Stephen Peet

Wild Kingdom

 

by Stephen Peet

 

The boy lay in a dried out wallow beneath freshly cut rhododendron boughs. To passersby, had there been any, it was an ordinary brush pile worthy of no notice whatsoever. Except for a fuzzy pink hippo seizing atop the debris. A fraying thread held one of its black glass eyes, the other eye was gone completely. Where a leg had separated at the seams along the underbelly, tufts of batting ejaculated with each spasm. Also there were the muted grunts issuing from within the brush. The boy had been at this a while, and his forearm muscles burned from his efforts. Then a piercing call from high above perked him up, and the boy switched hands and shook the hippopotamus with renewed vigor.

Real camouflage and live prey would have been nice. Last Sunday’s episode of Wild Kingdom featured Stan Brock under camouflage netting, one gloved hand clutching the hind legs of an agitated hare whose thrashing tempted an airborne golden eagle into an attack. It was very dramatic. The great bird’s wings folded back in a dive, a close-up shot of the hare’s big black eyes wide and aware of the inevitable, unable to dash to safety, the music building, the eagle’s murderous talons extending; back and forth the film went, hunter to prey, prey to hunter. Anticipation stole the boy’s breath. When the raptor crashed into the hare and Stan Brock burst from his hiding place to subdue the bird, releasing the hare which tumbled away frantically from the boiling dust and tumble, the boy could only whisper, trancelike, “gah.”

“What a bunch of bullshit,” the boy’s father said to the TV. “It’s fixed. That’s a trained bird.”

The boy’s spell could not be broken. Watching Stan Brock control the great raptor the boy’s mind drifted to scenes of his own hawk obediently perched on his own gloved hand, surveying the situation with its super-powered vision, scanning a pasture for a tasty woodland creature or, say, a fleeing bank robber whose neck needed gouging in order to bring him to justice, if the boy so commanded.

Animal mastery ran in the family. Before they left south Florida for their new mountain lifestyle, the boy had on several occasions captured along the banks of the Caloosahatchee turtles and lizards kept as pets until they expired, escaped, or were discovered by his mother. At present, older brother Bobby was keeping a groundhog named Jerry in a pasteboard box under the window in the bedroom they shared. Seeing the outdoors was supposed to help Jerry adjust to captivity and so the boy was ordered to push his bed away from the window into the dark corner. He missed having the window open next to his head, feeling and smelling the night air, hearing the insects and night animals, usually far off in the woods but sometimes near. Now there was just the occasional scratching of Jerry against his confinement.

Over the place on the box that said “tastes good like a cigarette should,” Bobby had glued a sheet of paper on which he wrote in magic marker: Jerry the ground hog caught with bare hands by Bobby Jackson at the mica mine on May 13, 1970.

That wasn’t true. Bobby ambushed Jerry from a high-up perch while Jerry grazed below. “Bare hands” suggested a struggle, and there was none. Just rock dropping.

Jerry was not going to come out of it. The rock had dislodged one eye, and the other looked to the right all the time and did not respond to finger snaps or celery stalks approaching from the left or right or above. No way Jerry cared about the window view either, in the boy’s opinion.

A lively juvenile Jerry would have made much better bait than Alice’s hippo. But those days of being appropriate bait were long gone for Jerry. A: his being full grown and more than a hawk would take on was a big thing and, B: hawks will also not consume what they have not themselves killed. Jerry being adult sized and as good as dead disqualified him on two counts. Also there was Bobby. He would not appreciate Jerry missing from the box.

 

The boy grimaced. His left hand began throbbing, and his right had not fully recovered. He had not heard the object of his subterfuge for a while. Through the peepholes of the rhododendron boughs, he eyed the sky and saw nothing but blue and a few wispy clouds.

The rusty box wire fence that surrounded the pasture and separated Mr. Luther’s property from the boy’s family’s creaked like someone was climbing over it. Bobby to torment him, likely. Throw rocks or drop a watermelon or some such. The boy clenched his stomach muscles.

“You’re giving it hell there, Willie.” The boy exhaled, relaxed his belly muscles.

“He won’t attack if you’re standing there, Dad,” Will said from within the brush.

“There’s not a hawk in sight. You’ve shaken most of the stuffing out of that toy. Alice is going to throw a fit.”

