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Read This Excerpt From The Unsettling New Novel “My Absolute Darling”

In this excerpt from Gabriel Tallent's debut novel My Absolute Darling, 14-year-old Turtle encounters two lost teenage boys in the wilderness.

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It is Friday and they have a Friday ritual. Turtle walks up from the bus stop to the two fifty-gallon drums where they burn their trash, flooded with rainwater the way any bucket, any barrel or pot left in their yard fills with water, and will keep filling until June, though the weather has been unpredictable. She takes the fire poker laid crosswise over the barrel mouth and plunges it deep into the ashen water and draws out an ammo can on a looped steel runner. She pops it open and takes out a 9mm Sig Sauer and a spare magazine. She is supposed to take the precaution of clearing the house slowly and carefully, from the front door and into every room, discovering every target. But Turtle has grown bored of the process, and so she goes up the porch steps and throws open the sliding glass door, gun up, and there are three training targets by the kitchen table, plywood and sheet-metal stands with printed silhouettes stapled to them, and Turtle takes them one at a time, sidestepping out of the doorway with tight double taps, one after another, six shots in a little less than a second, and in all three targets the shots are between and slightly below the eyes, so close together that the holes touch.

She walks casually to the hallway door, stands off to the side of it, on the hearthstones, and soft-tosses it open and moves in a swift arc across the doorway, three steps back and then sidestepping so that the hallway comes into view by degrees, and she takes each of three plywood and sheet-metal targets as they appear around the jamb, tight double taps into the nasal cavity, then she steps through the door and quickly out of the fatal funnel. Gunman’s shuffle down the side of the hallway, into the bathroom, clear — into the foyer, one bad guy, two shots, clear — into the pantry, clear. She ejects the magazine and replaces it with her spare and moves to Martin’s bedroom door at the end of the hall. There is not enough room to pan across the threshold, so she tosses open the door and takes three swift, retreating steps back down the hallway, firing as she goes — six shots, two seconds, and when her field of fire is clear, she advances on the door again and finds three more targets, taking each in turn. Then there is silence except for the hot brass rolling around the bedroom and the hallway. She walks back to the kitchen and sets the Sig Sauer on the counter.

She can hear Martin coming up the drive. He parks outside and throws open the sliding glass doors and walks right through the living room and sits down heavily on the overstuffed couch. Turtle opens the fridge and takes out a Red Seal Ale and pitches it underhand to him and he catches it and fits the bottle cap between his molars and pops the bottle open. He begins to drink, taking long satisfied gasps, and then he looks back to her and says, “So, kibble, how was school?” and she walks around the counter, sits down on the arm of the couch, both of them looking at the ashy fireplace as if there were a fire there to absorb their attention, and she says, “School was school, Daddy.”

He rakes a thumbnail across his stubble.

“Tired, Daddy?”

“Nah.”

They sit and eat dinner together. Martin keeps looking at the table, furrowing his brow. They continue to eat in silence.

“How did you do, clearing the house?”

“Well.”

“But not perfect?” he says.

She shrugs.

He sets his fork down and considers her, his forearms resting on the table. His left eye squints. His right eye is bright and open. The two compose an affect of complete and nuanced absorption, but when she looks at them carefully it is upsetting and strange to her, and the more genuine her attention to his expression, the more alien it seems, as if his face were not a single face at all, and as if it were trying to stake out two contrary expressions on the world.

He says, “Did you check the upstairs?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Kibble, did you check the upstairs?”

“No, Daddy.”

“It’s a game to you.”

“No, it’s not.”

"You need to surrender yourself to death before you ever begin, and accept your life as a state of grace, and then and only then will you be good enough."

“You don’t take it seriously. You come in here and you saunter around, placing your shots right into the ocular cavity. But you know, in a real firefight, you can’t always count on hitting the cavity exactly, you might have to fire for the hip — break a man’s hip, Turtle, and he goes down and he does not get up — but you don’t like that shot and you don’t practice it because you do not see the necessity. You think you’re invincible. You think you won’t ever miss — you go in there just cool and relaxed, because you’re overconfident. We need to put the fear on you. You need to learn how to shoot when you’re shitting yourself in fear. You need to surrender yourself to death before you ever begin, and accept your life as a state of grace, and then and only then will you be good enough. That is what the drill is for.”

