Crimson flyers feather the mailboxes on both sides of Up River Road. There are acres of tall blue-stem grass sprawling between the houses, but the emptiness seems to have contracted with the chilled air. November in Texas. In the morning sun, the hills are ochre and rust and dry green. My husband is already at work, an hour’s drive away. My son and I have come out to scatter corn and sunflower seeds for the deer. They’re waiting in the brush, over a dozen of them, mostly whitetail doe and their fawns, but also bucks and dark, huffing Sika. Maybe Uno is with them, maybe not. When Old Man Landry drives by in his pickup, the flyers lift and fall like they’re on disturbed water. If he waves to us, I miss it.
The wind carries cedar smoke from a faraway chimney and the flyers twist. They look to be affixed with a single piece of tape. Tomorrow is the deer harvest. There was a notice in our weekly paper, the Comfort Compass, reminding everyone not to feed the deer or go outside until the shooting ends at dusk. A mile down the road, the flyer on the Ulrichs’ mailbox flaps loose and floats over the patchy grass into the stand of elms.
Travis, our son, turned four last week. He’s wearing a karate gi and his father’s boots, clomping behind me, dispensing deer corn from a plastic pitcher. He fusses if he’s not the one to feed them. Flat slabs of limestone line our property. Travis calls them deer plates. He takes care to distribute their food evenly. After pouring each mound, he steps back and assesses his work like a painter.
I’m halfway to the mailbox before I can read the flyers. Everything seizes up. It’s as if the world has turned its full attention on me. A ragged cloud passes over the sun. Somewhere, the thin odor of kerosene. Then Travis is bounding beside me, then ahead, chopping and kicking the air like a miniature ninja. He does a lopsided cartwheel and one of his father’s boots flies off. He cackles, smiling like he planned the move. I laugh, too, for him. Our voices carry.
I snatch the flyer from our mailbox. The words above the headshot are bolded black: sex offender alert.
Travis jumps up and down, trying to see. He says, “Is that for my party?”
“Not this time, chalupa,” I say. “Your birthday was last week, remember?”
His party was a karate-themed affair, a huge success; all the neighbors brought their kids. Ever since, he’s been wearing his gi and breaking twigs with hi-yah chops.
“Then what are they for? All the mailers have them.” He calls mailboxes “mailers.”
“It’s grown-up stuff.”
He surveys Up River Road, the rutted gravel and the flyers that, without a breeze, hang like drying meat. He says, “Are there a million of them?”
“There’s plenty enough.”
He nods once, slowly, which makes him seem uncomfortably wise.
Then he yells, “Karate chop!” and whacks the flyer out of my hand. In the brush, the deer watch us. Their ears twitch.
Travis picks up the flyer and studies the picture, then says, “Papa!”
“That’s right,” I say.
“Papa’s on all the mailers! Papa, Papa, Papa!”
“He sure is,” I say. “Right there for the world to see.”
Most people around here will say we live outside of Comfort, or in the Hill Country, but really it’s just the middle of nowhere. Unless you count the Dairy Queen inside the truck stop on the highway, the nearest restaurant is thirty miles away. When Travis starts kindergarten, it will be a ninety-minute round-trip drive. My big plan is to volunteer as a teacher’s aide or get a job at The Dollar Tree. I go into Kerrville once a month for groceries; we have an extra freezer in the garage. If we run out of aspirin or peanut butter, I bolt for the truck stop. It’s also where we rent movies and buy salt blocks for the deer. There’s a minor-emergency clinic an hour away, but for big trouble, people out here use HALO flights. When Wild Bill Garza accidentally shot his nephew in the leg last year, the helicopter landed in the scrub behind our house. For the rest of hunting season, the Comfort Compass was inundated with letters to the editor complaining that the chopper had scared away all the game. We lived in Corpus for years, but the city felt claustrophobic. We wanted acres between us and our neighbors.
