Blaine tried not to think of that word, coyote, and all it had come to mean in their neighborhood, as he trudged after school, so close to sunset, too far from home, and yet on a mission. He planted his boot into thigh-deep snow, stained gray and black, piled haphazardly around the utility pole. The milk crate in his hand banged against his hip as he wrestled it forward. He shoved it into the snow, wiggling it to ensure its stability. Then he climbed up on it, his rubber soles scraping against the patterned plastic. He unzipped his fluffy red coat and extracted from within it a piece of wrinkled, bright yellow paper and a black Swingline stapler. His bulky, multicolored mittens crumpled the paper further, but he seemed practiced. He smoothed the paper against his chest with one hand, then whipped it against the post by one corner, stretching his arms up to their farthest reach. With the other hand, he flicked the stapler at the paper. Whap! Whap! Whap! Whap! Then, with great flourish, the stapler disappeared back into his coat, and he zipped it up.
Blaine gazed at the flyer a minute, judging its height. He didn’t allow himself to consider the contents. He was a peculiar sort of boy and he had such control. He turned to leave — forgot he was up high and stumbled into the snow. He picked himself up, one limb at a time. Wore a null expression. Wiped the snow from his face and snow clothes. Lifted his milk crate and began to dig too-small legs into deep banks of snow in the journey to the next pole.
Behind him, the clock atop the bank struck four times. The gong rang like a sore throat — muffled by the snow clogging the roofs and the walkways and waiting in the clouds. The gloom gathered already, oranges and fire yet, but soon it would be all bruises. He would need to head home soon. Mother would be waiting.
Blaine’s careful steps crunched into the accumulated ice between the buildings. If he slid his feet back and forth, he could feel the grind of the gravel embedded deep in that impenetrable layer of gray cold. He knew it kept him from falling, but he didn’t like the sensation. Like teeth at his feet.
He avoided the center of the alley — it was Saturday morning and cars appeared often since no one liked the roads in winter and brakes worked unreliably in the conditions. He picked his way along the edges, weight forward on his toes. He knew exactly where he was; in his mind, a map of the town and the people comprising it. He had been building it since his first memory of riding in a car. On one side of the alley, he weaved in and out of Plum Street business’s back ends — their dumpsters and abandoned employee “lounges” of unraveling plastic lawn chairs. At each utility pole, he placed his milk crate and then hung his bright yellow paper.
On the way back down the alley, he walked the residential side, Smith Drive, with its stand of picket and chain-link fences. The chain-link fences were useless, even if they had the slats of balsam or fiberwood woven through for privacy, as most of them did. But the pickets screamed the names of bands and the biggest mattress sale you’ve ever seen and promises of the perfect home lender. Blaine placed a bright yellow announcement every three feet, where he could, covering right over whatever happened to be there first. That seemed to be the way of the fences.
He had just placed a flyer and replaced his stapler into his coat and zipped up when he sensed commotion at his feet, below the milk crate. Then a crunch bothered his ears, because it was not like stepping on snow. It was like stepping on rotted wood. He looked down and to his right to see a large furry butt and long bushy brown tail wriggling out of the fence. In one flat second, the front half had joined it — a full-grown coyote with its bleeding, crying prey. A husky pup — Blaine’s mind did a split measurement — the Clements’s husky pup.
Blaine stumble-jumped backwards off the milk crate and somehow managed to keep his feet under him, cockeyed in the snow. In the same instant, the coyote — startled also — spun and loped down the alley. Its claws dragging against the ice and gravel were cruel laughter. Blaine stood there, stunned, the pup’s weak cries carrying to him on buffs of wind. Then he felt a snap. A pop. A shift. And his legs started to run.
“Hey!” his mouth shouted.
And his brain finally caught up. He was going to save that pup. He didn’t know how yet, and his blood rushed into his ears and his finger tips tingled in his pumping mittens. His rubber soles slid against the snow and bit against the gritty gravel. He was doing this.
Ahead of him, the coyote sensed him coming. The loping legs, stretching smoothly, right rear and front forward, then left — suddenly became running legs, galloping, all four paws hitting the ice and gravel in a staggered pattern. The claws dug in for purchase and didn’t slip like his feet. The coyote gained on him, fast, and then turned and vanished down another alley.
“Hey!” Blaine shouted again and sped up, pinwheeling his arms to gain balance. Cold air slapped his face like a glass wall. He reached the side alley and planted his mitten against the brick wall, feeling the icy stone deep in his flesh through his mitten, hooking himself around the corner. His feet slid on the unplowed snow in the narrow side alley — no more than a wide concrete water diverter between the houses on one side and the public-school complex on the other. He knew where the coyote was headed — the sports field and the woods beyond. He was running out of space to chase it.
