Isaac deals with fate, in the woods
The downpour muffled the radio's playing of "American Pie". The radio blinked. Somehow it was already 7 PM. Isaac peered out the passenger window of the blue 1998 Ford Ranger. The trees rushed by, as the truck sped down the slick M-72 highway. Isaac remembered how scared he'd been when he'd first stepped into the tree line of the M-72 forest. His small Red Ryder had felt so dangerous to him then. Isaac slouched back down and struggled to get comfortable in his rain drenched woodland-overalls. His short black hair nestled deep into the head rest. He didn't want to be here but what choice did he have?
"Can't see shit in all this god-damned rain," James muttered from the driver seat. James glanced over at Isaac's slouched body. "How you holding up, man?"
"I'm...I'm fine. How much further?"
"Maybe a half hour, maybe more. You can take a nap if you want, man."
"As if I can sleep." The forest was giving way, and Isaac could make out the familiar golden arches in the distance; under them a worn sign read "Over 99 billion sold." The bright red sign stuck out in stark contrast to the grey back drop. Isaac rested the corner of his head against the cool glass. The caked dirt on his face dripped down the side of the window.
"You remember the last time we were at that McDonald's?" James grinned.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Isaac's stone face remained cemented to the window.
"You don't remember me getting you laid?" James' face was hanging above the steering wheel as he struggled to navigate through the rain.
"How can you talk about this right now...and what the hell are you saying 'getting me laid'. Shelly had wanted me since middle school."
"Yeah, and somehow you made it to junior year without doing shit. It wasn't until I took away your choice and put you two together, that you did anything" James gave Isaac a proud smile.
"How the fuck, can you smile right now." Isaac gave James a cold stare.
"Easy, man. Just trying to help take your mind off things," James muttered.
"Well I appreciate the effort, but just shut up and focus on the road. I don't need to talk right now." Isaac closed his eyes. The rhythmic beating of the rain helped clear Isaac's head, helped him forget about the blue tarp in the truck bed.
The square orange slip flashed as Isaac held it up to the sun. Isaac's smile revealed his giddiness; it was his twelfth birthday after all, and he was about to go on his first hunt. James had told him plenty of stories, but Isaac still felt both scared and excited for the real thing. Isaac stuffed the hunting license into a pocket of his green cargo pants and turned back around to his mom. Her blue knitted sweater hung from her skinny shoulders to her worn blue jeans.
"Now you listen to everything Mr. Abbott says, okay?"
"Yes, Mom." Isaac shifted in his red mesh running shoes.
"I packed you some granola bars, a sandwich, and some juice, so if you get hungry out there, you'll have plenty to eat."
"There should be a lot of granola bars in there so share with James."
"Okaaay, mom." The red shoes bent as Isaac bounced up and down on his toes.
"Okay now, remember, be safe, and stick with Mr. Abbott. That Red Ryder is a rifle not a toy." It had been Isaac's Mom's idea to buy him a youth rifle based on the Red Ryder comic books.
"Mooooom." Isaac's shoulders sank as he let out the embarrassed whine.
Isaac's mom smiled. The past year had taken its toll on her. Her eyes now sagged and fresh wrinkles had invaded her face. Ever since the car crash, her smiles had been few and far between. "Okay. Okay. How about a kiss before you go?"
Isaac groaned and, quickly leaned in giving his mom a quick peck on the cheek. In one swift motion, Isaac turned around and bolted for the registration tent before his mom could say another word. The uneven grass set his backpack and rifle case bouncing clumsily on his shoulders. As Isaac entered the shade of the tent, he soaked in everything around him. Groups of men in full camouflage were scattered around the tent, loudly chatting about their own hunting gossip. To his left, Isaac could see a round bearded man bragging about last year's hunt and how he would've taken down a twelve point if someone hadn't messed with his sights. Right outside the tent, Isaac spotted a skinny man in baggy camo showing off his new scope in the sunlight. All around him people were smiling excitedly; Isaac even spotted a group of kids his age arguing over whom had the best shot. Finally Isaac spotted James and his Dad waiting at a bench near the main registration table. Both were decked out head to toe in hunting gear; James even had a camouflage bucket hat resting on top of his long blond hair. Mr. Abbott was sporting a Browning bolt action while James was cradling a cheaper Marlin bolt action.
