The roads are different at night. It’s something my mom used to say all the time. She said it when I was a child in the back seat, and she said it when she was teaching me how to drive. Every stretch of highway or backroad turn was different under the veil of darkness. I laughed at the concept at first, thinking maybe she was overreacting a little. I had just got my license, and I had driven many times before, but they had all been convenient, daylight drives in the past. I thought surely as long as I had a GPS and working headlights everything would be fine. In the end her words rang true, and it was something I learned the hard way.
My eighteenth birthday was two months ago. I was working a part-time day shift job as a dishwasher at a country club since I had graduated high school. It wasn’t a bad job, and it taught me the value of earning and appreciating your paycheck. I found that, despite my hate for school, I actually enjoyed working and making money to provide for myself instead of just hanging around and existing. My mom or my sister would pick me up after work in the family beater, an old Dodge Intrepid, so they could run errands and what not while I was at work. We didn’t have a lot of money, and I was helping out around the house with what I made as a dishwasher. But that all changed when I ran into my cousin at the country club. He had offered me a job, making twice as much where he worked.
My cousin Scott was a steelworker. It sounded exciting to me at the time, a dangerous job, farther away from home than I was used to, lots of overtime, and bigger checks. I didn’t have any plans for college, and I didn’t have anything else lined up employment wise, so it seemed like a lifeline when he offered it to me. It would be my first Big Boy job, and I couldn’t help but think of the dollar signs swirling through my head.
“It’ll be good for you,” he said, “You can get an early start, make some good money, try to get things on track. Make it through probation and you’ll have a steady job to hunker down at for a bit.”
After an application, a ride to a job interview, and a drug test, I was on my way to doing just that. I would start as a laborer doing grunt work, and when a bid came up, I might have a chance to move into something a little more concrete. I put in my notice at the dish pit, bought some steel-toe boots and some heavy cargos to wear until uniforms came in, and finished my two-weeks with impatience. I would start out on second shift, working three-to-eleven, and probably get forced into some overtime, but I was cool with it. Once my notice was up, I said goodbye to the friends I had made at the country club and got ready for bigger and better things.
With a new job starting, my Mom said I would take the Intrepid myself, just in case I had to work way later than scheduled. She was worried about being out so late, and more importantly driving at night. The mill was in a port twenty miles away, whereas my previous job was just down the road. There were only two ways to get there; the expressway that would get me there faster, or the backroad that went through the dunes that led to the port. My mother said the highway was out of the question, too many crazy people on the roads, and the fact I had never driven at night made her very uncomfortable. She said I would take the scenic route, it was covered in trees and traffic was light, and I would be fine as long as I watched for deer.
I was nervous and excited, but before I knew it I was on my way for my first day. I plugged my phone into the aux cord, since my phone was an old hand-me-down, I had to find a sweet spot for it to come in clearly. I set my GPS and put on some music and started the heavily wooded cruise. On my way to work, the drive was beautiful. The trees were tall and danced in the wind, rays of sunshine shining down all the way to the port. It was a more touristy route I suppose, being so close to the lake. Gift shops and gas stations could be seen every couple miles, and there were several elderly men taking their project cars out for a Sunday drive on a Monday. At the halfway point in my drive I caught a red light. The intersection was small, with an old train station next to it with a sign that read “Sandy Shores”. There was a couple on a bench outside the station, cheesy smiles beaming as they posed for a selfie. It all seemed so serene, this beautiful drive, on the way to my much more profitable job, seeing these nice cars that maybe one day I would be able to afford. I looked forward to making this drive in the days to come. With my tunes playing on the stereo, nice easy speed limit and lazily listing turns, I found my way to work and got to my first day.
The port itself was the farthest thing from beautiful. It seemed like a decaying hole in the land, nothing but dusty gravel, loud semi-trucks, and loud bangs echoing from the factories on every corner. I parked next to the other soot covered cars and headed in. After getting my own hard hat and shown around, I was led to my station, where I would spend the next eight hours putting bands on stacks of plate and verifying skid tickets. Some people were rougher than others, but the night crew seemed to be more populated with a younger crew so I blended in just fine. I ended up with a guy named Terry, someone a few years older than me, who showed me the ropes and made sure I was out of people’s way. He was a pretty cool guy, hard-working and priding himself in being an overtime hog. The job was a little stressful, but the banter in between packaged loads made it a little easier.