Ahead of him, the coyote was loping again. Instead of shouting, Blaine looked around in the late afternoon brightness for something to hurl at it. But everything looked soft in the snow. Blaine jumped up as he ran and snatch an icicle off a low-hanging eave and hurled it, a silent missile, but its shape and heft left it far short of its target and it puffed into the snow.
The coyote finally noticed him again, and how close. The pup in its mouth squealed. It started to run. Blaine could see where the line of buildings on the right ended and the fencing started. Where was the coyote’s hole to climb under? How much further before the chase came to an end? He felt a surge of hot nausea rise in his belly. “Let it go! Let go of that pup!”
Then, something occurred to him. He did have a weapon. He popped his speed, pumping his legs in and out of the deep snow, and reached into his coat. He extracted the Swingline, his companion these long, dark afternoons the past week and a half. The long, black heavy metal shape felt warm even through the thick fabric of his mittens.
The coyote had almost reached the fence. The sky above it was open to the mountains, painted with dying sun, orange and violet, red snow on top. Blood and bruises. Blaine reached his skinny arm back. He screamed, “Where’s my Max you … you …” he struggled a second for the word. He rejected the curse words. Bastard. Son of a bitch. Asshole. None of them were right and he didn’t like them anyway. Finally, he settled for the nastiest word he could come up with. The very nastiest. “You coyote!”
Power of the moral type collected in his tiny, 10-year-old muscles, and with a wild grunt, he heaved the Swingline. It flew through the air, end over end, and arced down in a perfect trajectory. Blaine’s feet nearly stalled in shock as the stapler connected with the coyote’s hip with a muffled, boney thunk. The coyote made a strange, strangled noise in its throat and stopped dead its tracks.
Blaine slowed down to a trot. He still wasn’t sure what he would do when he caught up with the coyote. As he watched it, it lowered its head to the ground. The pup in its teeth was barely moving now. Its cries were just wisps of pain in the thin air. The pup’s paws touched the ground and, even in its weakness, those four tiny grey and white feet started to run in place, eager to be free. Blaine rejoiced. He thought victory was imminent.
But the coyote only adjusted its bite. Strengthened it. The pup screamed. Scarlet splashed the snow. Then the coyote sprinted. Its speed was devilish. It covered the last twenty feet to its hole in the fence and scrabbled under before Blaine even had the heart to resume running. He watched the coyote traverse the sports field and disappear into the tree line beyond. He gazed at the line of red marking its trail until it vanished into the vein colors of the setting sun. He scooped up the Swingline’s corpse from the snow. It was now icy in his hands and wafted of oil.
Theresa stood at the kitchen table and waited. Patience hurt. Pins in her joints, keeping her still. Glue in her jaw, keeping her silent. She could see Blaine’s eyes, red-rimmed, and his cheeks, blotchy, and not just from the cold. And she could smell the salt slicked on his skin. But they had their routines, and they were important.
Blaine finished shedding his snow clothes in the mudroom and trudged into the kitchen. She’d often been fascinated by his trudging—to see a child trudge is interesting enough, but to see one do so on toes… His hands were empty of the bright yellow leaves. But he placed the Swingline on the table; it was dented and a piece was loose. Her stomach flittered. The treasured, trusted companion — imperfect.
“I broke the Swingline,” he said. The last of the afternoon light had gone and evening’s purple shadows nested on his face. For a moment, she thought she could see the man he would grow into — gaunt and mindful, too serious.
“That’s okay,” she replied. He couldn’t hear her heartburn in her voice, but she could. Like fizz in soda. Tiny bubbles. “We can get a new one.”
“Won’t be the same. Also, I saw the coyote steal the Clements’s pup. I chased it. I tried so hard to save the pup. I threw the Swingline at the coyote and hit it in the butt, but it didn’t work.”
Theresa swallowed hard. Blood rushed to her head. If a chair was behind her, she might drop into it. But she had learned long ago to do things a certain way. For Blaine.
“Was that safe, Blaine?”
Blaine shook his head. His wispy brown hair flipped across his high forehead and dark eyes. “No. I’m sorry. I knew you wouldn’t like it. But it happened very quickly. And it felt important. It felt …”
Though her brain rattled with the possibilities of what could have happened to her child, she knew what had happened to him in that moment. It’s what happens to people when they’re faced with a moral choice. “Right?” she said. “It felt right?”
“Yes. It felt right.” He looked at the battered Swingline on the table. It laid there in the circle of light thrown by the overhead lamp, a broken object that was once a friend — it seemed wounded. Maybe dead. “I don’t want the Clements to have to hang flyers. I want to tell them what happened. Will you help me get the words right?”
Theresa wanted to hug her boy. She wanted to crush him with love. She stroked his cheek with her gaze. “Yes, my love. I will help you. So the Clements don’t have to hang flyers.”
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