Hector, my husband, works at Holiday World, selling rifles and propane and camper trailers. In Corpus, he sold lumber, then meat at a butcher shop, then used tires. “Wetback work,” he called it, jokingly, because he’s Mexican. On his drive home every Friday, he stops at The Dollar Tree and buys gifts for us: plastic fire trucks, boxes of chocolate, compilation CDs. One time he showed up with three Styrofoam pith helmets and we wore them all weekend. “Let’s go on a safari,” he said. We drove the back roads and used binoculars to look at mules and squirrels and a red-tailed hawk flying with a dead snake in its talons. Hector loves animals, especially wolves. At least half of his T-shirts have wolves on them. He also tends to anthropomorphize things. Eighteen-wheelers remind him of whales, and pump-jacks in oil fields make him think of whinnying horses. Before we left Corpus, we carried what we couldn’t fit in our car and truck to the curb, and he made a sign that read: free to a good home. As if the old armchair and chipped plates were kittens. He’s a decent man, a good man. Trust me.
The law requires convicted sex offenders to register with the county when they move. Hector is religious about it. He heads to the courthouse and files the paperwork, almost impatiently, as if he’s working toward a prize. As if he thinks someone will notice his vigilance and admit the whole thing was a mistake and strike his name from the hideous list. Really, people just look at him aslant. They assess him, memorize his eyes and gait and wolf shirts, seeking out all the ways he seems comfortingly unlike them. They whisper and put their hands on their children’s shoulders, as if he might lunge for them. Hector has never lunged at anything in his life. I’m the lunger. In each new place, I ask him not to register. I beg him to just lay low and coast, to give us a chance. He never budges. Then some bored housewife or unemployed Republican goes online and searches the database. Then the flyers appear. Then the phone calls start. Then the bricks crash through our windows. Then we move, foolishly thinking the next place will be safe.
Mark Ulrich. My bet is he’s behind the flyers. He comes on like the mayor of Up River, leading the deer harvest and policing the neighborhood to see who’s watering their grass during the drought. Ulrich’s a welder who tucks his camouflage T-shirts into camouflage pants and wears mirrored sunglasses and chews on cinnamon toothpicks. He and Lynnette have seven-year-old twins, Dallas and Houston; at Travis’s party, he took them aside to practice roundhouse kicks in a way that seemed hateful. Lynnette and I are close by default. Neither of us works and we’re about the same age. She’s told me she’s getting him a radio-controlled heli-copter and an embossed Bible for Christmas. “Those things only last about a year over here,” she said, and I couldn’t tell which one she was talking about. Ulrich hosts a prayer group on his patio every Wednesday night, requires his boys to call him Sir, and recently installed a massive flagpole in his front yard. Every morning he hoists two flags: one for Texas and one for POWs.
When we moved in, the Ulriches brought us a loaf of Amish friendship bread and the HALO kit. The kit consists of paperwork you fill out with your family’s medical history and a large Ziploc bag to hold it. You store the kit in your icebox. When the HALO crew arrives, the first thing they do is rush to the fridge to grab your information, checking for drug allergies and such. After the Ulriches left, I told Hector that Mark would be the one to stir trouble.
“Not a chance,” Hector said. “He’s probably running, too. He’s probably got a panic room filled with canned food and gas masks.”
“Exactly,” I said.
Travis is standing at the window, watching the deer blend into the brush after eating. Soon the turkeys will come to peck at what’s left behind. The birds are the size of German shepherds. I’ve started thinking of them as a gang of grotesque hooligans, the way they strut around with their terrible heads held high. They scare Travis.
I wipe the counter with a sponge. I glance outside, and now that the sun is higher, the flyers seem a more lurid shade of red. When I look away, they stay in my vision. Like I’ve stared into an eclipse. The flyers will sink Hector. They always do.
“Uno must not be hungry yet,” Travis says. He’s pressing his forehead to the windowpane.
