You are reading Fiddleblack #20
As soon as Wyatt Whitecloud came back from beers and saw his girlfriend Darlene in that short, purple-sequined dress, he felt the first crack of thunder from the storm brewing up inside of him. A bad omen. He watched through the window on the front door of her trailer, a yellow box of light against the oranges and purples of the fading day. She went back to the bedroom and returned, crossed the kitchen with both of her hands to one of her ears, where she hooked a gold hoop. Her hair was a short, black spike. He did the math: two years since she’d put on that dress, gone crazy-wild with chicken-scratch crystal and blackjack with her best friend Maudine. Three years since he’d moved in. Four years since she cleaned up for good, save for the booze—Wyatt couldn’t have handled that—and her last relapse. It had lasted only a week, her up and vanished, but that was long enough he almost bolted. Almost. Was she due? Something about that dress.
He breathed and fished a rubber band from the pocket of his Wranglers, pulled his long, black hair into a ponytail, straightened his mustache, and cupped his hand over his mouth, breathed out and in. She didn’t like it when he said he was out looking for work and then came home smelling boozy. Looked all over goddamned half the state. He breathed again and turned the handle. Locked out.
Darlene. Quiet. A whip-poor-will called out three times. Louder: Darlene.
Around back he climbed the small wooden deck to the sliding glass door but stopped just short of the handle. His boots. Always checking his boots for that goddamned red mud. He’d only had to track it across her carpet once to get slapped across the face, called a dirty Indian. Said it reminded her of a house she’d squatted in when the boy was a baby, the floor a concrete slab, crisscrossed with the mud tracks of some mad-ugly tweaker pacing.
But they were clean. And when he stood there he was: the boy. Precious Rudy. Fourteen. Dark and queer. Half-Mexican. Dressed in all black, his thumbs poking out from holes he’d torn in the sleeves of his shirt. A goddamned mystery. Sometimes just the sight of him. Wyatt made a move for the handle but the boy beat him to it, depressed the lock. He smiled and turned, walked away. Something inside Wyatt went pop and all he saw were his hands around the boy’s neck, his eyes bulging, tears streaming.
Goddamnit it. He slapped the glass so hard it shook in its frame.
Darlene. Darlene. Let me in this house before I break this glass and murder your son.
She came out from the back bedroom and let him in. Why didn’t you just use the front door?
He pushed past her and crossed the living room, tried the handle on the boy’s door. Locked out. A piece of duct tape with a scribbled warning: fukin nok!
He pounded. You get out here. Get our here right now.
You see the fucking sign? Can you read?
In the confusion of his fury he complied. He knocked once, realized what he had done—what he’d bent to—and then pounded again. Always with this place: locked out, pounding on doors. Christ.
Two hands locked around his arm and pulled him backwards. Don’t you dare. Wyatt Whitecloud. What have I told you? Don’t you dare try to scare him like that.
That boy doesn’t even know scared. When he turned the purple-sequined dress lit up the whites of his eyes and he remembered why he was in such a hurry to get in. That dress.
What are you all gussied up for? A casual probe. Nothing. He tried to tack on a compliment to diffuse the bomb of a question: You look good enough to eat. She turned back to the kitchen and he reached out and pinched at the back of her leg. She swatted his hand away. Wasn’t having it. Not a good sign. He followed her into the kitchen, picked a bottle of Wild Turkey up off the kitchen table—the turquoise Formica slick with years of grease and elbows—filled a red, plastic cup halfway and drank. He warmed. Warmed but hungry and nervous. Not nervous, no. Scared.
She stood over the trash and emptied things from her purse. He moved behind her, wiped the whiskey from his mustache, kissed the back of her neck. She stiffened. The gray skies inside him turned to rain.
I just said you looked good.
Find anything today?
Drove to Stillwater, nothing. Same in Cushing.
Maudine said since oil’s booming they’re taking on more roughnecks.
You know I don’t roughneck. Maudine. She’d been talking to Maudine.
What do you do?
It stung. Mean. Real mean. Handn’t seen her that mean in a while. Well, maybe some. Since he’d been laid off. He did the math: two months. Two mean months.
Where are you going?
