Kurt was driving the kids back to Mona's, Sarah Vaughan crooning on the radio, Stip strapped into his booster seat reading Captain Underpants, Kate in the front tethered to her iPhone and listening to anything but Sarah Vaughan, when the deer exploded from a thicket at the edge of the muddy back road, caught the Subaru's fender and tumbled up over the hood. He heard the soft clatter of legs on metal first, then the moony white belly bloomed in the windshield and as quickly vanished.
By the time he yanked the car over and stopped, the deer had staggered back up onto its rickety legs in the road behind them, weaving like a punch-drunk fighter. Turning in their seats, they watched as the deer folded down onto the rutted track and leaned over on its side.
"What the fuck!" Kate shouted, which Mona, Kurt's ex, would have severely censured, hit deer or not, but Kurt let it go. Kate had just turned 15; at this point, he considered anything that trumped the iPhone a plus.
"Dad, a deer!" Stip chirped, still all curiosity at 7.
"A dying deer, obviously," Kate said, pulling out her earbuds. Before Kurt could speak, she'd scrambled out of the car.
"Kate, hold on," he said half-heartedly, knowing it would do no good. Behind him, Stip's seat buckle clicked open.
"Dad, can I go, too?"
Mona would have nixed this in a second, for more than one reason. The movie had run later than expected, then he'd taken them for gelato; he'd been supposed to drop them off by seven, and it was already 7:45. Mona's lawyer, a combative viper by the name of Davis D. Conrad, had already sent a letter about the late drop-offs, but the idea that she'd take him back to court over that seemed ridiculous. Kurt only had the kids two days every other week. How was he supposed to be a father if he didn't have the time?
He and Mona had been separated for nearly six months, divorced for three; more and more, he felt the kids drifting. At night, he lay awake, churning through a slough of anger and fear. How could Mona keep them away from him like this — and what would happen if he lost them?
Early on, he'd tried in all sorts of desperate ways to keep the kids close. He'd gotten some favorite recipes from Mona, baked macaroni and cheese and homemade pies. He'd done amusement parks and county fairs, shopping trips and "camping" in his tiny apartment's backyard. All that gained him little leverage, but then he'd discovered the ultimate power: permissiveness. It wasn't right, necessarily, but it worked.
"All right," he told Stip. "You can go. But you have to take my hand. This is a wild animal."
"No, it's not," Stip said, a bit incredulous. "It's a deer."
As he shucked the boy out of the car seat, Kurt's heart fluttered. They'd come to Vermont from Manhattan, where wild animals meant red-tailed hawks flying over Central Park, squirrels hustling peanuts by the park benches. The only deer he'd seen up close had hung dead in the bay of their new neighbor Ed Pierce's saggy, one-car garage, dripping blood onto the cement.
Now it was spring, or at least getting there; "mud season," they called it here, and most of the snow had gone. The road to Mona's house, which used to be his house, too, had become a kind of sloppy Chutes and Ladders of washboard hills and rutted flats. As they walked toward the deer, their feet sank into the frigid mud, spoiling his Eccos and Stip's new Nikes. Already, Kate stood way too close to the deer and, as he watched, she took another step closer. Jesus. Davis D. Conrad would have a field day: "With blatant disregard, the Defendant exposed them to the dangers of an injured wild animal, etc., etc." The prick.
Close up, the deer looked dead: neck extended improbably, legs folded against its belly, black nose pointed toward the opposite side of the road from which it had come. Kurt was preparing the words of an impromptu funeral oration when Kate turned toward him, her huge, blues eyes moist behind her sturdy wire frames.
"Dad, it's still breathing. Should we call a vet?"
Frantically, Kurt inventoried his knowledge of deer, which included Bambi and Lyme disease. He had no idea if veterinarians worked on wild animals, and couldn't pay for it if they did, with outrageous child support, higher because Mona had the kids more, which was like paying a premium for agony. He could pull the credit cards, which he'd done more times than he wanted to think about since the split, still paying his half of the mortgage, the mire of debt growing. And suddenly, he realized that Kate had called him "Dad."
She hadn't done that in months, no matter how he'd tried. Anything he'd said — about people deciding they loved and respected each other but couldn't live together, how he would still be her father no matter what — had been tainted by Mona's blurry personal boundaries, the times when she "let slip" this tidbit or that, and Kate had "accidentally overheard."
"You bailed on us," Kate had screeched at him early on, "'Cause you wanted to get your dick wet!" He didn't need to guess where that particular phrase originated.
There were other things, things he'd done on his own, missing a few pickups, for one. And some drinking, which Stip hadn't seen but Kate had. Over time, she'd sunk into a pool of bitterness; communication, when it came, was laden with sarcasm and mitigated through the ever-present earbuds: Yes, Kurt. No, Kurt. You should have thought of that before you left us, Kurt. Delivered in monotone, for maximum effect. Would she hate him forever? Possibly. But then there was "Dad," hanging on the expectant spring air.
