Ian Denning’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Five Chapters, Sundog Lit, Corium Magazine, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. He graduated from the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire and now lives in Seattle. Ian teaches at Bellevue College, tends bar at the Richard Hugo House, and is the prose editor of The Lettered Streets Press.
Alicia and I were at that point where you can’t stop touching each other. Holding hands, kissing, fingers in hair, making love and then falling asleep tangled up—lust had magnetized us. It was hard to leave my apartment.
We went to a party thrown by her friends in South Berwick, just over the state line, and installed ourselves on a couch. She talked art with one of her friend’s friends. I rested my hand on the inside of her calf, feeling the soft stubble there, and watched the mid-summer heat dishevel her: sweat flattening her hair, skin growing ruddy and opaque like car windows fogging up. I drank beer after beer, and pretty soon I was sweating hard and enjoying the roll of the world whenever I moved my head.
Alicia was driving us back across the state line into Dover when a deer walked in front of our car. It was the biggest deer I’d ever seen, brown fur washed to pale gray by our headlights, more an outsized ghost of an animal than a real one. It froze, muscles twitching under the skin, contemplating flight in a dozen directions. Alicia curved us into the oncoming lane, and I looked out my passenger-side window and saw the deer’s hindquarters flash by six inches from the glass. When I turned to look behind me, it was gone.
“Jesus,” Alicia said, and exhaled hard. “That was close.”
“Oh man,” I mumbled, and put my hand on her leg. The thigh muscle, under her dress, was tense.
“We could have died. We could have totally just died.”
“But for your excellent driving.”
She gave me an annoyed look and said, “Be serious.” I turned my face to the window to hide my grin.
“That’s only like the second deer I’ve seen since I moved to New Hampshire,” she said. “I thought there would be a lot more, considering all the woods.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Too densely populated.”
We turned onto my street. “Imagine this place a thousand years ago,” she said. “They must have been everywhere. Dover must have been lousy with deer.”
“A kingdom of deer.”
When I got out of the car, my heart was beating fast. For a moment I thought I was seeing spots, but it was just the fireflies in the yard next to my parking lot. Alicia walked up the gravel path along the side of my house and pushed open the side door. My apartment was on the second story of a turn-of-the-century Victorian that the owner had sectioned off into six shitty one-bedrooms. The floors were slightly concave—one time I spilled a bag of frozen corn and all the kernels rolled to the exact center of my kitchen.
I propped up all the windows and turned on the fans while Alicia washed her face. When she was done, she pulled me into the bedroom and flopped onto my mattress. “How drunk are you?” she asked, her hand on my belt buckle.
“Not very,” I lied, and bent down to kiss her throat, her pearl earring. It was so hot. We were already sleek with sweat by the time we finished pulling off our clothes.
Someone in the house turned on a faucet and the pipes squealed in the wall next to my headboard. Alicia sighed in her sleep and burrowed down into the pillow, so I put my hand on the small of her back. She grunted happily and lay still.
But I couldn’t sleep. I listened to the cars going by on Central Avenue, watching their headlights cast triangles of light that crawled across my ceiling. It reminded me of the deer, washed out, white, huge, strutting in the middle of the street. Imagine this place a thousand years ago, Alicia had said, and I did. Deer, trees, snow, Abenaki Indians, the Cochecho foaming toward the sea. One day it would be like that again, after global warming or nuclear winter or super-flu or whatever laid us low. The glaciers would melt and the Cochecho would burst its banks. It would eat away all the bridges and carry pieces of the mills down to the Atlantic. Forsythia would butt its way inside Janeto’s Market and Dunkin’ Donuts, and the deer would return, stepping cautiously down Central, past what used to be my apartment.
I would be dead. Heart disease, if my family history was a good indicator, or maybe cancer. Alicia would be gone, too. My hand was on the hot place where her back curved up and became her butt, and I could feel her breathing. We could have died today, I guess, although I hadn’t felt endangered. If Alicia hadn’t driven onto the other side of the road, we could have hit that deer, sent it rolling up over the hood of Alicia’s car and through the windshield, felt its brown bulk snap our ribs and crush our windpipes.
My friend Clay who lived in the White Mountains told me that when a car hit and killed a moose, all the ticks on the moose’s body (which could number into the tens of thousands) jumped off the dead animal, whose capillaries were no longer pumping blood, and onto the next living thing they found. Usually that was the driver bleeding to death in his crushed car. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be pinned under half a ton of meat and hair, feeling ticks crawling across my cheeks and into my mouth and up the cuffs of my shirt, but I couldn’t, because how could the world contain the feeling of suffocating under a dead animal or the jolt of your fender clipping a deer when it also contained being sweaty and naked under a cotton sheet with your hand on the soft ending of a woman’s spine?
It couldn’t. It just couldn’t.