by Molly Reid
When the doe settles in front of the cottage, Marilyn tries not to attach too much meaning to it. The doe has the tags and collar of one of her father’s. Big plastic earrings with the number 63 in blocky black type. The animal first steps around the big oak at the edge of the property, clearly trying not to put pressure on her front leg. Even from the window, Marilyn can tell her ankle is swollen above the fetlock, a word she’s always liked. Probably the doe had been foraging along the road, taking risks urged by biology, a drop in temperature. The island’s main road is not far from the cottage and cars go fast around its sharp bends. The doe lowers herself clumsily to the ground. Marilyn can hear her father whisper. See how her ears are up and forward. She’s on full alert.
Before he died, he used to mention them on the phone like family members he wished would visit more often. 27 came by today with 31. They lay down in the yard on opposite sides of the house, like sentries. 22 has a boyfriend—poor guy, he must not be too smart, or maybe he just wants a friend. 12 keeps hanging around in the neighbor’s yard, eating up all their persimmons. 30 almost got stuck when the tide came in.
Marilyn knows there aren’t many options. If she calls the police, an officer may come and shoot the doe. But it’s too soon yet. There is a gun, her father’s gun, in the top right drawer of the kitchen, for just that purpose. If it comes to that. Marilyn wants to get a better look, but she knows that if she goes out, the doe will likely bolt, or try to, making her injury worse.
She calls Wolf Hollow, the wildlife rehabilitation center in Friday Harbor. It says on their website they answer phone calls 24/7, but Marilyn has to leave a message.
The afternoons are usually when she goes for long walks, follows the main road tracing the shore. But she can’t risk disturbing the doe. She makes tea and stares at 63 for a while from the window. The animal looks content. Restful. Her eyelids partly lowered, ears straight. The earring tags add a little sophistication, a little style. Maybe she isn’t so injured after all. Maybe the doe just needs a safe space to rest. Marilyn could give her that. Since the divorce, so shortly after her father passed away, all she’d wanted was to be left alone. All the well-intentioned people in her life asking how she was. If she needed anything. Would she like to go to dinner or catch a movie or meet for a drink or go for a hike. No she wouldn’t. She would like to curl into a ball and sit on the floor for a couple weeks. She would like to be in water, to float, water filling her ears and closing her eyes, her body buoyed by the oxygen inside her, a weight carried, for a month or so.
“You should think about online dating,” her daughter had said. On the east coast now, working full-time, the mother of a three-year-old, Marilyn always only had half her attention.
“I’m too old for online dating,” Marilyn said. She could hear Sarah in the background screaming I want the bees I want the bees.
“Mom. You’re forty-five. People are changing careers at your age, going back to school. Climbing Mount Everest. They’re having babies—god knows why they’d want to.”
Before coming to the island, she’d attempted to follow her daughter’s advice. Researched the best online dating sites for people in her age bracket, for introverted people, for women, compared prices. But there were too many questions. Before she even got to the personal information, when it asked What connections are you open to? she couldn’t choose between Hookup, New friends, Short-term dating, and Long-term dating. What was she open to? She wanted gray drizzle, moss, the crackle of fire in a potbelly stove.
Her father’s cottage had remained empty for six months after he died. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to sell it. It seemed a stroke of good timing: the perfect place to commune with herself, get away from all those well-intentioned people, grieve the loss of both her marriage and her father, heal.
Once upon a time, Marilyn wanted to be a writer. In college she wrote some stories, had a couple of them published in literary magazines, then many more rejected. The rejection was painful. It began to infect the writing, the act of it, a dread that settled into every word. And then right as she’d decided to give it up completely, she was contacted by someone who’d read one of her stories and admired it and wondered would she help him write a book about his experience getting rich from investing in real estate in the eighties? Though she had zero interest in the subject matter, she’d found the writing of the book actually enjoyable. Without any artistic investment in the words, they came freely, she could take them up then leave them whenever she wanted. The book ended up doing quite well, and so she helped him with the next book, and another after that, and then his agent had a couple other clients who needed a good ghostwriter, and she had herself a career. Ghostwriter. Herself as ghost, acting unseen, a person both there and not there. None of the credit, little risk or blame. She might, she thought, apply the prefix to her other roles, too: ghostdaughter, ghostwife, ghostmother. A go-between, traipsing the edges.