Out. She pulled a fresh pack of Virginia Slims from the carton in the freezer, tossed it into the open mouth of her purse, dropped it on the kitchen table. She picked up Wyatt’s glass and threw her head back, drained it. Maybe I ought to just go on out and do what I want. Isn’t that what you do?
Wyatt stung again. No good at this sort of thing. Get him in the corner and he’ll take punches all day, won’t throw anything back. Won’t stop you and say have you been going to your meetings? She’d bring up the drinking.
When she sat the cup down the flat ping of the plastic cup against the table shot lightning across his chest.
And look after Rudy.
The lightning moved to his bones, flickered around his joints. Can’t he look after himself? Boy’s fifteen.
Fourteen. He’s not fifteen for another two days. She stopped and stared at him like she’d remembered something. His birthday is in two days. And if you forget that cake I ordered—And if you go after him, if you—she got still. Still wasn’t good. Still meant she was considering her options. Here’s the moment. Here’s where he says something, throws his back into that corner and fights his way across the ring.
He said nothing. He said nothing, and she was out the door. Not a clue where she was going. Not a clue when she’d be back. Could be tonight. Could be.
He stared down the door at the other end of the living room, thought one more time about all the things he’s like to do to that boy. Of course he’s never laid a hand on him, never laid a hand on any kid. He opened the fridge and pulled out three PBR tallboys fresh on their rings, dug his .30-06 out from under the couch, and went out back. He stopped for a minute and looked up at the yellow cone of light coming from the lamp on the telephone pole above the trailer. Watched the moths and mayflies, sometimes going, always coming. Filthy insects. He stepped out of the cone into the dark and was gone.
Not quite a mile behind Darlene’s trailer, the Cimarron River ran chocolate-red down from Horse-thief Canyon towards the Arkansas. A sea of post and blackjack oaks swallowed up what was between. Their roots pierced the thin, rocky soil, stretched their way down through the sandstone, sought out the aquifer below. Every year mean weather came and went—brutal winds, brutal drought, twisters, ice, and slick-stone hail—but the trees persisted.
Wyatt loved those woods, knew every inch of them on the south bank from Dugout Creek in the west to Brush Creek in the east. He hunted there. Poached, really. Ignored every law on the books. Didn’t owe them a goddamned thing. Deer in the summer, does fair game. Black bears without tags, though those were rare. Night, day, any living thing he could find in those woods. Anything that presented a challenge and wasn’t too small for his rifle. He’d grown up with the game warden, who looked the other way. A big freezer sat thick and clunky behind Darlene’s trailer. He kept it filled, held barbecues for the whole trailer park.
A fingernail moon hung high and hard in the clear black sky. Wyatt stopped at the bottom of a massive post oak down by the river, dropped his rifle and the beers on the ground.
He pulled a coil of rope from around his neck, lashed the rifle and beers to one end, tied the other to the back loop of his Wranglers. He leapt to the lowest branch and climbed and climbed until he was twenty feet above the ground and found a spot. The spot. He pulled the rifle and beers up, cracked one open. The hiss crashed through the woods. Goddamn. Got to be more careful.
Doesn’t matter tonight, though. Not really here to hunt. Just to clear his mind. That woman. When she’ll be back. He took a swig and considered his options. If she left again, he might ditch out. At the end of the day he didn’t really understand the meetings and the sponsors and all of that, but it sure kept the boat from rocking, and he guessed that was the point. Can’t have her coming and going like that. But then there was the goddamned boy. It would feel pretty good to leave him high and dry. See you later. Who’s the fuckup now. Just a boy, though. Wished he hadn’t been caught skimming the till. Everybody did it. Now all this time.
He crushed an empty can and let it fall to the ground, opened another. He pulled a small glass bowl packed tight and green from his pocket and a lighter from inside his boot. He smoked and his thoughts lulled. These beautiful woods. Could just live in this tree, talk to the moon. His limbs felt light and he felt happy. He fell asleep, the Milky Way spinning above him. He dreamed one of those inscrutable, sensationless dreams that only come when sleeping drunk: He moved across the top of a dark ocean, the sky empty, everything black and slick like oil, and felt something moving, waving and writhing beneath him, smooth and unsure, endless.