Two dirty fingers widened his peep hole. Will Jackson’s big and sincere eyes searched the heavens. His forehead widened the peep hole further, and his entire head pushed through birth like. He blinked and scanned the sky entire. No hawk. On the dead hemlock that grew out of the high rocky knob across the river where he often perched, the hawk did not perch. Hunting elsewhere was the likely explanation. Too smart for Will’s ruse, or the hawk was spooked by his father, probably. The hippo clutched in his left hand was half spent, the head and chest still plump and inviting but the lower half shriveled like a paraplegic. White batting hung from boughs and flitted across the pasture in the light breeze. Still the boy’s eyes were uplifted, reflecting back the darkening blue of the day’s fading light in the sky above.

“Kick those branches out of that hole, so it’s not a booby trap. What if one of Mr. Luther’s cows twisted an ankle? You’d be in deep shit wouldn’t you?”

“I guess.”

“Damn right you would. I need you at the shop in the morning. So early to bed.”

“Aw. Why isn’t it ever Bobby’s turn?” He emerged from the boughs, dispersing them out into the pasture with half-hearted kicks, chin on his chest as though his neck muscles were too weak to support his head.

“You know why, Willie,” his father said. He kicked around a bough like he was helping but it was not that helpful. “I’m delivering papers this week, so I need you every morning.”

Will said, “yessir.”

 

Dinner was tuna casserole. No one looked up from the The Waltons on TV when Will walked through the living room with his bowl and climbed the stairs to his room. Alice and Sarah, intent on the Waltons’ story, his father lost on some spot above the TV, mesmerized by a knot in the wood paneling, a Budweiser can tilted on his thigh. His mother snored on the swaybacked couch.

In his room he flipped through a National Geographic as he ate. There was New Zealand’s spectacular mountains. There was a Watusi long and thin and airborne in post-hunt dance, spear aloft. There was an emperor penguin, weirdly calm in a fierce snowstorm. From the Winston box, Jerry scratched. Slowly at first. Then enthusiastically.

“Shush!”

Could Jerry be coming out of his groundhog coma? Maybe frightened and confused at his unfamiliar surroundings and his blindness with only that one useless eye, Jerry was obeying what his instinct commanded—dig. Then it stopped, Jerry’s scratching. After a moment staring at the box, Will went back to his magazine until fatigue closed his eyelids.

Light from the hall flooded the room. Will’s eyelids snapped open and snapped just as quickly back to slits. He made out Bobby’s silhouette and followed his movements. His brother pulled back a box flap, leaned over and stared inside. He sighed, straightened, and kicked the box. Bobby slammed the bedroom door, cutting off all light. The bed groaned. Bobby’s rough breathing, his exhalations sharper than his intake, eventually became rhythmic. Then Will heard a little snore and relaxed his shoulders, his neck, his stomach, and eventually, he slept.

“Get up, Willie. We’re late. Let’s go.” The shaking wasn’t gentle.

“OK, dad.” When he heard his father’s footfalls going down the stairs, he slowly sat up in bed. The jeans he wore the day before lay at his feet. He pulled them on. He stared at the socks, sneakers, and shirt also mounded on the floor.

“Hurry up, shit head,” Bobby growled. “Shut the goddamn door, and get that light out of my eyes.”

Will hurriedly scooped up his attire and hustled out, closing the door gently. He dressed sitting on the top stair.

His father pushed a Frosted Mini-Wheats box into his chest when Will reached the landing. “We’re out of milk. Munch on these while we drive.” Out the door the two marched, like they were remote-control operated.

Highway 194 to Boone was desolate. The snaky ribbon of two-lane and the lush forest that overhung it and the farms and hollows clustered with mobile homes all had a blue cast under a moon so bright it cast shadows. They took a turn too wide, and the LTD jerked back into its lane. Will glanced at his father who looked mildly hypnotized. He clicked on the radio and checked his father again to see that it was OK when Three Dog Night sang “joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me…” His father blinked and straightened a little behind the wheel and kept to his lane until they reached the town limits.

As they rolled into town, the time and temperature sign at Northwestern Bank read 4:30 and then flipped to 68° and then flipped to 4:31. A Kerns Bread truck passed the other way on King Street, the only other vehicle on the road. His father obeyed the first stop light but gunned through the intersection before the light changed to green. At the next red light, they didn’t stop at all. The third light thankfully changed to green just as they approached, and they turned onto Highway 321. Fifty yards down sat Granny’s Donuts, a cinderblock rectangle no wider than a mobile home and twice as deep, wedged between Dewey’s Auto Parts and Maryanne’s Wick’d Wonderland of Candles. Two of the three lightbulbs that illuminated the roof-mounted sign were burned out. The middle bulb cast a pleasing glow upon the sign with its edge darned as though the effect was intended. Will thought the artwork of Granny with her donut eyeglasses was also clever. The sign came with the store.

