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Thomas Pluck
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playdead.jpg
Art by Brian Beardsley 2012

Play Dead

 

by Thomas Pluck

 

 

I slowly peeled back my eyelids and immediately wished I was still out for the count. The Kodiak's roar filled my ears, pierced by sharp, intermittent squeals. The old man's final words, as the beast ate its fill.

He took a parting shot with his sidearm. The bear swatted his head clean off in response. It landed with a flap of scalp peeled off like a worn baseball. Facing away from me, so I didn't get to see whether the human brain can live on its own for a few seconds.

Or tell the old man who I was. And why I'd face a wounded bear to watch him die.

I wasn't gonna get to see a lot of things, if I didn't keep still. Play dead, that's what they told you, right in the visitor's guide. Alaska. Hunter's paradise.

#

 

"Play dead, baby," Mom whispered. "Like Buddy used to." She bit her trembling lip. Her bloody hand tight over my mouth. Held me to her wound, let the blood soak my shirt. But Buddy wasn't playing, Mama, I wanted to say.

The developer's men started their campaign when they fed our dog hamburger mixed with glass. Dad said he ran away, but my older brother Kyle told me. He'd found Buddy whimpering, shitting his own guts out.

"A warning," Kyle said. He swung his baseball bat at the air. "They want us out, to make that stadium. Let 'em come. I'll take 'em." He had his tough face on, but the sweat on his peach fuzz upper lip betrayed him.

That night, I listened at our bedroom door, heard my folks in the kitchen.

"They want me to run scared? They don't know who they're dealing with," Dad said.

"I love this house, you know that." Mom's voice. "But it's not a home any more. The whole neighborhood's gone. Squatters moved in. I found crack vials by the crosswalk."

"Someone's got to fight, babe."

"Why's it gotta be us? Always us. With the strike, everyone walked through, but not us."

"It wasn't just me there. And we won."

"Yeah, but the ones who worked didn't lose a month's pay."

"They'd have lost a lot more, if it wasn't for us."

"This is different, Frank. I'm scared."

"You don't think I was scared? The trucks rolling through the line, we had to dodge out of the way. Jerry lost a toe."

"What are we gonna lose? They're too big, Frank. Sometimes you gotta back down."

"Maybe we take a stand, the paper will take our cause," he said. "The little guy. People will come back."

#

"A thing of beauty, isn't she?" the old man said. He had a broad face. When he smiled or frowned, it was like Mt. Rushmore judging you.

The rifle looked like a double-barreled shotgun. I don't know shit about guns, except which is the wrong end to be on. This one was beautiful, though. Gilded, he called it. The wooden stock glowed like embers dying in a fire. The bluing of the barrels had depth, dark seas. He turned a lever and the barrels tilted forward. Two abysses where the bullets went. He closed it up, just as smooth.

"Not a sound. The Rolls Royce of guns," he said. "Hold it, son."

I'm not his son, just the closest he had to it. I married his daughter. I love my Laurie, I do. Maybe not in the beginning, but over the years she became my rock. She taught me patience, and soothed my rage. The rifle weighed heavy in my hands, feeling soft and polished. It cost more than I made in two years. The accumulation of wealth never did it for me. I handed it back with faux respect.

"Both barrels are sighted on the same target, for the follow up shot. Saved my life, with the lioness." He aimed at the stuffed cat in the corner. It had golden eyes the size of a fist. "The females are more dangerous than the male. They do the hunting. I ever tell you how I shot it?"

"No sir," I said, and sipped my single malt. Settled on my heels, to hear the story again.

"You can call me Dad, you know. You're coming on my next hunt. You ever hunt, before?"

"Yes sir," I nodded. "Been hunting a long time."

#

We were watching the Giants come back in the final quarter when his men shot up the house. The TV exploded. Kyle's head too. Mom howled and held my limp body. I did what she told me. Played the game. Didn't even peek.

Dad moaned as he crawled to the door.

Loud footsteps, cries of protest. Flat slaps of pistols going off in the small room. My ears rang and Mom fell on top of me. Hiding my tears with her body.

I heard the snip of scissors, and men talking. I stayed limp as rough fingers yanked my hair and cut a hank off.

"Sick bastard wants 'em for his trophy case," one of them said.

I scared the crap out of the EMT who tried to bag me. They put me in foster care. Good people. They adopted me. I took their name, and everything.

When it came time to tear down the stadium and build a new one, I hired on. By the time they were done, I was a foreman, and had caught the old man's eye. I had gumption, he said. He liked that.

#

 

The old man's double rifle boomed and the Kodiak's shoulder exploded. Like he'd thrown a tomato at it, and about as effective. The beast charged, and my legs melted, my brain bowing to some ancient caveman instinct.

"I got him," the old man said. His follow-up shot splattered flesh off the bear's head, baring skull.

The guide aimed his slug gun to finish the job, just before I shot him.

"Son--" the old man said, eyes wide.

"Don't ever call me that."

The bear took him down with an elemental rage. I started on my speech. Figured the bear would take one thing at a time. Foolish assumption on my part. Bears don't know what guns are, or who shot them. After it bowled him over, it came for me. Slapped me with a catcher's mitt paw, tore my chest with meat hook claws, and tossed me like the proverbial rag doll into a big pine. I felt the rifle and my right leg splinter. I fell in a heap, and went still. Just like Mom told me, all those years ago.

The bear went back to work on the old man, knocking his head off and starting on its morning meal. Maybe it would leave once it had its fill. The pain in my leg was incredible. But nothing compared to hate. I'd hoped to tell the old bastard who I was, but if there was a hell, he'd look up and know.

It would be a long crawl back to the cabin, but I could play dead for a long time.

 

 

Thomas Pluck is a writer living in New Jersey with his wife. His work has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, McSweeney's Internet Quarterly, The Utne Reader, and many online crime fiction sites. He is working on his first novel. His home on the web is www.pluckyoutoo.com

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