Lowlands

Lowlands

 

“Gretchen, what are you doing?” Henry asked. He followed her into the bedroom.

“How did we get ourselves into this, Henry? I don’t see any other way out,” Gretchen said. She opened the closet door and began rummaging through clothes and personal effects.

“Please don’t, honey, I’m begging you,” he said.

“Listen up, bub. It’s the middle of January, there’s two feet of snow on the ground, and I’m sure as hell not going to starve to death because all of a sudden you began your period.”

She dove back into the closet and continued to forage. A couple minutes later she stood at the front door to the cabin with a 12-gauge shotgun in hand. The wind screamed through the prairie. It screamed at Henry to stop her, but there was no way he was going to confront her now.

She crept outside and stalked the adolescent white tail that set up camp under their truck only yesterday. The blast of the shotgun filled the dry winter air. She had done it, just like Ol’ Yeller. Henry remembered crying at that movie when he was five. He felt the same remorse for the young faun. Gretchen pulled a massive knife from her coat pocket, and tore into the small animal, its guts and blood strewn across the snow. It was a horrifying display of human savagery, but Henry’s stomach growled.

Gretchen sliced through the creature’s fur and draped the pelt over her shoulders. She walked inside and placed the shotgun and dismembered head on the kitchen table. Blood seeped from the neck and trickled to the edge of the table before making its final decent to the kitchen floor. The black, lifeless eyes stared into Henry’s soul. He tried to avert the deer’s judging gaze. The thought of a fresh steak made his stomach growl again. He walked up to the severed head and knelt down.

“I’m sorry, it’s nothing personal,” he said and patted the side of its cold, stiff face.

Gretchen bent over in the snow outside and cut off chunks of meat from the mangled body, placing them in a paper sack she had found under the sink. The snow around her lay stained and spattered red. Once finished, she brought the bag inside and placed it into the freezer, and placed the creature’s pelt by the fireplace.

“Go wash your hands and face for dinner Henry,” Gretchen said.

“You need to be careful doing all this work sweetheart. We don’t want to put too much strain on the baby,” he said.

“We can’t sit here and wait to die,” she said.

“Just tell me what to do.”

“No, you’ll mess something up.”

Henry put his head down and walked to the bathroom. He hated her. He wanted to tell her how bad of a person she was, and how he dreamed of leaving her every night. He never did anything right, and he never would. He was a spineless scumbag that wouldn’t know what manliness was if it kicked him in his nutless crotch. These were all her words of course.

A crash came from the kitchen, and Henry sprinted to the side of Gretchen who was sprawled out on the ground.

“What happened?” Henry asked.

“Nothing. I’m fine. It was just a stomach cramp,” she said.

“A stomach cramp? What does that mean? Is the baby coming now?”

“No, you twit.”

“Maybe we should get in the truck and try to drive to Livingston.”

“There is no way we would make it. We can’t even tell where the road is anymore. I will be fine. It was just a hunger cramp.”

Gretchen stood up and walked over to the stove where the meat was cooking in a pan. She grabbed a fork and flipped both pieces over. Her body looked frail compared to when they had arrived. Henry’s stomach churned. Their child might be in danger, and they certainly couldn’t have the baby here. He wouldn’t know what to do. How could he comfort her when he was going to be in tears as well? How would he cut the cord? Henry walked to the closet and grabbed his coat, hat, and mittens.

“I’ll be right back, I just need to grab something out of the truck,” he said.

Gretchen didn’t move a muscle. He opened the door and walked outside. The wind screamed at him again. It screamed at him to leave. Henry walked to end of the driveway. All he could see was snow and grey skies for miles. There was no variation in the white where a road might be. It was their first time up here and he couldn’t remember if the road went right, left, or was actually on the other side of the house. The garbage can next to the garage blew into him and knocked him into the snow. He looked up and watched it roll into the distance.

“Weren’t you grabbing something from the truck?” Gretchen asked when he returned.

“It wasn’t there. I must have left it back home,” he said.

“What were you looking for?”

 “Nothing, it doesn’t matter.”

