Fiction selection from the 2010 issue
Diane Les Becquets
“Come on, Rose. I’ll take good care of your son. I promise.”
Corey and I were standing in the kitchen. We’d been stirring to get a night out of town on our own ever since Corey had gotten his driver’s license about a month back. Corey could talk a mole out of a hole. He had a way. I didn’t have to see him to know he was giving Mom that look, the one with the big grin slapped across his face and his sweet eyes blinking real slowly, the kind Mom always went soft on even though she could see right through Corey’s bullshit.
Mom didn’t want me to go. She said there wouldn’t be any way for me to call and check in. She said I wouldn’t be able to get a signal out there. She’d seen the way Corey drove, and she didn’t want me riding around with him at night, not out of town anyways.
“Corey, I already said, ‘no.’”
But I knew Mom was starting to give in. Her voice was losing its edge, and she was beginning to move dishes around. That was a sure sign. She always did that when she was having an indecisive moment. She’d walk into the kitchen and start picking things up and setting them down—a dish in the sink or a plate on the counter. It’s not like she’d wash the dishes or anything. She’d just pick them up and move them somewhere else, and I’d know she was thinking, which meant her mind wasn’t made up.
“Just imagine me and your son up there camping, cooking over a fire instead of hanging out in town getting ourselves into all kinds of trouble.”
“It’s not the camping part I’m worried about. Corey, seriously, have you seen the way you drive?”
“Ah, come on, Rose, I’m not that bad.”
He took a couple of those long strides of his toward my mom, draped his arm over her shoulder, tilted his head against hers.
Mom’s body relaxed. It was working.
“Okay, here’s the deal.” Mom had both hands on a bowl while we waited. She set the bowl in the sink and turned around. “I want you up there before dark. Before dusk.”
“Okay,” Corey said, still smiling.
“And you don’t go anywhere after dark. You stay put. And no firing guns after dark either.”
“No firing guns after dark. Got it,” Corey said.
“You hear me, Joseph.”
So we left that day, me and Corey, headed back up to where Corey had blown the prairie dog in half. We had our camping gear in the back of Corey’s truck. We had the guns up front with us.
“She just loves you, man,” Corey said out of the blue.
“Yeah, I know.”
Corey lapped up love like a working dog laps up water. I’m sure that had something to do with his family. Their love for each other was a hard one. One minute his mom and dad would be yelling and swearing at each other, and the next they’d be going at it in the bedroom in the middle of the afternoon. Corey’s dad had been a corporal in the army and had fought in Kuwait. He loved the U.S., hated Muslims, and believed in God the Father and the Patriot Act. Corey’s brother was fighting in Iraq. Corey said he didn’t care if he finished school or not, because as soon as he turned eighteen he was joining the marines. Love and war seemed to go hand in hand in Corey’s family, and no matter the bravado Corey talked up, I knew when it came to love, doubts ran deep.
My mom felt sorry for Corey. She always felt sorry for people who didn’t have it so good. I used to even think she felt sorry for my dad. Something about how my grandfather treated him. At first I was afraid she’d get remarried just because she felt sorry for some guy. There was this Wade guy she dated for a while. He was always coming around, making himself at home even when Mom wasn’t there, always trying to talk to me like he was my big brother or something. He was way younger than Mom. Hadn’t even had a real job. I think she felt sorry for him and thought she could help him settle down, grow up a little. The whole thing lasted longer than it should have, and Mom seemed sad when it ended.
“You’ll get over him,” I told her.
“Breaking up was my idea, you know.”
“You’ll move on,” I told her.
And she did. Before long, she was off hiking by herself again. Sometimes I think she’s happier that way. A woman out there hiking with her dog, living alone, all freed up inside. Maybe that’s cool.
But sometimes she does some really stupid shit, and I completely don’t get her. Like one night in the fall a couple years back, she took off after work. Said she wanted to get a short hunt in before dark. She said we’d eat something when she got home. I’d just gotten in from an early football practice. She had her bow with her and was dressed up in her camouflage. She was always going off hunting by herself, so I didn’t think anything of it. But by nine o’clock she still wasn’t home, and I started to get worried. I told myself maybe she’d killed something, and that’s what was taking so long. After another hour passed, I got real worried. Though I’d fed Kona a couple of hours before, I couldn’t eat. I thought I should call someone, but she hadn’t even told me where she was going. So I told myself to wait one more hour and then I’d get hold of someone. And then I thought, man, if something happened to her, I couldn’t stand it. I mean, I really couldn’t stand it. And the more I thought that, the worse I felt. I was just sitting in our living room getting all worked up, as if I knew something had happened to her. By ten o’clock she still wasn’t home, so I called my dad, because I didn’t know who else to call. But my voice was shaking real bad. I had just started eighth grade, and I was crying. I played football, and there I was crying.