She has a notion to write something now. A gothic something. A story with mist and mystery. But every time she tries to start, and she’s tried both paper and computer, she can’t begin. That old dread of the white page creeps in—how can she have nothing to say?
Her husband used to say she was a piece of work. You’re a real piece of work, Marilyn. A couple specific instances hold in her memory. One time when she’d cut her own bangs and they fell thick and too short on her forehead. Another when she decided she wanted to learn how to play the ukulele and took a class at the local community college and Robert walked in on her as she was practicing “I am the Walrus” in the way her instructor had instructed, like no one was listening. One time late in their marriage after, in a desperate attempt to interest her husband in her body, she’d stripped naked and gyrated her hips to the sound of the refrigerator he’d moments before complained sounded like people knocking boots—maybe that was the last time; that time he shook his head, blew air forcefully out of his mouth. A month later, he asked her for a divorce.
A piece: a portion of an object or of material, produced by cutting, tearing, or breaking the whole. A piece of ass. A piece of cake. A piece of the action. Go to pieces. In one piece. All of a piece. Piece by piece. Say one’s piece. Tear to pieces.
She is tired of the work.
A woman from Wolf Hollow returns her call a couple hours later. She is efficient and reassuring and tells Marilyn things she already knows. Observe from a distance. Do not feed her. Try to keep disruption to a minimum so that she doesn’t bolt and further injure herself.
“63 is notorious for getting herself into sticky situations,” the woman says, as if they were talking about a teenager who’d been caught ditching class. “Last month, she was spotted in someone’s backyard licking their housecat.”
“How does this work, do you send someone to take her?” Marilyn asks. “I saw on your website that you have separate spaces for different species. Will she be with other deer? Will you tranquilize her?”
Unfortunately, the woman on the other end of the line tells her, they are full up at the moment. It has been a particularly busy season—river otters, raccoons, minks, barn owls, a glut of fawns.
“I don’t know if drivers are becoming less careful, or if the animals are becoming more daring, but we have more vehicular injuries right now than ever before.”
“But what if the doe doesn’t get better? What if she gets worse?”
“Can I ask,” the woman says, “You said your name is Marilyn Becker. Are you by any chance related to George Becker?”
“He was my father.”
“I heard about what happened. I’m so sorry. Your father was a kind man. I didn’t know him very well, but he always took the time to say hello.”
“Just keep watch on her. If her injury progresses, we’ll try to send someone out.”
“When? For how long?”
“I’ll check back in with you in a couple days,” the woman said. “In the meantime, try not to spook her.”
Once a tenth-grade biology teacher, Marilyn’s father had gotten into the deer reproduction management business after her mother left. Marilyn was too young at the time to understand what exactly happened, the how and why, her mother’s absence a thing that was not talked about and so thickened, grew roots, became impossible to dig up.
A research assistant on Orcas Island, her father’s role was to help track and manage the blacktail deer population on the islands and initiate a new program of sterilization that included capturing a percentage of does and giving them ovariectomies. Without any natural predators, the deer competed for resources, were often sick or undernourished, depleted the forest understory. Marilyn’s father didn’t perform these procedures, but he helped with the capture of the animals, their tagging and monitoring.
All these years later, Marilyn wonders if the reason her father quit his job at the local elementary school teaching biology was simply that he was sad and didn’t want to subject his students to his sadness. Or maybe her mother leaving had prompted a reevaluation. He’d always been passionate about the environment. Would complain about housing development, SUVs, starlings. They were never allowed to buy bottled water or new clothes or have grass. He got mad every time someone left something plugged in or didn’t turn off a light.
Or maybe there was a retributive quality to his career shift. He never said anything after her mother left, at least not that Marilyn remembers, though she was five years old, ignorant to the particulars of heartbreak not to mention the emotional cocktail that must result from your wife also leaving you with a young daughter who, though relatively quiet and well behaved, requires perhaps a smidge more emotional labor than you’re equipped to give her—helping to limit the reproduction of deer was maybe his own kind of fuck you to the whole idea of motherhood.
