“We need to get you a gun,” my old man says. The dining room table is littered with pistols, all shining with oil from a fresh cleaning. Mom hates seeing this but it’s been Dad’s Saturday ritual since before I was born. He’s careful not to make a mess or let the oil soak through into the wood. A small stain under the centerpiece very literally almost cost them their marriage.
“You’re growin’ up, and boys are gonna start noticin’ soon.” He takes a cotton ball wrapped in wire and slathers it in gun oil, then slides it down the barrel of .32. He repeats this for each empty chamber, then takes another cotton ball with fresh oil, holds the revolver by the stock, and carefully polishes the brushed steel exterior.
“Older boys are gonna notice it too,” he goes on. “And I know you’re plenty wily, but if one of ’em manages to get his hands on you, you might not be able to slip away.” He looks me up and down and winks at me. “Not so easily, anyway.”
I scratch my shoulder. I don’t want to be here, but I wandered in without thinking, and now that we’re talking I can’t think of a reason to break away. I could feign a text message but my phone’s in my room, and that could set him off on a tangent about cell phones that would delay my imaginary meet-up by an hour or two. It’s a little after eleven. There’s every possibility that I’m stuck in this chair until two.
My mother silently shuffles to the kitchen from the living room. I hear the cupboards and the clack of oven dials as she makes herself some instant coffee. The phone rings, and in her irritable muffle my mother answers it.
“We need to take you out to the range sometime soon,” Dad says. He checks the sights and lays the .32 on the towel. Usually I implode inside when he suggests this. The shooting range almost always buries an entire weekend in gun trivia and sight adjustment. But now that he’s retired he has a habit of letting time slip by. “Sometime soon” could be next year.
“Melissa!” Mom growls. “Phone for you!” Dad looks surprised that I’m getting a call. He goes on about how my friends haven’t called for awhile, forgetting I have the cell phone, while I get up for the kitchen.
“It’s that boy,” she spits, shoving the phone at me. It’s my phone but she has a habit of answering it if it rings near her. I barely catch it before it can clatter to the tile. “Hello?”
“Hey.” It’s Richard. Mom didn’t like him because she thought he was sniffing after me. Now she doesn’t like him because she thinks he’s gay. “You wanna go out into the Badlands today? I’m bored.”
Gay or not, Mom will lose her mind if I’m alone with him. “I gotta work,” I tell him.
“Cool!” He sounds excited when he hears the code. “Alright, I’ll be by the creek in a bit.”
“You gotta work?” Dad asks. He sounds let down.
“Ms. Parker asked me to cut her grass this Saturday. She wants to keep it short before fall hits, she says.”
“Oh.” He lowers his gaze to the .45. If he wants to guilt another hour from me it won’t work.
“Anyway, I should go.” I go to hug him. He stares at my chest the whole time I walk forward, then lowers his eyes and gives me a one-arm.
“Love you,” he tells me. “Don’t work too hard. It’s still hot out.”
“I won’t.” I turn to leave, decide to leave my phone in my room. They wouldn’t think to call even if I had it on me. I pass through the living room where my mother watches the news. “Love you Mom!” I say without stopping.
She gives me a suspicious look and mutters “Love you too.”
Outside I walk through the opening in the driveway, then cut around to the backyard, running my hands across the old fence. The vines have only gotten thicker, and needle sharp thorns poke my fingers. Behind the house, beyond the wall of thorns, I feel the guilty relief that comes with knowing I am beyond their reach.
He kiss for a little bit, then fumble until our pants are off and I’m sitting on top of him. We’re hunkered down low, by a section of the creek cut low into the earth. I’m hugging him and quietly looking around in case someone walks by. He’s breathing hard, and where his nose is against my neck I feel sweaty.
I hear the huffing of coyotes, but other than that we’re alone. I’m not worried about the animals. They never bother us, just hang around until they smell the bowls of food my parents put out for them. I feel Richard squeeze my shoulders and tighten up.
Finally the low tickling warmth fades from my stomach and I climb off, wrinkling my nose at the smell. It always feels a little itchy when we’re finished, but I just ignore it and put my jeans back on. Richard pulls the condom off and shoves it into the leaves.
“My brother keeps asking me why I want those,” he says for no real reason. “He thinks you’re my girlfriend.”
