Something’s out there. Something has shown up in the woods of Highland City. Dave Hardy was the first to see it, the first weekend of bow season, up in his grandfather’s tree stand on the hill behind Wal-Mart. Afterwards he bushwhacked hell-bent down to the parking lot and, gasping for breath, tried to tell the story to anyone who would listen. The story changed with the telling, and after a while Dave Hardy himself didn’t know what to believe: See that old pine tree over there? It was close to me as that tree. As close as that blue Honda over there. As close as you to me.
Panther. Painter. Puma. Cougar. Mountain lion. People started talking. Word spread. Whatever you want to call it, by the end of October, half a dozen more claimed they had caught a glimpse of it: a pale shiver in the distance, a flash of fur through the trees. In the woods, hunters linger in their tree stands, hoping they might be the next. In the houses, the big cat creeps nightly, making the rounds of dinner tables and dreams.
Twenty years in a taxidermy shop and Jack Wells has heard his share of tall tales, near misses, the one that got away. But the panther stories are different, told with pitch and fervour, a wild look in the eye. They don’t carry much truck with Jack. No one, after all, has any sort of proof – a photo, a positively identifiable set of tracks, or even a really good look at the thing. For all Jack is concerned, it’s an overgrown coyote, someone’s German shepherd, or a figment of everyone’s imagination. A mountain lion in Highland City? Sure, there’s woods out there, hills with deep hollers and abandoned tobacco fields; not a whole lot of people, nothing to the south but the Plaxco plant, nothing to the north but Kentucky – but the chances are just as good you’ll run into a woolly mammoth. People, if you ask Jack, have lost all sense.
His ex-wife Jeanne is the worst of them. Jabbering on about it like it’s some kind of cuddly pussy cat.
‘Oh, isn’t it something!’ she tells Jack, when they bump into one another in the frozen foods aisle of Tony’s Shur-Save. ‘Wouldn’t I like to catch me a glimpse of it.’
Jack is on one of the store’s motorized scooters, the basket filled with items he’s begrudgingly picked from the doctor’s new list: brown rice, cottage cheese, egg replacer. He’s embarrassed by the scooter, and when he realizes Jeanne isn’t going to say anything, he shifts around on the seat, boxed in by his shame.
‘For Christ’s sake, Jeanne. There’s nothing out there.’
Jeanne lets go of her cart and puts her hands on her hips, cocks her head at him and gives him a look.
‘And how do you know?’
‘Because I seen everything that come out of these woods the last twenty years. Every buck, doe, weasel, turkey, tick and flea. There ain’t no panther out there. There ain’t been a panther for over ninety years.’
‘Well,’ Jeanne says, pursing her lips, considering this. ‘There is now.’
At the end of the summer, just seven weeks ago, Jack lost his left leg at the knee, the latest battleground of his diabetes. He has only just returned to work full-time, and the walk-in freezer is stuffed with back orders: stiff red foxes stacked six deep and more buck head-and-shoulders than he cares to shake a stick at. Finished work crowds the shop: dozens of bucks, turkeys, coons, pheasants, squirrels on cured oak branches, large-mouth bass on maple plaques.
Ronnie, the latest in a long line of apprentices, still around only because he hasn’t knocked up a girl or blown his face up cooking meth, sits just outside the walk-in in a ski parka, defrosting a marten skin with a hairdryer and grunting along to the radio. He came in three days a week and did prep work while Jack was recovering, leaving a pile of buck capes so sloppily fleshed out that Jack is having to go back over each one of them with a razor blade to get rid of the leftover bits of fat and vein. Jack is sitting at his workbench, shaking out a cramp in his hand and cursing the day Ronnie was born, when Jeanne comes in, the bell on the door jingling.
‘Well, well, well,’ Jack says to the full-body doe mount which stands next to him, ears pricked, front hoof raised, frozen in the moment just before flight. ‘Don’t look now.’
For twenty years, since Jack started the taxidermy business, Jeanne has come down to the shop from the house at least twice a day: in the morning to bring the sorted mail and in the evening to do the receipts and sweep. Four days a week she works down at the elementary school in the principal’s office, a job she’s had for forty years, since the summer after they got married. Jeanne kept the house in the divorce. Jack moved into a little trailer on what was left of his father’s tobacco holdings, where he’s been ever since. But his shop remained in their old two-car garage, a hundred yards down the hill from the house. It’s a good spot – tucked up against a wooded hill, no neighbours for miles. He would never be able to rent a place like this, and even back then it had already become something of an institution among the men of Highland City. What he didn’t anticipate was that the thin path that links the house to the shop would persist, worn down to the hard dirt through the years by his steps, now by Jeanne’s. Jeanne does the ordering, the taxes, the books. Ask Jack Wells how his ex-wife is and he’ll shrug and roll his eyes and always give the same answer: ‘Around.’
