The flashbulbs fade away. The media circus disappears into frost-covered cars and cellular phones. The snow falls, fat and heavy, and Huck walks home alone. The vultures behind the cameras were kinder this year—or maybe less interested. After all, each Christmas gone by puts more distance between the rest of the world and what happened here in Hakeeny, Wyoming. Tonight, after the usual trite round of questioning, the vultures fluttered away so quickly Huck almost left with one of their microphones. The kid who came to retrieve it had one eye glued to the weather report—full highway shutdowns all the way to Cheyenne.

Huck doesn’t mind the snow, though. He tucks his hands in his pockets and his chin in his collar, watches the fat flakes swirl down to cover up his footprints as he trudges the slow, snowy miles toward home.

Phoebe looked good tonight. Her kids are growing up just fine.

At the press conference, her youngest held her hand, blinking up at the TV cameras with a sleepy look in her eye. Phoebe’s daughter looks just like Phoebe on the day it all happened—took Huck’s breath away when he first walked in.

The blonde curls look just right on Phoebe’s daughter. She’s free from her mother’s long, puckered scar: a divot from the right corner of the mouth, a dip to the throat, straight across with a twist to a crescent moon that pulls north to the left ear. The little girl has bright skin, a dusting of freckles across the nose, that same dazed look under the onslaught of all those cameras—but she’s healthy, whole. Phoebe’s miniature in unblemished porcelain.

This afternoon, they fielded all the usual questions—why Phoebe? Why Huck?—but the interviews felt forced. Maybe the audience these days is more interested in what Mrs. Celebrity So-and-So had to say about her ex-husband.

The snow starts to pick up as Huck turns the corner toward home.

He knows Phoebe would’ve offered him a ride, saved him the walk. But she doesn’t know about the revoked license yet, so he had to act like he chose to show up to the press conference on foot. A sorry effort, probably, since the vultures will likely find out about the whole DUI thing and plaster it all over the evening news. When she asked how he was getting home, Huck gave Phoebe some excuse about meeting the boys for a drink—of course it’ll be coffee, you know I ain’t messed with the harder stuff in years—but before he could slip away Phoebe gripped him by the crook of each elbow and looked long and serious into his eyes. And just the way it had on every other anniversary, the force of Phoebe’s gaze twisted and stabbed into Huck’s gut, the affection and gratitude jumbling up against the sadness in them both like so much half-mixed cement. It wasn’t quite love, what they shared. It was something deeper, seeped in snowmelt, tinged with exhaustion, dug in far beyond words. And somewhere behind all that gratitude and understanding they’d reached together, there was still the softest echo of that old, familiar terror.

Maybe Huck isn’t the only one who still wakes up screaming.

Stumbling in the snow piled by his front steps, Huck slides the key every which way before he manages to open the door of his doublewide. He kicks the snow off his work boots and edges his way inside. When he spots Lulabelle’s empty bed in the kitchen, all he feels is a sort of resolute blankness.

The doublewide is colder without the dog. When Lula was a puppy, all that barking and sprinting made it look too small for the two of them, but Huck’s routine and his home opened up to that dumb little labradoodle as the years went by. And then, when she was ready to go, the vet was kind enough to take care of Lula all the way out here, even though it was Halloween and her kids wanted a ride to the rich side of town. The least I could do for the town hero, the vet said.

Huck gave Lula two McDonald’s hamburgers, watched her chew them so slow and determined. They shared a vanilla ice cream cone. Lula gobbled it down wrapper and all, the same way she’d snatched her first treat out of Huck’s unsuspecting hand the day he brought her home from the rescue. Huck cradled Lula in his lap and told her stories about their adventures together. He let her know how good she’d been, how brave. Huck held her tight as the doctor did her thing somewhere around Lula’s back leg. He held her tight as she breathed slow and quiet, held her tight enough to feel the light trickle out of her through his fingertips. She let out one high-pitched cry—fear or pain or betrayal or relief, no way to tell—and a final slow sigh as she grew cold and stiff against his legs.

That was the night they took his license away.