He’d moved into the cottage after Marilyn left for college. He didn’t need all that room, he said, he was tired of people. He wanted to be closer to the deer. It was a simple one-bedroom, sparsely furnished. But it had a fully-functioning kitchen and plumbing and a small potbelly stove where Marilyn tended a fire in the evenings with wood she chopped herself. A TV she kept on as background noise. Cable, internet. The tide washed in and out so that either there was a small sand beach that was hers alone, or the water came right up to the driftwood. Surrounded on all sides by cedar and fir, fern and moss, wet secretive green.
Next door to the cottage sits a behemoth vacation home owned by some music producer Marilyn has never met. She’d corresponded with him only once, after her father died. The music producer had been the one to find his body. I didn’t know him well, he’d written. But he looked peaceful, for what it’s worth. It seems to me that he died how he lived, loving nature.
Sometimes a woman came to look in on the house, clean, make sure everything was as it should be, though she never approached the cottage. If Marilyn happened to be outside, the woman would give a brief spastic wave then hurry inside the house clutching a box of supplies that seemed much too large for her. But otherwise the place just sat there empty and staring. The closest house to the cottage for half a mile.
It took some getting used to, the quiet, all that space. She more completely understood the expression it was so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. Here her thoughts took on a density they’d never had before. They formed complex sentences, embedded themselves in other thoughts, dug trenches so long and deep they took several glasses of wine to climb out of. The TV helped, but she could only have it on for a couple hours at a time before CNN—the only channel she felt okay about—got too depressing. Sometimes a storm would come in, a quick-moving shadow across the water, and she would feel near tears with gratitude, the rain and thunder so loud they blotted everything else out.
The only sound as she eats a chicken breast and baked potato at the kitchen table is the ticking of the watches. Her father left a bowl of them. One of his only concessions to the material. He’d buy a new watch every month or so, and not just for himself: she received one every Christmas, every birthday. Though she never liked them—even before cell phones they seemed obsolete, cruel even: who needed to be constantly reminded of the time?—she pretended she did.
She could never figure out what charm the watches held for him, and he certainly never told her. In so many other ways he seemed to be oblivious of, outside, time. Was it that he needed to be at work, to attend to the problem of the deer and their destructive sexual appetites, and without a constant reminder, he’d forget?
Marilyn feels an overwhelming urge to talk to someone. She knows the stats. That loneliness is as lethal as smoking. That lonely people are fifty percent more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships.
But is lonely what she is? She’s alone. There is a thing she can feel that is very much like loneliness, an ache in the center of her that seems sharper every day. But when she thinks about picking up the phone, or getting in her car, taking the ferry to the mainland—now a thing impossible anyway because of the deer—something grabs hold of her throat. She just needs a little more time by herself. Her daughter has made it clear that she can’t talk to Marilyn every day. Their schedules are packed. Sarah takes every available minute and then some, she’s so exhausted, working long days, and Sarah is still not sleeping through the night—once a week, she promised Marilyn, Tuesday evenings. But it is only Friday.
Some of the watches in the bowl don’t work, and most of them don’t show the right time, but she can’t bring herself to get rid of them. Their ticking feels like a thing she should pay attention to, part of why she came here: to attend the details, cultivate mindfulness. Meditate on the march of time, the way death and loss carves it, perverts it, makes the minutes feel like days and then like seconds, and then to transcend these thoughts, to enter a space of non-thought, of pure being. But before she can take another bite of her chicken, she has to stop the ticking. She picks up the bowl of watches, wraps it in a heavy bath towel, and puts it on the top shelf on the closet. There.
After dinner she opens her computer. She’d closed her Facebook account months ago—the constant scrolling through her ex-husband’s feed, pictures of him and his new beautiful young, young girlfriend, had become unhealthy. Ditto Instagram. She could go on Twitter, but there was too much negativity, too much crazy there.
