Step Nine

Photo by Several Seconds
Step Nine by Michelle McGurk

Buddy sticks each hand inside the opposite sleeve of his coat, raises them up like he’s hugging the air. “I’m fine. I just want to see a blue-winged teal.”

“Haven’t seen one myself this year. Back when your dad was your size, seemed like they came through more often. Think of all the creatures you have seen—cinnamon teal, egrets, eagles, and hawks. And what about that falcated duck that came passing through? How many of your friends can say they’ve seen one of those?”

“Are there ducks in Heaven?” Buddy asks.

Joe stares at the pale gold at the edge of the horizon. “You know, Mac used to say clouds would make a pretty good blind.”

“Do you think Mac and my daddy go hunting together?”

Damn, the kid sure comes up with some doozies. Last week, he wanted to build a rocket ship and fly up past the Milky Way, find Heaven. That’s what Joe gets for saying Heaven was “way out there somewhere.” That’s what he gets for going along with Jessie’s stories about Danny being killed in Afghanistan. He warned her. Kids know when you’re piling on bullshit—look how suspicious they get about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

“Tell me again, Grandpa, how old was my dad when you taught him to shoot?”


“Like me.”

Boy’s going to be surprised. Just got to find the right moment.

The sun edges over the mountaintops, spills gold lava across the cobalt sky. Pink bursts forth, like some hidden inside flesh. More whistling across the water, mixed in with soft grunts and nudging sounds.

“Widgeon there, Bud. Headed our way.”

The boy unhooks his hands and raises the binoculars to his eyes, adjusts the view. “I forget, do they have blue bills too?”

Joe says they do, blue and black. Buddy says he’s hungry, and Joe pulls the bag of fritters out of his pocket. The paper is dark in spots where it touched the fried dough. He hands Buddy the uneaten one, says he can have the crunchy parts being that it’s his birthday.

Joe watches him picking off edges and sticking them in his mouth, chewing with a concentration that says his mind’s in another place. Danny used to eat like that.

Some days, Joe can’t look at Buddy without seeing his son. Hair brush-cut with a cowlick in front, same color as the foothills around Sacramento. The turned-up nose comes from his mama, the blue eyes from Danny. Although Joe can’t remember much about Danny’s eyes at that age. Joe’s memories have been blotted out, replaced by a pale stare looking everywhere but at his father in the visitor’s room.

Joe’s only made one visit—he doesn’t count sitting through Danny’s trial—can’t afford more. Nearly broke his heart, it did, but Joe had lied, told his son it was good to see him.

“The boy, Jessica, they send their love,” Joe told Danny that day. “Wanted me to wish you a Merry Christmas.”

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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.