Jasper waits until the last minute to slide on his boots because he hates the way they make him feel like a waddling duck.

He pulls rubber over his sneakers just before they reach the marsh, tugging thick straps around camouflage pants. A mild whistle drifts from beyond the water.

“Hear that?” his father asks. “That sounds like a snipe.”

“Are you sure it wasn't just the wind?” Jasper squints into the distance. Nothing moves. A cloudless, windless day. The stillness in the state game preserve maintains an illusion of solitude, but of course the land teems with animals—a whole ecosystem in this marsh alone.

“Could be. Could also be a snipe's wings flying low.”

Jasper follows Daryl O'Toole into the shallow water. They wade in methodically, shotguns hoisted over orange vests; the same plodding boots; the same thick thighs leading to flat backsides. Marshland dwarfs them. High grass encroaches into dense water. Forlorn branches, like sunken pirate ships, jut out of the depths. Stretching beyond the flatness, miles of trees form a hazy backdrop.

Since he's standing in a vast wetland, Jasper finds it funny that he can't seem to drink enough water. His father eyes him with concern. Jasper waves to indicate he's fine. He is fine. Out here, in the bright air, he is a paltry yet sturdy speck in the larger, more powerful natural world, and it's a comforting place to be. Sure, he had too much to drink last night but last night is a lifetime ago. He'll have to deal with the aftermath later anyway, since he left his phone on his bed right next to his forgotten sunglasses. Ankle deep in mud, steel digging into his shoulder, the image of Shelby Cho beneath him on a love seat slices through his mind. His cheeks flush warm, though the sun above him remains unchanged.

Up ahead, Daryl lifts his eight gauge off his shoulder and aims. A dark blotch skirts recklessly into the air as the shot rings out. There is no echo. The bird continues its crooked ascent.

“Goddammit.” Daryl tucks his gun under his elbow.

“That was a crazy one,” Jasper says, though he knows little about snipe. His father is the one who loves to shoot the birds. On their first hunting trip, Daryl explained that other birds fly straight but snipes zigzag about, so if you can shoot a snipe you can shoot anything. That there's a practical joke called a snipe hunt proves how challenging they are. A perfect bird to teach you how to aim. Though he accidentally killed a dove last year, Jasper has never successfully hit a snipe. Daryl once shot three in one trip, though, then piled the doomed birds gently in a burlap sack. They looked like they were napping.

This morning the bird keeps flying. Watching it go, Jasper feels suddenly nostalgic. Graduation is only a few months away. His world will become more complicated, and he's not looking forward to it. Jasper enjoys simple things like being outdoors, and spending time with his buddies, and winning football games; even if college is as wonderful as everybody makes it out to be, it will still be a fundamentally different experience.

His friends are reticent about their plans, as is usual when stress trickles down from adult world to infiltrate their own. They switch their first, second, safety schools on an almost daily basis—except Ethan. Ethan throws out the same three names consistently (Vanderbilt, Duke, Northwestern) which makes Jasper's first choice of the University of Chicago sound lame in comparison. The stakes are high; this college thing is being billed as the most important decision of his young life. The choice might not matter so much for someone like Ethan (since he'll likely take over his father's business after graduation, brand name education or not) but Jasper senses the choice might matter more for himself. These are the thoughts that meander through his mind as weighty boots plod through mud.

It's also near impossible to imagine all the people he currently knows attending college instead of high school. Jasper can envision Shelby on some expensive quad, though—clutching books; playing violin; going to meet him on her way back to her dorm. Apologizing to her for that appalling display in front of his locker was the most mature thing he's ever done. He waited outside the orchestra room for a whole hour, and her astonished expression when she emerged from rehearsal was worth every minute. All the texting and flirting had been leading up to last night, but then.

Daryl points his gun, only to lower it again. The marsh grows deeper with each step. Jasper's boots create two sinkholes wherever they land, sending the water rushing to rubber tips. He remembers following Shelby outside and stumbling upon a show in the swimming pool instead. Ethan knew he was being watched and he liked it; he was in performance mode, like the time he hooked up with Sarah Panascu by the bonfire at summer camp, and the time he fingered Abby Giles at the bowling alley. Jasper dimly remembers recording the show; probably not a smart move.

To his left, a dark little bird inches about on too-thin legs. The intricate white pattern and long beak gives it away: the bird is definitely a snipe, gleefully jabbing its spear of a beak into the water. Maybe it finds a bug or plant, because the beak delicately opens and closes before dipping back into the tip of the water. Jasper watches the bird tread carefully into a clump of high grass and disappear.


chapter fourteen