She types in “chat room for casual friends” and clicks on a site called Talk with Stranger, which sounds to Marilyn made up, or like a warning of some kind, the enticing ominous subject line of a spam email. But it costs nothing to join and she can leave most of the fields blank. Her idea is to assuage the need to talk to people without bothering anyone. Like how a little bit of poison can keep you healthy. Or how when she was pregnant, she used to drink ginger ale with bitters and pretend it was an Old Fashioned. Scratch the itch. She uses the name Island Girl and a mermaid avatar. The avatar has fiery red hair and large breasts overflowing from a set of painful-looking metal seashells. Within seconds, hornymuncher69 asks her to show him her tits. This request is followed shortly by two others, from Photontorpedo and Cuteniceguy001, both of whom are slightly less crude than the first though waste no time in asking for a pic.
Her heart begins to race and her palms grow slick. She hasn’t thought it through this far. She’d thought it would be more casual. Maybe the avatar was the cause of her immediate popularity. The mystery. The male fantasy of a woman with magical abilities who doesn’t require the ordinary human niceties, who knows a few tricks, is inordinately endowed, and, though powerful, doesn’t talk back. Or maybe it’s just that she’s female; probably that is enough.
Faced with the burden of response, all the possible words and their combinations, their consequences, she quickly logs off and closes the computer.
Marilyn brushes her teeth and washes her face, taking care not to look in the bathroom mirror. There’s something about her reflection now she doesn’t trust. As she makes her way up the ladder to the loft bed, there’s a knock at the door. She stops mid-step. She waits. Her heart thuds in her chest.
Silence, but in that silence, she replays what was without a doubt a knock at the door. There is no mistaking it for something else. Three clear knocks, assertive, more substantive than mere knuckles. A brass knocker, which she doesn’t have, a rock. Absurdly she thinks of the chat room.
Show me yr tits.
As if they found her. Hunted her down.
She waits but the knocker doesn’t knock again. She considers ignoring it, just continuing her ascent to the single mattress at the top of the stairs, cocooning herself in the scratchy wool blanket that still smells like her father, mint and tobacco and something slightly rotten like old apple cores.
But she knows she won’t be able to sleep without seeing for herself, without making sure no one is there. At the same time, she doesn’t want to disturb the doe. She’d checked just before the sun went down, and the animal had been in the same position as before underneath the oak.
Carefully, quietly now, Marilyn steps down the ladder, goes to the door. She looks through the peephole but can’t see anything but the black of night.
She opens the door, keeping the chain in its socket. The porch is uninhabited. Its single rocking chair empty and still. She stands there letting her eyes adjust to the dark. The cold night air circles her ankles and snakes up her robe.
She steps out in her bare feet. The pines and oak begin to take shape, sharp green and shadow. The wind blows leaves, creaking branches and setting the rocking chair to rock.
The longer she stays there, absolutely still, letting the night admit her, make space for her, the more she wonders about the knock at her door, not whether or not it happened—she is certain about the tap-tap-tap, something outside wanting inside—but rather how much she had to do with it. What she did. Or does. Who or what she might have invited to knock at the door.
In the last year of his life, her father lost all interest in the deer, in most things. His dementia—rapid onset, the doctor said—made him into a completely different person. He was sullen, lethargic, quick to lose his temper. By the time she realized something was wrong, there was nothing to do. She watched him move from frustration—at being unable to remember the name of the boat that took people from the island to the mainland, or what the thing is called that you use to eat soup—to complete rejection: of life, of her.
She’d come for a visit. She knew something was wrong, but on the phone he kept insisting it was just that he was getting old. He was seventy-five. If he forgot a name or a word, well, that was to be expected. That was something he’d earned, hadn’t he?
Though she’d told him she was coming, he was completely taken aback by her presence on his doorstep. She could see him struggling to place her. He stood in the doorway and looked from her to her suitcase. Recognition flickered just beyond his reach. He looked old, so much older than the last time she’d seen him, not ten months earlier. His shirt was wrinkled and untucked, stained —something he never would have tolerated before—and he needed a haircut, the white strands sticking up from his head like whips of meringue.
Inside, she found post-it notes naming everything: refrigerator, stove, counter, cupboard, couch, table. Multiple notes above the stove that read TURN OFF BURNER.
