The hunter's daughter cover

The HUNTER’S DAUGHTER

Robert Soul

CHAPTER ONE

The boy looked at his hands for the first time in a long time as he touched her shoulders and then as he moved them down the middle of her back and then lower and then up again slowly up to her left shoulder then to her right shoulder and then down again. She requested this after. He hadn’t looked at his hands this way ever. They had become unfamiliar to him. He was an outside observer for that moment and he felt they were not hands worthy to touch the girl’s body. It was a judgment he hadn’t wanted to make but he saw it with his own eyes and it was unmistakable. He didn’t want to believe it so he focused on her and her body and not his hands.

“I’m scared,” she said.

“What do you want to do?” he asked.

She sat up.

“I have to tell them.”

Combing her long hair with her fingers, she turned to him.

“They don’t know. They just think… Oh, they’re going to go crazy. I’m scared. I want to but I’m scared. You know I want to, right?”

“I know. We’ll tell them this weekend,” he said, feeling selfish and thinking of his hands again.

“You don’t understand my family. It isn’t that simple.”

“I love you,” he said.

“I know. It’s going to be okay, isn’t it?” she said.

He nodded, wanting to believe it.

The boy told the girl something that made her laugh to lighten the mood. They could always make each other laugh. He whispered something in her ear and she laughed again and she whispered in his ear. They made love again and whispered in each other’s ears some more, late into the night, and eventually they fell asleep.

The very first time he saw her she was at a coffee shop ahead of him in line. It was a chilly rainy day, the kind of day when seemingly everyone you talk to mentions the rain and how long it’s been raining and how they wish it would stop. And the old people say ‘how much we’ve needed it’. It was one of those days when you felt like the rain was permanent and you wonder if you’ll ever see the sun again. Having to change the way you look at life because it never stops raining is an irritating thing and you can start to hate the rain very much.

She was in front of him ordering a venti non-fat latte and he was next, ready to order his tall house coffee. When he came in from behind he saw her in her Christopher Blue or Nordstrom whatever trousers and they fit her perfectly. He thought she was probably the kind of girl who wouldn’t have worn anything but Nordstrom. She ordered her coffee. Her voice was like Scarlett Johansson’s , a smoky, husky, contralto voice. Venti non-fat latte never sounded better. He immediately thought of her working behind the counter calling out all the orders for coffee and him coming in every day for a couple hours just to hear her work. Her voice was imprinted on his brain.

He ordered a tall house coffee every time because it was cheap and because nearly half the time they gave it to him for free. He would order and the person at the register would say, “Oh, we’ll have to make a fresh pot.” Then he would start to give them something to pay for it and they would say, “It’s on us.” It was the norm unless it was someone new working. They would take his money and say, “It’s going to take about five minutes. What was your name again?” Whether he had to pay or not they would always ask if he wanted room for cream and he would say yes.

He noticed she sat down at a quiet corner table in the café and after fixing his coffee the way he liked the boy walked up to her.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” he said.

“Excuse me?” she said with her voice muffled behind her venti non-fat latte.

“If you don’t, or even if you do- I might as well ask either way, what are you doing later?”

“Wow. This isn’t a bar,” she said, sipping her coffee and looking out the window.

He noticed what she did with her lips, sort of pouting.

“Going to the game and have an extra ticket. Are you in?”

“No.”

“No, you don’t have a boyfriend or no, you’re not available tonight?”

“No and no,” she said. She still looked out the window.

It looked to her like the cars in the parking lot were on the other side of a waterfall. She looked back at the boy as he processed the two no’s.

“Oh, then, later tonight or tomorrow, are you free?” he asked.

She did not respond.

“Anne? Are you free tomorrow?” he asked.

When he said her name she noticed the smooth resonance of his voice. She turned and looked at him and his huge biceps and his dark brown, spiky hair.

“Do we know each other?” she asked.

“You said your name was Anne, when you ordered.”

Stalker, she thought, and giggled to herself. Cute stalker.

“Can we do something tomorrow? Are you free?” he asked.

That would sound desperate, she thought, if it weren’t for the fact he was saying it, with his nice voice.

“No. Not tomorrow. I’m free now. If we talked for ten minutes will you be happy? Will you leave me alone?”

“I only asked if you had a boyfriend because I don’t want to…”

“Take another dude’s girl?” she asked.

“And now I know you don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Right. I’m engaged. Well…I was,” she said.

He sat down facing her and she
moved herself away a bit from the table. She looked at him with pouty lips.

“You’re very pretty,” he said.

She smiled with polite closed lips.

“I’ve been engaged,” he said. “Married too, but not now.”

“She left you or you left her?”

“She left me.”

“Did you cheat on her?”

“No. Do I somehow look like someone who would cheat on his wife?”

“How long were you married?” she asked, looking out the window. It was still raining but lighter now. He had noticed that too.

“Six months.”

“Oh, God. Really?” she asked, completely engaged again in the conversation.

“Really.”

“Where is she now?”

“Heaven,” he said.

“What? Okay, are you joking?”

“No. She died. Plane accident.”

“I don’t believe you,” she said, but tears were starting to form.

“What the hell are you crying for?” she thought.

“I’m making you cry,” he said. He felt like an ass now, walking up to some girl and making her cry with his sad pathetic story.

“No, I’m sorry,” the girl said, wiping her eyes. “What was her name?”

“Sarah.”

“When did this happen?”

She moved her chair closer to the table and to the boy across from it.

“Two years.”

Anne looked at his eyes, looking beyond them, deeper. She breathed a full breath and let it out slowly.

“My sister died two years ago,” she said.

And so this was the very first time the boy saw her. They saw each other later that night, after her date. He didn’t have to buy tickets to the game since she said she “couldn’t break the date” she had already that night. It didn’t keep her from ending it as soon as she could though, much to the chagrin of her date. She waved from the front porch of her parent’s house and as soon as he had driven away she got in her car and drove as fast as she could.

The girl’s heart beat as fast as she was driving and by the time she had parked and paid for admission she felt like she had a fever, standing in the rain in the middle of a crowded State Fair midway. This is where he had said to meet her but where was he? She looked around and all she saw were faces of people she had never seen. She wasn’t sure she could remember his. No, she remembered. Her heart beat faster and she breathed heavier. Suddenly she felt a hard, warm chest behind her and thick strong arms wrap around her. She turned around and he kissed her and she let him. Then she pushed him away.

“I said I would meet you, not…”

“It was just a kiss. I won’t do it again unless you want me to.”

“I don’t want you to,” she said.

He knew she was lying but he didn’t say anything. He just smiled.

“I mean it. Don’t think you can just…”

“I’m sorry.”

He took her hand and they started walking as the rain stopped.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked, trying to sound irritated.

“You’ll see.”

She had never felt like this with her fiancé. Her heart felt like it was beating in her throat and she began to feel self-conscious, as if everyone they walked past could see that she was falling in love. Is that what this is, she thought. Oh my God, I don’t even know this boy. I don’t care. It felt so good not to care.

