"You sure you don't want to come?" Monica asks. There's a slight
tone of pleading in her voice.
"Positive," Tom says. "I want to catch up on the newspaper. I'm
behind by two days." He's lying; Monica knows this. Tom wants her
to go on the hike alone with Patrick, to talk to him and try to
make peace, but she can see that his mind is made up.
"Suit yourself," she says, and pulls on her parka, leaving it
open at the front. Monica is five months pregnant with a child
they hadn't entirely planned on conceiving. It is Saturday and
they are at home, but the atmosphere in the house is tense and
unpleasant. Patrick, Monica's brother, is staying with them for
the weekend before he leaves for Fort Benning to start basic
training, and she's furious with him. It's a good thing, Monica
thinks, that they have a nursery now; the room used to be Tom's
office, and would have made a very poor guest room.
The hike was Monica's idea. She wanted to look for winter birds.
If she feels cornered, she knows it's her own fault. Poor
planning. She has the feeling that the two men, brother and
husband, are ganging up on her.
As soon as they get into the car, Patrick snaps on the radio.
He's trying to ward off Monica's barrage of small talk, the
filler she uses to avoid talking about the war he's going to
fight. He's tried to bring it up calmly, but she acts as though
she can't hear him. She'd rather pretend than spend her last days
with him drenched in anger, and she's not sure she'd be able to
keep her temper if the subject were opened. They talk about other
things instead. They have talked about global warming, internet
auction sites, sugar-free chewing gum, and the Keds they
wore as children. They have discussed chia-pets, low-flow
showerheads, IMAX movies, and their mother's
underdeveloped taste in art. Now, while Monica drives, he
chatters about his life in Brooklyn, where he's just left his job
waiting tables in a French restaurant.
"Most of the guys in the kitchen are Ecuadorian," he says.
"They're real tough guys, and it took them a while to think I was
okay, but now we get along. It's pretty rare. The cooks and the
waitstaff don't usually get along."
"Why Ecuador?" Monica asks as she drives. She's been to Ecuador
with the Audubon society. She saw toucans, and seven different
species of hummingbird. Patrick shrugs.
"That's just where they come from," he says. "I started learning
some Spanish, and now I talk to them in their own language."
Monica is used to these rambling, self-congratulatory stories.
Ever since they were children he has told tales about the favor
he manages to garner from unusual sources. She notices that
Patrick is referring to his former colleagues in the present
tense, as though, as she suspected, he hasn't fully realized what
"It sounds like you're going to miss them," she says, "and they
you." She's skating around the edges of it now, testing the ice
to see if it will hold her. She can't resist the temptation to
take a dig.
"I'll make new friends," he says. "New friends who speak Spanish,
probably. I heard there are a lot of Hispanics in the Army. And
the Spanish I know is mostly dirty anyway. I'll feel right at
The parking lot at the trailhead is deserted. Monica has never
seen it so empty, even in winter. She heaves herself out of the
car and pauses to retie her hiking boots and to take her
binoculars from their leather case.
"Oh boy," Patrick says, full of sarcasm, "get ready. There might
be a bird somewhere." He's teasing, she knows, but the contempt
is sincere. He really does think that bird watching is a waste of
The trail starts with a steep hill, then winds through a thick
wooded area towards the creek that bisects the park; Monica has
walked the same path many times before. She and Patrick start up
the hill together, silent for now. There has already been a
snowfall this year, and the frozen leaves crunch under their
boots. The trees grow thick around them.
Monica walks half a step behind her brother, watching him as he
spots the blue blazes on the trees ahead and charges forward. He
hikes with his head down, as though there were an important
destination ahead. It's a waste of scenery, she thinks, even in
familiar territory, but especially now, in his last days of
freedom. Patrick has only been to Pennsylvania once since she
moved here with Tom three and a half years ago. He had just
started college then, and had been full of excited chatter about
parties and dorms and all his new friends. It had seemed to her
like a sudden change from that giddy excitement to his final
departure from the school eight months later, but she knew there
must have been a progression, a slower decline that she hadn't
noticed. She'd been setting up house with Tom, painting the walls
different shades of beige and eggshell, starting her job at the
private high school, traveling to Latin America to look for
exotic birds, all pursuits that seemed very important at the
Patrick broke the news a month ago. It was early evening, and
Monica had just returned from work. She didn't immediately
recognize his voice on the phone.
"Patrick?" she finally realized. "You sound different." For a
brief panicked moment, she wondered if it was his birthday and
she had somehow lost track, but no, it was only October.