Tonight, Huck is careful to keep his back to the dog bed as he makes himself a late dinner, puts the coffee on, unlaces his heavy boots and settles down to eat. He never has much of an appetite after the press conference, but it’s tradition at this point to cook up a feast anyway—a midnight breakfast of ham and eggs, English muffins slopped with butter, maybe green peppers and onions when he’s feeling fancy. Tonight he pulls out all the stops, fries everything in that fancy imported olive oil Phoebe sent him for Christmas. He sits down in front of the TV but doesn’t bother turning it on.

Tonight, WGTV Hakeeny will be panning back and forth across the house on Carroll Lane—why they’ve never torn it down, Huck doesn’t know. A blonde reporter will be bundled up in her scarf and coat at a good angle to get a shot of the broken window. The big station in Cheyenne prefers the vintage stuff, the helicopter footage from that Christmas morning, with the snowmen on the neighboring lawns making such an artful contrast to the flashing red and white lights, the stark blue uniforms of the Hakeeny PD and the Feds they called in from the capital. Sometimes the more experimental news channels will put this footage up against clips from the most recent press conference in a game of “Where Are They Now.” And eventually, every station will circle back to the six-second clip they love the most: Huck at the podium, stuttering his way through the statement the lawyers prepared.

“I’m no hero,” says his younger self. “I’m just the crossing-guard.”

Right place, wrong time. Wrong place, right time. It didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now.

It’s a tired comparison, but Huck still can’t get used to seeing his face on that screen, can’t reconcile the thirty-something he sees there with the gaunt old man he sees in the mirror. Back then, he was the cowboy hero, the dashing everyman, Wyoming’s Boy Next Door. These days the interviews mostly focus on Phoebe, and he’s glad of it. The vultures like to preen and crow, and there’s not much to say about an old man sitting alone with his dog in a doublewide. The vultures pick their fill from Phoebe’s activism, from the foundation she built with her foreign husband, from the do you still think about its and the could it happen to your daughters they fling around like roadkill. And when they’ve picked Phoebe’s stories to shreds, there’s always a question or two for Huck.

Why you? Why Phoebe?

This morning, one of the interviewers—young and ruddy-cheeked and probably convinced he was the first to ever ask this question—stuck a microphone in his face. The kid’s lips formed the words, “Why you? Why that little girl?” but all Huck could see was the pimple above the kid’s left nostril that wobbled with every snow-drenched sniffle. Instead of answering, Huck met Phoebe’s eyes across the sea of cameras. She watched him with that sad, faraway look on her face.

The FBI negotiators struggled with that question, too. They simply couldn’t accept that there was no rhyme or reason to Irma Wilson’s choice. Phoebe was the first kid she saw, Phoebe was the closest one she could haul after her as she fled from the cops. Phoebe was the one who screamed when Irma barricaded herself into that abandoned house on Carroll Lane, brandishing the knife already slick with her husband’s blood.

Huck wasn’t special. He was just first. He had no training, no sudden burst of inspiration. His legs were just the longest and got him to the porch ahead of everyone else. It was random, one expert said. It was premeditated, said another. There was no motive to speak of—a psychotic break, the vultures called it later, maybe skipped medication and a fight with the husband, but nobody could ask him, he was dead—and the lack of understanding made the negotiations stretch as long as they did. The Sheriff didn’t call the FBI in until day two, and by day four the tense, crackling pleas and compromises bawled through the Sheriff’s bullhorn built up new barricades in Huck’s head. A part of him he’d never known before was the one to meet Irma Wilson’s eyes through that broken window, rolling like a bucking horse writhing to escape the arrows buried in its flank, as Huck pleaded once again to know is the little girl still alive, please just let us know she’s still alive.

On the third day, the Sheriff organized a water drop-off, and Huck—only him, anyone but him and I shred her throat I swear to God you fucking bastards—eased his way onto the porch with a cardboard box filled with water bottles and prepackaged food. Great puffs of smoke rose from Huck’s every breath, and when he looked for Irma, watching him from the gap in the broken window with that knife pressed to Phoebe’s neck, Huck stumbled and dropped the box. It was so cold that one of the bottles snapped in its plastic and splattered the porch with water. Phoebe gasped, Huck did too—Irma’s chest heaved and her eyes rolled from the little girl to Huck and back again as a trickle of blood wound its way down Phoebe’s neck where the knife pressed too hard.

