Enjoy “Angel Season,” a new story by J.T. Petty, video game writer and author of Bloody Chester, a western horror mystery graphic novel out from First Second Books.
Jeremy’s girlfriend is pregnant, and he returns home to the mountains to tell his drunken, ne’er-do-well father. The only thing Jeremy’s dad was ever good at was hunting angels, a dangerous pursuit but a profitable one, often netting thousands of dollars to the hunter for the sale of a single “rack,” (the wings.) Since the angel hunt was outlawed more than a decade ago, Jeremy’s dad has slid steadily downhill. With the news of Jeremy’s impending fatherhood, he and his dad engage in one final hunt.
This short story was acquired for Tor.com by First Second Books senior editor Calista Brill.
“You wouldn’t have any reason to be bleeding this goat, would you?”
“Naw,” says Jeremy. “No sir,” he amends.
The sheriff nods, scratches the goat behind the ear. The animal huffs and leans into the hard fingers, staring with its terrible eyes at nothing.
“They been being sweet to you?” the sheriff asks the goat directly.
Jeremy scowls and looked off at the sheriff’s truck. It ticks, the metal losing its heat to the October air.
Jeremy says, “You can see them scars yourself. Not a one less’n three years old.” He comes home from the city and the mountain sneaks back into his voice.
The goat’s name is Camo, and he has eight thin scars lined beneath the coarse hair at his throat. Parallel, pale, and fading with age, smooth as handle-worn wood.
Jeremy’s father calls out from the house, “You’ll take cream in your coffee won’t you?”
“No, Red, thank you. Black’ll do it. Wife says my heart won’t tolerate cream any more.”
“I got skim milk,” Red calls out. “Powdered.”
“It’d just make me sadder.” The sheriff shakes his head, and the goat bleats softly at him.
Jeremy smiles and loves the goat, laughs at himself for a faint twinge of jealousy towards the sheriff. Jeremy was ten when Camo was born, which would make the goat sixteen now; well within and maybe beyond the range of a goat’s death by old age.
“Why you keep this old boy around?” the sheriff asks Jeremy.
“How do you mean?”
“Well you ain’t allowed to use him any more. And there’s no milk in the tits on a billy.”
“Camo’s a good goat,” Jeremy says.
The sheriff stands and wipes his hands on the seat of his pants.
“Dad keeps him around to bark strangers off the lawn.”
Clotted white scraps of cream surface on Jeremy’s coffee. He sniffs the carton, faintly sour behind its sweetness.
He can hear his father and the sheriff talking in the next room clearly enough through the paneling. There are dishes in the kitchen sink a week old, peeled beer labels decorating the refrigerator. A line of ants describes a curve in the corner of the room. He pours the cream into the sink and runs the tap.
“Can’t keep the wife away,” the sheriff is saying, “woman’s a hellhound for a bargain.”
“I thought it was already closed,” Jeremy’s father says.
“They stopped stocking it, now they’re letting the vultures pick it dry. She came home with four plungers yesterday. Four of ’em. We ain’t got but two bathrooms, and nobody we dislike enough to give ’em a plunger for a present.”
They’re talking about the Wal-Mart out by Catskill. Driving in, Jeremy had seen the dying superstore, gargantuan polyethylene tarps draped across its name reading “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS,” “STORE-WIDE SALE,” and most prophetically, “EVERYTHING MUST GO.”
“Well I do appreciate you coming out to remind me about those parking tickets,” Jeremy’s father says.
“It would pain me to take it to the state,” the sheriff says, “truly.”
“I’ll send a check in on Wednesday.”
Social Security payments arrive on Tuesdays. Jeremy leans against the counter and listens, holding the mug of fouled coffee between his hands for its warmth.
“So Jeanie said she saw you out there, at the Wal-Mart.”
“You worried I been buying tampons and DVD’s when I ought to be paying my parking tickets?”
“No, no, shit, Red. I’m just saying.”
“I guess I can go to the Wal-Mart.”
The wind moves the few tenacious leaves still holding on to the iron-black trees outside, and a glimmer of light winks from the kitchen table, something small and brighter than glass among the crumbs, piled magazines, and murky glasses ringed at the bottom with the hardened remnants of half-finished drinks.
Jeremy finds a sheet of paper, torn on two ends to make a square slightly smaller than the palm of his hand. A piece of scotch tape affixes to its center the diamond from his mother’s engagement ring. It’s small and flawed, pinks and blues dancing in its interior like the reflections in the back of a cat’s eye.
