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emily nelson

march 1, 2023


hen his wife shoots the neighbor’s sheep he thinks alright, I guess there’s something wrong. Up to this point, he’s noticed a few new strange behaviors here and there, a husband’s instinct that the woman beside him is not exactly the same woman that he was sitting next to a few moments ago. Occasionally he catches a cloudy look in Denise’s eye that he has never seen before, confusion that reads like fear, but there will always be a blink and she returns. He is able to tell himself, after these moments pass, that she’s just slowing down a bit, like they all are at this age. Even when she is cruel to him out of the blue, or when she goes for a walk and forgets the way home—all things that he can explain away, however desperately. Those things that happen as you age. Killing the neighbor’s sheep is not one of those things.

“They were on our property” is the excuse she gives him when he arrives home to find her shivering on the couch in her bathrobe, away from the crowd of people who have gathered out front to witness the spectacle of bloodied wool and sheep brains on the lawn. Tate did not see it happen, but there are several witnesses; Tilden Island is small enough that despite the acres between neighbors, not much goes unnoticed, especially when a gunshot rattles everyone at seven in the morning outside of hunting season. When Tate had left the house that morning, Denise had been sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and doing the crossword puzzle on her iPad as she always did. He had not worried about leaving her alone.

Sam had been the first one there, had just happened to be driving down to the dock when he saw Denise standing on her porch with Tate’s shotgun in her hands, the heaving carcasses of three Merino sheep in the front yard. Sam told Tate that Denise was crying when he found her, and for a moment she seemed so disoriented, he wasn’t sure if she was going to turn the gun on him next. But when Sam reached for the shotgun, she gave it to him wordlessly, her hands limp, before retreating into the house and locking the door behind her.

The sheep belonged to Grace Pham, who lived on the other side of the island, and it wasn’t clear what they were doing so far from home. One of them died outright, and the other two were wounded so badly by the buckshot that Sam had to finish them off before Grace was even notified. Nobody wanted Grace to call the police, but she did anyway. There is no law enforcement on Tilden Island, one of the many reasons that Tate and the other lifers love living here. The homeowner’s association voted against building a sheriff’s outpost on the island a few years back, citing concerns about land availability that were really just flimsy cover for the usual libertarian worries about government overreach. Most of the lifers are here precisely because there was no law enforcement, and while there has never been anything more serious than a speeding violation in the last twenty years, it has been understood by everyone that the police very rarely need to get involved, that everyone on Tilden can work things out like grownups.

Obviously Grace feels differently. She’s much younger than Tate, probably not even out of her forties, and has not been on the island as long as him. She wears expensive leggings and college sweatshirts, and has clean hands for someone who works with sheep so much. One of the few people Tate doesn’t know all that well, one of the few people on the island that hasn’t had dinner at the Waylan’s, never received a can of Denise’s cherry plum preserves. Not out of spite, of course. Grace keeps to herself more than most, out there on the rich side of the island with the tourists and part-time residents. Her standing in his yard makes Tate feel uncomfortable, something that was never supposed to happen.

The police take a report from Grace over the phone and tell her that they will be in touch. Denise could be charged with “maliciously killing or causing substantial bodily harm to livestock belonging to another,” a Class C felony with a ten-thousand dollar fine or up to five years in prison, depending on the findings of the judge. He expects Grace to be hysterical, crying like Denise did over the loss of her animals, but instead she is maddeningly quiet, her eyes sympathetic as she talks over the situation with Sam. When Mitch Jackson finally arrives with his pickup to take the carcasses to his burn pile, Grace turns to Tate and presses her lips together.

“I’m really sorry about this, Tate,” she says, her voice heavy with a familiarity that the two of them do not share. “I’m sorry this is happening to you and Denise.”

She climbs into her golf cart and speeds down the dirt road towards her side of the island, following Mitch’s pickup. Sam lets out a sigh through his teeth.

“This is bad,” he says, and it’s so obvious of an observation that Tate almost laughs.

He finds Denise in the living room. She’s changed out of her robe and is watching the television on mute. The San Juan County news is playing, a shiny-haired woman gesturing broadly at kitschy graphics of the sun and rain clouds. He has barely had a second alone with her all morning.

