick out first. My mother won.
She spent most of a Friday on the bathroom floor, and I called 9-1-1, but by then it was Sunday, and then Tyler said he had a warrant and went out the back door as soon as the flashing lights and sirens came down the gravel road. Uncle Nick was the one who picked me up from the hospital, my mother’s older brother and only next of kin, and he took me back to the trailer to pack a bag and then he drove me four hours north to what he kept calling my new home as we went up the interstate, as in I think you’re gonna like your new home and We’ve got a new bed set up for you in your new home. His was a deep voice of reassurance, but I was whipped and dog-tired and I stared out the passenger window without talking so I could watch the mile markers tick by without counting them.
For the next three weeks I went limp. Uncle Nick drove me places, bought me things, signed me up here and here and here, and I just went with him, stood quietly, filled out forms to the best of my ability: father’s name, date of your last tetanus shot. I spent two Saturdays sitting on a folding chair in a portable building behind the VFW hall, taking a hunter’s safety course—trigger, safety, barrel, butt—and then the test, and then I had a junior hunting license and my Uncle Nick was more proud of me than if I had won an award at school, which I was not attending yet because my mother was not big on organizing or saving things or filing papers, and I didn’t have a birth certificate or any proof that I was fifteen and a California resident and really who I said I was. Uncle Nick could smooth that over with Bob, the hunter’s safety teacher and Uncle Nick’s trout-fishing buddy, but the school couldn’t be smoothed over and they put me in a holding pattern until proof could be shown. I couldn’t say that I was sorry for the delay, but then I found myself wandering around the house with Uncle Nick’s wife, Shirley, home during the day, telling me not to put my feet on the coffee table, put my cereal bowl in the dishwasher, take a shower, don’t watch so much TV—don’t you read? —and after three weeks of avoiding her and her bird hands that liked to snatch at me and my things, I was in the backseat of the truck, climbing in elevation, facing five days with them in the mountains—or until Uncle Nick and Shirley took their deer—whichever came first. Bucks, Uncle Nick reminded me. Buck hunting—there’s a big difference.
Uncle Nick was a big man, not particularly tall, but with a stomach that hid his belt buckle and rubbed the steering wheel as he drove. He used to smoke, but was determined to quit, so he would put a cigarette in his mouth without lighting it. He would just suck on it, hold it between his fingers, put it back between his lips again. He was a talker—didn’t take a break, could hold a conversation about anything, jumped from subject to subject, and covered everything once a subject stuck. Shirley was a clock-watcher and a speed monitor, a passenger-seat driver who told Uncle Nick we weren’t making good time, it was taking forever, slow down, you’re following too close, you’re back too far, you’re swerving.
Just past noon we pulled off the freeway and stopped at a chipped and faded burger stand near the two-lane junction between highways and ordered lunch. Shirley was disgusted with the picnic tables because they were splintered and carved up with names and dates and misspelled bad words that told Joey B. to fuk off, but we took a seat anyway because Shirley didn’t want spills in the truck, so we sat outside in the sunshine eating.
“Me and Shirley have been married . . . let’s see . . . five”—I could see him mentally ticking off numbers and changing his mind—“no, six years. Six years in August.” He picked up a fistful of fries and put them all in his mouth.
An El Camino full of teenagers pulled into the gravel parking lot and I turned to watch the girls get out while the driver gunned it once, twice, turned the stereo louder for a minute to blast the chorus on a song I didn’t know, and then cut the car to silence with the turn of the key. The girls were tall and long-legged and there were three of them and the driver looked as though he either really didn’t care that he was chauffeuring three girls or was doing a good job at pretending not to. I had never ridden in a car with that many girls. I could’ve had my learner’s permit last month but I had never taken the class for the certificate or the test for the paper and we didn’t have a car anyway because my mom was busy dying. I sometimes thought about what it would be like to drive, have my own car, maybe chauffeur three girls out to burgers on the way home from school, but I couldn’t even see that desire as more than a dream because from where I stood now that reality was not even in the distance.
“So Shirley, she’s taken a deer every damn year that we’ve been together,” Uncle Nick said. “Me? I’ve taken zero. No deer in six years. I call that shit luck.” He had a piece of lettuce stuck to the front of his teeth but neither of us pointed it out to him.
“Buck fever,” Shirley said. She was a skinny woman without a defined age—she could’ve been thirty or fifty—and she had wiry blond hair that she kept pulled back off her face with a black headband. I don’t know if she had ten headbands or just the one, but she was always wearing it no matter what time of the day it was. She had faint freckles on her face, like splatter from a flicked brush, and she chewed slowly, took forever to get through half a burger, and had one breast—the other one had been cut off because of cancer the year before she met Uncle Nick. When I came in the house and met her for the first time, she had walked to the doorway and given me a stiff and lopsided hug and when she stepped back to look at me, she held out her arms and said, “I’ve only got one boob,” and glanced down toward her chest where her T-shirt rose and fell like a hill butted up against a valley. “But I’m a survivor, so you better think twice before cracking a joke,” she said, then picked up my bag and walked it to the back bedroom of what my Uncle Nick had been busy convincing me was my new home. That was all she said to me.
