Her boyfriend smelled like gasoline. This wasn’t normal—he usually smelled like warm bread, and it was the most attractive thing about him—but in this moment she tried to breathe shallowly to avoid the bitter stinging of the odor in her throat as she rested her head on his shoulder.
“What time is it?” she murmured. His housemates were playing a video game she didn’t recognize. A monster jumped over some flames, then devoured a smaller, weaker monster.
His shoulders shifted as he turned to look at her. “What did you say?” he asked. His eyes, inexplicably, were full of pity.
“What time is it?” She wanted to snap at him, but didn’t. He always did this, treated her like some porcelain doll or shriveled plant, and every time she spoke he acted like the world was falling down around them and he was the only one who could save her, or something like that.
I’m not actually a complete weakling, she always wanted to say, but never did. I can take care of myself. It had only been a few weeks since that first night they’d spent together, breath caught in their chests, skin hot as if with sunburn, but she was already sure she was in love with him. Each time she’d shifted to get more comfortable in her thin dorm-room bed, he had kissed her forehead. The gesture was so tender, so laden with care, that it caught her off guard at first. He had never seemed the tender type to her before that night.
Now, that care was almost oppressive, like the care from a parent to a child. It was her fault, she knew, for presenting herself as breakable during the first weeks of their relationship. Even the way he held her during sex was tentative, as if her skin might splinter under his touch. It was irritating, knowing how he viewed her, but undeniably sexy, too. Just the thought of his gentle fingers on her neck made her bite her lip.
“It’s getting late,” he said, glancing at his watch. “It’s after 10.”
“I should head back,” she said, pretending to yawn. “I have class tomorrow.”
“Will you be okay getting back on your own?” That awful concern was back in his eyes, and she smiled despite her annoyance. This had to be love, right? To be valued that much by someone? To be prized?
“I’ll be fine,” she said, “we’re right by the bus stop, and—”
“I’ll at least walk you to the stop,” he interrupted. She nodded mechanically. That first night together, she had confessed to him that she was afraid of the dark. This was true, but she wasn’t sure why she felt the need to tell him. Did she want him to pity her? Poor girl, scared of the dark, so sad, so strong. She had mistaken pity for love and craved it. He’d tightened his arm around her shoulders and said, “I won’t let anything happen to you.” Her heart had swelled at this, even though it stank of gender roles. She already knew nothing would happen to her, of course: she went to sleep every night alone in the dark and not once had any monster mauled and eaten her or slit her throat and left her to bleed out. (These were only some of the scenarios she had imagined.) But she loved that he felt responsible for her—she felt the same about him. When he had reluctantly confessed his own fear of the dark, she had echoed his sentiments: I won’t let anything happen to you, either. He’d chuckled. “You’re so cute.”
It was raining, and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders under the umbrella. She leaned into him, although this made it harder to walk. They moved without speaking. Their feet sloshed through the dark water on the sidewalk. She felt small next to him.
As the headlights of the bus cut through the rain, she stood on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. He pulled her closer with a hand on the small of her back, water splattering from the umbrella, and kissed her mouth for a long time, until the bus came to a stop in front of them. He tasted pungent, like the gasoline smell on his clothes. She climbed the steps of the bus and swallowed the words I love you.
“Text me when you get home,” she heard him call after her.
There were only two other people on the bus, skinny men wearing button-downs and messenger bags. She tried not to stare at them—not because they were remarkable, but because it was her nature to examine people on public transportation—and fixated on her wet shoes instead. They got off at an early stop, and no one replaced them. This made her nervous: there was nothing save flimsy law to stop the bus driver from turning the wrong way and dumping her body in the river. She knew this was paranoid and thought it anyway. The yellow and red lights of the college town blurred through the wetness on the windows.
The silence seemed to smear like the dark. Her eyes felt as if they were elongating, falling out of her head, rolling across the scuffed floor. She remembered a different bus ride before she had known how it felt to love him, and how his thigh had rubbed against her own. Everything besides that point of contact, softened by their jeans, had turned a yellowish gray.
The bus turned into a parking lot. She knew from previous journeys that this was where they would sit for ten minutes or so, waiting for students who would not come. If the bus driver was going to murder her, she mused, now would be the time.
As she examined the vacant bus stop in the yellow headlights of the bus, she considered her relationship. He was the only straight person she had ever dated. She had been with one man in the past—a boy, really, they’d been 16—and he’d been bi. He was angular and had frizzy brown hair and freckles, like her. People often mistook them for siblings. The three women she had been with in the past were all queer, obviously. Her past relationships had felt balanced, flat. She didn’t mind this change, she didn’t think—she loved him. But it was certainly an adjustment. Never before had the labels “man” and “woman” seemed to apply within a relationship.
There was a mechanical whirl as the bus restarted and then lurched forward. There was a thump, then a crack. She flinched.
“Shit!” the bus driver said. He yanked the emergency brake into place and stood. “Oh, no.”
“What happened?” she asked. Her voice was low for someone of her small stature, but it seemed to hang in a small cloud in the tense air. She tried to peer out of the windshield but all she could see was rain and streetlights.
“I think I just hit a deer,” replied the driver. He rubbed his face with both hands.
“Oh,” she said, her voice even thinner now. She thought about a hike she’d taken a few weeks ago, and how she’d turned a corner in the path to find herself facing a doe. The creature hadn’t run, didn’t even seem afraid, and instead it had stared into her eyes with some ancient, awkward wisdom. The only sound was the soft friction of leaves rubbing against each other. “Thank you,” she’d said aloud, feeling strange and whole and needing to express gratitude.
