Before I went to New York City for college, before I got addicted to Xanax, before she had a child, my sister Rachel and I took our .22s into the woods behind our house to get some deer meat for the freezer. It was dark, pouring snow, and we got lost. We rounded a bend where a fence ran along a creek. Yellow “NO TRESPASSING” signs had been stapled to it, and underneath a nearby tree sat a salt lick. We knelt and touched it. I thought, if we couldn’t find our way back by morning, then to keep warm we’d have to kill a deer and sleep inside its body, share one skin. If we slept in the skin of the deer, it’d be awkward and I’d have to make a joke to break the tension. We’d laugh it off, I’d give my sister a hug and punch her in the arm, like brothers do.
Rachel was fifteen at the time, but looked younger in her Wal-Mart glasses, her giant Carhartt coat, her childish, orange knit hat. In that grey evening light, she had an unfamiliar air of weariness and isolation.
By the salt lick she said, “Don’t leave me.”
This is what she’d said when I applied to NYU. She’d said it again when I got accepted. “Don’t leave me.”
“I have to,” I’d said, in mock-seriousness, as if I were the hero of my own story. She’d looked at me in silence.
“Let’s go try to kill a squirrel at least,” I said.
Sharing the same skin, sleeping inside a deer. But that didn’t happen. We found the trail, then an old railroad track that we followed home, past the dead woods. We’d been lost together; that was the last thing we shared. Beyond that, woods too vast to imagine.
Before we got home, we came across a dead deer a hunter had left behind. Rachel stood frozen, unblinking, indifferent to the falling snow.
Wild dogs had been at the deer. They’d ripped its ears off. The ground was speckled with viscera and bits of skull. The deer’s eyes were open. They looked like they’d seen what was coming, and like it, too, was too much to imagine.
Joe Halstead’s work has appeared in Five Quarterly, Sundog Lit, Cheat River Review, The Stockholm Review, Sheepshead Review, and others. He currently lives in West Virginia with his wife. He just finished a novel. His website: http://joehalstead.tumblr.com