Cara Lynn Albert is originally from Florida, and she is currently completing her MFA degree in fiction at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her work has appeared in Barnstorm Journal and Every Day Fiction. She lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.
Lucy’s bullet cracks through the brittle Michigan sky. The rifle’s echo twists through fifty yards of frozen pine branches and reaches a whitetail buck. The animal sprints away as Lucy’s body jerks from the recoil, its rich pelt a dark smear against the snow.
“You missed. Again,” says Lucy’s uncle, Geoff. The pot on his breath is faint but still strong enough to cut through the crisp pines surrounding them.
“It was too far away,” says Lucy, tugging the orange plugs out of her ears.
“No,” says Uncle Geoff, “It wasn’t. If anything, you got too close. You coulda spooked it.”
Lucy turns around and ejects the shell casing from her .243 Winchester. The rifle isn’t really Lucy’s, but it’s the smallest that Uncle Geoff owns, and it’s the only one she can hold for longer than a minute before her arms start to shake.
“Let’s keep moving,” says Uncle Geoff. His black leather hunting boots carve large footprints in the snow as he trudges farther into the forest. She swings the rifle around her back and follows his markings.
Today is Thanksgiving, and Uncle Geoff has assured Lucy that if they don’t kill a deer by sundown, she’ll be eating leftover pizza instead of that Thanksgiving food. He was referring to the two frozen Turkey breasts, instant mashed potatoes, canned green beans, and a bag of microwavable corn that he bought at Meijer late last night.
Thanksgiving is one of the few days Lucy is used to seeing her uncle. When she was younger, Lucy and her mother, Uncle Geoff’s twin, would typically only see him during the holidays. Plus, for about a week each summer, Lucy’s mom would haul the two of them up to Uncle Geoff’s house in Muskegon. Lucy felt indifferent towards the annual trip—it was usually boring, though Uncle Geoff often let her drink soda and stay up past eleven o’clock at night. But her mom loved visiting her twin brother, and Lucy could tell because she always sang all the songs on her favorite Dixie Chicks CD while they drove to Muskegon. The twins mostly sat on his front porch, laughing about their childhood and smoking pot that both claimed were just cigarettes. They never let Lucy on the porch when they smoked, but the fumes seeped in through the front door cracks, and her nose could tell the difference.
After another quarter-mile trek into the Huron-Manistee National Forest, Lucy stops to find a new place to rest. She chooses a small rock at the base of a large pine and swats away the powdery snow that had settled onto its surface. Lucy unlocks her grip on the rifle and stares at her hands. They’re ice white except for her knuckles and fingertips, which are cherry red. She clenches her fists, then stretches her fingers out, repeating the motion a few times to increase the blood flow, and she wonders if this is what the start of frostbite feels like.
Uncle Geoff is a few yards ahead before he realizes Lucy has stayed behind.
“Now what?” he asks.
“My hands hurt.”
“It’s not my fault you forgot your damn gloves.”
Lucy left them on the dresser in Uncle Geoff’s basement, which he remodeled into a studio when she moved in. They were nice gloves, too. Dark brown, luxurious leather with a cushioned mink interior. Her mother had gifted them to Lucy for her fourteenth birthday seven months earlier.
The basement studio, however, leaves something to be desired. The walls are covered in old wood paneling from a decade Lucy doesn’t recognize, and something that reeks like pot boiled in cat piss suffuses the air. In addition to empty gun racks, the walls are covered in vintage Peace & Love posters from the sixties. Lucy is just thankful Uncle Geoff left all the deer head mounts in the upstairs living room. They ruined her first memory of his house. Their glassy, bead-like eyes followed her around the room, and she ran to escape their gaze. Her uncle bent down until he was eye-level with Lucy, and he leaned in close enough for her to smell something funny on him. He cupped his hand around her ear and whispered, “Don’t worry, they can’t hurt ya. I made sure of that.”
Uncle Geoff could have stuffed her into the small second bedroom on the main floor, but he said that it was best for Lucy to have her own space, and with a private bathroom, television, refrigerator, and microwave, she hardly ever needs to venture upstairs. Although she realizes this is really for Uncle Geoff’s benefit rather than her own. Lucy constantly feels the need to apologize for her own existence, and often for things as insignificant as loading her own laundry into the washer when Uncle Geoff marches up with an overflowing hamper. She knows he didn’t choose to put them both in this situation, but neither did she.
“How long are you going to be this time?”
