Bloodied to his elbows, Alex Nowak stood from his work, inspecting the gut pile splayed upon the June grass. “Well, Gary, it had to be done. You know you had it coming, hanging around my crops and all. Don’t take it hard. Eventually, we all end up with our guts on the ground. Some of us just keep living afterward, that’s all.”
The early morning sun shone warmly now. That was good for the crops he had planted over the last few weeks. The sweat on his brow and still air promised rain, but who knew when that would come. Today. Or tomorrow maybe. Or this could be the beginning of the first long swelter of a Detroit summer.
The large buck had a good start on a set of antlers. Alex guessed it to be at least four or five years old, maybe a couple of more. It’s jerky then, he thought. Still, the back straps ought to be all right for a cure. The heart and other organs he would grind up for sausage for the smokehouse. He’d eat the liver for his dinner.
The work would mean a sleepless night keeping the fire going, but that was all right by Alex. He didn’t like to sit still. If he sat still, he remembered that he was the only living person within about four miles and that didn’t bear thinking about. Even before the disaster, there’d only been three other families on the block—the Winstons, the Degrazios, and the Smiths. Then a bad flu shaved 40% off the population of the US. Today, Detroit barely qualified as a town, let alone a city. Alex missed the hustle and bustle of when he was a kid. He used to race bikes with Brad Degrazio down the barely visible pavement. Now all the houses were either torn down or had crumbled to ruin. His was the only building still standing in the midst of the desolate quiet. Well, that and Mel Winston’s pottery shed, which he had commandeered as his smoke house.
When the flu hit, it was the Smiths that suffered the worst. Both of them had been nurses—left their kids orphaned. The Degrazios had taken them in. It wasn’t too long afterward Alex and his family had been the only ones left on the block. But that was a decade ago, and even his family hadn’t lasted. There had been one other couple that held out until a couple of years ago. The Stubman’s had lived a few blocks over, but they gave up when Del broke his ankle.
The noise of someone knocking led him to step out from behind the crumbling ruins of the Winston’s old place.
The young blond woman standing at his door far down the block knocked again.
Alex’s guts twisted in the cavity that bore them. He flinched backward as if someone had cut him with a knife.
A long heartbeat later he was sprinting out into the light yelling in the moldering street, waving wildly at the daughter he hadn’t seen in four years. Then she was running to greet him, jumping into him, arms wrapped around his chest like she used to do, almost knocking him to the ground. Gone was the little girl he’d left in Chicago with her mother. In her place stood a tall, young woman with full grown curves and all the eagerness and zest of a seventeen-year-old.
Holding his arms up so as not to stain her white shirt, all Alex could do was stand there and weep while his girl, his precious girl, rubbed her cheek against his chest.
“Daddy, put your arms around me.”
He couldn’t help but laugh. “I can’t. I’m all bloody.”
Tanner stepped back. “Daddy!”
Alex laughed all the harder. “I must look like a murderer.” Pointing over his shoulder, he continued. “I just gutted a deer in the woods behind the Winston’s.”
“Yeah, I hunt. It’s what I live on. I hunt the whole neighborhood. I’ve even pulled a trout or two out of the creek.”
Tanner looked around as if she were seeing the area for the first time. From where they were standing, one could just make out the beginning of what Alex called the garden—but was a two acre field really a garden?
“Is that yours? You farm all that?”
And for a moment, Tanner looked at him as if she didn’t know him.
Alex smiled gently. “A lot’s changed since we moved away, Sugarbug.”
Not long after, Alex returned to his deer. Tanner went to the house to change into clothes more suitable for the day’s tasks. When she returned, he had sorted out the offal, placing the heart and bits he thought useful for sausage into a clean pail with a lid. The rest he buried.
A couple of years prior, he made the mistake of leaving a gut pile on the ground as an offering to the local coyotes in hopes they’d hang around and keep away the deer. They did, and all went well for a while, until Alex found a distinct group of K-9 prints leading away from a small patch of smashed and eaten melons. He spent the next couple of months chasing off the pack that he’d worked so hard to keep. He ended up shooting Fred and Bill before they finally got the message and moved on.
