On the first morning of rifle season three flatlanders from the Rod and Gun Club found my cousin frozen to death under the big oak in Wilkins’ cornfield. The wind was blowing hard like it does up there and Alvin sat slumped against the tree’s leeside. Head down, snow on his Steelers cap, his shoulders. He wore no coat, a torn Hank 3 T-shirt. They couldn't rouse him. They cursed him, called 911.
I was on nights and I'd just got off work. I was scraping my windshield when my phone rang. I didn't recognize the number but I had a bad feeling. I said hello?
Nika, it's Kelly Ruggiero. I got bad news. Alvin's dead.
For a moment I couldn't get my breath.
You watch them burn themselves down until you think you can't anymore. You swear you're done. Don't show up at my house like this again. Next time you get arrested, don't call me.
But you can't stop answering the phone. You come quick as you can to sit with them in another ER cubicle. Watch an IV drip, their uneven breathing.
You make calls you've made before. No one wants to hear it. No one's coming.
Kelly said Nika, you hear me?
When I could I said yes. Did he OD?
Looks like it. I'm sorry, honey.
I stopped at the Junction to put gas in the truck. Inside, a line had formed at the register. An old fella's credit card, insufficient funds. The clerk said do you have another card? The old man said beg pardon? The clerk adjusted her mask. Can you pay another way?
Behind me, the door opened, cold blew in. A girl got in line, too close. I dug in my pocket for my own mask, but I'd left it in the truck.
When I went out to pump my gas it was snowing sideways again. I wanted to go home and get drunk. What good could I do Alvin now. What had I ever.
The truck needed a four wheel drive actuator but half a load of firewood in the back lent enough weight and I spun and slewed up the unplowed hill.
Off across a wide field men in camo, orange caps stood around the old tree. I pulled in behind the ambulance, a State Police SUV, a lifted Ram. Kelly came to meet me, gave me a hug. In my ear she said are you sure. You don't have to. I said yes I do. Kelly said yeah. I know. Here, put your hood up. It's so cold.
We picked our way across the snowy stubblefield. I had on the Nikes I wore to work. Their worn soles nearly useless in the snow. I slipped and went to one knee. No hurry, Kelly said. She took my hand. I couldn't see Alvin. Just guys standing around him, watching me flounder their way.
A thick young shaven-headed State Trooper stood listening to his walkie-talkie. He said yes, sir. An EMT identified the victim. A family member's here.
He listened again. Yes, sir.
I stood looking down at Alvin. His thin pale face, his hollowed cheeks. His eyes were closed. I was glad.
One of the flatlanders said we good now?
The trooper had rejoined us. He said appreciate your patience. Need you to hang with me a little longer.
The biggest of the flatlanders said for what, Officer? He's clearly dead for hours, we called you, what more do you need?
Kelly said you asshole. All you care's he fucked up your hunting. You didn't know him. You'da made him laugh, if you were lucky. Shut your mouth.
They made flatlander noise. The hell you think you are? -You gonna let her talk to us like that?
The trooper said that Dodge yours?
Big said yeah, it's mine.
You can go wait in the truck. Get warm. Don't leave.
The trooper said you're the victim's cousin?
Sorry for your loss. Can I see some ID?
I said it's in my truck.
No worries. Address, phone, please?
I told him. He wrote in his notebook, read it back. I said yes.
Kelly's identified him. Can you confirm?
I said that's Alvin.
The trooper made another note. Anything else you can tell me?
I said he had- I couldn't finish.
They watched me, waited.
I tried again. He had a hard life.
The trooper closed his notebook. Thank you. Coroner's coming.
I said can I have a minute with him.
The trooper shook his head. I'm sorry.
Kelly said Brian, I knew him. He ODed. Not the first time. Those guys already trampled your scene. What's it hurt.
He put his notebook away. Considered me, nodded.
I'll watch, but we'll step back. You can't touch him.
I said thank you.
Kelly said want me to stay?
I shook my head.
When they'd gone, I knelt carefully beside him. His mouth hung open a little. He'd lost another front tooth since I'd seen him.
I'm sorry, I said. They won't let me touch you. I was crying and I couldn't get the words out. I'm sorry, Al. I'm sorry.
For a moment, someone's hand on my shoulder, a squeeze. Alvin's smoky rasp in my head: Hey, don't, sis. Not your fault. You're the only one never wrote me off. Always in my corner. Maybe now-
I was on my feet, looking everywhere, seeing nothing. Al?
Right here, sis. Ain't going nowhere- But a gust scattered his words, snatched away his touch.
I don't remember falling but I must have. I'd got to one knee again. My heart hammered.
Kelly and Brian hurried toward me. Out on the road, a township plow slowed, scraped past the line of trucks.
Al, please, I said. Al?
MARK REEP is an artist and writer based in Northern Pennsylvania and New York’s Finger Lakes region. His work has appeared in American Art Collector, Endicott Journal, Bluecanvas and many other publications. He also works with stone, and takes photographs. In another life, Mark edited the limited run quarterly art & lits journal Ramshackle Review. You can learn more through his current primary media platforms - Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube