Number Three


by Paul Vidich

Chris slid next to the old stone wall and took a moment to let himself rest from his dash across the open field. He breathed deeply, exhaled a frosty plume of vapor into the chilly early morning air and for the first time since he sneaked out of his mama's house into the predawn darkness he was glad he hadn't stayed under the warm covers. He was cold where his year-old jacket no longer reached his wrists, but he was too excited to care. He cradled his brand new .22 rifle in his gloved hands.

He was eager to get to the quarry early so he could fire his prized possession without being bothered by another person. The land was posted no trespassing but that meant nothing. High school kids sneaked up to drink beer but their mischief never started as early as he had that Sunday morning.

Through the stone wall's underbrush he looked down the hill at the rundown trailer where the quarry's caretaker lived. It was an eyesore if he'd ever seen one. The yard was littered with old cars, rusted pick-ups, and firewood that lay where it was split. Chris heard there was a shed where the caretaker locked up boys he caught trespassing but he didn't see a shed. He didn't worry about it much because he didn't plan on getting caught.

Farther down the valley Chris saw thin wisps of chimney smoke that rose straight up into the still air. Autumn had withdrawn and left the hills with a wash of winter gray. At the valley's mouth, in a small white frame house that he could barely make out, lay his sick mama.

The only good thing about his mama being real sick was he could come and go as he pleased. He planned to be back before she got up so he wouldn't have to answer any awkward questions about his absence. Sometimes he wondered what it would be like being alone in the world.

His mama didn't approve of guns and she didn't know that he had the rifle. After his daddy ran off Chris was all she had, so he tried not to disappoint her, but there were some things his mama just didn't understand about him. He kept those things to himself. Like the rifle. All week he ran home early from school so he could intercept the mail order package before his mama saw it and asked what was inside. He'd saved school lunch money all year so he could buy the new model advertised in the catalog. They didn't even ask him how old he was but he had been prepared to lie. He wrote "Mr" in front of his name so the catalog people might think he was an adult.

Lights in the trailer were out so Chris figured the caretaker was still sleeping, or sleeping off a drunk. Chris never figured out why grown men drank whiskey till they were sick. He'd sipped it once and thought it tasted like turpentine. His daddy drank a lot before he ran off. Chris didn't believe the stories he'd heard about the caretaker but he knew that anyone who took care of an abandoned quarry had to be strange somehow. He lived in the rundown trailer with a sorry mutt that walked on three legs after it lost one to a car.

Chris decided that he had not been seen so he relaxed and leaned back against the wall. Early morning sounds floated up the frozen field on the cold air. Winter birds chirped in the shade of the dark ridge and far below, like an alien sound, he heard the muffled rumble of trucks speeding on the thruway. He shifted his attention to his hike.

The weak morning sun bathed the ridge with pale light but the hill where he crouched was still in the grip of frost laid down that night. A rutted dirt road carved a path through parallel rows of ancient oaks until the shallow angle of the field gave way to the ridge's steep base, and the forest. Up the road, on top of the ridge, was the quarry.

Chris rose off his haunches and cautiously moved forward under cover of the stone wall. He bent low and carried the rifle in his right hand and imagined he was his dead grandpa in army uniform running across frozen German fields. He stayed low to stay hidden from the caretaker, who made do as the make-believe enemy. Frost-covered oak leaves crunched under the weight of his boots as he moved swiftly to the tree line. His breath came quickly now and his swift stride carried him boldly forward. He penetrated the forest by leaping a weathered section of the wall and he ran until he was certain that he could not be seen.

The trailer's door slammed shut and Chris looked back down the hill, where the caretaker had just stepped outside. The caretaker's pajamas hung loosely on his rail-thin frame and his long gray hair was pulled back and knotted in a ponytail. Beads hung around his neck. Chris wondered if he was an old hippie. He'd never seen a hippie but he knew they were clannish types with strange ways.

The caretaker stomped his feet on the frozen ground, twisted his arms and then his waist in a sort of exercise ritual, and then he let out a loud howl that carried across the valley. Some turkey vultures, startled by the sound, flew off.