“Here we are,” the boy said as they stopped, in line for a Ferris wheel ride.

“I can’t do this,” she said, worried about what she might do if he didn’t listen.

“What do you mean? I told you I wouldn’t kiss you again unless you wanted me to.”

“I get claustrophobic on the ones with the cages,” she said leaning away from him.

“I’m serious, I won’t try anything.”

They were next in line.

“Are you riding, or not?” the teenaged carnie barked.

“We are. Just a second.” The boy felt embarrassed.

He looked at the girl. She had squeezed his hand tighter.

“I mean it. I can’t do this.” the girl said.

The boy pulled her into the cage of the Ferris wheel, swinging in and down into the seats. She slapped him and forced the door open as the carnie began to fasten it shut. The boy shrugged to the carnie, embarrassed, and followed her. She had fast legs, much faster than the boy would have ever thought. Only when she stopped to catch her breath was he able to catch up to her and when she saw him approach she began to run again.

“Stop, please! I’m not going to be able to catch you,” he said laughing and out of breath and rubbing a sore knee.

She stopped but didn’t face him. He turned her around and she forced herself free of his hand with another slap to his face.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

“No you didn’t,” she said, realizing how much she had cried and how hard she had slapped him and feeling embarrassed by both.

“I thought you were kidding,” the boy said breathing heavily. “It won’t happen again.”

“No. You’re right. It won’t,” she said, turning again to walk away.

She had started to cry again.

The boy ran ahead of her, pushing through a small crowd of teenagers who had been watching them.

“Give me another chance,” he said walking alongside of her and deciding not to touch her for fear of another slap.

Now he stood in front of her and as she stopped he flinched.

“What’s your name again?” the girl asked wiping her eyes and her nose.

“Thomas,” the boy said.

“Well Thomas, I’m still recovering from a relationship and so I made a mistake about tonight. Please leave me alone. Don’t ever talk to me again.”

“No. I’m the one who made a mistake. I’m the one. Give me another chance. We’ll do what you want.”

She didn’t respond and continued walking out of the amusement park to her car. When they reached her car he hadn’t stopped following her and after realizing that begging wasn’t working he was now trying to be charming.

“Anne, listen. When you’re through being upset I’ll be waiting. Twenty years. A thousand years. If the great Anne is through with being upset and is able to forgive, give this man a chance.”

He knelt on one knee, the one that wasn’t sore.

The girl noticed how his hair glistened from the light of the moon.

A couple holding hands were walking towards the entrance of the fair and saw the boy get on one knee and they stopped to look and the girl saw them looking. She pulled the boy up off his kneeling position.

“Okay. I’m not upset. I just…You don’t even know me, Thomas. I’m not upset with you. I just have a problem right now and I don’t think you are going to help. It’s better for both us.”

He stood very close to her and she wanted to kiss him.

“I can help but if you need me to give you some time, I understand. Just don’t wait too long. If you wait until I’m too old I might not be as handsome.”

She smiled and looked at his dark eyes and strong cheek bones and wished he would kiss her.

“You are very handsome and just as foolish,” she said angrily.

She unlocked her car and he stood back as she got in, waiting for her to say something. She shut the door, started the car, and rolled the window down.

“We didn’t have a very good first date,” she said, “so let’s not count it.”

Tears began to fall down her face.

“No. I guess it wasn’t,” he said, gently wiping her tears.

“It wasn’t your fault. Take me out next Friday.”

“Until then?” he asked.

“Next Friday, seven.”

She rolled up her window, smiled, and drove away, crying fully.

Never in her life did Anne ever feel so happy.

The boy knew eventually it would feel good, maybe even really good.

CHAPTER TWO

The sun was about to set and the three of them rode fast down the country road in the Ford extended cab dually truck. The recent rain kept the otherwise dusty road from kicking up in spite of the fact they were going about ninety miles an hour.

“John Riley and I were going down this road one time,” the old man said, “and George Hall was riding on the hood of my car. I don’t know why but he always got on people’s hoods when they were about to leave to go somewhere. John told me I better slow down. I had told George he better get off but he didn’t listen. I just kept driving faster and faster.”

“Damn, Dad. Did he fall off?” asked the old man’s son. He was sitting between the boy and the old man.

“No. John was telling me, ‘You better slow down Bill,’ and so I eventually slowed down. He would have fallen off and died and it would have looked bad. George Hall was a fool, always getting on people’s hoods. I was probably up to ninety before I slowed down.”

“Damn, Dad,” the old man’s son said.

This is going to be my father-in-law, the boy thought to himself. His stomach was sick and it wasn’t because the truck caught air every time they met the crest of a hill on that country road.

“How many times you been down Eli Road, Dad?”

“Many. You see that land over there?” The old man was talking to the boy. “I’ll never forgive myself but there’s a thousand acres I could have got for thirty dollars an acre. Bitsy told me to get it but I didn’t listen. I should have listened to Bitsy. It’s worth about five hundred an acre now and some pretty good hunting land, too. I will never forgive myself, and it would have connected the two pieces we have, too. I should have listened to Bitsy.” Again to the boy, “We’re going to stop down at the river along the bridge and take a couple shots, give you a chance to shoot the rifle.”

“Okay,” said the boy. He had shot a rifle a few times but this would be his first hunting experience. He’d never killed anything. “Okay, sounds good,” the boy said, trying to make sure it was clear he was perfectly comfortable.

They had just come from the cabin, a nine-bedroom, two-kitchen, cabin with at least two hundred animals from all over the world, mounted to the walls. The old man had killed plenty prey. There were Tanzanian gazelles, zebras from the Angola, Indonesian water buffalo, Alaskan black bear, deer from all over, cheetahs, Bolivian jaguar, spotted hyena, and Greenland reindeer. In a place of prominence on one side of the common room the old man’s favorite harvested animals were mounted, the Greater Kudu, the Gemsbock, and what the old man called the great Elk. A lion stood at the far end of the main common room.

The lion king from Kenya stood between two long halls with staircases at the end of each and the boy had followed the old man’s son down the hall on the right when he was taken upstairs and shown his room. When he walked through the door to his room, he turned to his left and on the floor along the wall beside the bed stretched a stuffed Zambian Nile crocodile on all fours. The boy had laid down flat on that bed, looking up to the ceiling, wondering how he was going to tell the old man he had already asked his youngest of seven and his only daughter, to be his wife, and now he was hoping for a blessing.

They approached the full and fast moving river, still in the truck, and drove down its steep bank next to the bridge and the old man killed the engine and got out.

“I’ll take this across to the other side, down aways, and you two can take a shot at it before we lose daylight,” said the old man, holding a magazine in his hand. “You can shoot for this lamp. Try to hit the top on the shade.” The old man pressed his pointer finger into the magazine. “Aim for the middle of the lamp shade.”

It was a full page advertisement with a picture of a lamp in the middle of the page. He ripped the page out of the magazine, walked up and over the bridge, and back down to the opposite river bank and with a grunt, pushed a tree branch through the page. What was left of the sun was just barely shining on the branches of the tops of the trees.

