There came after the shot a silence so pervasive it rang like a mistake. The deaf forest recovered, first with birdsong and snowmelt, and then the wind returned and the world recalled how to breathe again.
The first boy, the youngest, the one holding the gun, lifted a gloved hand to point at the prostrate figure in the snow some ten yards ahead. He choked on a word, half spun like a dog, looking about his feet as if he’d dropped something before some presence of reason took hold in his mind, and he levered the Winchester a few times but no cartridges came out. He made another choking sound. “I thought it was empty.” Looked at the body. Looked at the gun as if it were some forsworn Trappist. “You said it was empty.” Then he began to cry.
“Ah, Jesus. Jesus,” said the second boy, the oldest, the one not holding the gun but holding the cap to his head as if caught in a gust. He wanted to cry too but he didn’t. He glanced around, hoping no one saw. Hoping they did. “Someone’s gon’ve heard it, Muds.”
With saucered eyes they watched the downed figure in the snow, waiting for movement, willing it. The eldest tore the cap from his head and then tore at his hair. He moved for the indolent island of dark clothing, wading white. The younger boy moaned “no, Ricky,” but muted himself to sniffling and watched his friend high-step the snow like a Mr. Punch puppet until he was just feet away. Ricky kept saying “oh, Jesus” under his breath, over and over. He just needed to see. Don’t need to touch him. Just get close enough.
Right in the head. Got him right in the head clean through. Ricken pulled at his hair again and the motion sent the youngest to sob and call for God and Jesus like a true nonbeliever until the words were snotty balderdash and Ricken snapped for him to quiet. “He’s dead, Mudsie. You shot him in the head.” He didn’t know this man, but he didn’t want to turn him over either. Winter clothes, but they were dirty and mismatched, and the hair was tangled long in the snow and mingled with blood. Ricken wheeled like a schooner away from the prone man, eyeing the dead-black understory should he vomit. He didn’t know if the tears or bile would come first.
Mudsie stood crying into his sleeve, the Winchester abandoned at his feet like a doll. Ricken crouched in the anxious trail he’d made in the snow, slinging his forearms across his knees and holding his head in his hands. The gloves scratched at his eyelids. He tore them off to join his rejected hat and pressed his frozen fingertips against his brow. He’d seen his father like this countless times, stood or seated. Hadn’t orchestrated the position, just felt right, and he sat there for a good time while Mudsie wept above him, and he wondered where best to place this weight that neither gun nor boy could bear. Then he stood. “Let’s go, Muds.”
“What ‘bout the gun?”
“Pick it up. Don’t leave it in the snow.”
“I don’t want to pick it up.”
“Pick it up, Muds. We have to take it back.”
“It ain’t my gun. It’s yours.”
“You shot it.”
The boys looked at the Winchester and not at each other. Not at the body. They stood a time, still with a sense of waiting. Killers but not men. The younger boy chuffed a sob and glanced around again as if resuming his search for that lost thing. Then he nodded, appearing both very young and very aged, and picked up the gun.
His father stood hunched in the doorway. An obsolete cowboy. All lines and no lips and an older than time gaze that looked blue in the sun and gun-gray in the gloom. He kept to his threshold, not entering the boy’s domain, but his eyes combed the bedroom and they were gray.
“Something goin’ through your head?”
“Got your ma worried.”
“You get in a spat with that Merser boy? You guys fight?”
“No, we fine.”
A breath, deep and slow, drawn in from the barreled chamber of his father’s chest, exhaled with something that sounded like “g’nite then,” and he moved like a passing storm down the hall and then the boy’s door was free again and the boy got up from his bed and closed it on the world. Then he came back to the bed and stripped it of its quilt. It was clean, but he piled it in the corner of his room behind the door. In its blue and green check he saw the man’s vest and in that a maroon pool slowly spreading. Then he called Mudsie.
“Meet me at the fort.”
“You mean now?”
“I mean now.”
A pause. “I can’t. Mom’ll see me.”
“Use the window. You got that ledge on your window.”
“It’s dark, Rick.”
“We gotta sort this, Muds. Meet me at the fort.”
With the light of their cellphones, they held a brief council at the fort and then made their way through the fresh snow and dead bracken to the Old Gate which was just a gate that used to be connected to a fence but now stood alone and led nowhere. Here they paused, breathing white in the still air and shining their phones at the yawning black of the deeper woods. “We goin’in?” Merser breathed, and Ricken said “we gotta,” but they continued to watch the gradient gloom of the forest, neither moving. Their tracks from earlier were still visible.
Ricken went first and Merser crunched after him, and in no time they were at the clearing where they’d played Robin Hood. Where they’d killed someone. The black island figure floated at the edge of their lights. Ricken had wondered how night might change its shape, if it would resemble a protruding rock or fallen branch in the snow. But it didn’t. It looked like a body. Still.
