Rain pelts the ground, driving river streaks down my face and neck and chills my bones; my thin wool jacket soaks through. I should hurry home, but my feet stay leaden on the mountain road—another couple of miles to go.
The roadside abounds with fat huckleberries, and I toss a handful in my mouth. The huckleberry’s sweet tang puckers my lips, and my mouth salivates for more.
Sitka Spruce, along with wide cedars, surround me and shoot up to the sky, similar to what I imagine God’s pinky would look like, though Preacher Gibbons would shake a finger at me for such a thought like he does when I ask too many “inappropriate” questions at Sunday School.
What he doesn’t know is that I don’t go there to learn about God. I go to learn how to defeat the devil that lives inside my daddy’s head.
When Preacher Gibbons speaks of Hell and the pain and suffering one will endure for breaking God’s rules, I know I’m already there, though I don’t know what rules I broke. Daddy’s wrongs must be enough for us all, which are too many to count, multiplying daily.
I scrape mud from the soles of my boots on a pile of gravel, but it’s of no use, and I continue to crunch and stick my way up the road, the mud cementing my steps further into the earth.
Nana didn’t want me to head up tonight. She said she ran into Daddy earlier when he was down selling moonshine back behind Mr. Tuller’s place, the one grocery in town, and he looked out of sorts.
His face red and his temper high with Tuller, clenching and unclenching his fists. She didn’t stop to visit, pushed on home, locked the door, and closed the curtains in case he felt like stopping by.
I didn’t blame her when she told me. Even I have the mind to hide now and then. I knew she wanted to protect me, but I couldn’t leave Ma up there all alone, not with him.
Things weren’t always this way. No, a couple years back, when we were happy, or at least as happy as any other family I’d seen in my fourteen years of life, we’d hike into the mountains, up above our home, loaded down with packs.
We’d stay in the wilderness for a few days and camp by an unknown glacier lake and fish. In the morning, we’d have a pancake flipping contest. I usually won. Points were given for creativity, best flip, and the ultimate—consumption of what was made.
One time I found a black beetle in the dirt by my foot and threw it on top of my pancake and ate it—the beetle a melted black mass. Ma scrunched her face, gagging at the sight of me eating cooked beetle. Daddy just laughed, slapping his knee, and told Ma that bugs were full of beneficial protein. Daddy used to be funny like that.
I pick a pebble off the ground and throw it at a squirrel that sits on a fallen cedar and miss by half an inch. It’s quick to scurry up a tree and disappear. Trees around here are big.
My hemlock, a few feet into the woods at the back of our house, is huge and forks at the middle and grows outward then upward, probably a hundred feet high, not unusual, like God made a throne for himself covered in green moss.
One night, when Ma ran out the back door into the woods to hide, I followed her. Daddy was close on my heels, so I shimmied up a tree, up and up, until I found its fork and sat cocooned in moss and branches, high enough to see but not be seen.
Daddy passed underneath, hollering and stumbling into Sitka Spruce and cedar, even the hemlock I sat in. He vomited at the base of my tree, about-faced, and headed home for more moonshine.
Later, I found him snoring on the couch while Ma cleaned the kitchen. She polished and shined until her hands turned the color of a ruby-throated hummingbird’s chest, bright red.
She shooed me upstairs to bed, and I let her, too tired to help, though I knew she’d keep on until the wee hours of the night. Preacher Gibbons always said at Sunday service, “God will shoulder what we can’t, but we got to know when to let go and let him do his work.”
Well, Ma didn’t know when to let go, that was for sure. Maybe that’s why God didn’t visit our home, and only the devil came.
Yesterday, I tried to talk to Ma about a bad feeling that whittled its way into my gut, something I couldn’t shake, but she hushed me, handing me the skimpy brown lunch bag, and told me to get on down the mountain to school before Daddy woke.
It didn’t matter what I said. None of my words dislodged her thoughts of Daddy changing for the good someday. That’s when I knew she was stuck, and the finality of it burned in her eyes like she looked at the sun too long and went blind.
Panic vibrated out from my belly to the tips of my fingers and toes. Every cell in me wanted to rip off my skin and put on another boy’s suit, be someone else, and leave her and Daddy to the grizzly bears that dug in our trash.
Instead, I went to school and hid my nose in a book in the back corner of the library. Ms. Kimball, the library teacher, calls me her “little book worm” and ruffles my hair whenever I come in, which is most days.
Mysteries and thrillers are my favorites, anything where the good guy gets the upper hand on the bad guy, like the one I read today about a boy who spies on his neighbor who buried a dead body in the backyard. The boy figures out who the body is and what happened and lets the police know, and everyone thinks he’s a hero, and the bad guy gets what’s coming to him.
Too bad the book wasn’t real life, then I’d believe there was hope for Ma and me, but no one does anything to help even when they see, and they know, not in this damn town.
I round the bend of trees and bushes that hide our house from the tire-rutted dirt road. Just at the edge of their coverage, I stop and listen. No need to go in half-cocked, or so Nana would say.