Go. Get away now. And don’t you fucking look at me.

That day, Huck raised his hands above his head and backed off the porch, terrified to lift his gaze from the planks, where the water seeped through the cracks to drip on some hidden darkness below.

At the last second, he looked up. Not at the wild-eyed woman, but at Phoebe. Her eyes met his, and he saw for the first time the look he’d seen every year since—gratitude, fear, exhaustion. A thread stretched between them that morning on the porch, a thread that never snapped no matter how roughly the vultures tossed it in the air, how they stretched it to the breaking point and past with their microphones and cameras.

Why Phoebe? Why Huck?

They never got a chance to ask. By the time it was over, Irma Wilson was dead. In the trailer, Huck pauses with his fork halfway to his mouth. He sets it down in the exact center of his napkin, folds his hands like he might try praying.

He hopes the vultures stay friendly to Phoebe this year. It is Christmas, after all. Huck likes a video they sometimes show of the foundation headquarters, where Phoebe and her French husband work with detectives all over the world to track down missing and exploited kids, reunite them with their families, and provide all the medical treatments and therapy they need once they make it home. With all the fanfare, I never got a chance to feel like a kid again, Phoebe says in the interview. Every kid deserves a return to normalcy. Every kid deserves a chance to forget.

Huck likes those stories.

He was supposed to be in that interview too, but he stayed in Wyoming with his dog and a nasty flu. Later, Phoebe’s husband showed him how to record news clips on the TV, and Huck watched that interview over and over again, stuffed up with tissues and the pride of a real parent. He likes when the news outlets show that side of her, focus on the good she made with her life.

But some years those same outlets turn into real carrion birds, pissing on their feet to keep cool. When the news circuit is slow, the vultures like to stretch out her story, eking out little morsels of trauma and scandal to fill the time between commercials. They accuse Phoebe of sympathizing with her attacker and milking the media attention in the same breath. They turn their talons on Huck too, insisting he botched the whole operation, should never have been trusted with something so serious and delicate. They fling the rotting carcass of his reputation from talk show to talk show and giggle while they pick at the bones.

He’s the only reason that kid has that scar, a man with a cowlick said once. His spit flew in high definition as he raged, spots of color high in his cheeks. She says she wants a chance to forget? Now she’ll never be able to, and it’s all because of him.

During that particular roundtable, they showed the same clip on a loop: Huck lunging forward through the snow, too slow to stop the knife flashing upward in a spray of blood, the slow fall as Phoebe crumpled into the ice with her throat ripped open, the staccato snap of the bullets as they ripped through Irma Wilson’s chest and turned her right shoulder to hamburger.

What that clip never captures is the shocked gurgle Phoebe let out as she fell. It doesn’t show the pieces of Irma Wilson that embedded themselves in the porch behind her, or the flecks of blood that dotted Huck’s cheek like hot freckles. He’s the only one who saw the defiance and pride in Irma’s eyes, that last flash of sullen victory, as she tumbled backward and landed with a wet smack, hard and broken, on the planks of the porch.

In interviews, the EMTs and the police chief say that what Huck did next is the only thing that saved Phoebe’s life. He packed thick handfuls of snow into the mess where her throat used to be, snow so cold that it froze the blood almost instantly, just enough to keep her from bleeding out. The vultures ask him about it every year—what did it feel like, how did you know, what were you thinking—but Huck’s never been able to describe the blind terror that seeped into him that day, the cold and resolute fear numbing his fingers as he packed handful after handful of snow into that gaping hole. He’s never told anyone about the smell—deli meat left out in a hot car—or the look in Phoebe’s eyes, the certainty when this eight-year-old realized, I am going to die. No. The news clips never quite capture that.

Huck finishes his meal, washes the dishes, puts everything back just so. He heads to the storage closet at the back of the trailer, where he retrieves his camping chair and the two wax-wrapped packages he saves for Christmas.