A movement, now, from the shadows. A deer steps into view, not fifteen feet from Marilyn. The doe. 63. She’s standing, still holding her right front leg slightly aloft. At first she seems unaware of Marilyn, interested in some errant piece of foliage on the ground. She noses a fallen branch, takes leaves into her mouth. But then she looks up. Looks at Marilyn. Eyes wide and deep and shimmering, the curved dish of her ears alert, rotating, twitching, nostrils flared. Ribs show beneath her fur. She’s small. What her father would have called an Island Skinny. Island deer are smaller than their mainland counterparts. They grow slower, have less fat on them.
That last time, when Marilyn had come to visit him, there were papers spread out all over the table. Hundreds of them. When she asked him about it, he said he was trying to figure out the reason we die.
“It’s here,” he said, picking up one of the pages and holding it close to his face. “I know it is. There’s a pattern. It’s an ecosystem.”
“What do you mean?” You sound crazy, she didn’t say.
“Everything is connected. Birth, death. Animals, humans. It’s just a matter of figuring out the numbers.”
“Dad, have you been taking your medications?”
“I don’t have any medications.”
“Yes, you do.”
A movement in the bushes, a bird or squirrel, breaks the spell; the deer moves back into the shadows, and Marilyn is left on the doorstep in the dark clutching the hem of her robe.
She could feel it happening to her too. Everyone kept telling her no—her husband when he was still her husband, her daughter, her friends—you’re just upset, you’re grieving, everyone forgets things.
But the words kept slipping through her fingers, she would be talking to someone and suddenly one of them would be gone—a simple word like tangerine—and it wasn’t just gone, it felt sliced out of her brain, violently removed. It made her wonder how long her father had experienced symptoms before it got bad, before she noticed. Maybe that was the reason for his career switch, for his work with the deer: a desire to remove himself from the chaos of words. The deer, at least, don’t ask for sense, don’t look at you funny if you forget what day it is—especially when they’re unconscious.
What happens if she just doesn’t come back, though, if she can’t go back, if she goes quicker than her father?
Part of her had hoped to finish a book at least. Something that was hers. That her daughter could be proud of her for, that her granddaughter could know her by. But what if all that’s left is a pile of other people’s books—not even good books, her name nowhere inside them?
Marilyn makes her morning cup of coffee then goes out onto the porch. The air feels amazing. She huffs from her core and her breath comes in puffs. The doe is not in her usual place. She walks the perimeter of the property, stepping lightly through the brush into the neighbor’s yard. The only physical marker separating her property from the music producer’s is a line of rocks that look like they’ve been hand-picked and polished, their various shapes a precise combination of chaos and control, each one slightly different but placed in harmony with the others. Marilyn wonders if the music producer bought these rocks, even though there were similar ones by the shore. She wonders how much designer rocks cost. She steps over them, feeling like she’s crossing into another country.
The night had been long. She woke every hour or so, almost feverish with worry about the doe. Had Marilyn caused her to put pressure on her injured leg? And also: What was the sound she’d heard? Who had knocked, or if nobody had, what did that say about her own faculties, her ability to observe the facts and draw conclusions based on those facts?
All this green, the glittering water, the mist that hangs heavily over everything and when it lifts: all the things you forgot were so beautiful. Why, how, had you forgotten? Nobody told her when she was young that wonder was not a given, that there were pressure points, certain combinations of trees and ocean and sky, salt in the air, that released it. She understands why her father loved it so much here. Why he drew a curtain around his life, choosing to forget everything else even before the dementia, to live simply by the water without the messy complications of family or the larger world.
Marilyn watches the kingfisher watch the water. On the music producer’s property, everything looks slightly different. Though she’s still not very far from the cottage, the angle is new. A better, more expansive view. Small black ducks dip their heads underwater, leaving just their tail feathers. It looks like they’re playing a game to see who can hold their breath the longest. Marilyn holds it with them but gives up before they do.
She walks a little further down the slope, away from the house. There are grooves carved into the earth to make it easier to get down to the sand. She reaches out to steady herself on one of the pines that curve up and out like something that’s changed its mind halfway through, torn between simultaneous desires to dip into the ocean and reach up to the sky. On the bark she notices a red stain. She inspects it closer. It looks slightly damp, like everything, like the bark itself. But still, what else could it be but blood?
