Snow spiraled through the black and twisted branches of the forest, shimmering in the dull sunlight of a gloomy winter day before collecting silently on the wooden railings of the ramshackle deer stand. A silent man hunkered against the dry, icy bark of the tree behind him, keeping one eye open for any movement and the other hidden in the warm material inside his camo coat. His face was covered with a white ski mask; his hands protected by black and white leather gloves. His coat and pants were a brilliant white and brown camouflage material, deliberately streaked with dirt and filth to help blend in to the winter canvas of Garrett County woods. He knew it was not the safest of clothing for a hunter to wear, especially in an area frequently haunted by local rednecks recklessly shooting bows and rifles and God knew what else—but he didn't want the other hunters to notice him. He wanted them to pass right below the tree stand without even seeing his breath. Only then could he truly hunt in peace, and truly relish the primal desire that beckoned from the deep dark pit in his soul- the urge to line up a shot, squeeze (not pull, that's what they always said in boot, squeeze, not pull) the trigger, and watch a bullet tear through his prey and splatter innards all over the surrounding foliage. Something about taking a life, destroying something beautiful, almost made him feel human again; and if not quite human, alive at least.
He liked to use a rather unorthodox hunting rifle, compared to what everyone else toted around the Wisconsin countryside. It was a 257 Weatherby Magnum, long-range scope mounted on the top and the stock and barrel painted bone white with flecks of black and gray (more effective winter hunting). The gun kicked like a mule and usually left its signature on his shoulder, but you couldn't beat the stopping power. The gun didn't crack or pop when he shot it, it exploded. The gun thundered and nearly jumped out of his hands with each shot, echoing through the still winter air with a sound like a plane engine passing overhead, and his target did not take a bullet—it took a swift and deadly sledgehammer blow, and was down and at his mercy with one shot. He smiled to himself and eyed the rifle as it shimmered icily, small tufts of snow collecting on its barrel. One gloved finger rested in the trigger guard, waiting excruciatingly for the chance to bring the trigger back, to set off that explosion, and that familiar rush of adrenaline he hadn't felt since his time spent as a sniper in Iraq. PTSD? Bullshit. He loved guns, he loved hunting, and he loved killing.
Something rustled in the trees ahead of him, the sharp crack of dead branches somehow secretive, malicious, conniving- sending him into the callous hands of a bloodied recollection, the violent and haunted embrace of a soldier's memories. Days spent lying flat on a hot, coarse rooftop beside his spotter (Ty, his name had been, Ty Eversman), watching masked men cautiously snoop around civilian cars, setting up their dirty little bombs with no idea they were being watched-and by someone who could end their lives whenever he wanted. Whenever he decided it was time for them to die. His heart had fluttered the way it was fluttering now as he had squinted into the scope, his sweating brow drawing down and his dirty cheeks spreading into a dark smile. He remembered the crosshair swaying back and forth over their filth-slathered clothes, the tiny red dot in the center choosing the entry point and inertia and meat and bone determining the exit. These creatures were a disease, and he was the cure. They took, and took, and took, and destroyed, and the only acceptable terrorist was one with nothing but a gaping maw for a face. Such a putrescent nuisance, yet so easily dealt with. Sometimes the memories troubled him, but once the trigger had been pulled (squeezed) and one of them had pitched backward and slammed into the side of the car, leaving a bright crimson flower on the glass before crumpling to the drifting sandy street, he had smiled and so had Ty. The others had tried to run, but they hadn't made it very far. Death had come for them as silently and as swiftly as the last breaths they took, and they died wondering what the hell had happened. Such a putrescent nuisance, yet so easily killed.
Normally, he was as dead as a headstone on the inside-but he felt very much alive now as this thing moved ever so cautiously forward; ever so cautiously into the danger it couldn't see or smell or hear. He exhaled slowly and narrowed his eyes, his breath pluming out of his hood in damp clouds of vapor. He glimpsed his target stepping slowly through the gnarled undergrowth—and that old rush of anger swelled into him again, blooming like a bright flower of hate inside his abdomen. He ground his teeth together and silently wished the thing speed.
(Hurry the fuck up and get what's coming to you.)
He hated them. He supposed it could be left over emotion from his military time, but it didn't matter because hunting was the only way to shut it off. It was like shutting off a radio when all it would play was static, or changing the channel when the atrocious weather alert signal assaulted the speakers. Ice on a burn, food for the hungry, however you wanted to spin it.
He sighed heavily as the thing crouched down and waited for something (not too loud, don't breathe too loud) and the flower in his heart curled open with petals that were dark shades of red and orange. Maybe this one wouldn't get a single shot. Maybe this one would lose a leg, and then receive the final stroke. Maybe he would let it bleed out. Maybe he would toy with his prey and savor that temporary burst of life and emotion in him, like looking at old photos of days long gone.
He hated them because they, too, destroyed. Perhaps they weren't as much of a threat as the terrorists he had killed in the Marines, but they still managed to destroy everything they touched. Every year there were more of them; almost as if his hunt the previous year had had no effect at all. They were spreading like a cancer, and if they weren't controlled, weren't cured, there would simply be nothing left. They were stupid, mindless animals, who lived for procreation and consumption. Nobody ever stuck up for the things they destroyed, the nature wasted, and so that was what he was. However tame or mundane his new enemies were, however separated from an AK toting terrorist, he killed them to protect. He often wondered if other hunters felt the way he did, or if they just did it for "sport". It made him uncomfortable to think about it too much. Other hunters were human. He wasn't anymore.
