Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
Walks out to the deer stand were always dark. Had to get there well before sunrise, before legal shooting hours, without being detected. This morning, the night sky was clouded over. No stars. No moon. Fully black. I saw only in shades of gray. All rods and no cones. If I didn’t know the path by heart, no doubt I would have gone stumbling off into the thick woods.
But knowing the path provided only so much comfort. Me, being an adult and not a child still afraid of the dark, provided less. Being a doctor, a woman of rational scientific mind, more so but not much. Carrying a gun, surprisingly little.
I rolled my feet over the leaves and dirt, carefully applying and ready to lift up my weight if I felt a fragile stick under my sole. My dad taught me how to do that. How to walk slow, heel to toe, anticipating things that might crack under my foot and changing my step before they did. He taught me to hunt, forced me out here on these cold fall days against my will. And I, being a doctor, sworn to do no harm, should have let this tradition die along with him, in a foul bed in a filthy trailer home on the outskirts of town. I was better than this. Still, I trudged on, wary of the waiting sticks along the path.
I wasn’t watching out for wolves. When it growled that bassy throttled rumble like a Harley Davidson in the distance, my foot froze in place. My near-blind eyes searched the darkness, trying to distinguish between sight and hallucination. Two thin yellow pinpricks hovered over the path, too fearless to be a deer and too tall to be a fox or coyote. No. This was a timber wolf. I’d seen their tracks before. Seen them sprint in packs across frozen-over knocked-down cornfields in the distance. But I’d never seen one this close. And none of them had ever starred me down like this one was.
“Whoa, boy,” I stuttered, from the chill or the fear, I couldn’t say. “Same team. Me and you. We’re just two predators, going about our business.”
I heard him lick his chops. Wet, slurping noises. And was that his outline, his gray coat a shade brighter in the black? Those unblinking yellow eyes showed no sign of dissuasion. They fixed me in my place, my right heel touching the ground but the toe of my boot still up. Then the eyes turned away and it was as if two dim candles were blown out. The wolf crashed through the underbrush and then was gone.
“Two predators, going about our business,” I repeated to myself and let the rest of my right foot roll to the ground.
When I got settled into the deer stand, sunrise was still a promise. Shadows still a guarantee. I hoisted my rifle up the towline until it was in my gloved hands. I’d wait until legal shooting hours before loading it. It was a rule, clearly printed in the DNR manual, and I liked rules.
I liked an ordered world. I liked a fair world. An honest world. It was one of those lessons learned from my parents by what they didn’t do, rather than what they did. They were the anti-example that launched me down a path of education and excellence. Their failures were my roadmap to success. So why had this habit of my dead drunken father stuck with me?
I had nothing but time to think about it while I waited for the first soft light of sunrise to come upon the forest, so I thought.
And the answer came to me surprisingly fast. Because this was fair. Because this was honest. Because even I knew there was no such thing as doing no harm. Because if I bought meat from the grocery store, the animals would be just as dead. Because even if I switched to a vegetarian or vegan diet, habitat would still be turned to crops. Because the wet work of gutting a deer didn’t bother me. Not with my line of work. Because I had plenty of memories that made killing a deer tame by comparison. Because success only came after rounds and rounds of failures. Because I hadn’t saved them all.
I prided herself in separating work from leisure. Working was hard enough while in the ER. No reason to bring that home. No reason to churn those memories around while trying to sleep after another eighteen-hour shift. I’d gotten good at compartmentalizing all of that. Of tucking those memories into bed like obedient children.
But out here, with nothing but me and the shadows and my mind? The kids were up and playing when they should be asleep.
I could almost see them down there in the clearing, between the pine saplings and bushes. The kids. My lost kids. Not any biological children, but those I mothered by scalpel and gauze and sutures and drugs. Some were actual children. Pediatrics, I mean. More were adults. All of them dead now. The ones who lived seemed to know to stay in bed after mommy tucked them in. It was the dead who rambled.
And could I actually see them? The same way as that pair of yellow eyes I’d seen earlier? Were they down there on the forest floor? The little boy who’d drank an entire bottle of toilet cleanser? The twenty-something heroin overdose? The seventy year old suicide? My silent lips still cussed out the EMTs who brought these lost causes to my door instead of going straight to the morgue. But I had a duty. I had my stupid, precious, pedantic oath. I had to try.
They were down there, blanketed by the dying night, lying down in the tall grass as still as I’d left them. Some with catheters in their arms, EKGs glued to their chests, wads of bloody gauze stuffed in their open wounds. Nobody died pretty. Even the black of pre-dawn couldn’t hide that. My father was no exception.