The caretaker's mutt ignored the howl and peed in a squat position like a bitch. While Chris looked on the caretaker dropped his pajamas to his ankles and peed in a long high arc onto the spot that his mutt had just marked.

Chris figured he now had a story he could tell about the caretaker, but on second thought, he decided not to tell anyone. Someone would want to know what he had been doing that early at the quarry and he had no desire to tell anyone he had been up there shooting. Chris knew that once one person knew a secret about him, they would talk, and soon word would get around that he had been shooting a rifle when he saw the caretaker pee with his dog. Some people who heard the story would be more surprised by his having a rifle than by the man's morning ritual. Chris didn't want that.

Chris dropped to the forest floor and steadied the rifle's chestnut stock on a low, flat part of the stone wall. He closed his left eye and tried to get comfortable looking at the blurred image in the rifle's scope. He slowly shifted the rifle until the caretaker was framed in the powerful lens. Chris could make out details that were lost to his unaided eye. He was barefoot, had hairy legs, steam rose from the arc of warm pee and he moved his lips, so Chris figured he was humming or singing. Chris raised the rifle's angle of elevation to center the scope's cross hairs on the caretaker's head. He slid his glove off, steadied the cross hairs on the target and eased his finger through the trigger guard.

Chris watched the caretaker carry on unaware of the claim that was being made on his life. He imagined the metallic click of the pin, the force of the blast. Chris quickly pulled his eye from the scope and sat back against the stone wall in silence. His hand shook and without any exertion he found himself out of breath. The power he had felt while the caretaker was targeted in the cross hairs frightened him. He thought about what he'd almost done. It wasn't 'almost' he corrected himself, but it was close to almost. How easy it would have been to fire. It didn't feel bad but he knew that it wasn't right to think that it felt good. He wished he were old enough to join the army.

He wasn't familiar with death. He didn't know anyone who had died and he'd never been to a funeral. His dog had run away, and he had been sad about that, but the dog had not died. He was just gone. Like his daddy. Gone. A high school senior five years older than Chris had been killed in a motorcycle accident last month but Chris didn't know him so his death was just a thing that made some high school girls cry. Sometimes he cried in bed when he thought about his mama dying. He didn't tell anyone about that. He didn't tell anyone because he wasn't supposed to know how sick she was.

He slowly exhaled and watched his breath turn cloud-white. These thoughts were already worth the effort that he'd made to wake early and sneak out before his mama got up and he hadn't even gotten to the quarry yet.

He jumped up and shook out the cold that had settled into his limbs. Chris looked back one last time at the caretaker. He had started his old pick-up truck and left it to warm up while he went back into the trailer.

Chris set out up the ridge avoiding the dirt road. He moved easily through the terrain because the large oaks that dominated the slope denied summer light to underbrush that might contend for a place on the land. The only obstacles to the many pathways offered by the old forest were the rotting trunks of trees toppled by disease or storm. Chris cleared these hurdles with the gracefulness of a fit runner. He clung to the rifle in his right hand and savored the cold air that he gulped as he ran. Boulders dislodged by the powerful hand of weather littered the forest floor at the base of the ridge. Chris dodged the scattered stones but soon found that he was on a steep, rocky slope.

The deeper he moved into the forest the more alone he felt, and it was a sensation he enjoyed. He could live alone in the woods. Had he lived two hundred years before he would have hunted, trapped and fished in a remote, unsettled place. The thought gave him a pleasant feeling like the feeling he got when he became lost in a good storybook.

Chris slid his left knee onto the loose stone on top of the ridge and pulled himself up with both hands. He stood up, stretched his taut leg muscles and flexed his fingers that had become frozen in the claw position needed to keep a firm hold on the rock ledges. He quickly ducked into the underbrush that thrived on the ridge. He cut a path through the thick growth until, without warning, he found himself on the south edge of the quarry's gaping mouth.

