Chapter One: The Hunt
When he asks, “Shotgun?” it takes her a second to realize that he’s not wondering where she wants to sit in the truck but what weapon she wants to bring.
Lizzie wrinkles her nose. He knows she doesn’t like guns. “Bow,” she says, and yanks on the door. She has to yank hard, and still it opens slowly, moaning like a wounded animal.
She slides across the cold seat and watches in the rearview mirror as her father places the crossbow in the back of the pickup, moving aside the rolled sleeping bags he always brings. It’s dark already—the time fell back last weekend—but they left the trailer lights on to spill across the driveway. It’s bright enough for Lizzie to see her father’s thin face, dark beard, and John Deere hat. He slams the hatch shut and gets in beside her.
“Head over to Darnell?” He starts the engine. “Check that valley again?”
He backs out of the gravel drive, and then they’re on the road that leads to the highway. No doubt it leads to other places too, but Lizzie doesn’t know where just yet.
There hasn’t been much neighborhood exploring since they moved here two months ago, at the end of summer, the end of everything. When her mother died in August, her father declared they were getting out of Ohio quick, and Lizzie didn’t argue. But why West Virginia? That’s what she asked then, and still does, even though she knows the answer. A job. For parents it’s always a job. But so far, this job seems to be just ahead of them. Her father’s forever waiting for a call, going for an interview, turning in paperwork. Meantime he cuts trees and mows grass, delivers hay to farms nearby. When Lizzie asks about the job, he says, “You just be you. I’ll just be me.”
So she is just her, even when it’s hard. And he’s just him. And sometimes, like tonight, they’re just them, off on the hunt.
As they speed along I-64, a breeze picks up and a white moon appears above the mountains, among the stars. There are so many stars here.
“Make a wish, Liz,” her mom used to say in the evenings, when the first light appeared in the blue-black sky. Her hand would cup Lizzie’s knee as they sat on their brick patio at the duplex in Canton. They shared the patio with the Issings, Bud and Rachel, and their two boys. The Issings hardly ever used their side of the space, but Lizzie and her mom would sit there in the early evenings, in two old lawn chairs that Lizzie’s dad had found along the road. He’d replaced the webbing, and they were as comfortable as new on summer nights, perfect for sitting beneath the stars, wishing.
Lizzie wonders now what happened to those chairs. She’d like to have one of them. Not both, though, because she would never want to sit and look at the empty one.
“How was math today?” her father asks. “Was your test hard?”
She thinks about the problems she solved today, the ones from third grade, a whole year ago. “No. They’re behind here.”
“What about the Jesus class?”
Lizzie picks at a jagged fingernail. It keeps catching on things, so she bites at it.
“What happened? They let you out, right?”
Lizzie nods. “I had art instead. We made foil sculptures.” She’s startled by how easily the lie slides out.
After lunch yesterday, Lizzie’s fourth day at her new school, her teacher Miss Burke announced that it was time for Bible studies. She handed Lizzie a book called Growing with God and told the class to turn to page sixty-four.
Lizzie opened the book. A cartoon of a man took up nearly the whole page. He wore leaves around his waist and was plunging down the back of a dinosaur. The caption beneath it read, “Imagine how Adam might have crawled up on the back of a brontosaurus. He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn’t that be so wild!”
Lizzie let out a laugh, then felt her face go warm as everyone looked at her.
“It’s a funny picture, isn’t it, Lizzie?” Miss Burke asked. She was short, with red glasses that matched her hair.
“No,” Lizzie said. “Well, yes. But…dinosaurs lived millions of years before people.”
A boy beside her threw his hand in the air.
“Yes, Dwayne?” Miss Burke asked.
He pointed at Lizzie. “She believes in evolution.”
The class erupted in whispers until Miss Burke told everyone to settle down.
“Lizzie, since you’re new here, I’ll explain about this class. Every Thursday afternoon, we study God’s word. The Bible. And the Bible teaches us that men and women were created at the very beginning, when the Earth was brand new.”