"It's been a while," he said bitterly. "I probably sound older."
She tried to remember the last time they'd spoken. He was living
in Brooklyn in a tiny apartment with a whole gang of friends. He
was waiting tables. All this news had come months ago. She'd
called him in July to tell him about the baby. And before that?
"How are you?" she asked, trying to keep the guilty tone from her
voice. She was in the kitchen, still squeezing into regular
clothes then, trying to figure out whether she needed to go to
the grocery store that night, or if they could make do.
"Things haven't been so great," he said. "Still working at this
"You're still young." She was rooting in the refrigerator,
checking the crisper for vegetables.
"I don't know what the hell I'm doing with myself. I can't wait
"If you enjoy it, you can," she said. She opened a jar of pasta
sauce and sniffed. She replaced the lid and put it back on the
"I don't enjoy it. Aren't you listening? I'm sick of it." She'd
wanted to snap at him that that's what he got for dropping out of
school. Instead she adopted her calm, motherly voice, the voice
she'd developed for use with panicking students, girls who
couldn't concentrate because they'd been made fun of in the
bathroom, boys whose parents wouldn't let them play soccer if
they didn't get their grades up.
"What do you like?" she asked. "You always liked music. Maybe you
can do something in music." She couldn't identify with him. She'd
known she was going to be a teacher since she was ten years old,
and it was, so far, as satisfying as she'd imagined it would be.
This kind of aimlessness mystified her, even when she was feeling
well-rested and patient.
"I thought about that," he said. "There are no jobs in music."
"I guess you need to start making a plan, then." She stepped away
from the refrigerator, annoyed. Tom would be home within twenty
minutes, and she had no ideas for dinner. She could pick up
take-out Indian food. He liked curry. She felt a wave of nausea
at the thought of the spicy food.
"That's what I've been trying to tell you,"
Patrick said. "I have a plan."
"Good. Let's hear it." Monica stepped back from the refrigerator,
really listening now.
In her memory of the conversation, she stood in the middle of the
kitchen for several minutes before she was able to think of a
response to his news, but in reality she lashed back at him
"Don't be ridiculous," she said.
"I start basic training in just over a month." In the days that
followed, she realized that this all made sense. He was exactly
their target audience, young, broke, unhappy, hungry for
"You don't even believe in this war," she told him. "They're
going to send you to Iraq." They were like a different species to
her, those people with flag magnets on their cars and Support
Our Troops signs planted in their yards. They'd lived their
whole lives, she and Patrick, and their parents too, believing
that war was never the answer, sending money to any organization
that claimed to be pacifist.
"Joining the Army doesn't mean I'll go into combat," he said. "Do
you even know what it means? Do you have any idea?"
"It's still dangerous." She didn't know whether or not this was
true, but it seemed like it must be.
"People are going to die there whether I enlist or not. Might as
well be me."
"You've got lots of other options," she said. She was trying to
be reasonable, but the words were coming out shrill and frantic.
"Go back to school. Find a better job. Move back in with mom and
dad." He didn't answer. She tried again. "I can help you," she
said. "I can get you a job down here, near me."
"I'll get an education," he said. "That's part of the plan."
"You don't have to do it like that," she argued.
"It's already done."
"You can't," she said.
"This is what I want," he said. "I hoped you could support me."
She began to realize that he was serious, that the decision had
been made without her. She felt as though she were talking to a
stranger, someone who'd dialed the wrong number and just started
babbling. Patrick never said things like I hoped you could
support me. He was never so straightforward. When she heard
Tom's car in the driveway, she lost her temper.
"I can't believe you," she said. She hung up, slamming the
cordless phone into its cradle. Tom came in.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Nothing," she told him. "I'm fine."
"That's a lie," he said, and he coaxed it out of her. It was
Tom's idea that Patrick should come for a weekend, that Monica
should do her best to understand, and failing that, to pretend.
He'd barely spoken above a whisper: "It could be your last
She's out of breath by the time they crest the first hill. It's
embarrassing, though she knows it's just part of being an
expectant mother. Mother, she thinks. She can't get used to it.
"Are you all right?" Patrick asks when she catches up with him.
"Are you cold? I don't want you to stress yourself, Mama. Heh,
"I'm fine," she snaps. She doesn't mind the teasing, but the
worrying is starting to grate on her. Even strangers do it, in
the grocery store, in parking lots, as though her body is now
their business. They start walking again and she continues to
watch him, in his jeans and his Green Bay Packers
sweatshirt. He looks very young, though he's only four years
younger than she is. She is just enough older to have stayed a
category above him while they were growing up, with different
sets of rules. She always liked having a little brother, someone
who wanted the things that she had, to whom she could explain
things, of whom she could sometimes be in charge.
