All Soul’s Day by Matthew Guerruckey

Buford Theodore Williams III sat behind the wheel of his old pickup truck, fighting with the screw top on his steel flask. Sharp arthritis pains coursed through his fingertips. In his youth, Buford had been the wildest of the shit-kicking hell-raisers of Itasca County, but now it was a chore just to clasp the metal snaps on the front of his jeans every morning. His jaw, which had once been proud, even regal, was lost in a fleshy mass of jowl and a thick patch of white beard. His midsection, which in his high school years had been a sturdy trunk which allowed him to stand steady against the dreaded defensive line of the Bigfork Vikings, had gone soft, and was now covered in stretch marks and tiny white hairs.

He took a sip of whiskey and turned the engine off. The truck continued to sputter and wheeze for another thirty seconds. As it was dying down Buford reached behind his head and grabbed his rifle from the rack in the back window. The gun was nothing special. Margaret, his wife, had given it to him as a gift upon his voluntary retirement from the paper mill eight years before. On that day Buford had joked that he would be killing all of their food from that day forward, but his hunting trips had yet to yield even a single meal.

He opened the door with a pained grunt. The metal door squealed a weary complaint. His work boots, caked with eight years of mud and dirt, made a sound like crinkling cellophane as he stepped into the snow, which lay three inches deep on the ground. He slammed the door shut. The hollow noise died quickly in the still air.

As he walked he stepped on candy wrappers that had fallen from the cab of his truck. Halloween had been two days ago, and Buford had been sneaking chocolate from the candy bowl in the front hallway whenever his wife wasn’t looking. She would have been angry at him, and so would his doctor. His cholesterol numbers hadn’t been nearly what they should have been at his last check-up, but a man can only take so many oatmeal breakfasts before he feels compelled to jam a few peanut butter cups in his face.

There had been very few trick-or-treaters that year. Each year seemed to be slower than the one before it, as it became more common for parents to take their children to chaperoned tours of local malls and schools than door-to-door in their own neighborhoods. He missed the steady stream of children that the neighborhood had hosted on Halloween night in decades past. He loved all of their smiling faces, and loved watching them grow a little bit each year, until finally they would be replaced by a fresh group of younger children. He loved their costumes as well, from the most intricate (which some parent had obviously slaved over for days) to the simple store bought suits which consisted of flimsy plastic masks and jumpsuits with the character name printed on the front. The cheap ones made Buford smile the most. He liked that everyone, even the not so bright or creative, got to enjoy the night.

In the years after he graduated high school, Halloween had always a big night of partying, usually down at The Whistle with Tiny Bachmeier and Big Jim Berry from the paper mill. Each year they bet Buford that he couldn’t finish 20 shots, and each year they rolled him onto the pool table to sleep it off when they were proved right. He’d come to associate the day after Halloween with face burns from spending the night rubbing against rough felt. The nights that he was able to walk out of the bar under his own power he usually ended up taking some girl home. Rhonda Stickelman and Betty Berven were the easiest options, because they were always there and always ready, but at two in the morning it didn’t really matter who it was.

He had met Margaret that way. He never would have guessed that one night of drunken fumbling in the backseat of his Mercury would lead to thirty years of marriage, but it had. It was not been a marriage of necessity – Margaret had been adamant about the “no children” thing from the very beginning – it was a marriage of comfort. Both parties had decided that they were happy enough with each other and that they were weary of the prospect of making a life with anyone who might expect a bit more effort. It had been a terrifically relaxed thirty years.

Buford stepped heavily through the snow toward the harvested oat field on Dave Walsh’s property. The Walsh farm was just outside Cohasset, and only a short drive from Buford’s home. Beyond the field was a row of trees, the beginning of a thick patch of woods. Halfway into the woods was a tree stand that Walsh shared with Buford and a few of the other guys who had been lifers at the mill. Buford had come out here every day of deer season in the years since he’d taken his retirement. By this point it hardly seemed like Walsh’s land at all. Now the field and the woods served Buford far more often than their owner.

The tree stand had fallen into disrepair from exposure to the elements for the past twenty years. The boards reeked of mildew, and groaned with Buford’s weight as he climbed the ladder, which was only a series of wooden boards nailed at regular intervals up the side of the tree. When he reached the top he was winded from the climb so he sat down, leaning his back against the tree and letting his legs dangle limp in front of him. He took a long, slow sip from his flask and set his gun down at his side. He closed his eyes and listened to the far away sounds of birds calling to each other in the tree tops and field mice scuttling through the dead leaves on the ground below. Soothed by those noises, and his warm, whiskey-filled belly, he fell into a deep sleep.

Buford was startled out of his rest by the sound of a branch snapping. He rose up onto his knees and leaned against the railing of the stand, slipping on the fresh dusting of snow that had fallen during his nap. He looked down into the clearing below, expecting to see Walsh walking toward the tree to say hello, as he did infrequently. Instead, he saw a whitetail buck grazing quietly, oblivious to his presence.

He grabbed his rifle and brought it to his shoulder. He aimed through the scope and saw the deer in his cross-hairs. It was only a two-pointer. It looked starved and lean, and its ribs were clearly visible. Everyone Buford knew had commented how scrawny the deer looked this season. Heavy flooding during the summer had led to bad crops in the fall, which meant there was little for the deer to eat. In spite of its leanness, the deer Buford watched through his scope was clearly a powerful young animal.

The deer lifted its head and stared at Buford. Through the scope Buford could see its calm face clearly. The deer’s eyes were bright and clear hazel, and seemed almost human. The deer chewed calmly on the grass in its mouth and looked up at Buford with no fear.

Buford held the deer’s gaze through the scope, then lowered the rifle slightly to look at the animal with his own eyes. Without the magnification of the scope the deer seemed fragile, the humanity he had sensed before replaced with peculiarity. The deer’s twisting horns became demonic, its elegant neck became alien. And still, the deer’s gaze was steady. Buford’s hands began to shake.

A sharp report echoed through the clearing. The deer’s legs buckled and it let out a high squeak followed by a guttural moan. It was a long moment before Buford felt the hot barrel of his rifle in his hands and realized that he had fired a shot. The deer ran into the woods, jumping like a twitching marionette, shrieking as it ran into low hanging branches along the way.

 

Read the conclusion to this story in Drunk Monkeys Originals: Volume One