The Hunter

I know it’s been forever since my last post. I had good intentions of documenting the past few months, but a few weeks into the term, I came to the realization that college is time-consuming. Who knew? I hope to give a synopsis of my first term/all the fun life lesson-type things I’ve learned in the past 12 weeks (like how to do laundry), but right now, I’m using this blog as a way to share the product of one of my classes.

This fall, I enrolled in Creative Writing: Fiction, a class in which I developed, wrote, rewrote and edited two original short stories. My professor left these stories unprompted and completely up to our imagination. I learned so, so much during this course, and I truly think (and hope) that I grew as a writer. I’m sharing the first short story with you now, and I hope that if you take the time to read it, you’ll give me feedback on your thoughts and suggestions for improvement! But first, I’d like to give a humongous shout-out to the people that helped develop my writing, both in the past and specifically with this story – y’all rock. Thanks for believing in me.

The Hunter

Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. Although his mind feels shut off, his body still clings to instincts. Every action and observation reduced to rudiments; only bare bones. Clomp-clomp. The hunter’s boots striking the boards of the barn’s stairs announces his arrival. One, two. The number of steps it takes John to reach his sister, cowering behind the loose pile of hay. Hush. Be strong. One long, shared look. Thump-thump. His heart will continue to pump blood; it will ensure his survival. It will beat all the odds.
Except perhaps the bullet in the hunter’s gun, the brother of which was now lodged in his father’s heart.

When six-year-old John would come shuffling into the room in his father’s too-big boots, screeching in his child’s high pitch about how the Indians were escaping or how the robbers had stolen treasure, his father grumbled the boy had too wild of an imagination.
But that wasn’t to say he wasn’t proud. It was the gruffness that did it; something about the way he carefully arranged his face and adopted a deeper, dismissive tone. Which was enough for John. Creativity wasn’t in high demand on a farm. He could fantasize all he wanted, but he would still have to trudge out to the barn every mush-gray morning to milk Old Tess and coax the chickens up off their freshly-laid eggs. It wasn’t a bad life, but it certainly wasn’t exciting. No time for daring escapades or adventures as he grew older, was assigned more chores, saddled with increasing responsibilities. And so his imagination had faded with his childhood.
And now, when he needed it to kick back into gear, it refused.
He closed his eyes, squeezed them shut hard. Focus. The hunter would soon be through the door with its flimsy barricade, and he and his sister had no escape route. John tried to ignore the footsteps and the pulsing feeling in his wrists as he pictured the bottom section of the barn with Old Tess’s stall in the corner, opposite the set of wooden stairs the hunter was climbing. The stairs were the only way down, they would have to go up. Opening his eyes, he scanned the cramped loft again. No trapdoors, the window was too high, the hay was useless, the beams—the beams!
It would have been comical: him and his sister, scrambling up the wooden rafters like they used to do as kids, racing to the spot where the rope swing, before it frayed, had been secured to the slat under the peaked roof’s apex. His father had knotted the rope twice, strong and sure, when John turned six. He had given it a tug and then clapped John on the shoulder, beaming like this was as satisfactory of a present as the toy gun and holster John had begged for. Good old-fashioned fun: his father’s favorite label for the swing. But that was then. He was dead now.
John scooped his sister up and hoisted her onto the nearest rafter, giving her a push to indicate that she should begin pulling herself up toward the top. She obeyed and he threw himself onto the beam beside her, gouging his hands into the slanted wood and dragging himself forward. Over his breathing, he could just hear the hunter’s rhythm slow and then stop as he reached the top of the stairs.
John slid faster along the beam and jerked his head at his sister, indicating that she should do the same. Sweat tickled the corners of his eyes as he looked up, assessing their next move once they reached the beams’ conjunction at the peak.
Was that – yes, there was a tiny stream of light, a small gap where the wood had begun to weaken and rot. A few good shoves and it should give; there was their escape.
He reached the top first, just as the hunter began ramming against the door. John and the hunter shoved and pushed in a demented race, wood splintering. His sister, breathless, joined in, her willowy arms pushing with all their might, tiny muscles straining. A bead of sweat rolled into John’s eye; he continued heaving against the warped wood. The hole was widening; she could almost fit through, just a few shoves more.
Then everything fell apart.
With a crack of finality, the door burst, just as the boards above John gave way. He reached to toss his sister through, but he clutched at air.
The hunter pushed through the jagged doorway, stepping foot into the loft just as John’s sister slammed on her back against the floor in front of him, a scream frozen in her throat. The hunter crouched in front of her crooked body before John could get a good look at his face.
For an eternal half-second, John stared down at the mangled figure, bile rushing up his throat. Her little form crumpled into an unnatural shape, her neck twisted, motionless on the barn floor. Her birthday was coming up this month. She had spent weeks detailing to their father exactly the kind of frou-frou party she wanted: pink balloons, pink streamers, and a pink frosted cake, with 11 pink candles perched just so on top. That was the kind of person she was: a planner, opinionated with a dash of bossiness. The kind of person she had been. John forced himself to tear his eyes away from the pink blood beginning to leak from the corner of her mouth; he scrambled through the hole onto the roof, swallowing nausea.
His view of the ground forty feet below was blurred by tears. Swiping a hand across his eyes, John half-ran parallel to the roof’s slant with quick, surefooted steps, reached the corner and peered down. There was, conveniently, a stack of hay below that he and his father had forked into a pile about a week earlier. It was, inconveniently, at least fifteen feet away from the edge. He might make that kind of jump.
He heard the creaks that meant the hunter was scaling the beams. He took a few steps back. It had to be now. Two runs forward, a bend of the knees, a push of the muscles, and he was airborne.
Time played games with him, speeding up and slowing down as he simultaneously plunged and floated in an awkward dive, limbs flailing. He wasn’t going to make it; he wasn’t going to make it, but then time clicked back into place and he was propelled the last few feet forward into the hay pile. The rolling, hay-up-the-nose impact was not graceful, but he was still functioning. He was still alive. For now.
He pushed himself to his feet. No stopping to catch his breath or evaluate his injuries. Mechanically, he sprinted toward the woods, his vision blurred, heading nowhere specific, just away. Away from the hunter. Away from his father and sister’s bodies. Away from here.