“Just a few more minutes,” says Lucy, stroking her long, blonde hair that had grown stiff and dry in the Michigan cold. Hunting with her uncle isn’t her favorite activity, but she doesn’t have much of a choice. Hunting is Uncle Geoff’s only activity. He doesn’t care about the smaller game—the rabbits, pheasant, and squirrels. He wants the big kills. The previous year, he shot four deer in one season, and Lucy remembers because he wouldn’t shut up about the amount of venison he brought for Christmas dinner. There were so many leftovers, Lucy and her mom were begging neighbors to take the extras through Valentine's Day. But this year, Uncle Geoff hasn’t killed a single deer, and there are only three days left of hunting season.
“You almost ready?” he asks after a few more minutes. Lucy nods and rises from the rock, wiping her runny nose. She tucks her hands inside the pockets of her uncle’s hunting jacket that’s six sizes too big on her.
“Good. No more rest stops until lunch.”
Uncle Geoff lifts his heavy foot and slams it hard into the layer of crusted snow below him, the kind that forms after the powdery fluff melts and then freezes over again. He shatters the ice into tiny crystals, then heaves another foot forward and continues the brutal process over and over. During early winter mornings when she was younger, Lucy would trail behind her mom and hop into each print she left behind, her little foot only filling half the space. Uncle Geoff’s size-twelve boots leave deep markings, twice as big as her mother’s. She steps into each of his footprints, leaving none of her own, so it appears as though her uncle is hiking alone.
“Uncle Geoff?” asks Lucy. He doesn’t answer. “Uncle Geoff, I have a question.”
“Good lord. Didn’t anyone ever tell you children should be seen and not heard?”
“Did you ever take my mom hunting?” asks Lucy.
Uncle Geoff stops walking. His feet sink into the ice.
“You really wanna talk about her right now?” he asks, though doesn’t turn around.
Since her mother’s death, the pair have mentioned her name on three separate occasions. Once at the funeral and once at the reception that followed, when Uncle Geoff was asked how he felt about the cause of Jen’s death, and he interjected, very loudly, “It’s the man behind the gun.” They spoke briefly of her mother again the week Lucy moved into Uncle Geoff’s house. She noticed four mismatched folding chairs surrounding the scuffed dining table and admitted that her mom used to complain about his tacky furniture. Uncle Geoff laughed and said, “Jen wouldn’t know quality design if a Better Homes and Garden Magazine bit her on the ass.”
The day her mother died, Lucy was beginning the second week of her freshman year of high school. Administration called her to the front office and a clerk with smeared mascara handed Lucy the phone. Uncle Geoff’s voice rang from the other end. I’ve got some news for you. It ain’t anything good. Lucy’s mother was one of nine victims from an active shooting at Woodland Mall. When he said “victim,” Lucy thought she was still alive. What hospital is she at? If she was taken to the one down the road from her high school, Lucy could get there in twenty minutes if she ran. Uncle Geoff cursed. Jen isn’t at the hospital. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Before she could hang up the phone, Lucy’s knees gave out.
“Yes,” says Lucy, “I wanna talk about her. We never talk about her.”
Uncle Geoff lifts a boot out of the snow and resumes walking.
“I thought that’s what you wanted.”
He was right. When students and teachers ask Lucy about her mom, she often replies with a forced tear and something like: I was just starting to move on ... until you said her name. This is partly to witness their horrified expressions, but mostly because Lucy knows they’d never mention her mom again. Hunting in the forest is different, though. The pair are miles away from civilization, and anything she says would remain a secret between Uncle Geoff and the frozen pines, both equally as likely to repeat the conversation.
“I do want that, usually,” says Lucy, “but today feels different.”
“Okay then. Yeah, I did take her hunting a few times. When we were in college. Before she had you.”
“Was she good?”
“She wasn’t bad. Better than you, at least.”
“No shit. That rock over there is probably better than me.”
She grins when Uncle Geoff laughs and says she has a point. When Lucy swore in front of her mother, she’d receive a slap on the back of her hand. Living with Uncle Geoff, she can use swear words anytime she pleases, and she’s learned about a dozen new ones.
“Can I ask another question, Uncle Geoff?”
“Go ahead, I guess.”
“Why’d you make me go hunting today?”
Uncle Geoff laughs again and finally turns around.
“What? You aren’t having a good time?” he asks, and though Lucy hears his obvious sarcasm, he also sounds slightly offended.
“But did you really think I’d be any good at it?”
“I wouldn’t care if you were the next Davy fucking Crockett. Hunting’s good for you.”
How is any of this good for her? The only thing she’s received from this experience is near frostbite and a bruise on her shoulder from the first time she shot a rifle and fell onto a rock from the kickback. She’s about to ask Uncle Geoff how he reached that conclusion when he squats down on a tree stump and rummages through his backpack.
