Let's start things off with a bang, shall we? I wrote this short story in the fall of 2016. I was thinking deeply about the performance of gender, the dynamics of human connection, and the agony of becoming a human being. 'MEAT' was written in one sleepless night - and in the process, it felt like I was channeling rather than creating. It was the first thing I wrote in three years, and the last thing to leave my laptop for another five.
It also won me the 2017 Wallace Prize for outstanding creative fiction and was originally published in the Yale Daily News. What a way to end my college years. Enjoy.
CW: dead animals, bullying, suicide
Image made with Midjourney, Author's prompt
My dad lived for the slow kill. Sunday mornings he did his best work. It'd been a tradition when I was a kid: He'd nestle my warm, sleepy body into the cab of his truck, wipe the condensation from his mirrors with a fist, and rattle us to the estate. Usually I'd doze, the scratchy flannel blanket he'd wrapped me in tickling my nose as the AM radio told us about the weather in Seattle. But on our last trip, I was wide awake, resting my forehead on the cool glass, watching as the deep-morning sky saturated slowly over Bear Mountain. The stereo hummed and spat with static. I drummed my fingers on the dashboard. Fiddled with my seatbelt. Scraped at a scab.
"I've got a chance, right?" I asked. Dad turned to me, raised an eyebrow. "I mean, they're gonna put me on the team. Right?"
"All depends. Did you fuck up?" I shook my head. "Then quit your worrying."
When we neared the caretaker's cottage at the edge of the gardens, Dad cut the headlights and slowed to a crawl. He parked about a half-mile off, hiding the truck in the underbrush of a side road. We grabbed our gear, gently pressing the truck's doors closed. Skirting the neat shrubs of the estate's lawn, we crept along the ten-foot deer fence that marked the beginning of protected parkland. We had to be quiet. Where we went, we didn't want attention.
Off in the corner behind the Rose Walk, Dad had slashed a hole in the fence. We crawled through and trudged ahead until the tangles of huckleberry and devil's club faded into first-growth forest, trunks wider than the truck. We always stayed quiet in the woods but not because we were too worried about being caught there. No one else went out that way, not hikers or hunters or even rangers. But once the cedar smell would start up, and the mud caking our boots turned to red clay, an intense silence would press down on us. Like tribal ghosts were watching, hating our cloudy breaths and the crossbows on our backs.
What we were there to do was forbidden. Not just by the rangers, who might've handed us a hefty fine, but by something older and inhuman. I think this was part of the thrill for Dad. He was there to kill, but this was the real transgression -- the invasion. I wouldn't call what we did hunting. It was just waiting. We'd choose our spot and lie there, sometimes all day. On that last trip, we huddled under the auspices of an uprooted tree. The silty shore of the river bent before us.
We saw three deer early, but Dad didn't take a shot. They weren't right. He liked the weak ones; he would pass up on huge bucks in anticipation of the doe in heat or the still-clumsy foal. The sun was high in the sky before she came, alone. Beside me, Dad tensed up and rose quietly, bow in hand. I followed his gaze to a hobbling doe with a twisted fetlock, bending her elegant neck to drink from the edge of the river. The wind shifted, stirring the wisps of hair on the back of my neck. She lifted her head in alarm, sniffing at the air, but it was too late: Dad shot; his arrow ripping through her belly.
Shrieking, she fell into the shallows. Rubbing his bum leg in long, smooth strokes, Dad went to pull her onto the shore. When he gripped the hilt of his knife, I closed my eyes. I could still hear her jagged bleats as he worked, though. She only lasted twenty minutes. Sometimes it took an hour for them to die.
I always brought my crossbow, but I don't think I ever took a shot. He never asked me to, either. We both knew that was his thing, I was just along for the ride. I don't know what I would have done if he'd asked me to take part. It wasn't that I thought hunting was wrong. I always ate what we brought back, dragged behind us in a leaky tarp. And I wasn't bothered by how he chose the weakest prey. Even as a kid, I got it. This was primal action. This was our right as men. They were just dumb meat sacks, inferior even in their own species. They didn't deserve our pity.
I just didn't like the blood.
Looking back, I shouldn't have been so worried. Dad was right -- I made varsity. That put a stop to the trips behind the estate, since I had games or practice every Sunday morning. Dad didn't complain once about driving me to the dozens of chilly fields stretched across Northern Washington, even though it meant he couldn't be out waiting in the woods. Judging by the constant stack of venison steaks in the basement freezer, he just found other times to go out on his own. Besides, in his eyes, I couldn't have found a worthier cause than baseball.
