by Ali McGhee
Frequently, you dream of going after him into the woods. In the dream you have an idea of how you’re going to do things differently, of what you’ll say to him to make him stay. You run after him through the green heat, but you never catch up. He slips away from you, a dark blur between the trees.
You remember the day it all started, ten years ago now, with sudden and astonishing clarity. You’re walking with him—Jonathan—and Lilianne. Your two best friends. She had always hated that name so you called her L.A., which she pretended to hate worse but secretly loved because she admitted to you once she wanted to be famous. When she was late getting home her mom would scream out across the hills in a voice tinged with desperation: “Lily-AYANNE!” When she was late it was usually your fault. There were a couple of reasons for this. One was that you were fat. Your parents fed you Doritos and Pepsi and took you to the Burger King after school and maybe it was your only comfort. Life in Chinchilla, North Carolina was a grim sentence and you never understood why you’d been served it. There was another reason why you always made her late, though, and that was because you’d fallen in love with her and you were sometimes deliberately slow to be around her longer. She was the first girl you ever truly fell for, and she just saw you as her tubby friend who slowed things down because you were huffing and puffing. Even later in life when you tracked her down after college and she hadn’t ever gone anywhere, just stayed and worked in the shopping center in Morganton, you thought she was beautiful. It didn’t matter she’d never amounted to anything. She’d been happy to see you, of course, but by then she was married to some hick who was an undertaker at the Shady Lane Cemetery and she’d had two kids. You’d done well in high school while other people slacked off or got pregnant, and you’d blissfully, magically gotten a scholarship to State, escaping Chinchilla and its quiet horrors. But you had always missed your friends.
Of course you had been thinking about Jonathan, even before the car accident. You never really stopped thinking about him, the memories forcing themselves up out of that deep hole where you’d buried them and into your dreams, into your waking life too. He had always been troubled, you knew it even as a boy. He shoplifted, skipped school, bullied other students mercilessly. Once he got in big trouble because he told a girl he could see her nipples through her shirt and she’d told the teacher. He was cool in high school, in that bizarre, topsy-turvy high school way where all of the worst people somehow get the control in some real-time performance of Lord of the Flies. He’d joined forces with this slutty girl named Piper who was about six feet tall and who had supposedly had sex with all the worst boys. She spoke in a languid way about how much she’d stolen and how much coke she did while Jonathan stuck his arm down her bra in front of everyone and laughed. But you’d met him so long ago that all that didn’t matter. You weren’t popular and you’d never been in that little place, but Jonathan had still been your friend, and even when all this was going on the three of you—Jonathan, L.A., and you—would hang out, with no one else around to talk big and spoil things.
You’d usually meet up on Sundays and walk up together to the Jasper farm and drink. The property was vast; you couldn’t see the end of it from certain vantage points, and there were parts Mike Jasper hardly went. There was one ridgetop where you could sit and see everything around you, the whole countryside all the way down to the trailer park where L.A. and her mom lived. There was one big tree you always sat under, sipping whatever you’d been able to smuggle out of your parents’ liquor cabinet, Kahlua or peppermint schnapps or, if you were lucky, some tequila. That spring, L.A. had just turned eighteen, a real adult even though she looked more like fourteen. She had started bringing cigarettes she’d bought for you all to smoke so Jonathan wouldn’t have to steal them. You’d sit on the hill above the road, just talking and drinking, and you’d stare down at the cars and imagine what lives they held, where they were headed.
It had become your ritual to leave the house after lunch or church or whatever on Sunday with all of the stolen liquor you could carry and meet under the freeway to walk up the hill together. This day L.A, usually first, hadn’t arrived yet.
“Where the fuck’s L.A.?” Jonathan had asked. He looked worse every year that drugs and sleepless nights wore him down more. He was only seventeen but might have been mistaken for thirty-five, his pockmarked face a constellation of the countless little ravages he inflicted on himself.
“I don’t know, man. Maybe she got stuck after at church. You know her mom’s a holy roller.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
You and Jonathan waited an hour before L.A. finally got there. You had started drinking, which probably affected how you both saw everything that came later.