Uno is a small buck with one three-point antler. Hector named him. We tell Travis stories about him at night, and Travis draws pictures of him that we hang on the fridge. At Travis’s birthday party last week, there was a present from Uno. I wrote a card that said To Travis, Love Uno and beside the name, Hector drew a hoof print. I saved it. We haven’t seen Uno in days.
“He might be sleeping,” I say, “or he might be off having adventures.”
“Uno means one.”
“Uno only has one horn,” he says, mashing his cheek to the glass. “There are a million deer in the world, but they don’t look like Uno.”
“He’s mighty fine,” Travis says. “We just don’t know where he is anymore.”
“He’ll be back,” I say.
Old Man Landry drives by again, heading up the hill. There’s a .308 with a scope on the rack in the truck’s rear window.
“The turkeys are coming.” His voice is timid and small.
Then I hear them, their noises like something being choked.
For most of the morning, Travis and I play a game he invents on the fly; it amounts to my chasing and apprehending him, then him busting loose with a karate flourish and leading me into a different part of the house to begin again. In each room, I can’t stop myself from considering which things Hector and I will cart to the curb before we move. Louisiana? Florida? Or somewhere with snow. Colorado or Utah or Wyoming. When Travis gets tuckered out, I set him up on the couch with a DVD Hector’s parents sent us. The cartoon follows a stowaway mouse and a peg-legged pirate and a whale, but beyond that I’m clueless. It’s in Spanish. I turn up the volume and dip into the kitchen. I call Holiday World, but Hector’s with a customer.
The hang-ups from blocked numbers commence after lunch. Travis naps in our bed, and I pick up each call before the second ring to keep from waking him. After the first few dial tones, I answer every call by saying “Longoria residence, go fuck yourself.”
“Somebody must have gone to finishing school,” Lynnette Ulrich says on the line. Her voice rattles me. I stopped checking caller ID half an hour ago and hadn’t expected anyone to speak.
“I have a GED in etiquette,” I say. Then, because the joke sounds so forced, I say, “People keep calling and hanging up. Travis’s asleep.”
“Y’all should’ve told us,” she says. “That’s the consensus in these parts.”
“He registered with the county. That’s the requirement.”
“Everyone is thinking about the birthday party, how Hector was in such close proximity to the children.”
“No one had anything to worry about.”
“I guess whoever printed up those flyers disagrees.”
“How is Mark?” I say before I can stop myself.
“Mark? You think Mark had something—”
“Is he excited to wage war on the deer? Is he organizing an emergency Bible study to pray that we’ll hit the road?”
“You’re in no position to cast stones, Rhonda. I called to be neighborly, to give you a heads-up.”
“A heads-up on what?”
“Just that everyone’s in a lather, and to remind you that y’all are all alone and the cavalry has to be flown in by helicopter.”
“We don’t need the cavalry. We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“I probably agree with you,” she says, sounding gentle, conciliatory. “But there’s a bunch of hairy-legged men who see it differently, and come tomorrow morning, they’ll be creeping behind your property with rifles and hollow-tipped bullets.”
This year’s goal is to harvest forty-two whitetail doe and twenty-seven Sika. Those numbers came after a wildlife-management team surveyed the soil and vegetation, factoring in the drought and the weights of deer that were tagged last season. Then they ran an ad for volunteer harvesters in the classified section of the Comfort Compass and put Ulrich in charge. He’s the one who sent out the notice about not feeding the deer in the days before the harvest. By depriving the deer of our food, we’ll force them to venture into the shooting lanes. Another harvest goal is to target any “inferior” whitetail bucks. I told Hector that they might as well have printed Wanted posters with Uno’s picture on them. That was weeks ago, and even then I regretted the words as soon as they were out of my mouth. Even then, I knew I wouldn’t be able to outrun their sad echo.
The last time I called Holiday World more than once in a day was the afternoon I found a rattlesnake coiled on our porch. The thing had a slow black tongue and was longer than a fencepost. Travis and I ate waxy slices of cheese in front of the window, watching the snake soak up the heat. I called Hector with hourly reports.