John’s lungs couldn’t take it anymore. He grabbed onto the nearest tree, clutching at the rough bark with splinter-cut hands as he lowered himself, back against the trunk, his boots sliding outwards, the soles plowing furrows in the scattered pine needles. His breath comes in painful, sharp huffs. Just a quick rest. He leans his head back against the trunk, his eyes close, his adrenaline fades.

They had been debating whether to have chicken or spaghetti for supper. John had managed to scrape an A on his precal test, and to celebrate, his father agreed to take him out to the pasture to practice his aim after they ate. He was relieved; his father obviously hadn’t checked the gun closet to know that John had failed to clean the rifles. John was doubled over, laughing as his father described an unfortunate incident with Old Tess and her udder. When he came up for breath, his father wasn’t laughing anymore; he had moved to the window and pushed the curtains askew. His father’s face, which many of the local women praised for being so ruggedly handsome despite his age, looked ancient in that moment. He pressed himself against the glass, eyes intent on the dust cloud rising above their driveway like a horde of irritated insects.
He sees again his father’s furrowed brow as an unfamiliar pickup truck speeds down the dirt road. The slight man, not any taller than John, that wrenched himself, head lowered, from the driver’s seat. The rifle in hand, dressed in a flannel and thick soled boots. The way his father’s eyes widened before he shoved John and his sister towards the back door. The old, spotted mirror propped against the wall that promptly fell over, shattered as John wrenched the door open, pushed his sister through. The wind blowing past him as he and his sister raced to the old barn, telling him to go back, save his father, go back. The gunshot.

John presses his back against the tree trunk, hard, just to feel something, but the bark wasn’t even rough against his skin. He had never cried like this before. Hot, rushing tears coursed down his face in rivulets, falling to the soil in salty splashes. His body seized and heaved with spasmodic sobs, back and forth against the trunk. There were periods of no sound, his frame rocking. His face seemed frozen in a mask as he wheezed, trying to catch his breath. And when he did, the tears returned, and the cycle repeated again. Again and again.
He could picture the funeral. So vivid, he felt like he was already there. Double caskets at the front. The solemn preacher fixed between them as “Amazing Grace” wheezed from the old piano’s keys. All the townspeople, gray faces drawn. The unmarried women, huddled together on one of the pews, consulting in hushed tones, tear streaked cheeks. And his sister – but no, she couldn’t be there, and especially not in that bright pink dress. But there she was, sitting in the front pew, eyes fixed forward. He tried to clear his mind; of course she was dead, but then there was commotion at the back of the church, and in walked the sheriff and his deputy, carrying between them a short figure clad in flannel and thick soled boots. He howled like a wounded animal, head bowed, and John charged toward him; he would see the hunter’s face, look him eye-to-eye once and for all, but then John’s spine snapped up straight, and he was staring at a mirror on the ceiling, and then he was falling into and through the mirror, his head stiff, wrists pulsing, frozen.