‘All right, Hud, shoe off!’ Jeanne claps her hands with cheerful authority. Once a week, for the six weeks he’s been home since the surgery, she has insisted on cutting the toenails of Jack’s good foot. This was how it started, on the other side: an ingrown toenail, a raging infection, his circulation shot to hell from the diabetes. Jeanne driving white-knuckled to the emergency room.
Jack throws down the buck cape and pushes his stool back with a screech.
‘Where’s the dog?’
He’s peering into the open doorway behind her. Tiny, Jeanne’s ancient and devoted black-and-tan beagle, was banished last week, after lifting his leg on a ruffed grouse.
‘In the house. Don’t you worry about him. I told him, I said, “Tiny, I’m not letting you out of my sight any more, you hear me?”’
She raises her voice an octave, to the sing-song tone she uses with the dog.
‘No sir. Not with that mean old hungry panther prowling around here. Uh-uh. Not out of my sight.’
She takes off her windbreaker and lays it carefully between two raccoons, nostrils stuffed with cotton batting, drying on the plywood table in the middle of the room. ‘Now, I want to get this over with just as much as you do, Huddie, so be a good boy and give me something for under my knees. These old bones can’t take no more kneeling on concrete floors.’
As she struggles to her knees on his old corduroy jacket, he looks down at her. The top of her head is so familiar. The same perm she has always worn, only grey now, instead of red-brown: a black-and-white photo of her younger self. He feels a startling rise of anticipation for her warm, wet mouth, a forty-year-old memory stirred by the sight of her head at his lap: the back seat of his car at the drive-in. But then she pulls the little leather kit out of her sweatshirt pocket and unfolds it to reveal an array of cold, sharp metal tools, and he coughs and shifts his weight.
‘Let’s get this over with,’ he barks.
Jeanne furrows her brow in concentration as she sets to work on each tough yellow nail. Jack folds his arms across his chest and puffs his cheeks, letting out a long breath. His stomach is bothering him. His stomach is always bothering him. It gurgles and spits, clenches and churns. Those pills. They gave him another set of prescriptions after this round in the hospital, after he made it through the unbearable days of physical therapy. He frowns and studies his gut, like a basketball under his shirt. He can’t see beyond it to his foot, or to the metal rods of his prosthetic that peek out under his left cuff. In six weeks he goes back for the permanent one, the one that is supposed to be so lifelike he will forget it’s not his.
‘Betty Ann Flowers called last night. Her new miniature schnauzer? Missing. Disappeared clear out of her yard. That dog cost her four hundred dollars, too.’ Jeanne draws in her breath. ‘Can you even imagine? I told Tiny, I said, “Not out of my—”’
‘Careful,’ Jack snaps.
‘I am being careful, Huddie,’ Jeanne sighs. She can’t understand why he doesn’t see that this is all for his own good. He seems to think she wants to do this. She shoots him a look. His face, between the jowls, is the same as it has always been, like a familiar road widened for shoulders. She wonders if he is really watching his weight. He seems heavier. Her breath catches in her throat, and she looks back down quickly, telling herself not to worry about him. In high school, she’d thought he looked like – just a little bit like – Paul Newman. Not the eyes – Jack’s were brown and sleepy – but in the chin, mostly. They saw Hud down at the drive-in when they were first married, and she teasingly nicknamed him after the movie’s cold-hearted, cheating hero. By the time the bad years rolled around, they were both so used to the name that neither one drew the connection, saw the irony.
cat fever reads the headline of the Highland City Gazette on the first day of rifle season. There are two pictures below: a stock photograph of a mountain lion, teeth bared, ears pinned back, and a grainy photograph of Dave Hardy with another man Jack doesn’t recognize, serious looks set on their faces, crouched next to a wash somewhere up in the woods. An inset shows what they are pointing to: a blurred set of tracks in the mud, which mysteriously disappear, according to the caption, after only a few feet.