She ran up, hair flying. “Sorry, guys,” she gasped. “My mom was volunteering with the Sunday School kids and I had to help her out.”
“No problem, L.A.,” you said, sheepish all of the sudden. She looked so pretty, all flushed after she’d been running.
“Geez, L.A.,” Jonathan said and hocked something into the grass. “It’s about damn time.”
You all got your stuff together, bottles clinking, cigarettes smashing in tight pants pockets, and started towards the hill. As soon as you’d gone the rest of the way under the overpass, Jonathan stopped dead.
“Jesus Christ,” he said in a low voice.
You and L.A. had backed up behind him, peering over his shoulder at whatever he was staring at. There was a deer carcass on the ground. Someone had probably hit it up on the freeway, knocking it off the road. Maybe it ran off and then died there in a pile of litter and old tires.
“It’s just a deer, Jonathan,” you said. “Happens all the time.”
“No, you guys,” Jonathan said, inching closer. “There’s something in its mouth.”
“What?” said L.A. “You mean like worms and stuff?”
Jonathan continued moving down towards the deer, slowly. You could see something now, behind its dully yellow teeth, glinting in the light that fell through the trees on the carcass. Something was glittering in there. Jonathan crouched down next to it.
“Be careful,” you said. He raised his hand and swatted at the air, dismissing you. He got closer, then lowered his hand, reached it towards the deer.
“There’s something silver in here,” he said. “Like jewelry or something.”
He slid his hand into the deer’s mouth. You could hear it move against the slime of the swollen tongue. Then he started pulling.
And kept pulling. He was pulling out silver strings of jewels, matted with saliva and flecks of the deer’s soft tissue.
“Holy SHIT, Jonathan,” L.A. yelled. “That is jewelry!”
You were speechless. Jonathan continued to pull. “It’s stuck
on something!” he said. About two feet of fine, silvery chain was on the ground at this point. He began to tug, harder this time. Eventually whatever organ was trapping it gave way, and the remainder of the necklace was free. It exited the deer’s body in a shiver of blood and gore.
It took upwards of thirty minutes to get the rest of it out. By the time Jonathan had finished, there was a pile of jewelry: a gold brooch set with a large ruby, a diamond-studded silver pocket watch that was, miraculously, still ticking, a wedding ring, and the necklace itself, which sparkled in the afternoon light. The three of you sat there and stared at the small mound.
“It must be from the highway. It was probably walking across the road when a car…” you trailed off.
“When a car hit it and some rich lady’s jewelry flung all out?” said L.A.
“Well,” you stammered. “Uh, yeah.”
Jonathan stood up, holding the bottle of peppermint schnapps you had brought and swigging from it, his face red and getting redder. “Right, some lady was decked out in every bit of jewelry she owned and this deer came flying through the windshield with its mouth open and just ate it all?” He paused dramatically. “No, I think something else happened here.”
You and L.A. stared at Jonathan. “What do you think happened, Jonathan?” L.A. asked quietly.
He stopped, capped the bottle of schnapps. “I think someone’s coming back for this stuff.”
You’d all been scared after that, worried about some mysterious lunatic who was going to come back for the jewelry he’d stuffed into a deer. You didn’t make it up the hill that day. Jonathan and L.A. had decided to go up, still drink a little up there. It was far enough away, they said, and if someone were watching them it would arouse
less suspicion than if you all scattered. This didn’t make much sense to you, but you were afraid and you didn’t want to walk under that bridge by yourself on your way back home. You suspected the others felt the same and wanted some company before separation and the night set in. But halfway up the hill on Jasper’s lot your chest seized up like someone was trying to choke you. You couldn’t breathe, and then your eyes got all swimmy and you fell to the ground. L.A. turned and ran back down the hill toward you. Jonathan stood there in the sunlight and watched, and you thought he muttered “Fatass” under his breath even though there was no way to know, he was far enough away to where you could have imagined it. Jonathan was so damn skinny, always had been, and the drugs kept him that way. You wondered why it was that drugs didn’t make people fat. It wasn’t fair that people got skinnier when they started using. You were thinking about this, lying there gasping for air and looking up at the sky, when L.A. got to you and helped pull you up to a seated position.
