The trees whispered against the windows as the wind picked up. Lily looked in on her father, but the chemotherapy had made him sick so quickly that his body was thoroughly exhausted. She’d hardly been able to get him up the stairs before he had fallen asleep. The doctor had clucked something about payments when she was there, but she had just fluttered her eyelashes and insisted that she wasn’t the one to handle the checkbook in the family. Important things like that had to be left to the men. She’d filed it in her mind as another reason to have a confrontation with her brother later.
But he had not come home promptly. So much of her life had turned into the pause and the lull, the formation of the question without speaking it. The more urgent their situation became, the more they didn’t talk about what was happening. For years she had trusted her brother implicitly, but she knew that he wasn’t a businessman and didn’t have the head for saving something that was already in such peril. He just wanted to preserve their feelings and be the hero, but she had never been able to put her little brother up on a pedestal.
His car kicked up dust as it tore up the driveway. They were in desperate need of some rain just to get their meager garden growing, and the clouds overhead were promising to make up for what they’d lacked. She made her way to the kitchen and put the kettle on the stove. She would not confront him outside. She would have a cup of tea and let him sit down. She would not let him have the advantage of going on the defense from the start of their conversation. To him, it would appear sudden, but it had been hours—years, really, if she could be honest with herself—that they had needed to have this conversation.
There was laughter at the door. He crashed his way in with more care to carrying a conversation than treating the old house with the respect it deserved. Lily bristled and held her empty mug even more tightly. The other voice was a girl’s. She wanted to tell them that they should be quiet, that their father was having his nap and needed his rest after such a poor creation. Instead she moved to the pantry and busied herself looking through the teas that she already had memorized.
“Lily! Where are you?” Oliver was in the kitchen already. She took a deep breath for patience and leaned around the door to give him a tight-lipped smile. “Oh, there you are. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
The girl looked to be at least five years his junior, mature enough to look like an adult without being touched by time just yet. She was apologetically tall and slouched horribly, and her long black dress with its Peter Pan collar reminded Lily of a bolt of cloth. Or maybe she was just irritated already. She accepted that this might be the case. “I have to get this,” she said without any remorse in her voice. She held up the box of tea as an excuse to get over to the stove before the kettle could even begin to whistle.
“That’s a nice idea. Marilyn, do you want a cup of tea or something? Lily, this is Marilyn. Marilyn…”
“It’s very nice to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you.” The girl offered a pale hand, but Lily was already busy. She had to unwrap the teabag and get it in the mug, then pour the water, then measure out the right amount of milk and sugar. It was a very involved process. No time for handshakes. “I’d love a cup of tea,” the girl called Marilyn said to get her attention.
She had to admit it was a clever move. It was enough for Lily to turn to her and offer up whatever dredges of a smile she had within her. “I’ll just get you a mug then,” she said as she moved to another cupboard. She didn’t offer the girl a choice in which tea she got. “You know, for as much as you’ve supposedly heard of me, my brother’s never mentioned any Marilyns.”
She didn’t have to look back to know that color had splashed across Oliver’s cheeks. He was prone to wearing his feelings most vividly, and he’d always been quick to become embarrassed. The Pratts were not terribly social creatures, so some things never changed. Fortunately for Oliver, Marilyn just giggled and shoved him gently with her hip. “Well, I’m—“
He gave her a sharp look and hastily interrupted. “She’s Mr. George’s assistant.”
That name being spoken in their house again made the fresh mug nearly slip between her fingers. Since that initial visit, the only time she’d heard of the politician was when her father had asked her to make sure that dreadful man didn’t come back around these parts. She had pointed out that he hadn’t even met the man, and a potential buyer wasn’t a bad thing, but her father wanted to hear nothing of the sort. All he had to know was that he was a politician to know exactly what kind of a person he was. If their legacy had to crumble, then it at least should fertilize a new beginning for some young family. He wasn’t interested in moving out to make way for a parking lot.
“You didn’t tell me you’d been in touch with Mr. George again,” she said as she prepared the tea for this girl. She had gained a new level of intrigue very quickly, and Lily realized that it was probably best not to offend her with her cold behavior.
Oliver pulled out his chair and offered the other to Marilyn, who accepted. There was nowhere else to sit in the kitchen, but Lily had ceased to care. She placed the porcelain cup in front of the girl, who offered her a bright smile in response “I’m afraid Mr. George is very difficult to pin down. You’re probably aware that it’s an election year, so he has many interests tugging at him.”