Now, despite the cold, he had begun to sweat and—
The animal suddenly darted forward and then stopped again, but this time, it had gone too far. It had signed the grim reaper's list in blood, and now it was time for the sickle. The man smiled and choked down maniacal laughter as he lifted the heavy rifle to his eye, carefully distancing his eye socket from the scope. He pivoted his hips and kept his arms locked to position the crosshair where it needed to be. It danced along the (filth-slathered clothes) light brown pelt of the animal's coat, the tiny red dot at the center of the cross moving slowly from body part to body part, crawling back the animal's mindless face and down past its neck, across its chest and to its ribcage. Finally, the reticule stopped at the animal's leg, and the man held his breath. The leg would go first.
He slowly squeezed the trigger in until an ear shattering explosion ripped the silent air in half and the gun spat a mushroom of fire from its tip, the barrel leaping into the air and nearly knocking him from his squat. He saw a splash of red through the scope before the lens was tossed away from his eye, and now, he heard the animal crying out.
It cried without knowing who it was crying to. It moaned, but no one was going to help it. There was no God to answer it. It was a long, pitiful wail; the sound tapered off and faded through the windswept trees, falling upon nothing but frostbitten air. The man grinned and slung the rifle over his shoulder, carefully lifting a clumsily rigged trapdoor and easing down the ice-covered planks of wood that served as his ladder. The coppery scent of blood floated to his nose in the winter breeze. It was strangely familiar, like the perfume of an old lover; triggering memories that chilled him to the bone while setting fire to his heart.
Brittle snow crunched under the man's feet as he approached the writhing, wailing animal he had shot. He smiled at the pain it felt, undoubtedly something it had never felt before and something it had never expected to feel. It didn't try to get up; that hurt far too much. The snow around the animal was splashed with a brilliant red, and he saw (with some twisted amusement) that a small fleshy tendon appeared to be the only thing holding the leg together. The bone was snapped off and blasted apart, poking jaggedly from the glistening ribbons of dark meat that hung from the stump of its knee. The severed lower leg was bent up toward its ribs at an impossible angle. He nudged the mess with his boot tip and the animal cried out again as the tendon pulled tight and the leg tumbled over, a fresh, rhythmic spurt of blood arching from the wound. Hopeless, pitiful cries. He shoved his hand into his warm hip pocket and pulled out a digital camera, pointing the lens at the animal's face.
"How does it feel, huh?" he asked, his eyes dark with hate. The snow swirled down around him as he towered over the crippled animal, the flakes almost avoiding him, as if it knew he was too dangerous to even touch. "How does it feel to be a trophy?" He snapped the picture, and the man he had shot blinked with the bright flash.
"W-w-what?" The hunter stammered, his voice shaky and paralyzed with shock. His chest heaved as blood poured from his shredded pant leg, his face already going pale. The snow was melting with the heat of his blood. It wouldn't be long.
"I said," the man repeated, reviewing the picture with a wide grin. "How does it feel, to be a trophy?" He tucked the camera away and pointed the Weatherby at the man's frightened face, resting the tiny red dot between his eyes. The man's rifle lay just out of his reach. He was doomed. He would die; just as soon his captor decided it was time. His body tensed and he raised his hands, submitting like the perfect victim, a hushed quivering moan leaking from his mouth.
"You come out here with your guns and your bows," the man continued, pressing the barrel of the Weatherby into the man's cheek hard enough to force his mouth apart. "You find innocent animals and you shoot them. Gut them. Chop off their heads. You think you're anything more than an animal?" His voice raised with each question he demanded of the dying hunter, his eyes flashing, spittle flying from his lips. "What gives you the right to take life, so you can hang a pair of goddamn fucking antlers on your wall? They die so you can decorate your fucking living rooms!" He took a deep breath, and smiled as his heaving shoulders relaxed. "Now, you die so I can decorate mine." The hunter still gaped up at him, still clueless, still afraid and confused. So stupid, yet so destructive.
"Crazy…" the hunter mumbled, his consciousness slowly fading out like a flickering star in the coldest section of an early morning sky. The man smiled and rested his finger on the trigger, leaning down to let the hunter look into his eyes, to see into the vacant lot of a soul inside the man who was about to kill him. Something he had never been able to do to the terrorists. He wanted him to see how much he was going to enjoy it. The blood would hit him, but he wanted it to. He wanted to feel it on his face.
"I'm no crazier than any of you. You hunt animals, I hunt hunters. Some animal would have wandered into your path, just living its life, and it would have died for that simple mistake. Today, you wandered into mine."
"I'm a… p-per-person…"
"You're an animal. I'm an animal. Someday I'll die, just like everyone and everything dies. But today, you die like they die. At the end of a gun, and not knowing why."
He squeezed the trigger and the Weatherby erupted, this time leaping clean out of his hands and tumbling into the snow. And then, the hunter's head was no more. It was as if the ground had coughed, spitting up a snowy, bloody mixture of dirt, meat and ice. The hunter's limbs spasmed and then went slack. The lower jaw (all that was left of his face) tipped to the side, small ribbons of steam seeping from the exposed throat as it opened and closed with an audible click, reflexively trying to swallow as the last bits of electricity faded from the corpse.
(Twitcher, he's a twitcher.)
Now the fingers clutched lightly at the snow. The foot that remained attached quivered ever so slightly. Then nothing. A few moments later, the snow that fell upon the body stopped melting. It collected on the brown, blood spattered material of the dead man's deerskin coat, as well as on his shattered cheekbones and teeth and lifeless hands. Hands that would never shoot a gun or kill anything ever again.
The man turned to leave with a smile and a bounce in his step. The spatter of blood stains on his clothes would be tough to get out, but some bleach and some heavy scrubbing would have to take care of it. He'd need them to be ghost white before his next hunt.