Thomas was shooting birds again. I saw him beneath the black oak tree across the street, standing like a dropped pin stuck upright in green carpet. His arms extended above his head, pressing the camera toward the heavens, while a pack of doves sat above, exposing their downy parts and ashy beige feet to his hungry shutter. Eventually he brought the camera down and clicked furiously though the cache of digital exposures the last few minutes had yielded. His chapped lower lip began to seesaw beneath his clenching upper jaw, his grimace tightening with each imperfect frame. His eyebrows bent tremulously in toward the crumpling bridge of his nose, and his eyelashes started clumping up with tears. Finally he swung the camera to the ground and threw himself at the base of the tree with a moan that sent the birds flying in a frenzied cloud of white wings.
I watched him from behind the single paned windows of my grandmother’s kitchen, elbow-deep in dark dishwater and silver polish, my hair tied up high with a black band. The full tea service sat gleaming on a towel to my left as I worked the sponge over the embossed oval platter and stared out the window at the young man and his house.
I had known Thomas and his older brother, Randy, since we were all very young. My cousin Harriet and I spent long weekends at Grandma’s when we were younger, and the boys were always there, ready to draw chalk mazes in the street or hike down to the river to find the smooth stones and tiny fish that glistened in the clear shallows.
But years had passed since then, and this was the first time I’d seen either of the boys since starting college and moving away. I’d had no reason to come out here to Grandma’s house, before now.
The platter in my hands flashed as I dried it, reflecting Harriet as she entered the room, and distorting the kitchen where the walls flexed and faded in the contours of the metal. The filigreed corners nearly disguised the fact that everything was gone. The quilted slippers she left by the back door, the lacquered jewelry box on the vanity, the ceramic flowerpot on the linoleum in the entryway – they left behind pristine voids where the dust of Grandma’s sick weeks had failed to settle. It was my relatives. Up until yesterday they’d swarmed the place like ants on a teaspoon of sugar. They carried each perfect little morsel away and then returned immediately for more, but never looked once at the spoon itself after it had been picked clean.
Now the house stood hollow and sad – a discarded shell scattered with trash and myriad worthless things. There were still memories in the counter tiles and the doorknobs, in the banister and the light fixture that hung confused above the empty space where the kitchen table stood for fifty years, but the warmth and magic died with the woman who picked the wallpaper.
My cousin Harriet stood at my side wrapping the silver pieces in yesterday’s newspaper and placing them one by one into a cardboard box scrawled with her name. After the initial claims were satisfied it was agreed that she should help herself to whatever was left, what with the baby on the way.
I handed her the platter and then leaned back on the counter to watch as she began to force a series of decorative plates into the crowded box.
“What are you going to name your baby?” I asked.
“I’ve been thinking about Lazer, with a ‘z’”
She didn’t even look up. “Yeah. I like how it sounds.”
I’d befriended a stranger once on a ten-hour plane ride who had shocked me by confiding that the most interesting thing about him was his middle name.
“Why is that?” I asked him.
“Because it’s ‘The,’” he said.
“Like John the Baptist,” he told me, “William the Conqueror, Alexander the Great. Everyone worth remembering has ‘The’ in their name.”
I wanted to tell Harriet this, hoping she would remark on how ridiculous it sounded, but concede that at least “The” was well-intentioned, that even the hipster parents of Jeremiah The Goodman had recognized the significance, and power, and importance of a name. But I was preempted by a loud “shit!” and a cascade of musical skittering noises as triangular shards of china sailed across the kitchen floor.
“Are you okay?” I asked, tiptoeing to the corner for the broom.
“I’m fine,” she said, “but now it’s not a complete set.”
She tried to pick up some of the shards, but couldn’t reach past her knees. She finally left the room looking red and bothered.
I swept the shards into the dustpan and saw that they bore an overwrought nativity scene. There were chips of sparkling blue snow, locks of golden hair, and tiny yellow dots that clustered to signify a divine aura. Guided by the gold stripes on the plate’s outer rim, I was able to puzzle some of the larger pieces together, and stared for a minute at the baby Jesus and Mary all by themselves, shining faces glowing in the astral light while Joseph and the wise men and the angels lay jumbled among the donkeys and dirty hay.
