[ a s h o r t s t o r y ]
The snow crunched under my boots. It was two days after the accident. The tire tracks disappeared into the distance in front of me; the dirty, hard-packed snow forming two swaying lines. My shoulder brushed the lower branches of a tall fir tree and snow slipped to the ground as I thought of my little brother. All my thoughts were about him lately. An eagle roamed overhead, soaring on the wind currents, and I fought the urge to shoot it down. My finger itched for the trigger. The rifle lay against my side.
~ ~ ~
I remembered the night that my brother died. I knelt beside him and tried to scream, but the cold air took my breath away. There was no blood. Just a slightly still-warm body rapidly turning to stiff ice beneath my hands. I couldn’t bring the warmth back, and the snow had continued to fall on my face, my eyelashes, while the party continued inside.
They had probably all been drinking. You know how kids are. The car sped off and I wondered if I would ever see the driver again. Heaven knows how badly I wanted to.
~ ~ ~
My dad approached the house from the opposite direction. The pain was all over him like a heavy blanket resting on his shoulders. His face had aged ten years in a couple of days. My dad is a little man. I’m not sure he can stand up properly underneath the blanket. And I worry. Like I have many times since it happened. No matter what anybody says, my dad’s a good man. He’d never say he liked my brother better. That he’d prefer if it had been me in the accident.
“You’re my real son in all the ways that count,” he would always say to me. He always treated Hunter and I the same. Fair’s fair; that’s what I like about my dad. He’s a good man, my dad.
My dad looked up, and stared straight through me. “Boy,” he said. He usually called me son. He flipped the shovel off his shoulder and laid it against the house.
Once inside the house, my mom chided me. “Baby, get those things off. You’re putting snow all over my carpet.”
“Okay, Mama.” I hung up my coat and snow hat by the door, gently sliding my finger along the coat next to mine. In so many ways, practically speaking, it was like he had never left.
I leaned down and wrapped an arm around my mom’s thin shoulders, worn down to the bone, as she stirred the venison stew. “Hey, Mama. You like that deer I got you?” Mama smelled like a combination of all the foods she had cooked for a myriad of strangers in the last eighteen hours. She still had her frilly work apron on. I wondered if she had to go back to work tonight, or had just been too tired when she’d come home to take the apron off.
I sat on the couch, waiting for dinner to be ready, but then glanced over to see my mom yawn while she stood over the pot. I got up to set the table for her. It’s funny the things you try to remember, and the unimportant details that just stick in your brain like someone’s crazy glued them there. While I struggled to remember which order Mama liked the cutlery in, my mind jumped back to one day at school right before winter break when my brother and I were being hassled. Chase McKindreck, a guy who made my skin crawl with hatred every time I saw him, was off on one of his beat downs. He always picked on me—because of my size, because of my race, because he could. It’s not that I was a small kid—on the contrary—but with my height came a certain chubbiness that my mom liked to call . . . solidness. Chase liked to call it straight up fat. He liked to call me elephant man. He liked to call me black panther, like panther alone wasn’t explanation enough. He liked to call me bulldozer. He asked me if I could see all the way down to Texas from up there. Mama used to say that he was just jealous of me and my height. And being on the same football team didn’t change things one bit. In my mind, I liked to call him straight up racist. Somehow, even though I was about a good three inches taller than him, he still managed to always make me feel all tongue tied. My coach always said I was a heavy duty piece of machinery with not much of an engine. Whatever that meant.
This particular day, Chase stopped mid-rant for a second, then looked back at me and Hunter and said, as if seeing us for the first time, “Why’s he white and you’re black, anyway? I thought you were brothers.”
Little, blonde Hunter, who had known Chase for less than an hour, was still able to come up with a response before I could. “He is my brother, he is my brother,” Hunter repeated, in a sing-song voice. He paused for a moment, as if thinking of another argument. “He’s just my brother.” He tugged on my hand, telling me that he was anxious to get to class. To him there was no distinction between us—biological or adopted. “Lucas, let’s go.” He looked off in another direction, already bored. To him, the issue had been settled. “First graders go this way,” he informed me, ignoring Chase completely now. “I don’t wanna be late on my first day of school.” I let him drag me away, smug at the thought of Chase being shut down by a first grader.
