Mitch turned off the engine and the tick of the slowly cooling metal was the only sound they could hear.
The early morning mist shrouded the woods and fields, rising from the river and the marshes, from the thin scrim of ice that whitened the ground, hiding the details of the land and swallowing sound, muffling even the heavy clunks of the truck doors closing.
“You ready?” Mitch looked over the boys beside him. Jack, getting tall and lanky now, the bolt-action 308 Cole 70 rifle slung over one shoulder, and Tommy, still small and skinny, holding his .22 with the barrel pointed at the ground, the ammo bag strap across his shoulder and chest, both of them nodding seriously at him.
“You remember what I taught you last time? Hunting in the woods?” Mitch started to walk for the forest, glancing back over his shoulder at them.
“Yessir.” Jack followed him, walking in the old man’s footprints, his hand anchoring the butt of the rifle against his hip.
“Yes, Uncle Mitch.” Tommy hurried to catch up to his brother, as they disappeared into the mist.
“Alright.” Mitch walked on, across the rough ground that he knew well enough to walk blindfolded. Around them, the skeletal branches of the bare trees were black against the soft grey of the ground fog, and the trunks wavered in and out of view as they got closer and left them behind. He stopped a few yards onto the narrow trail and turned around.
“What can you hear?”
Jack listened. He could hear the steady drip of moisture falling from the branches of the trees and the leaves of the evergreen shrubs falling onto the thick carpet of dead leaves under their feet. He could hear a rustle, somewhere to their right, deeper in the forest.
Tommy shook his head. “I can’t hear anything.”
“You remember what that means?” Mitch looked at them, feeling the moisture in the air soaking into his jacket. He was getting too old for these early morning hunts, he thought, his joints were stiffening slightly from the damp chill.
“Means that the animals know we’re in the forest. Or something else is here, something big.” Jack looked up at him.
Mitch nodded. “So don’t be clomping your great feet hard onto the ground, step soft, watch out for the ground cover, try and be as quiet as you can. Deer have good hearing.” He turned away, moving down the trail silently, avoiding the dry leaves close to the edge.
Behind him, the boys followed, paying attention to the noises they were making, turning to avoid the occasional branch that protruded out onto the trail, picking up and putting down their feet as silently as they could.
A mile along, Mitch stopped, holding his hand up. Ahead, through the trees, he could see the outline of the young buck, the rack almost indistinguishable from the bare branches in the pearlescent light and shadows of the mist. He glanced back at Jack, gesturing sharply to the deer.
Jack looked past him and nodded, picking out the shape quickly.
The air was still and heavy and Mitch moved slowly, hearing nothing behind him, glad they’d remembered some of what they’d been taught. Twice they stopped and froze as the buck raised its head, looking around, moving on when it returned to stripping the bark from the shrub at its feet.
They crouched between the trees, and Mitch leaned close to Jack, his voice just a breath against the boy’s ear.
“Behind the shoulder, take your time.”
Jack nodded and lifted the rifle, closing an eye as he sighted along the barrel, his finger slipping onto the trigger. Mitch watched him, noting the small, careful movements with approval, the final adjustments, the smooth pull on the trigger. The shot shattered the silence and he watched the deer bound out of the clearing and down to the river, crossing the shallow water in two leaps and disappearing into the forest beyond it.
“What happened?” He frowned down the rifle. The boy should have nailed that buck easily.
“I don’t know.” Jack looked up at him, shaking his head slightly. “Must have shifted the barrel slightly when I pulled on the trigger.”
Mitch stared at him for a moment. He hadn’t seen the barrel move at all. He sighed and shrugged, getting to his feet. “Well, never mind. We’ll find another one.”
An hour later, Mitch was scowling down at them. They’d found four deer in that time, in perfect situations. Both boys had managed to miss all four times.
“Waste of my time and ammunition if you two are going to miss all the time,” he growled at Jack.
Jack’s brows lifted, his eyes widening in a facsimile of innocence. “It wasn’t on purpose, Mitch, I just must’ve moved at the last second.”
“In a pig’s eyes, it wasn’t on purpose, Jack Cole. Don’t you lie to me, boy. Takes as much skill to miss a shot like that as it does to make it.” He turned around, heading back down the trail, muttering to himself.
Jack looked at Tommy, the corner of his mouth lifting up. Tommy grinned back at him, and they followed Mitch out of the woods and back to the truck.
The firelight flickered over the faces of the man and the boy who sat beside it, the circle of light reaching out to illuminate the tree trunks and rocks, the small tent and the half-covered bedroll of the camp. Tommy was already asleep in the tent.
“Alright, you wanna tell me what you two were playing at today?” Mitch hooked the coffee pot from the embers and poured the thick black coffee into his mug, setting the pot back as he looked at Jack.
Jack shrugged, keeping his gaze on the fire. “We didn’t need it.”