I put the fragments into the trash can and then took the bag out to the bin in the garage. When I opened the door I almost screamed out loud: there was Randy, his back to me, browsing the shelves with grandma’s gun in his left hand.
“Randy – Jesus Christ!” I yelled, so shrill I could hear the concrete ringing.
“What are you doing in here?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought I’d be in and out. Your grandmother said I could have her gun, and your aunt Jocelyn said I could come and get it any time. Sorry if I scared you.”
I exhaled heavily and nodded at him, “I was just surprised. It’s fine.”
I hauled the bag to the trash bin in the corner. He wasn’t moving. I could feel his eyes on me.
“So,” he began, “How’s school been?”
I turned around to look at him and nodded. “It’s been good. Starting to get into my major and stuff. What about you?”
His eyes fell a little.
“Oh shit, Randy, I’m such an idiot. I heard about your dad. I’m so sorry.”
He shook his head and smiled feebly. “It was a year ago.”
“I heard you dropped out of community college.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch or anything, I—”
“We should catch up.”
He looked away, and then took a tin box of bullets from one of the shelves. “I should head home,” he whispered.
After he was gone I surveyed the garage. It was stripped of everything but two tall bookshelves and a built-in chest of drawers cluttered with old mason jars and fraying suitcases and boxes of buttons and matchbooks and souvenir seashells. Nothing of value was left.
I wheeled the trash bin out to the side of the house and saw Randy crouching low by the base of the oak tree, talking calmly to Thomas, who was still sitting there, clutching his camera. Thomas didn’t seem to be saying anything back. After a while Randy stood, shifted the gun in his hands, and walked rigidly through his front door.
They’d lived alone together since their father passed away the year before – a hunting accident, my aunt Jocelyn had reported. I had been away at college for a year already when it happened, and hadn’t spoken to Randy at all since leaving for school. It was such a strange thing. Two summers ago we were friends, but by the time his dad passed we’d already fallen out of touch. I wanted to talk to him after I heard, but somehow it didn’t seem right to call. It didn’t feel like my business.
When we were little I thought for a long time that we were related. Distant cousins, perhaps, but still family. We built forts from old sheets and lawn chairs and scrambled through a grass-stained refrigerator box adorned everywhere with stickers and crayon.
I remember sitting next to Randy in the box at the end of a hot day, our backs bending the cardboard. We could hear his dad across the street, shouting and slurring that the streetlights had come on, and through the end of the box I could see him dragging little Thomas indoors by his upper arm. Grandma appeared in the lighted kitchen window and told Randy he could stay with us for dinner.
“Bev, when do your parents get back?” Harriet’s voice rang in my ears the minute I opened the back door.
“Tomorrow sometime. They’re spending the night up at Uncle Don’s house in the city. That’s where the realtor’s office is. There were some papers they had to look at.”
“Oh,” she said, unrolling clear packing tape over an edge of the box full of Grandma’s china, “You sure you don’t want to come home with me? It’s only two hours up to my place, your mom and dad could come get you there. I don’t want to leave you here all alone with no car.”
“No, it’s fine,” I whispered, looking past her to the windows that faced the street, “I still need to clean out the garage. It’ll be good to get it done.”
“Can you help me move this stuff outside?” She gestured to the boxes with one hand while the other rested on her massive middle. She glanced at her cell phone. “He’ll be here in like two minutes.”
“Yeah,” she said, staring blankly down at the boxes.
“Are you living with him now?”
Her teeth clamped onto her lower lip as she nodded without looking me in the eye.
I didn’t say anything more.
I carried the boxes out to the lawn, and then, fifteen minutes later, hoisted them into the back of Boyfriend’s pickup while he sat with the motor idling. He nodded at me and shifted the dangling cigarette to the corner of his mouth long enough to mutter “Beverly” in a flat tone of greeting. Harriet arranged herself in the passenger seat. I leaned on the open window and smiled down at her.
“Call me when you get there.”