“Gonna be nice this week,” Denise says. She smiles up at Tate, her glasses sliding down her nose.

“Denise,” he starts, but she’s already looking past him and suddenly stands up.

“I’m making lunch,” she says, sweeping into the kitchen. He watches her go, every limb weighing a thousand pounds. She doesn't seem to realize what has happened. The woman on television is now gesticulating towards a cluttered traffic pattern, her eyes sparkling in HD.

“Denise, honey,” he says again.

“I’m in here, Tate,” she calls. “I can’t hear you.”

He gets as far as the kitchen doorway, watching her rifle through the cupboards. She’s murmuring to herself, her voice low and undulating, almost as if she’s singing.

“I was just thinking that we need to start planning our Christmas cards this year,” Denise says, turning and smiling at Tate. “I always feel like we get behind on it and then we’re rushing to do it at the last minute. Don’t you think?”

“Denise, honey, it’s August.” Tate watches her go through the knife drawer, and wonders briefly if he should hide those too. He’s familiar with the pattern of her days; if she starts out lucid, she will generally stay that way, but the earlier the incident comes, the longer she stays disoriented.

“Well, I know, but…” Denise procures the bread knife and starts hacking at the half-stale loaf of sourdough on the counter. “I wanted to do a newsletter this year. Lots of people do them, and I think it would be nice. Something to let our friends know what’s going on with our lives. What we’ve been up to and everything.”

“What have we been doing?” Tate asks. He hopes it doesn’t sound like a challenge.

Denise turns to him again. “Lots of things, silly,” she says, smiling. “We rebuilt the Bearcat in April, and I’ve got the new herb garden set up. You’re the secretary for the Homeowner’s Association. People want to know what we’re up to.”

She goes back to her work. It seems foolish for him to point out that they haven’t sent out Christmas cards for at least ten years; they don’t have anyone to keep in touch with on the mainland, and everyone on Tilden already knows everything about everybody.

“Honey,” he says, “I talked to Sam Sparrow just now.”

“About what?” Denise does not turn around.

“I—about what happened this morning.”

“Oh, that,” Denise says, and she turns slightly to pull a bowl from the sink. He tries to catch her facial expression, but the sun burning off the fog outside is reflecting in her glasses. Her mouth is firm, unreadable.

“He says that they’ll need to confiscate our guns. And that there will be some sort of fine.” Tate watches his wife’s back move up and down beneath her denim shirt as she scoops celery and onions into the bowl. She doesn’t turn around.

“Well, I think we’ll be alright,” is all she says.

“Honey, they’re going to take all our guns,” he says, feeling slightly desperate. “Grace wants to take legal action.”

Denise waves her knife-wielding hand dismissively. “Oh, she’s just uptight. She’ll relax. It’s not like she doesn’t have eighty more sheep where those ones come from.”

Tate thinks, well, at least she knows what she did.

“You shouldn’t say that, Denise,” Tate hears himself saying. “This isn’t a joke. She did say she wanted to sue us.”

“She’ll cool off,” Denise says. Then, “I’m making chicken salad, do you want some?”

Tate rakes a hand through his hair. It feels greasy and damp, as if he has run several miles, even though he has been standing still for what feels like hours now.

“No, honey. You know I don’t like it.”

He sees her stiffen before turning around and nodding.

“Of course,” she says. “I just wanted to make sure.”

“Anyways,” Tate tries again. “Sam was telling me what we’re going to have to do next. With the trial and all.”

Denise freezes. “Trial?”

“For the felony,” Tate says, almost afraid. “The felony charge. For shooting Grace’s—“

Denise drops the knife and whirls around.

“Did that bitch really call the cops on me?” The look on her face is more betrayal than anger. 

“Just because of that?”

Tate feels defensive, pulling away from the doorframe. He has a sudden desire to hide from his wife, a feeling he has never had and never wants to have again.

“Honey, it’s…” he looks at the floor. “It’s technically a crime, what you did. I can’t—“

“I’m gonna call her,” Denise says, darting past Tate towards the landline in the living room. Tate races after her.

“No, Denise,” he says, catching her and wrestling the receiver from her hand. “It’s already done. If you call her it’s only going to make it worse.”