“You think that when the time comes you do need it, you’re gonna be able to do it without practising?” Mitch asked him sourly.
“You said it yourself, Mitch. Took as much skill to miss as to hit it. If I had to, I could do it.” Jack glanced at him.
“Cocky little shit, ain’t you?”
Jack’s mouth twisted into a small half-smile. “You think I’d freeze up and miss, if I was hungry?”
Mitch grunted non-committally and drank his coffee.
“Tommy’s been having nightmares.” Jack’s gaze was back on the fire. “I didn’t want to make that worse.”
“Nightmares about what?” Mitch shifted slightly, looking over his shoulder at the tent.
“You know what.” He exhaled loudly. “What we do.”
Mitch was silent. Neither of the boys had gotten much of a childhood. Jack had kept the truth from his brother as long as he could, but living the way they did, it had been an impossible hope to think that he could do it forever. Or even for a few years more.
“I wanted him to stay a kid, just for a bit longer.” He looked over at Mitch. “He shouldn’t have to worry about this crap yet.”
Neither of them should have had to worry about this crap, Mitch thought tiredly. They should have been thinking about school and friends, and girls and ball games. Building treehouses and go-karts, riding bikes and coming home at sundown tired out from the fun in their days.
Frank had taught Jack to shoot at six, Tommy at seven. Both boys knew how to take care of their weapons, were completely disciplined about following orders, about looking after themselves, could put on a competent field-dressing and set up an overnight camp in ten minutes. Their childhoods had disappeared years ago.
Jack talked a good game, but Mitch had soothed his nightmares whenever they’d stayed with him. The boy’s imagination was a lot more powerful than his little brother’s or his father’s, Mitch thought, so much so that one day he would surpass his father’s prowess in their business. Get inside the heads of those he tracked down and give himself bucketloads of nightmares when the game was over and the victims were counted.
Jack looked around at the old man’s continuing silence. “You think I’m wrong?”
“No, son, I don’t think you’re wrong,” Mitch said, letting his breath out in a quiet sigh. “The load’s the load, Jack. Whether we can carry it or not, we get what we get. I jus’ don’t see how you can make that easier on Tommy.”
Jack ducked his head, drawing his legs up and wrapping his arms around them, tucking his chin against his forearm. “I was thinking…that maybe…if Dad agreed…Tommy could stay with you a bit more.”
Mitch’s mouth quirked at one corner. “That’d be fine with me, Jack. Fine if you stayed too.”
The boy shook his head decisively. “No, Dad needs me. But Tommy, he’s really smart, he’s good at school stuff and he likes it. He could have a bit more of a normal life, for a couple more years.”
Mitch turned to look at him. “You deserve a childhood too, you know, Jack.”
He watched the characteristic duck of the head. “I’m alright.”
He wasn’t alright, Mitch knew. He was nearly doubled over under the load of responsibility that had been placed on him, that he’d placed on himself, his self-confidence being eroded by the demands of a life that was full of danger, trying to keep his family safe and not being sure he could. Maybe it would be better if Tommy, at least, was removed from his load, protected by an adult so the boy didn’t have to worry so much about him.
“I’ll talk to your Daddy when he gets back, Jack.” Mitch finished his coffee. “Not sure it’ll do much good, you understand, but I’ll talk to him.”
“You know, Jack, this is really pretty good writing.” Tommy looked up from the paper he was reading to his brother, sitting across the kitchen table from him and honing his knife. At the sink, Mitch stilled, the dishcloth bunched against the plate, his hands in the soapy warm water as he listened.
Jack looked across the table, brows drawing together. “Where’d you get that?”
“It was here.” Tommy gestured at the pile of school books sitting to one side of him.
“That’s my homework, put it back.” Jack looked at the paper, then back to his brother. “Now.”
Tommy shrugged, replacing the paper on the pile. “I was just saying it was a good piece.”
“Right.” Jack dropped his gaze to his knife again, the small circles over the stone a little faster now.
“Why do you pretend you hate school, when you could do well if you wanted to?” Tommy leaned on the table, watching him.
“I’m not pretending to hate school. It’s a waste of my time.”
“Dad says you gotta go. If you have to go anyway, wouldn’t it be better to at least try to like it?”
“No.” Jack looked up again, lips compressed. “And let’s just drop this conversation there.”
“Sure.” Tommy gathered his books and carried them out.
Mitch heard Jack’s deep exhale and starting washing the plate again, looking down at the sudsy water without seeing it.
He’d noticed this before, a tendency to downplay any achievement that might be conceivably regarded as academic. Or thoughtful. Mitch’d never figured out why that was. An old, odd memory rose into his mind, from his school days.