“Tough as nails,” Uncle Nick had said and shook a cigarette from the soft pack in the breast pocket of his denim work shirt.
The wind made a halfhearted gust and tried to pick our grease-stained burger wrappers from the table. We all reached for them, but Shirley had those bird hands that could dive out of nowhere and managed to shove them all under her soda cup before I could get my hand down. She gave me a sideways glance out of the corner of her eye and said something under her breath, something at me, but the wind was rattling the bent rain gutter on the burger stand and I couldn’t hear her. It looked like her mouth said you suck, but maybe I was wrong.
Uncle Nick didn’t notice anything. He just kept forklifting fries to his mouth, five or ten at a time so that he had to chew while he talked. “Buck fever, my ass,” he said. “Bad luck is more like it. I never get a clean shot.”
“He always misses,” Shirley said, and she didn’t smile as she said it.
Uncle Nick and Shirley had deer tags for zone X-4, which Uncle Nick informed me contained the prime spots—Crater Lake, Eagle Lake, Antelope Peak, Harvey Mountains, Upper Hat Creek Rim, Butte Creek Rim, Ladder Butte, Negro Camp Mountain, Black’s Ridge—and was one of the most sought-after zones in the state. Deer tags for X-4 were only awarded by a drawing in June after all interested hunters applied, but Uncle Nick called it a lottery, as in he and Shirley had won it along with 413 others, and they were determined to both take deer this year, bucks, and Uncle Nick had already been scouting the zone, had decided on where to camp and where to hike and where to hunt, and he thought himself crafty because he had found an area that was hard to get to, out of the way, and went against the grain of deer-hunting success tips, which suggest that deer are more dense in less forest, and not the other way around. We rose in elevation and small green signs by the roadside announced the change—2,240 feet, 3,180, 3,540. Shirley turned in her seat and told me to stop chewing my gum like a cow—she could hear me chewing over the sound of the truck—and when we finally stopped climbing we went down a dirt road, and another dirt road, and the truck bounced over rocks, gullies, washouts, and Uncle Nick turned the hubs to four-wheel drive so we could climb out of mud tracks and low spots until the ground evened out again. The trees came up thick and tall and crowded the road that wasn’t really one until the road faded out altogether and Uncle Nick rolled to a stop and said, “We’re here.”
We got out, one by one, and I tried to shake the pins and needles from my legs. Uncle Nick put his hands on his lower back, stretched and belched. Shirley dusted off her hands even though they were clean, and walked around the back of the truck so she could lift the latch on the cabover camper and open the door to make camp.
I had never been in the mountains before, and I had not realized that there was so much quiet. It was a quiet that wasn’t without noise, but the noise was a hushing sound, the wind up high bending the pine trees, and there were the sounds of birds, but a different sound than in the city, not a call of warning and near misses, but maybe real communication and happiness, and somewhere above us I could hear a woodpecker. The air was clean, but I could not describe what I meant by that, only recognize that it was.
Shirley set up chairs and Uncle Nick had me find big rocks so we could make a fire pit. He said we were lucky that it wasn’t fire season or we’d be freezing our asses off at night, and we made a makeshift circle, stacked the rocks and then gathered dead wood and made a pile. By the time we were done with that, Uncle Nick was huffing and puffing and said we’d done enough manual labor for one day and it was time to drink beer. He got comfortable in a chair and talked me through how to build a fire—pine needles, bark, and scraps, a lot of blowing, stack the wood in a tepee to let the air circulate and don’t let the flames get too high. He drank and pointed. When I was done he handed me a Coors and we sat in the last patch of light, drinking.
“You excited about tomorrow?” he asked. He had already folded and crushed three empty cans and was cracking open a fourth. He put a cigarette in the crease of the corner of his mouth and tilted his head back to look at the clear sky between the trees.
“I’m nervous,” I said.
“Well, you’re gonna be the spotter, keep your eyes peeled, but if you get a clear shot I want you to take it and we’ll just put my tag on it and take it home. What the hell—it might be the closest I get to taking a deer this year anyways.” He tried to sound hopeful but did a bad job at it. He would be disappointed if I got the deer. He pulled the cigarette from his mouth and held it between the first two fingers of his right hand, against the side of his beer, and it was hard to remember that it wasn’t lit. “Just remember that we’re looking for forks—forks and bigger—no rack, no shot, right?”