Later, she learned that deer were said to signify new beginnings or adventures. She wondered, then, what it would mean to kill one.
It was difficult to see through the rain and night, but as she climbed out of the bus she was able to outline a stiff, round form on the ground. The deer’s leg was trapped under the tire and the animal shook, eyes wide and blue. It did not struggle or cry out. It stared up at her with a profoundly human fear.
She began to cry. The bus driver was on the phone with the cops, his words fast and frustrated. Her umbrella lay unopen at her feet and her hair dripped rivulets onto her shoulders, but she felt too queasy to notice. The bus driver was shouting into the phone now, and the deer swiveled its head back and forth to identify the noise. In that moment, she realized she had never watched someone die. She shuddered, then vomited onto her umbrella. Thin bile mixed with rainwater.
The bus driver had stopped speaking, and the only sound for the moment was the rain. She could swear she heard the life seeping out of the creature in front of her. It sounded like a soft hissing, bitter and glue-smelling. She realized that was just the sound of the bus. She felt a
hand on her shoulder.
“Are you alright?” asked the bus driver. He was a short man, but still five or six inches taller than her. He wore a baseball cap and a graying beard.
“Yeah,” she croaked, then cleared her throat. “I’m fine.” She shrugged her shoulder away from him.
The deer shook its head.
“What if that’s her?” She didn’t realize she had said this aloud until the bus driver said, “What?”
“Oh, sorry,” she said, but she was thinking about the doe in the woods and the spirit that had flowed between them like water.
“The cops are on their way,” said the driver. “It won’t have to suffer for long.” She nodded and closed her eyes. When she opened them, the driver had sat down on the bench in front of the bus stop.
“Isn’t that awfully wet?” she said, because there was nothing else to do. He shrugged. The only light in the parking lot was from the headlights and the distant streetlamps. Shadows shifted around his face as he moved.
“I’m Scott,” he spoke into the tension.
“Hi, Scott,” she said. She looked everywhere except at the dying deer: the silhouetted trees, the black puddles, the pink skin exposed beneath Scott’s thin mustache.
Each second seemed distended, fat. Her clothes were soaked by now, so she figured the bench couldn’t make it much worse. She kicked away her umbrella and sat down across from Scott, careful not to get too close.
“I’ve been driving that bus for two years now and this is the first deer I’ve hit,” he said. She wished he’d stop trying to speak. The silence between them was not going to soften. She replied anyway, because politeness seemed to demand it: “I’m sorry.”
Scott shrugged. “I just wish the police would get here. Look at the poor thing.”
She wanted to do anything but that, yet she found herself gazing at the deer. It had laid its head on the wet ground and was still, except for an occasional twitch. She wondered if she would handle the same fate as well as this wild animal was. Definitely not, she knew, but she wanted to think she could.
“It’s still beautiful,” she found herself saying. That was the effect that deer had, she’d noticed: Even the most reticent felt the need to comment on their beauty. Deer often gathered in her grandmother’s backyard to stare into the house, and human guests would gather to stare back. Beautiful, beautiful, they’d murmur, and rub their noses.
“It is,” Scott replied. The bloated moments stilled. How long had it been since Scott had called the police? How long had the deer lay dying? According to her watch, it had only been seven minutes.
Without considering it, she stood and knelt next to the deer. She hesitated, then stroked its flank with a shaking hand. “What are you doing?” Scott said. She ignored him. Her breath was caught in her chest. The deer seemed to look at her with that same mix of pity and responsibility as her boyfriend always did. She wondered if she was going crazy. Its short fur was smooth, softer than that of a horse, and wet.
Eventually the headlights of the cop car—whiter than the bus lights—illuminated the parking lot. The cops and the bus driver had a short, tense conversation that she did not listen to. Wet fur clumped beneath her hands, which rose and fell with the shallow breath of the deer. She felt a hand on her shoulder again.
“Excuse me,” said a policewoman. There was a gunshot, louder than she would have expected. It was still raining.
The bus was undamaged, but Scott was still talking to the other cops about some bureaucratic something or other, so the policewoman drove her home. They sat in silence, for which she was thankful.
She shivered as she walked into the dry air conditioning of the dorm. There were five missed texts from her boyfriend, which she swiped away. She didn’t feel like recounting what had happened, and she suddenly didn’t care that much if he worried. Then her phone rang; it
“Why didn’t you text me?” he said when she picked up. “I was worried.”
“Sorry,” she said, “I…I forgot.”
“You can’t just do that.” His voice was tense, just short of angry. “I told you to text me when you got home.”
“I already said sorry,” she told him. “Listen, it’s late. We can talk about this later.”
“Sure,” he said, “unless you forget.” She had heard this mocking tone of his before, but never directed at her. She sighed.
“Goodnight,” she told him, and before she changed her mind, “Love you.”
There was static on the other end. Then he said, “Yeah. Yeah, okay. You too.” Later, remembering his hesitation, she’d feel a knife of anger between her eyes.
It was late when they hung up. It wasn’t until then that she realized she had left her umbrella at the bus stop. The probability of taking a trip to buy a new one seemed miles away, in a distant future she couldn’t at this moment imagine. She shrugged off her jacket, sighed, and went to sleep with the lights on.
T. Mesnick is an Ohio-based prose writer and poet. They have previously been published in the magazines Inklings, Happy Captive, The Miami Student, The Femellectual, Images, and Asterism, as well as the anthology A Celebration of Poets. They are currently studying Creative Writing, French, and History at Miami University.