“I do all right when I’m afraid. You know how I do.”

“You go to shit, girl.”

“Even if my spread goes to shit, Daddy, it’s still two inches at twenty yards.”

“It’s not your spread, and it’s not how strong you are, and it’s not how fast you are, because you have all those things, and you think that means something. That means nothing. It’s something else, kibble, it’s your heart. When you are afraid, you clutch at your life like a scared little girl, and you can’t do that, you will die, and you will die afraid with the shit running down your legs. You need to be so much more than that. Because the time will come, kibble, when just being fast and accurate won’t be enough. The time will come when your soul must be absolute with your conviction, and whatever your spread, and howsoever fast you are, you will only succeed if you fight like a fucking angel, fallen to fucking earth, with a heart absolute and full of conviction, without hesitation, doubt, or fear, no part of yourself divided against the other; in the end, that’s what life will ask of you. Not technical mastery, but ruthlessness, courage, and singularity of purpose. You watch. So it’s fine that you saunter around, but that’s not what the exercise is for, kibble. It’s not for your spread. It’s not for your aim. It’s for your soul.

“You are supposed to come to the door and believe that hell awaits just on the other side, believe that this house is full of nightmares; every personal demon you have, every worst fear. That’s what you stalk through this house. That’s what waits for you down the hallway. Your worst fucking nightmare. Not a cardboard cutout. Practice conviction, kibble, strip yourself of hesitation and doubt, train yourself to an absolute singularity of purpose, and if you ever have to step through a door into your own personal hell, you will have a shot, a shot at survival.”

Turtle has stopped eating. She watches him.

“Do you like your cassoulet?” he says.

“It’s fine,” she says.

“You want something else?”

“I said, it’s fine.”

“Christ,” he says.

She goes back to eating.

“Look at you,” he says, “my daughter. My little girl.”

He pushes aside his plate and sits there looking at her. After a while, he nods to her backpack. She walks to it, opens it, brings out her notebook. She sits down opposite him, notebook open. She says, “Number one. ‘Erinys.’ ” She stops, looks up at him. He puts one large, scarred hand across the open book, draws it across the table. Looks down at it.

“Well, now,” he says. “Look at that. ‘Erinys.’ ”

“What is that?” she says. “What does that mean, ‘Erinys’?”

He looks up from the book, his attention is fixed on her, and it is enormous with his affection and with something private. “Your grandfather,” he says, careful, wetting his lips with his tongue, “your grandfather was a hard man, kibble, he still is: a hard man. And do you know that your grandfather — Well, fuck, there is a lot your grandfather never said or did. There is something broken in that man, profoundly broken, and his brokenness is in everything he’s done, his whole life. He never could see past it. And I want to say, well, kibble, how much you mean to me. I love you. I do things wrong, I know I do, and I have failed you, and I will again, and the world I am raising you into — it is not the world I would want. It is not the world I would choose for my daughter. I do not know what the future holds, not for you and me. But I am afraid, I will say that much. Whatever you lacked, whatever I haven’t been able to give you, you have always been loved, deeply, kibble, absolutely. And I wanted to say, you will do more than I have. You will be better and more than I am. Never forget that. Now, here it is. Number one. ‘Erinys.’”

Turtle wakes in the predawn dark thinking about that. Thinking about what he’d said. She cannot get back to sleep. She sits at the bay window and looks out at the ocean, the rose thorns itching at the panes. What had he meant, there is something broken in that man? Outside, it is clear. She thinks, you will be better and more than I am, reproducing his expression in her mind, trying to get at what he meant. She can see the stars out above the ocean, though when she looks north, she can see the lights of Mendocino reflected in the clouds. She turns, feet on the floor, elbows on her knees, and looks at her room. The beam-and cinder- block shelves, her clothes neatly stowed. Her plywood platform bolted to the wall, with its sleeping bag and folded wool blankets. The door, the brass doorknob, the copper lock plate, the old-fashioned keyhole. She pulls on her jeans and she belts on Grandpa’s knife and adds a concealment holster, telling herself, just in case, just in case, walking to her bed and reaching under it and pulling her Sig Sauer from the brackets there. She shrugs into a thick wool sweater, and over that a flannel, and walks barefoot through the hall, holstering the pistol.

