Cortney McLellan
Image for Casualty by Cortney McLellan

Floyd could make no sense of the snow pants. Or the jacket his daughter wore all the time, even in the house, since returning home for Christmas Break. He’d thought she would have turned true Fairbanksian now, flaunt her newfound Interior hardiness, wear shorts to the Safeway and go cross-country skiing in a tee-shirt. He’d even made up some jokes to use on her. But on the one grocery-shopping trip she’d taken with him, the night she’d come home, Naomi had only huddled herself up behind him, the legs of her green snow pants swishing against each other as they walked the busy aisles. The faraway look on her face stopped him from making any jokes at all.

It was not what he’d planned, getting the Christmas tree without her. He’d waited for her to come home to get one, hadn’t wanted her to feel left out her first year away at college, hadn’t wanted her to feel he was holding a grudge over her choosing Fairbanks over Anchorage, choosing a college of strangers over the one he taught at. He’d had four months to adjust, and in that time he’d accepted, as much as he could, her move toward independence. She was lovely and strong and fiercely smart, and it was, he guessed, time for her to take on the world. Even so, he wanted her to know he was still her dad. She’d come with him to get the tree and know that they were a family, even after she’d moved hours away.

But Naomi wouldn’t come with him. She was too tired. Three days in a row, too tired for anything. Too tired for the old friends who called, asking her to come out. Too tired, even, for basketball with him out back in the barn. She’d set herself up on the living room couch, couldn’t even bother to move to her room at night, and binge-watched old black-and-whites rather than talk to him about whatever the hell was going on. Whenever she’d get up for water or to use the bathroom, he could see she was still wearing the snow pants, zipped and buttoned across her stomach, suspenders snug over her shoulders. Any food he brought her lay mostly untouched on the coffee table, only the sweetest things eaten.

When he told her he was going to get the tree, she stared at his chin for what felt like minutes, not even making eye contact, before shaking her head no.


After more chin-staring, she shook her head again. “My brain’s too tired,” she said.

“I guess all that hard work will show in your grades?” he joked. Of course it would. She had always been a good student.

She shrugged and said bye. Turned the volume back up on the TV. Dracula, again. She’d developed some weird fascination for Bela Lugosi and fake-looking bats.

Outside it was snowing. Fat, sticky flakes covered the driveway and roads. When Floyd arrived at the Home Depot, there were only a handful of trees left. Scraggly, picked-over ones. And, with Christmas just two days away, hardly anyone was in the lot. No families at all, just one older lady who seemed personally aggrieved by the remaining selection and one other bachelor, like him, who grabbed hold of the first tree he came to. Floyd had to go inside to get someone to help him. By the time he got back, with the bored teenaged worker in tow, Floyd was so annoyed at his daughter that he, too, just chose the first tree he came to. He paid cash, to get away quicker, shoved the short, sparse-limbed fir in the bed of his truck, and sped out of the parking lot before the slipperiness of the road reminded him to slow down.

Back home, he took his time in the garage, dusting the snow off the tree as best he could, waiting and hoping that when he went in the house, things would be different. Maybe, he told himself, Naomi had already gone to the basement and hauled out the tree stand and boxes of decorations and lights. It had always been her job, even when her mom still lived with them, to string the lights on the tree. If he could just get her to do that, maybe everything else would fall back into place.

But Naomi was still on the couch when he walked in. For a second, he saw the brown of her irises before she shut her eyes and pretended sleep.

“Only sad orphans left,” he said, standing the tree up against the living room wall.

She inched her arm up to cover her face.

He went and sat next to her on the couch, in the small angle of space left open by her hunched-up body. When he put his arm on her shoulder, she pulled herself away from him.

“Did I do something wrong?” he asked, finally out loud.

“You?” she said, moving her arm so her eyes showed. “Of course not.” It was the same voice he’d heard on the phone over the last month, dry and distant.

“Well, what is it then, kiddo? Some kind of bad break up?”

She laughed. It was dull, sure, but it was a laugh. She’d never had much trouble with boys. Seemed only to like the type who easily liked her back. And she never got too attached. Naomi uncovered the rest of her face, which had creases on it from the rough upholstery, and her short dark hair stuck greasy to her forehead. If her mom were there, she’d put her in the shower. But her mom was far away, now, in Texas.

“You missing your mom? I’m sure she’d come if we asked.”

“Nah. She’ll call on Christmas, like she does.”

Naomi fished the remote out from under her blanket, cued her movie back up.