I opened the ice chest and reached for a Pepsi, then decided to test it and took another Coors instead. Uncle Nick didn’t notice, or didn’t care, and he raised up out of his chair and tossed a mossy chunk of wood onto the fire so that there was a whole lot of smoke until the fire could stutter back again. Shirley came out of the camper and I sat down and hugged the beer can between my thighs so she couldn’t see the label. She handed us bowls of spaghetti and pulled up a chair of her own.
“Goddamn this fire is smoking, Nick.” She coughed and waved her hand back and forth in front of her. “Robbie, you got dish duty and cleanup tonight.” She said it without looking at me. “Four tomorrow?” she said to Uncle Nick.
“Sounds good. Up at four. Up the trail by four thirty. Take the early movers.”
“You think you can get up that early, Robbie, or should we leave you in camp?” Shirley asked. I didn’t know if it was the beer and a half in my head or just the way the wind carried, but it sounded like a dare.
“I’ll be ready,” I said.
“Jesus, I can’t eat out here. Fix this fire, Nick.”
Uncle Nick took down a six-pack and I managed three more by drinking fast and staying in the shadows. Shirley was either a messy cook or she did it on purpose, but the tiny kitchen in the camper looked like a pipe bomb had gone off, and when I started trying to wash things Shirley told me that water wasn’t free up here, what we had had to last us, and she made me heat water a little at a time, wash everything first, rinse fast, and then she told me that the dishes weren’t clean enough and maybe I could do a better job tomorrow. She reached for a bag of marshmallows and a box of graham crackers and began stepping down out of the camper.
“Whatever,” I said low and under my breath—it seemed like it was the way she and I communicated—and she turned fast and grabbed my arm up high, dug her bony fingers between the bicep and bone.
“What did you say to me?”
“You know, I am no dummy. I know how teenage boys are—lazy, mouthy, dumb. Nick has a big heart and when the phone rang, he couldn’t say no. Me, I said why in the hell do you need to rescue your sister’s boy when she couldn’t take care of her own? And she sure as hell couldn’t, could she? But Nick thought he could do something for you. Make things better. I told him that he couldn’t. So watch it. I have a lot of leverage around here and all I have to do is tell Nick three words—I am done.”
I didn’t sleep that night. I tried, but the makeshift table bed was too short and unless I kept my knees slightly bent or slept with my legs at an angle so they hung over the side, I couldn’t fit. I felt claustrophobic and smothered. I could hear Uncle Nick breathing, falling in and out of snoring like a lawn mower that’s sputtering on fumes, and I could hear Shirley, her sounds of sleep quieter but sharp, and the air in the camper was too hot and there was not enough oxygen to go around. I stared out the little window and watched the oval piece of sky where the stars were bright white and there were too many to count and wondered if this was my life. When I was sitting in the hospital after they wheeled my mom away, the county people came and asked questions, made the call to Uncle Nick. They asked how long my mother had been dead and I had to explain to them that I really didn’t know for sure. I turned over on the too-short bed and tried to remember how my old house looked when I used to walk in the front door. I was forgetting things. When the alarm went off I was relieved because my eyes were already open and I had been waiting for a long time.
Shirley made coffee in the percolator on the tiny stove, and I stepped outside to dress. It was cold and the cold was an edge against my skin whenever a section was exposed. I dressed fast, dressed in layers, the way that Uncle Nick had said I should. We filled canteens from the water jugs, put a few granola bars and sandwiches in a small pack that Shirley carried, and then the three of us slipped on bright orange vests and took our oiled rifles, one by one, from the rack in the truck—Shirley’s Browning A-Bolt and two Remington 700s, one for me and one for Uncle Nick—his a brand-new one he bought so he could pass me down his old. I looked out at the forest around us and tried to adjust my vision, but there was no hint of morning in the sky and we struck out in a darkness like full night.
“Keep your muzzle down,” Uncle Nick said, and we formed a line behind him, Shirley in the middle and me in the rear, and the cold in my fingers crept up my arm and I was a little bit sorry that my pride was too big to let me stay in camp, where I could be warm, try to sleep, be alone.
We walked in silence, Uncle Nick holding a short Coleman flashlight to spot the ground, the only noises the snap of sticks under our boots and the sound of fabric rubbing. I was wide awake for a while, breathing through my nose, and my eyes feeling too big for my head, and then I started sleeping on my feet and followed along while time passed without much notice. Uncle Nick had found an area of thick scrub that he wanted to get to when the sun came up so we could be waiting if a herd came down to nose at the dew. We wound around the thick brush, climbed over boulders, and slid over the backs of dead logs, and suddenly morning came like the flick of a switch so that what was impossible to see before was now in sharp relief, and the sky lightened from black to gray and we moved faster up the mountain. In the dark we had gone slow and stayed on the flat ground, moving between trees and turning sideways to slide through bushes. I could smell the green of broken branches and split leaves, but in the darkness I could not see them as we passed, and I was careful to look down a lot and watch my feet in the back splash of light.
