Everything was quiet after the shot.
Bev ran after the wounded doe into the woods. Her brother Max limped along behind her, and her cousin Smiley followed behind them, slightly bemused at the sight of them tracking the deer. Bev found the doe expiring in a bloody snowdrift, its dissipation she could sense from ten feet away. Before she could warn Max and Smiley that the doe was not yet dead, Smiley went to the doe to pray and to make an offering of tobacco. When he was close enough to graze its matted fur with his hand, the deer thrashed the snow with its hooves and nearly kicked Smiley’s head off. He fell backwards, scattering shredded tobacco all over the snow. “Goddamn! Somebody shoot it already!” People would holler this at him upon arrival at Club 88 for many years afterwards, but in the moment, Smiley had truly been scared shitless.
Max told everyone to step back and chill. He fired all five bullets in the little titanium Airweight he carried around everywhere.
“That’s how it’s done, son,” Max said, aiming the pistol sideways and drawing his hand back. “Pow.”
“The fuck, man?” Smiley said. He held his ear—the shots had been loud. “You ruined the hide.”
“Yeah,” Max said, surveying the damage, “ but I saved your life, cuz.”. He shoved the pistol back into his coat pocket before Smiley could grab it from him.
Smiley shook his head and went about field-dressing the doe, cursing to himself.
Bev didn’t yet understand how to field dress a deer, and if Smiley and Max were willing to get all up in that doe, she didn’t volunteer to do any of the cutting herself. She looked away and catalogued the surroundings: the snowdrift, the white and black birch trees, the doe’s final footprints already dusted with new snow.
“Holy shit—” Max whispered.
Bev turned back to them in time to see Smiley slicing through a milky, translucent membrane. Whatever was inside that doe, whatever had made it slow and easy to shoot, slid free of the carcass, eyes shut, white as the snow with tufts of black fur along its flank the size of silver dollars.
A baby deer. So still. Eyes shut as though it were only sleeping.
She turned on her heel so she wouldn’t see it. “Better this way,” Smiley said, turning back to the deer to continue his cutting. “Too late in the year to have babies. This one would have starved to death.”
She closed her eyes but the baby deer had imprinted itself onto the back of her eyelids.
Bev made them bury the baby deer in a snow drift as best they could before the real storm came. When all the doe’s organs were in the cooler, when it was ready to be dragged back to the truck, Bev shoved Max as hard as she could, and he fell laughing into the snow. She had planned on passing down the hide to her daughter Marisa, who would pass it down to her daughter, and so on, but now it was ruined, thanks to him, her impulsive, reckless little brother.
As they headed back into town in Smiley’s pickup, she could only feel like they had all done something wrong, something to be ashamed of. Something they could never talk about again. She’d known what she was shooting at. They’d gone out with a doe tag, and Smiley had given her the okay to fire when she had it in the scope. Max kept telling her that it was rare to find a pregnant doe during hunting season, and that the baby was probably stillborn anyway. That it was a mercy kill, and that it was his kill. It was not meant to be for Bev.
She heard him, and for now, she could believe that there would be more hunting seasons, that they’d all go out into the woods again and Bev would get her kill, and it would be good and clean. But in just a week, Max would be gone, and she would wonder if he’d done something so terrible that nothing would go right again.
Max had been dead for a year, which meant his ghost dinner was coming soon. It now seemed important for Beverly to humor her mother and contribute something to this ghost dinner. But she wanted no part of the mundane details—cooking in that industrial kitchen of the vet’s center, setting up folding chairs, cleaning up paper plates. She knew she had to do something. The child care arrangement for Avery and Marisa depended on her mother’s goodwill. And her mother had aged since Max’s death—she’d become elderly, a grandmother for nine years now. Years ago, she’d had lap-band surgery, and the sudden weight loss had made her look deflated. She was beginning to resemble some of the ghostly women at the hospice where Beverly worked. A week before the dinner, Beverly called her mother to offer her unquestioning, unconditional help.
“Forget it,” her mother said. “All taken care of.”
