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THE TRAIL dead-ended at a clearing, the tall meadow grass gone autumn yellow and wet with early-morning dew. They kept to the perimeter, moving clockwise to reach the deer stand set back among a cluster of poplar trees on the far side. A breeze blew at a slight angle across their backs as they approached it. With the ease of long experience, Carl calculated how this would affect his aim.
With the stand close ahead, Kevin’s footsteps sped up even as Carl’s faltered. The old man’s knees ached. Everything ached in the mornings since Ruthie’s passing. He slowed, then stopped, breathing deeply to calm the too-rapid thumping of his heart. Let the boy go on ahead, he thought. Just let him go.
His body felt suddenly heavy, the rifle heavier. His joints protested as he sank slowly to one knee and unslung the cold weight from his back. Thirty feet ahead, unnoticing in his eagerness, Kevin set one foot and both hands to the deer stand’s ladder. He looks like Walter, Carl thought. How is it I never noticed how much he looks like Walter?
In the quiet of the clearing, the rifle fire rang out unnaturally loud. Blood bloomed abruptly on Kevin’s left hand. Where a heartbeat before there had been five fingers, now there were three. Something—shock?—kept the boy still, frozen in place until the last fading echo of the shot. Then Kevin screamed, his arms flailed, and he went tumbling backward off the ladder.
Carl let the Springfield drop onto the wet grass. Fifty years since he’d fired at a living human being and still it felt the same: Powerful. Simple. Wrong.
He unbuckled his belt as he ran, moving with a speed his body hadn’t managed in fifteen years. Kevin lay at the foot of the ladder like an overturned turtle, thrashing and gasping, his pack still fastened on his back.
“Get down,” he cried out as Carl knelt beside him. “The Knothole Man’s shooting at us. Get down, Grandpa!” His whole right hand clutched the maimed left, blood seeping between his fingers.
Carl stroked the boy’s hair, fair like Walter’s but with Ruthie’s curls. “It’s all right,” he said. “It’s all right now, shhhh. Shooting’s over.”
Half a century ago he’d said the same words to Private First Class Alvin Morris at Outpost Harry, a godforsaken barren hill where the casualties ran so high that a different company had to be set to defend it each night. Morris had been past hearing him, though, sitting splay-legged against a bunker with three bayonet wounds in his chest and somebody else’s boot drooping from his slack hands. The somebody’s foot was still in it, but there was too much blood to say if its owner had been American, Korean, or Chinese. Once a man got reduced to body parts, Carl figured, nationality didn’t much matter.
From what felt like a great distance, the old man watched his hands do their work. Two hard tugs freed the leather belt from its loops. A swift circle wrapped it once around Kevin’s forearm. One brutal yank tightened it down to pinch the boy’s flesh.
Kevin yelped. “Jesus! Jesus God, you’re killing me—”
His grandfather gave the belt a steady pull until the bleeding stopped. “You’re not dying, boy. Hush now. Hold this end here, keep it tight.”
Kevin’s breathing was harsh, his eyes startled, but he took hold of the belt with his right hand. Carl patted his shoulder. Such a good boy.
“Somebody shot me.” His voice was filled with pain and indignation. “Grandpa, somebody shot me.”
“Shot isn’t killed,” Carl said. “Hush now, you’ll be fine. They’re going to bury you when you’re an old coot like me.”
The boy stared up at him. Carl pulled one of the red bandanas out of his pocket and folded it once, twice, three times until he had a pad of cloth; this he pressed hard against the wound, ignoring Kevin’s whimper. The other bandana he wrapped around the hand to hold the first in place.
“All right,” he said after a time. “Let’s ease up on that belt and see how much bleeding we got.”
Kevin obeyed, and in that dumb, faithful obedience Carl saw a clear path to a lie. This wasn’t a bright boy. He would believe in Knothole Man, or in an old man’s foolish accident. Hell, he believed glory stories from his father, who had never seen a trench full of dead men with the trench-rats gnawing on their bodies, or watched men turned into meat by mortar shells. He’d believe anything.
Carl’s lips opened on the lie, then closed again with the words unspoken. He eased an arm under Kevin’s shoulders and helped him sit up long enough to remove the pack, which was then pressed into service as a pillow.
“You rest a little,” he said, stroking the boy’s hair again. “You rest a minute and then we’ll get you on back home.”
Jaye Lawrence, 44, is director of Web communications at Carleton College in Northfield. A 2005 graduate of Augsburg College, she won the college’s John Engman Writing Prize for Fiction for her story “Fallen Idols,” which later appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. Other published stories include “All the Blue-Haired Ladies” (Great River Review, Spring/Summer 2004); and “Kissing Frogs” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 2004), which was a shortlist selection for the James Tiptree Jr. Award. Lawrence lives in Eagan with her husband, Theo Durbin, and teenage daughters Kristen and Teagan. She blogs about her writing at http://wordswoman.livejournal.com.
Lawrence says her own grandparents’ wartime marriage “bears some resemblance to that of Carl and his wife in the story. As a child I was fascinated to learn that Grandma had been married before, to Grandpa’s older brother who’d been killed in the war. I always wondered if she married him because of his connection to the other man she’d loved.”
THE 2007 TAMARACK
Minnesota Monthly will begin accepting entries for next year’s Tamarack Award competition on March 1. Rules and submission guidelines will be available soon at www.minnesotamonthly.com.