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1. The first time he went hunting, he puked up blood all over the bushes. The bushes cradled the deer he'd just shot in the neck. On the ground, his blood and the deer's blood were the same color. The black drips just ran together on the frozen leaves and he couldn't tell which drips were his and which were the deer's. He started feeling a sharp, phantom pain in the side of his neck, the same spot the bullet was lodged into the deer. He puked up more blood and then crumpled.
2. All through grade school, he'd thought that "deer" was spelled "dear." He'd called all things with sweet black eyes "dear."
3. In the hospital they told him the blood was from a stomach ulcer. In the corner of the room, his hunting gear was in a heap next to his father who was still dressed in camoflage. We're going to do an ultrasound, the nurse said. But he knew they wouldn't find anything. The forest was punishing him. It was nothing internal.
4. That deer had been twice as big and strong and pure as him. According to the natural order of things, he shouldn't have been able to kill that deer. His blood had been spewed all over the bushes as a reparation, an equalizer for the boundary he'd overstepped.
5. The forest was used to humans who cheated. It had its subtle ways of reminding humans that even with their machines, they couldn't cheat their way out of having animal blood inside them.
6. When he was discharged from the hospital with a normal ultrasound, his father asked him if he wanted to go retrieve the deer. He said he just wanted to go home. Later, he sold his hunting boots at a second-hand sports store.
7. He used the money to buy an overly-fancy pair of leather loafers. They were fancy enough to serve as an excellent excuse to stay out of the forest. He wore them every day, just in case.
8. He wore them two months later as he stood outside her house in the middle of the night with his hands in his pockets. She was red-haired and brilliant and sneaking out of her brick house to be with him. It was raining and her tights were green. She looked wild and translucent as she shut the front door and he wanted to touch her softly and gingerly like one would touch a rabbit.
9. In the time they'd spent together at school, he'd only ever touched her hands. They were spidery and white and pretty but they were calloused. They were tough, tougher than his hands. Tonight he wanted to touch her soft, vulnerable regions and feel powerful.
10. Come on, we're going somewhere, she told him. Let's run so we can get there before it stops raining. He looked down and saw that she wasn't wearing shoes. Just her green tights and white dress and brown coat. She grabbed him and made him run with her. Her bare feet were silent when they hit the ground. On the pavement, his expensive loafers sounded clunky and grinding like two wooden puppets trying to have sex.
11. The faster she ran the harder she was to see. She got ahead of him and started looking like nothing but wet light. He was dizzy and blood throbbed hard in his hands. If he touched wet light his hand would just go right through. Her laughing was becoming spectral and distant. He wanted to put his hands over his ears but he kept running.
12. In February he'd taken her to a dance and she'd wanted to dance with him outside where there was no music and no people he could show her off to. Her red hair had been loose that night. He'd danced outside with her, even though his leather shoes got stained and soggy.
13. Now they were still running but he was too far behind to see any of her details. Her white glow was headed to the forest, the one with the frozen leaves and the bushes that cradled things. He imagined the sound of his leather shoes stepping on a deer skeleton, the crispy pop of each vertebrae and rib. His lungs felt like popped balloons but he kept chasing her. She was still laughing.
14. The deer he'd shot had black mirror eyes. He'd never admitted that she had the same eyes.
15. At the edge of the forest, he couldn't see her anymore. He stood on the sidewalk and called for her but all he heard back was distant spectral laughing. When things got too quiet he ran deeper into the forest and didn't look at the ground. The trees looked like black versions of her hands, pretty and spidery.
16. When he found her, she was up against a tree, straight-spined and naked. White skin on display for him and red hair and black mirror eyes and a smile with just a few teeth showing. She beckoned him and his hands with a sound like a bird call. His hands went numb. He looked down at them and they were dull gray, the same shade as the dead deer's fur. When he looked up she was gone.
17. Where she had stood, a white antler lay on the ground.