Gerald approaches the check-out counter expecting nothing but the typical result of purchasing a case of beer. It’s early September, a Friday mid-afternoon, and Gerald is here to end another week as he began and continued the last. For five years he’s subsisted on disability checks bare enough to pay for the utilities in his trailer, as well as food and beer. The beer he can look forward to—that, and a weekly poker game at the VFW, though he is not a veteran himself. He has few friends and no family nearby to speak of, not since the passing of his sister some three years ago. His two daughters, the family he might take hold of, have become little more than flat and static images, akin to photographs lying ignored among a pile of bills.
Having learned to expect nothing, the lurch in his empty stomach is all the more profound as the man directly in front of him is the same man whose face smiled proudly over a family in a newspaper article from ten years ago. The article, describing an act of violence better forgotten, was headed by the black and white family portrait. A portrait from when people sought professional assistance for such a thing—the yearly trip that measured how the children grew, and could afterward be proudly displayed on walls for visitors. Against a plain studio backdrop, the man stood next to a tall, skinny boy—both with tightly trimmed hair and clean shaven faces. In front stood a woman and a teenage girl. All of them advertised bright, blinding smiles, especially distinct in the grainy black and white of newspaper print.
Despite the beard and the lines since developed in the man’s face, Gerald easily recognizes him. Like Gerald, the man is buying a case of beer. And then the clerk is asking: “Hey Clark, how’s the wife these days?”
Most would argue this is an ordinary question, especially in the rural and outwardly friendly area of Kentucky Gerald occupies. But not when a family’s been torn apart. The world knows Clark’s troubles. So it irritates Gerald that this grocery clerk is being so nosy and acting all friendly the while, as if he didn’t know what it meant to be decent.
“Not around right now,” Clark says. “Staying with her mother in Ohio.”
The clerk frowns in a somehow perky way. “I hope nothing’s wrong. Is your mother-in-law healthy?”
“As far as I know. Never been one to get sick.” Clark’s eyes drift to the wall of windows that advertise an unimpressive view of the parking lot.
“I sure hope nothing else is wrong. We all know you’ve been through a lot. And if it’s a comfort to you, you should know we always keep you in our prayers.”
“That’s nice,” Clark says. “I appreciate that.”
“Is there anything we can do for you all?”
“Not that I can think of, but thanks for asking,” Clark says, nodding more obligingly to the clerk than Gerald could’ve mustered.
“I don’t imagine you know what happened to that man?” the clerk asks, staring after Clark as he shuffles from the store.
“Nah,” Gerald says.
“Lost his daughter in a car accident some ten years ago. A hit and run down on Taylor’s Creek. Left the girl there to bleed. And it wasn’t just grief they dealt with. Nobody had a clue as to what that girl was doing down there in the first place. Pretty darn strange and unsettling, the whole thing.” The clerk shakes his stupid head. “And they never found out who did it. I feel for him. Can’t imagine losing my own girl that way. It shakes you up.” The clerk takes his time running through the single item of Gerald’s purchase. “You don’t want to think evil on someone, but I guess his marriage is finally feeling the full effects. He started drinking sometime after it happened. Stopped coming to church. Breaks your heart to see it. Not that you can blame the man.”
Gerald drives his blue pick-up home, his hands shaking on the wheel. When he enters his trailer he can’t drink. His throat is dry, but his mind won’t stop churning through the last time he saw his daughter Angela. And it’s not just her. He sees them, all these daughters: a heap of bodies collected in his mind that makes the beer unpalatable.
It started like an interrogation, Angela asking the most mundane and obvious question: “Were you drinking, Dad?”
He looked up at her but couldn’t hold her eyes, so he picked at the frayed threads on the knees of his jeans and muttered “Yeah.”
She was quiet, balled up inside herself. He watched her, knowing she was trying to think of how to say something to him without breaking his heart. She was always afraid she’d break his heart.
In that time when she still cared for him, he’d called her at work, left a message that he needed her. She’d come right after. Still wearing her dirty apron, and when she moved he heard the change sloshing around, nickels and dimes singing songs as she shuffled back and forth. She made him more anxious. He rocked too quickly in the faded orange recliner, staring at her and past her at the blank screen of his television. All the while, yellow-stained fingers kept picking.
It wasn’t just the accident. She’d been giving him her pills for nerves, but she’d cut him off a couple days before. She needed them, she said. Well, you can be damn certain he needed them too. Needed them deep down in his gut to fill up and explode that anxiety pouring into his head. Or whiskey, the sweet burn he’d denied himself since the accident; he was afraid someone might come to his house and ask him to pee in a cup.
