The call went up, snaking through the branches of the forest, a robust echoing which was shrill with alarm.
Men ran. Some of them sprinted with the deft grace of youth, others lumbered like ancient boulders pushed down a hill. There were further shouts of confusion and clarification, and the teeming heat of the afternoon made them all red-faced and irritable.
They found them in the clearing, one hunched over the body of the other. There were fresh tears and old blood, enough to make the soles of their boots stick to the grass.
LOCAL AUTHOR MAKES GOOD
By Temperance Rubin.
You’ve seen him promoting his latest book, Rituals of Evening, but Joseph Peters has never forgotten his roots so he’s appearing at Great Hills Library on Wednesday afternoon for a special reading followed by a Q and A.
Come, say hello to a hometown alumnus, and see if any of you aspiring types can pick up a few hints!
The event starts at 6pm sharp.
A tan suited him, Edward thought. Joseph stepped out of the car with the same pained, studious expression he had worn since adolescence. Edward remembered playing catch with him in the yard and the memory made something shift in his chest. He corrected his posture, straightening his back and pushing his shoulders back. Joseph’s grey eyes swam with memories as he looked at his father but he blinked twice and smiled as he reached out and shook his father’s hand.
Edward gripped with a little too much force, but Joseph had written his pages for the day and he dropped his hand away to flex the discomfort from his fingers.
‘Long drive?’ Edward said.
Joseph shook his head and adjusted the strap on his backpack without meeting his father’s gaze.
‘I got in last night and took a room at the place by the airport.’ he said.
Edward swallowed the rejection and gave a small nod.
‘Smart move. You hungry?’ he said.
Joseph smiled and nodded.
‘As soon as I smelled the barbecue.’ he said.
The ruins of limp salad leaves, bones chewed white and small puddles of barbecue sat on plates between them. Edward poured out the bottle into a glass, whilst Joseph sipped his vanilla coke. His father’s recollection of his adolescent tastes was impressive, even down to the racks of ribs and venison steaks which they’d demolished between them.
Edward apologised as he unbuckled his belt to ease the pressure of his full stomach and sat back in the chair with a sigh of relief. Joseph sat up, straight and took small, frequent sips from the frosted glass of coke.
‘How’s the tour going?’ Edward said.
Joseph set his glass down and reached into his jacket for his cigarettes. He wanted a hit off his vape pen, but he had imagined his father’s reaction so it stayed there, offering relief from the gnawing anxiety which capered around his insides.
‘Good, thank you. I’ve done some TV too, even Kimmel.’ he said.
Edward snorted with derision and picked up his glass.
‘Late night television is trash. Hope it helps you.’ he said.
Joseph picked up his glass again and looked around the deck.
‘Did you redecorate?’ he said.
Edward didn’t look up as he drank but he gave a thumbs up and nodded around a mouthful of ale. He wiped his mouth and considered his son.
‘Yes, Char gets it into her head to redecorate the house and there goes a week of my life.’ he said.
Joseph’s jaw tightened as he swallowed and looked away.
Edward finished the last of the beer and got up, holding his belt buckle as he shuffled into the house. Joseph stared down the length of the garden and squeezed the glass until his fingers turned white.
There was a woman’s voice from inside the house. Joseph’s hand dove to his stomach as an emetic spasm clawed at his intestines. He hoped the carbonation settled his stomach before she came through and said hello.
Edward sat up in bed, a pillow placed to support him as he turned the pages of his son’s book. Charlene came in from the bathroom and glanced over her shoulder.
‘Is he okay?’ she said.
Her voice was breathy and girlish, and after all these years, it never failed to stir him. She had packed on some weight around her hips and had the beginnings of a tummy beneath the silk ivory night gown. Edward’s eyes coveted but Charlene grimaced with concern. He smiled as he removed his reading spectacles and closed the book, then tapped the cover.
‘Judging by this, I should have burned his library card.’ he said.
His voice was genial as she climbed into bed. She glanced down at the book on his lap with the expression she did when Titbits brought a dead mouse into the kitchen.
‘I can’t read those sorts of books.’ she said.
Edward grunted and shook his head.
‘They’re just made-up words.’ he said.
Charlene did not relax until he put the book on the bedside table and rested his spectacles on top. He slipped an arm around the back of his wife’s neck and pulled her close.
‘He was a difficult young man, and it was a lot to ask a woman, but we’ve done the best we can.’ he said.