He'd started me playing Little League when I was just three, the child's bat practically taller than I was. He didn't push me into it or anything. That's just how it was in Holy Oaks. It was one of those towns that lived and died for the nine innings. We joked that the season started in September and ended in August, which was basically true when you took preseason and summer training into account. Dad had also played for Holy Oaks High. A picture of him in the bright red jersey still hung in the main hallway trophy case, along with a list of his stats and achievements. He'd recite that list to me during our car rides, his voice reverent and grateful, each syllable like some rosary bead worried and shuffled between us. Sometimes after a tough loss, he'd tell me about his last game in college, the one where he got his thigh messed. He'd tried to steal home in the last inning but tripped and tore his quad tendon. He didn't seem resentful, even though it had shut down his dream of a pro career. He'd gone out in his prime, nothing bad to his name.
I was good too. Not as good as he was but enough that I was starting pitcher by my sophomore year. Junior year I led us to second in the league -- not bad, considering we were up against those rich fucks from Woodinville Academy. Senior year, I made captain. I didn't get All-State, but Dad never gave me any shit for that. The deck had been stacked against me: Competition was tight for pitchers that year, and Coach Tucker was a degenerate alkie who hadn't filled out any of the necessary paperwork. Still, those were good years. Dad putting me through extra exercises, giving me grip corrections in the backyard every night. My name appeared on more and more signs in the bleachers. My grades weren't great, but the University of Washington was interested anyways. Everything was in its place. Could've stayed that way too, if Austin hadn't come in.
When he slipped into the echoing gym for tryouts in the September of my senior year, I overheard my teammates laughing. A couple of freshmen tried out every year, but none of them expected to get on the team. I'd been the last to do it. They'd try out just to get their names on our radar. But Austin hadn't been to any of the pre-tryout practices, knew none of the guys, and didn't look like he could even hold a bat, let alone crack it. Everything about him was soft -- his hands, his eyes, his smile. For a vocab quiz, I'd once had to learn the word "soporific." That was him. He always looked on the edge of sleep, his shy voice too gruff and drawling to fit with his baby-fat cheeks. He kept his hair long, like we all did, but on him, it didn't look like flow. It was curly and dense, rolling wildly from the edges of his hat. He was a nerd, just a stretched-out little boy.
Austin didn't play like he looked. He surprised me as soon as warmups began. During laps, he could run, really go, and not even get winded. When we tested batting skills, I got psyched. He was hitting everything square on, straight out. But when we asked for the pitchers to step up, I realized I was fucked. On a good day, I could get up to maybe 86 mph, a stat I'd worked hard for. But this kid, this freshman, was throwing 80 easy. Didn't seem like dumb luck, either. Seemed natural. The rest of the team was going wild, thinking here was just what we needed to get on the top of the league for the first time in three decades.
My face got hot. My shoulder ached. A drop of sweat needled down my spine. I couldn't take my eyes off him, his tongue wetting his lips before each pitch, his elbow whipping over and around so smoothly. There was no question in my mind that he was going to make the team. And then this was how I'd stay for the rest of my final season: shaking in the bleachers, my teammates cheering on a twig of a kid for doing my job.
For the week of tryouts, all I heard, all I saw, was Austin. His name was being whispered by everyone I passed in the halls, his rioting curls drifting just before me around each corner. He rode my thoughts all day. I felt like I was holding my breath until he'd walk into the locker room, his brand-new gear bag slung over a bony shoulder. When the list finally went up the next Monday, first line "Austin Barclay," it felt like a punch in the throat. I didn't think he was better than me. But I didn't know.
Tony, my relief pitcher, was nervous too. He came over after dinner, as he had most nights since we were in Little League together. When his dad had walked out, he'd adopted mine as a kind of surrogate. Dad had achieved a god-level status among my friends, but for Tony, it was more. He put on an unflinching loyalty you usually only saw with dogs and their masters. Dad loved it, having someone else to coach and lecture. I liked it too. Took some of the pressure off. We were in our typical evening positions on the front porch: Tony leaning against the chipped, paint-worn bannister on the front steps while I sprawled on the top stoop. And Dad, lording over us on the porch swing, smoking his Camels and oiling his bow.