She climbs down the stairs, but stands on the lowest step, hesitating, soaking up the loneliness of the house in some way, as if it had something it could tell her, the generations of Alvestons who have lived here, and all of them, she thinks, unhappy, all of them bringing their children up hard, but all of them having something to them.

Just down the hall, Martin is in his huge redwood bed, the moon casting the shadows of the alder leaves onto the drywall, and she imagines him there, solid, one hand resting on that enormous chest. She walks into the kitchen and eases open the back door. The night is clear. The moonlight is bright enough to see by. She walks along the joists and stands looking down into the black ferns. She can smell the creek. She can smell the pines. She can smell their curling, dusty needles.

She switchbacks through myrtles and rusty fronds. She comes into the rocky creek and wades up it, her feet numb with cold. The trees rise blackly into the star-glittered vault. She thinks, I will go back now. Back to my room. I have promised and promised and promised and he cannot bear to lose me. To the east, the stream shines glassy from out the riotous dark. She stands breathing, taking in the silence for a very long time. Then she goes.

Turtle climbs out of slaughterhouse gulch and comes into a forest of bishop pine and huckleberries, deciphering them in the darkness by the wax of the leaves and the brittle mess of their sprawl, the dawn still hours away. At times she breaks from the woods into moonlit open places filled with rhododendron, their flowers pink and ghostly in the dark, their leaves leathery and prehistoric. There is a part of Turtle that she keeps shut up and private, that she attends to with only a diffuse and uncritical attention, and when Martin advances on this part of herself, she plays him a game of tit for tat, retreating wordlessly and almost without regard to consequences; her mind cannot be taken by force, she is a person like him, but she is not him, nor is she just a part of him — and there are silent, lonely moments when this part of her seems to open like some night-blooming flower, drinking in the cold of the air, and she loves this moment, and loving it, she is ashamed, because she loves him, too, and she should not thrill this way, should not thrill to his absence, should not need to be alone, but she takes this time by herself anyway, hating herself and needing it, and it feels so good to follow these trackless ways through the huckleberries and the rhododendrons.

She walks for miles, barefoot, eating watercress from ditches. Bishop pine and Douglas fir give way to stunted cypresses, to sedges, pygmy manzanita, to Bolander’s pines stooped and ancient, hundreds of years old and only shoulder height on her. The ground is hard-packed and ash-colored, puzzled over with tufted, gray-green lichens, the land studded with barren clay ponds.

In the dawn, the sun still banked among the hills, she climbs a fence and walks across the tarmac of a small airport, all shut up and quiet, the runway all her own. She’s been walking for just over three hours, groveling through the underbrush. She should’ve taken shoes, but it doesn’t much matter. She is so far accustomed to going barefoot that she could strop a razor on the soles of her feet. She climbs over the fence on the other side and walks out onto some other, larger road. She stands in the middle of it, on the double yellow line.

A rabbit breaks from the underbrush, dim gray movement against the black. Turtle draws the pistol, racks it in one smooth movement, and fires. The rabbit pitches over in the salal. She crosses the road, stands with the kicking, delicate creature at her feet, and it is smaller than she thought. She picks it up by the back legs, a bare skim of soft fur over the coupled bones, articulated and sinewy, sawing back and forth in her hand.

Turtle comes to an old roadbed lined with Oregon grape, cluttered with fallen leaves. She stands looking down into the Albion River basin. The sun has risen a handsbreadth above the horizon, crowning the eastern hills, sheaves of light slanting through the stunted trees. The road winds out below her, following a ridge with thickly wooded gulches on either side. She eases along, stopping to watch the silk-lined burrows of spiders in the cut bank, raking through grass for the grass-colored mantises, turning over roadside stones. She has an image of Martin in the kitchen, cooking up pancakes for a Saturday morning breakfast, humming to himself, and expecting her to come down any minute. Her heart breaks at this thought. He will be riddling over what to do as her pancakes get cold, and he will stand at the bottom of the stairs and call up, “Kibble? You up?” She thinks that he will go upstairs and open her door, look at her empty room, scraping his stubble with the edge of his thumb, and then he will go back downstairs and look at all the plates and pancakes and warm raspberry jam he’d set out.

