This is a part of California that nobody knows well except the Hells Angels, but even they don’t really know it anymore. Things changed 100 years ago when the fog settled permanently in the San Joaquin Valley, before the Great Extinction. Up the state highway and around 60 miles down into the valley ridged by fault lines, there were no deer left. No deer. They were kidnapped, vanished, stolen — gone. They were gone in the hills, they were gone around the barns, they were gone around the trash bins; they were even gone in the seasons when hunters couldn’t shoot them. Before the fog, in those no-hunting seasons, they used to graze passive-aggressively while the hunters could only watch and wait. But now they were gone, and people were starting to fully realize it. In the dry and scarred country, deer hunting brought color and blood — excitement — to the young men. Fathers taught sons how to operate firearms and cut away guts and carefully avoid a puncture to the bowels. In that country, blood and intestines and feces were color in otherwise barren hills that only bled oil.
K.C. was rambling along in his truck. The road was straight and flat. There were many things to look at if you tried. K.C. had no energy to look around, but he still tried to come up with something interesting in his head.
“It was as if the giant meteor that killed the dinosaurs had a baby three months premature — therefore a very small meteor — and the baby meteor came down, deciding only to kill only the deer,” K.C. thought aloud as if he were trying to to impress someone in the seat next to him. K.C. pursed his lips as he realized he felt somewhat pretentious. He liked that word. Pretentious. His dad yelled that at the TV every time he switched the channel to MSNBC to “see what the liberals are up to.” He focused on the road. A hawk flew off a telephone pole.
K.C. was the last young hunter. There were still some old hunters who sat around and cleaned their guns with oil rags — they didn’t really hunt anymore, though, and K.C. could refer to himself as the last true hunter if he wanted to. But he didn’t. K.C. had found reasons to respect the old men in the values he’d internalized from the TV. People always marveled at how he’d turned out despite his circumstances.
It was a foggy morning, as mornings always were in that advanced time. The fog swirled around his ankles as K.C. climbed up the ravine into the tree line. There were so few deer left that the Department of Wildlife Salvation didn’t bother putting up “NO HUNTING” signs anymore. Back in the old days, that place had been a wildlife sanctuary; in the way of certain hunter types, they hunted the crap out of it. K.C. liked to hunt before school. It was peaceful and crisp and nobody would bug him about meaningless stuff like the new vape cartridge that delivered so much nicotine it was a test to see if you would barf after one hit, or physics.
K.C. liked how the cold cut into his head and iced out his thoughts and as he walked up the ravine he noticed the fog in the valley below him swirling like some condor had flown through the trees at full speed. But, of course, the only condor around was stuffed in Mr. Winston’s biology classroom: unblinking, always sitting, unable to fly through the valley.
It was just a swirl of fog. K.C. walked on, pounding up the hill to the lookout.
K.C. noticed that Mr. Winston sometimes looked more patient and severe when the prettiest girls came up to his desk with a question.
K.C. set himself up: his binoculars, his rifle, his coffee. He ate his breakfast banana slowly, taking sips of coffee between bites. K.C. bundled himself in his jacket, hugged his arms and waited. Not as many bird whistles as there used to be. A ground squirrel skittered around. A woodpecker knocked on a telephone pole. K.C. sat patient. Here is a little secret about K.C.: he was handsome when he looked patient. He knew that about himself. Whenever he allowed his brow to unfurl and eyes to settle, his face seemed to come together. K.C. liked looking patient even at inappropriate times. Thirty seconds to go in a football game; Coach calls a time out, K.C. is running back, and when Coach asks him something, K.C. looks at him patiently, hoping the girls take notice. And Coach wants to rip his helmet off and beat him to death. It was worse with his dad, but Mr. Winston seemed to understand it. K.C. noticed that Mr. Winston sometimes looked more patient and severe when the prettiest girls came up to his desk with a question.
Mr. Winston’s biology class was first period, and K.C. was lucky because Mr. Winston was a hunter and Mr. Winston didn’t mind if K.C. came a little late to school. Mr. Winston always asked, “Anything?”
Mr. Winston had a habit of seeming sarcastic with a question. And K.C. liked repeating his name a lot because his mom smoked Winstons and because the name sounded sophisticated and ancient, like a British pilot in WWII. Although Mr. Winston was only from Taft, it made K.C. chuckle.
Something came crashing through the bushes.
He watched as a big, mangy deer burst through the tree line, glorious even though it was emaciated. It was the first deer K.C. had seen in 10 years; his eyes got steamy and his heart pounded. He picked up his rifle and aimed.
K.C. picked up his rifle again, feeling his heartbeat in his trigger finger.
Through his scope, he saw the deer’s nostrils dilate and its eyes roll. The deer bent its head low, and settled on a defiant tuft of grass. First deer in 10 years. K.C. put the rifle down and picked up his binoculars, taking in its movements: the sinewy squiggles of muscle in its jaw, the shifting whites of its eyes. But the binoculars weren’t as high-powered as the scope of his rifle and K.C. picked up his rifle again, feeling his heartbeat in his trigger finger. The deer perked up, lifting its head in a swift snapping motion. It must have smelled K.C. No, no, no. Don’t leave. The deer started to walk slowly. K.C. centered the crosshairs on its lungs. The deer stopped again. This time it seemed it was going to bolt. All K.C. remembered was, through the scope, its skin seeming to jump as he pulled the trigger.
Its blood was bright pinkish red: lung blood. The fog thickened around them, and for a while K.C. couldn’t locate the body of the deer. K.C. breathed in shallow gasps as he came upon its great form, ensconced in fog, and started to cry deeply.
He was the last hunter. He had hunted the last deer. It had been a good shot. The deer was dead. He rubbed its coat, and hugged its neck. He couldn’t bear it anymore. He didn’t think about dressing the carcass — he couldn’t violate the dead like that. He ran back to his car with his gun. He didn’t even unload it as he ran.
Later that morning, Mr. Winston asked him the usual: “Anything?” K.C. mumbled the usual “nope” and sat down in his chair. They watched a video on how environmental toxins were destroying sperm counts, and he did his best to look patient.