It was a quiet place. Only the rapid hammering of a woodpecker on a dying tree broke the spot's silence. Clouds had burned off and all that remained was a high ceiling of robin's egg blue sky against which he could see the dark, distant specks of Canada geese flying in tight formation like fighter jets at an air show.

The quarry was nearly round, and a well-trod path followed its edge until it joined with the dirt road on the far side. The quarry was wider than he remembered, but it was still close enough for him to throw a rock across. He tried it but the first stone fell short, hit the inside wall, and fell thirty feet to the still, black water. The stone's splash sent gentle waves across the mirror surface. Chris tried again and succeeded. He couldn't tell the distance but he now had a point of reference. He could just get a fist-sized stone across. That's how far it was. It interested him that he could think in increments of a stone's throw, but he saw the limits of that. How would he describe his shoe size? 'A lot less than a stone's throw?' He smiled at the idea. He wondered who invented inches, feet and yards.

He sat down on a flat rock, lay his rifle across his lap and let his eyes take in the fullness of the man-made scar. The granite walls dropped thirty feet from the quarry's lip, and except for a narrow path used by teenage boys who foolishly leaped into the cold water in summer, there was no way up. The water was still and dark as if one of earth's veins had been opened to fill the hole.

Faded graffiti from teenage expressions of love marked the upper portion of the quarry. Chris had heard that last year some boys had pushed a car over the edge. No one knew for sure how deep it was. He'd heard that it was half a mile deep, and while it seemed to him that nothing could be that deep, he had repeated it as fact to several younger boys. It made it easy to explain why it was a favorite spot to dump unwanted cars, garbage you couldn't take to the dump, and dead people. He doubted most of the stories. They were stories invented to scare kids.

Chris reached into his pocket without the hole, grabbed the five .22 longs and lined them up on the rock. He liked lead's heavy feel and for the same reason he liked the feel of the live ammunition. He opened the bolt action breech, checked the unfired bullet that was inside, and carefully slid the bolt forward.

He scanned the quarry for a target, vaguely aware of the unfolding view of the valley. His eye settled on the eight Canadian geese that had just landed on the exposed north rim near a stand of dwarf pine. They were tentative and motionless, camouflaged by their speckled feathers.

Chris was excited because he wouldn't have to shoot at some dumb thing that wouldn't move, like an empty soda bottle or beer can. He'd have to be smart, quiet and stealthy so as not to spook them. Chris hadn't moved a muscle since first spotting them and only when he had formed a plan did he make his first cautious move. He slipped off the rock and lay chest down on the soft skin of wet topsoil turned to mud under the sun's thawing rays. He'd have to lie to his mama about how he got muddy.

He chose a goose in the middle because it moved the least, and he figured that he'd have a better chance of hitting it. He didn't know if the scope fired high or low, so he just put the cross hairs on the goose's plump body and pulled the trigger.

The rifle's stock didn't knock him back, as he thought it might, but the extreme sound of the blast surprised him. He could hear it echo in the valley, and he knew people would wonder who was up there. Chris was on his feet instantly running on the path around the quarry to the spot where the geese had stood. They flew off the moment the shot rang out and were now well out of range. He didn't know if he had hit one because he blinked when he pulled the trigger.

There were feathers on the ground where the geese had stood, but no dead goose, not on the open ground at least, so he pushed aside a dwarf pine and looked in the underbrush. There it was. It lay as still as the earth, only the wind rustling its feathers. It had a quiet look, and Chris figured that was the way a dead thing looked. Except for dead insects, and some road kills that he tried to look at as his mama drove by, it was the first dead thing he'd seen up close.

He knelt and touched the fluffed up feathers. He saw a big hole in the bird's side through which guts and things spilled out. He pushed aside a large feather to get a closer look, and his hand recoiled when it accidentally touched the goose's warm blood. He stared at the red blood.

He quickly wiped his hand on his pants, and then regretted the stain that was left. His mama would see it for sure. She saw everything, even the folded notes in his pockets that survived the washing machine. He spit on the spot and rubbed dirt in. He figured he would make it look like another mud stain.

"Hey you. What are you doin'?"

