Caro swung the muzzle of the shotgun up and trained the barrel on a dove. From the doorway of the sagging porch, she could see several pairs in trees on both sides of the bayou, but she kept her focus tight. She didn’t pull the trigger. She just sighted down the barrel, leading her target as it lifted into the air. After a while, she lowered the gun, a Remington 870 her father had given her nearly two years ago for her eighteenth birthday. She picked out another dove, swung the shotgun up again, and keeping her back, neck, and head straight, she leveled the gun to her eye, not her eye to the gun. She watched the birds this way until her anxiety eased.
The doves were out of season, and Caro didn’t hunt, anyway. She’d stopped the summer before college, telling her daddy she’d grown out of it, like his life was something you grew too old for, but in reality she didn’t think the city kids ate squirrel and deer they bagged themselves.
But she still liked sighting. Training her gun on the doves made her feel good, doing something that came natural, easy. Something she could do in her sleep. No struggle, no thinking.
She pulled the gun back up. Trained it on a fat, red squirrel with a high tail. “Boom,” she said, “Boom. Boom,” as it crossed from branch to branch. She pretended to shoot it over and over as it knocked paper-shell pecans to the ground. In the morning, she’d once again try to tell her father she was leaving school. For now, Caro picked out a lizard to watch over the barrel and wondered if it was a shot she could ever have made.
When she dragged herself out of bed the next day, hungover from drinking alone on the porch long after her father’d gone to sleep, she was ready to come clean, but he’d already left for work, a bouquet of swamp lilies set out in a coffee can the closest thing to a note she’d get.
Around noon, Charlie, who’d been born in the very same hospital as Caro but had stood outside her reach until last winter break, showed up at her window with a six-pack and badgered her to come out in the air with him. “You’re only home for the summer,” he said, and she didn’t tell him that she was home for good.
That she didn’t like Tulane. That New Orleans always smelled bad.
That she was failing. Everything.
And she thought it was a date, finally a date, Charlie showing up like that. She told him to hold on and slipped into her suit and cut-offs as fast as she could. But they didn’t make it two houses down the bank before meeting up with a few others, and the six-pack became one of four and then one of six, and when they got to the crick in the bayou where the bank swelled high enough to jump from, the dirt was crowded with discarded jeans and tank tops and faded blue work shirts. A good fourth of her high school class was there, basically just where she’d left them at Christmas, at Thanksgiving, last summer, the summer before that.
Someone stole a nylon rope off a nearby skiff, and Caro tied a monkey’s fist in the tail end before climbing the old twin oak, scraping her knee like a twelve-year-old and trying not to yelp. She fixed the other end to the farthest branch and shimmied back down the trunk, the nooks and juts and forks she put her hands and feet on as familiar as her own childhood bed.
She was the last to jump. Sunlight flashed off the water below so brightly that she had to squint whether she looked up or down. She took a running leap off the height of the bank, and then Caro was in the air, legs wheeling over the water, fingers clutched above the monkey’s fist. The moment before letting go always filled her with tight panic, but now it was just more of the same stomach-sick fear she’d carried for months. If she chickened out and held on too long, her hands burning from the effort, she’d hit the muddy water where it was shallowing. She knew the jutting bed below held shifting rocks and roots and branches that could crack her bones and scar her skin. She’d seen a boy break his leg here when she was thirteen, had helped pull him from the water, and now as she swung, the memory of his head lolling on the surface, eyes open way too wide, came to her.
The sweet spot was right after the lowest point in the rope’s speeding arc, and Caro let go just as she wanted to grip the tightest. A catcall from the shore followed her down, and she hoped it was Charlie.
Charlie whose hands found her stomach under her shirt when they kissed, just a couple of times now, the two of them bored or drunk or she didn’t know what. Times she didn’t know how or why they started or stopped.
Everyone else seemed to like the fall from the rope, sounding like drunks at a parade, hooting and hollering all the way to the splash. But she hated those seconds. Caro’s favorite part, the only part worth anything at all, was there, right after she hit the water, exploding past the surface. It was in the silence after that initial shock, where gravity itself seemed to struggle, its pull fighting friction, her arms floating up as her torso plunged down.