He woke to a growl in the forest. His lap was empty, and when everything came into focus he saw the rifle in the red dirt below him. Forests don’t growl. He stretched his arms and groaned. Then another growl—a low and long snarl. A warning that rose from beneath. He leaned forward, his stomach on the branch, and saw it: something pacing, blue with moonlight.
Sweat covered his face. Panic when he placed it: a mountain lion. A goddamned cougar. Not in Oklahoma. Then what are you looking at. He blamed his foggy-stoned head until another growl rose up, a whip of a scream. They can’t climb trees. Of course they can climb trees. He started to lift his rifle with the rope, but the image of a kitten batting at a piece of yarn flashed in his mind and he stopped. Christ.
It stopped pacing and lowered its head, stabbed its shoulder blades towards the night sky, and then rolled over, twisted and grinded its back into the red clay, marked its territory. It stood and shook its tail, looked Wyatt in the eyes and slunk off towards the river.
When Wyatt returned to the trailer, the sliding glass door was locked, and the whole place rattled with the bass of the boy’s music. The nerve. But he couldn’t finish the thought. Fading fast. He eyed the bottle of whiskey inside, but turned and leaned against the glass, slid down to the deck. He thought of the lion again, but shook it off. Nothing. Nothing.
But something began then, and as his head wilted and he fell asleep on the deck, the image of the lion’s face—twisted and snarling—burned bright in Wyatt’s mind like a bug zapper.
He woke with an axe splitting his head. Something boomed and boomed. Rattled his head like a caged boar. Goddamnit, lay off. He sat up and the blood dropped from his brain to the rest of his body, which pricked with pins and needles. The boy was kicking the glass with his black Chuck Taylor’s.
Goddamnit, lay off. He stood and found himself shirtless, his blue pearl snap crumpled on the deck. The sun was fat and red and hot in the east and an invisible army of cicadas thrummed like madmen. He pieced together the night before. Fragments here and there. The boy had locked him out. He wanted to be furious. But too hungover..
The boy slid open the door. She’s gone.
The storm in Wyatt grew thick, the center rotated, drooped like dirty, wet cotton.
I missed the bus. You’ve got to take me to school. I’m late. He turned but stopped, spoke into the empty house: Should I worry?
Wyatt squinted, blocked out the pounding son with his hand up over his eyes. You do whatever you want. There. That felt good. But he worried. When he stepped inside a wave of nausea crested, and he barely made it to the sink in time to vomit.
Wyatt stood on his toes and peed in the sink. A wave of relief. But then the hangover again. The goddamned hangover.
Fucking grosser. Are you going to take me or what?
I guess. He snapped his shirt on, smoked a bowl, and downed a cup of day-old coffee. The boy went back into his room and returned with his black hair slicked up into spikes. A wallet chain hung down to his knee.
You look like an asshole.
So do you.
County Road 389: A long lick of washboard that divided Mike Wilson’s steeds from Rosa Ketch’s soy. The road joined the trailer park to 33, which crawled east towards Tulsa.
Wyatt’s powder-blue pickup bounced up and down over the thousand-year ruts, each one turning his stomach over. Sunlight choked the dirty windshield. Rosa Ketch’s two birddogs flattened themselves against the ground and crawled beneath the barbed-wire fence, lit out after the truck, barked into the fan of dust. Wyatt rolled down his window, let in the sky.
Hot morning, isn’t it? Something to say that’s not Darlene.
The boy ignored him.
Wyatt wanted to take him down a peg. Remind him of the tweaked-out Mexican father doing a twenty-year stretch in McAlester. Where was he. Instead he said nothing, fished a roach out of the truck’s ashtray and pulled the lighter from his boot. Hold the wheel. He let go and cupped his hand around the flame. The truck veered to the left. From the corner of his mouth: Hold the goddamned wheel.
The boy overcorrected, sent the truck back in the other direction. For a moment it looked like they were going to take a fence post head on. Wyatt took the wheel back and laughed. There you go. That one got to him.
You’re going to kill us. Mom’d be so pissed.
The boy didn’t ask where she was. He knew even better than Wyatt. He’d been with her through much worse, seen her up and vanish a hundred times, vaporized. She’d dump him on her parents—two bible-beating nuts who wouldn’t have anything to do with either of them anymore—and then she’d snatch him up, leave a dust storm of a fight behind. He could dump him there just like Darlene had. But he knew they wouldn’t have it, had written them off, cut them out of their prayers. Don’t care about the boy. But Christ.
