Puffs of breath, like wisps of dreams unspoken, float off Quinn’s bottom lip. He’s singing silent. Singing to himself like he always does—like he always has. Bits of TV jingles and theme songs, jumbled choruses and verses like crumpled sheet music. It irritates the hell outta Stella. But Stella ain’t here. We could hear her snoring while we got ready, pulling on jeans and flannels and coats, warming our hands on mugs of coffee thick as the mud squelching under our boots. The sun hadn’t reached through the dirty window above the kitchen sink yet, but when we tumbled out onto the front porch, cold nipping at our cheeks and ears, Buck was there.
“C’mon now,” he said. “Time’s a-wastin’.”
Daddy used to say Quinn was broken in the head, that I had to be a smart little girl to make up for it. I always pictured little puzzle pieces tumbling around inside his skull, trying to fit themselves back together.
I touch Quinn’s shoulder and nod to the horizon, which is starting to fade from black to pinkish gray, like the belly of a fish. He leans close to my ear and hums “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain, and I wonder if he remembers watching the movie with Ma singing along, slopping gin down the front of her nightgown even though it was barely noon. I hope not.
I shrug, and then remember he can’t see it. “Ain’t heard shit.”
Buck’s the only one I don’t mind answering even though everybody in town asks. Buck knew Daddy before Quinn and I were born, so I know he’s asking for himself. Everybody else asks so they can give us that crinkle-brow, frowning look. That pity-look that I hate. When Daddy first dumped us on his Momma’s porch and told her to look after us for a few days, Buck came around not an hour after. I don’t know if Daddy stopped by his place, too, or if he could hear Stella screaming at us. We’ve never called her Grandma. Three months later and it’s the three of us in a cabin barely big enough for one, Quinn and I trading spots on the sleeper sofa and the floor, sometimes curling together like hounds that don’t know they’re too big to act like pups.
“Stella said he’s gone to California,” Quinn adds, unexpectedly, before lapsing into melodic muttering that might be “Surfin’” by the Beach Boys.
Buck spits to the side, a globe of saliva stained brown from the chaw tucked into his cheek. We stop at the edge of a wide field, the perfect place to scare up some birds, and I sneak up next to Ranger, burying my cold fingers in the coarse fur at the nape of his neck. I can feel the tension and excitement running through him. I have little of that myself. I don’t care if we don’t bag any birds today. It’s enough to be standing with the cold on my cheeks, smelling the dampness in the air. Quinn reaches over and tugs a strand of my hair, come loose from the stocking cap I stole from Buck. It’s as affectionate as he gets, and I smile, smoothing the duct tape patch that’s always peeling away from the shoulder of his coat. His coat leaks goose down, little white tufts that flurry away like snow. Buck casts around for a minute, sharp eyes scouting the lay of the land from beneath his black eyebrows. He spits another stream of murky juice and jerks his head to the left. I see the silver glint of water along the far edge of the clearing—a perfect spot. Quinn holds his gun easy, like it’s another part of his hand and hums. I try to guess the melody by watching his breath frost the air, hypnotized almost. Buck flicks my shoulder and I look away from my brother.
“You doin’ a’right, girl?
I know better than to shrug. Buck doesn’t ask questions that don’t need answering.
“She forgot to buy groceries again last week, but I saved a few oatmeal packets and there was some meat in the freezer.” I chew on a hangnail. Quinn and I had missed meals before and no doubt would again.
“You let me know next time, y’hear?” Buck waits for my nod before moving towards a tall stand of grass.
We hunker down at the edge of the field and watch as the sun begins to send fingers of light through the wispy fog. In the near-silence, I hear the clap of wings. Quinn raises his gun, lips moving silently, but doesn’t shoot. The grass crunches as Ranger shifts, eager for the hunt.
My lips are dry and taste like the chicory in our morning coffee. As if the sun summoned them, the doves appear, looking themselves like bits of morning mist. I glance at Quinn, his face still as he sights along the barrel of his gun and pulls the trigger. A piece of fluff from Quinn’s jacket floats towards my face as I lock my sights on a bird. I imagine their little bodies, light bones filled with air. Breathe in, out. Feel the trigger warm beneath my finger. The shot echoes through my ears and another bird falls.
Written by: Hannah Sears
Photograph by: Kayla King