Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Along  the  Road

 

 

They sat in a booth in The Cellar, a bar kept alive by the tasteless and the cheap.

Pete tipped his bottle up, bottom lip sticking out beneath, and then set it down with a turn of the wrist, liquid sloshing inside the thick glass.

“Christian,” Terrance said. “Christian. You sure you don’t want a beer or something? I’m buying.”

“No,” Christian said. “Look—I know you’re trying to cheer me up or you’re not allowed to leave me alone or something, but,” he paused to find the right words, searching carefully, like the old Christian, “anywhere would be better than here.”

“We just got here,” Pete said.

 “Do you want to leave?” Terrence said. “We can go back to the house.”

“If you don’t mind,” Christian said. He was starting to pick at the bandages on his hands.

“Alright,” Terrence said, looking at Pete, “let’s go then.”

“Then I’m getting one to go,” Pete said, sliding out of the booth.

Terrence and Christian pushed out into the dark parking lot— the cutting wind making them hunch and run, Christian lagging behind. They had to wait in the frozen cab of Terrence’s truck while Pete walked out carrying an open beer bottle above his head, as if to keep it from spilling. Against the light coming from the warm window of The Cellar, his shape moved loosely, oblivious to the face-numbing cold.

He let in an icy blast and slammed the cab door behind him. “You need to get an extended cab.”

They drove in silence against the wind outside. The radio played only static, so Terrence turned the knob down. They jostled, knocking knees as they went around tight corners, leaves sweeping horizontally across the high beams, which shined through the bare woods then dragged the shadows around behind the truck as they drove. Pete sang intermittently when the lyrics came to him.

“You know what I miss,” Pete said, breaking off mid-melody, “Oktoberfest in Munich.” He looked at the other two. “You guys remember that?” Terrence kept his eyes on the road, Christian’ eyes in his lap.

“Yeah. Remember that?” Pete said. “There must have been ten thousand people.” He laughed. “I lost you guys for two or three hours.” He looked out the window. “Man that was it.”

Terrence turned the radio up again—still static, so he turned it back down. Pete rolled his window down to chuck his empty bottle, wind and leaves flooding the cab like a busted dam.

The howling wind muffled when Pete rolled the window back up. He laughed again. “You guys remember taking the train out of there? Actually you might not. All those dudes in kilts passed out on the ground.” He smiled open-mouthed out the window, lost in another time and country. Then he snapped his mouth shut. “That was the last good time. Do you think so, Terri?”

“Course not.” Terrence glanced at Christian in the middle, who had his eyes closed, head hanging down over his chest. “We’re having a good time tonight.”

“No, but it really was. Remember? We were in COP Keating the next week.”

“Let’s talk about it later, ok? I’m not in the mood tonight.”

“Do you remember Coffer?”

“Sure I do.” Terrence navigated the winding asphalt, eyes never leaving the road.

“Yeah but you didn’t see him for the last time. He looked like a busted bottle of coke.”

“Not tonight, Pete.”

“That’s what he looked like.”

“I believe you, Pete. Not tonight.”

“Like one of those you’d see along the side of the road, you know? One of those bottles you thought, ‘well we can’t check them all.’ You know what I’m saying?”

“Yeah, I know what you’re saying, Pete.”

Two white pricks of light, like twinkling stars, showed in the headlights. Terrence squinted through the windshield. The soft outline of a slender curved neck and ears just becoming visible. It sprang forward—Terrence jammed his foot down on the brake. The truck bed started to slide to one side, and Terrence counter steered into a skid. The brown body flashed large and bright in front of them. The left headlight of the truck connected with its hindquarters in a thud like a sandbag hitting the ground, and the deer arched its back in panicked spasms as it rolled up the side of the windshield and kicked out of the headlights and into the darkness. The truck lurched to a halt, throwing them forward against their seat belts.

Christian woke with a gasp. Spittle flew from Pete’s mouth as he came to a stop, leaning forward against his seat belt. He gave a belly heave and coughed.

“Don’t you dare,” Terrence said. Pete’s whole body heaved again. His face was red and veins stood out in his forehead.

“Get out of the truck!” Terrence said. 

Pete clawed at his seatbelt, gave up and started scratching at the passenger door. He couldn’t breathe. He made a sound like being punched in the abdomen, and then came the sound like a waterfall at a fish hatchery and splashing.

“Get out! Christian push him out!”

Christian pressed the button down on Pete’s seatbelt to release him, and Pete fell sideways out of the door, his foot catching on the seatbelt. With his back on the pavement and his foot still in the cab, Pete twisted and kept vomiting.

“Was that a deer?” Christian asked over the sound of Pete’s panting.

“Yes.”

Christian climbed out of the cab, careful to avoid Pete’s mess on the dash and on the ground. He went to the front of the truck, following a smear of red on the pavement.

“Christian,” Terrence called. “Let’s go. We don’t have time for this.”

Christian followed the blood to the ditch across the road, staring down at the thrashing deer. Its lower half paralyzed, still losing blood. It gnashed its teeth, lips pulled back in an unnatural smile, and its eyes were deep pools of black that roved with paranoia and shock.

“Leave it alone, Christian. It’s off the road anyway.”

Christian continued staring. He bent down and gripped the deer around the middle. It made an agonizing sound, strange. It didn’t bite him, just kicked wildly with its skinny front legs and laid its ears back against its skull.