‘Could have been made by anything,’ Jack tells Ronnie, peering down his nose at the paper. ‘Coyote. Bobcat. Some little old dog. Listen. We just don’t have the wilderness to hold an animal of that size. Scraggly third-growth hardwoods chopped up by logging roads and so full of hunters on ATVs it’s a wonder they don’t shoot each other’s nuts off. A panther, first of all, is secretive and shy. Second, they can cover some ground. Fifteen, twenty miles a day. There just isn’t the room. He’d keep bumping up against highways.’
‘It’s hogwash,’ Jack tells Jeanne later, when she’s down in the afternoon to sweep. The pain in his stump has been building all day, like a swarm of ants. He wants to go home and lie down in the dark and not have to see or talk to anyone for days. ‘Where would it have come from in the first place? Closest it might have wandered in from, closest those things live to us, is the wildest bayous of Louisiana. You mean to tell me that a hundred-fifty-pound cat wandered out of some canebrake jungle, walked seven hundred miles without being sighted once, crossed four-lane roads and subdivisions and schoolyards and took up residence here? In Highland City?’
‘Well,’ Jeanne says quietly. ‘You don’t have to yell. And who knows? Maybe it didn’t walk. Maybe it climbed up and fell asleep in a boxcar somewhere. Maybe it came on a train.’
Late on a Friday afternoon, Jack stops Ronnie as he’s leaving the shop and asks if he’s given any thought to his future. ‘I’m not going to be at this forever, you know. If you put a little more into it, you could be taking over here in a couple of years.’ But Ronnie doesn’t think much about his future at all, at least not the kind measured in years. Ronnie has been thinking, lately, about quite a few other things. If he has enough credit to put a down payment on an ATV. If mountain lions are attracted to catnip. If he should ask his girlfriend, Tanya, to move in with him. Tanya is nineteen and a poet. Later that night, he picks her up at work and they drink beer over at Sullivan’s. She sits across from him in their booth and scrawls in a big loose-leaf notebook while he watches a wrestling match on the TV above the bar. His sweatshirt and glasses are flecked with blood and bits of fatty tissue. Jack is always trying to get him to change his clothes when he leaves work. ‘You can’t be taking a girl on a date dressed like that!’ But Tanya doesn’t care, or at least has never said anything.
‘You know what I wanna do?’ he says, eyes on the screen. ‘Get me one of them flat-screen TVs. One of them big ones.’
Tanya looks up at him, her pen in her mouth, and doesn’t say a word. She is writing a poem about the panther. All her life, one thing has been sure: nothing ever happens in Highland City. Now this. She believes it is some sort of sign.
The feet contain a quarter of all the bones in the human body, the doctors told Jack when he was in the hospital: 107 or 109, depending on how you count a bone or bones of the inner ear. Either way, he is down to double digits now. He thinks about that often–too often. In bed, trying to sleep, he stuffs a pillow over the place where his left leg should be, the way the nurses showed him. When that does nothing to calm the pain, he lurches out of bed and finds the heaviest book in the house. When that doesn’t work, he flings it across the room, pounds the mattress and bites the pillow. His leg. Sometimes he has a panicky thought that they gave it to Jeanne; in a jar, like a tonsil. And that she has it up there in the house, with all his things: his old records and taxidermy videos, the suit he wore at their wedding, his .22 and his mother’s bible. All those other things he would have said twenty years ago were essential but had proven after all not to be.
Ray Blevins finds a dead fawn under his tree stand, all ripped to hell, half buried in the leaves, like something is planning to return for it. He comes up to the shop for no other reason than to tell this story to Jack. Ray is one that Jack has a hard time finding any respect for. One of the big talkers who needs a dozen technological gadgets to bring down a measly spike buck, who wants to go out there on a Saturday morning with his cellphone and his GPS system, his digital oestrus bleat call and human scent killer and $600 rifle and pretend he is Daniel Boone, out on the knife-edge of danger, deep in the uncharted wilderness. But a man couldn’t get lost out there if he tried. That’s why Jack quit hunting long ago, even before he got sick. Because you simply can’t get lost and where’s the excitement and pleasure in that?
‘You know,’ Ray says, jabbing his finger at the window, ‘they say one of these cats will follow you. Read about a man out in Colorado got followed for twenty miles. They’re just curious, though. Worst thing you can do is run. You run, then, well, kiss it goodbye. Get your jugular torn right out. If you know one’s behind you, you just got to keep your cool, keep going on your business.’
Jack gives the clock a good long look, but Ray keeps going.
‘Ten feet. Ten feet, they can pounce from a standstill. Tell that to your kid on his walk to school in the morning. Tell that to these people who think we should let this thing be.’
