It was snowing, and Marcus Brandt stood on the deck of a doublewide he owned. He was holding a white paper bag with translucent grease stains in one hand while knocking on the storm door with his other. “Open up. It’s cold out here.”
Jodi Brandt spoke through a stud-sized crack between the front door and the door frame. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”
“Dwayne said to come in later on account of the weather.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I brought breakfast for you and Scout.”
“Scout’s not here. He left for school already.”
“How’s he getting there?”
Marcus glanced toward the driveway at Jodi’s subcompact. Rust freckled the body of the car. “We may have an alternator at the shop. I can take yours out and check when I go in.”
“Don’t worry about it. Clayton’s gonna lend me a car until he can send one of his guys to fix mine.”
“Suit yourself. Mind if I come in?”
Jodi clutched her bathrobe, shook her head and looked away. “I ain’t dressed, and the house is kinda messy.”
“I’m not company. I’m your husband.”
“I just wanna talk about Christmas? Scout’s been asking to go hunting, and I’d like to take him to the camp over break.”
“I was planning to call you later. Clayton knows Daddy’s sick, and he gave me and Scout a couple of tickets to fly home. We won’t be here.”
“This ain’t right. I need to spend some time with my boy.”
Jodi’s eyes welled up, and she looked at Marcus. “Don’t be selfish. This may be the last time I see my daddy – the last time he sees his granddaddy.”
“Fine. When are you leaving, and when can I see Scout?”
“We’re flying out of Dallas on Sunday. Be gone for a week.”
“Why is Clayton buying plane tickets for you?”
Jodi paused for a moment. “He had extra miles. Said we might as well use them.”
“Why Dallas? Why not Austin?”
“Clayton’s got a dealer’s conference, and we thought it’d be easier that way.”
“We? That’s some boss you got. Fixing your car. Giving you a loaner. And tickets. And a ride to Dall-”
Jodi interrupted Marcus. “We’re seeing each other.”
Marcus clenched his fist and raised his voice. “Seeing each other? You mean you’re fucking your boss?”
“You need to leave.”
“That’s your solution to everything. Somebody leaving.”
“Remember Afghanistan? You left first, so you have no right to lecture me.”
“That was my job, but I’m home now.”
“Well I didn’t sign up for that, and you may be home, but you ain’t the same man that left.”
Marcus breathed deep and slow. “I know it fucked me up, but I did it for you and Scout. It may be too late for me to be a good husband, but it ain’t too late for me to be a good daddy. The boy’s gonna stay with me tonight, so I can see him before you leave.”
“Okay. But stay away from the lot today. Clayton ain’t gonna be there anyway.”
“I don’t give a shit about Clayton. You and Mr. Pre-owned can go fuck in the back of a used minivan. I just wanna see my son. Now pack his fucking bag, and I’ll leave.”
Jodi closed and bolted the door. Marcus waited. Minutes later she returned and handed him a small backpack. He took it, walked to his pickup, climbed inside and drove to a singlewide he was renting in a trailer park on the outskirts of town.
He walked inside the trailer, pulled a prepaid from his coat and made a call to Dwayne Larringer, his boss at L&M’s Tow & Repair. He explained that he couldn’t come in that day and why, and he apologized and offered to come in over the weekend. Then he hung up, brewed a pot of coffee and filled his thermos. He drank the remainder with a breakfast taco from the white bag. Then he packed his rifle into a canvas bag and dropped a Marine sniper challenge coin into the pocket of his coat. He left the trailer, put everything in his truck and drove to the hunting camp.
Marcus parked his truck at the camp and stepped out. Everett Mims was there leaning against his van and smoking a cigarette. Marcus waved and said, “How ‘bout this weather?”
“How ‘bout that coat, man? You ain’t dressed for it.”
“Haven’t needed anything heavier than this since I left Fayetteville.”
“I might have gloves in the van. Want ‘em?”
“I’ll be fine. Got some hot coffee. You still do taxidermy work, Ev?”
“I’m gonna bag one for my boy, and I want it mounted. How much you charge for that?”
“Take a gun instead?”
Marcus opened his truck and pulled a forty-five pistol from a case under his seat. He handed it to Everett. “Dreadful Industries. See.”