He let go of Stip's hand, rummaged through the pocket of his Red Sox hoodie and pulled out his cell. It was already 7:53. Mona had called four times, but, anticipating this, he'd put the phone in airplane mode. He'd plead signal loss, which in Vermont was always a sure bet, although it wouldn't stop her — or Davis D. Conrad — from raking the muck, if it came to that.
The thing to do was get them home. The sun had begun to fall behind the humpy spine of the Worcester Range; the air grew thicker with cold. They had school in the morning, and probably homework tonight. And the deer would be dead, if not within the next five minutes, within 10. But Kate moved closer to him, put her hand on his arm.
"Dad, we can't just let it lie here."
"OK, honey," Kurt said. "I'll call the vet. But if no one's there, we have to just go."
He punched in the number of Valley Veterinary. It was a Sunday, and he got the recorded answer he expected: Take your pet to the emergency center, 20 miles up I-89. He left a message and slipped the cellphone back into his pocket.
So here they were. Deer stretched out on the red mud. No help or sign of it.
"Well, we have to do something," Kate said. It astonished him, actually, that she wasn't doing something herself. Short, skinny, her wispy red hair tailing from under the black wool watch cap she wore summer or winter, she never let much stand in her way. First in war, first in peace, first with an alternate opinion, which was how he'd been at her age. But now she stood silently, hands wadded into the pockets of her jeans, waiting for him to act.
Was the animal suffering? Kurt saw moisture on its nostrils, thin spumes of mist dispensed with every exhalation. An eyelid leaned open when Kate shifted on her feet. An ear twitched. Kurt noticed the rise and fall of the deer's rib cage, slow but regular.
He took a step forward and paused, then took another. It surprised him how small the deer looked up close. It was a small doe. Stip weighed 50 pounds, and the deer couldn't have been double that, not much bigger than Boffin, their chocolate Lab, which now lived with Mona.
In the deepening twilight, Kurt squatted over a mud puddle and leaned close enough to touch the doe. At that distance, he could see through the stiff, reddish hair to the pinkish skin below. Her eyes stayed closed. An emerald-bodied fly lit on her flank, and her tail flopped weakly, startling it away. Then the fly returned. Did this mean she really was dying?
Kurt turned to Stip and Kate. "You two, move back."
Stip obeyed, but Kate stood her ground.
"Oh, for Christ's sake. It's not a grizzly bear."
He waited, and she conceded a half step.
Kurt knelt now, his right knee sinking slowly into the rusty sludge, his left braced by a cold, flat stone. Then he saw the cut, a tiny, jagged split in the doe's skin just aft of her ribs. Without thinking, he reached out to push the hair back from the wound, to get a better look.
The doe's back hoof hit his forehead with the force of an air hammer. Before he knew what had happened, he lay in the greasy slough, his glasses smeared and puddle water leaking into his mouth.
"Daddy!" shrieked Stip, and ran to him. Rolling in the mud and trying to get up, Kurt pushed the boy away.
"It's dangerous," he said sternly.
Stip started to blubber.
"No. No. Hey, Stipper," Kurt said, calmly as he could. "It's OK. I just don't want you to get hurt, is all." He felt blood leaking from his left nostril. A dull hum possessed his skull.
"Awesome work, Kurt," Kate said.
"Kate, this is not the time."
"When is? Kurt."
The therapist had told him this; Kate couldn't control her reflexive anger, and when she saw him as weak she would attack. But right now, he was furious. He smudged the mud off his glasses with his finger and glared.
"Don't look at me like that, Kurt," Kate said. And just then her iPhone rang.
"Kate, don't." But it was too late.
"Hey, Mom. Yeah. We're halfway up Wilkins Road. Dad hit a deer with the Subaru and then tried to be a hero. It kicked him in the face ... I know, right?"
Dizzy and nauseated, Kurt levered himself to a sitting position. Freezing water bled though the seat of his khakis.
Kate held out the cell. "Kurt, it's for you."
He hadn't spoken to Mona for the better part of a month. But the minute he heard her voice, its choppy cadence, the lightly veiled condescension — she was the one with the house, the high-end job at the Agency of Commerce, the new boyfriend, and nearly full custody of the kids — it was back to the same battle.
"Kurt, you were supposed to be here at seven. What happened this time?"
"This time?" He was upright now, still a bit unsteady, the slippery, uneven ground making balance a problem. He lowered his voice, but Kate stepped closer, intent on espionage. His anger still sizzling, he covered the phone with a muddy hand and pointed to the ground at her feet.
"Stay there. Do not move. Do you understand?"
His anger battened her down; she nodded and stayed.
Squishing through the churned soil, he headed toward the front end of the Subaru and 50 feet or so beyond, far enough that he could speak normally and neither of the kids could hear. As he lifted the phone, a steady torrent of fly buzz tickled his ear; apparently Mona hadn't waited for him to answer her question and had proceeded to the persecution phase of the conversation.
"...and for God's sake, if you'd had them home on time, this wouldn't have happened. They might have been killed."
"Of course, that doesn't matter to you, Kurt. And of course, you have no respect for the fact that Colin is coming over, and I cooked a special dinner for all of us."
