Short Story: The Fee

The Fee

Dan stepped up to the shop-window of Midtown hardware store to stare at the white sign posted there. Its black lettering read out “Hunting Licenses, Inquire Within.” The few passersby that trudged along the damp street seemed not to notice his hesitation, but he glanced this way and that, fearful of suspicion on him.

Midtown was small, enough that Dan’s wife would learn he’d bought the license if the wrong people saw him now. Once a rest-stop for the nearby lumber-industry truckers, Midtown had grown in recent years, but still adhered to an almost, “old-west” mentality– especially when it came to gossip. Dan’s wife wasn’t a gossiper, but all her friends were. And she did, in fact, have a mean right hook– especially when drinking.

In a place like Midtown, drink was the national pass-time.

It wasn’t that Anna was mean, at least that wasn’t her intention. But she’d grown-up with seven brothers, all boxers and loggers. What was a girl to do but learn to fight, survive? Unfortunately for Dan, her softness for creatures of all kinds never extended to him– especially when drunk.

He heaved a heavy sigh. He had to do it, save the last scrap of his manhood, his dignity. She could “lecture” him all she wanted, but he was going to do it. He would hunt, and he would kill– if only to feel like a man, and if only for one moment in his entire life.

His shoulders slumped as he cast strained glances up and down Main-street’s antiquated storefronts. The haze of drizzle made good cover from any distant on-lookers, no-one close enough to have seen his face yet.

He steeled his nerves, “Now or never.”

With one, smooth motion, he side-stepped for the door and pushed it open.

The hardware store’s bell clanged before the few, meager aisles that comprised its center. Racks of hand-tools, power tools, and all manner of screws, bolts, and other assorted fasteners filled the place. Even still, everything was for small repairs, Dan’d had to special-order everything when he rebuilt the roof. Anna was never so energetic as when lecturing him then. “It’s too expensive!” “Can’t ya’ fix it yerself?” But Midtown was a stop on a road, never meant to house more than it had. Everything had to be special-ordered, even the water was piped in from the logging-camp’s rivers– at a high premium, too.

Dan chose the center aisle, rubbernecked his way along it to the rear of the store. He liked the center aisle, the far end-caps had the clearance section; mostly old things that had never sold. The items themselves were never quite as useful as he’d hoped, but even Anna couldn’t argue about a solid deal. Today though, he ambled right past them, straight to the “sporting goods” counter.

He chuckled to himself; sporting goods? It was never more than a few, old, double-barrel twelve-gauges used to keep the bears out of the trash cans. You could still smell their fresh powder on Monday morning after being used all weekend. On any normal day, Dan would’ve never considered purchasing one; they were too expensive– marked up, they called it– and Anna’d have his head for wasting the money. But today, he stopped at the counter and stared up.

The withered walnut was near-on the same hue as the old steel, but even a fool knew these guns still held their lead. They could scare off a grizzly with their bark, and if you got real lucky, might even take one down. They were perfect.

He leaned over the counter, glanced up and down the back of the store. The “ring bell for service” sign was faded, tattered, laminated to the top of the glass counter above all the ammunition, and right below an old bell.

Dan stiffened his neck, puffed out his chest, and slapped a hand down on the bell. It clanged with a higher tone than the door’s, rang twice as long in Dan’s ears. Shuffled steps of the ancient Jack Rower, one of the first to settle Midtown, and the hardware store’s owner, made their slow scuffs toward the back wall.

Jack was hunched, or so they called it, and he supported himself along the back wall, all the way to the counter’s edge. A cleared spot in the “merchandise” had been rubbed black and yellow from the corner of the store to the gun rack; the testament to Jack’s ever-present posture.

“Ah, Danny boy,” Jack said as his hands shifted from the wall to the counter. He groped along it to stand in front of Dan, “How ‘ya been?”

“Alright, Jack. Alright.” Dan said, his shoulders slumping once more.

“How’s life with the wife?” He asked with his trademark, gravel throat.

“Same as usual, Jack.”

“Well, ‘ya know what they say; you can’t win ’em all.” He chuckled himself into a coughing fit. It took a moment to recover, “Ah hell, so what can I do ‘ya for?”

Dan’s head made a small tilt sideways, “You still sell those licenses?”

