Turkey Tradition This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

April 16, 2013
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Strange thoughts darted in and out of my conscience, the way they sometimes do in those moments when the world around you slows down. People always used to do this. After all, where do you think Thanksgiving turkeys came from? Through the scope I could see striped feathers, the breast of a wild turkey. They were so colorful when you really took the time to look at them. That's right, there was no magical God of Thanksgiving who rained down turkeys every third Thursday of November. No. You had to hunt them, shoot them. In the head, right? Or no, maybe the neck … I'll just aim for the heart. Can't go wrong there.

By now the blood was pounding in my ears, and each heartbeat shook the gun, shifting the circle of vision in my scope slightly to the right to an oak tree in the background. It was an annoying cycle; after each beat I had to readjust the scope back to the turkey. Turkey. Beat. Tree. Turkey. Beat. Tree. I couldn't keep it still. Everything that had just happened – the climbing of the hill, the searching and the waiting, and finally the excitement of the chase – was culminating in this one moment, this long-awaited chance. All I had to do now was pull the trigger. I deserve this, I thought. After all it took to get here, I deserve this.

• • •

My brothers and I had woken up earlier that morning with a sense of emptiness. It was my sophomore year and the first Thanksgiving we had ever spent at home, away from our extended family and all the memories and traditions that had always been part of our big Thanksgivings at the farm in upstate New York. Now we lived in California, thousands of miles and a very expensive plane ticket away. After moping around and trying to avoid our mother, who had been pleading with us to help her cook, we decided to make a little tradition of our own right here in the Golden State.

“A turkey hunt,” I repeated to my younger brother, Tim. “We're gonna take our guns and shoot a turkey.”

“To eat? Mom already has a turkey in the oven.”

“No, we're not gonna eat it, idiot. You don't eat wild turkeys.”

With nothing else to do, my brothers agreed to the excursion. A flock of turkeys were always strutting around our neighborhood. Taking our spring-powered air rifles (which were powerful enough to kill a coyote), we set out, feeling reminded of the early-morning deer hunts that the men used to go on at the farm.

On the way to the woods on top of the hill where the turkeys usually hid, my father's voice echoed in my head:

“You're just going to kill it? What are you gonna do with it?”

I turned the thought over in my mind as I brushed through the tall grass. It was only one turkey; there were hundreds in the area. They were starting to overpopulate and become a nuisance. And it was Thanksgiving, after all. That, more than anything, justified the act in my mind. Sure, we weren't going to eat it, but it was the principle of the thing. It was a tradition, nothing more. We continued on.

After twenty minutes of creeping through the trees with no sign of turkeys, my brothers started firing shots at the trunks.

“What the hell?” I snapped at them. “Do you want to scare them away?”

“Oh, calm down,” Greg, my older brother, said. “We're just playing.” They stopped though.

They were right. It was just a game, after all. That was the only reason we were here: to have fun and try to forget all that we were missing New York. But even my brothers, who had been jokingly imitating real hunters by sneaking through the trees, were ­noticeably tenser. We wanted to complete our mission. We had to do something worthwhile to make this a real tradition – part of our own, deflated Thanksgiving.

Another twenty minutes crawled by. We had made our way to the other side of the woods and still ­hadn't seen or heard the turkeys. I was annoyed and tired. It was mostly disappointment, but there was something else. I was angry. Angry at the stupid birds. Angry at the steep hill that made my legs ache. And angry at my parents for moving us all the way out here – away from friends and family – and refusing to pay for the plane tickets so we could visit just once a year. I zoned out, thinking about my friends playing in the snow, my cousins riding their snowmobiles at the farm. I was staring blankly at a tree, a tree bathed in sunlight and 65-degree weather with not even a dream of snow, when Greg punched my shoulder.

“Shh,” he said, putting his finger to his mouth and looking at me, then back through the trees.

I heard it too. It was the unmistakable clucking of scavenging turkeys. They were near. I jerked myself up and started out briskly through the maze of redwood trunks. All other thoughts faded. I was in the zone, completely focused, one goal in my mind: to finish this hunt and kill a turkey.

I started breathing heavily. My heart was racing, half with excitement and half with leftover anger. I looked at my brothers and saw that they too had a determined, almost crazed look in their eyes. We were close, and we were thirsty for a kill. It was as if the hunting instinct commanded us, not resting until we found blood.

But inside I knew it was something else – something more personal. Something that we didn't ­really understand.

Running, we burst from the forest into a field, following the faint clucking sounds. I looked around wildly, and finally I saw them. They were below us, in a clearing where the hill leveled off. With a couple more steps they would be within the range of our guns. This was the moment I had been waiting for. I dropped onto one knee and centered my scope. My brothers did the same. We were no longer working in unison. Each of us was a machine with a single purpose: to kill a large, semi-flightless bird.

My overeager younger brother took the first shot. He missed. My face flushed with anger as I tried to steady my nervous breathing and shaking scope. The birds had startled at the gunshot, but not enough to flee. I would have yelled at Tim, but I was concentrated too much on the turkey in my crosshairs. I took a deep breath, and the world swayed into slow motion. The scope finally stabilized, motionless on the breast of the largest bird in the flock. I pulled the trigger.

Somewhere there is a picture of me with that turkey. I am dangling it by its feet, holding it triumphantly in one outstretched hand, my gun in the other. But if you look closely, you can see the forced smile that, along with the distant look in my eyes, betrays the guilt and sadness that overwhelmed me that Thanksgiving Day.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the December 2013 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.

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