This story is by EndlessExposition and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“This is a funny kind of wake.”
Cyrus shrugged. “Work is work. What are you gonna do.”
Dylan pulled his shearling coat tighter around his chest. “I dunno. Get some sleep before your father’s funeral ‘stead of freezing your balls off in a damn tent all night.”
Cyrus picked up the thermos of coffee sitting between them on the floor, holding it out. “Have some. Warm you up.” Dylan did just that, taking a deep swig and huddling the thermos close. Cyrus leaned forward on his elbows, peering out the mesh window of the hunting blind.
There were no signs of the snow letting up. White banks mounted around the bases of the Jeffrey pines and the pasture fence. The wind wasn’t so bad by now, dimmed from a howl to a reedy whistle. If Cyrus twisted his neck he could see the stars, winking like summer fireflies. There were no signs of tracks in the snowfall. Cyrus sat back in his folding chair, restlessly tapping his finger on the stock of his rifle.
“You really don’t think this is weird?”
Cyrus looked over at his friend. Dylan was looking at him too, with a kind of focus that said he had been for a while. He looked like the night sky made man – dark eyes glistening in his brown face, earrings glinting through the chinks in his long black hair. “What’s ‘this’ exactly?”
“Gunning for coyotes when you’re burying your dad tomorrow. It’s weird.”
“What should I be doing?”
“Again, trying to sleep. Crying maybe, if you can’t.”
Cyrus snorted and turned his attention back to the window of the blind. He could still feel Dylan’s eyes on him. Eventually there was a sigh, and the rustle of hair as Dylan looked away too. Cyrus tried to remember the last time he had cried. Not that it mattered. His father never cried. “What was that tribe you were telling me about? The ones that kill when they lose someone?”
“The Ilongot. They headhunt to purge anger and grief.”
“Right.” Cyrus could see the raised eyebrow without looking.
“So you admit, then, that you’re upset?”
“Jesus, I was just thinking about it, alright? Thought you were getting that degree in environmental science, not psychology.”
“I took an elective.”
“‘Course you did.” It came out sharper than he’d intended. The timbre of the silence that followed made Cyrus check on his friend. The steely set of Dylan’s jaw read plain as a child’s picture book. “Hey. I’m sorry.”
The jaw relaxed. Dylan looked at him, corner of his mouth turned up. He pressed his left leg against Dylan’s right. “I’m sorry too.” He left his leg there, touching from heel to knee. Cyrus could feel the warmth seeping through their frozen jeans. He shifted in his chair, sitting up straighter to look out the window again. “No sign of the coyote?” Dylan asked him.
“How long has it been coming ‘round?”
Cyrus thought back. “‘Bout a week.”
“How many sheep have you lost?”
“None? Why you gotta kill it then?”
“Because it will take one sooner or later. Thought Paiutes didn’t have a problem with coyote hunting.”
Dylan frowned. “We don’t. But if it hasn’t caused any harm you’re just messing with the ecosystem for no reason.”
“Jesus, you and your ecosystems.”
“Well it matters! Coyotes keep other populations in check: deer, rodents –”
“Look,” Cyrus cut in, “all this saving the Earth shit is nice for you, but some of us have real life to worry about. There’s no farm to run if all your sheep get eaten. Can’t take chances.”
“You’re keeping the farm? Even with your dad gone?”
“‘Course I am.”
Dylan opened his mouth. Nothing came out. He shut it again and looked away, shaking his head.
“What?” Cyrus asked.
Dylan shrugged. “It’s not like you’d listen.”
“Grow a pair and say it.”
Dylan exhaled through his nose. “You shouldn’t be here, Cyrus.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Dylan sighed, chewed on his lip. “Remember when Jed Marlow beat you up in sixth grade?”
“He called you a fag because you were drawing a flower in your notebook.”
“If you say so.” Cyrus didn’t really remember what started it, just being punched in the eye.
“And what did your father say?”
Cyrus’ father had been sitting at the kitchen table when he came home, cleaning his rifle. He’d looked up, grunted. “What happened to you?”
“Got in a fight.”
His father had nodded. “Sheep need feeding.” And Cyrus had.
“Nothing.” Dylan’s voice brought him back to the blind. “He said nothing.”
“He said something –”
“He didn’t tell you it was wrong. He didn’t ask if you were okay. You got the shit kicked out of you and it was just – boys.” Dylan turned his head, and the wet depth of his eyes was like a punch to Cyrus’ gut. “I never saw you drawing again.”
“So? I was a kid.”
“You should’ve been.” Dylan put a hand to his forehead, rubbing it tiredly. “We both should’ve been.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“This place – what are you gonna do here, Cyrus? Feed the sheep and shoot coyotes and die someday?”
“It shouldn’t be.”
“What do you want me to do? Fuck off to college and pretend to be someone I’m not?”
“Would you even know the difference? When was the last time you were happy?” Dylan pointed towards the back flap of the blind and the house beyond. “Did he ever make you feel like you were worth being happy?”
“Don’t you dare –”
Silence fell in the blind. Cyrus adjusted his grip on his rifle, hunkered down, and carefully peered out of the window.
The coyote stood on the edge of the trees. The slow drift of the snow made him blurry around the edges. He took another step towards the blind, the snow crunching under his paw.
Cyrus unzipped the window mesh. Slowly, he slipped off his folding chair and turned it around. He knelt on the seat, bringing the butt of the gun to his shoulder. Dylan watched him soundlessly, face taut. Cyrus slid the end of the barrel out the window.
The coyote seemed to be looking right at them. He kept walking. As he came closer, details were distinguishable – the mottled grey and brown of his coat. The snowflakes collecting on his muzzle. Cyrus put his finger on the trigger. The coyote walked in a straight line right to him, and stopped at the end of his rifle.
His eyes were a warm, bright yellow. Like harvest moons in the night sky.
He cocked his head. Cyrus’ breath caught harshly, a dry scrape in his throat. A sharp pain spiked in his chest.
He took his finger off the trigger.
The coyote took another step forward. He whined low in his throat. And then he was gone.
The muscles in Cyrus’ arms unwound; he slid his rifle loosely to the floor. His stomach spasmed and he rocked forward. The sobs came out as muted screams. Tears leaked and leaked until he couldn’t see anymore.
Pressure enveloped his arms and torso – Dylan holding him. He was saying something, but Cyrus couldn’t hear him over his own noise. Dylan rubbed a hand up and down his back, almost like an iron pressing his breaths out. He calmed, reduced to rattling with exhaustion.
They stayed like that. Dylan broke the silence first. “I’m scared,” he said. “I’m scared of what might happen if I leave you here alone.”
Cyrus cleared his throat wetly. “What do you suggest?”
“You could come to California with me.”
“Or you could come home.”
Dylan laughed softly. “Guess we’ll figure it out.”
In this position Cyrus’ head was wedged into Dylan’s sternum. He shifted to pillow his head on his friend’s chest more comfortably. They were quiet for another few minutes. “Do you remember,” Cyrus said, “when we were nine, and we saw that double rainbow behind my house? After the big storm?”
“You were so excited you held my hand the whole time. My father didn’t say anything.”
“I dunno, I don’t remember.”
Cyrus smiled. “I do.”