by Renee Thompson
Connor saw in his friend’s eyes a fervent desire to help him. Hardin had opened a map, spread it on the kitchen table in Connor’s parents’ house, and now navigated with one stout finger the winding road into the Bitterroots. “We can head over on Sunday, drive back on Wednesday afternoon,” he said, his voice exuberant, his face opening with his smile. “We’ll miss all those sons-a-bitches that way, pouring in for the holiday weekend.”
Connor gazed at the map, pretending to study its contours and elevations, find something irresistible there. “I know what you’re trying to do,” he said, looking up, “and I appreciate it, I do. I’m just not ready yet.”
Hardin took a moment. “It’s been four months, Connor. You’ve got to let her go.”
Connor wanted to tell him not to worry, that he didn’t need a hunting trip to help him get it together. But the truth was, Katie’s death had blindsided him, and he still couldn’t see straight; it was all he could do to crawl out of bed each morning, climb into his pickup truck and drive to the university. He had recently begun to work out again, and he might have told Hardin this, except Hardin had no idea what it took to focus on nothing but the solid black line at the bottom of the pool while swimming six thousand yards. Even then, Katie’s image appeared unbeckoned, replaying in a loop like a current pop song, driving Connor crazy.
“Just come,” Hardin prodded.“You can hang out all day in your sleeping bag, if you want to. Just get out of this house.”
Hardin wanted badly to go; Connor knew he did. His friend had missed his chance to kill an elk the previous year, when he’d gone hunting with his dad; the old man had slipped and wrenched a knee, and they’d driven home to western Montana not two hours after pitching their tent. Hardin’s decision to go at all created no end of turmoil at school; it was their senior year at Rescue High, and he had backed out of taking his then-girlfriend, Riata Brinkley, to the homecoming dance so he could make the trip with his father. Hardin had gotten home in time to call Riata, but he never picked up the phone. When she found out, she told everyone she knew Hardin would date a moose if he got half the chance, that’s how dumb he was.
Later that week, at lunchtime, Katie asked Connor where that meanness came from.
“Riata’s been mean as long as I’ve known her,” he said, biting into his sandwich.
“Why does Hardin like her?”
“Got a one-track mind, I guess.”
Katie pursed her lips around her straw and quietly sipped her drink. Most girls would have laughed—maybe even smacked him—but Katie was unlike any girl he’d met before, and he’d met a handful since junior high school. Girls liked him, he knew. He got his looks from his dad, his athleticism, too, but he wasn’t one to brag—he wasn’t that much of a talker. And while he could have dated the head cheerleader or the class VP, he chose Katie, a girl who was quiet, like him. She was offbeat, too, and he loved her for it; maybe because he didn’t have the courage to expose himself like that. And she was pretty: silky brown hair, chocolate eyes, a body he could die for. The small scar that seamed her left eyebrow had its own appeal, suggesting she had some history and wasn’t predictable. The downside was the clothes she wore: black tights, black skirts, berets in winter colors.One afternoon, as he was heading toward English, his last class of the day, Riata sidled up to him.With a nod of her chin, she indicated Katie as she crossed the quad, saying, “This is Montana, 1979, not the fifties in New York City.Your girl’s a tad off kilter.” She was in his face, smirking, and he understood she was waiting for something: a reaction, a word, anything to indicate he would abandon Katie and go to her, which made him sick inside.He never mentioned the incident to Hardin. Connor wasn’t someone who claimed to be a friend, then shared news he knew would hurt you—not that Hardin gave a damn what Riata said.
So now here he and Hardin were, deep in the mountains, dressed in hunter-orange vests and camo caps.Just before dawn, Connor hefted his Winchester, a gun his dad had given him the previous year as an eighteenth birthday present, while Hardin carried a Remington, a rifle he bought with money he’d earned from his job as a tire-changer.Connor’s flashlight illuminated the black expanse of the Bitterroots, and there was no sound at all, apart from pine needles popping beneath their feet.
Hardin was looking for a spot that was steep and nasty, and which opened into a bench where elk could bed down, and slip easily into cover. He and Connor moved fast, winding through ponderosas, spruces, firs.Around 4,000 feet the understory morphed into a dog-hair thicket of lodge pole pine, the trees’ lowest branches raking their necks and hands. It took fifty minutes to hike one mile, whereas in open country they’d traveled four in a little over an hour.
Connor’s thighs burned as he pushed uphill.When the trail into the timber disappeared and the gap between them widened, he couldn’t take it anymore. He stopped, placed one hand on his knee and called, “I’m winded, Hardin – I need to rest a while.”