Jack’s face scrunched together like a sad, old bulldog, “Sure, sure. Just sold a pair last week to Rick ‘n his wife. Some kinda’ feud ’bout who’d get the bigger kill. Guess they’d decided to settle it the ol’ fashioned way– money where the mouth is and all that.”

Dan nodded, he knew Rick and his wife, Laura. She was what they called a home-wrecker; a big-city word for whore. By the time she married she’d gone through just about every man but Jack, Rick, and himself. Jack was too old even then, and Dan’d been married too long, but damned if Rick didn’t shack up with her anyhow. Dan’d see her car most nights off route-seventy-one, at the big truck stop with the franchise restaurant in it. Whether hooking or waitressing, she was usually working over time.

“Guess ol’ Rick finally called her bluff, eh?” Dan said. Jack just nodded.

There was a moment where their eyes met, and something between them seemed to be understood without words. That was one of the nice things about Jack, he’d been ’round so long he didn’t need words sometimes. Dan wanted to be like that some day, but it wouldn’t be today. Today, he was buying a license.

“Well Jack, the sign says “inquire within,” and I’m inquirin’,” Dan said.

The sad bulldog face scrunched even further, almost to a point where Jack’s eyes no longer showed through. It bobbed up and down in a nod.

“Well, you know the rules then,” Jack replied as his eyes reappeared. “Gov’ment says you get one a year, you bag any more’n that you get the big house.”

“One’s all I need, Jack,” Dan said.

He just wanted to feel like a man, if only for once in his entire life.

The small bobs began again, then broke off as Jack spoke, “Fee’s five hundred dollars ‘nless you want one’a these boomers you been eyin’.”

“Can I borrow it from ‘ya?”

Jack’s mouth half-lifted, “For ‘n extra, hundred, so long’s you get it back to me after the hunt.”

“Six hundred square then,” Dan said, reaching into his pocket.

He counted out five hundreds, then an extra for the gun, most of it in fives and tens. It’d taken him years to save up the money, but he wasn’t sad to see it go in the least. He’d feel like a man for once in his life, and no amount of money’d ever be too much for that. Anna could lecture him all she wanted, but he was going to hunt.

Jack slid a bright, white piece of paper across the counter filled with a bunch of blank lines and a government seal in the corner.

“Fill this’n out, ‘n I’ll print the license,” Jack said.

Dan took his time, made his writing real neat. In his little way, he wanted the government to know he’d be a man, even if only for a moment. When he was finished, he gave a scrawl of cursive at the bottom while an old printer groaned and squeaked a harsh, mechanical cacophony. It was music to Dan’s ears.

Jack slid one of the shotguns out of the rack, set it on the counter with careful hands. He reached through the open-back and pulled out a box of twelve-gauge shells, set it aside.

He gave Dan a stern look, “Now you ain’t never been huntin’ before, so I’ll tell you somethin’ my wife told me– god rest her soul.” Dan listened, he knew this was important, and listening to other men about hunting was a man thing to do. Jack eyed him, “Show ’em no fear, but you show ’em respect. They’re prey, ‘n you’re the hunter. It’s about respect, ‘n if you ain’t huntin’ with honor, you might as well not be huntin’ at all.”

Dan’s mouth stiffened, he gave a nod. He understood honor, and he wouldn’t be the tarnish on a steel tradition.

Jack added, “You lock eyes with ’em, ‘n you tell ’em without words that you’re the hunter, ‘n you’re givin’ em a chance to escape. ‘N you do, Danny. Don’t you ever take that away from your prey– that’s the respect part.”

Dan understood.

As he exited the shop, he no longer feared being seen, but just as well the rain had picked up, and the sky’d darkened. It was a good day for hunting.

He followed the sidewalk to his rusted-out pick-up, climbed inside, and set the gun on the seat beside his license. He was nearly there. He’d didn’t care about the limit, bagging one was all he needed, all he wanted. He thirsted for it all the way home; he’d clean-up first, then he’d show Anna he was a man by hunting.

He was so focused he didn’t even notice Carl in his shiny SUV cruiser sitting at the top of the hill. He blew right past him at near-sixty, gave himself a start when Carl’s lights and sirens blared after him. He pulled to the right like he’d been told, and Carl– recognizing the truck– sauntered straight up to the window without a care in the world. He hitched up his pants, and leaned against the truck while Dan rolled down the window.

