Illuminated Dots by Emily Dawson

13-year-old Jack Baker, feeling trapped in rural Montana, seeks adventure, while his father wants to teach him to live off the land; by Emily Dawson

Meth labs dotted the mountainsides and every so often one sent long laces of black smoke into the sky when it exploded. It would be all over the local news and everyone would say, hey, did you hear? Did you see the fire? But after a day or so the excitement waned and the town found something else to talk about. Those who knew they would never escape the valley either settled in and found their niche in a trade or eventually became a meth head or a smurfer. Meth heads were just your regular scab-faced junkies and smurfers were their henchmen, scouting out ephedrine or pseudoephedrine in the drugstores outside of town.

I’d ride my bike into the mountains and hunt for the blown up labs - derelict trailers with newspaper covering the windows, sheds with missing boards, detached garages of abandoned houses - all of them blackened and charred. When I found one, I’d take a small memento from the rubble and add it to the collection in my backpack. I was only thirteen then, but I knew I had to get out of the valley. I could feel it in my bones. I could almost forgive my mom for leaving us when I thought about it that way.

People talk in small towns and word spread like wildfire that my mom was sleeping with Brock, the owner of Mountainside Realty. Part of me already knew. She’d been Brock’s secretary for two years and often stayed late at the office. When he called the house on weekends, she excused herself from the room but I could still hear her through the walls, laughing too loudly. She’d stopped talking to my dad practically altogether by then and he spent more and more time alone in the barn.

I met him once, Brock, the big shot realtor. My mom forgot her day planner at the office one afternoon and dragged me along to pick it up. She wore a dress the color of amber. I’d never seen it before but remember the way it matched her eyes. She looked pretty, like she did most days.

Brock was slim and clean-shaven with a cowboy hat and business shirt tucked into corduroys. He had a wide grin and teeth like white Tic Tacs. He was the opposite of my dad, who looked like a billy goat with his bearded chin, long nose and bushy eyebrows. Brock called me bud and held his hand out for me to shake but I kept my arms straight down at my sides and looked him square in the face. “My name is Jack Baker,” I told him.

I didn’t bother my dad for much. He had the butchery to run and seemed to work twice as hard once my mom was gone. He went into the barn before sunrise and often stayed there until he turned in for the night. The barn - the abattoir, the cavernous extension of our kitchen - became the only thing my dad seemed to care about.

I never went in there. My mom disapproved. She didn’t let me so much as touch the blue door with peeling paint that led from the kitchen down into it - especially during hunting season when cuts of deer, elk, bison and bear hung from the ceiling like bats in a cave. Even after she left, the rule stuck around.

When three months passed without a single phone call from her, my dad got rid of all the things she left behind that made it seem as though she might return - he butterfly lamp, a floral wall hanging, forgotten blouses and dresses. Eventually, it was as if she’d never lived there at all.

One day in early June, just after school let out for the summer, Dylan and I took our ten-speed bikes up the mountainside. I stuck my binoculars in my backpack along with two water bottles and my dad’s elk jerky. I knew we’d be gone long enough that we’d appreciate the food and drink. I told Dylan to follow me because I knew where to find the latest exploded lab. I’d memorized the dot on the mountainside weeks ago when smoke rose from it like a geyser.

We pedaled in low gear over the canted trail full of rocks. When we reached the spot where a seventy-foot spruce jutted from the earth on an angle, a good land marker, we veered off the path and walked our bikes, both of us red-faced and damp with sweat.

“So you really think it’s around here?” Dylan asked.

He wore a red shirt that reflected his red hair in the sun. My own hair was thick, dark and long enough to tuck behind my ears if I wanted. I hadn’t gotten a trim since my mom left, nine months ago by then. I kept my hair long not because I needed her to cut it. I could’ve ridden my bike to the barbershop in town if I wanted. I kept it long because I grew to favor the way it hid my eyebrows, which were thick and in danger of growing bushy like my dad’s.

“Should be close,” I said, “keep your eyes peeled for the ruins.” I looked around at the granite boulders and greenery that covered it in patches. Sure, we found animals - snowshoe hares, gray-breasted chipmunks, long-bodied minks, a small herd of whitetails - nothing dangerous considering the spread of wildlife in Montana which included everything from bobcats and mountain lions to grizzlies and leopards.

We came across a large boulder and left our bicycles resting against it. The mountains, vast and lofty, prosperous and green, dwarfed us and everything else in the valley. The sweat left a sheen coat on our skin and there wasn’t any breeze to speak of.

We circled the area I estimated to be the most likely and ducked behind bushes at every clearing, just to be safe.

Dylan spotted something sixty feet out. At first, we thought it might be a grizzly, so we hid behind a huckleberry bush and watched for movement. Even through my binoculars, I couldn’t be sure. When the figure didn’t move for a good three minutes, we agreed it was safe. We crept out and approached the figure so quietly the squeak of my own sneakers filled my ears.

“Holy crap,” Dylan said. “Jackpot.”

It was a smaller lab than the last one I found. It was a carbonized pile of wooden boards, cylindrical tanks, long pipes, broken glass and warped magazines with big-breasted women striking seductive poses. From the looks of it, the collapsed structure was once a freestanding shed.

I took a metal bolt from the dirt and dusted it off on my jeans. I stuck it in my backpack along with the other relics - bottle caps, rubber bands, stripped lithium batteries. I kept them in there, just floating around at the bottom of my backpack, which I took most everywhere I went. I promised myself that one day I would bury all the stuff I’d collected and then I’d be free. Then I would fill my backpack with new stuff, clean stuff; the things I’d need to leave for good and I’d never look back.

Dylan and I wandered around the ruins, kicking up ash and debris, turning the pages of magazines, marveling at marred photographs of naked breasts. When the water and jerky were gone and the sun changed positions in the sky, we headed back down the mountain.

The property I lived on was a bosky three-acre lot. By the time Dylan and I made it to my house it was late afternoon. The sun was still bright, though we were stuck under the umbrella of treetops. Music from The Rolling Stones poured out into the yard from the open window of the barn.

“Let’s see what my dad’s up to,” I said.

Dylan and I squatted at the hopper window. My dad dragged a dead antelope by its horns across the cement. He gathered his hoofs in a bundle and bound them with a rope. Then he strung the animal up in the pulley system that hung from the ceiling. He pulled the rope and lifted the antelope, then lowered it again onto the butcher’s block. He wiped his hands on his jeans and took a drink from a pint of Smirnoff.

“He’s been down there for three days,” I told Dylan. “I think he might be sleeping there.”

“Where? On the floor?”

“All I know is he’s been wearing those same clothes and I haven’t seen him go in the house for anything.”

Dylan told me not to worry too much if I could help it. His parents divorced three years before and he hadn’t heard from his dad in two.

“When my dad left my mom, she slept on the couch for a month and didn’t eat anything ‘cept popcorn and wine. She’s better now, though, mostly. I think your dad will be okay, too.”

My dad took a utility knife from his back pocket and made his first incision in the hind leg.

Dylan whacked me in the arm hard enough to leave a pink mark.

“Sick!” he said.

“Oh, relax.” I rubbed my arm and we both stood. “I’ve seen it a bunch of times. It’s not so bad.”

We walked into the backyard and sat at the picnic table below the kitchen window. We talked about the girls in our class. Dylan had a thing for a blonde who played soccer. I liked a petite girl named Sarah with milky skin and long brown hair. She was a trailer park girl, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to her. She was smart. She wore thrift store dresses and slippers to school but I didn’t mind.

My dad emerged from the barn, bare-chested with his unbuttoned flannel shirt spotted red. Dylan stood up and flashed me a look like he took this as his cue to leave.

“I better get home for dinner or my mom will kill me,” he said. “See ya, Jack. Bye, Mr. Baker.”

Then he hurried to his bike and pedaled off, disappearing around the barn.

Sharing a meal together had become somewhat of a rarity in our house and later that evening when I noticed the pot of linguine on the stove and my dad in the rocking chair, I got to thinking something might be going on I didn’t know about.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

He called me over and I walked across the hard wood floor lined by old paisley wallpaper. I sat on the couch across from him and the fireplace, blocked off with an ash-dusted metal gate for the summer. I settled into the bulge of my backpack, trinkets clinking.

“Now, Mom’s not ever coming home, you know,” he said in a serious tone. He rested his hands on his knees. His face was drawn and melancholy.

I nodded, though something about the way he said it left me with a dry and unsettled feeling.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“I’m going to need you to step up around here,” he said, rather than answering the question. “You need to help out more around the house, understand?”

I nodded, though I wasn’t sure.

“Listen, Jack,” he said. “You need to start pulling some weight around here. This summer you’ll be helping me out in the barn.”

I imagined myself in the barn, not as a spectator peering through the window, but as my dad’s partner. I considered my lack of exposure to his work and my mom’s rule about staying out of there.

“I’ll pay you, of course. You can save for whatever you want.”

I wondered if I’d have to touch any of the dead animals, but I didn’t ask. I thought about the money and what I might spend it on. I could have whatever I wanted; Snickers bars, a skateboard, a new bike or even a car.

My dad said things were changing around the house. For one, he would fix dinner most nights from then on. He said it was important for us to share a meal because we were still a family, even if my mom wasn’t going to be a part of it. He said he was working hard and we didn’t need her to get by. And for the first time, I thought, maybe we were even better off.

The following morning was hot and viscous. I stood in the kitchen, watching squirrels fight over an acorn through the window as I sipped a cool glass of milk. I hadn’t seen my dad since the evening before when he disappeared into the barn after dinner. When the squirrels disappeared behind a tree, my eyes fell on the moose head above the fireplace. It was the largest of all five of my father’s trophies. He also had two deer heads, a tule elk head and a rocky mountain elk head on display. I often felt as though the stuffed animals in our house watched me with their spurious eyes, shiny black marbles that seemed to find me no matter where I stood. When I was younger, I would pretend that they were my trophies; that I’d killed the animals to survive and eaten their bodies but left their heads intact as proof of my hunting skills. But I didn’t have any skills and I’d never shot any animal.

I drank the bottom inch of milk and set the glass in the sink. That’s when I heard my dad’s voice.


I went to the blue door. I held the palms of my hands against it and breathed.


I turned the knob and pressed the door open, if only an inch. “Yes?” I answered back.

“Why don’t you come on down here,” he said.

I hadn’t been in the stairwell since the day we moved into the house when I was eight. I pressed the door open and the smell of mothballs filled my head. Mummified spider eggs clung to the walls in clumps. My heart was a metronome in my chest that grew stronger as I took the creaking steps down. The wail of Robert Plant’s voice broke through a static haze that poured from my dad’s radio. I reached the bottom step and walked on, past the rose-colored bodies hanging from hooks, their flesh shining like plastic or wax, the smell of iron and rust hanging in the air. When I made it to the butcher’s block I saw that my father was still wearing the same clothes, though a white frock covered them now. The collar of his flannel budded out from the neckline as he leaned over a heap of something.

“Take a frock from the wall and I’ll show you how to skin an elk,” he said.

I did as I was told and took a long white coat with pink stains from the rack. I slipped my arms into the holes, surprised to find my wrists reached the sleeve openings. I fastened the buttons and stood beside him. I examined the elk, or what was once an elk. Its tongue lolled from its mouth. Its fur looked sharp and briery.

My dad began with an incision at the hock joints and knee. He took me through the steps but I couldn’t focus on his voice. The music carried through me. A different song played now. Fleetwood Mac or The Who. I tried to suppress all the thoughts that made me queasy but when my dad peeled the hide from the muscle, my stomach was a whirlpool. I’d seen so many corpses, so many skinned bodies and hides. I’d been raised in a house among hollowed animals stuffed with rags and cotton with marbles for eyes, but I’d never been so close to the raw remains. My throat developed a knot that wouldn’t go away when I swallowed. I was sinking into the cement floor and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I grabbed my middle, bent forward and retched. When I was done I wiped my mouth with my hand and stood upright. I looked at my dad, searching him over for evidence of anger or disappointment. At first we just stared at each other like two animals whose paths had crossed by accident. Then he began to chuckle.

