When Coach blew the whistle, along with the rest of the kids, I returned the soccer balls to the rack in the closet, took long gulps from the armory gym’s water fountain, put on my puffy snow jacket, and walked out into the parking lot slowly filling with January snow. I looked for Dad’s lapis-blue Cherokee among the idling cars, heat on full-blast. As always, he wasn’t there. One by one, other kids piled into cars until it was just Derek and me enjoying the sharp wind on our sweaty bodies. Despite the oversized snow jackets (You’ll grow into it, Dad would say), we still wore our shorts and shin guards. Our knees clacked.
“Fuck this, Eliot,” Derek said. “When the fuck are they going to get here? I’m freezing my nuts off.”
I envied how effortlessly he cussed. I hadn’t perfected it. When I swore at the lunch table or during unsupervised gym games, my friends made fun of me—snide remarks (Woah, guys. Don’t mess with Eliot. He’s serious today.) and exaggerated imitations—because I sounded like a kid. Cussing to me was all missed shots and no bicycle-kick goals. Sometimes in bed in the middle of the night I practiced swearing in whispers: damn, shit, bastard.
“I’m sure they’ll get here soon,” I said to fill the silence.
Christmas break dwindled, but school wouldn’t start until Monday. Without classes to complain about, we stood around, uncomfortable with our silence. Derek towered a full foot over me, having already finished his growth spurt. I hadn’t even started mine, and as each month passed, I grew more impatient to close the growing height gap between my twin sister, Emily, and me. The sky purpled.
I asked, “What’d you get for Christmas?”
“A bunch of stupid shit because of Chase-Glazer.” Both our dads lost their jobs when the glass-blowing factory closed down. My dad lucked out and picked up a job delivering bread, but most still lived on diminishing severance. “You?”
“Not much,” I lied. His gaze bore down on me, yet I kept my eyes on the ground and kicked at snow.
“Bullshit. You get two Christmases now. I bet you can’t even fit all your presents in your room.”
I shrugged and sighed. Dad and Mom each spent more money on Emily and me than they had the year before. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to buy love or apologize. “Both got me a Playstation. So I’m going to return one and get an N64.”
“Damn. I wish my parents were divorced.”
Mine weren’t divorced, but I didn’t correct him because I barely understood it—something about a year of “voluntary separation” and “notarized separation agreement” to get a divorce that was “no-fault.” It didn’t matter though because they talked about it as if it were a divorce and it felt like what I imagined divorce felt like: a vague, foolish longing for last year.
Our breath steamed as we pretended to smoke; neither of us could blow rings. The winter breeze no longer felt refreshing. I pulled my hands into my jacket’s sleeves. When headlights appeared at the edge of the lot, I held my breath and hoped to see the boxy Cherokee, but it was a sedan: another night with Coach and me.
Derek said, “Want a ride?”
“Dad’s on his way,” I said, because I wanted it to be true.
Derek shrugged and marched through the snow to his mom’s sedan, leaving dark blacktop footprints in the powder.
Coach stood waiting at the foggy window stroking his thick, ink-black mustache. When I walked in, my skin ached from the warm air. My wet sneakers screeched along the hallway. Coach must have counted the minutes waiting for us stragglers to be picked up. He must have wanted to get home to do whatever widowed, childless science teachers that coach indoor soccer do at night. Yet, without saying anything, he walked to the gym, unlocked the closet, retrieved a soccer ball, and kicked it to me.
“Well,” Coach said, checking his watch. “Should we try your father again?”
Outside the window it looked like cooled lava: lumpy, snowy, and dark.
“Okay,” I said. I dribbled the ball over to him, small taps, under control. Using Coach’s blocky cell phone, I left another message on the answering machine. At least Dad wasn’t at home. If he picked up, then I’d know for sure he had forgotten me.
“Maybe we should try your mom.”
“He’ll be here,” I said.
“Let’s call her anyway.”
Dad, if he was here, would’ve said something like, Don’t talk to him about my business. Somehow Dad still believed that the news of the separation hadn’t spread.
“She’s out of town tonight,” I lied, not because Dad would have wanted me to, but because Mom was reconsidering the custody agreement. They’d forgone courts and let Emily and me decide who we would stay with—a gift from Mom to Dad. Emily went with her, but I chose him. Mom wore guilt like a gown and made herself a stranger overnight. I didn’t feel like I knew her anymore. It wasn’t even Mom’s coming out of the closet (I could deal with that), but she now treated me like a glass child liable to shatter at a misplaced word.
I wasn’t fragile or depressed, just nostalgic. If anything, Dad acted like a friend, at times a peer, with all the rawness that entailed: driving ranges, sour sips from his wine, R-Rated action movies, shooting clay pigeons with 20 gauges, carrying me from the Cherokee to my bed when we stayed out too late, helping him from the couch to his bed when he drank too much.
Looking away from me, Coach said, “I could always give you a ride to Gina’s.”
I winced at the name of Mom’s girlfriend. Of course, he knew. Everyone did. We were water cooler topics in places without water coolers—the teacher’s lounge, run down bars, church prayer calls. I never appreciated anonymity before; I wished I could dissolve.
“Can’t you take me home?” I asked.
“Teachers aren’t allowed to anymore,” he said, shaking his head and pursing his lips. Coach grudgingly followed the new policy from the Board of Ed that removed the simple solution. Letting Gina pick me up must have been as far as he was willing to bend the rules.
“Can we wait fifteen more minutes?”