“Joseph, calm down. Did she say where she was going?”
I told him I couldn’t remember. She hadn’t told me where she was going, but I wasn’t going to go down that road. I wasn’t going to make things worse than they already were. He’d start getting all pissed at her and forget why I’d even called.
“Joseph, try to remember.”
“I can’t remember!” I yelled at him.
Danielle was saying something in the background, calming my dad down. “All right, Joseph. One of us will come over there. We’ll go look for her.”
Danielle came over. She drove me around for a long time. There was no way we were going to find my mom, and I think we both knew that, but at least I was doing something. We followed the river and took off down some of the roads where there might be elk, places not too far from town where Mom might have gone. Then I had Danielle take me up to Yellow Jacket Pass, about a fifteen minute drive north of town, where I knew Mom had gone before on short evening hunts. As we drove around I kept trying my mom’s cell phone. Each time I’d get her voicemail, and I’d leave her a message. Pretty soon I got a recording saying her mailbox was full. When I wasn’t calling her cell phone, I’d call the house to see if she was back yet. Danielle kept trying to calm me down. “I’m sure she’s fine, Joseph.” But I’d say stuff like, “No, you don’t understand. Something’s happened.”
Danielle drove me back to the house. As we turned into the driveway, the headlights shone on Mom standing next to her truck, getting her hunting gear out of the back. Danielle hardly had time to stop her Ford Escape, before I was out of the vehicle. I was about to start yelling. I was furious. But Danielle’s headlights were still shining on Mom, and as I looked at her, I could tell something was wrong.
“What happened?” My voice was loud, still shaky. Mom was wet, covered in mud. The camouflage jacket she’d had on earlier was gone. Her right sleeve was torn, and she had scrapes on her right hand. Kona was barking from inside the house where I’d left him, and I remember thinking he knew something wasn’t right.
I heard Danielle get out of her vehicle, though the engine was still running, and the headlights were still on Mom.
“Is everything okay, Rose?” Danielle asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
Mom didn’t sound like herself. She wasn’t even looking at us.
Danielle got back in her vehicle and drove off.
“Help me get these things inside,” Mom said.
So I picked up Mom’s bow case while she grabbed her pack and quiver. Kona stopped barking as we walked to the porch, though I could still hear him whimpering. Mom limped a little and moved like her body was stiff and sore. When we got on the porch, I could see her better. She had burrs in her hair and a scrape along her left cheek. She took off her clothes down to her thermals.
“I’m going to get a shower.”
“So what happened?” I asked again.
“Let me get a shower, and then I’ll tell you.”
I stayed on the porch while she went into the house. I hung up her quiver. She didn’t have any arrows in it. She only carried them in the quiver when she was actually out on the hunt. I opened her bow case. Mom used mechanical broadheads, arrows with three jackknife-blades just below the tip. The blades, held in place by a small rubberband, would shoot out on impact. Mom numbered the fletches of her favorite arrows. She still had her number one and her number two arrow with the bands in place over the blades. She hadn’t gotten a shot. I closed the case and leaned it against the wall. Mom’s clothes were in a pile on the floor. The bottoms of her pants were covered in black mud. So were her boots. I carried her clothes to the cellar and set them on the washing machine. When I came back upstairs I could hear the shower going. The house was getting cold, so I put a couple more logs in the stove. I sat on the couch, my knees bouncing up and down in front of me while I waited. The couch was directly in front of the stove. On each side of the stove pipe, mounted to the wall, was the head of an elk—a four-point on one side, a five-point on the other. Elk were enormous animals. Their heads alone weighed at least fifty pounds. I’d once listened to Mom tell me of how she’d carried a head out by wedging it between her pack and the back of her own head while she held onto flaps of skin from the elk’s neck. “Don’t,” I’d said, imagining the blood from the animal running along my mom’s hands and arms, down her shoulders. “I really don’t need to hear this.”
