Step Nine

Photo by Several Seconds
Step Nine by Michelle McGurk

Before first light, they stop for fuel. Two apple fritters, so hot and heavy with grease that Joe calls them gut-grenades. Hot chocolate for the boy. Black coffee for Joe, extra-large.

Joe’s grandson inches his hand into the paper sack, picks bites off the fritter, and sneaks them into his mouth. Like he thinks Joe won’t notice. Buddy prefers the crunchy bits around the edges. Just like his own daddy once did. Kids—break your heart when you least expect it.

Joe unloads Mac’s old ATV. He’d planned to hang things up this season, but no, Mac had to go and leave him the ATV. Joe offered to sell it, told Gloria he’d give her the proceeds, but she insisted, said Mac wanted him to take Buddy out to the tank.

Joe should call, see how her roof’s holding up.

“This is the best part, Grandpa,” Buddy says. He climbs into the driver’s seat, bounces around, spills a little hot chocolate on his jeans. Joe calls him down to get his waders on, lets him wear Mac’s binoculars around his neck.

It’s the last Saturday in January, the end of duck season, and Buddy’s seventh birthday. There’s frost on the ground, and Joe’ll be feeling the cold in his bone marrow for the rest of the day.

They drive the mile-and-a-half to the tank. Joe gets into his waders, stashes the gut-grenades in the game pocket on the front of his jacket. Buddy scrambles down from his seat, starts along the dirt path. “Wait for me,” Joe says. “Don’t want you falling in an irrigation ditch in the dark.”

Can’t start hunting until thirty minutes before sunrise, and they’re early today, Buddy up before the alarm went off, padding over to Joe’s bed and spotlighting his flashlight around Joe’s head until he woke up. Joe hoists the gun case over his shoulder and puts a hand on Buddy’s shoulder.

Buddy nudges the case. “You got a gun in there, Grandpa?”

Joe says maybe.

The boy’s mama has said no hunting, and they both know it.
Nearly 160 acres of flooded rice fields surround the tank, irrigation ditches and dirt single lane roads all around. It takes every spare cent Joe has to rent it from the rice farmer this year. It was expensive before Mac died, but without a partner to share the costs, Jesus. And Mac always paid more than his share, bought a new tank in 2009, always wrote the check to the irrigation district for the water to flood the fields.

The sky is navy-gray, dark as a worn Army blanket. Joe sets the case on the farthest stool. Inside is a Remington 20 gauge shotgun, gray camouflage finish perfect for duck hunting, length of pull adjustable. Kids grow, you want a gun that grows with them. Salesman said he’d taught his own son on the same model at the age of five.

Buddy spins on his stool. Joe can tell he’s excited, that it’s going to be one of those can’t-settle-down days. Joe rests his hand on Buddy’s shoulder, tells him to hush.

There’s a moment between moonset and sunrise when the water is still and the ducks don’t stir. Sit quiet enough, you can hear the earth spinning on her axis. You see red Mars like the last ember in the campfire coals. Venus rises, and the first bird sings. No matter how many years you’ve been doing this, birds always sense first light before you.

Sky like gun-metal now, with a pale glow at the horizon like the satin edge of that baby blanket Buddy still sleeps with. In the daylight, he pretends he doesn’t need it, says he’s a big kid now, but in the middle of the night, Joe’s checked on him, found the ratty thing wadded up in his fist.

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Michelle McGurk is a former reporter and now works in public policy in San Jose, California. She holds an MFA from Lesley University. This is her first fiction publication.