Her hand is wrapped around his wrist, her frail fingernails biting the skin of his arm. Up close, her eyes are wet, pleading.

“It’s not my fault,” she says. “They were on our property. What was I supposed to do?”

When they met, they were both divorcees, her three years out and him only six months. They met on a flight from Seattle to Sacramento; she was a flight attendant, and he swore to himself he wouldn’t do anything funny, make any moves like he had seen his father do when he was a little kid. He only asked her out when he ran into her at the arrival deck, both of them trying to get a cab, and he decided it must be fate to see her again. She had changed her shoes and was wearing glossy white sneakers instead of pumps, and her hair was falling out of its twist. Denise said that she had gotten left behind in the bathroom and missed the crew bus; years later, he would know that this was a lie, that she had stopped for a drink at the airport bar without telling the rest of the flight crew. They got to talking and agreed to split a cab, first dropping her off at her hotel and then him at his. But when they arrived at the Sacramento Sheraton, Denise invited Tate in to get a drink at the hotel bar, and he obliged.

He loved how easy she was to talk to, not a hint of insecurity. She was a woman who had seen the world and was largely unimpressed with its inhabitants, but those who surpassed her expectations she loved with a ferocity that reminded Tate of a mother lion. Neither of them had any children, him by accident and her by choice, one of the many reasons she and her first husband didn’t work out. When he left the bar that evening, she followed him out, the two of them bathed in the fungal orange light of the streetlamps. They stood for a moment, letting the cool wind scatter the leaves across the parking lot.

“How long are you here for?” she finally asked. Her four vodka sodas had turned her cheeks pink, and even though she was well into her fifties she looked like a young woman.

“Oh, just a few days. I’m in town for a meeting, but then I’m going back to Seattle.”

“Well...” she adjusted her coat, cheap polyester standard-issued from the airline she worked for. “Give me a call the next time you’re in town. I’d love to do this again.”

He wrote his number for her on a piece of hotel stationary, and she took it. She moved like she was going to hug him, then reached out and patting his upper arm.

When he got home a few days later, the light on his voicemail machine was blinking. It was Denise, asking him to get drinks again sometime soon. A year later, they were married.


The officers from the county are at their house a week after the “incident,” as Sam Sparrow has delicately begun to call it. Tate watches them from the upstairs window as they pull up on someone’s borrowed ATV: soft, middle-aged men with round pink faces and dark glasses. One of them has a beard, red streaked with gray, and neither wears a uniform. He expected something different when he was told that men from the state government would be coming to remove all the guns from the premises; in his head, he envisioned a swarm of stiff-backed g-men in tactical gear descending on the airstrip, ready for a fight. Even if this were the case, Tate is not going to fight; in another circumstance, certainly. But the man from the county explained it over the phone to him that morning.

“It’s a precautionary measure, ahead of any potential fines,” he’d said. Tate was only half listening, watching Denise in the living room look at the television impassively. “We’ll have to take all firearms out of the house until Mrs. Waylan is deemed psychologically sound.” Tate appreciated that the man said “until,” as if this stranger was also sure that there was nothing really wrong with Denise deep down, that this was all a temporary arrangement, and that eventually everything would clear and they could go back to their normal life.

He meets the officers in his front yard, hoping to keep them away from Denise, who does not know that any of this is happening. The officers show Tate their badges, introduce themselves as Officer Beasly and Officer Smith. Both of them are young enough to be Tate’s own children.

“Can you tell us how many guns you have on the property, sir?” the smaller one, Officer Smith, asks. Neither of them have taken off their sunglasses and Tate sees himself reflected through them, his face swollen and helpless in their eyes.

Tate shrugs before he can realize that he shouldn’t. It looks careless, the attitude of someone who doesn’t keep track of his firearms, the type of person who would let his rapidly deteriorating wife destroy someone else’s property without thinking twice.

“Twenty-five,” Tate says finally. The taller one, Beasly, writes something down on his notepad.

“And you have them all out of their safes? Unlocked?”

