portion of the artwork for Ross McMeekin's fiction

Before the Thaw
Ross McMeekin

Our bird dog, Six, got up from his haunches and whined at the ceiling.

What’s up there, boy? I said. Then I heard scratching up in the attic.

Six heard it too and spun a few times. He yelped and wagged his black tail, almost knocking over the fireplace poker.

I grabbed the poker and tapped the ceiling with it. Rustling. I tapped some more. More rustling. Sounded like maybe a bird. Then I heard something move that sounded bigger, something that took steps across the ceiling towards the window. Six was about to wet the floor.

Then Pops busted through the front door in a big parka, knit cap, and knee-high rubber boots, his arms full of groceries. Mom, before she died last spring, made him promise he’d make me salad every night. He always cut the carrot and lettuce pieces too big and ate none himself.

Boy, come grab these groceries, he said.

There’s something up in the attic, I said.

He handed me the bags.

There’s a big animal or something, I said. Six’s going crazy.

Get this stuff put away.

While I hauled the paper bags into the kitchen and dropped them on the table, I heard him march over to where Six was having a fit.

Did you hit the ceiling with the poker? he shouted from the living room. There’s marks.

Yeah, I was trying to see if there—

But before I could finish he came around the corner and hit me across the side of my head with the meat of his palm.

After you’re done putting those away, he said about the groceries, make me a drink, then come wipe up the ash.

Usually he liked me to mix his whiskey with maple syrup, but since it was near Christmas he was taking it with eggnog. I put the groceries away and made up his drink, mixed with some spit for busting me in the head. I wetted a dishtowel to wipe up the ash and came into the living room. He was standing on the chair, knocking the ceiling a few times with his knuckles. I could see the black hairs on his stomach.

Sounds like birds, he said.

Something big moved, I said.

But I didn’t push it. He’d been pissy. My best friend’s mom told me a few weeks back that they’d shut down some of the reactors, said they might shut down more. She wondered if maybe Pops might lose his job, said hadn’t enough happened already. Then she caught herself and said I shouldn’t be concerned because he’d worked there for years. But the way she said it wouldn’t have convinced Six.

Pops stepped off the chair, grabbed the highball from my hand, and took a big gulp of the eggnog spitskey.

Put ice in it next time, he said.

Hah, I thought to myself. That’s my spit going down your throat.

Seeing as he’d started drinking, I figured nothing good was going to happen for a while, so I put on my parka and left.

After a snowball fight and another half-hour of wandering I was bored, so I rolled the dice and came back home. I crept inside quietly, lifting the back screen door up on its hinges as I opened it so it wouldn’t squeak. Six was waiting there for me, wagging his tail. I grabbed his snout and looked him straight in the eyes so he knew not to make any noise. I looked around the corner and there was Pops, sitting on the couch, bent over with his hands over his ears, crying. He had a picture album opened in front of him. He didn’t notice me. I was glad. I’d caught him that way before, and once was enough.

I snuck back outside and hung out for a few more hours by the river, trying to throw rocks through the ice, listening to the cracks echo below the surface like singing saws. Last year some numbskull two grades below me walked out onto the ice and fell through. The current underneath sucked him downriver beneath the frozen shelf. The police and fire department tore out all of the ice in the river, but no one found him until the spring thaw. The jagged, torn up ice froze again that night, and looked like a miniature Himalayas all winter, reminding everyone of what had happened. When news came in spring that they’d found the body, which had floated almost to Sprutz, I remember Pops saying that’s one way to get out of town. Mom laughed out loud, her veiny bald head tilted back, clearing the airway so every last gasp of laughter could bust out unimpeded, until a deep cough took over, turning her face and scalp red, leaving her—and us—gasping for breath. It’s never the pretty things I remember about her. That’s what photographs are for, I guess.

Anyways, when I came back home from throwing rocks at the river ice, I knew it was all clear because I heard Pops tooling around in the living room.

Boy, he yelled.

Six barked.

I walked in and Pops was by the tree, banging the ceiling with the fireplace poker, making his own ash marks on the ceiling.

Probably just squirrels, he said. He put down the poker and lumbered past me, veering a bit to the left, drunk. He opened the closet door, shoved the coats to both sides of the rack, then looked up at the entrance to the attic—a square hole in the closet ceiling with a board over it. I’d been up there a few times. Not much to it, just a bunch of crap. Smelled funny.