‘Tell that to my ex-wife, then,’ Jack says, turning away. ‘She seems to think we should put a cosy little wicker basket and a scratching post out for it.’
Ray snorts. ‘People just don’t understand. What we have here, what we’ve got on our hands, is a monster.’
Those who have heard it say the call of a mountain lion is like the scream of a woman, more chilling – more hopeless – than anything you will hear in your life. The sound of a woman whose child has been wrenched from her arms, who is now watching, helplessly, as the last breath is choked out of it.
That no one in Highland City has heard such a night-ripping scream is one of the many points Jack constantly brings up in support of finding another explanation. What he does not tell anyone, not even Jeanne, is the sound that he himself heard, one night, a week ago, at the moment he had found a way to creep around the pain and part the curtains of a dream. Suddenly he was wide awake, terrified. What was that? What the hell was that?
But what with the painkillers he was still on. And the awful nights’ sleep he’s been having. Of course there’s an explanation. It was nothing more than a terrible hallucination. And yet, for the past week he has kept the television on all night, the volume turned up loud. Just for company.
Ray Blevins buys a number-four steel bear trap with a two-foot drag chain and hauls a dead calf halfway up the hillside behind the filling station and when word gets out about it, all hell breaks loose. We need to take action, men start saying. For the safety of our women and children. Before something happens that we all regret.
Some Rotarians get together and invest in night-vision goggles and go out every midnight with an arsenal of rifles and don’t come home until sunrise. Jack shakes his head and wonders how soon before someone gets himself shot. Whatever that thing might turn out to be, he thinks, why not just leave it the hell in peace? Every third customer who comes in asks if Jack will mount the cat for him if he bags it. And Jack, weary, counters with the oldest joke in the book: ‘Sure, Bud. Two for one and we’ll do your ex-wife too.’ They slap him on the back, sending a tide of pain down his spine. ‘Good one, Jack!’ they all say.
One morning Ronnie grabs a pencil from Jack’s workbench, draws something on the back of an envelope and thrusts it in front of Jack. He’s breathing through his nose, his glasses slipped down, his flabby face trembling. ‘I seen it,’ he says. ‘Out on the road last night. I seen it! Scared the shit out of me. Nearly wrecked.’
Jack squints at the picture: a primitive cave painting, a child’s crayon drawing. ‘You saw a water buffalo?’
Ronnie stares at him. He hits the paper with the end of the pencil. ‘The cougar. Last night, around eleven. I was leaving Sullivan’s. I caught it in my high beams, coming around that bend. It was there on the shoulder. Then it just disappeared into the trees. I pulled over but it was long gone.’
‘You don’t say.’
Jack considers the drawing again. It reminds him of the first couple of mounts Ronnie has attempted himself, a coon and a pintail duck: graceless, stiff, hastily and sloppily done. You have to lose yourself in the work, Jack has always believed. At some point in the process, even for a few minutes – and it sounds like a bunch of hocus-pocus – you have to let the animal lead you. After all, it’s not clay or paint or iron you’re working with. What you’re working with has, up until recently, been a living, breathing thing; for a dozen years or more has been blinking, snorting, sleeping, grazing, scanning the horizon. You have to respect that. You have to get in touch with that, if you want to come close to reproducing it.
‘Believe it now?’ Ronnie says, striking the paper with the pencil.
‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’ Jack says, feeling suddenly depressed. He’s ready to go home, lie down on the couch, fry up a pork chop. To hell with his new diet.
‘That bitch is mine,’ Ronnie says, as if Jack has suggested otherwise. ‘That son of a bitch is all mine.’
Up on the ridge under Ray Blevins’s tree stand, the dead fawn’s flesh is stripped away by coyote, then fox, then possum, their eyes glinting as they visit it in the night, tiny teeth tearing. The ants come too. Whatever killed it does not come back. Soon all that is left is the ribcage, looming on the hilltop like an empty basket.
One chilly December afternoon, the smell of snow in the air, Tanya comes to the shop to pick up Ronnie, whose truck isn’t running again. Pulling into the drive, she sees Jeanne in the yard, fussing with her birdfeeders, squat and round in her big down parka, her glasses on a string around her neck. What is it with old people and birds? Tanya wonders. She thinks of her grandmother, the device she has with the microphone outside so she can sit in her living room and listen to the birds while she watches her soaps on television. If I ever end up like that, she thinks, climbing out of the car and skirting a puddle in the driveway. Stuck rotting away inside while the world goes on outside. Well, somebody just shoot me.