“There. Now Mike, you go first and then we’ll give him a chance to get used to the rifle and take a couple shots, then we’ll get him set up for early in the morning,” said the old man.

The son had already pulled the rifle out of the cab of the truck and had rested it on the corner of the back of the truck. After the two put in earplugs, the son showed the boy the safety button and how to put a bullet in the chamber and how to take the shell out and replace it with another bullet and then readied himself down with his head close to the scope. The old man walked up and away from the target, up the bank and back towards the bridge.

“Hmmm…that’s about forty yards,” the son said quietly whispering. “What do you do again?” he asked the boy.

“Baseball,” the boy said.

“Where do you bat in the lineup?” the son asked with his eyes and body completely focused on the target.

“Leadoff.”

“Hell,” the son laughed, “we should’ve had you go first.”

The son took a deep breath.

“This gun’s extremely accurate, so… all you have to do… is make sure… you’ve got it in the scope… and gently squeeze…”

The son counted to himself, “One…Two…Three…”

Pop!

The son emptied the chamber and put in a new bullet with one smooth motion, put the safety on, and handed the rifle to the boy. The old man made his way back down to the target and inspected it.

“Good shot Mike. Very close to the lamp. Now, let him shoot it.”

“Wait,” the son said. “Let me look at it.”

The son walked up and over the bridge to the other side to his father and the target. He looked at the page of the magazine and was pleased with himself and the boy heard the old man say to the son, ‘very close’.

“Try to get the lamp. Try to get it in the heart of the lampshade,” the old man yelled back to the boy. “Take a couple shots,” he said as he walked back to his spot up the bank, away from the target.

“Give it a whack, Leadoff,” the son said to the boy, shaking each pant leg to dry them as he walked back to sit down near the boy on a fallen tree.

The boy felt nervous but he wasn’t shaking like he had expected to. The rifle felt comfortable in his shoulder and the scope fit perfectly up to his face. It all felt like the right length with his arms and shoulder and the trigger felt good against his finger so he didn’t feel any need to spend any more time getting comfortable. He just closed his left eye and looked through the scope with his right. His body didn’t shift or feel like shifting. He breathed easy, looking at the picture of the lamp steadily through the scope. He felt ready so he squeezed. Nothing. His eyes scrunched together, thinking. The safety was still on. He acted as if he hadn’t just tried to fire and slowly moved his finger to switch the safety to fire. Back on the trigger he was indeed ready this time. He saw the lamp and squeezed gently.

Pop!

The rifle fired and he stayed still. He could see the target and the hole he had just made. The old man walked back down to see the evidence. The boy reloaded the rifle in a smooth action as the shell fell to the rocks on the edge of the river, tinging a few times, until it landed in a current and was swept away.

“How did it feel?” the old man’s son asked the boy.

“Nice shot!” the old man called from across the river.

“It felt good,” the boy said. He wasn’t sure how he would feel up to that point and was glad to be telling the truth.

“Take a couple more shots if you want, Leadoff.”

The old man now walked quickly toward them with the magazine. He was holding the picture from the magazine up high and proud and the son saw the lamp with his shot on the edge of it and another hole directly in the middle of the lamp shade. The son looked at the old man’s smile and then at the boy. He looked at him long and studied him. The old man slapped the magazine down on the corner of the truck.

“Right in the heart of it!” the old man said feeling twenty-five years younger. “Let’s go. You’re good. Let’s get you set up for the morning.”

The boy felt uneasy about the way the old man’s son had looked at him. He thought the girl’s father would be the difficult one but now he was afraid he’d have to try to win her brothers over too. Then the son gave the boy a slap on the back.

“Nice job, Leadoff,” the old man’s son said. “That was quick. We’re gonna get you a deer tomorrow!”

The sun had dropped completely now, below the horizon.

CHAPTER THREE

The boy’s feet were beyond cold. They were no longer aching but numb and heavy. The old man’s son had gotten the boy up at four-thirty that morning and dropped him off at the blind they had set up the night before. It was about a mile into the heart of Cyrus’s woods, the 1,800-acre hunting land their family had used for generations. It was named after Anne’s great grandfather, Cyrus Degroot. The boy sat there perfectly still trying not to think about how strange his feet felt to him. The son had given him special socks with pockets on the tops that allowed for chemical heating packs. He had broken them open on the way to the blind and put them into his socks but they never seemed to have worked. It was too late to take them out to see if he could get them to work. He had to be perfectly still, only moving his neck and shoulders as slow as possible.

A full moon shined down on the sixteen square-foot tent. He sat on a chair that swiveled and to his left was a zipped down window and the same was on his right. In front of him was another wider but shorter window and he looked through it with the scope of the rifle. His eyes had fully adjusted to the dark. In front of the blind and to the left was a densely wooded area and to the right of the tent was the meadow. They brought him there at five-thirty that morning and told him that at dusk he would have his best opportunity. They had laid out corn and the deer would come and eat it. He had never killed anything and he had never planned to but now he was ready and unemotional about it. He knew it was just something he had to do but he also felt excited about changing. He felt he had already changed since coming to her parents’ ranch. The old man liked him and it felt like the beginning of a change. As the boy slowly moved from left to right, peering intensely through the scope, he thought that life would be different after this.

The dark frozen air of the woods seemed to put time in torpor. Every second felt like a life time. Nothing moved as he looked through the scope. He moved slowly from the left, to center, to the right, and back slowly to center and then to the left. Nothing moved and if he weren’t moving, the boy thought, he might have already become part of the frozen woods. His whole body was frozen and there seemed to be no difference between the air in his chest and the air around him.

Anne was a beautiful creature, he thought. He thought she was very much like a fawn. She had doe-brown eyes and as he thought back to the first time he had seen her in the coffee shop, she moved gracefully like a deer, slender and sleek. The old man said not to shoot a doe. They needed to keep the does and he had to make sure it was a buck before he shot. He couldn’t just see a deer and shoot. He had to make sure. The boy wouldn’t shoot a doe, he thought, even if it was doe season. He could never kill a doe. Then the boy thought of Sarah.

The boy thought about his deceased wife less every day and it made him both sad and guilty when he remembered her. He thought that even though he was happy with Anne and they were getting married he didn’t know how he could love two people, even if one was dead. Through everything, he would still love Sarah but would he stop loving her after five years, ten years? What about sixty years later? It made him sick to think about it. But now he was thinking about it and there was nothing he could do, freezing his ass off in the woods, thinking about his dead wife and his future wife.

Anne was deeply in love with him and the boy knew it. He didn’t think about it much but he knew he had been in competition without ever meeting his competitors. She took care of that. When they had met she was being wooed by several men and families. Anne’s family was from oil, Texas oil. Degroot Oil. Her grandfather had inherited acres of rich farmland, grazing land, and woods from his extremely wealthy grandfather Cyrus and when Anne’s parents were very young he had drilled on this land and made more money from oil than the Degroots had ever made in cattle. Anne’s father, the old man, had married into this family. He didn’t come from old money and would never have been what he was unless he had married Bitsy Degroot. It hadn’t occurred to the boy until this weekend that the old man would probably like him even more when he found out they had both come from humble beginnings.