She hears a rustle up in the trees and lifts the binoculars from
around her neck. "See something?" Patrick asks her.
"Just a couple of crows," she says, the brief flare of excitement
"I guess you won't be able to go looking for birds as much," he
says, "with the baby." He sounds earnest; he is trying to imagine
how it might feel to be Monica now.
"I guess not." She's thought of this before. She can take day
hikes, but she won't be flying to Latin America any time soon.
"You might have to find a real hobby," he says, nudging her.
"Something that's actually interesting." She swats at him with
the back of her hand, and he grins and gallops away, out of her
reach. It occurs to her that were they not related, she would not
have chosen Patrick as a friend; the thought disturbs her more
now than it did the first time it occurred to her, about her
parents while she was in college. It doesn't matter, she
realizes; choice is not a term of this equation.
They're moving down the other side of the hill now, and the path
begins to flatten out. Monica picks up her pace; it would feel
good to break a sweat, to feel a sensation rooted firmly in the
They crest another hill, and the next blaze on the trail isn't
immediately apparent. Patrick, too, is squinting ahead, looking
for splashes of paint.
"I'm pretty sure it's this way," she says, starting off to the
"I don't see anything," he says.
"Me neither. I just remember." After a few paces she stops short.
Patrick opens his mouth to speak but she grabs his wrist to
silence him. She thinks she has seen a collared dove. She has
never seen one before, only pictures in field guides. It's in the
high branches of a sycamore. She looks through her binoculars,
but she can't get a good view. She shuffles down a ways towards
the tree, still looking, still focusing on the shape in the
branches. She moves closer still, then around the side. She locks
it in her view and studies it carefully. It is definitely a
collared dove, rare in North America, even more rare in the
winter. She wishes someone else were there to see it, someone who
would recognize it and confirm the sighting. The bird doesn't
notice her; it sticks its beak up under its wing. It hops around
on the branch, a little to one side, then to the other. It takes
"What the hell was that?" Patrick says, scurrying down the slope
and over a protruding tree root to her side.
"A collared dove," she says, still staring after it. "Very rare."
She will be able to check it off on her life-list. As she's grown
older, she's checked off fewer and fewer things each year. She's
seen all the usual birds, the common ones, the ones everyone's
got, and she has to work harder to generate novelty and
"Congratulations," he says flatly. She's growing frustrated with
introducing neutral topics of conversation and seeing him shoot
them down. He is making it difficult to carry on a peaceful
"I still don't see any blazes," he says, "do you?" She looks
"No. Maybe we should turn back."
"I'll just look a little farther down," Patrick says. "Wait
here." She agrees, and he shuffles down the slope. He disappears
"Jesus Christ," she hears from down among the trees.
"What is it? Are you all right?"
"I think it's a fox," he calls.
"Careful," she warns as she scrambles down the path, "don't get
too close." He's squatting down, leaning over something, intent.
"He's hurt," Patrick says. "His back foot's all infected." Monica
still can't see the animal as she comes up behind her brother.
She tries to look over his shoulder, but he moves to meet her,
shielding the animal from her gaze.
"Let me see it," she says.
"You don't want to see this. It looks like he escaped from a trap
or something." She manages to steal a glance around Patrick and
immediately vomits into the leaves. The fox's fur is a beautiful
auburn, but the back foot has turned a sick shade of black and
green, and the fur all around is matted with dark dried blood.
She catches sight of the eyes, their slit-like pupils squinting
with pain and pleading, and cannot stand it. She turns her back,
still gagging with disgust and horror. The taste of the stomach
acid in her mouth is familiar in recent months, and she longs to
wash it away with a cool splash of water.
"Let's go," she says, "let's get away from here."
"We can't just leave him. He's in pain. He'll never survive."
"Come on," she says, "there's nothing we can do." She wants to be
back in her house, clean and bright, sheets recently washed,
countertops scrubbed with bleach.
"We can't just leave him here," Patrick says again. "Some idiot
did this to him. We gotta put him out of his misery."
"We can't do that," Monica says. "Even if we had some way, it's
not our place."
"At least let's go tell someone. Does this park have rangers or
"I don't know, I've never seen one." She wants to get back to the
car, to drive home and add the collared dove to her list, to lie
down and rest in her cool, clean bed. She wants to be with Tom,
to spend some more time with Patrick, and to have that time be
pleasant. She's glad there are no rangers that she knows of;
maybe now he will give up.