Past town but a quarter-mile before the school the boy said to stop. Wyatt took one last drag off of the roach, tossed it.
I can walk from here.
Wyatt understood. Didn’t want some shit-pickup Indian dropping him off.
I’ll take the bus home. He turned to walk away.
She’ll be back.
What a dumb-fuck thing to say.
On the way home he circled the parking lot of the casino, scanned for Darlene’s purple hatchback or Maudine’s Bronco. Nothing. Drove out to the Ice-House and checked the parking lot. Goddamn she can hide. Back to town. Trolled Main Street, couldn’t find her. Followed Main until it turned to dirt, checked a house where he knew a guy who owned a wrecker service and sold crystal. Nowhere anywhere. He didn’t even know why he was looking. Wouldn’t know what to do if he found her.
Coming back through town. More of last night’s shame and fragments fell into place and he slammed on his brakes, pulled over onto the shoulder, a story of dust and gravel. That goddamned mountain lion, cougar. Whatever. He’d seen it, wasn’t just drunk, could still see it clear as day in his mind. He broke out in hangover sweat, the sweet smell of alcohol boiled up in the cab and he opened the door, vomited again. He spit and coughed, sat up, scanned the edge of the woods north of town, wondered how a cougar had made its way into those woods without being seen. Damned thing didn’t just skip across the plains. Must’ve hid, slunk through tall grass. The thought of it got to him, made him want to find someone, shake them by the shoulders. There’s a goddamned mountain lion. But he kept it inside.
Back at the trailer he hooked his fingers under the receiver of the phone and paced, the phone in the crook of his neck, dialed a thousand numbers on the rotary. He called the Hair Cottage where she cut hair. We were about to call you. He called Maudine’s house, but no answer. He called the Ice-House and asked if she’d been in. Not in a while. He fished through the mess at the bottom of their bedroom closet and pulled out a bible, the leather cover crisp as a cool night. He tore out the number written in the dedication page. Goddamn. He’d never even met them. All he knew: A couple of old-fart-crazy Christians. He folded and unfolded the paper. The Wild Turkey—maybe four fingers left. He poured a drink and downed it. Just one more. Dialed. Hung up after seven rings, pulled a pack of her Virginia Slims from the freezer and lit one up, winced at the menthol. When he looked at the floor he saw that he’d tracked red mud in all over the carpet, crisscrossed it all over the living room while he paced.
He’d moved in with nothing but a duffel bag and could get out just the same. This afternoon: Just up and leave. He didn’t need this. He looked at the cigarette and smelled her all over the place, picked up the phone. On the eighth ring it went to the answering machine and he hung up. He dialed again. He dialed and hung up and dialed and hung up and finally lost track, each call a signal, an SOS.
A man’s voice: Did we not tell you not to call here anymore?
A woman’s voice: Hello? Darlene? What’s going on?
This is Wyatt.
Have you seen Darlene around? I’m her—well, we got together a few years ago—and there’s the boy—he flinched—and I’m worried about—well, I haven’t told anyone this yet, but—there’s a goddamned mountain lion. Christ. Why add that. A dumb-fuck thing to say.
This is just what she does. A click.
He woke to the growl of the school bus. Feeling better. He sat up and searched for the remote and tried to look like he’d been awake when the boy banged through the front door and dropped his backpack.
Another day of nothing?
Silence. He didn’t say it: Searching for your mother at bars and meth dens. Angry. He guessed he was angry.
The boy crossed the kitchen and rifled through the cabinets, turned cereal boxes upside-down. Anything to eat? He pulled out a jar of peanut butter and opened the lid, peered inside, pulled a spoon out of the sink and dropped it in, sat next to Wyatt on the couch. Wyatt measured the distance between them, looked at the bottle of whiskey on the table. The boy ate and said nothing. When he’d scraped the bottom of the jar clean he pulled out his cell phone—and them with a goddamned rotary—and clicked away, his face a blue box. He slapped it shut and Wyatt jumped. The boy picked up the pack of Virginia Slims. Pulled one out and lit it with the lighter next to Wyatt’s pipe.
