The two boys high-step through the marsh, one ahead, scanning the forest with deadly seriousness. Ted watches his friend trekking carefully through the brush and attempts to do the same. He pulls at the leather strap of his rifle and nimbly hops a creek to narrow the distance between himself and his friend. His friend stops, drops to a crouch, and shoots back an open hand. Ted halts, incredibly aware of the twinkle of birdsong and stressed branches beneath his feet. His friend turns his head, slowly, lips thin, eyes wide, and beckons gently with his open hand. With ninja precision he sneaks to his friend’s position and follows his gaze down the hill to a small clearing. There she is, a white-tailed beauty, stepping lightly through the trees. At his friend’s nod he carefully pulls free his rifle and shoulders it. He pulls firmly at the lever. The deer’s head ticks in unison with the bullet clicking into the barrel. Her black eye bobs in the cross-hairs of his rifle’s scope.
Years later Ted will return to this same wood with his daughter. She’ll be following him with care, his old leather-strapped gun slung over her shoulder. It’ll take them two days of tracking before they get close enough for a shot, and he’ll let her take it, her first. He’ll be standing close behind her, watching her with equal parts protectiveness and pride as she takes aim.
Ted sucks in air through his teeth with a faint whistle, then lets his lungs empty and squeezes the trigger. The violent crack echoes through the trees and his shoulder jerks back. He watches her hind legs seize frantically like a fallen wind-up toy, fighting for life like she has a chance of getting away. His friend lets out a resounding whoop.
“Got her! Now just let her flap out!”
The two boys creep closer. The deer twitches with decreasing frequency. Faintly aware of a ringing in his ears, Ted gazes at the white spots scattered across golden brown fur. It looks course. It feels soft. Her black eye quivers, rolling, moist up close.
He remembers his first kill, and the savage perversion that ensued. Ted was escaping the summer heat in his uncle’s garage, admiring the motorcycles and sneaking bright blue cans of Bud Light from the fridge when his cousin spotted a squirrel through the window. He grabbed a BB gun from a shelf, exasperated with their constant thieving from the birdfeeder. He handed it to Ted with his non-broken arm with visible reluctance, pouting. Ted moved the barrel skyward through the small window. From the moment he pulled the trigger he knew it was a perfect shot, and, grinning with his beginners luck, he ran down the stairs to the fallen squirrel. It squirmed aggressively, a dark hole in its neck. He felt his eyebrows rise at the sight of the squirrel’s nipple rows, and he got a flash of crying baby squirrels, impossibly cute, impatiently waiting for their mother to bring back food. She continued to writhe in the dry grass. Ted put another bullet in her to take her out of her misery. She went still. It was strange seeing the shot from so close. He fired another. Five or ten pops later his cousin comes thundering down the deck stairs, one arm encumbered by a stiff black cast, the other carrying a shovel.
Ted thrust the spade under the corpse, which rolled lamely and he had to try several more times to get the body in the spade, and when he did he tried to chuck it over the fence into the neighbor’s yard but it fell short and flopped onto the ground with a heavy thud. Ted and his cousin found themselves guffawing at the sight, and entertained themselves by tossing the corpse high into the air. Finally Ted let the squirrel fly with a practiced fling and she soared over the fence and into their neighbor’s yard, no longer their problem.
At his friend’s instruction Ted shoves his hunting knife into the fading deer and feels warm blood seep down his knuckles. He strokes her ear, vaguely aware his face is wet, and watches the life leave her eyes. There are no superfluous bullets this time. He’s older now. He’ll tell his daughter this is his first kill.
Brent Cronin is a 22 year old graduate of the University of Washington’s creative writing program. He loves riding his fixie around Seattle and going to the movies.