By Lynn Vroman
“Hold it in the crook of your shoulder, boy. The kick will knock you on your ass if you don’t.”
“It’s too heavy. Where’s the .22?”
“That’s a girl’s gun.” A string of tobacco flies from Dad’s mouth, landing in a brown puddle on the snowy ground. “You telling me you can’t handle this gun? A .22 can’t drop a buck.”
I wipe the snot from under my nose and look through the thick scope, trying to hold it steady on the cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. “I don’t know why you want me going with you, anyway. I hate hunting.”
Another string of tobacco flies across my line of sight. The smell reminds me of the parakeets’ cage after two weeks of neglect. “Because you like eating it, don’t you? Can’t see why I’m the only one having to go out there and freeze my ass off every year.”
“Jess went with you all the time.”
I hold the rifle tighter to the inside of my shoulder, wishing sometimes I’d keep my mouth shut.
After another string of tobacco, dad says, “Now, steady your arm and shoot when the can is centered in the sights.” His voice sounds rough and unsteady.
“Sorry, Dad.” I pull the gun to my side, kicking at the snow saturating my sneakers.
He gives me a pat on the back. “I should have shown you how to shoot the same time I showed Jess.”
“I guess I could’ve asked to learn, too.”
Dad peels the chew out of his lip and flings it on the ground. “You need to wear boots out here. Your feet are getting soaked.” He looks behind him to the small square shadow of our house. “Your mom will throttle me if you get sick.”
“Okay.” I lift the rifle again, holding it as steady as I can on the target.
“Now, take aim. Right, good, hold the gun still; she’s wobbling all over the place.” Dad stands behind me, helping to steady the rifle. The stale smell of chewing tobacco burns my nose hairs, but I don’t say anything. I just switch to breathing through my mouth.
When Dad backs away, I close my eyes and pull the trigger. The first couple shots skip over the cans and skitter across the snow-covered field. “I can’t hit the damn things.”
“Yes, you can. Just take your time, and keep your eyes open for Christ sakes.”
Taking a deep breath in, I steady the rifle, squeezing the trigger when the middle can is centered in the sights. The rusted target explodes; its remains fall to the ground in quiet surrender.
“See, you can shoot.”
My body grows warm and my smile hurts my chapped cheeks. “Yeah, I guess I can.”
Dad ruffles my hair and gives me a light tap on the shoulder. “Let’s go inside, see what Mom made for dinner.”
“Let me try one more.” I hold the gun up again before Dad answers, squinting into the scope.
“All right, one more.”
We sit down at the small dining room table, me, Mom, and Dad, eating wild turkey chili and homemade bread. The only conversation is between our spoons scraping the bottom of bowls and the parakeets singing to each other in the living room.
I glance up from my food to watch Dad touch the corners of his mouth with a linen napkin. Mom makes sure we use manners at her dinner table. I remember how Jess and I would make fun of him, behind his back, of course. The memory reminds me of how happy we all were.
When the bowls are cleared and the coconut cream pie is set out, Mom takes her seat again, folding her hands on the table. “Jess called today.”
I watch Dad’s face drain as he cuts the pie.
“He’s doing fine, a little homesick.” She holds her plate up as Dad serves her a piece. “He said he misses his mama’s cooking.”
Dad says nothing as he scoops pie out for me. I take a small bite, dabbing my napkin to the corners of my lips. “Is he sleeping better? He said the last time they didn’t give him enough blankets.”
She stabs her pie, slides a piece on her fork, and puts it back on the plate. “He sounds tired, but didn’t mention it.” She forks the piece again, lifting it to her mouth. “He asked us to send him some money, says he wants to buy some paper to write us letters.”
“No.” Dad’s plate remains empty, the spatula’s handle suffocating in his hand.
“He’s still your son, Jack.” Mom sets her fork down. “He still needs us.”
“Guess he should’ve thought about that a year ago.”
Scraping forks and chirping birds finish our conversation.
After dinner is cleaned up, my Dad washing the dishes and Mom drying while I put the leftovers away, I go upstairs and hide in my room. The strain in the house sits on my shoulders like an anchor. My room is the only place left where I can pretend normal still exists.
The left side of the room belongs to me. It’s messy with books littering the desk and posters of Einstein and the cast of “The Big Bang Theory” covering the paneled walls. A picture of my girlfriend, Kim, sits like a ruler on my headboard, overseeing everything. My laptop rests on my unmade bed; Marvel stickers hide every inch of its black lid. My prized possession is the early acceptance letter from MIT. It’s framed, gracing the spot right next to Kim.
The right side belongs to Jess. It’s neat, with a shelf collecting dust, above his bed. The shelf shows off his wrestling trophies and pictures of Dad holding up his muscled arm after Jess won states. A framed newspaper clipping of Dad and Jess, holding up the head of a twelve-point his second year of hunting, sits in the middle of all the trophies. There are no posters covering the aged paneling on his side. Just a family photo he insisted Mom hang in his room after she picked the pictures up from Sears. The picture, taken three years ago, shows Dad glancing over at Jess, his eyes shining with pride. I stifle the twinge of jealousy that always stings my chest when I look too long, and remember we were happy.
I wipe a tear from my cheek when I hear a knock on the door. “Yeah?”
“Can I come in?”
“It’s your house.”
Dad opens the door, sits on Jess’s bed, but doesn’t look at the shelf—or the picture hanging right behind him. His hair is wet and he’s dressed in sweats. There’s no chew in his mouth. Mom doesn’t allow it in the house. “You did good today.”
“I missed the cans more than I hit them.”
“Yeah, true, but it takes practice. Few more weeks, and you’ll be as good as your brother ever was.”
I can’t help the snort escaping my nose. “Yeah, sure.” I lie on my bed and point my eyes to the ceiling.
“No, you will be. A few more practice shots and—”
“Why are you making me hunt? I’ve sat out all this time.”
His lips move like there’s a big dip in his mouth and his eyes wander to my framed letter. With a nod, he says, “You’ll be leaving soon. Thought it’d be nice if we could do something together.”
Anger bubbles in my throat. “How ‘bout we go see Jess?” I don’t know why I want to hurt my father. He didn’t destroy the family.
“You know that’s not going to happen, son.”
I look over to find him tapping his thighs. He’s lost. I know it, but I can’t find the energy to care. I switch my gaze to the calendar hanging on my closet door. Only seven months and twenty days left before I’m paroled from this house. My brother has a lot longer where he’s staying. “I can’t be his replacement.”
“I’m not asking you to be.”
I reach for my iPod, stuff my ear buds in, and scroll through my music. “Yes, you are.”
He stands up and heads for the door. “I don’t know what you want from me, Chris.”
Seether’s “Fake It” flows to my ears before I answer. “Nothing.”
His shoulders sag, and it kills me, but I can’t help relieve his burden. Before he leaves, he says, “You don’t have to go hunting.”
When the door shuts, I close my eyes so the tears don’t escape.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student