“Do it, Jeffrey. Do it.”
Jeffrey felt, more than heard, his step-dad, Al’s, words hiss in his ear behind him. He felt the ragged smoker’s breath emanating in soft asthmatic grunts as Al stood hovering just inches away from Jeffrey’s raised arm; the same arm he used to steady the rifle against his body.
It was early, still dark out, and cold. Jeffrey wiggled his toes—they’d already gone numb despite his heavy boots and wool socks—and squinted at the deer through the crosshairs of the rifle. It was beautiful, this creature he was meant to kill, its coat sleek and brown and shining. He had no desire to kill it. Even after six years of coming out here every Sunday with Al, he still had never killed anything larger than a field mouse in his life.
“You got ‘im, right there, right there.” Al’s words came out barely above a whisper, and Jeffrey noted, as he had in other rare moments, how his step-dad had the capacity to be gentle. He placed a hand at his shoulder, a gesture that for all its seeming kindness, Jeffrey knew held some restraint, like reasoning with a child.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed since he first swung his gun to fit inside his shoulder, made his stance full, and aimed; it was almost as though time had stopped and reshaped around him. Here he noticed the sensory: there seemed to be no discernible smell to the air. It was quiet enough to hear the wind. There was the urge to breathe hard, to clear his throat, to shuffle his feet so the deer would run away. But there, squinting at the swatch of skin on the animal’s flank he was meant to aim for, seeing his own life in the breath that left his nose in visible puffs, he couldn’t move.
“That’s it, boy, steady. Now. Pull. The damn. Trigger.”
Jeffrey kept his head down as he and Al walked back to the house. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t force his legs to move any faster. He focused on the crunching sound of boots on snow. When the rifle shot, he’d jumped and bit his tongue. Now the taste of metal filled his mouth and he swished it as though he were flicking a penny around his tongue and cheeks.
“Jesus, this is a heavy one.”
They trailed blood as they walked; the deer had been too heavy for either of them to lift. They’d rolled it onto a tarp and Al dragged it between them while Jeffrey tried not to step on it. He’d tried to help Al in this process, but the sight of it, its eyes still beady and staring, blood surrounding the spot in its head where the bullet hit, only made him gag. He stepped cautiously, looking ahead only as far as the end of his boots, focusing only on the task of not tripping over log branches. Though every few steps the deer’s body caught on a stump, and Al had to pull extra hard to get it unstuck, and in those moments it was hard not to notice the lolling head ricocheting against the ground.
On Sundays, they hunted, Jeffrey and his step-dad. This tradition started when Jeffrey was nine (“Old enough to hold a rifle!”) and though he never really liked it—it was reliably dark, and cold, and there were long, painful hours that went by without either of them seeing anything at all—he did it out of a need to please his mom. After Jeffrey’s dad died when he was just a baby, and before his mom met Al, it had been just Jeffrey and his mom, scraping by, living in a cold apartment on the outskirts of town. In the far stretches of Jeffrey’s memory, he could see the apartment in its small details: the peeling dull yellow wall paper in the kitchen, the neon blue stains that lined the bathroom tub and sink, but mostly he remembered it only as a gray fog; a place that never seemed to be warm enough or light enough. Back then, his mom had a job working behind a cash register at a grocery store and came home most evenings with the type of full-body exhaustion that Jeffrey learned later to associate with the depressed. Tears stuck in her eyes and lingered precariously on her eyelashes, as though they’d become a permanent feature of her face. Jeffrey had done his part, had learned how to boil hotdogs and make boxed Mac n’ Cheese so he could feed himself when she was too tired to cook. He’d dutifully cut his own hair in the mirror when he knew it was getting too long and falling in his eyes so his mom wouldn’t have to worry about finding money for a haircut.
Something had developed in those years and stayed with him, a kind of unease that made a home in his body. It had reshaped over the years, become more omnipresent and less clearly defined; a feeling that began as heat in the center of his chest and traveled outward, like he could feel his mom’s unhappiness living inside him.