Anne said a few times that he reminded her of her father. At first, he didn’t know if she was just saying it to make herself feel good about her decision to give him her heart over the others or if it were really true. He knew now. They had plenty of time together by that weekend and she had told him about the other boys who had been in line to court her. They all came from influential families, most of whom Anne’s mother had known for a very long time. The boy felt unworthy at times but buried that feeling deep because he knew it made her feel insecure. If he was insecure at all, it made her insecure. She had been the only girl to make him feel insecure and it wasn’t money, it was more her unpredictable personality.

One weekend, on their fifth date she had been giving little hints about how he was going to have make more money or become a doctor or something if baseball never worked out. He had hurt his knee the season before, just before they had met.

“I’m never becoming a doctor. I play baseball,” the boy said as he put the car into park and killed the engine. They were in front of her parent’s house. It was dark but the street light shining into the car was enough for him to see her pouty lips. He already heard her sighs of disapproval.

“Then you don’t love me and don’t want to make me happy.”

“No. I need you to love me for who I am, no matter what. I’d love to become a doctor just to make you happy but it’s not going to happen.”

Before the boy could react, Anne had unbuckled her seat-belt and had moved on top of him in the driver’s seat and she began to kiss him and rub herself against him and move her hands all over his body.

“Woah, what are you doing?” the boy asked. “You said we weren’t going to do this. And I thought you were mad at me.”

“Shut up. Let’s sneak into my room. They will never know.”

“What are you doing?”

He firmly moved her off of him and back into the passenger’s seat.

“You don’t love me,” she said, pouting again.

He took a deep breath.

“I just told you I do, but you’re acting weird. First you said we we’re waiting until we were married and you don’t even let me kiss you on the lips and now you want to take me to your room? I don’t understand.”

“No. You don’t. I want you no matter what, but I have to know you would do anything for me. I have to know that not only will you get me the moon, you’ll get me the sun as well. But sometimes you don’t make me think you will. You don’t make me feel loved and I don’t know if I can trust you.”

The boy was speechless. He wanted to tell her he would pull down the moon, sun, or even the stars, the whole sky, if that’s what she wanted, but in his heart he felt it was impossible. He couldn’t help but think about reality. In spite of his love for her and the love he knew she had, it felt like too much, to make her really happy. She deserved to have someone who could get it all for her and he was starting to feel it wouldn’t be him if baseball didn’t work out. He was thinking but not saying anything.

The boy’s lack of response was enough for the girl to say, “Goodbye, then.”

“You mean, good night,” he said.

She opened the car door and got out.

“No, I mean it. This is goodbye, Thomas. I don’t want to see you again.” She slammed the door and then gave out a grunt of frustration. “Not at least until tomorrow night!”

The next night they made up. She said it was okay now if he kissed her on the lips, but no tongue. She felt it would be too much for her and she said he would just have to understand. He did understand and for a long time it made him forget his thoughts from that night before.

Now, seven months later they were about to announce to the whole world they would be getting married. The weekend at her parent’s ranch couldn’t be going any easier. If he could shoot a damn deer it seemed it would seal the deal. Asking for her father’s blessing would be a formality if one of his own kills was mounted along-side her father’s.

Hunting is a sport for the patient and maybe the stubborn, he thought, like baseball. But how patient do I have to be? He didn’t think he was awfully stubborn. He was always a free-spirit which he figured was the opposite of stubbornness (sometimes he thought if he was more stubborn and less free-spirited he’d be a better batter, not that he was a bad at it). But he could shoot a deer, if one would ever show up. His feet were so cold and he wondered how long it would take for them to receive feeling again when he was back at the cabin.

The day was dawning.

The boy’s eyes began to see everything softly but clearly. He looked to the left and slowly to the right, all along the leafy ground, and then up from right to left. Above the tree-line, to his left he focused in on something that he thought had to be very tall. He slowly pulled the riffle up off his lap and pointed it in the direction of the structure and looked through the scope. He didn’t see anything. He looked up from the scope, thinking perhaps he had imagined what he saw but it was still there, strong and tall, clearly high above the trees.

Through the scope he found it. It was stone and it was extremely tall, he thought. It was man-made. It had to be a hundred feet tall or more, he thought. It looked like something you’d see in Central America but not here.

An owl hooted and it sounded like it was right above the blind. Moments later it took flight and the powerful flapping of its wings and the rush of air moving beneath them made the boy wonder how big an owl could get in woods like these. His mind wandered.

Sometimes he wondered about spirits and the souls of people who died and where they went. Would they reside in woods like this? Do they move from place to place or do they go somewhere far beyond the physical world? Would Sarah be able to see him right now or sense him in this blind? Or would she ever be anywhere near ‘here’.

At that moment the boy heard something move to his right. He slowly rotated his neck. He even moved his eyes slowly down to the right, careful to breathe slowly and quietly. It was a doe, completely in the open, just on the edge of the other side of the meadow. He carefully moved his whole body to the right and scrunched his head down just enough to find the doe in the scope of the rifle. She was more than close enough to kill, he thought.

The old man’s son had said that the doe comes into an area first to make sure everything is alright and then the buck can come in if it’s declared safe. So, the boy stayed as still as possible. It wouldn’t be long. Any minute now he’d see a buck in his sights and he would shoot it.

The doe had gone back into the thick of the woods but came out again with three more doe and a very large buck. The boy’s heart was beating fast and stronger. Through the scope he tried to count the points on the buck’s antlers. Thanks to twilight he was pretty sure it was twelve.

Just above the front shoulder, the old man had said. Hit him there and he’ll go down, you’ll get ém.

So, the boy felt for the safety button and made sure the rifle was ready to fire. His hands were shaking all of the sudden and he wondered why now they would be acting up. No one was around. He didn’t have to shoot the deer. Even if he missed, he could claim it was way off and that he had taken a chance and just missed. Everyone would understand if he didn’t come away with one. But he couldn’t live with himself if he let this one walk away. This was so close he shouldn’t miss. He wouldn’t miss if he could get his hands to calm down.

The boy took a deep breath and relaxed his hands and arms. He breathed in through his nose and then slowly exhaled out his mouth. He felt calm until it looked like the buck was turning back towards the woods. Now he felt anxious again. This time however his hands were perfectly still and in control.

He was wrong. The buck wasn’t going back into the woods. In fact he was walking towards the boy which made it harder to see a big enough piece of him to shoot. If the buck would stop and give the same profile as earlier the boy knew he could hit him now. Patience, he told himself. But there’s a big difference between patience and hesitation. He wasn’t going to hesitate. The second he saw a big enough part of this buck he was squeezing the trigger.

The buck stopped coming towards the boy and turned sideways to eat some grain from the meadow. It was enough of a turn to give the boy all he needed. As twilight ended, the sound of the rifle echoed through the field and the entire woods. The buck went down as the sky filled with an orange and blue sunrise.

