I’m at a bar and I’m supposed to be trying to figure out what to do with my life, but instead I’m hunting deer. Bucks. Some of them hide behind the trees and some of them come running out into the clearing from the edges of the screen. I’m pumping the little plastic rifle as fast as I can and I swear I’m a better shot, but it seems like the sight might be off by a few millimeters. I refuse to move closer to the screen because, after eight quarters and only four deer, it’s become a matter of pride.
That, and cheating on a video game seems pretty cheesy.
On the next scene, I get one buck out of a possible three, but at least it’s the biggest one. Fourteen points, says the voice-over in a comical Southern accent. He asks me to put in another dollar so I can continue my game. I finger through a wad of crumpled dollar bills to reach the last four quarters and put them in before the timer runs out. The voice-over thanks me and I’m immediately swept away to another part of Illinois: Newton County. If the pixilated pine forest is an accurate representation of the area, then it’s a beautiful place to spend a digital afternoon. There are four different hunting sites in this county, each one with a “Big Buck Sighting,” meaning I have an opportunity to bag a trophy set of antlers worthy of mounting on the wall of m y imaginary study.
I get through the first site before I notice the kid sitting on the barstool right next to me. He’s swiveling back and forth, using his skinny little bare legs like two meaty pendulums. Cute kid, I guess. He’s got a short-cut crop of blond hair and a pretty round face, like the kind you’d expect to see on a commercial for Six Flags. He keeps his mouth closed when he’s not talking, too, and I really appreciate that. People who walk around with their mouths open always look so uneducated, like they’re amazed at everything in sight. A lot of kids nowadays who grow up on video games start to develop that slack-jawed blank stare, usually around the same time their balls drop.
“You missed that one even though you shot him,” the kid says in a squeaky little pre-pubescent voice.
“He was too fucking big to kill with one shot, I guess.” I look down at him and realize he must only be eleven or so. “Sorry. He was a big guy, is what I meant to say.”
He doesn’t say anything so I pick the next site. Right away, I can see two deer standing behind a cropping of trees off to the left, but both of their heads are hiding behind the trunk of a large pine. I can’t identify which one’s the buck. I wait, but they refuse to move from their little hiding place, and so I aim for the one with the bigger body and fire. I hit the thing right in the neck and down it, and all of the sudden there’s two more bucks running through the right side of the forest. I nail both of them with at least one shot each, maybe more, but the gun’s aim has to be off goddamn it what the fuck.
“I can do better than one,” the kid says.
“I’ll bet you can.” I watch the slow-motion video of my only kill tripping over its own legs before slamming hard into the grassy ground. One lousy eight-pointer, and I still have no idea what to do with my life.
“If you gimme a dollar, I bet I could get more deer than you.”
I look at him and frown when I see his empty outstretched palm. “And what exactly are you gonna bet if you don’t have any money?”
The kid just shrugs and so I choose another site. Since I obviously can’t make up my mind on how to spend the rest of my life, I’ll let the fates decide. Here’s the deal: if I kill one deer, I’ll move back to my hometown, find a factory job and give up this whole crusade of finding something more in life. If I kill two deer, then I spend another year here in the city working at Starbucks, spending my nights working on sketches that may possibly never even be seen in a gallery show. If I kill three deer, I’ll try and get into the local college and finish my art degree and maybe try and teach the useless craft to a fresh group of idealists. That’s the plan. One chance, three deer, and a whole lot of luck.
The next site loads, giving way to another square of pixilated hunting space. There’s a large boulder on the right side of the screen, and a large patch of brush to the left. In the center is open plain, and my trigger finger itches for the first patch of pixilated brown I spot. I see something move behind the brush. I point and fire in one smooth motion. The screen goes black, then takes me back to the total screen.
“You can’t shoot the does,” the kid says. “If you shoot a doe, the round is automatically over.”
I point my gun at the last open area on the map. “You know too much, kid. How’d you get in here, anyway?” I take a look around. The bar’s mostly empty, save for a few scraggly wigger guys at a booth and a handful of college kids hogging the pool table near the windows overlooking the lake. The bartender is talking to an older woman sitting next to the electronic touch-screen game. They’re taking turns smoking cigs and playing a cheap knock-off of Connect Four. Nobody really looks like a parent, but then again that never stops them from trying anyway.