No one comes here. The forest is thick enough it takes longer to cover with snow, but the body would be hidden soon enough. Too cold to dig. The earth is frozen. They’d have to wait if they wanted to bury it, and maybe the cold would keep it preserved and the job wouldn’t be so grim. Maybe this was what his father meant when he’d said digging makes a man. His legs thrummed seismic and quick and rattling in his snow boots, and he wasn’t cold at all, he couldn’t feel at all, but he couldn’t stop the shaking either. Mudsie turned in time with him and met his eyes and gave a mirror of what his own face must have looked like, pinched and wide all at once, and Ricken felt angry about that. The trembling was in his chest now, his very chest shook with painful euphoria.
“I think we should call my dad,” Mudsie whispered, words white. “We don’t have to tell your dad. We can tell mine.”
“Your dad’ll tell mine.”
Mudsie’s face contorted and he pulled in his lower lip.
“We can’t tell nobody, Muds. We’d get in so much trouble. They put boys away too, you don’t have to be an adult.” You could be ten and a half and eleven and if you killed someone in the woods they would lock you up. The gun was never loaded. He’d said it wasn’t loaded.
“What if someone finds it?”
“No one’ll find it. No one comes here ‘cept us. We just wait til the snow’s gone.”
“Then we bury him.”
“Won’t he be gross then?”
“Maybe wolves will get him. Or maybe even coyotes.”
“There aren’t any ‘round here though.”
“Sometimes. If we stay away for a while they might come out.”
“Your daddy has a tractor.”
His father did have a tractor. His father had guns and a tractor but the tractor belonged to the company and he didn’t keep it at the house he kept it at the site. He kept the guns though. Kept them in the glass cabinet, unlocked because Ricken’s a big boy and he trusts him and no lock stopped curiosity anyway. They were never loaded.
“Still think we should tell my dad.”
“We can’t tell your dad. We can’t tell anybody.”
“He won’t get mad.” Michael Merser senior with his dad face and dad voice and banker suit, the domesticated evolution of Ricken’s father after a thousand years. “He’d help us.”
“He wouldn’t know what to do, Muds.”
They went away, reversing steps out of the trees and leaving the body in the dark. The way back felt longer. Clumps of white fell from the canopies and by the time they cleared the wood it was coming down hard and the boys had to squint at each other from under their gloves. Mudsie turned and said, “I didn’t mean to do it.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“I know.” And then, “that’s why we can’t tell. If you tell, we’ll both be in trouble.”
“Ok. I won’t tell.”
There wasn’t much left to say. They parted ways at the fort moving through the still, still air that swallowed every worldly sound so it was just their boy breaths and balloon rubber noise of snow beneath boots, phone lights pendulum suns in the endless black.
His father was waiting for him on the porch after school, blue-eyed in the sun and leaning on the baluster with that look that meant a talk was on the way. Greetings were difficult: if you said the wrong word you might get something worse than what was already coming, and you had to be careful about the look you had when you spoke too. Best course of action was to let him speak first then you could watch for traps.
His father wouldn’t allow preamble today. He threw the trap right at Ricken’s feet, “did you take out one of the guns?”
Ricken scudded in the dirty snow, timing the head-tilt, the look of puzzlement. “Are you missing a gun?”
“I’m not missing a gun. I’m missing a bullet.”
“You count your bullets?” He shifted his backpack onto one shoulder, mindful of how he played the crease in his brow.
“Already in the gun. If you took it s’ok. Just need to know.”
Shake of the head. “Which gun was it?”
His father sniffed and leaned into the baluster, putting the awning’s shade over his face. “Don’t matter. How was school?”
This line of discourse was safer, easier. They each had a script. Ricken sat through dinner thinking of ways to bring up the gun again, thinking he could get a confession as to why it had been loaded. It was never loaded. He hadn’t seen Merser at school save for recess but that was brief and he didn’t call him that night either. This continued for a week with the gun talk fading further into benign past, and he thought of the cold body in the snow and wondered if any coyotes might have come out yet or any wolves and whether they’d even be interested. He should have rolled him over at least. He’d been too scared to get close. He wanted something to take it away, to eat it away, but he should have put him face up first.
Two weeks after they killed a man in the woods Merser called him. He answered on the fifth ring and held the phone between his ear and shoulder while penciling tomorrow’s homework. “Muds.”
Silence on the other end. A quick glance to the screen showed they were still connected. Then a sniff. “Uh,” another sniff, and Mudsie’s tight voice saying, “think we’ll go to Hell.”
“Do you think we’ll go to Hell?”
“You don’t even believe in Hell.” The dinner his mother had brought up to him sat congealed and untouched by his elbow, a plastic food spread like the one he used to play with at the doctor’s before he became too big to play with things like that and had to sit in the waiting room like a grown-up boy.