The morning turns to early afternoon, blue, cottony, flat-bottomed clouds towing shadows across the forested slopes. At a barren clay promontory, the road makes a turn and descends into the easternmost of two gulches, and here a clay pullout overlooks the valley. Long dried ruts. An old VW bus with its tires rotting into the ground, ceanothus growing up against the driver’s-side quarter panel.

Turtle lays the rabbit across the dirt and opens the van’s rusted door and finds it stuffed with Oriental rugs. She drags out a rug, unrolls it, and finds nothing but sow bugs and wolf spiders. She walks to the front of the van. She opens the passenger-side door and sits inside, looks carefully around the front of the van. There is a strange, intermittent squeaking. It sounds like a loose spring in the upholstery, but it isn’t that. She opens the glove box and finds decaying maps and something long rotten. She leans down and walks her fingers along the footwell where the moldy upholstery has wrinkled up from the frame. She draws her grandpa’s bowie knife, cuts through the carpet, and pulls it aside. There are three pink newborn mice, the size of her fingertips, laid up along a mounded fold in the carpet, eyes closed, paws folded in small fists, squeaking furiously. Turtle lays the carpet back over the mice.

She collars its feet, slits it from anus to throat, pulls its fur off like a bloody sock, and pitches the pelt into the brush.

She climbs out of the bus and walks to where the rabbit lays on the dirt. She collars its feet, slits it from anus to throat, pulls its fur off like a bloody sock, and pitches the pelt into the brush. She scoops out the guts and pitches those after the pelt. Then she makes a fire of dry grass and dead wood, skewers the rabbit, and roasts it over the fire, looking by turns at the fire and out at the valley.

A mouse comes out from the undercarriage of the VW and she watches it wander about. It clambers awkwardly up a shoot of grass to get at the seeds in their papery chaff, bowing the sprig over. It extends its muzzle, sniffing and finally opening its mouth to show the chisel of its teeth. Its ears are small and round and the sun shows pink through them with just a single, snaky pink vein at the center of each ear, catching the light.

Turtle takes the rabbit down from the skewer and the mouse bolts, feinting right and then changing directions in a desperate bid for a nearby rock. But whatever hiding place it expects isn’t there, and it performs a panicked circuit of the rock. In a last-ditch effort, the mouse squashes itself up against the rock and waits, panting. Turtle prizes ribs off the rabbit’s spine and chews the flesh from them, letting the juice run down her scabby fingers. In time, the mouse comes back and wanders the clay promontory, lifting one tiny hand to lean on this or that stalk of grass, flouncing its whiskers when it sniffs. Turtle finishes the carcass and pitches it over the ledge into the trees below. Her fire smolders. She sits, hands folded, watching.

She needs to get up and go home. She knows it, but she just doesn’t go. She wants to wait out here, on this clay promontory above the river valley, and wants to watch the day go by. She needs time to sit and go through her thoughts like going through a colander of snow peas. It’s not like Martin does, when he paces thinking and thinking and sometimes gesturing to himself as he tries to think out something difficult. The day warms, turns to late afternoon, and still Turtle does not go, does not move.

Then she sees a spider. It is the silvery color of sun-bleached driftwood. It sits sullen at the edge of its hole, eyes hidden behind a mess of hairy legs. The legs unfold and reach carefully out of the cave like ghastly, creeping fingers. She can see no eyes and no face, only the clutch of fingers. It has a speculative creep. The mouse crouches several feet away, hunched over another seedpod, its potbelly pooched up between its legs. When it is done with its seed, it looks down and gives the short hairs on its pink belly a hard look, then riffles through them with its fingers in a sudden, urgent little search, and dives its muzzle into its belly and chews intently for a moment.

The spider moves carefully. Stricken, Turtle watches it circle the tuft of grass, drawing closer. She hears then a noise from down the road — someone walking along the roadbed, and she thinks wildly of Martin. It is more than possible that he has managed to follow her. He has done it before. It is even likely. She rises slowly, silently, drawing the pistol from its holster and slivering back the slide to see the bright brass in the chamber, her every movement swift and quiet, but then she stops to watch. The spider emerges behind the mouse and crosses the last six inches and then rears and sinks two black hooks down into the mouse’s shoulder. The mouse jerks spasmodically, one hind leg pedaling through the air. She hears more footsteps, but Turtle is captivated, watching the spider drag the mouse backward to the burrow, where it lodges crosswise against the silky-webbed sides. Knuckles in her mouth, Turtle watches the spider come half out again, fangs buried in the mouse’s back. It turns the mouse with deft legs and then pulls the mouse down into the dark, the pink tail twitching.

