The keys were still in the ignition. I reached for them.
"Wait," she said, and she began to cry again.
At a loss, I stared at the two-lane highway. We were parked in a gravel turnout. A stretch of gray asphalt veered to the right. There was a stand of Douglas fir trees to the left of the road and a drainage ditch lined with new spring clover to the right.
I glanced over at Nat who was leaning forward, pressing the thumb and middle finger of one hand to her eyebrows. The other hand limply held a damp napkin she had used to blow her nose. I didn't like seeing her that way, so I stared at the road again.
A little forked-horn buck with velvet on his antlers and a white patch on his hind flank wandered out of the stand of trees. I was glad to see him. I thought I would point him out to Nat, maybe get a smile out of her. I held on to the feeling for a second, a warm little nugget behind my sternum. I knew it wouldn't change anything that had happened. Still, I couldn't help wanting to cheer her up - at least in-so-much as was possible. When I couldn't hold on to that warm feeling, when it started to grow cool and realistic, I touched her knee and said, "Look baby, a deer."
Nat didn't look up straight away, which frustrated me. The deer was still moving, stepping onto the edge of the road. When Nat finally raised her head and both of us had our eyes on him, the deer stopped. His ears went forward and he stood alert, parallel to whatever it was he was looking at. Suddenly, he broke into a run. He looked ready to leap when I saw a car appear around the corner.
I heard the tires squeal briefly. Then the deer was on his side, skidding across the road into the clover-lined ditch. The car came to rest at an angle in the road.
"Jesus Christ," Nat said.
I kept my eyes on the ditch where the deer slid off to see if he'd jump up and run off, but there was no movement.
The car, a Ford, pulled slowly to the side of the road. The front was pretty well dented in.
Nat's crying must have been shocked out of her because she was alert now, wide-eyed. "What do we do?"
"Stay here," I said.
"Where are you going?"
I didn't answer.
I walked over to see about the little buck first. I found him in the ditch with a compound fracture on his left hind leg. The left front leg was broken too, bent at an angle between the hoof and knee. The clover around him was a brilliant green against the dull pine needles and gravel at the side of the road. I figured the clover was what he was headed for, why he wanted across in the first place.
The broken legs, now that was one thing. The translucent white piece of bone that had pierced his hide was something else. But the worst part was the way his tongue protruded and the little movements his mouth made. Then there was his open eye, which jerked one direction, then the other.
"Thomas," Nat called out.
I turned to look at her but didn't say anything. She started to walk my way but I raised my hand. She stood on the roadside with her arms folded, rubbing her triceps. I stepped out of the ditch and walked to the Ford.
The old lady had her window rolled up. She was staring at the road ahead, not at me. I waited a few seconds but she paid me no mind. I knocked on the glass. Nothing. I tried the door handle. It was unlocked, so I opened it.
The old lady turned to me and said, "What's happened?"
Nat snuck up behind me. She said, "You had a bit of an accident." Her voice, her involvement, startled me.
The old lady turned to face us. "An animal, was it?"
"Yes," Nat answered. "A deer."
"Is it alright?"
Nat looked at me, frowned, and shook her head.
"I think so," I said. "I think he got up and ran off."
"Oh good," the old lady whispered. "Good, good."
Nat leaned in toward the woman, "Are you okay to drive home?"
I looked up and down the road, hoping another car would stop, maybe someone with a rifle.
The old lady said, "I think I need a few minutes."
Nat pouted her lip. "Here, let me sit with you, okay?"
Nat walked around and slid into the passenger seat. I closed the driver's side door.
I stood on the edge of the road, waiting to flag down the first pick-up truck I saw. The rural line of the county bus came by on its way to Brackenville. A teenage girl stared out the window at the old lady's dented car. I wished I were a passenger on that bus - roaring by, feeling an instant of worry and curiosity, but no real investment in the trouble.
