Ruth waits for them to leave before she goes into their room to get the gun. She finds it in the lower part of the dresser, down where the bottom drawer should be but isn’t, where her dad keeps his collection of things: three mason jars filled with wheat pennies, old wrestling ribbons, arrowheads, a casing for a bullet. It’s odd that he keeps these things because he is not sentimental, but she doesn’t think about that. She’s given up on understanding him. The revolver is at the back of everything, a navy oil-stained cloth wrapped around it. She stares at the lump for a moment before pulling it out by the barrel, letting the cloth fall open in her hands like a flower.

Ruth’s parents went into town for groceries—or that’s what they said. Ruth isn’t sure what they’re really doing, because usually it’s her mom who goes to get the groceries, and Ruth who sometimes goes with her. Dad doesn’t do things like that. He hardly ever leaves the house—works out of their garage, which he converted to a shop, or that’s what he calls it. The place smells of metal and musk and chemicals. He’s a taxidermist, a hunting guide, and Ruth rarely goes in there. It’s not that she’s afraid of dead things. Things die; she knows this; she’s used to it. It’s the blood that scares her, though she should be used to this, too.

Ruth isn’t sure how long they’ll be gone and knows she should hurry but doesn’t. She lets her fingers trail along the barrel, cold as river rock. She fits her fingers around the handle and marvels at how large the gun looks in her hand. It’s heavy enough to bend her wrist. She straightens it with effort, aiming at nothing, the curtains her mother sewed, denim blue. She has to use both hands to straighten it properly. She looks down the barrel. She waits to feel something. Power, maybe. Whatever she wants, it doesn’t come, and she doesn’t have time to wait.

Ruth slides the cylinder and dark eyes look back at her, but it’s okay because he keeps the bullets right beside the gun. Ruth carefully fits the golden pieces into the cylinder, cone down, and closes it with a satisfying snap. She thought it would be harder, but it isn’t, really; it’s like it’s made for kids. Though Ruth isn’t really a kid anymore. She’s twelve, which is somewhere in between two things, and she’s never sure if she feels younger or older. She only knows that she finds it difficult to relate to the kids in her class but can’t imagine being an adult, the way they are, inured to hard things. Ruth is the opposite of that. She feels everything, tender and raw like a wound that won’t heal. Over-sensitive, her dad says, and maybe he’s right.

Ruth hears the sound of a car and her heart bucks. She scrambles up and crawls on her knees over her parents' bed to look out the window. Outside there are miles of yellow nothing squared off with barbed wire strung between fence posts. The nearest neighbor is miles away. A vein of dirt stretches along their property, but the truck she heard is black, not the silver of her dad’s. Ruth watches the tires tear along the dirt road, kicking up thick clouds of dust which drift high into the air and then dissipate long after the truck is gone. Behind the road is the sharp pale backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Sometimes Ruth tries to walk towards them but they’re like rainbows; she can walk for hours and never get any closer.

Her dad’s dogs bray at the truck long after it’s gone, but they howl at everything—bunnies, trucks, high winds, thunder, passing antelope.

Ruth lets her heart settle, closing her eyes for a moment. She’s not nervous, not really. It’s just that she knows she has one chance to get it right. She crawls off her parents’ bed and sees that she dropped the gun onto the carpet, barrel pointed the opposite way. She picks it up by the handle and makes sure the safety is switched on before tucking it into the waistband of her jeans, which was already tight and now cuts into the soft skin of her hip. She’s been gaining weight lately, her hips and thighs spreading. Mom says it’s puberty but Ruth isn’t sure. Sometimes she stops eating for days at a time. She likes the way it feels, that empty ache—like she’s doing something important—but then she gets so hungry that she eats everything, uncontrollable, like some feral thing.

Ruth rearranges the blue cloth and bullets before leaving the room. She closes the door behind her. In the living room the TV is softly playing cartoons, a buck’s head perched over it, its glassy black eyes staring out. The window faces out into their front yard which is mostly worn to dirt from all of the dogs, their wooden hutches overflowing with hay. The hounds drag chains around from heavy, spike-studded collars. Dad got the collars because sometimes he takes them hunting for mountain lions and it is supposed to discourage a fatal bite, though it rarely does; Ruth is used to him leaving with seven dogs and coming back with five or six. On those days Ruth and her mom are careful to avoid him, because he does love those dogs, Ruth’s pretty sure. After one dies he drinks beer until his eyes go blurry and blood-webbed. Ruth and her mom stay in her room curled up on her twin bed, the corner-mounted television so quiet they have to turn on subtitles.

Ruth checks the time. Her parents have been gone for ten minutes. It’s at least that long to get into Laramie, so she still has time. She goes outside, trying not to think of her mom and what they might be doing, though she’s probably okay. Dad is in one of those phases where he’s trying, but Ruth can’t explain why seeing him hug her makes her sicker, sometimes, than when he uses his fist.