When the sky was bright enough to define distance, Uncle Nick came to a stop and we stood beside him and looked out at the forest in front of us. “Let’s divide up,” he said. He was breathing hard and it was difficult for him to whisper. “Shirley, you head out to the left, not too far, but so that you can cover some ground between us. Robbie, you go right. Remember—no rack, no shot. And try to be quiet. There’s a clearing about an hour and a half up from here, wide open for about two hundred yards, so just keep moving east and when you get to the clearing, we’ll come back together and take the north trail.”
We each took a sip of water and then fanned out, left, center, and right. I found a thin break in the weeds and thought it might be a game trail, and I watched for signs that I was moving in the right direction. I wanted a deer. The feeling came on me all at once—ten minutes ago I didn’t give a shit if I shot a deer or got blisters on my feet or walked off the edge of a cliff. I had gone limp, and I was just dragging along at the end of their lead. They moved the flashlight, and I took the direction. But now I wanted one. I wanted to be the first one, beat Shirley, make Uncle Nick proud, be somebody different than I was. I liked it in the woods—I liked the smells and the sounds and the sharp ends of sticks poking into me whenever I tried to pass through. I tried to remember everything that I hadn’t paid attention to during hunter’s safety when we learned about game hunting. Deer, pheasants, ducks, dove, quail. I closed my eyes and tried to relax my eyelids so that my eyeballs wouldn’t jump around behind them.
Bitterbrush, mountain mahogany, tall sagebrush. I didn’t know what any of it looked like, but I knew it grew dense and the deer would gather there and these were good places to wait and watch. I kept moving east, or what I guessed was east based on where the light was thickening. I walked quietly, tried to make my boots light and my steps weak so I didn’t step all the way through to the ground, break the pinecones, crush the things that might make noise. I imagined myself depending on the kill. My hands started to sweat against the gun and I thought I heard something and my heart stopped. I froze in place and waited. There was something to my right and I followed it and raised the rifle so that it was closer to my body and closer to my chin so that if I lifted my arms the barrel would be in a straight line with my sight. I tried to slow my breathing down, concentrated, and walked on slowly, waiting for the brush to part.
In the mountains, sound echoes and travels at strange angles. I heard the gunshot but could not tell the direction—for a second I thought that it was in front of me, but then the reverberation bounced back and I knew it came from my left, somewhere ahead. It was a strange sound—a sharp crack and then a hushing sound afterward, like the sound running water makes when it moves fast, and then the sound trickled out and died. I waited for a second shot, but there was nothing. I waited for my deer in the brush, but there was no more movement, and I realized that whatever had been there had been small and close to the ground and for the past ten minutes I had probably been tracking a squirrel. Then I thought that maybe the gunshot had come from Uncle Nick or Shirley—probably Uncle Nick more than Shirley, based on what she had accused him of—buck fever—not a sickness, but a weakness, she said. A jumpy hunter whose excitement got the better of him when the game stepped out from the trees.
I started walking toward the sound of the shot and figured that even if I came up on other hunters I was moving in the right direction instead of ranging wider to the right. I didn’t want to be the last one to the clearing, make Shirley wait, take the accusation of her glare for the rest of the day. I needed the first kill and I hoped if another group had taken a deer it meant that a herd was moving down the mountain, that maybe there were more and they were coming my way.
I kept moving left and forward, walking over downed limbs and rotten wood. The sunrise had brought smell back to the forest as the air warmed, and everything was rich and deep like broken dirt. Ahead of me I could see a flash of orange between the thick trees, and then I saw more orange and I kept moving forward until the orange took shape and I could see two vests, one up and one down. I started walking faster and thought that maybe Uncle Nick had finally taken his deer and I almost yelled out but then I thought maybe I was coming up on other hunters that I didn’t know and yelling might startle them and get me shot or scare something important or just make me look like an idiot.
I pushed through another tangle of brush and saw that Shirley was standing on the edge of a gully—the ground dropped off in front of her and didn’t reappear again until it was a good eight feet away—and Uncle Nick was on the other side but half out of view because only the top of him was out of the gully.
Shirley heard me coming and turned to me and her face was white. I had heard about faces going white—white as a sheet, white as a ghost, but I had never truly seen it happen. One time my friend Eddie drank half a bottle of Strawberry Hill and turned waxy yellow, but this color wasn’t the same. Shirley was white, and I stopped where I was as if her face had froze me.
