Point and Shoot
Third Place Short Story Contest Winner
Without looking Matt knows the deer is dead. The involuntary jerking muscles, the settling down of the heavy chest, as if the earth gives way slightly, he knows from the sound. He even knows she's down on her right side, steaming hole, empty stare. He savors the silence after the blast's echoing through the woods, the heavy thud on the ground. He stands without moving, then a self-conscious moment makes him clear his throat, shift his weight, one leg to the other; the unwanted presence of his brother Ray hovers nearby, watching.
Matt lowers his rifle, then turns around to Ray's son Kevin. The blaze orange vest is tight against Kevin's chest; 10 years old and already bigger than Matt was at 12. Kevin holds his gun exactly as Matt showed him, barrel down, safety on. He is staring at the deer, his foot pushes the snow and slick dead leaves back and forth.
"You okay, Kev?" Matt asks.
"Why wouldn't I be?" he says, squeezing his eyes into slits.
Matt's father walked out on his family the fall Matt was 8 and his brother Ray was 17. In November that year, Ray took Matt hunting, trying maybe to be like dad. Matt found out how easy it was to die. The crack of a rifle and a huge buck lay dead only a few yards away. Trudging through the snow towards Ray with his head down, Matt heard Ray call in a sing-songy voice, 'How's it feel to be a deer, Matty' looking up, he'd seen Ray's cheek pressed against the rifle's stock. 'Run!' Ray yelled, laughing as Matt tumbled backwards, scrambling in the snow.
"No reason," Matt says to Kevin. "What a beaut." They look down at the deer, her hide the color of coffee-milk. "Here comes the best part, pretty gross, you might not want to watch," Matt says. Kevin kicks his feet in the snow again but doesn't look away. Matt pulls out his knife and slowly slices her open, below the long neck, breast bone to prissy tail. Blood and steam pour out, warming his hands and face. The smell is sweet, coppery. He scoops the big stuff easily, scraping and cutting the ropey insides like cleaning pumpkin on Halloween.
"So," Matt says, using snow like soap to wash his hands, then rubbing them on the bandana handkerchief from his pocket. "I did my part. Now you haul her out." Kevin looks surprised, then laughs when it's a joke. Kevin carefully sets his rifle on the ground and runs for the wooden toboggan they dragged across the fields. Matt circles the doe's hooves with nylon rope and ties her legs together. There's a thistle pressed into the softness between the hooves. He pulls it out and rolls it between sticky fingers. A sharp pain, the pin-prick of blood. Feels good.
"You take that end," Matt says pointing to her head. "Ready on three." Together they heave the deer onto the sled. Kevin's cap falls behind him and Matt picks it up, brushing off the dirty snow. It's Ray's old hunting cap. Handing it to Kevin he wants instead to toss it high over his head, to the mocking ghost at the edge of the woods.
It is a silent 20 minute trudge through the snow. Matt looks back from time to time.
He kept looking back frantically, running from the woods. The sound of his breath as loud in his head as the shots behind him. Ray shooting again and again. He could feel the heat of the bullets. Each time he tripped, fell and rose again, he looked for the wound, bleeding flesh and shattered bones, then ran again. 'You tell and you die,' Ray said when he came home. Late in the night, buried beneath his covers, Matt waited for Ray to come into his room. His door swung open. Matt sat up, blinded by the flashlight in his eyes, and pushed himself back against the wall. 'You didn't tell. You don't die. What's a matter kid, can't ya take a joke?'
At the farm they hoist the doe onto a hook in the doorway of the shed. Kevin stands back and looks up at her, hands on hips, feet spread. "Her eyes are so black."
A puddle of blood mixes with the mud and snow beneath the deer.
Matt remembers a Sunday morning years ago when Father McKinnon pointed to a poster-size photo propped spectacularly against the altar cross and told of a missionary, who alone and hopeless heard a voice command him take a picture. Obediently he'd snapped it right then of the frozen ground and when it was developed, the mud and snow had patterned itself into the exact likeness of the Madonna, thereby restoring the missionary's faith. 'Only the pure of heart shall see Her,' Father proclaimed. Sitting beside Ray in the pew, Matt felt Ray's elbow in his ribs and heard him whisper, 'It's amazing. I see her. Can you?' Afraid to admit to his black heart, Matt nodded quickly, 'yes,' squinting desperately at the muddy snow.