Wyatt watched at first, did the math. Then: What in the hell do you think you’re doing? He knew the kid smoked, could smell it on him. But this.
He took a deep drag and blew it at Wyatt’s face. It’s cool. I smoke. You haven’t figured that out? Dumb-fuck. He took another drag.
At least show some respect. What do you think your mom would think about you sitting right here in the living room, smoking one of her cigarettes?
I guess she’d have to be here first.
Wyatt reached out to take the cigarette but the boy pulled it away, held it out like it was a game. You know what? I don’t even have to be here. Goddamn.
The boy’s eyes narrowed. Playful to pissed. Wyatt stood and leaned over him, tried to take the cigarette, but the boy dodged his grasp and twisted the blazing hot butt out right on Wyatt’s arm. The sharp burn. The shock of it sent him backwards, where he tripped over the table and fell.
The boy jumped over the couch, ran, slammed his door shut before Wyatt could get to him.
Wyatt’s world went white for a moment—the drinking and the lion and that purple-sequined dress, all of it, drained away into oblivion—and he stood before the boy’s door, his chest heaving and his fists clenching and unclenching. Bass exploded from the room and rattled the door.
Going to do some damage. Bruise him up pretty bad. Maybe break a nose, a bone. He’d never had a reason to hurt a kid. But goddamn. He’d break down the door, break the boy, break out, fill his duffel back and leave the boy crying, leave his life with Darlene behind, sew his heart shut again. Maybe. Darlene. Just a little longer. Just until he could get things figured out. The burn on his arm bloomed red, his hot breath against the door.
The sun set and the boy came back out of his room. The nerve. The goddamned nerve. He stood in the doorway and Wyatt stood to match him, turned his arm, showed the red mark. The boy held up the cell phone and pointed to it.
Wyatt’s eyes lit up. But back into a glare. She called?
Yeah. Said she’d be back for my birthday tomorrow. Didn’t say where she was. Just promised she’d be back. Wyatt saw he was in a better mood. Didn’t matter. Shouldn’t have waited. Maybe he could leave when she was back. He’d feel better about that.
Good. But man it stung she’d called the boy instead of him.
Listen. Sorry about that burn. I really didn’t mean it. Sometimes I just want to explode, you know?
He knew. You’re lucky I didn’t break your face.
He closed the door.
Back for his birthday. Back for his birthday. Christ.
That night Wyatt lay on the couch, smoked a bowl, surfed channels. Settled in somewhere between fury and panic. So much to choose from, not one thing on. An old line. He found a Terminator marathon. He’d never seen it, had wanted to see it once with Darlene. He did the math: their third date.
It’s got that guy from Batman. Christian Slater.
Christian Bale. She laughed at him and he understood that was going to be how it was: her laughing at him. I want to see Star Trek.
Instead he drove her to Cushing, pulled his pickup off the side of 33. They watched the flare stacks in the darkness. They dotted the landscape, burned off the pressurized gasses in the oil pipelines that spread beneath the town. Goddamn they were beautiful. He watched the flames and wondered at what fire was. He wondered what would happen if you plunged a pipe deep into the body, ignited it.
She’d been the next in a long line of women he’d moved in and out of since he was fifteen. He’d left his foster parents and moved into Patty’s apartment that year, and then there was Michelle and the garage apartment above her parent’s place, and Rita with the above ground pool in Stillwater, and Lorrie and Lauren and the Knox sisters. He’d loved them all in his own way, let them take care of him until they grew bored or he grew tired of whatever work the relationship demanded. But something changed. Some new kind of longing. Didn’t know the first thing about it, couldn’t put a name to it. But he found it all around Darlene like a halo: her NA meetings and the books she read, the egg shells and coffee grounds in her trashcan, the two toothbrushes, her plans to stay where she was for good. A star to hitch his wagon to.
Her clothes off in the orange-hot light of the flare stacks: something cracked inside him. She bowed up under him, breathed in his ear. He knew then that he’d stick around.
Afterwards: What do you think about Rudy? Wyatt’s blood pumped thick beneath her ear. I mean, you got to meet him. You got to be okay with a kid.
Yeah. I’m cool with all that. And he was.
Now he was alone, blue-haze smoke around him, explosions and fire on the TV.