“Yes.” What is unsaid is that they were not in the safe to begin with. It was Denise who convinced him that a gun safe was necessary in the first place, and while he had gotten one shipped over from Anacortes a few years back, it had gone unused and the guns stayed unloaded in his office. Denise had said more than once that she didn’t think he needed so many—after all, the biggest threat on Tilden was Anton Check’s old Charolais bull, Timothy—but she agreed that it was his right and as long as she didn’t have to trip over them, he could have as many as he wanted.

He follows the officers into the house, watching from the doorway as they loaded the guns into containers. They sweep the house, Tate trying to keep them as far from the living room as possible without it looking suspicious. They tell Tate that they will be in touch if anything changes and give him a phone number for the SJPD if he has any questions before buzzing down the road back towards the dock. Tate watches them leave. A small crowd, noticing the officers when they arrived, are gathered outside the Waylan property to watch the proceedings. Sam Sparrow is there, and when the ATV rounds the bend towards the dock he makes a motion to the onlookers and they head on their way. Sam gives Tate a sympathetic look, shakes his head. “Doesn’t he have anything better to do?” Tate mutters to himself.

Denise has been in the living room for all of this. She’s finally turned off the television and is reading a magazine when Tate returns.

“Why were the police here?” Denise asks, not looking up from the page.


It shocked him at that age that love could still feel this way, giddy and bashful. It was different with her, different than he expected marriage or love to be now that he was closer to retirement than starting life. The wedding hadn’t been big, a courthouse affair on a Tuesday morning, Tate in the suit he wore for business meetings and Denise in a pale blue skirt-set, a bouquet of roses from the grocery store across the street. She moved into his house out by the Boeing plant in Everett and settled into a life quickly, the two of them almost dangerously happy. She had a mission to protect people: waitresses at their local diner, the mail carrier, her dry cleaner, taking it upon herself to take care of them, tipping too much and bringing them clothes she was going to donate. Even when her hairdresser massacred her dye job, Denise insisted on going back the next time she needed her hair done. “If she loses customers, she’ll get kicked out of the salon,” was her logic. “She’s got three kids at home and no husband, what am I supposed to do?”

When he learned that she had been hiding his drinking from him, he was more humiliated by the fact that he had not noticed anything sooner, that she had been able to keep it from him so easily. She had been a functioning alcoholic for several years, and by the time Tate entered her life she was an expert. But her tenacity for deceit was slipping in old age, and ultimately the catalyst was being drunk on the job, which led to her being fired from Horizon, hauled off the plane sobbing in Portland. She was four years away from her pension when it happened, but Tate assured her they made more than enough without it.

The move to Tilden came later, not long after Denise got out of rehab. All of Tate’s friends from work were moving out of Seattle, looking for smaller towns or states with less rain and crime and liberalism, and it was one of these men who told Tate about Tilden, intrigued him with the idea of an “off the grid” place to live out his golden years. Tilden wasn’t connected to the ferry route like most of the other islands north of Puget Sound. There was no law enforcement presence on the island, nor any stores or restaurants; there wasn’t enough need or want for anything like it. It sounded like a paradise to Tate and Denise, both of whom were getting increasingly desperate to leave Seattle for different reasons, and when they went to visit one summer before Tate retired they fell in love.

They arrived in April, snatching up a prime piece of property by the airport that was really a glorified landing strip near the mail shed. The house was two stories, a rarity on Tilden, with a big wraparound porch on the second floor with a view of the Salish sea out the dining room window. At first, Tate had been worried that the change in lifestyle would be too much for both of them, but Denise took to it immediately. She had never been a woman much concerned with her appearance, but on Tilden she quickly adopted the uniform of the other retired wives, trading slacks and sweaters for loose denim shirts and practical work pants, letting her hair go gray and coarse instead of heat styling it every day. There was a garage where Tate and Denise worked on their airplane, a Cessna 206 they bought secondhand from a fellow islander and repaired as one of their first retirement projects. Denise built a garden like the one she had had at home in Everett, stringing up netting around the plot to keep deer and rabbits at bay. Both of them read every day, worked on projects—he wanted to build airplanes, so she helped, and she wanted to grow more food, so he dug her a garden. They didn’t install a TV for almost three years after moving in. On warm evenings they sat on the porch and watched the bats chase after mosquitos as night closed in, the only noise the occasional call of an owl or the dull roar of a neighbor’s ATV, the plaintive cry of a foghorn somewhere on the water. She even gave up smoking, the only vice she had kept after rehab.