Lizzie blinked. “But what about science? What about dinosaur bones, and fossils?”
Becky Kinder turned around to face her. She sat in front of Lizzie and had creamy pink cheeks and deep green eyes beneath dark bangs. Lizzie had hoped that she and Becky would become best friends.
“Those things are put here to test our faith,” Becky said. “Ain’t that right, Miss Burke?”
“Okay,” Miss Burke said. “Let’s get back to our lesson.”
After school Lizzie told her dad about the Bible class. She’d thought it was funny and hoped he’d laugh. She tried everything to make him laugh these days. But he only slammed the cabinets in the kitchen while he made dinner, and this morning he walked into school with Lizzie to tell the principal, a bald man in a dark suit, that his daughter wasn’t going to be taught a bunch of nonsense.
The man beamed and spread his arms wide. “It’s an elective! She doesn’t have to attend.”
Lizzie was sent not to art class but to the library.
Miss Burke directed her to a table behind the reference stacks. “You can read your book if you’d like.” She nudged her glasses higher on her nose and half smiled at Lizzie, as if maybe she was feeling guilty, sticking Lizzie in there all alone. But she left anyway, and then the room was empty except for Mrs. Daniels, the librarian, who sat at the front desk and never talked and didn’t like anyone else to either.
It was cold in the library and smelled moldy and damp. Lizzie opened her own book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, thinking of how her father would have a fit if he knew she were just sitting here reading instead of learning something new. She decided not to tell him, and prayed he wouldn’t find out. Then she started giggling. Kicked out of Bible class and here she was, praying!
Now, in the pickup, her father flips on his turn signal and they head off the highway onto a gravel road that soon turns to dirt. The shocks groan when they brake at a flat spot in the grass. He shuts off the engine.
Lizzie climbs out and lifts her backpack from the truck bed. She keeps it packed full—two flashlights, two bottles of water, a camera, a lap blanket, a knife, a rope, a compass, and a lighter. Tonight she’s added a sandwich—peanut butter and sardines.
Her dad lifts out the crossbow, and Lizzie follows him into the nearest section of woods. The afternoon rain has made the ground soft, and the air smells like mud.
Darnell was the first place they picked when they moved here, because of the high hills and low valleys that they could see from the highway, and the scattered patches of dense woods in between. Now, in the beam of her flashlight, Lizzie can see only worn grass and the knotted roots of trees beneath her sneakers.
“Watch your step,” her father says. His voice isn’t quite a whisper, but it’s hoarse, always softer than usual out here. He’s slung the bow across his back and holds onto its wide strap with one hand.
They come out from the trees into a deep valley. Lizzie can hear the little stream in front of them, and she heads toward their first trap, strung over the wet rocks between two scraggly white pines.
Her father stoops down so she can climb onto his shoulders, and suddenly she’s up high, swaying for a startling second, before he regains his balance. His grip on her calves is steel. She knows he would never let her fall.
She shines the light into the dark sky, looking for the rope they hung weeks ago.
“Move right,” she says. “Wait. There it is.”
Above her head, within reach if she stretches, is the mesh laundry bag holding a sandwich, or what’s left of it. Her father moves sideways so Lizzie can grab hold. She untangles the damp bread from the bag and inspects it before handing it down to him.
“Well, something got it,” he says. “Those teeth marks? There in the corner?”
“Probably birds,” she says.
She’s glad she can’t see his face when she says this, because she wouldn’t want to see the disappointment there. Lizzie wants more than anything to find something, but not for herself. If they’re ever successful, she thinks, it might just put the light back in her dad’s eyes.
He flings the sandwich into the stream.
Lizzie slides her backpack off her shoulder and pulls out the new sandwich—this time made with a thick, chewy sourdough, baked by their neighbor Mrs. Eades, who brings them a fresh loaf every couple of weeks. Lizzie places it in the bag just right, so it stays flat but still swings in the breeze. The bag is black, almost invisible against the dark sky, so the sandwich looks as if it’s floating there, like something in a Scooby-Doo cartoon.