“I thought it would be a good idea to bring Marilyn out here to see the farm. She can take some photos, answer any questions that he might have. That way we don’t have to keep waiting for him to find the time to come here. We don’t have unlimited time to figure out where we’re going after this. We have to get looking for a place to live and jobs, those little factors that wouldn’t cross his mind.”
They were the most responsible words that she had heard her brother speak since he had begun his frantic search for a buyer. She had started to believe that he would never take the next step because it was too scary. “The sooner, the better as far as Dad is concerned. You know he doesn’t like change. If we have more time to figure out where he’d be comfortable, that’d be best,” she pointed out.
Marilyn touched her arm gently. “I truly am sorry to hear about your father’s battle,” she said, all firm eye contact and soft tones. “We want to find the best possible outcome that won’t put him in any danger.”
“That’s really very sweet of you.” Lily was surprised by the warmth she felt from the sympathy. Other people had expressed their concern about their father, naturally, but he had been sick for so many years that his cancer was just treated like a matter of fact. Some people just had heavier loads than others, and there was no reason for making every day seem like a special occasion. She put down her tea in order to pat Marilyn’s hand. “I don’t know how much you can really do for us, but I had no idea that he cared that much about us.”
Oliver and Marilyn exchanged a look, but he was the one who found his tongue to speak first. “He seemed pretty fond of you, Lils. I wouldn’t sell yourself so short.”
She bit her lip as she remembered the way the man had followed her around. She had only tried to make him comfortable, to be helpful. She didn’t understand why her brother had been so furious about it. “Well, it’s not like he wants to marry me and keep the farm in the family still, so I don’t see why that matters,” she snapped back.
If the discomfort bothered Marilyn, she didn’t show it. Instead she dunked her teabag patiently and took a sip from her mug, then helped herself to a bit of the sugar. “He wouldn’t want bad press either,” she reminded them. “Like I said, election year.”
Lily refused to feel embarrassed in her own home, even if it would not be her home much longer, so she cast her gaze outside the window. The clothes were gathering lower, swollen with the promise of rain. “It’s just a shame you couldn’t have picked a better day to come out for photographs,” she said.
Oliver shrugged. “Well, she can always come back. It’ll give him a general idea of what the place looks like. I want to give her a tour so she can go back and say flattering things.”
“You’ll hardly have to prompt me,” Marilyn said, sounding nearly breathless with excitement. “I know you said you had a farm, but when I got here, I was surprised by how big it is. It’s tucked back so far from the main road that I really could have lived here my whole life with no clue this place existed.”
“We should get to that then.”
“But what about my tea?”
“You can bring it with you. I mean, I know the way back to the house.” He gave her a soft smile and pulled her chair back for her when she began to stand up. Lily couldn’t remember the last time that she had witnessed her brother demonstrate manners like these. He wasn’t rude, not really, but this was taking things to another level entirely.
“I can come on the walk with you.” Lily wasn’t sure why she volunteered, but as soon as she had spoken, she knew she couldn’t just back out on the offer. It would be too strange.
Oliver’s body language screamed his discomfort, from the way he clenched his jaw to his hand on the small of Marilyn’s back. She could practically see his mind turning over reasons that she would have to stay behind, perhaps to stay by the phone in case Mr. George called or to be close in case their father woke up in need of something. She lived in suspense of being helpful, but she knew it wasn’t the same as being needed. The phone would ring, or it wouldn’t. Her father might need something, but it could very likely wait ten minutes anyway. As Oliver stared her down, she dipped into the living room and returned with her faded goldenrod cardigan, one she had knitted herself with all that time she had spent sitting and hoping and remaining invisible.
“I think it’s wonderful you’re coming,” Marilyn said to her, and with the way her eyes creased with her smile, Lily found herself believing every word. Even if the girl was lying to her, she felt flattered that anyone would think to preserve her feelings. “You might know something that Oliver overlooks. Anything you can offer is going to go a long way to showing Mr. George that you’re serious about selling and deserve to get your money’s worth.”
“Well, I’ll just check on Dad first then.” By the tone of his voice, Lily could tell that this was meant to be her responsibility. He felt that he was doing her a favor by taking on the task.
She refused to feel sorry, instead hooking her elbow in Marilyn’s to steer her to the front porch. The women hunched their shoulders against the chill of the wind, resorting to their mugs to fortify their warmth. As Lily toyed with her teabag, she heard Marilyn give a started cry.
“Your hand!” she said, a finger stretched out to Lily’s palm. She didn’t dare touch. “Are you okay? I don’t know how I didn’t notice it sooner.”