* * * * *

Hours later, Anne crawled in bed with him. She had one hand on him and it woke him up.

“Sleeping all day?”

“I’m not asleep now,” he said, smiling.

“No, you’re not. You’ve made an impression on my father,” the girl said.

“Let’s not talk about your father right now.”

“He loves you.”

“Because I shot a deer?”

“That was enough for him and Michael.”

“What about Bitsy?”

“My mom takes a while to warm up to people. Guess what. The rest of my brothers are coming in tonight.”

“All of them? I thought it was going to just be Michael.”

“Hah. Mikie’s harmless.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll be fine. But my older brothers are more like my mom.”

“Wonderful.”

“This is going to be a strange weekend for you. I warned you.”

“It’s not so strange so far,” he said, enjoying her company in bed.

“Tell me more about Sarah,” the girl said. “You talk about her when you sleep, you know.”

“I was married to her,” the boy said defensively.

“I just want to know more.”

“Why? And do I have to talk to you about her right now?”

“Your parents said she was wonderful. They said you two were amazing together. They really loved her.”

“Of course, they loved her.”

“But why won’t you tell me about her? I’m not jealous. I just want to hear how you really felt about her.”

“I told you I loved her. Why do I have to tell you about her?”

“I understand if you don’t want to, if you’re still grieving. I know I would be. But, I want to hear you talk about her, maybe because it would be about you, back then.”

“I’m not the same person I was then and I don’t want to be.”

“Okay, I’m sorry. But I can’t promise I won’t ask again.”

“I really do love you, you know.”

“I love you more,” she said, now completely on top of him.

They finished making love and then got dressed.

CHAPTER FOUR

For the last hour they had been hearing movement and several voices downstairs. Anne said that her brothers must be arriving and probably Nora, a ranch cook, who came sometimes for large groups. When she took him by the hand and walked him down the stairs the boy braced himself for meeting the rest of her family. The girl stopped them at the foot of the stairs and the boy saw down the hall a young man smiling and leaning on the lion king.

“Gabe!”

The girl ran down the hall to the young man and the boy watched at the foot of the stairs as she leapt into his arms. The young man held her and turned around once with her legs hanging in air. He was thin and lanky and wore thick dark-rimmed glasses. The skin on his face was smooth and tan. The boy heard him call her something in what seemed to be another language.

“Thomas, this is Gabe,” the girl said. “We haven’t seen him in…”

The brother nodded and reached out to shake hands.

“Eighteen months, a year and a half in Mexico City.”

“You’re the journalist,” the boy said, walking up to them.

“And a poet and short story writer,” the girl said proudly.

“But that’s coming along very slowly thanks to the Mexican government.” He slapped the hide of the lion and motioned them to sit down on a couch in the common room.

“Where is everybody else?” Anne asked.

“A.D., A.W. and Cal are with Dad in the woods and Michael took Mom, Eva, and Nora out to the store because they didn’t have some things. Did you know Ivan will be here too?”

“When?” she asked her brother. “Ivan’s been on a campaign to restructure districts or something,” Anne said turning to the boy. “He’s the American politician in the family.” She sat down tightly next to the boy on the couch and kissed him.

“He should be here tonight,” Gabe said. “All the McKenzies will be here.”

Outside, two trucks pulled up to the cabin.

The old man got out of the truck driven by the girl’s brother, Cal. Cal had the same smooth skin on his face as Gabe but lighter and a scar from his left ear to his mouth.

The other truck was occupied by A.D. and A.W. and they were quicker than the old man to get out of the truck to go inside.

The boy turned just as A.D. and A.W. came into the common room. Anne stood up between them and the boy.

A.W. spoke in a deep hoarse voice.

“We’ve been looking forward to meeting your friend. Anne, why don’t you move out of the way so we can see this man?”

“Yeah, sis,” A.D. added. “Dad said he shot a buck. Maybe you finally brought us a real hunter this time.”

The boy stood up and stuck his hand out and A.D. shook it. A.D. was unusually tall and extremely thick-muscled with no sign of fat on his body anywhere. The boy thought he looked like a fireman times two or more like a marine or special ops soldier by the look of his eyes. They were dark deep set eyes and indicated tragic history well beyond his years. A.D. was a younger version of A.W., a cloned, younger version.

“Will you hunt tomorrow?” A.W. asked, still standing solidly where he stood when he entered the room.

“Sure,” said the boy.

“But not all day,” the girl said. “I’ve barely seen him all weekend because you guys keep sending him out.”

The boy thought for a moment of putting his hand out to shake with A.W. but envisioned him just looking and not accepting it. A.W. looked at him and the boy believed the man knew what he was thinking. So he put his hand out to A.W.

“Thomas Becket,” the boy said, trying to not look intimidated. The boy noticed A.W.’s eyes. One was grey and the other brown. A.W. still hadn’t moved and for what seemed like an hour, although it was just a millisecond, the whole room was frozen, until Gabe spoke.

“This is our oldest brother, A.W.” Gabe said and with his eyes he beseeched A.W. to shake the boy’s hand.

“Thank you, Gabriel. A.W. McKenzie,” he said taking the boys hand firmly. “Becket, what do you do?” he asked, releasing the boys hand.

“I’m still trying to figure that out.”
“He plays baseball for the Braves, A.W.,” the girl interrupted. She then thought of her name with his last name, Anne Becket.

“I played for them six months until I tore my ACL,” the boy said, “but I’ll be ready in the spring. I’ll be in Mississippi, double-a.”

He could still feel A.W.’s grip in his hand.

The old man came in and sat down in a chair. Cal walked in and past everyone, starting into the kitchen, when Anne caught up with him and grabbed his arm.

“Not even going to say ‘hi’?” she said to him.

He turned to her and hugged her. He had wide bony shoulders and long arms. Cal smiled down at his sister.

“Hi.”

She reached up and touched the scar on his face and looked into his eyes.

“I miss you,” she said seriously. “You know what I mean.”

“Well, I miss Drew,” Call said.

The boy gave Anne a look but she didn’t respond.

“I never played baseball, Thomas,” the old man said, not really looking at the boy. “Basketball was my game.”

“Here we go,” said A.D.

“Played in high school, should have played in college,” the old man continued. “Best game was in a tournament, senior year. Forty-eight points, sixteen out of sixteen free throws, sixteen out of eighteen from the floor. That was before the ‘three’. Probably would’ve been more points.”

“Is that when you hurt your finger, Dad?” Anne asked.

“It was the next weekend, weekend you took Big Jack into that locker room,” A.W. said.

“Yeah, it was. We won that game and then went on to win the next night. During that final game of the tournament one of their players had been racking up fouls and on his fifth foul he got me on the arm while I was laying it up. Well, the ref called a foul but nobody said anything about him being out of the game. I knew. I had been keeping track and he had five fouls, so I went to the scorer’s table and asked them about it. They called the ref and sure enough, the ref disqualified him. Boy, did that make the player mad. He came running up to me saying, ‘you didn’t have to saying anything’ and ‘that’s not your job’ and those kinds of things. They had to pull us apart. They sent him to the locker room and me to the free- throw line. Well, that player just happened to be an Indian and after the finals, one of the guys from the other school came up to me and said he heard that I hated Indians and wanted to know if it was true. I told him no, that it wasn’t true. In fact one of my best friends was a full-blooded Creek named Big Jack. Now he was a good big strong baseball player, Thomas. ‘Well,’ he said, that player who fouled out was ‘spreading it around, that I hated Indians, and I better watch out’ because that player planned on fighting me next weekend.”