"This could be tricky," Patrick says, standing. "If we leave to
get help, we might lose him. God, if I could find the guy who did
this." She can see a kind of tightness in his jaw, a primal
anger. She's felt it herself while watching the news.
"Patrick," she says, "please, let's just go home." She feels as
though if she stays there much longer, smelling the leaves,
hearing the sounds of the woods, she will be sick again.
"Somebody's got to do something," he says. "Do you want to wait
here while I go for help? Or we could tie my sweatshirt to the
tree, so we can find the place, and then you can wait in the car
while I find someone." She can see that Patrick is not to be
"I'll come with you," she says. Patrick starts to pull the
sweatshirt off over his head. "You'll be cold!" she objects.
"I'll be fine," he says. It's his tough-guy act. She's seen it
before. He played the last fifteen minutes of a middle-school
basketball game with a broken finger, and it's been crooked ever
since. He has only a thin T-shirt as an underlayer, and she can
see the goose bumps already rising on his skinny arms as he ties
the sweatshirt sleeves to a branch. Together they scramble back
up to the last place they saw a trail blaze and start back
towards the parking lot.
"I'm going to see that thing when I close my eyes at night," she
says. She can still taste the vomit in her mouth.
"I'm sorry," he says, "that's a terrible thing for you to have to
see." Monica is thinking of the things Patrick might see in
coming months. This is nothing; this is good practice. By the
time they reach the parking lot, she's beginning to feel
seriously exhausted, an effect of the pregnancy that she hates
even more than the morning sickness, more than the change in
"Isn't there an office around here somewhere?" he asks. "A ranger
"There's a building with bathrooms," she says, "just around the
corner here. But I don't remember ever seeing someone inside."
"Well, we can always call the police," he says. "You can just
call 911 here, right?"
"That's only for emergencies," she says.
"This is an emergency." She can see his fist clenching in his
"Okay," she says, "go ahead, call them." She'll just let him
call, let the operator reprimand him for misusing the service,
and then they can go home and forget about it. Patrick pulls a
cell phone from the pocket of his jeans. He dials, and she
listens to him explain the situation. He answers questions. He
nods his head seriously.
"Thank you so much," he says into the phone, "I'll be waiting in
the lot." He presses a button and slips the phone back into his
"It shouldn't take too long," he says to Monica. "Then we can get
you back home." They stand by her car to wait. Monica takes a
deep breath but she can't think of anything inane to say. Patrick
is staring into the distance. She suddenly feels hungry, aware
that her stomach is now empty. She feels a wave of dizziness.
"I don't see why we have to do this," she says, though she knows
any argument now is futile.
"It's the right thing to do," Patrick says.
"It's not like we hurt its goddamn foot," she says. "I don't want
to spend my last hours with my little brother watching a cop
shoot a fox."
"No," he says, "you just want to spend them pretending he's
somebody else." She feels the accusation like a punch to her jaw,
far worse than the sting of a random, false finger-pointing. She
slumps back against the car. Her mind is running in very small
circles, from anger to fear to denial to anger again, circles too
swift and small to allow the formulation of entire thoughts.
Patrick continues. "You want to pretend like I just dropped by to
say hello, like I'm going back to a fancy college on a hill
behind a gate and then I'm going to get a job in an office and
make a lot of money and find a nice girl."
"You're making me sound like mom and dad."
"No, you're making yourself sound like mom and dad. I make one
decision for myself, and you can't handle it because it's not
what you would've done, and you're just so sure you know what's
best. You don't even bother to ask what it's really going to be
like." She's barely hearing him now. This whole weekend was a
terrible idea; she should've just let him go, said goodbye over
the phone, waited for the news that he was safe on some base
The police car pulls into the parking lot, and Patrick goes over
to it without looking back at her. She can hear his disgust in
his footsteps. An officer gets out. He's short and slim, his
uniform crisp. Monica's eyes gravitate to the holster on his hip.
"Good afternoon," he says. His voice is surprisingly deep, given
his size. Monica pushes herself up and pulls her jacket tighter
around her. The officer shakes hands with Patrick. "Thank you for
calling," he says. "We've had some real problems out here
"I'll take you to the animal," Patrick says. "This is my sister,
Monica," he adds, inclining his head in her direction.
"Pleased," the cop says. "You might want to wait here, ma'am."
She has the instinct to be offended by the sexism, but she
realizes that he's right. She wants to stay right where she is.