Movement in his periphery when his father flipped on the dining area lights caught Will’s attention. A mouse dashed around the end of the counter, hugging the wall as it scampered toward the kitchen. His father’s attention was on the threshold. It had lifted up again. He stomped it with his boot heel. There was a soft pop when he raised his foot.

“Sonofabitch!” His father was free but his boot heel remained tacked to the threshold. He kicked the boot heel, skittering it across the linoleum and under the cigarette machine. “Goddammit!” He walked funny as he upended stools from the counter and righted them on the floor, working his way to the cigarette machine.

“Dad, the newspapers,” Will said. His father was straining under the cigarette machine trying to reach his boot heel. “Ahh, got it,” he finally said and stood, red-faced, gimping to the front door carrying the boot heel. “Don’t get caught in the mixer.”

 

Arranged in the display case when Will’s father gimped into the shop were two trays of plain-glazed, one tray of jelly, one tray of fancy frosting which was just vanilla with some green food coloring swirled in it, a tray of custard-filled, and a tray of chocolate-topped custard-filled. Will’s dad ran his finger along the glass as he walked by, assessing the morning’s assortment. In the kitchen he found Willie reclined on sacks of doughnut flour sketching in his notepad.

Startled by his father’s appearance in the kitchen, Will snapped his notebook closed. “I got the first wave out. The next wave is rising and close to ready.”

“I see that, Willie.”

“I loaded the hopper.”

“Mmm hmm.” As he tied on an apron and rolled up his sleeves his father casually said, “Terrier looking pup ran right out as I was whipping into a driveway. I think it was that dentist’s house, Dr. Sumter or whatever. Anyway it’s in the back of the LTD. Put it in a trash bag and throw it in the dumpster while I knock out these cakers.”

The cake doughnut hopper attached to the wall with an articulated arm and had a wood-handled crank like an ice cream churn. Each crank extruded a circle of cake doughnut batter that plopped from a height of about ten inches into the hot peanut oil. Splashes were sometimes significant. Will was not allowed to cook cake doughnuts. His height put his face and eyes at the level to catch splashes. For an adult-sized person like Will’s father, the burns were restricted to hands and arms.

“What?” Will said.

“Sonofabitch,” his dad said, stepping back from the fry cooker and touching his cheek. “Oil almost got my eye.”

“There’s a dead dog in the back of the station wagon?”

“It’s not a big deal, Will. Bag it up, put it in Dewey’s dumpster. He’ll be in soon. So hurry, so he doesn’t catch you doing it. The prick.”

His father had wrapped the dog in a copy of the Winston-Salem Journal that flapped a little in the light morning breeze, revealing a wiry paw and a drip of blood on its nail. Will inhaled deeply, held his breath, and managed to scooch the carcass into the garbage bag without touching it. He gave the bag a twirl, sealing it, and walked it to the dumpster. A metallic thud echoed across the parking lot as it landed inside. Just as he reached the shop’s door, Dewey’s pickup truck wheeled into his lot. Will waved. Dewey pretended not to notice him.

Two racks of cake doughnuts were cooling on the prep table when he returned.

“Holler when the bus gets here,” Will said.

His father grunted, flipped doughnuts floating in the hot oil using a long wooden dowel stained black at the end. “Dog in the dumpster?”

“Yessir.”

In the storeroom on sacks of doughnut flour Will stretched out and considered his sketch pad. The idea he liked best required fly paper, but he had no idea where to acquire it. He knew of it only from old black-and-white comedies and cartoons, but it sure looked perfect for his needs.

His second favorite idea was the one he began assembling that moment behind the inventory of doughnut flour where it would not be seen by his father. He coated the insides of a tall glass with peanut oil and placed it on the floor against the wall. Over the top of the glass he lay a square of wax paper, and atop that he placed a small dot of peanut butter which he had read somewhere that mice craved. A slender slat of wood served as a ramp to the booby-trapped treat.

“Bus, Willie!”