“Done?” her father asks.
She is, but she isn’t ready to come down yet. It’s her favorite part of the hunt, being up high like this, smelling the clear night air, feeling it on her face. Now she can see past the stream, across the rocky bottom of the valley, encircled by the black slopes of mountains that look like sleeping giants. When she’s on her dad’s shoulders, connected to him but seeing the open world from up high, it’s almost as if she’s a whole new creature—tall, strong, fierce.
But she can feel her father’s weight shift—he’s getting tired—so she tells him that she’s done, and he sets her down.
He walks to an incline at their left. “Let’s try this way.”
Lizzie follows him, reminding herself to make an entry of their actions when they get back to the truck. She keeps a notebook beneath the seat that holds all the information from every hunt, so that they never repeat themselves and never forget.
It was the promise of these Friday-night hunts that made Lizzie excited about the move. Her father had told her stories of sightings in West Virginia, in woods so thick a creature could stay hidden from humans for decades, and grow, even breed. He’d thrilled her with talk of running, hiking, hiding, capturing—all things they could never do in Canton. And it’s been fun so far, even if they haven’t found a thing.
Not that she expects to. She isn’t a little kid anymore. But, just like the library, she’ll never tell her dad that. He believes in the hunt, and she believes in him.
As they head up the hill, her father picks up a long, fat stick. He says it’s a walking stick, but she knows it’s for protection, in case he can’t grab the bow in time.
She doesn’t worry about that. The woods feel safe to her. It’s out in the rest of the world that things get risky. Just look at her mom, who died in that car wreck, who went out one night with her friend Tammy and never came home.
Lizzie’s father stops and points with the stick to the right side of the trail.
“What is it?” she asks. But she can already see the indentation, probably a foot long, half a foot wide, sunk an inch into the mud. “Any more?”
She shines the light ahead, and her father gazes up the hill for a long moment. Lizzie studies the nearby bushes for tangles of hair, broken branches, spots that might make good sleeping nests. She sniffs for scat but smells only the cold night air, hinting at a first snow.
“Might be a print,” he says.
“Not big enough.” She’s told him this before. Most are at least two feet long.
“Could be a young ’un,” he says, moving up the hill.
She wants to point out that there would be more tracks, but instead she lets it drop
They wind upward, around the rocky parts, avoiding the ledge at their right, which her father keeps a constant watch on. It’s funny, she thinks, how he always walks along the edge and forces her to the inside. Even now he presses her shoulder and nudges her over.
He walks without talking, leaning on his stick. Moonlight outlines his head and his thin, slumped shoulders. When a cloud shifts and the sky brightens, she can see his expression for an instant, the features dark and sad.
She loves him so much it hurts. A real, physical pain in her chest that spreads to her throat and stings her eyes.
She hears his foot slide, the crunching sound of rocks and dirt skidding beneath his shoe. Even before he yelps and grabs out, Lizzie dives for him and grasps his arm. The next thing she knows she’s falling, face forward, into a black nothing.
The night sky spins, the few stars in motion now, leaving trails like that painting, Starry Night. And then they’re tumbling down the hillside, helplessly crashing against the ground and into one another.
After only a few seconds, thankfully, they slam into a thicket of mountain laurel and come to a stop.
It’s so quiet. In the wake of their rolling and tumbling, Lizzie is amazed to hear only the soft rush of wind above them. They lie still, breathing hard, staring at the stars, now still again, pulsing.
“Liz,” her father groans. “Lizzie!” He crawls to her and touches her cheek and the top of her head. “You okay?”
He picks up her hands and peers at her palms, then lifts each of her legs and bends them at the knee. After a minute he barks out a laugh. “Not a scratch on you!” Then he laughs some more, sitting beside her, hanging his head between his knees.
She hasn’t heard him laugh in months. She should be glad, but it’s a strange sound, and scary, because his shoulders are shaking as if he can’t help himself, and all of a sudden she wonders if he’s laughing after all.
