by C. M. Barnes
Alec and Mira take a summer vacation every year in a very rustic cabin in the wilderness. This year, Alec is beset by omens: a roaming mountain lion, unfriendly neighbors, unwelcome visitors, and fraught memories of his father. All coincide to signal danger.
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
If only he could see Claire’s face in the dark. If only he could see Jennifer’s, but they were both shadowed blanks hovering over the table. He might as well have been conversing with the chairs. Maybe it was better that way. He felt a calm, coolness spreading out from his back into his limbs. It might not have been understanding, but it did feel like an acceptance of something. The words make peace seemed to whisper in the air around him like a faint but real possibility, even a tantalizing command.
“I’m going to go help Dave rig that generator line to his house,” he said. “Then I guess we can find some matches and talk this thing out.”
He couldn’t be certain, but he thought Mira’s mouth had fallen agape in the flickering light of the kitchen window. “You’re joking,” she said.
“Why not? Dude’s got a key anyway.”
“I mean about talking things out.”
He searched for his most careful words. Words could be so hard when you had to use them on people you cared about. “I don’t think so,” he said finally. “Nothing to lose, right?” But even as he said this, he couldn’t be certain.
Mira touched his arm. “All right,” she said, “then let me help you and Dave with the generator. There’s no reason we should all huddle in here while you go limping around in a tempest.”
Alec tried to pull his arm away gently, but she held on. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “Thanks though. Really.”
He brushed her cool hand and felt soft skin press against the slivers in his palm. It was a good feeling, a generous feeling, but right now he needed time and space to prepare for whatever was coming next.
“Listen up,” Claire’s voice split the room. “Right now, you need to just stay here and rest. We can help you take care of this situation, and I bet that fancy fridge of yours can rustle up some ice for your ankle. If not, there’s still some in your drink.”
“She’s right,” Jennifer said. “Just let us help you, okay? If you’d just let us help you, I think we’d all feel a lot better about things.” She drew a long breath, and Alec could feel himself being assessed in the darkness, being assessed and being found wanting all over again. “You seem like you could use some help these days,” she added, “just from what I’ve been seeing tonight. No offense.”
Alec slumped against the sliding door to the porch. Something in the voicing of these offers of aid, perhaps in the imperious way Claire had allocated the ice in what had become a very well-deserved drink, or maybe just the triggering image of them both holding hands over a cheap card table, rankled him anew. “I said I’ll be fine,” he said quietly.
Behind him, the glass in the door was black and spackled with rain. It seemed to be vibrating against the rising wind. So much for that brief flirtation with burying the tomahawk. Make peace, my ass!
Claire snorted. “Cut the hero act, bud. Your ankle is the size of a pumpkin.”
“I’m surprised you can even see it,” Alec said, “seeing as how you’ve decided the right course of action would be for us to all just sit here in the dark while my redneck neighbor steals my property.”
“I’m just saying—”
“You’re always just saying!” Alec shouted. “Why don’t you ever just come out and say it!”
He smacked his palm back into the glass and felt the door shudder. He turned, ripped it open, and staggered out into the rain.
He limped out into the howling darkness of the yard and called for Dave. He got no response. He doubted he would have heard one even if it had been issued. The rain was far too heavy now. It was lashing his face with hard spittle, and every couple of seconds a thunderous flash-bang lit up the yard all the way out to the rollicking trees. It also revealed no sign of Dave, and this made sense. No creature in its right mind would be out in this maelstrom, and, loath as he was to do it, he was about to turn back toward the cabin when he tripped over something hiding in the grass.
His ankle exploded with pain upon the contact and, once again, he crumpled to the earth. Reaching down toward his feet, he groped in the wet yard for the snare that had felled him and came up against what felt like a large, triangular bone. He slid his hand along the bone and recognized it to be in the shape of a rifle stock.
The trigger housing felt slick in his grip, squirmy and alive. Looking down, he locked eyes with the black hole of the barrel glimmering up at him through a lightning flash. Well, hello, old friend. He started to rise, clutching at his ankle, and caught a fresh wave of stench swimming over the yard. The rain must have tamped it down, concentrated it close to the land. If anything, the smell was stronger.
Leaning out over his good foot, he pushed himself up and plucked the rifle out of the grass. Surprised by its rigid weight, he cradled it as gently as he could. He didn’t know what it was doing here, but the possibilities were not exactly endless. Either Dave had felt like leaving him a very odd peace offering, or some third party had separated the senior Tillman from his weapon.
Alec drew the rifle up under his chin and squinted through the rain into the area where he imagined there might be a safety. He couldn’t remember exactly where it was, and he and Dad had never talked about it. Dad probably hadn’t even known about the safety.
When his thumb grazed over an important feeling nub behind the housing, he flicked it, and only then realized it was impossible to tell what he had accomplished in the dark, short of pulling the trigger. This didn’t seem like a worthy trade-off.
He lowered the rifle and cradled it again as softly possible against the soaked cotton of the golf shirt stretched across his stomach. Thing could go off like a Chinese firecracker! Another thunder burst did go off from what sounded like an altitude of ten feet. Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he whirled around fast enough to nearly collapse himself yet again.