She hears something then, an animal sound. An animal in pain. She follows the sound back up the slope, further over into the music producer’s yard. What she’d only caught glimpses of before: a large covered pool, blue tarps strapped over furniture and who knows what all, a covered bar and hanging antique lightbulbs. Marilyn can hear the clinking glass, the laughter.
The doe is underneath a large pine beside a stack of firewood. She barely moves at seeing Marilyn. Her eyes are dark, wide-open, staring in a way that Marilyn can tell even from where she stands is unfocused.
“Hi honey,” Marilyn says. She tries to make a comforting click with her tongue on the roof of her mouth. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s just me.” The animal gives no indication she’s disturbed by Marilyn’s presence, that she registers it at all.
The doe makes the pain sound again. Her cheeks move in and out. Tongue swollen and pale when she opens her mouth.
“Are you in pain?” she asks the doe. She steps closer, and the animal doesn’t even blink. She can see her injury better now, front leg at an unnatural angle, a wound that has turned almost black, the flesh above her fetlock swollen, like raw meat furred over with mold. There is blood on the side of her mouth.
She crouches near the doe, tries to soothe with her eyes, impart calm. Though she is suddenly angry, so angry. Stupid human beings. Stupid men. A woman would have stopped. Would have tried to help this poor creature. They take away her ability to procreate, tag her, then carelessly maim her. All for expedience, ease. To maintain control over their environment. But there is no such thing as control. The wildness is there or not there. You must choose.
Back at the cottage, she removes her father’s gun from the drawer, a revolver. It has a metal frame and wood handle. She opens the box of bullets beside it. She wonders how many to load. What if she doesn’t hit the deer on the first shot? Or worse, what if she does but the shot is not lethal? She opens the cylinder the way her father had showed her, loading five bullets, lowering the hammer on the unloaded chamber. The gun feels both heavier and lighter in her hand than she would have guessed. It feels alive. Though it’s cold and hard, energy hums inside it.
Just as she’s about to go back out, there’s a knock at the door.
Her heart thuds. She holds the gun in her right hand, tries raising it. It feels natural to cock back the hammer. She crouches down and waits. The knock sounds again.
Slowly, avoiding the windows, she goes to the door and looks through the peephole.
A man stands on her doorstep. There’s a car in her driveway. A black SUV. How didn’t she hear it pull up? She hesitates, but the man looks clean and harmless, his hands in his pockets, silver in his hair. She hides the gun in one of her slippers beside the door and opens it.
It’s the music producer, Ed something, who introduces himself and apologizes. He’s in town for a couple days—needed to get away from the bustle of the city—and he just wanted to stop by and introduce himself, offer his condolences.
She touches her hair. She’s wet. The deer.
“Your father was a great neighbor,” he continues. “He seemed like just a solid guy.” The music producer—she prefers to think of him this way—is younger than she’d imagined. Maybe in his late forties. The kind of olive skin that blurs distinctions of age and ethnicity. He’s still smiling at her, showing his beautiful white teeth. She can imagine how he’s been able to move through a world of doors and arms opening, people who assume the best about you, how that might make you better than you are, how it might allow you to fit yourself into the flattering shape others have imagined for you.
“Thank you. He was. A great man.” She hovers in the doorway with her hand still on the knob. Is he waiting for her to invite him in?
“I didn’t know him very well,” he continues, and she wishes he would stop talking, wishes he would just go away so she could finish killing the deer in his yard. “I remember driving up one afternoon to find him sprawled on the lawn on his belly. And when I asked him what he was doing, he said he was listening to the whales.” The music producer shakes his head. “I thought that was so cool.”
Marilyn reaches out—her intent, as conscious as she is of it, just to put her hand on his arm, acknowledge skin with skin, but that initial contact is suddenly insufficient, too thin—she moves up his arm, curls her fingers around his neck and pulls him toward her, a kind of trembling power, a gathering of heat in her core.