I straighten my waistline and sit down against a tree. “Am I?”
He shrugs. “Do you want to be?”
And I just say: “I don’t know.”
We just sit around for an hour, then we’re kissing, and maybe a couple of hours later we do it again.
When I get back to the house Mom is filling big metal bowls with dog food. She slides them under the brier fence, and yipping coyotes fall all over each other to eat. I stay back until I see her tighten her robe and head back inside. The coyotes completely ignore me as I walk the perimeter to the driveway.
“Took you awhile to cut that grass,” Mom growls when I walk in. I ignore the look she’s giving me.
“Yeah, Mr. Parker had to go get oil for the lawn mower.” I round the corner into the hall before she can ask me how much I got paid.
In the bedroom I see my sister on the floor, playing with my phone. Her face is lit up and she seems to be playing some kind of game.
“Hey Melissa!” she chirps.
“Hey Sammie. Whatcha doin’?”
“I put this game on your phone,” she says, swiping her finger across the screen.
“Oh. Hey, can I see that for a second?” I take the phone from her and check the data. Fuck. It’s several hundred megabytes over the limit. No more emailing Richard until I can afford to add more.
The irritation I feel shines like a full moon, threatening to swell into a tidal rage. But I keep my tone calm and just pocket the phone. “That all ya been up to today?”
She rolls over on her back, bored. “I don’t wanna go outside. I hate it when they feed the coyotes.”
“I know you do, kid.” I turn off the internet on my phone and hand it back to her. “Knock yourself out.”
That night at dinner Mom complains about me cutting grass. “I mean, I guess I understand. Boys like to walk down the street on the weekend.”
It’s a clumsy and awkward thing to say, and I’m almost embarrassed for her so I overlook the attempted insult. Dad left one pistol on the table, an old .38, and despite Mom whining about it he insists on keeping it out until it’s cleaned.
Sammie’s playing with my phone still. Mom looks irritated about that but is determined to elicit some kind of comment from Dad about me being outside so much. Seeing my little sister so absorbed breaks my heart. I remember the fear and fascination that came to me with the phone. It is a chain link reaching beyond these walls. No wonder my mother hates it so much.
Mom continues to complain about the gun, and Dad just silently stares into his plate while he eats. Outside, coyotes howl.
“Melissa, could you feed them?” Mom asks when I get up to wash my plate. Her usual sourness becomes concern whenever she hears “her babies.”
“That cop said we’re not allowed to feed them,” I tell her from the kitchen.
“What? Speak up when you talk!”
“I said we’re not allowed to feed them! They’ll write you guys another citation.”
“I can’t believe they did that!” Dad pipes up. “What do they expect us to do? Let ‘em starve?”
“They won’t starve, Dad. They’re wild animals. They feed themselves.”
“They’ve gotten too used to us feeding them, Melissa!” Mom condescends with her tone, like I’ve overlooked something obvious. As though I’m the one threatening them with fines. “They can’t feed themselves anymore!”
“Sure they can. I see dead animals outside all the time.” I rinse the plate. “That cop said the coyotes were the reason those dogs disappeared.”
“Oh, I don’t believe that! Those things are just big babies!”
Outside I pour kibble into dog bowls, and squeeze them through holes in the brier fence. The coyotes scramble the instant the food clears the thorns. In their frenzy, I feel teeth brush against my wrist. Their breath smells like blood.
After school on Monday Richard and I make our way to the creek bed. We do it and then try to kiss for awhile. The kissing is okay. If we kiss while he’s still inside, it distracts me from the weird emptiness that comes after we finish.
I kind of want to stop but it doesn’t seem like I’ll be able to. I keep making up my mind to tell Richard we shouldn’t do this for awhile, but then we’re alone and it’s the first thing both of us start to do.
I don’t really want to go home. It’s getting cooler and the sun is prettier in the afternoons than it was in the summer. I untie my braids and talk to Richard about the coyotes. At some point my head is in his lap, and he starts to snore. I close my eyes.
I open my eyes to the cries of coyotes, and now it’s dark. I jerk upright, and hit Richard in the arm. He takes a deep breath and wakes up, rubbing his eyes and looking confused. His hair falls in his face as he tries to sit up.
“Shit,” he mumbles.