When Jeffrey was just beginning second grade his mom met Al, and suddenly she wasn’t so sad anymore. They got married by the courthouse and Jeffrey moved to a new school, and soon after his mom became pregnant with Jeffrey’s sister, Kimmy. With Al’s good paychecks from his union job she didn’t have to cry about money or not being able to eat enough, and the heat in his chest, while still there, began to fade. His mom seemed to be happy. Sometimes when Al got a bonus at work he would buy her a new blouse or earrings, the kind that didn’t turn her skin green. And once, Jeffrey was pulled from bed at the sound of soft music coming from downstairs and caught them dancing together all alone in the living room. The unease at catching them in a private moment was overshadowed by the relief he experienced at the sight of his mom’s closed eyes, her head gently placed on Al’s shoulder.
But there were other times when things weren’t so great, and those were the times Jeffrey felt the familiar feeling creeping in. It appeared when Al stayed out at the bar too late with his union buddies hours after dinner, while his mom sat at the kitchen table, alternately checking her cell phone and glancing at his cooling plate of food (as though it were some kind of game she played with herself, this torturous wait). It was there in the sound of her plowing down the stairs after midnight to smack the beer out of Al’s hand when he’d fallen asleep with it on the couch, because there was always a beer in his hand and it was the beer that left him passed out in front of the TV instead of safely tucked into bed with her. The feeling was especially there on the days when the whole house seemed to be in an uproar: when Kimmy was crying and Al yelling and Jeffrey had to do his best to keep everyone calm before his mom, painfully quiet and observing, absorbed all of their frustration as though it were her own. It was a precious balance, a kind of unspoken tension, this happiness of his mom, and Jeffrey’s job, he knew, was to help maintain it.
Which was why it was even harder to make the decision to leave and move to California with James.
“We’re gonna have a real feast for breakfast today, son. This’ll go great with those blueberry pancakes your mom always makes. Hell, we’ll be eating this damn thing all year!”
Jeffrey reasoned any response would have been muffled by the sliding sound of the tarp against the snow, and remained silent. James said this Sunday tradition was the only way Al knew how to bond with Jeffrey, because he didn’t know much else about his interests. This wasn’t a false statement; Al knew Jeffrey’s surface interests, knew that he enjoyed CSI shows enough to watch them with Al on some weeknights, knew that his favorite breakfast food was cherry Pop- Tarts by the way Jeffrey’s mom went through the extra effort of buying the non-generic brand and stacking boxes of them in the cabinet like she was hoarding them for winter. But Al didn’t know much else. He didn’t know that Jeffrey liked comic books and sci-fi movies, for instance, or that he was as good at math as he was at Scrabble, or that he had a boyfriend named James.
This last one was key. When Jeffrey first approached his mom a few years before about the tugging inside him that left him uninterested in the girls in his homeroom and instead longing for a certain boy in Algebra II gym class, her first reaction was to impress the importance of Al not knowing. When James came over to the house, he was looked at and treated as Jeffrey’s friend. Kimmy was too young to understand, so it was solely his mom’s knowledge. Jeffrey reveled in this; it reminded him of their time together in that gray apartment, when they were the sole recipients of each other’s secrets.
“It’s just like him,” James said just last night as he and Jeffrey sat out in the woods, trying to keep away from the house, “trying to bond over something you don’t even like because he doesn’t know how to talk to you.” James was two years older, 17, and wiser, but never put the true part of the blame on Jeffrey, where it belonged. Despite all of his complaints to James, six years after it started he was still out here every Sunday with Al, without Jeffrey so much as making a peep of dissent.
All at once Al stopped, and with his head down, Jeffrey nearly tripped over the tarp between them. He looked around. Light was just beginning to shine through the trees. Everything was still. These singular occurrences were the only things he really liked about being out here.
“Isn’t that yours?”
Jeffrey peeled around Al’s wide frame to follow his finger’s point to a long striped scarf sitting on a stump. Of course. This was where he and James had been sitting last night, planning out the details of their departure.
“Nope, not mine.”
Al turned around and looked at him queerly. “You sure? Looks like something I’ve seen you prancing around the house in.”
“Definitely not mine.”
“Huh. All right, then.”
It was one of his favorite scarves, though he hadn’t even realized he’d dropped it. It made him angry: that Al recognizing it meant he’d never be able to come back for it, that he’d had to sneak into the woods in the first place. James had been over last night, and it had been peaceful: Jeffrey, James, Kimmy, and his mom all together, eating dinner followed by TV. But when Al arrived home earlier than expected, they were forced to leave. Jeffrey’s mom already told Jeffrey that Al had once or twice noticed James as a more regular presence around the house. She told them, as she hurried them out the door, that seeing them together this late on a school night might make him draw his own conclusions. So they retreated to the woods that lined their backyard. Somehow Al hadn’t noticed that James’ car had been parked across the street the entire time.
