I remember thinking it would be funny to disappear from the trail when my parents least expected. We walked in a line beneath the pines with Mom in front and me at the tail end. The sun was out, and we crossed paths with snowshoe hares, chipmunks, minks, and a small herd of whitetails—nothing dangerous considering the spread of wildlife in Montana. Indigo flowers sprung from granite boulders covered in lichen. In the mountains, even the rocks buzzed with life.
Hiking was probably my favorite family activity, though back then, I couldn’t stop thinking of ways to make it less boring. When Mom and Dad were a few paces ahead, I ducked behind a pine tree and into a narrow cave. Hunched over so my head didn’t hit the ceiling, I shuffled through darkness until I could stand fully upright. By the time I turned to jump back out and surprise Mom and Dad, the opening to the cave seemed to have dissolved into stone.
“Mom?” I called, feeling my way around. “Dad?”
Blindly, I dragged my fingers along the cave walls. After what must have been hours, my feet ached and my fingertips were numb. I stopped walking, crouched against a boulder and cried until I fell asleep. I awoke shivering, but relieved to be alive. I trudged cautiously, sliding one foot in front of the other. When I heard voices, I followed them until a pack of men in bright vests appeared in a hallow of sunlight at the east mouth. I winced in pain and stumbled, realizing how thirsty I was.
The rescue team laid me on a gurney and rolled me onto the ambulance. Inside, Mom stroked my hand. She wore jeans, a tee shirt, and one of Dad’s flannel shirts. A thick black braid fell over one shoulder and she held a Dixie cup of water.
“You must have a guardian angel up there somewhere,” she said, smiling. She lifted my head and fed me a sip of water.
“It’s always good to know we have a caveman in the family,” Dad joked. He stood beside Mom, tugging his beard and smelling of tobacco.
“Sorry,” I croaked. “I didn’t mea—”
“Shhh, baby,” Mom said. “Save your energy.”
The house where I’ve lived since I was born sat on top of a hill with a long gravel driveway leading up to the barn. Most families probably would have called it a cellar and used it to store wine or wood, but in our house it was the barn and it was where Dad worked. Before Mom left us for Brock, the big shot lawyer, she’d called it The Dead House and made me promise to stay away, especially during hunting season when deer, bison and bear hung from the ceiling like overgrown bats.
Jimmy and I left our ten speeds in a patch of shin-high dandelions and quietly watched Dad through the window as he dragged a dead antelope across the floor by its horns. Dad grunted as he bound the animal’s hoofs like he was tying a big shoe. He looped the knot around a hook, threw it over a shoulder and heaved.
“He’s been down there for three days,” I said. “Think he might be sleeping there.”
“Where?” Jimmy said. “On the floor?”
Dad lowered the antelope onto the butcher’s block and took a pint of Smirnoff from his back pocket. The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil,” blared from the radio. He nodded to the beat, sipped from the bottle, and made his first incision along the hind leg.
“Your dad’s one sick puppy, Caveman,” Jimmy said as he shuffled down the driveway, gagging.
“Oh relax,” I said, wiping a sweaty hand off on the faded Guns N’ Roses tee shirt I lifted from the lost and found at school. I liked the way the red roses hung from the two silver guns—not in a passive way, like when you think of hippies sticking flowers into barrels. These were thorny, twisted stems, poised like snakes ready to strike.
“Let’s get out of here,” Jimmy said.
We pedaled fast through the rolling streets, past the gas station, the diner, and the baseball field where I used to play six years ago when I was eight. We shifted into low gear once we reached the mountains at the base of Hunter’s Trail. When we came to a spot where a seventy-foot spruce jutted from the earth on an angle, a good landmark, we veered off the path and walked our bikes.
After just a few minutes on foot, Jimmy spotted something the size of a one-man tent sixty feet out and we hid behind a huckleberry bush. When we didn’t see any movement for a good five minutes, we crept out from the bush and stepped quietly.
“What is it?” I asked.
“The motherload,” Jimmy said.
It was a carbonized pile of wooden boards, cylindrical tanks, broken pipes, shattered glass and scattered magazines. A burnt down meth lab. Every few months, it seemed, one exploded in the mountains and was talked about on news channels until even weepy school counselors seemed to grow numb to it.
Jimmy picked up a magazine and opened it to a woman with curly hair in between her legs. “This is the shit,” he said.
I bent down, took a metal bolt from the ground, dusted it off, and slipped it into my backpack. Kicking around dirt, I found a metal coffee filter, three chipped glass pipes, paperclips, and a handful of metal spoons. One at a time, I dropped them into my backpack.