Outside, he builds himself a bonfire they’ll see all the way in Cheyenne. He settles the two packages in his lap. The first is a bottle of Kentucky rye, the good stuff they keep in a locked cabinet at the liquor store. The second is the gun he bought on the second anniversary. It made him feel safer, somehow, even though he suspects the clerk at the hunting store knew better. On the sixth anniversary, he found out what the gun tasted like, the barrel cold and slightly salty against his tongue, the tears rolling fat and slow down his cheeks. Last year he got as far as unwrapping the wax paper, holding the gun in his hand. But Lulabelle, that dumb little dog, leaned over from her own camping chair and placed her little chin on his thigh with a soft, annoyed snort, letting him know he was a right imbecile for sitting out here in the snow, but if that’s where he wanted to be, well then, she wanted to be there too.

Huck cracks open the whiskey.

Phoebe will be alright. She’s got the kids, the foundation. The French husband. He lets out a dry laugh at that thought and tilts his head back to take in the Wyoming sky. He’s warm from the fire, buoyed by the whiskey, and holds the gun loosely in his right hand as he picks out the familiar constellations with his left—Orion, hanging fat and low against the winter horizon. The Seven Sisters, gossiping in close formation. The Big Dipper, directly overhead.

It sure will be good to see his dog again.

He passes the gun from one hand to the other, the metal growing cold and heavy against his skin. The stars are so far away tonight, and the longer he looks up, the more he feels like he’s falling—backward into the snow, forward into the stars, deeper into some quiet dark place far within himself, a place he suspects he’s been falling into all this time. It’s so cold. The gun is so heavy. He’s falling, and the space behind the stars is the blackness behind that little girl’s eyes, the cold certainty he found there when he pressed handful after handful to her throat. He can feel the cold in his hands now, feel her slipping away as the blood trickles through the numbness in his fingers and hisses to the snow below, hear the pleading in his head and the screaming in hers, while her brown eyes swallow him up and whisper deep into that place inside of him, It’s okay, it’s all right, it’s time to let me go.

Carrion Birds

M. Tyler Tuttle

“'Carrion Birds' holds part of me, but not all of me. I wrote this piece at a time in my life when it felt like the world spun too quickly on its axis and left me behind.

My usual style is long-form fiction: elaborate worlds, vibrant settings, and bright colors. 'Carrion Birds' is the shadow of the artist. It’s shorter, darker, and more desperate than my usual stories. It’s an echo of who I was when I wrote it, the person I’ve moved on from but still carry somewhere deep inside.

I wanted to know what happens to people when their souls hide under the snow. Tragedy is universal, but what happens afterward? Where do we go? What happens to the connections we forge in times of crisis, when that crisis has long since melted away?

I wrote 'Carrion Birds' in one sitting, long past midnight, curled up in my office chair with a scowl on my face and pain in my chest. Writing this story felt like digging out after a long winter. It hurt, and it left me exhausted, but the end result was a break in the cold and a route to somewhere new.”

M. Tyler Tuttle (they/them) is a writer, journalist, and wandering pit demon from Baltimore, Maryland. Tyler holds a degree in Creative Writing & English from the George Washington University in Washington, DC, and is a graduate of The Loft’s Year-Long Novel Writing Project in Minneapolis, MN. Tyler’s work has been published in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Trace Fossils Review, Wooden Teeth, the Horror Over the Handlebars anthology, and multiple philanthropy journals. Their writing has been considered for the Halifax Ranch Prize for Fiction (semi-finalist, 2021), F(r)iction Magazine’s Short Story Contest (finalist, fall 2023), and “Best Original Script” at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival (winner, 2022). You can catch up with Tyler online at or @mtylertuttle on Twitter and Instagram, where they will be documenting their journey as an incoming MFA candidate at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. If you look close—and if you’re very, very lucky—you’ll find them meandering through the wilderness with their dog Piglet, or dancing in a field somewhere, pretending to be Stevie Nicks.

Why is this your Trace Fossil?