Jeremy’s mother left a little more than ten years ago. She married an orthopedic surgeon in New Mexico, who discovered his own homosexuality and made her rich in her second divorce. She lives now with a painter she would never marry, a man who sends Jeremy hideously suggestive portraits of his own mother for Christmas every year.
He wonders if his father could have pawned the gold from his mother’s ring without the diamond, pried loose the jewel to keep for some strange sentiment, or simply could not barter for it an acceptable price.
“Jeanie said you were buying shotgun shells,” says the sheriff in the next room.
Jeremy’s father doesn’t answer.
A small jar rests on one corner of the diamond-taped paper. It was once a spice jar, papery scraps remaining where the label was peeled away. Jeremy lifts and tilts it, shifting a thin layer of golden sand on the bottom of the jar, a ring’s worth of precious metal, filed into powder.
“Shit,” Jeremy says aloud.
“Turkey season’s over, Red. Deer season’s a month off.”
His father’s footsteps approach, the sheriff’s behind him. Jeremy slips the jar into his pocket and tries to find something natural to do with his empty hands.
“I know you were a hunter in your day,” the sheriff says. “Hell, I mean, how much’d you get for the rack you sold to that rich hippy hotel down in Woodstock? Six, seven thousand?”
“Fifty-four hundred,” says Red, and Jeremy watches his eyes fall upon the space on the table where the jar was, then go to his own eyes. He nods at his son and Jeremy feels a shock of complicity, a surge in his blood for the crime he’s already agreed to.
“Figured I’d buy some shells while they’re on sale,” Red tells the sheriff, taking the half-empty mug of coffee from his hands and putting it in the sink. “And I do appreciate you stopping by.”
“You were quite the hunter yourself,” the sheriff says to Jeremy.
“I’ll walk you to your truck,” says Red.
“You keep an eye on your old dad.”
“I’m gonna let you fire the gun this time,” his father said.
It was shortly after midnight before the morning of the hunt, and Jeremy was wiping the excess glue from the sides of the air candles with a damp rag. He looked at his father with an open-mouthed smile, throat thick as if with impending tears.
“You think you can handle it?” His father’s voice was a little slippery with alcohol.
“I’ll do good,” Jeremy managed to say. He was fifteen years old.
They had been preparing the air candles for several hours. They had crimped, skimmed with glue, and inserted one into the next, plastic drinking straws to form hoops as big around as spare tires. They had laid out sheets of newspaper and drawn stripes of glue across them, then rolled the hoops against them at eight-inch intervals, paper skin around a frame. They had folded other sheets of newspaper into narrow wedges, then cut a soft arc across the wide end, unfolding them to reveal near-perfect circles. They laid a hoop in the center of each newspaper circle and cut wedges in the edges to where the points met the straw. These sheets cut into cartoon suns had been laid atop the cylinders of newspaper, and the radiating triangles glued downward. They had made eight of them, paper silos closed on one end and open on the other, half as big as a rain barrel, light as two sheets of newspaper and a few straws.
Red hung baskets made from the cut-away bottom quarters of Bud Light cans from the open end of the paper silos, fixing them in place with aluminum wire.
Jeremy drank Dr Pepper and made rough icons on the air candles’ newspaper skins. Christian and Celtic crosses, pictures of men with arms and legs outstretched. The headlines beneath his permanent marker were a mystery to him, describing killings in East Timor and Kosovo, photographs of old men in suits shaking hands and laughing. Jeremy carefully drew thick black lines through the eyes of each man pictured.
The day before, they had gone shopping at the Wal-Mart, Jeremy following along and crossing off items from the list he had written to his father’s dictation:
Goldshot shells, 12 gauge
2 cases Bud Light
Throughout the list were items already crossed off, things they had found by rooting through the kitchen and bathrooms: sewing kit, nylon rope, tarp, permanent markers, glue.
The rope had been retrieved from the station wagon, beneath the passenger-side seat. Jeremy had looked between his mother and father, she silently smoking in the yard, staring with open distaste at the man’s ass bobbing from the yawning car door.
It was now one o’clock in the morning and the air candles were finished.
“Well,” Red said, looking at his bare wrist, “you got two hours ’fore we head out. Oughta chase down a little sleep.”
“I don’t think I can,” Jeremy said, grinning.