“Look, woman, just give me something to do already,” Beverly said.
“Don’t whine into the phone, girl.”
“I wasn’t whining,” she said, but it immediately sounded like whining as soon as she said it. “There’s gotta be something—“
“Everything’s arranged. We don’t really need you for anything. Just show up.”
Bev thought her mother didn’t have to put it quite that way. And what was the point of saying we but to tell Bev that she wasn’t just disappointing her mother, but the entire family—no, the entire reservation, with maybe the spirit world thrown in there to add to the scores of wronged souls?
Bev wasn’t going to get drawn into another argument with her mother, not this time. She wasn’t really interested in winning anyway.
“Well if you think of something,” she said.
“Well if I do,” her mother said, mocking her tone. “I promise you’ll be the first call I make.”
“Okay, fine,” Bev said, and she pressed end on the call. She stopped herself from whipping the phone at the floor, and she congratulated herself on her restraint. She was getting better at this.
But she immediately felt sick, and she went to the bathroom to stand over the toilet. Nate had locked himself inside. She pounded on the door with both hands.
“Christ,” he said from behind the door. “I’m camping out here. Number one or two?”
“Neither,” she said. “I have to puke.”
“What’s wrong with the sink? Just go outside in the snow. It’ll freeze.”
Bev wasn’t going to negotiate. The kitchen sink would work just as well, and she stared into the drain and waited for it to come, but it didn’t. She had some time to figure out why she’d been so nervous to ask her mother for something to do with the ghost dinner. They fought over something every day—being late to visit the kids, not settling down with Nate, whatever that meant, and just recently, the spiritual void in her life. Her mother was spiritual now. She worried aloud about Bev’s faith, and what would happen to her children’s souls if she didn’t believe anything.
“I’m done in there,” Nate said. He sat back down in front of the TV. “All yours.”
She was trying not to be sick. She stayed in front of the sink and waited for the heaves to overtake her but they never did.
Before Max died, Beverly’s life was beginning to resemble a sense of order. She’d lost forty pounds of post-partum weight and was feeling good and skinny again. She’d gotten herself a two-dollar raise at the hospice, and she was about to start the next quarter of the medical assistant program at the UW extension. She’d also moved in with Nate, a “dumb white boy” (as her mother referred to him) she’d met one blurry evening at Club 88, a man who made his living driving a bread delivery truck for extra cash and fake limping for the workman’s comp investigators who followed him around. Unlike Avery’s dad (now incarcerated for his fifth DWI) and Marisa’s dad (deported back to Mexico), she and Nate never had those epic screaming matches that ended with someone locked out into the winter freeze without a coat (or clothes, that one time). But Nate wasn’t very good with the kids—not dangerous, but he sometimes forgot they existed in the house—and her mother had agreed to let them live with her while Beverly finished her degree and took on extra shifts at the hospice. Her boy Avery was becoming a disciplined, curious student, but her daughter Marisa, at seven, had the vocabulary and enunciation of a three-year-old. She needed help with basic things, like tying her shoes, brushing her teeth, dressing herself, and Bev simply didn’t have the time to give to her.
Graduation was only a year away, and while it wasn’t ideal to live apart from her children, she was this close to getting her mom off her ass about having a stable job and raising her kids. This close to having it together. Into this period of unprecedented stability, Max reappeared.
She never had the chance to tell Max that she’d been happy he’d come home from the Navy. The story Max told everyone when he returned was that he was on a boarding party, climbing a ladder onto the deck of a captured ship off the coast of Somalia, when the ladder pitched him twenty feet down, half-in and half-out of the boat, breaking his pelvis and his leg in three places. Max was a storyteller, though, and the story was suspiciously heroic. He had a history of getting into one-car crashes and dumbass bar fights, and one of both of those seemed far more likely to be true.
