The boy smiles at him, his teeth jutting out past peanut-butter lips. His eyes are squinted, nearly obscured by sunburned cheeks. Sun-kissed, Madeline always called it, fondness coloring the words as she pressed her own gentle kiss to the pink skin. The boy doubles over with silent laughter, his arms wrapped around his midsection. He has blonde hair, the same color as Rhett’s. Dirty in the dark, bright in the sun.
A toddler gazes up at the boy, her eyes bright with wonder. A gummy smile cautiously shines. She fists one hand around a stuffed dog, its fur matted with jelly and slobber. The other hand tears at strands of grass. She rips them from the rain-fresh dirt, then lets them fall. She always stares at the grass, watching as it drifts and drifts and drifts.
Steven and Lauren, Rhett calls them.
He brags, some nights when the trips to the bar get more sentimental than celebratory. Brags that his kids, little Stevie and Lauren, are at the top of their class. Steven just completed fourth grade and aced all his math tests. “They say,” Rhett whispers conspiratorially, “that he’s got a sure shot to Harvard in a coupl’a years. Youngest kid to make it to Harvard in four centuries.” The men Rhett drinks with never ask who they is; Rhett never explains. “I got Steven a bicycle for his last birthday. Spent all Sunday chasing after him in the streets. He hopped right up on that thing and he ain’t got off’a it, since.” Rhett runs a hand across his brow, miming the exertion of fatherhood. “It’s hard, I tell you. But, I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”
If there’s still someone ordering rounds of drink, Rhett will keep talking, raising his voice until everyone pays attention. “And, Lauren! How can I ever explain to you Lauren?” He takes a jerky swallow of his drink, shaking his head. “She’s a goddamn genius. Started talking at age one. Just popped her head up one day and said papa. Clear as day, I swear. Just papa, papa, papa. Over and over until I thought her tongue was just going to drop out of her mouth. She just started kindergarten, you know. Top of her class, there. Drew me this picture, the other day, of our family, and I just--” At this point, Rhett always pats his pant pockets with an exaggerated worry. Eventually, he offers a hesitant smile. “Must’a left it in my truck. Keep it pinned to my dashboard.”
The men smile, Rhett takes one more shot, and the night closes like all the others. The next morning, all this will be forgotten, will be left behind. Rhett will be hundreds of miles away, and Steven and Lauren will cease to exist.
There was one run, when Rhett had been just by the border of Oregon. He had been churning through miles, his truck purring with each gear shift. Some power metal group screamed through the radio, their words obscured by thick static. The picture of his kids he kept taped to the dashboard trembled with each deep rattle of the bass. The children danced. Rhett banged his head along with the beat, shouting his own lyrics. “And goddamn! If I ain’t got a lamb, then I ain’t gotta need for--”
From the silent trees, it burst. If Rhett hadn’t been looking in just the right spot, he would’ve missed the deer. It leaped forward, gaining speed, gaining momentum, tearing toward the road like a sunstreak. The deer hung, suspended in the brisk air, for two seconds too long.
Then, it was under the truck.
“Mark and Sally,” Rhett tells the men. “My kids, Mark and Sally, are the best goddamn kids to walk the planet. Mark just turned twelve, the other day. We got him this huge cake, Madeline and I. Mark’s big into those superheroes. They got this movie franchise, I’m sure you’ve heard of them. Anyway, we bought Mark this giant cake. Cake’s nearly bigger than the kid, I swear!” Rhett laughs, watching the men for any flickers of disbelief. He continues, “His baby sister smeared blue frosting all down the windows. Took us two weeks before we could see outta those windows again.”
No one has called him out, no one has demanded proof beyond the memories, the words that tumble from his mouth, each subsequent one bigger and brighter. “My girl, Sally, she can be a bit destructive, but so are all four year olds. She’s just curious, really. Wants to touch everything. Eat everything, I swear. Madeline and I, we gotta stop her from putting everything in her mouth. One day, no shit, I found her chewing on a knife. A butter knife, thank god, but that kid, I swear.” Rhett finishes it off with a laugh, a shot, and he’s back on the road. Mark and Sally are just shadows of a memory.
The truck stuttered to a stop, the engine heaving one last time as Rhett pulled the keys from the ignition. He hesitated, trying to see the deer from his rearview mirror. Rhett’s shoulders pulled in with a heaviness he had only felt once before. The fear that he had screwed up pressed against his ribs, and he could only sit there and search the rear view mirror for a deer he didn’t even want to find.
He took one deep breath, before jumping down from the cab of his truck. Rhett slammed the door shut, only flinching slightly at the crashing noise in the silence surrounding him. A harsh wind tore at Rhett’s thin sweater, and he tugged the sleeves down his arms a little further. Rhett opted for examining the grill of his truck for damage first. It was clean, only a snag of fur caught in the thin mesh of the grill proving what Rhett had begun to hope was a dream. He picked out the fur and examined it. He scratched at each individual strand, surprised at its coarseness. It was not soft and, perhaps, had never been so.
“Did I ever tell you about my kids?” Rhett begins boisterously. “I got two of ‘em. Rick’s ten. He’s the star pitcher of his little league team. Throws a ball faster than a blink of an eye. I go to his games, you know, and he’s whipping those curveballs, left and right. His team’s going to the state championship and little Ricky’s the one carrying them there. Gotta talk to the boss to make sure I have that weekend off. You can bet I ain’t missing that game for all the money of the world.”