She chews her fingers in anguish. The footsteps draw closer, and Turtle ducks into the woods, lies down behind a log. A slender, black-haired boy comes down the road, her age or a little older, fifteen or sixteen, not watching his feet, wearing a backpack and board shorts, an old T-shirt with a single candle and a twist of barbwire around it, some word she doesn’t know. He stands, surveying the clay promontory, chewing on the water reservoir’s bite valve. He isn’t much experienced. The board shorts are a bad idea. His trail-running shoes are unscuffed, the backpack new. He doesn’t know what he’s looking at or what he’s looking for. His gaze just wanders. He seems delighted.

Another boy comes down the road behind him, this one with an old leather-and-Cordura backpack molding apart, a huge blue tarp rolled up and bungee-corded to the side. This
new boy says, “Dude! Dude! Check it out! A van!” He’s holding a spray can of Easy Cheese and piling it onto a Butterfinger. She places her front sight on the can. “Dude, Jacob!” he says to the black-haired boy. “Dude, Jacob! You want to sleep in that sick, righteous-looking van?” He stuffs the Butterfinger into his mouth and chews. His grin is so big that his jaw stands out and shows his chocolate-stained teeth. He’s having trouble eating the bar all at once and it slips partially out of his mouth, so he pushes it back in with a forefinger. Turtle could shoot the can right out of his hand.

Jacob smiles and squats down at the coals of Turtle’s fire, raking through it with a stick. She’s seen both boys before, last year when they were eighth graders and she was a seventh grader. The candy-eating boy is Brett. They must be high school freshmen now, and she doesn’t know how they’ve gotten here, but they must be a long ways lost. She wonders what the black-haired one is thinking. He is hurtful to look at, his face beautiful and unguarded. They must be on some kind of weekend adventure. Their parents dropped them off, they were going to spend one night out here and walk out the next day, something like that. Jacob sets his backpack down and eases a map from the mesh access pocket. He smooths it flat and says, “Well.”

“This cheese,” Brett says, holding up the cheese can, Turtle placing the front sight perfectly on it, “is sick. I mean, fucking dank, is all.” He props his backpack against one of the VW’s wheels and lies down, pillowing his head against it, jetting Easy Cheese into his open mouth from the can. “I know you don’t believe, but truth, I mean truth.”

Jacob, looking by turns at the map and at the valley, says, “Man, we suck at this.”

Brett says, “Just because it’s in a can doesn’t mean it’s not ‘real’ cheese, you know?”

“We are extremely, I mean extremely — I don’t want to say ‘lost,’ but I am not entirely sure of where we might actually be.”

“You’re cheese-prejudiced, is what you are.”

Jacob lies back on the rug that Turtle unrolled hours ago. He says, “Our powers of
navigation astound.” He opens his backpack and pulls out a wedge of Jarlsberg and a loaf of focaccia still in its Tote Fête bakery bag. He and Brett pass these items back and forth, lying propped up on their packs, stretched at length on the Oriental rug with small powdery gray moths struggling up from the nap. They take bites directly from the wedge of cheese.

“Let’s camp here.”

“There’s no water.”

“I wish there was a girl here,” Brett says wonderingly, looking up at the sky. “We could woo her with our powers of navigation.”

“If she were blind and had no sense of direction.”

“That’s sick,” Brett says, “sick, deceiving a blind girl like that.”

“I’d date a blind girl,” Jacob says. “Though, not just because she was blind. What I mean is — I don’t think it’d matter.”

“I’d date her just for being blind,” Brett says.

“Really?”

“How’s it any different from objectifying her for her intelligence?”

“Her intelligence cannot be abstracted from her personality, whereas her blindness is incidental to who she is, and can be abstracted,” Jacob says. “I.e., she’s not a blind chick. She is a chick who is, incidentally, blind.”