Al began to walk again and Jeffrey stared solemnly at the scarf as they passed. Maybe he could come back for it and tuck it into his bag, make a promise to himself to only wear it outside of the house. He’d take it with him to California, even though it would certainly be too warm to wear it.
As they walked, Jeffrey stared at the animal in front of him, its pink tongue hanging from its mouth, its eyes round and staring, and felt sudden deep stabs of remorse. It hadn’t deserved to die. He pictured it turning on a stick over an open pit, like some kind of cartoonish pig roast. He considered what a ridiculous tradition hunting was, and felt himself growing angry at himself for always going along with it. As they approached the clearing that led to their house, Al stopped and turned to face him. “You’re gonna help me cut this thing open.”
Jeffrey nodded and knelt down. He’d been expecting this. He pushed himself to a mental space where this was not once a living thing, it was some inanimate object, like the formaldehyde rats in biology class that no longer looked like rats. Al began first, using a knife to snap the ligaments in the neck in order to remove the head. When that was done, he handed the knife to Jeffrey and instructed him to begin skinning, starting from the top and working downward, placing the knife just between the fur and the muscle. If he cut too deep into the muscle, Al would sigh, grunt, and say, “Give it here,” until he redirected the knife back to its place just under the fur. This was the first time Jeffrey had had to skin the animal. Most times, Al did it while he watched, his thoughts unattached to the action in front of him. In the distance, he saw his mom standing at the kitchen window that faced the woods, watching, and knew she was happy to see this, this bonding time, or whatever it was. And so he moved faster, ripped at the deer’s fur with his hands to make the process move along quickly.
“Careful, now, don’t go too fast.”
But Jeffrey needed it to be over, because the whole thing was more unpleasant than he’d prepared himself for, the early smell of decay, the warmth of the animal’s inner body, so he yanked and pulled and ripped and cut until the fur was in a haphazard heap next to him and he was up to his elbows in blood splatter. He wondered what James would think of him if he could see this, noted with some sadness the lengths he would go to make his mom happy.
He hadn’t talked to James about how much he worried about his mom’s happiness, or at least not so much that James would consider it any kind of hindrance in their plan, but it was true that he had to work through it every time he even thought about packing his bag and sneaking out to the Greyhound station across town. Their plan was to leave in early summer, after James graduated and after Jeffrey’s sophomore year ended, but it was the topic of discussion every time they were together. James’ enthusiasm for the plan was apparent: how they would use their earnings from the menial part-time jobs they had to take a bus to New York City, spend a few nights camping on the couch of a friend of James’ cousin, then arrive at JFK to fly to Santa Barbara, where they would stay with a girl James knew from his theatre club who’d been working in commercials since she moved to California. James wanted to be an actor, and he wanted Jeffrey to try out acting, too, said it would be good for him. James said the only time he could be himself, other than when he was with Jeffrey, was when he was pretending to be someone else.
The plan was to eventually get to Los Angeles, when they saved enough money, but the details were blurred there. All Jeffrey knew was he was getting away, from his family, from his town, and hopefully, eventually, from the constant worry.
Jeffrey looked at Al, who nodded, seemingly impressed with the lump of blood and muscle in front of him, the heap of fur to the side of them. “Nice job, Jeffrey,” he said with a nod. “I’ll cut the rest of the meat and clean it. Go in the house and get cleaned up.”
As Jeffrey walked toward the house, he checked, but didn’t see his mom watching from the kitchen window.
In the house, he turned the water to its hottest level and let the animal’s blood wash off of him. He watched as the pink water rippled at his feet before draining away. His mom was vacuuming the hallway, accidentally picking up pennies and hairpins with a loud crunch. From her bedroom, Kimmy yelled.
“Well,” his mom cried in response, “it’s time to wake up! Nearly eight! You want a hot breakfast or a cold one?”
Jeffrey stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist. Kimmy knocked on the door. “Jeffrey? Need to brush my teeth.”
