I’ve wounded it fatally, but still I wait. Leaning back from my kneeling position, I withdraw myself from the deer’s last moments of life. I feel my navy-blue flannel shirt sticking to my back filmed with sweat and a new layer of calluses rising from my already toughened hands. The smoothness of the gun’s barrel contradicts my rough palms; I refuse to compare its metallic silk to her skin. My chokehold on the weapon grounds me in the present.
I chuckle as a biting sensation near my groin warns me that my fly is open. Tyler and I had taken advantage of nature’s open urinal before we separated to stalk different prey. We’d thought about pissing on the sign that said, “Franklin Creek State Nature Area,” but we decided it was too risky near the Park Office. This hunting trip was all his idea, deer season started a week ago and the temperature isn’t too cold for the middle of November. I knew his eagerness had to do with Rachael, though. We hadn’t gone shooting since she and I had begun dating about five months ago.
Nichole Pientka is a graduate of Bradley University with a double major in English/Creative Writing and Psychology. She hopes to pursue a career in fiction writing by joining an MFA program and to teach creative writing at the university level. Writehouse Ink, one of her proudest accomplishments at Bradley, is a club she co-founded that provides a community and environment conducive to growth in young writers. Nichole lives in Peoria, Illinois but would much rather be in Scotland where she left her heart this past summer.
Minutes before, I had been focused, completely centered, on the bough-colored deer thirty yards out. Nothing else had mattered, my tunnel vision narrowed down the barrel, the cool metal stanch against me. Good thing she can’t look me in the eye. My lungs began burning as I held my breath. My forefinger and middle finger felt like small vices clenching around the trigger as my exhale became the explosive exodus of the bullet. Normally, the sound of the bullet piercing the doe’s throat is inaudible, but I’d heard it louder than the shot itself, the leak of blood spurting at first like a cracked dam then slowing to a trickle.
My task is done, but my mind wanders from the woods. I see her reading in solitude, draped with easy elegance on a bench surrounding a large oak tree, swaying amongst the flying Frisbees on the quad’s breeze. It’s as if she herself is the source of the scene. Bile rises in my throat. Memories of Rachael torture me as they slip into my thoughts.
The decay of foliage, dead for weeks now, tries to overpower my vivid memory of her scent: lavender and pomegranate, she’d told me once. Rachael’s lips on mine had been delicate, fragrant petals. I’d marred them with stains of my hasty passion. I taste her moist pink tongue on my own, forgetting my fallen target, choosing to relive kissing her.
Tightening my fists, I dare my fingers to slice bloody half-moons into my palms. My body stiffens. I try to suppress the phantom pleasure her lips and teeth wrought on my earlobe, her hands rustling my hair, nails massaging and sometimes clawing at my scalp. I stagger as a memory ambushes my mind….
It was almost an awkward moment. Almost. I was lying on my side in my queen-size bed on its velvet comforter that I’d tucked between the mattress and box spring earlier in preparation of Rachael’s visit. She smiled, but the corners of her lips fell, her confidence wavering at our first intimate encounter. My arm swooped in to comfort her, pressing her sloping spine to my chest, our bodies flush. An acoustic guitar thrummed through Rachael’s laptop; she hummed along, and I reveled in the vibration from her vocals. I lost my senses in the lavender ambrosia of her still damp hair. We chatted about the music—stating with pride that I was a T-Swift fan while she admitted to liking Nickelback. My hands rubbed circles into her bare arm, venturing under the sleeve of her plain cotton T-shirt. I felt Rachael slipping from consciousness as a bluesy rhythm nestled around us. It stopped when her laptop died. I hoped she didn’t want to leave.
“You want to go back?” I asked trying not to let her hear my hesitation.
“Not at all,” was her sweet answer. I shed my shirt with her permission and let the peacefulness of the night into my room, our room. It was a wonderful, intimate beginning. My alarm blared hours later warning me that class should be more important than the woman welcoming my embrace.
Brittle leaves snapped at my hiking boots as I trudged without care toward the dead doe. My thighs burn from crouching so long while the same lactic acid flushes from the deer’s lifeless limbs. I see my kill and the power drains from my muscles, knees pummeling the soft earth, almost sending my gun sprawling into the marshy edges. Everything stiffens. Entranced, the wound calls to me: the bloody necklace I’ve clasped around her neck. Before my leaden eyes, the deer’s frozen flank becomes Rachael’s side: the valley of her waist and the swell of her hip. She’s laid out before me once more.
When we’d been together, I’d worshiped the way her torso curved and contorted at my slightest caress. My hands excited her skin that held an untouched softness and decadence. I had brushed when I wanted to grab, licked instead of sucked, nipped when I threatened to bite. Leaving a mark in any manner, looking back on it, had been my subconscious desire. I had wanted to claim her as my own; something had stopped me. Instinct had told me that we were being too hasty, going too fast.
Memories corner me in the small clearing. I close my eyes, my senses recalling the smell and taste of the arc of Rachael’s neck, the perfume of her perspiration. She’d let me get closer than the doe had; Rachael had encouraged my embrace while I had forced myself, my dark desire, on the deer from a distance. The fragments of my words, the buckshot of impatience and indiscretion, had distanced Rachael. I stroke her abdomen, willing her to respond. Beneath the tent of branches, nothing dares to move. Not even the trees gossip. My hands hover above my kill.