That was where she wanted to live.
Something brushed past her leg, and Caro choked on silty brine. She tried to scream, sucked in water instead. She scissor-kicked to the surface and sputtered there, her friends laughing from the bank. She didn’t like this part of the bayou. Deep enough to hold their plunging bodies, it hid life, the water still and cloudy underneath you.
Last night, her father’d told her he’d killed an alligator that had been hanging around their end of the bank. “Barely a week ago,” he said. “It’s been busy here,” he said. He’d looked at her over his coffee, his hip leaned against the kitchen cabinet, and had confessed to rolling the animal under a log after the last bend in their stretch of the bayou. Hiding it there to rot. The kill was out of season. “What do you do? The damn thing was a foot off our pier every morning. And the Wheeler baby has just started walking. You should see her,” he said. While he’d been hiding the carcass, she’d been asleep in her dorm. Skipping a final.
She slipped into a breaststroke and pulled as fast as she could, trying to beat whatever had slithered past. She was a good swimmer, a strong swimmer, and it only took a few strokes for her to feel safe, her toes bouncing at the riverbed as she struggled to stand and climb the bank.
Charlie put his arm in and caught her like he might grab a catfish, his hand sliding down her shoulder, past her bicep, towards her elbow as he searched for his grip, and Caro could smell him, a smell faintly like turned-over earth. “See,” he said, as if they’d made a bet and he’d won. As if she’d fought coming out to swing and swim with him. “See?”
“See what? I’m the one who climbed up and put out the rope,” Caro said.
“But you didn’t want to.”
And Charlie was right. Caro’d done it because he’d asked.
She sat down on the towel she’d brought and leaned back into the heat. Hoped Charlie would sit with her. Instead, he took another run at the rope.
She didn’t bother to watch. Knew he’d fly with grace, fall with grace, even sputter to the surface with grace. He was that sort. Caro covered her eyes with her hand and leaned all the way back so that her face pointed directly into the sun and her fingers glowed orange, and she imagined the water lifting from her skin in a steam.
“City, you want another beer?”
Caro nodded. She didn’t have to look to see who was talking or to know they were talking to her. She’d sat in class with each and every person there from first grade to twelfth—tenth or eleventh for those that dropped out. They lived in a two-school bend in the road that no one moved to and barely anyone figured out how to move from.
And she was the only one they called City.
The other three or four who’d gone off to school stayed gone. Caro just lacked their sense.
Charlie didn’t sit next to her until she’d had two more beers and was ready to leave, but when he did, he dripped cool water across her legs and she forgot how hot and bored and tired of the noise she was. He put a hand around her ankle. “You coming out later?”
At Tulane “out” meant a bar filled with smoke on a street that smelled like piss. Here it meant a field or a clearing, usually not far from the smell of manure or swamp gas. Or it had when they were in school together. “You going to tip cows?”
“That’s some ignorant shit.”
She made a show of rolling her eyes at her own failed joke, one that people at Tulane used on her when she told them where she was from. Trying to be too cool for any of it. But she wanted to be where Charlie was. “Yeah, probably.” She’d meant to have dinner with her daddy tonight. Maybe finally come clean. But Charlie’s hand was on her. “Yeah,” she said, again, putting her fingers back over her eyes and collapsing to the towel as if she could hardly feel his fingers tight against her ankle, biting at her there.
Caro took the laundry basket from her father. Told him to sit, let her be useful.
“I don’t know why you can’t date a boy in New Orleans,” he said. He poured them both a long shot of whiskey and then moved aside the can of lilies. He waited to sip from his glass until Caro put the basket down on the kitchen counter where the flowers had been. “Charlie is, at his goddam best, a pain in the ass,” he said.
