Read More: A brief interview with Randy Shelley
It pleased Mary when she saw where the bullet entered, straight through the spine like she’d been taught. The deer hadn’t struggled, not for long anyway. Mary found him first, a short blood trail leading her to a brush pile by the Pee Dee River. She set her rifle down on the ground and knelt next to him, water trickling over the rocks beside her. She stroked the buck’s course brown hide. Then ran her fingers along its broad rack, untangling the brush and leaves from it. She knew from its heavy-horns that it had to be an older deer, the fibers along its spikes as soft as velvet.
“Hot damn!” her father Wade said, leaning his rifle against a tree. He tracked the bullet hole with his finger and patted Mary on the shoulder. “Ain’t that something. Your first buck is a twelve-point.”
Mary smiled. She would be twelve on her next birthday, so it felt appropriate. Her father removed a hunting knife from his boot holster and cut a small hole beneath the buck’s lungs, releasing enough pressure for one final gasp. As blood began to spill out, he searched for his steel coffee mug to fill it. He passed Mary the mug and she drank the deer’s blood down in heavy gulps, honoring the deer, her mug running over at times onto the thighs of her hunting pants. The warm thickness of the buck’s blood tasted rusty as it coated her teeth and stomach lining. It made her feel closer to the animal, as if she belonged to part of something bigger.
Mary watched as the sky paled to the east, the horizon filling with clouds. She felt the western sun on her back, the day growing shorter as its heavy glow now weakened. Her senses sharpened, merging into one, the wind stirring around she and her father. From the corner of her eye, Mary saw a flicker of movement, her head perking up to pin down the distant scraping of bark. She knew she was downwind of some kind of threat and suddenly felt the urge to pee.
“You should have been a boy,” her father said to her as they sat along the banks of the river, the air growing cooler and thinner than it had been. And she agreed, things would have been easier if she were a boy. Which is why she still wore her hair like one, short and brown, her clothes too— baggy jeans and t-shirts with Chuck Taylor sneakers. Her name was the only part of her that felt feminine. But it made her uncomfortable when her father spoke to her that way.
Wade painted streaks of deer blood across Mary’s cheeks. She sat there on her boot heels not saying anything, her eyes closed as his fingers touched her face. She knew this was a moment only boys got with their fathers, one of those rites of passage into manhood, and she wondered if her father could ever love her as much as he would love a son, and suddenly she felt very far away from herself.
A year later Mary Thomas had little use for her father’s guns. With him gone now, she swore she’d never hunt or shoot again. She recalled her buck as she sat in the passenger’s seat of Hank Skinner’s teal Silverado, her face pressed against the cold glass of the window, listening as Hank’s fishing rods rattled in the back of the truck bed like the tightly coiled springs of a doorstopper.
“How’d you know how to get into your daddy’s gun safe?” Hank asked.
“10-28-95,” Mary said.
“The last time the Braves won anything. Beat the Indians in six.”
Hank chuckled and removed his black Caterpillar cap to set it on the dashboard, his messy white hair looked as if he’d just woken from a nap. He’d been a pallbearer a month earlier at Wade Thomas’s service and had called Mary’s mother Jesse, what felt like every night since the funeral to check on them. But he never mentioned riding over to Darlington to sell off Wade’s gun collection. Not until he arrived at the house unannounced while Mary’s mother was back at the hospital for her nursing shift.
“I figured you and your mama could use the money,” Hank said. “Wade’s guns ain’t doing anybody any good locked away.”
“You think she’s going to be mad?”
“Your mama never wanted all them guns in the house in the first place. And besides, Johnny Purvis is one of the best gunsmiths in the country. People come from all over to see him. He’ll be fair.”
The word “fair” hung between them for a moment. None of this was fair if you asked Mary. Not her father’s death, not spending her Saturday riding around with an old man selling guns when she could be out running. Hank pushed in the car lighter, holding his hand in front of it as he waited for it to heat up. For a moment, Mary thought Hank was reaching over to take her hand, to squeeze it the way her father had when he dropped her off at school.