When Tanya comes in, Ronnie is working just outside the walk-in with a buck head that’s hanging upside down on a heavy chain. He is slowly pulling the cape from the shoulders forward, until it hangs inside out, dangling from the end of the nose like a sock. Exposed is the gleaming naked head: white subcutaneous fat, blue and red veins, lidless, staring eye. Jack started the fleshing-out himself but didn’t get past struggling with the winch. Now he’s sitting at his workbench, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. He watches Tanya go straight over to Ronnie and lay in on him, their voices sharp across the shop. Jack is surprised and impressed at how she doesn’t even take a second look at the buck – even Jeanne, after all these years, can’t go near them when they’re in this stage. After a few minutes she turns her back on Ronnie and, looking over at Jack, raises her hand to wave. He waves back. Suddenly she is next to him.
‘Hey,’ she says, almost flirtatious. ‘Want to see my new tattoo?’
Before he can answer, she yanks the neck of her sweatshirt off her shoulder and turns around. On her shoulder blade, there are four short slash marks and a drop of ruby blood. At first Jack thinks it is a real wound. She lowers her voice and steals a glance at Ronnie, then levels her gaze at Jack.
‘Ronnie thinks it’s all a load of bull, but that panther is my totem animal. Want to know how I know? It came to me in a dream and told me so.’
Jack wishes there was some way to hide his heaving gut. ‘You’re going to have that the rest of your life.’
He’s got one himself, from his stint in the army – a cloverleaf on his biceps, with his infantry division printed inside; they had all gotten the same one, one night in Texas. The colour is faded out now except the blue. What he really means to say – how can he explain it? The rest of your life, Tanya, is a hell of a lot longer than you think it will be. And you’ll grow tired of everything. Your own face in the mirror. The sound of your own voice. And that’s when you’ll start regretting that tattoo. Not because you see it every day. But because you don’t. Because you thought it would last forever, and remind you of something forever. And it doesn’t.
On December 15, at one-thirty in the afternoon, Jack drives to the medical centre in Scottsville to be fitted with his permanent limb. He’s rescheduled the appointment once already, dreading it, moaning about it for a week until Jeanne finally said, ‘Oh, Hud! Grow up and just go!’
The nurse takes his blood pressure and vital signs as impersonally as if she’s trussing a turkey, and shows him how to strap on the new limb. It is eerily lifelike, down to the wrinkles on the toes, and the exact same colour as his flesh. ‘You’ll forget it’s not yours,’ she says brightly. ‘And, it’s flame-resistant.’ Jack scrolls through the possibilities for a wisecrack, finds he simply doesn’t have the energy. ‘Fine,’ he finally says. ‘Good.’
The doctor is in and out in three minutes, barely raising his eyes from Jack’s chart. ‘Any questions?’ he says as he goes, not leaving room for a ‘yes’. He is already tucking his pen in his breast pocket, checking his watch and groping for the door handle behind him.
Jack is suddenly alone, left sitting on the table in his flimsy gown with a pamphlet in his hand – life with your new limb. It filled with glossy photos of retirees acting like giddy teenagers: walking hand in hand on the beach, bowling, ballroom dancing – the woman with a rose clamped between her dentures. Don’t ever admit anything has changed, they’re screaming at him. Never for a minute slow down or feel sorry for yourself. Look at us! He crumples the pamphlet up and throws it in the trash can.
I do have a question, Doc, he thinks, sitting there, his shoulders hunched. Actually, I do. What the hell am I supposed to do now? There is something he hasn’t had the nerve to tell anyone yet: he doesn’t think he can go on with his work. He has never before realized how physical it is: the lifting, the sawing, six or seven solid hours on his feet – foot – a day. And it’s not just the stump, the gone leg. He’s exhausted to the core. Just yesterday he had to ask Ronnie to finish a coon for him – a simple little raccoon – he got so winded, trying to stretch the cape around the form. Somebody tell me what to do, he thinks, struggling to pull his pants on over the new limb, disgusted by it as if it’s a bad joke, a gag trick. Somebody tell me just exactly what it is I’m supposed to do now.
On the way back to Highland City, Jack finds himself avoiding the rip and roar of the interstate. He takes the old road instead, the pike that stretches all the way up to Kentucky. It follows the natural valley of the hills and was the route the long hunters followed, two hundred years ago, when they came to these woods from the north to harvest the buffalo and deer. Jack’s father used to tell him stories of the long hunters. They’d arrive with nothing but a gun and an axe, build a log cabin and stay for a year, eating deer meat and salting the skins, which they rolled up on a travois and brought home when they simply couldn’t carry any more. Park-like forests, great open spaces under magnificently canopied trees. When the first of them came down from Kentucky, his father told him, they did not dismount, lest they be trampled, the woods were so crowded with game.
