At the end of his first summer free of high school, Kyle stepped off the crew shuttle at an oil patch about an hour south of Fort McMurray to start as a roughneck. The first thing he did was follow JP, his dad’s old friend, through the dusty air to the shack where he’d be sleeping, but then JP turned to speak with somebody else, and Kyle went in alone. The shack was a grey trailer that looked like the “temporary” classroom he’d failed math in that squatted permanently in the field behind his high school.
The beds were separated from each other by thin walls like office cubicles. He was bunked with three other guys who were already inside, grown men with goatees, wraparound sunglasses, and hockey hats: Flames, Oilers, Habs. One of them said, “Nice beard, Junior,” then shut himself into the bathroom with a groan. Kyle hunched his shoulders to hide his cheeks and laid his bag on the last free bed. He unzipped a pocket and pulled out a sandwich bag full of pre-rolled joints. They’d said it was a dry camp, but he thought the other guys might appreciate a bit of help chilling out; then they would talk to him. And word would get back to his dad that the guys on the rig thought Kyle was pretty cool actually—but Kyle would only shrug if his dad mentioned it, like it was nothing.
There was a knock on his cubicle wall, then a long, low whistle. It was JP. He was the driller, which meant he was in charge. He was fifty, bald, and leaning in the doorway, looking at the bag and shaking his head. He said, “Goddammit, Kyle.”
It really was a dry camp.
After JP escorted him off the premises and patted him gently on the shoulder, saying, “It’s a dying industry, so this was gonna happen anyway, at some point,” Kyle sat on his bag on the roadside and stared at his mom’s contact in his phone, wishing she wasn’t flying that very moment to a central-American vacation with Trevor. He called his dad, eventually.
“It’s been one fucking day, Kyle. Jesus,” his dad said, when Kyle told him what happened.
“It wasn’t my fault. Your buddy—”
“Idiot. I asked JP for a favor for this.”
Kyle held his breath.
“Goddammit. Okay, here’s what you do. Hitch into the city if you can. Call a taxi if you can’t. Then buy a greyhound ticket. I’m out on the road first thing, but I’ll leave a key with Mrs. Marshall. Can you manage not to fuck that up?”
“I don’t have any money. I bought . . . I don’t have money. Can you come get me?”
“I’ve got work, goddammit.” Then there was a sigh, then his dad continued. “Ray’s nearby. If he’s home, I’ll get him to get you. If he’s not, I guess you’re fucked.”
Then there was silence and Kyle looked at his phone to see if he’d lost signal, but his dad had just hung up. All he heard was slow beating of the derrick and insects buzzing.
He fought for a long time not to cry, then he cried. The tears dried, and he was still sitting on his bag, temples and back slick with sweat, ninety minutes later when a black f-250 pulled up and its passenger door opened.
“Come on then, Kyle,” Ray shouted. “Shit. You’re gonna make me late.”
Sun was setting by the time they arrived at Ray’s house, which was on a large lot on an unnamed farm road off a series of other unnamed farm roads somewhere north of Cold Lake. They hadn’t really talked much on the drive. Ray had twirled his moustache and asked him what happened, and Kyle had tried to talk but felt like he was going to cry again, so he said, “Just some bullshit, ya know?” and then leaned his head on the window and pretended to sleep.
They pulled up to a seventies-style rancher and the dusk light simmered on the chrome of what Kyle knew right away was Western Star 5700. Ray, like Kyle’s dad, was an owner-operator, and Kyle wondered if he was equally ambivalent about that semi—on the one hand, it was a Canadian manufacturer, or used to be at least, and that ought to count for something; on the other, it was from BC—land of the pussy Liberals.
With a left arm that was more deeply tanned than his right, Ray gestured down the hall to the guestroom that had a mattress on the floor with a grey sheet across it and a sleeping bag laid on top. Ray cooked two boxes of Kraft Dinner, which he livened up by mixing in a Kraft single, and fried up four links of deer sausage. He was spider-leg thin and he shuffled his feet in dance while he cooked. They ate on his farmhouse-style table with a bottle of ketchup between them. When Ray was mostly finished, he said, “Wasn’t expecting you, obviously, and I’m on the road from this evening, so I’ve let myself run out of a few things, but there’s enough to hold you over till your dad gets round. I’m supposed to tell you he’s on the road for the week, by the way, then fishing with the boys for the weekend, then another week on the road, then he’ll come here.”
