It was just last night that the three of us sat down to dinner. Over melting candles, I stood and raised my glass in a toast to my new, but familiar guests. Long years had passed since my father had made time to share a meal with his sons. Their visit made me so happy I could hardly hold back the tears. I hadn’t expected the company. I was prepared to mourn alone.
I couldn’t help but marvel at how much their faces had changed since I had last seen them. With my arm stretched across the table, I was reminded of the last time we had all been together. It was, after all, in the very kitchen that I now call my own. More than twenty-four years ago, back when Will and I were but young children and the house still belonged to our father. We ate breakfast as a family on the day that made me long to leave this place like no other. But as I’ve come to realize, I never really had any choice but to stay.
I was just ten years old in the early morning of September, 5th 1992. Will had just celebrated his sixth birthday. I had set my alarm for 5:15 AM, fifteen minutes earlier than my father had instructed. There was not yet any sunlight peering in through the windows when it went off. I rolled over and looked to see Will still sleeping soundly on the other side of the room. Through tired eyes that were reluctant to stay open, he looked farther away than the night before.
I forced myself up and nudged my little brother over and over until he finally got out of bed. Barely yet awake, we dressed up in our oldest pairs of jeans and sweaters that had long been worn out. Careful to not make a sound, we brought the bags I had deliberately packed the night before down to the front hall. We were at the kitchen table, eating dry cereal before our dad was even awake.
The grip on my spoon tightened when I heard his footsteps coming down the stairs getting louder. Sometimes, I could tell what kind of mood he was in by the pace at which he descended. That particular morning his steps were slow and heavy. That always meant trouble.
He reeked of stale smoke as he lumbered his massive frame into the kitchen. The hunch he walked with looked bigger when he was tired. He had developed it over the years working various manual labour jobs around town whenever they were available. I caught his gaze going over the table, searching for anything that was out of place. When he couldn’t find what he was looking for, he opened the cupboard and pulled out the same cereal we were eating. It was the only “breakfast option” in the house. His face curled into a sneer when there wasn’t enough to fill his bowl halfway. His sneer turned to a scowl when he realized we had also run out of milk.
“I just fucking picked up milk this week!” he snapped out.
Will and I kept our eyes on our bowls. We knew better than to respond.
He had a short fuse, which only got more explosive over the recent months. Though he never said anything good about her, it was obvious to us, even as children, that he dearly missed our mother. She had long fallen victim to his violent nature. And it had been just over a year’s time that she finally decided to leave him – and us – behind. One day she went out to pick up the groceries with the little money our father had set aside, and just never came back. She was gone without so much as packing a single bag.
Though her absence subsequently shifted his rage towards Will and me, I could never really bring myself to blame her. Like so many other struggling men in our dwindling northern community, my father was always in and out of work. He was constantly stressed out and exhausted. Our family always seemed to just barely be scraping by. It was a difficult life she had left behind. I sometimes wondered if it would have been better had they not brought the two of us into the crumbling little world they had created.
He took a seat next to Will and dropped his half-full bowl of cereal onto the table. I knew he was just waiting for us to say or do something he could go off about. But we were both wise to it by that point in time. Only the chomping of dry cereal from his large, gaping mouth could be heard.
I finished up as quickly as I could and headed to the sink to wash my bowl and spoon. I hoped to hear Will’s footsteps follow soon behind me, but instead heard the sound of a vicious slap against skin.
“How many times have I told you not to wear yer damn hat at the table?!”
His shouts were followed by the sound of Will’s favourite cap hitting the ground. The legs of his chair scraped the old wooden floor as he backed away from where he was sitting. With his face red, Will came up beside me and started to wash his bowl. I knew it was taking all the strength from within to keep the tears back. After he put his dishes on the rack, I tugged his arm and led us out of the room. On our way, I carefully scooped up his prized cap without our father noticing.
We wasted no time. Once I was finished with my own, I laced up Will’s boots as he sat on the bottom stair. I fitted the hat back on his head and he turned to pick up his bag. We didn’t bother to wait before heading out to the truck. It was surely the next thing our father would instruct us to do.