And that’s when he saw them: Two bright green discs, hovering in the darkness beyond the bay window. He chilled. Couldn’t tell if they really were beyond the glass or inside it, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that they were eyes. Eyes that wanted him. They blinked away and Wyatt returned to the blue glow of the room. The storm turned inside him dark. A twister.
The boy had already left, taken the bus. Wyatt sat up and traced his finger along his forearm, stopped at the flesh-pink burn and circled it. Good riddance. But still. The hangover wasn’t as bad as it’d been. Ought to slow down more often. He smoked a bowl and his stomach growled, so he searched the kitchen for food, came up empty. Rabbit in the freezer our back. Too long to thaw. Fuck it, why not. He pulled on his boots and slid the rifle from underneath the couch, went shirtless into the woods.
Not fifty feet from the trailer Wyatt picked up the scent of something. Something rancid. Something his whole body told him to avoid. He stopped still, felt the breeze, did the math: to the west. Maybe a hundred feet. A horsefly circle around his head, screamed in his ears. Maybe a hundred and fifty. He swatted at the fly but it landed right behind his ear, plunged its knifey mandibles into his flesh. Should’ve known every last thing was against him. He slapped the side of his head and looked at his hand: A small mess of blood and twitching black flesh. Goddamned nature. But he loved it.
He moved towards the smell—something dead. Might be scavengers on it. Wouldn’t mind hanging a coyote pelt up somewhere by the trailer, a warning. Bushwhack slapped his arms, his face.
To no one in particular: What in God’s name.
It was a coyote, all right. Its skin gone, its muscle cleaned away form the bone, a mass of blood and cartilage straddling the gnarled, black branch of a blackjack atop a thatch of mistletoe. A dish served up on a bed of garnish.
He turned and looked behind him, then all around him, his blood pumping quick. Didn’t see his woods anymore. Trees but not his. Something unfamiliar, hostile. The oaks had taken on a life of their own, crept closer while his back was turned. Conspiring. To surround him and encircle him, wrap him in smilax and mistletoe, bury him beneath the bramble in the belly of the earth.
A sharp, screaming growl. He did the math: further west, down to the river. And he did something he hadn’t done since he was a boy: He turned and ran.
He stopped at the back of the trailer and leaned the rifle up against the deck. Bent over, hands on his knees, and gasped. When he turned the woods looked like his again, calm and still. A great-tailed grackle flew down and landed on the deck railing, cawed.
Inside he leaned over to slide the rifle back under the couch and saw the burn on his arm, thought twice and took the rifle out front, hid it behind the seat of his pickup. Not for him. That boy was crazy, might hurt himself. Not him, though. With the thought of the boy: the birthday cake. The goddamned birthday cake. One thing he was supposed to do. The one thing she. Darlene. He leaned his head back against the hot truck, let the noon sun beat down on him. If he was a praying man. But he wasn’t.
Fifteen minutes later he rolled up to the Super Center in Stillwater. Show up, please. He wiped his palms on his jeans and went inside. Show up or I’ll bail. The place was bright and cold and noisy. Walking past the aisles to the bakery, his stomach curled up so tight he wanted to vomit. Hunger. And the boy. He went for a cart.
More peanut butter. Bread to put it on. Doritos. The boy liked Cheetos. Fuck him. Cool Ranch. He shoveled Hungry Mans into the cart. A regular goddamned family man. He laughed aloud, turned around to face the beer, a slick-bright aisle of color and cold. Maybe not tonight. He wiped his palms on his jeans again. Okay just one case. Here you go. He lowered it into the cart.
He told the old bald woman in the bakery it was for a boy, gave her the name, told her just to pick a cake.
I bet he’ll love a Sponge Bob. They all love Sponge Bob now. My grandson won’t wear anything unless it has Sponge Bob on it.
He paid with his food stamp card, put the beer on the bank card. He winced when she swiped it. Approved. Goddamn.
He put the groceries away and pulled the cake out of the bag, sat it on the table. Happy Birthday Ruby. Oh God. Ruby. This is the big one. He eyed the trashcan and decided against it. He put it on top of the fridge and opened the door, pulled out a Budweiser and cracked the top open, drank the whole thing down. You better come. One more like that. He warmed.