At the dinner table, the three remaining members of our family sat side by side, but we were so emotionally distant from each other that we might as well have been on different continents. We were all thinking about the same thing—or the same person. I was thinking about the time when my dad had taken Hunter and me to the driving range at the golf course two towns away. Hunter had actually been better than I was and both of them had laughed at me as I missed ball after ball, swinging like a mad man. We’d had lunch at the club afterward and Hunter had spilled orange juice all over his new beige pants.
I was also thinking about the driver of that car, and imagining ways to kill him. I pulled myself up when the plans in my head started to become too detailed. I’d had my anger issues in the past, like everyone has, but I’d never really had to go after anyone before because, at five years old, my brother hadn’t really made many enemies. My father, on the other hand, well . . . he was a good man. He was looking away, staring at nothing, as my mom tried yet again to draw him into conversation. I attempted to concentrate for her sake, but my thoughts kept wandering down a track that I couldn’t see the end of. What I’ve noticed is that when women feel bad, they can’t eat. But my father and I were feeling just as bad, and we had three helpings of stew each.
The next two days passed slowly. Each day at school I kept my ears open and asked around for information. A name, an address, a licence plate—anything. The weird thing is that even though I go to a big school—huge because it’s first graders right through to seniors for all the surrounding towns—I still wasn’t finding anything. People were acting really nonchalant around me, and I got the feeling they were trying to hide something from me. Well, if they weren’t telling me, the cops certainly didn’t know yet. I was keeping an eye on the news too. But I felt pretty confident that I’d get wind of it before they did. When I came home from school both nights, I was raking through Facebook with a fine toothcomb, but everything was strangely quiet on the social media front. I didn’t have a Twitter. My mind was consumed by him.
One night, after hours of staring at the only computer screen in the house, clicking away and stalking my hardest, I pushed back in the old, three-legged office chair and bumped into my bed. I let out a big, frustrated sigh. According to the crappy computer’s tool bar it was already 2:36 A.M. Still nothing. I cracked my knuckles, agitated, and pounded my pillow with my fist. Wandering out to the kitchen in my socks, I got a glass and filled it slowly, trying not to wake the house. I stood there sipping the water and looking out the window above the sink at the snow falling. Did it ever stop in Montana? The fire was dying. One day I would go somewhere warm, out of this Godforsaken, podunk little town. Unexpectedly, I heard noises coming from my parents’ bedroom. I hadn’t intended to eavesdrop, exactly, but our walls were thin and I didn’t exactly move away as I heard their voices rise.
“Alex, talk to your son. You can’t avoid him forever. I think you both need this.”
“I ain’t got nothing to say to him,” I heard my dad’s deeper voice reply. “He should’ve been watching the house. He should’ve been watching my son.”
My son. Like he’d only ever had one son. What was I—just a glorified babysitter? Come to think of it, I wasn’t even supposed to be babysitting that night. It was a big party. How was I to know? We heard the scream before anyone had even realised he was gone.
The next night, Mama asked us if we could go hunting again. “Baby, I’m clear out,” she said to me with a straight face. “The stuff you bring home tastes so good, and you know how hard up we are right now. It’s just a rough patch. Won’t be long ‘til we can buy all our meat again.”
On the way out of the house, I checked our industrial freezer that sat against the back wall of our double garage. To my surprise, it was almost full. Okay, so Mama was trying to get us to bond again, to ‘reconnect emotionally.’ Father-son quality time together. You know, all that stuff that moms like to talk about. We’ll see how that goes seeing as apparently the only son he had already got hit by a drunk driver. Was all that stuff he said to me growing up really just a big bunch of lies? I couldn’t believe it yet.
We drove to our favourite spot and headed out into the trees. We usually laughed and joked while we were hunting, but tonight I couldn’t think of a thing to say. He only said things like, “To your left there, a little deeper in the woods,” or “Good shot.” Never once did he call me son. Before the accident, I couldn’t remember the last time he’d called me Lucas.
After about an hour and a half, when we would usually only be half way through, he turned to me and looked past my shoulder, saying, “I’m about done for the night. You wanna call it quits or keeping on lookin’?”
“I don’t care, Alex,” I said.
“Now wait just a minute,” my dad began in a disgruntled voice, coming around to stand in front of me. I glanced up to see his knees as I knelt tying the feet of a young deer carcass together. “No matter how bad things might be right now, I’m still your father.” So he was trying to pull rank. Playing the dad card.
