He loved the way the ice formed a glassy skin over the rushing creek. He loved the crunch of snow-crust under his boots, and the filigree of raccoon and squirrel tracks under the bird feeder, and how a few of the sunflower seeds always found their way through the snow into the earth, and hung on, waiting for the thaw.
Other things, he hated. Scraping Mom’s car before school. The way his nose ran like a burst pipe in first period math. School, in general. Evan Hurst and his joke-cracking friends, in particular.
Knock-knock. Who’s there? Snot. Snot who? Snot-nosed Scott.
Yeah, he hated school up and down.
Which was why today he’d doubled back from the bus stop, after Mom had driven past with that beseeching grin of hers, that ever-pleading smile.
“Make it a great day, Scottie,” she always said.
He took the trail through the woods, where he could breathe the cold crisp air and kill some time.
He heard the deer before he saw her. Heard a groan, a panicked thrashing. Ahead on the trail lay a slender doe, one of her hind legs at a terrible angle, haunch torn open, bloody. Her huge eyes rolled. She flailed, trying to get up. There was another wound on her neck. A bite, oozing blood and staining the snow bright red, like a cherry sno-cone. His stomach lurched. And then he noticed the tracks. Big tracks. Fresh. Felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Far above, a crow shrieked and the wind gusted, blowing snow off the pines in a swirl.
A low growl — to the right?
He stood still, trying to think what to do. The growl again, steady, like a quiet motor. “Never run from an aggressive dog, Scott. If you act afraid, you invite attack.” That’s what Dad used to say.
Every fiber of his body wanted to turn and run. He steeled himself. “Don’t let them see you’re afraid,” his father always told him.
There. He saw them. Two pairs of eerie yellow eyes deep in the viney underbrush. “Don’t make eye contact, son, dogs see it as a threat.” What about wolves, Dad? Or coyotes? Or whatever was crouched underneath there, waiting.
The deer lay still now, but blood continued to pump, slower now, from the bite on her neck. What would Dad have done? Put the deer out of her misery. End it. Take away her suffering. His father couldn’t bear misery, that was what his note had said.
No one at school teased him about that. No one even mentioned it. Worse. It was like it never happened.
Scott’s tears ran in a torrent down his cold cheeks, like the water under the ice. He felt something deep inside him twist, something he’d kept buried a long time, like that little seed under the snow, dormant but waiting to burst into life.
“Get away,” he roared at the predators, “leave her alone!” He swung his backpack over his head, around and around, nearly losing his balance. The yellow eyes disappeared. He flung the backpack at the brush pile anyway, where it landed with a crash. He didn’t hear the wolf-dogs flee, but some instinct way down inside told him they’d gone.
Overhead, squirrels gossiped noisily.
The doe was still breathing. Her slender legs twitched as he walked toward her. He could smell the metallic tang of her blood in the steam that rose from the snow beneath her. He knew she’d have run by now, if she could have. There was only one thing he could do. He ran back towards the trailhead, where there was a pile of big rocks that he and his dad had collected last spring, for the fort they never built. He picked up the biggest one he could carry, and ran back to the deer.
She wasn’t moving at all now, but she wasn’t dead yet either. Her dark gaze watched him. “Don’t worry,” he said, kneeling next to her. “I’ll help you.” And then he raised the rock up to chest-height and slammed it down on the deer’s head with all his might. It connected with a sickening thud. He did it again, twice more.
And then he crouched down beside her in the snow until he was sure she was gone, beyond all misery.
A writer and designer, Elaine Olund lives and creates in Cincinnati, Ohio. Right now, she’s busily revising her first novel, set in 22nd century Indiana. Her stories have recently been published in 5×5 magazine and 34th parallel. Her short story, “A Double Life”, is available on amazon.com for kindle.