"You guys coming in?" Anna calls. She is holding a bunch of orange and yellow mums in her hand. Her brown hair is pulled back and she has on an old plaid wool shirt rolled up at the sleeves. It's Ray's. She was his wife.
"You should have seen it, Mom. He got her easy."
"You know, Kevin, 'He' has a name," she says. Matt reaches to squeeze her hand.
"I see you gave him the gun," she says, sliding her hand away from his.
"Yes, I did," Matt answers, taking her hand again. Anna pulls her hand away and pushes open the screen door. She takes the flowers to the sink and begins arranging them roughly, in a crystal vase.
Three years ago, Ray died in his sleep. Anna woke up that Saturday morning, lying like spoons with a dead body. The valve they'd stuck in his heart 10 years earlier just snapped shut and never opened again. She says she'll never get over it.
Kevin and Matt pile their boots by the door, hang the vests and jackets on the wooden pegs, and stuff their jeans and shirts into the wicker hamper. Then they come into the big farm kitchen. Anna reaches for the clear glass percolator.
"Want some?" she asks, lifting the coffee pot, looking at Matt.
"Looks pretty mean," he answers.
"No meaner than you," she says back. He comes up to her and rests his hand on her cheek. He can feel the clenching of her jaw beneath the skin. They are exactly the same height. He loves her tallness.
"I didn't give him bullets," Matt says.
"I wish you would have told me that earlier."
"I'm sorry," he says, pulling her closer.
"Phew, wash up Matt, for Christ sake, you've got deer all over you," she says. She forgives.
Matt goes to shower. In the hallway he straightens a tilted frame. It used to hold a wedding picture of Ray and Anna smiling through the rear window of their car. Matt hated it when Anna married Ray. He was the one who loved her. He was 15 and she was 18. How could she want Ray? Ray was 24 and mean. It's now a photo of Anna alone, flinging her frilly garter into the air, arms outstretched, mouth open. Matt caught the garter that day. He slept with it after the wedding, some nights pulling it from under his pillow, rubbing the lace and satin against himself, listening to Anna inside his head, begging him to take her.
This fall when he moved out to Ray's farm, one night with Anna in his arms, he told her the story. Without a word she changed the photos in the hall. He loves that she does that kind of thing all the time, no big deal, just makes things right.
The enormity of Anna's grief surprised Matt when Ray died. When he tries to tell her what Ray was really like she says she doesn't want to hear it, says she loved Ray and he should give it up. Maybe he should. She's his now. They'll marry soon, no garter, no guy waiting in the wings.
Matt comes down from the shower; Anna grabs him around the neck and sniffs. "That's better, much much better," and she kisses him. Then she calls to Kevin. "Dinner, Kev."
Kevin and Matt grab the bowls, scraping the chicken and biscuits and corn onto their plates. Anna says grace while they eat like she's appalled at them.
"Pass the gravy," Matt says and when Kevin reaches for it without looking, it slips from his hand. The gravy boat hits Matt's foot and clatters onto the blue linoleum, splashing gravy on the white table-cloth and floor. Anna jumps up, moving dishes, sopping up gravy with paper towels. Matt leans down and picks up the sticky boat. There's a tiny chip off the handle but otherwise it's fine.
"Ta da!" Matt says holding it high. Suddenly he feels Ray trying to knock it from his hand; he grips it tighter, using both hands to slowly lower it to the table.
"Are you all right?" Anna asks.
"Did Ray ever tell you about these dishes?" he says. Kevin looks up, his eyes wider than when they bagged the deer.
"No, he didn't," Anna says, slowly, tightening her eyes. Matt ignores her. "What about my dad?" Kevin asks loudly.