“What are you gonna do with all that?” Jimmy asked.
Jimmy found a long glass tube with a bubbled knob on one end. “Freebase pipe,” he said, turning it over like he was teaching me some new word. But I already knew what it was. Everyone in the valley knew. Jimmy said his mom had one she kept hidden in the bathroom, tucked into fresh towels. He said the one in his hand was no good because there was a crack all the way down one side and a chip where you were supposed to put your lips. I wandered the ruins, kicking around blackened ply boards, dusty glass chards and metal trash cans, adding to my stash until my bag was heavy.
It was after nine by the time I got home. I leaned my bike against the barn and peered inside through the yellow window but Dad was nowhere in sight. I walked on, creaked open the kitchen door, and found an uncharacteristic pot of linguine and meat sauce on the stove. Dad was sitting in a rocking chair beside our unlit fireplace.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
He motioned for me to come. I walked across the squeaky hardwood, sat on the couch, and settled into the bulge of my backpack. The trinkets I’d taken from the explosion clinked behind me like an old turtle’s shell.
Dad looked thin. His shoulders were slumped and square. The whites of his eyes were the color of an antique photograph. He coughed and a spatter of red mottled his chin.
“You’re bleeding,” I said.
He wiped his chin with a sleeve. “I know about that,” he said. “It’s nothing, Caveman.” He waved his hand. “Now listen. I’m going to need you to step up around here. First, I’ll be fixing dinner most nights from now on. We’re still a family, even without your mom. Second, we don’t need Brock’s shit-dollars no more. It’d been a good hunting season. There’s money in the bank and a freezer full of meat. This is something we should be proud of. Eight months now we’re doing just fine.”
“You talk to Mom?”
“What’d she say?” I hadn’t heard her voice since Christmas and even then, it was a short conversation about how school was going and if I’d gotten the gift card she’d left in the mailbox.
“Just that things are changing, Caveman. That’s all you need to know for now. And tomorrow, you’ll be helping me in the barn.”
I wondered if I’d have to touch any of the dead animals he skinned and cut for local hunters, but didn’t ask.
In the kitchen, the pasta hissed. I hurried to the stove with my backpack still on and turned the burner off. I found Mom’s old ladle in a drawer and used it to stir the sauce. A minute later, Dad was beside me, taking a pair of bowls and forks from the cabinet. He set them on the counter and I filled them with linguine and venison sauce and carried them to the little round table where we hardly sat ever since Mom left. Night owls cooed through the open window, who-cooks-for-you-who-cooks-for-you.
I took off my backpack and set it at my feet. Dad would have taken my bike away if he found out I’d been snooping around the mountains.
I stabbed into the first home-cooked meal I’d had in weeks. “Mmm,” I moaned.
“It’s good,” Dad said, though he didn’t eat much.
The next morning, I drank a glass of goat’s milk and watched the sun rise through the kitchen window. I hadn’t seen Dad yet, but the muffled sounds of the radio leaked out from the barn, down the corridor, and under the kitchen door. My backpack was hooked onto each shoulder. The smell of burnt metal that surrounded the bag was still weak, but had begun to strengthen.
The moose head above the fireplace was the largest of Dad’s trophies. He also had two deer heads, a Tule Elk head and a Rocky Mountain Elk head on display. Sometimes I felt as though the stuffed animals in our house were watching me with their shiny black marble eyes that seemed to find me no matter where I stood. When I was younger, I would pretend that they were my trophies—that I’d killed the animals myself, eaten the bodies and left the heads intact as proof of what I was capable of.
I set the glass in the sink when I heard Dad calling for me. “Jack?” I went to the door, held an ear to the peeling paint. “Caveman?” he said.
I turned the knob and waited. “Yes?”
“Come on down.”
I hadn’t stepped foot in that stairwell since I was eight, before I was Caveman. I hesitated, but pressed the door open, anyway. The wail of Robert Plant’s voice broke through a static haze that poured from the old radio. The stairwell was a corridor of spider webs and mothballs. I reached the bottom step and walked on past the furless, rose-colored bodies hanging from hooks, the smell of iron in the air. When I made it to the butcher’s block, I saw Dad standing above it, wearing the same clothes he wore to dinner last night, though a white frock covered them now.
“Take a frock from the wall and I’ll show you how to skin an elk,” he said.