His father winked at him, grinning back, and tiptoed grotesquely across the kitchen with exaggerated looks towards the room where his wife, the boy’s mother, slept. He pulled a bottle of Jim Beam from beneath the sink, unscrewed the cap, filled it to brimming. Jeremy took it reverentially and downed the foul stuff, grimacing. Red, already poach-eyed with Bud Light, put the bottle to his lips and bobbled the apple in his throat. He lowered the bottle and exhaled like an exhausted horse, and father and son smiled at each other through tears that rendered them alike into something like stained glass.
Hours passed in seeming moments before his father’s alarm clock nagged him awake from the next room.
Bird-thin in his BVDs, Jeremy pushed open the door to his parents’ room. His mother was sitting upright on her side of the bed, staring hatefully at the alarm clock. His father slept with one arm across his eyes, chest rising and falling with a sound like the dregs of a milkshake sucked through a split straw.
His mother stood without looking at him, crossed the dark floor silently, and kneeled, pulling Jeremy against the polyester slickness of her slip and squeezing him. “You be careful up there,” she said. Her hair smelled like cigarettes.
His father looked like something that died on the line being fished from a dirty river, eyes set desperately on the cone of road revealed by the truck’s headlights. Jeremy watched the passing woods, the sporadic deer hanging in darkness from their glowing eyes, watching the man and boy in the truck pass, a death that would come for them in their season.
They bought Styrofoam cups of gas station coffee. Jeremy took his with eight plastic tubs of half-and-half and eight packets of sugar.
“Why don’t you just buy that boy a jug of milk?” the heavy woman behind the counter said, picking at her teeth with her nails, or at her nails with her teeth.
Eleven miles farther up the mountain, they pulled onto a gravel road in the trees. The truck climbed another three miles, Red gunning the engine through the narrow streams that crossed their path, humming tonelessly at his anxiety.
It was nearly five in the morning and still dark when they reached the end of the road.
Red unloaded the goat, Camo, from the back of the truck, and Jeremy carefully lifted the seven air candles by the loop of string that bound them together. He laid them on rocks, above the damp, dead leaves. He pulled his backpack from behind his seat, and the plastic sack of cooking wine and Wonder bread from the floor. His father tied Camo’s leash to a tree, then hobbled the goat with a few feet of twine. Jeremy put the two canvas-wrapped shotguns and the box of 12-gauge Goldshot on the rocks by the air candles.
“Let’s have that box cutter,” Red said to his son.
Jeremy pulled the green plastic knife from his backpack.
Red clicked the blade out and murmured to Camo, stroking his broad nose and forehead.
“There’s a goat, there’s a goat,” he said, then covered Camo’s eyes and made a quick incision in the animal’s throat, no longer than Jeremy’s thumb. Blood poured down the animal’s chest.
Red put the box cutter into the back pocket of his Carhartts and pressed his hands against the wound. Camo bleated pitifully.
“Come here,” Red said.
Jeremy shuffled over to his father. Red smeared his hands over Jeremy’s face, the goat’s blood black in the moonless predawn.
Jeremy held his arms up and Red smeared blood down them, and over the backs of his hands.
“Get the glass on the truck,” Red said.
Jeremy pushed his hands against the wound on the goat’s throat and felt the warm blood push back. He jogged over to the truck and smeared the sticky warmth on the windows and the side-view mirrors.
Red smeared the goat’s blood over the canvas wrapping their shotguns.
Jeremy climbed onto the hood of the truck and smeared blood over the windshield.
Red pushed the edges of Camo’s wound together.
“I need a goddamned . . .” Red was lost for the words. Jeremy wiped his hands on his pants and pulled the sewing kit from his bag. The needle was already threaded and he handed it to his father, who passed it back and forth through the goat’s neck, grunting with the effort of puncturing the skin, and pulled it tight. Camo looked at the sky, unconcerned. Jeremy scratched behind his ear and the goat bleated at him.
They cleaned the palms of their hands with baby wipes and his father poured the cooking wine over a slice of white bread. They each ate a half, grimacing; it was terrible to chew and hard to swallow.
Jeremy shrugged into his backpack and lifted his gun. Red took his own gun and the air candles. They hiked up the mountain without a trail to follow, only heading upwards. Camo bleated mournfully behind them, more frightened of being alone than of keeping company with men who would injure and bleed him.
“It’s gonna get light soon,” Red said, and walked faster. Jeremy began to jog a few steps at a time, then walk again, then jog and then walk, trying to match his father’s long-legged pace. Steam rose off of them. Jeremy could feel the shape of his lungs in the cold air.