“But,” Brett says, “but, dude! She is not, like, responsible for her intelligence in any meaningful way. That’s shallow, dude.”

“She isn’t responsible for her blindness, either,” Jacob says, disgusted.

“Unless she plucked out her eyes in a fit of rage.”

“You’d date a girl who plucked out her eyes in a fit of rage?”

“You know she’s feisty. You just know it.”

“That feels like an understatement.”

“Dude, bring it. I’m all about it.”

“I bet she has a wicked temper.”

“Girls have to start spunky, Jacob, or ninth grade grinds it out of them.”

Turtle lies in the brush, the sight laid first on Brett’s forehead then on Jacob’s, and she thinks, what the fuck? What the fuck? They recline on their rug, ripping off strips of focaccia. Brett gestures to the view. “Gods,” he says, “but I wish we had some more Easy Cheese.”

When they are done, the boys help each other up and trudge bantering along the jeep track into the redwoods. Turtle rises and stands there for a moment and then slips into the trees after them. The road is hardly better than a streambed. Gangly brown roots stick out from the cut bank. They walk for hours and climb finally into a clearing with a cottage built from scrap lumber. It is unlit and the door stands open. Turtle squats behind a burned-out stump, coal-black, eaten by fire into a helix laddered by mushrooms with flat brown tops and bottoms like frogs’ throats. It is shading into early evening. Everything is painted in deep green and sumptuous purple. She watches the boys walk out into the clearing. The clouds look like candles that have burned down to tiered pools of blue wax.

Brett says, “Dude, dude, what if you go in there — and there’s just, like, one deformed blind albino child on a rocking chair with a banjo?”

Jacob says, “And he takes us prisoner and makes us read Finnegans Wake to his peyote plants?”

Brett says, “You can’t tell anyone that my mom made us do that. You can’t.”

Jacob says, “Why Finnegans Wake, do you think? Why not Ulysses? Actually, why not just read The Odyssey? Or — or The Brothers Karamazov?”

“Because, dude — you read fucked-up Russian bullshit to your peyote plants, you’re gonna have a bad time.”

“Okay, so: To the Lighthouse. Or — you know what? — people die in subordinate clauses in that book. Maybe D. H. Lawrence? For a passionate, make-love-to-the-gamekeeper kind of high.”

“Dude, with your voice you are like, ‘Look at all these books I’ve read,’ but with your eyes you are like, ‘Help me.’ ”

“You know what would be good, actually? Harry Potter.”

“Well, I guess we’ll never know what’s beyond that door,” Brett says.

“We already know, Brett.”

“We do?”

“Adventure,” Jacob says. “Behind every door lies adventure.”

“Only if by ‘every’ you mean ‘some’ and by ‘adventure’ you mean ‘sodomical hillbillies.’ ”

“Nah.”

“Dude. It could be dangerous. Actually and in reality dangerous.”

“It’s fine,” Jacob says, and goes up the steps and in through the door.

“Physically perilous, Jacob,” Brett calls after him, “in an entirely real, entirely not-hilarious way.”

“Come on!”

Turtle follows the edge of the forest around the back of the cottage, slipping through the brush. She thinks, stay calm, stay easy. She steps up onto the creaking back deck and stands looking out into the woods. There are big black coils of irrigation hoses and heaped fifty-pound bags of organic fertilizer at the foot of the deck. There are clipped hoses and coupling links lying beside an overturned bucket with a coffee-can ashtray. The deck has an outdoor bathroom with a toilet and shower, the drain cut crudely into the redwood boards with a PVC pipe running to a sump hole. There’s a PBR can beside the toilet and when Turtle picks it up she can hear the ticking of its carbonation. She sets down the beer and opens the door and steps into a bare kitchen. Now she is in the back of the house and the boys are in the front, separated from her by a dividing wall and a closed door. She can hear them.

“Dude,” Brett says, “I don’t like this.”

“You think someone lives here?”

“Dude — obviously someone lives here.”

“They’re reading The Wheel of Time.”

“Probably to their peyote plants.”

“That’s so epic. Just read them, like, all thirteen books, drop a bunch of peyote buttons, and then, like, hold on to your hat.”