He had a few more and was smoking Virginia Slims and watching Law and Order when the boy came home. He dropped his backpack on the floor and looked around the house. Wearing black eyeliner. Christ.
It’s early still.
On the couch again together, waiting. Nothing to say. Shouldn’t be the one to say it to him. He elbowed the boy and motioned for him to watch as he blew a smoke ring, which twisted and flopped. He coughed and ash from the butt tumbled down the front of his pearl snap.
Nice one. Drunk?
Had a few. But I’m cool. Boy’s smart, better watch it.
Still waiting. Wyatt drank another beer and decided to have another. Fuck it. The boy surfed through the channels, stopped on MTV. College girls with tits hanging out. Something goddamned normal.
The red-hot sun sank and the fireflies came out and they knew she wasn’t coming. Wyatt’s head swam, anger first, then a profound sense of loss, anger at the boy, anger at Darlene, then a profound sense of loss. Want to know something?
The boy ignored him.
A swell of anger. I said You know what I saw?
That’s not what you said.
A mountain lion.
For real. A cougar. Plain as day. Haven’t told a soul. Just you. That last part was a dumb-fuck thing to tag on.
There aren’t mountain lions in Oklahoma.
Wyatt took a drink and imagined picking the boy up over his head and throwing him through the front window. But why. He’d thought the same thing.
Sure you didn’t dream that up while you were sleeping on the deck? He laughed.
Yuck it up. He got up to get another beer but had to steady himself. Just how drunk he was. Ought to take it easy with the boy here and all. Going to have to take it easy all the time. He recoiled. Or just do whatever. You didn’t come.
He ignored the beer and reached for the cake, held it over his head like a trophy.
Here you go. Got this for you. Happy birthday or whatever. He dropped it on the table and took off the plastic cover. Happy Birthday, Ruby.
The boy stood, showed interest, soured. Fucking Sponge Bob? How old do you think I am?
Wyatt’s head swam again, the words Sponge Bob riding the crest of the waves. She said they all loved Sponge Bob. She said he wouldn’t wear it unless it was Sponge Bob. He teetered, moved across the kitchen, reached into the silverware drawer. His index finger grazed against the bevel of a knife, sunk into his skin. A shock of cold ran up his arm, and for a moment he sobered. Goddamn. He jammed the cut finger into his mouth and picked up the knife with his free hand, took two steps across the kitchen. He leaned against the table to steady himself and stabbed the knife into Sponge Bob’s face so hard the blade went through the table. The handle warbled.
Fuck Sponge Bob. He stood over the cake, swayed. Blood dripped off the end of his finger onto his boot. Darlene’s going to be pissed about the table.
The boy laughed. Yeah. Fuck Sponge Bob.
Fuck Sponge Bob.
Fuck Sponge Bob.
Happy birthday, Ruby.
You want to go for a hunt?
Wyatt pulled the keys from his pocket and tried to focus on the purple rabbit’s foot, a gift from Darlene. Here. You’ve got to drive.
Rudy weaved down 389, the moon a giant crescent in the south.
I don’t have a license, you know. This is some stupid shit.
Me driving’s some stupid shit. The air from the open window slowly sobered him. He blinked at the stars, followed the Milky Way from one end to the next. Crazy. They drove past the Ice-House but didn’t see her car. Ought to step in and have a beer. But when he looked back to Rudy behind the wheel, he motioned towards the road. Onward.
They checked the tweaker wrecker’s house. Nothing. Checked another trailer park at the other end of town, came up empty. Nothing downtown. They stopped at the Whistle Stop and Wyatt bought coffee, a bag of Cheetos. They sat in silence and considered their options.
Get out on the highway. We’ll check the casino. Then we’re done for. Then Rudy’s done for. When’s your learner’s permit?
Six months. Duh.
Rudy parked the truck at the far end of the lot. Shoestring clouds drifted in front of the moon and the flashing red lights from the casino’s neon sign danced across the hood of Wyatt’s truck. Rudy scanned the parking lot for his mother’s car and Wyatt thought about that morning, when he’d run from the mountain lion. That’s just what he was: a runner. He guessed. His chin drooped, he belched. Beer and coffee, cheap creamer.
I’m a coward.