Two girls had moved into town, in his freshman year. Two years apart. What had their names been? Cleggmore. Uh, Charlene had been the older one. The smart one. And Alice, had been the younger one. The pretty one. He remembered them going through high school. The smart one and the pretty one. He’d dated Alice a few times, before he met Karen. She hadn’t just been pretty, she’d gotten good grades, could have done even better if it hadn’t been so accepted that she wasn’t the smart one. She’d never believed him though.
He glanced over his shoulder at Jack, hearing the soft burr of the knife blade circling on the stone. Was that what was going on with Jack? He didn’t think he was good enough to compete with Tommy? Or was he staying out of the way so that they never had to?
“You doing alright with your school work, Jack?” He picked up another plate and put it into the water.
“Yeah, no problem.” Jack hunched a little a deeper into the chair.
“Tommy’s right, you know. If you gotta be there, you might as well pick up whatever you can. Never know when stuff like that comes in useful down the road.” He put the dish in the drainer and picked up the next.
Jack chewed on the corner of his lip. “It’s boring, Mitch. None of it has anything to do with real life.”
Mitch smiled, glancing back at him. “For most people, all of it has to do with real life.”
“We’re not most people.” Jack looked along the edge of the blade and set the stone onto the table. “And I’m never going to be like most people.”
“You might want to get out, one day,” Mitch suggested, keeping his tone mild.
“I won’t.” He stood up, turning around and looking at the man’s back. “What we do is important. It saves lives. You think that working in some job somewhere is going to feel like that?”
“You think there’s any rule that says you can’t be good at one thing and still have a few aces up your sleeve if you do want to change your mind one day?”
“I think I need to concentrate on what I want to do.” Jack looked down at the essay he’d written for his English class. “No one thinks I can do this crap anyway.”
He screwed up the sheet and threw it on the floor, turning on his heel and walking out of the room.
Mitch watched him go. He dried his hands and bent to pick up the discarded paper, smoothing it out and moving under the overhead light to read it. When he reached the end, he sighed. Tommy was right. It was good. It was expressive and passionate and written with a feeling for the subject that indicated a writer a lot older than thirteen years. And why not? The thought came with a vicious grimace. Jack was a lot older than the average thirteen year old in a lot of ways.
He sat down at the table and picked up the English notebook, flicking through it. The marks leapt out at him in red ink. At the first one, he read the work, his frown becoming deeper as he finished it, looking at the D that sat at the top of the page. He turned the page over and started the next one. He read right through the assignments of the last four weeks.
Jack’s teacher was an asshole, he thought. There was no reason for those marks for that work and some of the comments scrawled over the pages were downright personal.
He slid the essay inside the book and closed it, setting it back on the pile, and walked around the table and out in to the hall. The boys shared a room upstairs, but Jack had taken to going into the yard at night if he wanted to be alone. Mitch went out the back door and rounded the house, seeing the boy’s outline silhouetted against the outside light of the workshop.
“Jack.” He came up beside him, leaned against the panel of the partly dismantled Nova on the blocks. “What’s going on at school?”
Jack looked at him and shook his head. “I don’t know. Fucker hates me. Doesn’t matter what I put in, or how much time I work on something, I never get better than a C and…” He shook his head again.
“You do anything that might’ve gotten him POed at you when you started?”
He had to ask. The boy had a bad habit of smart-mouthing off, thinking nothing of it at the time.
“No. I didn’t say a word to anyone.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, Dad’ll be back in a couple of days and we’ll be somewhere else.”
Mitch closed his eyes. He was right. They would be gone. There would be a new town. A new school. He could see why the kid couldn’t see the point of trying to learn. Between asshole teachers and the constant moving, he’d never seen any rewards for work put in at school.
“I don’t want a normal life, Mitch,” Jack’s voice broke in the middle of the words, cracking high and then dropping low. He cleared his throat. “Nothing about me fits in anymore. Half the time I don’t know what they’re talking about, I’m always trying to catch up. I’m kind of sick of it.”
“I can’t argue with that, son. But look at it this way, no one benefits from your learning ‘cept you. Makes no difference to the teachers, or the school, or your dad, or me. Only you. So whatever you can learn and take away with you, that’s yours forever. They can’t take that. You own it.”
Beside him, he heard the soft release of the boy’s breath. “I guess.”
“You don’t have to impress anyone but yourself. But giving up, not trying, that’s just shooting yourself in the foot, son. You’re the only one who’s going to lose out.”
There was no question in Mitch Robard’s mind that the boy leaning up against the car beside him was smart. He’d seen Jack figure out plans, seen him break down mechanical problems, watched him work out electrical circuits that were more efficient and simpler than the commercial ones for the same purpose…and in the work he’d just read, there was more, more even than the pragmatic, logical bent. A depth and a way of seeing things that were…rare.
But, he thought tiredly, the boy wasn’t going to believe that, not now, and maybe not ever.
He wondered when Frank would be back. He would talk to him about Tommy, he decided. And about Jack, and maybe they’d be able to work out something.