“Oh, Jack, don’t you worry. I see what’s going on here. I started in with big game without exposing you to small game. That ain’t the way. I should’ve eased you into this a long time ago.”

He removed his frock and unbuttoned mine for me. I kept my eyes locked on the cement floor, trying not to breathe, trying not to think.

“I’m going to teach you a thing or two about living off the land. You’ll see. Your mom wouldn’t approve, but she’s not here, is she.” He tossed our frocks into a metal bin. “I got an idea,” he said. “Go fix yourself a glass of water with two or three sugar cubes while I clean this mess up. Then meet me in the backyard.”

I was light-headed and dazed, as if I just stepped into the sunlight after hours of staring into darkness.

The sugar water refreshed me and filled me with new energy. My dad and I stood in the yard - a small carved out square of shaded grass and moss below a canopy of evergreens. Clouds moved in a continuous wave across the sky. I breathed in the air, crisp with the scent of pine. I looked beyond the trees, out into the mountains. Sometimes I imagined they went on forever. I’d never been outside the valley, so it was easy to do.

My dad opened a fresh pint of Smirnoff and held up a silver metal cage the size of a large rabbit. He called it a platform trap and said it was used to capture small game, which was our intent. He set his bottle down and took a knee. He poured a small mound of sunflower seeds from a pouch onto a square of aluminum foil and placed it at the rear of the contraption. He explained how the trap worked: the door fell once an animal was inside, rendering it helpless but unharmed. He turned the cage so the opening faced the trees and stepped back.

“Now what?” I asked.

“Ah,” my dad said, “now we wait.”

An hour passed with us sitting at the picnic table. My dad took swigs from his bottle and I drank lemonade and ate soda crackers. We talked about fixing up the property - stripping the house and painting it white again, painting the door between the barn and the kitchen a deeper blue, maybe starting an herb garden.

We talked until the sound of crashing metal rang through the air.

We hurried to the trap. Inside, a grey squirrel noshed on the sunflower seeds.

“We got one!” I said, surprised at my own excitement.

“We sure do.”

But I knew what came next. It was time to kill our catch. I asked about the possibility of keeping him.

“Squirrels ain’t pets, Jack. For one thing, they’re known to turn on humans. Plus, their teeth never stop growing and they have to shave ‘em down all the time by gnawing on whatever they can get a hold of, like a beaver. This little guy might look cute but he belongs to the wild. Besides, he’s your first catch.”

My dad carried the trap around the side of the house and I followed. The air was heavy and the clouds looked like stretched apart cotton. He brought the cage to the back of his pickup truck. He set it on the driveway and covered it with a patchwork blanket. I thought I recognized the blanket, though I wasn’t sure from when or where. It could’ve been something my mom used to cover her legs in the winter or maybe I slept with it when I was little. Looking at it draped over the cage like that made me sad.

My dad had his bottle again and he set it on the hood of the truck while he appended the cage to the exhaust pipe with aluminum foil. When he finished, he covered the arrangement with the blanket. It looked shoddy, like a fort, something I might have built myself when I was younger.

He stood above his creation and wiped his hands on his jeans, tugged at his beard and muttered something about the importance of an airtight seal. He climbed into the passenger seat and turned the key. The engine started abruptly, then tapered off and became a rolling hum. The squirrel must have been paralyzed by the sound because he stopped squeaking long before the fumes had time to do their job.

Though I couldn’t see through the thick blanket, I sensed the squirrel’s fear as clearly as I sensed my own chest rising and falling with life. A silence fell over us and I wondered if a similar reticence fell over my dad just before he shot big game like the elk and deer on display in our house.

When I was sure the squirrel was dead, the mountains seemed to seal in the orange sky. The mountains seemed to define everything in town. They were there long before any us were born into the valley and would be there long after we were all gone. In some twisted way, it was like they were our own trap.

My dad stepped out of the truck, appearing satisfied with his hands on his hips.

I shrugged.

“You okay?” he asked. “How’s that stomach holding up?”

“Fine,” I said. And I meant it. My stomach was strong and not at all queasy like before. “What are we going to do with the squirrel?”

“Squirrel soup for dinner,” he said. “But we’ll need a few more.” He took his bottle from the hood. “Let’s get to work.”

