Authors: Keith Houghton
he hunter was invisible—nothing more than a stain on the snowy terrain. The white camouflage parka and matching padded pants were bulky but necessary if he wanted to remain warm and undetected. It was freezing up here on the mountain, and maintaining any single position for any length of time wasn’t recommended. But stillness was a hunter’s best disguise. Anyone glancing his way would see a seamless surface of undulating snow, luminous with light and striped by shadows, with no hint of his presence. Even the white surgical tape wrapped randomly around the hunting rifle made it look more like a fallen tree branch than a deadly distance killer.
People were moving within its crosshairs: a red-headed girl taking photographs, the shriek of her camera clawing against the uneasy silence; a thickset guy raking back snow, huffing and
; men and women with Day-Glo orange vests pulled over their thick
coats, serious expressions pinned on hung heads. A single word was splashed across the front and back of their bright orange vests. In a large black typeface it read:
Those who weren’t scratching at their scalps were either bagging evidence or jumping to the echoing commands of a barrel-chested lieutenant standing on the rim of the ravine. The recovery operation was in full swing here at Hangman Falls. Everything businesslike and organized. But the tension was intense, clotted by people impatient to get down off the mountain. No one wanted to be on crime scene cleanup on the weekend and in freezing conditions.
A flick of his wrist brought the frozen waterfall into view.
His elevation on the opposite side of The Gallows provided an eagle-eye panorama of the activity below.
The boys and girls from the Sheriff’s Office had spent the last hour trying to figure out a safe way to recover the human remains lodged firmly in the upturned tree, without causing injury or embarrassment, or damage to the evidence. But the location was proving a challenge. The exposed root system was three yards out from the edge of the ravine and about the same distance down. Everything precariously balanced against the frozen waterfall, on a knife’s edge. One wrong move, one clumsy boot, and the entire tree would topple, taking the skeletal remains down with it, and maybe a couple of heavy-handed deputies, too.
Finally, after a heated discussion, a bright spark had come up with the brilliant idea of rappelling down the frozen waterfall. The lieutenant had given the plan the thumbs-up and two snowmobiles had been anchored in the frozen runoff at the brim of the falls. A pair of jaw-clenching deputies had rappelled down, armed with battery-powered saws. Now they were in the process of
to disentangle the human skeleton from the root matrix. The body had been under the tree a long time, long enough for roots to invade every gap and entwine around bone, suffusing it. Time had welded it to the tree, and their handsaws were jumping around on the
wood like bugs on a hotplate.
What they needed was an experienced lumberjack, someone who would throw a harness around the root ball, lop the whole thing off and then hoist it to safety. But that would mean wasting even more time, and time was not something they had in abundance out here; white flakes had begun to fall from the sky again and this time tomorrow the root system would be crusted in a foot of hardening snow.
Distantly, somebody hollered for attention.
The hunter swept his rifle sights across the scene.
The shout had come from a female deputy standing a little way back from the drop-away, in the disturbed soil area where the tree had once stood tall. She was holding an object up in the air and gesturing at the barrel-chested lieutenant to come take a look.
The hunter adjusted the focus on the scope, bringing the object into sharper detail.
It was a woman’s purse, dangling on a leather strap from the end of the deputy’s metal wand. Faded brown leather, with leather tassels and what looked like a sunflower design stitched into one side. Distinctive. It was caked in soil, but otherwise better preserved than its owner.
He’d seen the purse before, he remembered with a jolt. He knew whose purse it was, knew the implications that came with its discovery. And he knew it would mean an unplanned trip into town to share the bad news.
he encounter with Meeks leaves me prickly. The one thing I value is my privacy. I cherish it. These days I make a big deal out of it.
I walk off my edginess, boots cemented with slush, legs leaden by the time I get to the house on Prescott. The exercise has me thinking about my brother when we were kids:
“Will you quit whining?” Aaron asked, a lifetime ago, as he prepared to embark on his daily five-mile jog into the National
It was a brilliant summer’s day, the world split equally into green and blue. Aaron was sixteen at the time, with the clean-cut looks of a poster boy and the toned body of an Olympian. Shorter than me, but solid.
