The old man was shooting soup cans off the fence.
Olive found her glasses next to the toaster and walked outside in her pajamas. He wasn’t supposed to use guns anymore, but instead of feeling a sick fear, she felt, above all else, a sadness that was somehow sleepy, a slow blossom of knowing it was all coming to an end and there was nothing she could do for him now.
Cricket was standing beside the old man in smiley-face boxers. He looked at her and said nothing, his arms crossed over his concave chest. Olive found the scar by habit. Only the knotted pockmark on her brother’s collarbone made her nervous. Cricket was all bones. All bones and one scar.
The old man was using one of the old rifles. There was sweat in his beard and his brow and dirt in the creases of his face as he rubbed one massive hand over his jaw, squinting at the surviving soup cans. It had been decades since the old man had been on the ocean or on a logging run, or done anything he used to in his younger, stronger, and more profitable years, but Olive could still see the marks of it in his face. When they were younger and the old man was less lined and more gray, he had told them stories of big ships and polished guns, weeping oceans and thick forests with mossy smells and cedars a hundred feet tall, Morgan horses with foggy breath rolling out of their powerful nostrils. Tough men, leather and pipe tobacco. Homemade tattoos. His life had sounded like a James Fenimore Cooper novel, with heroes and adventurers battling through harsh terrains. Now, as the old man flexed his fingers in the early morning cool—it was July but still cool in the mountains, the grass welling with tears—Olive wondered how much those adventures had cost her grandfather.
He brought the rifle to his shoulder again and seemed to sigh into the barrel as he looked down it, seemed to be breathing life into that ancient gun. The old man fired three times and a sharp metal ping after each shot told them he’d hit his targets. Olive took off her glasses and used the hem of her sweatshirt to wipe away the condensation. She watched the soft shapes of her grandfather and brother as the old man tipped the rifle up to the sky, shucked out the remaining bullets. He handed the rifle over to Cricket and said, “You can practice as long as you’re careful. Mind your sister.”
He walked back into the house.
Cricket put the butt of the rifle on the ground, holding it like a walking stick. Olive put her glasses back on and wiggled her toes against the earth. She felt like crying, but she didn’t cry in front of Cricket anymore.
Cricket looked up at her and said, “How’s your shot, sis?”
Olive hadn’t touched a gun in over a year, not since Cricket got the scar and the old man went to the hospital. She licked her lips.
“My shot’s fair,” she said.
Cricket nodded. “We’re going hunting tomorrow. The old man wants a moose burger.”
“No,” Olive said.
Cricket looked at her. His eyes were hard, moss encased in ice.
“Cricket,” said Olive, trying again. They were standing in the middle of the back field and Cricket was holding the old Remington with that livid scar throbbing off his skin. He was angry and the early morning flowed around them like honey. Cricket was bitter. Olive’s mouth was dry. Her eyes followed the jagged edges of the mountains on the horizon—she had never understood why they were called the Green Mountains when they were just a thousand shadows of blue—in the same way she habitually picked her hangnails. She did not want to look at her brother in his colorless smiley-face boxers and his scar and his eyes icy and bright.
“The old man wants a moose burger,” Cricket repeated. “And we’re going to get him one.”
He bent his head and started walking slowly toward the house. He always walked with his head down, like he was carrying something heavy, and he did not turn around. Olive stayed there, letting the rich morning flow around her like water, running her eyes along the mountains like she was picking a scab.
The accident had happened in the springtime, and Olive hadn’t even seen it. She’d been at a varsity baseball game. Cricket and the old man had been hunting.
Olive was sitting on the metal bleachers with a coffee mug of ginger-ale and cinnamon whiskey and some friends from school when her phone rang. It was a number she didn’t recognize and her voice was overly cheery as she answered it.
The world got slow. That was Olive remembered most clearly when she recounted it to Cricket later in the hospital. She was sure the world creaked to a stop in those moments, and even though she moved as fast as she could, kicking her coffee mug and tripping over the fleece blanket, her body ached from the motions as if she were running through wet concrete.
When she got to the hospital, the receptionist directed her to a hard plastic chair next to the vending machine. A nurse with tightly braided horse hair consulted a chart and asked if she wanted to see her grandfather.
Olive looked down at her sneakers; little cakes of dirt crumbled to the tile as her legs twitched, pumping up and down as if she were riding a bicycle. No, she did not want to see the old man. It was because of him that Cricket’s eyes were closed, his breath misting a plastic mask as a doctor made deep cuts into her brother’s chest, blood smearing like bad ink. Olive was not afraid of blood—in fact, she had always thought there was something beautiful about it, how unapologetically red it could be—but she was afraid of her brother’s blood.
