by Joshua Landers
Think you can aim that thing?"Kyle points at the bandage on my right hand, shoulders his rifle. I crease the stock of my .22 in the bend of my arm, lift my shoulder, and raise the barrel at him.
"Good enough," I say, and sit on the tailgate of my truck.
He lays his rifle down and grabs mine, scopes it across the cow pasture behind my apartment complex, cars parked around us.
"You've shot this?" he says, whistles air into the chamber.
I tell him the handful of times I'd shot at squirrels waving their tails in the field, a raccoon that'd kept ripping open my trash bags left on the porch.
He slides a bullet in and closes one eye. Aiming up, he shoots out the nearest streetlight in the parking lot. Shattering glass, sizzling filaments. Then silence like I've never heard.
He hands me the .22.
"Good enough," he says.
We drive an hour north towards Orick. I have a beer between my legs, the whiskey I'd bought earlier in my front pocket, waiting for some type of drunkenness to wash over me.
Kyle's phone rings. He flips it open and speaks with his hand covering his mouth. The way he talks, I can tell it's Melissa, my ex-wife.
They started dating a few years ago, before our divorce papers were even paper clipped together. Moved into his place in San Francisco the first weekend our daughter, Candice, was supposed to visit me. It'd been like that ever since. Quick weekend getaways to catch rainbow trout at Rock Creek. Ski vacations in Tahoe during Candice's winter breaks. Deer hunting in the Sierra Nevada's on her spring vacation.
Candice sent me some pictures over the internet once. Three faces slowly scrolling down my screen, lifting a lifeless head by the antlers, smiling.
Kyle puts the phone back in his jacket pocket.
"Can't believe you didn't get a shot off," he says.
The sky lightens to the east, tall shapes of the redwood forest silhouetting jagged against the dark mountains. The stars between the clouds washed out figures on a blackboard. On the dash, the green digital numbers click to squared off eight's, but I know it's six o'clock.
"Didn't have a gun," I say, and finger my bandage. The feeling of my thumb is still there, a weightless tingle, the jagged flesh just above where the doctor had cut the bone even and stapled it shut.
Kyle squints at me, eases onto a roughly paved road off the highway.
"Figures," he says.
We stop outside the parking lot in front of the main trailhead, a low chain blocking our entrance, wrapped and locked around a dented metal post. The ground ahead the color of moon dirt in the headlights.
"This it?" he says.
He searches through his camouflage duffel bag on the seat between us and pulls out a long flashlight, a couple boxes of bullets. Clicks the flashlight on, off. On and off. Opens the door. I look at the trail cutting into the forest in the headlights.
"Think so," I say.
Kyle gets out, picks up the rifles from the back of the truck, and says, "Grab the bullets."
Last time my daughter was supposed to visit, while I was on my way down the 101 to pick her up, she called on Kyle's cell phone. I'd planned a weekend at a K.O.A. campground just outside Monterrey. Reserved kayaks for a three hour bay tour, bought tickets to the aquarium. Ice chest full of Natural Light and juice boxes and store bought sandwiches.
"Dad," she said. "Me and Mom are going backpacking with Kyle instead. That okay with you?"
I pulled off the highway, reached in the cooler next to me and fingered open a can.
"Sure," I said. "Next time."
She reminded me of her mother then.
I remembered Melissa used the same expression while she was frosting our daughter's eleventh birthday cake, just after she'd said that I wasn't much of a husband, that she wanted a divorce.
"That okay with you?" she said.
"What happened to working it out?" I said, then the doorbell rang.
We barbecued with the neighbors, drank some before Candice began opening gifts. After she blew out her candles, we watched her rip apart the present I'd wrapped, her friends in birthday hats gathering on their knees around her.
I'd struggled for months to buy her a Playstation, a few games. Took overtime at work, cut corners at the grocery store. When she flung the wrapping paper behind her, I interlocked my fingers, tapped my heels. Cracked my knuckles and took a drink of whiskey hidden in a party cup.
Candice pushed the present away and stared at me, stood with hands on her hips. Her friends looked at me the same way, as if I wrapped a puppy in a Styrofoam box without air holes. "I asked for a Playstation 2," she'd said, walked up to her mother sitting next to me and said, "Do I have to play this?"
Melissa shook her head.
Maybe it was the whiskey I drank too much of back then, the warehouse job I still have, or any number of things, but that was when I'd slapped my daughter. Flat against the cheek. Reached out from my chair and snapped my hand.