The lighter released and Hank took it, rolling the edges of his Winston along the orange brass grooves. He punched it back in place and slid his meaty hand across the top of the steering wheel, the cigarette between two fingers.
“It’s not your mama I’m worried about.” Hank inched his window down, exhaling slowly as if he was thinking hard about something. “Your daddy’d have both our heads if he knew what we were up to.”
The talk between Mary and Hank had always been loose and relaxed, with Wade there to steer things, doting on his daughter’s cross-country times. But now it felt strange being alone with Hank and whenever there was mention of her father, both of them retreated a little into the silence of the morning and the road in front of them with its endless yellow lines. Mary could hear Hank struggling to find the words to comfort her.
The sky looked like rain, the wind raking the firm tops of tall pines along the highway. Snarled saplings lay on their sides from the previous night’s storm. Mary shut her eyes and leaned her head back against the soft upholstery of the head rest, a lowness sinking over her, the black shadows of pines and glitter of white light dashing across her eyelids.
“Your mama tells me you been doing some running.” Hank ashed his cigarette out of the tiny slit of the driver’s window, then took one final drag before stubbing it out in the center console tray.
“We have state coming up. I’m trying to beat my personal record in the three mile.”
Mary had discovered cross-country that fall when she reached middle school. Her father’s sudden death sent her long legs into high gear, with Mary training for hours each day though the wooded trails that looped behind the Thomas’s neighborhood. She enjoyed the time alone, away from her grief, addicted to the lightness that fell over her during long runs, a feeling of euphoria where time seemed to speed up and stand still all at once. She could feel every muscle stretching fully, the rounded curve of her taut calves firming and taking shape, the pain and discomfort of her hard work finally giving way to this out-of-body reward. Mary had never felt more present, her high in perfect rhythm with her heart, her arched feet touching down, pounding the loose rock and rutted earth beneath her.
But when she returned home everything came flooding back and she wasn’t sleeping at night, not much anyway. All she could think about was the shaky sound in her mother’s voice when Hank phoned from the UPS warehouse, the two police officers arriving at the front door to notify them that her father had a massive heart attack and had fallen over a railing from high above the sorting floor. That he didn’t make it.
The interior of Darlington Gun Works was laid out like a jewelry store with glass displays of handguns and knives, the handles of which were carved from the antlers and bones of dead things. Behind the counter were rows of shotguns and rifles, their stocks hidden, their steel barrels pointed toward the ceiling. The floors were lined with red movie theater style carpet. The walls were covered with big game hunting trophies—mule deer, moose, and elk. Mary was drawn to those first, then she moved onto the bucks, mallards, catfish, and large-mouthed bass, and finally to the black and white photos of servicemen in the jungles of Asia which hung crooked over of one of the glass displays.
Johnny Purvis sat on a leather stool behind the counter. He wore a jeweler’s eyepiece over his good eye; the other one masked by a black patch, and on his bald head sat a green beret. There were no real customers, only a few old men sitting at poker machines in a back room. Mary had gotten a bad feeling when Johnny first saw them at the entrance. She lingered for a moment in the doorway, the bell jingling against the handle. Outside the door in the distance, she heard the speedway, racecars practicing, and the distant rev of their engines growing weaker as they circled the far corner of the track.
Mary could see Hank making small talk with Johnny, telling him why they were there and suddenly she felt like one of those sick kids on television. She wasn’t sure why they were there, but knew it wasn’t for sympathy. She’d had all the sympathy she needed and just wanted to get on with her life and back to the running trails behind her house. She pictured herself lacing up her Asics, making sure they were snug around her feet. She could feel her thighs and calves burning, the elastic pressure in her muscles building during one of her steady uphill pushes, her lungs numbing as they filled with dry air, each breath as cold as steel. She pictured herself at a full sprint, scaling the barbed wire fencing, trespassing through one of Mr. Coleman’s cow fields, the steady mechanical jaws of his prized Lincoln Reds chewing grain, watching Mary with those dead, polished eyes, clear and rounded as cue balls.
