Fall Fiction: The Homecoming Part 1
This story of a coastal homecoming begins the hunt for an elusive 8-point that carries with it the road to forgiveness.
The clock on the dash read 12:33 a.m. He took a sip of his cold coffee, and it was just about as cold as the feeling he had about coming back to the old farm. He swore he’d never come home, but 10 years later, he was just 30 miles from his old family farm situated about halfway between Savannah and Brunswick in a sleepy coastal town that was within walking distance of the marsh.
His mind drifted back through the years to when his dad was still alive. He could remember when he was 9 years old and how that first 4-point felt like a trophy and how his dad’s smile seemed to stretch across that cotton field that cold November morning. There were so many good memories on that property, but as usual, his mind went back to the accident, and just like always, Mike pushed it out of his mind.
As he pulled into the hotel parking lot off I-95, he was ready for some sleep and a chance to forget the bad memories.
• • • • •
At 6:30 the next morning, 30 minutes before his alarm was set to go off, Mike was awakened by a frantic knocking on his hotel door. He wasn’t alarmed in the least. There was only one nut case that could beat on a door like that, his old buddy Keith. As he opened the door, he was greeted with a hug that a bear would envy and then tackled to the hotel floor.
“I thought you were going to call me last night when you got in,” Keith chuckled.
“I was, but I figured you’d be asleep,” Mike replied.
“Asleep? I have hardly slept for days, not since you said you were coming back,” Keith grinned. “I want you to look at these pictures I got on the trail camera last week. You’re going to love this.”
As he handed him his phone, the first picture he looked at nearly took his breath away. It was a great picture of a tall and very wide 8-point buck with a body that looked to go 250 pounds.
“There’s no way this is the same deer that dad…”
“You’re right,” Keith fired back. “But I’m almost certain it’s his son. This deer looks identical and is probably 5 or 6 years old. You just don’t see 8-pointers—especially with bodies like that—around here that big, period!”
“When did you get this picture?” Mike asked.
“That’s the funny thing, I’ve never gotten any pictures of him until the other day when you told me you were coming back home. It’s crazy, it’s like he came back when you did.”
• • • • •
Mike’s father Joe Smith was a legend in the small town of Cottondale. Even years after his passing, no one had forgotten him. He was a great farmer, with crops that stood twice as tall as anyone else’s along the coast. It seemed that it caused the deer on his farm to be twice as large, not only in rack size but also in body weights.
What he really was known for was the father he had been to Mike. When Mike was 2 years old, his mother lost her battle with cancer. Joe never missed a beat, becoming both parents to his young son. His whole life had been dedicated to raising that boy. He did just that, and three days after his son’s 18th birthday, he had no clue he wouldn’t be able to do it anymore.
Early that morning, he climbed up up a straight pine, and when he turned around to sit down, it came unattached from the tree. Twenty-five feet down the tree, he was instantly killed.
Somehow, when his son Mike hung the climbing stand around the tree a couple weeks before, he hadn’t secured the bolt completely through the hole. It was a terrible accident that cost Mike the only parent he had.
• • • • •
As the dew grew heavier in the night sky, the big buck cautiously bent down to eat some of the corn that Keith had put out two days before. The wise buck could smell the hunter like he was still there. He knew the smell of the hunter meant danger, but he also knew under the cover of darkness his odds of survival increased. Still every time the wind whispered or a twig snapped, the buck was on alert. He had quickly learned early in life that if he was going to survive, he would have to get smart, smart like the buck that fathered him. After all Joe Smith had hunted his father every chance he got, and after Joe’s death, no hunter ever managed to harvest him, and he died a peaceful death from old age. The grand 8-point buck was almost identical in rack and body size to his father. His large muscular body dwarfed any deer around.
• • • • •
It was hard not to smile as they drove by Mike’s childhood home. There were so many great memories there. As usual, the bad managed to crush the good. Part of him was a sad he had sold the old farm house, even though he knew he could never live there again. He had kept the 200 acres and leased the hunting and farming rights to Keith and his family. Something deep inside wouldn’t let him sell the property. As he turned off his truck, he didn’t even know if he could get out.