The top of the mountain was all but bald, a few ragged plants clinging poorly to the rocks.
They loaded Goldshot into their guns and then wrapped them back in their bloody canvases. They emptied the box and divided the eight shells between their jacket pockets. Red set fire to the Goldshot box, turning it in his hand until it burnt down to scraps, then dropped it to the rocks and blew on his fingers.
He gave Jeremy the box cutter, sticky with Camo’s blood, and the boy cut the air candles free and spread them among the rocks.
They put cotton balls into the beer-can baskets and sprayed them with lighter fluid.
Jeremy lifted an air candle, his hands pressed gently to the sides of its delicate newspaper skin. Red kneeled and flicked his lighter to the basket. It caught flame, and after a few seconds, Jeremy could feel the candle tugging upwards. He let go, and the cylinder of paper floated.
As quickly as they could, they repeated the procedure with the other six candles; the first was no more than fifty feet in the air by the time the last was released.
Jeremy stared upwards, smiling, until Red shoved him into motion and father and son scrambled over the rocks and into the trees where they had left their guns.
The paper balloons flickered and tilted in the still air, steadily rising.
Red looked east, where the night sky was a deep blue with the coming dawn.
Jeremy watched the candles rise.
“Try not to think of anything,” Red said. Jeremy nodded and closed his eyes.
They heard them before they saw them. The wings abusing the air like you would beat a rug, enormous and slow. They lowered themselves through the sky, child shaped but tall as a man, enormous wings as pure white as the rest of them. Jeremy knew from the corpses of the angels he had watched his father process that the white “fur” covering their bodies was, in fact, tiny feathers, almost like soft pine needles. They had no eyes, nor nose, nor ears, mouths alone splitting nearly in half their horse-like heads.
Their wings flung the air candles sideways, spilling their fuel. Five extinguished and two caught flame, dancing and tumbling through the air, burning into the damp canopy of trees.
There were only two angels, but they sounded like an army, each of the creatures’ doubled wings vibrating in complicated resonance, like the purring of some enormous beast inside Jeremy’s chest. The sound and sensation made it difficult to breathe.
Jeremy’s hands shook, sliding beneath the canvas and finding the stock of the blood-sticky shotgun.
The heavier angel descended nearly to the ground, its flesh twitching like a horse’s, casting its head back and forth sightlessly. The other stretched its head skyward and rose, stirring the treetops with the force of its wings.
Red was crying. Jeremy shrugged the canvas off of his shotgun and looked at his father. Red nodded, and said, “not yet.” The nod registered more than the words, and Jeremy raised the shotgun and braced it into the crook of his arm.
The angel turned towards him and spread its powerful arms.
Jeremy fired. The angel’s legs spun away and the creature pitched forward, its wings frantically pawing at the air for purchase. Blood leapt from the shattered limbs and splattered against the rock.
“You stupid son of a bitch,” his father said and hit Jeremy openhanded. Indignation leapt upwards in Jeremy’s chest before the pain of it, before the shock even.
The second angel was looking at them, slowly spreading its arms.
Red pulled the gun out of Jeremy’s hand and flung it back into the woods. He shoved his son into motion, stumbling around the edge of the clearing.
The second angel folded its wings and fell from the sky, screaming like an ocean of shattering glass. It waded into the trees after Jeremy’s shotgun, splintering a stand of locusts and uprooting an oak.
The wounded angel crumpled to the ground, its wings flipping it back and forth on the rocks, throwing blood in stained-glass arcs across the sky. Blood, purple, red, and moonlight black, splattering down onto white rock.
Jeremy felt the earth shake through the soles of his sneakers. He looked back through tear-blurred eyes and saw the second angel fling his shotgun upwards, a rapidly diminishing black stick vanishing against a starless sky. He would find it only after two days of searching, a half mile down the mountain.
An oak tree slammed against the ground and shattered. Jeremy’s feet wilted beneath him and he stumbled. Red grabbed him by the jacket, lifting and shoving him forward, into the brambles at the clearing’s edge.
The second angel rose again into the air and thrashed at the trees, ripping branches away and hurling them in every direction.
Red shouted words into Jeremy’s face that were no more than breath in the storm of noise.
He pressed his son’s face into the dirt and covered his own head. A tree branch the size of a man’s arm struck Jeremy and he curled into a ball. Above, the second angel ripped the trees to pieces, a tireless engine of wraith. Before them, the wounded angel moaned and writhed, bleeding on the ground.