Then I stood in the front yard, smelling the exhaust and watching them disappear. Randy was standing at his kitchen window, arms moving out of sight like he was washing dishes. He smiled and raised a pale palm to me. I felt myself smiling too, but then my eye caught the bumper of his car, still emblazoned with the heraldry of his community college. There was a white flash and I saw that Thomas was still under his tree, eyeing me over his drawn-up kneecaps. He had taken my picture. I went back inside.
There was still so much work to do. My dad was given power of attorney, and though he and my mom and my other cousins had initially come out to help with the cleaning and boxing and organizing, it was Monday now. Everyone left to go do their jobs and see the realtors while I stayed behind to work on what was left. The real estate people would arrive in a few days and attack the place with checklists and cameras and measuring tapes. Everyone in the family would get a little chunk of our biggest heirloom, reduced to dollars and cents.
I returned to the garage and went directly to the plywood shelves by the back door. I hoped to dismantle them. To turn fifty years of sentimental accumulation into a box of memories and several black sacks of trash. I started with a stack of boxes – old sewing scraps, aged seed packets, one that held nothing at all. I took a tin box from the shelf and found it surprisingly heavy – it was full of ammunition. On top of the cartridges lay a small yellowed envelope. I’d seen it before. I could hear my own heart, like a wet tennis ball thrown again and again into my ribcage, as I closed my hands over the paper.
I unfolded the never-sealed flap and slid its contents into my palm. I held a long claw – heavy and shining like obsidian – the only trophy taken from an intruding black bear. I stood with my eyelids shut over the memory of my grandma, in yellow plastic galoshes and a rumpled housecoat, mascara melting in thin streaks down her face, firing round after round into the beast as it tore apart the lifeless body of her dog.
I continued cleaning out the shelves even after the tiny window to the backyard had darkened, not stopping until my phone began to beep in my pocket. It was a message from my Aunt Jocelyn: “baby is coming!!!!!”
Moments later the phone was ringing. I answered.
It was Aunt Jocelyn again. She asked me if I’d seen Harriet’s boyfriend.
“Bastard dropped her off at his house and then took off, some bullshit excuse. Luckily she had her own key, but then the contractions started coming and she couldn’t get a-hold of him.”
“Oh god. What did she do?”
“She called me and I came to get her. She’s doing fine. We’re just trying to find out where the hell her boyfriend is, because his baby is coming tonight.”
I thought of Harriet in some sterile hospital bed, with Aunt Jocelyn in the hallway talking to doctors with her top button undone, and Harriet dialing her phone over and over, failing repeatedly to ring through to the man who’d promised to support her.
My own parents called to say they were leaving Uncle Don’s house in the city and heading out to the hospital. Grandma’s house wasn’t on their way. I’d have to wait until tomorrow.
I crossed the street with the tin of bullets, thinking it would be a shame to dispose of them and not knowing how anyway.
I rang the bell. Randy answered.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he smiled.
“I was cleaning out the garage and I found another box of bullets. Thought maybe you’d want them.”
“Yeah, thanks.” He paused, “You want to come in for a bit?”
I followed him through to the kitchen and handed him the tin.
He turned to put it near the sink. There was a heavy dish towel laid on the countertop, and on it there was Grandma’s gun, disassembled into half a dozen shining parts.
“I wanted to apologize for earlier,” He said, keeping his voice low, “I’ve gotten so used to going over there unannounced.”
“It’s all right. How have you been, anyway?”
“I’m holding up.”
I smiled. “Harriet’s having her baby.”
“Oh yeah? Well, congratulations.”
He handed me a beer from the refrigerator, and I leaned against the counter while he sat on the edge of the kitchen table. The kitchen was well-lit, and beyond it I could see Thomas sitting on the living room couch, surrounded by Coke cans and beer bottles, illuminated only by the wash of blue light from his laptop computer screen.
“Listen. I really am sorry I haven’t kept in touch. I should’ve called, or something, when your dad—”
“There wasn’t anything to say, really. You know how he was.”
I glanced pointedly at Thomas, and Randy followed my gaze. “What happened?” I asked.
But we were interrupted when my phone started ringing again. It was Harriet. I apologized and walked back out the front door to take it.
She sounded fine, almost normal.