Lizzie lies still on the cold ground. She nearly just lost her father. Up here in the dark, alone—and what would she have done then?
Harry Potter is an orphan. In the book Lizzie is reading he’s running from Sirius Black, although he shouldn’t be, as it turns out. Sirius is a good guy, practically a relative, but Harry doesn’t know that yet. Lizzie does, because this is her third time reading it. Today, when they were packing up at dismissal, Becky Kinder saw the book and told Lizzie, “You don’t need to be reading that. You need to read the Bible.”
Lizzie studied Becky for a minute, decided they’d never be friends anyway, and folded her arms across her chest. “New or Old Testament?” she asked.
Becky stared at her.
“Which books? What verses are your favorites?”
Red splotches bloomed on Becky’s round cheeks, and her eyes traveled over Lizzie, down to her shoes, then up to her face again. “Freak,” she hissed, before she walked away.
Lizzie felt good at the time. Ever since, though, she’s felt anything but. Now she’s lying here, listening to her father’s crazy laughter, staring at the starry sky, and feeling sad that Becky Kinder hates her, and that she cares that Becky hates her. Mostly, though, she’s sad that Becky and her friends don’t know about Harry Potter, or about anything, probably, that doesn’t involve God, Adam, or dinosaurs.
Her father runs his fingers across his face. Then he coughs and pushes himself up. He reaches for her hand.
They climb the steep hillside, holding onto bare shrubs and rocks. At the top, her father hoists himself onto the bluff, then reaches for Lizzie and pulls her up next to him, as easily as Hagrid would. They stand at the cliff’s edge, just breathing, for what seems like a long time. Finally her father turns to look at her. “I’m sorry, hon.”
She puts her arms around his waist. Her heart is pounding, and the dank cold is making her nose run. But if she sniffs, he’ll think she’s crying.
“I’m freezing,” she says.
“I know. But we can still head to the top. We’re almost there.” He steps back from her.
“I want to go home.”
“Let’s at least get to the—”
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” she says.
Her dad struggles to smile, but it ends up, as always, in a sad, sideways frown. “What do you mean?”
“I want to go home. This is stupid.”
He scratches his face, rubs his hand along his beard. “Well now. Come on. You have to believe.”
Why? she wants to ask. Why does she have to believe in the hunt, or in magic, evolution, heaven, anything? For the first time, she knows for certain that it’s all for nothing. She looks up at her father’s face, and pain swells in her chest again, that sweet ache of love, so big she can hardly bear it. She can’t tell him what she knows. She can’t do anything except swallow and breathe and try not to cry.
And then she hears the sound. It’s a deep, trilling moan, from just over the top of the ridge. It makes the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She’s never heard anything like it.
Her father looks down at her, wide-eyed, and then, before she can even think, she breaks into a run. He makes a grab for her, but she swerves and tears up the hillside, toward the sound, her heart beating fast and her chest aching from the cold air rushing in and out.
“Lizzie!” Her father’s voice is hoarse and panicked.
But she keeps going, up and up. She won’t stop until she’s at the very top, and even then she imagines going on, over the other side and down, full tilt. She can already feel how fast the hill would speed her toward it, whatever it is. And she’s ready. She wants to meet it head on.
But when she clears the top of the ridge, she slams to a stop. There is no hillside, only a sharp drop-off, inches from her toes. Lizzie stares at the open space in front of her, her breath huffing in and out, making clouds that mist up and vanish.
Her father reaches her a second later, grabs her by the shoulders, and pulls her away from the edge. “Don’t—” he huffs. “Don’t do that. Scared me.”
She twists away and shines her flashlight down the cliff. The weak yellow beam lights up bushes and rocks, trees and grass, but only so far. What’s outside that light, in the vast dark, is huge and mysterious, and far out of her reach.
“Let’s go,” her father says. “It’s time to go.”