The step up onto the truck was noticeably smaller than usual. I slid the passenger seat forward and let Will get in first. The tears finally started to stream out as I slid the seat back in place and sat down next to him.
Promptly, I opened his bag and pulled out one of the Spiderman comics I had strategically put in there the night before. I knew it was going to prove useful at some point during the day, although I didn’t expect to have to use it so early. After opening it to the front page, I began to read aloud. Will’s sobbing slowly started to dissipate as I continued. He clutched the sleeve of my old tattered leather jacket and I was careful to keep glancing up at the front door. I was waiting for my father to come out. Will had to be calm before he saw us.
When he did finally make his way out of the house, he was completely decked out in all of his prized hunting gear. He must have spent thousands of the dollars he didn’t have to accumulate all of it. Both of his hunting rifles were slung over his slumping shoulder. I quickly stuffed the comic book back into the bag, gripping Will’s leg before he got close enough to see.
“Shhh.. you have to be quiet now,” I said. “Don’t let him see you cry. Don’t give him an excuse.”
I watched him throw his gear carelessly into the bed of the truck behind us and head towards his door. The truck dropped even lower to the ground when his massive weight came down on the driver’s seat. “Nobody wants to ride up front with their father?” he asked.
Again, he got no answer. I just wanted the car ride out of town to be done with. In fact, I just wanted the whole hunting day trip he had planned to be over.
There was a time just a few years earlier where I would have liked nothing more than to spend a day hunting out in the tundra with the father I once loved. Will never took a liking to these little trips, and I knew that made our father dislike him for it. But I genuinely used to enjoy them. I was a great shot for a kid my age. It was one of the few ways my dad and I used to relate.
The old engine sputtered before starting, and soon we were out of the driveway and around the corner. It was only two or three minutes before our little town was just a fading image behind us. I looked through the back window at all my father’s gear bouncing around. Something odd caught my eye. It was almost as if the distance between me and the overly sunken truck bed was distorted. Like the sun, rising on the horizon, was just a sliver further away than it should have been.
For two hours, we sat in the back listening to the radio and the sounds of the gear rattling around behind us. There wasn’t a single town, let alone a single house, all along that old service road. It was just the empty tundra leading to the mountains in the distance for miles. Eventually, the tree line of the forest started to grow ahead of us.
I didn’t have to ask my father where we were going, I knew where he was taking us. We were headed to his secret hunting spot. It was the one place that sourced the sense of pride he carried.
Finally, the road reached the forest and we started to cut through row upon row of tall, gangly trees. We were a little more than two hours from home by that point, and I knew that we were close to stopping. We finally parked on a landing just off the pavement, a few kilometers into the thicket. The easy part was over. As I stepped out of the car, I caught notice of my breath in the cold morning air. It wasn’t the first time that my visual perception seemed off that day. The moisture in my breath rose as I exhaled and then separated into two different channels. It was almost as if something was hovering above me, acting as a divider.
I was also surprised to see that there were footprints around the area where we had parked our car. They didn’t look to be headed in any particular direction. They seemed out of order; as if they were circling on top of each other. It was unlikely that someone else would have parked and gotten out in the exact same spot. There were hundreds of kilometers of road stretching in both directions before reaching any sort of civilization.
My dad didn’t seem at all bothered by it, however. He didn’t even bother locking the truck. All he did was mutter something about someone else discovering his spot under his breath.
But in truth, even that was improbable. The place where he was taking us wasn’t actually near the road at all. It was going to be another hour or so of hiking through the bush. I had been dreading the thought of carrying the gear all that way. Not so much for my sake, but more so for Will’s.
We both stood by patiently as we watched our father pull his stuff from the truck. He fitted himself carefully then tossed me the second rifle.
“No path to follow. Best keep up. We gotta get there early as possible.”
With that, he turned and started making his way into the forest. Wanting to keep him within sight the entire time, I nudged Will to start walking in front of me.