So when I call again today, he’s worried.
“Flyers,” I say. “Every mailbox.”
“Oh,” he says.
“And a lot of hang-up calls,” I say. “I’m sure jackass Ulrich did the flyers.”
“We can’t jump to conclusions.”
His composure surprises me. It needles me. I wonder if his boss is nearby. I say, “I talked to Lynnette. She says people are worried about Travis’s party.”
“That makes sense,” he says. “I still don’t think we can jump to conclu—”
“The conclusion I’m jumping to is that tomorrow’s the harvest and I don’t trust where these good old boys’ll be aiming.”
“I’ll stop by the Ulriches’ tonight. I’ll explain everything. No problemo.”
“Come home,” I say, surprising myself. “Say Travis’s sick. Or say I am. Say you have to leave right away. I can start packing and we’ll be gone by midnight.”
“Hush,” he says. “I’ll visit with them and everything’ll be mighty fine.”
We grew up in Goliad, Texas, which is flat and poor and if it’s known for anything, it’s The Hanging Tree—a thick sprawling oak where hundreds of men were hanged in the Cart War. Hector and I used to climb the tree as kids. We also shared a pediatrician and schoolteachers, caught chicken pox the same year, and raised goats in the 4-H Club. A black-and-white picture of the 4-H Club hangs in our hallway, and in the bottom-right corner of the frame, we’re standing beside each other with our goats. Hector likes pointing this out to guests—last week, he showed it off at Travis’s birthday party—and because the camera caught him looking vaguely in my direction, he says he already had his eye on me. People smile hearing this. Women elbow their husbands, meaning, Why can’t you be that romantic? He’s twelve in the photo; I’m nine. In high school, when everything fell apart between my parents and me, I stayed with Hector’s family. I slept in his sisters’ room. After he graduated, we made our way to Victoria. Then to Pleasanton. Then San Antonio, where a judge pronounced us husband and wife.
“I always thought we’d get married in Goliad, at the church in the square,” Hector said one night in Corpus. I was pregnant with Travis. “I’m sorry that didn’t play out.”
“Maybe we’ll renew our vows there,” he said.
“And maybe the town’ll start using The Hanging Tree again.”
“The Hanging Tree,” he said, his voice wistful. “I haven’t thought of that thing in years.”
“I think about it all the time,” I said. “Every time I see a big oak, I wonder if the branches would hold a noose.”
Once I’m off the phone with Hector, the hang-ups begin again, so I disconnect the line. Travis is still napping. I pace the house. My chest tightens. My veins tingle like there’s sand in my blood. I move from room to room, peering through each window and then shutting the blinds.
“Why is it night now?” Travis asks. His gi is hanging open like a robe and his hair is standing in a sleep Mohawk. He’s emerged to find the living room in shadow.
I’m on the sofa, feeling like I’ve crept into a house, a life, to which I have no claim. For a moment, I recognize nothing: the crayons and sheets of paper with half-started drawings on the coffee table; the television with the three happy faces traced in the scrim of dust; the framed poster of two wolves with the caption “True Love is Found in the Hearts.” Earlier this morning, these things stood as a kind of proof. Now they’re remnants of a dream.
“I wanted to know why it turned to nighttime.”
“The sun was too bright,” I say.
“Why?” he says.
“Why was it too bright?”
“I thought it would be fun to feel like the house didn’t have windows,” I say and click on a lamp.
“But we need to look for Uno.”
“What if we played your game again?” I say. “Or drew a picture. Or finished your mouse movie.”
“Papa says Uno will come home when he’s good in hungry.”
“Good and hungry,” I say. This is, I think, the first time I’ve ever corrected him, and it nauseates me. Usually, I revel in it. After Wild Bill shot his nephew and the HALO flight scared away all the deer, Travis called helicopters “no-winged planes.” He refers to lightning as “scratches” and blue jeans as “long-sleeved pants.” Oh, I just melt.