Despite the intimidation of the overhead cranes and loud percussion of the machines, I focused on the tasks at hand and doing the best I could. I wanted to impress management so I wouldn’t get axed during my probation. The day seemed to fly by. Halfway through the shift the supervisor let me know Terry and I were getting low-manned to stay over a few hours after the shift to pick up the warehouse. Something about cleaning up to install cameras for the line. Terry was pleased and said he would’ve volunteered anyway. It was seniority-based overtime, so if I wanted to keep my job, I didn’t really have a choice. Even though the shift was extended it went pretty quick; the labor was way less monotonous than doing dishes all day. I was told I could wrap it up for the day and head home. Terry said he would stay and try to milk it a little longer, and after a fist-bump I punched out and it was time to go home. I was feeling extremely accomplished and optimistic, that was until I got to the parking lot. It was dark outside. Very dark.
The parking lot was mostly empty, except for my car, Terry’s, and the supervisor’s. Out in the port the air was chillier and more eerie than back home. It even felt darker, like I didn’t belong there. Trying to maintain my high spirits I walked to my car, which was now covered in the dust that blew around all day. I got in, started it up, and plugged my phone back into the aux so I could hear the GPS and music on my way home. I texted my mom that I was on my way, and after picking a song I was ready to go.
It shouldn’t be too bad, I told myself, and as I pulled out of the parking lot, I prepared to cross another milestone in the same day: driving home at night.
Leaving the port was just as different at night. Instead of the sun lighting everything up there was just a row of orange lamps lighting the way out. A few semis were shouldered for the night; drivers that were sleeping to get the jump on the next load first thing in the morning. It seemed so desolate compared to earlier this morning. As I drove through the exit and back on the scenic route that would take me back the way I came, I realized that the orange lights in the port would be the last of my light for a while. Once I left it was just me on the road, my old beater car chugging away into the night. It wasn’t too bad, the visibility was a little worse than I thought but at least I had the GPS and music. The drive was only a half hour. Before I knew it I would be back home and showering after my first long day of work.
Entering the wooded portion of my drive felt like driving into a cave; the tall trees leaning over the road blocking out even the slightest hint of moonlight. I focused on the drive ahead, the worn aux input crackling over my music. Each bump in the road seemed rougher than before, each branch reaching just a little further in the headlights. I white knuckled the wheel as I drove, feeling silly for being as on edge as I was. It was just a short drive. What was the big deal? Everybody drove at night. People did it all the time.
Each winding curve seemed to turn into the same repetitive stretch of trees, like I was driving through the same segment over and over again. Time seemed to crawl as my car chugged down the road, the hi-beams reflecting off every sign as I made my way. Old, beat up signs for no passing. Signs warning of a low shoulder. Signs for deer crossing. It looked at them all one by one, my eyes lingering long on the yellow square with the silhouette of a buck prancing.
Watch for deer.
To my surprise there wasn’t much to watch out for, except for the trees. Just when I thought I wasn’t making any progress I found myself at the same intersection from earlier, caught at the same red-light. I slowed to the inevitable stop and sat waiting, my progressive rock drumming against long-blown speakers. My eyes drifted from the road in front of me to the train station, the sign for “Sandy Shores” not lit with a flickering neon. The bench with the couple I observed earlier now stood empty under a lamp post, littered with discarded trash from the commuters throughout the day. There wasn’t a soul in sight. No other cars, nobody else making a trek somewhere in the middle of the night. It just felt so dark. I checked the GPS as I sat. I only had twelve minutes until I reached my destination. The drive was practically over already. As I looked down to my phone I saw the green glow fill the cab as the light changed. I eased off the brake and continued.
I thought of the work I did prior, and how my muscles were sore in a way I had never felt before. My joints ached differently, like I had spent all day log-rolling down a hill. I thought of a hot shower, and washing away the dirt and rust that circulated through the air of the plant as the production line ran. As fulfilled as it made me feel, in the back of my mind I wondered how people did something like that every day for work. I guessed I would just get used to it. Ahead I saw a pothole in the headlight’s glow, one I wouldn’t be able to swerve away from in time. The passenger side tire hit it dead center, the impact rocking the entire car on its shot suspension. I winced at the crater in the pavement, and the crackling in the music got worse as the aux lost its sweet spot. The grinding distortion in the stood my hair up as I reached for the cord, and found nothing but an empty seat. I felt for my phone in the dark, my fingers trying to trail the cord to the source.
“Come on,” I said, fumbling in the dark. After several attempts I couldn’t quite find the phone, like my hand wasn’t making the connection to my brain what it was supposed to be look—
I saw the eyes and the reflection of the fur too late, and I slammed on the brakes. The tires squealed as I flew toward the baby deer, my entire body seizing like a frozen statue. I could only squeeze the steering wheel and stomp my foot as hard as I could, unable to totally alter the momentum of the car. I stopped suddenly but not fast enough, the car screeching to a halt just late enough to smack the fawn with the front bumper. The hit was quick but solid, and I watched in denial as the young animal was tossed off its hooves and tumbled down the road in front me.
