She started at the dispatch station three weeks after her twenty-first birthday. A cousin who had worked there for five years suggested she apply, and she was a shoo-in for the position, a recent graduate who had been rejected only the week before from a marketing firm in Omaha but was overqualified for bussing tables or stocking shelves. She’d known the Nebraska panhandle her entire life, the fourth of five children born and raised in Alliance. This was the first time she’d spent any real time in the center of the state, where the bluffsides gave way to combed cornfields and sunsets bloomed like fistfuls of crushed grapes.
Before she majored in communications at the state college, she’d been set on pursuing a career as an army sniper. It wasn’t a pipe dream. Her mother had signed her up for shooting lessons at the local community center on her eighth birthday. By her early teens she was entering state competitions. At the end of her junior year she was sent to nationals, placing ninth in the country in precision air rifle. She was right behind the people with Olympic coaches—this girl who’d grown up shooting PMC ammo out of her father’s retired service rifle.
She told Taylor this as they sat at the dispatch counter with a ham sandwich split between them. There were six volunteer firemen at the station, but she tended to talk most with Taylor, a man in his mid-forties who acted like he was in his mid- twenties and ran a Jeeping club in town. It was the only organized club so far as she knew, and very few people could afford it. Once a month he and half a dozen of his buddies would take the Jeeps off-roading and into the woods and camp. In the summers they would sometimes drive all the way to Colorado, him with his two teenage girls. It was worthless land, you couldn’t plant so much as a bean on it, but the hunting up there was good. Taylor was married to a police officer, a short waif of a woman with cropped blond hair and gentle eyes.
A few months before, he’d asked the girl if he should lose some weight, and she answered honestly, earning a right to half his lunch and three boxes of partially used liquor bottles that he raided from his in-home bar.
She finished chewing and gave her knee a knock.
“I fell off a bike as a kid, and since then my cap won’t stay in place,” she said. “The army wouldn’t give me a waiver and here I am.”
Taylor nodded and wondered if she’d ever been hunting. She said she hadn’t. The fact was her mother and father were expats to the Midwest and had grown up in Newport, right by the naval base. No one hunted out there—everyone who was anyone played golf. And as much as they knew about guns and the military, her parents didn’t know the first thing about killing.
Taylor sucked his teeth.
“I used to go back in the day,” he said. “And every now and then I still do with my youngest. I take her out on Wednesdays with my permit but you know, she’s not real serious about it. She’s always on her phone.”
She could imagine him out there in the forest, with a canteen and buck knife.
“I’d take you out Saturday,” he said. “Firearms season just started. And if you’re a shot, you could take down that buck everyone’s been talking about.”
“I don’t have any of the right stuff,” she said. “You have a gun.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“A coat? Boots?”
“Well, I’ve got the permit,” he said. “That’s all you need.”
The dispatch station was the girl’s dominion. The population of the town was fewer than three thousand, and the surrounding area lent to it a little more than five hundred. The cashier at the general store told her that the previous operator died on the job from a heart attack. She wasn’t so sure. It seemed impossible to die that way. But now the station was hers between the operating hours of eight in the morning and seven at night, Monday through Friday. There was seldom anything to do. Most of the time she stood outside the back door with an expired phonebook propped to trick the lock and chain- smoked.
Figures that the girl had been at home when a man robbed the town gas station at gunpoint, the biggest thing to happen in the area in a hundred years. He was seen fleeing on foot down her street and disappearing into her backyard. The on-duty firemen set up a perimeter and police from the next town over performed sweeps. When she moved to Arapahoe, the girl brought with her two blue macaws, a present from an ex-boyfriend who ran a bird rescue with his father. Both macaws were in their late thirties—the bigger of them had a habit of screaming, “Robber, robber,” and the smaller, “Ah-ha, ah-ha, ah-ha!” She had an agreement with her landlord that in warm weather she could keep them outside in an aviary she’d built with soft pinewood and chicken wire.
The robber escaped and was eventually arrested in another city after stealing a car. But not before police broke in her front door and detonated a flash bomb in her living room, only to discover her parrots, startled but safe, in the backyard.
Overnight she became the most beloved person at the department. Suddenly everyone knew her name and how many creams she took with her coffee. And this was an improvement for her. She wanted more than anything to be their friends. It had been a chore to come in every morning in her jeans and carefully applied eyeliner and sit down at her desk and remain unnoticed for eleven hours. The heads of the department even suggested she look into firefighting or police work, but she knew she would never make the cut.