Jeremy opened his eyes, flakes of dirt-crusted goat’s blood cracking away. Red looked at him, his eyes shining with fear manic enough to become ecstatic, some awful perversion of joy.
The top half of a tree shattered against the ground beside them, whipping the father and son with a dozen pencil-thin branches. Red pulled Jeremy closer to him, covering him with his body.
Jeremy shut his eyes against the blood and soil, he was deafened by the storm and he was numb; but he could smell his father’s sweat, pungent with fear and rank with last night’s alcohol. He wept into his father’s shirt.
The second angel left with dawn. Father and son pushed the wreckage of broken trees off of themselves and stood in the aftermath. The wounded angel had ceased its moaning, moving its arms and wings in tentative arcs, pushing against the ground.
They could see for miles in the sunlight spilling from behind the mountains, the trees ripped away all around them, jagged spires of raw wood pointing at the sky.
“We have to kill it before it gets in the air,” Red said. Neither he nor his son heard the words.
Jeremy open and closed his mouth like a retching cat. He said “Dad” several times, testing his deafened ears.
They dug through the fallen trees, walking cautious arcs around the wounded angel, but they could not find Red’s shotgun.
Red stood looking at the angel. Jeremy continued to search for the gun, knowing he wouldn’t find it.
“It takes gold,” Red said, knowing it would not be heard.
He opened his hunting knife and pulled a Goldshot cartridge from his pocket. Jeremy stopped looking for the gun and watched his father pry the brass cap away from the plastic shell.
He turned and motioned with the knife to Jeremy, indicating the far side of the angel. Jeremy high stepped through fallen branches slowly around the clearing until he stood opposite the angel from his father. Red motioned towards himself with the knife. “Come here.” Jeremy didn’t move. Red motioned again, and Jeremy walked slowly towards the wounded creature.
It pulled itself around to face him, its blank head swaying slightly back and forth, tasting the air. It moaned and Jeremy had to bite the inside of his cheek to stifle a sob. The angel reached towards him in anger. Jeremy could not walk any closer.
Red crept slowly towards the angel, holding the knife and broken shell before him like offerings. The creature seemed to shrink as Red approached it; excepting its wings, it was smaller than the man.
It turned its head sharply when Red poured the contents of the Goldshot onto the side of its neck, but not sharply enough to disturb the pile of yellow-speckled powder before Red slammed the blade down through it.
The angel screamed and died. It took them all day to dress the creature and get it down the mountain. They got twenty-four hundred dollars for the rack. Red told Jeremy’s mother that he had done well.
People in the nineteenth century believed that the hunt was a peculiarly American phenomenon. Tintype photographs show diplomats presenting European dignitaries with feather capes, mounted heads, whole skeletons in enormous glass domes, the subjects ramrod stiff, staring back at us through the lens.
But the Chinese had of course been hunting angels for millennia, their local species driven to extinction by the seventeenth century. Aborigines claimed to have hunted their own angels to extinction in their dreams.
The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican reversed the church’s official stance on the hunt. It was largely a reaction to the perceptibly dwindling number of angels. If their population could be eradicated by men, if we could kill all of God’s heralds, then why couldn’t men kill God?
Still it took nearly half a century for pressure from the rest of the world to stop Americans from the hunt. There were the vigils in Tibet and in Germany. Scathingly satirical French films. Charities set up in Africa and Australia. The activist group in Canada that achieved notoriety in the ’88 Olympics. A braless woman spray-painted Jeremy’s father coming out of the Wal-Mart. It was the bralessness that upset him.
In 2001 public sentiment became law. People in the mountains couldn’t believe that America at large could support a view so opposite their own. By then, Jeremy was living in the borough of Queens, sleeping with a woman who considered his past an anthropological curiosity. His father called him late on a Tuesday night to ask what crooked path had led them to this current state of affairs. His son in New York City must have heard something; corruption so fundamental and large could not happen without making some noise. Jeremy didn’t try to explain that everybody he knew in the city would have considered the hunt quaint if they didn’t find it so morally outrageous.
“Where are we living?” Red kept asking. Jeremy wondered if his father had heard about his mother’s settlement from her recent divorce. His girlfriend watched him as if looking for secrets, the way she always did when he talked to his family on the phone. She was mostly naked, eating a half avocado with a spoon.
“You get the propane fixed?” Jeremy asked.
“I’m all right.”