Hardin nodded toward a small opening in the trees, and he and Connor walked toward it, shucked their daypacks and drank from their canteens.It was full-on daylight now, twenty degrees, breath billowing from their mouths. Clouds were rolling in and shifting constantly, one minute threatening substantial weather, the next streaming sunshine. The air carried the scent of autumn, of dry earth and fragrant pine.
Hardin glanced up. “I wish it would snow,” he said. Connor wished so, too. Crusty ice from an old snowfall fringed the trail, and the few tracks they came across were difficult to decipher.It was easier to track elk in fresh snow, and the sooner Hardin got his bull, the sooner they could go home.
Walking a parallel line roughly one-hundred yards apart, they gradually began to separate, Connor heading uphill, while Hardin angled down. On the drive from Missoula, they had talked about how they would fill their tags, agreeing if Connor spotted a bull elk, he would shoot it and Hardin would tag it, as Connor’s tag allowed the taking of a single cow.Conversely, if Hardin had a shot at a cow, he would take it and Connor would fill the tag, since Hardin was permitted the take of one bull elk; it was a convoluted but common arrangement, practiced by every hunter who lived in rural Montana, certainly by their friends.
Connor picked his way across a swollen stream, aiming toward a switchback.Twice, he slipped on the rocky slope, and as he fought for purchase, scraped his shins and palms.When the terrain began to level, he again stopped, sitting this time with his back against a boulder. He closed his eyes, the light behind his lids pooling in reds and greens and purples. He nodded off, waking a few minutes later to find a cow elk watching him. She stood not ten feet from him, her coat the color of wet sand, her eyes as brown as tree bark. A rough, pink scar shone above her left eyebrow, and she wore a radio collar, a device used by Fish and Wildlife to track her whereabouts.
Connor held his breath, unmoving.
The elk blinked, then snorted and stomped her foot.Connor jerked, startled, and she spun and took off, kicking dirt on him. He grabbed his rifle, hefting it to his shoulder. Before he could properly aim, she halted and turned to look at him. Her hesitation so surprised him that he brought the gun down, and watched her as she watched him.
He’d learned of Katie’s death on a Sunday afternoon in mid-July, three months after they’d broken up. Henry Colson, the deputy sheriff, drove the long gravel road to Connor’s house, sat on the front-porch swing and told him two hikers had found her body at the bottom of Blackjaw Ridge.
Connor was quiet a long time, and then whatever it was that held him together came undone, and he wept until his face was swollen.
Henry reached over and squeezed his shoulder. “I’m sorry, son, I know this is hard, but I need to ask you something: I need to know if Katie killed herself. I’ve spoken to a few of her friends, and—”
“Who? Riata? Riata wasn’t her friend.”
A hot, dry breeze blew from the south, and it seemed the birds had stopped singing.The only sound Connor heard was the slow thwacking whirr of a sprinkler. He noted that each time it made its rotation, it missed the driest spots. He looked away, thinking of Katie, wondering how many times he had scolded her when they’d hiked to ridge. “Jesus,” he’d said, “step back some. You’re standing too close to the edge.”
He told Henry she wasn’t depressed, she was careless, what she was. “Every time we hiked to Blackjaw, she’d trip, or slip, and then real quick look at me, because she knew it made me crazy.” As he considered this, his eyes welled again. “Goddamn,” he said.“Why wasn’t she more careful?”
That afternoon, after Henry had left, Connor let his mind go to the day he first met Katie. She wasn’t anything like him, or his friends, with her quiet manner and unusual dress, and that bike she rode to school. He liked her, made no secret of it, told Hardin he admired a girl who possessed the courage to be exactly who she was. But by the fourth week of classes, he noticed she’d begun to ride with her head down and her shoulders hunched. Riata and her cohorts had begun taunting her, saying, “Hey, dipshit, you riding that bike because you love it so much, or they kick you off the short bus?”
Connor offered to teach her to drive.She shook her head, said she had tried to learn, but was no good at it. “All that yielding and merging and those blinking red lights…” Her voice trailed off, and he thought she might cry, but she shared the smallest smile.
That summer, his folks said she could come along on their camping trip to Anderson Valley. She sat next to him in his parents’ station wagon, her head resting on his shoulder. He was nearly overcome with the smell of her, the warmth of her beside him. He had fallen in love and had told her so.She said she loved him, too.
After supper, they built a bonfire, and roasted marshmallows on wire hangers.Connor’s mother unwrapped a Hershey bar. “You like s’mores, dear?” she asked Katie.
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried them.”
Connor couldn’t get over it. “Never tried s’mores?” he said. “Where’d you come from? Mars?” Even before he saw her face, he knew he’d reduced her to the oddity their classmates took her for. He pulled her to him, embracing her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it. I was making a joke, you know?”
She smiled in that way she had, but her eyes were glossy and sad.
