I had owned the gun for over a year. Two christmases ago, it looked like Hillary Clinton was going to be the next President of the United States, and that had made my father very nervous. It is my guess that his fear, enhanced by his fascination with the Walking Dead, illuminated, for him, a post-apocalyptic future in which his sons and his daughter would need 9mms and packets of dried powdered foodstuffs.
I had pulled the trigger multiple times, never with a bullet in the chamber. The gun hid in the nightstand or on a shelf in the closet. A bullet often lingered nearby but never loaded. Sometimes I would take the gun out when my wife and children were staying away at her parents to prove I was not afraid of it. I imagined myself sneaking the gun outside in the middle of the night and firing it straight up into the sky and running away before being caught.
A month ago, I had just finished writing at the office and got into my car. It was near midnight. I was tired and cold and so when a circle cleared on the windshield large enough for me to see out, I left the parking lot for home. I sped along a darkened road and waited for the heater to warm my hands. I saw it and yanked at the wheel but it was too late. The hooves flickered in the headlights and a tumbling like cans of soup in a dryer knocked along the side of the car. I stomped the brakes and the squeal of the cold metal cried with the antlers scraping across the window.
I sat frozen in the middle of the street panting and blinking and taking inventory of my legs and my face. When I could hear sound, I felt for movement and for blood and then looked for the deer. It hobbled toward the field on the side of the road opposite me and fell to its back thrashing its antlers into the darkening snow beneath it. I waited.
Five, maybe ten, minutes passed before the deer lay motionless. I waited for headlights, for someone to wander up the road. The heater whispered and a low rattle rose from the front of the car. Short bursts of steam flew up from the animal’s head. The bursts jumped out like little ghosts flapping their wings upward before disappearing into the sky. Each breath a protest to death. I could see the gun sleeping in the drawer at home and left the deer on the side of the road.
My wife lifted her head as the drawer rolled along its track. She pointed next to her at the baby, who had spent last night in our bed with a cold. I whispered good night and told her I would be up soon. She shifted over on to her side. The baby heaved a sigh next to her. I took the gun and clenched the bullet in my palm and snuck back downstairs to the car. The driver side headlight had shattered and the bumper hung lazily below it. The side panel had caved in and the paint had been stripped away.
I hurried back to the quiet spot of road and turned off the headlights when I got there and parked far enough from where the deer lay that I couldn’t see it in the headlights. I didn’t want to see. The gun in my coat pocket knocked against my ribs each step. I had held the bullet tight in my hand the ride over. The deer’s ribs showed it heaving, and one of its hind legs had been spun around the way a child breaks a stick and twists it free from its bark.
I took the gun from my pocket and backed the warm bullet into the clip. I searched around for headlights, for someone else. None came. I clicked the bullet into the chamber. The deer wheezed as I hovered the barrel just over its ear. I shifted the angle of the gun in my hand, sifting through the westerns and war and gangster films reeling in my head. I shivered as I touched the trigger. Its antlers came to four points, which I guessed meant it couldn’t have been more than a couple of years old. I wondered if it had been heading home or heading somewhere, if there were other deer nearby searching the fields. No headlights came. I stood over the deer, hoping it understood what it could not understand, about life and death and the decisions we sometimes do not get to make.
I touched the trigger again and my whole body trembled.