“I came from the pool,” he says. I look down and sure enough, he’s got a pair of swim trunks on under his large blue t-shirt that has a big picture of a Muppet on it. I had forgotten completely that the bar was connected to a hotel.
“Your parents know you’re here?” I ask.
“Shouldn’t you tell them?”
The kid shrugs his shoulders.
I turn back to the game and wait for the last hunting site to load. Same rules as before. Buck Hunter 2006 is going to determine my fate. Here, in the middle of a dry, dirt-encrusted clearing in Newton County, surrounded by pine trees, the rest of my life will be determined by how many digital bucks I can kill. I hold the gun against my shoulder, tensing my muscles as if I’m seriously expecting the piece of plastic to recoil with every shot. The sounds of electronic birds and swaying trees comes quietly out of the speaker.
The first buck comes out from the thicker cropping of pines in the far right corner, running right at me before cutting left toward the small patch of dried shrubs. I nail him once in the ass before he gets away, but it’s not enough to drop him. A second buck runs out from the trees followed by a doe that’s struggling to catch up. I clip the buck’s leg, pump, and pull the trigger again, hoping to bring him down before the doe can block my shot. I fire again, and this time I’m sure the sight must be off because I still had an extra second before the doe caught up to its pretend mate. She collapses, kicking up a cloud of dirt between the dry blades of grass.
“You should really let me play for you,” the kid says.
“Yeah, well, maybe they should make this a little more realistic.” At the Total screen, I point to the red mark on the outline of the doe, just under her rib cage. “That’s not a kill shot. Unless female deer have their hearts next to their goddamn kidneys, that’s not a kill shot.”
“I could play for you.”
I reach down for my beer, which has been sitting on the empty Cruisin’ USA seat between rounds. I take the last sip and set it next to the other empties. It occurs to me that, after only four beers, I’m probably not drunk enough to make any concrete life decisions on my own, anyway. I reach into my pocket and pull out a one-dollar bill. I hand it to the kid. “Put this in and wait for me so I can grab a beer.”
I jog over to the bar and order a fresh bottle of beer from the bartender, leaving the extra quarter for a tip. I jog back to where the kid is waiting with the oversized shotgun in the crook of his arm. He’s already put the dollar in and the hillbilly voice-over announces that we’re traveling north of Newton, into Dodge County.
“Well I’ll be goddamned,” I say. “That’s gotta be my hometown.”
“You ever hunt there?” the kid asks.
I shake my head. “I’ve never been hunting before.”
“Not even deer?” the kid flashes a look of mock-surprise, the type of look someone his age is way too young to know about.
“Not even deer,” I say.
I open my beer and take a sip. “Because I can’t even run over a squirrel without feeling bad, for Christ’s sake. So how I could I possibly shoot Bambi? Pick a site.”
The kid turns back to the screen and chooses a random hunting site. Despite twenty-six years of foraging, hiking and fort-building, I don’t recognize the patch of forest. Maybe the developers don’t even base the sites on the real world at all. Maybe they just use the names, look at a few pictures of the region, and let their minds draw up a unique environment. It would make sense, I suppose, in the case of Dodge County. With new three-story houses springing up by the dozens every spring, the game developers would have to re-draw new areas every year they put out a new version of the game.
Sounds like a fun job.
The kid lifts the gun and presses the muzzle right against the glass.
“Hey hey hey hey,” I say. “What the hell are you doing? You can’t stand right in front of the damn thing.”
“Sure I can,” he says, looking up at me with innocent eyes.
I pull him back a few feet and tuck the butt of the gun against his shoulder so he can peer down the sight. “The whole point of this thing is to shoot the bastards from a distance. You shoot them point-blank and you kill the sport of it all.”
“Okay, jeez.” The kid takes aim and cocks his head so he can stare down the barrel.
All right, kid. Decide my fate, but for the love of Christ shoot more than one. Don’t send me back to my hometown just because your face isn’t two inches from the screen. Look at this place: a bunch of trees and a few hills off in the distance—that about sums up Dodge County as well as any poet laureate could hope to do. I don’t want to work in a factory and drink away my weekends with the same people I’ve spent my entire life with. I don’t want to waste away my spare time, sitting on the couch with nothing to do but watch the nightly sitcom line-ups while the back of my mind dreads another nine-hour work day in a sweaty room with other people who couldn’t care less about what the rest of the world is doing.
