Your father is lying on the couch under a quilt with an Apsáalooke print on it. He tells you, I’m sorry I can’t go, this thing is killing me. And you nod your head that folds your high-necked sweater down because it is old and has been worn and washed time and again. You are hot, standing there in your sweater and your jacket and your bright vest with your wool hat and two layers of pants. He tells you, You’ll be fine but stay off the reservation. He tells you he’s expecting big things from you—that you will feed the family over the winter after today.

Your mother comes in all done up and says, Let him rest now. Your father is very tired. Then she tapes the cuffs of your ankles and your wrists and the top of your high-necked sweater with duct tape that tears loudly and sticks barely at all. She says, I know it’s not pretty, but we don’t need you getting sick too.

Mom, there are no ticks in winter.

Stop it. We don’t need you getting sick.

The heat is high and hurts your eyes but your mother says your father needs it. He is sweating. You look back at him before you take your gun from the umbrella case by the door and slip your feet into your father’s too-big duck boots and open the door and are buffeted by the cold air.

The wind stings your face and you think your mother had good intentions in her telling you to wear the high-necked sweater, but because it is sopping wet with indoor-sweat the outside is even colder.

Your friend cannot come with you because, even though the middle school has been closed for three days for Thanksgiving break and he has phoned to tell you he has Cabin Fever, his mother is afraid he’ll get sick if he goes out.

***

It is not long before you are wondering, Why the hell am I out here, a boy in a man’s boots? You are cold and the skin on your fingers puckers when you pull it away from the metal safety that is frosty and cool and which you are absent-mindedly pushing in and out. Your mother would tell you you’re doing well and your father would tell you to focus, so you check the seams of the half-hearted duct tape—because you do not want to get sick, either—and then you walk deeper into the woods.

You see no animals for a very long time and you worry that your too-big boots are clumsy and loud in the snow. Your father would tell you to focus and your mother would tell him, What do you expect? He is too young to be out there alone.

No, your father says, he is ready.

No he is not, your mother says.

He has to be. This thing is killing me.

I’ll take work at the grocery store—they offer a competitive discount for employees.

He is ready, your father says.

You have been patient and are sitting in between the roots of a tree out of the wind. You think about what will happen if the sun goes down as early as predicted because you do not recognize where you are. And then there is the buck breaking up brush in the distance.

You are slow to your feet and careful to shoulder the stock and place your cheek against the burning-cold metal behind the ironsights. But when you are close enough you are shaking, the sights blur, and, before you know it, the buck is moving away from you.

You lower your gun. It pulls at the skin of your cheek. You follow the buck, slowly and with the tops of your father’s too-big duck boots slapping their rubber against your shins because the duct tape has torn. The tape is hard and brittle standing above the tops of the boots. But the buck is quick and you are slow on approach so as not to startle it.

The reservation property lines have the buck’s prints on them. The snow is deeper there and as your feet cross the line next to the buck’s prints the snow pulls at your father’s too-big duck boots and it tries to take them from you.

You raise your gun, cheek to metal, target blurred through the ironsights, and you stand and you stare. You think, Please, just do it, but it is face-to-the-ground, seven-point antlers pointed toward you, and you cannot fire the gun.

He is ready, your father says.

No he is not, your mother says.

He has to be. This thing is killing me.

Again, the buck runs. It runs from the woman who runs from the man. She is on her knees that are bare and underneath the snow. Her palms are pressing into the snow and firming it up at the bottom, but she is trying to move them and move them so as to run.

It is getting darker and the man is on her and she is saying, Please get off, please.

Her face is pushed into the snow and your hands are cold on your gun, your skin sticking to the safety and unsticking as you pull your thumb on and then off, nervous. He has long, dark hair and he is so close to her now that his hair looks like her hair. He is loud but he says nothing. She is yelling.

You shoulder the stock and place your cheek against the burning-cold metal behind the ironsights. He is wearing a high-necked sweater and is covered along his shoulders in a throw with an Apsáalooke print on it. When you are close enough you are shaking, the sights blur, and your finger is stuck to the safety.

 
 

Cole Phillips

COLE PHILLIPS is a writer and English educator from coastal Maine. He is currently an MFA candidate at New England College, where he also teaches writing. He is the fiction editor for The Henniker Review and Malasaña.

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