She stopped pacing. “Where’s the truck?”
“I parked it back behind the shed.” He put his hands up to his face, cupped his nose and breathed in, smelt the smoke and alcohol in his skin.
“You sure it was a deer?” She looked at him like she knew something he didn’t. Yes, she looked right through him, like he used to look at her when she’d come in from playing with mud all over. Were you in the creek, he’d ask, staring right through her, and she’d smile playfully. But there was no smile for him to offer. It was a frown pulling down on his cheeks, like he’d taken two Percocets and his skin was drooping down below his chin.
“Yeah, I’m sure.” And he was. Sure. Sure that it was some stupid animal wandering out in the road and getting caught in his headlights. Sure it was big, and that it made that truck thump and his head snap forward and back again. Him pulling around a corner on Taylor’s Creek, coming down the hill fast, windows open and Willie Nelson blaring on the radio. Because people hit deer down there all the time, curving around those turns where the maples bend in on the road, branches jutting out above and shading over the stars and the moon. They even have signs. Big yellow ones with prancing silhouettes.
“I saw something on the news,” she said, then letting herself settle down into the dusty loveseat to his left, all of the furniture packed-in close and suffocating in the deteriorating trailer. Her apron bulged as she sat and he could see the outline of a cigarette pack in the black cloth.
“How about a cigarette?”
“Dad, I thought you quit?” And God, he felt sorry for her, how she could think so good of him.
“I’m just a little stressed. You stopped giving me those pills. It wouldn’t hurt to have one.” He could’ve got one out on his own. Could’ve leaned over, pulled open the door on the end-table and yanked out a whole carton. But she was already ashamed of him for so much. He wanted to give her something to be proud of, something to think good on.
She reached into her apron and threw the pack over.
The cigarette burned his throat and he liked it. He flicked ash on the floor.
“Don’t you even have an ashtray?” she asked. “And where’s Sarah?”
“Doesn’t make a difference to me.”
She glared at him.
“The ashtray, I meant. Sarah’s with her Aunt Norma.”
“You hear what I said before? I said I saw something on the news.” He looked at her, and his mind travelled past the guilt or grief or whatever was taking hold of her, and he saw her young and running, out playing by the shed in worn-down overalls, pushing around a big orange toy truck that one of the wheels broke off of.
“I don’t watch the news.”
Angela looked at him cautiously, weighing her words, putting them on scales like she always did. Always walking on broken glass around him, afraid she’d break his heart. He’d killed that in her. And that was the day.
“When’d you say you hit it?”
“It was last night, around ten.” After leaving the bar. Thank God he was drinking by himself. Nobody to notice him stumbling through the parking lot. Almost fell down pulling himself into the seat.
“Sure it was a deer, sure it was around ten, sure I was drinking. What’s with the goddamn interrogation? I just said I needed your help. A little support, you know? I’m a little shaken up is all.” He felt irritated and needed her to tell him it was alright, tell him he didn’t have to hide that damn truck out behind the shed, one headlight caught and broken and the grill filled with blood.
“Dammit Dad!” And she started crying all at once, like she’d been waiting years to get at it. She was never much of a crier, and to see it in her was a condemnation. “Did you even get out of the fucking truck?”
He tried to reach out to her but he went too fast and his cigarette brushed against her, burning her forearm. She didn’t react to it, just kept crying and shaking.
“Shit, I’m sorry.” He hurried to the kitchen sink, ran water over the cigarette and threw it in after. He wet a towel and came back to her. “Put this on it.”
“I’m fine,” she said, “but you really fucked up.”
“I just hit a deer, something somebody does once a day around here. So what? So I had a couple drinks? I wasn’t drunk. It just came out of nowhere. It just jumped out in front of me and got stuck in the headlights.” And he sat back down in the orange recliner and put his fingers back to picking at the threads that splayed out from the worn knees where’d he kneel down to reach his tools, or to pray before he went to bed back when God seemed a viable option. And he waited for her to tell him it was alright.
“Somebody died,” she said, but with her sobbing and her nose clogged up it sounded more like sommodimied. Sommodimied, somebody died. He was sweating. Dear God, it was hot in there, humid and hard to breathe.
“You need to turn yourself in,” she said. And for what? For hitting some stupid animal that don’t know when to stop and when to run? And he was getting angry, seeing those big doe eyes in his mind, watery and black. Big soft graceful animal prancing in the road, taking its damn time. And then his mind pulled away and put something else there, replacing those eyes with his daughters’. Soft hazel, caught in the glare, stuck in a broken headlight.