Carl pinched his trooper-hat upward with a pair of fingers, “Dan-boy? That’chu? What’chu thinkin’ goin’ so fast down this road in the rain? You coulda’ been kill’t.”

“Suppose I wasn’t Carl. Damned if I’m not a little off today,” Dan admitted.

“Uh-huh.” Carl gave a shifty look through the truck’s cab, “That one’a Jack’s ‘ol boomers in there?”

“Yes’sir,” Dan handed over the license. “Picked me up a license too. Goin’ huntin’ today.”

Carl’s hat sank back to his head with a few nods. He read over the license, “Jack give ya’ the rundown?”

“You bet.”

Carl squinted an eye sideways, “You sure ’bout that, Dan?”

“Look ’em in the eye.”

Carl gave another nod, handed the license back, “Well good huntin’ then, Dan-boy, ‘n slow ‘er down.”

“Will do, Carl.” Dan said, his arm making fast circles to roll up the window.

He watched Carl turn around behind him and disappear up the hill, then pulled away.

The rest of the ride home was usual, and Dan kept a close eye on his speed. The hills rose and fell and the truck groaned and wheezed, but he made it to his muddy driveway in the forest without any complication. When the truck came to a stop next to Anna’s old Bronco, he left the shotgun inside and hurried in with muddy boots to get cleaned up. Anna was boozed out and focused on the television, didn’t even notice him walking in. It was fine by him, she’d know soon enough.

He cleaned himself and shaved up in front of the medicine cabinet, and when it was time, he put on his best pair of camouflage pants and his cleanest, brown shirt. He made his presence known in the living room with a rap on the wall.

“Anna, honey, I got somethin’ to show ya out in the truck,” he said, perking up her ears.

“What is it, ‘nother limp dick? Already got one’a those, ‘n I don’t wanna’ see it anyhow.”

“I think you’ll like this,” he said.

He knew she wouldn’t, even before she grumbled up off the couch and followed him with begrudging mumbles. She griped about the rain wetting her house shoes, and the way the roof repairs looked, and the way the old log-cabin seemed to slump like Dan’s shoulders. Dan didn’t mind, he led the way to the truck, threw open the door, and fished for the license on the seat. She stopped short, nearly hit by the door, and growled booze-stench at the air.

He handed over the license, “I got me one.”

Her eyes took a moment to focus on the words, as Dan leaned back into the truck. He fished for the box of shells, snatched two out. The words took shape in Anna’s in mind as her face tumbled toward rage. He straightened from the truck, shotgun and shells in either hand, and shouldered the door shut.

Anna’s eyes flitted across the license again and again, fury rising behind them. Dan broke the barrel of the boomer, dropped the shells in, then snapped them back together. He held the shotgun in one hand, pinched the license in another, and slid it away from Anna. He shoved into a pocket with a step back.

Her eyes lingered on nothingness for a moment, rage building like a steam-whistle ready to scream. They rose up at Dan’s eyes beyond the raised barrel of the shotgun.

Old Jack’s words were in his head now; “You lock eyes with ’em, ‘n you tell ’em without words that you’re the hunter, ‘n you’re givin’ em a chance to escape. ‘N you do, Danny.

Anna’s hands fell, clenched into fists.

“Don’t you ever take that away from your prey– that’s the respect part.”

Her body poised to attack.

“…you get one a year…”

She shrieked something so high it made Dan’s ears hurt.

“One’s all I need…”

He felt the double-hammers go down under his thumb, waited just long enough to see the start of Anna’s lunge.

The squeeze of both triggers at-once nearly broke his shoulder, but it was enough.

He’d given her the chance, and she’d seen it. Anna’d seen the hunter offer his prey an out, but choose to fight. In that moment, Dan was a man– if only for that moment.

Something no-one’d ever told Dan about hunting was not to pull both triggers at once. His shoulder sure did hurt, and digging the grave didn’t make it any better. It hurt so much, he’d even have to wait to build her a cross. No matter, tomorrow morning he’d go to pick up some nails and return Jack’s boomer.

He’d paid his fee, and if only for a moment, he got to feel like a man and hunt.

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