An excerpt from Kayla, the first book in the eponymous series, set a few years before the events of Runner, which I’m currently working on, sitting in my truck with a couple dogs, parked in a hayfield after dark.
They had always watched the squirrels when they camped. Their shelter was on the edge of a white pine plantation bordering a swamp and to the west ran a broad low esker that transitioned from spruce and cedar to oak, hickory and walnut. It was dry year round and bursting with spruce cones and acorns and nuts and always in contention as the best feeding territory among the squirrels.
Mornings in the pines – when they didn’t involve messy, awkward sleeping bag sex – always centered around burnt smokey coffee and the two of them watching the squirrels race about gathering food, jumping from limb to limb and bringing it down to bury for winter. Frequently there were the titillating squeaks and chirps of elicit bouts of squirrel sex and always the jostling of the power structure as newcomers challenged the established males for their territory.
In it all there was an urgency. It seemed their minds were always on the coming winter. On the brevity of life. Every action, every move, every bit of energy expended, was always for The Cause. And The Cause – be it storing food, fighting or fucking – The Cause was life. Ensuring the continuity of their own. Nathan had no idea what squirrels thought about – or if they thought – but their goals, every moment of every day, seemed to be the same as every person on earth.
Maybe they had squirrel hopes and squirrel dreams, maybe they had moments of inspiration or silliness, tragedy and love and elation, but it didn’t matter on the outside. Nor even, really, did human hopes and dreams and goals and genius ideas matter. At the end of the day, at the end of a life, all that really mattered was the propagation of the species. It was the same for him and his kind as it was for the squirrels.
Now they had often eaten squirrels. And muskrats and ducks and the mudcats and bowfin they caught in the creek. And rabbits, oh god in heaven how they ate rabbits. But owing to his terrible fucking aim – he couldn’t hit the broad side of a stationary cattle barn, she told him – it had always been Kayla who did the hunting. Nathan set traps and tended trot lines for fish, cleaned and gutted and cooked everything they caught and in a short time had become quite skilled at preparing small game.
She joked occasionally that he was “fast becoming a fine white wife.”
One morning in the early summer he woke in the weak light before dawn and couldn’t get back to sleep so he climbed out of the tangled mess of sleeping bags and Kayla’s legs and hair and the leaves that always found their way inside. They had spent much of the night laying together as the fire died, whispering to each other and making love ferociously whenever the coyotes set up howling – it had become a game they played, like a drinking game but with sex – and they must have gone five or six rounds before they were both too exhausted to stay awake any longer.
He sat naked on the damp pine needles outside the shelter and poured the remnants of yesterday’s coffee into his cup, looking down at the grounds and the ash floating in it and feeling the dew settling out of the air on his skin. He picked at a patch of dried semen on his thigh as the glow of the growing dawn slowly lit the forest around him and the birds began to wake and chitter and bitch at each other. In the shelter, he could hear her briefly begin to stir.
It was in that moment that he heard the leaves rustle ahead of him. He instinctively paused, unfocused his eyes and honed in on a little tail as it flicked and swayed, not fifty feet away. A little grey squirrel digging frantically in the pine duff of the forest floor.
It was an easy shot. Kayla would have taken it without a second thought. And of course they needed the meat. They always needed meat and they always lived off the land when they camped. So he took it.
The little .22 had been propped up next to the pine stump beside the shelter and he just pulled it over his lap, popped the safety off, shouldered it and fired. He couldn’t even remember aiming. But ahead of him the little grey male jumped.
The little squirrel, who had been frantically burying the two acorns he had accidentally found while trying to bury a spruce cone – two free acorns! In July! What a find! – the little male took the bullet in the gut and flipped backwards in shock, simultaneously pissing and shitting himself.
The pain wasn’t immediate. He only knew he’d been batted away from his acorns by something and wanted to run but his legs weren’t working right. The hydraulic percussion of the tiny slug had torn him up from right to left and damaged his spine.
And then a greater fear took him as the convulsions began. His limbs and his tail kicked and his damaged spine contorted, doing more damage to the nerves and he couldn’t see anything but the orange of the sky and the bloody pine needles that were being kicked up all over him.
Nathan was surprised he had hit him. He dropped the gun where he sat and immediately ran over to the squirrel, now flopping and flailing like a grey and red fish. Kneeling over the tiny convulsing body, he froze and a kind of panic set in.
Part of its intestines had been blown out of one side of its abdomen and they were dragging behind it, picking up dirt and pine needles as it jumped and shook in painful spasm and it had begun crying like a cat. Suddenly he had no idea why he’d taken the shot. He didn’t know why he was there or what he was. Instantly, he regretted everything he’d just done.
He wanted to take it back, pull the bullet out of the little dying thing, put the gun away, somehow never have picked it up. He wanted Kayla to have taken the shot. Or no one. He didn’t want to have just caused this and now that it was happening he had no idea what to do.
Stop, he thought, mouthing the words, Stop. Just die! He searched about frantically with his hands and eyes, looking for something to hit it with, a rock, a stick, anything. He couldn’t hear anything over the sound of the blood pulsing in his ears and his own breathing and the tortured bawling of the dying squirrel in front of him. He was panicked and naked and dirty and flailing about on his hands and knees in the dirt and pine needles, searching for something – anything – to bludgeon it with.
In desperation, he snatched the tiny writhing body from the ground and closed his fist around its neck, squeezing until it seemed there was no space left for it to breath and the squirrel clawed and tore at his fingers but he couldn’t feel it. Its eye was wide open, its jaw set in some expression of gasping shocked terror.
As its movements slowed, its front limbs hanging slack, its jaw miming the gasps of agonal breathing, Nathan became aware for the first time that he was crying.
Tears streamed down his cheeks and he could barely breathe for the choking sobs he was letting out. And as it died in his clenched fist, with its one terrified eye staring directly up at him, he found himself whispering over and over again, “Sorry……..I’m sorry…….. I’m so sorry….”
He had no idea how long Kayla had been standing over him. No idea, even, how long he’d been crouched there, choking the squirrel to death before he noticed her bare feet in his periphery. He looked up at her, naked and looking down at him, wet with the rain that had begun to fall at some point, her hair clinging to her shoulders and neck as she crouched down next to him.
The expression on his face was childlike and sorrowful, full of confusion and remorse and shame and what she had to say shocked him.
He looked at the squirrel for a moment and when he looked back he realized she was looking at him with what he could only perceive as mild disgust. It made the rain seem suddenly so much colder.
And then she said it again, “You’re sorry??!?”
He didn’t know what to say back. “I should never have -” but she cut him off.
“He was happy to be alive, living his life, getting by, eating and living and having babies and surviving hawks and owls. And you took that from him. You took that all away.”
Nathan sat there stunned. They were his thoughts. From out of her mouth, but he hadn’t expected to hear them. He had no words for her.
“You took his life, the lives of his children and grandchildren – his entire line – his entire future. Gone. You ended that. You took everything he has and could ever do. It’s all gone. In one moment. Can you think of anything he wants less than your tears and self-pity?”
He was panting now, near to hyperventilating, shivering as the rain poured off the two of them, his hands trembling and the tiny wet corpse of the squirrel shaking in his still clenched fist. He had to raise his voice to hear it over the noise of the downpour and it was still a whimper,
“Wha….. I don’t know….. what am I supposed to do?”
She looked up calmly at the rain that was cascading down through the forest all around them and finally turned to him, finally with something like calm assuredness,
“Say thank you. And then we’ll eat him.”
She stood up, grabbing his arm and hoisting him to his feet.
“His life is our life now…”
And as she walked away, she added, “…hunter.”