Isaac and James were the only kids at their middle school that had hunting families and they met when they were both paired up for a science project. When both of them had wanted to do it on hunting they immediately became friends. When James had found out Isaac had never actually gone hunting James had asked his Dad to take Isaac on their next trip. Isaac had had to pass his hunting test and buy a rifle but after all the effort he had finally gotten here. Isaac made a beeline towards the pair, his back pack still bouncing up and down.
"Hey! There's the birthday boy. Excited for your first hunt?" Mr. Abbott stood up and offered Isaac a hand shake. Mr. Abbott's hand was not only large, but also thick and rough, and Isaac's small hands were lost somewhere inside the firm handshake.
"Yes, sir!" Isaac beamed up at the mountain of a man.
"You know we could get you some of James' old camouflage if you don't want to ruin that green hoody and your pants. I still have it there in the trunk of my car." Mr. Abbott pointed back up the shallow grassy hill towards the parking lot.
"No thank you, Mr. Abbott. I don't really care about these clothes anyway."
"Whatever you want, Isaac. James, how about you take Isaac over to the table, and you can both pick up your vests while I finish marking our map."
James and Isaac wandered off towards the table. "You ready, dude?" James looked over at Isaac.
"Yeah, I think so. I mean, dude, with this gun I'm basically Red, from Red Ryder," Isaac said while struggling to lift the gun case.
"Can you imagine if Red went hunting? How unfair would that be?"
"Hahaha, so unfair. He'd just never miss." Isaac grinned as the line at the table slowly moved forward.
The trio hiked through the woods, looking for a good spot to put up their stands. Mr. Abbott was striding with purpose ahead as Isaac and James struggled to keep up.
Isaac remembered when his Dad had taken him hiking the day before one of his hunts. Isaac had followed with a backpack full of snacks as his Dad looked for good spots to put up his hunting stand. "It's always good to scout the area and put up your stand before the day you hunt. Usually you can predict where they'll show up based on what kind of plants are in the area. You see deer don't make decisions like you and me, they act purely on instinct. This makes it easy to predict where they'll go," His Dad had said. "We'll have to get you a gun soon. You're getting old enough for a license." Isaac's Dad had smiled through his beard. His Dad always seemed to give an unworried smile when talking, as if the common problems of life bounced off his broad shoulders.
The small Red Ryder youth rifle was now weighing heavily in Isaac's hands and he was relieved when he saw Mr. Abbott throw his sack down.
"All right, boys. Let's set up here. This should be a great spot to catch a buck. Both of you grab a tree stand. Here, Isaac, I'll show you how to set it up." James quickly grabbed his stand and straps, and headed off to find a tree he liked. The remaining straps and stands lay scattered in the soggy leaves. "Now these are hang-on tree stands Isaac. I'm sure you've heard of them, and you also probably know that you're going to have to do a bit of climbing today. Let's get this harness on."
Every moment Isaac spent with Mr. Abbott only drove home the thought that he'd never be able to go hunting with his own Dad, that his own Dad'd never teach him the proper way to put up a tree stand. His Dad'd never be able to teach him the proper way to get fifteen feet up into a tree using climbing sticks. While the past year had worn on his mom, Isaac was still unsure if it'd worn on him. The numbness and the fiction of it all--this couldn't be how a normal person felt after losing a parent. Was it bad that he had yet to shed a tear?
"There you go, kiddo." Mr. Abbott backed up and examined his work. "Now strap the stand over your back. No, no. You can take your backpack off. Just leave it down here. All right, now move up against the tree, and we'll get you climbing in no time."
Once up in his stand, Isaac finally found time to catch his breath. The forest seemed a lot more peaceful up in the tree stand, without all the thorns and vines. Isaac could see James in his orange vest a short distance away propped up in his tree. Isaac gave a small wave, and James smiled, wildly flailing his arms back. In another tree nearby, Isaac could see Mr. Abbott methodically adjusting his harness straps as he wrapped his climbing sticks around the tree. Like a massive spider, the burly man slowly scaled the tree.