“Exercise is good for you, little brother.” He grinned, showing healthy teeth, as if to confirm it.
“It’s hard work,” I argued. It was a puny reason. All I had. It fit in with my weedy physique.
Aaron continued to grin at me with the winning smile of an athlete at the top of his game. My brother walked or ran
, always had. He participated in every sport played in Harper, excelling in all. His energy levels were phenomenal, enviable. Unlike me, he had the stamina of a marathoner. I tried my best, but I was not the sporty type. I didn’t have the genes for it. Even at thirteen, I preferred my sports from the comfort of an
“Trust me, Jake. You’ll live longer.”
But not forever. That was my point. No one does. Not even my super-healthy, fitness-freak brother.
The house on Prescott is thawing out. Musty odors of drying plaster. Creaks of warming wood. I spend the next six hours
restlessly, unable to find comfort or stop my mind from replaying the morning’s events. It’s like this now, and has been since my release from prison. It’s difficult settling down without someone else’s metronomic breathing to regulate my own. The irony is, in the early days of my incarceration, that very same stranger’s breathing used to keep me awake.
When I do sleep I dream of death. Often it’s somebody else’s. Sometimes it’s my own.
Eventually, I wake to find myself on the floor, tangled in damp linens and wedged between the bed and the wall. Disoriented. For a moment I think I hear the wake-up call echoing outside, boots stamping on gray cement, bolts being drawn back, but it’s just the banging of pipes against loosened pins.
I relax in my nest, but only a little.
I can smell Jenna and my heart is racing.
Six months have passed since I got the stamp of approval on my parole. For me, time has stood still. The world I left behind is dead. Friends have moved on. Family has passed away. Trends have come and gone and come around again. While I’ve been resisting change on the inside, the outside world has changed beyond all recognition, almost as though I have emerged from a coma into an alien world.
In some ways reintegration is harder than incarceration.
“No one warns you before you get out,” I’d told Denis
, my designated parole officer, as I sat in his cluttered office in St. Paul, a day into my newfound freedom.
Flannigan had cigarette-stained fingertips and a missing front tooth. He was a wiry redhead with skin so freckly he looked like an accident in a paint factory.
“So what do you think they should do, Olson,” he’d said in his thick Irish accent, “provide handbooks and the like? Get real, will you? State Corrections is dollar-poor as it is. They got better things to spend their money on other than wiping your miserable
. So get used to it, brother. You’re institutionalized. It’s going to take time to readjust. Who knows, maybe you never will. The sooner you accept your old life is gone and there’s no going back, the sooner you can start building you a new one. Better than the old. Same as I tell all my boys. You’ve done the hard part. You survived prison. You did good. Congratu-fucking-lations. So now you’ve got to learn to survive out here, too. Stay good. You getti
The truth is, psychologically speaking, I was institutionalized within weeks. Fate sealed in a concrete box with no way out.
People think imprisonment takes away choices. It doesn’t. Every day I made decisions, most of which were designed to grease my life and stop the abuse from sticking, but mostly to survive. Choices I would never make on the outside, or ever even contemplate. Prison life is all about adjustment. Those that fail to adapt either die or wish they had. Daily routines help, especially as the weeks drift into months and the months fade into years. They keep you focused, grounded. They denote the passage of time. But nothing prepares the mind for release, for exposure, for the bigger bad world to confirm your insignificance. I came out of Stillwater time-shifted and forgotten, and I haven’t quite caught my breath.
My phone rings on the nightstand. I extricate myself from the tangled linens and pick up, “Hello?”
“How you doing there, sleepy head?”
“Kim? How’d you get my number?”
“Lars. Obviously. I figured you’d be sleeping, so I hung back from calling too soon.”
I rub grit from my eyes. “What time is it?”
“Almost two. It’s the weekend and it’s snowing. We should do something.”
I get to my feet and pull back the drapes, squint at the gleaming world outside. Big flakes are tumbling lazily from a breezeless sky.
“What do you have in mind?”