No one seems to be about. No sound, which is worse than if there were.
The first day we moved in, Daddy and Ma were so excited, what with the view and all. The house perches on a precipice overlooking the Portland Canal, an inlet from the Hecate Straight, surrounded by the Alaska Coast Mountains.
We used to sit on lawn chairs on the side of the house and watch the sun go down. Daddy would nip off his flask, not enough to ignite the tyrant inside, and Ma and I would drink sun tea that Ma made earlier in the day and talk.
Those were calm times. Good times.
The house doesn’t look the same now. The paint is peeled and faded from sun exposure, and some of the windows are boarded because Daddy threw his liquor bottles, missing us but hitting the windows instead.
Heaps of scrapped metal and junk litter the yard, and bottles pepper the rotting porch. An old ‘55 pickup, with no tires on blocks, sprouts weeds from the open front hood; once a project for Daddy and me to fix up, paint it cherry red.
With tentative steps, I walk up the front stoop, pause at the door, not sure I want to go in, and choose to listen again.
Our house is never quiet unless Daddy is asleep, which doesn’t happen this early in the day. Then a faint noise sounds, almost like weeping, and becomes louder and louder, a wail of great pain.
I shove the door open and find Daddy kneeling on the floor with his head in his hands. He wears no shirt or socks, just filthy jeans, with a hairy potbelly hanging free. His short black hair spikes upward like I am seeing him hang upside down, and blood covers his hands, his knuckles swollen.
Ma lays on the floor in front of him, not moving, blood surrounding her head, which looks deformed from this angle, and I wonder what he has done to make her look like that.
My legs feel heavy, anchored to the wood flooring, and each creak that my weight makes echoes loudly in my ears, almost too painful to withstand. The closer I get, the more I see, which tells me Ma is dead, and the feeling I had earlier had been right, which gnaws a hole in my heart.
I don’t like being right, not like this. Seeing her lay there, bloody and disfigured, black and blue, her skirt in disarray about her waist, and her hands still red from cleaning, I feel set apart, as if I see her from a view different than where I stand.
All of a sudden, I can hear Daddy jabbering on about how sorry he is, and he didn’t mean it, and I watch him and wonder what had he meant when he took his fists to her over and over again, year after year.
I feel nothing for him, not even anger, and that seems odd to consider. He just killed Ma. And I feel nothing.
Not much stirs inside me for Ma neither, more relief than anything, a sense of freedom. Liberation manifested by the grace of God, as Preacher Gibbons would say, like the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation I learned about in school. They probably felt the same as I did now, in limbo almost, mixed and confused and relieved all at the same time.
“What are you doing?” Daddy says as spittle and snot wet his face. Concern flits across his eyes.
In my hands is Daddy’s rifle, a classic 1895 Marlin 45-70 lever action—Daddy’s prized possession. The rifle is the only thing he knows how to care for besides his shed hidden behind the house where he distills moonshine when he isn’t drinking it.
I don’t remember going and getting the gun.
“You set that rifle down, boy! That was my daddy’s.”
The rifle stock nestles comfortably in the crook of my shoulder and arm.
“What are you doing, William? You know I didn’t mean it, boy.” He whimpers and moans and scoots about on his knees, and I watch, still pointing the rifle at him.
The first and only time I shot his rifle was back a year before, on my first and only hunting outing with Daddy. He got me settled by a tree, hidden from the critters we hunted, though I knew the real reason he wanted me to aim was that he’d already drunk too much to be steady.
He kept whispering in my ear. “Don’t miss, boy. You don’t want us to starve, do you?”
I aimed and shook and breathed, trying to ignore him while he whispered, then I pulled the trigger at the big six-point elk across the way. Pain spidered through my cheek from where his fist connected before I saw the elk run off, not wounded, and I tucked my head in my arms and crawled into a ball. He kept hitting me and cursing at me until he tuckered himself out and leaned against the tree to toss his flask back a few times.
The rifle hadn’t felt so solid and heavy that day when I hunted with Daddy, but it does now. I enjoy the feel of the rifle in my hands, the power of it at my fingertips.
“What are you smiling at, boy?” Daddy says, his voice ragged along the edges.
My gaze rests on him for a moment longer: his blue eyes wild, his jeans so filth-ridden they could take a walk all by themselves; his sour too-much-to-drink-stench that pollutes the house with its decay every time he breathes; and his fingernails caked in Ma’s blood, which no washing or soap can ever get out.
“I promise, Daddy, I won’t miss this time,” I say and pull the trigger. My feet lift off the floor, and I land on my back, with the rifle pointed at the ceiling.
As I lay still, catching my breath, I spy a large black spider crawl across the ceiling. The spider is kind of bulbous, which reminds me of the barn spiders Johnny from school likes to flatten with the handle of a screwdriver to see what colors come out.
Did the spider see me shoot my daddy? Was my daddy dead?
He must be since I don’t hear him breathing . . . or moving.
