Two hours into the drive we stopped to take a piss. Our white headlamps and yellow hazards were the only light out there, in all that darkness. It was another sixty-two miles to the hospital in Brownwood that called with the news about our son, Jake. That’s an hour’s drive in the daytime, but the deer were scattered all over the highway that night. Each pair of glowing eyes greeted our high beams and returned to feed on the dried scrub beneath their hooves once we passed. The thought of a six-point buck darting in front of us slowed us down some.
It must have been three a.m. before we stopped. I stepped out of the truck and stretched my eyes to read a green and white sign posted up where the headlights turned to shadows:
Never heard of it.
By that point, we figured Jake hit a deer and veered into a ditch somewhere along the highway. He must have. There was nothing else for him to hit.
I pissed against a fence post near a gate to someone’s ranch so Mary could squat on the ground behind the truck. I was midstream when a white buck scampered out from an evergreen patch, climbed the embankment a few yards ahead and froze in the middle of the road. He turned his head to me and said something with his eyes before vanishing across the highway in a patter of clops.
When I finished up I leaned against the front bumper and stared at the dirt beneath my feet, imagining the accident the way I had for hours. The air was cool and the grill felt warm against my legs, but when the compressor whirred to life I remembered it was winter, and Jake died on his way back home for Christmas. People would feel even sorrier for us when they realized that, I thought. They’d say God has a plan for us all, that Jake was a good boy who went to heaven. But I didn’t want them to. Jake was gone, was all. It seemed easier to leave it at that.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe howled past in route to someplace else: San Angelo. Midland. Odessa. El Paso. I couldn’t see it, though. I only heard it, the friction and the noise and the horn, all for the sake of nothing and no one but Mary and me. It was the Texas I knew from the movies, remote, arid, quiet but for a lonesome train and its woeful howl. I had been meaning to get out that way for years and I finally had. But when I heard Mary scuff her boots in the dirt and close the zipper to her jeans I knew it was time to go. Sixty-two miles, I thought. No rush. The morgue was waiting and the morgue is a patient place.
“Ready?” I said.
Something was wrong in the question and Mary was crying again, pulling her sweater over her jeans and marching back toward the passenger seat. I don’t remember what I said to apologize. Nothing I hope, because nothing helps. It took me a while, but I know that now.
We identified Jake an hour later. They wrestled him from the freezer like a tractor from a tool shed. When the sheet came off I fumbled for Jake’s hand and held Mary’s with the other. She kissed the bruises on his forehead and ran her fingers through his hair, shards of glass still tangled deep inside his dirty blond locks. She held his bloodless face in her palm and dripped tears across his cheeks and his nose, his stillness betraying our knowledge of the person Jake was, the person he’d been.
It was a drunk in an SUV that hit him. We made our arrangements and took to the road before sunrise. Tires humming. Windows gaping.
We reached Lometa again at dawn. The air was cool and humid, my stomach hollow and burning from the coffee they had poured for us, but Mary declined. There were fewer deer on the roadside until there were none. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe rumbled eastward out of town and shimmered to our right in the breaking daylight. A gully opened between us where the white buck appeared to me once again.
I hit the brakes at first and slowed to meet his gaze, but he started into a sprint as quick as he appeared. He raced between the truck and the train in strident leaps, bouncing toward the orange sunlight that spilled across the eastern horizon. Mary was awake, but her eyes were closed. The buck was graceful and stoic and ran for a mile or so. I kept his pace and he kept mine until he tired and galloped to a gentle stop behind us.
It was just the train and me until the highway bent to the north and the tracks fell away to the south. I stared in the rear-view mirror, but the buck had disappeared. Mary’s eyes were still closed and she was crying again. I squeezed her hand and focused on the road ahead. It was another eighty or so miles to go, and our house was waiting with pine roping and twinkling lights, the Christmas tree glowing in the front window.
AJ Olsen grew up on the south shore of Long Island, and graduated from Fordham University in May of 2003. In 2007 he moved to Austin, Texas where he studied English and Creative Writing in the Master of Liberal Arts program at St. Edward’s University. He is a first-year MFA candidate at Florida International University in Miami. AJ’s stories have appeared in Blue Moon Literary & Art Review and Sorin Oak Review. He lives in Hollywood, Florida with his wife.