by Ben Fowlkes
Paul's father took him on the long drive out to the country where they walked around with their shotguns all afternoon and didn't see so much as a suggestion of quail. It had rained the night before and the meadows they walked through were still soaked with water.It seeped into Paul's boots and made his toes feel like they were wrapped in mud every time he took a step, but he didn't say anything.It was the first time his father had brought him along.He got to carry his father's old Remington over-under twelve gauge, the one with a deep scar in the stock where his palm rested on it.He didn't think he could possibly go home without getting to fire it at something.It would be the worst kind of waste.
He followed his father along a row of trees that bordered a small gully.He tried to stay ready.His father had told him how at any time the quail could come fluttering out, dipping and flying in all different directions.They walked carefully along the tree line but no quail came out.His father straightened up and took off his cap.He was sweating pretty good under there.
"Looks like that rain may have washed out all our quail," his father said, trying to smile.Paul didn't say anything.He wasn't in the mood for this.
"Why don't you walk on down a little ways and see if you can't flush something out," his father said."I'll follow behind you in a minute."
Paul made a small noise of agreement and turned to go.The day was good and hot now and he could feel it rising up off the grass so that he thought he might get sick.A part of him almost wanted to lie down in the grass and let it soak all over him, but he didn't do it.
When he got to the end of the tree line alone he was one hundred percent sure there were no quail out there.Not even one.Not even a quail that was lost or sick or dead.He rested his shotgun against his shoulder and when he looked up in the sky he saw a single, solitary bird flying.It wasn't a quail, wasn't even a bird anybody hunted.It was too small, probably some type of meadowlark.Without thinking he raised his shotgun and fired at it.The bird fell in a slow arc, making little circles in the sky like an old fighter plane getting shot down in the movies.Tailspin.He thought that was the word for it.He couldn't believe he'd hit it.The whole thing seemed like a mistake.
The bird took a long time to hit the ground.When it did it made the lightest thump in the wet grass a few feet away.
"What are you shooting at?" his father shouted from further down the tree line.
Paul didn't answer him.He tried to motion for his father to stay there, that it was nothing, but he was already coming over.Paul went and looked at the tiny bird.He could see the red specks on its breast where the birdshot had hit it.Shooting straight up like that, it probably hadn't had much force, but it was enough.The bird was still alive.He could see its chest rising and falling in quick, panicked breaths.
"What the hell is this?" his father said, coming up next to him."You shoot this thing?"
"Yes," Paul said.
"I don't know.I just did."
They both looked at the bird, a tiny thing.It was still breathing.
"That was a dumb thing to do," his father said."You know that?"
"You guess.That's a great answer, isn't it?"
His father seemed to be waiting for him to say something else.When he didn't, his father lifted up his boot and stepped on the bird, crushing it.
"Come on," he said, and started walking back towards the car.Paul followed behind him.He knew their day was over, and it was his fault.Still, he didn't deserve all the blame.It was his father who'd driven them out here where there were no quail, had them walking around all afternoon like idiots.He was the one who wanted to pretend like he knew what he was doing out here, wandering all over like he was a real hunter when there weren't even any quail.Paul's feet were wet and he'd only wanted a chance to shoot at something.
And then a terrible thought occurred to him.If he wanted to, he realized, he could shoot his father in the back of the head and kill him.It wasn't a thought he could control.It just jumped into his head and wouldn't leave.He could kill his own father right where he stood.There was nothing stopping him.It was the worst possible thing for him to do and he could do it.He almost felt as if he might do it if he couldn't stop himself from thinking about it.He pushed the safety in just to make sure he wouldn't and then he kept his hand over it.Even then he kept seeing pictures in his head of how it might look, his father's blood and pieces of his skull all over the wet grass.It was horrible.Keeping his hand over the safety didn't seem like enough then, so he stopped and broke open the stock of the gun, dumping the unused shell along with the spent one on the ground.
His father didn't seem to notice.Paul jogged a few steps to catch up with him.
When they reached the car his father opened the trunk and took the shotgun from Paul's hands.He unloaded his own first, then went to do the same with Paul's and stopped.Paul couldn't look at him.
"Did you fire one shot or two?" his father said.
"One," Paul said.
"Then where's the other one?And where's the empty?"
He couldn't think of a good answer.
"I dumped them out," he said.
"Both of them?"
His father looked out toward the field, where there was nothing except a small house off in the distance, and then he looked back at the shotgun.Paul was sure he knew.He knew how awful he was, the things he was capable of.Paul stood and watched as his father put the shotguns away neatly in the trunk, waiting for him to say something, but he didn't.They got in the car without a word and started it up.
Paul felt like he might get sick except there wasn't anything inside of him to come up.His father turned and looked at the side of his face as he drove.
"I didn't mean to yell at you like that back there," his father said once they were on the highway.Paul stared at the dashboard in front of him.
"I got a little upset," his father said."Do you know why?"
"I'm sure," he said, though he knew he wasn't even close to being sure.
"Good, then we can leave it alone now," his father said.
Paul didn't say anything during the long ride home.His father flipped through the stations on the radio, an ad for aluminum siding, an old Johnny Cash song.Paul leaned his face against the window and the cold surprised him.His father started to hum softly along with the radio as Paul looked out at the fading light of the afternoon and knew that he would never be any good to anyone.
About the author:
Ben Fowlkes received his MFA from The University of Montana, where he was captain of the program's intramural softball team. He is currently at work on a novel and living in Queens, NY.