In any event, he’d come back to the reservation with a limp, and he used a walking stick he called his “pimp cane” to get around. He took a bartending job at Club 88. Bev would see him out at 49s after powwows, or at the bar, and often they’d both be hammered enough to forget how they fought when they were kids. They’d take low-light photos of themselves with arms around each other’s shoulders, professing their sibling kinship to all gathered, and regretted admitting to this love when they later saw the photos posted on Facebook. And it was possible—even if he was still Max most of the time—that he’d matured. He only got into two fights with men she was with, and he was the one who introduced her to Nate, a fishing buddy of his.
A few weeks before he died, he crashed his beloved ’98 Pontiac Grand Prix into a light post, which toppled straight down the middle of the roof and somehow missed him entirely. A week later, he rolled a Ford Taurus that he’d been borrowing from Tom-Tom Tommy, the owner of Club 88, which had gotten him fired from his bartending gig. He’d emerged from both accidents with only a few bruises, but these crashes created a sense of inevitability.
Bev had no time for it though, no time to tell him that she could see him slipping away. She had her own personal problems to avoid dealing with. And one of those problems was Max—she didn’t talk to him the whole week after they’d killed the pregnant doe, until Smiley came to her one morning to say that Max wasn’t answering his calls. They were supposed to drive to Wausau to look at a used Pontiac that Max had had his eye on.
Bev and Smiley stopped at his place on Sugarbush Lane. They could see the TV flickering in the living room through the gauzy curtain. The door was locked. “Break it,” she said. She didn’t need to knock. She knew. “Break it down.”
“He’s just sleeping it off,” Smiley said, but she didn’t need to tell him again.Smiley broke a pane of glass on the front door and reached in to open the deadbolt. Bev found Max in his bed, his blanket covering his face as though he’d been courteous enough to shroud himself. She didn’t have to feel for a pulse. She called the cops from outside and refused to look when the paramedics wheeled him out on the gurney. Later, when it was time to tell her mother the news, she hid at Nate’s house and sent Smiley instead.
The night after she offered to help with the Ghost Dinner, Bev dreamed of Max half-buried in a snowdrift in the woods, laughing at her like he did on that last hunt. “Too late to have babies,” Max said, and with that, she woke to the cold bedroom. Bev kicked Nate in the leg and rolled him onto his side to stop his snoring. She was losing pieces of the dream until all that was left was the certainty that his spirit had visited her while she slept. She did not want this. The spirit world could leave her alone for one stupid night. She got out of the bed to look for another blanket.
It was cold enough to see her breath. When she was a little girl, she believed it was her spirit slipping out, but now she knew it was just fucking cold. Propane was scarce around the reservation again this winter, and Nate didn’t use the space heaters because they blew the circuit breakers of his shitty little house. She found a scratchy wool army blanket in the linen closet and wrapped it around her quivering shoulders.
She went to the kitchen for a beer, but stopped herself. Bev had had vivid dreams when she was pregnant with Avery. She’d had them with Marisa, too. They’d started around her first missed period in both pregnancies. She was late this month.
Nate had fallen back asleep. Now there was a conversation she’d rather not have.
Bev poured a glass of water for herself, sat down at the table, and felt the loose skin of her stomach through her oversized t-shirt. It was too early to tell, and she hadn’t even taken a test yet, but there was no denying it.
Her mother would have something nasty to say about this.
Bev pressed her forehead onto the table and tried to piece the dream back together, but only the impression of the woods remained. Yes, the woods, the same ones where Smiley and Max and Bev took that doe, and as soon as she made that connection, she knew what she’d have to do for the ghost dinner.
Bev needed to take a deer, a ten-point buck. Not that she’d ever seen a ten-pointer in person, except for the stuffed trophy heads in Smiley’s garage. After she’d killed it, she’d drive it right up to her mother’s front lawn and dress it out, and she would make sure her mother watched every part of the process, and she’d take the venison from that deer and go right up to Max’s fire and give it to him herself.
She got up and went back to bed. Nate had wrapped the star quilt around himself, so she pulled it from him and left him uncovered. He didn’t seem to notice, even in the bitter cold; he turned over away from her and went on snoring.
She fell asleep that night to Nate’s snoring and dreams of a kill.