“Instead of getting me, he’s going fishing?”
“Yeah, with the boys. I’ll leave my number on the fridge in case anything goes wrong, but nothing better go wrong, if you catch my drift.”
Kyle ground some sausage between his teeth and nodded.
“And keep the place clean. Starting with this.” He pushed his empty plate forward and left the table. He grabbed a bag from his bedroom and went to the door, but he paused and returned to stand beside Kyle.
“Before I go,” he said, “it’s time for rent.”
For a second Kyle thought he was going to unzip his pants or something, but he just held out an empty hand. “I called JP on the drive up and he told me why he shitcanned you. Fork it over.”
Kyle retrieved and surrendered the whole bag of joints and Ray practically skipped out the door into the night. A minute after that, the semi roared to life and its lights, bright like a football stadium, flooded in through the windows, leaving Kyle squinting until Ray drove off.
Kyle fried up a few more sausages, and after he ate them he loaded the dishwasher and nosed around. The master bedroom looked like it belonged to a fancy lady from the seventies, with a four-poster, floral bed and shag carpet. The living room had the biggest TV he’d ever seen and the walls were covered with shelves of DVDs. The basement was unfinished—slick concrete floors and bare steel support pillars—and full of boxes and hockey nets.
In the morning he drank coffee with milk and ate eggs and deer sausage and then stepped out into the thin morning air to see what lay beyond what he’d been able to see in the failing light of the previous evening. In the small backyard was a swing set, a bushy tree, and a shed. The shed door had no lock, but it was shut firm and creaked loudly when he jerked it open. There was a small pile of antlers in the corner, most about six points, and a few tufts of hair pinched between the warping floorboards. A few chocolate circles of old blood were soaked into the wood. The smell wasn’t strong—the shed was empty and seemed to have been for a while—but the pungent, glandular smell of antlers and the acrid prickle of blood in his nose was still unpleasant. Directly behind the shed, a field was shorn and dotted almost at random with great golden wheels of hay. Crowding in along either side of the lot were poplars, with lodgepoles rising up behind them.
For lunch he had a can of Chunky soup then he watched movies he quickly grew bored with. And he had macaroni and sausage again that evening with a couple cans of Kokanee. He had the same the next day and the day after that. He snacked on deer jerky he found in a big bag in the freezer, tossing any gamey-tasting pieces into the garbage. That ran him out of eggs, so he just ate more of the deer sausage, but then that ran out too. And the milk was off, so he poured that down the sink. He was also running low on butter and KD, he realized once he started looking. He did an inventory of the food.
He had a few dozen pieces of deer jerky. Eight Kokanees still rolling around on the bottom shelf of the fridge. Two boxes of macaroni. One kraft single and a quarter stick of butter. One can of soup. A jar of jam. He would only be here about another ten days or so, so he wouldn’t die, but he’d be hungry. Real hungry.
The next morning he had a cup of black coffee and a single spoon of jam. It seemed only to make him hungrier. He watched TV for a while but couldn’t focus on it, so he slid his shoes on and walked twenty minutes down the dirt road looking for some kind of shop, thinking he maybe had ten bucks left in his account, or he could convince them to give him something on credit if he said he was staying at Ray’s. But there was nothing down that dirt road but more fields and more dirt road. He walked the twenty minutes back to the house and twenty minutes the other direction and saw nothing but more of the same. In the house he marched from room to room and then threw himself down on Ray’s bed and beat his arms and legs into the mattress, trying to avoid thinking about how that every part of this might be his fault.
He remade the bed when he was done. He had lunch early, which was two pieces of jerky he defrosted in the microwave on a piece of paper towel. He spread the paper towel carefully out on the arm of the chair and ate and watched Jerry Springer re-runs all afternoon. In the evening, he ate a half a box of macaroni with water instead of milk and a quarter slice of cheese added in.
After “breakfast” the next day and two hours with a dull, growing ache in his gut, he called his dad, who’d have had a few days to calm down. Who maybe wouldn’t be mad anymore. Who’d know what to do.