It’s windy outside, the yellow grass tilted sideways as if trying to hide from the sky. The dogs rush out when they hear her, tipping their heads to the sky to howl, their tails wagging. A BB gun is mounted next to the front door. Dad keeps it there when he lets the dogs off their chains, which he does twice a day for an hour each. He sits in a faded patio chair with the gun resting across his lap, aiming it at them to break up the occasional fight, streaking the dirt with dark brown spit. Sometimes he takes aim at the birds instead, which perch on the barbed wire fence and swoop down to steal the dog’s kibble.

Ruth shot a bird once. Dad wanted her to learn how to use a gun. At first he lined cans along the dirt, but when she missed all of them, he decided she needed to aim at a breathing thing. She was as surprised as he was when the bird toppled backwards over the fence. When he took her out to see her prize, Ruth looked down at the bloodied, still robin, surprised almost, as if she thought it would have changed in the short time it took to reach it. Dad watched her face and his expression folded. He picked the bird up by the legs and flung it off into the distance. She waited for him to say something, but he only walked off, leaving her there with the BB gun held limply in her hand, waiting for something, some feeling, sorrow or anything, she didn’t care. She hated the way things hit her sometimes like she was skinless, but this was worse, the way sometimes nothing touched her at all.

Ruth walks out, reeling back when the dogs hurl up to leap at her chest, their tongues darting towards her face. She unclips their collars from the heavy chain and then carefully unbuckles the collar, scratching their necks and watching their eyes go soft as this untouched space is attended, their back legs twitching. She loves them and she’ll miss them, but this is better.

Once they are all loose, she goes to the gate and unlatches it. Ruth thinks that she will need to chase them out like they do in the movies, shouting mean things at them, maybe pelting them with rocks, but they bolt before she can fully move out of the way. They run together towards the mountains and too soon they are gone, out of sight. Ruth doesn’t know where they are going, but she hopes they are okay. She doesn’t regret letting them go, even though now she’s afraid, because she knows it is necessary. And more than that, it is good.

The yard is empty now as it hardly ever is. Sometimes her dad leaves for weeks at a time to guide some rich man, helping him bag a mountain lion or elk whose face he can hoist towards the camera as Dad takes his picture, face ruddy and eyes red from the camera flash, always grinning, grinning as bright blood dribbles from the animal’s mouth. When he’s gone it feels like Ruth and her mother shed their skins like snakes, slither around new and naked. They don’t have a car but it doesn’t matter that they are stuck in the house. They watch TV as late and loud as they want. Cook anything but venison. Breathe deep enough to fill their lungs and laugh too loud at anything, everything.

Once, when Ruth asked if she loved him, Mom touched her fingertips to Ruth’s hair. A yellowing bruise circling her thin wrist like jewelry. “You’re very young,” she said, which wasn’t an answer at all.

Last month Mom went so far as to pack their things. Everything that was important they stuffed into a large leather suitcase and Ruth’s school backpack. Ruth still keeps it in her closet. When school starts again she will need to unpack it, but for now she keeps it like some kind of charm, or at least so she can be prepared. Sometimes they have to run. They don’t have time to wait for police. Sometimes he chases them, but mostly he lets them go, knowing they have to come back sometime. The running only makes it worse when they do, but they have to run—the way bugs scatter when you flick on a light, unthinking. Ruth has learned that it is very difficult to save yourself. That other people have to do the saving, and Ruth and her mom only have each other. And him.

Ruth goes to her dad’s shop and opens the heavy brown door. It’s dark inside, and so dusty that she has to pull the collar of her shirt over her nose. Ruth flicks on the light switch. Tools align on the wall, everything in its place, and piles of Styrofoam sit in the corner. On the walls are animals and fish of all kinds.

Her dad is talented. This is what his clients tell Ruth, and she guesses she should be proud of this. She’s seen other mounted animals, the way they don’t look like anything at all, lumpy and misshapen. A mountain lion crouches on Styrofoam rocks along the wall closest to Ruth, its maw wrinkled back, one paw raised to strike. Ruth has stared at this many times before, and even though she knows it is skin stretched over foam and clay, it feels real. But mostly it feels sad—this thing that was once frightening and wild posed and mounted, its fur collecting dust and spiders as big as mice.

Ruth pulls a black folding chair away from her dad’s desk, on which sits his ledger, filled with his cramped and childlike writing. Ruth turns it to face the door and then pulls the gun from her waist and sits down.

Yesterday they almost made it to their neighbor's house. They crested the hill and there it was, a cramped brown building half-buried in the hill behind it. They’d never met them, or talked to them, but Mom thought they might give them a ride into town. Ruth didn’t ask, “And then what?” though she thought it. They never made it to the house. Mom stopped at the bottom of the hill and then sat down. She’d long ago started to cry in silence, so it was a moment before Ruth noticed the tears slicking her cheeks. Ruth didn’t speak. She didn’t know if her mom was crying because she didn’t want to leave him or because she had to go back, and it didn’t matter. Ruth realized then that her mother was like one of the animals mounted on the wall, something neither alive nor dead, posed for motion but never going anywhere.

Ruth’s hands are not shaking. She uses both hands to lift the gun, thumbing off the safety, and waits.

Powered by Froala Editor

Powered by Froala Editor