The next morning, she went to her mother’s house to visit the kids. Sitting in her idling car outside of the house, Bev tried everything to keep the nausea at bay. Trying to hide it was useless. Her mother would have something to say about her face, or her unsteady walk. Maybe if she told her mother that she had the flu, then she could get right back into the car and be on her way. Marisa and Avery were probably fine without her. She turned off the car. Yes, she would tell her mother she had the flu. But she forgot as soon as she was in the door.
“Why don’t you take off your coat?” her mother asked from the couch. “Why are you so cold?”
“Because it’s like ten degrees out there,” Bev said. Why didn’t she take off her coat? She was nowhere close to showing. She wasn’t even sure yet. But she was comfortable, even if it was making her a little sweaty. She sat in her father’s old armchair—it still smelled like him, even though he’d been gone for ten years.
Her mother turned off the TV.
“Your daughter,” she began, and Bev braced for it. It was never good. “She had a dream.”
“She said she saw Max.”
Her big coat rustled as she sat back in the chair. “I’m sure that’s what she said,” Bev said. “If you believe her.”
“Maybe you should talk to her about it.”
She considered starting an argument with her mother, but she’d never outlast her. Not today. She was on her way to a double shift and all she wanted to do was go home and sleep.
The kids were playing in the back bedroom, Avery aiming his belt-fed Nerf gun at imaginary enemies on the wall, while Marisa scribbled her name on a sheet of legal paper. “Did you see?” her daughter asked her, pointing at the pad. Bev sat down on the bed next to her and took it from her, traced the pen lines with her finger.
“Marisa,” she said. “Grandma said you had a dream.”
“Yeah, I saw Uncle Max,” Marisa said, as though she saw her dead uncle every day. She looked back down at the pad, and somehow she felt that she had done something wrong. “He was outside my school.”
“I know,” Bev said. “That’s what you told grandma. But was that the truth?”
Avery stopped playing with his Nerf gun—he was eavesdropping, and again, if Bev had more energy she would have hollered at him to mind his own business.
“It was real,” she said, now looking down at her shirt.
Bev squeezed her shoulder. She surprised herself. She could feel her tears welling up. She’d meant to be gentle. She’d tried. But it came out harsh.
“You don’t have to tell stories,” she said.
“Mom, she’s telling the truth,” Avery said.
“And how do you know that?” Bev was almost yelling now.
“She told me, like, right after. At breakfast.”
Bev had had enough, and she stood up and closed the bedroom door behind her. Her mother was already in the hallway, standing there. She was so much taller than her mother now, so much bigger. She was feeling it, too.
“You want something to do,” her mother said. “Maybe just stay out of the way.” She wouldn’t look up at Bev when she said it, and Bev pushed past her in the hall. She tried to slam the door on the way out, but the carpet slowed it down. All she could manage was a muffled and somewhat discontented thud.
She didn’t remember driving the seven miles to work, or parking the car in her usual spot in the back of the building. Late for her shift, she sat in the car, piecing together why she’d doubted Marisa’s dream, what she’d wanted to tell her mother. I’m feeling this, too, she’d wanted to say. Max spoke to me. I saw him.
Her mother would never believe her. Marisa’s dream had been much more convincing.
Her phone buzzed on the passenger seat next to her. Smiley. Just a reminder that the hunting opener was this weekend. If all went as planned, her mother would never doubt her again.
In the tree stand, Bev contemplated peeing her pants and taking her shot before she was frozen to the seat.
“Hurry the fuck up, Smiley,” she said, her breath a cloud.
Smiley’s plan was straight out of the Coyote-Roadrunner playbook. He was going to use his loudass truck to flush the deer hiding in the woods into a clearing. He’d flash his high beams before starting the drive, and the rumble of the V8 would scare them into the field. Beverly would take her shot from the top of a tree stand on the other side of the logging road.
While Bev initially questioned the wisdom of sending a pregnant woman fifteen feet up to a deer blind, she reasoned that she didn’t have much to lose. But after she’d belted in and pulled her gear up to the stand, her stomach churned with morning sickness, and she realized she had to pee so bad she considered letting loose right there in the stand.