I grit my teeth so hard they hurt. I looked at the body dumbfounded; it had happened so fast, there was no way it could just—come out of nowhere. I didn’t have enough time. Even if I wasn’t distracted, there was no way I could’ve, how was I supposed to–? The static was worse through the stereo, my phone lost somewhere in the abyss that was the passenger side floor. The cord had followed it, and it hung from the jack at a sharp angle like a tugged fishing line. I sat there with my jaw hanging, unsure of what to do, unsure of what to think. Before I had the time to even process what had happened ahead of me another bright shape echoed off the headlights, another deer with big ears and a shiny coat had walked into the road slowly, like it couldn’t believe what it was seeing. With hesitant steps it crossed the pavement, and as I painstakingly watched it nudge the motionless body with its snout, I came to the horrifying conclusion of what I was looking at.
Ahead of me, the majestic plump doe nudged the still corpse of its child, and as it registered what it had found, promptly erupted in the saddest cries of pain I have ever heard from an animal. With its head whipping around in desperation it called to the woods surrounding us, its calls echoing through the trees and chilling me to the bone. Its loss, the emotion it felt, was brought on by me, and the guilt washed over me like a smothering plague.
I couldn’t think, I could only watch. I watched helplessly, wanting to do something, but the cruel realization settled quickly. What could I possibly do? Other than run down its child, how could I possibly help the situation I had caused? From the passenger floor my phone struggled against its lack of proper connection. The grinding static was worse and assaulted my ears, but I didn’t dare look for my phone now. I could only look ahead at the grieving doe and the child I ran down, over my convenience of musical reception. I thought about calling someone, maybe calling my mom, but then what? She would be asleep, and when she woke up there would be a cataclysmic uproar, and even then, I had the only car. It’s not like she could come get me. I swallowed hard, and after what felt like an eternity of mulling it over, I decided the only thing my piece-of-shit self could do in a situation like this. I would try to go around them, and drive away. I felt the tears welling in my eyes and my nose starting to run as I readjusted my grip. My foot was still stuck against the floor so I started easing off the brake, committing to my decision to flee. Before I could let off however, I heard a faint tap on my window. When I turned to my window, my blood went cold. Staring at me through was a giant set of glass-like eyes, belonging to a large eighteen point buck.
With wide bulky shoulders it stood in the entirety of the oncoming lane, hunched down so it could look through my window. Its antlers reached far from the sides of its head; each pronounced point bulbous with velvet. After a deep inhale it snorted into the chilly air, fogging the glass that seemed so thin under its size. The dark pupils were entrancing and terrifying, like the inside of the car was shrinking under their gaze.
“I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean, it just happened, I’m sorry,” I mumbled to the large stag, my hands shaking on the wheel. The swirling fear pulled at my gut, and I felt like I was going to piss myself if I didn’t look away. For only a second I looked at the doe and its child in front of me, my sense of flight wondering if I could chance it and take the shoulder off road and get past them. The groaning aux continued on the floor, the cord begging to be adjusted or pulled free altogether. I looked to the giant deer in desperation, wanting to apologize more but knowing it would be useless. Only when it raised its head did I realize it wasn’t looking at me but past me, to the other side of the car. I followed its gaze and saw another of the herd had crept up, a younger male from the looks of it, two little velvet points sticking from its head. It investigated the car as it walked up, timidly observing the shape of the car before looking inside. It looked at me then at the elder, exchanging their unsettling silent glare on opposite sides. As I was caught in the middle the doe ahead let out another pained wail.
The great deer exhaled again, spreading the fog on the window. It tipped its nose to the younger deer, and I watched as it fluttered its ears. The younger one started looking into the car, its head panning the interior as the older one watched. The static on the radio came in and out, like a radio station tuning. After a moment it paused and stared at something in the dimly lit cab. It didn’t make sense to me. On my left the elder was looking at the same thing. At first I thought it was the dash, but they weren’t looking quite at it. Slowly I realized it wasn’t the glow of the radio they were transfixed on. They were looking at the keys.
In a fit of panic I reached for the switch next to me, and locked the doors. A second later the younger deer lowered its head and hooked one of its nubs on the door handle and jerked up, trying to work the latch. The loud knocks of the handle slapping were loud and I jumped, and the larger deer snorted angrily. It looked at the lock on the windowsill in a way that I could only explain as pure anger. I blindly felt for my phone again, and was painfully reminded it was still on the floor. The radio cackled as I fumbled with the cord, and I could swear I could hear words over the frequency. It was barely audible, but I could swear it sounded like: “Let. Us. In.”