"Look, Mona. I don't care about your dinner with Colin. And I don't care what time it is. I am dealing with something that's not in the custody manual. So if you could work with me here..."
Dusk had settled now; indigo shadows thickened the woods. Through a corner of his still-bleary lenses, he saw Stip gesturing with a small white hand.
"Not now, Stip. Just a minute."
"Manual?" Mona said. "I'm not reading from a manual. I'm talking about modeling consideration for the children."
"The children? The children are happy. They're not in a concentration camp. They went to a movie and had gelato."
"Daddy!" Stip shouted. "The deer!"
Kurt turned just in time to see the doe, now on its feet again, wobble across the roadside ditch and into the thicket. Before he could say a word, Kate followed.
Kurt jammed the phone in his pocket and started to run. The mud squirreled beneath his ruined Eccos; snowmelt splashed on his pant legs. He slipped and fell, but adrenaline turned it into more of a bounce, and he was up and running again.
"Kate!" he hollered. "Kate!" Of course, she didn't answer. By the time he reached the Subaru, she was into the woods and gone. He turned to Stip, put a hand on his shoulders.
"Stipper," Kurt said, "I want you to stay here, no matter what."
"Dad, this is messed up."
"I know it is. And it's my fault. I'm sorry, Stip. I really am."
He put his own cellphone in Stip's hand, showed him how to use the flashlight app.
"Check it out," Kurt said, trying to sound reassuring. "It's just like a real flashlight. Stay here, and I'll be back in a minute." With that, he plunged into the black thicket.
Ahead he heard a thud, an exhalation and a muted curse.
"Kate! Are you OK? Sweetie, come back."
Willow branches formed a spiky tangle that tore at his clothes, and the footing was even less certain than it had been on the road. The stub of a broken branch jabbed him hard in the cheek. He stumbled over a scabby heap of leftover snow and nearly fell, then grabbed a tree branch and righted himself.
"That deer will be fine!" he shouted into the darkness. "It's going home to its mother."
Christ, he thought. Did everything want its mother most of all? He'd made it 20 yards into the woods by then, panting and desperate. The blood from his nose flowed freely, and the only thing to wipe it on was his shirt. Which didn't matter, because it was covered with mud anyway.
"Kate, can you please?"
"Daddy, I'm scared!" Stip shouted from the road, his voice fainter with the brush and the distance. For a moment, Kurt flashed on a kidnapper, an accident with a sliding car.
"It's OK, Stipper! I'm just helping Kate get out of here." Which he would, if he knew where she was.
"Dad!" Stip hollered. Louder, this time, higher.
"Kate, did you hear that? Your brother's scared."
Silence. And then Kate's cellphone, still in his pocket, started to ring.
His first thought was to answer, his second to throw the phone out into the woods. The ringing continued, but he ignored it, flailing his hands ahead of him, yanking at branches and trying to run.
Tears came, helplessness, shivers of full-blown panic. This was failure. This was losing. This was proof of fatherly incompetence. The harder he tried to move forward, the harder the woods fought back; he was wading in shin-high water, the cold of it shocking enough to take his breath. He envisioned helicopters, slavering search dogs, orange nylon straps on a black body bag.
"Daddy!" Stip hollered again.
"Out in a minute, Stip. Just hang on!" And then the thicket fell away.
"Shhhhhhh!" Kate said, 10 feet to the left of him and crouched at the edge of a marshy pool, 30 or so feet in diameter, surrounded by a hedge of wispy grasses. The surface of the pool mirrored a rising crescent moon.
At first, Kurt wondered why she'd asked for silence. But then he saw the doe, neck-deep in the pool and gamely swimming toward the opposite side, shoulders breaking the surface at each lunge.
"Look!" Kate whispered, her voice carrying easily on the wet air, an excitement he hadn't heard in what seemed like years.
He nodded vigorously, to show that he saw. Tiptoeing through wet meadow, he went to her and stood. She put a hand on his arm.
"Will she drown?"
"No," he said, but he had no idea if that were true.
In silence, they watched for a long minute, the doe cutting a luxurious wake through the water, V-shaped ripples grabbing edges of moonlight and spreading toward shore. When she reached the bank, she paused, flailed for purchase with her front hooves. Kate's grip on his arm tightened but relaxed as the doe gained the bank.
Standing on narrow band in front of the grass hedge, the doe shook herself.
"I know," Kurt said. "Just like Boffin."
Then the doe turned its head toward them.
Her gaze held for a long moment, possessing theirs. And then, slowly, deliberately, she turned, paused and leapt, clearing the grass hedge, hanging in the air impossibly long and, in complete silence, disappeared.
"Wow, Dad," Kate said after a moment. "That was beautiful."
"It was," Kurt said. He put his arms around her and pulled her close. For the first time since he had left home, she didn't resist.
After a minute, Kurt released the embrace. She put her hand in his as they headed toward the car.
"Stipper!" Kurt sang out ahead of them. "Don't worry. We're coming back now, and we're all OK."