She was much farther away from the field than she’d thought when she’d climbed up. The wind bit through her layers, and her too-thin gloves. Her hands didn’t feel like hers anymore. She wasn’t sure if her fingers would listen to her when she told them to chamber the bullet, unlatch the safety, squeeze the trigger.
One headlight flashed weakly in the distance, the other one busted. Smiley beeped the horn. There was movement in the shadows of the trees. The truck crept up the road towards Beverly’s stand. She could almost sense the herd about to break into the clearing, so she chambered a round and sighted. There were only a few minutes of daylight left.
Smiley whooped from the cab of his truck, his voice echoing across the field. The herd rushed into the clearing, bounding together like they’d choreographed the run. Beverly found her ten-pointer: a buck with antlers like two skeletal hands coming together over its head. It jumped over a wire fence at the edge of the clearing, and when it landed, its hooves broke through the ice of the half-melted snow, slowing it down long enough for Beverly to lead it and wait for it to move into the scope’s crosshair.
Beverly breathed in and held it, squeezed the trigger. She closed her eyes at the sound of the shot.
When she opened her eyes, she expected to see the buck dead on the ice, but it had freed itself from the snowbank, and it ran a path to the other side of the clearing and disappeared into the woods.
She lowered the rifle to the ground on its lanyard, anxious to get it out of her ringing hands. She shimmied down to meet Smiley, who’d parked the truck next to her tree.
“You got him!”
“I missed. Fuck!”
“No, you got him. He’s just, like, ambling now. Looks like he’s drunk.”
She threw the gear into the back of his truck. Dancing, she unbuckled her snow pants and pulled them down, squatted beside the truck, and finally let go of what had to be a gallon of bright yellow pee. The relief was almost as good as getting the deer, and she could feel it radiating heat underneath her.
“I can see you in the side mirror,” Smiley called from the cab.
She didn’t care. It felt so warm, like a dream.
Inside the truck, the heater blowing full blast, Bev felt the blood thawing in her frozen fingers as she held them in front of the vent. Smiley was already looking through the trees again, trying to sort out any movement with his flashlight. He put the truck in gear and drove down the road, divining the deer’s path, until something told him to stop the truck.
“Off you go,” he said. He held his grimy hand against the heating vent.
“You’re just going to sit here?” Bev asked in disbelief. “What if he’s still kicking?” She wanted to shame him for making a pregnant woman trudge into the woods in the dark, but it meant admitting she was pregnant again.
It felt wrong to have Smiley be the first one to know.
He put his hands up and laughed. “You’re the one that did it. You go finish him off.”
Bev hesitated a moment, but it was time. She opened the door and got her footing in the icy rut, her boot breaking through the crust. The pines looked black against the snow in the darkness, and a wind blew through them like the forest was breathing its last.
She’d forgotten the rifle in the truck; if the deer was still alive she was only armed with a Maglite the length of her forearm. Sweeping the snow in front of her with the flashlight’s beam, she searched the ground for broken branches, blood, tracks, anything in the crusty snow and saplings encased in clear ice. She walked carelessly, following anything that gleamed back at her. This was why Max was laughing at her in that dream; she didn’t know how to do anything but make babies, nothing about tracking and hunting and providing. She looked back to the road to keep track of the truck’s headlights so she wouldn’t get lost, and kept going.
She thought she saw drops blood in the snow, and when she stopped to look around, she realized she was surrounded. The next moment couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but it was everything. The sound of ragged breathing rattled nearby. She stayed silent to listen for the rattle. She aimed her flashlight toward the source of the sound, and the light reflected off the snow and into hundreds of iridescent eyes that blinked at her almost in unison. The herd.
Bev grasped at a sapling to stop herself from falling into the snow.
They demanded an explanation. They needed to know why. Beverly stood shivering in front of them in her parka. Before she could beg for their forgiveness and explain that she too had a dead brother to feed and that was why she took this deer, they turned away from her and disappeared into the woods, leaving her alone, not ten feet away from where the ten-point buck had crawled to its death. She didn’t even have to beat it to death. The buck had only made it just past the tree line before falling over into a snowbank and curling into itself.
