Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Hunted

Soft, curling tendrils of cirrus filled the sky, clumping in places, spreading out and then balling up like a shoddy tinsel job. Christmas was a vague memory, however, it did not register - it was static crackle and the smell of pine trees - a New Year for regrets looming. He rested his back against the old oak, wrestling with it until he found a semblance of comfort.

Pulling a bent cigarette out of his pocket, he gazed across the water. Small bits of tobacco fell like cloned snowflakes - little brown specks expertly shredded - he found a box of matches with three sticks left in the inside pocket of his coat. The first one broke, but the second flared wildly in the breeze, just long enough. It didn't matter. It was the last cigarette.

He'd been running out. Of everything. He ran out of excuses and that led to running out of family. He ran out of money. He'd run out of his apartment when he heard the sirens. Now, he was out of cigarettes and, with one match and some pocket change to his name, he was running out of time.

A hawk skated lazily on the updrafts. He smiled. Then his stomach reminded him. There was nothing lazy about it. The hawk was hunting. The updrafts were life or death. Suddenly, he winced, thinking of the field mouse that would dash out from cover at the wrong time - the hawk's arrival seemed a bad omen, now. He knew what it felt like to be hunted.

He was tired of running, wolf-snap at his heels. Were they still coming? He knew they would never stop coming. He had left too much behind and there was nothing ahead of him save the game - the game he was growing tired of. The game that shook him ragdoll limp, that left him tasting his fatigue - a soft ugliness that grew with each step, throttled by the thirst. It tasted like ash and melancholy. He could smell it on the breeze, too. The lines were blurring - it was no longer clear where he ended and the world began.

For God so loved the world... He heard it. The refrain of years, incense sticks and slight of hand tricks. What kind of father gives away their son? He knew the answer. He could relate. He wondered if his boy would ever understand and accepted that he wouldn't. He would grow up chewing through stories that, combined, formed a collage that seemed noble and despicable at the same time. He would love his father - the one he would never remember - because no one else did. Because that contrary streak was legacy - the only thing he could leave his son aside from disappointment. Heart constricting terror - an anxiety that would follow him for the rest of his days. It didn't matter. The boy was young, and it was better this way.

He cast the smoking butt into the water in front of him, heard his grandfather's voice, chastising - he watched its progress through the riffles and wished he could take it back. Nothing mattered, but, somehow, this did. It was the biggest betrayal of all. He closed his eyes and tried to look inside his head, skull aching, wondering who would tell his son not to sully beautiful things. To stick by the ugly things if they were important enough. There was a sharp pain in his chest and his breath caught - why would the boy listen to a man he had been raised to hate? Even if he could deliver the message somehow? Deb would raise the boy to be everything he wasn't. And that was mostly good. For the best. Mostly.

He stood up and tightened the laces on his heavy work boots. One last look at the sky, ochre insanity - he gasped at the absurdity of it. Lurid. The woods had become silent. His motion stilled the birds and mice - the hawk was still hunting. And then he heard a whining sound from far away. He stood, motionless, as the drone swelled into siren song he knew too well. 

He hitched up his pants, tightened his belt, and filled the pockets with handfuls of pebbles. He filled every pocket in his coat and then shoved the remaining handful of rock and grit into his mouth. He walked into the water slowly but deliberately. The sirens were getting louder, but they would not succeed in their hunt. They would find only tiny flecks of tobacco where the man had been sitting. Footsteps to the water. They'd know he couldn't walk across it. Case closed.

The hawk stooped and fell on its prey, tasting the good blood taste, tearing with its beak and talons. 

Safe for another day.


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