Well, hell. Two could play at that game.
“Still my father?” I snarled. “Is that why you haven’t looked at me all week? Ever since—” I swallowed hard, biting back a mix of vomit and saliva. “Ever since then, you’ve totally ignored me. It’s like I’m dead to you or something!”
“Lucas, it’s not like that.” My dad’s voice rose. “This is a hard time for everyone . . .”
“I heard you. I heard you last night,” I spat. “I should’ve been taking care of your son.”
“Don’t even call me that.” I cut him off. “I know what that really means. It’s code for substitute.”
“No, son,” he pushed the words out like there was a pocket knife lodged in his throat. “I don’t know what I’m saying right now. I can barely even function. I wish I hadn’t said that.”
“You mean you wish I hadn’t heard it. Just say it now. I know you’re thinking it. You wish it had been me.”
I know I was pushing him right now, hard. I was feeling kind of crazy myself, and I knew what it felt like to live without Hunter, but something in me just wanted to make my dad crack.
“No, no . . .” he mumbled, looking at the ground, his face bereft. It was like his mind was already somewhere else. He looked . . . vulnerable.
I hefted the baby deer up and over my shoulder with a grunt. He was still mumbling “No, no” when I started trekking back to the truck. Sitting in the cab, I imagined myself driving off and leaving him to walk home. But I waited in the driver’s seat for him to get his seatbelt on, like a good son. The drive back home was quiet.
The next night after dinner I was sitting at my computer again, Facebook open on three tabs. The door opened without warning and my mom strode in wearing her frilly apron.
“Lucas, I’ve got to go back to work, so the left overs are in the fridge if you or your dad get hungry again,” she said, and came to kiss the top of my head. She barely even had to lean down an inch or two, but as she did, her eyes lit on the computer screen before I could minimise it. “Honey,” she warned in her usually high-pitched voice, “think about what you’re doing. That’s a bad cycle you’ll get yourself into. It’ll ruin you more than anyone else. Leave it to the Lord, baby. He knows best. Maybe that boy’s feeling just as guilty as you are angry.” Whatever, Mom. But what else was she supposed to say?
I didn’t say anything, but clicked the red cross at the corner of the screen, trying to make her believe that I was taking her words to heart. “I love you, Mama,” I said, trying to avoid making any promise in regards to getting even. I probably wasn’t going to do it, but if I did, I didn’t want a broken promise also on my list. “Now you better get along now.” I repeated her own words to me on many occasions in a joking tone. “You don’t wanna be late.”
The next day I was walking to my biology lab after lunch when I saw a group of people talking quietly, their heads bent toward each other. Something about it sent off an alarm bell. A few of them glanced over their shoulders as one of the guys pointed at me. I realised the guy pointing was Angelo, and he was frowning. I changed course and walked over to them, trying not to make it look like I was marching. Despite my best efforts to not look aggressive, most of the group scattered as soon as they saw me approaching. Angelo was left talking to one guy, whose eyes widened as he stole another glance at me. Oops. I guess I forgot to my make my face non-aggressive. He scampered away before I got within fifteen feet of him.
“Hey, Lucas.” Angelo put on a small smile, polite enough to stay and talk to me even though I could tell he wanted to run away too.
“Hey, what were you guys talking about?” When Angelo hesitated, I said, “Because I got the feeling it was about me.” Non-aggressive. Non-aggressive. I tried to smile but had a feeling it came out wrong. Angelo cringed at how obvious he had been with the pointing.
“I’m sorry, man.” His black eyebrows drew together. “About your brother.” I remembered with regret how close we used to be. “It was a terrible accident.”
“Accident? You know something?” He stayed quiet. “Angelo, I know you do. Everybody knows. I can feel how they’ve been trying to keep it from me. I ain’t stupid, you know.”
“I know,” he rushed to say in a sincere voice. I tried hard to remember why we weren’t still good friends.
“Then give it up. Don’t I deserve to know my own business?”
“Fine.” He sighed. “They told me not to tell you but man, I’m with you—I get it. This whole thing’s pretty rough. And I agree you have a right to know, especially seeing as everybody else does.” He exhaled slowly, at the same time I did, and then spit it out. “His name’s Tyler Elliot.”