“Woah.” He takes a step back, removes her hand from his neck. He looks embarrassed and pained. “We just got in.” He gestures to the car and as if he’s conjured her, a woman waves from the front seat, a nimbus of curly golden hair.
“Of course, I’m sorry,” Marilyn says. “This place—” but she can’t finish.
The music producer draws his lips together. “We’re just here for a couple days. Kendra, she loves it here. She’s always trying to get me to take a break from work. She likes the nature—this is the only place, she says, she’s ever seen deer, just wandering around.”
“It’s beautiful,” Marilyn agrees.
“Well,” he says as he steps back, puts two fingers to his brow in a kind of salute. “We’re gonna make a quick trip to the store, and then we’ll be back, for a couple days at least. It was nice to meet you, Marilyn. I’m sure we’ll see you around.”
“You too,” she says, and she watches him walk away, down the cottage steps, watches as he gets into the driver’s seat. As the car pulls away, she reaches into her slipper for the gun.
She moves quickly, holding the gun away from her body. It has begun to rain, and the path is slippery. The doe is no longer making any sound. As soon as it sees Marilyn, it begins to struggle, and immediately she holds the gun out with both hands, positioning her feet for balance, and pulls the trigger, first firing the empty chamber and then a bullet, and then another one, bang ricocheting up her arms and ringing in her ears, and then the doe is still. She sees as she gets closer that one of the shots went in right above the eye, blood and bits of what must be the animal’s skull, and the doe, in her death pose, her neck thrown back at an unnatural angle, is looking directly at her. Marilyn puts the gun down, reaches out and closes each of her eyes, trying not to look at or touch the wound. Black wiry hairs sprout from just above the lids, and there is some dark goop in the corners of them. She tries to say a little prayer for each eye, though she is inexperienced. Bless you, bless you. She tries to cover the doe as best she can, more ritual than practical burial. She drops a few handfuls of wet dirt and leaves on top of her, digs up a vibrant patch of moss and places it on the dirt.
Back inside, Marilyn strips off her wet clothes. She looks at herself in the bathroom mirror. Hair plastered to her face. Hands and arms and neck streaked with mud. She smears it, a thick trail down her sternum, across her stomach. This time she doesn’t smile or pose. This time when Cuteniceguy001 asks for a pic, she sends him one in a private chat. HOTTT, he writes.
She tries to zoom in on his profile picture but can’t make out any real details. White male, maybe in his early thirties, dark hair that has been shown some care, facial features—eyes, nose, mouth—in the expected places.
Videochat? He writes before she gets a chance to think of what to say.
You move fast, she writes back, her hands shaking, warmth spreading through her entire body.
I’m horny, comes the reply seconds later.
How is this supposed to work? She wonders. She hasn’t imagined the next part, this part, and now she feels stupid. How could she not guess what comes next, of course this was about sex, about a sexual act—isn’t that what everything comes down to? Did she think they were just going to talk about the weather, exchange embarrassing childhood anecdotes?
I’ve never done this before, she confesses.
That’s ok, Cuteniceguy001writes back.
It’s EZ, he adds.
He walks her through it. She clicks on the video icon; his request appears in the corner of her screen, and she accepts.
And then suddenly he’s there, a fleshy reality that takes up most of her screen and shrinks her own image to the bottom corner. He looks nothing like his profile picture. He’s older, heavier, his hairline further back on his forehead. He wears a shirt that says You Had Me At Tacos.
“Hey there,” he says. “I like your look, all messy and wild. Nice mud.”
“Nice shirt,” she says back.
“You want me to take it off?” he asks, and he begins to lift the shirt over his head.
“No,” she says, almost shouts, and he stops mid-procedure, lets the shirt drop, though not before she catches a glimpse of soft white belly.
“What do you want me to do then?” He smiles like he’s trying it out, and she can tell he’s looking at himself on the screen.
She wonders what his life is like, this stranger she’s talking to, if he’s in a relationship, if he’s ever been in a relationship—the idea just occurs to her that he may be married, may have kids—why do people do this, she thinks, and what is it, exactly, they do?
“I want you to close your eyes.”
He smiles at himself in the corner of the screen again. “Wait, what?”