“You coming or what man?” Keith asked.
“Yeah give me just a second. I’m just taking everything in… it’s been awhile.”
It took all he had to open the truck door. As he stepped out, he realized he was back, and in a way it felt pretty darn good.
“Come check this out,” Keith yelled.
As Mike walked up, it almost took his breath away. On a sand pine as big around as a cross tie was the nastiest, most violent rub he had ever seen. The ground next to the tree was destroyed.
“From that buck?” Mike asked.
“Oh yeah,” Keith said. “This is all him, and he means business. Look that way.”
As Mike looked behind the tree, he couldn’t believe it. There was a path of destruction every few trees as far as he could see. This buck wasn’t marking his territory; he was begging someone to try and take what was his.
“That’s crazy, man,” Mike said. “And y’all have never gotten any pictures of him before?”
“No, that’s what I was telling you. Never! It’s like he showed up for you.”
Mike sensed that Keith was heading somewhere with all of this, and right as he was about to ask, Keith blurted out, “I want you to hunt him. I know your old man would want you to.”
“No way,” Mike replied. “It’s not happening. I just can’t do it.”
“Look man, I’ve been coming and seeing you in the big ATL for the past 10 years,” said Keith. “You haven’t even been able to make yourself come home. And now you’re here. Something made you come back. Your dad would want you to do this, and you know it. I’m not going to say anything else, but at least think about it.”
As Keith finished speaking, Mike noticed something shimmering in the bushes a few yards away. As he walked over to it, he noticed it was an Altoids can, the same kind his dad used to love. And it was full.
“When did you become a litterbug?” he asked Keith.
“I haven’t,” Keith replied.
A full can… Mike thought. He put it in his pocket and headed for the truck.
• • • • •
Back at the hotel a million thoughts were running through Mike’s mind. Part of him wanted to run away again, but he really had nowhere to run. The main reason he had come back was because of the mess he had made of his life since his dad’s death. On the outside, his life didn’t appear so bad. He had managed to get a college degree from the University of Georgia and land a good job at a bank in Atlanta. At home, his life was a disaster. Early on in college, he developed the horrible habit of trying to drink away the pain of losing his father. As each year passed, his drinking problem only worsened. His life had become an inescapable prison. He had few friends, but every girl he tried to date never stuck around once they saw the real Mike. His life was in ruins.
Lucky for him, God intervened and his life was changed. One Tuesday night he had been invited by a co-worker to a revival. Sitting in the pew, Mike realized he was a hopeless sinner who couldn’t save himself. He finally understood that all the money and alcohol in the world would never fill the void he was trying to fill himself. And on that night, he confessed his sin and turned to Jesus as his Lord and Savior. After turning his life over to God, he had been sober for about six months, and his life was slowly getting back together.
The pain still lingered, though. He just couldn’t forgive himself for what he had caused to happen to his father. It’s like no matter what he tried or thought, he just couldn’t let it go.
Glancing at the hotel clock, it was already 7:30 p.m., and he realized he had been sitting on his bed for two hours, his mind wandering aimlessly. He remembered he still had to go to Walmart and pick up a few things. Grabbing his keys, Mike opened the door and stepped out into the still, hot, evening sun.
• • • • •
The old buck’s stomach growled with anticipation. He hadn’t eaten all day. It was just too hot to move about. The August heat was almost unbearable. Temperatures for the last week had exceeded 95 degrees, and the usual coastal breeze had disappeared, making it hard for the buck to go about his essential activities. As he bent down to drink from the stream a few yards from his bed, he could see the sun beginning to descend, and he knew it was a matter of time before he could feast in the nearby agricultural field.
• • • • •
Walking through the local Walmart, it didn’t take Mike but a few minutes to run into several familiar faces. As he worked his way through the store picking up more things he didn’t really need, a familiar voice stopped him dead in his tracks.
“I can’t believe you walked right by me without even speaking.”
It was his old high-school sweetheart, Brandy.
“I promise I didn’t even see you over there,” Mike replied.