“You might get snow this weekend. I could call Marshall, see if he could stop by and take a look.”
“Where are we living?”
Jeremy says, “Gillian’s pregnant. I’m gonna be a dad.”
Red laughs like it’s a dirty joke, coughs and wipes at his eyes, then moves fitfully around the trailer rearranging things.
“This calls for a drink, doesn’t it? Not Bud Light. For a drink.”
Red’s truck is still broken. They drive down to town in Jeremy’s hatchback. Cindy, still tending bar at the tavern, greets Jeremy as if he’s been gone for days instead of years.
“Jim Beam and a Bud, darling.”
“Jesus, Red, I know that by now,” Cindy says.
“Two of each.”
“How are you, Cindy?” Jeremy says when she puts the drinks in front of him. She rolls her eyes and pinches the fat at her neck. She’d been old and a maudlin flirt when she’d served fifteen-year-old Jeremy shots of schnapps, a chubby boy come to collect his father for dinner. She hasn’t visibly aged since, except for a small but ambitious goiter at the hairline behind her left ear.
“I’m gonna be a old granddad,” Red says.
“That true?” Cindy asks.
“In four months,” Jeremy says, “in January.”
“Well shit. I can’t charge you for them drinks then I guess. Congratulations.” She touches Jeremy’s cheek and he surprises himself by leaning into it; her palm is cold and soft, a comfort he unexpectedly needs.
“January,” says Red, sipping a thin taste from the top of his Jim Beam. “Goddamn,” he says, and throws the rest of the liquor down his throat.
Red says he’s going to come down to New York City for the birth. He tells Jeremy not to be tempted to name the baby “Red,” it won’t hurt his feelings and it can be a hard name to go through grade school with. He guarantees that the baby will be a boy, claiming deep ancestral knowledge, the questioning of which could only lead to genetic misfortune.
Cindy starts to make them pay for their drinks on the third round, and Red stops pretending at an effort to pay by the fifth. Jeremy drinks with a frugal glee, beer and whiskey at permanent happy hour prices this far from the city. A thirsty nausea stirs Jeremy’s belly, momentarily calmed but ultimately widened by each sip. He watches two men and three women his own age enter the bar at dusk, strangers to him in his hometown.
Jeremy sees her watch him, the slight glow from the Big Buck Hunter video-game cabinet casting her face in pale television blues.
Two beers later she rubs her elbow against his at the bar, asking Cindy for another round of Amstel Lights.
Red swerves the conversation towards her like a drunken leftward yank on a steering wheel. “. . . And if they can’t come up with something better to say on the TV then hello there my name is Red and this is my son Jeremy.”
“Is that it,” she says. “We were trying to figure out what the two of you were. How you fit together.”
“Like fucking peas in a pod.”
“What’s your name?” Jeremy asks.
“Jen. You’re from around here?”
“Seems like I oughta know you.”
“You might think my son was making eyes at you and your friends,” Red says, “but I know for a fact he was more interested in Big Buck Hunter over there. He is a dead-eye Dick. Boy could shoot the tits off a lady-fly.”
Jeremy laughs, baffled. Jen watches Red uncertainly.
“You’re gonna need help carrying all those beers and we’re nothing but chivalrous,” Red says, “and while we’re over there we’ll show you how to kill the fuck out of some video deer.”
They all drink together and Red keeps talking. Jeremy watches Jen and her friends laugh at his father, watches his father know it and not care. Jen can tell that Jeremy’s embarrassed and tries to make him feel better. Jeremy starts talking about Gillian as if they were already married, but he doesn’t mention the child.
“Show her how to shoot,” Red says, pushing Jeremy into Jen. She laughs and stumbles forward into the cabinet; she wiggles her bottom against his crotch and leans back against his chest.
“Show me how to shoot,” she says.
Twenty minutes later Jeremy goes outside to breathe some cold air.
Cindy is smoking halfway down the block, looking in the window of a thrift store and rocking on her heels.
Jeremy looks at the tavern entrance and tries to release himself from the responsibility of decision. If Jen follows him out here, then it’s not really his choice, whatever happens. If Red comes out, then he doesn’t have to do anything. He sways drunk, looks upwards, and watches his breath fog and swirl against stars, has the sensation of downward gazing from a perilous height, the vertigo lurch in his gut, the temptation to jump.
The tavern door opens and Jeremy looks down, smiling.
His father grins at him, rubbing his palms together.
“Maybe I should leave you to it,” Red says.