“What are you doing, Christian? Leave it. That thing will kick you.” Christian picked it up around the middle like one child picks up another. Its lifeless hind hooves dragged the pavement between Christian’s legs, blood leaking persistently down its body.

“Christian,” Terrance said, “put it down right now. That is the ugliest deer I have ever seen.”

Christian began walking across the road with it, leaning back to support its weight. The deer had snot running down its nose. “Help me put it in the back of your truck.”

“Absolutely not,” Terrance said. Christian continued, step by step, to carry the spastic deer to the truck. Its face was contorted in aggressive terror—almost comical. “I promise you, we are not taking that thing.”

Christian reached the truck, pumping a few quick breaths in-and-out like a weightlifter, then slung the deer, moaning the whole way, over the side of the truck, where it fell awkwardly, grunting and frothing.

“What the hell, Christian?” The front of his shirt was soaked in deer blood, his shoes were shiny with it, and he had a deep cut across his cheek where the deer had floundered against him. The bandages from his hands had fallen, and the deep gashes across his palms had angry red lines in the middle where he had torn them open again.

“You’ve got to let it die. It’s going to die anyway. Get it out of my truck.”

Terrence could hear the deer in the truck bed, snorting breath, thrashing. He looked over the side of the truck, and the deer stopped immediately, staring at him and curling twitching lips away from its straight teeth. The truck bed was black and slick in the darkness.

“Christian, you’re cleaning my truck. Get it out now.” He added, looking at Christian, “and you’re riding in the back. I’m not getting my seats all bloody.”

“C’mon Terri,” Christian said. “We did this to it. We’ve got to take care of it.”

“It did this to itself! We’re thinning the population.”

“I want to take care of it,” Christian said. The setting moon formed a cratered halo behind his head.

“You’re lucky it didn’t kill us.”

“C’mon Terri. I want to take care of it.”

Terrence took an audible breath. “Christian. You can’t even take care of yourself. This deer is going to die tonight.”

“What if you were that deer?”

“I’m not.”

Christian kept looking at it with concern. “We need to help it.”

Pete appeared around the side of the truck wiping his mouth. “Let him keep it, Terri. Let’s get home.”

“Absolutely not,” Terrence said. “He’s killed every goldfish he’s ever owned.”

“I want to do the right thing,” Christian said.

“It’s an animal,” Terrence said. “This is the right thing. Are you going to take it to the vet and pay the bills?”

“Yes,” Christian said decidedly. “I’ll take it in the morning.”

“Let him do it,” Pete chimed.

“Why are you taking his side?” Terrence said. “He’s not even mentally stable.”

“Hey” Christian said. “That’s not fair.”

“Yeah Terri,” Pete said. “That’s not fair.”

Terrence surrendered. They climbed back into the cab, their breath coming out in thick white clouds.

“Windows down,” Terrence said. “The smell is worse than the cold.”

The cab had that acrid iron smell of blood and the unbearable alcohol-vinegar smell of Pete’s insides.

Terrence turned the key as they saw light from an oncoming vehicle filtering through the trees, sending a binary message, alternating light and dark through the straight trees of the brush-burned forest. The truck’s cooling engine sputtered to life as a pair of high, bright headlights surged around the bend.

They heard the deer in the back spook and raise up. It was snorting so fast Terrence thought it must be having a heart attack. It scrambled on its front legs and let loose a primordial whinny before springing with its remaining life force—straight out of the truck bed and into the grill of the passing semi, which swerved once and honked instinctively, but did not slow down.

Terrence put the truck in gear and drove them home, their extremities turning blue in the open cabin. Christian’ eyelids blinked over his moist eyes, and Terrence began counting how many times per minute Christian inhaled noisily to keep the snot from running down his nose.

“Well,” Pete said. “I don’t know why you thought you could take care of that deer anyway.” He looked at Christian and then back out the window. “You are, after all, the only guy I know that tried to slit his wrists with a chainsaw.” He looked at Christian, who looked blankly out the windshield. “You picked a device specifically designed to keep you from hurting yourself. You could have done it any other way.”

“We’re all tired,” Terrence said, “let’s just get home.”

Pete continued. “I mean, you tried to hold down the safety with your toes. All you did was cut your palms, not even close to your wrists.”

Christian didn’t say anything.

 “There’s nothing wrong with backing out at the last second,” Pete said. “It’s not like it would make you less of a man. Heck, you were almost not a man, almost a corpse.”

“Pete,” Terrence snapped.

“I was trying to do it,” Christian said.

“Holy crap it smells bad in here,” Terrence said.

“What if you had cut off your hands and lived?” Pete said. “Did you even think of that? Me and Terri would be taking turns wiping your ass for the rest of your life.”

Christian stuck his mangled palms in Pete’s face. Pete turned his head and swatted them away, but Christian put them back. “Think I wasn’t serious? Here’s your proof.”

“Get out of my face,” Pete said.

“Feel the cuts!”

“No,” Pete said, swatting again. “What’s wrong with you?”

“You love this world so much, huh? You never want to leave? Be my guest.” Christian dropped his hands back to his lap.

Terrence turned the radio up and got a distorted country station, sometimes a gospel station and then a country station again.

 “For Christsake,” Pete said. They sat, three shapes in the dark, Christian shifting uncomfortably on the high hump in the middle.

 

 

Turner Blake is an Aviator in the United States Army. He flies the RC-12X Guardrail and the UH-72 Lakota. He graduated from College of the Ozarks in 2016 with a degree in English Literature, working as a writing tutor during his undergraduate years.