By: Jacob Garrett
My finger is twitching on the trigger as I struggle to hold my rifle steady. A rogue drop of sweat is rolling down my forehead, creeping across the bridge of my nose, trying to see how far it can get before driving me insane. My fingers are itching to leap up and scratch it away, to fling the offensive salt water as far from my face as possible, but I can’t let the man in the black suit out of my crosshairs. He doesn’t know I’m watching him; he doesn’t even know for sure that I live here anymore. If my name is still out there, it’s only a brief mention in a registry somewhere, maybe some old letter to my sister that they made a copy of at the post office. I know they looked at those letters; at least twice when letters came back from her, the glue on the envelope had already been unsealed.
I can tell that he doesn’t really know what he’s looking for; the path that he’s on looks almost like a deer trail rather than a road to someone’s home, and he’s still too far away to see any signs of my house. He doesn’t look annoyed yet, but I can see stirrings of frustration underneath the frozen ocean of his eyes. Some part of his reptilian brain is longing to wrinkle up his face in disgust and cringe at the effusion of nature. His focus is too narrow to appreciate the utopian beauty around him. The intricacies of birdsong, the flashes of late afternoon sunlight on the exoskeletons of rambling hornets, the tips of wild grass sliding between pants and socks to tickle the skin beneath; these were all dead, white noise to those red, curled ears. Where the wind would normally slink its invisible fingers through my hair, sliding through its waves and twirling it about my head, his refuses to move, stiff and solid with so many layers of gel that it might as well be made of bone. The sun glints off of his hairdo like it’s made of steel spikes.
His obsidian uniform, as black as the oil percolating under his feet, almost seems to suck the light out of the air around him; any life that comes within a few feet of that fabric falls into a pit of darkness from which it can never escape. I imagine a bullet from my rifle flying through his jacket and disappearing into whatever hell he scurried out from, coursing through a pitch-dark abyss filled with the chirpings and hisses of cockroaches and crickets, doing nothing but telling the computer inside his head where to find the man for whom he’s looking. I keep the crosshairs of my scope trained on his temples as he strolls across the twig- and pebble-strewn soil, waiting for my hands to stop shaking. The bead of insufferable sweat has dropped off my nose already, but my digits still aren’t calm enough to take the shot. Even though I’ve been living out here for seven years, I’m still not used to taking a man’s life.
He freezes in place, his feet coming together with perfect synchronicity. He looks to his left, gazing through the pines on the mountainside, looking for something that had caught his attention. If there was any time to do it, this was the best I would get. I take a deep breath, willing my arms to stop trembling, and recenter my crosshairs, aiming just below the cusp of his shellacked helm of hair. I pull in another gulp of air and feel the blood vessels in my ears longing to burst as I pull the trigger. For a fraction of a second, his scanning eyes happen upon where I sit in the tree, and, as the bullet connects with his skull, I swear that those eyes, already so dead and cold, are staring directly into mine. Then his body is on the ground and they’re pointing at the sky.
I let the gun slide out of my sweat-slick hands onto the floor of my blind and collapse against the wall, gasping for air, my heart beating its fists against the cage of my chest. My hands are shaking again as I pull them to my chest, this time with enough violence to rattle the zipper of my jacket. I raise my legs to hold them in place, chilling perspiration already soaking through the denim of my jeans, and lower my head to envelop my eyes in darkness. I don’t know how long I sit there, trying to keep the tears from leaving my eyes, feeling as though everything inside of my abdomen was about to make an escape through my throat, but when I finally raise my head again, the light has turned to the burnt orange of sunset. I sit still for a few moments, drinking in the cool twilight breeze, before I crouch on shaking knees, pull up the trap door in the floor of the blind, and begin to crawl down the ladder.
When I reach the ground, I realize that it’s darker than I initially thought; the sun has fallen behind the clouds, draping the trees in blankets of shadow. I creep through the sparse bushes on the mountainside, trying to be as quiet as possible on my stiff, ungainly legs, as I look everywhere around me but at the body on the road. A caterpillar covered in fur creeps across the leaf of a tree above him, inching its way toward a deadly overhang. Ants scatter around the soles of my boots, fleeing before the stride of the unknowable god above. The grasses and branches dance in the wind, scraping through the atmosphere and reaching to grab me by the coat, the hair, the boots, longing to pull me into the forest that I’ve made my home. There’s a Gothic beauty to the trees tonight; the valley that’s normally the picture of idyllic natural bliss now looks as though it jumped from the ink of the pens of Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe.
I push through the branches and emerge on the trail, where the man in the suit still lies. Now that I’m closer to the body, all the details that had looked so formidable before now seem so neutral, so harmless: his suit is just cheap linen spotted with blood and sprinklings of dust; the gleaming spikes of his hair are nothing but the crunchy remains of a scalp destroyed by hair products and gunfire. I shuffle toward him, just now realizing that I left my gun back in the blind, and hope that he doesn’t reach up and seize my throat, even though I can clearly see the exit wound on his head still leaking thick, syrupy blood onto the ground. I slide my hand out and pull back his jacket, revealing the sneering black pistol on his hip. I was right; he was coming here to kill me. I reach inside the left pocket of his jacket and feel the smooth give of leather. When I pull it out, his wallet looks as dull and dead as his eyes in the growing darkness. I flip it open. Out of the dilapidated flaps spills a myriad of photos in plastic sleeves, all depicting the man with a woman of his own age and a boy that looked to be of varying ages from infancy to seven.
I feel my throat close a bit. This is the third one with kids.
As I toss the wallet on the ground beside him, straightening up and turning away as a sob pushes out of my lungs, a burst of air caresses my skin, reminding me why I’m standing here on the road over the dead body of a murderous father. I breathe in, relishing the taste of the woods around me. Walk twenty miles in any direction and the crisp, moist aroma filling my lungs would be replaced by noxious, gagging exhaust; the chirping of birds and buzzing of wasps would give way to churning hydraulics and clanging drills. The government won’t protect the land anymore; I’m the only one who can protect it from those who would do anything to pull the crude underground lake below me to the surface. As I breathe, I take into myself the spirit and the power of the natural utopia that I’m fighting to preserve. Then, opening my eyes once more, my hands and my legs steady as car antennae, I turn around and set about cleaning up my mess.