Jenny parked the truck, unbuckled her seatbelt and looked out through the smeared windshield. She saw the empty child seat in the rearview mirror and wiped her eyes before the tears came. She opened the door and got out, breathing through her mouth to limit the stink as she walked around to the trunk and opened it.
She slipped off her sketchers and put on the boots, tying the laces in a few attempts to compensate for her trembling fingers. The cargo pants were canvas, patterned in a mottled camouflage and the chambray long-sleeved shirt was already collecting the heat of the day. She kept the ball cap on, with her light-blonde hair tucked up underneath it and the orange-tinted glasses hung from a lanyard around her neck. She reached into the trunk and brought out the rifle.
She had brought the rifle from a gun show in the next state over. The owner had spoken of its pedigree with the same pride she showed in her children. She had paid cash for the rifle and two cases of ammunition. Twenty rounds of hand tooled.303 ammunition less the ten rounds she had fired at the range, punching holes in paper targets, committing the pull of the bolt to memory until her arm throbbed like a rotten tooth.
She slipped her backpack onto her shoulders before adjusting the straps until the pressure left the small of her back. She held the rifle with the strap over her shoulder.
Locking the car meant she was looking at the child seat again. Jenny swallowed and turned away as she tucked the keys into the front pocket of her pants. She held the rifle in both hands as she walked into the trees.
Dean had waxed lyrical about his childhood camping trips, and although Tommy preferred books and math problems, Dean saw it as an opportunity to make a man of his son. Jenny wanted to like the idea, but she saw the wounded light in Tommy’s eyes and tried to reassure him of how much fun it would be.
Jenny had gone to dinner with Louise, enjoying a drink with dinner and a cab ride home, giggling and singing to herself around the empty house before she realised how empty it was without them. She had sent him a text message before going upstairs to sleep. His last reply had been to reassure her Tommy was having a great time.
Jenny had been dealing with a domestic incident on the day Dean announced the plan. Rosa Trevor had surrendered to the slow build of pressure by stabbing Pete with a bread knife sixty times whilst he dozed off in the recliner, knuckles bloodied from where he had taken her up for not having dinner on the table. The blade had broken off in his skull, and Jenny thought about the blue guy from the movie they had watched the night before. Tommy loved the talking raccoon, but she had nursed her Chris Pratt crush in secret whilst Dean was in the garage, airing out the sleeping bags. The blade stuck out from the top of his head as he sat there, stinking and soft. She had not told him about it, which was why she had not fought Dean about his idea.
By the evening, she had used professional courtesy to contact the ranger station. It had taken her a tremendous effort to keep her voice even. The voice on the other end remained indifferent until she mentioned her job.
‘Sheriff Ronaldo, we’ll get someone out to find them.’
Jenny hadn’t been a sheriff then, just a mother. A wife too, but it was more of an afterthought after he lost his job at the manufacturing plant. The camping trip, in hindsight, was about Dean trying to claw some of his power back but those thoughts were unkind and inappropriate. She wanted them home.
The search had started small but after forty eight hours, the stretch of forest became home to the collective goodwill of the community and Jenny’s agonized patience.
Jenny gave up every doubt and flaw she had, hoping the candour might help find her family but against the mocking silence of their continued disappearance, it was all for nothing.
It was a year to the day.
Drinking got her through their birthdays and their anniversary. The lace teddy sat in the top drawer, too tight on her to wear for him along with the tablet she’d brought to help Tommy with his studies was still in the box.
Her boots were stiff and creaked as she strode through the woods. The air hummed like a loaded spider web as she looked around, recalling the steps taken to find her husband and son. She took in deep breaths to calm her nerves.
Anoise snaked through the trees and she lifted her head to gauge the direction and distance. A single wail, like someone disappointed by a discovery. She knew the sound all too well, having lived with it throughout her career. She paced in the direction, bringing the rifle to her shoulder and fighting the adrenaline coursing through her body.
She charged through the brush, ready to rack the bolt back but within her, the pragmatic armour of experience abraded by the wife and mother within. The bushes loomed over her but she pushed through.
The voice ripped through her like a blade. In the first year, she had refused to leave him, committing every breath to memory for fear of missing a moment of it. Jenny had spent so much time around death and disaster, she saw its shadow fall over everything. Not her Tommy, she vowed though.
His hair had grown out into tangles infested with dirt which fell to his thin, pale shoulders. His eyes peered out from underneath the ridge of fringe as he squatted in front of her. Tommy was a boy more disposed to tears than tantrums, but his lips drew back over his teeth. The gums were swollen and bleeding and he had lost one of his incisors.
Jenny saw the faded logo on the ragged remains of his t-shirt, the shield had flaked away to a stain, no different than the other marks on the cloth. His legs were smeared with dust, emaciated and tattooed with scratches.
Jenny shuddered and lowered the barrel. Her vision blurred as she took a step backwards but the child remained on his haunches, tilting his head to the left as he stared at her with open interest.
She wanted him to run to her, but the cop part of her brain screamed for her to treat this with care. The rifle was heavy, but she clung to it without raising it.
Tommy capered forwards, and Jenny sobbed at the nails, yellowed and curling over the tips of his fingers as they scraped the dirt ahead.
‘Where’s Daddy, Tommy?’
Tommy snorted and stopped.
‘He’s back there, Mommy. With the others.’
His voice had the rusted wheeze of disuse. Jenny strained to find the child within it.
She wondered why she had not put the rifle down, held him in her arms after too long apart. Within her chest, her heart was being pulled apart with rough fingers but she held firm.
Tommy snarled and looked back over his shoulder.
‘Yes, they’re sleeping. They said you would come.’
Jenny slung the rifle over her shoulder and knelt down so her eyes were level with him.
‘Baby, we need to find your dad and go home. It’s been a long time.’
It had been forever.
He sniffed the air as he came forwards. Jenny extended her arms and he rushed towards her. His face pressed against her neck and he sobbed, hot and tormented as she held onto him. Her hands went to the back of his head, her fingers starved for the fragile triumph of her son in her arms again.
She sobbed as she drew back, lifting a tangle of hair as she asked him to turn around.
It looked like an opal surrounded by a fringe of infected flesh oozing with pus. Jenny clamped her hand over her mouth as she staggered backwards, landing on her ass as Tommy stared at her.
‘Does Dad have those?’
Tommy’s eyes welled up with tears as he nodded. He looked down at his fingers and counted, mouthing the numbers until he ran out of fingers to count on.
Jenny pulled him close as she looked past him. Over the roar of her own heartbeat, she caught a humming sound like something massive powering up behind the trees. It made her fillings sing in her mouth and she felt a horrible pressure building in her sinuses as she dragged him away. He surrendered, going limp as his mouth spasmed at her neck like she was nursing him again.
They staggered away, but the humming grew and Tommy seized in her arms but she continued.
A rustling started in the trees, something large and forceful which moved the branches with ease. She fled with her son in her arms, shocked by how light he was. All those nights spent worrying about how chubby he was getting, and the horrible irony of it motivated her to move back to the truck. The humming rose in pitch, making her eardrums throb like an infected limb.
Tommy smelled different. The sweet milk smell had gone, replaced by something sour and metallic but she held onto him with everything she had.
She looked back, squinting her eyes against the column of white light which stabbed like a knife thrust upwards into the belly of the sky. A wave of heat and pressure pushed her forwards, but she clung onto her son and remained upright.
‘Dad’s coming, why aren’t you waiting?’ he said.
Jenny kept running. If it was her husband there, then he would know where to find them.
She was afraid he would.