“Ain’t seen you around in a while, Hank?” Johnny asked with his teeth clenched around a cigar. He pulled out the cigar and examined the gnarled wet end. “You didn’t get lost did you?”
“Why hell, I don’t know. Guess it depends,” Hank said.
“Depends on what?”
“Depends on your definition of lost.” Hank took his cap off and ran his hand over the top of his head, then through the stiff graying shadows of his unshaven face.
“Lost, as in turned around. Like you forgot which way was which,” Johnny said, blowing a cloud of smoke in Hank’s face. Johnny’s raspy voice was firm and calm at the same time, his words like the dull blades of a knife being sharpened. Hank was the edgy one, Mary thought, looking uncomfortable as he hung his coat up and tucked in his red and black flannel shirt, patting his thin hair in place, tucking the uneven parts behind his ears.
Mary climbed a short flight of stairs, rising to her tiptoes to trace the elk’s antlers as she eavesdropped on Hank and Johnny. At first she thought they might be friends, but as the talk between them warmed up, she wondered why Hank would bring her to a place where someone would speak to him as if he were a child. The elk’s horns were much wider and thicker than anything she’d ever felt, the fuzzy fibers rough as a man’s stubble. It reminded her of her twelve-pointer. She pictured her buck strung up by its hind legs in the garage, the skin torn away from its body, only the pink muscles showing, the sound it made as her father separated the buck’s hide, like fabric being ripped.
“Maybe we can put our differences aside for today,” Hank said, lowering his face to examine one of the displays closer.
Johnny walked around from behind the counter. He looked much bigger now standing next to Hank, his arms folded in front of him. As he turned his back toward Mary, she could see the rounded outline of a tin of smokeless tobacco in the back pocket of his blue jeans, the green military patching on his distressed black biker vest that read POW in yellow letters. To Mary, Johnny Purvis appeared capable of most anything, a man who probably built things with his bare hands, who killed animals simply to hang them on walls. A man who was proud of those blinkless black and white moments in combat, someone who’d long ago checked himself in the mirror, taken a deep breath, and pounded his gloves together before stepping into the ring.
“I got plenty of customers, Hank. Plenty that don’t owe me four grand,” Johnny said.
“I’m good for it. Let’s square that later. My business today is for the youngin’ over there.”
Mary had felt invisible until Hank pointed her out. She watched them from across the store, Johnny’s cigar smoke wreathing around them, Hank looking foolish and submissive, at the mercy of something Mary didn’t understand.
Johnny went back to his stool, opening a newspaper, shaking out the stiff creases. Mary and Hank returned to the truck and began toting Wade’s collection inside, leaning the shotguns and rifles against a wall near Johnny first. Then, they unloaded the pistols from a duffle bag, one at a time on the counter, Mary carefully unwrapping kitchen rags from around each one and laying them out for Johnny to inventory. There were twenty-two in all.
Johnny didn’t speak as he studied the guns, only wrote with a little golf pencil in his notepad. When he finished, he punched some numbers into a square calculator and penciled a figure onto a blank sheet. He pushed the paper face down across the counter, his large hand collapsing over Hank’s as he reached for it.
“My business is with her,” Johnny said.
Hank pulled away. Mary could see his round face turning red. She took the slip of paper and opened it, then put it away in the pocket of her black down vest. She paced in front of the counter, considering the figure like a potential buyer on a car lot, recalling each gun. Mary watched her father clean his guns in the garage, the care he took with each one. She loved the sound of the magazine being ejected, followed by the emptying of the chamber, the steel bolt releasing each live round into his palm. She thought about the spent shell casing of her rifle, how it kicked out from the ejection port, falling to her feet as she brought the buck down. The heat of the empty casing meeting the cold air, steam rising off it as she tried to pick it up from the ground. How it had burned her hand, the high-pitched ping it made as she dropped it.