Four thin slats reddened her pale face before she ran to her room.
I remember sitting there, spreading the circle of moisture beneath my cup across the end table, flicking out the tingle from her face. Her friends filed out, I couldn't watch them leave. I stayed in that chair until the sun dipped below the roofs of the houses across the street and watched its reflection rise again in their windows.
I strap the .22 over my shoulder and take a few steps in both directions. Every bend looks the same, thickets of brush and fern one color in the creeping dawn. The trail's covered by needles and pine cones, broken limbs and hidden rocks beneath. It's difficult to tell which way we came in.
"Looks familiar," I say.
He spits the needles out of his mouth and stands up.
"Familiar?" he says. "If a daughter of mine got attacked, I'd know every inch of this place. Every goddamn twig."
He slides down the slope of the ravine, holding the rifle above his head as if he's about to fall into a pool of water.
When he's at the bottom, he looks up and says: "You don't have to be here."
I lean against the nearest tree. Fist my knuckles colorless, then ease the whiskey bottle halfway out of my pocket with my wrist. Gripping the bottle with my left hand, I take a drink. Some spills out the sides of my mouth. I think about certain things I won't be able to do anymore. Bowling, horseshoes during lunch breaks outside the warehouse, grasping a pen. I recap the bottle with my four good fingers.
Candice and I went on a group nature hike through this forest yesterday morning. One of the only things we could agree on since she arrived.
I'd picked her up from Melissa in Ukiah a few days ago, our first successful exchange. I'd cleaned my apartment, fanned out past issues of Tiger Beat on top of the coffee table. Figured she needed something to read when she visits. But she's never touched them.
I stood near the trailhead and looked at my daughter, crouched down and tying her hiking shoes. The rest of the hikers geared up in the parking lot, our ranger giving last minute details about the hike. A heavy mist had cut off the tree line and nestled into the forest. The sun a flashlight pressed outside a foggy window. Candice walked past me, tongued her lips off her new braces.
"This is retarded," she said.
We moved well ahead of the others. We heard them and caught glimpses of their bobbing heads through the scabbed trunks and sword ferns on the opposite side of the ravine.
She'd let me catch up, stopping and turning while I mounted a carved out rise in the trail. I hunched next to her.
"Race," I said. She rolled her eyes and swiped at her short bangs. I said, "Come on," and poked my index finger into her belly like I'd done when she was a baby.
I jogged and spun backwards, stuck my tongue out at her, then hummed "Eye of the Tiger" while I high stepped. She stopped moving and crossed her arms. Shook her head. Laughed when I tripped over a branch and fell back on my hands. She walked past me and swiped her hand over my head, grinned, and sprinted up the remainder of the hill.
I heard the crunches of her feet against the pine needle floor, her quick hard breaths shoot out her nose. The frozen water bottle I'd given her that morning sloshing and clinking at her hip, and the woman's voice growing from somewhere within her speaking, whispering, maybe singing a song she knew out loud, to no one in particular.
I figured she was sitting on a felled trunk at the side of the trail. Waiting and cursing me.
I pushed myself up and made it to the top of the hill. Coming around a redwood, hands laced behind my head, I saw my daughter lying at the edge of the ravine. Her neck cranked backwards, chin and shoulders lifted just above the ground. A far away voice saying: "Daddy, Daddy. Get it off, please." Gurgling full of fluid. Half her head engulfed within the jaws of a mountain lion.
It dropped Candice's head when it noticed me. My daughter wheezed and toed for some sort of grip under the pine needles.
I stepped forward.
The cat mounted her back and bit onto her head again. Muscles corded tight beneath its skin, paws slapping at her flailing arms.
Picking up the nearest branch, I yelled and rushed at the cat. Wailed its back and its massive haunches. The silkiness of its coat.
It didn't budge.
Blood soaked Candice's hair, dripped to the ground. I dropped the branch and poked at the animal's eyes, fists against its concrete skull. I pried at its mouth. It released its bite for a moment and snapped at my hand.
I stepped away and grabbed the branch again. Teeth digging into her neck, it slipped off, twisted her around, and began dragging her down the slope. Candice's body limp, jerking over the ground with the backward movements of the cat.
I ran in front of it. Ears pinned back, hissed. I swung the branch and smashed its nose. It arched its back and I flared my jacket, stomped towards it. It sidled along the slope, pawed the air, and disappeared down into the undergrowth. I stood with the branch over my head.