“I know,” Travis says now. “When Uno gets good in hungry, he’ll be back.”
I expect him to rush to the window, but he squats at the coffee table and draws a series of pictures in which Uno looks like a cross between a snowman and a bug. Every couple of weeks Hector mails one of these pictures to his parents back in Goliad. I assume my parents still live there, too. But maybe not. Maybe my mother’s smoking bloated her lungs with tumors and she suffocated; maybe my father’s heart gave out while he cleaned a mare’s hooves. Hector used to worry I’d regret not telling them they’d become grandparents so, to appease him, I finally sent a postcard. It read, “Hector and I have a son. You’ll never see him.”
Now, when I peek through the blinds, I’m surprised the sun has gone down. The sky is vast, cloudless. The brush is dense with deer. They’re hungry, antsy. That they don’t know what’s coming in the morning feels shattering. It makes me want to cry, to break every plate in the cupboard, to shoot the poor animals myself. Travis slips into his father’s boots and we go outside.
“I wish we had a million deer plates,” he says. “A million million.”
“We could feed a lot of deer that way, couldn’t we?”
He nods and looks around. He says, “No Uno yet.”
An hour later, something small thumps against the side of our house. A quick, tiny noise. Travis and I are chasing each other around the kitchen, trading herky karate chops, and when we hear it, he halts and raises his eyes to me. Then the noise repeats. Then again. Again. Again. I imagine a flock of cowbirds losing their way and smacking into the vinyl siding. Travis asks if someone’s at the door. Then he asks if it’s starting to rain. Birds, I think. Just birds flying off course. The sound reminds me of something Hector told me, how seagulls will fly high with oyster shells in their beaks and drop them on the ground so they crack open. When I step outside, I expect to find the bodies of birds, broken and twitching. Instead, there’s a familiar odor that doesn’t immediately register. Then I see the yolks on the cement, the flakes of shell, the goo dripping down the house.
“Eggs, Mama,” Travis says. There’s wonder in his voice.
“That’s right, chalupa. Somebody wanted us to have some eggs.”
Then he’s laughing, loud and hard, like he’s just gotten the punchline for a joke he heard months before. He says, “Oh, those silly, silly turkeys!”
Lynnette is surprised when I call and ask for Mark. She takes the phone into the garage where he’s oiling his rifles. Her pants swish as she walks. The twins are with their father, and I hear her tell them to come inside. “Let’s scoot,” she says. “Travis’s mama has a question for Daddy.”
When he puts the phone to his ear, he says, “Go for Ulrich.”
“I’m not calling to ask about the flyers. Or the eggs thrown against my house.”
“You can ask whatever you like, Mrs. Longoria, and I’ll tell you the Lord’s truth.”
“I want to know if you’ve already shot the little buck with one antler.”
“The harvest starts in the morning,” he says. “I haven’t shot anyone yet.”
I’m in the kitchen, keeping my voice down. Travis is still at the coffee table. He has three crayons in his fist and he’s using them to draw jaggedy rainbows.
“If we were to leave,” I say, “if we packed up and got out of here as soon as possible, would you pledge not to shoot him?”
“Not shoot who?”
“The little buck.”
“What does your leaving have to do with harvesting an inferior deer?”
“My boy likes him,” I say. “I want your word that if we leave, you’d grant him immunity.”
“This is the little buck you’re talking about still.”
“All I’m asking is that you spare one animal. Do that and we’ll leave.”
For a while, there’s only a distant metallic scratching on Ulrich’s end of the line. I suspect he’s twisting a thin brush in the barrel of a rifle.
“Old Man Landry said you were feeding deer this morning, even with the harvest being tomorrow.”
“I’m calling to talk about the little buck, that’s all.”
“There were nine children at that birthday party,” he says. “Two of them were our sons. I’m trying to remember if they were ever out of my sight.”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” I say.
“Lynnette said as much. She’s got an innocent heart. I’m a tougher sell.”