The first buck comes flying out of the woods and t he kid nails it with one clean shot. I feel my heart begin to race when I see his trigger finger begin to twitch in anticipation.
“Pump the barrel, kid!” I half-yell. “You gotta pump the barrel after every shot!”
Too late—the next two bucks are already running out from opposite ends of the screen, converging on the center when the kid pulls the trigger again. I swear to God, he could have killed them both with one shot if he would have just reloaded. The gun makes a flaccid clicking sound and both deer escape off-screen.
The kid turns to me, holding out the gun. “At least I didn’t shoot a doe.”
I push the gun back into his arms. “That was your practice round.”
The kid frowns, but doesn’t argue. He takes the gun back and picks the second site. By God, I recognize this clearing. I recognize the patch of maples and pines that encloses it and I recognize the bed of rocks sitting next to the patch of dark green shrubs sitting right in front of the screen. It’s inside the National Forest, about a mile west of Highway M, and that third shrub used to be much smaller, barely even sprouting out of the ground. That shrub was home plate. Between hunting seasons, we would sneak in and take advantage of the empty clearing. Johnny would bring the metal bat, Matt and Mark would each bring two balls and I would bring the bases we had stolen in third grade from a church festival whose proprietor had carelessly kept the sports equipment shed unlocked during the raffle drawing.
God, those were games. Games that would last thirty-plus innings, eight hours long with a handful of snack breaks. Scores that would reach the high eighties, and if it was too uneven by the afternoon we would switch teams without malice. Games where there were no walks because walks were for sissies and even the girls we played with would agree. Games where we waited for the perfect pitch no matter how many balls it took, and if there weren’t enough people, someone from our own team would play as catcher. And the catcher would always play fair, even though he was on the same team as the batter, because it was about more than just playing to win. It was about wasting time like it was free, because it was back then.
The first buck darts out from behind home plate and the kid quickly downs it. He pumps his rifle and lets the next two does canter by.
Johnny just went to jail for larceny right after his sister died. Mark and Matt are still finishing college, in their fifth year, not quite juniors, nowhere near ready to graduate, still spending their weekends on Water Street picking up sophomore girls too drunk to consult their morals. I could move back tomorrow and fit right in without any necessary adjustments. I could unpack my things in my room, grab a beer from the fridge and sit down without missing a single beat. And the fact that I could do this makes me hope more than ever that the kid’s first site was a fluke.
He pumps two sloppy shots into the next buck, nowhere near the kill zone below the neck. I see the last buck even before it comes into full view out of the corner of the pine trees. It starts heading toward home plate and the kid pumps a shot into its side.
“Jesus kid!” I say. “Shoot faster!”
The buck is gone even before all of the words can escape my mouth. The hillbilly announcer thoroughly commends the kid on shooting one lousy six-pointer.
“That was another practice round,” I say.
The kid uses his rifle to point to the fallen buck while the slow-motion cut scene replays its spectacular head-over-heels tumble. “This is the part where you would have to gut the buck. Otherwise, he’s too heavy to drag back to the car.”
I take a sip of my beer. “How the hell would you know that?”
“I saw my dad do it once.”
I shake my head. “You got some balls, sitting here trying to tell me how to pretend to hunt a fake deer, kid. Let’s worry about gutting them later.”
He picks the third site. I don’t immediately recognize it until I imagine the small pond off to the right with a little more trash around its edges, the green spackles of foliage behind it much less wild, cut to make room for a hiking trail that has since been left to Mother Nature. If the designers had put in every single detail, there would be a shack of a tree house sitting in the third maple from the left, overlooking the small pond, the one with the dark black cut along its trunk from a careless ATV driver. When the tree house had been in its prime, it had contained two makeshift beanbag chairs and a small table for Risk games. Under the red beanbag was a Playboy, always the newest one, lifted from one of our fathers’ secret stashes. Under the green beanbag was an air rifle. During July, we would use the air rifle to pick off the large toads hopping around the edge of the pond. Even then, I could never intentionally hit them—I’d always aim a little left or a little right, getting just as much of a thrill watching them jump frantically off their lily pads as my friends would watching them explode.
The first buck darts out from behind the tree house and quickly ducks for cover behind the next cropping of trees. The kid fires off a few wild shots, chipping off splinters of tree bark. Okay, two left. I can still spend another year at the coffee shop.