“It’s bad,” she said and she turned back toward the gully and I waited for Uncle Nick to gain the high ground on the other side, but he wasn’t moving. His arms were above him and his rifle was over the edge of the gully, out of reach. He looked like he had stretched out and gone to sleep in the sun.
Shirley slid down our side of the gully and I realized that it wasn’t that deep, maybe three or four feet, and then she was crouched next to Uncle Nick, touching him, rocking him from side to side. I stepped all the way out from the trees and went to the edge of the gully, dipped to the bottom, came up the embankment on the other side and looked down at Uncle Nick. His right cheek was pressed to the ground but his left eye was open and looking at me and around me, but he did not blink. “He’s dead,” Shirley said, and she started rocking him again, pushing his arm with the palm of her hand so that he tipped up a little on his side and came down flat again.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He’s dead. That’s it. I don’t mean anything else.”
She wasn’t crying and I’m not sure what I expected, but I watched a lot of TV and I knew that sudden death was tragic and full of hysteria and women had a tendency to scream, oftentimes in some sort of disbelief, and there was crying and a lot of shouting of the dead person’s name and a demand that he wake up. Wake up right now.
But Shirley just rocked him with her hand, and then I knew what she was doing and I didn’t want her to do it, but she was faster than me and just as I reached down to make her stop, she put her weight into the rocking and got enough leverage to roll him over and then he was staring straight up at the sky and there was still only one eye that was trying for focus. The right side of his face was no longer a face, and I needed only a quick glance down to know that he had been shot and it had taken the right side of his face and the back of his skull and he was like a monster in a B horror movie, divided down the center of his head, left side normal, right side bad—corn syrup and food coloring everywhere.
“What happened?” I don’t know why I asked it. There was only one answer with no mystery behind it.
“He got shot,” Shirley said. We both stood there trying to find someplace else to look. Shirley was staring back over her shoulder at the bank behind us, and I was looking out at the forest, at the trees and the grass and the rocks.
“Did you shoot him?” I asked.
Shirley didn’t say anything for a minute, but she did not turn to look at me. “He shot himself,” she said.
A squirrel came out of the underbrush up ahead, and then another one followed it and they both scrambled up a tree in chase. Uncle Nick’s friend Bob hadn’t been a bad hunter’s safety teacher. He was funny and told us jokes about Helen Keller that made me ashamed for laughing, and he was patient mostly, able to go over the same material again and again until there were no more questions and he was satisfied that we understood it, would remember it, could maybe even recall it later when the time came that we needed it—The Ten Commandments of Firearms Safety, number seven: Never climb a fence or tree or jump a ditch with a loaded gun. All of us repeating it in unison and then Bob pausing for a minute and already smiling before he could finish: So, why did Helen Keller’s dog try to kill itself?
There was blood. The dirt was dark and the blood didn’t stand out in contrast to the ground, but there was a thickness under him, under his head, and when I could look closer I saw that there were pine needles stuck to the side of his face, or what wasn’t his face anymore, and the blood held them like glue. Nothing moved around us; the squirrels were gone and there were no birds. There was real silence now and nothing broke it.
I stood on the edge of the gully and watched a small breeze shift the tops of the trees. My legs were tired and my feet felt like blocks in my boots. I was suddenly aware of my rifle and I didn’t want to hold it anymore. I bent over and set it on the dirt beside me.
“You should unload it,” Shirley said without looking at me. I ignored her.
Despite the circumstances my stomach started growling and I wondered what time it was. Uncle Nick had a watch but I didn’t want to know the time that badly.
“Well,” Shirley said, “this isn’t good.”
I almost wanted to laugh. We were in a forest on a mountain, miles from the truck and even more miles from a town, and it didn’t much matter the distance because I had no idea of the direction. But laughing would’ve been a bad thing and I didn’t want her to think that I didn’t care, because I did.
“We’re gonna have to pack him out,” I said.
Now Shirley did laugh and I was startled enough to jump and loosen the dirt under my boots and send a tiny avalanche toward Uncle Nick’s left hand. “You want to try lifting him?” she said. “Because you weigh what, one sixty? One seventy?”
“One sixty-six,” I said.
“Okay, one sixty-six. Me, I’m pretty much pegged at one ten—I used to be closer to one twenty before the cancer, but Nick,” she looked down at him and her voice softened a little. “At Nick’s last doctor’s appointment he came in at two eighty. Now that was about a month ago and if anything he’s gone up because the doctor said he shouldn’t, so he’s pretty much me and you added together, plus change. You want to try to lift him?”
“You could take his legs and I could take him under the arms,” I said. “We could take a lot of breaks.”