That night they lay beneath the stars on a blanket his dad kept in the car. Gazing upward, Katie said, “Pinpoints of light piercing a sky that seems to go on forever.” She looked over at him. “I wish I could be like other girls, instead of who I am.” He started to speak, but she interrupted, saying, “I know they say I’m off, somehow. Riata’s told me twice now.”
Riata. He couldn’t count the times she had come to him, saying, “If you were smart, you’d dump that girl. You know she’s got a screw loose.” If he were honest, he would have acknowledged, if only to himself, that it did sometimes seem as if Katie were apart from his world. The next spring, when he was at swim practice after school and Katie was waiting for him to drive her home, she sometimes hung out in the art department with kids who weren’t remotely like him. There was this one guy, Dion or Dylan, or whatever the hell, whose hair hung past his shoulders. The kid liked all the things Katie liked: painting and drawing and poetry—stuff he himself wasn’t good at, or even interested in. Every now and then, when he had an especially long workout, Katie threw her bike into the back of the guy’s van, and caught a ride home with him. Connor claimed the kid was into drugs and God knows what, that he’d get her into trouble.
“He’s a friend, Connor. He’s nice, is all.”
“Jesus Christ, you’re so naïve. He’s not nice for no reason. He wants something, all guys do. You need to understand that.”
Katie’s cheeks colored. “You have no idea what it is to have people laugh behind your back. There’s no way you can understand. Everything you do is perfect, everybody loves you. It means something to have a friend.”
“I’m your friend,” he said. She gazed at him in what looked like exasperation, and recognition traveled his spine. “What?” he said. “Are you seeing him?” Katie looked down and didn’t respond.
The cow elk broke her gaze, snorted, and skittered sloppily up the slope. She slipped twice as she struggled to maintain her balance, and her clumsiness infuriated Connor. He scooped up a rock and pitched it at her, grazing her rear ankle. “What the hell’s wrong with you, you stupid cow? You got no sense at all?”
He heard a sharp whistle: Hardin’s signal he’d spotted an elk, and was maneuvering it toward him. Connor ducked behind a ponderosa as an enormous bull, a beautiful creature, crashed hard in his direction. All at once it slowed, and then stopped altogether, its ears pricked, its neck stretched tall. The tips of its horns shone like candles. Connor raised his rifle and sighted the elk, and then the breeze picked up and the wind shifted. The creature turned slightly, showing its profile, and Connor pulled the trigger. The big bull elk slung its head, as if it had been stung by a bee, and then all at once it seemed to deflate, collapsing to its knees and falling forward, knocking its chin on the ground.
Hardin huffed up the hill, his face flushed and his shirt sweat-soaked, hair plastered to his forehead. He tagged the elk, chattering wildly as he looped wire around the bull’s antlers. “I was afraid he’d run behind the trees and you’d miss him. Jesus, look at him, will you? He’s as big as a Greyhound bus.”
“You see Radio Gal?” Connor asked. “Cow elk with a collar?
“No,” said Hardin, “only saw this bull, here.”
“Thing just stood there watching me. I guess it rattled me a little.”
“Maybe she’s sick.”
“She’s not sick, she’s injured. She’s got a fresh scar above her left eye. Likely something grabbed her.”
Connor looked down at the bull, his eyes focused on the hole where the bullet had torn through its shoulder and pierced its lung. Never before had he thought about what he’d killed, or why he’d killed it, but now something inside him pulled at his skin.
“He’s too big to bone and bag before sunset,” said Hardin, assessing the elk as a whole. “Let’s take what we can now, come back in the morning and finish up.”
The night was cold and starless. Hardin filled a coffee pot, and set it on a steel grate above oyster-sized embers. Neither he nor Connor spoke for a long while, and in that silence Connor’s thoughts turned to Radio Gal. He thought an adolescent cougar had probably grabbed her brow, and in its inexperience lost its grip somehow. Or maybe the cow elk was the incompetent one, and hadn’t heeded her mother’s lessons.
Hardin got up to pour coffee, interrupting Connor’s thoughts. Connor looked over at him, saw his friend’s face reflected the fire’s glow and thought there was still so much exuberance in him, whereas he himself seemed to have grown old.It seemed, too, that the twinge he’d felt earlier, while Hardin tagged the elk, was borne of some internal nudge to try something new, make a fresh start somehow.
“When we head out tomorrow,” said Hardin, “don’t let me forget my Dr Pepper. All I had was water today, and I hate water with a sandwich.” He was grinning—relishing the day’s kill, Connor supposed—and everything about him was jovial: his voice, his demeanor, his belief that every day from here on out would be a gift from the hunting gods.
Connor grinned too.“I’ve got beer in the cooler, there.”
“Beer gives me a stomachache.”