“Maybe it’s all this vampire nonsense. Isn’t there something cheerier we could watch? Home Alone or something?”

“Dracula is hilarious,” she said. “Look how serious everyone’s face is.”

She was back in the movie now, mouthing everyone’s lines as they spoke. There was nothing to do but give up for now, get the tree in the stand.

As soon as he’d filled the base with water, though, the phone rang. He hoped it would be one of her friends, Amy maybe. He could ask her to come over and talk to Naomi. But it was Joe on the line, a hunting buddy who worked for APD, saying a moose cow had been downed on Old Seward. Another casualty of winter roads. The driver had given the mercy already, had shot the injured moose almost immediately after crashing into it, but his truck was totaled and he didn’t have time to deal with the carcass.

“None of the other volunteers are answering their phones,” Joe said. “You’re our last chance for harvesting the animal.”

“Ah, man,” Floyd said. “My daughter’s here. It’s a bad time.”

When she heard that, Naomi waved her arms at him. “Go,” she whispered.

In the end, guilt got to him. If he didn’t harvest the moose, they’d just push it to the side of the road for the night, get it out of the way of traffic. Being Christmas season, it could be days before anyone could deal with it. The animal would be unsalvageable.

“You can string the lights while I’m gone,” he said before he left, knowing even as he asked that she wouldn’t. “We can decorate it together after I finish the job.”


It wasn’t that she didn’t see how worried her dad was getting. She saw it in his hovering, heard it in his hesitating, felt it in the cautious way he touched her arm. And she wanted to get off the couch. She did. It would have been fun to help her dad pick out a tree. No doubt she would’ve found a better one than the scraggly ass monster he’d brought home. She wanted to act right for him, say the thing that would make him stop worrying. But whatever spark it was that got a person to do something, it just wasn’t there.

She could feel the grime on her, too. Her back and face itched. Her snow pants were so heavy that she sweated when she slept, and she could smell her own funk on her shirt and in the blankets. Still, she was more comfortable with the pants on. As gross as it all was, it felt safe. Like she’d covered herself in a protective coating. Marked the couch as territory no one would dare disrupt.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to tell her dad, either. She knew he would try to help if he knew. He would believe her, not blame her.

The problem was that all of the words were wrong. As hard as she tried, none of them could be made to fit. The words weren’t her. Couldn’t be her. She couldn’t get her mouth to form them, even silent and alone in the dark. To say rape felt like shouting. Like a woman screaming fire as she ran from a burning house. Too loud, too clipped, too Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. A bully of a word, a word that knocked down everything in its path, dressed you in clothes you would never be caught dead wearing. And sexual assault. That was a phrase for guidance counselor pamphlets. For fliers outside her residence advisor’s dorm room. For police reports and self-defense course advertisements and for statistics. Instead of dressing you in clothes too loud, it blurred your lines and edges until you were nothing more than a shape in grayscale.

Without the right word, then, the only way to talk about it would be to describe what happened. She couldn’t do that. Her dad’s mind was clean and good and so, so naïve. She couldn’t put those images in his head. In anyone’s head. Couldn’t let people play the movie of what happened to her in their own minds, and then forever see it when they looked at her.

If she could just act normal, time would pass and the whole thing would slip away. It would belong to freshman year and she could leave it behind. For the whole last month, she’d been able to act mostly normal around her roommate and new friends and even around the couple old Anchorage friends who’d gone off to Fairbanks for college like she had. Engineer-types, all, people who didn’t look too hard past the smiles she mustered, past the clothes she managed to clean and dress herself in. Sure they all wondered why she didn’t go to parties with them anymore, why she wouldn’t—couldn’t—drink or get high or even go dancing. But she put them off with a lie about bombing a calculus test. Told them she needed to focus and study more. And that was enough to get her through finals.

But as soon as she saw her dad, when he came out to the garage to hug her the moment she got home, something had caved inside her. When he put his arms around her and her whole body shrank from him—she could feel the fear and anger on her face—something exploded inside. For a second, she’d wanted to scream and break things. Open her car door back up and slam it shut. That what the asshole had done to her could make her afraid now even of her dad, it was too much. But that anger didn’t stick. It got swallowed up in an instant by this new fog she was in.

On the couch, she pulled her blanket up to her chin and closed her eyes. She had watched Dracula so many times now that she could picture what was on the screen with her eyes closed. She had downloaded it to her phone, to her tablet, to her laptop. And now, to her dad’s TV. She heard the actors speak their lines and could picture their faces exactly. She listened and listened, kept this movie running in her head until she could fall safely, seamlessly, asleep.