“I said close your eyes,” she says, her own voice startling her.
He closes his eyes. “Is this some kind of fantasy thing?”
“What are you doing to yourself?”
“I said shut up.”
“Fuuuck. You’re a crazy little bitch, aren’t you?” With his eyes still closed, Cuteniceguy001—they haven’t even exchanged names yet—stands up to reveal he doesn’t have pants on.
Half-hard, he begins to stroke himself.
Marilyn is unable to speak or move, or avert her eyes. It has been a while since she’s seen a penis this up close and personal, and for a moment, she feels an almost clinical interest: the pink skin puckering, bulging, growing, the head bobbing, the hole that at this angle looks like a small wet mouth opening, closing.
“You like that?” he says. His eyes are open now and he’s looking straight at her. “You like watching me stroke my dick?”
She breaks out of her fog and quickly closes her computer.
For her sixteenth birthday, instead of the car she was hoping for (it could be used, a clunker, she wasn’t picky, just something to move around in), her father gave her a Seiko M516 Voice Note watch. Carbon fiber and aluminum. It had a stopwatch, alarm, gave the day, date, and the “voice note feature”: four- and eight-second recordings. This was a year before the watch became Ghostbusters famous—used to pick up “Electronic Voice Phenomena.” It was high-tech for those days, and her father was visibly enamored with his choice, presenting the gift with uncharacteristic flourish, wrapped neatly in a crisp new map of the islands, a ribbon fashioned from a leather shoelace.
She pretended not to be disappointed. She thanked him, put it on her wrist, pressed record.
Hello, this is Marilyn.
“It’s not a phone,” he’d said. “There’s nobody on the other end.”
But she didn’t know what else to say. She had no need to record her thoughts.
“You can say anything you want into it,” her father had said. “It has 16k RAM memory.”
Hello hello, is anyone there?
In the morning, Marilyn doesn’t take her cup of coffee outside. She can see the music producer and his wife from her window out on their porch, enjoying the early sunshine they must have brought with them, a natural extension of the woman’s bright hair. They exchange a newspaper back and forth. She can hear their laughter through the glass.
Sometime in the night, Marilyn realized she’d left the gun in their backyard beside the half-buried doe. She imagines it nestled there with the wet leaves and churned mud. Imagines its power, infusing the ground with violence, waiting for her to come back for it.
Marilyn opens her computer, and this time a woman fills her screen that is not her. This woman is young and blonde and large-breasted and naked. She sits on a concrete floor, light reflecting off two glass walls—it could be she’s simply in the corner of a normal structure, that on her other side stretches furniture, rugs, a bank or an artist’s loft or department store, but the effect is a woman in a box. The woman-in-a-box waves flirtatiously. She blows Marilyn a kiss.
Is this a virus? There are flashing neon words at the top of the window that say MEET AND TALK WITH REAL LIVE WOMEN. She thinks about clicking the window closed, but she worries that might activate something else. Sometimes you think you’re pulling one loose string.
Marilyn isn’t sure whether or not the woman can see or hear her, or even whether she speaks English. She waves at the woman, says hello, asks her how she’s doing, asks her for her name, and the whole time, the woman continues to pout and wave and blow Marilyn kisses.
She tells the woman everything. About her childhood, her marriage, her father’s decline, his death, the cottage, the knocks on the door. The deer, how she’d shot it, put it out of its misery. How before she left, she’d removed the tracking collar. The woman keeps smiling and waving and blowing kisses, and still Marilyn continues. She has the collar now, it’s in the bowl of her father’s watches.
The woman nods encouragingly. She vamps, pouts, inserts her finger in her mouth.
Does the tracking device inside it still work? Will someone find her before it’s too late?
The woman on the screen closes her eyes and moves her lips, her tongue poking around in her cheek as if rolling a delicious candy around in her mouth.
“You can’t hear a word I’m saying, can you?”
The woman shimmies her shoulders and her breasts jiggle.
Molly Reid is the author of The Rapture Index: A Suburban Bestiary (BOA, 2019). Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, and other magazines. She received her PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati and is currently the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. For more information, please go to mollyjeanreid.com