I loved the stillness, I loved the challenge, but most of all I loved the thrill of outwitting someone I’ve disliked since seventh grade. I brought my eye back to the faint green glow of the night scope and let the cross-hairs settle right behind the 12 pointer’s shoulder before squeezing the trigger. Just as I was about to fire, I felt something crawling on my back and flinched. It was enough to throw off a perfect shot. The tiny white flash and accompanying report disturbed the calm hovering over the North Harmon Cemetery.
The buck staggered and then stumbled off, disappearing into the swamp bordering the older graves at the bottom of the hill. I knew he was gut-shot and would probably go to ground far enough into that morass so finding him would be next to impossible. I reached into my thermal undershirt and grabbed the offending insect, crushing it before shaking my hand to get rid of it. I didn’t need to smell my fingers to know my evening hunt had been ruined by the current bane of my existence. The acrid odor of an Asian Lady Beetle permeated the velvet dampness surrounding me.
A car was coming down the road. I went flat, sliding behind a nearby tombstone, keeping my face flat so no white would show. It slowed, almost coming to a stop before resuming speed and vanishing into the darkness. The last thing I needed was to let my long time nemesis, Rob Kniffin catch me with a firearm after legal shooting hours had ended. I flipped my night vision goggles into place and took off, jogging easily along the path dividing the active and inactive portions of the graveyard. My truck was parked just off a seldom used logging road half a mile away.
In many ways I’m your typical Mainer, at least up here in Somerset County, living pretty much hand to mouth, taking jobs when they’re available and never knowing where my next paycheck is coming from. I do have a couple advantages most folks don’t have. I was wounded in the Gulf War, pretty badly, I might add, and get a 50% disability pension. I’ve never quite decided if having part of your brain blown out thanks to an errant bullet from another member of your squad, is worth more or less than $700 a month. I know it covers the lean times, but just. It did take one thing I don’t really miss, my conscience. I have to laugh when I think back to all those earnest social workers and psychologists who used to sit down with me when I was rehabbing at the VA hospital in Massachusetts. Those smarmy looks of concern and sympathy, so worried about how I was going to cope with my newly acquired brain dysfunction. I had such a hard time not cracking up when they carried on like that.
Hell, if any of them had grown up like I did, living in a drafty double-wide, fighting five scrawny siblings for whatever half-spoiled food our poor mother managed to slap on the rickety card table that sufficed for a dining room set, they’d be grateful as hell not to have a conscience. Did one do Mom a bit of good? I doubt it. She stuck with a string of perpetually wasted guys who promised her everything, but got her knocked up six times, eight if you count the miscarriages, punched out half her teeth and spent more time in jail than working. Her conscience got her a gunshot wound from Romeo number four during one hellacious 4th of July bash in the backyard that left her paralyzed from the waist down and landed us kids in foster care. Don’t get me started on that system. You want horror stories? I’ll give you plenty, but not nearly as many as my two younger sisters can share. No, I don’t miss my conscience one bit.
The whole time I was struggling to survive, ol’ Rob was gliding through his teen years smooth as deer guts on a doorknob. Nice house on the river, disgustingly normal parents, good grades, his own car. Hell, he could have been the nicest kid on the planet and I probably would have hated him on principle. It turned out he wasn’t, so disliking him was wicked easy. Especially after he stole the only girl who ever gave me more than a pitying look.
Ella Barnes wasn’t pretty in the traditional sense. Her eyes were a bit too wide and she had enough freckles for three girls, but her smile could make a graveyard statue grin and she was genuine as hell. When the weather was decent, she and I would sit outside and eat lunch. Well, she’d eat hers and more often than not, I pretended I’d eaten mine earlier because I didn’t want to admit nobody bothered to pack one for me. Trust me, if I had even smelled pity coming from Ella, I would have disappeared in a heartbeat, but everything about her was the real deal. I was trying to figure a way to ask her out when Rob decided she was a worthy conquest.