Charlene suppressed a shiver and clung to Edward’s solid, greying chest. The light went out with a dull click and she listened to her husband’s breathing deepen into sleep. Joseph had kept his distance since she came back, and the acrid tang of memories stained her lips and tongue. She had brushed her teeth twice and used mouthwash but the tang stayed with every swallow. Appalling goblin thoughts stirred and pressed against the amniotic sac of time and repression but she clung to him until she felt the medication kick in and dropped away into sleep.
He sat with his knees apart, holding his book to his eyes as he read aloud. Charlene watched his lips moving, how his eyes widened as he spoke with a confidence she had not seen before. Edward was rigid with concentration but his hand rested over hers as they sat there, watching his son read from his latest book.
She knew this section off by heart. Edward favoured hardbacks but Charlene, thanks to her younger sister, had an electronic reader and so had downloaded Joseph’s book on the day of release and read it straight away.
‘She came as I sat by the lake, toes pruning in the water as I sat there.
Trying to hide the erection she inspired whenever she drew close.
‘Your pa says supper’s ready.’ she said.
Her voice was a honeyed drawl which crept beneath my skin. The prohibition lent a terrible, insatiable clarity to my perception of her and she grinned as she knelt down in front of me.
‘I’ll be right there.’ I said.
I tried to make my voice as low as possible, promote whatever shoots of tender manhood were poking through the mud of adolescence. She was a strong burst of sunlight, a nurturing shower and yet all of it forbidden on every level.
It did not stop me wanting.’
Charlene’s heart pounded in her chest but she held herself still. Her mind was racing, knowing there were another twelve pages before anything happened.
The applause drowned her out as she emitted a small, careful whimper of anguish. Edward shook his head and applauded, but his eyes were soft with confusion.
Joseph accepted the safety lecture with a detached grace and wore the orange vest without comment. Edward, dressed in the worn, clean camouflage which had been his woodland uniform forever handed his son the rifle. Joseph took it and held it close to his chest.
It was a beautiful morning when they walked into the forest. Edward was on point, and Joseph had availed himself of the vape enough to put him into a state of herbal equanimity.
‘What did you think of the book?’ Joseph said.
Edward put a finger to his lips and narrowed his eyes before he pointed through to the trees where a young buck stood, nose to the ground as it chewed at a clump of grass. He gestured for his son to raise his rifle. Joseph blinked and aimed down the sight. His finger rested on the trigger guard.
The buck raised its head and ran. Edward lowered his rifle and shot an accusing look at his son. Joseph shrugged his shoulders as he took his eye from the scope.
‘Come on, I didn’t say a word.’ he said.
Edward snorted and walked into the woods. Joseph matched his pace, so they were abreast of one another.
‘I acknowledge your talent with words, son, I’ll say that. You know I don’t truck with monster books, but I’m glad you’re doing well with it.’
Joseph sighed against the hot lump of upset which dropped into his stomach from above.
‘I’ve had enough reviews to know when someone’s not read it, Dad, you don’t have to bullshit me.’ he said.
Edward stopped and stared at his son.
‘I don’t read those sorts of books.’ he said.
His voice whistled like a stove top kettle and it hurt Joseph’s ears. Joseph stepped back, discomforted and struggling with the urge to articulate something massive.
‘You mean mine?’ Joseph said.
Edward’s eyes widened as he sweated beneath his camouflage.
‘Why are you so sensitive about this?’ he said.
Joseph’s eyes flooded with tears as he cradled the rifle. He was a boy again, a skinned soul lifted for his father’s acknowledgement.
‘Because I thought you would be smart enough to get it, Dad.’ he said.
Edward slung his rifle over his shoulder and adjusted the brim of his cap as he looked down at his boots.
‘I’ve never gotten you, Joe. Christ knows I tried and so did Char.’ he said.
Joseph’s face was taut and bloodless as he stared at Edward. His grip on the rifle was loose and he staggered backwards, shaking his head.
‘You didn’t know, did you?’ Joseph said.
Edward’s face crumpled with confusion.
‘About the book?’ he said.
Joseph watched his father struggle with the conversation. A decent man dumbfounded by something which his son couldn’t explain. Edward reached his hand out and touched his son on the shoulder.
‘I may not understand you, but you’re my son, and if I’ve hurt you then you need to know I never meant to.’ he said.
It was a speech for Edward, and he was red in the face when he finished but Joseph, a man too acquainted with lies not to see them in others, believed his father. Joseph shouldered the rifle and lowered his chin to his chest and sobbed. Between the sobs, he forced out seven words.
‘Not you, Dad, you didn’t hurt me.’ he said.
Charlene was so relieved Joseph had gone, it was an easy thing for Edward to persuade her to accompany him on a hunt.
It was easier to let her wander ahead, between the trees. As his finger closed over the trigger, he thought of his boy and asked his forgiveness again.