When he opened the door his younger sister stood, her eyes half asleep, her hair in a neat mass of tangles that sloped to one side of her head. Jeffrey playfully mussed her hair. “You awake?”
“It’s Sunday. Aren’t we supposed to sleep in a little?” She walked past him to the sink, still clutching the stuffed elephant she’d slept with since she was a toddler.
Jeffrey yawned, the lack of sleep from the night before finally catching up with him. “I’m the one who was up at four in the morning. Don’t complain to me.”
“Whewe wewe you las nigh?” she asked into the mirror, her mouth filled with toothpaste foam. Kimmy, Jeffrey had noticed more and more lately, was attentive for a seven-year-old.
“What do you mean?”
She spat into the sink. “Your friend was here and then Dad came home and you both left.
And I heard you come in after midnight.”
“What were you doing awake after midnight?” She shrugged into the mirror. “Had to pee.” Jeffrey sighed. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Do you like him? Your friend?”
“Of course I do.”
“But I mean, do you like like him? Like my friend Bethany likes this boy Nathaniel. She says she wants to kiss him. Like that’s how I mean.”
Jeffrey looked at his sister and couldn’t help but see the resemblance to Al in her wide forehead, her squinty eyes. “Go get ready for breakfast, okay? Before Mom yells at you.”
She smirked and skipped out of the bathroom.
Breakfast was a spread of eggs and pancakes and toast and, of course, the freshly killed deer, cooked and fried with onions on the stove. The smell made Jeffrey’s stomach turn.
“Mmm, smells good in here!” Al, freshly showered, crept up behind Jeffrey’s mom while she stood at the stove and wrapped his arms around her waist. Jeffrey could see the pinkness of his just-shaved skin, and noted how odd he looked without facial hair, like a plucked chicken.
The rosacea blooms of drink were much more apparent on his cheeks.
His mom nuzzled her face into Al’s neck and Jeffrey stood, watching this exchange from the kitchen table where he’d been placing down a variety of mismatched plates, cups, and forks. Maybe he didn’t have to worry so much. Maybe his mom really was happy. This thought lingered only until Al smacked her sweatpants-bottom playfully and in the same breath of repeating how great the food smelled, said he’d be spending the afternoon at the Hosey to watch the game with his buddies.
Jeffrey’s mom turned around to face Al, and Jeffrey pretended to busy himself with the order of knife and fork. Sundays was always meant to be family day, and Al knew it.
“What do’ya mean? I thought you were staying here today? It’s Sunday!”
“Yeah, I was, but it’s a big game, and it’s one of the guys’ birthdays.”
She walked past him to put a plate piled with fluffy yellow eggs on the table. “So you’ll be gone. Again.”
“Just for a few hours.”
Jeffrey knew, judging from the tone in his mom’s voice, the subtle hurt of it, that if they went one more round he’d have to intervene. Thankfully, Kimmy came in at just the right time to distract them from continuing.
“Kimmy, will you get your old man a beer?”
“Jesus, Al. You can’t wait till noon?”
“Why you always raggin’ on me, woman? Besides, we need to celebrate. We had a special morning out hunting, didn’t we son?” Al roughly gripped Jeffrey’s shoulder.
Jeffrey took his seat at the table as his mom scraped the chunks of venison from the skillet onto a large dish on the table.
“Oh? How so?” asked his mom. She looked at him wide-eyed, expectant, and Jeffrey all at once took pity on her sweatpants, her oversized tee shirt, her unruly hair. She was once beautiful, he decided, before she became worn out.
The question went unanswered as everyone else took their seats and began to dive in, eating in the way of the starved. His mom made too much food, as always, a symptom of her years of never having enough food. Jeffrey winced as his younger sister scooped large piles of eggs and meat and pancakes onto her plate, ate quickly, and then went back for more, just as Al did. His mom, on the other hand, put on her plate only enough for her to eat, taking small, slow bites, as though there might not be enough and if that were the case she’d be the one to sacrifice.
“Jeffrey, eat some of the venison. You need your protein,” his mom said, pointing with her fork at the few bits of meat and onions left on the center plate.
Jeffrey looked down at his own plate and pushed around some eggs. “I’m just not really in the mood for it,” he said.
“Oh, c’mon now,” said Al. “Your mother goes through the trouble of cooking up this deer and you won’t even try it?”