“Let’s eat. I think we’re both getting a bit irritable.”
Lucy wants to refuse lunch. The sooner they shoot a deer, the sooner she goes home. But a snarl erupts beneath her thick hunting jacket. Lucy’s stomach has been making these noises since she refused her breakfast of leftover beans ’n franks, so she agrees and takes a seat next to her uncle. He hands her a bagged peanut butter and jelly sandwich that’s taken a beating inside his backpack. Purple goo oozes out the side and coats the flattened white bread in a sticky residue.
The two eat in silence, and when Lucy finishes her sandwich, Uncle Geoff tosses her a jumbo-sized bag of beef jerky. As she reads the back label and yanks off a large hunk with her teeth, Uncle Geoff grabs her knee and shakes it, hard. Lucy jumps back in her seat and drops the chunk of beef into the dirty snow below her.
“Hey!” says Lucy. Uncle Geoff slaps her knee. She looks up to find him raising a finger to his lips and using his other hand to point at something behind her. Lucy turns around and spots a beautiful whitetail doe, not thirty yards away, sniffing at some fallen leaves in the snow.
She turns back to Uncle Geoff and shoots him a thumbs up. He gently lifts the .243 Winchester and offers it to Lucy. She shakes her head and pushes the rifle back to him. This was only the second deer they’d seen all day, and Lucy didn’t want to blow another shot. But Uncle Geoff shoves the rifle back into her arms. He points his finger at the deer and then points to Lucy. This is your kill.
Lucy grabs the rifle and pivots towards the deer. She bends down to her knees, jams the orange earplugs back into her ears, and fits the rifle butt snugly into the pocket of her right shoulder. She slows her breathing and aims. The animal lifts its head in enough time to spot Lucy before she squeezes the trigger. The bullet reaches its brain, and the deer’s neck snaps back before sinking into the snow.
Geoff carved a line between the doe’s pelvic bone and breast bone. While this was the third deer he killed this season, field dressing still made him sick, though he’d never admit it. Geoff slit the diaphragm, grabbed the windpipe, pulled it towards him so the tissue was taut, and severed it with his knife.
When he was finished, Geoff would store the carcass at his buddy’s place until he found someone willing to buy the meat. He had ample room in his own home, but he didn’t want to keep the animal there for the same reason he decided not to store the other two deer he killed. Geoff was taking Lucy hunting tomorrow, and he didn’t want her to see the bodies. Lucy needed to believe that he had suffered a barren hunting season. That way, when she successfully shot a deer, like he knew she would, it would be an even greater triumph.
Geoff pried the heart, stomach, and intestines from the doe’s body. He had killed only does this year, and that wasn’t a coincidence. Geoff’s secret was the sixteen-year-old kazoo he used each hunting season. The tiny, portable instrument made a high-pitched whine disturbingly similar to a fawn bleat, a hunting call most effective on female deer. The noise produced was intended to mimic a young, distressed fawn crying for its mother. Geoff had received the kazoo on New Year’s Eve over a year before Lucy was born. Jen had arrived on his porch at a quarter till eleven o’clock with a flimsy party hat suspended off the side of her head. A kazoo with the words Happy New Year! written in chunky, silver glitter dangled from her lips, and she held a half-drunk bottle of cheap champagne.
“What’s going on?” asked Geoff.
“Mom and Dad are assholes,” said Jen, using her free hand to nudge his shoulder aside, and she stumbled into the house, collapsing into his couch cushions.
“You drive here?” he asked, closing the front door after noticing her car parked sideways in his driveway.
“Are you a cop now?” Jen rubbed her temples with her middle finger and thumb. Geoff poured a large glass of water and offered it to his sister, but she swatted the cup away and uncorked the champagne bottle still in her right hand, taking a long swig. He placed the glass on the floor next to her and settled onto the other side of the couch.
“So why are Mom and Dad assholes?” Geoff untied her shoelaces and pulled the sneakers off her feet.
“I told them I was thinking of making an appointment at the sperm bank,” she said. He laughed and clutched her foot, shaking it back and forth. Her skin felt cool and damp. Geoff grabbed the woven blanket draped over the back of the couch and spread it over her legs, tucking the hem under her ankles.
“Didn’t take that well, did they?”
“No, they did not.” Jen brought the champagne to her lips again. When she was finished, Geoff grabbed the bottle out of her hand and pounded a few gulps.
“What the fuck’s so great about marriage?” she said. “Why do I need some guy to help me raise a kid?”
Geoff shook his head. “You don’t. Mom and Dad should be happy with any grandkids they get. Lord knows I won’t be giving them any.”
