Three eleven-year-old boys hiked to the reservoir that night. They cornered a baby rabbit, separated from its mother, terrified and alone.
“Let’s kill it,” said Jake.
He was the more muscular and intense, already the alpha male, his ice-blue eyes alive with anticipation; Nils the toady, neither strong nor smart, but mean and eager to please Jake.
Only Jake’s city-bred cousin, Robby, showed any sympathy. His almost feminine face wrinkled.
“Yeah, why not?” Nils echoed.
There must be reasons, Robby thought. Suddenly, he couldn’t think of any. He just felt their judging stares. To stall, he said, “How?”
They stood atop some of the jagged boulders encircling the vast, quiet body of black water. The rabbit backed itself into a mottled crevice, its fur raised like some doomed powderpuff come to life. Jake looked around, mouth tight. He found a length of shale.
“We’ll bash it with this,” he said, hefting it over his head.
“Knock its guts out,” Nils laughed.
Robby thought he might be sick. His Uncle Tim, who owned the farm they’d left a half mile away, had offered to show Robby how to humanely kill a chicken that very day. The boy couldn’t do it. He couldn’t eat it that night, either. Jake laughed and Uncle Tim frowned.
I’m too soft, Robby knew, and even patient and understanding Uncle Tim gets exasperated.
Jake always exploited weakness, and handing the shale to Robby, prodded, “Do it.”
The stone felt cold and heavy in his little hands.
“Why me?” he stammered.
“Don’t pussy out,” Jake sneered. He’d said the same when they turned a sleepover into this midnight excursion. Then as now Robby felt ashamed. Looking at that helpless rabbit, part of him considered doing the deed. It was just a simple-minded animal. Out here, it wouldn’t last long — an owl or hawk would get it. Motherless, it would die anyway, right? Be merciful, he tried to convince himself.
He put the stone down instead.
Jake grabbed his T-shirt collar, bunching the fabric against his scrawny neck. Nils scooped the shale up, gleefully taking position over the rabbit. He raised the stone like an executioner’s ax —
“Hey, boys,” a voice boomed, “what’re you doing?”
Surprised, they looked up.
Robby’s pulse quickened. He saw a man’s silhouette against the yellow glow of a phosphor lamp. Jake let go, and Robby knew that despite any swagger, he was rattled, too.
“Nothing,” Jake said.
“Yeah,” Nils said, dumping the shale. “Nothing.”
For the longest time, the man stared. Then he came unglued, stepping down from the light. Robby saw a badge and a tan and brown trucker hat with a colorful round patch that read “Fish and Wildlife Management.” A keyring, flashlight, and what looked like pepper spray adorned his thick leather belt.
“Good, boys, since the great state of Ohio doesn’t take kindly to trespassing. You know the park’s closed, right?”
“No,” Jake countered.
Nils smirked. “Don’t see no signs.”
The ranger — was that what he was? — turned to Robby, who felt vulnerable. “That true, son?”
Though the man smiled, his narrow face was hard and pebbly. His eyes shone as intensely as Jake’s, only measured the way an adult’s are.
“Yes, sir,” Robby found himself saying softly.
“I see,” the ranger said. He scanned the empty park. “You boys from around here?”
Odd question, Robby thought. If they weren’t, how’d they get to the park? They couldn’t have driven.
He sensed ominously the ranger was really asking something else.
His heart pounded now.
Jake and Nils had moved to hide the baby rabbit from the ranger. But the man strode past them and looked down. “Whatcha got here?” He saw the trembling creature and let out a “my, my, my” while shaking his head. “You’re some cruel hombres.”
“Not me, sir,” Robby blurted out, as though declaring innocence in court.
Jake gave him a harsh, disappointed look.
The ranger admitted, “That I believe.”
Crouching, he placed his large hands on either side of the rabbit, corralling it. Too frightened to move, it whimpered, and Robby realized suddenly the ranger had never stopped smiling.
He said to no one in particular, “They always do that when they know they’re about to die.”
Robby wasn’t sure he heard correctly.
By then, the ranger had retrieved the shale. He cupped it over the rabbit like the Sword of Damocles and hummed a tune Robby didn’t recognize, as threateningly sweet as poisoned candy. Even Jake’s and Nils’ cockiness disappeared, and they watched with startled wonder. Then, the ranger let go, and in that split second of dread, Robby understood something more significant transpired. He burst into tears, not caring who saw or why. None of that mattered, he knew at once. Nothing would again.
Uncle Tim walked the reservoir trail, searching.
The boys must’ve come here. They all must eventually.
He had, first to escape raging blows from a drunken father, then as a doleful adolescent after slaughtering his first spring calf. He passed the dam where he’d kissed Marianne Riley and the dock from which he’d plunge into deep waters and stay under as long as he could, fantasizing about never surfacing again.
Trying to teach Robby about the chicken had been a mistake, he knew, because that bookish child was him in those days — more so than his hard-bitten son, Jake, cursed to become his grandfather — when life hadn’t yet been reduced to prey and predator, when fairness and compassion meant something.
A length of shale, cleaved in three, beckoned.
He ran fingertips over its cold, broken edges, and pain shot through him. He called across still waters, his words devoured by the encroaching darkness.
When he found strength again, he picked himself up.
They just couldn’t have gotten far, he assured himself.
They’re here somewhere, he had to believe.
Keep searching, Tim, long as you can.
Don’t give up.
And he never did.
Stephen Kyo Kaczmarek is a writer and educator who lives in Lewis Center, Ohio.