By Eric D. Goodman
There were memories lodged in the corners of Ketchum’s mind that he’d rather not bring to light. He’d served as a marine in two wars. Did time in Iraq, then in Afghanistan. He’d killed men. People he’d known as friends had fallen at his side. Ketchum had seen terrible things. But he’d never experienced anything quite like this.
His watch read just past midnight, and already they’d shot down more than three dozen exotic animals. He’d personally shot bears, wolves, lions, cougars, tigers and leopards in those first several hours. Truth was, in some ways he’d rather be shooting people than these animals. At least people at war understood they were at war. These creatures were noble, just to look at them, and innocent. They didn’t ask to be put in this situation. They were draftees, so to speak.
But Ketchum was quick to remind himself that innocence was relative. The animals were designed to kill and eat. If he didn’t have a gun, and if he didn’t shoot the animals, no doubt these animals would be eating people. Ketchum knew that not one of the animals would think twice about eating his own guts out as he screamed for them to stop. Innocent? Not exactly. Just doing what God designed them to do.
“Oh, shit.” Chuck extended his hand to catch the droplets. “Just what we need.”
The rain began as a light drizzle, barely noticeable under the canopy of trees. They were in the woods, at the edge where the trees met the grass and the grass met Route 23. They hunted a tiger.
“The rain will make him harder to track,” Jackson said.
“Maybe we should get back to the car,” Chuck suggested. “Now that the tiger and animals have the advantage.”
“I don’t think so.” Ketchum spit out tobacco juice. “It’s just a little water. And we’re dealing with animals that are used to living in cages. Maybe we have the advantage.”
“Who has the advantage really just comes down to who takes who by surprise,” Jackson said. The animal expert looked nervous. Ketchum could see the rifle shaking in his hands. Or maybe Jackson was just cold, with the onset of the rain. Now it poured.
“Then we better keep a careful watch.” Ketchum looked attentively about them. “Besides, we’re halfway to the rendezvous point by now. If we keep going, we’ll meet up with Roscoe sooner than we’d be able to get back to the vehicle.”
The rain grew heavier, pounding down through the branches. Ketchum imagined this must have been what it was like for Sammy Johnson in the jungles of Vietnam.
A snap echoed, a rustle from deep within the woods where the only thing they could see was darkness.
“What’s that?” Chuck asked. They all aimed their guns.
Ketchum looked through the night vision goggles. “A deer,” he said. Everyone sighed. “Just a deer.”
It wasn’t until a moment after everyone let down their guard that Ketchum realized . . . maybe they shouldn’t have. He heard it before he saw it—a growl and the sound of branches breaking and leaves crunching, a body falling and bone cracking. They all looked back and saw the eyes reflecting. But the eyes were not looking at them; they were focused on the deer. The deer was on the ground, a tiger ripping at its flesh.
Jackson—animal activist though he may be—was the first to fire toward the shadows. Chuck and Ketchum fired, too. It angered the tiger, and the large cat ran in their direction. They could see it clearer now that it had come closer, rain soaking its fur, falling onto its face. They fired again, and it fell, just like the deer behind it. The deer seemed a needless kill, the meat uneaten.
“That’s one more.” The way Ketchum saw it, the tiger was a needless kill, too.
“Yup,” Chuck agreed. None of them seemed very happy about their progress.
They heard another crackling in the woods. It came from in front of them. Startled, their raised their weapons. Ketchum peered through the goggles. “It’s Roscoe.” They all sighed.
“That you, Chuck?” Roscoe asked.
“Yup,” Chuck called back.
The men came together. Roscoe greeted them “Leland and me got us a bobcat back a ways. Sounds like you got something, too.”
Regret burdened Jackson’s voice. “A Bengal.”
Leland sighed. “It’s a shame.” The rain poured down on Leland’s leather fedora so hard that the heavy brim drooped, adding to his sad appearance. Leland put a hand on Jackson’s back, water splashing off and hitting Ketchum in the face. “A necessary shame.”
Chuck and Roscoe nodded, their heads hanging like the water-heavy tree limbs all around them.
“Guess so.” Jackson looked Leland in the eye.
Ketchum pushed through the two animal experts. “Don’t make me cry. We’ve got us more cat to kill.” But the truth was, the scene even penetrated Ketchum’s hard shell.