Alex waved Tanner toward the bucket while he picked up the deer by the forelegs and draped its heft over his back. His daughter let the silence rest between them and followed.
The time slipped gently, without pressure. He was so incredibly grateful to have his daughter by his side that he had to fight back tears as he marched the deer to the pottery shed turned smoker. He didn’t dare speak lest he ripple the waters and cause her to flit away. Besides, after four years of living with his own thoughts as friends, he wasn’t sure what to talk about, and if he waited, he knew she would tell him why she was here, when she was good and ready.
The moment presented itself later that afternoon.
“You’ve changed, Dad.”
In the midst of cranking the hand powered sausage packer, Alex didn’t look up from his work. “How so?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his daughter shrug. “You seem way more mellow, like a lot of your worry is gone.”
“I don’t know about that; I worry plenty.”
“But I know what you mean. I think it’s the life. Things are a lot less complicated when you’re hunting and farming for a living. The next thing to do is right there in front of you.” Alex gestured to the strips of deer meat hanging from the ceiling. “And when you finish, you can look back and see that what you did seems important. That’s my food hanging right there.”
“I guess that’s a lot different than writing ad copy for products you don’t give a shit about… I can see the appeal.”
Alex felt his body start to release a load of tension he didn’t even know he had been holding. “I’m glad someone understands.”
Tanner just nodded, letting him concentrate on twisting off the next sausage.
Alex’ nose stung from the rising hickory smoke in the ten by ten outbuilding. It’s concrete floor and small size meant that it made the perfect smoke house for preserving the meat he harvested. He built a fire on the open floor and then spread it out enough to smolder. He’d thought about making some charcoal but had never gotten round to mastering the process. It was on his list of things to learn.
Outside, the black sky darkened the already smoky room. An occasional rumble told Alex that the storms weren’t too far away.
“I guess I have changed. It’s kind of hard to see when you spend most of your days alone.” As soon as he said it, he recognized that he’d caught the edge of the scab that he’d worked so hard to ignore, or maybe it was just having her around.
Tanner watched him deftly spin off another sausage from the end of the grinder. “You really like it out here, don’t you?”
“I do. I like it a lot better than Chicago. There’s no internet news to scare me and no social media to tell me everything I’m doing wrong, at least not when I don’t have the generator running.”
“There’s also no running water, Dad.” Not a hint of judgment. Just an observation.
“It’s a small price to pay for my peace of mind. I’m saving up for a well, and I collect rain water.”
Tanner sighed, contentedly. “And this is what you do every day? You hunt deer?”
Alex chuckled. “When I’m not pulling weeds, repairing the roof on the house, or chasing the crows out of the garden.”
“It must be a lot of work.”
“And you make enough to get by?”
“I sell some crops and things at the farmers market downtown. The truck still runs, so I can haul things down there. It’s enough to buy the things I need.” He gestured to the grinder.
“I bet it would be helpful to have another set of hands or two.”
The trap was sprung so deftly that he didn’t see it coming. All the hurt he’d worked so hard to keep in the past burst into the present. Alex’ throat tightened like a vice. “She made her choice. I let her go. I came home.”
“She sent me to say that she’s sorry and that she wants to come home, too.”
Unable or unwilling to plumb the depths of hurt and anger, Alex did what he had done for the last four years—he focused on the work of his hands. For a while, they continued in silence.
Having said her piece, Tanner retreated to tend the fire. The kid always had good instincts about how to handle her dad. She gave him space, waiting patiently for him to speak. It was a skill his wife had never mastered in all their eighteen years together.
The question blurted from his lips before Alex was sure that he wanted to know the answer. “How long did it last?”
“A couple of months. Not longer. The freshness wore off fast.”
“Were there any others?”
“Dad! You were gone, and you weren’t coming back!”
“Were there any others?”
“A couple. Nothing serious. Nothing that lasted. None of them measured up.”