Jack tries to picture it, squinting up into the sparse trees on the hillside along the pike, but he can’t. It must have been something like being in the shop, he decides. Big-antlered deer standing shoulder to shoulder, fox and weasel cheek by jowl. Except also wolf and bear. Mountain lion.
What if? Jack thinks, entering Highland City limits. What if there really is a mountain lion up there? The houses huddle on either side of the pike, brick and squat, with car ports and dog runs; the older ones at the edges of the last few tobacco fields, the farmers inside in front of their TVs, getting paid by Uncle Sam not to grow tobacco. He passes the gas stations, the cinder-block barbecue stand, the shopping centre, the new shopping centre. The smokestacks of the Plaxco plant poke up out of the hills to the north, crowned by white smoke.
If a panther really is up there, sniffing out an ancient path its great-great ancestors once followed; if, at this very moment, it is twitching its huge muscular tail and arching its back to run its claws down the trunk of a tree, dropping to all fours to nose at a beef jerky wrapper filled with dirty rainwater and picking its way around rusted old tin cans and television sets to make its way into one of those hollers, miaowing a lonely miaow – well, Jack thinks, pulling into his driveway and stopping to check the empty mailbox in front of his trailer – then I pity the old bastard.
Tanya, alone in Ronnie’s house, takes off all her clothes and lies down on his new couch, staring at the blank space on the wall, cleared of posters to make room for the new TV. She’s been driving back and forth to her place all day, bringing the last of her stuff over. Now she wishes it would all disappear. All those things that seemed so special when she bought them: her leather jacket, her laptop, her map-print shower curtain, her black boots, it all looks like a load of junk, now, stacked up in liquor boxes on Ronnie’s kitchen floor. Moving in with Ronnie is the start of something, she knows, but she also knows that it is maybe not the start she was looking for. She closes her eyes and pictures herself hovering above all her possessions, flying away. She imagines herself in a forest. A dark, deep forest. Walking out into it, naked, and never coming back. She hears Ronnie fumble with his keys at the front door, swearing. She disappears into a cathedral of trees.
Tiny goes missing. Jeanne calls Jack late on a Sunday, apologizes if she’s interrupting anything. He has been watching a tedious sitcom, his prosthetic off, the stump tucked away out of sight under a blanket. The bowl of chilli he spilled reaching for the phone is splattered all over the floor. He looks at it dolefully. Well, it was giving him heartburn and he shouldn’t be eating that junk anyway. He pounds his chest and burps.
‘Now, Huddie, I don’t want to jump to no conclusions. But that cat, Hud – it could have just come down out of the woods behind the house and waited. I let him out for five minutes. Five minutes. That panther could have just slunk in and – oh! I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about it – carried him away.’
Jack can picture her perfectly, pacing the kitchen, ripping at her fingernails, the phone pinched under her chin. In moments of crisis, she has always managed to lose herself in a cyclone of panic. Never keeps her head. He sighs, too loudly, sending a rush of wind into the phone. Jeanne falls silent.
Damn, he thinks. Christ. Now I’ve done it.
‘Well I’m sorry, Jack. I shouldn’t have called you so late. I’m sorry. Never mind. Get back to what you were doing. Never mind me.
We can talk in the morning.’
‘We’ll find him, Jeannie,’ he hears himself saying, cutting her short. ‘We’ll find him. He’s just gone off to sow some wild oats. He’s just been feeling full of himself, these days.’ As he goes on, Jack finds that he wants to believe himself. ‘He just went off for a little tour of the neighbourhood. That’s all, Jeannie. That’s all. I promise. We’ll find him tomorrow.’
When he walks into the shop in the morning Jeanne is there already, red-eyed and red-nosed, leaves clinging to her jeans where she’s been down on her hands and knees, checking under the porch and in the old spring box. She takes a step towards him, as if she is going to fall into his arms, then hesitates, bites her lip, collapses in a chair and covers her face with her hands, letting out a muffled sob that hits Jack like a hammer in the chest. They drive around all day, doing twenty-five, Jeanne hanging half out the window, calling and whistling. Tiiiii-ny! It’s a warm day, more September than December, and clouds of hatched gnats hover in the road.
