Miah Jeffra is author of four books, most recently The Violence Almanac (finalist for several awards, including the Grace Paley and St. Lawrence Book Prizes) and the forthcoming novel American Gospel. Work can be seen in StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, The North American Review, Barrelhouse, DIAGRAM, jubilat and many others. Miah is co-founder of Whiting Award-winning queer and trans literary collaborative, Foglifter Press, and teaches writing and decolonial studies at Santa Clara University and Sonoma State University. Find them on Instagram @miahjeffra or on Twitter @JeffraMiah
Corey had never gone this far into the woods before, this far past the fort, past the ridgetop, towards the next valley over. He could tell there were redwoods at the bottom, could see their stubby branches rise atop the canopy. That would mean there was a creek down there, and the ground would be soft and orange with pine needles, giant ferns, the valley quiet. He wanted to go all the way down, but decided against it. While it was afternoon up near the top of the ridge, and the sun still high, by the time he got down it would be too close to dusk, and the valley floor much darker. If he was going to be out this late, he had to stick close to the fort. He needed the higher ground in case the fugitive spotted him first.
The wind on the ridge drowned out the helicopters, but Corey knew they were still out there, had been for two days and nights. His stepdad said they wouldn’t stop circling until they found the fugitive, even though it was Saturday. The fugitive had killed a man a long time ago, had broken a guard’s arm to escape Pelican Bay on Thursday, and was considered dangerous. The TV said he might even have a weapon.
Corey was grateful for the news. It took everyone’s mind off him, when every day this past week he was called names at school, and the boys behind him made kissy noises on the bus, and his stepdad came home from the penitentiary and looked at Corey like a flat tire on the side of the road. When his stepdad told Corey’s mother about the fugitive on Thursday, she hugged herself and said, “What is the world coming to?” She asked that about a lot of things. Corey hoped she didn’t ask it about him. He didn’t want to think about that, though.
He thought instead about the mission. He began at the fort, then circled around, a bit more each time, until he did a full reconnaissance of both sides of the ridge, never losing sight of where he’d started. Corey pretended his best friend Mikey was alongside, carrying his Hobo knife, surveying the ridge. He pushed his BB gun strap farther onto his back, squatted down against a stand of trees, and pointed to a small clearing. “See over there? Fresh campsite. Maybe six hours old.” Corey imagined Mikey would shade his eyes like a visor and say, “Looks like the enemy’s heading east. Let’s head back to base, for better visibility.”
Back at the fort, Corey climbed up and sat at the edge of the platform built between the two larger branches of the sycamore. The leaf coverage was still good, and Mikey had taught Corey what clothes to wear so he looked like a shadow in the trees. He stayed in this spot and watched, just like he had after school yesterday, until the sun went down.
Mikey had also taught Corey how to listen for animals in the woods, their footfall on the forest floor, the difference between deer and black bears, between foxes and bobcats. He pretended Mikey was with him, that they’d spotted a mountain lion, and launched pine cones like they were grenades. He imagined Mikey had painted their faces green and black, to blend in. They planned to be army men for Halloween. He imagined, as they listened for snapping twigs and other forest floor crackle, that Mikey whispered he was sorry for telling on him. Corey pretended that when they spent the night in the fort last weekend, they curled up in their sleeping bags and fell asleep like normal, that Corey didn’t roll towards Mikey and kiss him on the lips, and that Mikey didn’t go quiet the rest of the night and next morning, then make fun of him on the playground when they were back at school.
The day was getting almost to the point of purple when Corey heard a rustle from far behind him. He moved to the other side of the fort’s platform, and looked out. He wasn’t sure what kind of animal it was, too soft to be a bear, too steady to be much else. At first, he heard only the rhythmic crackle, but then saw glimpses of movement deep in the layers of trees, traveling down from the ridgetop. He whispered to Mikey, “Fifty yards, southwest.” As the movement came closer Corey could see flashes of black, but he wasn’t sure if it was fur or shadow. Then, a sound came from the creature. A cough.
Corey silently climbed down the ladder of the fort, careful not to scrape the BB gun on the wood planks. He crept in the direction the figure was moving. Mikey had taught him to always follow behind, because bears had eyes in front and deer had eyes on the side. He stayed far back, trying to step with the figure to hide his own footfall.
For a moment Corey thought about quitting the hunt and going home. What if this was the fugitive and he heard Corey behind him? What if he was dangerous and broke Corey’s arm? He hesitated and thought he could make it just in time for dinner if he turned around, then told himself that if he was ever going to prove to Mikey and his schoolmates, to his stepdad, that he wasn’t a sissy, he had to keep going. If he found the fugitive and reported it to his stepdad, maybe wrestled him down or maimed him with a BB, Corey could be a hero, and the whole fifth grade class would forget about last weekend. Even Mikey would be friends with him again. He increased the speed of his steps, and kept his eyes on the man in front of him.