Letting go of his work, Alex gripped the edge of the small wooden table, as his eyes glazed over with tears. “I can’t… I don’t know if I can…”
“She still loves you, Dad. She always has.”
“Dad, you know why! So much changed after the flu. Everything. They shut down my school. They turned off the power, and the water, and the sewer. Everyone was gone, Dad. And mom’s a people person. She can’t… couldn’t be alone out here. You knew that. It’s why you eventually agreed to move to Chicago, where they still had lights, and theaters, and a place that felt safe, like it still had a future.”
Alex pounded on the table with both hands, his voice rasping. “That’s no excuse!”
His outburst brought an electricity to the room even as the wind outside began to blow.
Tanner refused to meet his eye. Instead she poked at the smokey fire with a stick. She wiped an eye with the back of her hand. Her shoulders slumped. “No, it’s not Dad. There is no excuse for breaking a promise. You taught me that.”
Alex turned to face away from his daughter placing his hands on his hips. “So what makes her think it will be different this time?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. She didn’t like it here last time. How is it that she thinks she will like it here this time? It’s even more isolated than before.”
Tanner sighed. “I don’t know, Dad. I didn’t come here with all the answers. The two of you are going to have to work those things out. But you have a car. She has some savings. I think there will be a way. I don’t think it was really about the place. It’s still not that far to the populated parts of town. She can join a social club or a writing group or whatnot. I think last time she was mostly scared. You both were. Everything was changing so fast.”
Alex rubbed his face. “I don’t know, Tanner. I don’t know if I want to forgive her.”
Tanner shrugged, her face betraying the pain he had caused her. “That’s your choice, Dad. She was wrong, and she knows it. I think you’d find that she’s changed, too. Maybe she understands herself a little better now. All she wants to do is come for a visit, just to see how it goes.”
Tanner stepped toward him and put her hand on his arm. “You know, Dad, you weren’t exactly the easiest person to live with in Chicago. You weren’t happy. Every day you came home from work angry. There wasn’t much of you left for us.”
“Well, I’m happy now.” Alex’ throat felt so constricted he could barely speak. “Maybe we were just never meant to get along. Maybe it was never meant to be.”
Tanner let go of his arm. She stood next to him chewing on her words for a moment before she spoke. “Dad, I don’t want you to let Mom’s worst moment define you. You know Mom went through a period of time where she hated herself for what she did to you, but she’s getting better. She’s free of it now. In fact, she’s better than I’ve ever seen her. You on the other hand… hiding out here and all…”
The rage was red hot. He turned on his daughter. “I’m not hiding! I like my farm. It’s my home.”
Tanner stood her ground, but kept her voice calm. “That may be, but you’re still hiding. You’re lonely, Dad, and it’s not Mom’s fault. It’s not about her, anymore. This is about you.”
“I’m fine!” Even as he said it, he knew it a lie, but his loneliness was precious to him, something he guarded from exposure even to himself.
Tanner’s jaw tightened. “People who are fine don’t name the deer they kill.”
Alex had slammed the door, stepping out into the downpour before he’d even realized what he’d done. The wind whipped rain soaked his left side in seconds. He deflated as the warm water soaked him, and then his shoulders heaved. He didn’t want to forgive his wife; she didn’t deserve it. She hadn’t in any way earned it, but Tanner was right, the bitterness with which he’d hoped to punish his wife had turned out to be a trap for himself. He’d known it for years.
For a while he stood there, allowing the rain to soak him, unsure of which way to go.
When the worst of it all had started to subside, he heard the door close behind him. He didn’t look back. Instead he tried to focus on the tap of each little drop as it landed on him. “You’ve always been a straight shooter, Dad. Mom needs that. Things have been rough in the last few months. A lot of the shine of the city has worn off for her, too. She might understand your perspective better now, if you’d give her a chance.”
It all hurt too much. His bitterness spoke to him gently. There you are, guts on the ground again. He just wanted to cut it all off, to send Tanner away disappointed and go back to his life, but he knew that path, and for a moment, it no longer held sway over him. “All right, she can come for a visit, but I make no promises. We’ll just see what happens.”