The phone rang only once.
“What the fuck have you done now?” his dad said. When Kyle was trying to figure out what to say, his dad added, “Kyle? Are you there? Or can you not even use a goddamn phone right?”
“Sorry,” Kyle said. “Yeah. Sorry. It’s the signal out here.”
“Sure. So what’s wrong? Ray’s house is all right, right?”
“Yeah. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.” Kyle walked barefoot across the soft carpet, aimlessly from room to room.
“Good,” his dad said, and then after another silence he added, “So what do you want then?”
“Well, I was just thinking,” Kyle started, without actually knowing what he was thinking anymore except that he was hungry and alone, “I was just going to call you about fishing, if you’re still going. I thought maybe I’d go with you.”
“You don’t even like fishing.”
Kyle’s dad had taken him fishing exactly once, when he was eight. He’d hooked a lake trout and his dad had reeled it in and handed it to him still slick and thrashing and told Kyle, who could barely keep hold of it, to bash its head on the side of the boat and kill it. Kyle’d said he didn’t want to, and his dad had asked what the hell did they come all that way for then, so Kyle did it as hard as he could to make sure the thing didn’t suffer. He broke its head open and knocked an eye from its skull. The eye hit him in the cheek and he started crying and wouldn’t stop until they were back on land. His dad had refused to take him again.
“And anyway,” his dad continued, “we’re on the Fraser this weekend, and that’s twelve hours from you. And then twelve back. No time for fishing after all that driving.”
“No. I guess not.”
“Okay, so, I’ll see you in about a week then.”
“Yeah, great. See you then.”
There was another silence and then his dad, his voice slightly softer, said, “Have you actually fucked something up? Or are you really all right?”
“Really all right. Just got time on my hands. Thought I’d call. Say hi.” He walked into the kitchen and looked out through the window into the backyard at the tree, which waved in the breeze.
“Okay. Well. That’s nice. Thanks.”
“Okay. Bye Dad.”
“See ya . . . Buddy,” his dad said, then hung up.
That tree, Kyle slowly realized, was not just a tree. A few blushes of deep pink peaked out between the leaves—apples.
The wood of the back porch and the grass of the yard were warm under his feet when approached the tree. There were not as many apples as he’d expected considering it was August, but there were well over a dozen. More than two dozen maybe. Enough for a couple a day his last week at the house. Enough so he wouldn’t always feel like he was starving. When he reached a hand up to take one, the skin felt cool under his fingers despite the summer warmth. He let go. He hadn’t been careful enough so far. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
For the next few days, while his dad was out fishing, Kyle ate as he had been. He drank a lot of water and he napped a little, though that was disrupted by his constant need to pee, and he comforted himself with the knowledge that those apples were waiting out back. He ran out of macaroni, so after that he drank a Kokanee for dinner, which he figured was, nutritionally, like bread.
The evening of the fifth day after the phone call he felt dizzy after drinking his dinner beer, and he braced his hands on the sink and shut his eyes. But he opened them at an unfamiliar sound—a questioning grunt. When his eyes focused, he saw a moose calf, which was gangly and awkward with too-long legs, stretching toward Kyle’s fruit but coming up short. But then the calf’s mother stepped slowly into view, approaching the tree, which she would effortlessly strip clean.
“Hey,” he shouted. “Hey, fuckers!” But she continued her approach. He went to the back door to barge out and scare them off, then stopped. He didn’t think it would be a good idea to run angrily at a calf within sight of its seven-hundred-pound mother even if he felt strong. But he couldn’t just let them take his apples.
He called Ray, punching the numbers into his phone with shaking fingers. Ray would know how to scare them off.
“What’s wrong?” Ray said. “What have you done?”
“Nothing. Why does everyone . . . Ray, there’s, like, moose in the backyard. How do I get rid of them?”
“Oh shit,” Ray said, with more urgency than Kyle expected. “Okay, go to my bedroom. To my closet.”
Kyle ran into the room and behind the slatted closet doors stood a tall, black, metal locker. The door was hung open, and several rifles stood inside.
“You see the one with the plain wood stock? That one stays loaded, though the safety’s on. You can shoot right?”
