Where We’re Going
How much longer? How much further? The trip is too long for one day but they can’t afford to stop a night in a hotel, can’t afford to fly. She asked if they had to go at all, right now, but he said: I want to see my sister’s baby before I go to prison and probably get stabbed in the gut. She had nothing to say to that, not even: You’re not allowed out of the city.
It’s just two days, she thinks. Two days with his family and then we can drive home in the dark and I can sleep and wake and sleep and wake and watch the car lights play tag with everything slower than us.
His family will be angry but then they are angry all the time. They have all spent so many years in the same town and watched it grow and change before them. This place has gone to the dogs, they say. It all makes them angry.
Why the delayed court date, they will ask. We had hotels booked. Why couldn’t you keep the same lawyer? Don’t plead guilty. Who says you’re guilty?
And they will seem angry at her because she is so quiet and they feel like she should have something sensible to say. She is closest to the source. They could think of better women he could have around him at a time like this. The women in his family are loud — amplifications of their own selves. She is a wisp.
The only person not angry will be his mother, who will only be scared. She will say: that you should come back safe from war, just for this to happen!
She believes that life evens out and the scales are weighted equal in the end so her son must be in for a shitload of good luck down the line. He has had some bad luck, she thinks.
His mother will tell them: I wrote to that boy’s family. I told them your father taught you how to use a gun. I told them you were never a careless boy. I told them you’d been away to the war. I told… until someone shuts her up.
Right now she can taste blood from where she brushed her teeth when they stopped for petrol. She always brushes too hard. She thought it would ward off nausea but now she can taste blood and it’s made her feel sicker. She hates cars and long trips. When she thinks back to their house it’s with the longing of someone who believes she may never return.
She looks at him and thinks about how good he looks, driving. He sits right back in the seat, one hand loose on the steering wheel, as relaxed as if the windscreen were a television. He isn’t careful about anything. She is just thinking how much she loves him when he turns to her.
‘Why are you so quiet? I need to talk on long trips. You’re boring.’
He tells her this a lot. He is loud and confident and he has always thought that quiet or shy people suffer from a lack of things to say. He wants her to invent things out of her own head, a wellspring of things to amuse him while he drives.
‘What do you want me to talk about?’
‘I don’t know. Just anything. Get my mind off the road.’
She knows that long stretches of silence must bring back that day and the moment the gun cracked the air and he hadn’t marked his sight, someone in the background saying, ‘Did he get it…?’ The grey road is just a spool for this memory to run on loop.
She begins to tell him a story about when she was younger, maybe twelve, and she went out fishing with her father and brothers. She only saw her father in the summers. The trip out to the open sea was longer and rougher than she had imagined and the boat reared up and heaved like an animal when they crossed the bar. It took all the skill of her father and four brothers to get them over safely. The men all took off their life jackets once they were over, but her father said: ‘Not you, Therese. You keep yours on.’
The waves were still big and if she put her hand over the side of the boat the water would grab at her with playful slaps and yanks.
It was then she started feeling sick. ‘We were still moving heading for this spot they always went to but it seemed like we were heading straight for where the sun rose and every few minutes I would look up and see the sun, barely there underneath all this grey cloud. I was hanging over the side of the boat spewing my guts out — I guess that’s what made me think of this, feeling so sick — and the boat was going so fast that my sick was swept away faster than I could see it, and my father shouts out from the wheel, “Only another six hours, love. Hang in there.” And they all laughed so hard I felt like I would never forgive them for being so cruel. It seemed like it would never end.’
She looked over at him.
‘That was a good story,’ he said. ‘You never told me that before. Remind me not to take you on a boat.’ He reached for the bottle of coke that she had shaken until it was flat and held it between his thighs as he unscrewed it. ‘I’m going to teach my boys to fish one day.’
She loved it when he would say things like that and she could see a spot beyond the next few years lit up for them, a place to head for, like they could maybe leapfrog over whatever shit was coming next.
She searched through her mind but she couldn’t think of any other stories, just stupid things she’d done with her brothers, or horrible things, like the time her grandmother had been yelling for help from the toilet and she’d run out of the house to find someone else. She could think of times she’d had with men who weren’t him and didn’t matter anymore but he didn’t understand that. Those stories weren’t fun for him.