Angela made him show her. She followed him out back towards the shed while he complained under his breath that it was just a deer. She was done crying then.
The blue bed of the truck stuck out from behind the shed they approached. Mud was splashed up on the sides. He stopped as they reached the corner of the building, rocked back and forth for a second before limply raising his hand to wave her on.
She picked at the mud on the side of the truck as they walked toward the front end. It wasn’t dry yet. She scratched at it with her fingernails, peeling it off in long curling lines, producing a terrible screech with each stroke of her nail.
And then he stopped, became afraid, and so barred her from continuing. Not enough room for her to maneuver between him and the shed. That shed that was worn down and rotting with one broken window that you had to be careful not to catch your sleeve on when you passed close by. The shed that used to hold all of her toys, that still held a few of them: a worn out toy truck, a wiffleball bat and some balls, and the only doll she ever owned—she hated that doll when she first got it.
“You remember when I used to play out here almost every day?” she asked him then. And yeah, he remembered, when she was little and he was teaching her to do, to walk, to talk, to carry a baseball bat with hands wrapped tight and ready. Teaching by his eyes that it was okay to play in mud and jump and fall down.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I knew you liked it when I played outside. I knew Mom didn’t like it and that you did.”
He looked up at the sky, away from her eyes. “It was always one thing or another. You shooting at birds with a BB gun, jumping rocks in the creek, or pushing that broken piece of crap toy truck around the yard for hours on end. You were easy to entertain.” He smiled.
And then the smile turned sour, because it was then that he saw it with her, saw through her eyes something he’d hidden from himself when he came in the night before. He stumbled back from the front of the truck and she came around and saw what he was seeing.
“I can’t do it,” he said. Even though he could see as clear as she could that that was not the skin of a deer, that that hair was plucked from a daughter.
The girl must have split in two to shed so much blood that it would stain that deep red on the truck grill, the smell of iron strong in the air around them, mixed in with metal and mud. It was caught there in the headlight and their eyes followed it and the way it held on and moved slightly in the breeze: a golden wave of hair still attached to the skin that was ripped from the girl’s scalp.
“I can’t do it,” he said. And he tore his eyes from that thing that looked like it was still alive, bubbles of blood underneath skin still breathing and gently swaying with the breeze, waiting to be set free from the broken spiked plastic of a headlight.
Angela could no longer hold what was in her stomach.
He wanted her to protect him.
She left him there swaying and saying what he could not do. He would fall down again and she would abandon him all muddy and full of mischief.
She called when she moved to tell him she was leaving and she hoped to never see him again.
Well, that’s a crime, and now he’s seeing Clark again after all these years. Those images coming back in the space that seems more closed than ever. A piece of shit trailer he can keep running with his disability check, but that ain’t enough right now.
He’s going to do it, to turn himself in. She’ll be proud. Both of them will. He’ll call Sarah and Angela and tell them what he will do. And it would not hurt to have just one beer, just a couple to calm him, to steady his voice so he can tell them of the goodness inside of him.
He opens the beer and as he goes to take a sip it turns into a long swig and then a terrific gulping, and he crushes the can, throws it aside, and takes out another which he quickly swallows down, and already he’s feeling better, braver. When the third beer is cracked open he searches for his phone, finding it eventually pressed between the cushions of his loveseat, it coming out with a few hairs and some crumbs from chips or crackers.
He doesn’t have Angela’s number, so he calls Sarah first.
She picks up on the second ring. “Hi Dad,” she says, monotone.
“Hey baby, how’s it going out there in old California?”
“Pretty good,” she says, and then in a burst of words: “why are you calling?”
“Well, if you’ve got a sec, I just wanted to talk to you for a minute or two.”
“I don’t know, Dad,” she says, getting quiet, “We’re really busy. Jenny has piano lessons and Jason has soccer. That, and Steven has an important business dinner tonight that I’m going to with him, so I need to spend some time getting ready after I drop the kids off.”
“What is it,” he asks, pulling the phone from his ear to see the time, “It’s only five, can’t I have just a little time?”
“It’s actually two here,” Sarah says, then sighing into the phone.
“In the afternoon, right?” he asks, in a voice he thinks is jovial.
“Yeah, in the afternoon. Alright, Dad, what is it?”
“Well, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.” He pauses to take a long drink. It is amazing how it soothes the pain in his dry body. And how strange that he couldn’t ingest it before. “And, well, I’m going to make things right.”
“Are you going into treatment?” Her voice lifts on the last word.
“No, that’s not it.”
“Of course not,” she says, monotone again.
“Well, it’s a treatment of sorts, you could say. I’m going to turn myself in. Make amends.”