Pushing myself onto my elbows, I peer over my knees to where my daddy lays, quiet and still. His lifeblood leaves him onto the floor and mingles with Ma’s, and, for a moment, I think it’s about time they were all right with one another, and everything seems aligned like normality arrived at the last possible second.
How long I sat there, cradling the rifle, watching Ma and Daddy come together again, I don’t know, but the sun has all but disappeared by the time I come to, and the cold of night prickles my skin and attaches itself to my bones.
The sight of Ma and Daddy laying there bloodstained and damaged doesn’t seem appropriate, and me sitting there looking at them needs to stop. The rifle clanks on the floor when I set it down, though its sound is muffled, like the dead in the house commandeered it.
My journey to my bedroom, up the stairs to the attic, is long, as if my legs trudge through muck, like when Welker Creek flooded, and I got stuck in the middle of its overflow, up to my waist, moving slow, until I got to higher ground.
The door to my room hangs precariously on its hinges, ready to tumble if God breathes at all since Daddy busted through in a violent whirlwind a few days past, which had since left me sketchy of any sound in the dark.
The room is mostly bare, but I pack the few clothes I have in a worn backpack, along with the books Ms. Kimball gave me at Christmas, which I hid under my mattress just in case Daddy wanted something to shred.
Once out of the bedroom and down the stairs, I feel lighter, like something stayed in the attic that didn’t want to leave. Maybe Preacher Gibbons was correct when he spoke of fears being dissolved by the light of the spirit.
From what I’d seen so far, a 45-70 sure had a spirit of light that could obliterate anything or anyone in its path, even almighty fear.
The kitchen is spotless, not a crumb on the counter or range. The only thing spilled is Daddy and Ma’s lives, pooled in a large, red circle that now runs like lava across the clean-dull linoleum.
The refrigerator and cupboards hold little food, and I pick what’s best for traveling and grab a coat from the closet and an extra pair of boots and set it all outside, a few feet from the house.
Not sure what to do about the house and what lays inside, I head to the shed and rummage until I find a few things that might be useful and sit on the front porch to think about it all, though none of it makes sense.
Can the house be left as it is? What will happen to me if people see what I’ve done?
Most of Hyder knew what a drunk my daddy was and how Ma never came down the mountain to visit town and how I carried bruises that even a rough and tumble boy didn’t get just from doing what boys do. They knew, and not one of them ever tried to stop it.
Fury boils under my skin. I feel sick with rage and hate for everyone, even Nana, who knew but tried to pretend things would get better or change because Daddy had been a good man once.
She figured, just like Ma, he could be a good man again, but she had it wrong. He wouldn’t have changed, especially not after what he’d done to Ma.
The Devil had its way with him. There was no going back.
The gasoline I dump throughout the house cascades out of its canister like crystal clear mountain water and reminds me of the waterfall Nana and I found when we picked huckleberries last summer.
The water, an underground spring, came from deep within the mountain and coursed down moss-covered rocks from ten feet up, misting me as I stood below, cupping its freshness in my hands.
I drank eagerly to dispel the unusually hot summer day that wetted my brow in sweat. Nana said there was nothing better than mountain spring water straight from the source. She had been right about that one.
After each room, I whisper good-bye, the last being the kitchen, then I head out the front door. A slight breeze maneuvers through the trees, snuffing each match I strike until the fourth, which stays lit long enough for me to throw it over the house’s threshold.
A whoosh of flame devours the floorboards, tall and vengeful, and forks three ways: up the stairs, into the living room, and over Ma and Daddy’s bodies in the kitchen.
Mesmerized by the flicker of light and heat, I watch and wonder where I should go. There was no family except Nana, and staying with her wasn’t an option, not since she lived in Hyder and too many questions would be asked. No, I would have to go further, maybe the lower forty-eight, find me a job. Anything was better than here.
For a brief moment, I wish I hadn’t caught the house on fire. I miss Ma and her sweet sun tea and the way she would smile and giggle like a little girl when Daddy was gone; those rare times she could get away with being happy. And Nana with her molasses cookies and her stories of hunting and traveling the world when she was younger and braver.
Even a splinter of grief resonates for my daddy: his laughter; him playing dinosaur when I was a small boy; and all the times in the mountains, camping, hiking, and looking at the stars; and the first time he taught me how to fish with a stick and string. He had gentle eyes then that told me he loved me.
The middle beam of the house drops, proclaiming a boom that startles me and showers brilliant sparks, and the outside walls lean inward, destined to topple into the fire’s blazing hole. With a quick wipe of the face, I turn and hoist my pack onto my back and start down the road, the fire illuminating my path.
An old tune Ma used to sing to me when I was a babe tickles my mind, and I hum it, something kind about fireflies and fairies. Every few feet, I pause to pick the huckleberries I hadn’t gotten to before.
At first, I can hear the crackle of the fire, but a few minutes more and I hear nothing but my humming and the birds, off in the distance, talking to each other high up in the trees.
When I take one last glance behind me, the orange glow of the fire disappears behind giant Sitka Spruce and cedar, and the forest opens a door of night that I step into.