“If you promise not to shoot the little buck, you’ll be rid of us. Problem solved.”
“I’ll pray on it,” he says.
“How long does that take?”
“You’ll know when I have an answer,” he says. “There won’t be any mistaking it.”
Travis and I eat grilled cheeses for supper, then he consents to a bath on the condition that I allow him to keep wearing his gi once he’s dried off. After that, he plants himself on the couch and starts watching his mouse movie. He’s eating grapes. I’m in the kitchen reconnecting the phone line when headlight beams swing through the slats of the blinds. A truck pulls into the driveway, idles. The lights burn across the counter. I glance at Travis on the couch. Scoop him up, I think. Get out the back door, hide in the scrub. When the phone rings, I jump.
“Where’s Travis?” Hector asks.
“Watching the DVD your parents—”
“Mighty fine,” he says, but his inflection seems off, like he’s straining to sound like himself. “Leave him be. I’m out front. Bring me a clean shirt and the ice pack.”
In the sallow floodlight glow, the blood smudging his face looks blue-black. His right eye is swollen and his nose is leaking red and his bottom lip is split, the size of a slug. I think he’s bashed his head into the steering wheel; I think he’s swerved to miss a deer or he’s been rear-ended, but I also know I’m wrong. His shirt is off and he’s holding it to his nose, trying to stop the bleeding. The cab of the truck smells mealy.
“We’re going to the minor emergency clinic,” I say.
“Hush,” he says. “I’m just a little busted up. No big whoop.”
His eyes are closed, so when he reaches for the ice pack, his aim is off. He gropes at the air like he’s trying to feel through a darkened room. I guide his hand and he smiles a pained little smile, then presses the pack to his eye and nose. Down the road, the rope knocks against Ulrich’s flagpole. Light pools in front of his garage where he’s praying and loading his guns.
Hector says, “I didn’t want Travis to see me until I got cleaned up.”
“Was it Ulrich?”
“Wild Bill,” he says.
Hector had stopped for gas in Comfort and when he came out from paying, Wild Bill’s Harley was leaning against the truck’s driver’s side door. He didn’t understand why it was there; he thought some trouble had befallen Wild Bill and he’d abandoned the bike in a rush. Hector was debating whether to wait or try moving the Harley himself when Wild Bill tapped his shoulder. When he turned, the only thing he could feel was where the tow chain came down across his face.
“I can still taste it,” he says now.
“A chain?” I say. “And nobody helped? I’m calling the cops and then we’re packing up. We’re done with Texas.”
“This time tomorrow no one will be thinking about anything but the harvest.”
“This time tomorrow we could be in San Diego.”
“We like it here. The hills, the deer, our weekend safari.”
“The flyers,” I say. “The eggs on the house. The tow chain.”
Down the road, Ulrich lowers his garage door. The light goes out. The night is cool, something I only realize now, and the sky is milky with stars. I’m barefoot, shivering. I’m furious and scared. It’s easy to imagine that there are eyes on us, though I can’t say if they might belong to hidden animals or neighbors with scopes and night-vision binoculars.
“I was tired of waiting,” Hector says from under the ice pack.
“I’d wake up every morning wondering when the flyers would appear. I wanted it behind us. I thought that might help us settle in and we’d feel more at home.”
For a while I’m lost, struggling to make sense of what he’s saying, and then I do. “You hung the flyers?”
“I thought the harvest would be a distraction. I thought whoever wanted to argue would have cooled down after the weekend.”
“I don’t understand,” I say. I feel in free fall, like a rope I’ve been clinging to has snapped. I say, “You designed and copied all those flyers, and then you taped them up? This has been some secret project of yours?”
“And you did it when Travis and I are home alone?”
“I didn’t think anything would happen until I got home. I thought everyone would be concentrating on the harvest.”
He says all of this with his eyes closed. What I want to do is slap him. I want to bring my fist down on his bleeding nose. I want to run up the road screaming and pounding on doors. I want to try to explain what’s happened and apologize and beg for another chance.