Chris spun around in the direction of the voice. The caretaker was running toward him, white breath spilling out of his mouth. Chris froze. The caretaker wore a bulky, patched coat and a grim frown, and it seemed to Chris that the caretaker looked at him like he was in big trouble.

"No one's allowed up here," he snapped, stopping a few feet away. "It's private property. Ain't you a little young to be haulin' a rifle?"

Chris's face turned cherry-red. He wanted to shrink into his boots. His mind quickly searched for a plausible lie that would explain why he was holding a .22 rifle with a dead goose at his feet. He tried to hide the dead bird by moving his legs together.

The caretaker nodded at Chris's feet. "You do that?" He took Chris's arm and pulled him aside. "You're in big trouble. You know that. Trespassin'. Huntin' out of season. Who let you have a damn rifle?"

Chris wondered if he'd be arrested. All he knew about crime was the stuff he saw on TV, and that high school kids got sent home if they smoked in the lavatories. This was worse than smoking in the lavatories. He'd killed something. He could say it was an accident. He wished he had stuck to shooting beer cans and soda bottles.

"Son, you better give me that rifle." The caretaker reached for the rifle but Chris wasn't about to give it up, and he lifted the weapon.

Chris felt a hard slap hit his face. He was stunned for a moment. He touched his cheek.

"Don't point that thing at me, son," the caretaker said in a low, angry voice. "Don't even think about shootin' me. Understand?" He took the rifle from Chris.

Chris couldn't shoot anyone, even if he wanted to, because he hadn't reloaded. But it didn't matter. He knew he hadn't threatened the man; he had drawn the rifle closer and the caretaker mistook the gesture. He wanted to explain all this but he couldn't figure out how to put the words together fast enough.

The caretaker checked the firing chamber for a live round. "Your ma know you got this?"

Chris shook his head. He could feel the sting from the slap set in. He knew what his mama would say. She would be disappointed if she learned that he had killed another living thing. She didn't shout or scream, but her look of disappointment was worse than the strap his daddy once used. It was a look he wanted to avoid. He'd have to lie about how he got the rifle but the trouble with lying was his mama knew his lies before they left his tongue.

The caretaker nodded at the goose. "This wasn't right. I guess you know that. You got any more bullets?"

Chris put his hand into his pocket and handed over the remaining ammunition. The caretaker cupped them in his right hand and with a softball pitch tossed them over the quarry's edge. The quiet splash floated up to them and then there was silence. Chris wondered how long it would take for them to reach the bottom.

"You're the Smilley kid, aren't you?"

Chris was startled to hear his name. He couldn't figure out how he knew who he was. He didn't say anything because he didn't know what to say. But being recognized was bad.

"You tell your ma that I said hello. Tell her I hope she gets better." He handed the rifle to Chris. "Be careful. It ain't no toy. Now get goin'. And don't come back up here, hear me?"

Chris took the rifle in both hands. Then he spun on his heels and sped off down the path that circled the quarry. He ran his heart out. It crossed his mind that the caretaker might have his own gun and would shoot him in the back so he ducked into the dense underbrush in the same spot from which he had emerged earlier, and thrashed his way through the eye-level limbs, overgrown roots and clothes-catching thorns. His shirt ripped and he was dully aware of the branches that slapped his face but nothing stood in the way of his determined escape.

He burst onto the ridgeline like a startled fawn and with the briefest pause to pick the best point of descent, he downclimbed the rocky face. It was only when he hit the bottom of the ridge that he calmed a bit and stopped to catch his breath. Chris looked back. Above the open canopy of undressed trees he saw the caretaker on the ridge looking down at him. Chris watched him for a moment. He hated people who looked kindly on him because his mama was dying. He could take care of himself.

Chris touched his cheek. He didn't like the caretaker even if he knew his mama. Maybe he should have shot him when he had the chance. Chris slipped the rifle's strap over his shoulder and turned to start the long walk home.

Copyright ã 1999 by Paul Vidich


Paul Vidich, a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Wharton Business School, is employed in the music business. He and his wife Linda Stein live in Soho and High Falls, NY.

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