Lizzie swallows hard. “But it’s out there.”
Her father stands still beside her. The only sound now is the creak of branches in the wind. “I know. But it’s moved on.” He takes Lizzie’s hand and peers at her face. “Let’s get home, Liz.” His eyes are clear and searching, tilted in two sad arches.
Lizzie stares out at the black space all around her. Then she lets her father pull her by the hand, and they start back down the hill.
It ends the way it always does, with the two of them back in the pickup truck, waiting for the stalled heater to warm them, jostling along the dark highway as Lizzie writes by flashlight in her notebook, her pen scratching softly. Tonight, though, she can’t concentrate and stops mid-sentence to gaze out the window, watching the moon rise and the clouds roll back in, as murky and cautious as ghosts.
The next Thursday Mrs. Daniels is out sick, so the library is closed. Miss Burke apparently doesn’t want to risk a Bible study with Lizzie there, so she rolls a television into the room, high on a metal stand, and turns on a show called Veggie Tales, about talking vegetables. In this one a tomato and a cucumber defeat a lying garden weed. The vegetables talk about truth, and what it says in the Bible about reality versus make-believe.
It’s a babyish show, Lizzie thinks, but the other kids seem to enjoy it. When it’s over, Miss Burke asks them questions—what they thought was funny and what they learned. As she’s unplugging the television and wrapping up the cord, she bends down to Lizzie and says, “You’re awfully quiet lately.”
Lizzie nods; she doesn’t know how else to respond.
“Can I ask you something, honey?” Miss Burke leans in close. Lizzie can smell her flowery cologne. “Do you believe in God?”
She meant to ask privately, but Lizzie can feel every child in the room stiffen to attention. It’s so quiet, she can even hear the deep mumble of Mr. Reef lecturing his class next door.
Becky Kinder twists around in her chair and stares at her.
But Lizzie looks straight at Miss Burke, at her glasses glinting under the lights. She thinks of her mother in the cozy lawn chair, her head tilted back to look at the stars, and of those tumbling stars the other night, when she and her father could both have died, out in the forest alone. Not a soul would have known, or even cared. Did God see them fall? And if so, why didn’t He reach out a hand to stop them?
Or did He?
She lets out a breath. “Yes,” she says.
Miss Burke tilts her head, a smile spreading across her face. “Well, okay, then,” she says, and turns back to the TV.
Lizzie watches her place the cord on the stand and unlock the wheels at the bottom. Just as she starts to roll it away, Lizzie raises her hand. “Miss Burke?”
Lizzie looks Becky Kinder straight in the eyes. “I do believe in God,” she says. “But then again, I believe in Bigfoot.”
Trace Mountain is a novel in stories. While the book itself is still unpublished, “The Hunt” was first published as a short story in the Spring 2019 issue of Appalachian Heritage magazine.
The novel is structured in chapters that are self-contained, each one a separate glimpse into the lives of its characters but also a cohesive part of the book that moves the plot forward. The novel centers on Lizzie, a lonely, clever, thoughtful child who is struggling to fit into a new life in West Virginia after her mother dies. Her tenacity and background, as well as her love of books, separate her from her peers at school and cause her to question what she is being taught and told. She finds refuge in the school library, where she eventually builds a friendship with the gruff woman who runs it.
Lizzie lives with her father in a trailer on Trace Mountain. While at times he is kind and attentive, at other times he is distant and unaware of the difficulties she’s facing. Out of work, struggling to feed and house the two of them, he tries to bring fantastic notions into their dreary days. He’s also keeping a secret from Lizzie that, once uncovered, will change her life.
This novel explores the concepts of love, family, and friendship—how they can both bond and alienate us, and how we must often learn to live with and without them.
Cathy Cruise works as an editor in northern Virginia. Her short fiction has been published in a number of literary journals, including American Fiction, Michigan Quarterly Review, Pithead Chapel, and others. Her first novel, A Hundred Weddings, was published in 2016. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University.
Embark, Issue 11, January 2020