There was part of me that wished we would just get lost out in the bush. The thought passed through my mind that maybe we could just get out of our father’s sight and make our way back to the road. Somehow, we could head east on foot and get picked up by a vehicle passing by. The idea brought a smile to my face. It was nice to dream sometimes.
For the first forty-five minutes, my dad pressed at an unrelenting pace as his two sons struggled to keep up. We were passing over what was essentially an undiscovered piece of land. It was so far away from anything, it hardly saw any human contact, if any at all. The terrain was uneven and tough to manoeuvre over. Trees grew sporadically all around us. It was no easy task for two young children to get through with backpacks and a rifle. But our father didn’t care. The only thing on his mind was maximizing the amount of daylight available.
Will started to moan about his feet blistering. I urged him to be quiet.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be there soon.” I kept repeating.
I let out a sigh of relief as we reached a familiar leg of the trip. It was the “we’re almost there” part of the trek. Marked by a shallow, fast-moving river, it was the only body of water in the area. As far as I knew, it was the only real clearing for miles around. It was the one spot, other than the road, where the density of trees actually broke apart.
“Careful here boys,” our father called back to us. “Don’t slip, you’ll get washed away.”
He started to carefully step his massive feet through the water. You could see his heavy frame and awkward hunch making it hard for him to balance on the slippery rocks. He was close to falling on a few occasions. But somehow he managed to cross it unscathed.
I knelt down to tuck Will’s pant-legs into his boots. Originally mine and passed down to him, it was clear they were at least a few sizes too big. They were also in desperate need of retying, the tongue of the left one had become twisted inwards.
Will sat on a fallen tree and lifted his feet into the air. He winced in pain as I pulled his boot off to reveal a thoroughly bloodied sock. For a moment, I considered calling out to my father who was impatiently waiting on the other side, but quickly thought better of it. I straightened out the tongue and tied the laces as tight as I could with my small ten-year-old hands. I then tucked the bottom his jeans into his boots and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“We’re almost there now Will. Hang onto my arm and don’t slip while we’re in the water.”
Will looked back at me helplessly. Tears started to form in his eyes again.
“I want to go home.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll do all the shooting. Just stay back and be quiet. It won’t be for too long.”
I helped him onto his feet. I couldn’t help but notice the pain that shot across his face as he stood under his own weight again. I made sure his hat was fitted firmly on his head then grabbed his hand. I fastened his grip thoroughly on my sleeve and gave him the most reassuring look that I could.
The current was surprisingly strong for how shallow the water was. It was a constant pull on our boots that were already struggling to grip the slippery rocks. I looked up and saw that our dad had vacated his spot on the other side of the river. I tried to move as quickly as I could without losing balance. Will’s weight shifted back and forth from behind me. The reality of losing my footing was starting to become more and more of a certainty.
But then, just as we were passing through the middle point of the river, Will suddenly stopped. His hand lifted from my sleeve. He called out just one word.
I froze in place and turned to see Will looking straight down river.
“What did you say?”
“I just saw her there, out of the corner of my eye.”
“What are you talking about?!”
He raised his arm and pointed in the direction he was looking.
“She was standing in the middle. I saw her.”
I squinted hard and narrowed my focus to where he was pointing. What I saw there was not my mother. Whatever was there in the river was something else entirely. Standing not more than ten meters away from us, was what looked to be the transparent silhouette of a female figure. I could just barely make out the outlines of its body. It would phase in and out of sight a couple of times, then just disappear completely.
I thought to myself that whatever I had seen couldn’t have been real. The information delivered from my eyes was nothing more than some kind of illusion or cheap trick. But yet, deep down, I couldn’t deny the feeling. It was real. Had it not actually been there, my legs wouldn’t have been trembling and struggling to support my weight in that very moment. An alarming sense of urgency started to build up within me.
“Will.. let’s go.”
I pulled his arm, leading him the rest of the way through the river. We moved at a much quicker pace than before, slipping on the slick rocks below us. Somehow, we were fortunate enough to not fall in.
