By Piper Daugharty
It’s Saturday night, and only quiet comes from the tarmac. That vacuum swoosh of the flights has stopped and in the tower I sit playing chess with Captain Val—a retired Navy officer who requires ‘Captain’ from all. He wears T-shirts from the Goodwill that say things like, “I Hear Voices, and They Don’t Like You” or “Alaska Run For Women 1995,” underneath the same grimy black suspenders.
He’s got a cup of black coffee in his hand.
“Did you go see him today?” he asks, like every day. If anyone knows about ghosts that are still alive, it’s Val.
“Nope. My mom did though.” I slide my castle to take his pawn. The “Friendship Terrace” and those nice, dead trees, and Mom chose it because she thought Nick loved gardens.
“Stupid move,” Val says, but then sits, staring at the board.
The Bushlines come on through the battery-powered radio between us on the table.
“Shhh,” he hushes me as though I’ve said anything all night. Even with his rambling and my silence, I think sometimes we might still be angry at the same people.
“Alrighty folks,” says Maria over the air, “this is listener’s supported radio KBBI. Welcome to the Bushlines on this fine Saturday evening, followed by Spontaneous Combustion. So get closer to the radio! Here comes the first one: this message is for Sylvia out in the village, from Pat: ‘Darling, I love you, and can’t wait to see you in three short weeks. Keep my heart in yours.’ Aww.”
“That damn couple might as well do each other over the radio lines, Christsakes.”
I shrug, staring at the board. I’ve known the Captain for years, and I’m grateful for the job. But his advice gets directed at me now, his breath always sour.
We go through this routine every night.
“Lost Pet. A pig has been reported lost. He responds to Syl. I think we all know who this little piggy is, guys. Let’s get him home safe. If seen, call 907-235-3332. Next, the Marine Weather Forecast. Stay tuned.”
I wait for the Captain to start bitching about the hippy chick, and then about the damnation of my generation and those god-damn protests against the war. After a few minutes, I finally look up from the board. The old man’s eyes flash.
“That stupid pig…” he says, followed by a deep grin.
“No,” I say.
That damn hippy chick was new in town, and quickly became our hottest gossip. At first, for her lack of shoes. Several people asked her if she needed money, others explained where the Goodwill was, but she’d just smile and say thank you and continue to squish her calloused toes into the roads.
Then, there was her pig.
No one knew where she’d found him but one day Bill Severson was driving out East End Road and saw a small plump pink thing trotting along beside her bare feet. Well, after he whistled at her through his open window, he called his wife: “You wouldn’t believe what that darned girl had beside her!” He had to shout because cell service rarely worked out East End, and he never quite knew when Shirley was listening.
Shirley Severson immediately got on the phone to the dispatcher, who informed her it was perfectly legal for a pig to roam within city limits, just as long as he was leashed (despite the possible health hazard from what Shirley called ‘toxic porsine bacteria’).
At first there were protests regarding that very issue, and then there were more protests determining where she could keep her beloved Syl tied while she ran her errands. The stoner kids who hung around Safeway took to Syl and his friendly grin. They’d scratch behind his ears and let him lick their backpacks while they waited for their snooty Council-of-the-Arts mothers.
She’d skip out of the store, shower her piggy’s face in kisses, and the two would waddle home together with her mail and groceries.
When I fail to avoid roving faces and eyes in the grocery store, they all exclaim, “Gosh Terry, I barely recognized you there! What, did you grow a whole foot since high school?” They ask, “How’s your mom these days?”
Some of them, mostly the chicken-shits I used to put up with, ask about my brother. “Nick’s just fine,” I say.
But inevitably they always get to the question, “Whatcha up to these days, Ter? Got a job?” and I sort of squirm and then tell them I’m working in the airport hangar. The faces go blank, and then I regret not starting with what their questions really mean.
I went to college. I got out of here, I did, I’m just back temporarily. Instead I rush in with, “Just for now.”
Then I push my cart past the others. Soon. I just have to tie up the few things I have left.
