In Rick Attig’s wondrous and moving story, “Malheur Refuge,” a foster father is forced to part with his foster daughter after his wife leaves them both. They spend their last day together on a journey to band sandhill cranes in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. This story beautifully navigates complex physical and emotional landscapes. “Malheur Refuge” is the third place winner of our Winter Short Story Award for New Writers. It is not to be missed.
“Sitting side by side, shoulder to shoulder like this, sometimes they can carry on an actual conversation. It’s when they face one another, when he can see the pain in her eyes, she the doubt in his, that he stammers and stumbles, she smiles and shuts up.”
Late at night, Lee sits on his unmade bed with a tumbler of melted ice and looks through a gap in the window blinds, searching the darkness for the flash of headlights. He’s still in his sweat-stained uniform, the patch with a leaping salmon and a fleeing duck high on the shoulder of his khaki shirt. Mia told him she was going to a dance with her new boyfriend, then maybe out to grab a burger afterward. She was supposed to be home by midnight, but now it’s almost one-thirty. Lee’s called twice and sent three texts. She’s not answering.
This one’s name is Brock. He looks at least eighteen, three years older than Mia. They’re always older, the boys who whoop and swoop around her like hungry crows. Brock was a starting tackle until he got caught sucking on a bong in the school parking lot and kicked off the team. Now he’s just another ranch kid fast going to seed. He came to pick Mia up in drooping jeans and a black t-shirt stretched over a promising beer gut and breasts bigger than hers.
Lee’s cracked the bedroom window to listen for the crunch of tires on gravel, but the only sound is the low, anxious chatter of a flock of weary Canada geese resting in the flooded pasture behind the house. Sitting there, he feels a sudden gust of fear, like a skier hesitating at the top of a steep slope in the late afternoon shadows, thinking how absurd it would be to fall and blow out a knee on the day’s final run. This is his last night as her foster father. She’s leaving tomorrow afternoon, moving, being moved, across a hundred and thirty miles of sagebrush to a new foster home in Redmond. It’s not her choice, or his. Their old farmhouse on the edge of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where Mia lived with him and his wife, Joni, for the past two years, no longer is a “suitable placement,” according to her caseworker. Two weeks ago Joni left him, taking only clothes, a few pictures, and a box of favorite books, like she was fleeing from a wildfire. Mia wanted to stay with him, but her caseworker nixed that idea. Hovering in the hall outside the kitchen he eavesdropped on that conversation and replays it again and again, Mia pleading, insisting she would be safe there, safe with him, the caseworker’s voice firm: “Honey, you know we can’t take that risk.”
Lee should have burst into the kitchen right then and fought for her. He knows how hard another move will be, another house of strangers, another new school, all those kids staring, sizing her up, sniffing for weakness. But he also knows how it would sound, how it would look: a forty-four-year-old man whose wife has just run off arguing that this girl who has been hurt so many times before ought to be left alone with him way the hell out in the middle of nowhere.