The man was not in an orange jumpsuit, as Corey had imagined, but dark blue Dickies and a black hooded sweatshirt. Strands of dirty blonde hair poked out the sides. Corey didn’t know what color hair the fugitive had, because the mugshot they’d showed on TV was of a man with a buzzcut. The more distance he gained, the more he noticed the man limping, his left arm crossing over to the right leg, the one he favored. Corey also heard soft grunting from the man. Was he tired? Was he hurt? Did one of the prison guards break his arm, too? He imagined his stepdad running after the prisoner, deep into the woods, pistol drawn. His stepdad wouldn’t be afraid. He’d have caught up with him, aimed and shot him down to the ground without even a second of doubt. Corey knew his stepdad wasn’t a sissy. This is why Corey kept following the man, even though it was getting dark.
The man’s grunting seemed to be getting louder, his pace slower. Corey could even make out a few bad words that the man muttered, the dark of the forest making the sounds clearer. And then, the man stumbled towards a stand of quivering aspen and slid down the trunk of the biggest tree.
For a while Corey crouched behind a felled ponderosa and listened. He couldn’t hear much of anything except the warblers high up in the canopy and the man’s heavy breathing. He tried to slow his own, to quiet it, but it was difficult, and blood pounded in his ears. Night had almost fully come, and some stars were peeking from the deep blue above the ridge, but Corey’s eyes adjusted and he could see the man clearly. He looked younger than his stepdad, with a pale face. There was a tattoo on the side of his neck, which Corey didn’t remember seeing in the TV mugshot. Other than breathing heavy, the man was not doing much else. One hand clutched his side, while the other lay splayed on the ground. Corey lifted his BB gun and released the safety. It was already loaded, and Corey could see the BB in position give off the slightest bit of glint. He inched closer, the blood loud in his head.
As he crept into the clearing, Corey made out more of the man, broad shoulders, big hands, but thin, like a swimmer. Home was exactly to his right, maybe two miles or so, and if the man made any sudden move, he’d shoot and take off running. He pretended Mikey was with him, ready to back him up with a knife jab, and they’d bound off together, the sound of both their boots a better thing.
“Hey kid,” the man said, a strained voice.
Corey stopped, said nothing, kept his BB gun ready. Thirty feet, north by northwest, he pretended to whisper to Mikey. He saw that the man was bleeding from his side. Even in the growing darkness, the blood shone against the black sweatshirt.
“You can put the gun down. I’m not going to hurt you.” The man pulled his hand from his side and held it up, covered in blood. He dropped it back down and murmured something Corey couldn’t hear.
“You that fugitive on the news?” Corey hated how high-pitched his voice sounded.
The man laughed, “Fugitive?” He coughed, hacked up and spit without moving his head. “You by chance have something to eat on you?”
Corey wondered if he should get home now and tell his parents, call the police. He was about to take off back to the trailer park, but realized the man might get up and run someplace else by the time Corey got into Gasquet. Maybe people wouldn’t believe he’d actually found the man, accuse Corey of making the whole thing up. Mikey would know what to do if he were here. Mikey would suggest they hog-tie him. Corey didn’t have any rope with him. Mikey would have brought rope, because he was like that. Mikey wasn’t ever called a sissy. Corey could shoot the fugitive to keep him there, but he knew he wouldn’t. And that’s what made him a sissy.
“I have a fruit roll-up,” he said, and pulled it from his pocket.
“If you don’t mind,” said the man.
“What’s wrong with you? You shot or something?”
The man laughed, until he coughed.
Corey thought if he could show his stepdad and the police something of the fugitive, they’d believe him, even if the man did run off and hide. “If you want this roll-up, you gotta give me something. You know, in return.”
The man smiled like he was going to laugh again, stared at Corey for a long moment, and then pulled a chain off his neck. “Here.” He threw it towards Corey. It landed a couple feet from his boot. Corey threw the fruit roll-up, and the man leaned to the right and caught it with his hand, but only after a horrible yelp. He was in pain. Corey quickly picked up the chain, stuffed it in his pocket.
Corey hurried back to the fort to grab his pack. Instead of heading straight home, he traced his steps back to the fugitive, careful not to make noise, in case the man had run off and was hiding. Maybe the man wasn’t as hurt as he looked, and would chase Corey down, hold him hostage. He couldn’t let that happen. He prepped his BB gun as he approached the stand of aspen, looking out for the black sweatshirt. It was pretty dark now.
