“I wish I had a gun.”
Sunlight lances through the salal, illuminating the berry stains on my brother’s face. His head feels like a boulder on my calf and my foot is going numb, but I don’t say anything. I just chew slowly on a young pine needle and listen.
“Do you think they’re gone?” His whisper is a shout in the dusky silence.
This time, I give him a look, but it’s been over two hours and he’s reached his limit. “If we had a gun,” he goes on, “we’d be home by now.”
“We’d be dead,” I counter, hoping he’ll shut up. “Be grateful we’re dry.”
He glares back at me, years of younger brother resentment welling up. I squash it ruthlessly. “And that they didn’t have dogs.”
I hate myself, as my brother’s coffee brown face blanches milk white. He has a way of looking scared like a baby looks scared, making your stomach curdle as you desperately wish you could make everything safe and good…which is the worst wish one could have, making it so I don’t hate myself anymore. I hate him.
Our parents knew enough to worry about ‘coons, once the island ran dry of cheap cat food and trash cans went empty. But, none of us thought about the dogs. Pets smart enough to escape their starving owners quickly formed vicious packs, and their allegiance, once lost, was sorely missed.
I feel a tap on my ankle and ignore it.
Like chickens scattering at the first sign of a hawk, our flight from the Center Forest trail had been immediate and undiscussed. Mama Bird would have been proud, as we dove into the brush, burrowed out of view, and froze; still and silent as rough voices meandered toward us, lingered until our bodies quaked with terror, then ever-so-slowly, faded away.
Tap – tap.
I glance down. The sun has moved and my brother’s face is now hidden by evening shadow. I see him point. He wants to try for home. Now. Before the dogs come.
I nod and we begin to crawl, filling the waiting forest with a symphony of trackable sounds. Eyes shut, hair full of leaf litter, flames racing up my leg in vengeful, twitchy spasms, my heart ruthlessly pumping blood into the starved tissues. In voiceless agony, I squirm and twist after my brother.
His eyes gleam up at me, wide and glassy, reflecting trace light that filters through thick, interlacing evergreen branches.
“Home?” he asks. “Or…Doc’s?”
We smell the stink of my fear at the same moment. He rushes on, seeking to catch me while I’m still persuadable. I know what he’s doing, and that he’s crazy, but I listen anyway.
His voice is like the wind blowing through reeds. “Who else is stupid enough to be in the forest at night?”
My silence is long enough that my brother jerks on the line, sinking the barb in deeper. “We’re as safe heading to Doc’s as trying to get home. I mean, we’re more than halfway there, right? We can spend the night looking for his gun stash, then go home once the sun’s up.”
As if on cue, an owl hoots from the thick forest behind my brother, then again, behind my goose-bump covered backside. As if to say, silent flight and darkness have kept me and my kin alive for eons. Why not you?
“Mom and Dad will kill us.” I whisper, imagining all they will suffer, when we fail to return. Still, I know he’s right. No one else knows about the guns. Doc gave up his secret to our Mother, as he lay dying in our living room; when he looked like he was gonna kiss her but, instead, left blood on her ear and not her lips.
I suck in my breath, ready to argue for caution. It’s kept us alive this long, hasn’t it? Then, we hear a long, soulful howl rise up out of the darkness, followed by a familiar yipp-yipp! The reassuring call of our resident coyote pack, signaling that Center Forest hadn’t been ceded to dog territory. Yet.
Our eyes meet. “Fine.” I say, as we turn away from home and head westward. Side by side. “Let’s do this.”