I continued to follow the unmistakably large footsteps our father had left in the dirt on the other side of the river. As we made our way into the woods on the opposite side, I started to notice there were other footsteps in the vicinity of the ones I was following. They were fresh. Almost fresher than the ones our father had left. The idea that someone else was in the area; that someone else could be intruding on my father’s sanctuary would surely have had him fuming with anger. But in that moment, the thought of my father’s rage didn’t bother me. More so than ever, I wanted to be near him, to be safely within his presence.
I never let the high pace waver with my six-year-old brother dragging behind me. I was on full alert for anything that may be out in the forest. When we finally saw our father, we had reached the end of the thicket. He was already perched up at his spot, fiddling with his rifle. It wasn’t until we hiked up to the top of the ridge that I finally freed Will from my grip. It didn’t seem that he was as worried as I was. I think he actually believed he saw our mother. He couldn’t have seen what I had set my eyes on. At least, not in the same way.
I thought long and hard about how I was going to try and explain to my dad what I had seen in the river. I was still in such a state of panic that I couldn’t properly arrange all the thoughts swirling around my head. I looked over the ledge of my father’s favourite spot and awed at the natural beauty of the valley. It was at this spot where the dense forest ended and the empty tundra began again. The sight of it seemed to calm me. My breathing started to regulate as I scanned the scattered rocks and shrubs that led all the way up to the mountains on the other side.
I felt a familiar set of hands rest upon my shoulders, and it lulled me into a sort of calming, comfortable trance. Though I could recognize them, the hands were surely not those of Will or my father. When I turned to look around behind me, I saw nothing. I wondered if I really had not felt anything at all. That instead, it was just the tired mind of a ten-year-old imagining thing that weren’t really there. The panic of what I believed I saw in the river started to fade.
My father never told me exactly how he came to that spot, but he was certainly very proud for doing so. It was always this same place that he took me to over the years. I remember him explaining that the narrow valley was somewhat deceptive to the herds of animals passing by. Stragglers would sometimes wander in and get separated from the group. If they were unfortunate enough to wander in too far, they were often alone and unsure of how to get out. From where we were perched, they were almost always easy prey if they came close enough.
Will took a seat against a tree far from where the ledge overlooked. I focused my efforts on keeping him from my father’s attention again. I knelt down next to him and started loading the rifle he had forced me to carry.
“Have you seen anything yet?” I asked.
“Nothin’, but be patient. Somethin’ will come.”
I chanced a look back at Will who had taken off his boots and was busily rubbing his bloodied feet. With desperate hope, I looked to the landscape in front of me, praying to see an animal of any kind wandering over the flat. That would be our ticket. I knew that would keep my father happy. It would make Will’s lack of participation a non-issue.
But for the next three hours, my prayers remained unanswered. I stayed at my father’s side, my concentration never faltered, but I shifted uneasily the entire time. Every attempt at small talk to divert his attention was to no avail. His frustration was increased and his patience ran thin. Will remained quiet for a long time, but eventually, his six-year-old mind lost its composure.
“Can we go soon? I’m starting to get cold,” he asked as he walked in between us.
It was a foolish thing to say. It was the fuel my father had been waiting for all day.
“Come here!” he yelled as he ripped him closer by his coat. “We ain’t goin’ anywhere til I say so. Now hold this damn rifle and shoot at the first fuckin’ thing you see move!”
What my father didn’t realize was that as he was yelling at Will, a young caribou had actually wandered into the valley that lay in front of us.
“Dad look!” I shouted, pointing in its direction. It was headed right towards us, oblivious that the three of us were perched up on the ledge. My father’s facial expression changed when he saw it draw nearer. It was the first time he had been genuinely pleased all day.
“Alright Will, this is your chance to prove you ain’t a little faggot. Shoot.”
Will looked nervously up to him, and then towards me. The helplessness in his eyes made my stomach turn. If only there were something, anything, I could have done to help him. He didn’t raise the rifle that had been given to him. Instead, he started to cry. Our father grabbed his arm and forced the rifle into a shooting position.
