Preston’s dad was in charge one week of every year, whenever the boy’s mom and her sisters went on their New York trip spent bargaining for sidewalk designer bags. Years later, Preston would see that these weeks served as realizations. At five, after slicing his hand on the sharp of a tin roof, he realized he took his mom’s comfort for granted. At eight, puking up a whole container of chocolate icing and the fish sticks his dad made for dinner, he realized his growing stomach had a limit. Now, at twelve, putting on his little sister’s Sleeping Beauty wig and an old t-shirt he had long since outgrown, he realized he looked like Britney Spears.
A month ago, he hadn’t the slightest idea who that was. Then he’d grown bored of listening to his same Garth Brooks, Keith Urban, and George Strait CD’s and ventured over to his mom’s collection. Preston had done this before. He knew the albums kept on her bookshelf better than the pack of cigarettes she kept hidden one row under. It wasn’t until he flipped through the expected Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, and out-of-place Whitney Houston that something surprised him. Tucked in the back was Oops!…I Did It Again.
Now, with fake blonde hair skirting his shoulders, he admired the album’s cover under his lamp’s bedside light. Tracing the singer’s teenaged body, clad in a brown crop-top and pant pairing, he felt an overwhelming fascination. His eyes locked with her doe-eyed stare, her tight core, her round breasts.
He had been waiting all month for this moment. The thought of him doing this with his mom home, her constant look over a watchful shoulder, wasn’t even imaginable.
He swayed his body over to the door, attempting a strut like the celebrities he had seen on TV. Out of instinct, his arm reached to lock the bedroom door only to remember that the knob had been removed after a pointless dispute between him and his two siblings.
Preston wasn’t bothered. By this time of night, he knew everyone was asleep, except for his dad who was about to be watching a low-budget action movie on the couch.
Carefully placing the CD into the player clipped to his shrunken basketball shorts, he adjusted the headphones over his wig, snaked the cord up through his t-shirt, and pressed play.
After the singer’s first nasally riff just a second in, he felt exhilarated. Before, he could only listen to the music and try to envision himself on the other side of the headphones. This time, he was the other side. He had a discovered a new source of confidence. His wig swung from each side of his face as he bounced his hips to every bubblegum beat. His knees fell to the floor with every drop of percussion. His lips silently moved themselves in synch with every lyric. Trailing his hands up his body all throughout the night, he became Britney.
“We’re going hunting. Put on your brother’s clothes. Your sister and him are with your Grandma.” With that, Preston’s dad walked out of the room.
His confusion broke through the morning exhaustion from last night’s dance and drag. Until now, he had happily watched all but two hunting seasons pass without his participation. Besides that, his dad never asked to spend time together; they completely avoided each other’s company. If left alone together, it didn’t take long for one to excuse himself. However, he knew better than to question his dad and slid out from his covers, stepped into the room adjacent to his, and opened his brother’s closet.
He had just gotten his own room, but he’d shared this one with his brother the past eleven years, so he knew what getting ready entailed.
Long johns were the essential first step and Preston wrestled dangly legs into the tight fabric. What followed was the traditional hunter’s garb: camouflage coat, pants, and toboggan. Grabbing a pair of boots he had never worn from the corner of the closet, he made his way to the laundry room and slipped his feet into the uncomfortable shoes. Their foreignness distracted him from realizing he had no idea how to lace the leather imports. He struggled futilely with the strings, then, looking up with embarrassment’s smile, he briefly met his dad’s eyes.
“Tuck em’ in and meet me in the truck,” said his dad brusquely, walking outside while never looking up from the ground.
The 4×4 picture had been a permanent fixture on the truck’s dash ever since it had been developed. It was an artifact from a rare fishing trip. In it, his dad knelt behind Preston, helping his son hold a still-writhing rainbow trout in his small hands. While Preston had his eyes locked on the fish, his dad looked at the camera wearing a smile big enough for the both of them. There were only two other pictures he knew to exist of his dad smiling, and both were displayed in the living room. One was taken on his second wedding day; the other was taken right after being surprised with a Labrador puppy on his thirty-second birthday.
“Remember that day?” his dad asked, nodding to the picture. He must have noticed Preston looking at it.
“A little bit.”
“Remember your brother crying when you caught a fish before him?”
“That right?” Preston said with stifled laughter. He could feel his dad shuffling options to avoid more silence.
“You like music, don’t ya?”