She wants to run in the opposite direction.
"We'll only be a minute," Patrick says, looking sideways at the
cop as though to confirm that this is the case. She unlocks the
car and gets in as they disappear into the woods. She turns on
the radio to keep her mind busy while she waits, but she can only
find commercials. She imagines discussing the incident with Tom
later that night, when they're settled in their bed. He will stay
maddeningly neutral, though part of her imagines that this is all
his fault. The visit was his idea.
She hears the gunshot. She feels the jolt through her whole body,
in her mouth, in her fingernails, all through her belly. She's
never heard a real gunshot before; she's lived her entire life in
safe suburbs. She hadn't realized how loud it would be, even from
this distance. She feels the urge to drive away, to leave the fox
there, to leave Patrick with his new friend, the cop. None of
this has anything to do with her and her life. Everything has
changed beneath her: she is now at the head of a family of three.
She is the sister of a soldier, and she will be afraid of the
ringing telephone. No one asked her consent for these
Her back is to the trail and the shot is still ringing in her
ears, but she senses Patrick's arrival, and she turns around to
watch him. He's got the sweatshirt on again, and he's taking his
time crossing the lot; he is alone. The cop, she imagines, is
still back there in the woods, getting rid of the body. As she
sees the self-satisfied look on her brother's face, she wishes
she had left him and gone speeding back to Tom, who would wrap
her up in his arms, and the whole thing would never have
"You happy now?" she asks when he opens the door. "Done your
little good deed for the day?"
"Yes," he says, "thanks for all your help." She feels a drop of
his spit hit her cheek. He continues. "Officer Johnson says to
thank you, too. He says not enough people take responsibility
around here." Monica wonders if he actually said that, or if
Patrick is just embellishing the story to paint himself in a
heroic light, as he so loves to do. But then, in this particular
case, she thinks, he may be right. She was concerned with her own
comfort, physically and otherwise. "You okay?" he says, leaning
forward to try to catch her eye. "Mon, come on, let's go home.
You should lie down."
"Sorry," she says. She gives her head a shake to clear her
thoughts and puts the car in gear.
"It was just a fox," he says, and when she doesn't look over at
him, he repeats himself. "It was just a fox." She is aware of a
concept that she is refusing to grasp, a concept by which it
doesn't matter what is objectively right and wrong. It matters
only what is actually happening and how she responds. She sees
all this laid before her like a map, like empty dishes set on a
table before a feast.
"It wasn't just a fox," she says, "it's you and your goddamn war.
It's the stupid government and you're just doing whatever they
say and you didn't even bother to ask and I don't want
you to get killed." She isn't thinking of each complaint
before it comes out of her mouth. They seem to be generated in
her throat, not in her brain.
"Stop!" Patrick yells, and at first she thinks
he is trying to put an end to her diatribe. It's too late when
she understands. They're already in the middle of the
intersection, the car on the cross street screeching and
swerving, leaning on the horn. She slams the brake on and stops
on the far side of the intersection. She hears a high tone in her
ears, the kind that only exists inside her head. Her right hand
instinctively gravitates to her belly. She feels short of breath.
The car has stopped.
"Jesus," Patrick says, "you went right through it." Her heart is
pounding. She feels the seatbelt across her chest and belly,
where it slammed into her to stop her flying through the
windshield. It takes her a moment to realize that she stopped in
time, that they didn't hit the other car.
"Are you okay?" she asks. Her voice sounds strange, faint. She
can't look over at Patrick, in case she has caused him some harm.
She, who was so eager to protect him.
"I'm fine," he says, "totally fine. We should go to your doctor,
though. You should get checked out." She doesn't reply. He's
right; she knows she should. She feels that she is responsible
for some injury, though everyone is fine. She sees her life
stretching out before her in motherhood, a long line of hazards
and disasters, just waiting to happen, right in front of her,
wherever she goes. Right in her neighborhood, in her home, the
safest place she knows.
"Let's go home," Patrick is saying, "I'll drive. Let's get pizza
tonight. Relax. We're all okay." He's trying, she knows, to
create an air of safety. She sees through the act, but she's too
tired to resist. She moves over to let him drive, and they keep
going on down the road. She imagines Patrick driving a Hummer in
the desert. She imagines him sleeping in a bunk. She thinks of
all the boys who will be sleeping beside him, and who their
mothers and sisters are. She thinks of the day when the war will
by Amy Knight
... who is a graduate student in writing at the University of
Arizona. She is working on her first novel, which explores the
effects of language loss on the life of a family.