Martin packed two PB&Js and stuffed them into a cooled lunch bag before he threw it in the bed of his pickup truck, alongside two lawn chairs and a duffle bag stuffed with fleece-lined jackets and heavy blankets. It was dark out, far too dark for any sane person to be up and moving about, but Martin figured it was better to show up a few minutes early than to end up late and miss the entire show.
He jumped off the back of the pickup when everything was secure and headed back inside for the most important item of all: his son. Steven was still sleeping, and that was no surprise. He always talked a big game when it came to rising early and starting the day, but if it wasn’t a weekend and there weren’t cartoons on the television, you couldn’t drag him out of bed to save his life.
Which is why Martin didn’t give the boy an option. He just scooped him up out of bed, blankets and all. Steven stirred, looked at him through the sleep in his eyes, and nestled his head into the crook of Martin’s shoulder. He stayed that way until Martin forced him to sit upright in the cab of the pickup long enough to get a seatbelt over his body. By then, Steven found a way to wedge the blankets and a pillow into the corner of the truck and fall asleep sitting upright.
For a minute there, Martin envied the adaptability of the human child. Steven’s body was just short of a liquid state, Martin was sure, able to morph comfort out of any setting as the boy pursued five extra minutes in bed. It was a noble cause, chasing those five minutes. He remembered that from his own youth, after all.
With Steven secure and the gear properly stowed, Martin locked the door to his home, climbed into the car, fired the engine, and set off down the road.
They rode for an hour in near silence, the radio streaming softly in the background. Were he along, Martin would’ve cranked it, but he kept it under control with Steven in the car. The boy’s soft breaths, faint over the rumble of the engine, just barely reached Martin’s ears.
That, for him, was music enough.
Steven woke up when they turned onto a gravel drive and potholes began to assault the vehicle like artillery shells. The truck bobbed and dipped, crashed downward and jostled itself upward again. By the time they reached the parking lot at the end of the lane, Steven had thrown off the blankets and wrapped his hands around the chest strap of the seatbelt, pulling it tight.
“Where are we?”
“Uncle Messi’s place,” Martin said. “You said you wanted to come.”
The boy yawned. “I’m tired.”
“You can rest after we get out there. I’m going to need your help carrying some of the stuff.”
Martin offloaded the truck with Steven standing beside him. He looked the duffle bag over the boy’s shoulders and stuffed Steven’s pillow into the straps. Then, he gathered the lawn chairs and the remaining equipment for himself. When he was prepared, he motioned Steven to follow and started down a dark, winding trail into the woods.
He stopped a few paces in and fished a flashlight out of his pocket. It was a small light, enough to see by and to avoid the spider webs hanging on the trees. Slowing his pace, Martin guided his son through the darkness, toward a clearing a few hundred yards distant.
When they arrived, Martin knelt. “We’re here,” he said. “We have to find a good spot to hide.”
In the even, Martin let Steven pick. The boy selected a spot in the shrubs on the north end of the field. Considering the direction of the wind and their view of the clearing, Martin thought that was a fine choice. He guided his son behind a wall of shrubs and shrugged the lawn chairs off his shoulders. He folded them out, set them on the ground, and stuffed the seating with blankets.
Steven climbed into his chair and let Martin cover him up. The boy’s breathing slowed as Martin took his own seat, a spotting scope in one hand and a coffee mug in the other.
The minutes ticked by. Somewhere in the distance, an owl called. Slowly, the sky began to brighten, and the dark field before them began to take shape int he predawn light. Dew glittered on the high grass, the world around standing still at the cusp of first light.
Keeping his head low, Martin peeked out toward the fringes of the field. That’s when he saw them: a line of deer trudging into position in the center of the clearing. There were five of them, then eight, then twenty! Buck, doe, and fawn, all of them stepped quietly through the dew-laden grass.
Martin started to wake the boy but hesitated. Ahead of him, the deer found the tall grass and began to graze. The sun came up quickly, illuminating the field with a warm, ethereal glow.
Reaching over, Martin shook his son awake. The boy sat up with a yawn and made to speak. Martin clamped a hand over his mouth before he could do so and put his fingers to his lips. Steven looked at him, shocked, until Martin pointed at the clearing.
“Be quiet,” Martin told him, “or they’ll run away. Stand up — slowly — and take a look.”
The lawn chair creaked as Steven climbed to his feet. He poked his head out over the hedgerow and gasped. Ahead of them, the deer looked up, curious.
“Dad!” Steven said, far too loudly for any quiet morning. “There are deer out there!”
Martin shook his head at the inevitability of the boy’s words. Steven looked at his father, then back out at the deer.
His face slumped as the deer sprinted for the trees and vanished from sight.