Just like that, it’s Monday, in that way days sneak up on you. And the pig still hasn’t been found. Jim comes across the waves this time:
“LOST PET. A pig’s been reported lost. The name’s Syl, let’s get him back to his little lady, folks. Any information regarding Syl the pig, call 907-235-3332.”
“That’s it.” Val jumps out of his chair.
“What are you doing?” I follow him down the cramped hallway.
“I’m doing this whole town a favor.” Val grabs the 30.06 from above the door.
“Wait, Captain. Even if you found him, shouldn’t we call the police?” I say. Val stops mid-stride and turns to me. “I mean, you can’t. It’s…illegal.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” he grins. With a whoop he slams the door.
“Fuck.” I stuff my boots on and fling open the door to follow the wiry vet.
“Coming?” Val says from the truck’s window.
She’s the reason I survived this place. She used to eat cereal every day for lunch, but she’d pour the milk in a little bit at a time so that the flakes wouldn’t get soggy. Then we’d smoke in the dugouts until the bell rang.
She was the only person who vaguely understood those guilt-ridden rants about my baby brother. Everyone just loved Nick, rolling around in his electric wheelchair and rarely making eye contact. People are just too damn nice.
When Dad left, she’d taken me out on the lake in the Chevy and let me spin on the crusty ice. There were moments out there we both stopped breathing. We nearly tipped but she didn’t flinch once.
She’s got a kid now, I’d seen on Facebook or something. Sometimes I pretend to forget when we last talked, but pieces of memory, stumbling drunk at the wedding, slip back when I wash the dishes or chop wood for my mom.
We crash through low brush and spruce, Val in the lead. Snow sinks into my boots, pine needles sticking to the wool of our uniform. The lake looms in front of us. I can’t see the pig, but I hear the grunts and squeals.
“Hold up,” Val says.
The pig stands in front of us not twenty feet away, looking back. He’s so small. I wonder how he still looks so perfectly pink after a week in the woods. I think we’re making eye contact, like Syl has some sort of deeper infinite wisdom to convey to me and only me, but then I blink and he just looks cross-eyed.
Val slowly cocks the gun, wrestling the butt into his scrawny shoulder.
The pig hasn’t lost eye contact.
“Boy, if I’d waited all my life I’d probably look just like you.” Val places his finger on the trigger.
“You can’t wait for it to start. The hesitation’s what’ll kill you.”
The blast shocks all three of us, and then, squealing.
I open my eyes. The pig’s on the run again, faster this time, a trail of bloodied snot following it. The quiet forest erupts with each shriek, birds calling and beating the air.
“Did you seriously miss it? What the fuck, Val.” I’m in a cold sweat.
“I got that fucker right in the face.” Val considers it. “Well, we’d better follow him.”
“It’s heading straight for the lake. We’re too heavy.”
“We’ll cut him off around the other side. Back to the truck!”
When Dad went up to the slope for work, Nick had been my responsibility. He tagged along wherever I went, even the river. The regulars knew we were Jim’s boys, so Mom would let us hitch a ride out there with our poles in tow before sunrise.
Town appears on the other side of the lake. We drive to the edge, looking for the trail of blood. Not 60 yards away, but the road stops.
“Okay, boy.” Val hands me the gun.
“It’s up to you. I’m gonna drive the truck around, back in from the main road.”
“Follow him! Herd him towards East End.”
“Wh-why do I have to?”
Val just points to his leg, as if that’s enough explanation for everything.
“Captain, I can’t…”
Dad used to pay us $5 a squirrel but Nick was the only one who could shoot to kill. He’d pretend not to notice me hiding underneath the porch when Nick would pull the trigger on the B.B., and I’d cringe as the squirrel inevitably twitched in reflex. We had matching jackets, Nick and I, dark blue, it’d be easy to get us mixed up. I knew Dad didn’t though.
“Ter, listen, you don’t have to shoot him, just scare him north.”
“But, but he’s half-dead already…Why give me the gun if I don’t have to…”
“Just in case.”
The truck pulls away, a trail of diesel following, and I’m standing with the gun awkwardly between my wet palms.
It’s trying to be a beautiful day. Cold. I see myself above my body. It’s not hard to follow the pig’s bloodied trail, now, the brush lower, less trees. Through the woods, through the branches. Feet soaking. The shrieking gets louder and closer.