“Shoot it you little pussy,” he said as he pulled back on Will’s collar, choking him.
Between sobs, Will lifted the rifle’s scope clumsily to his eye. His tiny arms were hardly strong enough to hold it upright. It was against everything in his nature to pull that trigger. When he closed one of his eyes to take aim, the sound of a bullet finally pierced through the air. It echoed throughout the valley and off the mountains on the far side. But the shot did not come from my brother’s gun. It had come from mine. The young caribou crashed down to the earth in front of us.
I wasn’t sure if my father noticed that I was the one who actually fired or not. Perhaps he did, but didn’t even care. The walk down to the wounded animal didn’t take us as long as I had originally thought. Perhaps the curve of the valley made it seem further away.
The sounds of the creature’s whimpers grew more rampant as we approached. It tried to get up and hobble away, but it was too fatally wounded get anywhere. I had hit it right in the stomach, just below where the ribs ended. It collapsed to the ground, a deep red blood poured profusely onto the little patches of grass below it.
I promptly loaded another bullet into the barrel and walked towards the dying beast. While keeping as safe of a distance as I could, I aimed the rifle squarely at its head. Just as my father had told me years earlier; it’s alright to kill an animal, but it’s wrong to let it suffer.
However, he was not following his own principal on that day. He pulled the rifle away from me as soon as I lifted it up. The look he shot me said I better not challenge him.
“Don’t fucking move!” he said as he dragged Will up ahead of me. He forced him down even closer to where the dying creature was lying.
“This is what happens when yer too soft to do anything! This is yer fault. I want you to watch this animal suffer til it dies.”
Through teary eyes, Will sat in front of the beast as it lay there bleeding out. For a moment, the thought of snatching the rifle from my father ran through my head. Perhaps I could have grabbed it quickly enough to get a shot off. I wondered whether I would have used the shot on the caribou or taken the opportunity to put a bullet in him instead.
But that idea soon became an afterthought as I caught notice of something in the distance beyond us. I recognized the same distortion that I had seen on the truck earlier that morning. Little rocks, shrubs and patches of grass were in one spot. Then they would look just a little farther away; as if an invisible lens were moved in front of them. I saw this same thing all over the valley.
Then, I clearly saw the silhouette of someone walking. It was unmistakably the figure of a person headed towards us. Shortly after I caught sight of the first person, I saw a few more. For brief moments, I would see nothing at all, but then they would all come back into sight. As if with a single pulse, they could all be seen at once. By that time, there were more than just a few, there were hundreds of them. They were closing in on us from all directions, acting like human sized lenses, making the distance behind them seem just slightly farther away.
“Dad!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. But instead of the help I was pleading for, I was given a swift punch to the gut from his giant fist. It wasn’t the first time he had done that to me.
“Keep yer mouth shut!” he yelled.
I rolled around on the rough terrain, wincing in pain. I didn’t feel so different from the dying beast my brother was currently being forced to make eye contact with. It was then that I heard the grass crunch just a little to my left. A faint outline of a transparent foot stepped next to my head. Then another did the same, and dozens more followed.
What I heard next, was my father screaming in pain. I rolled over and looked in his direction. He was suspended in the air. It looked like something was pulling on him from all different directions. For brief moments, transparent arms could be seen yanking at his clothing and externalities. As his limbs started to stretch outwards, the anguish in his yells intensified. Fabric started to rip, and bones began to snap. It was shortly after that he was no longer in one piece, but instead, six smaller ones.
Two arms, two legs, a torso and a head were scattered over the ground. A pool of blood covered the ground below them. The thick liquid moved outwards and met up with the blood of the caribou. His was a noticeably a darker shade of red.