“He’s cute.” Caro didn’t tell her father that she was mostly invisible to the men in her classes at Tulane. Or how badly things went when she wasn’t. How she drank and fumbled, a failure at dating. How she’d apologize by putting her hands on them. How she’d beg by wrapping her legs around their hips. How they left her feeling disheveled and bruised. Instead, she folded a worn bath towel. “And I’ve crushed on him since tenth grade. Hangers?”
Her father pointed back to the laundry room. It was the size of a closet. “Still in the top cabinet. He thinks he’s already a game warden. Gave Bunky shit the other day for baiting. Poor guy ain’t hurting anybody. He can barely walk, his back’s gotten so bad. He certainly can’t stalk a deer.”
Caro didn’t know anything about Charlie being a game warden or wanting to.
“It’s hilarious. I mean, Bunky ain’t no saint, for sure, but he ain’t poaching. That’s private land.” He put his glass down, took the towel she’d just folded, opened it, and refolded it—his way. “Your boy is just being a pain in the ass. No, don’t do that. You’re stretching the elastic all out. Give me those.”
Caro handed him the socks she’d just rolled and then took a pull from her glass. She tried to remember the last time she’d spoken to a game warden. They were always old guys, weren’t they? Ex-cops? “Isn’t he too young?” The ones she’d had run-ins with were all the sort that got a kick out of messing with high schoolers drinking their parents’ beer in pontoon boats, not bothering anybody.
“I’d expect he’ll have to finish some sort of degree over at the Tech School, but he’s not exactly a kid. He’s a year older than you.” Her father edged her out of the way and pulled another towel from the basket. “And look at you. Killing them over in New Orleans.” He said every syllable, drawing them out so it sounded like New Or-leans instead of the two-syllable word her classmates used: N’awlins. “Go grab me those hangers, huh? And let me deal with my own damn laundry. You’re messing this all up.”
Caro put her hands out in defeat and slipped behind him to go for the hangers. Charlie had barely finished high school. Had spent the last three years getting drunk and sponging off his parents. He was a fuck-up. A wonderful fuck-up. He was not a guy with a plan or a future. He just wasn’t that sort. He couldn’t be.
She was supposed to be that sort. She always had been.
The grade report she’d printed out for her father was on the fridge, under the same chipped magnet he’d used to hold up her report cards when she was in elementary school, a faded clay raccoon mooning the kitchen, the words “Coon-Ass” across its very human butt cheeks. The printout said what it was supposed to say, that she’d made As in all her classes last semester. Just as she always did. That she’d taken calculus and chemistry. That she was a star, an engineering major with a bright future. She’d laid it out herself in Excel, after all.
A good forgery job.
Her glass was empty and the whiskey was next to her father, so Caro just stood there wanting a drink and hoping he wouldn’t turn around and catch her, red-faced and shaking.
When Charlie stopped by the next day, she was on the porch sighting a turkey vulture circling the woods on the far bank.
“Not very good eating,” he said, causing her to jump.
“Jesus. I’m holding a goddam gun.”
“I didn’t exactly sneak up.”
Caro leaned the shotgun against the railing. “Daddy says you’re in school.”
He stepped onto the porch, flooded with early sunlight, and sat in her father’s sliding rocker, pulled the bill of his baseball cap down. “Just a class. Introduction to Forest Technology. I’m taking it online, but some things are hands-on. There was a whooping crane count last week.” He drummed his fingers on the wood of the chair, making a flat tune. “I didn’t actually see any. They released fourteen this year. I think our population is up to twenty-nine now. It would be a thing to see one, wouldn’t it?”
They’d all but disappeared from Louisiana, from the world, really. Caro knew that even of those released cranes that survived, a few would relocate, migrate to other nesting grounds, leaving their little bit of the parish behind. She nodded. “A thing.” She’d seen a whooping crane once with her father. It had lifted up from a bank as they boated by, spread its white wings so wide she’d winced, thinking the black tips would brush her face as it flew up and past. It was huge and beautiful and determined, a hell of a thing, indeed. But she didn’t tell Charlie about the experience, about being so close to one of his endangered birds that she could have touched it. It felt like she’d be taking something from him, something he didn’t even have.
