Commensalism by Arabella Riefler
 

Between the Eyes

by Maeve Coughlin


"The fear wouldn’t even process before the lights faded, he’d told her, and besides, all animals went to heaven."

His daughter used to get upset when her father came home with dead animals. She would look at her father with tears in her eyes and ask him if he’d at least been gentle. So, he made her a promise that he’d kill them so fast they wouldn’t even feel it. Right between the eyes, he’d said. The fear wouldn’t even process before the lights faded, he’d told her, and besides, all animals went to heaven. She was only satisfied with the deal when she got a pet rabbit (to replace the one he’d killed that day, she’d said, although she didn’t believe it could be replaced). Eventually he bought her one from the pet store.

His daughter’s name was Millie. They also called her Milkweed, and LiLi, and Mil. The hunter’s son was only two years older – nine – and he had only ever known himself by the name Ziggy, but his legal name was Zenith Goldson. Together, those two had hung the stars and the moon. And the hunter would bring them something fresh to eat.

Suddenly, the doe’s head shot up. Her ears twitched in every direction, nose wiggling. For a moment, the hunter thought he’d been seen, but then there was a sound from across the clearing.

Click.

Then, a roar. Thunder condensed into a single syllable rather than rolling growls.

A bullet grazed the back of the doe’s head, leaving a shallow gash. She screeched, all the air in her lungs whistling out, a noise of fear, of fury. Then, she breathed in. The bullet had passed her, whizzed through the leaves, and landed in the hunter’s chest.

He grunted, wind knocked out of him, brought a hand up to his heart. The doe was leaping off through the woods, her white tail straight up, scared half to death. Led was lodged in the hunter’s right atrium. The muscle twitched and jumped erratically, blood spraying out onto the brown leaves, soaking into the damp soil beneath them. His heart overflowed – with the thought of his family, of how much he loved them, of how lucky he’d been to know them. His hand came down again, sticky. The man came down with his hand.

“Shit!” Someone said from the other side of the clearing. The doe was gone. How unfortunate that the other hunter’s killing shot was successful all the same. “Shit,” he said again, quieter. He approached the dying hunter in a rush. Branches snapped in his wake.

It was evening when a police officer arrived at Mrs. Goldson’s doorstep. She and her children sat around the dinner table, staring at their canned-tuna-and-barbecue-sauce sandwiches. No one had touched the food. They were worried sick. It was possible that the lousy meal would make them sicker.

It was Millie who stood first. For how small she was, she had her father’s strength – not in her delicate little hands, but in the marrow of her bones. She let the officer in.

Mrs. Goldson was right behind her, clutching the yellow fabric of her dress. “Where is he?” She asked. “What happened to him?”

The officer removed his hat and held it to his chest. He glanced at Millie. She held his gaze, eyes flaring – or perhaps that extra shimmer was from unshed tears. He looked away.

“Mrs. Goldson,” he said. “He’s… gone.” In the silence that followed, he handed Mrs. Goldson a piece of paper, slanted handwriting scrawled across it. St. Bernard’s Hospital of Marble, North Carolina. Room 113. “It was an accident. He was shot by another hunter. I’m so sorry.”

Mrs. Goldson held the paper in one shaky hand, the other still clutching the fabric of her dress, wrinkling the freshly ironed cotton. She didn’t say anything, just stood there and shook. Millie stood, too, frozen in time. Then, with a shudder, she turned to the officer, only a fraction of an inch.

“Sir,” she whispered. “Please… did he… at least, was it quick?” She paused, then met his gaze through the blurriness of her tears. “Right between the eyes?”