Ricochet by Paul Crenshaw
Paul Crenshaw’s “Ricochet” is the story of an unnamed boy who witnesses the changes in his father after war. Writers often struggle to characterize children, but with this boy, Crenshaw does not falter. (Be sure to read his author’s note for more on choosing POV and other craft in this story.) We immediately fell in love with the style here—the quick, clean, sharp prose moving seamlessly from sentence to sentence, the world of the story able to flourish without excess.
Rite of passage stories about fathers and sons hunting together are familiar to us, yet Crenshaw deftly manages a theme that too often becomes sentimentalized. Amidst the beautiful language— “faint morning light carved the hills into shape” —is a slow but unrelenting tension that escalates quickly and viscerally into a stunning ending. So much emotion, history, character, and understanding earn their place in this short story. But nothing does more work than the last few paragraphs. This is an ending that will linger in memory. —CRAFT
The boy woke to the sound of his father grabbing the gun. He heard his father sit up in bed, heard his feet touch the floor. Heard him switch the safety on and clear the round in the chamber. Heard the bullet hit the bed.
Now his father was coming down the hall. The hall light clicked on and then the door opened. His father’s dark head peered in at him. He was still holding the handgun.
“I’m up,” the boy said.
His father’s head nodded. His hair had grown out in the months he’d been back. The boy lay in bed for a moment more. He heard the coffee machine come on. He heard his father brushing his teeth, sounds the boy still wasn’t used to.
By the time he came from his room his mother stood in her robe at the stove. His father sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee. He had set out a cup for the boy. His mother frowned when the boy took it.
Rain still dripped in the darkness as they loaded the guns in the truck. The air was warm for November. A last flash of lightning lit the horizon, and a low rumble of thunder faded in the east. The boy burped bacon and eggs.
“I’m going to kill a big buck,” he said.
His father flung the coffee dregs in the yard then straightened his uniform. He had removed his name and insignia after he had come home from Afghanistan.
It was still dark when they started the truck and still dark when they wound their way to the river bottom past the dark houses. The black shapes of the hills hung around them and fog rose from the little creeks that came down out of the hills. The boy’s father wiped the windshield with the sleeve of his shirt and watched the boy out of the corner of his eye.
“Remember what I told you,” his father said.
The boy nodded, though he didn’t know which thing he was supposed to remember: about breathing slowly and squeezing the trigger, or always knowing where his hunting partner was, or never firing unless he was sure what he was shooting.
They parked along a dirt road washed out by the rain. The first faint morning light carved the hills into shape. The boy kept thinking it wasn’t cold enough for the coming winter.
He waited while his father took the .270 from behind the seat and handed it to him.
“You remember how to load it?”
The boy took the rifle. His father loaded the .308. The morning before they had scouted along the river bottom. They had carried rifles but neither had been loaded because the boy’s father said a man needed to get used to carrying a rifle before he went live-fire.
The creeks were high and the woods still wet as they walked toward the river. The boy could hear it in the distance, swollen with rain. A hundred yards from the river his father split off. He would go up a half mile to a small tributary where deer came down to drink. The boy took the tree stand.
He could just make out the trunks of the trees in the darkness around him when he settled into the stand. The river swirled slowly past him and mist rose in thin tendrils from the black water. Before his father left, they had walked the river on weekends, sometimes fishing from the bank for the dark mudcats that croaked like caught souls when they were brought up. Other times his father hunted squirrels in the tops of the pin oaks and stunted pines. Then the call had come and his father was packing for deployment. The boy stood in the living room listening to his father tell his mother this wasn’t training. He heard her weep through the wall.
The boy had been only twelve then. He did not see his father for over a year. He snuck into his parents’ room to take the .270 out of the closet. He turned thirteen talking to his father on the computer. The boy’s mother smoked more often. They watched the news together. She told the boy not to ask his father about bombs or bullets.
The boy only knew about Afghanistan from what he could find on the internet: dusty streets, night ops, alarms winding out across Kabul as the muezzins called for prayer. He saw pillars of smoke twisting skyward. Bombs rocking the city. Helicopters firing jagged streaks of missiles.
He imagined his father, but here his imagination failed. He saw the same dusty streets as appeared on the nightly news, the pillars of smoke and the bombs going off, but he could not place his father in the scene. Not his father nor the helicopter pilots nor the voices of the muezzins amplified over the city.
He cut pictures of Apache helicopters and the 82nd Airborne from the issues of Time Magazine in the dentist’s office. He read about Bragg and Benning, about Kabul and Kandahar. He decorated his room with posters the military recruiter gave him. He printed out pictures of M-16s and M-60s. He took the .270 out of the closet when his mother was gone and walked around the house, aiming through the picture window at the Carsons’ house across the street. He made a bomb in the backyard with M-80s duct-taped together and detonated it one night in July in the woods behind the house with the lightning bugs flickering like cookfires.
When his father stepped off the plane, the boy’s mother held herself around the stomach. She had said he might be different, but he was smiling. He wiped at his eyes as he hugged the boy. He walked around in a daze at home, running his hands over the furniture as if to remind himself where he was.
One night the boy woke to find his father sitting in the blue light of the TV, watching an old war movie. His father motioned and the boy crawled onto the couch and they watched while the bombs fell over the Pacific and men died storming a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. The boy studied his father’s face: the blue stubble, the lidded eyes, the hair stripped short on the sides of his head. He still smelled like his rucksack, of sand and sweat.