It took about forty minutes before any sign of wildlife appeared. A massive white tailed buck slowly trotted through the nearby foliage. It was closest to Isaac but still slightly out of range for his small rifle. The deer walked quietly and cautiously always peering around as if it knew it was being watched. Its hooves left faint imprints in the cold soft mud. It was strange for a buck to be out during midday, a time when they usually rest. But Isaac had never been one to question destiny. Slowly he brought the gun up. Making sure to maintain a deathly silence, he twisted a knob, adjusting the sight. Isaac slowly pressed the metal safety switch into the side of the small weapon. It was a big buck, maybe even a ten point from what Isaac could see. He could feel the stares of both Mr. Abbott and James boring holes into him. The buck, still cautious, bent its neck to pick at the remains of a bush. Isaac gave one last look up to see Mr. Abbott give a smiling thumbs-up. Then without warning Isaac's trigger finger slipped. With a crack a branch above the deer splintered. The reaction was immediate. Leaning back on its hind legs the deer snapped around, leaping off back the way it came before Isaac could register what happened. It was over. He'd missed.
"It's okay, Isaac. Happens to the best of us. You'll get him next time!" Mr. Abbott yelled over from his stand.
"Dude that thing was huge!" James exclaimed excitedly.
"Yeah, man, I know!" Isaac replied, excited, but still annoyed.
That was the only interesting thing that happened for a while. As the afternoon sun sank the trio had perilously climbed down from their stands. Afraid to fall, Isaac had made sure to wait for Mr. Abbott to get down first to help him from below. The three sat on a log eating the food that'd been packed for them. Isaac made sure to hand out the extra granola bars, and Mr. Abbott and James both seemed more than grateful. James seemed a little too grateful, and Isaac was considering cutting him off from his granola bar stash.
The peacefulness of the forest dragged Isaac's unwilling mind once again back a year. The crash had been on an empty road in the middle of the forest. Isaac's Dad had told his mom that he'd be late from work, and that they could go ahead and eat dinner without him. Isaac remembered the meal: macaroni and cheese with sausage chunks. Isaac being an only child, dinners without Dad home were often a quiet affair and usually felt more like an interview about his day. It was silent at the table when the home phone rang, and Isaac remembered his mother looking annoyed as she got up from her chair. He remembered her lifting the white, corded phone from its holder. He remembered her yelling, and he remembered her sobbing behind her long blonde hair. Her shoulders had slumped as she allowed herself to slide down the dining room's tacky green wallpaper.
When he and his mother put down the memorial, Isaac saw it for himself, a long winding road enclosed by maple trees. It was just an empty winding road with only maple leaves and two cars that night. What were the odds? At first he'd blamed the drunk driver, the idiot who'd thought it was OK to put others in danger so he could have fun. But then Isaac wondered how he could hold a grudge against a dead man.
"All right! I'd say we got another two hours left out here before it's time to call it quits! Let's get back up in our trees boys!" Mr. Abbott slung his stand over his back and drifted back to his tree. Isaac and James followed suit, and before long, the three of them were perched again with their backs rubbing up against the bark. It was getting chilly, and Isaac wished Mr. Abbott had provided a foam hot seat for him to sit on.
Before the funeral Isaac had been asked to say something about his father. Isaac hadn't known what to say and had told them he would rather not. But as the coffin was lowered he wished he had said something. Something about the way he smiled. Something about how he always gave the best advice whenever you were struggling with a decision. But before he could will himself to speak up, shovels started to fill in the hole. Piles of dirt covering up someone else's drunken mistake.
This time it didn't take long for them to see something. A puddle maybe fifty feet from James' tree splashed as a doe and two fawns pranced through the brush. Isaac saw that both fawns still had their spots and looked over to see what James would do. James' gun was already raised. Stock against his shoulder, James fixed his eyes down the sight. Behind James, Isaac saw Mr. Abbott shake his head and signal for James to lower his gun. But James' eyes were locked in and with a deafening crack the Marlin jerked back and the doe fell lifeless into the mud, sending the two fawns off running. Quickly, the three of them scrambled down from their stands to examine the kill. After popping off a quick photo of the doe, Mr. Abbott immediately bent over the deer and began field dressing it for the carry home.
"James, what did I tell you about shooting a doe with fawns?" Mr. Abbott's bloodied hands went to work with his knife.
"Aww, Dad it's been real boring out here. I figured it'd be nice to take home something."
"Why don't people shoot does that have fawns?" Isaac asked, his face wrinkled from both confusion and disgust at the dead deer.