I could see that Nat and the old lady were talking in the car. I couldn't hear any of it, but their mouths were moving. A few cars passed, but none were the kind I was looking for. I've never been a hunter myself - but I do fish now and then. All I could think about was the little club you carry when you're fishing. They call it a "preacher."
I pictured the deer's chest, its rapid expansions and contractions. I remembered how his limbs weren't moving at all, not even twitching. I supposed he had a broken neck.
Nat rolled down her window and called out to me. When I got to the car she said, "This is Mrs. Stevens. She would like me to ride back to town with her."
Considering the conversation we were having when all this happened, it wasn't a good time for us to separate. I had asked Nat not to give up yet, and she had asked me to admit we needed to let go. So now I was angry and had to suppress what I wanted to say to the old lady. Then I calmed down a little, enough anyway, to see the development for what it was - an opportunity to get rid of them before I did the thing I had to do.
Nat looked at me and said, "You'll have to follow us."
I was the one who subtly frowned and shook my head this time. Nat looked confused. I made a face at her, nodding back toward the buck. I watched her face soften as what I was implying sank in.
She turned to the old lady. "Mrs. Stevens, why don't we go on ahead? I'll call him with your address when we get to town."
I wanted to lean over and kiss Nat goodbye. I was tuning into the idea that I wouldn't have many more opportunities to do this. But I could see that Nat was already focused on the old lady. She touched the back of Mrs. Stevens' hand as if she were an old friend.
Mrs. Stevens started up her Ford and put it in drive. She turned on her blinker. There was a scraping sound as the car rolled forward and a pool of antifreeze near my feet.
Still, I seriously considered not saying anything. What was it to me if an old lady burned up her engine? But, for one reason or another, I shouted and waved my arms for them to stop.
I managed to get Nat away once we had Mrs. Stevens buckled into Nat's car. "You're going to have to distract her for a minute," I said.
"Can't you come back or call someone from town?"
"No," I said.
I took the driver's seat. Nat slid in back with Mrs. Stevens. I made a three-point turn in the gravel so the car wouldn't be facing the ditch. Then I put it in park and hit the latch for the trunk. "Left my wallet in the trunk earlier," I lied. "Don't like to drive without it."
A quick glance in the rearview mirror told me they wouldn't be able to see much if I left the trunk open. Nat started to cry again. I wasn't sure if she was doing it to distract the old lady or not, but I held out a little hope.
As soon as I lifted the trunk, I could tell Nat wasn't carrying anything that would make much of a preacher. There was a cardboard box with a canister of Armor All, a flimsy plastic ice scraper, and a red mechanic's rag. That left only her bowling shoes and a blanket we used on a picnic last year. Rain had leaked into her trunk and the blanket was peppered with mold spots. Under a carpeted panel, I found the spare tire and jack. The lug wrench was shaped like an X. It would have been too hard to maneuver, but there was a bent arm crank for the jack. It was heavy and about the right length. I took it with me.
When I returned to where the buck was sprawled out in the ditch, I hoped to hell he was already dead, but I could see right away that he was still breathing. I took one last look at the road, wishing someone else would come along or some other option would present itself. I was sure the old lady didn't buy that I was still looking for my wallet. But that wasn't my biggest concern. If she had to come to terms with what she'd put into motion, who was I to kill myself over it?
The buck's eye didn't watch me. It darted around, settling on nothing in particular. Shadows of the branches above swayed back and forth across the ground. I could hear wind sifting through the needles. I didn't want to do it - not until an ant crawled along the buck's leg, up to his stomach, and started for his neck in a zigzag pattern. I didn't want to see that ant crawl around on his open eye. That would've been too much. It was then that I finally brought myself to lift the preacher and take a hard swing. When the bar connected, it vibrated in my hand. The next two cracks came hard and fast, from someplace inside I couldn't fathom. The wind I'd heard in the branches seemed to disappear - though I'm sure that it was still there, and that it was my senses that had closed up shop.
There was no movement in the eye then. I kneeled and set the preacher down, while I pulled up a fist full of clover. "Sorry," I said, gently pushing a few stems into his mouth.