From behind her, Smiley’s boots crunched through the snow.
“Shh,” she hissed at him. She waited for him to tiptoe closer to her to talk again. He was carrying his tool bag and a large cooler and staggering in the snow. “I could hear your dumb ass clattering all the way over here.”
“He can’t hear me,,” he said. “That buck dead.” Smiley dropped the tool bag next to the dead buck, and despite what he’d said, he pulled out his big pistol. He wasn’t about to be fooled again. “Just don’t lose sight of the truck, okay?”
“Put that away,” she told him. This time Bev was sure. Its eyes were clear and unblinking. The hairs on its tail fluttered in the forest’s breath. The buck didn’t notice. The buck was long gone.
“That was actually a beautiful shot,” Smiley said. “He didn’t last long at all.” He pulled his knives out of the tool bag.
“Maybe that wind was his last breath.”
“Hey, anything’s possible,” he said, sharpening his big knife
Smiley turned to the deer, closed his eyes, and started to mutter an Ojibwe prayer as if to himself. Bev bowed her head, and as she did so the spot of light left the deer and settled on the snow in front of it. She’d heard the words of the prayer before and wanted to know what they meant, but suspected that even if she did know, she might never feel what Smiley felt as he rocked back and forth and sang the words with his eyes closed.
When he was finished, he put on orange gloves that went up all the way to his elbows, and said, “The Doctor is in.”
Smiley took the buck’s hind leg and spread it gently. There was a muted ripping sound as he made the first cut into the hide. Steam rose from the cut and dissipated.
“Did you see it?” she said.
“That little steam? Right there?”
“I don’t know. It’s cold out here. Probably my breath.” He turned back to the carcass and made another cut. “Keep that light steady there. I’ll just stop breathing if it bothers you so much.”
She pointed her flashlight so he could see, and with surgical precision he split the rib cage as though he were afraid of hurting the buck.
“You’re going to have to learn how to do this someday,” he said. “It’s not just shoot shoot shoot.”
“Yeah, but this part is fucking gross.”
“Not after you done it lots of times.” He cut out the liver, iron red and dripping, and held it up in the light. “You want a bite? Hungry?”
He shook it in front of her, and blood dripped into the snow.
“Get that thing outta my face, Smiley.”
“If you don’t want any, I do,” he said, and he held it over his mouth. She turned away from him, and he dropped it into a bag and then into the cooler. “Makes you a real Indian. They take away your Indian card if you don’t.”
“It’s going to make me puke,” she said. She felt a tingling down her back and a light cold sweat all over. She turned away and vomited into the icy snow.
“Now that’s nasty,” he said. “Come on, girl. You’ve seen all this before. You remember Max. He was like a goddamn deer surgeon. Except for the whole saving the deer’s life part. The opposite, I guess. You know what I’m saying.”
She considered saying something to this, but she didn’t know the right way to say that she was glad that he wasn’t around to ruin this kill.
He went back to work as soon as she could hold the light steady again.
“Seriously though, Bev, you got the flu or something? You have that flu face, you know?”
Again, she considered telling him she was pregnant, but she still didn’t want her dumbass cousin to be the first one to hear the news.
“No, asshole. You stuck a deer liver in my face.”
“I said I was sorry.”
The guts, the stomach, the intestines all came out clean like they came from the deli counter. When she saw the light wash of blood on the rib cage, pooling near the spine, she vomited again, this time close enough to spatter Smiley’s boot.
“Oh enough already. If you got to yak, do it over there, will you?”
“I gotta hold the light for you, don’t I?” Bev wiped whatever was left on her lip onto her glove.
The frozen pine needles bristled and rattled, and frozen ice nettles fell on them. She brushed them off her coat. Clearly the woods were unhappy with them, as if they’d done something wrong. Smiley didn’t say the prayer properly, if he’d actually prayed. He could have been mumbling for all Beverly knew.