“It’s OK,” she said softly, patting your back. “Just take it easy. You’re hyperventilating I think. You just gotta slow it down.”
Jonathan had made it down now and he handed you the bottle of schnapps. You took a raggy breath in and then a big sip, waiting for the spinning world to come back into focus. L.A. and Jonathan sat with you until you could breathe again, and then you all walked slowly home, them surrounding you, wrapping their arms
When you were far enough away from the bridge, Jonathan split up the jewels. “We gotta keep this a secret, you guys. You can’t tell no one. Not even your mom, L.A.,” he said, glaring at her suspiciously.
L.A. and her mother, Tricia, were strangely close despite the fact that Tricia was a crazy Baptist. “It’s because my dad beat us,” L.A. had told you once. “It brought us together.” L.A.’s dad had died when she was eight, and no one was the worse for it. He had been found with his meth-head girlfriend in another trailer just a few down from L.A.’s. They’d been there two weeks before anyone started to get pissed off about the smell, and when the cops finally broke in the door there they were, lying there like some perverse reimagining of Mary and Jesus after he’d been taken down from the cross. It was so horrible in there you’d heard the whole trailer had to be taken away and burned somewhere. You thought maybe you’d be a crazy Christian too if something like that had happened to you.
“I won’t tell, Jonathan, for Christ’s sake,” L.A. retorted, her tone biting. Jonathan handed her half of the jewels—the ring and the watch, and then handed you the brooch, keeping the necklace for himself. “This damn thing was so hard to get out I earned it,” he said, shoving it back in his pocket. “Not that we can do anything with these yet,” he added. “We gotta lay low awhile.”
Two weeks passed, and the three of you barely spoke during that time. You’d cast furtive glances at Jonathan as he sauntered through the halls at school, Piper hanging off his arm. Of course you talked to L.A., but things were awkward, hushed, like at every moment you were both afraid of who was listening. At the end of the second week you saw Piper wearing the necklace. You ran to find L.A. after third period and told her. “What does he think he’s doing?” you had asked, infuriated. “He said we were supposed to keep it a secret—this is all his idea! I didn’t even want to keep that damn brooch.”
“I dunno,” said L.A. “Jonathan made us scared about the jewelry, but I don’t think anyone’s coming for it. I’m not going to confront him about it in front of Piper and his school buddies, anyway. Don’t worry about it so much. Maybe you can give the brooch to your mom for Mother’s Day, huh?” She smiled at you then, a quick flash of white teeth behind coral lips. “I gotta run,” she said. “I’d love to start meeting up again on Sundays, you know? I miss you guys.” You watched her walk off, and a sadness weighed on you that you didn’t understand. You longed for her, yes, but there had always been that, and now there was something else, a dark cloud hanging over your friendship and slowly splitting you apart. You felt that day that things were coming to an end.
It was strange, after that. The three of you started getting together again a few weeks after you and L.A. had talked about the necklace, but somehow it wasn’t the same. Jonathan effectively disappeared from school and you saw him even less. One Monday you’d gone over to his house after class to check on him after he didn’t show the Sunday before. His little brother, Jackson, was just standing at the ripped screen door of the house, as if he’d been waiting for you.
“Where’s your brother, Jackson?” you said, panting up the four cement steps to the door.
“Ain’t here,” Jackson replied. “He’s gone into the woods.” Then he abruptly turned and walked off, leaving you standing in the sun with a puzzled expression on your face.
“The woods?” you had asked, but no one was there to answer.
The next night was when the first star fell. You were with L.A., who seemed to be making an extra effort to be around, as if she sensed how much you needed her. You were lying on the trampoline in your backyard. Your parents had bought it for you in an effort to help you lose weight. “Jumping is great exercise,” your mom had cooed. “And it’s fun!” Your eyes rolled instinctively whenever you remembered it. Maybe they just should have given you vegetables instead of chips. You would mostly just lie on it, staring up at the night sky. L.A. had come over to watch a movie that night and you’d gone out to the trampoline afterward, sneaking a couple of beers with you. You loved hanging out with L.A. like this, just talking. It was so easy to talk to her. Tonight she had been worried about her mom, who she’d found crying in the kitchen.