Only when he had to work the doughnut shop, did Will ride the town bus. Town kids had Levis, most of them.  Will didn’t bother looking up from the ribbed rubber track that ran down the aisle of the bus. In that way, he could keep walking until he saw no more Levis’d legs and could then take an unoccupied seat without asking if it was OK to sit. He hunched over his sketch pad and tuned out the chatter all around him.

After school, Will rode the county bus except on those days when his father could pick him up after cleaning the windows at the Western Steer and the Polar Palace and The Chalet Theater. It was a long ride from Boone to Todd with many stops at dirt roads that disappeared into the woods. None of the county kids wore Levis.

“Wanna cigarette?”

Will turned from his sketch pad to find Frankie Worley leaning forward and smiling. Frankie was in the ninth grade, too, but had been held back a couple of times. Or maybe three. Sparse whiskers grew out of his chin. His small yellow teeth were far apart. Will shook his head in the negative.

“Check this out,” Frankie said as he unfolded a sheet of notebook paper extracted from his back pocket. Will took the sheet as Frankie lit a cigarette. “You ain’t the only arteest,” he said, exhaling a cumulus of Marlboro smoke.

The breasts of the naked woman reclining with her legs apart seemed about right, as far as Will knew about anatomy. But the way Frankie had drawn the stuff between her legs was scary, like a jagged-edged train tunnel. Will nodded a smile as he returned the artwork, “Yeah, nice.” Frankie gestured with a nod that he wanted to see what was in Will’s sketchbook.

Thankfully Speck, the bus driver, yelled, “Put out that damn cigarette.”

Speck was redheaded and covered in freckles. Will did not know his real name nor the real name of the alternate bus driver who was fat and called Tiny. Will just referred to both as “sir” when he spoke to them.

“Toss it out the window, Frankie. Right now!” Speck’s fierce eyes were reflected back in the big mirror attached to the visor over his head.

Frankie took a big drag, exhaled a cloud and threw the cigarette out the window. “This is my damn road anyway,” he said.

Through the back window of the bus, Will could see Frankie fish the cigarette out of the ditch and blow a big cloud of smoke. He swung his arm wildly in what Will thought was a goodbye. He waved a little back, doubting it would be seen.

A strange car sat in the driveway at home. A Camaro, mostly green with splotches of unpainted gray along the sides, jacked up in the back with wide slicks. Will circled it before going into the house. In the kitchen, the stranger who must have been the car’s owner sat at the kitchen table with Bobby eating a bologna sandwich. Will’s stomach tightened, but he feigned nonchalance, strolled to the sink, and casually washed his hands. Behind him he heard the stranger ask, “Who’s this’n?”

“Little brother,” Bobby said. “Little shit.”

“Stop that,” Sarah said. Will hadn’t noticed his sister. She was leaning against the fridge wearing a tank top that let her bra straps show. “Willie’s sensitive.”

The stranger was watching Sarah. His hair was wild and fluffy like a big helmet. His t-shirt was imprinted with a red and blue car with flames and smoke pouring out of the back and a title that said “The King #43.” The sleeves were cut off.

“Let’s get out of here,” Bobby said.

“Where you going?” Sarah said.

“Where you ain’t,” Bobby said. He stepped to Will and smacked the side of his head. “You gonna cry? You gonna cry?” Each time he said “cry” he slapped again.

“Better not let him drive your car,” Sarah said to the stranger. “He got kicked out of driver’s ed,”

Distracted, Bobby said, “License is just a piece of plastic.”

“What makes you think I have my license?” said the stranger as he reached up and nicked Sarah’s chin with his thumb, trying to be playful. Sarah flinched a little. Will’s watery eyes caught his sister’s and they were saying, I distracted him. This is your chance to escape. And Will did.

He had to pass his mother’s bedroom door to reach the stairs. He was on tiptoes, but she called out anyway. She was flat on the bed. A swollen red hot water bottle covered her forehead and eyes, and she didn’t look up. “Who’s that with Bobby?”

“Some older guy.” Will stood for a moment, waiting for his mother to speak. “Well, I’m tired and going to rest for a while since dad says he’s delivering papers all week.”

“You have to make doughnuts, I know. God sees the goodness, Willie.” She reached her hand out. Will rolled his eyes and grasped it. “When this nausea passes, I will make us a nice dinner.”

Will backed out of the bedroom and made his way upstairs to his room. The smell was strong. Inside the cardboard box, a fly that looked like green chrome flitted around on Jerry’s popped-out eye hole. His breathing was short and quick.

Will did not remember lying down or falling asleep. But there was his father slapping his foot. “Get up, Willie. Doughnut time.”

