Jerry always liked driving his truck on the open roads of the country on the weekends. His wife’s folks had a nice patch of land about an hour south of town, so they’d go visit them almost every week. It wasn’t big or anything. They had some hens and pigs, and almost two acres of planted crops. More than half of that was corn, for trade, but mostly everything else were veggies that they used to live off. They didn’t have enough land to make a business out of it. They lived a nice, comfortable life, but they didn’t really have much money. But then again who does.
“It’s starting to get colder, mind if I turn up the heat?” — asked Sarah, wriggling her nose and sniffing.
“Sure” — said Jerry monotonically as he turned it up himself.
It was early December and the first snow had just fallen a few days back, the cold was finally making a full appearance after a long summer that extended almost until the end of September. They were already off the interstate, in the back alleys of the country that only locals like them knew how to navigate without smartphones.
“What do you say, another twenty minutes?” — Sarah asked almost impatiently.
“If that” — Jerry replied stiffly.
They’d probably be there in fifteen, right before dinner. In the passenger seat, Sarah was putting the final details to this homemade ragdoll she was bringing for Alice, their youngest niece. The best thing about these trips was when Sarah’s brother Mike would bring his family. Jerry was bringing a few catcher mitts and a baseball that he’d use to play with Peter, the older one. Jerry loved playing with the kid. He thought playing catch would be safe after he pulled his back trying to play football with him last time they were able to make it. Unfortunately for Jerry and Sarah, their visits to the farm were few and far between. Mike lived in Omaha, he and his wife Olivia both had good jobs there and didn’t much like driving four plus hours for the old country. Jerry had been working as a custodian for the University of Iowa for over twenty years now, in different levels and in basically all departments. He’d seen kids grow in front of his eyes and some even come back triumphant in privately guided tours to the school before opening their wallets for endowment. He had cleaned so much for those prickly spoilt kids, who were always so ready to complain about the things the university didn’t provide and never spent a second thinking of the waste they constantly produced. After so long, he didn’t really mind it all that much, but a trip out of town was well welcome for him.
“Ouch” — reacted Sarah. Jerry saw from the corner of his eye she had pierced a finger with a needle.
“Told you not to sew in the car”
“Don’t do your told you so-es, you know I hate ‘em”
Sarah would do anything for her niece and nephew. She had spent all the free time she had this past week working on that doll, and it was honestly looking pretty good. Made after Alice, it had long yellow hair made from twine colored with vegetable oil, safe for little kids to play with. The eyes were buttons from a couple of button up shirts that wouldn’t fit Jerry anymore. She had gotten a foot of cloth for the body and at least a pound of cotton, and also at least 5 colors of safe-for-children paint bottles. She was now lacing the doll’s dress with some type of silk fabric. She’d spent more than twenty dollars in Hobby Lobby for all that, she could have basically bought a new doll for that much. But Alice loved crafts so Sarah would always make something new to bring her. Alice and Peter were the children they could never have.
“Watch out!” — yelled Sarah.
An elk had suddenly jumped and crossed the road, and Jerry almost failed to avoid it. In swerving so drastically he had gotten off road for a few dozen feet and into the wet weedy grass of one of the properties by the road. Without speaking a word he shook his head and got his composure back. Sarah shook her head in his general direction, putting pressure in one finger. A different finger from the one she had punctured earlier. They drove for another couple hundred feet when Jerry started feeling the tire.
“Do you feel that?” — He asked.
“Pff… Of course.”
Jerry stopped the car in the middle of the empty road and got down. The rear wheel in the passenger side was punctured. The gravel road and weather had taken a toll on the tires, and he hadn’t changed them in several years. A quick inspection didn’t find an obvious culprit, the tire just gave in to the wear and tear . Now he had to change it himself. Sarah was right, it was getting colder, and darker.
“What happened” — asked Sarah from inside the truck, her tone cold and almost accusatory.
“Nothing, just a pit stop.”
His 2002 Ford F150 might have been old, but it was as reliable as any and hauled a whole lot. Jerry had all that was needed for any eventuality, he just needed to get up on the bed. He opened the back door and started climbing, suppressing the urge to express pain as he tried to climb. His body wasn’t what it used to be.
“Jerry what the hell are you doing?” — asked Sarah, getting off the truck.
“Nothing, just gonna change the tire” — he said, almost out of breath but successfully walking in the truck’s bed.
“Did it pop? God, Jerry I told you to change the tires, get them ready for the snow.”
“With what money?”
“What money… Jesus, just hand me the tire.”
Jerry hadn’t told Sarah yet. It had just happened this morning after all. It’s not like they were swimming in money before, but things couldn’t get much worse now. The university had been looking for an excuse to fire him for a while now. He was getting old and that football incident really did it for him. He’d been unable to collect worker’s compensation since the accident was not job related, so he kept showing up to work, just doing the bare minimum. Sweeping the floors, emptying a trash can, doing some inventory. Most of the time there he just spent walking around or sitting down in the hallways. He would also spend quite a bit of time taking naps or navigating the internet in the closet/office where he did inventory for the rest of the guys. He couldn’t do much more anyway, but it was hard for them to fire him. As a custodian, he was high in the chain of command, and had always been good pals with the guys that run his union. The only thing he had to do was avoid giving them a reason, and he had been good about that for a long time.
