Pack Mentality by Jan Elman Stout

Pack Mentality

Darkness lifted. A truck whizzed by. Her body motionless, the coyote turned her head side to side, tracking the passing cars. Traffic thinned and she dashed across the highway, toward the woods. Familiar faint yelps stirred the air. She flicked her ears and threaded a cluster of trees. Her yellow eyes darted, fixed on a rat slinking through a nearby copse. The rat froze, and the coyote lifted her hindquarters, muzzle to the ground in wait.

*

The man swept a palm across his bristly chin. He rolled a wool blanket around his army-issue M16A2 rifle and carried it stiffly, like he carried his boy before his ex taught him better. Until he shoved her and she nearly stumbled, the boy in her arms. After that she left and he never tried to find them. Now he opened the cargo doors of the white van parked behind his studio apartment and wedged the blanket between the spare tire and the ammo can. He patted his vest pocket, felt the photo of them through the cotton weave. He saw it clearly. Jessie’s bangs pinned back with the red plastic butterfly clip he bought her, the chipped tooth from when she fell against the dresser hidden with a half-smile. When she fled fifteen years ago, his boy was a baby. He wondered whom he favored.

*

The coyote sprang up and dove onto the rat. Her front paws pinned it to the ground. She snapped her fangs, piercing the flesh of its neck, and flung it skyward. Its body dropped and the coyote carried it to the sewer pipe beneath the concrete viaduct at the far end of the woods. She ducked inside the pipe and dropped the rat beside her pups. They snarled and nipped at one another pulling on their mother’s catch. The coyote scooted the smaller pup toward the back end of the kill, and trotted off to hunt for more.

*

The man slowed the van and pulled off the road when he spotted the teenage son of a woman he dated a couple years back. He broke it off with her but still saw her boy every other week. Took him to play video games. Grab a burger. The boy hopped in the front seat. “There’s a blanket in the back,” the man said. “Present for you.” The boy scrambled into the cargo area and unrolled his gift. The man watched his fingertips stroke the rifle barrel. “Bring it up here,” he said. “Do you know how to shoot?”

*

The coyote sat on her haunches, closed her eyes and tipped her head, muzzle aimed at the black starless sky. A long howl came from beneath the viaduct. Fangs bared, she yip yipped, releasing a short howl in answer. She listened to the same howl repeat and move closer, and she responded. Ooruuuu. A pair of shiny eyes approached without caution. She whimpered and whined and her mate put his paw on her face and nuzzled her.

*

The man drove to an isolated section of the woods. He told the boy to roll the rifle in the blanket and hold onto it, and guided him to a thicket, his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He pointed to the life-size photos of people he’d fastened to the trees, targets he’d placed there before meeting the boy. The boy watched the man prop the rifle against his shoulder and cheek, close an eye and shoot, hitting a young woman in the forehead. He reloaded, passed the rifle to the boy. On his first try, the boy hit an old man in the chest. “Aren’t you the quick study?” the man said, tousling the boy’s hair.

*

The coyote’s mate sniffed her rump and urinated. She lay down and rolled in the fragrant dampness. She rose and her mate sniffed her rump again. She flipped round and he backed away. She looked at him. He kept his eyes on hers, approached her rump once more. He placed a paw on her backside. She did not move. Standing on hind legs, he placed his other paw on her rump and mounted her. She whined and whimpered and he humped her.

*

“I’m proud of you, son,” the man said to the boy after their second target practice session. “You’re not my father,” the boy said. The man jerked the steering wheel and hit the brake hard. “Get out,” he said. The boy hesitated. “Now.” The man leaned across the boy and opened the passenger door. The teen slid from his seat and the man drove away without closing the door.

*

The coyote’s pups followed close behind, her mate at her side. The older pup nipped her leg, butted her. The mate bit the older pup’s thigh and both pups ran off into the darkening park. The mate sprinted in the opposite direction, toward the sewer pipe. The coyote sniffed the ground and the tree trunks near the road, foraging for food. A man jogged by, shouted at her. She did not startle or flee.

*

“I want your trust,” the man told the boy when they returned to the woods a month later. He thrust the rifle toward the boy. “Load it,” he said. “Ammo’s in the can.” The boy placed the rifle between his knees and slowly loaded. “Identify a target,” the man said, gesturing for the rifle. The boy trembled. “Choose the kill.” A man jogged by. The boy shook his head. Waited. Looked in every direction. Still waited. “There.” He pointed to a coyote and her pups sniffing for food. The man aimed. Shot. Missed. The coyote and her pups ran into a thicket. “We’re heading back,” the man said, passing the boy the rifle. The boy loaded the van and jumped in. “We need a better target,” the man said, reaching over the boy to lock his door.

 

Pack Mentality

 

Jan Elman Stout’s fiction has been published in Literary Orphans, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Vestal Review, Shotgun Honey, The Airgonaut and elsewhere. She was finalist in the Midwestern Gothic Summer 2016 Flash Fiction Contest. Her flash “Marital Amnesias” was nominated by JCCA for Best Small Fictions 2017. She is Assistant Fiction Editor at Indianola Review. Jan lives with her husband in Washington, DC.

 

(Next “Kill People” story: Eight by A.E. Weisgerber)

(Previous “Kill People” story: Jolene, Jolene by Kathryn Kulpa)

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Image by Aaron Muszalski (Bryan Tedrick)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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