The forecasters had been predicting a snowstorm to hit thatweekend. There was talk it would break records from back when people were still hurrying around in carriages. She knew snow. That’s one thing, as a native of the panhandle, she could say she was familiar with—the downy snow, the wet snow, the snow that swells like smoke and seeds the lungs. Once or twice a year school would be canceled and she and her brothers and sisters would be turned loose into the cul-de-sac to build up mammoth snowmen and pelt the neighbors with snowballs rolled with rocks. Someone well-meaning would call the police but by the time they arrived they would be inside and out of their wet clothes. Snow?
Maybe the storm would shift north. Or maybe she would be snowed in for days. There was no way to know. She phoned Taylor, asked if this was a good idea. He accused: You don’t trust me. She said it wasn’t anything like that. She just didn’t want to get lost in a blizzard. That was a dumb way to die. Taylor said that he knew the forest like he knew his mother’s face. And he’d taken the best buck of his life during a snowstorm six years ago. She could imagine how it appeared to him, over the crest of hill, or emerging from a thicket in a valley, a pocket of snow cradled in the palm of its antlers. Fine, she agreed.
Saturday afternoon, she drove out in a minivan that had been her parents before she bought it off them for the Blue Book price. It made a putt-putt-putt noise traveling over gravel. She was not sure the engine would keep long enough to get back on the highway and into city limits. The hunting grounds were under the jurisdiction of the park service, a little sliver of land that followed a river for three miles before dumping into the Platte. As she pulled onto the grass by the entrance, the snow was already beginning, downy feathers that caught like needles in her eyelashes. Taylor was parked and smoking a cigarette in his Jeep. He hopped out and smothered the butt underfoot. In his winter coat he was twice as large, all shoulder and armpit fat. He pulled open the trunk and took out a backpack.
“You’re going to drive home in that?” he asked. The minivan tires, devoid of traction.
“I’ve done dumber things,” she said.
“You brought your gun?”
“Right here.” She slung it over her shoulder. The weight was familiar. “Where’s yours?”
“I’m out here for you,” Taylor said. “I’m not hunting.”
She was immediately regretful that she was here with Taylor on his weekend, him playing the father. She had thought in accepting his offer that she was likehim, and not his charge, that they were buddies. In silence they took the trail into the forest. Taylor led. The dusting of snow kept their tracks. Soon enough she had warmed and pushed off her hat, stuffing it down her coat. Her elder sister Jessica had knitted her the hat and a pair of since-lost gloves some years ago during a lazy, hot summer, when the last thing anyone wanted to think about was wool. And now that sister, older by only six years, had a husband, a house, two, three children, one after another, a burden the girl could not and would never imagine entertaining in her life. But she remembered the firstborn, how when she left for college one summer it was too little to lift its head, but when she returned that winter it was already feeling out its legs. Time, of course, had continued to pass in her absence. The sun had moved a bit in the sky. They were walking in circles, and she asked, finally, Where are we going? Why aren’t why stopping? This can’t be what hunting is like.
“I’m looking for a tree stand,” Taylor explained.
“Do we need one?”
“How bad do you want a deer?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. Taylor glanced back at her. “Do people leave their tree stands? I saw them at the store for two hundred dollars.”
“All the time,” he said. “I didn’t bring a harness, didn’t have one that would fit you, so I’m looking for a stand with a guardrail.”
“Oh,” she said.
Just then they entered an area thick with pine; she felt the bed of needles give underfoot. The skeletons of the trees loomed, monster-like. She was thirsty. She hadn’t imagined that she would need a water bottle in weather so cold that her eyelashes iced and with so little distance to walk. She stooped down and scooped up a handful of snow into her pink hand. Little bits of the soot from the highway caught in her teeth. Taylor glanced back.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked, striking a tin clipped to the back of his pack.
She declined. The soot made her even more thirsty. Taylor snorted and spit a yolk of mucus.
She spotted a tree stand fifteen feet up a dead pine. Taylor approved it and asked if she was afraid of heights. She gave a little laugh and ascended first, unloading her rifle and pulling it up with a rope. Then Taylor followed. The ladder groaned under his weight. The girl reloaded the rifle, set it pointing sky-upward and slipped her gloves back on. The air up there was much colder and soon her toes had gone numb. She fell into shivers. Everything she was wearing was too tight. Her coat and shoes were fitted for fashion and not practicality, and so there was no room for any heat to accumulate. It was four in the evening, and sunset was due at six- thirty. This was the prime time for deer but as they sat there in silence for thirty, forty minutes, she wondered where they were, how it was possible a forest like this could be home to no one, no animal, nothing. In Alliance, the deer had sometimes come up to the house and nipped at the young cherry tomato bushes her mother planted to hide the chipping paint, and the girl would sit at the window, stealing glances between the part in the curtain. The deer seemed to know: She would catch her reflection in their impossibly big eyes. The only tomatoes that kitchen ever saw were grown in California.
