Jessica June Rowe
**trigger warnings: depression, animal death**
On the way to visit your father, you spot a dead deer by the side of the road. It’s a flash in your peripheral vision: a brown body, a blank space framed by high, brittle-gold grass. You don’t think much of it. You keep driving.
The next day, the deer has moved to the shallows of the lake behind your father’s house. A single antler and swollen stomach rise above the surface, reflecting in perfect symmetry in the still water, appearing to the eye as some new, truncated creature. Even dead things can travel; can reinvent themselves.
Maybe the rain washed it down the creek, your father shrugs. He goes inside and fits himself back into the groove he’s worn on the couch. There’s better things to watch on TV, he says. Not-dead things.
The deer is on the shores of a small island in the lake, too far away to reach or remove from the water. You use binoculars to bring it into focus. You trace the outline of shapes that are missing: head, legs, hooves. You see hints of white bone beneath the lake’s surface, but could flesh and fur be scoured away so soon? It’s only been there one day.
The fish answer your question. They throw their bodies out of the water and wriggle through the mud until they’re mouthing at your shoelaces, ravenous.
The buzzards are next. They ring your father’s doorbell and wipe their claws on the foyer carpet. You count thirteen, maybe fourteen of them crowding in the dining room, circling the place settings. The dead deer is here, now, a feast laid on your father’s table, dripping lakewater onto the floor. Even half-fleshed it’s enough to feed them all. When it gets dark the opossums arrive, just in time for dessert. They lick clean the plates and bones, fill the trashcan and the dishwasher, while the buzzards roost with your father on the couch he never left, too captivated by the ballgame. He falls asleep before it ends.
You escort the animals out and wish them a good night. You take the trash out to the road, too, at the end of the long dirt driveway. The deer’s bones go in the bin but you leave its skull on the lid, in the open air. In the morning you spot an owl using its antlers as a perch. It’s nice, you think. Dead things are never alone.
On the way to visit your father, you spot a deer by the side of the road. It’s a flash in your peripheral vision: a dead body pressing down dead grass in a dead season. You don’t think much of it. You keep driving.
The next day, the deer has moved to the shallows of the lake directly behind your father’s house. But it can’t be the same deer, you think. You walk toward it, wet mud sucking at your shoes, fish skittering away in the shallows. You get close but not too close, poking the differences with a stick. No antlers, slimmer body, russet fur. Dead things don’t all look alike.
Soon you learn that dead things don’t come alone, either. You spot two more dead deer while driving your father to his doctor’s appointment: a mother and fawn lying just off the highway, limbs askew. You find one in the grocery store, full-bodied, behind the meat counter. Three more deer floating, bloated, in your neighbor’s pool. Eight bodies scattered around the corners of the pharmacy parking lot.
Where are they coming from? You think you’re going crazy. Your father only shrugs.
The doorstep is next. You open the door expecting thirteen, maybe fourteen corpses piled in front of you, barricading you in. Instead, there’s only one deer and you’re struck silent by her beauty. She has a stag’s head: black eyes, satin-soft fur, a towering twenty-five points, but the low neckline of her dress exposes feminine décolletage. She has to lower her head to fit through the doorway. You circle the kitchen, looking for food to serve or words to say, while she perches on the couch with your father. He never looks away from the ballgame. She kindly pretends not to notice his indifference, his labored breathing, the skull and antlers mounted above the TV.
The air around her is sweet compared to the rest of the house. You hadn’t realized how stale these rooms had become. Death has been following you for days; when did it sneak inside?
She answers your question. When you enter the living room, bearing coffee and dessert, your father is asleep and she is standing over him, her branched bones casting shadows over his sallow skin. The dead deer is here, now, feasting. When she turns her focus on you, it’s terrifying, thrilling. There are better things to watch in this world, she says. Not-dead things.
You think it’s time for her to leave and she agrees. You escort her out and watch her walk all the way to the road. Her hooves crunch on fallen leaves like buckshot, echoing long after she’s gone. In the morning, the long dirt driveway is covered with fresh flowers that smell like grief.
On the way to visit your father, you think you spot a deer on the side of the road, but you’re not sure. You turn your head away just in case; you don’t like to see dead things. Look away and in a flash, it will be gone. You keep driving. When you arrive, your father is buried in his couch. He says nothing. The ballgame is on and you turn it off. Now he sees nothing. The air around his oxygen tank smells stale.
The next day, your forehead begins to ache. A hint of white bone pushes through the surface of your skin: a single antler, a half-inch of horn unfurling every hour.
The fur is next, growing satin-soft and tawny, barely more than vellus hairs. It crowds along your hairline, circling your jaw, but only on one side, ruining the imperfect symmetry of your face. You’re struck silent by the new creature in the mirror. Could you be losing yourself so soon? You’ve only been here one day.
You have no answers. You hunt the kitchen for leftovers and scraps for your father, lowering your head to avoid hitting the ceiling fan. When you bring him dinner, turkey buzzard sandwiches, he’s barely breathing. There’s condensation in his cannula, dripping water onto the floor, and he has somehow gotten his oxygen tube tangled in his own great rack of antlers. You try unraveling it, counting thirteen, maybe fourteen knots that seem to move, twining around the plastic, reinventing new ways to tangle. You see where this is going. Your efforts will only snare you; the tubing will end up wrapped around your antlers and hands, tying you to the tank, this couch, this house. The dead are here, now, and the not-dead. You don’t want to be either.
When it gets dark you take out the trash, walk the long dirt driveway, and stop at the road as always. The world beyond is silent. Indifferent. No deers or owls or ghosts. It’s nice, you think. So you keep walking. You walk for hours and hours until it’s morning, until you’re too tired to travel further. Your antler is heavy on your head, weighing you down, making you lose focus. You don’t think much of it. You don’t think much at all. You lay down, stretching out by the side of the road, your body surrounded by high, sweet-green grass. You close your eyes and wait for you to drive by.
About the Author
Jessica June Rowe is an author, playwright, editor, and perpetual daydreamer. She is on the Editorial Board of Exposition Review and currently serves as Flash Fiction Editor. Her fiction has recently appeared in Flash Frog, The Drabble, wind-up mice, Okay Donkey Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and Atlas and Alice, among others, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, and Best of the Net. Her short plays have been featured on multiple stages in Los Angeles, and one of her poems is stamped into a sidewalk in Valencia, CA, where she currently lives. She also really loves chai lattes. Find her on Twitter @willwrite4chai.