The cuts had settled into deep scabs that made bending her hand uncomfortable. As for the pain, it was something for her to endure and triumph over. She considered it a badge of honor in some ways, and if nothing else, it gave her ample distraction through the day. She curled her hand up and ignored the tugging of the skin as she pressed her fist into her pocket. “I had an accident,” she said simply. She could tell that brief explanation wouldn’t push away the concern, and there was a part of her that invited the attention. Even when she’d been to The Full Back, not a single patron had asked her about the angry red marks across her hand. Even Liam had stayed remarkably detached. “I was washing some old wine glasses that had belonged to my parents, and one got away from me.”
“God, it’s like you slipped and fell on it.”
The perfect alibi fell right before her. She had to smile. “I did. When I was going to get a broom to sweep up the shards, I fell. It was late at night, so Dad was already asleep, and Ollie wasn’t home yet.”
“He doesn’t talk about your father much.” The girl’s light eyes flicked up to the second story of the house. “All I know is that he’s been sick for a long time. Surely he must have been very strong to keep this place.”
The prompt had Lily leaning against one of the porch’s whitewashed rails. She couldn’t remember the last time she had unburdened herself. She wanted to keep her cards close to her chest in order to stay safe, but then she remembered how she had felt in that bar, trying to create a connection with a man who just walked away from her. You could trust no one, or you could trust everyone and hope to see results. She was cautious, but over a decade of playing it safe had hardly panned out well for her.
“My father…we had a good thing going. We weren’t a huge operation, but we had crops and cattle mostly. One gives to the other. We mostly handled dairy and corn. This country goes through corn like you would not believe. Dad was the sort to take charge of everything. I think he slept five hours every night if that. He went through three pots of coffee a day just trying to keep up with everything. All the farmhands, he considered them family. He was never the sort of man who talked a lot or gave out hugs, but you could tell he had respect for the people who worked here. He paid them well. He thought that if you paid people what they deserve, you’ll get the best out of them. It’s what his dad had done, and his dad before him.
“Ollie told him that we should diversify more in case something happens. Dad thought that was hilarious. He was the one who had been farming his whole life. By the time we came along, it was a business. We helped out here and there, but it wasn’t the same. Dad is a traditionalist. He stuck with what he knew.
“I was working here with the cows when Ollie was off in college. We were so proud of him because he was actually trying to do his own thing. He was paying his own way. The stress got to him though. He wanted to come home. Mom wasn’t really happy about that, but she went to get him anyway. She drove five hours each way and didn’t complain once, other than to say that she wished it wouldn’t get them home so late. We tried to be easy on him because we knew Dad would be furious about the wasted money, the tuition and gas and stuff. Mom was gone that morning. She left a note. She’d been depressed as far back as she could remember. She couldn’t face the guilt of knowing that she had passed that on to Ollie.”
Sharing this was more difficult than she’d realized it would be. The tea tasted bitter from steeping too long, but there was nowhere for her to fling the teabag. She had to just savor the warmth and the distraction. She always needed something to do with her hands. “They never did find her. Dad did everything he could, hounding the police and hiring a private investigator, things like that. They gave up on her and said that it was more likely she was dead than just someone who wanted to disappear off the face of the earth. Why would you leave a note if you didn’t want to be found? She was the kind of person who always looked out for other people. She wouldn’t be selfish and start over. But Daddy couldn’t face that, so he just sank so much money and energy into trying to find her. He had to believe she was still out there. Things started to fall apart here. He wore himself down…and then he found out about the cancer. So, you know. It’s been tough. He can’t face his limits. But he’s my father.”
Marilyn’s face was pale and seemed to age as the gravity of the situation became clear to her. Her hands shook as she handled her tea, and she had to abandon the cup on the railing of the porch to avoid spilling the liquid all over her delicate dress. Tears rimmed her eyes, but she refused to let them brush over her cheeks. “I don’t suppose Oliver would tell me a story like that. Thank you for sharing it with me.”
She had wanted to get the truth off her chest, but there was a new heaviness clinging to her, as though she could feel the weight of her bones within her body. Maybe this hadn’t been her story to tell. Maybe Oliver had been waiting or didn’t want a near stranger to know that he suffered from depression, even if he had never brought the condition up again after his mother’s disappearance. Maybe he just told himself that it wasn’t true.
Or maybe he liked this girl, really liked her, and he didn’t want to chase her off by letting her know just how fucked up his family was. The guilt was a heated spear in her chest, the metal white hot and scorching. “Please don’t tell Ollie that I told you about everything. He probably wanted to tell you in his own time. I said too much. You just wanted to know about Dad. It doesn’t even matter. You’re just here to take pictures of the house. I just don’t get much company, let alone others girls. You shouldn’t listen to me.”
