A version of this story was shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize 2021.
Ed dances with impatience at the treeline. You’re late, he snaps, I already set them. He heads down the path, tripping on stones he should know to avoid. She hesitates, glances up at the sky’s open leer, sets her jaw and follows.
Sparse willows give way to the bulk of birch and oak; they lean close, swallow the light and the sound of the road. Ed’s t-shirt floats ahead, a lost ghost in the gloom.
A shred of tinny chatter tickles the back of her skull. Just a nightjar or something; must be. But she stamps the dirt to drown it out. Ed’s ghost pauses, turns. Hurry up.
When she reaches him, he pulls a rifle from his holdall. It’s getting too dark to see, he says. Stating the bloody obvious. They’re a ways off, up by the stream. They’ll be stressed by now. It’ll sour the flesh. He drops pellets into the chamber, cocks the gun and thrusts it at her. What?
I left Granddad alone again… The words die on her tongue. She sees Ed for the first time: a petty git with a gun and a god complex. Her hands clamp round the metal and she resists the sudden, wild impulse to sling it into his jaw.
What’s up with you? His stance shifts, uncertain.
She turns from him, breaks into a run, veers off the path into bracken and bramble. She knows the racket will spook the game and a perverse part of her is glad. Trunks swing past, thickets snap a cascade, a curdled yowl escapes her throat and the absurdness of it startles her to a standstill.
She leans, hands on knees, inhales the damp smell of soil and sap. She stands, turns slowly. She’s no fucking clue where she is.
Something small rustles furtive by her feet. Absently she braces her hand on a gnarled trunk and follows its contortions with her fingers. Chatter punctuates the air. A ripple of mocking laughter, and too late she’s seized by memory’s bright claws: pale wax, a stain on patterned fabric. Wiry hair glinting in lamplight.
She shakes her head and steps downhill. The sky’s tilting into navy but she can make out a clearing below, with a faint line running along it. The chatter is everywhere now, a maddening babble, inescapable. Her foot slips from under her; she slams onto her backside; her hands and rifle slither through damp grass. She kicks out to slow her descent and her boot plunges into icy water. She curses, jerks it back.
It wasn’t chatter she could hear; it was the damn stream. She glares at it like it’s an enemy.
She shouldn’t be here.
But they needed the money. Her temper was too short to hold down a job for long. They needed food on the table, even if Granddad complained, poked at the meat with his fork like it was poison, glared at the rusty stains under her fingernails.
Eat up, Granddad, she’d urged him.
The fork jabbed at her accusingly. The fridge looks like a sodding abattoir.
Don’t open it, then. Her chair scraped the lino, louder than she’d intended. He sighed, and his face crumpled. Off out with Ed again, are we? Never see you these days.
She drags a sleeve over her eyes. The stream winks metallic at her feet. She rises from a crouch and looks around. There’s movement at the far side of the bank. A leaping shadow, rhythmic as a racing heart. One of Ed’s traps. Instinct takes over; she steps delicately over the stream and edges up the bank, her boots finding furrows in the grass. It senses her, freezes. Long ears laid flat, the faint flutter of a flank.
With a jolt of vertigo, she pictures herself in the creature’s eyes. A monster, impossibly tall. Giant limbs scything the stillness of the world.
Granddad had taught her to respect life. It could be snatched away in an instant, he told her. Look what happened to your mother.
Didn’t stop him turning a bitter face to his own life, though, did it? And why the hell should she be respectful? Growing up a constant reminder of his lost daughter, both loved and loathed. He made her a monster long before Ed swaggered onto the scene and showed her how to hunt.
She shoulders the rifle.
His disapproval of their poaching had settled into every nook of the house, bleak as drizzle. Always waiting for her, until this afternoon.
She creeps closer. It’s a hare, a big one. A good catch.
She’d tossed her keys on the table and the radio’s chatter drifted from the living room, some inane talk show Granddad liked, but she’d sensed the stillness it masked.
She curls her finger around the trigger.
She’d crept through the doorway, her steps silent, her hand braced on the wall. Granddad’s tea had tipped over, soaking a shadow over the arm of the sofa. He was a waxwork badly posed, head cocked as if listening to the radio, but his jaw was slack. His eyes were vacant marbles. A contestant cracked a joke followed by tinny laughter, the flurry of applause.
He hadn’t noticed or didn’t care he’d buttoned his shirt wrong. It gaped over his chest and grey sprigs of hair poked through. She reached out to fix it. Recoiled. Her hands were sticky – she’d been out skinning rabbits for Ed. She remembered Granddad’s last words to her as he watched her go. Leave. It’s what you want, isn’t it?
Go on. Leave, and kill something.
She gagged. Turned off the radio. The silence throbbed in her ears. She sat in the armchair opposite. Her phone rang.
I need a hand. Finnegan’s wood. You free?
I should clean up the tea, she thought. It’ll stain otherwise.
Yes. I’m free.
Meet me at the south gate, yeah?
She’s kneeling on the damp grass, breathing hard. Cold leaches through her jeans. The gun’s fallen to the ground beside her. She picks it up, but her hands are shaking and she puts it down again.
The shot would be too loud, would panic the other prey. Better to wring its neck. And it’s got to be done, because she’s here, because she didn’t know where else to go. Because this is all she has left.
Snarling, she pounces.
Ed’s better at hands-on brutality, she’s the better shot, and the hare is stronger than she thought. But she has to finish it, and she lifts her chin to dodge the jumping dome of its skull. Its chest is a snare drum against her palm, its claws rake a trail across her thigh.
They needed the food. Needed the money. She never wanted to leave Granddad alone.
Except perhaps, really, she did.
A fine veil of drizzle sweeps gentle over her forehead.
She keels over, folds around the hare and pushes her face into its fur.
It’s full dark. The air’s thick with rain. The hare’s panting, its body jerking against her stomach. She runs half-numb fingers over its haunches, finds the wire at its leg and tugs it loose.
Her arms are heavy, but she opens them a little. A paw presses into her gut, a brief scrabble of claws at her shoulder, and it’s gone.
She stands up in stages. The ground sways a little under her feet. She raises her hands in front of her, finds the reassuring sturdiness of tree trunks and low branches. The world is reduced to smells: sweet leaf mould and the warm musk of sodden dirt. Her legs swing slow and clumsy like a golem’s, but the scratch on her thigh throbs and she focusses on that. Eventually she hears the drone of a car.
The streetlights are hazy globes, forming an ethereal, orderly procession. She wipes strings of hair from her eyes and steps out onto the asphalt. Her phone rings.
Did you find any?
Shit. Look, I’m sorry if I said something–
Where are you?
Going home. I have to take care of Granddad.
About The Author
Leila Martin is a freelance writer from Salford, where she shares a small house with a small number of people and a tremendous number of books. Her stories have appeared in Firewords, Flash Fiction Magazine, Cossmass Infinities and Daily Science Fiction.
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