He shakes his head and leans back against the bar. The words churn within him, and he spits them out with the same desperation of a drowning man heaving in breaths of salt-tinged air. “Rick’s got his life set out for him. Same with Jessica. She just started ballet last year and, I swear, she’s better than most’a those girls on stage. She’s gonna be a ballerina, some day. Gonna star in that show, you know, the swan one? I bet, if she really put her mind to it, she could be in some professional production already. And, let me tell you, she’s only seven! Only seven, and she’s got a passion, got a path.” One more laugh, one more shot, one more night.
The truck stretched longer than Rhett remembered, as he started back to where the deer had been hit. Each step was an effort, and Rhett almost wanted to just turn back and get back in his truck. The truck was fine, not even a dent. He could just drive on and forget about it all.
A short distance from the truck, the deer lay still, silent. It looked smaller than it had when it had leaped from the forest, shrunken, defeated. Rhett approached slowly, afraid of startling the injured creature. The wind ruffled the deer’s short fur, but the deer didn’t react. It looked dead, and Rhett hated that.
“Let me just tell you,” Rhett interrupts one of the guys’ story. “Let me just tell you about my kids, Logan and Kate. They’re the bravest kids I’ve ever seen. Just guess what Logan likes to do, each Saturday. You got a guess? Bet you ain’t gonna get it. He goes bouldering. Bouldering. Just imagine, you’re setting up your gear and this little nine year old just scrambles up past you. He’s like a lizard, my Logan. Just grips to those rocks and goes! Madeline and I used to call him our little monkey, back when he was a baby. Guess he took the nickname to be a challenge.”
Before anyone else can steal the story, Rhett barrells forward. “And, Kate. She’s fearless, let me tell you. When she was just a baby, we went to this zoo. Wanted to take Logan to see the gorillas. Kate, she just climbs out of her stroller--and she’s only two, mind you--and goes off to explore on her own. Madeline and I, I swear, were more scared than she was. We were just running around like headless chickens, squawking and screaming for her. Some friendly zoo kid helped find her. She’s fine, now, but, that girl, I swear, is gonna give me gray hairs. I got any yet?” he jokes. Rhett laughs and Rhett leaves.
He reached out to touch the deer. It didn’t move. Rhett examined its motionless body. The front legs had been snapped forward, but beyond that, it looked mostly uninjured. If Rhett didn’t look at the legs, he could almost fool himself into thinking that the deer had stumbled out to the road to sleep. Its eyes were closed, and Rhett wondered what he would see if he looked into them. Rhett wondered what sort of memories deer have, what sort of thoughts trickled through its mind as it lay there, dying.
A deep sadness for the deer engulfed Rhett, and he fell to his knees. The deer mewled, a sound that Rhett had never heard before. He startled, jerking backwards, away from the injured animal. The deer blinked languid eyes at him. Rhett stared into their depths, but could only see himself, distorted, in the blackness. The deer shut its eyes, dropping its head back to the rough pavement. Rhett approached once more. With shaking hands, he stroked its coarse fur, murmuring soft words of comfort to the deer. A lullaby that he’d forgotten, a lullaby that had gone unsung. With shaking hands, he cupped the deer’s head and it felt far too small in his monstrous hands. It was just a baby, someone’s child. With suddenly steady hands, Rhett jerked the deer’s head to the side, snapping it quickly.
“You gonna tell us about your kids?” one of the men jokes. He’s traveled with Rhett before, he knows how Rhett likes to talk. “Trevor and Rachel, I think you said their names were.”
For once, Rhett hesitates. Everyone is staring now, so Rhett dredges up some picture from a movie that had been playing in the dollar theatre in the town over. “Yeah, Trevor’s, what, thirteen now? He’s turning into a teenager, you know. Likes to lock himself in a room and drown out his thoughts with rap. He likes to complain. Ain’t the most perfect of kids, I gotta tell you that. The other day he didn’t get home until two in the morning. Two in the goddamn morning. We talked to him, Madeline and I, and he’s gonna be better. He’s gotten into film and carries this little camera around with him wherever he goes. We just told him that he can’t have that camera, if he’s skipping out on curfew. Trevor’s never gonna give up that camera.”
The other man prompts him for information about Rachel, and Rhett swallows down a stutter. “Rachel just finished fourth grade and she’s taken up the piano. She’ll just sit in our front room, practicing for hours. I ain’t ever heard more beautiful music. I think, if she keeps up with it, she’ll be famous, playing out at Carnegie Hall, or something ridiculous like that. You keep an eye out for her, Rachel Pennington. Her name’s gonna be in the stars, just you wait.” That night, though, Rhett feels heavier and he needs two shots before he can leave the children behind.
The wind whipped at Rhett as he left the dead deer by the side of the road. He could almost feel the eyes of the deer’s parents, watching him, hating him. Rhett wanted to stop and shout at the unseen deer, point out that it had been their child that had leaped before his truck. He wasn’t responsible. He did nothing wrong. Rhett wondered if the parental deer would hate him, would despise him for what happened to their baby.
He figured they would forget. It was all too easy to just forget.
The heaviness persisted and Rhett tried to shake the memories away. It was over, past. It no longer mattered. And, each minute spent with the deer was pushing him further and further behind schedule. He reached the cab of the truck and ripped the door open.
Rhett didn’t know how it happened, but the force of the door tore the picture of his kids from its place on the dashboard. The wind caressed the image, then stole it. It fluttered away, further into the dark forest. Rhett watched it drift and drift and drift. Child for child--a simple exchange between parents. He hoped the deer studied the picture, memorized the laughing faces because memory was a fickle fate.
In the next town, Rhett found a stock photo of two kids and taped it to his dashboard.
“Have I ever told you about my kids, Brian and Lilly?”