She pictured her father scrubbing each gun barrel with his bore brush, the greasy build-up sticking to its wiry bristles. Mary picked up one of Wade’s pistols, a snub-nosed .38. She held it in front of her, opening the cylinder to look inside, then spinning it, seeing there was one a hot round still in there, one she and Hank had missed before arriving at Johnny’s shop. She thought about how happy it made her father to care for something, thought about him oiling each barrel before wiping away the dust and fingerprints with an old t-shirt.
“I’m going to keep this one,” Mary said. “Subtract it from the $3,500.”
“Fine choice,” Hank said.
Mary thought for a moment about Hank’s debt. As she looked him in the eye, she felt oddly protective of him and didn’t know why. Seeing him get pushed around like a runt made her want to pull the trigger, to feel that release of power and control she felt when running. She closed the cylinder of the .38, clicking it into place and set in on the glass top.
“And put half toward what Hank owes.”
Hank protested, but Mary had heard enough. She wasn’t an impulsive girl, but knew that her father would’ve done the same thing.
“You can make the check out to my mama. Jesse Thomas,” she said.
Hank made a pit stop at Krispy Kreme on the way home. Mary sat in the truck, feeling the weight of her father’s .38 in her palm. She watched customers come and go from the store, pretending that she was waiting for someone to provoke her.
“I got glazed,” he said, offering her the white paper bag of doughnuts as he returned. He placed his black coffee in the cup holder, taking the plastic lid off to let it cool. “I swear. I don’t believe they know how damn hot the coffee gets under here.” He pulled a brown doughnut from the bag and licked icing from his thumb. “Your daddy never would have done that for me.”
“Done what?” Mary took a bite of her doughnut, licking the edges of her lips, which felt dry and cracked from running.
“Don’t take a shit and expect me to clean it up.” Hank’s heavy laugh shook the cab of the truck. “That’s what Wade always said.” He slurped his coffee, spilling a little on his chin. He let it stay there for a moment, before cleaning it off with his wide tongue.
“What was the money for?” Mary asked.
Hank hesitated, reluctant to share his poor luck. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that,” he said. “I lost a little something on a ballgame. That’s all.” Hank put the Silverado in gear and drove away. “Where to now?”
As they turned down Pocket Road toward Mary’s house, there was a drizzle of rain, just enough for Hank to use the delay on the wipers, the glass filling up with blurry drops before the blades could clear it. Mary stared off into the brown fields along the road. From the corner of her eye she saw movement rising in the high grass of a roadside ditch and she reached for the dash, trying to stop the truck with her scream. “Deer!”
Hank slammed on the brakes but it was too late. Mary heard a heavy, dull thump followed by the truck’s tires skidding from pavement to wet grass. “You okay?” Hank asked. Mary said that she was. “Wait here,” Hank said, hopping from the truck. She watched him look under the car, his head disappearing then bouncing back up. He covered his mouth with his right hand and cupped it there, squeezing his jaws between his fingers as he looked toward the highway’s edge. Mary opened the passenger door, the ajar signal beeping.
“Must’ve run off,” Hank said.
He seemed to have given up quick on whatever it was he’d run over and got back in the truck. But Mary couldn’t. She studied the lines on the road, looking for a blood trail, her palm flat against the truck’s warm hood. She saw a small pool of dark blood underneath the truck that could’ve been oil. She heard rough breathing coming from a grassy ditch along the road that sounded like a snore. Mary followed the grunting. As it grew louder, she moved quicker, seeing drops of blood leading into the ditch. […]
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Randy Shelley’s work has appeared in American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Fiction Southeast, and Kestrel. His story collection El Caminowas a finalist for the 2018 C. Michael Curtis Book Prize. He holds an MFA from Hollins University and lives in South Carolina, where he is at work on a novel.
Read More: A brief interview with Randy Shelley