The tea was far too strong. It had gone off. She turned to take it back into the house, but when she got to the door, she saw her brother standing there, illuminated from the light still on in the living room.
Lily’s retreat had been hasty. Rather than run away from her brother, she’d charged past him into the house, the only real place she had ever felt comfortable, mumbling apologies and excuses in a voice that struggled to press on through her tight throat.
Color pooled within his cheeks as he faced Marilyn, his inner demons having been introduced without his permission. How could he even begin to talk about what had gone on in his life back then or the burden he carried even now? “Marilyn,” he started, but he let his voice sink down within his chest because he had no clue how to finish any sentence he started.
“It’s going to rain. I think you should take me home.”
A fist seized up within him, pulling and twisting at random. Self-loathing would be the most natural response, but better to be angry, to have another target. He knew what he had felt about his sister’s flirting with an older, disgusting man. Was she jealous of what he had with this beauty? Yes, she had to be envious, he was certain of it. There could be no other reason she would make such a spectacle of him.
The clouds split in mourning for him as they walked back to the car. He ground his teeth together and thought of the cigarettes he’d hidden away in the glove compartment. At least he would have some mild method of self-abuse in which he could indulge on the way home. He did not know what to say to Marilyn still, so he opted for silence as he buckled in and turned on the radio.
Her slender hand was quick to turn the volume down. “You could have told me.” There was hurt in her voice that he could not begin to pin down. How could it possibly about him betraying her? He had always been honest, and if he had held back with her, it was only because they hardly knew each other. Still, she crossed her arms over her chest and would not cease her pout. “I told you, we have to trust each other. If you don’t open up to me, I don’t know how we’re going to go forward.”
“Well, I’m sorry if you never asked me if my mother killed herself or if I ever had a nervous breakdown. You work for the government. Shouldn’t you be able to dig this up in a file or something?”
She gave him a withering smile but at least relaxed her stance a bit. “It would help me understand why exactly this place means so much to you.”
“It doesn’t. I hate the farm. I really don’t care if your boss razes it to the ground or builds an amusement park with a statue of himself in the middle. I just need to get out.”
His hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that he was afraid he’d break a bone through his own anger. And then there was her palm, as hot as though she still gripped her tea, sliding over the thigh of his jeans. “I don’t want him to do anything to your family. I’m trying to help you. You know that. And you’re going to help me.”
“You keep saying that, but what does it really mean to me? You’re asking for a lot of trust, but you’re not giving me a lot in return.”
The gravel road she’d indicated led to nowhere, as far as anyone was concerned. There was private property owned by a power company, but they had decided not to expand their business after all. The area remained undeveloped, flat and foreboding on either side. In the rain, all that broke up the darkness of the storm was the dappled impression of raindrops and the defiant gaze of the headlights.
“Stop the car.”
They were nowhere. In the middle of the road, nowhere to turn, no traffic bearing down upon them. Total isolation. It seemed to Oliver to be a pointless exercise in control.
“It happened here.” She unbuckled her seatbelt but didn’t open the door. Would he have followed her out into the storm anyway? He wasn’t certain. Before, yes, anywhere, but now she knew too much. Why she would want to stick with him was a mystery to him.
When it became clear that he wasn’t going to speak, she pressed on. Her fingertips traced the condensation that formed on the windshield as they idled. “When he asked me to drive out here with him, I assumed the worst. Some people are scared of their bosses because they have money or power. Mine has both. It was in the middle of the day. He said I had to pick someone up along the way for him.
“I’d never met the man before. He wore a suit. Looked sharp. He laughed when I picked him up from the hotel. He said that I didn’t look like any taxi driver he’d ever met in his life, and I definitely didn’t have the skills to be a valet. He wouldn’t take his eyes off me. I was glad he sat in the back.
“Martin had given me the directions earlier in the day. I couldn’t remember the last time I actually had to read a map. I was so scared that I was going to get lost and get in trouble. The guy in the back kept asking me questions, but I didn’t know anything, so I just stayed quiet. I thought maybe that was what a valet would do. Then I saw him.”
She pulled at the sleeves of her dress so she could twist the material between her fingertips. Even in the compressed space of the car, she managed to pull her knees up to her chest. “He was just standing in the middle of the road. It was so unexpected that I nearly drove through him. I stopped, and the man got out of the car. He called him John or Jack or something like that, I can’t remember. They shook hands. And then he just. He put his hand in his pocket, and the other man fell down. I didn’t understand. And then I saw the red spreading out on the road.” Tears choked her voice, but she wiped her eyes and pressed on. “I screamed. Of course I screamed. I was so scared to be trapped there with him. I started the car again and was going to pull away, but he grabbed my door and that was it. I knew I couldn’t just go. He knew everything about me. And he told me to just go home.