“It just feels wrong to do it here,” she said. “Everywhere I look there’s trees and grass and I can’t stop thinking about accidentally setting it on fire.” She told Tate how surprised she was about how easy it was to quit, something she had never been able to do on the mainland. “Island magic,” she called it.

They settled into a routine that, to Tate, was nothing short of idyllic, and every morning when he rolled over to find Denise already out of bed, dressed and working in the garden before it got too warm or too rainy, he would see her reading glasses balanced haphazardly on the nightstand and feel a rush of calm that he had, up to that point, only ever associated with coming home after a long day of work.

Early on, Tate had wondered what would happen if he or Denise got sick. At the time, it wasn’t likely; they went to their doctor’s appointments on the mainland every year, got checked for everything. Tate’s family was unusually healthy, and his own mother had lived to ninety-nine before dying peacefully of old age. Denise was not close with her family, and had not been for some time, so she didn’t know if there were any health issues to be aware of. But they were both in good health—you had to be, to weather the cold winters and long boat rides and hours spent working in the sun that came with life on Tilden. Tate never worried, and the two of them had already planned where they would like to be buried together on the island.

When someone on Tilden got sick, really sick, they moved off-island to deal with it. A faceless realtor whom nobody had ever seen would sell their house, and it would be like that old sick person had never been there. There were no wailing sirens to cut through the night, no sudden heart attacks or strokes. Like most things on Tilden Island, death usually came at a leisurely pace, always with enough time for one to prepare for its approach. Enough time to get your affairs in order, enough time to vanish off the island before anyone saw you sick or weak or broken, had to think of the fate that was no doubt awaiting all of them. There had never been an on-island funeral, unless you count the wake that the McIvers held for their 16-year-old cat, Katrina, after she died of kidney failure.

A lot of the homeowners only stayed for the spring and summer, taking their old bones to warmer climes for the harsher part of the year. Over the years, Tate saw several long-time neighbors move, gathering the castoffs they left behind as they returned to the security and confinement of the mainland. It was how Tate got his truck, the fishing boat, a trailer and more buoys than he knew what to do with. The collection grew with time: Denise strung the buoys across the deck like enormous year-round Christmas lights, Tate put the stag horns from Andy Wood on the grill of his truck. A colorful array of paintings, photographs, and maps from past residents lined the walls of the Waylan home, and there was even a dog at one time, an aging Golden Retriever named Buddy who was too old to manage the boat ride and was now buried in Tate and Denise’s backyard near the garden.

“I’ll stay as long as I’m able. You’ll have to drag me off kicking and screaming,” Denise always said, and Tate believed her. He kept waiting for something, a lump or a twinge or a sudden loss of appetite to signal that their time was coming, and for years it never came. Tate and Denise began to watch neighbors their age deteriorate and move away, selling their houses or going part-time, and without meaning to they became the longest-standing residents of Tilden Island.


Sam calls again later that evening. Tate wishes he wouldn’t; Sam is only trying to help, he takes his job as the HOA director very seriously—perhaps too seriously—but it’s almost more than he can take after today.

“We’re doing fine, Sam,” Tate says before he can say anything.

“I know, Tate. I just wanted to let you know that Grace decided that she is gonna go through with it after all and take it to court if you don’t pay the fine.”

Tate glances at Denise, who is cleaning the dishes at the sink, and turns his body away from her.

“The ten thousand?”


“Why doesn’t she tell me that?” Tate asks.

“She will. I told her to call you. But I wanted to give you a heads up.”

Tate rubs his eyes behind his glasses. “So that’s it? She wants the fine and everything?”

“Yeah. She says she’s really sorry about it, but it’s a loss of inventory, so she feels like—”

“Bullshit,” Tate says. “If she was really that sorry she wouldn’t have dragged the police into it. She wouldn’t have made it such a big deal.”

“I hear you,” Sam says carefully. “But I guess she feels it’s what she has to do.”