Gretchen raised an eyebrow and rolled her eyes. She knew he was lying, and she seemed to not care enough to find out why. She walked back to the stove and continued tending to the steaks. He didn’t need to lie most of the times he did, but he needed some things in his life to himself. She didn’t need to know everything he did.

“Take that shotgun off the table and put it away,” she said.

Henry pick up the gun and walked into the bedroom. He sat down on the bed and looked at it. He had never killed anything before. He wondered how it felt. Sometimes he wished she were dead. It would be sad at first, but he knew he could move on. He would find someone who was kind to him, and who admired how smart and manly he was. She would never question his decisions. A box of shotgun shells rested on the floor of the closet. Henry reached inside, only one left. He placed the round in the chamber, and aimed at the mirror.

“Get in here Henry! The food is ready!” Gretchen yelled from the kitchen.

Henry sprang from the bed, and raced into the kitchen. Gretchen brought him a plate with the tender, sizzling meat and a glass of water melted from snow. A hole in the side of the house that exposed the insulation had caused the pipes to freeze and burst, leaving them with no running water. They had become accustomed to their stink by now, but Henry assumed to outsiders it would have been noticeable. At least the electricity was still working.

“This should last us a week or so if we are careful. That means you are only allowed to eat any when I say you can. We don’t need you wasting all of our food because you wanted a snack,” Gretchen said.

Henry picked up his fork and took a bite. It had been two days, and he didn’t care anymore about what he was devouring. He pretended it was juicy tenderloin from the Rib & Chop House in Livingston. Gretchen didn’t let him eat there because one night she believed a waitress was being “bitchy” to her, and the establishment was immediately blacklisted. On nights Gretchen worked the late shifts at the Town Pump, Henry would treat himself to a nice dinner there. He always made sure to pay in cash so there was no evidence.

They ate in silence, barely looking across the table at one another. Gretchen finished before he could eat half. She picked up her plate and put it in the sink.

“Make sure you wash the dishes. The baby and I need as much rest as we can get, I hope we don’t have to pick up your slack again tomorrow,” she said.

“What happens if the baby comes early? What are we going to do?” Henry asked.

“Don’t be stupid, Henry.”

“I’ve never seen you have cramps like that before.”

“This was supposed to be a vacation away from town, and you’ve managed to ruin it once again.”

Henry clenched the fork in his hand.

“It wasn’t my fault the storm hit us.”

“Well, you haven’t made these last few weeks easy on me.”

His mind wandered back to the eve of the storm. The sheriff’s office had taken the time to call all the nearby cabins with landlines to warn them of the blizzard. Henry thanked the man before hanging up. Gretchen had been sleeping, and Henry was always skeptical of weather predictions. The dark grey clouds that loomed over the Crazy Mountains that day seemed but a distant threat.

Henry stayed awake long past Gretchen’s departure into the dream world. After the sound of her thunderous snoring penetrated the bedroom door, he tiptoed to the closet and grabbed the shotgun. He found a rag in the kitchen and sat down on the recliner. The large stone fireplace provided the only light in the room. Shadows casted from the multiple mounted heads flickered and stretched across the walls. The bison above the fireplace watched over the room like a great protector. The young slaughtered faun rested next the fire, its vacant eyes fixated upon him.

“A polished gun is deadly gun,” Henry repeated while wiping the rag over every inch of the weapon. It was a phrase his father preached to him as a child before hunting trips. Hunting trips that never included him.

“Look at me now, dad. I’m finally a man.”

The slow rock of the recliner accentuated its creaks and moans. The noises echoed through the empty room like voices crying out in pain. Henry threw the rag on the ground, satisfied with his work, and rested the gun’s barrel in the clammy grip of his left hand. He stood up and walked to the bedroom. Gretchen was nestled in the blankets on her side. The gun’s cold metallic barrel pointed at the temple on the left side of Gretchen’s head. Henry pulled the butt into his shoulder pocket and rested his cheek against the wooden stock.

“Death will give us back to God.”