At some point in the night, she heard her dad come back home. He walked quietly into the living room and set a new plate, of something that smelled like jelly, on the coffee table. She wanted to open her eyes, sit up and say hello to him, but there was nothing she could say beyond that. Besides, sleeping at night was normal, and it was better to do the normal thing if she could.

He whispered something about dressing the moose in the barn, pulled her blanket over her arm, and walked away. When she opened her eyes, she saw three powdered-sugar jelly doughnuts. For a moment, she thought she could grab them all, shove them into her mouth, but the first bite stuck on her tongue. She could barely swallow, so she left the rest for later.


When Floyd woke in the morning, Naomi was no longer on the couch. She had folded her blanket and set her pillow atop it. The doughnuts he’d left for her were in the kitchen, on the counter, wrapped in plastic. This was hopeful, he thought. He called her name, but there was no answer. He ran up the stairs, but she was not in her room. Not in the bathroom, either. His heart beat strangely, almost vibrating in his chest. He was a professor. He’d worked with kids her age for over a decade. He knew what depression looked like in the young, how students behaved before attempting suicide. It was part of his job to recognize these things, and to act. But he had let his own daughter just lie there on the couch for days.

After checking the garage and seeing both his truck and her car safely there, his thoughts went immediately to the barn. He had left all of his butchering equipment out to dry overnight. There were rafters, and rope. He pushed all these objects out of his mind. None of that could be true. He just needed to find her. The backdoor was unlocked. In the moonlight, he could see her boot prints in the fresh snow, leading to the barn. He didn’t even think to grab his coat, or to put on his own boots. He simply walked out into the darkness, calling her name.


No lights were on when Naomi entered the barn, but she could see, in the moonlight coming through the far window, the moose’s rib sections and legs suspended from the rafters. She tightened herself small in order to walk through these without bumping against them. She tucked her nose down into her jacket to stifle the sour smell of animal blood.

And there it was, large as three of her fists, venae cavae and aorta thicker than thumbs, a disembodied moose heart lying next to the vacuum sealer. Too dull-red to evoke the animal it once propelled through the forest, yet too visceral to suggest the bread-stuffed meal it would become down at the Native Elder center. Bidzaayi, the elders called it. She had gone there enough times with her dad to know he was saving this piece especially for them. She could see it now, her dad delivering it like some goofy Alaskan Santa.

Down the center of the heart, red arteries braided through white fat. A cut her dad had made exposed inch-thick muscle. Powerful, beastly muscle. Muscle that could drive a ton of wild flesh. Naomi grabbed a pair of latex gloves from the shelf above the dressing table and started tracing vessels. She found the inferior vena cava, the enormous vein that her dad had taught her returns blood from the body to the heart, and slipped her finger inside. The heart was strong and perfect, every piece lined up right—a simple, flawless pump.

For the first time since the asshole had held her to his bed, his forearm like a bar across her chest, she felt she might actually want one breath to follow another. That her breaths might really lead to a far-off future, where none of this mattered. She kept her finger deep in the vein, pinching at the muscle to test its strength. It didn’t give. That had been weird for her, how her body refused at first to yield to the guy. She’d had sex before, of course, sex so wanted and fun and eager that everything had gone smoothly. A month ago, though, her body refused to let him in. Most of her thoughts that night were lost to her now, but she remembered thinking at first, stupidly, that her body could protect her, keep him out. It took minutes, hours, a lifetime, maybe, before he’d been able to push through.

She took her finger out of the vein and took the heart, whole, in her hands. As much as she squeezed, the muscle wouldn’t give. She wanted to tuck it into her shirt.

The barn door creaked open, and she dropped the heart onto the shelf.

“Naomi?” her dad called.

She stripped the bloody gloves off and threw them under the counter.


He went fast through the barn, running for some reason, and stopped short just behind her. She turned around to see his hands hovering in the air between them. His face was white and pasty, his forehead scrunched and sweaty.

“You’re okay,” he said.

“Of course.”

He wouldn’t stop staring.

“Will you take the heart today?” she asked. “So they can have it for Christmas?”

He kept his arms out for a moment, like he would hug her, before letting them drop to his sides. “I was thinking we could do that. But I can put it in the freezer for now if you want. Take it to the center after you go back to Fairbanks.”