He switched the television to Dick Clark, and Geoff stowed the champagne bottle behind his feet. Jen fell asleep with her party hat carving a line into her cheek. A minute before midnight, he woke her to watch the ball drop, though he wasn’t sure if he should bother. Neither of them cared to participate in most holiday traditions. Even as children, the most festive activity they engaged in was stealing Christmas lights from their neighbor’s front yard each year. When the clock struck midnight, Geoff turned to his sister and wished her a Happy New Year. She stuck the kazoo back into her mouth and blew the buzzy thing in his direction. He smiled, kissed her forehead, and pulled the woven blanket over her shoulders before heading towards his bedroom.
The next morning, he woke to a vacant couch and the glittered kazoo lying next to the empty champagne bottle on his floor.
Geoff flipped the doe’s body and spread its legs to drain the blood. He spotted the kazoo hiding in some leaves a few yards away from him. Specks of glitter like tiny diamonds fell into the slush. He flipped the doe back over so that the meat and insides wouldn’t get tainted from dirt. The sun hung low in the western sky, which meant Geoff only had an hour or so to drag the deer back to his truck, steer it to his buddy’s place, and drive home before Lucy returned from school.
The thing that he feared was Lucy getting curious while he wasn’t home. When he was there, she usually kept to herself in the basement, reading Jen’s favorite books or watching one of the six movies that Geoff owned, which included Scarface, Blazing Saddles, the first three Final Destination flicks, and Tombstone. When she grew bored of those, the only other entertainment option available was exploring his house. Most rooms were harmless. Before she moved in, he hid his laptop and old Maxim magazines in his locked bedroom, though truthfully, he wouldn’t feel ashamed if she found those. But if Lucy felt the desire to pick the lock to his room, then she might want to break into his closet as well. She would find over two dozen firearms—rifles, revolvers, and pistols that used to decorate the wood-paneled walls of every room in his house.
After Lucy was born, Jen would complain and beg Geoff to take them down when the two of them visited. So the stuffed, dead animal heads don’t bother you, but the guns do? Geoff intended on leaving them up after Jen died, to protest her ghost. The firearms’ presence kept their arguments alive, which he still preferred to total silence from his sister. But Geoff took them down and locked them away after he heard hushed weeping from Lucy’s room whenever he passed the basement.
Geoff hoisted the doe’s haunches. As he tugged the animal by its back hooves towards his truck, he spotted his sister’s kazoo, still on the ground, its glitter reflecting the sun’s fading light. The kazoo still sparkled five, ten, then twenty feet away, until it blended into the snow, too faint to detect.
Lucy and Uncle Geoff leap up and howl as they watch the deer drop to the snow. Her uncle gives her a warm slap on the back, and she ejects the shell casing, swings the rifle around her back, and runs towards the fallen doe. Uncle Geoff catches up with her, but Lucy doesn’t make it thirty feet before her uncle grabs her shoulder, and her fleet fly in front of her as she lands on her back. Her borrowed jacket is thick and insulated, but her jeans aren’t, and sharp, frozen crystals stab Lucy’s legs. She digs her elbow into the ground and rises to her feet, ready to berate her uncle for ruining her moment, when she sees that he’s rooted in his tracks. He stares, numb and dazed, at something near the dead doe. Lucy turns around and watches a baby deer emerge from behind a large pine. The fawn stumbles to its mother’s body, seemingly unfazed by Lucy and Uncle Geoff’s presence.
Lucy glances at her uncle. He stares back at her with flurried eyes and places a gentle hand on her shoulder. His other hand wipes some sweat off his forehead. The fawn circles its mother, and Lucy notices a puddle of blood pooling around the body. It melts into cracks in the snow, like cherry syrup over shaved ice. Lucy narrows her eyebrows. Uncle Geoff sighs and scratches the back of his neck.
She creeps toward the baby deer and the mother’s body. Lucy feels Uncle Geoff’s hand fall off her back, but he doesn’t follow her. Her feet crunch into the ice, though the baby deer doesn’t notice her until she’s almost ten feet away. Fuzzy ears shoot up, and its knees teeter in an attempt to stand. The fawn’s eyes, shiny like black marbles, stare at her, sending tiny pricks across her skin. She tries to tally the cascading white dots down its back, but she loses count after reaching thirty.
Lucy brings the butt of the rifle back into the pocket of her right shoulder. Even as she raises the barrel to aim, the fawn does nothing. It remains standing, ears stretched back and gaze fixed on Lucy. She squeezes the trigger, and the earth shudders. The fawn drops to the ice, parallel to its mother. Lucy ejects the shell casing once more, tosses her rifle to the ground, and hears Uncle Geoff’s hunting boots approaching fast through the snow.