The story had been relayed to her over the phone in quick, factual bites, and of the course of the next few weeks, it was told and retold by many, including Olive and Cricket themselves. Every telling was just a little different—new or omitted details, an embellishment or an understatement—so after a certain amount of time, Olive wasn’t really sure what, exactly, had happened, and one time when Cricket was drunk he admitted the same. The truth grew fuzzy, like the shoelaces on Cricket’s boots; its meaning detached itself from the story. For Olive, the truth eventually boiled down to the mark left on Cricket’s lanky body, the ugly red kiss of a bullet. That was all that really mattered, not the details. What more was there to tell? That instead of moving into quick and impersonal action, as the old man always did in crisis—surely a product of his military days—he had just dropped the gun and stood and stared as blood leaked from Cricket’s shaking fingers? That the wound itself hadn’t been terribly serious, but the fact that the old man was useless, helpless, the fact that Cricket had to stumble half a mile back to the main road nearly caused him to bleed out?
Olive looked back at the nurse. She seemed cool, unruffled. It was hard to believe her blood was the same toasty ninety-eight degrees as the rest of the human race.
“Your grandfather has suffered a nervous breakdown,” the nurse said. Her scrubs were green, like mint ice cream. “Are you sure you don’t want to check in on him?”
Olive almost wanted to laugh. Nervous. Breakdown. Two words she never would have spoken in the old man’s presence, much less used to describe him. She blinked up at the cool nurse in the harsh light.
“No thank you,” Olive said.“I’ll wait for my brother.”
If the nurse was surprised, she did not show it, and Olive was grateful. She was led into an oatmeal colored room on the third floor and watched hours circle the clock.
When Cricket woke, the first thing he said was, “Where’s the old man?”
Olive recoiled from his bedside and licked her lips. They were salty.
“How is he?” Cricket asked.
“He’s good,” Olive replied automatically. Then, remembering, she added, “He actually has had a nervous breakdown, the nurse said.” She did not like lying to Cricket and pushed her glasses up her nose.
“Go to him,” Cricket said immediately.
Olive folded her arms. There was a low, persistent buzzing in the room, probably from the lights. The pulsing, aching buzzing that was with them like a physical weight. It distracted her, made it hard for her to think or talk. The buzzing and the dry mouth.
“Olive, for Chrissakes,” Cricket said. His nostrils flared and he raised an arm before noticing it was embedded with needles. “Go check on him.”
The buzzing was behind Olive’s eyes. She felt like she’d just downed a gallon of vinegar. It was difficult to swallow and her eyes felt exposed, felt like diamonds, hard and shiny. She would not cry, not in front of Cricket.
Olive’s brother was normally composed to the point of rude, but now his face was darkening, a dull red popping the veins at his temple. He said nothing for several moments, staring her down; when she didn’t move, didn’t breathe, he reached over to the IVs and as he yanked them out of his elbow, he yelled her name in a terrible, throaty voice.
She couldn’t help but jump. He had never raised his voice to her—at least not that she could remember. He did his damage, when necessary, with that unmoving face and biting words. Never yelled, until now, until saying her name seemed to exhaust him, anger him, physically repulsive and arduous. Ripped from his throat as if to leave it raw.
The IVs dangled limply and there were tiny speckles of blood on Cricket’s arm. He didn’t notice because he was swinging his legs out of the bed, his face flickering as he put weight on his heavily bandaged arm. There was a hole in Cricket now.
Panic rose like bile in Olive’s throat and she uncrossed her arms. “Cricket, what are you doing?”
He ignored her, barefoot on the white tile. There was no sound except for the buzzing and Olive watched helplessly as Cricket tottered towards the door. He was wearing nothing but a hospital johnny and the sight of Cricket’s pale legs depressed Olive more than his bandaged arm did. She began to cry, and Cricket turned back to look at her.
Obviously, he was going to see the old man. Gunshot wound and all.
That was the difference between Olive and Cricket—he was loyal to the last, and she loved too much to be loyal at all.
Olive called out in a watery voice.
Then the plastic sound of thick shoes on tile, scrubs scratching against each other, a little sigh as Cricket was injected with a clear liquid. Somehow he wound back up in the bed, the IVs again taped to his elbow. The drugs could not soften his anger, his—no, Olive would not call it hatred—frustration as he looked at his sister.
“I love you,” Olive said thickly. A taboo—you didn’t say love, not with Cricket. You felt it. You showed it. Saying it was childish and distasteful.
And yet, Cricket, maybe already unconscious but still severe, murmured; “And I love him.”
The next day the two of them were up at dawn, eating stale donuts in a silent kitchen. Cricket got the guns from the basement, and Olive put water bottles in a backpack. Neither of them spoke as Cricket knotted up his boots and lead the way past the barn and into the woods.