He flexed out the stepladder and clamped a flashlight between his teeth and climbed up. The outline of his wallet pressed through the back pocket of his jeans.

What do you see? I said.

He yelled git, git through the flashlight.

I heard a hiss. Six barked.

Pops shuffled down and pulled the board back over the entrance hole.

I heard scurrying up above.

Dammit, he said, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and walked passed me. I followed him through the kitchen.

Coons, he said. Nesting.

How many? I asked, following him downstairs.

He ducked into the basement, the one place in the house mom used to hate. The very definition of derelict, she used to say, before she started laughing at herself. Strewn about were piles of fishing equipment, decoys, tools, clothes, and waders—stuff she said he should just toss. We were not born in a barn—another thing she said. I kind of liked the mess, though.

Pops unlocked a gray metal locker and took out his Winchester shotgun and grabbed some of the big red birdshot cartridges from a box. He broke open the gun and loaded a couple then put a few more in his pocket. I looked at how the metal barrel was almost blue, and how the wood lining on the stock wove in and out like ski tracks.

Pops saw me lusting after the gun. He squinted and licked his bottom lip, which still had a little white residue left over from the eggnog.

What was it you said you want for Christmas? he asked.

The Christmas before I’d asked for a shotgun. Mom didn’t like the idea, told me I wasn’t mature enough and, with her arms crossed, said I had to wait until I was in high school, which was still another year off. But I wasn’t sure if that was one of the things she’d made Pops promise before she died, so I figured I still had a chance of getting one.

I followed him back upstairs. He was moving slow.

So I can do the shooting? I asked.

He kept moving. When we got back to the kitchen he turned around and handed the shotgun to me.

You know how, right? he asked.

Of course I knew how to shoot. He knew I knew. I grabbed the gun.

He laughed, and stuffed another couple of cartridges into the front pocket of my hooded sweatshirt. Just in case you need them, he said.

I felt like giving him a quick pow to the crotch with the butt of the gun.

We walked to the closet.

Try and hit the chimney if you miss, he said.

I bit down on the flashlight, which tasted like plastic and dust, and climbed up the stepladder. I slowly pushed aside the board and peeped up through the square hole. A part of me was worried the raccoon might be right outside the entrance, waiting to pounce on my head. I took the flashlight from my mouth and scanned across the narrow space. Newspaper and magazine stacks, a stained mattress, a mess of old sheets and blankets, then two red eyes of a large raccoon. She moved her head in a circle, tipped up her nose, smelled me in the air. I saw the outline of a couple of pups.

Pops slapped my leg. You have to get up in there, he said.

I know, I said. Him slapping my leg, like I was his buddy, felt good, gave me more confidence in what I was doing, at least until I saw the mother raccoon raise up on two legs like a small bear. The fur along her spine spiked out. She hissed. It hit me that this was a wild animal. This was her den. She bared her teeth. Little spears.

I bit down on the flashlight again and set the shotgun on the floor. I pulled my legs up, slowly, so as not to startle her.

Do you see her? Pops asked.

Six whined.

Yeah, I said through the flashlight. I saw her. She looked mean and capable. I stood up and took a step towards her. My hands began to shake a little. The beam from the flashlight in my mouth jittered around the mother raccoon, who was still puffing her fur out, doing a good job of making herself look scary. I picked up the shotgun from the floor and pressed its butt against my shoulder as hard as I could. She was in and out of the sights.

I closed my eyes and pulled the trigger. The kickback from the gun slammed into my shoulder. I could feel the barrel leap. The flashlight fell from my mouth. Then I opened my eyes. I couldn’t see much, but I could smell the burnt powder.

Did you get her? Pops asked. His voice was now in the room, and I imagined his head must have been peeking up through the hole.

I heard a moist sound, and a struggling breath.

I picked the flashlight from the ground and scanned the other end of the attic. I saw a lump of gray and black fur where the mother used to be. I could see one of the young ones squirming to her left.

I crept, waiting for the big raccoon to jump out at me. For some reason, I thought she might be faking being hurt.

She wasn’t.