The man was still there, in the same spot, sitting against the tree, his breathing heavy, looking up at the treetops, like he was praying. Thirty feet away, Corey unzipped his pack. The man’s head quickly turned, but he didn’t jump up or even scurry sideways. “Kid?”
“Yeah,” Corey said. He fished the water canteen out of his pack, crept ten feet closer, and tossed it to the man. It landed a couple of feet from his left boot with a dull thud. Then, Corey took off running, back home.
It took longer than he thought, the dark full on when he walked into the asphalt clearing of the trailer park. As he turned the corner, Corey saw his stepdad’s pickup, the lights on in the kitchen. When he opened the door, he caught the smell of boiling hot dogs, and the yeast of beer before the sight of the Bud Light cans on the kitchen table. His stepdad was rolling a quarter on his knuckles. His mother was standing at the sink, pulling seeds out of a small pumpkin.
“Just in time for dinner, honey,” she said to Corey, and showed her work. “Look what I got at the farm stand in Adam’s Station?”
When Corey didn’t say anything, his mother brought her hand up to the fresh bruise on her neck.
“It’s for Halloween. Don’t you think it’ll be nice to carve a face in it?”
She tried to give him a smile, and went back to the sink and seed-pulling. Corey followed her, gave her a hug from behind, and turned to the boiling hot dogs. He skewered one with a fork, and ate it while he watched his mother wash the insides of the pumpkin. When he finished he scooted next to his mother, washed the fork, and watched her dry the inside. Corey had thought it would be the first thing he mentioned, but now he didn’t know if he should say anything about the man in the woods. It wasn’t the right time.
His stepdad had stood up. He was staring at Corey with the dull eyes that the beer drinking did.
“What’s that around your neck, son?”
“Nothing,” Corey said. “Just something I found in the woods.”
“Is that a necklace, Corey?” his stepdad asked.
Corey didn’t say anything. His mother stopped fussing with the pumpkin, and froze like a deer in the woods. Corey looked down at the kitchen linoleum.
“Who gave you that?”
Corey shook his head.
“What, are you wearing it to be pretty?”
Corey shook his head.
“Pretty for Mikey?”
“Alan, please,” his mother said.
“You wanna go and kiss him again?”
Corey ran to his bedroom and closed the door. He ripped the chain off and threw it against the wall. At first he only heard muffled voices on the other side of the wall, but then his stepdad’s voice got louder.
“He’s not a kid anymore, Jennifer! He’s gonna get his ass kicked!”
In between was his mother’s voice, but he couldn’t make out what she said.
“You have to stop babying him!”
More of his mother’s muffles.
“You want him to grow up a faggot?!”
And then Corey heard the sound that made him hide under his covers. He imagined grabbing his BB gun, ripping the bedroom door open, aiming square at the spot between his stepdad’s eyebrows, and saying some one-liner like heroes did in the movies. Mikey would say something like that. Mikey wouldn’t hide under the covers until he fell asleep.
When he came out of his room the next morning, his stepdad was gone. His mother was carving the pumpkin with a steak knife. She was almost finished with the mouth, working on a boxy tooth at the bottom. There was a new bruise on her neck, and one on her wrist. When she noticed him, his mother lifted the pumpkin and asked, “Whaddya think?” Corey didn’t say anything, but nodded. He poured himself some cereal.
“Want to help me decorate? I’ve got some cotton for spider webs, and plastic vampire bats to go in the corners.”
Corey didn’t say anything, kept eating his cereal.
“You can carve the eyes and nose.”
“I was gonna go to the fort.”
“Come on. It’ll be fun.”
Corey finished his cereal, washed the bowl and spoon, went to his room and grabbed his coat. When he returned his mother was biting her bottom lip. “You know, you can at least help me clean up a little bit before Alan gets home.”
“And I don’t like you going out in the woods when that convict is out there.”
Corey stood still, between his mother and the front door.
“Why were you wearing that necklace, Corey? You can’t get him mad like that.”
“It’s not a necklace.”
“Here, help me string this cotton.”
The crunch of his stepdad’s tires came just as Corey and his mother finished hanging spider webs. Some of the bats were nestled in the batting—some on top of the porch railing, the coffee table. The pumpkin was carved, with lopsided eyes that looked more silly than scary. “Now, we just need to find a candle,” his mother said as his stepdad walked through the door.
“Tah-dah!” his mother exclaimed.
Corey’s stepdad was cheerful. “It looks great in here.”
