Nanook had been missing for three days before anyone noticed. The lanky, blonde German shepherd mix usually lounged on the stumpy brick wall that bordered the curve of the driveway, but the wall had been dogless since Tuesday. The owner, Mr. Veenstra, had six dogs excluding Nanook: an old brown chow who surveyed the others from the porch, a black mutt with a curled tail and a whitening muzzle, a black pitt bull mix who lacked most of her teeth, another pitt bull mix whose testicles bounced like two water balloons when he ran, a dachshund with a snout almost as long as her body, and a wire-haired Chihuahua that resembled a miniature werewolf. The latter two Mr. Veenstra had kept inside, purchased for his granddaughter before the custody hearing, but once the two-year-old had left with her mother, he'd set the dogs outside and shut the door.
Makayla Smalling and her mother Tonya rented the five-room house next to Mr. Veenstra. Makayla, who felt the summer before sixth grade was passing more quickly than the emerald dragonflies that buzzed past her head, spent each daylight hour outdoors, mostly on Mr. Veenstra's side of the fence. He had twenty treed and brambled acres that Makayla dreamed of owning someday, when she no longer had to follow her mother from city to suburb to the rural farming community. She kept mulit-colored biscuits, which her mother bought for $1.50 at Dollar General, stuffed in her knapsack to give the dogs each time she crossed the fence. The old chow, whom she called Bear, never budged from the front porch, but the other dogs greeted her every morning at the fence with wagging tails. Nanook was her favorite. She'd read a story in her 5th grade reading book about poachers that killed nanooks, the Inuit word for polar bears, and liked the way the word rolled in her mouth almost as much as the shepherd mix liked rolling on dead moles. Nanook.
But Nanook was gone. Makayla, standing in the midst of one less wagging tail on Mr. Veenstra's side of the fence, knew who to blame. Mrs. Kirkham, a leathery old widow, owned twelve acres on the other side of Mr. Veenstra and at least two dozen Cornish chickens that roosted in her barn, the same place she kept an old Remington 740. When the gun boomed, another chicken-shredding animal disappeared. Makayla had never met her, but she'd overheard an argument between the old widow and Mr. Veenstra from her hiding place in the bush, twisted with honeysuckle vines, behind his house.
"I saw that yeller dog of yours ripping up one of my chickens!"
Makayla didn't understand why the widow was upset. She raised the chickens to eat anyway. Makayla pictured the woman, her tight jeans soaked in chicken blood, chasing a headless hen with an ax.
"Then shoot her," Mr. Veenstra said. "I can't afford to pay you."
He shouldn't have said that. Whether he cared about his dogs or not Makayla didn't know, but he shouldn't have given Mrs. Kirkham permission to shoot. Nanook didn't deserve that.
Makayla divvied up the biscuits, dog tails wagging from the smell of the moment, Nanook already forgotten. In the week that Makayla had been with her aunt, Nanook had lived and died. She should have never left.
The air in Mrs. Kirkham's barn was humid, musty, and thick with ammonia. Makayla coughed, stopping up her mouth with her arm and pinching her nose shut. A few chickens, those that hadn't slipped through the hole Makayla had come through, clucked from the hayloft, while along the walls hung rakes, shovels, a tiller, posthole diggers, and a pitchfork, all rusted. She kicked aside the soiled and rotting hay, squeezing between a tractor larger than her mom's old Nissan and the doors, and stopped. The Remington stood propped up in the corner.
Makayla didn't know what she was going to do with the gun once she took it. She'd never held one. If her dad were around, she could ask him how, since using guns were what had put him in prison, but she hadn't seen him since she was six. She couldn't take the gun back home for the same reason. But she could bury it, like Mrs. Kirkham had Nanook.
Makayla stepped toward the corner, the fingertips of her outreaching hand brushing the warm metal. It was heavier than it looked, the slender barrel extending farther than her arms. With one hand gripping the barrel and the other the curved handle, she pulled the rifle off the ground, but the muzzle dipped back down, scratching a line into the hay and dirt as she drug it back to the hole. She squatted, extending a leg outside the barn and slipping through sideways.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Makayla stiffened, hand gripping the butt of the rifle.
"After my chickens?"
She didn't turn to see Mrs. Kirkham, not until she'd drug the gun through the hole and pulled it into her lap. The woman backed up, holding up her hands.
"Watch it, kid!"
Makayla wrapped her arm around the handle and lifted the muzzle to Mrs. Kirkham's abdomen.
"Give me the rifle," the widow said, her throat bobbing like the head of the chicken clucking beside her.
The hen's red eyes blinked, her white meat hidden beneath her feathers. Makayla nudged the muzzle from woman to fowl.
"No." She closed her eyes.
The gun boomed and flew from her hands, kicking her back against the ground. She opened her eyes. The clouds were heavy, full, and dark chicken feathers drifted back to the ground. Makayla smiled and push herself up, but her right shoulder burned with tingles more intense than the ones that invaded her foot when it fell asleep. She leaned onto her left elbow, rising into the barrel that was pointed at her chest.
"You missed," said Mrs. Kirkham. She pointed at the chicken now perched on a tree limb above them. Scattered feathers littered the ground from its flight.
"I can't miss what I wasn't aiming for," Makayla said.
"I saw you aim at that chicken. Don't you lie to me, you little hoodlum. I knew you were trouble the moment you and your mom moved out here. I said to myself, that girl's going to be trouble. And here you are after my chickens."
"I don't care about your stupid chickens." She kicked Mrs. Kirkham in the shin, grabbed the gun that fell from the woman's hand, and rolled to her feet.
It was difficult to run with the gun dragging behind her, her right arm unable to pump and propel her forward, and she didn't make it very far, just to the hill that began her mother's property, before Mrs. Kirkham caught up with her. Makayla repositioned the barrel to face the widow.
"Do you know how much trouble you're in?" Mrs. Kirkham hobbled back, hands by her head. "When I call the cops, they're going to come lock you up. Take you away from your mommy and your pretty white cat. And won't your mommy be so sad at what a horrible daughter she has?"
She could shoot her. Nobody would miss her. Not like Makayla missed Nanook. She raised the muzzle to Mrs. Kirkham's head, winced, and lowered it to the widow's chest. It was easier to aim sitting down. Makayla's leg stung, and she flinched. Beside her, a colony of fire ants had built a scale Indian mound over a patch of dandelions.
She smiled. "Not if I don't shoot anybody."
With her left hand and foot, she rammed the barrel of the gun into the anthill, stirring the swarm of insects that rose to the surface to repair its home. She let go as the ants ascended the muzzle and ran, wiping a few of the stray ants from her burning legs.
Mrs. Kirkham yelled after her. "I see you down here again, and I'll call the cops!"
But Makayla was already halfway up the hill. She didn't look back.