“I don’t know where he is,” she said.
“I know, your mom told me he took off.”
“Maybe his phone’s just dead.”
“Yeah,” I tried to sound positive, “maybe.”
She started telling me that the doctors said they might have to do a cesarean section, and that my parents hadn’t arrived yet, and how her mom was thrilled and anxious, but then she gasped sharply: “I have an incoming call! Can you wait? It could be him!” Then the line went silent, and I turned to see Randy standing on the porch beside me, his face etched out of dark triangular contours in the amber light from the window.
“Harriet?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, looking at my phone.
“And how is she?”
“She’s doing well, I think. Her boyfriend disappeared though.”
He looked at me sideways, “Maybe it’s for the best?”
I smiled, “Maybe.”
Grandma’s porch was surrounded with strong wide banisters. On warm nights she would set out flickering citronella candles in hurricane vases to keep away the bugs, and sit there in her old wooden rocker while we gathered around on the banisters, drinking and listening as she talked. Randy and I walked over there together, and I turned on the porch lights.
“I saw you were cleaning the gun,” I said.
He smiled and took a sip from his beer. “That wasn’t cleaning, that was dismantling. When you came over I was trying to figure out which part to throw in the river.”
“Why is that?”
He caught my eye for a moment. “Last time there were guns in my house my brother killed my dad.”
I was stunned. I just stared.
“You know my dad liked to hunt, and drink. Well, he and Tom went out hunting, and somehow Dad wound up dead. I was away at college when it happened. Tom was just getting out of high school, wanted to become a photographer. I’m pretty sure he hated hunting, even before.”
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I had no idea. So, what’s why he’s…” I trailed off.
He nodded. “Tom’s had trouble ever since. Trouble leaving the house, trouble remembering to feed himself. I got him in this therapy program where they let him take pictures.”
“That’s why you left school.”
“Yeah,” he looked at his knees. “I got a job at the gas station. All of my friends from before had either gone to college or moved away by then so I’d hang out with your grandma more than anyone.”
I sipped my beer and dangled my feet from the banister, watching him. He was smiling.
“I was only twenty when I moved back,” he said, “and by the time my twenty-first birthday rolled around I was so busy with work and looking after Tom and getting his damned pictures printed that I’d almost forgotten it was my birthday, and I didn’t have any friends close enough to remember or throw me a party.
“That night, your grandma came over with a huge white cake with my name on it – one of those from the store where you have to call ahead to get it decorated. And she put candles on it and gave me a couple of really nice bottles of booze wrapped in paper.”
“Grandma didn’t even drink!”
“She did that night. She and I ate cake and got drunk and played cards, and I think she stayed over until almost ten-thirty.” He laughed a little and then fell silent.
We sat there on the porch of the empty house, and I tried to think of a way to tell him that at the end of the summer when school started back up I wouldn’t forget him again, and that in a few years when Thomas got better he’d go back to school, and that we’d all grow up and move on from this dying town and be okay. But suddenly the calm night was rent by the reverberating crack of a gunshot. One single shot followed by a sudden, terrible gasp, as Randy’s head snapped to look back at his own house.
We ran across the street and slammed ourselves through his front door, eyes darting wildly around the entryway, ears straining.
“Hey, Tom!” he called, “Tom!”
But there was no response, and once Randy had turned the corner to the kitchen he stopped cold.
He tried to keep me from seeing, whispering “No, no, no,” but I pushed my way toward the kitchen, and saw that the countertop was empty, the fully-assembled gun on the floor, and Thomas, or what had been Thomas, lying in a pool of blood that emanated from the back of his blown-out skull.
Randy sat on the front steps while I called the police. He stared at the ground with empty eyes, more stunned than sad. I walked past him to the sidewalk so I could flag down the cops when they came.
The cell phone in my pocket chimed again.
“He’s here!” it said, “Baby Lazer T. Walters”
And there was a photo. Bright white linen, exhausted shining faces, Harriet aglow with motherly perfection, the deadbeat dad nowhere in sight.
R. D. Kuensting is from Oregon and is currently working toward her MFA in fiction at Pennsylvania State University.