“Me and Corey did it.” His mother grasped her hands in front like some of the girls did in Corey’s school.
His stepdad pulled a box out of his pocket. It was wrapped with a silver ribbon. He gave it to Corey’s mother. “For me?” She opened it. Inside was a thin silver necklace with a small green pendant in the shape of a tear drop.
“Alan, I love emeralds!”
“I know. That’s why I got it.”
His mother pulled the necklace out of the box and unclasped it.
“Here,” his stepdad said, and took the necklace and hung it around his mother’s neck, and kissed her hair.
His mother laid her fingers on the pendant, “Isn’t it beautiful?”
“I’m glad you like it. It wasn’t cheap.”
“It’s so thoughtful.” His mother looked to Corey. “Don’t you think?”
His stepdad wrapped his arms around his mother’s waist from behind and rested his chin on her shoulder. “See. Girls wear necklaces, Corey.”
“Isn’t it nice, Corey?”
“I think I’ll go outside,” Corey said softly and, while his parents cooed over one another, slipped out of the trailer and walked into the woods. He wished he’d brought his BB gun, but didn’t want to risk taking the time to go back into the trailer and his bedroom. He thought he would walk to the fort, and maybe creep to the stand of aspens, see if the man was still there. He needed to get his canteen back.
The man was in the exact same spot. Same tree, same black hoodie and dark blue Dickies. Corey’s canteen was resting on the man’s lap. The man was dead.
Corey crouched on the ground some feet away from the body. He could tell the man was dead because his eyes weren’t all the way closed, and his chest didn’t move. Other than that, he looked like he was sleeping, like he’d had too many beers and fallen asleep sitting on the couch.
After staring awhile at the body, Corey stood up, brushed the bottom of his pants off, and crept backward like a bobcat. He untied his shoes, pulling the laces out of the eyelets. He pretended Mikey was with him, that he and Mikey spotted the fugitive and concocted a plan to sneak up on him while he slept. “I’ll hold him down while you do his hands, then we’ll do his feet.”
Corey moved in a big circle around the body and then slinked up behind. He grabbed the man’s wrists, pulled them onto his lap, and tied one shoelace into a double-knot. He checked to make sure it was tight enough so the prisoner couldn’t escape. “He can’t wiggle out of that.”
He used the other shoelace to tie the man’s ankles. The lace was barely long enough, but he managed to make one knot. He checked for slack. “Good enough,” he said to Mikey. “He won’t be going anywhere.”
The man appeared peaceful, even though he was tied up, like someone who’d needed sleep and found it. Corey looked at the slope of his shoulders, the stubble on his face. He brought one of his fingers up to the fugitive’s chin to feel it. Sandpaper, but softer. He saw a small tuft of sandy hair peeking out the hoodie’s neck. He touched the spot and felt the hairs. Then he pressed his whole hand down, and slid it inside the hoodie. It wasn’t as cold as he’d thought it would be, but it wasn’t warm either. He felt the mounds of the man’s hairy chest and moved his hand along the hair, back and forth, slowly, several times, and then back up the neck. He looked up to the sky, took a deep breath, and pulled his hand away.
“Let’s make sure these bindings are secure,” he said to Mikey. He checked the ties at the hands, then at the ankles. He decided to make the ankle ties tighter, and used all his strength to favor enough shoelace for a double-knot. By the time Corey finished, the sun was falling behind the ridge. “We’ll carry the fugitive to justice come light, Commander Mike. For now, let’s rest.”
In the morning the living room coffee table was full of Bud Light cans, too many to count. His mother was standing at the counter staring at nothing but the sink. She was pale, her hair unbrushed and stringy. His stepdad’s head rested atop his forearms on the kitchen table.
Corey had heard them laughing and singing from beyond his bedroom walls most of the night, until he managed to fall asleep. The coffee maker was making its bubbling sound while it percolated.
“Corey, son,” his stepdad said, looking up, “me and your mother are moving a little slow today.”
“Are you guys sick?” Corey asked.
“Sort of,” his stepdad laughed, “her more than me.”
Corey’s mother was still staring at the sink but was smiling. She looked like she was remembering something funny, seeing it like it was far away, or long ago. The coffee maker kept sputtering.
Corey watched them, his stepdad’s head back on his arms, his mother’s hair limp around her face. The room smelled like sugar and bread and sweat. He was going to pour himself a bowl of cereal, but the smell of the kitchen killed his hunger. He thought about today’s mission in the woods, and how he and Mikey would haul the fugitive into Gasquet on a wagon, ride him through the main street, push open the doors of the Sheriff’s office, and claim the reward money. He would buy himself a pair of cowboy boots with spurs on the back, and Mikey would buy a BB gun so they both had one. Corey would also buy his mother a car so she and his stepdad didn’t have to share.