"Well, the fawns are left with no mother. They wander until they're killed unless another mother takes them in. That's why we should stick to hunting the older does that wander alone." Mr. Abbott continued field dressing the dead doe.
When he was finished, Mr. Abbott wrapped a blue tarp around the carcass and heaved it over his broad shoulders.
"Much as I don't like to shoot the younger mothers, I have to say, I'm still excited to eat venison tonight. Let's get out of here, boys."
It was Tuesday morning, the day of the reunion hunt, and Isaac's eyes were half closed as the truck's radio flashed 6 AM. The hunt had been Isaac's idea. He missed being out in the woods with no distractions. Life after leaving The University of Michigan had been overwhelming to Isaac, almost as overwhelming as the engineering classes he had fought through. It seemed like every aspect required a decision. Where did he want to settle down? What jobs could he apply to? Did any of that even matter? Of course it mattered. These were the biggest decisions of his life. It felt good to escape it all and just hang out with James. What worries did James have? After going to community college James was just working as a delivery boy until he could get on his feet.
"Wake your ass up, man. We're here." James gave Isaac a violent shake.
"Whu-Whu...c'mon, man. Stop, stop! I'm up!" Isaac clawed at the grey fabric of the car seat.
James and Isaac had discovered the M-72 forest back in their sophomore year of high school. The forest off M-72 was privately owned by the elderly Hamilton brothers. The Hamiltons would offer guided hunts to a party in which they would guarantee a kill to bring home. The hunts were expensive, often costing up to two grand. Processing was done on site and was included in the initial fee. But, of course, Isaac and James never paid. Instead the pair would drive into a narrow dirt road that connected the overgrown forest to the busy highway. Not only did their illegal escapades bag them more deer, but they also found they could now go hunting drunk without being judged by any of the older hunters. By the end of fall in senior year, they'd carved their own trail into the newly discovered forest.
Isaac slid out of the car and stretched out into the worn overalls. He hadn't worn his camo since high school, and four years of college hadn't been kind to his waistline. The painted leaves and branches pressed out as if trying to flee the surrounding seams. Isaac grabbed his bag and the blue tarp from under the passenger seat. The door slammed behind him as he strode off to meet James at the head of what used to be a trail.
James brandished a bottle of cheap whiskey at Isaac. "Only the finest liquor. As is our tradition," James announced, then took a pull from the large bottle. The bubbles rose from the mouth of the bottle as James took his first drink of the morning. James' blond hair was shaved now, much like Isaac's. Isaac looked on as James kept drinking. Somehow James had managed to grow stronger after high school while Isaac had only managed to grow wider, Which at first had annoyed Isaac, but he'd finally chalked it up to James' good genes.
"My Dad says he can't wait to see you." James took a break from drinking and looked over at Isaac. "And let me tell you, he's going to be surprised."
"Fuck you and give me the bottle." Isaac stuck out his hand for the liquor as James passed it over.
Isaac had pledged not to drink after his father's funeral. Look how long that had lasted he thought. He had barely made it halfway through high school before he was taking shots with his friends. They were about to head off to a party and James had stolen some gin from his parents. When they gathered around the coffee table, with the gin bottle sitting in the center, Isaac had told them he didn't feel like drinking. Then James had smiled at him and simply said "Look, man. It's not like we're trying to get drunk or anything, just a nice buzz for the party." James had a way of convincing Isaac, his unworried smile reminded Isaac of his father's. He remembered the guilt of that first shot. The shot had burned as it went down but then the burning stopped. By the third shot he didn't care.
"Would you be cool with coming over for dinner tonight?"
"Sure, my mom wants to see you again too. I think she just likes you because you're the only one who can stand her cooking. " Isaac finished his swig and passed the bottle back. It would be good to see Mr. Abbott again. "All right, man. It's supposed to rain later, so let's get out there."
The trail was long overgrown but Isaac and James still moved through the forest with ease. Their high school hunts had taught them all the forest's good spots. They had long memorized the daily movements of the deer here which made every step a step in nostalgia. The damp wood and scattered leaves gave off a scent that Isaac hadn't smelled since before college. His drunken footsteps slowed as they heard the familiar ripple of their old creek.
"Hey, James, how many times you think we've come out this way?" Isaac slowly waded across the shallow creek.