"I mean, aren't you at least a little nervous?" Tony asked. "He's better than you were back then." I shrugged. "Might even be better than you now."
"What do you know about him? I mean, I haven't heard his name before. Did he play Little League?"
"He's a fucking kid, I dunno."
"Well, what's he like?" I asked. Tony shot me a speculative glance.
"What's he like? Jesus dude, you tryna get a date with him or something?" I could feel Dad's attention turn from the oil-cloth towards us. I kicked at Tony, and he toppled down a couple steps, laughing the whole way.
"I just want to know more about the guy who's gonna replace you as my backup, bitch." That struck a nerve for Tony.
"Yeah, joke all you want, but he's gunning for you too."
Dad rose from the swing, pointing his unstrung bow at us. "You both know better'n to let that happen."
This was all back in '02, when boys would be boys, and that meant hazing. It was more or less sanctioned by Coach Tucker, who gave us his keys to the athletic complex every year for First Meet. First Meet was the traditional grand welcome, the firm handshake extended from the upperclassmen to the rookies. They'd be put through their paces, worked hard, ridiculed, and at the end of the night feel like they'd earned their spots. When I'd come home from mine freshman year, 3:00 a.m., mud in all my clothes, shaking from the physical exertion of the night, I'd been elated.
"They made us get down in the mud, and Philip chipped a tooth on a rock, but I did so many pushups, Dad. And Ray told me he was gonna ask Coach to let me pitch during practice, too." Dad had been waiting up for me in the den under the flicker of Fox News. He gave me a derisive look.
"What, they made you do pushups in the mud? That's it? No wonder you're back already."
"Well, they locked us in our lockers. And they threw balls at us while we ran the track. Beaned me three or four times." I lifted my shirt, already dried to a silty crisp, to show him the burgeoning bruises on my ribs. He snorted.
"Our First Meet lasted the whole weekend, total debauchery. Made us drink 'til we ralphed. Covered us in each other's piss. Ate rotten meat. Couldn't walk straight for a week, they batted me so hard." He was gleeful in recounting this, happier even than when he talked about the no-hitter he'd pitched or his first college game.
He grunted in assent, a growling a-yup. "Top batter smacked our asses so hard I saw stars. Didn't stop after First Meet, neither. You're not supposed to like the team for your first year. Your generation's gone soft." He heaved himself out of the chair, slapped my back. I winced. He saw and laughed, a cruel hack from deep in his throat.
The team had talked about First Meet over the summer and decided that we'd do what had been done before -- turn the sprinklers on in the back field and make the rookies run in the mud until they puked or passed out. Then they'd be shut in the lockers and we'd scream insults at them and throw lukewarm beer through the grates 'til we got bored. But when they gathered the six rookies in the locker room after classes and said they needed to keep their Friday night free, Austin raised his hand.
"Well, it's just that I've gotta be in Seattle that night."
"Unacceptable. You'll be there or you're off the team." Lined up against the wall behind me, the guys shifted uncomfortably. They'd been wild to get him, overjoyed that we'd have a freshman star to carry us for the next four years.
"I -- I can't miss this." His voice, usually gravelly and low, pitched up and cracked under the pressure as his face got redder. "It's just that there's a skating tournament on Saturday, and I've gotta be there --"
"Figure skating?" I snorted. I sounded like my dad. "What kind of bullshit excuse is that?" The guys chuckled nervously. Coach Tucker leaned in from his seat on the bench.
"Shut up, Nick. You can go, kid, but no missing games for this skating nonsense, ok?" Austin nodded frantically, thanking Coach while darting cautious looks my way. I could feel it already, could feel how close the team was to slipping out of my grasp, could feel this skittish boy with teary eyes dancing just out of my reach.
First Meet went fine, but I felt hollow. I couldn't tap into the raw energy that fueled my teammates as they chased the rookies, spraying them with hoses and screaming obscenities. No one had taken much notice of my silence during sprints or the push-up competition, but it was harder to hide when we were just sitting around in the gym cracking beers and jokes. The rookies were stuffed in the equipment lockers with all the shit-stained underwear and moldering socks we could find, lights turned off and strict instructions to keep quiet. Every once in a while, one of us would sneak in and bang on the lockers to keep them on their toes. I thought about Austin, what he was doing. I wondered what kind of stupid, bedazzled getup he'd be wearing on the ice the next morning. There was a lull in the conversation. I pounced.