“Why didn’t you come out last night?”
Caro picked the gun back up. Sighted the vulture again. “You want to know a secret?” she said.
Another vulture crossed in front of the one she was watching. What she wanted to say was “I’m flunking out of school and I mismanaged my money and so can’t afford food, much less the apartment I share with a woman who hates me.” Instead, she said, “There’s a dead alligator under the far, far log on the right over there. Way down.”
“You mean under the vultures? Did you see it?”
Whatever the birds were circling, it was on land and a good fifty feet from the log her father had showed her from their jon boat, but she nodded anyway. Then she said, “I didn’t see it. I just heard some kids talking.” For a moment, she’d thought taking Charlie to the carcass would be like a gift. The sort of thing he’d be interested in. It’d give them something more to talk about, an excuse to go out on the water alone together.
“Not much of a secret, then,” he said, and she felt stupid. “Want to come and swim? Everyone is over by the bridge.” He must have pulled out of the chair, because he nudged her arm. “We’re going to grill. Do it up right.”
Caro stood very still, but his hand flitted away as quickly as it had landed. “Maybe in a little while,” she said. Her house was between his and the bridge. She was a rest stop. She breathed in deep, trying to catch his smell, but he wasn’t standing close enough. She sighted the turkey vulture again. “You really going to be a fish cop?” It came out angry somehow. The weight of everything she wasn’t going to be pushing down on it.
“Better than ending up a burnout river rat,” he said.
She didn’t answer and after a few moments of silence, Charlie left. She dropped the barrel and watched him walk across the yard, wondering if he knew. Then she raised it, found the brown of his sandals and followed them up the bank with the Remington. “Boom,” she said, “Boom. Boom.”
The garage her father worked at was not what you would call walking distance from the house. There were no sidewalks between them, just gravel roads, catfish ponds, and milo fields, but Caro set out anyway, a bottle of Gatorade and a sandwich in the backpack she’d brought home from school. After half an hour, she was drenched in sweat. She sat on the edge of a ditch and pulled out her lunch. The clutch of pines behind her offered no shade there, but she didn’t want to move back, into the dark space between them. In the heat of the day, it looked like a cool haven for rattlesnakes.
It took another half-hour to get there, and the bottle of Gatorade was long gone when she did. Before she found her father, she slipped into the bathroom and drank directly from the stained sink, her head wedged between the drain and the spigot. Despite her deep tan, her arms and cheeks were pink and painful. Another stupid decision. She tried to dry the sweat from her body as best she could, but her shirt clung with it and her hair was soaked and matted.
When she found him, her father was bent over a large, rusted tractor, his blue coveralls smeared with grease and sweat stains. She tried to watch him without saying anything, to just sit back and see him, but when she stepped in front of the box fan for a little relief, he must have felt the change in air. He looked up. “Good lord, girl. What are you doing here?” He squinted. “Did you walk here? Is something wrong?”
Dirt was smudged deep into the cracks around his eyes and mouth. He looked old. Caro was suddenly aware that she wasn’t exactly sure of his age. Her own father.
She wondered how much he made. A scholarship covered some of her tuition. And she’d taken out loans. But he paid her cell phone bill. Her electric bill. Bought her a laptop for Christmas. Sent her spending money. The wrench in his hand looked huge. A heavy thing.
“Nothing. No,” she said.
“You look,” He stepped up to her, the wrench in his hand still, and she thought of a lie she’d told a man she’d met online, that her father was an accountant. A silly, stupid thing. “Are you okay?” he said.
He made her sit at the workbench and brought her a Coke from the vending machine. Wetted down a thick, blue paper towel and pressed it to her head, the back of her neck. “You’re not nauseous, are you?” he said, checking for symptoms of heat stroke.
She stayed the rest of the afternoon, watching him from the workbench. Watching other mechanics come and go. Watching the light from the open bay shift around him as he worked. When he bloodied his knuckles under the hood of a John Deere, he wouldn’t let her bandage him. “Sit,” he said, whenever she tried to help. “Sit, sit.”