“I didn’t know what to do. I could barely remember how to drive. I thought about going to the police, but I wound up in my shower instead. I was just trying to scrub at my skin like that could get rid of the blood that I’d seen. And then I realized. The man had been in my car, not Martin’s. His DNA was in my vehicle. People might have seen me pick him up. I could try to clean it up as best I could, but everything would tie me back to him if I said I’d seen the murder of some man I didn’t even know.”
Oliver shuddered and squinted through the windshield, trying to imagine a ghost a few feet away. “How long ago was this?” he asked quietly.
“A month, maybe two? It was the last person he did business with. I’m sure of it. He seemed to get what he wanted after that. Now he’s set eyes on you. I’m just so scared for you. For the both of us. When you walked into the office, I wasn’t sure who you were, but I know I can’t let that happen to you. You’re—“
His body was leaning over the gearshift, mouth keenly seeking hers. Never had he felt more needed, the heat of his body and the weight of his flesh pushing away all thoughts of that which could no longer be touched. He expected her to push him away and ask to go home, but instead those pale hands found purchase on his shirt, holding him close to her. Her lips were faintly sweet, her kiss firm while her fingers shook.
“That’s not going to happen to me,” he told her, afraid to open his eyes and see her draw away from him. “I’m not going to let that happen.”
“I know you won’t. I have a plan, remember?” she said. He could not see her coy smile, but the way her lips pressed a kiss to the tip of his nose was reassuring enough for him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this way, charged by adrenaline and confused as to whether he could take on the world or the world was caving in on him.
All he wanted was to listen to the rain with her, their bodies flush against one another as everyone else carried on without them. He could lose himself in the folds of her dress, the slope of her curves, the gentle purr of her voice as she described how she had felt when she’d first laid eyes on him, certain that he would be the one to make everything change. He believed her. He trusted her more than anyone he had known in years, and the knowledge that he was safe confiding in someone else made him nearly cry in gratitude.
At once Marilyn sat up in her seat and smoothed out her skirt before she set about fixing her hair. “I’d like you to take me home now,” she told him. She turned the vents on to help the windshield lose its fog. Her eyes remained glued to where the road would be, but her voice was as clear as though she whispered in his ear. “And then I’d like you to spend the night with me.”
No gesture of Martin George’s was subtle. When he slid from the driver’s seat of his pickup, he did so slowly, exaggerating the ridiculous portions of his body. His blazing orange jacket did nothing to minimize his waistline; on the contrary, it spoke to what a successful hunter–and consumer–he was.
“I have to admit, I was surprised that you invited me out here like this,” he said as he struggled to catch is breath. He clapped Oliver on the shoulder and circled around to the back of his truck to grab his rifle.
The idea had been Marilyn’s, though she had told Oliver to take credit for it. She said it was best for him to make it obvious to the public that he had some interaction with the man. It would be more difficult for him to disappear without a trace if others knew who he was going to meet. It also wouldn’t hurt to humanize himself in the man’s eyes. She knew her employer to be ruthless, but perhaps he would take a more paternal view of a young, inexperienced man nearly ready to talk business.
Oliver was less than surprised when Marilyn hopped down from the truck as well. She wore an orange vest and hat that looked as though they had been made for someone twice her size, but if the fashion misstatement bothered her, she gave no hint at her displeasure. “I hope you don’t mind me tagging along,” she said with her characteristic smirk upon her face. “Sometimes after a long day at the office, it’s nice to just get out in the field and shoot things.”
They’d discussed how to handle their relationship when they were around other people. They would be casual acquaintances, comfortable with one another without being overly familiar. She had pushed for this more than he had, if only for his safety from Martin’s zealous scrutiny and tension within the Pratt family. The best way to ensure their privacy to enjoy one another’s company, and enjoy they did on an increasingly regular basis, then they’d have to sneak around for a while. Surely there was some pleasure to be had in being one another’s dirty little secret. A few hours was all it had taken to win him over.
“Well, I don’t know much about offices, but I’ll try to offer my sympathy.” Already Oliver longed to get her out of the hunting gear, his fingers itching for contact with her skin, but he would have to settle for the cool wood and metal of a gun instead. “It’s been a while though.”
