CL Writing Contest 2016 Fiction Judge's Pick: "The Missing Season"

Jenni Nance's moving story was our judge's top choice.

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I am a creature of habit. I get up at six, jog five miles by seven, brew my Maxwell House by eight, and read the daily paper by nine. The next day, I do it all over again. I need these little rituals to keep me sane. I take comfort in the noon men’s meeting, government office hours, and the annual barbecue where for ten years people have depended on me to bring the smoked ribs. But when November 28th rolls around, my routine shatters and I am reminded of one person — the most unpredictable person in my life — me.

On this day the alarm pulsates at 3 a.m., hot and strident. I pack up my gear and lean it against the mudroom’s door. Around 4 a.m. I can see Gary’s dim headlights struggling to see through the thick of trees — all kudzu and slash pine — as he fights his way down my property’s narrow drive. I swallow the last bitter gulp of cheap coffee, rinse out my favorite aluminum camping mug, and hang it to dry on the dish rack. He taps his horn and I grab my rucksack. We’re off.

In the darkness we whip past the saw palms that edge my property, their sharp fronds jumping up at Gary’s truck like the rattlesnakes that live in them. The makeshift luggage rack Gary has tacked onto the roof for our harvests rattles noisily, and the back seat is loaded up to its sagging headliner with hunting paraphernalia. Gary packs the car like a slob, though, so I keep my Marlin in its pristine case, safely set down on the floor in front of me.

Gary has been my friend for nine years. He thinks we go on this annual hunting trip to celebrate my sobriety anniversary, but I go on this hunting trip every year to try to forget. I keep thinking I will tell Gary the truth, about Shelby, but the lie has gone on for so long now I will just let it live.

We drive out east on I-4 in the gloaming, listening to Black Country Communion and smacking thickly on powdered donuts. With the windows rolled down, this damp Florida morning sits on the edge of cool. By eleven, the heat will set like hot cement — even this late in November. As a Yankee, it is something I will never be able to get used to: 90 degrees on Thanksgiving Day. For years I chased after those circadian rhythms that never came: the seasons that rarely reach down this far south, like the North’s unstoppable springs and amber ecstasies. Shelby once said she could feel the seasonal changes, though. Subtle, but definitely there: the splash of gold in the random maple trees dotting the interstate, the crape myrtle’s nodes exploding with green buttons, or the cypress knees pushing up out of the swamp like little births.

Even the fishing off Florida is understated, less dramatic than the Northeast, but when I first met Shelby she was reeling in a bonnethead wading off the coast of Steinhatchee — and at the time, it looked like the most dangerous thing in the world to do. She was in a bikini, and between the two scenes — only a fisherman can understand the push and pull of this dilemma — it was impossible to decide which vision to swallow whole: the half-naked woman wading before me, or the shark she was reeling in on her line. She was standing in three feet of water with a four-foot fish swirling around her hips — and in the distance, and with the squinting from the sun in her eyes, she appeared to be smiling at me. The memory of that first smile from across the salty savanna was what would sustain me through my years of madness.

As we turn left into the Green Swamp Wildlife Management Area, fog hangs over the cord grass like a woman’s lusty breath. The mournful cries of doves trill in the scrub, and Florida fern moths pulp against the truck’s windshield.

“Make sure you don’t—”

“Shoot the hogs broadside?” Gary finishes my sentence, smiling at me knowingly. “You’ve taught me well, Pops.”

“Just like the son I never had.” We both laugh. Gary is only four years younger than me, but he sometimes likes to call me “Pops,” saying I’d taught him more about fishing and hunting than his own father.

“Make sure they’re quartering away from you too, right?” Gary adds, “to get the fatal shot?”

“Well, now you’re just showing off.” A wave of self-satisfaction passes over me. How many years had it taken me to learn these things? How many bucks had I lamed when I used a weak caliber? How many hogs had I lost when I had aimed for the brisket or shoulder shield — thinking it was the more humane wound — only to lose the animal when I couldn’t find its blood trail? Gary, for only having hunted nine times, had great instincts. He was a quick study. But like a lot of naturals I know, he could also be reckless. Shelby was no different in this way.

Gary and I park at the trailhead one mile from where our ladder stands were set up the previous weekend, about a half-mile away from each other. We walk down the trail in silence, but it’s a good silence between men. A hysterical kestrel screams down at us for the dawn, and the squeak of Gary’s rubber snake boots announces us to the woods. We start to part ways at the crossroads of two sandy logging trails when I notice Gary doesn’t have his hunting vest on.

“Shit, Gary! You can’t stalk hunt without your blaze-orange on.” Relatively, Gary is still new to hunting — compared to my lifetime of experience — and he often forgets certain protocols, which you just can’t afford to do on state land.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“No. Trust me. You’ll get shot. Not to mention get a violation from the game warden. Just stay up in the stand today, okay? Call me if you get something. I’ll help you track it. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll just come back to your stand. We’ll stalk hunt together then. Sound good?”

