Chapter Four: A Welcome Surprise

Dad just completely blew our minds this afternoon.
One of the hardest adjustments we’ve had to make through of all this is our shifting concept of time. Billy and I used to have structure in our lives. Each day was basically a series of carefully plotted points on a timeline—our lives neatly mapped out from soccer practice to soccer practice, from band rehearsal to band rehearsal.
Now? Well, now we have what feels like an eternity in every day.
But that doesn’t mean we’ve lost our structure. We harvest edibles every single day. Mushrooms, ferns, berries. Dad keeps us busy with lessons that he plans for us each week. We study history and science, and he gets a real kick out of coming up with new ways to teach us geometry. I write about what’s happening here in this journal, and I know that he looks over it when he finds the time (love you, Dad—stop lurking!).
And we’re always on the lookout for food, fuel, and ammunition. That never changes. It’s always there, in the back of our minds…
And so the time just kind of spins out there—our days governed by the sun and the moon and the stars, and not the watches on our wrists.
Only, it turns out that Dad’s still been keeping track.
Today, he sent me and Billy out on the prowl. That’s what he calls it—“the prowl.” It’s basically our little scavenger trips into the woods for food. We brought back the usual amount, taking only what we needed for the next few days, always mindful that we would need more soon.
And we found something really special, but more on that later.
We’ve grown really lean, Billy and me. We’re kind of bordering on skin and bones, but not in a bad way.  We’re stronger now than we’ve ever been—our muscles stretching long, our skin tight on our frames. Our bodies are waaay more efficient, you see, and we can go pretty deep into the woods when we’re out on the prowl. Today, we hiked from about two hours past dawn until well into the afternoon. I think we probably covered at least twenty miles, all told. That’s just a guess, but we went all the way to the ninth waterfall. A few more miles and I think we might have caught a glimpse of the old lodge at Multnomah Falls.
So I guess what I’m getting at is that Dad had a lot of time to get things ready.
I should also mention here that ammunition is a really big deal for us. When we high-tailed it out of Portland, Dad had a single box of ammo. Since then, we’ve found the equivalent of four more boxes of working shells for the shotgun. Billy has fourteen bullets for the revolver, all of them dry, but it’s the shotgun that means the most to us.
The shotgun means food. It means protein, if Dad doesn’t miss.
Remember when I mentioned those chickens that we traded for snakebite treatment? Well, Dad had built a little coop early on. We had seven birds—a rooster and six hens. We used the truck to take them from an abandoned hobby farm outside of Eagle Point. They were just about dead, and we nursed them back to health. Dad scavenged the chicken wire from an Ace Hardware in Sandy. He’d built what we thought was a sturdy little home for them, but it didn’t hold. We awoke one morning in early summer to four hens clucking around the yard, clearly agitated. There was a hole in the wire, an explosion of feathers, and that was it.
Whatever had been at them had been efficient. We rebuilt the coop, but there were no more eggs. We ate two, traded the others off, and that was the end of our little farming experiment.
So I don’t have to tell you that protein is at a premium around here.
There are other ways, of course. We eat the fish that Dad and Billy catch in the Sandy River, but with all the rain, the river’s been out of shape for weeks. We haven’t had a fresh steelhead in a month, and any dried fish we put by in the summer is long gone.
We come across the occasional can of protein—a can of chili here, some tuna there. It happens so rarely that we never bank on it. We can’t afford to. No, we have to make our own way, and the ammunition is our best bet in that regard.
Dad has a few slugs, but mostly he has birdshot. He prefers the shot, I think, because he’s not the best shooter, and it’s not like he has the luxury of practice.
So Billy and I went deep, and we did a really good job. We picked red clover and a big batch of fiddleheads. We grabbed some chanterelles and some oyster mushrooms. And then, miracle of miracles, we were near the end of our prowl when Billy found them!
That they were still okay to eat should have tipped me off to the date, because I hadn’t seen huckleberries in about a month. These were a little on the far side of ripe, but gosh they were good all the same! They speckled a big clump of shrubs along the banks of this little cold, clear stream that we hadn’t followed before.
We took as much as we could carry. There was no guarantee that we would find the spot again, and it’s been getting colder every night. I think we’ve been getting down into the thirties lately, and when we have our first major freeze, these little treasures will be lost to us until spring.
Huckleberries are wonderful, by the way—sweet and juicy, with a pleasant tartness to them. Mom used to bake them in muffins, and what I wouldn’t give for one of those right now, with a hot cup of tea and a warm pat of soft butter!
What I wouldn’t give to see Mom again…
But anyway, Billy and me did a good job on our end, and we made the long hike back to the cabin filled with absolute pride. We’d take care of Dad tonight—make him a big mix of greens and some nice boiled mushrooms, with a side of huckleberries. That’s a feast, friends.