“What did you do?”
“Well nothing,” and he stops, “I mean, nothing recently. I just been being myself, you know. But what I did in the past. For what I did then.”
“And what was that?”
He clears his throat, takes a swig of the beer and then hunts in his pocket for a cigarette and lighter. It hadn’t occurred to him that Angela wouldn’t tell Sarah what happened. Which, still, maybe she did, and Sarah is just making him be specific. If they think him guilty of a million crimes it is his own fault.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” They both breathe into the phone. He can’t think of how to put it. He lights a cigarette and watches the trembling haze of the smoke as it forms before him.
“Look, Dad, I really need to get going. I have to pick the kids up and then drop them off again, and I was hoping to work out before the dinner too. I’m busy.”
“Sure, sure, I don’t want to keep you. But maybe at least before you go you might give me Angela’s number or something?”
“I can’t do that.”
“She has made me promise on multiple occasions that I would never do that.”
“But this is different,” he says, “I gotta tell her what I’m planning, how I’m going to make up for things.”
“I’m not giving you her number.”
“Well, do you think you could give me her address? Maybe I could mail her a letter?”
The silence is long. It turns the burn of the cigarette foul.
“I need to get going, Dad.”
“So, is that a no? Cause I really need to get hold of her. Maybe an email? I could go to the library and send her an email?”
“The truth is I don’t know her address.”
“Don’t you all ever talk?”
“I call her on her birthday, but we’re not very close.”
“That’s terrible,” he says, “You all were such good buddies when you were little. I remember she was always real keen on looking out for you. This one time I remember her running after you when you fell in the creek, not thinking a moment for herself, just jumping right in, dead set on saving her little sister.” He laughs.
“That was a long time ago.”
“Sure, but I can’t see why you all shouldn’t still be close.”
“You can’t?” The tone of her voice hurts him. She sighs. “She’s doing what she has to do. We’re both doing what we have to do.”
He drains his current beer, opens another.
“Are you drinking?”
“Just a Coke.”
“Right,” she says, “well, that seems as good a place as any to end this conversation.”
“Well, maybe, if you could just wait, just hold on a second. You think you could give me your Mom’s address or number? I mean, she deserves to know too.”
Sarah laughs. “Sure, why not? Can’t do her any harm. She lives in Pennston Cemetery outside of Portland.”
“Shit,” he says, “when did she die?”
“Five years ago.”
“Look, Sarah, I’m going to be straight with you. I did a terrible thing some years ago and that’s what I’m looking to rectify.”
“Fine, tell me what you did then.”
“I killed someone.”
Gerald waits. He waits for the sound of a phone clicking. Or, though, there aren’t really those sounds anymore. Maybe she’s already hung up. But he waits.
“How?” she finally asks, her voice breaking with the syllable.
“It was an accident. I didn’t know I hit anybody. I thought it was a deer.”
“Jesus,” she says, “I guess that’s why Angela left.”
“I guess,” he says, feeling relieved by having said what he has said but feeling also nervous and unforgiven.
“I guess you answered your question then, why we’re not close.”
“But I’m going to turn myself in.”
“I hope you do. Don’t call me again.”
He waits for a long time before looking at his phone to see the call has disconnected. He opens another beer and is tempted to give up the plan. Any redemption might be long past, just a memory of goodness he could’ve possessed but never did.
He drinks until his body is nice and numb, until the roll of his head is heavy.
But then, he’ll make it up. Why shouldn’t he be able to? Can he expect that the daughter that just learned he is a murderer will so suddenly forgive him? No, Sarah needs time. But Angela, there’s a chance there still. He’ll find her. He’ll go to her wherever she is and lay himself down at her feet, tell her he plans to die for her sake, that he will let the world know what he’s done and serve his time for the deed.
He imagines scenarios in which his daughters might become more to him than static images, in which they might become round, full human beings he knows and loves. He wants to know them, to release them from the purgatory of his limited and fading memories. But even his imagination is limited: the closest he gets is seeing Angela across from him, her hand pressed flat against plated glass. Yet somehow, that’s alright. Somehow there is comfort in her imaginary presence, in the pressure she exerts on his future prison.
He stumbles out to the pick-up truck, the same blue killer. He spins around to the front-end and stares at the headlight. Like the indentations within a completed puzzle, his mind projects the lines that formed the spike of plastic. Plated glass, he knows, is harder to break.
Evan Steuber currently lives in Chicago, IL where he is pursuing his PhD in the Program for Writers at UIC. He sometimes reviews books for American Book Review. This is his first fiction publication.