"It's gotta be up there around fifty. 'Know this place better than my parents' basement, and I practically lived in that damn place as a kid."
"It doesn't really change, does it? Same smell, same creek. You think we'll bag as many deer as we used to?"
"We better. It's not as if the deer have gotten any smarter." James was now clumsily crossing the water, struggling not to fall and drench himself. They were approaching a clearing that they knew too well. Back in high school they'd dubbed it the "Death Pit" and to the excitement of both, it looked the same. It was a wide clearing in the shape of a shallow bowl. The bowl was filled with short, thick bushes. The combination of foliage and elevation made it hard for a buck to escape even after the first shot had been taken. The water that ran down the sides of the bowl made the seemingly shallow hill a difficult climb for any prey.
"Well there she is--the Death Pit!" James smiled, unstrapping his gear.
"You think deer still walk through here?" Isaac asked as he too unstrapped his gear and tossed the empty tarp to the ground.
"Don't see why not. You know how predictable deer are." James sat down on the soft forest floor and began fussing with his straps.
"Yeah..." Isaac took a few deep breaths. It had been a long time since he'd walked so far, and it didn't help that he'd decided to bring more gear than he used to in high-school. Lying next to his sack was a black Browning bolt action, much like the one he remembered James' Dad using. It was his first time hunting with it, and he figured now was as good a time as ever to try it out a new gun. "Makes you think."
"What do ya mean?" James looked up confused, as if Isaac had said something drunkenly belligerent.
"Well it makes you think. Makes you wonder whether you and I are predictable."
"Now what the hell does that mean?" James' confusion now turned into concern and Isaac questioned whether he was rambling off the whiskey.
"Well, I mean...you know a deer's got a certain nature-- makes sense if we do too. Makes you wonder if we make decisions at all, or whether it's just a helluva lot of chemical reactions in your brain." Isaac sat down next to James to tend to his own harness.
"The fuck they teaching you in Ann Arbor, man? What makes sense to me is that I CHOOSE my own fate. Stop being a cynical piece of shit." James was rifling through his bag.
"Just makes you think...that's all..." Isaac shifted uneasily in the dead leaves.
"You know what else makes you think?" James tossed Isaac the half-finished whiskey bottle. Isaac smiled and allowed the golden liquid to swirl down his throat, burning as it went.
Isaac swayed lazily with the wind in his tree stand. The fall breeze filled his nostrils and brought back memories of a time when all his friends weren't coworkers. Shelly had always been smarter than he, and when they'd started dating at the beginning of senior year of high school, he'd always copied her work --not because he had to, but because it was senior year and AP Statistics was a class he didn't give two shits about. Shelly seemed to enjoy tutoring him anyway, so in his mind the whole situation was a win-win. That's why it was so mind blowing when he had made it into The University of Michigan and she didn't. The acceptance letter had felt so undeserved when it'd arrived to him first and when another never came to her, Isaac almost felt like burning it. Why? He'd asked himself over and over. Whenever the topic came up in conversation Shelly had always shied away and had told him how happy she was for him. Her sweet smile and auburn hair hid her sadness. Hid the fact that her dream had been crushed by a person she'd never meet. But she was happy now. Miami had treated her well. Isaac often wondered what she was up to, and whether he'd made the right decision not to follow her.
"HEY, DICKHEAD, CATCH!"
Above Isaac a glass bottle erupted against the tree raining down shards that glittered in the afternoon sun. He must've passed out. James was rocking perilously in his stand, as if testing the limits of the aluminum.
"SORRY, MAN! MY BAD! BAD THROW! HERE LET ME TOSSsyyyoOU SOMETHING ELSE"
"No really! It's O-" This time missing wide, a flashlight flew past Isaac on his right. "You ready to leave, man? It's, like, four already!" That's when Isaac noticed the bush shake. Isaac blinked his eyes a few times to make sure it wasn't a mistake. Sure enough, on the outer edge of the Death Pit something was shaking the thick foliage.
"ALREADY FOUR O'CLOCK? BUT WE HAVEN'T CAUGHT ANYTHING!"
Isaac was no longer listening. He propped his new rifle up to his shoulder. Slowly, he twisted his fingers adjusting the iron sight. The metal nob tightened as Isaac drunkenly estimated the depth. Lifting his thumb, he delicately pushed the safety off.