“Was it like that?” the boy said.
His father reached for the remote and turned the sound down. He had a drink beside him, still full. “It’s never like that.”
The boy waited. He was old enough to know not to ask the next question, but he needed to know where his father fit into the images he’d seen on the internet.
“What was it like then?”
The TV flickered in his father’s dark eyes. “We were embedded near Kabul, close enough to see the bombs lighting the night sky.” He looked at the boy. “You know how lightning looks when it hits just beyond the horizon?”
The boy nodded.
“That’s what it looked like. That’s what I told myself it was. Lightning. Just a spring storm. We could even hear the thunder when a big one hit.”
They watched the screen. An airplane trailed black smoke down into the ocean, and men were dying on a beachhead. “How did it start?”
This time his father did drink. “Same way it’s always started,” he said.
The boy thought of the rifles in his father’s closet, the smell of cleaning oil. “Did you kill anyone?”
His father turned off the TV and stood. “Hard to tell what you hit in the darkness.”
The boy was still thinking of his father when the deer came down to drink. The darkness had turned gray and the river went smoking past as the deer’s pink tongue lapped at the water. The trees stood like stones around him. He could feel his heart hurting.
He reached to switch the safety off. He could hear his father’s voice, telling him to breathe, to slow down, only he imagined they were in the mountains of Afghanistan and he wasn’t aiming at a deer. He raised the rifle.
When the deer turned broadside to him he squeezed the trigger and smoke rolled from the barrel. The sound was enormous in that small world. When he opened his eyes the deer had disappeared. He thought for a moment it had disintegrated. His head felt stuffed with cotton.
When he climbed down out of the tree stand his father was there, uniform gray as the morning.
“You hit it?”
The boy nodded. “I think so.”
By the time they forded the river the sun was over the horizon and by the time they made it back to where the deer had been it was almost to the tops of the trees and thunder rumbled in the west. The air felt like soup. The boy ranged along the riverbank until he found the blood trail. He looked up at his father.
The thunder came closer as they followed the trail. The boy thought they would find the deer quickly, but the blood trail went on. He wondered if he had hit it in the leg, or the hindquarters, some place it would die a slow and painful death. His father said the war was over. He said he only needed the quiet of the river to keep from remembering.
They went up a narrow draw with the trees arching over them dark and heavy as a cathedral. Stones stood out among the wet leaves like faces drawn from the earth and the knots of the cedar trees looked like eyes keeping a catalogue of all who passed.
At the top of the draw, the boy’s father knelt. The boy knelt with him. The rifle seemed much heavier now. The leaves were dark with blood.
They went on, past a small ravine where long ago had been dumped old refrigerators and washing machines, pocked now with gunshots and rust. A stop sign leaned against a tree, the words washed out, only the shape marking it as the thing it once was.
When they found the deer at the bottom of the next draw two men stood over it with their rifles slung. The boy’s father stopped when he saw them, then started on again.
“See you found my boy’s deer,” his father said. The two men turned to look at him. He stopped a few feet away, his rifle in one hand.
The two men looked at each other, then back at the boy’s father. It was a big buck, eyes going glassy. Its sides moved slowly in and out where it lay in a great gout of blood.
“This is my deer,” one of the men said. Both of them looked to be in their late twenties. The one who had spoken was tall. The other was short, wide through the shoulders.
The boy’s father shook his head. “Believe you’re mistaken. My boy shot that down near the river and we tracked it here.”
The shorter one shook his head. “Gary shot that not two minutes ago.”
His father looked at the thin sliver of sky above them. “I didn’t hear a shot,” he said.
“I guess you were too far away,” Gary said.
“Sound carries pretty far down here.”
“I guess not far enough,” Gary said.
The boy saw his father look down at the deer. There was a small red hole in its side and when it breathed a bubble of blood formed over the hole. The boy wished it would get up and run away. The two men stood behind the deer, spaced a few steps apart. It occurred to the boy that they were all carrying guns.
His father turned his head. “And I guess if I checked your rifle I’d see it hadn’t been fired.”
Gary looked at the rifle slung over his shoulder. “I don’t think you’ll be checking my rifle.”
The boy’s father shifted his stance. “And I don’t think you’ll be taking this deer,” he said. “My son shot it, and we tracked it here. You found it and thought you would claim it for yourself, but that isn’t going to happen.”
The two men looked at one another again. The boy thought of lightning over the hills in the dark of the city. The weather was still too warm.
“Who says?” the shorter one said.
His father’s breath would smell like mountains, the boy thought. He remembered nights lying in bed, wondering where his father was. Days he walked through the woods with his father’s rifle, pretending to be him. Afternoons on his mother’s computer reading about the war, about all wars, what it was that made men aim weapons at one another.
“I say,” the boy’s father said, voice soft as smoke. He was looking at the taller man, Gary. The shorter one started to move, but Gary shook his head. He was still looking at the boy’s father. Years later, the boy would understand what it was Gary saw in his father’s eyes. He would remember the way his father’s voice sounded. But for then he only began to understand, like smoke swept away in a swift gust of wind, why men went to war.
PAUL CRENSHAW is the author of the essay collection, This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press. His second collection of essays, This We’ll Defend, about his time in the military and beyond, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, Tin House, North American Review, and Brevity, among others.