I shake my head as if to sever my attention from the memories keen on closure, our breakup a wound left unbound. Prickles on the back of my neck—identical to the sensation when Rachael had sighed into me—salute an approaching person. Whirling around, I half-expect to see her. I’m disappointed to see Tyler making his way with no small difficulty through the underbrush, in which his bootlace snags on a particularly nasty thicket causing him to stumble from the shadows and into the small clearing. A low whistle issues from very different lips from Rachael’s.
“Erik, man, she’s a beaut’.” I hope he doesn’t see my face hollow out at his casual comment.
I backed away from the deer when Tyler approached and now check the deer for remaining signs of life—though I’d felt its final heartbeat, breath, blink. Tyler wipes his dark hair away from his forehead that reflects the noonday sun filtering through the trees. Looming over me back on my knees, Tyler appears to be the bigger man, for once. I feel Tyler gazing down his aquiline nose crooked from a drunken fight with a table.
“She was, wasn’t she?” I say tugging down my neon orange skullcap.
I stare at the zipper of my field dressing kit. I have to do it. I need to put the misery to rest. The lethal blow had been perfect, even so, cutting off the network of blood right above the heart. Maroon mats down her fur.
“Want some help?” I give a solemn nod as Tyler’s permission. He noticed my hesitation at gutting her. It had been a while, after all. I notice the forest’s ambience, it’s disturbing. It’s too crowded: the creatures lurking in the trees and bushes in an endless battle, crimson leaves thrashing. A mule buck draped in shadows steps out from behind a colossal Cyprus. From the ground, I hear the buck moaning. I know that I’ve torn this animal’s mate from life. A chill sets into my bones like a curse cast by the buck, a death omen infecting my mind. Instead of raising my firearm against this tormented being, I leave it nestling against the dead doe’s hairy abdomen for company so that I can shield my ears from the dreadful noise. I don’t know what Tyler is doing or saying, all I can do is try to block out all sound.
All of the sudden, everything in the shade of the forest stills. I shift to my feet, a second of clarity. I retrieve my weapon with caution and hold it like a tether to sanity. Why doesn’t the buck flee? I feel the buck sizing me up as the rifle isn’t readied; the buck still has time to punish me, the murderer.
Through my increasing disorientation, I rationalize that killing the buck won’t end my torture as the mournful screams surge. I relinquish my weapon again, it’s more helpful as another prostrate log among the busy underbrush. Kneeling by the doe I cross myself. As I lift the buck’s mate onto my shoulders, I’m aware of his omnipotent gaze tracing my penitent movement. Her head lolls over one shoulder, blood and sweat, the rank and primal stain, seep into my flannel shirt collar down my straining spine.
"Erik! Where’re you going?” Tyler’s calls of astonishment are lost to my ears. My senses are brimming with the aggravated challenge that the buck offers, I try to answer it with my exertion. The field dressing supplies sit sterile in the grass near where the deer had fallen; the blades o grass still weighed down by her blood. My hands twitch, muscles spasm, jaw clenching, neck straining, preparing. I can taste the buck’s agony: the thick bitterness swelling my tongue as I march through the thickets.
Rachael’s disappointment slows my blood drumming out the final moments of our relationship. The text message that had followed my decision had been inhuman, a coward’s cop-out. I realize now that I’d stared in hesitation at the words claiming that we wanted different things. The send button had been my trigger firing the fatal shot. I was happy with Rachael, yet something warned me that our relationship was futile.
My brain freezes on that last moment heightening my other senses. Thorns slice at my clothing, trying to divest me of my torn jeans and flannel. The deer over my shoulders makes me falter a bit as I lumber over fallen trees, dense flora, and through spider webs, sweat singeing my tear ducts. Even after my quarter of a mile trek to a meadow, I continue to feel the accusing gaze of the buck, the strangled cries less prominent but still as agonizing. I hitch the body over my head into a cradle to return it to the ground.
In the full-blown sunlight, I make do with my hands to bury the doe as her mate supervises from the trees. The grooves of my knuckles retain dirt, nails black and splitting with inaudible force from clawing at the earth. I feel nothing and everything at once, even the hand grabbing my shoulder and the gut that I elbow in determination of the doe’s honorable burial, my penance.
After an unnoticed absence, I sense when Tyler rejoins me by plunging a shovel into the firm ground, grassroots snapping as he detaches them from their earthly home. We work in tandem. Salty sweat mingles with the ripening stench of the doe’s carcass and the honeyed scent of the meadow. Her black eyes smolder like two cigar butts from the hasty grave, anticipating the blindness the dark soil will grant. My retinas burn.
The doe’s deadened pupils transform into Rachael’s cobalt irises, the very features that had first snagged my attention months ago. Their direct, detailed observation had emitted interest and intelligence. Below their intricacies had simmered a passionate reservoir that I’d been lucky enough to delve into.