Rudy ignored him. He opened Wyatt’s ashtray and fished around. He found a roach, held it up to Wyatt, a question. Wyatt reached down in his boot and felt around for the lighter. A dumb-fuck thing to do. Darlene would just murder him. Both of them.
Why not? They smoked and sat in silence and watched the front door. Wyatt imagined all of the lights inside—bright blues and reds, flashing like police lights—the electronic beeps of the machines, the phony sounds of coins filling up metal trays, the old ladies perched on their stools, chain smoking. He imagined Darlene sitting at one of those stools at the video blackjack table, feeding dollars into the slot. Greasy dollars, shaky hands, black eyes. A place he didn’t want to go. Things he didn’t want to see.
But she wasn’t there anyway. Wasn’t anywhere. Up and vanished. Goddamn. Square one with Rudy.
Like Rudy read his mind: Guess we can quit.
Wyatt only half listening. What he heard more was the roar of that storm in his chest and down in his bones. Can’t talk to the boy. Can’t figure it out. He looked down the slope behind the casino to his woods.
Don’t quit. Not till the hunt’s over. He swung open his door and pushed the back of the bench forward, smashed Rudy against the steering wheel. Sorry.
The rifle. Its stalk glinted in the moonlight and Wyatt smiled. He left and Rudy followed.
What the fuck are you doing?
Wyatt just motioned with his hand: Come along.
Into the woods. A warm wind rustled up dead leaves, bent the trees until they creaked, cracked. They could hear the river, and the darkness of the forest had completely surrounded them. Got to be careful. Down through the trees to the Cimarron. Thing has to drink. They walked along the bank. A string of screams somewhere up the river. Human maybe. But they turned into a high-pitch-growl and then a shallow roar. Rudy stopped dead.
I told you. Didn’t feel as good as it should’ve. His heart pounded too. Maybe. Couldn’t really say about Rudy. Maybe.
They made their way down a half mile to Horse-thief Canyon, where the river turned sharp to the north and carved out a steep embankment on the south shore, an open wound of a cave. Pictographs. Where the Doolin Dalton gang hid after raids. Now mostly a fire pit where teenagers got drunk. Wyatt pointed for Rudy to stay on the bank, the massive outcrop teetering above. Wyatt followed. What they were doing. A dumb-fuck thing.
Inside the bank grew larger, carved a beach beneath the rock. Spooky. Something crunched beneath Wyatt’s foot. Heard it. Felt it. He pulled the lighter out of his boot and handed it to Rudy, who flicked it on. They saw them, all over: the bones.
Yeah. The light flickered out and Rudy struck the flint again. A ribcage, a skull. A human skull. No. Another ribcage. Cattle, scavengers, chicken bones. Too drunk to smell it. Rudy too dumb. They walked atop the skeletons.
Wait here? See if it comes? Of course it would come back. Nowhere else to go.
No fucking way.
The lighter snuffed out again, and they were alone in the dark together. Together but separate. Maybe. But glad to have the boy there with him. Rudy went ahead, moved towards the other end of the canyon. Something cracked and Wyatt shouldered the rifle, pointed it into the darkness, the muzzle back and forth. A dumb-fuck thing to do.
Rudy turned and whispered: What? He struck the lighter again and Wyatt saw the thing behind him, crouched down, slinking. It eyed Rudy’s back, it’s own hunched up. Tail whipping. Its skin quivered over its coiled muscles. It bore its teeth but made no sound.
Wyatt leveled the barrel, Rudy staring straight back at him. He felt the storm inside and the lion’s haunches recoiled. The lighter went out. He could see the spark and another spark. Rudy trying to bring the light back. He squeezed the trigger.
The echo in the canyon tore the world in half. Wyatt’s ears ringing. Deaf. The lighter flickered back on. There it was. Just like that. Sprawled on the ground, a hole exploded through its neck. Blood pumping out like crude. The back half of its body twitched. Rudy yelled something at Wyatt, waved his hands in the air, some kind of warning, but Wyatt still couldn’t hear, his skull filled up with the heady ring of the shot.
The trouble was over. But he did the math: More to come.
Chase Dearinger’s stories have been or will be published in Bayou Magazine, The Southampton Review, The Bitter Oleander, Short Story American, and others. He edits the literary magazine Arcadia, and currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he’s at work on a novel.