She knew she was being selfish, but the thought of keeping the heart felt right. “Sure. Whatever you want. Should we do the tree now?”

They went outside into the morning darkness. It would stay dark for hours. Inside, Naomi sat on the couch and watched her dad lace the lights around the tree. She handed him ornaments from boxes. Cotton-ball snowmen she’d made as a kid, glass bulbs with bits of red paint flecked off, a Christmas picture from way back of her with both parents. He kept looking at her between ornaments, like he wanted to ask something, but every time he shook his head instead, as if wiping the question away.


It was stupid of him to have gotten scared. She was just a normal college kid. It was her first time back home, and she wanted to be lazy and little, have him take care of her. He wouldn’t have gotten so scared if he hadn’t been up all night taking care of the moose. There was nothing wrong with his daughter. She just had an exhausted dad.

And today was Christmas Eve. They would make food together. She liked to make brownies, and there were sweet potatoes and broccoli in the fridge, too, if she wanted to make those. He could cook up some of the moose. He was right to harvest it, felt much better about it all dressed and useful in the barn, rather than rotting on the side of the road. Strange, though, that Naomi hadn’t wanted to go to the center with him today. She usually loved all the grandmas down there, could listen to them tell stories forever, or have a go at the beadwork they were usually kind enough to try to teach her.

He had let her nap all morning, but now the sun was finally up. She must need some sunlight, he thought. Winter was especially hard in Fairbanks, and he should make sure she got all the sun she could while visiting.

Seeing her curled up on the couch, though, under her blankets, he stopped short. He called her name, but she didn’t move. The natural thing would be to go over and give her arm a shake. But she’d been so jumpy since she came back. Every time he touched her she seemed to get mad, like he’d done something wrong. Maybe she figured she was an adult now, and needed more space.

Whatever the problem, she still needed to wake up. Floyd found the remote on the coffee table and started her movie for her. He turned the volume up, watched the opening credits displayed on the screen. She was hunched into such a ball that there was space enough for him on the couch, at her feet. He sat there and turned the volume higher and higher until she stirred.

“There you are,” he said. “I thought we could watch some of this together and then go take a walk. You need to re-energize.”

“Huh,” she said.

“Maybe you could even do something crazy like take a shower and put on some clean clothes. What do you think?”

She gave a half-laugh and sat up. She stared at the screen. “It’s always so weird for me to go back and see how Renfield is at the beginning of the movie. He’s so normal. Later, when he’s all crazy, it’s impossible to remember him this way.”

“Who’s Renfield?”

“That guy,” she said, pointing at the screen. “The idiot dumb enough to go to the castle after dark. Look how the villagers try to warn him.”

“Poor guy,” Floyd said. “If only he’d watched Dracula a thousand times, then he’d know better.”

“Shhh,” she said, trying to soften it with a smile.

Later in the movie—he’d never get her to go out for a walk—all she could talk about was the John character, poor Mina’s boyfriend. How stupid he was for telling Mina to think cheerful thoughts, for trying to convince the girl that there was nothing wrong after she’d been bitten. Naomi went on and on as if John were somehow worse than Dracula himself. Then she complained about how lucky Renfield was to be crazy and talking and doing things, while all the women were destined only to become robot ghosts. It wasn’t a Christmas movie, not at all. Maybe college had turned her goth or something. He’d seen that happen with his biology students.


After they exchanged their Christmas Eve presents—Naomi got a green sweater with tiny frogs stitched into the collar, Floyd a printout of Naomi’s recently posted final grades, all A’s—Floyd went up to bed. Once she was sure he was asleep, Naomi pulled her new sweater over her head and returned to the barn.

She’d been thinking of the heart all day, even while she watched her movie with her dad. She dreamed of it, too, strong and pulsating, when she napped. Her dad had put the heart away, of course. The dressing table was bare and smelled of bleach. She found the heart in the freezer, vacuum-sealed in plastic. The muscle was mostly frozen through now, hard and heavy. When she first took it out of the freezer, she wanted to grab a hammer and smash it, as if that would put an end to her new fog. Instead she set it on the table and sliced the package open with a filet knife.

The frozen vessels had lost their sponginess, no longer sprung back when she touched them. The coldness stung her fingertips and stiffened her hands. Once, when she was in middle school, they’d gone camping on an island in the Kenai River. She and her mom had woken early, unable to sleep under the midnight sun, and left the tent to make oatmeal and coffee. It was cold enough that fog was still coming off the water. As her mom made a fire, Naomi saw a moose cow in the river, swimming toward them, likely coming for the willow saplings that dotted their shore. She whispered for her mom, and they stood together, arms touching, watching the moose emerge onto their little island.