Taylor said, “Are you okay?”
She said yes, but her teeth were chattering. Taylor reached into his pocket and pulled out a little Ziploc with a few orange pills. He shook two out into his palm and offered them.
“What are they?”
“Hand warmers,” he said. After a pause, he added, “I take one every morning. They help me lose weight.”
She shook her head. But then she shrugged her shoulders and said, “You take one first.”
Taylor picked one up with his fat fingers and swallowed it dry. He opened his mouth and lifted his tongue. She accepted the other. Several moments passed. She felt her insides push their way up into her throat. A wave of warmth hit and she unzipped her coat. She sat back, gave a long breath.
“Shit,” she said.
“It’s real stuff,” he said. “Do you want a cigarette? I want one,” he said. He took one out of his breast pocket and felt his side for a lighter. “It must run in the family. I caught my oldest last night trying to smoke under the sheets. She burned a damned hole.”
The girl said, “You taught them how to smoke?” She turned toward him.
“They figured it out on their own,” he said. “And not from watching you?”
“You can’t teach them right from wrong before they’re ready.”
She shook her head.
“I couldn’t handle a fucking kid,” she said. “I’d want them to learn everything right away.”
She settled back into her seat. Something in the distance caught her eye. There it was—just over the tips of the pines, too far away to be anything besides a thing that moved. Could she shoot it from where she was sitting? She thought, what if a deer comes at twenty-five, or fifty yards? Should I shoot blind? The snow was falling as thickly as a sheet. She would be lucky if her car would run in all of this; the engine would kick and sputter and tremble into death. A branch above them cracked. She counted her teeth with her tongue. Thirty-five. She counted them again. Thirty-three. Taylor was talking about something. He’d taken off his jacket and stuffed it down by his boots. She heard him say, do you want to hold hands. A voice from somewhere inside of her came out and said, I need my hands to shoot this moving thing. The wind was picking up. Taylor placed an arm around her shoulder and cupped one breast. He leaned over and tried to kiss her. She jumped out of her seat.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but you make me feel like I’m in high school again.” “Do you think I like you?”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
Taylor reached for his jacket. She told him, Don’t move or I’ll put a fucking bullet in your chest. Taylor nodded. The snow had freckled his face red. She heard him say, I misunderstood. I thought you were interested. I messed up. She told him to climb down the ladder. And then, she said, gesturing, you go over there, by that tree, and let me climb down, too. Taylor dropped his cigarette in his seat and swung one leg over the bar, then the other. Taylor took a step down. And then his boot slipped like a matchstick against the ladder. She saw his face contort as he tried to correct himself, but his fingers gave. There was a whoosh when his body hit the ground. The colors shifted in the canopy. All this snow had a way of turning things purple. She sat down in his seat and finished his cigarette as in the distance the moving thing mirrored light. It was, she realized, the two of their vehicles parked out on gravel, the four mirrors corrupting the little light that remained, and directing it back toward her like a spear. She threw the rifle over her shoulder and climbed down. Taylor’s chest was open to the sky but his face was buried in the snow. She turned it rightways, noted the labored rise and fall of his chest. Snow plugged his nostrils and a little bubble of blood popped between his lips with each breath. Already a dusting of snow dotted his camouflage. She wiped her snot on a sleeve and opened his pack, took out a book of matches. She lit one, let it burn out in her hand. She pulled out a stick of jerky and tore open its plastic keeper with her teeth. Taylor had stopped breathing, the whiteness rounded grave-like. She stood and moved forward.
There were no marked trails at that end of the forest and the hills at this time of the year were flush against one another. Skeletons of silver buffaloberry caught on her coat. A dogwood carried off her hat. She stripped until she was down to her underwear and boots and moved like a sickness through the thicket. The snow had buried everything in a quilt. What an enormous job the sun had ahead of it. One step forward, one step up. All at once she darted, her slight weight cutting the snow like a scythe. She let the rifle drop. She felt her laces loosen and give. She caught air. The forest parted before her and she threw herself into it, breath rising like a cloud of talcum skyward, up, up, and up.