That summer, I’d gone to his trailer home. After a minute of knocking and listening to TV babble coming through the thin metal door, I went inside. He was in his old recliner, surrounded by a horde of empty beer cans, all standing as if he were their messiah preaching from a mount. He was long dead. I still dragged his slack body off the chair and cleared out a spot on the soiled carpet where I could perform CPR. He wasn’t so far gone as to have gone stiff, which told me maybe I could restart him. I should have known better. I’m a fucking doctor for Christ’s sake. I knew the survival rates. I knew what he’d have been if I’d managed to prime his heart like a dry pump back to life. He could have a lead role in Veggie Tales, but nothing else. Still, I compressed his chest, broke his ribs, called nine one one, put my lips to his, ignored the slime of death on his lips, inflated his inert lungs, and cried and screamed over his corpse.
The asshole. The drunk. The prick. The loser. He was down there, amongst the others who’d died on my ER beds. I saw him lying there, still in his recliner, surrounded by beer cans. They glistened amongst the frosted-over reeds of glass, reflecting what little light the forest had to give.
He sat up. The whine and clunk of the La-Z-Boy undeniable in the cool quiet of the early morning. He coughed and spat as if death were nothing more than phlegm in his throat. Others moved too. I heard them before seeing them, just as I would have heard a deer stepping through sticks and brush, just as I would have heard unruly kids crawling out of bed while I was trying to sleep. The boy turned blue from toilet cleanser. The addict. The self-euthanized old man. The family from the DUI car wreck just last week. The woman with the flu who should have lived, who had no good fucking reason just to keel over while I tended to other patience. The anemic. The sick. The mauled. The murdered. They all rose up from their beds there in the bushes and weeds. They found their feet, uncertain and awkward, but inevitably. And they moved towards the base of the deer stand.
“Just a dream. Just focus on the here and now. Just do your job. Do your fucking job,” I clamped my eyes shut and muttered a well-practiced mantra.
When I opened them, the forest was a little brighter. Sunrise was a little closer. The ghosts were all gone.
No deer came by that morning. Nothing in the forest stirred. Not even the squirrels. A few birds fluttered overhead. A few sang their songs and I felt ignorant for not knowing their names. This evening, after the sun went down, the whippoorwills would sing their onomatopoeian name, the only name I knew, and only because they sang it. Maybe when I retired, I could learn them all. Have one of those little books and a pair of binoculars by my window. That sounded peaceful.
I usually hiked back in for lunch around eleven and would then hike back out around two for the afternoon hunt. Today, every time I looked down the stand, I saw places where the grass was laid flat. Beds, I figured, but wasn’t so confident to call them deer beds.
I shivered from toes to teeth when the sun sank behind the trees. My muscles ached from staying in the stand all day. My stomach was tight under the layers of clothes. My eyes were heavy, but not so much as to overcome my discomfort. Another hour in the stand. Then I could come down. Right after dawn and right before dusk were the best times to be in the stand. That’s when the deer were most active. That’s what my father taught me. The loaded rifle was in my lap. When legal shooting came to an end, then I’d unload it and climb down, but not before.
Light slowly retreated, and I welcomed it. Because frankly, by now, I could care less about bagging a deer. Because I didn’t want to deal with tracking one down and gutting it in the dark. Because all I really wanted was to go home where it was warm, eat a big meal, and sleep. I worked too hard for this to be my recreation. Why the hell did I come out here to begin with?
Still, I wouldn’t leave the stand before it was time. It was a rule. It was rational. I’d spent all day in the stand. It made no sense for me to leave now, with just a half hour of prime hunting left. My teeth rattled around behind my lips, because if I chattered with my mouth open, a deer might hear and head off in other directions. Because I was out here to do a job. I owed the balance of the universe to be here, acting the predator during the intermission from my stage role as savior. Still, I welcomed the fast-falling evening tide.
It came, perpetually, unstoppably, unrushed, and indifferent to my will. The forest went dim, but not yet dark. I let my heavy eyes fall shut. Let my ears do the work for a little while. The sounds of the forest had stories to tell too. A few unnamable birds sung. The sound of the breeze moving through the trees arrived before the push of air itself. My own slow, regulated breathing turned it all into something like a song. Rhythmic and melodic. Peaceful. Restful. Orderly.
The grass stirred below, out of sync with the breeze. I opened my eyes.
Twilight had beset the forest floor faster than I’d expected, as if minutes instead of seconds had passed while I closed my eyes. The dim made room for dread. That gap between vision and imagination blurred again, melded into one inseparable thing. Blinking did no good. The children were out of their beds again, playing in the dark.