They passed writhing inch worms, curious birds, diseased trees, broken bottles. Olive felt as though nature were swallowing them whole; the trees were darker, more sinister, even, in the early morning. Emerson had probably been discussing this type of nature when he wrote his exhaustive essays, this deep, profound, arresting force that was caught between seduction and repulsion. It did not make Olive feel alive and connected to her biological roots. It just made her uncomfortable. If they were approaching something, Olive would rather not see it.
Cricket stopped abruptly and she nearly collided with her brother’s cheap backpack, stopping so close to him that she could see all the little hairs on the back of his neck.
“How come you hate him so much?” Cricket asked. His voice was low.
“I don’t,” Olive said.
Cricket did not respond. He opened the backpack and rummaged through it. Olive accepted the water bottle he held out to her.
“He’s all we’ve got,” Cricket said.
Olive said nothing and turned away from her brother to bat at an imaginary fly.
Cricket leaned his head back against the bark of the tree. He moved his tongue around inside his mouth and opened it slightly to exhale a clear, high whistle. Birds responded kindly, their movements short and snappy; Olive had always thought birds to be tiny feathered robots, full of gears inside. Sometimes she thought Cricket was like that; automatic, mechanical, responding clinically to all that surrounded him. Responding clinically to her.
Cricket cleared his throat but did not say anything. Olive could see little beads of sweat on his temples and felt like there was a blister deep inside her chest. She opened her mouth but Cricket’s head swiveled, and his gun swung with it, perked and pointed at something Olive could not see.
“Is it a bull?” she asked, shrinking into a shadow. Cricket crouched on the tips of his Timberlands and lifted the rifle to his shoulder.
“Yeah,” Cricket breathed. “By the yellow bush. Look.” He whistled again, low like a frog. “He’s handsome.”
Olive lifted her eyes to the yellow bush. It was handsome, in that purely natural way that so very few things were, with brown hair that reminded Olive of amber, and antlers that looked like sculptures, regal and asymmetrical. He was loping out of the bush, taking his time, ignorant of his shortened life expectancy. Cricket was moving his grip experimentally down the barrel of the gun, leaving prints as his shoulders tensed and fell. Olive could just see the pink skin at the tip of his scar. She closed her eyes. There was a cry on her mouth but she bit down on it. It was dangerous to yell when Cricket had his finger on the trigger. Olive was selfish; she did not want a scar.
“Just do it,” she muttered. Her eyelids were orange.
The shot did not come, and Olive’s heart shrank as she opened her eyes and looked over at her brother. He had slid down to the earth, head in his hands. The safety was locked on the rifle, and the moose plod on. Olive watched it walk, bumping its nose against ferns, scraping bark with its antlers. She touched Cricket’s shoulder and he looked up—not at the moose, but at her. That ice in his eyes was starting to melt. He didn’t say anything, but he pulled the collar of his shirt aside to press a finger into the scar tissue. The knot of flesh and his fingertip both turned white from the pressure. Olive rubbed it with her thumb; it felt like the scar had a heartbeat of its own. She pulled Cricket to his feet and saw something fragile in her hard-faced brother for the first time in years.
They walked back the way they had come, slowly picking their way through the dense roots and ignoring the bugs that pinched their ankles. Olive lead them home.
When they reached the fringe of the woods, the tired barn and the chocolate cabin visible through the leaves, Olive turned back to her brother, who had a messy face. She could not tell if he was weeping.
“We should get the old man a burger anyway,” Olive said. “Maybe he won’t be able to tell the difference.”
Cricket nodded once. They trekked across the back field and leaned their guns by the back door, climbed into the rusty Ford pickup that the old man had owned since the mid-eighties. She pulled into the parking lot of a Stop and Shop five miles down the road. Cricket peeled some bills out of his jeans and went inside the store with his sloped lion shoulders, returning a few minutes later with a Styrofoam package of red, stringy meat and eighty-seven cents in change. He slapped the meat into patties on the back porch, a sound Olive could not stand. She turned on the crackling radio and swept the floor.
Cricket threw the not-moose burgers on the grill. It was barely ten in the morning, but they were both hungry. Olive’s brother came into the kitchen, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“You better wake the old man,” Olive said. “Tell him we left the moose carcass in the woods, only brought back the burgers.” She half-smiled. The old man would believe it; he was susceptible to the nonsensical. Cricket went up the stairs two at a time, his heavy footfalls echoing through the whole house.
He was upstairs for a long time; longer than even the creaky old man’s body required to wake. Olive had a bad, peppery taste in her mouth and went to the sink to wash her hands. When her brother came back into the kitchen, he didn’t have to tell her. The knowledge sprang from the marrow of her bones, from the blood they had in common, from the open wound expression on her brother’s face.
Tess Walsh currently attends Lesley University in Massachusetts, where she studies English and Education. More of her work can be found here.