“Robbie, we couldn’t get him to the other side of this ditch even if we took a week of breaks. You ever heard of the term ‘dead weight’?” She was still staring off into the distance, at the gaps in the trees, at everything that was nothing. I shook my head but she didn’t see me. “It means that when a person dies they really weigh more—maybe not on the scale, but in the fact that when the life goes out of them, everything settles. What you could’ve maybe lifted before becomes impossible after.”
“So one of us goes for help. One of us stays with him and one of us goes back.”
“Do you have the map?” she asked.
“Map?” I hadn’t seen so much as a state park brochure since we left the house.
“The map in Nick’s head.”
I started cracking my knuckles. It was a bad habit, and I had been told to stop a hundred times but I could not quit.
“You see, it’s kind of funny,” she said. “Directions were Nick’s thing. I was in charge of food.”
I finished up with my left hand and started on my right, folding each finger over and pushing the joint with my thumb. “We came from that way,” I said. I jerked my head toward the trees.
“I came from the right, followed the gunshot to my left. So if I go to the left I should find my way down.”
“To where exactly?”
“I guess to where we split up.”
“And then which way do you go from there? We spent over an hour in the dark, following Nick and a goddamn Coleman light.”
I was quiet for a minute. “Maybe things would look familiar.”
“Maybe,” she said.
There was dirt in Uncle Nick’s hair and on his scalp. “How were we going to get a deer back then, if we couldn’t carry one?”
Shirley finally turned and looked at me and I realized that she had an age and it was older than I had figured, and there were lines in her face that I had never seen before. I knew that under her vest she was wearing a pullover sweatshirt, and under that was probably a T-shirt, and under that was a long-john shirt, and under that was where cancer had left its mark, and I wondered what her chest looked like, if she was scarred badly.
“We field dress a deer,” she said. “Cuts its weight down and two of us could trade off packing it.”
I didn’t want to think what I thought, but I did and I couldn’t help it, and I hated it when my mind made me see things that were not right to see—Shirley’s cancer chest, my mother and Tyler doing it in the back bedroom, Uncle Nick gutted and hog-tied to a pine pole so me and Shirley could hike him out.
Shirley bent down and unzipped the pack around Uncle Nick’s waist. Inside were a coiled and knotted piece of clothesline, a Hefty bag, a Ziploc freezer bag, a bundle of twine, and a blue rag. She pulled the things out one by one and set them on the dirt beside him. When she was finished she unsnapped the sheath on his belt and laid the knife with everything else.
“There’s what we have,” she said.
We both looked down at the collection of things we couldn’t use.
“And a flashlight,” I said. “And three guns.”
Shirley turned and sat down on the embankment, drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped them with her arms. “I went to nursing school,” she said.
I hadn’t given much thought to what Shirley did or had done before. All I knew was that she was home a lot and kept a strict watch for fingerprints on glass, shoe scuffs on coffee tables, dishes in the sink. She had followed me around for days, correcting where I put things, which towels I used. Most days I tried to pick a place and sit still.
“I dropped out,” she said.
“Was it the blood?” I asked. “Looking at things cut open?”
Shirley smoothed her hair back from her headband and looked up at the sky. While we had been standing and sitting and waiting for an idea, the sun had been moving and it was on the west side now, and weaker than before.
“I never minded the blood, and looking at the insides of people never bothered me. I quit because I didn’t see the point. Why do we go to so much effort to save people from dying? My mother died of cancer when I was seventeen and there wasn’t a team of doctors or nurses that could do a thing for her even though they tried for weeks, pumped her full of drugs so that by the end she kept calling me Julie, and that was her sister’s name. People die. It’s the wrong kind of thinking to believe that we’ve gotta pay somebody to hold a bandage and stop the blood if the bleeding is going to happen anyway.”
My mother had been dead before the ambulance came and they did not do CPR, or use a stethoscope, or hook up oxygen, or let the sirens loose, or roll back her eyelids and call her by name. She was dead and now Uncle Nick was dead and it was me who had touched both of them.
Shirley picked up some loose dirt and let it fall through her fingers. “There is no plan for us and no God and no matter what drug they invent there ain’t nobody who is gonna live forever. We’re just these things that work without most of us knowing how and we’re just thin skin and blood and everything has to work at the same time without us thinking about it. It’s amazing that we live at all. So I quit because things happen and I didn’t want to be somebody who tried to make somebody else believe that what I did for them was gonna keep them alive.”
She had never said that many words to me before.
The wind came up as the sun began its descent and we ate the sandwiches in silence and took small sips from the canteens. “There are other hunters up here,” she reminded me. “Somebody else is bound to come through.”