“Junior?” I interjected.
“Yeah, a junior.” The name sounded familiar. “He was out drinking.”
“With Chase and those guys?”
“Yeah.” A face was starting to form in my head. Tyler Elliot. I’d seen him around a few times. He was a little guy, I think. With a mop of brown hair. Or was it dark blonde? Angelo continued. “It wasn’t s’posed to happen. He panicked and then took off. They’re telling the cops tomorrow.”
“Where’s he live?” I asked, and tried to make my face less intense than I knew it was right now.
“Lucas . . .” Angelo said in a worried tone, and I remembered my mom.
“It’s not like that,” I said in a defensive voice, even though it was. “I just wanna talk to him.” Angelo looked doubtful. “No, really,” I said in a serious tone. “I just need some closure, you know. I can’t stop thinking about Hunter . . .” I trailed off, knowing this would crack him.
Angelo leaned in with a reluctant, pained face and spoke his address quietly to my shoulder. Returning to his normal volume, he said in explanation. “He lives over in my town. I’ve seen him get off the bus before. He’s not in the main house though. He lives in a bungalow in the backyard.” He studied me. “But maybe on second thoughts you should wait to go see him until they take him into custody. To be honest, you look a little . . . crazy.”
I didn’t feel offended. Partly because I knew Angelo had no bad intentions and partly because I knew it was true. “Nah, man. I’m fine. I promise. I ain’t gonna hurt him.”
“Okay . . .” Angelo said doubtfully, giving my shoulder a kind squeeze. “Stay safe, man. Make good choices.” I’d heard him say that before, but this time I knew he wasn’t just saying it for the sake of it.
I felt bad manipulating—and lying to—Angelo, because he really was a good guy, but I just couldn’t satisfy that beast inside of me, and no matter how much anyone, including a part of myself, warned me against it, this was what I had to do. And tonight. After all, they were going to the cops tomorrow. Did Angelo mean that Tyler was going himself? Or that other people were? Oh, well. That part at least wasn’t my concern.
After school, I sat in my truck until the parking lot emptied, wrestling with myself. The days are short in winter, and I watched the cold air drain the light out of the sky. When almost all of it had disappeared, I turned my key in the ignition. I had made my decision.
The air felt lighter and heavier at the same time. Tyler Elliot, hold on a bit longer. I’m coming for you. After making a quick stop in my garage, I was back in the truck. It was strange how now that I’d found out, the ache had been replaced with a numbness. I flexed my cold fingers at the wheel and closed the truck door, ready to leave my house again. I flicked on my headlights. My stomach felt like it had a little motor in it, whirring away, stirring up the butterflies, but leaving my emotions intact. It was like my brain and my body were disconnected. I forced myself to barely consider what I was doing as I took a turn out of my driveway onto the long road that led to Tyler Elliot’s house. The gun sat across my lap.
After driving through his neighbourhood for a few minutes, I pulled up a couple of houses away from number nine, on the other side of the Canter Road, and decided just to wait. Whether it was doubt or smarts, I couldn’t tell you. Just that rushing on in didn’t seem like a really bright idea. After cutting the engine, I turned the interior lights off too. I shuffled down in my seat and squinted at the street lamps, wishing that the windows of my old truck were more heavily tinted. I considered going back home.
The most important thing here was discretion. To get in and out without anyone seeing me. I frowned, thinking how hard it would be to look nonchalant with a rifle by my side. Then again, there was no one on the street. Once the gunshot sounded, I would have to book it out of there and drive as far as I could. Maybe I’d go south. Somewhere down to the likes of Arizona. Maybe Pheonix. A big city where it was easy to hide. Some warmer weather sure wouldn’t do me any harm. The houses around here were pretty small and rundown. I guess this was a poor area. Did Tyler’s mom have to work double shifts as a waitress too? They couldn’t be all that poor though, if Tyler got to live in a bungalow out back. At least he didn’t have to share a four room cabin. At least he could get a bit of space. This certainly suited my purposes.
The anger that flooded me every time I thought of Hunter—blonde, blue-eyed, smiling, cold, stiff, unmoving—grew as I sat there in the car and let it fester.