Everett took the pistol and looked at it, and he handed it back to Marcus. “Ain’t worth it.”
“Like hell it ain’t worth it. Worth more than you’re asking.”
“I mean it ain’t worth it to me. I already got a DI-45. Tell you what. You shoot something, and I’ll mount it for three flat. I don’t think you gonna find anything though. I didn’t see shit.”
Marcus laid the pistol on the seat of his truck and turned toward Everett. “I can do that.”
“It’s a deal then. So you alright, Marcus?”
“What do you mean?”
“I ain’t seen you at any meetings lately.”
“It’s just shit. Busy. Jodi’s taking Scout away for the holiday, and she’s messing around. I’ll weather it.”
“Military wives. Semper fi, right?”
Marcus laughed. “Let me get in here and see what I can find.”
“Good luck, devil dog. And drop by a meeting at the church sometime.”
“No offense, but it don’t feel like JC is helping with the PTSD.”
Marcus took his rifle from the bag and slung it over his shoulder. He grabbed his thermos, binoculars, and pack. Then he closed the door of the truck. In the east, clouds scattered hues of red along the horizon.
He crossed the threshold of a wooden gate and stepped into an oak mott. Gusts of wind rustled the leaves of the trees, and his boots crushed woodland debris, ice, and patches of snow against the frozen ground. He stopped walking and booted a drift of snow that had blown against some deadfall. “Texas.”
Beyond the trees a stream flowed through a meadow. He walked beside it and sniffed at the air. He stopped, lifted his binoculars and looked toward the horizon. Smoke rose into the sky from a cabin on a hill. He followed the stream until it meandered away from another mott.
He walked through the trees, and they opened into a field of oats. He doffed his pack and leaned it against an oak. He removed his rifle, sat on a bucket he found near the tree and laid the gun across his lap. He adjusted his hat and poured a cup of coffee from his thermos. He tucked a hand under his arm, drank coffee and stared toward the field.
Snowflakes dusted his jacket. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He cupped his hands around the coffee and exhaled. His breath hung visible in the air for a moment then disappeared. He lifted the coffee to his lips and drank.
Time passed. The oats swayed. A helicopter flew above the field. Birds landed and took flight. A fox scurried into the brush. Gray clouds blanketed the sky, and the snow continued falling. Then a white-tailed buck walked through the grains.
Marcus sat his mug beside the bucket and stood up slowly. He raised his rifle, closed one eye and looked through the scope. The buck nibbled at the oats and turned toward the brush. The man released the safety and readied his finger against the trigger. He inhaled and exhaled. “One shot. One kill.”
Marcus’s phone rang in his pocket, and the deer started. He squeezed the trigger, and the report of his rifle thundered in the air. The deer winced and bounded through the field. He pulled the bolt, and the rifle ejected a casing. He reset the safety and propped his gun against the tree. He pulled the phone from his pocket and pressed a button with his thumb. “Sonofabitch. Why now?”
He returned the phone to his pocket, hoisted the pack onto his back and took hold of the rifle. He walked through the field, and oats brushed against his jacket. He stopped at the edge of the field and looked toward the ground. Drops of blood mottled a patch of snow. He followed a trail of blood and tracks to a barbed wire fence.
A tuft of fur hung from one of the barbs, and a rusty nail jutted from a wooden fence post and bore a metal sign with the words “Private Property” printed on it. He tore the sign from the post and tossed it over his shoulder. “You violate my family, and I’ll violate your land.”
Marcus removed his rifle and pack. He dropped the pack over the fence and propped the gun against it. He parted two strands of wire and stepped through. A barb snagged his jacket. He tugged the cloth and rent it away. Then he picked up his pack and gun, shouldered them and walked down a snow-covered clearing.
The report of a rifle rolled across the slope. He raised his binoculars and looked through. The deer was lying still on the snow, and Clayton James stepped out from a blind. Marcus spoke to himself. “Shit.”
He dropped his binoculars and pack. He gripped the strap of his rifle and ran down the slope. His boots crunched the snow. He waved his arm. “Hey. Wait.”
“Yeah. I’ve been tracking that buck. I shot him a ways back. He should be mine.”