“That next Friday night we had another tournament and that team was there and rumors were that the player was going to try and fight me. So, when we got off the bus, I took Big Jack with me straight to that team’s locker room and the player was in there. I said, I hear you were wanting to fight me. He looked at me and he looked at Big Jack and said, ‘no.’ and that was that. There was no trouble from that point on. But it was that game Friday night where I broke my finger diving for a ball into the bleachers. We lost and we were out of the tournament. Basketball taught me a lot about competing and about being a warrior. Is baseball the same way for you, Thomas?”

“I’d say so,” the boy said.

“Hey, boys!”

There was a spatter of reluctant ‘Hello Eva’s as A.D.’s wife entered the room and then Michael came in from outside with Bitsy and Nora.

“Dinner will be ready in an hour,” Anne’s mother said, “so try to stay out of the kitchen until then. Eva, come with me.”

Eva gave everyone another smile and hugged A.D. and kissed him before following Bitsy to the kitchen.

“That’s A.D.’s wife. She hits on everybody and it makes him paranoid,” Anne whispered to Thomas.

That evening, Bitsy had prepared pork loins and sides of corn, mashed potatoes, and asparagus with the help of Nora and Eva. The old man said it was a feast of celebration. Bitsy wasn’t happy that the boy was getting so much attention from the old man and the boy could tell she didn’t like him. He wished he could have talked to the old man about marrying Anne before the meal because he could announce it to everyone that night. He could officially propose. But the ordeal of dragging that buck up to the cabin had taken it out of him. That’s why he had taken the longest shower and longest nap of his entire life. And she had prevented him from getting out of bed an hour after that. It was too late now to talk to her father now.

They all found their places around the long table in the dining room, including Ivan who came in just as they were sitting down. It was a separate but open room to the common room and you could still see all the mounted animals.

“That’s a big buck you shot this morning, Thomas. I told Bitsy we could hang it in the room you’re sleeping in,” the old man said matter-of-factly. Anne’s mother heard him as she came in with the last of the food.

“Put that there, Nora,” Bitsy said. “He doesn’t ask me where they should go and I don’t care. It doesn’t matter anymore. There’s not enough room down here anyway.” Bitsy sat down on the opposite end of the table from the old man and they all began to eat and Nora walked around helping pass the food as they all caught up with each other with small talk.

Anne watched everyone and Thomas watched her when he wasn’t answering a question from someone. They were all there together, she thought, for the first time since her older sister died. Drew. She missed Drew so much. Anne was eight years younger than Drew but they seemed closer in age than that to her.

“This is nice,” Anne said. Everyone stopped their conversation to look at her. “I mean, it’s been a while since we’ve all been together.”

“Everyone except Drew, right Anne?” Cal said scornfully.

“That’s enough, Cal,” said A.W.

The boy tried not to stare at the scar on his face or his face at all but he noticed the bony ridges above Cal’s eyes and his nose.

“We’re a happy family, Thomas,” Cal said sneering at A.W.

Cal reminded the boy of an eagle. A fierce eagle.

“Cal, that’s enough,” the old man said. “Your sister is right. It is nice seeing everyone together.” Hoping to change the mood, he turned to his second oldest son, Ivan. “And we’re glad you’re here, Ivan, taking time out to be with family. How are things with you?”

Ivan appeared glad to help divert the conversation.

“Oh, yes. I’m up in the polls and the restructuring is looking good. I’m counting on all your votes,” he said smiling. “These are very good pork loins, Bitsy.”

Bitsy smiled with the same polite closed lip smile the boy had seen on Anne’s face before. But her eyes also squinted which was different than Anne’s.

“Thank you, son,” she said.

“We’re taking Leadoff here, out to hunt again in the morning,” Michael said to Ivan.

“I know,” Ivan said with a seriousness that made the boy curious. It was as if he was saying, ‘that’s why I’m here’.

The boy thought of bringing up the stone structure he had seen in the woods but then felt weird about it so he didn’t. The rest of the meal was non-eventful, although A.D. gave a look to every one of his brothers after Eva would speak to them. And Thomas received the same look when Eva congratulated Anne for finding such an amazing looking man and that if she didn’t hold on to him she would have to take a chance with him. Gabe told a few jokes which kept the mood light and seemed to calm Cal down and A.W. was quiet and still.

After dinner, he offered to help with the dishes but Michael told him he was a guest and that wouldn’t be needed. Besides, that was what Nora was here for, he said.

CHAPTER FIVE

The evening ended early for the boy since he had such a long nap earlier because everyone went to their rooms almost right after dinner except for Thomas, Anne, and Gabe. Eva and A.D. remained in one part of the common room sitting close and whispering to each other and laughing for a few minutes until they exited with a good-night.

The sun was down very early and so the lighting in the common room was dim and shadowy. The Greater Kudu, the Gemsbock, and great Elk looked down as if they were distant ancestors silently watching.

“Anne said your wife died. What was that like for you?”

“Gabe!” the girl gasped.

“She says you won’t talk about it.”

“That’s enough, Gabe. I told you not to say anything.”

“It’s okay, Anne,” the boy said. “It was a few years ago. It’s taken a while to come to grips with it.”

“If you could trade with her, would you?” Gabe asked the boy.

“That’s it. Good night, Gabe. We’re going to bed,” the girl said pulling Thomas up from the couch.

Gabe motioned them to sit back down.

“I just want to know what he says, Anne. It’s pretty important wouldn’t you say?”

Anne sat herself and Thomas back down on the couch and she looked at him, waiting for an answer.

“What do you mean?” Thomas asked.

“If you could choose between her dying on that plane or you taking her place, which one would it be?”

“I’ve thought about that a lot. And somehow I always feel guilty it wasn’t me, even though I had no control over it. She just died. It wasn’t my fault.”

“But would you take her place?”

“Yes, over and over. Every time, I would,” the boy said.

“See, Anne. That’s all I wanted to know. Good night, Anne. Good night, Thomas. See you in the morning.”

Gabe turned around and walked to the left of the lion king and then out of sight.

“He’s dramatic,” the boy said.

“But that was more than you’ve really told me.”

“I’ve told you that before. I’ve told you a lot about Sarah. By the way, your family has plenty of secrets too apparently. What happened to your sister, Anne? And your brother Cal has major issues with her dying and I think the rest of your family does too.”

“Why wouldn’t he? He loved her.”

“What happened to her?”

“I’ll tell you everything I know about Drew if you tell me everything about what happened with Sarah. That’s it.”

The boy said ‘okay’. It was time, he thought.

