by Hannah Harlow
At 80, maybe 90 miles per hour—from the passenger’s seat I wasn’t paying attention to the speedometer, but it was late at night, there was no one else in sight on the road, and we were going quite fast—we might have died.
From where we cruised in the middle of the highway, our headlights lit up the hind legs and small nub of tail of the deer standing in the left lane. He was taller than the car. Though, it was so dark beyond our ring of light, we couldn’t see his face or count the points of his antlers. But we knew they were there.
We were upon the deer before either of us could say anything. Gabe swerved the car ever so slightly as we passed and I turned around in my seat to watch. How many cars were behind us? How many people and animals would die? I wanted to hear the crash happen, even if we were too far away to see the screech of tires or the impact of body against machine as glass broke and steel bent. The highway stretched empty behind us. We’d left Boston late, after rush hour had certainly passed, and now, only two hours beyond the city limits, we’d seemingly reached the wilderness.
Gabe was clearly in shock. He hunched up over the wheel and breathed heavily. “Do you need to pull over?” I asked. I felt nothing. Behind us, I could see nothing, hear nothing.
Gabe said nothing for a while.
“I can drive,” I said. I put my hand on the back of his neck. He was burning up.
Gabe whooped and banged his palm against the steering wheel. He grabbed my hand and looked very serious. “Do you have fifty cents?” he asked. He laughed.
We were at the tolls; we were almost there.
From nothing, I felt—simply, suddenly—sad. I gave Gabe the coins.
I pictured the deer in all his majestic power: glorious and elegant and overwhelmingly beautiful—but that deer had no idea. He had a brain smaller than the human heart. One day, standing like that in the middle of I-95, he would kill someone. But not me. He only broke my heart.
Even though we told my parents not to wait up, they waited up. My mother had our dinners on warm plates covered in Saran Wrap, but we had stopped at Burger King not that long before. We ate to make her happy and then she went to bed. My father snored on the couch, the dog covering his feet. We turned all the lights off and didn’t try to wake him to move upstairs.
Gabe and I brushed our teeth and changed our clothes. We lay in bed in the dark.
“I can’t sleep,” I said. I was thinking about the deer.
“Do you think these are the same sheets from the last time we were here?”
“We almost died tonight.”
“Let’s go for a walk.” Gabe swung the blankets off and pulled on his jeans.
Gabe tossed me my hat.
Outside the empty branches clicked in the wind and our shoes squeaked on the frosted pavement. I felt my nose turn red, then disappear. My parents lived in a modest neighborhood, but across the street, mansions lined the water, blocking the view to the islands offshore and to the sailboats and oil tankers that came into port. The enormous house across from my parent’s house had been under construction the entire year before. We had seen evidence of a new family over the summer, despite an unfinished wing. Now the house looked deserted again, waiting for some kind soul to scoop it off the ground, patch up its wing, and teach it to fly again.
“I thought someone moved in,” Gabe said. His voice sounded too loud, like we would wake the neighborhood.
A few months before there had been toys in the driveway, lanterns in the hedges, and cars parked in front of the garage.
“My mom thinks they ran out of money.”
Tentatively we crossed the lawn at the side of the house and crept up to a window. There was furniture inside, though sparse. Through the house we could see the back wall of windows that looked out over the ocean. The moon lit the water like the waves were starring in a movie.
“Maybe they’re just on vacation,” Gabe said.
“Maybe this is their summer home.”
The grass crunched under our feet as we made our way around the house to the back. I thought the water would be louder.
“Where do you think they really live then?”
We stopped in front of the back sliding glass door. I cupped my hands around my eyes and peered through the glass. I could make out an empty wine rack on top of the refrigerator, a glass coffee table in the shape of a kidney bean, a map of Maine hanging on the wall. “San Francisco? Dallas?” They could be from anywhere. “Canada?”
Gabe tugged at the handle and it gave a little. He quickly slammed it back shut. Neither of us said anything. We stepped away. The patio we stood on extended thirty feet then stopped abruptly at a rocky cliff that plunged down into the water. There was no wall, no railing.
I looked back toward the house and saw a flash.
“Gabe.” I grabbed his hand and pulled him behind a bush. My heartbeat suddenly out-pounded the ocean. “There’s someone in there,” I whispered.
Gabe crouched lower. “You saw someone?”
“Their eyes. Two red dots.”
A sudden scratching of nails at the glass made us jump.
“It’s a raccoon,” I said, coming out from behind the bush. “We have to let it out.”
Gabe stood next to me on the porch. It was slippery underfoot, like the wood had recently been glossed under the frost. I forced myself to stand only a few feet away. Despite the glass I was afraid. Like at the zoo I can watch bears and monkeys and lions in their cages, but I can’t go in the reptile house with the snakes only behind glass. I don’t trust the glass.
“If it found a way in there, it will find a way out,” Gabe said. I moved behind Gabe. I didn’t trust this glass either.
The raccoon continued to scratch, up on its hind legs, faster now that it had seen us. It seemed too fat, a giant suburban rat. How long had it been in there?
“Go open the door,” I said.
“I could get rabies.”
“They have shots for that.” When he didn’t move, I added, “You won’t die. There’s hardly even a chance of you dying.”
Not like before. Not like with the deer.
Gabe gave me a look I couldn’t interpret and then walked away, back toward my parent’s house.
“Leave it,” Gabe called. “Let it tear up the house. They’re probably not coming back anyway.” He continued to yell, despite the hour and the fact that he was getting too far away to hear. “They’ve cut and run. We should, too. You should…”
I should . . . what? I couldn’t take my eyes off the raccoon. It was hideous, nails black and bent, fur matted and dirty, eyes small and evil. Maybe Gabe was right: maybe the house had been abandoned, maybe the raccoon would find its way out, maybe we should cut and run. But to where?
I had to open that door.
About Hannah Harlow
Hannah Harlow has an MFA in fiction writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She promotes books for a living and lives near Boston. Find her online at www.hannahharlow.com.