Candice's lips worked silently. When I rolled her over and dragged her across the trail, I saw half her face was raw, covered in blood, peels of skin poking through her hair. She couldn't stop trembling.
The group of hikers ran up the hill and formed a broken circle around us. Someone handed me a canteen and I poured water over my daughter's face, several holes and gashes, I couldn't tell how many.
The ranger bent over me, pulled out his radio and worked open the pack on his belt. I took my jacket off and balled it under Candice's head, ripped off my shirt and wrapped it around her face. The ranger glanced at me.
"Jesus," he said. "How big was it?"
I shrugged my shoulders and spaced out a height between my hand and the ground. I noticed my right thumb was gone then.
"When you see them," Kyle says, raising his index and middle fingers. "One of two things: they messed up, or something's about to die."
I hold his flashlight with my good hand as we explore parts of the ravine not yet washed out with the morning light. A stream parts two sides of the landscape, runs under uprooted trunks fuzzy with moss. We follow alongside for hundreds of yards.
Kyle walks sideways, foot over foot, his rifle scanning the thick underbrush. Stops and scopes snapping twigs, crunching leaves. Points forward with his index finger when a stellar jay flies into the stands of trees or a salamander zigzags its way to the nearest clump of rocks.
We stop at a clearing where the stream pools up. There's a bank on one side of us, thick with ferns. On the other side, the pool's dammed by a tall clump of slick rocks with more forest beyond it.
Kyle holsters his rifle and splashes his face, rubs his eyes. Cups water into his hands and drinks it.
"Good watering hole," I say.
He looks behind him. Stands and kicks around the ferns, barrels the rifle into a couple of hollow logs and flips them over. Then bear-crawls halfway up the bank, shouldering his way through the plants. Sits down, pushes up his hat, and scopes his rifle around the ravine.
I prop my gun against a tree and walk into the pool, dip my bandage into the water. Let it soak through, strips of loose gauze floating beneath the surface. I crouch down and peel away the bandages.
My hand is pruned white, indented with the pattern of the gauze. The stump of my thumb is wrinkled. I move the base of the bone that's still there, wiggle it beneath the stitches, then walk across to the clump of rocks.
I sit on a half-submerged stone. Let the cold water smooth out around my waist. Lean my head back and try to focus my eyes.
When I feel even again, I move to dry land and lay down near the base of the rocks, spread my arms and legs out. There's cool air coming from somewhere, and I look over. Near the ground, no more than shoulder wide, a shallow crevice is carved out in the rocks. I can see the shine of its slick back wall. And on the lip of the cave, three furry spotted heads rise and sniff the air, their tails swiping back and forth. They step to the ground and stumble close to me. Each of them producing a high pitched chirping whistle.
"Shit," I say, and rise up. Step back and wave my arms to where I think Kyle might be sitting. Try to collect some sort of saliva in my mouth, and say, "Over here."
I'd called Melissa earlier from the Mad River Hospital. Kyle answered, said she wasn't home. I knew she was.
Long pause. Scratchy muffle of the receiver against his chin.
"Hold on," he said.
She sighed when she got on the line, and said: "It's your weekend, Jeremy."
"Something's happened," I said.
I told her about the attack, but saved the details. My thumb. The slight shock I'd been diagnosed with hours earlier. The stitches patterning over our daughter's scalp in an arcing black crescent. More than half a dozen puncture wounds through the cheek and more below the jaw.
She remained silent for several seconds, puffs of breath and broken words.
"She's got another surgery early in the morning," I told her.
Lying across the seat of my truck, I put my phone on speaker and looked at Kyle's business card Melissa had given to me. In case of an emergency. His smile blacked out, eyes circled. Two horns protruding from his glossy forehead. Frankenstein bolts above his collar. The words "Dial-A-Dick" scribbled in my own handwriting next to his office and home number.
Candice had pulled it out of my glove box on the way to our hike. Held it up to me and arched her eyebrows. Smiled and tossed it to the floorboard. Whether she found it funny or cruel, I couldn't tell. But as long as she laughed at something I'd done, I felt we still had a chance.
Melissa cleared her throat, relayed information to Kyle.
"We'll be there in five hours," she'd said.
His SUV pulled in the parking structure at two in the morning, and Melissa jumped out of the passenger side before it came to a complete stop. I waved my injured hand. When she was close enough, I saw her eyes were wet, mouth parted open. She reached for me. I swung my legs out of my truck and she held the bulky bandage in her hands, caressed my forearm, squeezed my good hand. I smiled and wiggled my four fingers at her.