“You’re the boss, Pops.”

I don’t know why, but my kitchen table feels lonelier than sitting up in a tree stand like this at 5 o’clock in the morning. Even with my friend eight football fields away from me, and even in this dying darkness, I do not feel alone out here. But I know that you can feel alone, unknown, even when you live with another person. I sometimes wonder if Shelby had felt this way with me. Acorns drop in handfuls as morning breaks. Every leaf’s rustle, every bough’s groaning for first light, pricks my ears. A branch falls and pounds the earth — all hollow limestone aquifer — like a drum. I raise my Marlin Lever Action and dial my scope to 1.5 power, scanning the brush below. Nothing. Still-hunting requires great patience. That was something Shelby never had. Patience. She wanted what she wanted when she wanted it. And I was the opposite. Slow to decide, slow to dive in. I waded into big decisions like a cautious child who can’t swim.

I had been cleaning my gun at the kitchen table one morning ten years ago, threading the bore snake through the barrel, when Shelby snuck up behind me and bit the back of my neck. Electricity ran through me like a hot current — that buzzing thrumming sensation only Shelby could give me. She leaned over me until her long ash-blonde hair blinded me. “Babe, you’re going to make my gun go off,” I teased.

“I certainly hope so.” She wrapped her arms around me, bear-hugging and pawing me like a child clambers over a parent. She breathed in my hair and kissed me on the forehead.

“When are you going to let me teach you how to shoot one of these?”

“I’m not.”

“But what if someone tries to hurt you?”

“If someone tries to hurt me, I’ve got you to protect me.”

“Shelby, I’m serious. Let’s go out to the range.”

“You know how I feel about guns. I don’t ever want to be faced with the decision to kill something. And besides, I want to make something.”

My spine straightened at that. “Shelby, not today — okay? We’re having a nice morning here.”

“I want to have a baby. I’m not waiting anymore.”

“But what about the drugs, Shelby? I think it’s very reckless to—”

“You told me you’ve been sober for three months now, Tom.”

I knew I was using drugs as an excuse. Gone were the days I bought eightballs or holed myself up in a cheap motel room for three days riding the rails. On the rare occasion I would do a line or two with Duff, one of the gunsmiths down at the shop, I never told Shelby about it. In fact, I didn’t tell Shelby about a lot of things.

“I’m getting older. I don’t want to have a baby when I’m 40. And I know I want a baby with you.”

I want a baby with you too, Shelby. I just don’t know how to tell you that I can’t have one.

I never did find out what my ex-girlfriend back on Staten Island did with the money I gave her for an abortion. Most nights, as I lay awake with Shelby coiled around me, I would stare up at the knotty pine ceiling, and wonder. I never saw that woman again. That same week, I handed over another three hundred dollars and got a vasectomy.

Sitting up high in a ladder stand, the world becomes myopic. Air plants become small spindled planets; banana spiders loom as large as king crabs; and red-tailed hawks dive-bomb the peaceful prey of the oak hammock with such ferocity that their steam whistle screams resound, murderously. Miles away, I hear occasional fire. The first time, just two rounds — shot single action. The second time, closer. 1,000 yards? I wonder how Gary’s doing. He’s probably napping.

I smile to myself as I watch a line of carpenter ants marching. Shelby would’ve been fascinated. It was hard to keep Shelby still in the stand, though. She treated it like a treehouse, clamoring to rig it with a system of pulleys and grappling hooks, or wishing she could swing out of it on a giant split leaf philodendron vine like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. She was always asking questions about the animals, the trees, or the bugs crawling down her pants. After I banned her, afraid she was scaring all the game away, I missed her chatter. I missed her warmth. I still do.

After two hours and with no word from Gary, I decide to climb down and stalk hunt back to my friend. I follow a trampled path stamped with wide-set, cloven prints. I am seized by this morning. A barred owl passes over me like a wraith as I whisper past a heron rookery. At the end of the hog trail, I come upon a wallow. The embankment is turned over like harrowed soil, rooted heavily by hogs foraging for forbs, tubers, and acorns. From an immature cypress, I pick off a tuft of coarse black hair. I measure the rub on the small tree at 24 inches. With a shoulder height of two feet, I visualize a nice-sized hog.

Another discharge. This time 500 yards away. Too close to be Gary, I think. Funny thing about hearing guns go off. Up in New York, if I had heard gunfire, I would peel my ears for the dark aftermath, like listening for the punctuating “crash” at the end of screeching tires. In the woods, the sound is exciting. Joyful. My imagination floods with wondering. I think, What did they get? Was it a buck? A boar? How many points? How many pounds? Was the animal injured? And if so, is it desperately making its bloody way towards me now?