As he followed his father down the stairs, his father said, “Doesn’t look like your brother came home last night. You know anything?”

“No sir.”

His mother’s vomiting could be heard behind the bathroom door as they passed. His father leaned down, nudged Will with his elbow and whispered, “You’d think she’d be less fat.”

 

Oh that is some delicious smelling doughnut. And my, my, this ramp is so convenient and easy to climb. My lucky night! Everything is A-OK. All I have to do is walk out on this smooth and stable wax paper floor and…what the hell? I sure didn’t see that coming, but no big deal, I will just eat this delicious doughnut, and then I’ll will be on my way…What’s this? My super grabby hands and feet aren’t working on this glass. Normally, I would be able to climb this no problem, but nothing is working right now. I can’t get my grip. What is wrong with my super grippy phalanges…

 

“Willie!”

Will jolted out of his daydream. “What, Dad. Sorry, snoozing.”

“Get out and help me push! Hurry!” His father grimaced half-in and half-out of the LTD, holding the steering wheel with his right hand and leaning into the door frame with his body. They were near the crest of King Street, but his father was losing ground. The station wagon was slowly drifting backwards.

“Out of gas,” his father grunted. “Help me get it over the hill, and we can coast down to the Gulf station.”

Will assumed the same position of his father on the passenger side, and, surprising even himself, the car began inching forward.

“Ha! That’s it, Willie. Push, you little bastard!” Will dug in, grunted with effort, feeling the weight of the station wagon pushing back against him until…it didn’t. The car became weightless and then rolled on its own.

They hopped in and coasted, and Will smiled, pleased by the quiet, the soft wind in the window, and the cool hum of the tires on the asphalt.

“Oh shit,” his father said. His right foot pumped the brakes. “Brakes.”

They rolled past the Gulf station at the bottom of the hill and back up King Street.

Will could see the back of the doughnut shop’s sign up ahead at the next light. Now the car was rolling slowly backward, picking up speed.

“Hey,” his father said brightly. “Now push again, Willie!”

Their efforts almost worked. The LTD stopped just feet short of the gas pumps. His father slammed the gear shift into park before the car could roll away again. “That’s good,” his father panted, bending and holding his knees. “They don’t open for three more hours anyway.”

His father straightened, looked left and right but not in the way one looks for help. He pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and tossed them to his son. “Go open the shop, Willie. You know what to do.”

Will caught the keys and was in full sprint in an instant.

“I’ll be there after I deliver the papers,” his father called.

“Okay,” Will called back, their voices echoing down the empty streets and mingling with the slaps of Will’s sneakers hitting the pavement.

When he flipped on the dining area light, Will saw no movement on the floor. No movement when he flipped on the kitchen lights, either. Over the sacks of doughnut flour Will crawled, breathless, heart racing. Atop the tall glass, the square of wax paper clung to the side. In the bottom of the glass was a small ball of brown fur. Will yelped.

 

The mouse’s sides puffed in and out in cute little gasps, spent from trying to overcome the slippery walls. In a plastic bin used to store tea bags, Will arranged some doughnut crumbs and a dampened paper towel. He dumped his capture into the box and closed the lid quickly. With a knife he vented the lid with two small slits. For a minute or two, Will watched his mouse and was relieved when it unfurled from its frightened knot.

Will made three trays of glazed and a tray each of jelly-filled, custard-filled, custard-filled with chocolate top, and for the special swirl, he chose red food coloring in honor of his red-tailed hawk. There would be no cake doughnuts as his father did not come at his normal arrival time after delivering Winston-Salem Journals.

The cake doughnut hopper remained full and uncranked at 7:30 when the town bus arrived and the driver laid on the horn. Will ran to the door and waved the driver on. “I can’t leave the store. My father’s not here, and we have customers.”

“That’s still truancy,” the driver said through the doors.

“I can’t leave,” Will shrugged.

The driver yanked the doors closed and drove away.

By nine o’clock, all the doughnuts except the special red swirls were sold. Customers were not fond of the hawk theme. Many were also upset about the lack of cake doughnuts. But what was Will to do?

The door creaked open, and in walked a policeman and a lady Will recognized from the guidance office at school. “Hello, Will. You know me, right? Mrs. Elvy. From school.”

“Yes, I know. Am I in trouble for missing school? I wasn’t skipping.”

“We know,” said the policeman. Silence.