Jeffrey looked up at him. The naked skin of his cheeks accentuated the full moon of his face, the weakness of his chin. Jeffrey stabbed at a chunk of sautéed meat and popped it into his mouth, chewed and forced a swallow.
Al patted him on the back. “There y’go, boy.”
“So, tell me about today. You guys got a big one this morning, huh?”
Al pulled out his cell phone from his pocket and showed his mom and Kimmy a photo of the deer he’d taken just before they skinned it. In it, Jeffrey’s hands hovered in complicity above its chest.
“Who shot it?” asked Kimmy. Jeffrey noticed then that she’d been quietly drumming on the table, a soft thud he’d been ignoring.
Jeffrey began to speak but then realized Al was talking, too. “I did. Your brother got scared at the last minute. Had to pull out the rifle and shoot over his head. A bit dangerous, but the damn deer was about to slip away with any more waiting.”
Thud, thud, thud on the table.
“Oh, Jeffrey,” said his mom, somewhat sadly. “You were so close. Would’ve been your first one!”
Jeffrey looked at Al, then to his mom. Kimmy kept drumming. Did no one else realize she was drumming? “Yeah, I guess I just got nervous.”
Thud, thud, thud.
“Ya know,” Al spoke through mouthfuls, “you better go back and get your scarf. I bet it might even be gone by now. You know how these neighborhood kids are.”
Jeffrey swallowed a lump of eggs he’d forced himself to eat. “I told you, the scarf’s not mine.”
“It’s funny,” he went on as though he hadn’t heard Jeffrey, “these times you say you get nervous. I don’t see you so nervous when you’re sticking up for your mom, acting like the big man around here. Or when you’re lying. Sneaking out to the woods like I wouldn’t know. What were you and that boy doing out there?”
The drumming kept going, and it felt like it was getting louder and louder. For a moment, Jeffrey considered maybe it was actually coming from inside his head.
“Kimmy! Can you stop that?”
Kimmy’s face began to crumple and she pulled her hands from off of the table. Everyone went silent.
“Al, what are you talking about?” his mom asked, placing a hand on his arm.
“You must all think I’m dumb. The scarf? That boy’s car here last night? He’s over here all the time?”
“He’s my friend.”
“Special friend? What kinda friend?”
“Just a friend.”
He pounded a fist on the table. “Damn it, Jeffrey. You’re lying and I know you’re lying.”
“I’m not lying!”
“So what were you doing in the woods last night? Huh?”
Jeffrey looked Al in the eye, an attempt to show he wasn’t afraid of him. “Talking. We were just talking. There’s no place in this house to have privacy.”
“And why would you need privacy?”
“No,” he said, his face melting into tight laughter. “You must all think I’m stupid,” he repeated. “Stupid Al who comes home tired after work, he won’t notice. Stupid Al who had too many beers, he won’t notice. Huh? That what you all think?”
Jeffrey looked around the table. Kimmy had her head down. His mom had her exposed- emotion face on, looking at Al. Al stared at Jeffrey, as if daring him to say something.
“James is my friend. I don’t know what else you want me to say.”
Al spoke evenly, but tightly, like he was restraining his voice to one level. “I don’t want him over here anymore. What you do in private is your business. I don’t need the neighbors thinking we’re running some kind of freaky factory over here.”
In one quick motion, Jeffrey pushed himself away from the table and stood. “Jeffrey,” his mom pleaded.
“Seriously? You care what the neighbors think? Funny, you don’t seem to care what the neighbors think when you’re stumbling out of the car and into the house? You don’t seem to care then, do you?”
Jeffrey felt his face grow hot, noticed his heart pounding in his chest. “Don’t you raise your voice to me, son!”
“If you cared half as much about my mom as you did about finding out if I’m gay, she would be a much happier woman!”
“If you really want to know if I’m gay, why not just ask me? Huh? You think you know so much about me? You think I like to go hunting with you? You think that’s how we’re bonding? Just ask me! JUST. ASK. ME!”
Jeffrey knew he’d been yelling by the way his throat now felt, raw like sandpaper. He turned to leave while the rest of his family sat in stunned silence. He ran up to his room, determined now to pack all of his things into the tiny suitcase he owned, and leave. Who cared about waiting until the summer? There were high schools in California! They could leave today! Right now! James would understand. They would figure it out together.