It was too late in the year for mosquitoes or flies, but bugs found Uncle Nick anyway, and there wasn’t much we could do to shake their attention. It got colder but I tried not to notice, and I ignored the fact that October nights could slip to twenty-five degrees up here and Uncle Nick had been the one to tell me that fact as we built the campfire the night before.
“I think I could make it back to the truck,” I said. There was cold creeping down the back of my neck and I was tired of sitting and waiting and brushing back bugs and biting small corners off my sandwich and hoping for somebody to find us. I had a strong feeling that we were the ones who were going to have to find somebody else, and we weren’t doing that by sitting beside the ditch.
“You know this is black bear country?” Shirley said. “Mountain lions. Bobcats.”
“I’ll take a gun,” I said.
“And you’ll what, leave me alone? Let me sit here in the dark with the smell of blood coming off Nick?”
I tried to imagine Shirley sitting scared with the rifle raised, trying to sight in a bobcat that just kept circling and circling like a shark in the water.
“Then maybe you should go,” I said.
“Right. Be a moving target? Fall off a cliff? Trip and break my ankle and lie someplace else dying so that by the time the forest service comes to rescue us there’s two dead bodies and you?”
“I just think we’re not doing anything good by not doing anything at all.”
Shirley picked up her rifle, pulled back the bolt, shot into the air, spit the shell out to the ground, pulled back and did it again and then again. The shots came so fast that I screamed a little and put my hands to my ears.
“That was something,” she said. She opened the flaps on her vest and dug through her pockets. “Well, now I’m out of shells.”
The sun had finally crossed over the tops of trees and slid past the edge of the horizon and I knew that there would be seven minutes of light left because it took seven minutes for the sun’s light to reach the earth in the morning and seven minutes before it slipped back at night. I was cold. To the west there were clouds banking together, joining up, and they were dark despite the light.
“It’s getting cold,” Shirley said. She blew into her hands and went back to hugging her knees to her chest. “You know, Nick got shot in the head. There’s nothing wrong with his clothes.”
As the evening had settled in it got easier to look at him and I started measuring up what Shirley had said.
“This is wilderness survival. You have to do what you got to do,” she said.
I knew she was right in a way, but I didn’t know just how far she would take it and I prepared myself for what might come—Uncle Nick stripped down to jockey shorts and tied up to a pole and hanging like a spitted pig.
“I don’t know if I can,” I said.
“You’d be surprised,” she said.
I didn’t want to help her but she made me, and while she unbuttoned and unzipped, I rolled him up and to his side as need dictated so Shirley could remove his layers. She set the vest aside and divided up the rest. I got his long-john shirt, his socks, and his jeans. Shirley took his long underwear and his denim work shirt. She wrapped his undershirt around his face and I think it made us both feel a little better.
“All the clothes are cold,” she said, and I was glad that she stopped there and did not remind me that it wasn’t just the clothes that were cold.
Darkness brought things to the bushes and we took turns swinging the flashlight at noise. There were a few times when the light reflected back the flat glow of an animal’s eyes, and then we’d yell and shout get out of here and sometimes the eyes would turn and fade back to the bushes, and sometimes they wouldn’t. The one who didn’t hold the flashlight was the one who held a rifle and when it was my turn my nerves hummed like telephone wires. I was afraid I’d shoot Shirley, shoot myself, or, worse yet, shoot Uncle Nick again and have to know that I shot a man who was dead.
The rain came late but with as little force as spit from the sky, and although we both wanted to slide down to the bottom of the gully and out of the wind, we were afraid that animals would sense our retreat and we wouldn’t be able to see them coming. Shirley took Uncle Nick’s vest and wrapped it around our shoulders, and even though it didn’t cover us well it made me feel warmer.
“Tell me about your mother,” Shirley said. We had been sitting in quiet, breathing steadily, and I thought she was asleep sitting up because I almost was and when she spoke I jerked the rifle forward and shoved a wad of dirt up the barrel.
My eyes were heavy and there were no memories stuck in my head, which was wispy as cotton candy, nothing more than spun sugar for thoughts and nothing of substance I could hold on to.
“Do you miss her?” she asked.
Sometimes at night my mother would stretch out on the couch in front of the television, and during the times when Tyler had a job and worked nights, she would hold out her arm and tell me to come here and I would stretch out next to her so that she was behind me, holding me on to the couch, keeping me from falling, and we would watch television together and if I was quiet, I would feel us breathe together, both of us keeping the same pace, and I wouldn’t pay attention to the television because I’d be too busy trying to match the rise and fall of her chest.
“Sometimes,” I said.
“Missing is like a toothache,” she said.