“Well, are you gonna hand me the tire?” — asked Sarah, impatiently as usual.
“I got this woman, get in the car.”
“Dear god Jerry.”
She shut the door with a bang and started working on the doll again. He was struggling to open the tire compartment, it was always the trickiest part. He took out the toolbox as a break between tries and looked for the jack. A really old Hustler magazine was there for some reason. He hid it away. The girl on the cover reminded him of a student he knew. Jerry couldn’t understand why some of them would still wear those really short shorts in December. Really? In the turning of winter? And what could he do anyway? With his wife picking double duty, bringing the bacon home, and his co-workers taking on all his duties, he could only do so much. So he’d spent almost all his days taking inventory in the computer or walking the hallways. He was working at the Student Union now, so there was plenty space to walk around. So he spent his time walking some, sweeping the floor for a few minutes, taking inventory again. Walking the hallways, looking at these damned twenty year olds, some of them teenagers, walking like they owned the place. Sweeping some more and to the computer, take inventory, browsing Facebook for the hundredth time. Walking around, sweeping the floor, chatting with the guys, looking over his shoulder, computer again.
“Alright Jerry, let me get that tire for you.”
“I said I have this.”
“No, I’m coming.”
She also struggled to climb up. She had not hurt herself, but in their twenty five years of marriage she had not taken care of herself at all. Sure, he’d gained weight, probably a lot of it, but she was unrecognizable. She was almost twice the size she had been when they got married. Jerry couldn’t look straight at her anymore. At home, he would spend hours on Facebook, the t.v. just white noise in the background, conversations almost nonexistent. At work too, mostly Facebook. Walking around, sweeping some, computer. And of all the profiles he’d look, she was the one that had to need bleach that exact moment. Of all the times he’d been perfectly happy, as everyone else in the university, she had to walk in the supply closet/Jerry’s office that time, totally unannounced. The nerve on her. That exact moment, she was wearing a top so short the ring on her belly button was the first thing he noticed, even before her face. And she had the gall to say she felt horrified.
“Did you hear that?” — said Sarah, as the tire popped out of the compartment.
“Yeah, you got the tire out, woo-hoo” — Jerry said bitterly.
“No, dumbass, there” — she said pointing behind the truck.
There were loud murmurs coming from the side of the road for a few seconds. Then at least a dozen and a half elk slowly strutting along the road about forty yards behind them. Jerry looked at them bitterly. Those foul beasts, parading around like they owned the place, one of them having ruined his day off already. He quickly perused the toolbox and got his riffle out. It wasn’t his hunting rifle so he didn’t have the scope mounted on, but it’d have to do. He checked it first, it did have a couple rounds in it.
“What are you doing? Leave ’em alone Jerry” — said Sarah, tugging his elbow.
“Shut up Sarah.”
“They’re just elk Jerry, they probably escaped from a farm. Come on Jerry, you know there aren’t any wild elk around here.”
“I said shut up.”
Jerry struggled to get down again and some of them had crossed the road already, he was going to lose his chance. He fired a shot in their general direction as soon as his feet hit the ground, not taking the time to aim at anything in particular. All but one of them ran away immediately, crossing the road at once. He thought he had hit the only one still standing there, but the animal seemed unfazed. It wasn’t hit, it was just standing there as if the gunshot had only alerted it to Jerry’s presence, who wasn’t welcome in its ground. The elk turned its head their way, a pose almost in defiance.
“Good job, they’re gone now. Do you want to change this goddamned tire now?”
“Good god woman, be quiet.”
Jerry walked closer to the elk, riffle at the ready, until he was less than twenty yards away. The elk remained unmoved. Jerry stopped moving and took aim straight at the beast, he had a clean shot right between its eyes. The animal looked at Jerry as if it knew what was happening, a cold gaze directly into his eyes. Jerry hesitated, even though he’d made that shot dozens if not hundreds of times. The elk wasn’t moving. Jerry wasn’t either. A cold breeze sent shivers down his spine. The elk moved its ears instinctively, like a cow shooing off flies, then looked away as if something was coming. Jerry looked in that direction too, instinctively looking for the noise. There was nothing, maybe just a bird flying off. When he looked back, the animal was still staring at him. The same dark, cold, expressionless eyes darting at him as if trying to read his thoughts. Jerry’s finger on the trigger. Another noise, louder this time, clearly a bird flying off a tree. This time neither of them looked away. A few more seconds of total inaction passed, and then Jerry put the gun down. As if commonly agreed, the elk moved away first, slowly and not looking back at him. It crossed the road, possibly reuniting with the others that had already moved in that direction. Jerry turned around and started moving as well. He wasn’t looking back either.
“Jesus Sarah, help me change the fucking tire.”