“Of course,” Kyle lied, and took the rifle in his hand. His dad refused to teach him after the fishing incident, so he’d only ever shot his friends BB gun. This was much heavier, and he was not a good shot, but the moose were too close to miss. “But I—”
“Good. Once you shoot it, I’ll call my neighbor and he’ll collect it and bring back some sausages or something in a day or two. Your commission.”
Kyle’s mind filled instantly with the sound of fat hissing in the pan, and the smell, and his stomach cramped so hard he almost dropped the rifle. He put Ray on speaker, and under the man’s instruction he slid the window quietly open and used it to support the gun, the fore stock scraping against the metal window frame and raising the hairs on his neck and arms.
The calf had odd, hunched shoulders. Its mouth never fully closed, and a line of drool thick like motor oil swung from its lip. It was disgusting. It might be fine to kill. It still let out frustrated cries when it failed to reach to fruit. The cow had entered the yard but had not neared the tree. Then, appearing all at once, a bull moose was at the tree in only two strides, antlers thicker and taller than the branches.
Kyle touched his finger to the trigger.
“Oh shit,” Ray called out. “Wait.”
“What?” Kyle said, thinking about opening the door in the morning to a box of meat. Delicious meat.
“What is it? I mean, like, describe the moose to me, that you see. You can’t shoot the mothers and babies. What do you see?”
The bull moose spread its forelegs wide and lowered itself to sniff the calf, then stood up and angled an antler into the apple tree, effortlessly bending branches and raining the apples down around the calf which startled, jumped, and awkwardly retreated. The bull took a few steps after it, mock charging, then lazily pretending to chase the calf around the yard, and the calf jumped and kicked its stupid legs in excitement before being led around again to the apples. The cow cast distrustful eyes across the field, and the bull stood protectively over the calf.
“Kyle?” Ray called. “What do you see? Do any of them have antlers?”
The calf tripped over itself racing from apple to apple, and the bull nuzzled it once it regained its feet.
“Do any of them have antlers?” Ray asked again. “You can only shoot those ones.”
“No,” Kyle said, finally.
“Ah, shit,” Ray said. “That’s cow, calf. That’s a false alarm. Can’t do nothing there.”
“That’s all right,” Kyle said. “Thanks for answering.”
He hung up and flicked the safety back on, but he left the gun hanging out the window. He watched them eat more from the yard, watched the calf get tangled up briefly in the swings, and watched them range out into the field then disappear into the poplars, and then he searched for a last glimpse of them through the trees. But he realized that it wasn’t their legs he imagined pressing down into the summer soil, but his own—six years old and trembling—as they’d been when he approached his dad to tell him that he’d accidentally spilled his drink in the cab while playing “truck.” The last time he’d ever been allowed in it. Then he saw the thick legs of his future, lined like a road atlas with the blue veins that would emerge over the years he hauled freight over all the highways of the west, then another set of thin legs appearing in front of him, a child—his child—trying not to back away while telling a similar tale of spillage. And then Kyle would, he hoped, subdue that automatic response that started with “Goddammit,” and get a measure of control and say, “It’s okay. We’ve just got to be a bit more careful.”
Kyle went to his knees and sorted through the garbage can for the pieces of gamey jerky he’d taken bites from the week before and then thrown out. He washed off the coffee grounds and eggshells and powdered cheese, then cut off any parts that might actually be rotting. He lay what remained of them out on the counter, and brought one piece slowly to his mouth, not chewing it but just holding between his teeth until it dissolved. Then he collected what few apples remained out back and put them in the fridge.
He searched the tree line again for those too-thin legs, for that hunch of shoulders or crown of antlers reaching skyward, but he saw nothing. Not with the rifle scope. Not through the golden, wheat-sun evening. Not when the night came down and the wind, which had driven ceaselessly across hundreds of miles of prairie to reach him, roared past.
Adrian Markle has nearly twenty short fiction publications in magazines and anthologies including EVENT and Riptide, which have earned him nominations for the Pushcart and Best Small Fictions. He won second place in the PANEL Magazine Ruritania Prize, and was shortlisted for the Fiddlehead, Third Coast, and PRISM International short fiction prizes, among others. He has a PhD from the University of Exeter. Originally from Canada, he now teaches at university in Cornwall, UK. He likes old dogs.