Before he could provide an answer, his dad interjected with, “I know you do. I haven’t seen you without that CD player since your birthday.”
Preston couldn’t argue with that. For the past month, he had practically been going to sleep with headphones over his ears.
“How about we start sharing CD’s like you and your mom?”
“Okay.” He never knew his dad to avidly listen to music but was curious to see what his picks were.
“Really,” his dad said with a raised pitch. “Yeah, uh okay, let’s just pop one in.”
Anticipation hazed in the car as his dad fished a disk from the console and fed it into the mouth of the stereo. It was erased by the shrill of an electric guitar.
Preston really tried to find joy in the drummer’s percussion and the guitarist’s chords. But when a man started growling lyric, he knew he couldn’t feign excitement. Next to him, his dad was in his element.
“All I listened to was AC/DC when I was your age. You can have it if you like,” his dad said, making a nod to the stereo.
When his dad glanced over, Preston couldn’t even muster a head bob. All he could offer was a curl from the left of his lip and a squint of his eyes as if the growling voices were nails grating themselves on a file.
“You don’t like it?” His dad’s voice deflated. “I guess we can try something else,” he offered turning a knob to find a station in signal.
The short silence between CD to radio seemed monumental. The hot air sputtering out the truck’s heater rose in temperature. The tires’ rolling on the cold road spun faster. His dad’s glance at the 4×4 lasted a second longer.
“-chance of snow with temperatures down in the twenties tonight all throughout the Potomac Highlands.”
Preston felt the snow crunch underneath his feet as he jumped off the rusty tube gate fence. Land once used by his grandad for farming was now repurposed as ground for family hunting. They had to reach the trees ahead.
An open field, formerly belonging to sheep, was the first part of their trek. Covered with a frozen blanket and nestled in front of sprawling forest acres, they were walking on a tundra island.
Looking behind him, he realized his perception of time to be lacking as his dad’s truck was now just a speck of black surrounded by backwoods arctic scenery. He watched its distance grow further until breaking the seal between field and forest as they were removed from the rest of the world. Nothing but trees.
Preston wasn’t sure where each family set up their tree stand, but knew each trunk was marked with neon tape. There should be 4, one for each of his granddad’s children. When his dad stopped at theirs, he hadn’t seen any. He should’ve known his dad would’ve chosen the closest tree. He would make endless laps around the Walmart parking lot looking for the closest spot.
His dad climbed the ladder first, and the hunting rifle on his back finally registered in Preston’s view. He had been taught how to shoot but hated doing it. The deafening sound it created, the violent disruption, the kick in the shoulder.
“Comin’ up?” his dad asked after he dusted the thin layer of snow off the seats.
Topping the ladder, Preston found the stand to be daunting but his dad sat without worry. It wasn’t until he sat down and looked in front of him that he felt at peace
There was a stillness. The snow-capped tree branches froze, paralyzed by the rising sun. The air settled in place around them, only showing its presence through the tufts of hot air escaping from breaths. The birds sat still, occasionally moving their beaks to disrupt the silence with a chirp.
“Ya’ know I love you, right?”
They had just sat down. He must’ve been rehearsing this the entire trip. Preston halted his breathing with a tensed body as he stared into the stillness, waiting for a bird to answer his dad instead. He could only remember his dad telling him those words once before, after receiving a Kindergarten Father’s Day gift of a macaroni-covered picture frame.
“I know I missed out on a lot with you and your brother. I wasn’t there for the soccer games or the birthday parties. For Christ’s sake, I didn’t even see your first steps.”
His dad paused to take a breath, staring out into the stillness. Preston heard the birds listening.
“They had me drivin’ up to Maine, down to Florida. Every day was a new place, but I couldn’t do nothin’ about it. I had to provide for my family.”
Neither of them had made eye contact since mounting the tree stand. Both stares were unmoving, fixed on a different snow-covered spot.
“You never had me ‘round to teach what only a father could teach his son. Your grandad always liked your brother and taught him what I couldn’t, but you had no one.”
Everything his dad said was valid. Preston had yet to experience a strong male presence in his life. He couldn’t relate to them. The men around him liked to hunt, not dance. They listened to Tim McGraw, not Britney Spears.
On the playground, Preston didn’t understand why the boys wanted to get in countless fights on the kickball field after every turn. He wanted to catch helicopters falling from the maples to add in a soup of smuggled cafeteria water and share with the girls in communion.