“You ever have venison?” the kids asks, looking up at me.
“Holy shit, kid, watch the screen!” The kid turns back to my destiny and haphazardly drops a doe with his next shot.
The designers forgot the thin layer of green slime across the top of the pond. They forgot the housing developers’ kids who tore tread marks into the field with their expensive motorbikes and once took apart half of our tree house before we could get our parents for help. None of them got in any trouble for any of it, because their parents were bringing in all the new money to the county. In middle and high school, these same kids would always get the breaks.
“You’re not even trying,” I say. “You’re treating this like it’s a game or something.”
“It is a game. And I’m standing too far away.”
I push him forward. “Fine, get as close as you want. Just kill more than one, for the love of God.”
“You ever have venison, though?” he asks again.
“Yes, yes I have.” I grab the barrel of the gun with my hand and aim it at the last hunting site. “Pull the trigger.”
The kid pulls the trigger, then looks back up at me. “You ever try venison sticks? Like beef jerky?”
“Yes,” I say. “They’re delicious. I’d gobble them by the dozen if I could. But seriously, would you just focus on killing a few bucks this time? It’s your last chance.”
The last site loads, and thank God I don’t recognize the scenery because I don’t want to re-live another Dodge County memory. I want to forget it—that’s why I’m here in the first place, after all. I want to forget everything about where I grew up and start fresh in a new town with new people and new possibilities. And maybe in another twenty-six years, I’ll do the exact same thing. I’ll quit my job and leave my friends and loved ones and start a brand-new life. I’ll throw in another four quarters and pick a new region to hunt.
Two deer—a doe and a buck—come springing out of the right side of the screen, scurrying a flock of birds from the large bushes in the center of the field. Before the kid can even pump a load into the first buck, a second bolts out from behind the large rock surface off to the right, accompanied by two smaller does. But the kid has the barrel pressed against the screen: all it takes is a shift of the rifle and the sight is pressed against both of their bellies—one at a time—one millisecond after the other. The second one is dead before any dust can settle.
“Okay,” I say. “Keep it cool. The last one’s gonna come out fast.” What’s it gonna be? Another year working at Starbucks, waking up at four-thirty in the morning and coming home exhausted, too tired20to paint or even sketch, falling asleep before the nightly news comes on, and starting it all over again the next morning? Or dropping another ten grand finishing a degree that’s mostly useless anyway, probably going back to Starbucks afterward in order to pay off the student loans?
The last buck bolts from the right side of the screen. So does a fourth one, gray with sprawling antlers, jumping over the wooden fence in the background before breaking into a sprint. The fourth one is a dark gray, the kind of faux metal you find on cheap printers and Magnavox televisions. It looks fake, but then again so do all the colors. They all look off. They all look like they belong on another world, shades away from earth.
The two converge at the middle of the screen, heading toward us before breaking off in opposite directions. The kid aims for the gray buck first, firing right at its neck. At first, I don’t think the giant thing is even going to fall—it takes another handful of steps before its front legs buckle. The kid’s rifle is already pressed against the other buck. He fires once without reloading and my heart skips a beat beneath my ribcage, reverberating all the way up my esophagus. The kid reloads as the buck passes between a small cropping of trees. He fires once more before the buck reaches the safety of the next tree. Before it can disappear, I see its hind legs falter and begin to trip up on the dirt.
The kid turns to me and smiles.
The Total onscreen counts up all four deer: forty-six points in all. I stare at the giant gray mounted head in the center of the screen.
“I’ve never seen four at one site before.”
“There usually aren’t.” The kid hands the plastic rifle back to me. “I should probably get back to my room.”
I nod, watching him hop off and leave through the door leading back to the hotel area. The hillbilly gives me the option of putting my name into the Top Ten list. I use the rifle and fire at the letters K, I and D.
Leave it up to a kid to show me just how ridiculous it is to let an arcade game determine my destiny. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what I do next because I’m not out to prove anything to anyone. In Dodge County, the town determines your destiny. Out here, anything can happen.
Or maybe that’s the beer talking. Maybe I’m fucked no matter how many deer I kill.
Ken Brosky is currently finishing his MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska. He is putting the finishing touches on a book and currently seeking an agent (hint, hint) for his completed short story collection.