"No more thumb wars," I said.
She put a hand to her throat, rubbed the back of her neck.
"Couldn't reattach it?" she said.
Shaking my head, I said, "Nothing to reattach."
Kyle walked around and opened his back door. He looked at us. Melissa stiffened, stepped back, hugged herself high across the chest. Eyes slit under the dull parking lot light, his face sunburn tight, he nodded at me. He had his camouflage jacket on, tossed the duffel bag on the ground, and strapped the rifle over his shoulder.
He picked up the bag, slung it in my bed, and set the gun next to it.
"Didn't you see it?" he said.
I leaned against my truck.
"See what?" he said. "The lion."
I looked back at the rifle.
"Not until her head was in its mouth," I said.
His lips fluttered and he caught a breath in his cheek. I got in my truck and smiled, remembering what I'd just said to Melissa.
No more thumb wars.
br> Kyle aims at the cubs, looks behind him, aims again. He'd brought my rifle through the pool and my barrel drips as I line up the nearest one in my sights. Two are on their sides chewing on twigs while the other blindly circles around our legs.
"This is no good," he says, and shoots a round straight up. All three cubs jolt and begin whining again. Kyle boots one aside, swipes needles up at it with his foot.
"Won't be far off," he says. "It'll protect its young."
I lower my rifle and catch the stock on my injured hand. Yellow liquid bubbles between the stitches, followed by light colored blood. Razorblades slicing inside my arm, then my fingers beat with hearts all their own.
Kyle stands next to me as the cubs wander. They stop to lick the air, bump into one another, and stomp their oversized paws on banana slugs curling themselves near the water's edge. One cat stops near my shoes and begins gnawing on my laces.
"How far'd we park?" Kyle says, sticking his ear towards the forest behind us. Spins around and steps in the water.
The trail's somewhere above us, but with the wall of brush and trees I can't make it out. I shrug my shoulders.
Blue breaks cracks in the gray above the tree line. Leafy patterns of light forming shadows over the ground.
"Time is it?" I say, and jiggle my foot at the cub.
Kyle's knee deep in the water.
"The hell's it matter?"
He shoulders his rifle again and points it up towards the bank. I look down at the cub.
"Where's your mommy?" I say, and pet it with my right hand. Leave dewdrops of blood on its ears. Hard to believe the giants they become.
Losing balance, I prop the rifle against the ground and settle on my knees. Kyle says something but his voice drowns out, and he disappears around the opposite side of the rocks.
The other two cubs lower their bodies and paw themselves towards me. Lay side by side next to their sibling. I drop my bad hand to them, tilt the stump of my thumb to the sky. Everything quiet. Weightless.
The cubs look at my hand, lovebite my fingertips. The one that chewed on my shoelaces licks the dry blood forked over my palm, sandpaper clean. Then it moves up, licking, catching its sharp teeth on the stitches as it rises on its front paws and bends its neck over the top of the wound. Gnaws what's left of it. The others come around and do the same, switching places over each other, fighting for position.
I slide the .22 on top of my knee and grip the body. Control the weight of the barrel with my bicep. My head's heavy and I let it hang.
I locate the trigger and hook my index finger around it. Press the stock under my armpit and remain still. Angle it close to the back of the nearest cub's head. One looks back at me for a moment, its soft fur around the mouth stained red. Eyes yellow and slit in the middle. Looking directly at me. Unblinking.
Somewhere above I hear distant voices. Hikers, bikers along the trail. Hunters within the trees. My own.
I look up.
Kyle's head pops above the rocks. He climbs and crouches on top, points his gun. Sunlight reflects off the end of the scope. He opens his mouth wide, peels the rifle from his cheek, and yells again. But all I can hear are the slurps of the cubs, their feeding.
What was it Kyle said earlier? Something about the mother. Protecting its young. Does she know where they are? Would she know what to do?
The cubs claw at my hand, straddle my arm, and rip through the stitches. I thumb the trigger. Slip the barrel into one's ear.
A part of me is missing now. That's all I know.
Joshua Landers has stories published in ArtAmiss, Outsider Ink, and Verbicide magazines. He currently lives in northwest Arkansas by way of San Diego, and finds as much time to spend as he can with his wife and their two-year old son, Rowan.