Will shifted on his feet and looked nervously from one grown-up to the other. He looked at the one disinterested customer hunched over his coffee and doughnut in the shop.

“Has your father ever hit you, Will?” the policeman asked.

“What? No. I mean spanking when I mess up.”

“Ever asked you to do something wrong, like take something not yours or do something illegal?”

Will thought of the dead dog in the dumpster and swallowed. “Where’s dad?”

“Your mother’s on the way here,” said the woman. “She should be here any minute. Then we can talk.”

The door swung open, and there was Will’s mother, russet-faced and breathless, her eyes wet and rubbed red.  “Oh, Willie, your father’s in jail again.”

Again? Will said nothing, his eyes darted from one grown-up to the next.

“Did you help him steal that gas this morning?” The cop asked.

“My Willie is not a thief,” his mother said.

“No, sir,” Willie said. “Dad said for me to open the shop while he waited for the Gulf station to open, and then he would deliver his papers, so I did.”

Will’s mother closed and locked the door and turned the hanging sign from Open to Closed. “Willie, go back in the kitchen while I talk to Mrs. Elvy and the officer.”

The mouse looked very relaxed in its confinement. The doughnut crumbs were all gone. Several dark pellets of mouse waste littered the container. Will dampened a fresh paper towel scrap and dropped it and another doughnut crumb into the mouse’s quarters. He would deal with the poop later.

“Willie, we’re going,” his mother called from the dining area. Will quickly dropped the plastic container into a paper to-go box to mask his capture from his mother if she decided to inspect his backpack.

In the dining area it was just his mother; the cop and Mrs. Elvy were gone. “Let’s go home, Willie. You have the keys so you can lock this place up? Everything shut off back there?”

Will nodded, fished the keys out of his pocket.

“Wait, get those doughnuts,” she jerked her head at the four red swirly donuts left in the display case. Will boxed them and tucked the box under his arm.

They rode in silence for several miles before Will said, “Is Bobby home?”

His mother shook her head. “God knows what he is up to. And that new friend of his! A thirty-year-old juvenile delinquent! And how long has he had that dead muskrat or whatever it is?”

“Jerry is a groundhog.”

“Was. I threw him in the river.” She flipped open the doughnut box that rested between them and plucked out a doughnut. “You’re a good little doughnut maker,” she said, chewing.

“What about dad?”

Her chin trembled. “Your dad may get out Friday or may not. Let’s hope they don’t do a lot of checking.”

His mother issued a great sob, spraying donut on the steering wheel that she quickly swiped with a finger and returned to her mouth.

“What about the shop?”

“I have to teach, Willie. And run the house and cook the meals and … You can’t expect me to handle the shop, too,” she cried. After a minute she said, “Not that it matters. That damn doughnut shop hasn’t made a penny. Somebody has to keep this family off the streets.”

 

Emanating from his mother’s bathroom came the sounds of water sloshing in the tub and then moist footfalls and then vomiting and the toilet flushing, footfalls, sloshing, water running. This went on for some time. Will used the opportunity to work with his mouse without concern about interruptions. Alice was still not speaking to him over the hippo incident and remained sequestered in her room. Sarah was spending the night with a friend in town. Bobby could be anywhere, appear at any time, but that was always the case.

With the run of the house, Will made several trips to the kitchen to dig in the junk drawer for string, twine, wires, and tools. Finding a leather glove was the first priority as the mouse was a biter. Will handled the mouse with a gloved left hand and worked with his right. After several frustrating attempts, he managed to cinch down on the twine tied around the base of the mouse’s tail, and for a moment it looked to be the perfect restraint. The mouse bounced and thrashed in a convincing way. But then settled down and seemed to actually contemplate his predicament. Then he (she? how do you tell?) commenced chewing and, impressively fast to Will, gnawed through the twine and was free. The mouse scampered to the corner of the tall box and hunkered there, puffing his cute little breaths.

Will unfurled a length of thin wire from a spool. He made a loop and cinched it on a wooden matchstick. It slid easily off and would be no match for the mouse’s wits. Will eyed the staple gun. No, that is a last resort.

An idea struck, and he leapt to his feet. Back down to the kitchen Will went, jumping over the last three steps and thumping onto the landing. He stopped at the bathroom door where a strip of light still beamed underneath, but there was no sound of sloshing water, no sound of crying or vomiting. He touched the doorknob, and just when he was about to call out, he heard her body squeak in the way it squeaks when naked skin slides up or down in a wet tub. A huge slosh and he knew his mother was climbing out. He had to hurry.