Jeanne calls herself hoarse. Every so often Jack finds himself looking at her heavy backside waggle as she strains out the window, then looks back quickly at the road, as if he’s done something wrong. At four o’clock they decide it’s time to quit, without having found hair or hide of Tiny.
When he drops Jeanne off back at the house, he grabs her hand before she gets out of the car and meets her eye. ‘You gonna be all right tonight?’
She bites her lip and nods.
‘You call me if you need anything. You just pick up the phone and call. I’ll put the phone right by the bed. All right?’ He watches her go in and waits until she’s closed the door behind her before he puts the car in gear.
Jack stops at the end of the drive and pops a pill, eats a granola bar from the glovebox. He is cramped up, exhausted, the small of his back aching and his glucose levels all out of whack. He feels hollow, nearly desolate. It can’t just be the damn dog, he thinks, driving home. It’s something else, something bigger.
They’d driven down roads they hadn’t been on in years – past the old empty high school and the field where the drive-in used to be, now grown over with highbush honeysuckle and littered with junk cars, a few speakers still hanging off their posts like rotted teeth. It looked like a war field. Finished.
He stops and buys a pack of cigarettes – to hell with it, he thinks, something else is going to quit long before my lungs do – aching for just some small physical pleasure to get him through the night. Before he leaves the gas station, though, feeling guilty, he shakes out three, leaving the rest of the pack on top of the trash can. Just as well, he thinks. Make some lucky sucker’s day.
There is a place in Highland City that every generation thinks it is the first to discover, a glade-like swimming hole in the creek, set in a deep bowl of the hills. It’s easy enough to get to from the road that you can bring coolers and lawn chairs and cases of beer, but secluded enough that you can do anything you want out there and nobody’s going to bother you. When Jack and Jeanne were kids, everyone called it Valhalla, and spent their summer nights down there, when there wasn’t something playing at the drive-in. I wonder what the kids call it now, Jack thinks, pulling into the rutted clearing off the side of the road. Probably nothing. These kids today have everything fed to them. No imagination.
Back in high school, Jeanne was always the first one in the water. Last one out, too. She was fearless then, even of the cottonmouths which scared everybody else off. She would stand in the creek, waist- deep, splashing the water with her fingertips. ‘Jack! Jack!’ she’d shout. ‘Get in here. Get your ass down here!’ He’d sit up on the bank with a beer and look at his friends. ‘Already got him on a chain!’ they’d snicker to one another, and Jack would do his best to laugh along with them, crack another beer and roll his eyes. He never went in, in order to prove something. Stupid reason not to go in, he thinks now. Should have.
He parks and pushes the seat all the way back, lights a cigarette. He closes his eyes, lets the smoke filter into his nostrils, along with Jeanne’s familiar smell. He tries to imagine that she is still sitting next to him, eighteen and in a wet bikini, smoking a cigarette and playing with the radio. In those days there was always something good on the radio.
After a while, feeling stiff and caged in, Jack heaves himself out of the car and makes his way slowly into the trees, leaning hard on his cane. He starts down the hill, drawn by the smell of the leaves and the warm air that the woods still hold, and before he knows it, he can see the creek. It startles him. He makes his way down and sits with difficulty on an old stump to light his second cigarette. The banks of the creek are worn smooth from years of bare feet, littered with beer cans and busted sneakers and fast-food bags. On a beech tree on the opposite bank someone has spray-painted fuck god.
He lets a drag linger in his lungs, feeling it creep in and fill all the corners. We had some days, he thinks. We did have some days. Back when we thought it was all ours for the taking. Back before everything got ruined. And it all got ruined at once. Funny how it happened that way. Just woke up one morning and there was no going back and fixing anything.
A pair of crows takes off from a nearby tree, the branch shaking. There’s a feeling at the back of Jack’s neck like someone is behind him. He turns around twice, scanning the purple-lit trees. Something pops in his shoulder the second time, a painful little explosion of nerves.
Ghosts, he thinks, rubbing his neck. Ha. What ghosts would bother to haunt these woods? Our teenage selves. The long hunters. Not angry ghosts or vengeful. No, just – disappointed.
He shifts his weight and looks around for a grave. They’re all over these woods. His father had taught him how to spot them: the depression in the ground that would be roughly the dimensions of a coffin, where the soil had settled over the years. ‘Always watch out for them,’ his father had said. Walking across them disrespected the dead.