“We did a bad thing, Ricken.”
“Not our fault. You said it yourself.”
“You said we could play with it. You said he never loads it.”
“He doesn’t.” Why was it loaded? It was never loaded. “You didn’t tell did you?”
Static air stretched, punctuated by Merser’s occasional sniffle, and the lead weight in Ricken’s chest plummeted to his stomach. He pushed away the papers, the plastic food, almost stood when Mudsie’s small voice piped, “no,” and then, “but I think we oughta, Rick.”
Light, white and quick, flashed across his bedroom wall. Ricken wheeled in his chair to catch the tailend of a jagged strike across the dark sky. “How bad you feel now’s only gonna feel worse if you tell, Muds.”
Another sniff. The sky rumbled, distant and low.
“We’re in this together. If you tell, we won’t be friends anymore. They won’t let us.”
“You’re my only friend, Ricky.”
They hung up not long after, but the lead weight remained in Ricken’s gut. He looked to the sky again but there was no more lightning. No rain. Oh, God. He shut off his lamp, homework be damned, crawled onto the edge of his bed where the moon draped. The sky was clear. No rain, no clouds. Oh, God. Please. He didn’t believe in Hell. He didn’t believe in Christ. They had Christmas and Easter but they didn’t have religion. Even when Grandma came for dinner and insisted on grace. His father had long since stopped arguing it.
He had no one’s hand to hold, so he kept his hands fisted against his knees, watching the rainless sky. Oh, God, please, I’ll do anything. I’ll do whatever it takes. Don’t let him tell. Just make it all go away. I hope he’s not cold. I should have turned him over, don’t let him be cold. Don’t send me to Hell, don’t send me to prison, please God, I’ll do all my homework and I won’t tease Mary Kimball anymore, please just let a wolf come or a coyote, please, I’ll do what you want. Pleasepleaseplease––
White burst across the sky, filling his room, followed not two seconds later by a crash of thunder. Ricken gasped and shook and reached frantic for the blinds and pulled them together, then he dove into bed and pulled the thin sheet over himself. Even through the heavy curtains the room lit up in white. The sky gurgled. It was very cold. He shuddered against the cool blankets, scissoring his legs like his dad had shown him to create friction, but the air still came through his sheets as if there were a draft. The exiled quilt watched him from its crumpled home in the corner behind the door. He closed his eyes against it, seeing checks in inverse colors against his eyelids.
He didn’t recall falling asleep. But he had. And now there was a new noise, louder even than the sky, rising and falling. Passing. Sirens. His father’s voice in the hall, that anxious and quiet rumble he got. His mother’s voice. Ricken tore from bed and collected his phone. Five. He had school in a bit. His mother came through the door, face tight and making him recall the lead in his gut, but her eyes were bright like it was Christmas. “Did the sirens wake you?”
“What’s going on.”
“S’ok, baby. Just a fire in the woods, but they got it figured out. Daddy talked to the fireman and we’re safe.”
He wanted to hug her. He wanted to be left alone. She drifted down the hall, calling back about school and how everything was alright. Ricken went through the motions, dumping his unfinished homework into his backpack and pulling on his clothes. He texted Merser. Merser texted back.
He’d grown over the summer, standing just above her shoulder, but his mother still bent like he was little and held his face. “You have a good day at school.” She smelled like breakfast and coffee and her lavender hand lotion. “Don’t worry about the fire.”
“How did it happen?”
It was his father who answered, coming in from the back door into the kitchen. “Lightning. Sheriff came out and everything. Never seen anything like it. One of those freak storms. Came outta nowhere.”
“It has been rather dry,” said his mother.
They sent him off to school, and he made sure to wait by the bus stop for a time before tearing off into the side bracken and into the woods. He met Merser at the fort. Even here they could smell smoke. The Old Gate had melted but still stood. Forever the lone sentry.
“What if there are firemen still?”
Ricken shook his head. “If there are, they’ll just think we’re curious.” They were. Just needed to see. Don’t need to touch. Just get close enough.
“Do you see him?”
“No, do you?”
Nothing looked the same. The clearing was black and gray, static like the still frame of an old movie. Bigger, like a giant had peeled away the covers and exposed the scene to the pale sky, letting in all the light. Charred branches and brush lay all about, formless, indistinguishable, and he supposed there could be a body amongst it. There could be animals too.
Ricken peered at the sky, blinking mad against the ash and snow. “You still wanna tell?”
Mudsie didn’t reply. His face looked dirty. Old and young. They stood for a while, blinking in the hevel, watching white on black become gray. Then they turned from the clearing and made their way back to the road, ash becoming soil becoming snow beneath their feet.