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DARK WOODS by Harris Lahti

Another flashbulb blanches the room white. “Smile,” her mother tells the purple, howling baby swaddled in its crib. Everywhere the baby—in picture, on magnets, JPEGs plastered across the internet. Roswell can’t even pull a frozen pizza from the refrigerator without being confronted with its alien face.

Roswell flips the channel from the couch. A nature documentary. Onscreen, a peregrine falcon divebombs an unsuspecting pigeon, and the baby’s howls mix with its cries.

“I think I’ll have a beer,” she tells her mother.

“I think I’ll have some unprotected sex,” she says. “Or maybe I’ll take the truck out for a joyride.”

“I said I think I’ll take a joyride,” she says.

Then Roswell goes over to the key rack her stepfather fashioned from the antlers of an eight-point buck and waits for her mother to chide her. She is fourteen, without a license.

However, her mother is too preoccupied to notice. And as another round of flashbulbs goes off, Roswell slides the keys from the rack. “Smile,” she hears her mother say, walking out.

Deer. That summer the woods were thick with them. Roswell drives the back roads, smoking her mother’s cigarettes from the glovebox, hoping to hit one. To wake up in the hospital, with her family assembled along the bedside. Not a full body cast. Just a slight brain bleed perhaps. Serious sounding but minor.

For weeks, she drives, smokes, hopes to hit one.

The way the trees clasp overhead is her favorite. The yellow spray of headlights on a grey asphalt tongue. The deer eyes that roll through the woods like marbles.

One night, a screech owl flies into the headlights, a frog elongating from its beak like a ragged hang-glider.

Another, a neon green asteroid slices the starry night.

And another, a hitchhiker: a sight so rare she stops to pick him up. It seems the next best thing to the deer, this dark figure seeping out of the woods. The way his thumb worms its way out of his torn coat sleeve intrigues her. He is so tall his knees press up against the dash. “I’m a Eunuch,” he says.

“Prove it,” Roswell laughs.

Afterward, the hitchhiker instructs Roswell to let him out. He sticks his head back inside the open window and orders her to count to a thousand before driving off. “One, two, three, four,” she counts as he seeps back into the woods.

Who, who. A screech owl comes to life.

Then Roswell stops counting, lights her mother’s last cigarette, and drives off again.

And as the trees clasp, the deer eyes roll through the woods beside her. Then, a deer emerges into the headlights, followed by another. Another, another. Until, suddenly, an entire herd has turned the asphalt tongue furry.

Roswell slows to watch them.

None of this is real, she thinks. None of this is happening.

She presses on the gas. The deer buck like crazy at first, but even crazier as the truck sends them flying. That last part is her favorite yet: the way the white underside of their tails explode like an endless stream of flashbulbs—pop, pop, popping.

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