I took a long white coat with pink stains from the rack and slid my backpack off at my feet. I fastened the buttons of the coat and stood beside Dad. Together, we examined the elk, or what was once an elk—its tongue lolled from its mouth, its fur sharp and briery, its face soft at the corners with a stiff, clenched jaw.
Dad began with a nod and an incision at the hock joints and knee, coughing into his shoulder as he cut. He took me through the steps, but I couldn’t focus. A different song played now. “The Flame,” by Cheap Trick. I tried to focus on the words—I will be the flame, I will be the flame—but when Dad peeled the hide from the muscle, my stomach was a whirlpool. I’d been raised in a house among hollowed animals stuffed with rags and cotton with marbles for eyes, but I’d never been so close to the raw remains. I wrapped my arms around my middle, bent forward, and retched.
When I was done, I wiped my mouth with my hand and stood upright. I looked at Dad, searched him over for evidence of anger or disappointment. At first, we just stared at each other like two animals whose paths had crossed by accident. Then he began to chuckle so hard he nearly fell over coughing. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard him laugh, and then I was laughing too, until I noticed a fresh spray of blood across the sleeve of Dad’s frock. He wiped red from his lips.
“Don’t you worry, Caveman. It’s just the summer heat getting to my lungs. Besides, I see what’s going on here. I started with big game without exposing you to small game.” He removed his frock and tossed it into a metal bin. “Fix yourself a glass of water and sugar cubes while I clean this mess up. Meet me in the backyard.”
I let Dad peel the frock from me like a layer of skin I no longer needed. When he was done, I took my backpack, heavy and smelly, I was sure of it now, and headed up the creaking stairs.
Dad and I stood in the yard—a square of shaded grass and moss below a canopy of evergreens. The air was crisp with the scent of pine. I looked beyond the trees, into the rugged mountains, imagining they went on forever. I’d never been outside the valley so it was easy to do.
Dad opened a fresh pint of Smirnoff and sipped each time he coughed, which was often. He held a silver metal cage the size of a large rabbit. He called it a platform trap and said it was used to capture small game. He set his bottle down and took a knee, poured a small mound of sunflower seeds onto a square of aluminum foil and placed it at the rear of the contraption. He explained how the trap worked: the door fell once an animal was inside, rendering it helpless, but unharmed.
“Now what?” I asked.
We retreated to the picnic table near the stone fire pit. An hour passed with us sitting, Dad taking swigs from his bottle and me drinking lemonade and eating soda crackers, my arms and the back of my neck pink with sun. When the sound of crashing metal rang, we hurried to the trap.
“Got one!” I said when I saw a grey squirrel noshing on our sunflower seeds inside the cage. I was surprised at my own excitement, but knew what came next, so I asked about the possibility of keeping him.
“A squirrel ain’t no pet, Caveman. For one, their teeth don’t stop growing. Have to shave them down by gnawing on whatever they can. Besides, he’s your first catch.”
Dad carried the trap around the side of the house and I followed under clouds that looked like stretched apart cotton. He brought the cage to the back of his pickup truck, set it on the driveway and covered it with a patchwork blanket. I thought I recognized the blanket, though I wasn’t sure from when or where. Maybe it was something Mom used to cover her legs with in winter.
Dad had his bottle again and he set it on the hood of the truck while he appended the cage to the exhaust pipe with aluminum foil. When he finished, he covered the arrangement with the blanket. It was haphazard and shoddy, like the forts I used to make with Jimmy years ago. Then he climbed into the passenger seat and turned the key, his bottle vibrating on the hood. The engine started abruptly, then tapered off and became a rolling hum. The squirrel must have been paralyzed by the sound because he stopped squeaking long before the fumes had time to do their job.
Dad stepped out of the truck and placed his hands on his hips. “How’s that stomach holding up?”
“Fine,” I said and meant it. “What are we going to do with the squirrel now?”
“Squirrel stew for dinner,” he said, wiping his hands on his jeans. “But we need a few more.” He took his bottle from the hood, coughed and sipped. “Let’s get to work.”
By the time the sun slipped behind the mountains, we’d killed five more squirrels. I arranged the blanket and started the truck myself before we were through. After, Dad instructed me to carry the meat into the barn while he got a fire going in the stone pit. I lifted the squirrels one at a time and gathered them in my arms, their dead bodies pressed limply against me like rag dolls.
Dad built a fire that hissed in the night. He swayed as he set a pot of chicken stock on a metal grate over the fire. He arranged two carrots, two celery stalks, and a knife on a carving board on the picnic table and told me he would prepare the squirrel meat in the barn while I chopped vegetables and tended to the fire.