The larger deer stared at me again, and without warning, smacked its antlers on the window. I jumped at the sound of it, and I prayed to God the glass would hold. I looked forward again, at any possible route to drive away. With them boxing me in, I would have no choice but to swipe one of them, or run into the mother directly. The larger one smacked the window again, this time busting the velvet, leaving a gritty red splotch on the fogged glass. It drug it across the window, making a dark smear as the bony point scraped along. Ahead the doe rested its head on its still offspring, its chest heaving with human-like crying. Tears streaked down its fur, and at the sight of it was like I could hear the sobbing, inside the car, over the radio.
“Let. Us. In. Or. Let. Him. In.”
I tried to reach for my phone again. I chanced a glance at the floor and I could see the outline of it on the floor in the far corner. I gently pulled on the aux cord and the distortion worsened with every tugged, assaulting my ears. I tried to turn off the radio but it wouldn’t work; the volume and source buttons only yielding the same digital ERROR message on the display. The larger deer was rattling its rack against the window faster now, a bleeding mess trailing behind the shredding velvet. The younger deer pressed the side of its face against the passenger side window, its dark eyeball pressing against the glass as it tried to look in as close as it could. The mother deer’s crying could be heard over the radio. There was a menacing chorus rising in the static, something that was trying to push through. The human crying was so loud it was like a woman sobbing in the backseat, sobbing in my ear. I looked at the window with the larger deer, with the array of bloody streaks, and as the streaks seemed to take shape, the crying and the chorus grew louder. The streaks weren’t just random nudges, it was drawing something. It was drawing a pentacle.
With the last crude stroke that completed the crimson star and circle formation, there was a fog rising from the ditch on the side of the road. The mother doe buried her face into the lifeless fawn like it was trying to hide. Now that the crying had subsided the chorus seemed clearer, and it hit me that it wasn’t singing or anything like it. It was screams. Horrible, tortured screams.
Through the billowing fog, a wicked amalgamation of antlers jutted from the damp leaves and grass. With bright red rays it tore through the earth, the sounds of a hundred screaming souls droning over the radio as the rack poked through. The volume on the radio kept turning up. I covered my ears to thwart the punishing sound. The deer on both sides of me just stared in my anguish, the sound rising a pitch so great I thought the windshield would shatter. As the deer stared I could see their faces began to shake, like a movie stuck on fast forward. Their eyes rattled in their skulls as their faces blurred, the speakers in the car whining under the strain of hopeless cries and pleas.
The phalanx of antlers gave way to fur, wrapped around a skull bigger than a moose. Through the cold mud it steamed in its ascent, whether it was torn velvet or strips of flesh hanging from its points I was not sure. They dangled like drying strips of meat. Beside me the deer shook so fast their features distorted, some of them animal, others human. It matched the screams coming through the radio. As the full bust of shiny black fur was through the ground, the fog wisped away as if on fast forward as well. The head of the giant deer opened its eyelids to reveal two bleeding spheres the size of baseballs, its jet-black pupils narrowing in on me, cowering behind the steering wheel. I closed my eyes, wondering when I had started to scream. My scream blended with the others, one and the same.
The screaming stopped. I sat there with my hands over my ears, my eyes squeezed shut, afraid to open them again. I heard the snort once again, and it was a moment before I gave in and looked in its direction. The large deer was still there but it wasn’t looking at me anymore. The screaming was gone. The bloody pentagram was gone. The mysterious fog and the shadowy black deer were gone. I lowered my hands to see the younger buck was looking as well, its ears fluttering with excitement. Not only were they not looking at me, they were walking away.
Ahead of me the fawn I had hit just minutes ago was blinking awake, confused and disoriented. After a struggle it stumbled to its feet with the help of its mother, and weakly stood on its own after a few licks and prods with her nose. The large buck snorted and nodded at the baby, and after a moment of consideration, it nodded back. The large male gave an approving snort and turned to the mother, who nodded as well. I watched them in silence, not even sure what to do anymore. All at once they looked at me, a family of four, their many glassy eyes reflecting in the headlights. I put my hands up in defeat. I couldn’t help but stare back, my hands shaking as they huddled closer together. With a snort the large male nodded, once at me, then once to the open road behind them. I didn’t believe it. Slowly they moved together, giving me enough room to drive past them. I hesitated, but not for long. As soon there was enough room I let off the brake and started driving, creeping past the family herd as they watched me go.
I gave an apologetic look at the baby, who returned it with twinkling eyes. As soon as I was clear of them my foot pressed the accelerator and I got the hell out of there. Even though I was clear I couldn’t help but look in the rear view mirror behind me, to make sure they weren’t chasing me. I wish I would’ve just kept my eyes forward instead of behind me. They watched me go in silence, their dead stares unblinking as my car got further and further away. Just as they were almost out of view. They stood up on their hind legs, one by one until they were all upright with their front legs at their sides. The mother and fawn walked away first, with the younger buck following close behind.
The father stayed however, his stare following until all I could see was an open stretch and trees behind me.
Credit : Jesse Pullins
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