The rain splattered loudly on and around them. Ketchum spoke, just to get everyone’s minds off of the tiger and bobcat and all the other kills. “I remember a kid in Afghanistan.”
“Here we go, another war story,” Chuck cracked. But Ketchum knew Chuck didn’t mean it.
“This kid had an animal, did he?” Jackson asked.
“No, it ain’t an animal story. Got enough of those here.” Ketchum spoke only loud enough for the guys to hear, in a hushed voice. He remained focused on their surroundings, alert to any animals. “So, anyway, while I was over there, I used to go to a local market where I knew a kid I’d buy nuts and fruits from. Freshly shelled almonds, walnuts, pistachios and sun-dried apricots and dates. Got my fill of military food at camp. But, you know, that got old. Besides, I liked trying out the local favorites when I was overseas, and getting face to face with local people—the people we were there to protect.” Ketchum felt a little silly now. Truth was, he only went there because they sent him. He only joined because he didn’t know what else to do.
“Anyway, this kid who sold me the fruit and nut mixes . . .” Ketchum spit.
“What was his name?” Leland asked.
“I never got the kid’s name. Would you guys shut up and let me tell the story?”
“Well, hurry up and tell it,” Roscoe said.
“The boy was probably about fifteen, sixteen years old. His parents owned the business, I guess, whether they farmed the food themselves or bought it from a local wholesaler, whether they owned the stall where they sold their goods or rented it or just occupied it. I don’t really know how the system worked. I just bought the damn snacks from the kid.”
The rain continued to patter against their hats and shoulders, their guns and noses. As Ketchum talked in his calm voice, they all watched cautiously for signs of animals. They knew a tiger and cheetah still waited for them in here, at least—a tiger and cheetah had been spotted and called in by residents in the area, in addition to the tiger and bobcat they already shot. Ketchum’s muted story served as their background music, but their eyes remained alert as they looked in all directions for their prey.
“So one day, there’s a battle, and I’m there in the thick of it, and who do I see facing me down with a machine gun at his side?”
“The kid,” Roscoe guessed.
“The kid,” Ketchum confirmed. “The look on his face—I could see it clear as day—when he saw me, it was just confusion and shock. He was about to kill me, I know it—if it had been any other guy, he would have shot me dead right then and there. But I guess he felt like he knew me, so he turned and starting shooting at other guys. But these guys were my buddies and my brothers, and I couldn’t let him do it. So I did what I had to do. I took him out.”
“That’s raw,” Chuck said.
More raw than Chuck could understand. Ketchum had felt the boy’s eyes on him, had known that if he’d looked into the boy’s eyes again, he would have had to let the boy go. Let him go to kill his friends and brothers. Ketchum didn’t just take out the boy. He took out the boy’s dumbfounded stare. Watched numbly as the boy’s face exploded in blood, one pleading eye blown away, the other left lifeless. The boy fell onto the dusty ground, blood oozing from where his eye had been and clumping the sand beneath him.
“I felt like I betrayed the kid. But that’s plain stupid, because he was just some kid who sold nuts and fruits, not a friend or anything. But he spared my life, and I didn’t spare his.”
“He was killing your allies,” Jackson said. “You were just doing what you had to.”
Ketchum stopped walking and looked Jackson square in the eye. “Exactly.”
Jackson took a step back from Ketchum’s intense stare and nodded. Ketchum looked at Leland. Leland turned his gaze into the dark of the rainy forest. Ketchum shook the rain off his cap and moved forward.
With the help of night vision binoculars, Leland picked up the trail of the cheetah. The tracks left in the mud were now paw-shaped puddles, trampled grass and leaves and sticks. They followed the trail, and before long, they found the cheetah deeper in the woods—although these woods were not deep, cut away by freeways and housing developments. They found the cheetah crouching under the cover of trees. It didn’t attack them, perhaps thinking it could go undetected, or hoping it would be left alone. Or, more likely, waiting for the right moment to catch one of them off guard and pounce.
Ketchum could see the cheetah’s eyes; they pleaded for mercy. Chuck and Roscoe opened fire. Blood exploded on the cheetah’s neck, shoulder and back, between his right eye and ear. From where Ketchum stood, he could see what was left of the cheetah’s remaining eye, lifeless. Ketchum and Roscoe and Jackson and Chuck and Leland stood over the dead cheetah. The rain washed blood off its coat and onto the muddy leaves.