She walks through a kind of living room. There is a worktable with hand loppers and garden shears and a copy of the collected essays of Thomas Jefferson. Unopened boxes of Hefty garbage bags are stacked beside a six-foot-tall wooden Quan Yin, ornately carved. The ceiling is crisscrossed with white cotton clotheslines. She goes into a bedroom with a large four-poster bed and a dresser with a mason jar of bud, a stack of Robert Jordan novels, and a copy of Overcome Your Childhood Trauma.

She returns to the back door and slams it behind her to startle them, and it works. She hears Brett whisper, “Shit! Shit!” and she can hear Jacob laughing. They scramble out of the house. She looks into the forest with the gun in her hand. The road does not continue beyond the cabin and the nervous boys take off south, going cross-country down into the river valley. She listens to the silence of the clearing for a long time. Then she follows them. They walk along a high hedge of thimbleberry in a clearing of velvet grass and sweet vernal grass. Turtle goes quietly among the stumps of old trees. She stops at a large concrete circle in the grass, and beside it, the form of a pump, covered in a tarp.

She can hear the boys, but she isn’t listening to them. She thinks, stop and look. She goes in a half crouch, moving swiftly through the high grass, thinking, oh god, for christsakes, you two, stop and look. She sees them ahead, beside a stream at the border of the forest, the stream half overgrown with bracken.

She opens her mouth to call to them, but then she sees a man on the far side of the stream, wearing camo pants and a Grateful Dead shirt, a woven-hemp necklace with silver wire twining a large amethyst, a leveraction twenty-gauge shotgun slung on his back. He’s a small man, with a big rotund belly and a bright red face turned to leather with years of sunburn. The tip of his nose is waxy and bulbed, with little red veins standing out of it. He’s got a lemon-echinacea juice bottle in one hand. Turtle swings the Sig Sauer up and at him, placing the front sight over his temple, thinking, only if I need to, only if I need to.

“Hello, boys,” he calls out. “How you do’en today?”

Brett straightens and looks around to locate the man. Jacob spots him and calls back, “We’re good, a little lost, how about you?”

She thinks, easy does it, easy and slow, you bitch, and don’t fuck this up, just do this, every part of this, exactly fucking right, every moment of this; do exactly and only what is necessary, but you do it well and you do it right, you slut.

Turtle goes through the weeds, thumbing back the hammer. She thinks, easy does it, easy and slow, you bitch, and don’t fuck this up, just do this, every part of this, exactly fucking right, every moment of this; do exactly and only what is necessary, but you do it well and you do it right, you slut.

“Where you boys from?” the man asks.

“Well, I’m from Ten Mile and he’s from Comptche,” Jacob says. He walks up to the man, holds out his hand. “I’m Jacob. This is Brett.” They shake, and Jacob says, “A pleasure to meet you, friend.”

Turtle kneels behind a stump, places the sights on the man’s temple.

“All right, all right,” the man says nodding. He takes out a can of Grizzly chew, thumps it once with the ball of his thumb, pinches up a huge dip, and folds it into his lip.

“You chew?” he says.

“No,” Brett says.

“Only on special occasions,” Jacob says.

“Ah,” the man says, “well, don’t start. Myself, I’m trying to quit. They put fiberglass in this stuff. Can you believe that? So, boys, you take it from me, if you’re going to take it up, and it has its perks, I’ll give you that, you pay the extra dollar and go organic. All right?”

“Right,” Jacob says, “that’s solid advice.”

“Organic, that’s the way,” the man says, “not these chemicals. I believe in organic myself. Better yet, just stick with the marijuana. If it weren’t for nylon, that’s all we’d ever be smoking.”

“Speaking of that,” Jacob says, unshouldering his backpack and setting it down. “Is there any chance we can buy some from you?”

“Well,” says the man, turning the can of chew over in his hands. He frowns.

“It’s no worries,” Jacob says, “we were just looking for something to add to our adventure.”

“I can appreciate that,” the man says, nodding. “Sometimes you’re just looking for a little something to take the edge off all the walking, and it helps bring out the details, doesn’t it? You notice things you otherwise just plain wouldn’t.”

“That,” Jacob says, “is exactly what I mean. I can tell, sir, that you are both a poet and a scholar.”

“Well, I’d hate to leave a friend in need,” the stranger admits.

“My man,” Jacob says.