"Yo, we gotta figure out what to do with Barclay." Bleary, drunk eyes blinked at me. "I mean, we all went through First Meet. His buddies in there are going through it, and he's out, what, sleeping in a cushy hotel bed and prancing on ice? How's that fair? How's he supposed to be part of this team without it?" I could see the guys nodding. They took up the problem I'd manufactured, swapping ideas back and forth.
"We can just host another meet," said one of the juniors.
"Wouldn't be fair to the other rookies, making 'em do it twice," answered a senior.
Tony and I exchanged a look. "What about one just for him?" he asked. "Let the rookies join us. That'll teach him to fuck with the team." He smirked.
"That would suck, doing it alone," one of the guys cut in.
Tony persisted, "It’s gotta be something formal, though.” The team went on, negating each other’s plans and shouting over each other as they dug for a solution. I let them go on for a bit, then raised my hands.
“Shut up assholes, can’t have the rookies hearing this.” They fell silent. I felt it coming back, their attention, their respect, their deference. “Here’s what I say. Hearing my dad talk about his day, it wasn’t just First Meet. They messed with rookies the whole first year. Why don’t we do that shit anymore? We could have ‘em carry our gear for us. Clean the locker room. Run extra laps. Just, we do it more for Barclay. Make it a little tougher for him.” I watched the idea take hold. “We don’t have to do the whole year. Just until games start up.” The guys were tilting their heads, finishing their beers, mulling it over.
“It’s only fair,” said Tony, and I had them.
It started out pretty tame. First thing Monday, we shaved the rookies’ heads and swept all the stray hair into Austin’s gear bag. It had the odd effect of making them look hard, like they were ready to throw down at a moment’s notice. Except Austin, who got a dick shaved on the back of his head. We gave them nicknames -- Julio Realez was now Cialis, Owen was Hoein’, that kind of thing. The other rookies thought their punny new names were hilarious. But Austin became Asstin Bar-Gay. He flinched every time someone yelled it. We made them wear nametags for a week, and every time one of us caught a rookie without his, we’d give him a bigger one. By the end of the week, we’d hung a 3×3 block of cardboard by a string around Austin’s neck. None of the other names stuck for long. Just Asstin.
The rookies were in charge of all the equipment. They brought it out to the practice field, they cleaned it, they stored it. Austin also had to lace up me and Tony’s cleats as a “pitch bitch” task. Tony’d always make him do it twice. Despite all this, he threw 82 mph in the first week of October. Coach Tucker actually got up from the bench and clapped him on the back. I wouldn’t have minded so much, but Dad was watching practice that day. He walked me back to the gym from the field.
“So, what are you going to do?” he asked me. “Kid’s kicking your ass.”
“Can’t do much, Dad. Just gotta work harder.”
He scoffed. “You know what they say. If you can’t beat ‘em, beat ‘em up.” He caught my shocked expression. “Man up, Nick. Only guy I know that won’t throw a punch is a sissy.”
Mid-October, the University of Washington make me a recruiting offer, full ride. I accepted. In celebration, we had a team dinner at Torino’s. We ate family style, but none of the food made it down to Austin’s end of the table.
For the Halloween school dance, we chose the rookies’ costumes. Austin was Pacman, the other five were ghosts. We had some beer in the locker room and made it a game -- each time a rookie knocked Austin down, he earned himself a can. We went through a case and a half from that alone. I saw Austin at the end of the dance, limping, his canary yellow costume covered in scuffs and dirt, torn at the shoulder. He caught my gaze. Paused. Didn’t say anything, just stood there, shrinking into himself.
I thought about calling off the hazing after that. I kept seeing that image in my dreams: Austin staring right into me, the harsh fluorescent lights of the school lobby redrawing his baby face into a gaunt, skeletal mask. It haunted me. Then Coach Tucker switched up the roster for our scrimmage against the Duvall Devils. Luckily, I was still starting pitcher. But Austin had replaced Tony as my relief. After the game Tony came over, fuming.