“You’d asked me how I’d gotten the animal out of there.”
“Yeah, but I really don’t need to hear all the details.”
For the most part, Mom would call someone to pack an animal out, though I knew she had to dress the animals she killed, and now I had an image of Mom cutting the heads off the animals, as well. What kind of woman could do that sort of thing? These were the things I was thinking when she walked into the room. She looked better. She was wearing a pair of sweat pants and a flannel shirt. Her face was red from the heat of the shower, so the scrape on her cheek didn’t show up as bad. She sat in the big overstuffed armchair next to the sofa and pulled her legs up in the chair like a little kid. Kona had followed her into the room. He stretched out on the floor beside the chair.
“So what happened?” I asked again. I looked at her quickly, and then looked back at the stove. My knees were still bouncing.
She started running her hands through her wet hair like she’d do when she was trying to relax or when she was getting ready to say something.
“Wiley told me he’d seen some elk the other evening over at Carolyn Isaak’s place. You know Carolyn Isaak?”
I shook my head.
“She used to summer here years back. The woman must be a hundred years old by now. Anyway, Wiley does some work for her around her property. Manages the place. So he calls her up and gets permission for me to hunt over there. Her property backs up to the river, then runs another fifty yards or so on the other side. I’d gotten down on the bank of the river and started hearing the elk, a bunch of cows and calves. Then I heard a small bull. I made a couple of cow calls, and the bull started moving in closer, so I let out a bugle. Then somewhere on the other side of the river, I heard a larger bull start closing in. I headed down the river a ways and found a place where I could cross over. The river was damn near up to my waist, but I was able to get across. But on the other side, I couldn’t find the game trail. The river brush was at least eight feet tall and thick. I sat a while, tried to wring out my clothes. Then I heard the bull elk again. He sounded closer. So I called back and tried to move in his direction. But like I said, I couldn’t find any trails, the brush was so thick and so tall, I couldn’t see any markings, couldn’t even find the river. But I could hear the elk, and I kept calling him and kept following him. We got caught up in this game. I don’t know how long. One minute I think I’m closing in on him, the next I think he’s just playing with me. I tried to cow call, same thing. I kept thinking, if I could just get out of this river weed and see where I’m at. Then the sky started getting dark, and the elk were getting louder. There wasn’t just one bull; there was half a dozen, maybe more. And there were at least a dozen cows and their calves. I was trying to look for the treetops. By then I was thinking I just needed to get out of there. It was getting too dark to get a shot anyway. I finally found a clearing. But the elk were so loud, I couldn’t hear the river, and I realized the clearing I was in was surrounded by trees, and somewhere in those trees was a herd, and it was big. And what little light was left was blocked out by the woods. I was so lost. I didn’t know what direction I was coming or going in. And I couldn’t hear the river anymore. And the elk, there must have been a hundred of them, and they were close. There was a whole cacophony of noise around me. And I was moving quiet so they wouldn’t hear me, because I couldn’t see them; I could only hear them, and I didn’t know which way they were going to run if they got spooked. All I could see was the blackness of the trees, and I didn’t know how I was going to get out of there. If I went for the headlamp in my pack, they were going to move, but I didn’t see any other way. So, slowly, I unfastened the strap on my chest. I thought, I’ll be quick. But just that one move, that one sound, and I heard the elk snort. I heard their breath real close to me. I could smell them. Hear their hooves. They were even closer than I’d thought. And they started to scream, that high pitched bugling and cackling. Then they all started to move. I could hear the dust flying, tree limbs snapping, elk getting closer all around me. And I realized I was in the middle of the herd. Not behind it. Smack dab in the middle. I flew to the ground, crawled on my hands and knees. My fingers reached dead fall, the trunk of a spruce. I climbed over it. The ground sloped off behind the trunk. I slid backwards into a washout. I crouched into a ball, covered my head with my arms. Hundreds of elk were running ground all around me. Within minutes, the whole thing was over.”