At some point in the night, maybe after the last of the rain had dried up, or maybe just before when the ground turned damp around us, I let my eyes close all the way and did not try to catch myself when I slid toward sleep. I let myself fall down the chute. I don’t think it was a deep sleep because I thought I could remember surfacing a couple of times, once to realize that I had pulled myself into the fetal position and the dirt was warm underneath me, and once to notice that Shirley had given in too, and she was next to me, asleep, and Uncle Nick’s vest was over the top of us and she was close, both of us facing the same direction, and I knew the cold would force her against me, so she could share more of my heat, hold me to her so that my back was her front. But when I woke up just before sunrise, when there was mist and very little light near the ground, I saw that she had turned away in the night, was far away from me, had taken the vest for herself.
I was starving. My neck hurt, my sides ached. I couldn’t tell if my clothes were wet or just cold but either way they were no longer holding in warmth. Shirley sat up and started rubbing at her left shoulder, which had been pressed against the ground, and neither of us said anything. Uncle Nick was blue white and his veins looked close to the surface and covered him in thin lines. Birds started checking in with each other and the sun broke through the fog around us.
Shirley stood up, stretched, handed me a granola bar. “We made it,” she said.
In the early light of a new day I felt like I could find the truck. I looked out toward the stand of trees that we had come through and tried to see past them to the broken grass I had trampled trying to move quietly in one direction. And then it came to me that we had been thinking too small, trying to hit a small target with a rock—get back to the truck—when actually we could hike toward the roads. There were highways that cut through the mountains and forest service roads were bound to come out somewhere. If we came down from where we were, we might be able to hear big rigs on the steep grades and we could walk toward the sound.
“We could find a road,” I said. I was excited suddenly. “If we went down and that way”—I pointed to my left—“I think we could get back to a highway.” I was chewing my granola bar fast, as if there was another one after this, and I had to remind myself that there wasn’t.
Shirley looked off toward the direction I had pointed. She raised her hand and shielded her eyes as if she was cutting out the glare, but the sun was still weak and there wasn’t much light bouncing back.
“I think you should go,” she said.
I hadn’t really thought of just myself going. I had thought of the plan as we and I had pictured both of us walking, both of us sharing the relief of finding a road.
“What about you?” I wadded the empty granola bar wrapper into a ball and set it on the ground, then thought better of it and put it in the pocket of my jeans. Even though I had Uncle Nick’s pair over the top of mine there was plenty of gap at the waistband to get at my own.
“I’d like to stay with Nick.”
The trees were full of birds now and I could see a squirrel jumping branch to branch on a short pine. I gave Shirley all the extra clothes, and when I handed her the jeans she reached into the back pocket and took out Uncle Nick’s wallet and opened it. She handed me the money that was inside, forty-two dollars, and apologized that there wasn’t more. Nick didn’t like to carry too much cash, she said.
She gave me the knife but kept the guns and when I was ready she gave me a stiff hug and it was hard to feel her under all her clothes. “Don’t send help, Robbie,” she said.
I stepped back from her. “What are you talking about?”
“You heard what I said last night and I meant it. I know my cancer is back but I didn’t have the heart to tell Nick and I like it up here. Nick’s here. I don’t want to go back and spend six months with people forcing me to live.”
“That’s just crazy talk,” I said. “You’re dehydrated and your blood sugar is probably low. You need to sit here and drink some water and eat your granola bar and wait for help to come.”
“Okay, Robbie,” she said. “You’re probably right.”
When I left the gully and passed back through the trees, she was sitting on the embankment and adjusting her headband. She looked small. Uncle Nick was no longer a person, more like an unearthed rock that was rising out of the ground. It hadn’t rained hard and the grass had not bent with the weight of the water. It didn’t take me long to find the trampled weeds of my trail. I imagined what it would be like to come out on the highway, jump down out of the woods and walk the gravel shoulder with my thumb out. Maybe a trucker would pick me up, and he would ask me where to and I would tell him Los Angeles and he would say he wasn’t going that far, but he could drop me at the next city where the interstate connected. And maybe he would be playing old country music like my mom used to listen to—Conway Twitty or Dolly Parton—and he’d have a thermos of coffee and offer me a cup from the lid. I knew that sound had a strange way of traveling in the forest, and the shot could’ve come from anywhere—there were 413 other hunters taking down deer this week. There was the pop and the hush, but I did not flinch like I had before.
Jodi Angel’s first collection of short stories, The History of Vegas, was published in 2005 and was named as a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2005 as well as an LA Times Book Review Discovery. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Zoetrope: All-Story, One Story, Byliner and the Sycamore Review, among other publications and anthologies. Her stories have received several Pushcart Prize nominations and she was selected for Special Mention in 2007. Most recently her story “A Good Deuce” was noted as a Distinguished Story in The Best American Stories 2012. She grew up in a small town in Northern California—in a family of girls.
Tin House published You Only Get Letters from Jail in July, 2013.