They leave dead animals on our lawn. Usually roadkill. Squirrels a couple times a month. Once a rabbit. A possum. A turkey. Word got out that my daughter likes this. And it’s true: she does.
She claims to have learned from YouTube, but I suspect Nathaniel pushed this new hobby. My husband does not like Nathaniel. I’m mixed. I feel bad for him. I’ve heard rumors that he was institutionalized at one point. He lost his mother in high school.
Maybe they’re good for each other, I tell my husband. He’s watching through the living room window. He shakes his head. They’re in the treehouse together again.
They’re too old to be playing in a treehouse. Mackenzie is seventeen, a rising senior. Nathaniel is nineteen, and works at a vape shop. He looks young, though. A neighbor suggested that their relationship is sexual. I suspect it’s stranger than that, unfortunately.
And maybe young is the wrong way to describe Nathaniel. It’s hard to put your finger on what’s amiss. He is quite small. Shorter than my daughter. Mackenzie says he took growth hormones as a child. My husband thinks this must have messed with his musculature. Nathaniel looks knotted, in-grown, overcooked. These are things my husband says.
My daughter used to have other friends. They were an odd crew, but on a more regular spectrum of weirdness. They favored black clothing and piercings, but also did normal things. One of the boys ran cross country. One of the girls was on honor roll.
Then Nathaniel joined them. At the beginning of the summer, the others lazed around our backyard. A pale gang, sitting sweaty in the shade. Black pants and hoodies despite the heat. Nathaniel, though, he would be topless and in cargo shorts. I think he was proud of how the hormones had sculpted his pectorals and abdomen. He marched around while the others glowered. But he had Mackenzie’s attention. He did cartwheels and pushups. He vaped. Mackenzie’s other friends stopped coming around.
That’s when Nathaniel purchased fleshing knives online. Also skiving knives and pelt stretchers. These are things my husband discovers. He reasons with me at the dinner table after Mackenzie refuses to come in. They’re in the middle of something out there. In the treehouse. Lately, we can smell it. First the decay. Then the brutal chemicals they use to clean up. That’s the thing: They are a meticulous pair. My husband investigated their workspace. He took pictures on his phone. Nathaniel has the walls of the treehouse adorned with hangers for their tools. He’s arranged a workbench that shines clean after every session. There’s a cooler, too, that’s padlocked shut. It’s where they store the innards before disposal.
Obviously we should shut this down, but suddenly, Mackenzie is happy. She goes off her Zoloft, which makes us nervous, but what can we say when Mackenzie’s laughter is echoing from the treehouse? Nathaniel must be doing something right.
Of course, their relationship does become romantic. They’re boyfriend-girlfriend now. They take Ubers to restaurants and movies. And they can afford to do this now because they are making a lot of money.
I didn’t believe it myself. But they explain at dinner. Nathaniel and Mackenzie across the table from me and my husband. Late August. School year fast approaching. They just made a couple thousand dollars.
“Because our process is ethical and does not involve hunting, the Natural History Museum is using us as a vendor so they can access some federal grant money that wouldn’t be an option otherwise,” Nathaniel says. He is wearing a shirt and tie for some reason. I worry that he’s going to ask for our daughter’s hand in marriage. It’s a short-sleeved shirt, at least. His forearms are veiny.
“Kenzie will be busy when school starts, but I’m glad that it worked out this summer,” my husband says. He’s trying to put his foot down without actually putting his foot down. Mackenzie is smiling at Nathaniel. Nat she calls him now. Like a gnat. I’m surprised there aren’t more bugs around our yard, to be honest, considering the carnage.
They leave to go to the movies. My husband worries that our daughter will become sexually active with this creep. I remind him that Nathaniel wore a shirt and tie. I remind him of the way Mackenzie looks at Nat when he talks. My husband grimaces.
I was born months early. Emergency cesarean. Mom survived until she didn’t, but that was many years later. She had time to say the things a mom should say to a tragically tiny son: that Napoleon once conquered the world.
Me, I grew to have simpler aspirations. I wanted friends. I wanted to kiss girls. I watched online videos endlessly at thirteen and fourteen and fifteen. Men and women making love. Their softnesses spread out on my computer screen. It consumed me, the idea that this was personally unattainable. I could not conceive of a woman lusting after my proportions. An article on the internet said that men think sexual thoughts every eleven seconds. That’s just the average, though.