“It must have been all this camouflage in the sporting goods section that hid me so well,” Brandy smiled.
He laughed and said, “I didn’t even look that way.”
“Well back in the day you would have seen me over here. It used to take me hours to drag you away from all the hunting stuff,” she said.
They stared at each other for a few seconds.
“With you living in Atlanta for the past 10 years, you must have a wall full of those big Fulton County bucks,” Brandy said.
“Actually, I don’t. I haven’t hunted since I left Cottondale,” Mike said quietly.
“I never thought I would have seen the day when you didn’t hunt,” she said.
As they continued talking, Mike couldn’t help but think Brandy hadn’t changed a bit. Maybe it was her T-shirt, jeans and camo ball cap. Her dark brown hair and green eyes went together perfectly and greatly complimented her petite frame. And that smile of hers could stretch to Alabama. After a few more minutes, they said their good-byes, and each headed on their way.
As Mike walked off, he had no clue why he had blown it with Brandy all those years before. She had been there for him through thick and thin when his dad died, but like everything else in his life, he just ran away and never looked back. She had tried to reach out to him for months after he left town, but eventually she had given up trying.
• • • • •
Lying in his hotel bed that night, he couldn’t help but think of Brandy and wished that he would have talked more. It didn’t matter though. She probably had moved on with her life anyhow. At 28, he figured a pretty girl like her had long settled down and started a family. So as he pushed the thought of her out of his mind, he drifted off to sleep. His sleep was interrupted by a strange dream.
Mike was walking through the woods following his father. Suddenly his dad dropped his Altoids peppermint can. When Mike bent over to pick it up, he woke up. It was crazy. It was like his dad was trying to tell him something. He laid there for at least another hour before he quit trying to analyze the dream and managed to fall back asleep.
• • • • •
The next morning it was time for Mike to get busy. He was going to need a place to live if he was going to stick around. The hotel he was staying in was nice, but it reminded him of his Atlanta apartment, and that was just plain depressing. His first stop was at a local mobile home dealership. It didn’t take long for him to find a new three bedroom, two bath home he liked. When the salesman asked what kind of financing terms he was interested in, he informed him it would be a cash deal. Money was about the only problem Mike didn’t pile up over the years. Between his inheritance from his father and his own savings while he was in Atlanta, he was pretty well off.
After finding out his home would be moved the following week, the next thing Mike needed to do was find the place on his land he wanted to put it. As his stomach growled, he realized he needed to find some food first. As he approached Gram’s restaurant, he couldn’t resist the urge, so he turned in. Gram’s was one of those hometown restaurants that were forever stuck in time. In was sort of like using a time machine to go back to 1960, the year it was built. All the tables and chairs were old and faded, and most everything in the place could use a good dusting. Antiques and deer mounts hung from the walls with no particular respect for design.
Mike took a seat at his table and ordered some sweet tea.
“You just gonna eat by yourself?”
It was Brandy.
“It looks like. What about you?” Mike replied.
“Not anymore. Food this good is too good to eat alone,” she smiled.
So as they waited for their food, the two joked and caught up. Mike couldn’t stand it anymore, so he asked, “Are you married or anything?”
“No. Are you interested in applying for the job?” she joked.
“Uhh, I was just wondering. I’ve been gone for so long,” Mike replied.
“Well what about you? No city girl from Atlanta?”
“No,” Mike said softly.
And with that the conversation turned. They chatted easily, from this to that, and Mike felt a familiar comfort from Gram’s fried pork chop plate. And from talking with Brandy.
• • • • •
Forty minutes later after a great meal that ended with an even better hug from Brandy, Mike was on his way to the farm to locate a place for his mobile home to go. As he turned in by the old cypress pond, he figured it would be the perfect place. His dad had always said he wished he would have built his house in front of the pond. He always talked about how it would be nice in the winter to watch the mallards buzz in every morning while he enjoyed his coffee.
