This story is by Laurie Holding and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jo looked around her old bedroom one last time. The furniture was gone, the few remaining boxes were all taped up, and now her finger traced the faded lines where her posters had hung on the walls. Outside her open window, Jo watched as the movers slammed their truck’s door and leaned against it, smoking and laughing.
Jo hadn’t laughed in years. Her eyes scanned the fields outside, where the sunflowers swayed in the early September breeze. For the first time in her fifteen years, she would miss watching the squirrels and birds enjoying the sunflower seeds.
“Almost ready?” Jo’s mother, Pat, stood at the bedroom door looking around nervously, avoiding Jo’s eyes.
“No, Mom. Nope. I’ll never be ready for this.” She narrowed her eyes and glared at her mother.
“This will work its way out, Jo. We just need time.”
“That’s a crock, and you know it,” Jo said. “Time isn’t going to change the fact that I’m leaving my home. That I’m moving into a cramped apartment with people I don’t even like. Oh, and the fact that my dad is still dead. Time can’t fix any of those problems, can it, Mom? Time can’t take back that car accident. So really, when you repeatedly say ‘things will work out,’ you kinda mean things will work out to suck for me. Right?”
She picked up the last box and turned back to the window. She’d hoped to see Tim one last time, but he hadn’t shown up today. He was probably afraid of the moving truck and all the men on the property. Jo squinted and looked toward the woods.
All of the deer she secretly fed had country singers’ names. Patsy Cline, Kenny Chesney, Tim Mcgraw. Jo had watched every year as new fawns were born to her fields. Every year, Patsy and Joan Cash taught their babies how to jump the split rail fence and run the moment their mothers snorted an alarm.
Tim was Jo’s favorite. Even now, with an eight-point rack, he was so tame that he would actually walk up to her open hand for an apple. He only trusted Jo, and since her dad’s accident, Tim had held a special, private place in her heart.
Now he would just be another memory.
She listened to her father’s favorite music on the way to the city, her earphones giving her a nice excuse for not talking to her mother. They passed the stream where her dad had given her fly fishing lessons, the shooting range where he had taught her how to handle a gun, the acres of woods where they had hiked and camped. She watched it all go away in a quiet blur but refused to let herself cry until she was alone.
The hills gave way to highways and finally to skyscrapers, one of which was her new “home.” Her new stepfather, John, and his annoying daughter, Amy, had already moved in. Jo could barely tolerate being in the same room with either of them; Amy, at eleven, still played with dolls and wore purple every day. John, the replacement dad, talked with spit in the corners of his lips and always sounded like he needed to swallow.
A giant mutt of a dog greeted them at the apartment’s front door. He jumped up at Jo, who scowled and pushed him away.
“Mister!” Amy screeched, reaching for the dog’s collar. “It’s your new sister! Hey, that rhymes!” Jo raised her lip in disgust as Amy grinned up at her with purple-stained lips.
“It does rhyme, Amy,” Pat said as she entered with a box. She looked up into John’s eyes with a frozen smile on her lips. “So! We made it!”
“Welcome to you,” John said, taking her box. He gave Pat a half hug and winked at Jo.
“Guess I’ll be in my new room,” Jo said, moving past them.
The new room was tiny, and the walls were white, hospital white. At the window, Jo splayed her hands and looked up at the gray sky and the gray stone façade of the building across the street, and she felt a catch in her throat as she fought off tears.
“Knock knock!” Amy stood in the doorway, smiling. Mister bolted into the room and jumped on Jo’s naked bed.
“No. No, see we need rules right away and up front, Amy.” Jo took an earphone out. “You need to just leave me alone when my door is closed, okay? No ‘knock knocks.’ Closed doors mean go away.”
“You want to see my new doll?” Amy started backing up slowly.
“Nope. No doll, No dog.” Jo dragged Mister by the collar off of the bed and into the hall. “No Amy. Sorry.” She nudged Amy out and shut the door.
Jo lifted her index finger to her forehead and jerked her thumb in an imaginary gunshot, then stopped.
“Oh No! Mom!” She ran out into the living room and both Pat and John looked up from open boxes. “I forgot Dad’s gun!” Jo felt tears coming, but forced them away.
“Gun?” John asked. “We can’t have a gun in this home.” He looked back at Pat. “Pat? We can’t have a gun here.”
“I left it in the basement!” Jo threw her head back.
“It’s in a gun case, John. She’s certified. She and her dad loved to target shoot.” Pat put her hand on John’s arm.
“We have to go back and get it, Mom. Mom!” Jo felt like howling.
John put his hand up to stop her. “I’ll make you a deal, Jo.”
“A deal?” Jo narrowed her eyes.
“Yep. We’ll all go back to the farm and get the gun. And its case. But you’re keeping it down in the storage unit, Ok? And you only open that case if one of us is with you.” He gave her a half smile. “Deal?”
“Fine, whatever.” Jo felt like strangling him. She wasn’t a baby. Surely her mom knew that. She was target shooting when she was younger than that annoying doll owner, for God’s sake. But whatever. Her dad’s old gun was what mattered.
Early the next morning, they all got in the car, even Mister. Jo had her dad’s music in her ears until Pat gave her the stink eye in the rear view mirror. She begrudgingly pulled out one ear bud and watched as the city slowly rolled away. Finally, they were back to her fields and woods.
Sure enough, the gun case was right where her dad had left it, tucked into the corner of the basement. She opened it and pulled the rifle out, still shiny from the last time they had cleaned it together, before the accident, before life had turned upside down.
Jo picked up the box of bullets and made her way to the stairs. Let Strongman John get the case, if it was that important to him. In the back of her head, though, she heard her father warning her about keeping the gun locked up.
“Accidents will happen,” he’d always said. “Just make sure you always do the right thing. Keep her locked up, keep her clean.”
Yep, Dad. And an accident finally happened to you, and now look where I am.
Walking into the kitchen, she heard Mister barking. She rolled her eyes, but then stopped at the back door and looked out in horror.
Mister was pointing toward the woods.
There, watching between the trees, Tim was lowering his antlers. He stomped his front leg and snorted.
Jo felt her hands sweat onto her gun.
Amy and Pat screamed as Mister started to run, and John clapped his hands, shouting.
Jo fumbled with the bullets and loaded her gun. Her dad’s gun. She stood on the back deck and looked through the scope.
Miserable dog. You will not hurt my Tim.
The crosshairs centered on his lolling pink tongue, then his heart. Say goodbye, Mister Mister.
“Don’t, Mister! You’ll die!” Amy threw herself on the ground, wailing. Pat looked up at Jo and Jo felt her mother almost inside her brain, reading her thoughts. All the sadness and anger from the last three years made Jo’s eyes film over. She blinked and the tears went away.
John turned and saw Jo on the deck with her gun poised. He didn’t even hesitate. He threw his body over that wailing little girl in what seemed like a second.
Jo looked up over her scope to see them with both eyes. Then she lowered her head to look through the scope again.
She pulled the trigger.
Tim kneeled down just like he would if he were taking an apple. Then he fell over.
Mister stopped at the sound of the shot, crouched in fear just feet from the stag’s head.
And finally, Jo let herself cry.
“I did the right thing, Daddy,” she said. “At least I did the right thing.”