Carrying the preacher back, I saw that there wasn't any blood to wipe away. Still, I didn't want it in her car, so I chucked it into a patch of salal.
I dropped into the driver's seat again. I had seen through the back window that Mrs. Stevens had her purse open, and that she'd given tissues to Nat. When my eyes connected with Nat's in the mirror, I frowned.
"Are you okay?" Nat asked - trying to make it sound like it was about nothing, for the old lady's sake. I nodded, staring into the rearview.
It meant something to me that those were the first words out of her mouth, and it momentarily took me back to an optimistic place in my head: a place where she might change her mind, a place where she might decide things weren't so bad after all. I thought that if I could usher her to that place, she might stay there a while. I'd been there myself; I'd stayed with women long after I should have cut out. Sometimes it's just easier to let things go on, easier to tell yourself, "This is the best I can do."
I started the car and pulled onto the highway toward town. I could hardly see the old lady because she was sitting directly behind me, but her presence was painfully evident. Everyone was quiet. I expected Nat to keep crying, or else to buddy up with the old lady some more. But that desire must have drifted from her too. For a while the silence was almost comfortable. Then something in the air turned, as if each of us knew something needed to be said. I was still in the emotional impact zone of what I'd done to the buck, not to mention the things Nat had said before. Mrs. Stevens still seemed overwhelmed. I thought I knew exactly what the old lady was feeling: regret, uncertainty, shock, etc. But Nat was another story. I had never felt like I knew less about what was going on in her head.
I could feel the silence growing stiff and impatient. I couldn't speak. Everything I considered saying felt like a lie. So I waited. I wanted to see whether or not Nat would be the first to speak, to put everyone at ease. But it was Mrs. Stevens who sucked in an audible breath and said, "I don't know why I'm telling you this, but I feel I should. I've never mentioned it to anyone. Owen, that was Mr. Steven's name, he and I had an agreement not to let it out. But I guess sometimes it just feels right, telling an old secret for the first time."
Neither Nat nor I said a word.
"On our first date, Owen borrowed his father's car. We had a nice quiet dinner. Although I liked him a great deal, we didn't seem to have much to say to each other. I felt so dull. I can tell you, I was sure he wouldn't ask me out again." Mrs. Stevens paused to rearrange her purse on her lap. "He was taking me home when we hit a little black dog. Owen was just torn up about it. He'd had a dog himself as a boy. We rushed the poor creature to Owen's house to try to nurse it up, but it died after just about an hour. Well, Owen was just a mess, so I ended up staying the night with him, even though I knew my daddy would be after him the next day with his gun. Now you have to remember, boys and girls didn't sleep over in those days."
Nat leaned in as if to hear the rest of the story. She sat like that for a moment before we realized Mrs. Steven's anecdote had come to an end. At that point, Nat leaned back into the seat like she was thinking of sleep.
I didn't say anything at all. I knew how the story ended - I thought I knew anyway. The old lady figured they never would've married if they hadn't hit the dog. What I wasn't sure about, was whether their getting married was ultimately a good thing or a bad thing in her mind. I wondered then if it had occurred to Nat the same way it did to me. I thought it probably did, but I wouldn't have placed a bet on it. Maybe the old lady could sense that something was happening between us. Being of her generation, she had to tell us to stick it out.
Nat put her mouth close to Mrs. Steven's ear and whispered something.
I didn't hear a response.
The car bumped up and over the narrow bridge across Blackberry Creek. I knew the stretch of road well. For instance, I knew that shortly after the bridge, the road dipped down and curved to the left, before steadily ascending the hills. I knew that when you reached the top, the trees were cut clean away so you could see the green water of the Strait. And I knew, no matter how many times I crested the same hill, finding a vast expanse of saltwater and the outline of distant islands would forever feel like a surprise.
I still couldn't think of anything to say, so I studied the road, cautious of the shoulders on either side, of anything that might leap out at us.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Calvin Mills. All rights reserved.