Mike spent the next half hour putting out orange flags to mark the location for his mobile home. What he didn’t realize was that he was being watched from 60 yards away. The old 8-point buck was frozen in the summer grass under the shaded live oaks. He heard the truck enter the field, but he knew from experience that his best move was to not move. So as Mike moved about, the buck laid low, but prepared to bolt at anytime.
As Mike fired up his old Ford truck and turned out on the main road, the buck licked his nose and raised it in the air. All human danger was gone.
• • • • •
Mike was headed down the country road when he saw blue flashing lights coming up behind him. He pulled over, not knowing what exactly he had done wrong. As he saw the officer getting out of his car, his worries turned to laughter. It was Keith, who evidently had nothing better to do. As he walked up to the window, Keith said, “You been out here on the property scouting for that big buck haven’t you?”
“No, actually I was marking the spot for my new mobile home. Don’t you have to have a reason for pulling me over?” Mike joked.
“I do. You still haven’t changed your tag. It says Fulton County, and that’s a major violation on the coast.”
“You gonna give me a ticket?”
“No, but only if you come shoot your bow with me this afternoon.”
“I don’t even have a bow anymore. Isn’t this blackmail or something?”
“I’ve got one you can use. I will see you out at the range around 6.”
Mike couldn’t help but smile as he drove down the road. Despite the pain of coming back, it was good to be back around old friends. And though he felt like he could never hunt again, there was a part of him that wanted to.
Could he ever overcome the pain of losing his dad the way he did and truly enjoy life as a hunter again? He doubted it, he really doubted it.
Mike pulled up to the old archery range and immediately realized Keith was running late as usual. He should have known not to be on time. As he waited, he decided to take a look around. He remembered how he worked with his dad to build the range. His dad came up with the idea after Mike lost several arrows in one afternoon. His dad always did things right, and with the backstop behind these targets, the only way to lose an arrow now was to turn and shoot the other way.
Fifteen minutes had passed and still no Keith. Then all of the sudden a strange feeling came over Mike. It felt like he wasn’t alone, almost like someone was watching him. Feeling more than a little weirded out, Mike went back to his truck to grab his phone to find out where his buddy was.
After several unanswered rings and leaving a voicemail, Mike got back out of his truck with that weird feeling still present. As he turned around, movement caught his eye 75 yards to his right. Through the palmettos, he could barely make out what looked to be a man staring straight at him. It was just a clump of moss and limbs, he decided. A few minutes later he looked back, and it… he… was still there. It almost looked as if he was wearing overalls.
The dark shade and Spanish moss that hung down was playing tricks on his eyes, or was it?
“Who’s there?” Mike hollered.
It almost seemed like the shape eased behind a tree and disappeared.
Mike walked over there, a thousand thoughts running through his mind. Was it Keith messing with him? Was it a trespasser?
At the tree, there was no one. Mike looked down in the base of the old oak and saw one of the first arrows his dad had ever bought him struck in the tree. It was weathered badly, and as he grabbed it, it broke off in the tree.
Mike stood in the middle of the live oak flat, looking around and wondering what had just happened. He headed back up toward his truck with the broken arrow in his hand.
Keith was pulling up.
“Hey man… I told you I had a bow for you. Figured you knew I had arrows, too,” Keith laughed.
But the look on Mike’s face told Keith he had been shaken.
“There was a man standing over there in overalls watching me. When I called out to him, he disappeared behind a tree. I went over there and found this old arrow. One of mine.”
“There shouldn’t be anybody back in here. We’ve never had the first problem with trespassers,” said Keith.
Two minutes later they were standing at the tree where Mike had seen the man in overalls.
“There’s the other part of the arrow I broke off in the tree,” Mike pointed.
Keith said, “I’m trying not to doubt what you saw, but it doesn’t make sense. If someone was standing here, there should be boot prints in all this mucky mud. All I see is your prints.”
“I know you think I’m crazy, but there was a man standing right here in overalls,” Mike snapped back.
“Overalls? The only person I ever knew who wore overalls was your dad.”
The men locked eyes. Then Keith looked to his right. He said with a trembling voice, “Mike, you need to take a look at this.”
Mike turned his head. He could not believe his eyes.
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