“Skinny-dipping up at the lake?” She hears my snicker and adds, “Seriously, though, how’d things go with the Luckmans?”
“Better than I expected.”
“Yeah? That’s good, Jake. I’m pleased for you. They’ve been through a rough patch. Now they can move on. So I was wondering about grabbing something to eat. I’m thinking a late breakfast or an early dinner? My treat.”
I almost say “
what’s your agenda, Kim?”
but then remind myself she’s just being friendly. The fact of the matter is I’m not used to people being pleasant for no reason. I’m used to ulterior motives and coercion. I have to remember she’s looking out for me in the same way she always did. There’s no harm in her believing a kindly face will help shoehorn me back into Harper life. I have enemies. Krauss is a police officer. Keeping her close will soften attitudes.
I stretch stiff neck muscles. “It sounds like a plan. But first, I have business I need to take care of. Can we meet at Merrill’s, later, say around four?”
“Sure. Just don’t keep me waiting. Okay? If you decide to back out, let me know. You’ve got my number now. Use it. You can call me anytime. Night or day. I mean it, Jake. I want you to know I’m here for you. Besides, we’ve got a lifetime of catching up to do. It’s going to be great.”
Jail time can change a man for the better or for the worse. More often than not he doesn’t get to choose which.
I hang up and rub fingers through unkempt hair.
Whenever I feel disjointed I stick to routines.
Preprogrammed, I scoop up the mound of blankets from the floor and smooth them out on the bed, tuck everything in nice and tight. Plump the pillows even though I haven’t used them. Then I go to the bathroom to urinate, wash, brush teeth. I left my razor in St. Paul. No big deal; the stubble makes me look mean, and a little meanness might not be a bad thing right now. I crank up the shower and sluice away dried sweat, soap up my hair, rinse. Then I return to the bedroom to dress in clean clothes pulled from my duffel bag, mostly donations to the hostel. Everything either a little too small or a little too big, but clean.
Downstairs, I count the thousand dollars in the envelope from Lars, for the third time. I’m not sure what to do with all this money.
I know there will be bills to settle, debts to clear. I’m not sure how far it will take me or go toward satisfying my father’s creditors.
I stuff some twenties in a pocket and head to the kitchen, flush the remains of the stale cereal down my throat.
All the while I’m thinking about Jenna rotting away under that tree for all these years, visualizing the worms and the beetles pervading her soft skin, picturing her decomposing flesh swarming with maggots. Cruel roots sucking every morsel of goodness out of her. I wonder how many lovers have rolled entwined in the shade of that tree, oblivious to the carnage underway beneath; how many laughing children have climbed its leafy limbs to spy pirate ships from its crow’s nest, unaware of the skull and crossbones buried at its base.
Mittened knuckles thud against the kitchen window.
I look up to see a man peering through the grubby pane, recognizing the round and ruddy face of my uncle. He sees me looking and waves. I open up the door. “Owen?”
“Hey there, big fella. What’re you doing cooped up in here on a nice day like this? It’s glorious outside. You should be out there, soaking it all up.” He bangs snow from his boots and steps into the kitchen, brings a flurry of snow in with him. Without stopping, he pulls me close and hugs me tight. “Great to see you, Jake. You’re home at last, finally, where you belong. Harper hasn’t been the same with you gone.” He lets go. “When did you get in?”
“Later than planned. Early hours of the morning. I just got up.”
“Well, that explains why you didn’t answer the first time round. I came over after sunup. I saw the heat was on and banged on the door, but you didn’t answer. Catching up on your beauty sleep, was you?” He grabs me by the chin with his mittened hand. “Will you look at you? All grown up and back home! Wait till your aunt sees what a hunk you’ve become.”
I smile away his harmless sarcasm. “How is Julia?”
“Oh, she’s good, you know? No doubt looking forward to
her favorite nephew. Looks like it’ll have to wait until after the weekend, though; she’s away visiting her sister in Hibbing. She’s sick with the flu—her sister, that is, not your aunt. Bad timing all round, I guess. So, you got in late, did you?”
