“Thomas, I hear them.”
Thomas lifted his head. He heard them now, still far off – not as far away as he wished they would be. Sitting on the edge of his bed, he began to lace up his boots. Each movement was deliberate, threading the eyelets with an exactingly swift grace. He focused on his breath. He let it sit in his chest, distant and heavy, passing through his mouth after centuries of loneliness within him.
Focus on your breath. The rest will follow.
He opened up his closet. His father’s rifle was the only thing in there, and the only thing he would need now. He stared at it a moment – cold, cruel, and somehow elegant despite both of those things. Maybe because of them. Thomas knew he shouldn’t be wasting time. He dutifully picked up the weapon, checked it once to be sure the action wasn’t jammed, and headed downstairs.
Stacy was writing at the table, her eyes fixed on the page before her. She had prepared his jacket with some snacks and some ammo, and left it hanging by the door. Thomas could tell she was nervous, the way she affectedly pushed her long brown bangs out of her eyes, purposefully obscuring him from her view and leaving her hand on her forehead to emphasize her concentration. They had heard the calls twice before, and she had reacted similarly both of those times.
I’m sorry Stacy.
Trying to talk to her at this point wouldn’t be helpful for her, so Thomas quietly grabbed his jacket, holding the pockets so the ammunition inside didn’t intrude too far into her soft world as it tink tinked around. His pack glided effortlessly onto his back, and without a word, he opened the door and faded into the cold darkness.
Thomas adjusted his headlamp and walked out towards the edge of the clearing. He looked back once, hoping that his younger sister wouldn’t worry too much while he was out. When their father had died, Thomas had difficulty accepting the idea that the ranch now belonged to Stacy and him. It wasn’t as difficult as watching his father die a glacially slow, biblically painful death from stomach cancer — he still remembered standing on the edge of his father’s open grave, watching over him like one of those granite death-angels that littered the local cemetery — but nevertheless, it was hard. They had buried him two months after Thomas’ seventeenth birthday. He made a promise then and he fully intended to keep it.
His nightmare reverie was interrupted by a long, piercing cry. Somewhere to his left, a chorus of howls answered back.
Keep going. That’s all you have to do.
Thomas thought about Stacy; about the only family he had left. He thought about the last conversation he had with his father and he let that memory take hold as he continued walking.
The hospital bed. Holding his hand while the morphine dripped into his IV. Staring out the window so the nurses wouldn’t see me crying. He looked so thin – he looked so tired. “Tom.” I turned back to look at him. “What’s the matter? You’d think I was already dead, the way you keep crying.” We both laughed. He squeezed my hand while I wiped my eyes. “Look at me.”
Hearing another call and response, Thomas turned off his headlamp, not that it was much help to begin with. Putting his back against a tree, he settled in, laying his rifle in his lap. There was a murderous calm about the woods tonight – Thomas’ nervousness dripped down his throat with the strong scent of evergreen hanging in the air.
There was a loud crash behind him.
“When things can’t get much worse Tom, they’re going to. Don’t think about that though. Think about what matters; the people you love, the life you have, the future you’re going to see. Think about that, and only that. There isn’t any room for shadows in a world of light Tom. I want you to take care of Stace, seeing as I won’t be able to much longer. I need you to fight like hell. I need you to be invincible for her – can you do that?”
“Jesus Tom! What the –“
Thomas quietly removed his blood-soaked coat, revealing a shirt that had been torn and shredded along his ribcage. Each movement was labored; his breath came slowly. Stacy stood up from the table; she had probably slept there he thought. She was looking for the rifle. She wasn’t going to see it.
He brought his eyes up to hers. The sun fell over his face, cracked and caked with dirt and dried blood. He knew that underneath the corporeal mortar on his face, he would carry some scars of last night for the rest of his life.
“I’m fine. I’m really fine now.”