“I should’ve told you,” Hector says. “I’m sorry. I am. But I worried you’d talk me out of it, and I thought it could work. Aren’t you tired of leaving in the middle of the night?”
The answer that comes into my mind is No, I’m actually not, but instead I say, “I can think of a hundred ways we could have done it differently. I can think of a million.”
Hector starts to say something, then doesn’t. Insects rattle in the dark. I’m shivering again. Then our front door opens and Travis is framed in light. He’s in his gi and he’s squinting in our direction. He says, “Mama? Mama, the movie stopped.”
“I’ll be right there,” I say.
“I think the phone is ringing.”
“That’s okay,” I say and start toward him. “Daddy’ll get it. He’s expecting a bunch of calls tonight.”
What if the girl had been fifteen when Hector was eighteen? What if Hector had said, “We need to wait,” what if he’d said it countless times, but finally on a night when her parents went to a livestock show, the girl guilted him out of such restraint? Would that matter? Would it make a difference? And what if the next morning, a bright Saturday when the girl felt sore but also beautifully whole, her mother caught her washing the sheets with their Rorschach blots of blood? What if her mother told her father, and despite the girl’s wailing protests—“I wanted it, Daddy! I promise I wanted him!”—her father called the Goliad sheriff? What if he’d never liked Mexicans and said, “Some dirty beaner just raped my baby girl” and then the sheriff—her father’s hunting buddy—went to Hector’s house and dragged him down the porch, in handcuffs, in front of the whole neighborhood? What if the first people to receive the nasty phone calls were his parents, quiet and decent people who took the girl in and treated her like a child who’d lost her parents to a tragedy? What if Hector pled guilty to the lesser charge—indecency with a minor—not only to avoid prison time but to spare her the embarrassment of a trial? What if she had begged him to fight the charges, but this time he dug in his heels and refused? What if she hadn’t spoken to her parents in seventeen years? What if she had never been with anyone else? What if she was the only girl he’d ever kissed? What if, on the days when horrid flyers weren’t on the mailboxes and eggs weren’t rotting on her porch and her husband wasn’t broken up, it all seemed worthwhile? Would it change where you found fault? Where you laid blame? Would it affect your opinion of him? Of her? Of us?
Hector has to sleep on his back through the night. He breathes through his mouth, and sometimes I hear a quick, wet snore that makes him wince. Travis lies between us in his gi. He sweats at night and I can smell that briny scent, like old clay. I’ve been trying to drift off for hours, but my eyes won’t stay shut. Hector and I went to bed without talking, so I don’t know where anything stands. I feel cleaved from myself, from time and logic, as if I’m looking back on this moment from far into the future, as if I’m an old woman longing to remember the sour odor of my young son’s clothes and coming up short.
Hector shifts in the bed, tugs at the quilt, moans. I want his plan to work. I do. I want Wild Bill and Ulrich to hear him out, to understand and respect him, and I want word to spread along Up River Road. I want the men’s wives to call one another, and then me, admitting they were too quick to judge, admitting they envy the tragic romance of our love. Maybe they will. Maybe this is the place Travis will call home, and maybe it’s where Hector and I will live out our days. I’ve been trying to figure out the path to such a kind future, but my thoughts peter out and I have to start over, more discouraged every time. When the first wash of dawn starts to gray the windows, I take it as permission to get up.
The floors are cold, the rooms still mostly dark. A truck with roll-bar headlamps jostles up the road. Another one follows soon after. The first thing the hunters will do is fill the deer feeders with sweet corn. They’ll hoist themselves up into the blinds, click off their safeties, and wait. Once the sugary scent of the feed hits the wind, it won’t be long before the deer nose into the harvest lanes. Then the men will aim at the pockets between the animals’ shoulders and chests, right under their front legs, where their hearts are. The hunters will squeeze their triggers slowly, evenly. Then a harsh, searing noise will split the air and for the rest of the weekend, the bodies of the deer will hang from tree limbs as they’re bled and dressed. The Comfort Compass will run tips for curing venison jerky, coupons for taxidermy. The paper comes out every Thursday, six days from now. It seems a lifetime away.