He yanked the suitcase from its place in the back of his closet and began throwing things into it, first quickly, then neatly, deliberately. After several minutes, his heartbeat finally slowed to an almost normal rate, though the excitement still pulsed through his body. He heard a knock on the door.
“Kimmy, not now.”
Al’s voice came through the door. “Not Kimmy.”
Jeffrey sighed thickly, stared at the door handle, willed it not to turn.
“Please, just go away.”
“Can’t do that.”
Jeffrey pushed his suitcase to the corner and sat heavily on his bed. “All right. Come in.”
Al stood in his bedroom, and Jeffrey realized he’d never before seen him in here. He looked like a giant in a dollhouse. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his body. He crossed and uncrossed his arms.
“I saw you two kiss. By his car,” he said in one forced breath, like it was something he’d been holding in.
Jeffrey’s eyes widened. He thought back to last night. He had snuck James a kiss, right before he got into his car to go home, knowing that it was risky, that any number of people looking out their windows at the two boys walking in the dark could have seen, but at the moment he didn’t care.
“We didn’t,” he thought to say quickly.
Al raised a hand to silence him. “Enough,” he said.
Jeffrey looked down at his lap. “Just ask me,” he said quietly.
Al sighed. “All right. James and you… you guys are, uh, you’re…are you… together?”
The awkwardness of the question made the words land with a thud in the air between them. Jeffrey turned to look him in the eye. “Yes. James is my boyfriend. And we’re moving away together.”
Al looked down at his shoes, then at the open suitcase in the corner.
There was a deafening silence that seemed to last forever, until Al finally spoke in a soft voice that Jeffrey barely recognized. “Look. I don’t want that boy around here. What you do in your own time is your business, but I won’t have it around here. And you’re not leaving.”
Jeffrey felt a balloon fill his chest. He began to speak in protest, but Al continued.
“You and I gotta make this work. For your mom. Okay? If I lose you, then I lose her, and I can’t… she’s my everything, you understand? And I can’t…” Jeffrey watched as Al’s face twisted into a pained expression. “If you leave—I know she loves me, I know, but you’re her boy. I’m afraid that if you leave…I’m afraid she’ll, hell, I don’t know, let go.”
Jeffrey stared back at Al. He had predicted there would be a scene. He wanted Al to yell, kick him out of the house, give him more of a reason to leave and not come back.
“She’ll be fine,” he said, in a voice angrier than he intended.
To Jeffrey’s surprise, Al’s eyes began to water. “She won’t,” he said. “I know it. You may know her well, but you don’t know how much she loves you. I do.”
Jeffrey shut his eyes. He pictured California. He pictured lying on a beach with James, so far away from this place. He pictured a new life, better than this one. When he opened them, Al was looking at him, a beefy hand outstretched.
“Please,” he said.
Jeffrey felt the blood drain from his head and thought he might be sick, or faint. He wished Al would leave so he could stay firm in his decision. “She’ll be fine,” he repeated, but his voice revealed how little he believed his own words.
Al took a step forward. “Please,” he said again.
Jeffrey glanced at the half-packed suitcase on the floor, then to Al’s hand, and up to his face. The tears hadn’t made it out of his eyes, but they stayed stuck, welling there. “All right,” he said after a moment. “I’ll stay. But not for you. For her.”
Al turned to face the floor and nodded quickly. “Good. Good.” He looked up at Jeffrey and smiled, relief evident on his face. He turned toward the door.
“Why’d you lie? About the deer? Why didn’t you tell them I shot it?”
He shrugged. “Your mom doesn’t want to hear you killed anything. She likes to think of you in a certain way.”
Jeffrey nodded. Al lingered half in the doorway, staring at the wooden frame. Jeffrey wondered if he should say something.
“You and I gotta make this work,” Al repeated.
Jeffrey stared at the suitcase, studying the neatly folded belongings inside of it, the hope that this held only minutes ago now flooding out of him.
Al looked at Jeffrey as though he wanted to say something else, but instead turned away, and Jeffrey watched as his body filled the tiny hallway that led to the stairs. Once out of sight, Jeffrey turned to the suitcase against the wall and sat resignedly on the floor next to it, letting tears flood as he unpacked the items he’d hastily thrown in, one by one.