It began to get dark and he fiddled with the radio to find a station. They didn’t have a CD player. He found an old fogey station which she didn’t mind but every few minutes he would say: ‘Jesus. This music.’ After a while he turned it off and she watched the tips of the pines blaze like they were on fire until the sun disappeared behind them and they looked like cutouts.
If he got home detention that would be a miracle. No one believed that he would be that lucky but she still secretly planned for it. She knew if he was home all day she would have to give up her games. He hated them and called her a zombie. ‘Look at you,’ he said, ‘Watching those cards flip over, drool coming out of your mouth.’
It was an exaggeration but it was true. When the cat jumped up on the couch behind her or someone knocked at the door she felt like she was coming back from somewhere far away. It scared her that she could be gone from her mind and not know.
She has spent a lot of time waiting for him and once calculated all the years and months and weeks together and it was a lot. All the time overseas, the weeks away training, hunting trips. She knows in her most chaotic mind that she tries to ignore that he would have left her behind by now if he hadn’t accidently killed a man.
‘Are you excited to see your nephew?’ she asks, in case he’s feeling sleepy and needs to talk. He looks over to answer her and she doesn’t know why he does that, but she feels his white face turn towards her and sees something slip in front of their car at the same time.
The bump is loud and it feels like the front wheels bounce up off the ground. They shudder to a stop.
‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.’
She gets out first. The road is quiet and the air is still. She knows by the sharpness that they are near the mountain.
The deer is breathing and she lays her hands on its warm body, feels its insides moving, its lungs moving.
‘It’s just a baby,’ she says.
‘Lucky. We could have been killed if it was a big one.’ He’s come to stand beside her but he doesn’t kneel down to where she sits with her hands on the animal like a healer.
‘We’ll drag it off the road,’ he says. ‘Not much else we can do for it. It came out of nowhere.’ He is leaning over the car, looking for any damage to the headlights.
‘Oh no,’ she says, ‘No, we have to kill it. Look at its eyes. Look at its leg. He’s in pain. He could take all night to die. He could be here until morning.’
They both think of the deer breathing through the longest hours of the nights while they do they same, keeping pace with it, two hours from this spot.
‘I won’t kill it,’ he says. ‘Jesus. I just want to get to where we’re going. I won’t kill it.’
‘I’ll do it,’ she says.
‘Is that too much to ask? That we just get somewhere without all this drama?’ He kicks the ground and she doesn’t know if he does it on purpose or if his foot bounces but he kicks the deer. It lets out a long sigh.
They drag it to the roadside and he waits in the car while she gets a hammer from the toolbox in the boot. All this time no one else goes by. If only someone would come past, she thinks. They would tell me what to do.
She thinks he is crying in the car.
She kneels beside the deer in the grass and feels the stalks flatten beneath her. If this is the only thing I had to do in my whole life, I couldn’t do it, she thinks.
They had carried the man’s body out of the bush that day and he had told her every so often someone would lean down and touch his neck, feeling for a pulse, a jump in the flesh that wouldn’t come. He had said that it was incredibly hard, with the thick bush and the body that seemed to become heavier by the minute. They were still careful even when the need to be careful had passed. He heard someone call him a ‘stupid fucking kid’. Part of him wanted to see his home so badly, but the other part wanted to stay in the bush, to lay down there and wait.
She sits so long that she knows the deer doesn’t know the difference any more, doesn’t feel her hand on its body as her hand, it could have been born with that hand there for all the deer knows. It doesn’t hear her breathing as being apart from its own thud thumping struggle to push blood around itself.
Her legs are numb underneath her when the car door opens and he comes to sit beside her. When the breathing is near enough to stopped and the moon shows no glint in the deer’s eye, he says, ‘Come on. Let it go quietly.’
‘I don’t feel like a man the way I used to,’ he tells her back in the car, and they don’t talk after that. They go on through the night and the wind and the trees make noises like they would tear each other apart if they could, and the cars start to go past in a trickle. The air and the cars have been waiting, like a held breath, for their time with the deer to be over and now everything starts again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Samantha Byres is from Whanganui. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML and is currently working on a collection of short stories.