“I mean, I’m a senior! I’ve fucking earned better than this,” he shouted. We were lying on the couches in the den. Dad was reclined in his La-Z-Boy, half listening to us, half watching TV. “I don’t mind being under you, bro. You earned it too. But a freshman? Asstin? Gimme a break.” I nodded along, letting Tony’s fury wash over me. All I could think of was how awake Austin looked when he pitched, his round eyes focused into slits, his tongue jammed under the smooth mound of his cheek. “Nick, wake up. I know you think you’re all set with the offer from U-dub, but how’re they gonna feel when they see that their recruited pitcher is getting creamed by a twink? You can’t see where this is headed?”
Dad popped down the footrest of his recliner, announcing his entrance into our conversation. “Time to kick it up a notch, then.”
“How?” Tony asked. He’d snapped to attention, a soldier receiving orders.
“I ever tell you about my First Meet?” Dad asked. He launched into the story I’d heard a hundred times before, describing the various beatings and degradation he’d been subject to. Tony nodded along. I thought about hitting Austin with a bat. I felt sick. Dad and Tony huddled together, plotting. I excused myself to shower.
It started getting cold halfway through November, so we moved practice into the heated gym. Around the same time, the locker room started getting a kind of smell. I mean, it had never smelled good, but this was different. It was rank and cloying. Its meaty spoor clung to our nostrils even after we left the locker room, sank into the fibers of our jerseys and drifted around us in a haze all day. No one could figure out what it was, but it reminded me of the time our basement freezer gave out in the dead of summer and all of Dad’s venison steaks rotted. The general consensus seemed to be that an animal had crawled into the vents and died. It was clearly coming from the corner where Austin’s locker was, and Tony started a campaign to blame him. The team started carrying canisters of AXE everywhere they went, spraying it at him in the halls.
I heard the rumors that were being spread about Austin. That we’d caught him holding one of the other rookies’ jock straps while jacking off. That his dick was so small, he’d technically been born a girl. That the smell was solo cups of dog shit he kept in his locker. I didn’t need to ask where the rumors came from.
The smell only intensified as time passed. We gagged collectively every time we entered the locker room, and prepping for practice became a mad, violent dash, shoving at each other while we collected our gear so we could change in the gym. When the janitor refused to step foot in the locker room, Coach Tucker ordered that we clean it from top to bottom and fix the problem. We found nothing, but the team trashed Austin’s locker in the process, threw bleach all over his gear to “purify” it. His fellow rookies had until this point been his comrades, fighting the good fight together. Austin, hands over his nose, just watched as Tony handed them jugs of Clorox. I couldn’t tell if his eyes were watering from the smell or not.
“Do you think we’ve gone too far?” I asked Tony later that night, back in the den. Dad had gone to the kitchen to grab more beer. We were cramming for a math test the next day, textbook spread on the coffee table and half-done homework littering the floor.
“Nah, test is up to chapter eight. We’re only on seven,” Tony said, flipping through his notebook distractedly. “What’s the difference between amplitude and period again?”
“I meant with Austin.”
He turned to me, baffled. “Are you going soft on me?” he asked. “Kid’s a little shit. Needs toughening up.” Dad’s footsteps rounded the corner of the hall, and he dropped his voice. “Don’t be such a pussy. We’re doing God’s work here.”
The smell didn’t dissipate over Thanksgiving break. After our first practice back, we wrapped t-shirts coated in Vick’s VapoRub around our faces and dragged the rookies into the reeking locker room. We made them take a knee and chug bottles of Gatorade mixed with vodka. I didn’t know, but Austin’s was just grain alcohol with food coloring. He ended up puking on the locker room floor.
“Now look what you’ve done!” roared Tony, gripping the locks of hair just starting to regrow at the nape of Austin’s neck and shoving his face down towards the floor. “Clean it up, shithead.” Austin was bent over at my feet panting, a hoarse wheeze, drool and bile spilling from his mouth. “Clean it!” He made to get up, lurching towards the paper towel dispenser, but Tony shoved him down again. “Eat it.” The room was quiet, everyone waiting to see what would happen. Austin moaned, a thin, broken sound. I felt like puking myself.
“Come on man,” I said. “No one wants to see that.” Tony whipped around, his teeth bared.
“The fuck, Nick?” It wasn’t often that I pulled captain’s rank on him, and I could see the angry betrayal in his face.
“With his shirt,” I backtracked. “Don’t make us all watch him throw up again.” Tony blinked, considering the alternative. Then started laughing. He ripped the shirt off Austin’s torso, revealing the little knots of his spine bursting up along his back, like a row of hinges keeping the two halves of his ribcage together. Austin cleaned, and Tony made him wear the shirt after. He pulled the sodden hem over his still-heaving stomach without complaint.