Jeremy shakes his head.
“Let’s go to another bar, I’m tired of this one.”
“But you made a friend,” Red says.
“This bar is making me melancholy.” Jeremy, drunk, reminds himself of his father.
“There are no other bars,” Red says.
“There’s the Snake and Dove.”
“Fuck that place.”
“They’re got whiskey don’t they?”
“Fuck the Snake and fuck the Dove.”
“I’m not going back in there.” Jeremy points at the tavern. “Snake and Dove or we’re done drinking.”
“Jesus, I raised a willful boy.”
They walk down the middle of the street, Red claiming the sidewalk too constrictive to celebratory movement. Jeremy pauses where a streetlight has gone dark and pisses against a wall.
“She was a pretty girl,” Red says.
“I’ve got a girl.”
“Doesn’t make the other one any less pretty. And a decent shot if the video machine means anything. You slept with other women, right? I never . . . You know your mother was the first woman I ever slept with.” Red shakes his head, a forlorn dog trying to disengage a cobweb from his nose.
“Dad,” Jeremy says.
“You weren’t a mistake. But it was a mistake to marry her. Tell your son to live boldly.”
“You can tell him.” Jeremy zips his pants up and shakes cooling urine from his fingertips.
“Tell him . . . decisions don’t constrict you. Marrying your mom wasn’t a decision, it was me avoiding a decision. Just the next thing to do. You got a whole life to spend. He does and tell him so.”
The Snake and Dove has changed owners. The fat man behind the bar promises violence against Jeremy if he doesn’t drag his father from the bar. The fat man won’t even look at Red.
“Get that freeloading drunk vandal fuck out of my territorial area,” the fat man says, getting more eloquently nonsensical every time he says it.
Red tries to throw a bicycle through the Snake and Dove’s plate-glass window, but the bicycle is chained to a fence and only swings around to tangle Red’s feet, bark his shins, and send him cursing and laughing to the ground. He shouts, “Run!” even though there is nobody there to chase them and father and son stumble laughing through the empty streets.
At ten minutes past nine o’clock in the morning the sheriff knocks on the window glass and Jeremy rises blind, moist, and confused like some miscarried fetal ape. The sheriff knocks again and as the bleach seeps out of Jeremy’s vision he sees the sheriff turning a loosely balled fist in the air, as if masturbating an improbably tall invisible man. Jeremy complies, rolling down his window.
“God dammit Sheriff,” Red says from the driver’s seat, without opening his eyes.
“I’ve told you you can’t sleep like this out here,” the sheriff says, recoiling from the stink of liquor and men that rolls out at him.
“You sure as shit didn’t want either of us driving.”
“You need to get your father home,” the sheriff says to Jeremy.
“We’ll be along in a second. Nancy must have a cup of coffee for us,” Red says.
“I think you better go along and get him home.” The sheriff addresses Jeremy again.
“You can tell it to him, he’s right there,” Jeremy says.
“I’ve tried talking to him. It’s like telling a dead mule to pull.”
“I’ve known you drunker’n I’ve ever been, Sheriff,” Red says.
“Take him home.” The sheriff stares hard at Jeremy. “You oughta be ashamed enough already.”
“Tell it to him.”
“Take him home.”
“You want to get some coffee, Dad?”
“Absolutely. Can we get you a chocolate milk or anything, Sheriff?”
Red shoves open the door and tries to disengage himself from the bucket seat, flailing and lurching. The sheriff mutters something, it seems to involve “shit” and “damnation,” and runs around the car with his hands holding steady his too-loose belt of keys and arms. He falls against the door, slamming it shut against Red, who reacts to the violence with a half-hearted shrug.
Jeremy only then notices the amused storekeepers, diners, and retirees standing bundled on the sidewalks to watch, or peering from behind the glass of the Snake and Dove, turned over for its breakfast hours. He smiles, fights the temptation to wave, waits to hear what his father will say to the sheriff.
Red starts the car and, without so much as a glance through the window, slowly trundles down the street. The sheriff pats the back of the car as it passes.
“I wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee,” Jeremy says.
“We’ll make coffee at home.”
“Fuck him,” Jeremy says.
Red shakes his head, looks ten years older than Jeremy’s ever been able to remember. Jeremy’s shivering in the cold, but he leaves the window open on account of the smell. The October air rings his bloodshot eyes with tears.