My doctor prescribed the steroids, but Mom worried they were making me sick. The doctor said one side effect was sterility, and when I figured out what this meant, I refused further treatment. Mom begged me to continue, but after she passed, that was that. High school was hard for other reasons, too. No one liked me. The teachers were actually the meanest. I got in trouble for masturbating in the bathroom once, and then they all knew. You should have seen the way they looked at me.
But you should also see the way Mackenzie looks at me. We met at a McDonald’s. She approached me at my booth by the window, wanting to talk about the contents of my nuggets. Fat, bones, nerves, tissue, epithelium. These were the first words she said to me, pointing at my food. I thought she was a PETA activist or something, but then she dunked one in my barbecue sauce and ate it. Can you imagine that level of confidence, just across from you in a McDonald’s booth?
Her parents underestimate her, so I am the one to build her a workbench in the treehouse. She kisses me hard against it. I drag a cooler up and into the corner, and she wraps herself in my arms. She loves animals more than she loves most things, but maybe not more than she loves me. I peeked in her journal once, and it was just pictures. Bears and owls and elk. Wolves and badgers. And me, a candid photo, displayed among everything else she admires.
Nat’s friend is a fireman, and he texts us about the bear. The movie’s almost over, but I want to leave immediately. I’ve been waiting for something like this all summer. Hoping for a deer or an elk. This is even better. Nat stresses. He told my parents he’d have me back before midnight. It’s eleven thirty. But I insist. It’s a bear.
We arrive after the cops and firemen, but before Animal Control. Our Uber driver looks concerned.
Good: the focus is on the man who was driving the car. The EMTs are with him, and the cops, too. He sits in the open door of the ambulance wrapped in a shiny heat blanket. Shocked but unbloodied. His car is destroyed. The hood crunched like foil. The windshield webbed entirely white.
Nat and I worry that the bear will be laid out on the concrete, in plain view. This would be less than ideal, according to Faxidermy.net. A user named FruitOfTheWomb says that outside of hunting, the only way to get big game is to lurk at crash sites. What you hope for is that the animal is mortally wounded in the crash, but not dead. You want it to crawl off into the woods so that you have a fair chance of finding it before Animal Control.
So we jog around a bend in the road, away from everything. We enter the woods by the light of our phones. We pause and listen. We walk some more. There’s hooting somewhere. I dearly hope to find an owl someday. I’ve printed and glued many birds of prey in my journal. Faxidermy.net recommends this. A wish list of the things you hope to get inside.
Nat moves ahead of me. I admire his shoulders and his butt as he marches on. I’m drawn to his body, though I can’t say exactly why. We work for each other, is what Nat says. Physically compatible. We’re considering making love soon, and I feel lucky that he frames it for me as a consideration. I always imagined I would marry an artist, a painter maybe, and live in a loft in an affordable city. But that was before Nat. He bought me knives and scalpels and calipers and stands. We might stay in town forever.
Nat gasps. He puts his hand over his mouth. There, the bear: crumpled, bloody, and still.
I’m not fully disappointed, but the creature is smaller than I would have guessed. Perhaps I built this all up in my head. I was picturing something Jurassic, towering. But on the forest floor, the bear looks depleted. It’s a she.
Nat’s holding his phone steady, lighting the scene. The smallness of her hits me hard. I tear up. I’ve been crying a lot recently, and it feels good. Everything feels good these days. Sweet bear. I get on her level, creeping close. My vision is clouded by tears, and I don’t spend as much time as I should studying the furry bulk for signs of life. The subtle expansion and contraction of lungs. A trembling about the ears. A flutter of lids.
And then everything explodes. Wind knocked out of me. Vision still hazy with tears, light from Nat’s dropped phone pinwheeling. The sound: not a roar, but a shriek, air torn and ripped raw. On my back in the black. Pine needles under my palms. Belly up. Shuffling. Brambles, thorns, and the approaching lunge and snarl.
I huddle behind a tree. I shriek for Nat. My fingers scratch at my phone to make the white light shine. No time passes, a single second stretching wide and endless, full of desperate dead-leaf scrambling.
Reality splinters in the light of my phone, and Nat’s on the beast. His arms around the neck, his head above the toothy mangle of spitting snout. A wrestler’s move. Windpipe crushed until submission. But you would be surprised how a bear can contort, how there’s no safety from claws. Scraping and tearing and pulling. I think Nat is screaming, but actually it’s me. He lets out no sound. I scramble, I crawl.
Gunshot. A thousand flashlights. Legs and legs and legs.
I’m still, but my insides are not. I thrum with blood flow. It’s night, but somewhere behind museum doors, our rabbit cannot close its eyes. I realize this now as I wait for Nat to move, and it scares me in ways that only he’d appreciate.