He didn’t understand why his first male teacher was the first to report his playground preferences, resulting in him having to spend recess standing in the outfield staring at helicopters blown off the nearby trees, no boy making an effort to catch them.
Preston couldn’t pinpoint the cause, but be it the complete stillness around them, the newfound intimacy between them, or the sense of empowerment in their separation from the world, he was invited into the frustrations of his dad. Preston realized he staunchly avoided all of his dad’s expectations. He had overheard conversations in which his dad’s parenting was questioned in acts of concern. Preston gathered that his dad believed his parenting was the root of it all.
Preston finally understood the hunting trip. His dad had seen him become Britney last night and convinced himself that he was the reason behind the transformation.
Suddenly, a twig’s snap broke the stillness. For the first time, Preston shared the same path of vision as his father. A doe stood in the clearing. She nuzzled snow covering the forest floor, foraging for nourishment. Her face remained hidden aside from moments where she’d face the sunlight and blow a glittery mix of steam and snow from her nose.
Preston knew his dad’s rule, and since the doe wasn’t pregnant, although her tight stomach and smooth fur showed her prime age for maternity, she was fair game. In the corner of his eye, he watched the rifle’s butt meet his dad’s shoulder. Preston predicted what came next, catching his dad’s eyes close in thanks to God. Though never admitted, Preston knew another reason behind the prayer was to help his dad gain control over the sudden adrenaline in his system. This was never a strength of his, which is why he would spend all of a minute with closed eyes and deep breaths.
In a window of opportunity, the doe locked her eyes with Preston’s. He had shared stares with deer before, but many were exchanged through windshields on dark drives, the animal’s eyes blinded by headlights and blank of anything but distress. During his two other hunting trips, he had never encountered a similar stare. This stare was wide with innocence and hope. An entire life was ahead of her, and his dad was about to end it.
Before he could stop himself, Preston screamed. And once he started, he couldn’t get the sound from his throat. Preston screamed before he could stop himself, and once he started, he couldn’t get the sound out of his throat. He screamed as the doe sprinted to safety, as the birds piloted from their perch, as the snow powdered off branches shimmering like a shattered disco ball. He screamed until everything returned to stillness.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
He was too scared to face his dad. Once again, he used the corner of his eye in surveillance. Everything was quiet, highlighting his dad’s deep breaths. It stayed that way, until the tree stand got lighter with his dad’s dismount. Preston remained frozen, even when his dad yelled up.
“You comin’, or are you gonna’ sit up there and scream like a girl some more?”
When they had driven through earlier that morning, Franklin was dead. Now, an opening Exxon employee sat outside on a bench hoping nobody interrupted her smoke break. The red eye-sore of a florist van drove to the funeral home delivering roses for an upcoming service. A man in a trucker hat puttered a rusting farm truck into the mechanic’s first job of the day.
Again, out of the corner of his eye, he watched his dad do nothing but steer and stare as songs Preston didn’t know played over the radio. Normally, he would be bored of listening to music he couldn’t bop his head to, but in this moment, he didn’t mind it. It gave him time to think.
What happened in the forest would stay in the forest; he knew that. His dad was ashamed of him, but that shame also trickled into himself. His father didn’t want to provide any more evidence that he raised his son to be as soft as people liked to say. Nobody would know but Preston, his dad, and the birds.
Moving his eyes to look out the window, Preston accepted the shame, knowing there was nothing he could do to change it. As much as he wanted it to, Preston’s dad accepting him wasn’t the same as embracing his difference. It hurt to know the disappointment Preston caused his family, and, as they passed their first herd of cattle marking an exit from Franklin, he still grappled with this pain. Its seed rooted inside him, aged with him, and planted an army of insecurities in his mind.
It wasn’t until he heard a familiar nasally riff surround the truck’s stereo that he felt a flush of relief. That he felt maybe everything would be okay. With closed eyes, Preston leaned his head against the seatbelt and savored every bubblegum beat second. He could feel the sun shining through the window on his face, warm enough to touch his pores. His worries dissipated, and, just in time for the chorus, his troubles were absolved.
Sitting next to his dad, he became Britney.
Ross Liggett is English undergraduate student at West Virginia University. When he isn’t writing, he’s either making a mess in the kitchen or smelling candles at TJ Maxx. He currently lives in Morgantown with his partner and their Shiba Inu, Chihuahua, and tuxedo cat.