Red drives the wrong side out of town, and they take the parkway loop around instead of driving back the way they came, avoiding another pass through the onlookers. The route takes them by the Wal-Mart and its terrible signs.
“Let’s stop at the Wal-Mart,” Jeremy says. “I want to get some shotgun shells and some beer.”
They pass silently through the half-emptied aisles of the dying superstore. Even in its death throes, there are more people here than on Main Street.
Behind a faded “BACK TO SCHOOL” sign, Jeremy pulls the last glue stick from a rack and tosses it into his father’s wobbly cart. Jeremy refuses to return Red’s gaze. Red smiles. They buy plastic drinking straws. Kerosene. A box cutter.
They each pull a plastic bottle of Dr Pepper from the refrigerator by the register to drink on the ride home.
“I guess we better get your truck fixed,” Jeremy says.
“To carry it back once we kill it.”
“Hmm.” Red finishes his Dr Pepper.
It takes eighty dollars at the AutoZone and two days’ work to get Red’s truck running well enough to make it up the mountain and back.
At the pawnshop, Jeremy talks Red into buying solid gold earrings instead of the larger, shinier gold-plated cufflinks. Red meticulously files them to dust with the attachment on his fingernail clipper. Jeremy mixes the dust into buckshot and then reassembles the shells.
They eat cans of soup and peanut-butter or cheese packaged crackers and start to build the air candles at dusk. It’s three in the morning when they finish, sober as deacons, and decide that sleep would be brief enough to be crueler than kind.
A capful each finishes the bottle of Jim Beam and they load the air candles into the truck and drive up the mountain. Camo stands with uncanny balance in the back, uncomplaining despite the noisy plastic blue tarp covering him entirely.
The girl at the gas station recently passed twenty-one years and two hundred and fifty pounds, she’ll never see less than either again. She flirts with them both, Red more receptive, asks them conspiratorially what they’re doing up the mountain at this hour. She laughs too much when Red says, “Communing with nature.”
Up the mountain, smearing goat’s blood on their faces and hands, Red asks his son if he intends to marry the girl.
“The big girl at the Seven Eleven?”
“You know damn well who I’m talking about.” Red has forgotten her name.
“You gonna marry Gillian?”
“I dunno. We already live together, she’s having my baby. The rest just seems like taxes.”
“You got a picture of her in your wallet?”
“I’ve got one on my phone.” Jeremy pats his pants pockets, says, “My phone’s at the house.”
Red huffs at the sky, wipes his eyes with the relatively clean fingertips of a bloody hand.
“The time to be sure about it is now,” he says.
“About what?” Jeremy asks.
Red shakes his head and takes a handful of their homemade Goldshot shells, a half dozen that he slips into his front vest pocket. Jeremy takes the other six and they walk up through the woods, Camo bleating mournfully behind.
Jeremy turns from watching all but the last of the air candles rising into the predawn darkness and finds his father whispering into the newspaper skin of the sixth. The paper lantern tugs from his fingertips gently, politely. Red’s eyes are closed, his nose to the paper, lips brushing it with each prayer.
Jeremy turns away, looks back at the rising lanterns. The stock of his shotgun is cold; he can smell gun oil and morning and the green of the trees. His lungs hold more air on the mountain.
When he looks again, his father has released the lantern. Jeremy runs past him, hitting him in the shoulder and dragging him along. The two men flee grinning into the brush with their guns.
Red and Jeremy break their shotguns. Jeremy fishes two shells from his vest and slides them home, folds the barrel back into its place against the stock. Red folds his own shotgun whole, the click somehow incomplete.
Jeremy looks at the handful of shells in his father’s vest.
“How many shells did you bring up?”
“More than I’ll need. Let me shoot first. I remember your pace of shooting being a little more amenable to conception than killing.”
Red starts whispering again before Jeremy gets a chance to untangle the last thing he said.
“I guess you see your mother more often than you see me.”
“Not by much. But yeah. She’s met Gillian.”
“They get along?”
“Gillian gets along with everybody.”
“Just be sure.”
“About her? I am.”
“Don’t make a child with a woman you don’t love. Won’t love until you die.”
“I don’t mean you’re a mistake. I’m not saying that. You’re the best of whatever I am, for whatever that’s worth. But don’t make a child with a woman you can hate. Just be sure, is all I’m saying.”
There is the sound of a multitude of wings.
“They’re coming,” his dad says, “try not to think of anything.”
“Angel Season” copyright © 2013 by J.T. Petty
Art copyright © 2013 by Jon Foster