“I don’t think I’m going to remember everything, okay? Her dying messed me up a while.”

“Not talking about it hasn’t helped.”

“I’m sure you’re right.”

“I am.”

“I haven’t told anyone about this, Anne.”

“Then tell me. Then it will be out. Then I’ll tell you about Drew. There’s a lot more I have to tell you about my family, Thomas. We need to be able to trust each other if we’re going to be married.”

The boy tried to situate himself in a better position on the couch but he couldn’t get comfortable. She put her head on him shoulder and held him.

“So, I told you she was a seamstress. She designed clothes and worked for designers. Her dream was to work in Paris, at least for a little while, and then become her own designer. This was obviously before we were married but also after the wedding. We went to Paris for the honeymoon. It was amazing and she was hooked. When we came back she told me she wanted to move there right away. I overreacted. She didn’t mean that very moment. She was thinking I would play in the big leagues for a few years and then retire and we could move to France. Maybe when we moved back I could try to play again or become a coach or a manager. But I thought she was giving me an ultimatum. I was wrong to overreact but that night I bought her a plane ticket and told her to go. I was mad but I also was afraid I would keep her from her dreams so I felt justified in letting her go.”

“She was mad too but more hurt that I would just send her off, so she went. Her flight had an emergency crash landing and she was one of three people killed. She left a letter saying how mad and hurt she was that I bought her the ticket and I let her go. She said I gave up too quickly, that I didn’t love her if I let her go so easily. I loved her. I know I did. I still do. But I let her go because I thought that was what she wanted and what she needed. I would never have let her go though if I knew she would die. I’d trade with her if I could but I can’t. There’s something about losing her and knowing that I was responsible but also knowing that it was a mistake I can never make right. It’s hard.”

Anne kissed the boy and took a deep breath.

“Nobody judges you for whatever you feel you did or didn’t do. We can do this thing that we have together and do it right. I understand that you still love her. I always have. I believe in you and I know you love me.”

“I do,” the boy said.

“Now I owe you a story. My sister was everything to my brothers, even after I came along. She was ten years older than me so she was the only sister to my brothers for a long time. When she died, things changed and now I’m the only sister. That’s why they’re going to be hard on you, Thomas. A.W. and Drew were the oldest and they were the only kids for a little while before the rest of us came. So, A.W. is quiet and sometimes harsh. You’ll have a lot to prove to him because you won’t just be my boyfriend but sort of my sister’s as well. And Cal, he’s on a completely different level because he was Drew’s favorite in some ways and she was his. They were very, very close. He can’t forgive himself for her dying. They were together when she drowned.”

“Where did she drown?”

“Atoyac,” the girl said. “It means at the river.”

“The river on your parent’s property?”

Anne nodded, tearing up.

“What language is that?”

“Nahuatl. My whole family speaks it. I told you this was going to be a strange weekend for you. We have a lot to talk about.”

“When Gabe hugged you he called you something. Was that a nickname?”

“Yeah, Huitzi. It’s a shortened version of hummingbird. Everyone in my family calls me hummingbird but only on special occasions.”

“Why does your whole family know Na-what?”

“That’s very close, Nahuatl. We’re priests of an ancient religion that’s been around for centuries.”

The boy laughed loud and she shushed him.

“Your whole family.”

She nodded and he laughed even louder.

“Quiet.”

The boy didn’t believe it completely and she knew he didn’t but they both dropped the subject and she promised she would tell him more about her sister’s death. They kissed and cuddled and laughed in the moonlight on the couch in the common room then made their way up to his room where they made love and whispered to each other well into the night, slowly falling asleep.

CHAPTER SIX

The boy woke up early without an alarm clock. He figured it was about four in the morning and it was ten after four when he found his watch and put it on. He started to sneak out of the room.

“Thomas,” the girl whispered.

He walked to her side and she leaned up putting her hand on him and kissed him.

They kissed and he felt her through the blanket and then she pushed him away.

“Go,” she said whispered. “But don’t forget to come back to me.”

He silently left the room.

The boy walked down the hall and took the stairs down to the bottom floor, past the lion king, and into the common room. Lights were already on in the kitchen. The brothers, all except Ivan, were drinking coffee and laughing.

“Well, leadoff, you ready?”

“After some coffee,” he said groggily.

“We’re going back to the same blind. I put out seed and the feeders have been kept full so we should have some fun this morning,” Michael said.

“Are you rested? We could do this tomorrow,” A.W. said to the boy.

“I am. I just need a little coffee.”

With his different colored eyes A.W. gave a look of approval.

The boy poured his own coffee and the brothers continued talking among themselves quietly. Gabe stood close to the boy.

“I hope my question last night wasn’t inappropriate.”

“Not at all. In fact, it was a good question. Anne and I talked more about all that than we ever have.”

“Good. Anne is special to us.”

The boy nodded and stirred his coffee.

“We need to know you’d be willing to do anything for her.”

“She’s an amazing girl.”

“You would die for her?”

The kitchen became deathly quiet and the boy was aware the answer was for everyone in the room.

“Yes. I would,” he said as he took the spoon he was stirring with and placed it forcefully on the counter. It made a little more noise than he expected.

A.D. laughed, breaking the tension.

“Okay, Gabe. He wasn’t kidding. He really does need his coffee.”

“Thank you,” the boy said to A.D. as he felt Gabe’s hand on his shoulder.

Ivan and the old man came in the kitchen together.

“Why are we still in here?” Ivan said, “The old man’s ready. Let’s do this.” He motioned everyone out to the common room.

“A.W. and A.D., Cal and Gabe, Dad and Michael, and Thomas and me. How does that sound?”

It was agreed and Ivan and the boy walked outside to Ivan’s SUV. Michael followed them.

“Hey, Leadoff, let me get your riffle. You’ll use the same one from yesterday.”

Ivan started the SUV while the boy waited as Michael ran up to him with the riffle.

“Here you go. This is gonna be good, Leadoff. Best of luck to you.”

Ivan drove down the same road the boy had gone down the first evening and it was quiet at first. The boy thought Ivan seemed to be deep in thought and he felt a little too uncomfortable to start conversation so he sat quietly. But then he remembered the stone structure and spoke without much thought to his question.

“I saw something tall in the woods, like a stone structure. What is that?”

Ivan didn’t answered immediately and the boy thought maybe he didn’t hear so he started to ask again but then Ivan spoke.

“There are two of them.”

“What are they?”

“Temples.”

“Actual temples? Who built them?”

“We did.”

“Why?”

“They are for the god Huitzilopochtli.”

“What? Are you kidding me?”

“He’s the god of War and the Sun.”

“And now you’re going to tell me you’re an entire family of priests?”

Ivan nodded and the boy tried to hide his sudden nervousness.

“I guess Hummingbird told you.”

“You guys are kidding me, right?” he said again.

Ivan shook his head and the boy wished he knew what else to say.

