Step Nine

Photo by Several Seconds
Step Nine by Michelle McGurk

Joe corrects him, says he’s got shells in the bag. He takes the shotgun from the boy and starts to load it. In the distance, Joe hears a faint beep that’s been missing all season.

“Buddy, quick, look out past the decoys,” Joe says. He sets the gun on the case, points to a distant black patch in the orange-gold sky.

The coil approaches, a squadron of miniature fighter jets. Beeping and honking, each male so distinguished with white curves on either side of his bill, blue-gray epaulets on each buff wing. Wings stretch, showing green speculum over a row of white feathers. The blue-winged teal’s flight is erratic, nearly impossible for a casual hunter to strike. One shot and the whole lot’ll turn on their after-burners. The boy starts to ask a question, but his words get swallowed by the high-pitched peeping.

They watch the birds veer close then make a beeline for the horizon. Buddy sticks his hands in his sleeves again—it’s damn cold outside.

“Ready to head back, Bud?” Joe asks. The boy had seen his teal, gotten to hold a shotgun. Maybe that was enough excitement for one birthday. “We’ve got to gussy ourselves up for your party.”

Joe gathers up the paper bag and the empty cups, crumples them, and puts them into his game pocket. Joe returns the shotgun to the sack, hoists it over his shoulder. What was he thinking anyway—start a war with Jessie right before she leaves town? That’s all he needs is to lose his grandpa rights. No, he can stick a couple twenties in an envelope while the boy takes his shower. Kids always like to have some pocket money.

They step out of the tank. The water shimmers around Joe’s knees, hits Buddy high up on the thigh. They wade back to the dirt bank, sidestep up, and walk the hundred yards to the ATV. The low gray of Sacramento winter spreads before them, but over toward the mountains, Joe sees patches of blue breaking through white clouds. With a little luck, they might get some sunshine in time for the boy’s party.

“You were about to ask me a question back there,” Joe says.

“The teal. I thought you said its head was purple.”

“Can be,” Joe says. “It all depends on the light, Bud. Everything changes with the light.”

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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.