By the time the sun slipped behind the mountains, we killed four more squirrels. It grew easier with each one. When we got to the last, I arranged the blanket and started the truck myself.

My father said the mountains were rich with big and small game, but unless I understood how to properly prepare my catch, no animal could nourish me. He told me to carry the squirrels into the barn while he got a fire going in the stone pit in back.

I lifted the squirrels one at a time and gathered them in my arms close to my chest, their dead bodies pressed against me like dolls.

The barn was quiet without the blare of the radio. It was dark despite the light bulbs that hung from the ceiling by cords. The light cast shadows of the carcasses on hooks - lurking figures that reminded me of my own flesh. I set the squirrels on the butcher’s block in a small pile. My stomach was hollow and my head was heavy. I spotted the elk my dad worked on that morning. He was on a hook in the corner, beheaded and de-limbed. I only knew him by the tag.

I imagined myself working alongside my dad, skinning and salting the meat, listening to the classic rock station crackle through the old radio. I knew Dylan would think I was bat-shit crazy for even considering it. But it wasn’t so bad. I could get used to the smell - something metallic and raw.

My dad built a fire that hissed and sent tiny flecks of burning ash into the night sky. He set a pot of chicken stock on a metal grate over the fire. On the picnic table was a red onion, six carrots, three celery stalks, a knife, a ladle and a bamboo carving board. He told me he would prepare the squirrels in the barn while I chopped vegetables and tended to the fire, saving my lesson in skinning small game for another time.

“We’ve had enough for one day,” he said.

I arranged the vegetables on the cutting board and sliced them carefully. The phone rang through the open kitchen window and I let the machine take it. I kept slicing until my mother’s voice cut through the air. “Hello? Anyone? I was just wondering what Jack thinks about - well, just call when you can.” Then the machine beeped and it was done. Silence again. I sat motionless with the knife in my hand, my head stirring in disbelief.

My dad emerged from the barn with a white bucket in one hand and the pint in the other. He swayed as he walked. I thought about running up to him and pushing him down. I knew it wouldn’t take much.

But I didn’t get up from my seat. Instead, I stabbed the knife into the table and it stuck up like a sundial.

“You’ve been talking to Mom?” I said. He kept his eyes down and walked on toward the fire like he didn’t hear me but I kept talking. “Did you tell her you’ve completely lost your mind? Did you tell her you drink like a stiff and don’t even bother to shower?”

“Jack, don’t you get it? Your mom don’t care what I’ve been up to.”

He stopped in front of the fire, took a swig off the pint and let it fall to the grass. He stumbled and emptied the bucket into the stockpot, turned the bucket upside down and sat on it.

“Listen, I meant to have this talk days ago but no time ever struck me right.” He looked into the flames. “Your mom’s going to have a baby.”

There was never any talk of another kid. It was always just my mom and dad and me. And then my dad and me on one side and my mom and Brock on the other but no one else. No other kid. “What do you mean?”

“A girl,” he said.

The moon was like a stage light above us and it was my turn to deliver a line. I opened my mouth but nothing came out.

“Listen, she’s in Wyoming with Brock. There’s a wedding next week. We’re invited. Told your mother I’d leave it up to you.”

He found his bottle in the grass, brought it to his lips.

I closed my eyes and was left with the static chirp of insects and the crackle of fire. For some reason, I thought of Sarah. I imagined her at home in her trailer in one of her stupid dresses and wished she was there with me, instead, beside me on the bench. I would wrap my arms around her and she would rest her head on my shoulder so her long hair would fall all over me.

My dad started to say something else but an explosion like a bomb or a gunshot interrupted. My eyes snapped open and I jumped from my seat. I took my binoculars from my backpack in the grass near the bench and scanned the perimeter until I found the flames. They spouted from the mountainside, a molten ball on the periphery. I held my finger up to memorize the dot on the horizon. In a couple of weeks, after the police were done with their investigation and the chatter died off, I would take my bike into the country to find it. I would sift through the ruins and take another parcel for my collection. The labs were always set up in the most desolate places. It was dangerous, I knew, and enjoyed the thrill but it wasn’t just that. There was something else about finding the meth labs, like discovering a secret everyone knew about but no one liked to talk about. Something about the exploding meth labs made sense.