There, amongst the milkweed, was the septuagenarian with the bullet hole in his head. And over by the sparse jack pine saplings was the woman who died commonly from the common flu. And the family the firemen pulled from the crumpled Subaru laid over by the copse of maples. A whippoorwill sung over the body of the kid with the stomach full of cleanser. They were all back.
A quiet chime from my watch told me that was it. The sun had sunk low enough. Legal shooting hours was over. It was time to unload the rifle. Time to move my cramped limbs. Time to climb out of the stand. Time to go home and leave these woods, maybe forever. In the dim I could see the path to the trail that would take me back to the car that would take me back home and back to society. Back to all the comforts I couldn’t remember why I abandoned. My cold shaking hands worked the rifle’s bolt action. One by one, round after round fell into my lap until there were none left to gut from the rifle. I pocketed them, closed the bolt of the rifle, lowered the weapon on the towline, and made my way down.
At the bottom of the stand, all those ghosts weren’t so easy to spot. The tall grass was hiding them now. And all for the better. They were nothing to concern me. Arrant thoughts of an unbusy mind. Best to forget about them, put them back to bed where they belonged, and get on with life. I recovered the rifle and went to head home, my feet by habit rolling heel to toe to keep quiet as I walked.
One step along the path, I realized I still held one round in my gloved hand. Its brass caught what was left of the day’s light, shining yellow in my palm. Odd, but nothing to be done about. I clinched it and took another step.
A twig snapped, loud and sharp in the otherwise quiet woods.
Was it the wolf there standing in my path some fifty yards off? I could see its ashen coat against the forest darkness, turned broadside to me. His thick, neckless head was aimed my way, sensing me with snout and ears and eyes all at once.
Or was it my father, just twenty yards out, as he worked the arm of his recliner with that mechanical snap and clack of the bars and springs inside of the filthy old thing? When he came to his feet, he made more noise kicking over empty beer cans than snapping sticks. It didn’t bother him to knock over all those empties. He had another in his pale dead hand.
“Hey there, baby girl,” dad said through clumsy lips. “What are you doing all the way out here? Shouldn’t you be working?”
“Fuck you, dad,” I said back.
“Ma’am?” a woman called from over by the jack pines. “Could I have a glass of water? Please?”
“Just… Ma’am, you’ll have to wait,” I said to the woman as dad took a step forward and kicked over more cans.
“My tummy hurts real bad,” a boy said as a whippoorwill took flight over his shoulder. He barfed into tall grass.
“Help,” the mother of the three in the wrecked Subaru called. The station wagon’s hazard lights blinked yellow and off in the copse of maples. The smell of antifreeze and brake pads and blood mixed with dried out leaves and earth. “Please. Somebody. My kids…”
“Shouldn’t you be helping them?” dad, one finger peeled from the can to point around the forest, said. “Aren’t you supposed to help people?”
“Fuck you, dad,” I told him, and I found the rifle was no longer slung over my shoulder but cradled in my hands.
A wolf howl pierced the cool night as sharp as a stiletto.
“Why didn’t you help me?” the heroin junky staggered out from behind the stand. “I didn’t mean to die. I never wanted this. Couldn’t you help?”
“Help me!” the woman called from the car wreck.
“I think I’m sick,” the boy slurred as he dropped the bottle of cleaner into the grass.
“I didn’t mean it,” said the old man as gun smoke rolled out of the side of his head.
The cartridge danced in my cold fingers, as if it willed itself against being controlled.
“Why couldn’t you help me?” dad said.
The bullet tip found the open action. My numb fingers shoved it in. My palm racked shut the bolt.
“I thought you were some big shot doctor,” dad scoffed at me.
Others called too, but they were all out of focus now, visually and audibly. My experience funneled down as narrow as the view through the scope, centered on my father’s heart. The gunshot silenced all the voices, instantly and ongoing as the echo made its way through the trees.
When I lowered the rifle, dad was gone. All my other lost patients too. It was just me again, and further along the path, the wolf. He still stood broadside, his light gray coat visible and unmarred in the chill evening light. He let out a short growl, not aggressive this time, but as if to acknowledge me.
“Never mind me, boy,” I said. “Just a fellow predator like yourself.”
The wolf pounced off the path and disappeared. I slung the rifle and started for home.
Joe Prosit writes sci-fi, horror, and psycho fiction. “Machines, Monsters and Maniacs” is a self-published collection of sixteen of his short stories. You can find it on Amazon or at his website, at www.JoeProsit.com. If you’re an adept stalker, you can find him on one of the many lakes and rivers or lost deep inside the Great North Woods. Or you can just follow him on Twitter: @joeprosit.
Originally published September 28, 2022
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.