With the junk drawer flung open, he frantically dug through coin wraps, birthday candles, rubber bands, matchbooks, old batteries, little light bulbs for the fridge, Allen wrenches…there. Crinkled with a crack in the tube but giving a little when he squeezed, meaning it was still usable, was the family’s Superglue.

Will dashed up the stairs just as he heard the bathroom door open and his mother plod around her room.

He wriggled his hand into the glove and transferred the mouse from the tall cardboard testing box into the chew-proof plastic container with a fresh wet paper towel and small dab of peanut putter. Under the bed his offering went.

On the small plank of pine he had chosen to be his serving altar Will tested a rubber band, believing it most like the softness and flexibility of the mouse’s tail. A small bead of Superglue was all it took, and in just 30 seconds the rubber band would not release from the wood. Will beamed.

 

Alice and his mother left for school at seven. Will was dressed, sitting on the sofa with his backpack at his feet to bid them goodbye when they left. Twenty minutes later, the bus stopped in front of his house and honked twice before it pulled away, Will-less.

In the “off-limits-to-you-damn-kids” bureau deep in his father’s closet, Will went directly to the drawer that previous forays had revealed held his father’s revolver and the box of bullets and various pocket knives and packs of rubbers. Also his Korean War binoculars, which Will snatched. That the gun was not in the drawer in its usual place also registered briefly. Will was in a hurry.

Out in the pasture next to the dried-out wallow, Will sat and glassed the treetops. High hills rose on both sides of the river. The binoculars brought close all the branches and perches near the ridge tops that the hawk often favored. The sun was fully up and over the ridges,  bathing the narrow river valley, his house and himself in light and warmth. He let the binoculars that were strung about his neck drop to his chest and began worrying with his assembled gear: the pine plank, the plastic container and the mouse within, the tube of Superglue in his breast pocket. Folded next to him was the blanket from his bed in which he had embedded rhododendron twigs and leaves, a decent replication of Stan Brock’s Wild Kingdom camouflage netting, in Will’s opinion.

A piercing screech. Quickly with the binoculars Will glassed the ridge lines, the sky above and there was the hawk, flying low above the treetops. With shaky hands Will squeezed a thin line of Superglue onto the plank. He wriggled into his glove and fetched the mouse from the container, straightened its tail and pressed it into the Superglue. He held it there whispering, “one Mississippi, two Mississippi…”

When he raised his finger and slowly relaxed his gloved hand, the mouse sat and then tried to scamper. It could not scamper. It twitched and turned. Stuck fast. “Ha!” said Will. He scrambled into place, covered himself with his camouflage blanket, arranged it to see through the eye holes and hugged the pine plank with the mouse offering to his chest.

There he lay, his bright hopeful eyes behind the crude cutouts darted back and forth, scanning the sky. Again he heard a screech and his heart rate increased further still. Will clutched the plank tighter. He became aware of his breathing and tried to calm it. That was better. Yes. He could hear the mouse’s little feet scratching on the board. That was good. The mouse was behaving exactly as he had hoped. Will imagined that the little rodent was pulling and writhing against the restraint it could not comprehend, which made him more anxious, more active, more likely to attract the attention of the hawk above. The excitement was almost too much for Will. He again made a mental note to calm himself, be cool and collected like Stan Brock so that when the time came he could—

Wham.

It happened so fast Will did not process the rush of wind through the feathers just before the hawk hit. Just a whish, wham! Then nothing.

Will kicked off the blanket. On the pine plank, the mouse’s tail remained glued, wriggling slightly, bloody on the butt end like a beheaded baby snake. Three gouges in the wood indicated where the talons had hit. Will grabbed the binoculars and glassed the sky. He found through the eyepieces the hawk and could make out clutched in its left talon the brown furry ball of the mouse. He followed the hawk’s flight all the way to the dead hemlock that jutted from the rocky knob on the high hill across the river. In one bite the mouse was gone. “Gah,” Will breathed.

It was as though he floated up to the house, weightless with joy. Will returned the binoculars to the off-limits bureau. In the kitchen he made himself a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats and then had another as he played over and over in his mind what had happened.

The muffler’s rumble came fast and loud into the driveway. Will froze for a second until he heard two car doors slam. He sprinted upstairs, two at a time, to his room, wriggled out of his shirt and pants, and got under the sheet and listened.