Connor had heard this many times, but he suspected Hardin just didn’t like the taste of beer, and was embarrassed to admit it. He himself liked it fine, but now that he was swimming again, he had to take it easy. After he and Katie had broken up, he’d become a sloppy drunk, and he recollected, as he sat in his camp chair, the time he had driven past her house to see if Dylan’s van was there; it was an exercise in torture, he knew, and yet he was compelled to do it. When he spotted the vehicle in Katie’s driveway, his heart sank and he hated himself for checking. That night he drank a six-pack of Coors in his car as he waited for Hardin to get off work so they could grab a burger together. Hardin came out, took one look at the empties littering the back seat. “You’re not driving anywhere. Slide your ass on over.” On the way to the restaurant, Connor insisted they stop at Katie’s. He had something he needed to tell her.
“That’s a bad idea,” said Hardin.When Connor clutched the door handle, Hardin added, “Jesus, Connor, hold on, will you? Wait ‘til I pull over.”
Dylan’s van was parked in front of Katie’s, as Connor knew it would be.He climbed out of the car, strode up the porch steps, and banged his fist on the door.
“Oh, Connor,” Katie said, her face folding when she saw him.“What are you doing here?”
“I want to talk to your boyfriend,” he said, almost spitting the words.
Hardin had followed Connor, and now he stepped forward and gripped his friend’s arm. “C’mon, man, let’s go.”
Conner flung him off. He set his mouth to say something cruel to Katie, but then couldn’t get the words out.It seemed he would never again have a plan of any sort, that his life would simply bump along without thought or consequence. All he knew was that he’d come to this house intending to start a fight; now all he wanted was to understand exactly why Katie had left him.
She rested her head against the door frame. They stood a long time, each looking at the other, and it was all too much for Connor. He leaned over, hands on his knees, and quietly began to sob.
Hardin drained his coffee cup. “You okay?” he said. “You haven’t said two words in half an hour now.”
Connor thought he might tell him how Katie had ridden her bike to his house two weeks before she’d died; how she had told him she’d made the mistake of her life: gone off with someone she thought was so much like her, only to find out he wasn’t half the boy Connor was. “I know you hate me, but I love you, Connor. Would you please just think about taking me back?”
In the months they’d been apart, Connor had imagined this moment, prayed for it, summoning the feel of Katie’s arms around his neck, her breath warm against his shoulder. Yet as much as he loved her and wanted her back, he wanted more to hurt her. “Why would I take you back,” he said, “when everything Riata said about you is true?”
The color left Katie’s face, and Connor thought she hadn’t heard him, or hadn’t understood: that he’d spoken in French or German, or some other language, which was a mystery to her. But then her eyes misted and she walked away, and he knew he’d sliced her open.
Since their breakup, she’d stopped by his house three times in all. He’d heard through the grapevine that Riata and her friends had scrawled hateful messages on Katie’s locker in blood-red paint, and had sliced her bicycle tires.
The last time Katie came by, she didn’t broach the topic of getting together, just pleaded with him to make them stop. Now he was prepared to tell Hardin all of it, but when Hardin looked up and said, “Hey, it’s snowing,” Connor raised his face and closed his eyes, letting snow gather on his lashes.
Sometime during the night, he sat up on one elbow and looked out the tent flap. The stars were out, the blue-black light cast by the moon brilliant against the landscape. The stillness calmed him, and remained with him throughout the next morning, as he methodically packed his gear.Hardin, however, was in a panic, and on this last day of their trip couldn’t wait to get going.
“Let’s look for your cow real quick,” he said, “and then we’ll pack our bull out.”
They separated roughly three miles beyond the trailhead, with Connor hiking toward the bench where he’d first seen Radio Gal. He thought she would have bedded down in the vicinity, but when he arrived, she wasn’t there. Turning a circle, he searched for the herd’s trail, and found their footprints. Following them downhill, he came to the stream he had crossed the day before, navigated the slick stones, and then halted. Listening to the sound of hooves trotting behind the lodgepoles, he brought his rifle up, held it until his clenched jaw ached and his forearm shook.Radio Gal broke through the trees, warm breath huffing through her nostrils. And though Connor believed he would kill her— had wanted to kill her—he watched her as she watched him, his finger pulsing on the trigger.
About Renee Thompson
Renee Thompson‘s fiction has appeared in Literal Latte, Narrative (twice as a Story of the Week), Arcadia, 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, and Chiron Review. She has placed in competitions sponsored by Narrative, Literal Latte, Glimmer Train, and Writer’s Digest. Her first novel, The Bridge At Valentine (Tres Picos Press, 2010), received high praise from Pulitzer Prize-winner Larry McMurtry. Her second novel, The Plume Hunter (Torrey House Press, 2011), won the 2012 da Vinci Eye (Eric Hoffer Award). She is currently at work on a story collection.