Everything was hazy and muffled, like being lost in fog. I didn’t even notice my dad on the ground or the white bucket tipped on its side.

I dropped my binoculars and went to him. I knelt beside him and held an ear to his mouth. His breath was shallow but steady. A line of blood ran from his temple.

“I’m okay, Jack,” he grumbled, “just help me to bed.”

I got behind him and hooked my arms under his shoulders. He stood part way with me and I hunched forward to support him. We made it like that all the way into the house. When we got to his bed in the back room, he fell in. I helped him crawl so that his head rested on the pillow and his legs were mostly straight. His breath was sour. He appeared older in the dark with lines that spread across his face like claws. Or maybe I just hadn’t been so close to his face in very a long time.

“Thank you,” he whispered. And almost straight after, began to snore.

I left him in his room and went back outside where the cool air swept my skin. The continuous wail of fire trucks, police cars and ambulances carried through the night. I found my binoculars in the grass, held them to my eyes and found the spinning lights and vague figures moving across the mountainside. At first, I wasn’t sure what to do so I just stood there, watching.

The broth filled the air with the sharp scent of squirrel meat. I put my binoculars away in my backpack and pulled the knife from where it stuck up in the table. I finished cutting the vegetables, added them to the stockpot, dipped the ladle in and stirred.

I thought about what might have happened if I hadn’t been there––my dad, still on the ground, growing cold under the dark sky, the squirrel meat growing tough in the pot, the raw vegetables stolen by rabbits and deer.

I looked out into the mountains and found the illuminated dot––a yellow eye blinking across the horizon.

I knew we wouldn’t be going to Wyoming for the wedding. I’d never left the valley and I wasn’t about to start by celebrating my mom’s new life. When it came time for me to leave, it would be for good. I’d dig a hole, two feet deep and one foot wide in the far end of the yard, empty the contents of my backpack into it. Then I’d pack up everything I owned to study astronomy at the University of Arizona. By then, my sister would know me by the packages I’d send in the mail and my dad would be ready to leave too. He’d sell our house with the barn and buy an adobe cottage in Tucson with a cactus garden and a good view of the Catalinas, where we’d hunt turkeys and peccaries on the weekends.

But just then, I only knew what to do with what was right in front of me. So I looked down into the stockpot and focused on the task at hand. My cheeks were hot and damp with steam as I mixed the colorful vegetables with the meat from my first hunt. After a decent night’s rest, my dad would appreciate the warm meal.


  1. i think this is fantastic, such detail, it´s a rite of passage story, which is ongoing.
    really, really good

    Michael McCarthy

  2. This is a strong and beautiful writing, first-rate! I enjoyed reading this story. It is so down to earth, full of realistic details, but at the same time there are lots of beautiful, even poetic passages -- to quote a few:

    their dead bodies pressed against me like dolls.
    a yellow eye blinking across the horizon.
    the clouds looked like stretched apart cotton.

    the mountains seemed to seal in the orange sky. The mountains seemed to define everything in town. They were there long before any us were born into the valley and would be there long after we were all gone. In some twisted way, it was like they were our own trap.

    Fresh, descriptive and powerful. Well done!

  3. This very nicely crafted tale of boy's passage is remarkable in its richa detail and narrative. Also remarkable because it's pretty certain Emily was never a boy. Very, very well done!

  4. Jack collecting the bits of the blown up meth labs seems symbolic of his attempt to make some sense of a senseless situation. I was a little confused at the father's collapse - how it fit into the explosion didn't entirely make sense to me but it didn't detract from my appreciation of the story.

  5. A very different kind of story from the usual and very interesting. Lovely writing.

  6. Thank you for reading and commenting! :)

  7. A beautiful story. The writing pulls you in and doesn't let go. The descriptions wrap the story in layers that left me standing in the yard with the boy and his father. I loved how the main character was drawn and even the father. Bravo! The ending was perfect. He knew when he left it would be for good. I loved that line. Can't say enough good things about this story. One of the best I've read on this site.