Unsure of the best course of action, I shot up to my feet and ran towards Will. He was in shock of what he had just witnessed and wasn’t moving at all. Something scraped up against me and I nearly fell on my way over. As I pulled myself up, I saw Will wriggle his way out of the grips of something I could not see. It knocked the hat off his head as he struggled out of its clutches. I helped him up and we took off at full speed back towards the forest. We ran even harder than we did after seeing whatever we saw in the river. With all the adrenaline running through my body, I pushed myself harder than I ever had. I never so much as considered chancing a look back.
We eventually made it back to the truck. I gratefully remembered my father had decided to leave it unlocked. The step up to the door was back at its original height. I locked the door right behind me. The light was slowly fading from the sky at this point; the night was soon to be upon us. The already cold air was dropping in temperature, and I wondered exactly how we would both die. Whether it would be in the grips of whatever we had seen kill our father, or by simply freezing to death during the night.
With the old, dirty blanket that was kept in the truck; I covered myself and Will up in the back seat. I huddled next to him partly in an attempt to keep us warm, and partly to make him feel safe. It was no different than what I had been trying to do all day.
A knock at the window came early the next morning. My teeth chattered as I pulled the blanket from over my head. I saw the face of a man. Not a silhouette, not a transparent figure, but an actual living man. Someone had stopped to investigate. A passing motorist had pulled over, and he had saved us. We were picked up and driven to the next town over, free from the grasps of our father. It was just as I had fantasized about the day before.
How unfortunate we were. The community was deeply saddened to learn that our father had abandoned us in the woods. He just left us behind like our mother did. There was no reason for anyone to believe the story Will and I told. They never found any body part, blood or a dead caribou out there.
The fantasy world where Will and I lived free from our father was not as pleasant as I had once pictured in mind. There were no families willing to take in two children, so we were separated. I was brought to a home back in the same old town, only a few blocks away from my father’s house. The same place which I would eventually buy for myself fifteen years later.
Will was taken in by a family who lived in another dwindling, northern community a few hundred kilometers away. We inevitably started to lose touch over time, and eventually progressed to a point where we didn’t keep in contact at all. I heard rumours over the years that he struggled mightily with alcohol and drug problems, just like the man who had brought him into this world.
He died last week, and I found out just a few days ago. He didn’t leave any family behind. Like me, he never married. I’m sure he struggled just as I did to form any intimate relationship.
Really though, I should consider myself lucky. I was fortunate enough to be taken into a loving home, and had the opportunity to get an education and make something of myself. I became a nurse and landed a job back here immediately after graduating. I suppose it’s in my nature to stick around and help those living in tough conditions. It’s easy to get a job in healthcare up here; hardly anyone is willing to do it.
Sometimes I wonder if all the years I’ve spent alone have done something to my perception of reality. That perhaps all the little distortions and transparent figures I would notice out of the corner of my eye were nothing more than figments of my imagination. There is no certainty, but I believe they’ve been there watching me all this time.
The news of Will’s passing hurt me deeply. I live a life of aiding others, but yet, I could not help the one person who I loved more than anything in this world. I don’t think I accepted it as reality until I found his favourite blue cap, sitting on my doorstep yesterday evening. I knelt down to pick it up and noticed my two guests were standing behind it. I could hardly recognize them as they would only come into my sight briefly before leaving again.
I let the door open for them to come in and started to prepare the table. I would have made something better had I known they were coming. Though I could hardly see him, I was amazed by how big of a man Will had grown into. He was nearly the same size as our father. He, on the other hand, had not changed at all since the day I watched him die. I could make out that hunch perfectly as he took the seat to my right.
For the first time since that day, I genuinely felt like I belonged to something. I felt like I was loved; like I was part of a family. I looked at them with a kind of envy that I had never felt before. In their new state of being, I could feel a great sense of contentment resonating. They truly had left it all behind. They were no longer plagued by all the loneliness, the struggling, and all the despair that I know had filled our lives. If only I could go to where they are now.
A knock at the door sounded soon after my toast. When I opened to answer, my mother was standing there. Though I had to squint to see, it was her. There was no doubt. I threw my arms around her and asked the question that had been going through my mind since I saw the hat.
“Why not me?”