“Don’t you worry about showing off or anything like that. I don’t think Mary’s ever handled a gun before, have you?” Martin gave her a pat on the shoulder, a gesture that made her struggle not to wince. The protective side of Oliver wanted to find a way to keep the man from touching his assistant, but he knew that he would have to wait. According to her, it wouldn’t be long.
In the meantime, she forced a giggle that sounded all too real. Probably from years of practice, he told himself mournfully. It was no wonder that the two of them were so drawn to one another, trapped in their lives as they were. “Just water pistols, I think, but it can’t hurt to learn.”
“Oliver, I’m surprised that you’re not more of a shooter yourself. It’s a real useful skill to have when you’re protecting your farm. All sorts of critters could get at your crops or your livestock.”
He shrugged and wondered if his arms and shoulder would get tired from the weight of his weapon. “We never had a problem like that. The only real animals that posed a threat to my knowledge were people.”
Martin stared him in the face for a moment, eyes searching his features for any hint of malice. Finding none, he allowed himself a loud, low laugh. It started in the stomach and made his whole body move, making him look more like a Santa Claus figure than ever. It was difficult for Oliver to think of him as a murderer when he managed to look so goddamn jolly. Tears began to well, but he managed to get his emotions back in check. “Well, my boy, sometimes people are the enemy, and sometimes they can fix everything for you. I reckon you must be thinking of me as the latter, or else why would we be here? So you could shoot me?”
Oliver tried not to think of the night that Marilyn had been sobbing in his car, describing the coldblooded act of violence she had witnessed. He tried to remember how she’d laughed just moments before so he could imitate the sound. “As long as you don’t take off that coat and stand on all fours to throw me off, I think you should be safe.”
Reassured that a mild threat had not been issued, Martin looked out among the trees and tried to pick a path. As the only experienced hunter, it was up to him to not only keep them from getting lost but also to intuit where the game would be if they were to have a successful day. Otherwise he would be trapped spending an afternoon with two people who were relying on his money. Not the most entertaining company in the world.
Oliver grabbed Marilyn’s elbow and drew his lips to her ear. On such a clear autumn day, he was struck by the scent of her shampoo and nearly distracted from all rational thought. “How do I know he’s not going to just shoot us in the woods and claim that it was a hunting accident?”
She gave him a thin grin and patted his cheek gently. “If that was what he intended to do, he probably would have told me to stay in the truck. Don’t get anxious. That’ll tip him off, and he won’t be happy. Don’t make him do anything rash.”
From a distance, Martin shouted something that they could not make out. The words mattered less than his tone, which was growing increasingly impatient. The couple exchanged a glance and then began to follow. It seemed impossible that a man as large as Martin could walk nearly silently through the woods while Oliver’s own boots made symphonic crashes of every leaf in his way. “What are we even hunting?” he asked.
The question summoned laughter ahead of him. “This was your idea, boy. Are you telling me you don’t even know what season it is?”
Oliver shrugged and tried to act casual. “Figured it would be a good time to learn.”
“Deer. What we’re looking for is deer. At least it’s not a small target. Try to imagine going for a turkey.”
He had to at least laugh at the idea that he’d be chasing down fat, waddling birds. Marilyn, on the other hand, let out a distressed cry. “They’re so cute though,” she protected. “They have beautiful eyes and never hurt anyone. Why would you want to kill them?”
“Overpopulation, Mary,” Martin lectured. His tone sounded disappointed, but she didn’t wince. If she was afraid, she had long since learned how to capture that emotion and put it behind glass. “If we take out the does, then we can prevent them from reproducing. If the population gets out of control, they begin to eat our crops. They run on our roads, cause accidents. We reduced their natural predators long ago because we were scared of them as well, but when we let the deer remain, we were sloppy. We didn’t consider the consequences. That’s why we have to do more than just hunt for sport. We take the meat, use the coat if we can.” Slowly, cautiously, a gleam grew in his eye. “But a big pair of antlers looks good over the television.”
“I think that looks disgusting.”
“Well, I didn’t ask you to come along as our little moral compass. Please be quiet now. If you scare away all the deer, then there’s no reason for us to be out here when we could be warm and contented indoors.”
Oliver had killed little in his life. Insects were a necessary evil, aside from the cicadas he had beheaded with his cousin in his youth after he’d been told that their heads would pop right off if you pulled the right leg. For some time, his father had been intent to take him fishing during the summers, but he grew to dislike the sport after he had cast his line and immediately felt the pull of a catch. He’d reeled it in only to find the hook had gone through the blue gill’s eye. The bait had still been on the hook.