Through the kitchen window, I see that Ulrich’s flags are up and his truck is gone. I regret telling him about Uno, regret that he knows how much the deer matters to us. Though I only realize this now, it’s something I’ve been stewing on all night: the jeopardy I’ve put Uno in, the peril I’ve invited.
I slide into Hector’s boots, scoop up a pitcher of deer feed, and step into the early morning air. It’s warm outside, much warmer than in the house. A low gauzy fog webs the trees, and the slopes of the hills are gilded with slow breaking light. The sun isn’t high enough for me to see the deer in the brush, but I know they’re there. They are darker patches of dark. I shake the pitcher to get their attention. I pour twice as much food as normal onto the deer plates, knowing Travis will fuss later that he wasn’t the one to feed them. Dew beads the ground. Woodsmoke braids into a breeze. The harvest will start within the hour.
When I turn back, there’s just enough light to read the tall spidery letters spray-painted across our house: i love to fuck babies.
Okay, I think. Okay now.
Inside, my hands tremble. I stand at the sink for a long while, clutching the phone, watching the tentative procession of deer come toward the food. Spindly-legged doe, skittish fawns, and a few bucks that bully their way to the plates. One doe raises her wet nose and sniffs, then looks in my direction before deciding to eat. If Uno were to appear, I’d see his presence as a sign, a promise, a license to hope. Of course he doesn’t. How to explain that part of me is relieved? Emboldened even? That his absence grants me a different kind of license, and for a brief, exhilarating moment I feel righteousness and indignation coursing through my body. I’d planned on calling the police to report Wild Bill and the graffiti on the house, but now, instead, I go to the fridge.
The HALO kit is in the vegetable drawer, under a bag of baby carrots and a head of iceberg lettuce. It’s illegal to make a false distress call. Ulrich explained that when he and Lynnette first dropped off the materials. The penalties are severe because of how much each flight costs the county, and because there’s the risk that while the crew is responding to the prank, someone else will find themselves in real trouble. There are steep fines, the very real possibility of a stint in jail. Still, I dial the number. I can’t dial it fast enough. Travis and Hector are stirring in the bedroom. As the phone rings, I imagine everything my call will set in motion. I imagine the blades of a chopper starting to spin, faster and faster until the machine rises into the sky. I imagine the adrenaline the crew feels, the way they check their equipment in the air. In the bedroom, Travis is listing what he wants for breakfast: “Pancakes! And tomato soup! And pizza!” His voice cuts me. I feel like a burglar, like I’ve again stolen into a home that isn’t mine and I’ll soon be found out, arrested, sentenced. The line continues ringing. My pulse riots. I imagine the deafening sound of the helicopter as the pilot guides it over the hills and I hear the disgusted lamentations of the hunters as they understand what’s happening, what it means for the harvest. “And ham,” Travis says. “And a cake with grapes.” I feel the ground shaking and the heavy wind radiating away from the propeller, blowing back trees and snapping branches and stirring up walls of parched soil. The phone rings and rings. My son and husband are coming down the hall, laughing, unaware of how the day will gut us. I hear Travis’s feet leave the ground briefly as he attempts a cartwheel, and Hector says, “If that’s not a ninja move, I’ve never seen one.” I close my eyes, and I can picture the deer scattering as the helicopter descends, their tails raised like white flags, disappearing for weeks into the hills. They’re hungry and terrified and cloaked in a short-lived safety, but I tell myself it can be enough. We’re all aching, we’re all afraid, we’re all seeking what little cover we can find. I tell myself that the sieges of our lives can be endured. And when the HALO dispatcher at last answers, I tell him we’re in trouble and to send in the cavalry.
“Help us,” I say, my voice cracking like a criminal’s. “Please.”