 

 

The morning arrived and Henry awoke in the recliner with the shotgun still clutched to his chest. A small flame glowed in the fireplace. He placed a fresh log on the coals. Gretchen emerged from the bedroom with a look of disgust embedded on her face.

“What the hell happened to you last night?” she asked.

Henry adorned his boots and coat, and rested the shotgun on his shoulder.

“I’m going out,” he said.

Before Gretchen could respond he threw the door open and slammed it in her face. The sun shone bright and vivid in the Big Sky. No clouds. A brilliant blue refraction of light colored the atmosphere. The white savannah stretched for miles in every direction, the horizon continuing on forever. These were the lowlands, the edge of the Great Plains. Henry looked upon this landscape everyday, but on this day, in this very moment in time, he stood in amazement at the beauty of the world that surrounded him. He waded through the knee-deep snow toward the northern horizon, unsure and uncaring of his destination.

A few minutes into his journey, he began to run. He laughed wildly, pointing the gun in various directions and making his own firing noises. It had been years since he played outside. He ran until he could no longer run. Then, he walked until his problems seemed far enough away. Behind him the cabin was now only a distant silhouette. He collapsed into the snow and rolled on his back to make a snow angel. It brought him back to the days when his mother was alive. She had loved him like no one else ever. Then, she left, never to return. He never forgave her for that.

From his nest in the snow he watched the sun on its methodical journey to its resting place behind the Bridger Mountains toward Bozeman. His face was numb and tingly after a couple hours and then his body a couple hours later. He contemplated spending his last moments on Earth staring at the starry universe, but the thought of freezing to death alone compelled him to his feet and toward the distant shape of the cabin. Darkness greeted him at the front door. The stars hung, illuminated against the night sky, the only other light source the bulb on the front porch. The silence alarmed Henry. He crept the door open, the barrel of the shotgun entering first.

“Gretchen?”

He flipped the light switch in the kitchen, but nothing happened. The snow on the bottom of his boots crunched with each step across the wooden floor. As he stepped toward the living room, the door behind him was thrown open and crashed into the wall. Henry twirled around and stumbled backwards. He aimed the shotgun at the noise, but tripped over a chair from the dining table. His finger pulled the trigger. The blast caused a high pitch ringing in his ears, and splinters from the door showered his head and face. The wind screamed at him through the doorway, and flurries of snow danced around the kitchen. There was no one there, only a cruel trick.

“Henry!”

Henry scrambled to his feet and galloped towards the scream. The lights in the bedroom were disabled as well. He turned on the battery-powered lantern that sat next to bed. Gretchen’s face glistened with agony. She contorted her body in every direction, and moaned like a wolf crying to the moon.

“It’s coming! Oh God it’s coming!”

Henry froze as if he had reverted to infancy and was unsure of how to control the movement of his body.

“Help me, you jackass!”

Time lost its form under the dim glow of the lantern. Gretchen’s screams pierced his eardrums for what seemed like hours and then the next moment the warm cries of new life filled the room. Henry wasn’t sure how he had done it. The bed and floor were covered with a colorful mix of bodily fluids. He looked at the miniature human in his arms. A delicate, beautiful, baby boy. Henry wrapped him with a blanket from the bed.

“Give me my son,” Gretchen demanded.

She ripped the baby from Henry’s arms and pressed her face close to him. Her body was pale, and withered.

“What should we name him? I like Vincent,” Henry said.

“That’s a terrible idea. His name is Jonathan, after my father,” Gretchen said.

Henry clenched his teeth. He grabbed towels from the bathroom and tried to soak up some of the mess on the floor and bed. The smell made him dizzy and nauseous. Then, he waited until she fell asleep. The baby rested in her arms. She breathed heavily, and her face dripped with sweat. Henry felt her forehead. A fever. He lifted the baby from her, and placed him on the couch near the freshly lit fireplace. A plastic bag hung on the hook next to the front door. She had no strength left to put up a fight, and it was over quickly. Henry threw the bag into the fire and watched it disintegrate. He picked up his son and cradled him.

“Hello Vincent.” He kissed his forehead. Vincent opened his eyes, and Henry swore he smiled.

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