The interstate had been at a crawl. Traffic jams trailing
. Overworked police and red road flares. One or two crashes and cars overturned on the roadside.
“Owen, I’d make you a coffee, but we’re fresh out.”
He flaps a mittened hand. “Ah, no bother. The doctor warns me I drink too much of it as it is. I get these palpitations, you know? Arrhythmia, he calls it. He thinks it’s the caffeine. I don’t tell him I have a weakness for pastries.”
“You should watch your cholesterol.”
“Sure, like it’ll make a difference. When your time’s up, that’s it and there’s nothing you can do about it. God knows best, always does.” He glances around us, at the disorganized kitchen, at the mold crawling up the window frames. It’s probably the first time he’s stepped foot in here since before my mother left. His nose wrinkles. “Boy, this place smells, and in a bad way. You had a rat die round here?”
I smile. “Probably.”
I like my Uncle Owen, always have. He’s like a big lovable teddy bear. One of those people who gets on with life without complaint. Together with my Aunt Julia he runs Harper’s busiest homegrown general store, right in the heart of town. His outlook on life is sunny side up.
Fix what’s fixable and make the most of what’s not.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Before I was born, Owen used to hit the bottle harder than my father—so much so that my aunt had threatened him with divorce. Luckily for them, he saw sense and has been on the wagon ever since.
I always sensed my father hated him for cleaning up his act.
Then again, Owen and my father have always clashed.
As boys they rarely saw eye to eye, often verbally sparring and frequently falling out to the point of throwing punches. If any brotherly love existed between them at all, it was a one-way street and all from Owen’s end. My father had issues, even then. He fostered an unhealthy need to compete with his older brother. But he never could. Owen was good at everything he put his hand to and my father despised him for it.
As men they stayed out of each other’s way, on opposite sides of town, only coming together for Sunday service and at family functions, and only then when forced to out of obligation. I knew my father envied Owen’s popularity, the house he lived in, maybe his position of power in Harper’s community. Envy ate away my father from the inside out, always did, and not just with Owen. The irony is, my uncle is the least competitive person I know.
“Well, will you take a look at this?” he says as he inspects the fridge. “It’s like the theory of evolution in here, and a bad case of salmonella waiting to happen. Oh my. I hope you’ve not eaten any of this stuff.” He sees my eyes dart to the empty milk carton on the counter, and makes a disapproving face. He closes the fridge. “I’ll see about getting you some provisions sent up from the store, fix you up until you’re settled in. In the meantime, you’re welcome to eat at our house. Like I say, your aunt’s away, but I’m sure I can rustle up a decent meal for the two of us. I remember you love my pot roast.”
“I do, and thanks. I’d like that.”
He flaps a hand. “Hey, it’s no big deal. It’s the least I can do. We’re family, right? Comes with the territory. Plus, it’s my seventieth birthday next week. It’ll be a great opportunity to get together and celebrate your homecoming properly.” He looks me over with
eyes, and I sense what’s coming next: the reason that brought me back to Harper. He spots my automatic withdrawal, even though I try to hide it. I don’t exactly run away and cower in a corner; it’s more of a subtle creeping of the flesh. “I’m guessing you haven’t seen your dad yet?”
“No. But I will.”
“You should. It’s only right. Prove you’re a better man than he ever was.”
“Owen,” I let out a sigh, “I said I will. I just need to pick my moment to go out to the hospital. It’s difficult.”
“But you’ve got to do it.”
Owen’s right. I know I have to. I know I don’t really have a choice. I know I am only delaying the inevitable, the unavoidable. I know I will put it off for as long as I can. I know once it’s done I’ll have closure. I know it’s not that easy.
Owen performs a slow and measured nod. “You’re right; it’s a big deal. Hey, I get it; I’m no Neanderthal here. Came as a shock to us all. We thought he’d go on forever, but this brain bleed of his knocked him out cold. In spite of everything, you must be going through hell. God knows, no one would blame you if you turned your back on him. He never treated you right. Not from day one. Sure, he had his reason. But that wasn’t your fault, big fella. He was wrong taking it out on you the way he did.”