He’d followed his father on hunting trips in his youth, but he had never been allowed to handle the firearm out in the open. For the first time, he started to wonder if the problem had been that he was his mother’s son. Had there been something about him that had stood out from the beginning, marking him as a danger to himself and others? Were they just too anxious to arm him, or did they think that he would not be interested in the act of causing death?
In so many ways, Martin was like his own father. He was just from a different way of life, but he thought that he was right no matter what. They stuck by their traditions and their avenues of power, and anyone who stood in their way simply didn’t understand the natural order of things. He could picture himself as the man’s son, a fact which made him cringe after the way the politician had so blatantly flirted with his own sister.
A twig snapped to the left. They all three turned as one, torsos moving while their feet stayed glued in place.
The doe was simultaneously paranoid and oblivious. Her ears twitched at the hint of a sound, but she continued to walk on, nosing her way through the fallen leaves in search of any viable food. Oliver held his breath. He felt like a boy again, waiting in anticipation of his father lining up the perfect shot and living up to his expectations. There was no blood in his memories, just the sound, the pride, and the drive home with the corpse in the truck bed, ready to be strung up and reduced to venison for months to come.
At first he thought the voice was in his head, but then a heavy hand squeezed his shoulder. Even though his layers of clothing, he could feel the excessive heat of Martin’s body so near. “Go on. Take the shot.”
He’d nearly forgotten that he had a gun at all. He’d intended to hang out and talk more than anything, but there wasn’t time to hesitate. Could he do this? He tried to remember. It would kick and hit him harshly in the shoulder, but he didn’t know how to steady his aim without being able to brace himself. He decided a bruise would be worth it. He knew he wouldn’t have much time to aim after he turned. The step would be too loud.
He was slow to pull back the hammer of the gun. It settled with a faint click. He closed his eyes, hoping the animal couldn’t hear so far. The wind was in their favor, carrying the noise away, but he’d have to shoot into it. Why was he worrying about the wind when he didn’t even know if he could hold his own hands still well?
He lifted the barrel and aimed. The deer was distracted by something that she’d tugged up, no doubt stubborn weeds that were still managing to grow as the days grew cooler. Her side was turned to the hunters. He could not ask for a more generous target, unless of course the deer felt inspired to fling herself onto the end of the gun. This was not the time to stress or overthink. This was the time to act.
He took a step to his side so he was facing the deer. Her head snapped up. She was ready to bolt, but she couldn’t outrun a bullet. His hands were steady. His breath was frozen. His aim was true. He pulled the trigger.
The recoil was worse than he expected, and he felt his arm jerk the gun up toward the sky after he’d already loosed his bullet. The crack of the shot burst out over the woods, and for a moment, he allowed himself to hope that he had made the kill.
But no. Hooves crushed leaves as the panicked animal came to her senses. Oliver could have felt disappointed, depressed, any number of defeated responses, but instead he was just drained. There was nothing to do but accept that he had demonstrated what a poor shot he was, simple as that.
Except it wasn’t. Martin took two shuffled steps forward and dropped to his knees so abruptly that for a moment Oliver was frightened that he’d had a heart attack. But the politician brought his rifle up quickly, sighting the deer in haste. He squeezed off a couple of rounds, then stayed crouched until the deer seemed to hit an invisible wire, collapsing to the ground.
“Come on. He can’t handle this all by himself.” Marilyn put her hand on Oliver’s shoulder and tenderly rubbed the spot that was already beginning to bruise. Martin was through with stealth, sprinting off toward his kill with delight. When she leaned into him, he no longer noticed her perfume. “You saw the way he handled that gun. How he hit something that was running from so far away.”
She did not speak in questions. Oliver took in how quickly the man could move, how quiet he was. As a hunter, these were invaluable skills. As an executioner? He didn’t want to think about it, but it would be so easy to have an accident out here. The sale of the farm wasn’t even up to him really. His father’s name was still on the deed, and no matter how much baiting Oliver did, he wasn’t about to sell to a politician.
“We should get the tarp out of the truck.” Marilyn was already walking away from him. Martin swallowed thickly and decided to make for the fallen animal. The ground was already growing moist from the pooling blood. For some reason, he had thought it would look redder.
Martin cradled the animal’s head and gently stroked her fur. “You always have to have respect for what you kill,” he lectured. He did not look up at Oliver as he spoke. “You can’t expect something so inferior to know the natural order of things. She was oblivious to us until we came into her life today. We spared her a crueler death, a longer life of suffering. The world lets too many suffer needlessly anymore, don’t you think?”