One of the baby raccoons made a sound like a little kid trying to whistle. I tapped the mother with my shoe. She groaned, which sent a cool rush through my body. Again I pressed my foot against her. Nothing. I slowly rolled her body over. Her face was a mess. I couldn’t tell what was what. My stomach tightened. In the flashlight, some of the blood already looked brown and clotted in her fur, and the new blood glistened as it soaked her chest red. I nudged her back over because the sight was too much. It felt wrong, what I’d done. This was different from hunting, somehow. Or maybe it wasn’t, and the location just made it seem different. But right then I felt how these animals’ lives existed outside of me in a way that I hadn’t before; they were alive, and I was their terror. So I did what I felt was the right thing: I put the flashlight back into my mouth, stuck the muzzle of the shotgun into the mother’s back, and tried to end her misery as quickly as possible. But for some reason I held the shotgun away from my body as I pulled the trigger, forgetting to account for the kickback. It jumped out of my hands and thudded to the ground.

What the hell? said Pops. I heard him climbing the rest of the way up the ladder. You all right?

His voice sounded like he was afraid. I couldn’t move. So much was happening.

In a couple of crouched strides he was grasping my shoulder and pulling the flashlight from my mouth. He looked me up and down. You hurt?

I shook my head.

He grabbed the shotgun from the ground and throttled my arm hard enough to make me gasp.

Never drop your gun, he said, thrusting it back into my chest.

It felt strange in my arms. I was ashamed to have it back, didn’t feel like I deserved it, didn’t want to touch it.

He kicked the mother raccoon over onto her side.

Was the first shot to her head? he asked.

One of the little raccoons next to us grunted.

I nodded. I could smell the drink on Pops breath.

She was dead. You wasted the second shot.

Wasted, I thought. The word bounced around in my head and I felt it there on my tongue. So much wasted—the shells, the raccoons, my mom, my dad, me. We stood there in silence. Pops was waiting for me to kill the babies. I could tell. But he didn’t want to have to tell me to, because telling me to do it would prove something he didn’t want proven—something I didn’t want proven either.

Six barked a few times then whined.

You’re not done, he said.

My cheeks were hot.

Well? he said, jerking the flashlight over the baby raccoons.

Just hold up, I said. I couldn’t let him know that I was crying.

Two little raccoons nuzzled the belly of their dead mother, searching for milk and blinking at the flashlight. One of them sounded like it was humming.

Pops swore under his breath, grabbed the shotgun from my hands, broke it open, shook out the spent cartridges, then stuffed one more into the chamber. Then, just like that, he shot one of the cubs. The blast sounded like a cannon. I flinched. Some of his shot busted though the floorboards. Light peeked through from the living room.

I tried to hold in a wet heave from my chest but I couldn’t. Smoke, blood, broken wood, and now my lunch. Everywhere. It was just too much.

Pops muttered and walked around the dead bodies. He found another little raccoon that had fled. It was pawing some grungy yellow tapestry in the corner, maybe believing it was his mother. I thought he was going to load another shot, but he took the barrel of the shotgun in both hands and pounded the little creature with the butt of his gun, like he was driving a post into the floor. He had killed it with the first hit, but he kept going, seven, then eight times, grunting with each one. He finally stopped, panting. Then I heard him breaking up, too. He was crying. I didn’t say anything. We just stood there, feet from each other, in the near dark, trying not to let each other know how things really were.

After a while, he gathered himself and walked over past me to the entrance.

Your mother was right, he said as he passed by, and I was pretty sure he meant I wouldn’t be getting that shotgun for Christmas, which now mattered less than him saying it that way. For some reason I imagined what it must be like to have me still there, every day reminding him of his wife. It was the first time I really wished I could disappear.

He wiped the butt of the gun on his jeans then stuffed it under his armpit. He pulled out a folded black plastic garbage bag from his pocket and shook it open like a parachute, then shoved it into my hands. I watched him walk back across the floorboards.

When you’re done cleaning up you can fix the ceiling, he said.

The smell of gunpowder and warm, damp fur was overwhelming. The only speck of light was from the hole in the floorboards; he’d forgotten to leave me the flashlight. I knelt down and felt my knee get wet. I tried to swallow another surge of vomit back down my throat, but ended up coughing up whatever bile was left in my stomach.

The first cub I found was limp. It was still warm, and weighed about as much as a bottle of milk. At least he’s now with his mother, I thought. I laid him down gently into the garbage sack then felt around in the dark for the rest of his family.

Return to Archive

FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 35 | Winter 2012