“That’s not the way I see it. He still had a lot of fight left when I took him down.”
“This ain’t right, Clayton.”
“What do you want me to do? You didn’t kill him, and I’m not letting you take him. Besides, you’re not even supposed to be hunting here. It’s posted private property.”
“I didn’t see a sign.”
“Did you see a fence and think maybe someone wanted to keep people out?”
“I shot him outside the fence, and I just wanted to finish the kill. I ain’t poaching.”
“I think you are, but I’ll still process the buck and send over the venison with Jodi next time she picks up Scout from your place.”
Marcus stepped past the buck and poked Clayton’s chest with his finger. “You know damned well that ain’t what I want.”
Clayton shoved him and pulled out his knife. “Don’t touch me.”
Marcus fell backwards over the buck, and the challenge coin slipped from his pocket. He rolled onto his stomach, pushed against the snow and leapt to his feet. “Put your knife away. Look. I know about you and Jodi, and I don’t care, but I need this buck. I want to have it mounted for Scout.”
“You’re not getting the deer, and you need to leave before I call the police, jarhead.”
Marcus turned away and started walking. “Go to hell.”
“I’ll tell Scout and Jodi that you wish them a merry Christmas.”
Marcus took hold of his rifle and spun around. He leveled it at Clayton, closed one eye and looked through the scope. He released the safety and readied his finger against the trigger. “You won’t take anything else from me.”
Clayton tossed his knife on the snow. “Don’t do this, Marcus.”
Marcus inhaled and exhaled. “One shot. One kill.”
Clayton closed his eyes, stretched out his arms and twisted his body away. “Please don’t.”
Marcus squeezed the trigger, and lightning flashed from the muzzle of his rifle. He pulled the bolt, and the rifle ejected a casing. He reset the safety and slung the strap of the rifle over his shoulder. He bent down and took hold of Clayton’s body. Then he dragged it to the blind and stuffed it in. He picked up the buck, lifted it onto his shoulders, turned away and walked up the slope.
A heavy snow began to fall.
Marcus walked out of the woods and dropped the buck in the back of his truck. He stashed his rifle behind the seat. Then he got in the truck and sat. He looked toward the rearview mirror at the blood on his jacket. He banged his palm against the steering wheel. “Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.”
Marcus put his truck in gear, passed another hunter and tore out of the camp. A little ways down the road he lost control and skidded on the blacktop. He swiped a sign with the words “Slaughter City Limit” printed on it. Then he pulled over to the side of the road, retrieved his rifle and tossed it into a culvert. He drove back to his trailer, grabbed his pistol from the seat and walked inside.
He sat on the edge of his loveseat and laid his pistol on the coffee table near a half-empty bottle of Rangeland TPA. He sobbed and muttered to himself about his son and wife and what he’d done and about ruining his life and being a fuckup and worthless murderer.
Marcus sat like that for a few minutes before lifting a framed picture of Jodi and Scout from the table. Tears ran down his cheeks and into his beard. He sobbed quietly and returned the picture. He stared toward the television. Then he leaned forward and lifted the bottle of beer from the table. He drank from the bottle until it was empty and dropped it onto the carpeted floor. He looked at the picture once more and said, “I don’t think I can do this.”
He held the pistol in his lap and looked toward the gun while using his free hand to release the safety and chamber a round. He raised his head and placed the gun under his chin. He let it rest there for a moment, opened his mouth and inserted the barrel. He garbled something about Scout before removing the gun from his mouth.
He lifted the remote from the loveseat and turned up the volume to a level that was deafening. He dropped the remote on the love seat and placed the barrel of the gun against his right temple, but almost immediately angled it back down. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply and forcefully and slowly multiple times. He screamed and sobbed and growled and said, “I’m sorry. I love you.” Then he pressed the gun to the side of his head and spoke through gritted teeth. “Do it. Do it. Fuck. Do it.”
Marcus stiffened his body and grimaced. He slowly and slightly began to squeeze the trigger but relaxed without firing the gun when his phone vibrated. He opened his eyes, removed it from his pocket and read a text from Jodi reminding him to pick up Scout. He laid the phone on the table, stood up, undressed, threw his bloody clothes into a garbage bag, took a shower and got dressed. He tossed the bag in the trash, grabbed his pistol and phone, and he walked outside.