When Naomi had reached for the camera, the animal spooked, looked right at her, and snorted like a skittish horse. It stepped back toward the river, to get away, its hind legs plunging into a steep drop-off. The moose twisted its head above the water, eyes wide and wild, as the current dragged it away. There was another island close by, just a short ways downriver. Even as she watched the moose struggle, Naomi knew it would be okay. The current would drag it to the other island, for sure. And that’s exactly what happened. There was a picture hanging in her bedroom showing the moose stepping onto dry gravel.

Standing in the barn, holding the frozen heart, remembering the embarrassing certainty she’d had that morning, Naomi felt her stomach twist, and lowered herself to the floor. How could she ever have been so certain about anything? It seemed so stupid now. The ridiculous, perfect heart sat frozen in her hands. So simple. Over and over these flawless strong hearts were formed, millions of them, hundreds each spring. She could not let herself get fooled again into thinking it was that easy, but she could not put it back into the freezer either. Instead she took it inside the house and brought it upstairs to the bathroom, to give her something to look at as the air needled its way over her exposed skin.


It wasn’t until late Christmas day that Floyd discovered the heart was no longer in the freezer. He’d gone out back to check on the meat and, out of habit, opened the freezer to make sure it was still on. Sometimes the power in the barn glitched, and there was nothing he hated more than wasting meat. But the heart wasn’t there.

He knew it must be Naomi, even though it made no sense for her to take it. Maybe, he thought, she wanted to surprise him with a hunter’s Christmas meal. She had taken a shower. She’d even changed her clothes. When she’d come downstairs to talk to her mom on the phone, she wasn’t wearing the snow pants. Just a pair of loose, faded jeans and her new frog sweater. She’d read her grades off to her mom, laughed about the sad, little Christmas tree, and told her she loved her. It was possible, then, that she’d make a Christmas dinner.

When he found her in her room, she was sitting at her desk, the heart on a plate before her. The meat was soft now, he could tell by the way her fingers dented the muscle. And the smell was going off, putting a rankness in the air. She didn’t look up when he came over to her.

“What the hell is this, Naomi?” The words were harsher than he’d intended, though he was able to keep his voice soft.

She looked down at the heart as if the reasons for her fascination with it should be obvious. Her small hands were slimy with it, stained. She wiped them on her jeans and shoved them between her knees, as if to hide the mess.

“Please, Naomi. Tell me what’s going on.”

“Someone…” she said, then stared back down in her lap.

“You’re scaring me, kiddo. Look at me.”

She couldn’t do it. But she tried to speak a few more times. Kept saying someone, someone…

“Someone what? Did someone hurt you?”

“Yes.” She looked up at him, her face full with surprise. “That’s the right word. Hurt.”

“Who hurt you?”

“Some guy.”

“I thought you said this wasn’t about a break up?”

She shook her head. And then it was clear, in the way she again refused to look at him, that this was something much worse. Floyd hadn’t been able to see it, but now that he could, his whole body shook with the realization.

“No. It was just some guy. He forced himself into my body.”

If she were his student, he’d know what to do. He’d help her call the police, or give her the number for the STAR hotline. Encourage her to go to the clinic. But this was his daughter, and his body would not stop shaking. He knew if he spoke, all she’d hear was his anger.

“Can we bury it?” she asked.

“Bury what?” he whispered.

“The heart. It’s spoiled now. Not strong anymore. Maybe we can bury it?”

“I don’t understand.”

“I don’t either, but can we?”

Of course they could. It was what she was asking for, and something he could do. All the other things that needed doing, they could wait until she was ready. He let her carry the plate. Let her lead him down the stairs and into the backyard. The ground was frozen, too frozen for digging, so he found the biggest snowdrift in the yard and guided her there.

This was all he could do for her, right now. Watch her dig deep in the snowdrift. Watch her place the plate in the hole and pack it over. Watch her scrub her hands clean in the snow. Tell her he loved her and that in the spring, when the ground warmed up, they could try to bury it more properly, together.

Author Bio: 

Cortney McLellan’s stories have appeared in such publications as Cream City ReviewPANKand Tin House’s The Open Bar. She holds an MFA from the Stonecoast Writing Program. She currently writes from Anchorage, Alaska, but has lived in such exotic places as Michigan, Azerbaijan, and Norway.