Were his words meant to be so open to interpretation? Did he mean to imply that Oliver himself was a potential victim, too blithely unaware to notice that his future killer was mere feet away? He could not afford to suspect as much. To begin to show fear would tell Martin that he had some idea of what was happening. If he gave as much away, the other man would act faster. He would snuff out the threat.
“I guess if I respect what I kill, I won’t have to change my life much,” Oliver said lightly, trying to change the subject. It only brought a chuckle from Martin. He slipped on a pair of gloves and then leaned over the deer to twist her ear. A lightning bolt of blood ran across the surface.
“If you’d been a little quieter or quicker to draw, you would have gotten her right in the head. Quicker, cleaner kill than what I made, no doubt.” He reached over to pat Oliver on the arm, then recoiled as he realized he was still wearing the sullied glove. Somehow it gave him a laugh. “You’re new to this. I can tell. What made you want to go hunting with me?”
“Mary. Marilyn,” he corrected, not wanting to be overly familiar, “mentioned that you like to get away from the office sometimes. That you hunt. I thought it would be a good chance to just catch up with you and apologize for the way that I’d acted before. I was–”
“Protective? You can just come out and say it, boy.” The man struggled up to his feet. Even stranding sat his straightest, he was lacking a few inches on Oliver, making him somewhat less intimidating. That and the grin that was in nearly nearly every public figure’s toolkit. He sized up Oliver, all while maintaining that amused glint in his eyes. “You’re young and maybe a bit territorial. I know it’s a hit to your pride, doing what you have to do to keep your family going. If I were a betting man, I’d guess that you don’t like being held back by all of this either. You’ve put your entire life on hold just to make sure your father’s looked after and your sister doesn’t have to do it on her own. It’s commendable.”
Oliver wanted to grit his teeth, but he knew that a muscle would inevitably jump in his cheek. What was the point of being psychoanalyzed by the person who could afford to buy his house? Why would someone in his position want to applaud the person who still tenuously owned what he wanted? “Actually,” he said, “I just thought you were flirting with my sister.”
What Oliver expected was for the older man to burst into laughter and issue his apologies. Instead his blues eyes were locked upon him, staring sharply. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of charming conversation with someone that you find engaging, is there?” he asked in a low voice. “I think you know quite well what I mean about that.”
“I don’t really–”
“This thing is way heavier than it looks.” Marilyn interrupted them to dump the tarp unceremoniously on the ground beside the deer. She barely glanced down at the dead animal, instead focusing on catching her breath. He knows. A chill ran its sharp fingers up Oliver’s spine as he considered what this would mean for the two of them, for her employment, for her safety. She must have noticed the sudden silence between the man because she gave a giggle and kicked at the edge of the blue material. “I don’t know what we do next.”
“I think we should get the deer wrapped up in this so it won’t bleed so much when we take it out to the farm.”
“The farm?” Oliver asked, hoping his voice didn’t crack as terribly as it seemed to him.
“Of course. You dad said he hunted, right? I’d like you to have this. You did hit it first, so you marked your territory. Consider it a peace offering of sorts.” There was something unspoken beneath Martin’s voice, a threat that was promised if he didn’t take the bloody carcass home with him. How was he going to explain this to his family? And how would he go about butchering the creature. How did you even get rid of things like skin and bone once you were finished with them?
And had he actually mentioned the fact that father was a hunter?
“You’re really generous for this. I’m sure Lily will go wild for it. She loves venison.” She hated it actually, but there was no reason in being honest anymore. He felt exhausted by the deception and no longer knew what to believe about this man. All he knew was that he wanted to get home and just fling the deer over the hill and out of his sight.
“Wonderful. Give me a hand then, and we’ll get this loaded up in the truck. We can drop it off at your place.”
“Better than taking it in my car.”
How much did a deer even weigh? Looking at the body, he was certain it was at least a hundred pounds. He began to put his hands on the legs–still warm, he noted with some discomfort–before Martin called to him to stop. “Where are my manners? I can’t just give this to you like this. The meat will go off. We have to field dress the deer first.”
“Get rid of the organs. It’ll be easier for us to carry back, and it lowers the chances of there being any bacteria growing in there.” Reaching under his jacket, Martin curled his fingers around the handle of a sharp knife, wickedly curved as the blade came to its tip. As though he could sense the stares that had fallen upon him, the politician laughed. “Better to keep my knife close. Wouldn’t want to lose it anywhere. You never know what can happen out in the woods. Isn’t that right, Mary?”
His assistant’s mouth dropped into a circle, but she said nothing. Oliver tried to think of how he could possibly ask her what this man meant, but the only sound that came was the wet tear as the deer’s flesh surrendered its organs to the forest floor.