My doctor said there was too much scar tissue. He said it had been too long ago. That he could have reversed it if it had been more recent. I needed to tell Shelby the truth. But I was so afraid to lose her that I just sat on my lie and started hanging out more with Duff.

I will never forget how Shelby was glowing that Thanksgiving night. Her eyes shined like a cat’s. She pulled me up from the chair and led me into the bedroom, pinning me down on the bed. She lapped, she licked, she held my breath in her mouth as we kissed. I bit the lip of her belly button, the soft swell of her belly — my mouth seeking out the mossiness of her sex. Her nipples were feverish rosettes, raw and red. And her body was so warm, so hot to the touch that she was burning me alive. She was insatiable. Her heat consumed me.

I see a dark silhouette about 50 yards in front of me. I make out the shape of a snout. I raise my Marlin and dial my scope to 4 power. Three-inch canines peek out of a fat lower lip. A sow’s head inches forward out of the saw palmettos. But why so slow, Miss Piggy? I release the safety and cock the lever. Wait until you see the whole animal, Tom. A rule of biblical proportions in hunting. Right now, I could easily shoot the sow between the eyes. It would be a clean shot. From the head alone, I can see this harvest will be over 200 pounds. I’d have fresh ribs for the AA barbecue after all. That’s it. I decide I can’t wait any longer for this slow sow to show herself. I curl my index finger around the trigger, inhale deep, and hold my breath.

Shelby was still purring and pulsating as I rolled my hand over her bottom. Her luxuriance made me nervous. Maybe it was instinct, maybe it was the coke I had done earlier in the day with Duff, but her sleekness scared me. “Babe, you have some real pepper in your ass tonight. What’s going on with you?” Shelby gazed at me, still shining. She kissed the thin papery skin of my eyelids. She kissed my sweaty forehead. She kissed my ears, my chin, and finally my lips.

“I love you, Tom.”

“I love you too, Shelby. But what the hell’s gotten into you tonight?”

Shelby then whispered in my ear,

“I’m pregnant.”

It’s called mind-blindness. Pure rage. A seizure of violence so great your brain shuts down and your adrenaline takes over. It wasn’t one full minute before I had jumped from our bed, run to my Browning gun safe, spun the combination lock, speed-loaded my .357 Magnum revolver, and returned to Shelby who by then was screaming. But to me, she only sounded like she was crying underwater — warbled, hysterical, and long drowned out. Bits and pieces of language floated to the surface, though; single words and scraps of syntax I barely recognized. Words like pregnant and I swear and your baby and I love you, but the only thing that felt clear to me in that moment, the only thing that felt right, was pressing that blued-steel barrel into the temple of the woman who’d betrayed me. I pulled back the hammer, slid my index finger to the trigger, and froze.

In that moment, Shelby became a stranger to me. Her eyes died. The light went out of them. There was no recognition. I had extinguished the person I loved. She stood there like a silhouette target, her arms up in the air, her words now surfacing for air. They drummed themselves back to life, an interminable mantra that would echo in my ears like Tinnitus forever: Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot.

From out of the scrub, a man materializes in my scope. He’s holding up his arms. “Don’t shoot! Ceasefire!” I blink, clearing the memory of Shelby from my eyes. The blurry green figure sharpens in the reticle of the crosshairs. Gary!
I throw my rifle into the sand like it had been a snake recoiling in my hands. “What the fuck are you doing on the ground!” I scream as I fall to my knees. Gary rushes over.

“Tom, I’m sorry. But I hit this sow. At a bad angle. I had to follow her blood trail to finish her off. Just look at her. She’s gorgeous. I bet she’s 200 pounds, maybe more…

“Tom, are you okay? Tom? Here, I’ll help you…”

The sun is beating down now as I wait for Gary to get the truck. The black sow’s fur is shining and hot. From the ground, I look up and see a snowy egret alight on the trail. It fans its plumage like a spray of baby’s breath: white feathers stark against the stink of meat and serrated tusks. It drives its narrow beak into the loamy earth, sucking out what worms and burrowing creatures it can lance there. I watch breathless — the mist of feathers suspending my heartbeat. So smooth. So soft. Like a hunter’s dream of a down pillow in the darkness, or a sounder of pigs on the horizon, or maybe the woman you’ve been waiting a lifetime for who arrives, too late. A red-tailed hawk nose-dives and in that moment, the visions evaporate. Talons rip the water bird’s elegant neck and its white body goes limp in the hawk’s barbed claws like a dishrag: the egret’s majesty, taken; my moment’s peace, stolen. Predator and prey fly off together, two spirits joined by pain. 

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