Shot to the Lungs and No Breath Left

After Wade Dell Dallas put his fist in my eye on our third date, my father went after him with a .375 Holland and Holland Magnum.

Uncle Jack suggested that might be too much gun, seeing as the last thing it killed was a fourteen-hundred pound bull moose. Every year, my dad and his brothers and all their sons--some fifteen big, beefy, muscled Alaskan guys between the ages of six and sixty--loaded up two weeks worth of gear and disappeared into the Mountains, hunting moose. Or caribou. Or brown bear or doll sheep or goat, lynx and bobcat and elk, whatever had four legs to chase and a head to mount on the living room wall. I tried to imagine Wade's head up there next to the moose--his big 'ol ears sticking out, the taxi-dermed skin wind-whipped and ice-burned raw, his stupid blue eyes blank and glassy. "Wade don't weigh more than one-eighty," Jack told my dad, who was squatted on the carpet loading up his field-pack. "That H&H'll spray his face straight backwards through his brain."

That's a pretty nasty image, especially for a fifteen-year-old girl in such a fragile emotional state, and my dad looked over to see if I'd lose it or something. What he saw was me on the couch, curled up in a ball with a pack of frozen peas over my left eye, the eye that two hours before had swallowed Wade's fist in a single gulp, knuckle bone on skull bone BAM--and everything went black. My dad turned to Jack then and said, "You see what he did to my girl?" His voice was very quiet, the kind of calm that deep down points to crazy. "My one and only girl." He stuck a six-inch fixed-blade into his backpack. Then a GPS, a 10X40 spotting scope and a meat saw. "Besides, I'm not gonna shoot him in the face," he said. "I'm gonna shoot him in the lungs."

In the Lower Forty-eight, kids are taught not to run into moving traffic. Never talk to strangers. Ask before you pet the dog. In Alaska, we're taught to shoot for the lungs. "Here," Jack would say, pounding the meat between his chest and his armpit. "You aim here, for the lungs. A high shot'll hit the spine and a low shot'll hit the heart--either way, you're golden." My cousins and I hung on his every word: kill a moose, field-dress an elk, track a doll sheep, troll for Salmon--we trained for the hunt the way other folks prep for the SATS, all my big, boy cousins with their muscles and their rifles and their 87' Suburbans and me--Shannon, the one lone little girl tredding water in testosterone. I'll tell you what, though; they never treated me any different. I was one of the boys: gimmee a knife, a gun, and twenty rounds of 300 grain soft points and I'll hold my goddamned own.

"You see that," dad'll tell you, pointing to the twelve-point Caribou mounted over the sofa. "My Shanny whacked that bastard when she was eight years old, so don't give me none of that Girls Can't Do It horseshit. MY girl puta bullet right through that bastard's lungs!" Then he'd turn to me, his pigtailed daughter in size XS camaflouge overalls with black paint smudged under her eyes to better blend into the underbrush. "Tell 'em, kiddo," he'd say--this is how we showed off, me and my dad--"Tell 'em how come the lungs."

I knew this script better than the Pledge of Allegiance. "When hit through the lungs," I'd recite, "a moose or game of similar size will bleed out through their muscles until the lungs collapse and the animal can no longer breathe." I'd seen this happen to every head up there in the living room wall and now--sitting on that couch with Wade's fist pounding in the back of my brain, the entire left side of my face numb from the peas, my dad loading bullets into water-proof baggies and my cousins all staring at me 'cause for the first time in our lives I wasn't one of them--I imagined what would happen to Wade when dad's bullet--BAM--slammed into the meat between his chest and his armpit.

It's a scene straight outta some Coen Brothers flick: that big, six-foot pretty-boy is hard at work at the petrol plant, loading EXXON barrels onto the back of some truck. Suddenly--a hard, fast whack to the chest--so fast he's not sure at first if it actually happened. He opens his mouth to say What the fuck but his breath is locked so he can't get out the words, just two hollow gulps of air before his lungs soak red like a wet sponge and slowly, slowly, blood seeps through the canvas of his garage mechanic uniform. In one fatal, horrible second everything connects: the dark red-brown staining his chest. The airless gasping like some cancer patient with a cigarette. The punch above his heart like a shotgun with too much pull and then, after he's too empty of blood and air to keep on his feet, my dad walks right into his line of vision, that H&H Magnum pointed barrel-down at the ground. "Hey, there, Wade, how you doing?" he says, and Wade's stupid blue eyes go glassy and there's more blood on his uniform than there is in his body and in the last single second of life left in him my dad squats down and whispers: "That's my girl, Wade. My one and only girl."

My dad--he loves me like crazy. You can't hate that hard if you don't have love.

My cousins were running around helping dad pack--flashlight, binoculars, plastic moose call, nylon rope--and trying their best to avoid my eyes 'cause, really, what would they do then? Say, Sorry? Get me more peas? Pet my forehead the way a mom might've done it if any had stuck around?

One by one, the women in my family disappeared, sneaking down to California where water waved instead of froze and the sun only shone for half the day. My dad and Jack and their brothers blamed the light--twenty hours of sun in the summer made you jumpy as a carton of Red Bull and twenty hours of dark in the winter was like living under a rock. "It takes some kinda woman to handle this life," they'd say, and my mother wasn't the kind they meant. One day I came home from elementary school and found her squatted on the sofa, talking to the caribou head. Another time, she bought me an Easy Bake oven and all the guys--uncles and cousins and even my dad--started laughing. "What do you want Shanny to do with THAT?" he asked. "She's a killer, my girl!" Not long after that she was gone.

All that happened ten years ago, and my dad still won't talk about it--just loads up his gear and heads to the mountains; trailing, tracking, searching for something, always something. That day he went after Wade, once they'd all took off and I sat there alone in the living room, I tilted my head way back and talked to those heads, the moose and the caribou and the big 'ol curly-horned sheep. I said how I miss her. How I still have that Easy Bake oven, hidden in my closet under a box of tackle. How sometimes I get sick of being one of the guys, how I want to put on some of those fancy shoes they sell at Coles and go out to dinner, and that's why I liked Wade Dell Dallas and his stupid blue eyes and his Hey, sweetheart and his big, mechanic's hands--because he is the only man I've ever known who's made me feel pretty damn great about being a girl, even when the sonofabitch caught me right between the chest and the armpit, that shot to the lungs that stole the breath straight outta me.

About the author:

Megan Stielstra directs story development for 2nd Story ( a monthly storytelling series at the Webster Wine Bar where she regularly tells stories to drunk people, and is artist-in-residence for Barefoot Productions where she creates collaborative storytelling with musicians and filmmakers. She's performed for the Chicago Poetry Center, Neo-Solo at the Neo-Futurarium, Storyweek Festival of Writers, Undershorts Film Festival, The Dollar Store and Reading Under the Influence; her work has appeared in recent issues of Otium, Venus, The 2nd Hand and Punk Planet. She teaches creative writing at Columbia College and the University of Chicago, and spent 2004 in Prague, teaching Kafka and working on a novel.