“I think she’s really scared about money,” L.A. said. “She wants me to be able to go to college. She’s afraid I’m gonna get stuck here, like she did. I told her I didn’t need college, that I wanted to stay and support her, but then she got even more upset.”
“Your mom loves you, L.A.,” you responded. “She just wants the best for you.” Your words of comfort sounded hollow. You didn’t know what else to say. You remembered that conversation when you saw her working at the drugstore, later on. Her mother had died three years after that night, but by then she’d already had
her first child.
The two of you settled into a comfortable silence, gazing up at the stars.
“Hey,” L.A. said. “Look at that star, that really bright one up there.”
“Those bright stars are usually planets,” you said, but gazed in the general direction of her pointed finger. “Pointing doesn’t help, L.A.,” you said. “It’s like pointing to Earth and saying ‘Hey, look at that tree.’”
“Shut up,” said L.A. “It’s changing color!”
You saw it now, and it was bright. It was flickering a little, so it was a star. And maybe it was just because she’d said it, but you thought you saw it shift hue slightly, from a white to a purplish hue. “Huh,” you said.
Then it fell. It arced through the night sky, brighter now than it had been a second ago, and it finally disappeared in the trees. “A falling star!” whooped L.A. “I’ve never seen one before! Let’s go find it!”
“You’re crazy, L.A.,” you had said. Eventually you’d both gone back inside.
After that more stars fell. The local news station picked up the story, at first probably because there wasn’t much else to talk about. Then the national news networks reported on it. Sometimes you’d see one a night. The news people said at first that they weren’t stars, they were meteorites, but then one night they interviewed a famous scientist from MIT and he said that actual stars were disappearing. That seemed to throw everyone off. After a couple of months, they stopped. No one understood what had happened. It seemed like there was another scientist on the World News every night, trying to explain it. Finally people didn’t care. They assumed that whatever had happened was finished, and it didn’t concern them anymore. But you always knew better. Even now, years later, you sometimes wake up in the night, shaking, and go out onto your apartment deck in Raleigh to stare up at the sky and watch for falling stars.
About a month after the stars fell, in July, you went to find Jonathan. Neither you nor L.A. had seen him since school ended, and you had become increasingly worried after your encounter with Jackson. You assumed he’d fallen more deeply into drugs, but he had never cut off contact completely with either of you before, not even when he’d gotten into snorting heroin for a while. So you went back to his house one afternoon. You took the jewelry with you, the brooch Jonathan had given you and the stuff he gave to L.A.—you convinced her fairly easily that she shouldn’t keep it, and she had confessed to you she’d been a little afraid of it the whole time. You imagined that if you gave it back to Jonathan things would go back to normal. At least you wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. The air was heavy with a palpable, almost visible heat that threw a darkness over even the brightest afternoon. It hadn’t rained in two weeks. The sky clouded over every day, and thunder rumbled distantly, but there was never a drop of rain. The humidity never let up. It was like someone had thrown a wet wool blanket over you all the time, even at night. It sat weightily in the corners of your room in spite of the air conditioning, working its way into the folds of your skin, where it would collect and linger for days. You never stopped dripping.
This time the door of Jonathan’s house was open again. The screen, with its gaping hole, was a useless deterrent against the mosquitoes and flies that were congregating over what looked to be a bucket of innards on the top step. They were glossy in the light and heat, and you had to lean over and gag into an untrimmed bush that was taking over the left side of the dilapidated stoop. The smell permeated the air and you didn’t even knock on the door, you just went inside to get away from the foul bucket and its glistening contents.
You moved into the darkness of the house, your hand still half-covering your mouth and nose. “Jonathan?” you called, and gagged. The inside of the house smelled even worse. “What the fuck, Jonathan!?” There wasn’t a single light on in the house, and the sky outside was darkening, prophesying a storm that refused to come. You reached for the light switch, flipped it. Nothing. No electricity.
Jackson was standing in the hallway.
“Jackson, where’s your dad?” you asked, covering your nose and mouth.