As if aware he was thinking about her, Corey’s mother turned around to look at him.
“Baby, could you get my cigarettes from the truck?”
He went out and climbed into the pickup, fished his hand into the passenger door compartment. His mother always left her Newports there. He pulled them out and inspected the box, partially crushed. None of the cigarettes were damaged. He popped out of the truck and looked at the sky. A cool blue. A bit of fog pulling away from the coast below like cotton batting, sparse and drifting above the rising hills. School was going to be really hard tomorrow.
“I think I found the escaped convict,” he said, when he returned.
His stepdad was now reading something on his phone, and without looking up said, “Yeah, don’t worry. The county has their chopper, and the Highway Patrol donated theirs. He won’t get too far.”
“He’s in the woods, up on the ridge.”
His mother was pouring the freshly brewed coffee in the faded Dollywood mug she always drank out of. “That’s why I don’t want you going out there, Corey, not until they find him. He’s dangerous.”
“I found him.”
Corey’s stepdad rocked a little in his chair. “Is that so?”
He puffed up his chest, and with his best impression of Mikey’s voice, Corey said, “I’m going to bring in the fugitive.”
“You do that,” a slight glow of the smartphone reflecting on his stepdad’s eyeballs.
“Where are your shoelaces, Corey?” his mother asked, the crease in between her eyebrows.
Corey looked down, didn’t say anything.
“Answer your mother,” his stepdad said. Corey looked over at him. He wasn’t staring at the phone any more, but straight back, the morning slow all but gone. Corey could see his wildness return.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” his mother said, but to whom Corey didn’t know. She was looking at a space between him and his stepdad.
“Well?” His stepdad sat up in his chair, pulled forward like a dog watching a stick.
“I found him,” Corey said.
“Where are your fucking shoelaces, Corey?”
Corey felt the tears begin, and wished hard that they wouldn’t.
“It’s not a big deal, Alan.”
His stepdad jumped to his feet. “Yes, it is, Jennifer. This is exactly what is a big deal.” He turned to Corey, pointed his finger towards him. “If you’ve managed to lose your shoelaces, have the balls to own up, son.”
Corey ran to his room. Behind him he heard his mother say things he’d heard before. Their voices rose and collided beyond the walls, until he couldn’t make out anything either of them said. He grabbed his BB gun, tucked it tight to his body, took a deep breath and ran out of the room and through the front door.
Behind him he heard his mother say, “Where are you going?”
Corey ran all the way to the stand of aspen, as fast as he could. The forest was silent, except for a few birds high in the canopy, but the blood in his head was loud, his breathing scratchy.
The man looked the same, in the same spot, sitting the same way, only now the skin of his face and hands was more ashy, less pink, a bit puffy. Corey slumped down on his knees a few feet in front, his breathing heavy from running and crying. He wished Mikey were here, because he would know what to do. Mikey always knew what to do. He would ask Mikey, “How can I be more like you?” But he knew he could never ask Mikey that question, even if he and Mikey were still friends. But he also knew that he and Mikey would never be friends again. His stepdad was right. He was a sissy.
Corey clicked the BB gun’s safety off, cocked it and brought the butt to the square of his right shoulder. Mikey had taught him how to shoot. He aimed the rifle at the fugitive’s head. He imagined himself and Mikey dragging the fugitive to the police station. Corey would wear his new boots to school. He pulled the trigger. The BB sank into the fugitive’s cheek and disappeared behind a small dark hole, little flies escaping the mouth. Corey cocked the rifle. He imagined his name all over news feeds, his name and Mikey’s, the heroes of Gasquet, bringing the fugitive to justice. Corey pulled the trigger. The BB hit right between the eyes, and the man’s head jerked a bit. Corey cocked the rifle. He recalled the hair of the man’s chest on his fingers, his skin, and began to cry again. He brought the butt of the rifle to the square of his shoulder, just as Mikey had taught him, imagined being interviewed on the news, the reporter asking him how he’d found the fugitive, how he was brave enough to capture the man in the woods. And Corey, about to answer, but knowing he didn’t want to answer without Mikey—his eyes searched for him. And now Mikey was next to him, and they answered the reporter’s questions, and Mikey smiled at the reporters and back at Corey. And then his stepdad was in the crowd behind the reporter, and his mother, too, and the whole fifth-grade class, all of Gasquet, looking to the hero. Corey aimed again, his breath and blood a single thing, and pulled the trigger.