It was still long before the sun would come up and Ivan and the boy had parked on the side of the road and were walking to a different blind than the one he had been to the day before. As they walked he thought he caught sight of the stone temple through the trees and then further away another stone temple. He couldn’t help but continually look in their direction for any additional glimpse, occasionally losing track of Ivan and a few times, because he wasn’t watching his steps, tripping on a fallen tree limb or slipping on loose rock.

When they reached the edge of the particular grove of trees where the blind was, they were so close to the stone temples that he could see the shadow of one of them and it seemed to blanket the entire grove. Inside the blind, he was disappointed to find that they would be facing the meadow outside of the grove with their backs to the stone temples.

The boy and Ivan settled in to the blind, which was about twice the size of the one he had been in the day before and he thought that it looked like it had been there for a long time, maybe over a decade. It wasn’t a tent like the other one. It was a wooden hut-like structure built on a noticeable mound that allowed for an elevated view of the dark and shadowy meadow. The meadow, he thought, was about four times the size of a baseball field.

The boy thought about a lot of things, since they were sitting so quietly and still, and for so long. He had stopped thinking about how long they had been there and thought about Anne. She was a priestess? This was crazy. He looked at Ivan without moving his head and thought about him as some kind of priest, dressed in feathers or something, and raising a knife to offer a sacrifice to his gods. Ivan looked at him and the boy felt suddenly that he knew what was in his mind but he didn’t look away. They boy looked into his eyes and with a trace of a smile Ivan’s face seemed to say, ‘Yes. I know what you’re thinking’.

Rustling sounds came from the direction of other side of the meadow and beyond in another grove. They had been very still for a long time but now Ivan moved slowly and the boy became more alert and he realized a dim glow had moved into the entire meadow and the outlines of everything in front of them were more defined.

He looked at the meadow, squinting to see more clearly. Ivan was doing the same.

Out of the grove on the other side of the meadow, a huge buck jumped into view. Although it was very far away and appeared small, it had to be the largest buck he could ever imagine, the boy thought. What came out of the grove after the buck was also something the boy never thought he would see. It appeared to be a beast with feathers but it also looked like a jaguar in color and it ran like a human but much faster than a human could run.

The boy looked over at Ivan and he wore a smile of wonder.

The whole scene took Thomas’s breath away.

The beast was chasing the buck and even though the buck bounded and zigzagged the beast never lost ground. The beast let out a fierce and terrible cry that shook the boys’ insides, echoing through the entire woods. Although it was beyond anything he could piece together at that moment, somehow the boy knew the howling warrior beast was human and that it was one of Anne’s brothers. As the chase continued the buck and it’s pursuant got closer to Ivan and the boy. Just as the buck reached halfway between them and the grove on the other side, Ivan dropped his rifle and jumped out of the blind and the boy immediately got to his feet and quickly followed.

The boy caught sight of the chase and saw that other men dressed as beasts had come out to the edge of the meadow and were chasing and watching. They were the other brothers and the father, the boy supposed. They all looked half-human half-beast, each dressed in a sort of ancient warrior hunter outfit and they all yelled and howled in support of the beast-man chasing the buck.

They were about four-hundred feet away from the action, about from home-plate to the center-field wall, the boy figured, and the speed and agility of the man chasing the strong buck was truly a sight the boy had never seen. As the buck began to circle and completely change direction the man yelled another fierce cry and lunged. The buck made a last-second pivot but it was too late. The hunter thrust a weapon in its side and the both of them fell out of sight.

Ivan had already reached the middle of the meadow and the boy followed after him. All the beasts were reaching the middle of the meadow to see the results.

When the boy reached the scene he saw the mammoth buck heavily sprawled out, completely still, each of its velvet horns looking like the size of baseball bats. Standing over the buck was its victorious hunter. Steam was rising off the buck and the man and dawn had broken.

In the twilight of the morning, the boy stood still, watching Ivan embrace the warrior and the other man-beasts taking turns embracing the victor. To the boy, the scene seemed to take on a slow-motion feel to it. Then he heard their voices and understood who each of the beasts was, even though they were saying things in another language. It was the language Anne had used. He could now tell that the beast hunter who had killed the huge buck was A.D.

A.D. stood tall and strong, mountainous as he blocked the sunrise. Steam continued to emanate from his body armor and warrior garb.

The boy began to feel weak and he stumbled to his knees and hoped that no one saw as he gathered himself back up to his feet as quickly as he could.

Ivan spoke to the other beasts in the language and then turned to the boy.

“Are you ready to be sanctified?” Ivan asked him.

He shook his head.

“What?”

“You want to be with Anne, right? Marry her?”

He shook his head again, knowing the answer but unsure what it would mean.

All the men now encircled him, each in a sort of anticipatory stance.

“Yes,” the boy said, choking out his words, trying actually not to vomit.

“Yes, I want to marry her.”

“Cemiac?” Ivan uttered in Nahuatl, “For eternity, you want to be with her forever?”

“Yes! What is this?” he said to all the warriors standing around him. “Are you really some kind of ancient priests, or what? What’s going on here?”

“If you love Anne, you must be sanctified.”

It was Gabe who spoke this time. He was wearing body armor but over his armor he was covered in what looked like leopard skin.

“Ivan is asking you if you truly want to be one with her because if you do you must participate in our most sacred ritual.”

“What? Why? I don’t understand.”

“If you don’t,” A.W. spoke as he stepped forward extremely close to the boy, “Anne and the baby must be killed.”

The boy fell to his knees and tried to bury his head in the ground, stunned.

“Who are you guys?”

Anne told him, according to her doctor, that she wasn’t even in her first trimester, maybe just three weeks pregnant. ‘How do they know?’ he thought, overwhelmed and puzzled.

“We are Nahua

They have some ritual ceremony, eating the buck and drinking some of its blood. They all partake in some kind of hallucinogen and convince him to sacrifice himself for Anne.

He finds himself on the top of the stone temple about to be sacrificed.

CHAPTER LAST

The boy was now awake but not on a high temple. He was at an airport. He had been to quite a few airports before tearing his ACL but this wasn’t one he recognized. And this airport didn’t sound the way airports sound. It was very quiet. In fact, just as he noticed there wasn’t any sound at all he also realized his knee didn’t hurt. And he stood up and realized he wasn’t bleeding anywhere. His chest wasn’t moving in and out because he wasn’t breathing and somehow he knew he didn’t need to. He sat down.

“Don’t be afraid,” a voice next to him said. The voice was next to him but was also inside of him. He turned to his left and saw Sarah sitting next to him. She smiled with a reassuring kindness in her eyes.

“You won’t be here long if you don’t want to be,” he heard her say inside his head. “You can stay as long as you like. I’d like it if you stayed a little while at least before you go.”

He didn’t ask where he was. He didn’t care.

She smiled again.

“I am sorry,” he said to her without speaking.

She shook her head and he heard her say, “What happened at the end is not what counts. We won’t think about it that way anymore.”

Inside his soul, he smiled.

Then they began sharing many, many thoughts, more than a lifetime.

“I still love you,” he thought.

“I know. We will always love each other. But you love her too. Think about that now.”

They both said goodbye when it was his time to leave and everything he had seen very slowly faded away.

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