“She didn’t have to do anything. Can’t she tell it was an accident?”

A pause. “Well, I mean….” Sam sighs. “I know, but to be fair to Grace it didn’t really look like an accident. But listen, Tate, I tried to talk her down, and I think she’s listening. I told her—I mean, we all know that Denise hasn’t been doing so good lately.”

This is a surprise to Tate. He thought he was the only one who had noticed the changes in his wife’s behavior, at least until now. Shame floods him; what has Denise done or said to Sam that would make him realize that she’s not as sharp as she used to be?

“What do you mean?” Tate asks. Denise is murmuring to herself again, the low thrumming words that sound like singing.

“Come on, you know how it is with old age. Dementia and all that, makes you act different. I’m sure if you told the judge that, they’d be more lenient with you. Maybe even let you settle. But I don’t know, I’m not a legal expert or anything.”

“Yeah,” Tate says, because what else can he say?

“Listen, a bunch of us are gonna help you out. Nobody wants to see you guys go through something like this. I’ve got Greta working on a list of all the folks who can bring you guys food, Annette was talking about helping out with the house—”

“Sam,” Tate says, harsher than he means to. “Nobody’s dead. You don’t need to do that.”

“I know, but—”

“If you can get me ten thousand dollars, I’d sure appreciate it. Or a time machine. Other than that, we don’t need anything.”

He can’t tell who hangs up first. All the phone calls are starting to make him feel unfaithful somehow, a secret that everyone is in on except for Denise. Tate thinks about what Sam said, imagines trying to explain to Denise what their options are now, ask her if she understands what is happening and what it might mean for the two of them. He sees hospitals, retirement homes, dust-colored hallways and waiting rooms reeking of other people’s breath. Sedate watercolors on the walls, IV drips, handfuls of pills that Denise won’t swallow because she’s never liked swallowing pills, even Advil has to get crushed up in her orange juice. A quiet life of crossword puzzles and dinner on the deck turned into a series of appointments, in-home care, constant boats back and forth to the mainland, the faceless realtor materializing to tell Tate what the house might be worth.

“Honey?” Denise startles Tate from his vision. She’s finished the dishes and is wiping her hands with the sunflower towel, a castoff from the retired schoolteacher who moved to Alaska.

“What are you thinking about?” she asks. Tate shakes his head.

“Nothing, honey,” he says, and she comes up behind him and squeezes his shoulders. He feels her forehead come to rest between his shoulder blades.

“It’s getting late, my love,” she says. The closest Denise usually gets to pet names is “honey,” and the intensity of the words catch Tate off guard. Her arms snake around his chest and clasp tight.

“I know. We should get to bed.”

Tate can’t fall asleep, but at some point he must drop off, because one moment he’s staring at the ceiling and the next moment he is on his stomach and Denise’s side of the bed is empty. He jolts up immediately, fumbling in the dark for his glasses. There is no sound from the house, just the endless whirr of crickets drifting through the windows. The fan shut off sometime during the night, and Tate’s shirt is plastered to his front with sweat.

“Denise?” He called down the hallway, but there was no answer. Panic seizes him; there are no more guns in the house, but God knows what Denise could find to wreak havoc with. He bolts down the hall and is relieved to see the keys on their usual hook. At least she hasn’t taken the car anywhere.

He calls her name again. If she’s gone out on foot, it wouldn’t be much better. It’s three in the morning, she won’t know the way back. Even with the clearest of memories, Tilden Island is incredibly dark at night. No lights from streets or buildings—one of the many blessings of living so far away from civilization.

When he goes out on the porch and looks into the yard he sees her, bending down in her garden, surrounded by the late-summer harvest that is caged in to keep out the deer and rabbits. She was still wearing her robe, the same blue terry cloth one she wore that first night she slept over at his house in Everett. Under the glow of the quarter moon he watches her work, her fingers moving gently through the dirt, harvesting or weeding or watering, he can’t see. A cold wind moves across the lawn; autumn is on its way. Denise is not worried. ♦

the lifers

Emily Nelson is a writer from the Pacific Northwest currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at the University of Montana. Her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Ayaskala, and Drizzle Review, and has received support from Tin House and Bread Loaf.

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