And so she sat, the warble of the box fan keeping time as her father moved around the garage. He was a bear of a man, ungraceful but strong, competent. His pace was slow, but he didn’t lumber. Still, as he wrestled the metal bones from a combine, heaving with his legs bent low, she wondered if he was slower than the last time she’d spent an afternoon watching him work, and then realized she never really had. The times she’d come to work with him, all those afternoons, she colored, played with a wrench like a doll, and as she got older, did homework, read books, flirted with the young guys who apprenticed there. She’d never really bothered to sit and pay attention. Just see him. Not at work. Not at home.
The next day, Caro waited on the porch for Charlie to stop by, ask her to join him somewhere. When he finally came, he was part of a group, cutting across the yard to get back to the deepest part of the bayou. “Swim?” he hollered.
She followed them a few steps behind, hoping Charlie would fall back and talk to her, and when he didn’t, she broke off from the group completely and wandered the bank alone, finally doubling back to the house.
She poured whiskey into a coffee mug and sat on the floor in the kitchen to drink it. She’d stopped promising herself that she’d tell her father tonight, in the morning, tomorrow. That Charlie would fall in love with her. That everything would be okay.
What she wanted was to run away.
She pulled the Remington from the mahogany cabinet where it stood with the other guns. All of them, even the antiques, had been used to hunt. As always, she put some birdshot into her pocket, just in case, and made a mental note that it would be a nice surprise for her father if she cleaned all the guns, dusted the cabinet when she got back.
The jon boat was already in the water, its flat hull gently rocking against the pier. From it, she sighted egrets and squirrels and a blue heron that lifted a water moccasin from the bank. She motored in short bursts along the waterway, repeatedly turning off the engine to just drift and watch the world go by.
Eventually she pulled onto the bank of a little swamp island, a clutch of cypress trees that trapped enough dirt to be a real stretch of land. She’d decided to camp there, to spend a night away from everyone, from herself. She pulled the boat onto land and tied it off, just in case the water climbed the bank higher than she expected. The whine of cicadas and mosquitos ramped up around her until it was a long buzz that made her think of rattlesnakes, and she loaded the shotgun.
Under the back bench of the jon boat, there was a waterproof sack that held a tarp, a notebook and pen, her father’s fishing license, and a flask. The flask was empty. She’d put a block of cheese and a Gatorade into her backpack before leaving, and she made a little picnic, smoothing the tarp under the branches of a cypress and sitting there, watching the sun settle onto the water, dipping past by the time she’d finished the cheese.
She opened her father’s notebook and flipped through it in the dying light. There was little there. Gas prices. Fishing notes. She read every page, hoping to find him in the neat, small handwriting.
A rustle in the brush near the bank made her draw the gun up, but a flash of white told her it was a crane, and she held the barrel steady. Sighting.
Her father had told her, “There are better places than this,” when she was younger. “A whole damn world.” And she’d believed him. Reached out to it. Thought she belonged in it.
She made a clucking sound, and the bird burst out of the brush. It was huge, a snowy giant with black-tipped wings that it beat against the air before taking off. Charlie’s missed whooping crane.
She trained the barrel on it, leading the target just as her father’d taught her when she was a child. When they would hunt for dinner and then cook the meal together. When she was a part of his life here.
“Boom,” she said, pretending to shoot, her finger hovering above the trigger. “Boom. Boom.” The bird flapped its great wingspan, the motion fluid now that it was airborne, and lifted ever higher, a twig falling from its grip and spinning toward Caro’s little bit of earth.
She squeezed the trigger. A deliberate motion. A terrible gift.
The bird crumpled, a bit of red on its breast, an unnatural bend in its left wing. It beat the other one harder and harder, wrestling against its own weight, gravity, the growing red in its chest as it plunged to the ground. Caro could hear it, struggling there. Dying there. But she stayed on the tarp, the tense pain in her stomach easing only after it completely stilled.