The long hunters had buried each other in hollowed-out tree trunks, no time to build a proper coffin, no women to linger and weep over a grave. Scores of them must have died in these woods. A dangerous place, back then. But give me that over a hospital room any day, Jack thinks. And then, to be laid to rest the way so many creatures go: curled up in a log somewhere, tail over nose, and by spring they’re crumbled into the log and the log, in a few years, is crumbled into the soil. It makes him feel cheated and lonesome, looking up into the leaves, the bare crowns lit with the last of the sun. There’s not a single tree left out here that would be big enough to hold him.
‘Take better care of yourself,’ the doctor told him, ‘and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t live another thirty years.’ What the hell for? was Jack’s first reaction. What’s left? No grandbabies, no wife, no money to travel, and why did folks even bother to travel nowadays, when every place was just the same as the next?
Jeanne had wanted a baby. But those years, their chances, had disappeared in his drinking. I’m it, he thinks. The last of the Wells line. My work is all I’ll leave the world. But some of the early work has already gone, popped at the seams, mice long since eaten the glue and made nests out of the stuffing. How long will the rest of it last? Longer. But not forever. For a while his mounts will hang in living rooms and hunting cabins and fathers will tell their sons, ‘That’s a Jack Wells mount. He was the best, you know,’ but after a generation or so no one will remember his name. And a few more decades down the road, he thinks, at the rate we’re screwing it all up, what will it even matter?
The sun disappears. It gets cold. Jack shivers and suddenly wants to be home. He looks at the hill with great apprehension and lights his last cigarette, hands shaky, wondering if his brain will be able to send the proper messages to his muscles to get him back up. Hell. So what if I die out here? He tosses his butt into the creek and watches it float away, the water rippling over the smooth stones of the bed, resigning himself to his fate.
But who is he kidding? He wouldn’t die out here. He would just spend a cold, painful, sleepless night huddled under his jacket on the knobby roots and stones, and in the morning he’d have to piss on a rock, hobble up to the car, drive to the shop, take a dozen aspirin and explain himself to Jeanne, who’d have been up all night calling, worried sick.
I’m going. Just as soon as I catch my breath.
A car pulls in up at the clearing then. The slam of doors. A radio. Kids. One of the voices breaks out from the crowd and carries down to the creek, a high manic laugh. Ronnie. Now I’m really going to have to explain myself, Jack thinks, but realizes that it’s possible that in the dark they did not see his car parked on the other side of the clearing. Maybe he can get to it without them seeing him – if he skirts them and comes over the other side. ‘Little punks,’ he says, heaves himself up and starts up the hill.
But his body doesn’t want to cooperate. His muscles bicker and then wail and scream. His good knee seizes up. Every few steps he leans on his cane and tries to reason with his thighs. A low branch slices across his forehead, stinging his eyes.
‘All right now, Jack,’ he tells himself, angry. ‘This isn’t Everest, you know.’
After what seems like hours he gets far enough up the hill that he can see the clearing, the light of a fire they’ve built. Six or seven figures huddled in a ring around it. He sees Ronnie, then Tanya. She’s sitting off to the side, her hands pulled up into her sleeves, drinking a can of beer. The beer makes her look young, just a little girl. The group seems to be discussing something. But as he gets closer, there’s a sudden shift. They fall silent, slowly put down their beers.
‘Shhh,’ he hears someone say. ‘Did you hear that?’
‘Listen. It’s coming up from the creek.’
Tanya stands. Jack’s heart swells a little, watching her, up there trying to see into the dark. Her face, lit by the fire, is filled with anticipation. Lips Parted, her eyes dark in her pale face. Just pure and young and like anything might happen. She tucks her hair behind her ear and cocks her head.
Kids, Jack thinks again, fondly now. Suddenly he wants to speak to them, if they would only listen: I wish it was all going to turn out the way you think it will. I really do.
He lets a branch snap under his foot. That one’s for you, Tanya, he thinks. A gift. He sees her raise her hand, tentatively, as if to steady something. She puts her finger to her lips. He smiles.
‘It’s…right…over…there,’ someone hisses.
Ronnie stands up, poised, ready to run.
Jack gives the leaves a little rustle with his cane, forgetting the pain, starting to enjoy himself. And that’s for you, Ronnie, you little SOB.
‘That’s it,’ Ronnie says. ‘I’m getting my gun.’ He turns on his heel towards the truck.
Jack feels a chill of fear and takes a lurching step forward, about to shout, ‘Don’t shoot!’ But then he freezes. He holds his breath. Jack hears it – whatever it is – Good Lord, he hears it, too.