Tangy tears mix with the errant dirt on my tongue, but I swallow it in respect for the dead. It’s Tyler who spits on the disturbed earth on the side of the grave before kicking the leftover pile into the hole. My stomach dips as the brown avalanche casts off the deceased. I’m not relieved, though, memories continue to run rampant in my skull.
One night, I got a text from Rachael about hanging out after she had a soccer pickup game. It was a Friday and I hadn’t planned anything except playing basketball. Some of my fraternity brothers had invited me over to their house to play video games and drink, a guy’s night. I ended up turning Rachael down. She wasn’t mad, a bit annoyed maybe, from what I could tell. That night with my brothers, I felt free; I didn’t have any obligations to a girlfriend. Shouldn’t I feel that way always? It’s college, after all, no need to be tied down.
Tyler pursues me as I trot back to the clearing where I’d left my gear. The hammering in my temples blocks out his panting and the crunching of his clumsy steps. My vision blurs for a second as I crouch to retrieve my abandoned gun.
“Erik!” Tyler rasps. “Put down the gun. Come on, this isn’t funny. Tell me what’s going on.” My mouth won’t respond. I’m distracted by my mind’s torturous montage looping through images of Rachael. I’d entombed her in excuses, shrouded in a lie.
Under Tyler’s frozen stare, deaf to his pleading, I take off again, this time heading for my white Ford F-150 outside of the dense forested area. Mud collects in the treads of my boots causing me to slip as I run. She’d never forgive me for throwing dirt in her eyes, thunder rolling in the ocean of her irises. I set my rifle inside my truck to fill the passenger seat along with the box of shells. There’s a gravel path almost undistinguishable from the underbrush that leads to the main road. I can hear the whooshing traffic beyond the forest. Rachael would never surface to my voice again, my touch, forever lost in the ebb of betrayal.
That is, unless I grovel at her feet. I need to tell her how I feel, no lies or half-truths. I clamber into the driver’s seat and turn my key in the ignition, the engine’s roar filling my ears. Looking into the rearview mirror all I see is bared teeth and wild eyes that I take a minute to recognize as mine. The tires spin in the gravel as I maneuver the large truck through the press of trees on either side. My mind’s eye pictures Rachael still reading in her favorite nook on campus. I have to get there before she can hate me. Once I escape the forest, I just have to drive down the hill to the highway entrance, the roar of vehicles could drown me, drown her blame for good.
My heart is thundering in my temples. I ignore the blaring horn scolding me for cutting off a brown delivery truck. Nothing’s going to keep me from her, not this time.
Somehow, I don’t remember driving the thirty miles northeast before the exit for Rockford University appears. The golden sun of the late morning sets a halo around the student housing buildings as I merge into the urban entrance, one hundred yards away from Rachael. Ambulance and police sirens echo nearby comforting me in their familiarity. My knees wobble from the impact of jumping out of the truck after parking in the founder’s circle.
Rachael sits curled up where I imagined, some of the fiery leaves not yet fallen obscure her from my view. I consider my disheveled appearance for a second: bloodstained shirt, mud reaching above my ankles, knees of my jeans rubbed green. What does that matter when all I want is to see her, talk to her, tell her I was wrong? Never mind my blackened bloody nails and second skin of sweat. Sunlight cracks through the leaves spotting my vision. Rachael looks up. Her gaze makes my joints ache, my adrenaline dulling the actual stabs of pain. The faint discomfort reminds me of when she cracked her knuckles and the way her knees and hips popped when she stood up. Surprise widens her eyes and yet her red lips anticipate a smile, twitching at the corners. As that grin threatens to break through her anger, all I hear is the inhuman shriek of shattered glass. My vision goes black, head splitting with pain, body folded like a lawn chair.
I’m not standing in front of her. I’m trapped in my truck still. Red and blue lights flash while my consciousness drifts in and out. My knuckles have folded in on themselves punched through the dashboard. I glimpse bare bone. As I try to swallow the tangy copper of my own blood, I feel my sternum caving into my lungs.
I awake lying on a bed instead of cramped in my truck’s accordion seat. The stiffness remains as I try turning my head toward the deep snoring coming from my left. The neck brace restrains my vision, but through my peripherals I see Tyler’s kinked nose tilted back, his body sprawled across the hospital chair.
In what seems like minutes later, I hear Tyler talking to someone. My stomach flips in the possibility that Rachael has come to visit me! I strain to listen for her rich alto voice.
“He’ll live, then?”
“Yes, he has long months of recovery ahead of him, though.”
“Why’d this happen? I told the police and everyone how strange he was acting, just running off, acting like I’d squeezed a blow horn in his ear. I couldn’t do anything… he wanted to bury the deer he shot, kept mumbling ‘He wants me to do it, I have to do it for her, she’ll never forgive me.’ Is he schizo?”
Through the haze of drugs, I don’t hear the doctor’s response. I imagined it, I never made it to her. I hadn’t paid attention to driving, just her. Had my mind mistaken a memory for reality? Somewhere, a weak version of Rachael’s laughter sounds. I think it’s the blank walls of the hospital that constrain her musical voice. Maybe I hear it in the white walls of my skull.