It was Mira, with Claire standing just a step behind her. Both women were doubled over and hugging themselves against the vectoring rain. “Where did you get that gun?” Mira shouted into the wind. “Why in the world do you have a gun?”
“It’s Dave’s, I think.”
“Then where’s Dave?
Alec took one hand off the rifle to swipe rain out of his eyes. “Don’t know. I just tripped over it in the grass.”
“I hate guns,” Mira said.
“Me too,” Alec parroted, still holding the rifle close.
“You don’t know anything about guns.”
And this was true, or mostly true. The ancient but familiar image of a black hole in a tree trunk materialized, but that was the work of Dad’s gun, the one that could knock down a grizzly, or a mountain lion, if need be. That was the one that was likely trained on the three of them right now. What he had in his hands was a different instrument altogether. It was lighter and shinier. It was built to destroy something no bigger than a boy. “Why are you two out here?” Alec said. “We don’t all have to get drenched.”
“I think an apology is owed,” Claire said. “Sometimes I struggle to pick my moments, especially when I feel like making a speech. I’m sorry, Alec. I’m the one who’s out of line this time.”
Alec fingered the trigger where it pressed against his gut. What did he look like right now? A lone, hunched man clutching a weapon in the dark? He probably could have doubled nicely for one of those menacing outlines featured on the KNOW YOUR ABUSER! posters that papered Claire’s office.
Another troubling memory from that fated fourteen-year old summer reared in his brain, a faint recollection of an unwelcome speech connected to men, to nature, to the essential wildness of men’s natures. It chattered upward in Alec’s mind on a dark cloud that also seemed to embody the foul miasma blowing over the lawn. She raised her dainty white fist...
“Alec?” Mira shouted. “Alec!”
He released the trigger and let the rifle sink down to his waist. “I hear you,” he said. “Obviously, picking the right moment is not a strength with me, either.”
He thought this would feel good to say, but it just felt true.
“Come inside,” Mira said. “We’ll talk things over and calm down.”
A fresh vision of the cabin table replaced the dark cloud of old memory. There they were again, three shadowy feminine figures and Alec the Unrepentant struggling to hold himself within the bounds of civilized discourse. Who knew how long this storm might last, how long the conversation might last? Claire and Jennifer might even need to stay over. God, he could not handle that, especially if he went in now. They’d be murdering each other by midnight.
“Take this, will you?” He thrust the .22 out at Mira. “I’m just going to do a little looky-loo for Dave before I come back.”
Mira recoiled from this offering. “No way am I taking that.”
“Just bring it inside before it rusts or something. I’ll be back in a second. I’d rather not shoot my foot off lurching around out here.”
Lightning revealed the dark slice of Mira’s frown. “You’re not seriously going to look for Dave?” she said.
This time, the thunder sounded further off. Still, the alternative — not looking for Dave and returning to the cabin and the company of Claire and Jennifer — seemed infinitely worse. Terrible man that he was, he knew his limits, and they included not being able to contain the abiding rage he always felt in their presence. He would never be able to explain this. He knew that now. To try would be to admit that it would be better for all involved to just abandon him up here, high atop this stinking mountain where he could thrash around harmlessly in the fog of his own evil inclinations.
Dad had died alone up here. Dave Tillman hadn’t called in the smell for two weeks.
Alec thrust the rifle out further. “I won’t take long,” he said. “Promise.”
Claire reached out and took hold of the rifle. Surprised, Alec held onto it. They tugged back and forth for a second without his realizing what was going on. He willed himself to let go and stand up straight over his burning ankle. This made sense, actually. Claire was nothing if not a straight shooter. “I’ll be back as fast as I can,” he said. “Watch out for that cat.”
Claire raised the rifle and squinted down the barrel in a way that looked practiced. “You got it, Lurch.”
“Seriously. Why don’t you cover me from the porch? Then you and Deadeye Drake will have her in a crossfire. Just think of me as the bait.”
“That’s stupid for a lot of reasons,” Mira said. “And Claire doesn’t know anything about guns, either, do you Claire?”
Claire reached out and petted Mira’s twiggish arm over the barrel of the rifle. “Actually, I do, Jennifer. I took a course. It’s something all women should do, really. We go to a range once a month.”
“See?” Alec said. “She took a course. She goes to a range.”
Claire popped and then replaced the magazine — Alec thought that’s what it was called — stuck her finger into the chamber, removed it, and shoved the bolt around. “Actually, Jennifer’s the better shot,” she said. “She’s a real Annie Oakley. I’ll probably turn cover-fire duties over to her.”
“Fine by me,” Alec said, already hopping away. He wasn’t really listening. He couldn’t have been, because there was no way he had just heard Claire describe Jennifer as a real Annie Oakley. The idea of Jennifer’s firing a gun seemed impossible on many levels.
“This is ridiculous!” Mira said. “I do not condone this.”
But Alec was already limping toward the property line.
* * *
Copyright © 2021 by C. M. Barnes