“Pecker head, you home?” Bobby called up the stairs. “You better answer if you’re home ’cause if you don’t, I figure a burglar was eating cereal, and I might accidentally shoot a burglar.”

“What?” Will called back weakly.

“You skipping school?” Then, “Get out where I can see you.”

Will walked to the top of the stairs in his underwear and t-shirt.

“You a burglar?” Bobby smiled crookedly. He raised his father’s revolver and aimed it at his brother. “Bam,” he said and lowered the gun.

“I’m taking the LTD since Dad doesn’t have use for it being in jail and all.”

Will shrugged.

The stranger with the Camaro walked up behind Bobby, eating what was left of Will’s second bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats.

“We ought to take him with us, teach him to be a man.”

“Yeah, we should.” Bobby took one step up.

“I been throwing up. That’s why mom told me to stay home.”

“He rides with you then,” the stranger said. He looked at the bowl and at Will. “You eat out of this?”

Will nodded. The stranger wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, turned and opened the front door, threw the bowl out into the yard. “Let’s scoot.”

Bobby looked at Will for moment. “Puss.”

Will held his breath, feigned calm as he walked nonchalantly back to his room. If he heard Bobby climbing the stairs, he would run to the window and jump, beat it for the woods. Behind the closed bedroom door he waited. Finally the throaty rumble of the Camaro’s muffler fired up and revved away. Then another car door slam and the LTD started up, gravel crunching and then flying as Bobby drove off. Will lay back in his bed and exhaled, staring at the ceiling.

 

Slung over his back was a plastic garbage bag that held his camouflage blanket, a canteen with water, half a box of Frosted Mini-Wheats, a pillow and several more plastic garbage bags in case it started raining. He figured he could last two nights with those provisions.

He crossed the river at the shoals where, if you stayed on the rocks, the water was never more than knee-deep. The current was swift, though, and twice he went down, soaking himself, but he was quick to raise his gear high and out of the water.

Will lay in the sunshine at the base of the high hill where his shirt and pants dried on a flat rock while he considered the rocky knob that jutted out from the ridge top. The climb up the hill wouldn’t be too hard. The rocky knob would be a challenge, probably.

Around five o’clock, he estimated, Will began the climb. By the time he reached the base of the rocky outcrop the sun was beginning to dip below the ridge line across the valley. Below the river was a dark ribbon with slashes of white where the rapids ran, their roar just a whisper. From up there he could see the patch job on the roof of his house, and the semi-circular driveway in front that looked like a frown. His mother’s car was parked at the crest of the frown. The LTD was not there.

Stunted rhododendrons and hemlocks offered handholds as he climbed. Threads of sweat wriggled from his temples to his jawline when he reached the dead hemlock. It was not as towering as it seemed from down below. In fact, it was about his height.

Standing next to it and looking down, seeing his world from the hawk’s perspective, made his stomach queasy. There was a suitably flat area right at his feet where he began setting up his camp.

True darkness was still two or three hours away, Will guessed. He didn’t think the hawk would come that night, but he wanted to be ready if it did. He hid himself beneath his camouflage blanket and arranged the eye holes so that the dead hemlock was in clear sight. He munched Mini-Wheats and sipped from the canteen.

 

Sirens woke him. The near-full moon and swath of Milky Way constellations washed the world below in gunmetal blue. Through the eye holes he saw a set of headlights tearing down River Road, and behind them chased a knot of flashing blue lights. Into the driveway the headlights whipped, and before the LTD skidded to a sideways stop under the street lamp, the driver’s door swung wide and out rolled a person, Bobby probably, tiny as an inchworm from Will’s perspective, clamoring across the yard and into the house. The deputies were right behind, sliding their patrol cars this way and that. It was then that Will, now fully awake, became aware of a silhouette in front of him, perched on the hemlock, his hawk’s perfect outline.

Will both heard and did not hear the shouting below and then the pap, pap of gunshots that echoed across the hills. He was transfixed. He quietly, so quietly arranged his hands just so beneath the blanket he had made. And then he was moving slowly, so slowly toward that silhouette, spreading his arms as he neared the hemlock, his clear, hopeful eyes wide and watching through the jagged peep holes. He rose to his full height reaching and gently, so gently embraced the silhouette and felt the hawk react and the slender hardness of the bones in its wings push against his chest and the warmth of its body against his and its wildness now flowing through him and there was nothing beneath his feet, just the hawk and Will soaring.

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