“I can help you out,” he says, after a hesitation.

What the hell? Turtle thinks. She stands in the grass, gun leveled at the man. Jacob passes the man a twenty-dollar bill, and the man opens a canvas pouch on his belt and takes out a tea canister. He pulls the cap and dispenses several buds into his hand, passes them to Jacob. Then he takes out a pipe made from a deer’s leg bone, with a wooden mouthpiece whittled to the bone flute, a bowl augured out of the jointed end. He begins breaking apart another bud in his fingers and packing it into the end, going on: “This stuff. This stuff, now. Not like tobacco, which is as addictive as anything — as addictive as heroin, and will kill you. Why I ever started smoking tobacco is beyond me. Trying to quit. Hence the chew, you understand. Only problem with the marijuana is that when you grow it out here, the fertilizer isn’t good for the salmon, even the organic fertilizer, and that gets to me. Looking at ways around it. Also, another thing is that we have rodents and things come out of the forest to chew on the stalks of the plants and you have to poison them or put up with them. I put up with them, and that’s why you should buy local. Those Mexican growers, those guys don’t care, this isn’t their home, right? They just lay down rat poison and it’s awful, just awful, kills the ringtails, the raccoons, the weasels, all those critters. That’s why you gotta buy your weed from guys like me. Locals. Supports the economy and it’s better for the environment. Where you headed, by the way?”

“We’re just trying to find a place to camp,” Jacob says.

The man nods, working his fat lip of tobacco. “You’re all right, boys, you’re all right, well, I’ll get you pointed in the right direction.” He squints off west.

“Why fiberglass?” Brett asks suddenly.

“Huh?” the man says. “What’s that?”

“You said they put fiberglass in the tobacco, but why would they do that?”

“Oh, well,” the man says, “the fiberglass now, it cuts your lips so that the tobacco gets absorbed faster, makes it more addictive. It’s the same thing with all of this packaged food they’re selling, don’t ever trust a corporation, boys, and especially don’t trust a corporation to make the food you eat. This is why I don’t have a car, you understand. Can’t conscionably have a car. Not when I’ve been down to South America myself, lived among jungle tribes in the Amazon and seen the damage the petroleum industry is doing down there. We should all eat a lot more local food, smoke a lot more pot, and drive a lot less, as far as I’m concerned. And love one another. I believe that. Community, boys, that’s the way.” He lights the bone pipe and takes a long draw. He puffs, and then hands the pipe to Jacob. They stand nodding and passing the pipe around.

“Well,” Brett says, “I admire that, but I have to ride the bus to school. No other way to get there.”

“Me too,” Jacob says, “though sometimes I drive. But you’ve given me something to think about.”

Turtle doesn’t know what to do. She watches, relaxing her finger on the trigger, but she doesn’t lower the gun. After a silence broken only by the stranger’s sumptuous chewing and by the boys firing the lighter, Brett says, “Do you know where we go next? We’re a little turned around.”

Jacob says, “Our path to glory has been swift and clear, but our destination eludes us.”

The stranger nods down the gulch. “That way, keeping to the stream,” he says, and then turns and nods back the way they came, “or that way back.”

“The stream will take us to a road?”

The man nods, either agreeing or seconding the question, it isn’t clear to Turtle. He says, “There’s roads down there.”

“All right,” Jacob says, “thanks for the advice, man.”

“Yeah, dude, we appreciate it,” Brett says.

“Well, off you go,” the man says.

Brett and Jacob begin down the slope, following the stream. The man taps out the pipe, puts it away, turns and forges back through the bracken. Turtle tracks him with the Sig until he is gone. Then she looks south, into the gulch. The plan is a bad one. I should go back, she tells herself. Then she thinks, what will Martin do? It will go badly for me, but the hell. I am a girl things go badly for. A light rain begins to fall, and Turtle holds out her hands and looks up at the sky, huge, misshapen towers of clouds, and then the rain begins in earnest, wetting her hair, wetting her shirt, and she thinks, well, we’re in for it now. ●


Gabriel Tallent was born in New Mexico and raised on the Mendocino coast by two mothers. He received his B.A. from Willamette University in 2010, and after graduation spent two seasons leading youth trail crews in the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest. Tallent lives in Salt Lake City.

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