“Pa’s not here no more,” replied Jackson, his voice sounding like he’d been hypnotized. “He left with the storm.”
“There was no storm.” You walked up closer to him, peering through the darkness at his frail body. He was shirtless and wearing some dirty looking underwear. His blond hair was matted to his head, sticky from sweat and who knew what else. “It hasn’t rained in over two weeks,” you said, moving still closer.
“It wasn’t no rain storm,” said Jackson. His eyes glowed in the darkness.
He told you where Jonathan was and by that time you’d basically figured it all out. What he’d been doing out in the woods, what he was looking for. You found him in the Junkyard—the place you used to go to smoke cigarettes, sometimes a little pot, before you started going up to Jasper’s farm. It wasn’t really a junkyard, but there were enough broken down cars and other piles of rubble to where it had rightfully earned the name. You hadn’t been back in years, though, even though you and Jonathan used to hang out there before you became friends with L.A. You wouldn’t ever let Jonathan take L.A. to the Junkyard. The last time you’d been you’d sliced your foot open on part of an old car door that had rusted away and left a jagged edge. You had needed a tetanus shot and fifteen stitches and your mom had forbidden your return. You pretended to be upset when you told Jonathan but really you couldn’t stand the place and you felt that cut across your foot had saved you from worse. You walked carefully now through the tall grasses and trash deposits, looking around for signs of him. You saw someone on the other end of the field, bending down in the grass. He lifted something that flashed in the sun and the brightness made you wince. You covered your face with your hands instinctively and moved towards him.
Jonathan knelt over the carcass of a deer—he had flayed it, opened it up, and gutted it. His hands were covered in its blood, which ran through his fingers and onto his blood-soaked overalls, drying there in strange, random formations that you found yourself trying to read like a map. He looked up at you. There was a wildness to him, now, that had never been there before, not even when he was at his worst on drugs.
“I know they’re in here,” he said. You almost couldn’t bear to look. He reached his hands deep into the deer’s body, digging around in the organs like he was in a zombie movie.
“How many deer you killed, Jonathan?” you asked him softly.
He smiled, a weird grin spreading across his face. “Every one I come across,” he said. “And I don’t kill ‘em all, I take the dead ones from off the roads too. I was bringin’ them home but my dad got mad and Jackson was starting to get sick….” He trailed off.
“Jackson’s still there, Jonathan, and the house stinks of death. Where’s your dad gone?”
He didn’t answer. Instead he said, “Do you know I’ve killed over forty deer, not even including the hits from the highway, and not one of ‘em’s had a treasure? They’re hiding it from me. They don’t want me to find it. But I’m gonna kill every last one of ‘em. I’m gonna find it.”
“Jonathan, you sound crazy,” you said. “The first one was a fluke. I don’t even know what it was. Like we said, maybe someone had stuffed it full of jewelry and was coming back. I mean, it was some weird shit.”
“I know they’re hiding it from me,” he repeated. “I’m getting the rest. Besides, I got a new plan now. They ain’t gonna outsmart me no more.”
You turned away, sickened. Not looking at him, you asked, “Jonathan, what about your brother? Who’s taking care of him? Where’s your dad?”
He hadn’t heard you, or he ignored you. “I know I’m gonna find it,” he muttered. You finally walked away.
After that you never saw him again. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. You saw something in the woods a few times, and you had a feeling it was him. It looked like a deer from a distance, but there was something strange about it. Like it was a deer that had been made wrong, its skin all saggy and dark. Then you realized it was him under the skin, waiting for other deer, watching through the eye slits. You never got close enough to talk to him again. Finally, you stopped seeing him out there in the woods. No one ever saw him again.
Last week you hit a deer. You were leaving your parents’ house to head back to the city and it was dusk. You curved down the winding road that led, eventually, to the highway and around one turn you saw it, too late. You hadn’t been going that fast, but it busted the radiator and dented the front of the car. You were sure you’d killed it and you felt terrible about it. When you got out of the car it was gone, fled into the woods to suffer and die. There was a stain of blood on the asphalt, a patch of fur, and something else. You bent over to look more closely and saw clearly, stepped back, and turned away. It was a perfectly white, unmistakably human tooth.