“Fuck! My mom’s gonna kill me!” I get up, wiping dirt and leaves off my butt. The barking is getting closer. It must be close to feeding time.
“Mmm…you gonna be okay?” Richard stands up, catches his balance. He’s tired and breathing heavy.
“I don’t know. Hey.” And for no reason I kiss him. “You should be my boyfriend.”
“Why?” He’s only more confused now.
“Because.” And I climb out of the dip. He follows me.
“So we’re together now?”
“I guess so.”
“Okay.” He stands for a moment, then kisses my cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay.” And we’re both running home.
Mom’s still pouring kibble behind the house when I walk through the driveway. I go inside without letting her know I’m there.
Dad’s cleaning a pistol on the couch, and when he sees me he jumps up. “Oh, Jesus!” he gasps, and runs over to hug me. He holds on long after I’m comfortable with it, and kisses me on the neck. “Where the hell were you?”
“Just outside,” I tell him, wriggling free. He tries to tighten his grip and keep hugging me, and I almost have to shove to get him off me. “I was hanging out with Richard.”
“We didn’t mean to be out late. It was just that the sun was setting when we started walking back.”
I see him look outside, in the panicked way he does when he thinks of the world beyond his routine. How had he ever been a cop?
I walk out the room, ignoring Sammie’s scared look from the hall when I pass. I’m pouring a glass of water when Mom comes in. She freezes, but I refuse to turn around and see the stare she has to be giving me. Finally she slams the heavy bag of dog food onto the floor. I still don’t turn around.
“Where the hell have you been?!” She’s so furious the question is screamed flat. “Who do you think you are to make me worry? How dare you be out this late!”
The microwave says it’s not even eight. I don’t bring this up. I can only weather this.
I feel her nails dig into both shoulders, and she whirls me around and hits me in the face. Her hand knocks the glass out of my grip and it shatters on the floor.
“Dammit! Look what you’ve done!” And I hunch my shoulders as she keeps hitting me.
“You goddamn brat!” she shrieks. “You goddamn little brat! Who do you think you are?”
“Jesus, Susan, stop!” Dad yells, and he shoves himself between me and her. She keeps swinging, but now she’s beating on him.
“Oh, you always take her side!” She’s digging her nails into the flannel shirt he always wears. “I know what you want to do! You and her both disgust me!”
Dad grabs her wrists, and Mom makes this bellowing cry. She’s obnoxious about it, yelling like she’s terrified but doing so right in his face. “Get your hands off me! Don’t you dare lay a finger on me!”
And she pulls free and runs into the living room, still screaming.
“Goddammit!” Dad yells at me, running after her. “Why can’t you just keep yourself in line for a fucking change!” And he runs after her, because he never misses a step in this dance.
They scream, and scream, and Sammie screams too because that’s what she does when she cries, and I go outside to the snarling of coyotes.
I can still hear Sammie crying hysterically upstairs. When you’re eight a fight is practically a war.
I hear Dad yelling: “You want me to use this? You know what could happen if I pull the trigger?”
I’m outside, so I don’t know if he’s pointing the gun at himself or waving it at Mom. It’s around midnight, close to the last feeding of the day. I sit outside the brier fence and listen.
They’re yelling louder than they usually do. Mom keeps shrieking about the way people “look” at me. Sometimes she says Dad looks at me. Dad calls Mom crazy. He tells her she ruined his life. He calls her evil. Mom calls herself a child of God and says Dad is sick.
They yell and midnight becomes one in the morning. I take out my phone and look at Richard’s number. Coyotes wait around, snapping and huffing.Midnight has come and gone, and there wasn’t any food.
One becomes two. They’re still shouting. Then there’s a flash and something that sounds like a dull pop.
I freeze in the new September chill. Dad is screaming “Oh my God! Oh my God!” Mom isn’t shouting anymore.
I hear Sammie screaming too, almost drowning Dad out. Then there’s another pop. Now it’s just Sammie screaming to herself, over and over. I don’t hear any more shots.
Richard’s number glows on my phone. I hear Sammie weep into the kitchen phone. Faint lights, red and blue, begin to flicker through the trees. I hear heavy breathing in the dark.
Behind me, beyond the brier fence, the coyotes lie unseen in the night.