“You’ve had enough for one day,” he slurred.
I thought about telling him the same; that when he drank, it worried me the way it used to worry Mom. Instead, I kept my head down and sliced carrots and celery while he disappeared into the barn. I worked until the crunch of footsteps in the gravel driveway startled me, then I stopped cutting and squinted. Searching for the source, I found a faraway light at the end of our property line. “Jimmy?” I called out, but the steps kept coming, too slow and calculated to be Jimmy’s.
“Jack.” My mother’s voice cut through the dark.
She stepped into a wash of light from the fire. A new round belly blossomed from her unfastened cardigan, where both hands rested.
“Mom,” was all I could manage.
I stared at her. Like a mirage in the moonlight, she didn’t move. I began to wonder if she was even real. But of course she was. She was my mother and she was here, standing outside the house she once called home. It’d been so long.
Dad stumbled from the barn with a bucket in one hand and the pint in the other. I thought about running over to him, pushing him down so he wouldn’t have to see Mom this way, and likewise so Mom wouldn’t have to see Dad so drunk. I stood from the bench, gripping the knife, my trinkets knocking around behind me in the backpack. I plunged the knife into the table with a growl and it stuck up from the plank like a sundial. Then I let go and stepped back.
“Oh, Jack,” Mom said, stepping closer, her voice still so faraway. “Are you okay?” Her hair was a black river, longer than I’d ever seen.
When Dad reached the fire pit, he dropped his pint in the grass. He emptied the bucket into the stockpot, then turned it upside down and sat.
“Oh, George. Is he even packed?”
The moon was like a stage light above us. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
Dad shook his head. Sloppily, he found the bottle in the grass and brought it to his lips. “Get off my property,” he spat.
“This is good for no one,” Mom said with tears in her voice. “Oh, Jack.”
She reached out to touch me but I shook her off. I wanted to ask where she’d been and why she suddenly wanted me back, but instead I said, “Name’s Caveman.”
“Get off my property!” Dad yelled.
Mom smoothed her hands over her belly and looked at me one last time with sad eyes before turning away. “I’ll be back,” she sniffled, then turned to Dad, “with papers.”
I watched her walk away—down the driveway, disappearing into the shadows, toward the faint blur of headlights, where Brock waited in his Lexus.
Dad’s voice came softer now. “I’m sick, Caveman.”
I turned away as Brock’s headlights faded over the hill. I focused on the knife, which seemed to point to the moon. The chirp of insects mixed with the crackle of fire.
I wouldn’t let myself cry in front of Dad, even as he muttered about expensive pills and shit-doctors. When his voice trickled off and went completely quiet, when his face fell still and he slumped onto the ground, I hurried beside him and held my ear to his lips. My backpack slipped down my shoulder and I shrugged it off onto the grass. Dad’s breath was shallow, but steady. A thin trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth, into his beard.
“I’m sick,” he said again.
I ran a finger through his matted hair to check for cuts but didn’t find any. I hooked my arms under his shoulders and lifted. He was lighter than I’d imagined. He stood part way with me.
“Where is she?” he wheezed.
“Gone,” I told him.
We made it like that all the way up the steps, inside the screened door, through the kitchen and down the hallway. When we reached his bed, he fell in. I helped his head find the pillow. His breath was sour. He looked older in the dark with lines that stretched across his face like claws. Almost right away, he began to snore.
In the kitchen, I found Mom’s ladle in the drying rack and headed back outside. I forgot about my backpack, but heard it crunch beneath my boot. I unzipped the main compartment and looked inside at crushed glass, bottle caps, paperclips, silverware—the smell of toxic glitter.
Holding my breath, I carried the backpack to the boiling pot, held it to the fire and let go. The bag landed against the side of the pot and slumped over. The fire fell quiet under its weight, then gathered strength and rose up in a sudden burst of indigo. Violet flames grew so quickly, I had to step back. The warm, purple light, surrounded the pot and stretched above my head, wrapped itself around the backpack until all that was left was a burnt rag.
Once the flames softened again and faded back to orange and yellow, I pulled the knife from the table and sliced what was left of the carrots and celery. When I was done, I added them to the pot, dipped the ladle in, and stirred. I thought of the way Mom looked that night—worried, but hopeful, her eyes shimmering like stars. I wanted to tell her all about the violet flames, how they rose from the pit like a fiery angel meant for me, alone. I wondered what the angel meant, and if Mom would believe me. I wondered if she still believed I had my own personal guardian angel, or if she ever did.
© Emily Pavick
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Emily’s interview]