I used to think it was the worst possible thing, death. But there are worse things, like walking around half-alive. Death, at least, means the chase is over. Death means it’s all over.
Jessie came with us that last trip to Anchorage. She just told Val she was coming and that was that. Mom and Dad flew up with Nick in the hospital’s helicopter but we drove. We stopped twice—once for Twizzlers and Diet Coke and then to throw rocks into the glacier sluff-off by Cooper Landing. She rarely did things she was bad at but she let me show her how to cradle the rock in that extra thumb skin. The rocks disappeared into the silty water, lost, and we’d move on to pick up more.
We had to stay at the hospital all weekend. People were dying all over the place and my limbs got stiff and angry.
While we waited for Nick to wake up, she grabbed my hand and pulled me to an old abandoned wing. We ducked under caution tape.
“Look what I found,” she said.
For hours we raced those two broken wheelchairs up and down the darkened musty halls. Sweating, I lost.
The pig’s thirty feet in front of me, and I feel my breath leave in puffs. It must be fucking cold, but I can’t feel my limbs anymore. All I see is Syl, looking at me, not a hundred yards from the Alaska Bible Institute Daycare. A small building, preschool. A fence around the yard, but a section’s pulled down—big enough for a pig.
There’s a short bus pulling up to the building, and the kids run out for recess.
All buses must smell the same, like hot plastic and sticky kid breath. That swoosh of air as the bus that morning had pulled up its stop sign, crooked. I remember yelling to Nick, telling him to get his ass on the right side of the road. It’d been an icy morning, still dark. A car coming from the opposite direction couldn’t stop, couldn’t see that dark matching jacket. I’d been standing ten feet away, watching his face contort and feeling mine match– a silent horror mirror.
Screams of laughter, chanted songs. A ball bounces. Syl breathes. I match him, breath for breath. Blood cakes the pig’s nostrils, and I can see where Val left the bullet. Syl wobbles, then heads straight to the recess yard.
“No!” I whisper from the trees, “Syl! Hey, here piggy piggy!” But he doesn’t hear me, or I’m not her.
I have to. I have to raise the rifle and my hands are shaking, and then I’m looking down the barrel, and then a shot. It echoes through the now-silent yard. The pig falls.
Hysterical cries echoed through that dark morning static. Hot tears stuck to me all over, that icy mask, my gloves were wet. Sirens came from far away, far away and then close. Too loud on that dark muffled road. Bright lights, red, blue, made my heart pound in those wet fingertips.
Blood’s always redder than anything when it spreads across pristine packed snow.
Nick was nine, nine, nine, when the light came late morning and we could see the red.
I can only hear that swooshing in my ears now, like the planes on the tarmac or the bus’s stop sign that couldn’t make things stop.
I wait for those same sirens. Teachers corral the kids back into the school, the prayers echoing and whispering too familiar. My knees won’t work anymore and all I can see is bright red light. Then I hear the truck. Val’s whoop.
Someone pulled me off the ground but I wouldn’t let go of the down jacket sleeve similar matching mine just smaller. Then hoarse yells, my throat. The arms around my chest held too tight.
It’d been raining when Nick caught his first salmon.
“Reel when he gives you slack!” I must’ve yelled. “Don’t fight him when he wants to run!” Nick’s face scrunched into itself and he grunted with every reel. “Need help?”
“Fuck no,” he breathed, strings of water dripping down his red baseball cap. “Just get the net ready.”
When she was safe on the bank everyone cheered. Some tourists had pulled up, late to the tide in their RV. It stopped raining. My chest just about burst with pride as they snapped pictures. Forty pounder.
She’d been wider and meatier than Nick’s scrawny little body, an absolute hog gleaming in the morning light with all sorts of colors.
Piper Daugharty, born and raised in Homer, Alaska, spends summers tackling halibut and winters in long, ice-encrusted meditation. She just graduated from Southern Oregon University and now enjoys reading whatever the heck she wants. She continues to pursue her one, true, ever-elusive aspiration: to become a mermaid.
Featured artwork: Two shots and more, by Merlin Flower