And then we smelled it. Oh man, did we ever!
I caught the first whiff about a half mile from the cabin. My stomach buckled. I started drooling (no joke!), and my heart kicked into overdrive. Billy just stopped dead in his tracks. He sniffed the air and a grin lit his face like I hadn’t seen in months.
Protein,” he said. There was a light in his eyes, and I caught a glimpse of the Billy I’d known when were kids—a glimpse of the boy that was so quick to hug his parents and who would spend hours patiently playing with his kid sister.
Not the young man with a gun and fourteen bullets who believed his mother had become a cannibal.
“Protein!” he shouted, and we were off. Running is usually a no-no, except in obvious survival situations. We try to conserve calories—try to balance the needs of our bodies with the energy it takes to keep them running.
But there was no stopping us this afternoon. We tore through those woods, covering that last half mile in record time.
Dad must have sensed us coming, because he was sitting out front when we came down the road and into the little clearing in which our cabin sat.
He was smiling warmly, and it was Dad. I’m talking old Dad—happy Dad. Gosh, I won’t ever forget it for as long as I live. In that moment, it was Dad—all the way, just like he used to be.
He opened his arms and we piled into him for the ultimate family hug.
“What is that?” Billy said. “It smells like…criminy, it’s not chicken is it? Dad, is it…turkey? Is it!?”
Dad laughed. “Bingo, Son,” he said. “I have a surprise for you two. Come on in. I’ve been planning this out. C’mon, Allie.”
I thought he was going to scoop me up into his arms, and I have to be honest—it was all I really wanted in that moment. The sky was gray and the air was cold, and Billy and me were dog tired, but I was so happy right then that I wanted him to pick me up just like he did before I got too big. Instead, he knelt and kissed my cheek and hugged me close, and his whiskers felt soft and warm against my face, and not at all scratchy.
It had been a very good day, and then it just kept getting better.
If we thought the smell was tantalizing outside the cabin, we were in no way prepared for what it was like on the inside. It was a sensory slap to the face, and my salivary glands went nuts.
The rich, unmistakable aroma of roasting turkey hung on the warm air. Dad had set the table, and he walked over and lit a pair of candles.
“So what’d you bring back?” he said, washing up in the water bucket at the sink. We didn’t get the juice back on until about forty minutes ago. I doubt there’s even any warm water yet at the cabin. “Let’s work on some side dishes, eh?”
Billy and I scrubbed our hands and helped him clean the haul. We worked together, shoulder to shoulder, building our feast. We had spices—the cabin had been stocked with a few groceries in its meager pantry—and dad sautéed the mushrooms in a little bit of chicken fat we’d been holding back. We salted the greens and simmered them down in a little bit of stream water before adding the mushrooms and making a kind of dressing.
Dad grinned as he opened the door of the woodstove. A bed of coals had been pushed to one side; on the other, a turkey wrapped in aluminum foil hissed and popped atop a roasting pan. There must have been a half inch of sizzling fat in there. My stomach howled, and Dad and Billy laughed at me.
“Should be ready in a few minutes,” Dad said. “C’mere. Take a look at this.”
With a dish towel, he lifted the top off an old cast-iron stewpot. Inside, cooking down in more chicken fat, were the turkey’s innards. Dad made gravy. Honest-to-goodness gravy!
“I used a few tablespoons of the flour,” he said. It had been the best find in the cabin’s pantry, and we were running really low. “I thought the situation called for it.”
He wasn’t getting any arguments from us. I dunked a finger and tasted it, and I was back home for an instant. It was Thanksgiving, that gravy!
When the turkey was finished roasting, he let it rest for about thirty minutes before carving it into generous portions and ladling gravy over the whole mess. He placed a platter of meat in the center of the table, grabbed the dressing we’d made, and told us to sit down and close our eyes.
I heard him making noise, heard the clinking of glass on glass, and when he told us to open our eyes, we each had a bottle of Yoo-hoo in front of our plates.
“Dad?” I said. “How on earth did you keep all of this a secret?”
As an answer, he pulled a pocket calendar from his sweater. There, circled in bright red magic marker, was the fourth Thursday in November. “It was a secret worth keeping, don’t you think?” he said. We joined hands and bowed our heads.
“Lord, we’re thankful for our unity and health,” Dad said. “We are thankful for a warm home, and for the pleasure of each other’s company, and for this roof over our head. Please see it clear to bring…” his voice caught, just for a moment, “…to bring our Marjorie home to us. We are thankful for our daily hope that she is alive and okay, and that she knows how much we love and miss her. In Your name we pray, amen.”
We concluded our prayer, content merely to hold hands a moment longer in the candlelight. “Happy Thanksgiving, kids,” Dad said. He served us first before piling his plate with food. We toasted with the Yoo-hoos and dug in.
And man…did we ever eat.

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