By the end of the term, the rest of the guys decided that we’d taken it far enough. They’d bonded with the rookies and grown sick of toying with them. But Tony pressed for one more event. “A kind of Last Meet,” he proposed. “I’ve got a Christmas surprise for all of us.” We told the rookies to plan on staying late after our last practice for a holiday party. Once more, we donned our Vick’s coated t-shirts and dragged the rookies into the locker room. Tony, brandishing a screwdriver, mounted the bench and turned to address us.
“Gentlemen. Rookies. Asstin. We’ve all wondered for the last month, what’s that smell?” Goodhearted chuckles rounded the room. Austin shifted nervously on the balls of his feet. My nerves crawled. “Well, wonder no longer!” He reached above the wall of lockers and began to unscrew the grate of a heating vent. “I’ve been preparing a special Christmas feast just for you. Aged venison!” The grate popped loose and something fell out, a gelatinous mass accompanied by a fresh wave of the smell. I retched. I wasn’t alone. On the floor in front of Austin’s locker lay a thick ooze of rotting meat. At first I thought it was slithering towards my feet, but I realized it was just a squirm of maggots writhing in the paste-like remnants of what had once undoubtedly been my father’s kill. “Rookies, it’s time to fight. Loser either eats the meat or leaves the team.” They looked at each other dumbly for a second. A hush hung in the air, broken only by the sound of a junior dry heaving.
Then they thrashed into action. Fists flew, mostly aimed at the weakest of the pack – Austin. The fight hit a fever pitch, the rest of the team screaming in a tightening ring around the action. I watched Austin fall to the floor. They didn’t stop. He wrapped his arms around his head, tucking into a fetal position as they kicked at his stomach. Every time they made contact, I felt the fleshy thud in my own body.
“He’s down!” I shouted. No one listened. “Stop! He’s down, he’s down!” I watched as a cleat caught him in the neck, then threw myself into the throng to cover Austin’s weeping body. Shocked, the rookies stopped.
“Keep going!” Tony yelled at them, but they hesitated, unsure what to do with me, unwilling to go in on each other.
I turned to look up at Tony. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“The fuck is wrong with you?” His voice was hoarse from egging on the fight. “Can’t take a joke?”
“This isn’t funny! This is messed up, dude.”
“You were fine with everything else!” He pushed through the crush of the team. “Hell, you even started it.”
“I didn’t want this!” I gestured at the slime on the locker room floor. At Austin, coughing and rubbing his throat. At the rookies, dumbfounded with bruised knuckles.
“Your dad was right. You’re too soft to follow through.”
I’d been hot, so hot, but all of a sudden felt cold. I struggled up from the floor. “Blow me, asshole.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You’re just another faggot. The both of you.” He spat at Austin, huddled behind my legs. My fist shot up, got Tony right in the jaw. He shoved me into the locker and wrapped his fingers around my neck, leaving me straining for breath, scraping at his wrists. The team erupted in jeers again, even louder than before, rushing to pull us off each other. Or maybe to join in, but at that moment Coach Tucker roared into the room.
“ENOUGH. Nick. My office.”
A half hour later, I skulked out of the athletic center. He’d reamed me out, been the angriest I’d ever seen him. Told me when we got back from break, the locker room better be clean. Austin better be folded into the team. My beef with Tony better be over. Everything back in its place. Outside, it had started to snow, great tufts drifting and colliding, gathering in the corners of the schoolyard. I kicked through the drifts, gripping the cold metal of my keys until I felt their bite through the thick calluses on my palm. At the crown of the tarmac, a figure I couldn’t mistake hunched on the stairs descending into the parking lot. Austin, his down jacket not quite disguising the jut of his shoulders.
I sat next to him. He looked up at me. His lips were tinged blue.
“Need a ride?” I asked.
“My mom’ll be here soon,” he mumbled, more shiver than word. “I told her the holiday party would end later.”
We sat there for another ten minutes, enclosed by the kind of silence that only comes in the deep woods or fresh snow. Rushes of anger kept rattling through me. I was angry at Tony for calling me out like that. For talking with my dad like that. Angry with myself for hitting Tony. For starting this whole thing, just like he’d said. Furious with Austin, too. For what, I wasn’t sure. But then I’d look at him, shivering, and all I wanted to do was take him in my arms. Wrap him up.