"WHERE ARE ALL THE DEER?!" James continued to rant as Isaac pulled the trigger.
"AAAAAHHHHHHH" The deafening scream stiffened James' drunken body into silence. Wide-eyed the pair looked at each other, suddenly completely sober. The silence hung in the air like the stench of a butcher's shop. Finally, climbing sticks broke the silence. Without speaking both hunters hastily scrambled down their trees landing on the auburn leaves of the M-72 forest. Leaves sprayed to either side as each of them plowed his way toward the bush.
"It's Charles Hamilton," whispered James as he spread the branches of the bush. Underneath all the brush lay an unmoving old man, sprawled out over the leaves as if on display, his tan khakis and marbled green sweater speckled with his own blood. "It's Charles Hamilton," James whispered again, in disbelief.
"Well, you don't think...I mean, he's not..." Isaac tripped his words and suddenly a deep hangover seeped into his skull.
"Straight through the chest, Isaac. You got him straight through the chest, and he's not breathing."
"Well...James, what do we do! What do I do!?" Isaac sank to his knees and sobbed into muddied his camouflage."Ohh, man...What's going to happen to me? What, what.... I could get put away...for...ohh, man" Somewhere in the past ten minutes the sun had faded and rain pitter-pattered onto the thousands of dead leaves.
"Look, Isaac! Get ahold of yourself." James frantically gripped Isaac at the shoulders with his massive hands. "Look, I mean no one really has to know about this. Let's just walk out of here like nothing happened."
"H-Hi... Come on! His brother comes out here all the time. When Charles d-doesn't show up it won't take long. It...it won't take long. They'll find him." Isaac's hangover was now washed about by a light headedness. Why did they drink? Why did they even hunt in these stupid woods?
"Shovels. We need to get shovels."
"Wh-wh-what?" Isaac wondered what Charles's wife was doing, probably making dinner, probably waiting for him to come home right now. And his kids, oh his kids, his kids probably had kids. Grandkids who would never see Charles again. The rain was intensifying, filling the once silent forest. "No, I... I got to turn myself in."
"You don't mean that. Do you even know what that means? It means good luck getting a job, good luck finding a wife, and most of all, it means good luck in prison. You don't really have a choice here man."
"I--" With every word he spoke Isaac felt like he was pressing against a brick wall.
"Look, you may not care much about that college degree of yours, but I know that if I had a nice job that I worked hard for four years for... well I sure as hell wouldn't give that up. Look, you're in a really bad spot. You really are. But you have to weigh both sides. Shit happens; now clean up after your own shit."
Isaac stared into Charles's lifeless eyes. All this time they had been hunting on this man's property and this is how they paid him.
"Get up, Isaac! Tarp him up and carry him out of here. I said we need to get shovels." The grey clouds finally choked the last of the light from the sky as James unrolled the long blue tarp.
"We're here," James announced as he slid out of the driver seat. James went around back to the bed of the truck, and Isaac could hear him sliding out the two shovels. Isaac popped open his door and allowed himself to fall out the door of the vehicle. The rain had stopped, and the setting sun cast an orange glow on the long, desolate, back road. The surrounding forest glowed just as bright with its amber leaves. The place felt so familiar, yet it was definitely not M-72. Then Isaac recognized the maple trees. Slowly he slid down the side of the blue truck, leaving a wet smear of mud as he sank to the ground. Then a shovel clanged onto the ground next to him.
"Let's get this over with," James stated with a shovel over his shoulder.
Slowly, they waded through maple leaves, looking for a suitable place to start digging. Finally James stopped and dropped Mr. Hamilton into an airy bed of leaves. Together they took their shovels and pushed them into the ground. Isaac looked back at the road and tried to picture his Dad driving. He imagined the silence of the night, the maple leaves scattered up and down the pavement. And then... Isaac shuddered. And then headlights, the headlights of something you have no control over, barreling into your life.
The dirt began to fill the hole, just as it had for his father, except this time it was covering his own mistake. Every choice he'd made, every choice his friends had made, had simply led him back here, back to this god-damned maple forest. Isaac felt like the deer he'd tracked wandering the forest. Just wandering the forest until fate got bored with it. Isaac's tears scattered across the dirt. He cried for Charles, he cried for himself, but most of all, he cried for his Dad.