Mom wasn’t running her hands through her hair anymore. She was sitting upright. Her eyes were wide, and there was something about her face. I’d been seeing her live the whole moment while she’d been talking, and I was thinking, she loves this shit. Now that it’s over, now that she knows she’s all right, she really loves this stuff. She loves every minute of it. And I admired her, was that it? Because I didn’t know any other woman who could go out in the woods and do something like this. And I was pissed as hell at her, because of this thing on her face, this adrenaline, and I thought, she doesn’t get it. I was scared shitless. I was scared for her. And I was scared because I didn’t know how I would go on if something happened to her. My knees weren’t bouncing anymore. I was just listening, thinking, watching her. “What’d you do?” I asked.
Mom was now leaning over the chair petting Kona, running her hand over his back, but I knew her head was still out in those woods.
“I waited,” she said. “I didn’t know how far the elk had moved. Didn’t know if they were grazing in the direction I needed to be heading. Didn’t know if I’d walk right into them, and a bull would charge me out of the dark. So I just waited and listened, hoping the river had washed most of the estrus out of my clothes, and hoping the elk weren’t going to start bedding down anywhere near those woods.” Before mom went hunting she’d spray elk piss on her clothes. It was supposed to make a male elk think a female was in the area. It was supposed to lure the elk in. But it could also lure a lion in, as well.
“Did you have your gun?”
“Had my gun, but I couldn’t see anything. The woods were thick, and so was the cloud cover.”
“So how’d you find your way out?” All the while I was asking her that, I was imagining myself in there, thinking how bad I would’ve hated it. Thinking I would have just wanted to sit down and scream or something. And I’m thinking, why would someone want to do this?
She stopped petting Kona and leaned back in her chair. “After a while when I didn’t hear anything, I dug my headlamp out. I was able to make my way out of the woods. I still couldn’t find the river. But up ahead was a wide swampy clearing. And ahead of that, I could make out a road and a house. I was pretty sure it was County Road 8. I don’t know how I got so turned around. I made my way through the swamp up to the road. Then I just followed the road to the house. It was the Allard ranch. Wouldn’t you know they’d just gotten in from a funeral in Kansas. He wasn’t too happy. Told me that herd of elk I’d stirred up was on his property, and I’d probably just ruined the hunt he was planning for his grandson come rifle season. That said, he threw a tarp down in his truck, and gave me a ride back to Carolyn Isaak’s place. It was a quiet ride.”
Mom’s eyes weren’t as wide anymore. The adrenaline had eased itself out of her. Now she just looked tired. She was staring off at the stove, getting that faraway look she’d get sometimes. She used to call them sinking spells, where she’d just sort of blank out and not really think about a whole lot.
“I was worried,” I said.
Then she looked at me, her body all still, just looked at me real serious like. She unfolded her legs, stood from the chair, and walked over to the couch. She sat next to me and wrapped both her arms around my shoulders, took her hand and pressed my head against hers. “Oh, honey,” she said.
And then my knee started bouncing again, and the tears started coming, dripped down my cheek and off my chin. I reached up quickly to wipe them away.
“Oh, honey, I am so sorry,” Mom said.
“I thought something had happened to you. Why do you do this?”
She kind of pulled back for a minute. “Well, it’s not like I planned on something happening,” she said. “I sure as hell didn’t plan on getting lost like I did.”
I just kept staring ahead, my knee still bouncing.
“I don’t know, Joseph. There’s something about getting out there that makes me feel alive. You don’t plan on what’s going to happen. You’re just out there. You don’t know what the elk will do. You don’t know whether it’ll start raining, or the wind will start blowing, but there you are, and it’s all so real.”
And I wanted to say, this is real, too. And yet, I felt like I couldn’t connect to her, like something was unreal between us. Like she existed in this world completely separate from mine. And when she was in that world, she didn’t care. But there was no way I could make her see it. No way I could make her feel what I felt. So I just let her hug me, but I didn’t feel like crying anymore. I didn’t even feel like getting mad. It just didn’t matter.
We ate that night. We talked about my day. But there wasn’t anything I really wanted to tell her. You know when someone asks you questions but they have to keep reminding themselves to pay attention when you start to answer. I know Mom loves me, but there’s something else out there she loves a whole lot more. And it doesn’t have to do with her loving herself more or anything. That’s where dad got it all wrong. It’s something I can’t name. It’s something she feels. Maybe that’s why I hang out with Corey so much, because sometimes, when we’re off in those mountains, when we’re away from everyone and everything else, I’ll think that just maybe, Corey feels it too.