John’s head shot up. Time to keep pushing forward. His hand reached out, sifted in an automatic search through the pine needles beside him, but that was absurd; there wasn’t anything there. He shook his head, tried to clear it. Focus.
Although he had lost the hunter by weaving through the woods for nearly an hour, John knew that, with any skill at all, he would soon pick up the trail. The crushed pine needles were a giveaway. Groaning, John rolled himself to his knees and, using the trunk for support, managed to raise himself. His aching muscles protested. He massaged his wrists. Still pulsing.
He lived ten miles out of town by the main roads, but he could make it through the woods. It would add a few more miles. As he walked in the direction of town, shakily at first, John tried to orient himself. He had played many games of hide-and-seek here with his sister, and he knew he should be approaching the suspension bridge soon. Their father had never actually allowed them to play this far into the woods when they were younger, and he had always cautioned them about the old bridge, but John had a habit of doing exactly what he was told not to.
He heard a twig snap behind him, but when he spun around, no one was visible. He peered up into the branches. Now turning to begin a fast jog, glancing over his shoulder every few seconds. He could see the bridge now, look back, it was getting closer, look back, just a few steps more, look back, now running across the bridge’s boards, look back, suddenly a sharp crack and he was falling, falling, his wrists pulsing and no way to look back.

Beep. Beep. Beep.
He didn’t remember waking; he was just suddenly aware that he was thrashing, throwing his weight against restraints. Still straining, he cracked his eyes open, blurrily taking stock. He scanned the room for the hunter but only saw faded white walls, their paint peeling in places, stained in others. A door tucked away in the left hand corner, a small mirror hanging on the opposite wall. No windows though. He appeared to be strapped to some sort of bed, a large band across his torso, smaller ones cutting into his wrists. And what was that beeping sound in the background? He craned his neck, could just see over his shoulder: a bulky, self-important, old-fashioned heart monitor, displaying his frantic pulse in a steep trail of ascending and descending green lines across the screen. Where was he?
The door swung open, and he braced himself, tensing for the hunter to enter the room. But instead, a bald man outfitted in a long white coat stepped through, shutting the door behind him with a slap.
The man breathed a deep, nasally sigh then took several steps up to John’s bed, making a big show of tucking a clipboard under his arm so that he could massage his temples. John could just read “St. Luke’s Hospital for the Men-” across the top of the paper attached to the clipboard; the man’s meaty arm concealed the rest. John didn’t recognize the hospital. Maybe his injuries required treatment at a facility larger than the ones near town.
John waited, flexing his fingers and shifting his neck as the man selected a pen from his coat pocket and jotted a few notes on the clipboard. Glancing up, he caught John’s eyes fixated on him.
“John, do you remember our previous session?”
What was he talking about? John continued to fidget as he racked his brain, tried to identify the man’s face.
“Are you the one that fixed my broken arm when I was six?” He dredged up a memory of himself sobbing on the old barn floor after he lost his grip trying to shimmy up the rope swing, his father’s yelling distant in the background.
The man in the white coat arranged his fingers in a careful steeple, took a breath. “I am afraid not.”
He definitely didn’t know who this man was.
“John, I know this will be difficult to hear, but your father died in a gun misfiring.” John’s fingers stopped flexing, his chest tightened. “That was nearly two years ago.”
His throat burned; his heart stopped beating.
“Since that time, you have had to undergo various…treatments. Your sister is alive, but she is not allowed visiting privileges until you recover.” The man paused, looked away as John tried to move his mouth to form words, tried and failed to make a noise, then, “John, I must also emphasize that there is no ‘hunter.’”
He was paralyzed. He was constricted, the restraints were too tight, the white walls were pressing in on him, he couldn’t breathe. Two years ago, gun misfiring, his sister alive, and no hunter? The events of that day were so vivid, so real. That couldn’t be right. He dry swallowed, felt bile rising in his throat, tried to open his mouth anyway to ask a question. The man interrupted.
“We will discuss this in further detail when you have rested a few more hours,” he said, sliding a needle into John’s arm and hooking him up to an IV drip. Then he was gone, his white coat disappearing in a flash through the door, ignoring the strangled call John managed to make after him.
John collapsed into the bed as the door shut, heart racing, breath coming in sharp little gasps. It couldn’t be true. He struggled to remain coherent, to rationalize the man’s obvious misinformation, but the drugs kicked in quickly. His wrists pulsed as his reasoning began to slow down, turn to molasses.
He could almost hear faint whispering outside the door: the man’s nasally tones blended with another unidentifiable voice. After a few brief seconds, the pair ended their conversation and started down the hall, away from his room. As John surrendered to the sedative’s grasp, the last sound he heard was the clomp-clomping of thick soled boots.

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