"Well, after our dad left us, we never heard from him until he sent back a big box of dishes. Ray hauled it into Mom's room cause she was sick in bed, and she told me to open it. I did. I brought each piece to her and she unwrapped and looked at each one slowly, like maybe they had a message written on them but they only had these bumpy flowers around the edge." Matt rubs his fingers along the yellow daisies. "Suddenly, Ray yells, 'Heads up Matt' and throws this gravy boat across the room. I grab it but fall off the bed and land on top of it. Mom yells at Ray, so I roll over and hold it up in the air, it's safe, but my hands are shaking so much that I drop it again." Matt looks at the gravy boat in his hands. "Didn't even break that time, but by then, so what. I'm already starting to cry. Ray did that kind of shit to me all the time. Thought it was funny."
Kevin pushes away from the table, "Yeah, well maybe it was!" he says and runs out of the kitchen. Anna stands up, takes the gravy boat from Matt's hand and walks towards the sink.
"Nice story," she says. Then she stops and turns. "Heads up Matty" she calls softly tossing the gravy boat. Matt misses. It shatters at his feet.
Matt goes outside and wanders around. He ends up standing in front of the dead deer, looking at the ground beneath it.
'Take a picture.' Ray's mocking voice dares him. Ray's face materializes in the mud and the blood. He moves to swirl the ground with his boot, but it's not Ray's alone, it's Anna's too. Matt pummels the deer's side with his fists. It swings on the hook like it's come to life, and he smashes it over and over, until he's exhausted, hunching forward, hands on his knees swearing and sobbing while he catches his breath.
"In the beginning I thought it was sweet," he hears Anna behind him and turns, "I thought the way you watched me, the way you followed Ray and me, accidentally showing up where we were, that you were in love with me." She pokes her index fingers into her chest, as if he might be confused about who she means. "Then somewhere along the line I realized it wasn't me you were after, it was Ray." Anna jerks her thumb sideways.
Ray's right there. Standing next to her. "I never knew what to do about it. Ray didn't really understand; I figured someday you guys would work it out. But he died, so you couldn't. I don't know what you can do now, but I can tell you one thing, I will not let you take Ray away from me. Like it or not, Kevin and I, we come with him."
After a few moments Matt walks over to her and presses his face into the wool of Ray's old shirt, breathing in her sweet flowery smell. She holds him for a while, a long while, then says, "Phew Matt, deer all over you, again."
When they come back Kevin is on the living room floor, a tan shoe-box is next to him and he has a spread of photos on the carpet.
"Hey, Kevin," Matt says softly, though he just wants to lie on the couch and sleep. Kevin looks up at Matt standing above him but he doesn't answer. Matt squats down alongside him. "I'm sorry," Matt says, "I am. I don't mean to bad-mouth your dad." The photo in Kevin's hand is of Ray and Kevin. Kevin's head is pressed against Ray's blue work-shirt. Ray is looking down at the top of Kevin's head. "So tell me about this picture," Matt says.
Kevin looks at Matt, and away. He doesn't say anything for a long time and when Matt thinks he won't, he begins, "I used to sit on dad's lap and press my head against his chest and listen to the clicks in his heart." Kevin turns the photo right side up upside down, as he talks. "The valve in his heart clicked from the blood moving through it. He would open and close his mouth and the click sound would be louder and softer like his heart was singing a song. Mom took the picture." Kevin puts it down, then scoops them together like a deck of cards.
"Speaking of pictures," Anna says. "We need one of you two, with your deer." Kevin looks at her; he gets up.
They walk across the yard to the shed. "Come on, stand in front of it," Anna says. She fiddles with the camera, checks the light, adjusts the lens.
"Just point and shoot, Mom, like the ad." They stand stiffly, side by side, Kevin's arm touches Matt's.
"Wait a minute," Matt says. "Anna, you come here," he points to where he stands, then taking the camera as he passes her, goes over and pulls a log off the wood-pile. He tips the log on end and sets the camera on it. Then he twists a knob by the camera's shutter. He dashes back with the high, whirring sound, and squeezes between Kevin and Anna. Facing forward, he sees Ray hunkered down behind the camera, grinning, squeezing the shutter, taking the picture. Matt smiles. Developed, Ray won't be standing with them.