He got in his truck, laid his pistol on the seat and called Jodi. He told her that something came up and that Scout wouldn’t be able to stay the night. He apologized and said he would still pick up the boy and drive him home. Before he ended the call he said, “No. I’m not drunk. Yes. I’m taking my meds. Jesus Christ just shut the fuck up.”
Marcus dropped his phone out of the window, drove across town and parked near Woodrell Elementary School. He waited. After a while, children began leaving. He got out of the truck and called for his son.
Scout Brandt waved and crossed the road to his father’s truck. “Hey, Daddy. I didn’t know you were picking me up.”
“Yeah. I wanted you to stay over, but something came up. I’m gonna give you a ride to your Momma’s though.”
Marcus pointed at the buck on the bed of his truck. “Look at this.”
“Woah. When did you shoot him?”
“Just now. I’m gonna have him mounted for you. It’ll be part of your present from me. I’m telling you ‘cause,” Marcus paused and looked toward the ground. “You won’t be here next week.”
“Thanks. I can’t wait to see him in my room.”
“He’ll look good. Hop in.”
Marcus and Scout climbed into the truck and drove off.
“Why’s your pistol on the seat?”
Marcus reached over and slid the gun close to his leg. “I was showing it to Ev. Don’t touch it. It’s loaded.”
“Okay. When will I get my first kill?”
“I wanted to take you this weekend, but I’ve got to go away now. I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I wanna take you one day.”
“Don’t leave us again, Daddy.”
Marcus’s eyes teared up. “I have to. I’m sorry. Ev’ll get the trophy to you. Just look on it and know I’d do anything for you, but I have to leave for a while.”
A McCarthy County sheriff’s cruiser pulled behind Marcus’s truck, and Deputy Brody Canyon turned on his lights and sirens.
Scout looked back at the cruiser and then toward Marcus. “What did you do? I’m scared.”
“I made a mistake, and I can’t fix it. Don’t be scared. This man’s gonna take me away, but I love you.”
“I don’t want you to stop.”
“I don’t wanna stop either, but this is safest for you. Sometimes life don’t turn out like we want it. Rarely does, I guess. Sometimes people make mistakes and disappoint you. Sometimes you make mistakes and disappoint yourself. And sometimes shit just happens. I’m sorry.”
Marcus pulled his truck over to the side of the road. Brody pulled up behind him, stepped out of the cruiser, stood behind his door, pointed his pistol toward the truck and said, “Get out of the vehicle and keep your hands where I can see them.”
“No, Daddy, no.”
Marcus opened the door and slid out of the truck.
“Lie face down on the ground and put your hands on your head.”
Marcus did what Brody ordered and went prone on the snow-covered road.
Brody approached Marcus with his pistol trained on him. Scout got out of the truck and pointed the forty-five at Brody. “Go away and leave my daddy alone.”
Brody touched his chest and glanced back at the cruiser. He pointed his pistol at Scout. “Drop your weapon, son.”
Marcus pushed himself up. “Put the gun down, Scout.”
“I’m not wearing a vest,” Brody said. “Don’t make me do this. Drop the gun now.”
Scout held the pistol with both hands and stepped forward. “Go away and leave my daddy alone, or I’ll shoot you.”
“It’s okay,” Marcus said. “I want you to put the gun down and let this man do his job. Put the fucking gun do-”
A gunshot interrupted Marcus’s command. He leapt up and ran to his son. “No, no, no, no, no.”
The snow kept falling.
# # #
RJ Cresswell is a freelance writer and indie musician. He has interviewed bands for Punknews.org. His own band, Saw Wheel, has performed with Against Me!, Chuck Ragan, and Lucero, and released albums with multiple labels, including No Idea Records. Microcosm Publishing featured their music on the “Last Train out of North America” documentary. RJ was born in the Mississippi Delta but lives in Central Texas where he teaches high school level social studies. He holds an MA in history from Texas A&M Central Texas. He enjoys reading crime fiction, running on trails, drinking bourbon, and spending time with his family.