Everything went into the cooler: the liver, the kidneys, the heart. Smiley wrapped the tenderloins in butcher paper and wrote on it in Sharpie: Tenderlions. He carried the cooler and she carried the bag, and they both took a side of the deer and dragged it back to the truck.
“Wait’ll they see this fucker,” he said. “Eight points. Look at it!”
She knew she should’ve been happy dragging her kill behind her, but her stomach still quivered, daring her to do something stupid like take in the sight of a slaughtered animal. She tried not to look at it when they hoisted the carcass into the back of the truck, but the sound of the meat hitting the truck bed doubled her over again. Smiley was laughing at her. She could already hear the story he would tell everybody.
“Tender lions?” her mother asked her. Her mother weighed the package of meat in her hand, turned it over as if the paper was important. “The hell are those?”
“Tenderloins,” Bev said. She was enjoying this, showing up at her mother’s doorstep at night with blood on her clothes and seeing her reaction. Her mother could never understand why Bev liked to hunt. She handed her mother the cooler with the organs. “You know Smiley. He’s an idiot.”
Behind her, Smiley waved from the truck, tapped the horn twice, and backed out of the driveway. He said he’d have the hide ready in a week, and she would make sure he did. She wanted that blanket for Marisa, but it could wait. Right now, she only wanted to sleep.
When her mother didn’t move away from the door, Bev said, “Aren’t you going to let me in, woman?”
“Who are you, your goddamned father?” She unlocked the screen door and opened it. “Leave those bloody clothes in the garage. And don’t wake up those kids.”
“I won’t,” Bev said. She took off her outer clothes and threw them into a pile in the dark garage. Her mother went back to the living room, where she had the TV on at full volume.
“I mean it,” her mother said.
Bev stopped in front of the door to what used to be Max’s room. Her children were inside now. She opened the door quietly, but it squealed on its hinge anyway. The room didn’t look like it did when Max lived in it. Her children had made the room their own with their own toys, Lego blocks and dolls, their own chaotic artwork taped to the walls. Bev laid on the floor between their beds and put a rolled up blanket underneath her head. She stared up at the ceiling, listening to the sounds of the TV muffled through the door, and fell into a long, dreamless sleep.
A steaming plate had been made for Max’s journey: a pile of fry bread and mashed potatoes topped with tender brown venison. Bev had been the one with the vision of her brother, in the dream, so she was the one offering the plate while Marisa and Avery hid behind her legs. Around the circle, she looked into eyes illuminated by the firelight. Smiley beat a hand drum and sang a song she’d never heard before but one that still sounded familiar--she’d always known it. Her mother was looking at her over the fire, and Bev stared back at her, holding the plate as though it would hide her stomach.
She stood shivering next to the fire, outside the Vet’s Center with her family, and a bunch of rowdy Indians she’d never met before but who claimed they were Nate’s friends. Nate had showed up earlier, but had taken off to grab a couple beers in town and hadn’t bothered to tell his buddies he was leaving. They must have stayed for the free meal. Her mother hadn’t made any cutting remarks about his absence or the unwelcome guests, but her silence didn’t make it any easier for Bev to tell her he was the father of her next child.
She would have to, though. She couldn’t hide it forever. Even she knew that.
When Smiley finally ended the song, she bent over and placed the plate into the heart of the fire. The Styrofoam melted and blackened first, and then the gravy started to bubble and hiss. The fire consumed it all. The woods breathed again, shook the trees, and blew the smoke into her face.
That was that: she’d fed Max, and he was on his way. He was really gone.
Smiley stayed behind to tend the fire while everyone else filed back inside to eat. With Avery and Marisa trailing behind her, Bev walked through the front door of the Vet’s Center, holding hands with her mother, and she felt the warmth of the indoor heating shimmer and spread throughout her, and smelled the steam trays piled high with fry bread, venison, mashed potatoes and gravy, and wanted nothing as much as taking it all of it and eating until she couldn’t move. There was already a line, but nobody said anything as she made her way to the front. They let her pass, and she piled food on a styrofoam plate until it sagged in the middle.
The baby was hungry, and so was she.