Thou shalt not kill. I’d heard it before many times. But he did, so I would. Mama didn’t understand. It was a man’s job to protect the house. It was my job to protect my little brother. Even if that meant avenging him. I know how dramatic that sounds. And I could hear all the voices of disapproval in my head, but I pushed them aside and let my emotions consume me.
The rage tore at my heart and I imagined myself doing all kinds of terrible things. Still balancing the gun carefully across my knees, I slowly cracked my knuckles one by one. It was now or never.
I stepped out of the cab and into a small drift of snow at the edge of the sidewalk. Shaking my boots, I hoped that Mama had put on a warm jacket as she was leaving for work tonight. Hunter hadn’t that night when he ran out of the house. I don’t even know what he was planning on doing. What had made him run across the road so suddenly? I only remember hearing the scream. Was Mama wondering where I was right now? I immediately felt guilty for making her anxious. Was my dad wondering?
Shaking these thoughts, I crossed the road. I slinked along the fence line toward number nine, holding the gun tight to my body. This was what I had been waiting for. The moment that all this anger and searching and festering had been leading up to. The chance to prove myself. The chance to make things right.
Thanks to trusting, too-kind Angelo, Tyler was finally getting what he deserved. What kind of sick person does a hit and run on a kid? Accident or no, how in the hell can you not feel guilty about something like that? Straight up murder, that’s what it was.
Number nine had no fence, so I stole around the side of the house and immediately spotted the bungalow.
A sensor light came on above my head. I froze, trying to make myself melt into the fence.
I waited twenty more seconds and the light flicked off. I still couldn’t hear any sounds from the rest of the family, so I starting walking louder. Let him hear that I was coming. Let him have time to get scared. Let him imagine how I was going to do it. Let him walk out the door to meet me.
I saw the lights on in the bungalow, even though the drapes were closed. I marched right up to the door and for some reason I knocked. I don’t know why, but my polite upbringing still somehow stopped me from just walking straight in—at first. He didn’t come to the door but I knew he was inside because I could hear muffled movement. I stood still and listened, and for a minute everything was silent. I don’t know what I was waiting for. Was he deaf, or what? I knocked again and still no answer. I could smell smoke from a wood fire and a pine scent from the trees behind the bungalow. I stood there shaking and then I heard a noise. It was the scraping of a chair or a stool across a wooden floor. I waited for a little longer, my chest in serious pain by now, and heard a grunt and a gurgle.
I pushed open the door and stepped inside all in one large movement, bringing the rifle to my shoulder. Before my eyes even registered what was happening, I was face to face with Tyler Elliot. Through the crosshairs of the gun I saw him, the rope around his neck. His body still swinging slightly.
My throat released a guttural sound like some kind of animal and the gun clattered to the floor. My ears were pulsing with blood. I imagined I could already smell him. A piece of paper lay on the bed next to a photo.
Tell them I’m sorry.
I stared at a picture of my family that I’d posted on my Facebook page a year ago.
A car pulled up in front of the house, its headlights racing down the side fence line, sweeping one corner of the backyard as it turned to park. One door opened and then closed with considerable force. Boots slapped the concrete driveway then crunched on the gravel leading to the back of the house. A sensor light turned on, illuminating the shadow of a very big man approaching, his shape moving along the fence.
My stomach felt like all those butterflies had turned into giant moths, and were throwing themselves up against the walls. I stood illuminated in the doorway of the bungalow. The light was on. The door was open. He would know. He would know what I came to do. What was I thinking? Killing someone because I hated them for killing my brother? How was that logical? How was it justice? I felt just as guilty as if I had done it. I wondered if he knew that his son was the one to kill my brother. Were they close? Maybe his dad took him out hunting too, while his mom was working double shifts. Maybe we weren’t that different. The footsteps got closer. Maybe I was worse. The idea of my own cold-bloodedness sent a chill through me, each footstep feeling like a blow to the temple. I thought I’d come here to finish this, but I would never leave here. I would carry Tyler Elliot around with me forever. His dad was seconds away.
I still had the photo in my hand. I couldn’t move. Where would I go anyway? He was too close now.
The big man stepped around the corner, the light from two directions still only showing part of his face. “Son?”
Image: https://www.123rf.com/photo_7109508_ski-and-foot-prints-trought-the-snowy-forest-in-vail-colorado.html, sourced 5 November 2017.