The others cursed the rain, but Ketchum didn’t mind it. He wished it would stop, but knew that it could be far worse. Ketchum remembered being in the desert, in the scorching heat of the yellow sun, the dry sand, always thirsty, praying against all odds for just a little bit of rain, rain that would never come. He remembered thinking, then, that he wished he could trade Afghanistan for Vietnam, trade the dry, harsh desert for the lush green jungle. It didn’t occur to him—during the war—to wish for trading war for peace. He just wanted to trade one set of surroundings for another. Even now, Ketchum realized he would never really know what it was like in Vietnam, not the way Sammy Johnson did, not the way countless others did during that long and drawn-out conflict. But he imagined now, as they trudged through the muddy ground in the trees under the heavy rain, that maybe this was something like Vietnam. Maybe this was how it was, to be at war surrounded by water and leaf, tree and mud. And he realized that it was not better. It was different, and that was all. War was war. And however you looked at it, wherever you stood—in desert sand or muddy jungle—war was bullshit.
“Bagged us a cheetah,” Ketchum said with gusto. He brought himself back to the moment. “Add that to the running tally. What’s next, Siberian tiger?”
Ketchum talked tough in front of the guys—just who he was. But when he looked into the face of the dead cheetah and saw the one remaining eye, he remembered the boy’s eyes. That look of raw shock, of betrayal, the look that asked, Why are you shooting me when I spared you? A look he didn’t even think was real, not one that he saw with his own eyes, anyway. But he couldn’t be sure. Is it something I saw for a split second, or just something imagined that I’ll remember for years? Does it make a difference?
The dispatcher came over the Sheriff’s radio. “Roscoe?”
“What is it, Delores?”
“Lions spotted in the city, north side. And a woman reported missing, no body found.”
“Send Tom and Toby.”
“They’re already downtown with Morris on another call. Some giant cat—weren’t sure whether it was a tiger or a lion.”
“All right.” Roscoe looked at the men. “Jackson, you think you’ll be able to find the other tiger?”
“Not sure, but I can keep trying.”
“Good.” Roscoe nodded. “How you doing, Ketchum?”
“Just dandy.” Ketchum cracked a smile. “Ready to shoot me a Siberian.”
“All right.” Roscoe put a hand on Ketchum’s wet shoulder. “You two stay here and see if you can track down the Siberian. Leland, Chuck, why don’t we go look for those lions.”
They agreed. Roscoe, Leland and Chuck wished Ketchum and Jackson luck and headed forward in the direction of the car. Tom and Toby and Morris must have been downtown by now, hunting the urban jungle for a giant cat. It wasn’t long after they split up that Jackson found the remains of a monkey in the muddy brush. Nearby, the imprint of a cat where it had rested in the leaves and dirt, feeding. Then, paw prints.
“At least it already ate,” Ketchum said.
“That’s something,” Jackson admitted. “But not enough to rest easy on. A Siberian tiger is the largest cat in the wild. It can eat a lot of meat. That chimp was just an appetizer.”
“Good to know.” Ketchum made light of the fear that held them together. The leaves made it slippery in the wet mud underfoot. Ketchum wondered whether hunting the Siberian in his natural habitat might be more fitting. To snowshoe through the white terrain in search of the orange-and-black-striped prey.
Ketchum suspected the climate would have its own miseries. Numb fingers and toes. That terrible feeling of cold flesh against metal. Shivers in the frigid air. Rain or shine, sand or mud, snow or clear skies, there seemed no such thing as perfect weather for war.
In the darkness ahead, they heard a rustling of leaves, a deep growl. Eyes reflected the moonlight back to them. They found the tiger. There was no denying the cat’s eyes, boring into him, asking for mercy. The tiger remained in the brush, crouched in a defensive position. The tiger looked confused, unsure, as though all it really wanted was to go home. Ketchum and Jackson readied their assault rifles. Swallowing the gut-wrenching sensation, Ketchum aimed right into the boy’s pleading eyes and fired.
About Eric D. Goodman
Eric D. Goodman is the author of four books, including Tracks: A Novel in Stories (Atticus, 2011) and Womb: a novel in utero (Merge, 2017). “Rain and Pain” is an excerpt from his new novel, Setting the Family Free (Apprentice House, 2019). Learn more about Eric and his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com.