I threw him my phone. “Call her from the car, I’m driving you home.”
His house was only a five-minute drive from the school. The whole way, Austin clutched at his backpack, narrow fingers worrying a series of zippers on its side. He leaned in towards the gush of my Nissan’s heaters, and suddenly the air was filled with the scent of baby shampoo. I breathed deeply. Felt my stomach clench. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him, but couldn’t quite look him in the eye. A nervous quiet itched and pulsed between us. I couldn’t tell if he felt it too.
“Thank you,” he whispered when we reached his driveway. I said nothing. Just stared at his face, noticing the tight draw of his brow. The gentle bow of his upper lip. A wisp of peach fuzz on his chin. He pulled at the door’s handle, then paused and turned to face me. “How did you do it?” he asked. “Stand up to Tony, I mean. Why?” He looked hopeful, like how he’d looked during tryouts. I thought about my early fears, about having to watch him pitch from the bleachers. It didn’t seem so bad anymore.
But then it all came back: the fight, the fury, the rot. “Don’t expect it again.” The words felt like poison in my mouth, rancid and insincere. “You gotta learn to stick up for yourself.”
He gave a little nod and jumped into the gathering dark.
They found his body on the fourth day of the new year, when they broke the icy crust of Hart Lake and dragged the bottom. I’d come down with the flu and was sitting in the den, feverish and sweating under piles of blankets. Tony came over to break the news. “Drowned, I guess,” he said. “He was wearing his skates.”
Dad was a shadow leaning against the lit doorway. He rubbed his cheeks and the rasp of scruff against his calluses sent a current through my spine. “Probably thought the lake was frozen. Poor kid.” He shook his head and limped to the kitchen.
“He knew it wasn’t frozen.” I was numb.
“You can’t know that,” Tony whined. It was a plea for absolution.
“I need to be alone right now.” He hesitated. I thought he was going to say something else, but he just turned and walked away.
I don’t remember much after that. I don’t remember throwing off my blankets and vomiting on the floor. I just know that my knees were covered in bile, like I’d knelt to pray in the puddle. I don’t remember unlocking the gun cabinet or taking the keys for the truck. I just know that I found myself rattling towards the estate, rifle sliding across the bench seat next to me. I roared past the caretaker’s cottage. I parked haphazardly in the public lot, leaving the truck’s lights on and the door open as I lurched towards the Rose Walk. I didn’t care who saw. I didn’t care who tried to stop me. The rifle, slung across my back, caught in the fence. I screamed in frustration, but the woods just watched.
I hurtled through the underbrush, rifle bouncing on my back, snow packing into my sneakers. The first growth loomed around me, but the silence wouldn’t settle. Everything was too loud -- my breathing, my heartbeat, my thoughts. I threw myself into any open space the massive trunks allowed. The mouth of a clearing yawned ahead of me and I tripped on a root, falling to the frozen clay. Stunned, I found the silence. I waited.
I was dimly aware of the cold snapping its jaws around me, licking at my cheeks and the soles of my feet. I felt my body’s shivers slow, then cease. Was dawn breaking? I didn’t know, but it seemed the clearing was brighter. A deer, a stag, appeared before me, stepping softly over the fresh snow in a drifting dance. His hide, dappled white, shone against the gloom of the mossy cedars. He was a 12-point buck, his antlers extending almost past comprehension, embraced by the just-visible glow of their fur. He stood still, his head cocked to watch me back. His eyes were pools. I felt like I was falling in.
I formed two fists with my hands, shooting warmth back into my deadened fingers. When I was sure I wouldn’t drop it, I lifted the rifle from my side and nestled it into my shoulder. Safety off. Sight set. Breathe in. Exhale and shoot.
There was an angry click that ricocheted into the frozen bark forest, but nothing more. The rifle fell from the cradle of my hands, unloaded, impotent, useless.
The deer hadn’t been startled by the click. He continued to regard me disdainfully. He huffed once, a plume of steam rising from his nostrils, then turned his back on me. I watched him float through the forest until his hide was indistinguishable from the pre-dawn shadows.
Tears bloomed hot in my eyes. With the rifle gripped firmly in hand, I began the long trek back, no corpse to drag behind me.