He sighed. “I’ll give him ten, and then….” Coach trailed off struggling to come up with some sort of backup plan. “I’ll call Gina,” he said, as if it were a question.
We passed the ball back and forth on autopilot. My mind drifted: every time Mom picked me up because Dad forgot, every time I missed school because Dad didn’t come home the night before, every time Emily told Mom about Dad’s tipsy flirting with married soccer moms, every time she heard about Dad and me eating grand slams at two in the morning on a school night, Mom strengthened her threats until last week she dropped the ultimatum: one more shot—she’d be looking for an excuse. She’d take him to court (she had the money), and she’d win every time.
Ten minutes that felt like two hours later, as Coach returned the soccer ball to the closet, promising to call Gina just as soon as he locked the doors, and I put my coat back on, high beams flooded the parking lot. I tried unsuccessfully to hide my smile. Coach didn’t look relieved. Instead he looked the way he did on the day he reamed out my whole class after discovering our elaborate classroom-wide network for cheating on labs. With eyes narrowed and forehead furrowed in the quiet fury that only teachers know, he followed me outside. The cold made it difficult to breathe.
The passenger window lowered, and Dad’s slow, careful articulation failed to hide a gentle slurring as he said, “Crazy night. I got here as soon as I could.”
“You didn’t try that hard,” Coach said.
I wanted to tell Coach not to give my dad a hard time, but I couldn’t think of how to phrase it in a way that wasn’t combative. All I wanted was to climb into the car and get out of there, but Coach refused to let Dad and me slink away as we usually did. The snow that covered my ankles slowly dissolved into ice water, sogging my socks.
“Trust me. If only you knew.” Dad laughed and fumbled for something between the seats.
“Indulge me.” Coach’s jaw locked into place. His mustache didn’t hide a scowl.
Dad stopped trying to laugh his way free. Barely above a whisper, he said, “Eliot, get in the car.”
I stepped forward as Coach’s hand fell to my shoulder. He didn’t grab or squeeze, yet the dead weight of unfamiliar touch froze me in place. His gaze never left Dad. I imagined myself freezing time—snowflakes hanging still—climbing into Dad’s car, driving off, and unfreezing time when we were home.
“I’ve got time for a story,” Coach said. “Where were you?”
Was Coach not oblivious to Dad’s drinking? Was he stalling to gauge just how far gone he was? Neither spoke; the stillness unnerved me. I stood there letting the cold sting my legs while the heat hummed in the car. Unable to stand it, I tried to pry his fingers away, but Coach’s fingers dug into my skin. Even through the thick padding of my coat, his grip hurt. If I were more like Dad, I’d be able to break free.
“Let go,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s safe to get in a car with him,” he said to me.
Dad lowered his head. The world narrowed. I felt reckless.
“You aren’t going anywhere with this drunk.” Coach pointed a bony finger at Dad. Drunk. The word jarred me. I’d never heard anyone call him that, not even Mom. He never hit anyone, so he couldn’t be an alcoholic. Would that be how a judge saw him if Mom changed the custody agreement?
Coach continued, “I’m calling your mother or grandparents. Anyone. Even Gina.”
I suddenly pictured myself in my old bedroom overhearing Mom’s side of a phone fight with Dad, imagined daily dinners of Gina’s cooking—almost always pasta and store-bought sauce—ad nauseam, and, worst of all, Mom’s over-compensating concern for everything: the way she now always prefaced requests with “if you are up to it….”
I fought dizziness. If I could just escape Coach’s grasp… yet my squirms only tightened the grip like a Chinese finger trap. I bit at his fingers, meaty bites almost breaking the skin, until he let go.
“God damn it,” he said, as his grip softened enough for me to wriggle away and climb into the back door of the Jeep, locking the door behind me. As soon as Dad processed what I was doing, he locked the other doors and rolled up the window.
Coach yanked at the door handle and said, “Get out of the car. Both of you.”
What had come over me? I liked Coach and his class. How could I look him in the eye on Monday? The adrenaline simmered to regret. I fantasized about quitting indoor soccer and dropping out of school to avoid ever having to face Coach again.
Dad cradled a brown-bagged bottle between his legs. He opened his mouth to say something (another apology, maybe an insult), but instead shook his head and exhaled.
Coach pounded at the window, looked at me pleadingly, and, muffled by the glass, said with slow articulation, “Eliot, this is a mistake. It’s okay. Just unlock the door. If you don’t, I’m going to have to call the cops. And if that happens, nothing good will come of this.”
I looked at Dad, and he gave me a timid smile as if to say, Your choice.
I said to Coach, “I’m sorry.” I nodded to Dad. I knew choosing my father was nothing but risks, but as the end loomed, all I wanted was time with Dad, even short minutes as they ran out.
Dad ground the gears into drive, his body shaking, almost quaking. As we drove off, in the mirror Coach shrank as he dialed his phone.
Colossal snowflakes caught in wind currents shot over the windshield like stars in a screensaver. Dad wrung the steering wheel with his hands as if the tactile feeling of sticky rubber might calm him.
“I’m really sorry, Eliot. Next time I’ll be there. I won’t even leave. I’ll stay in the car and wait the whole time,” he said, making momentary eye contact. At least for right then he believed it.
How could he think about something that felt so trivial to me? I wondered if he grasped the bigger picture: the impending holding cell, DUI, license suspension, job loss, and court cases. I said, “Dad, we’re in trouble.”
He ignored me and said, “You don’t think I would leave you there on purpose, do you?”
“We’re going to get arrested.” It surprised me to hear me include myself. Could I end up in juvie?
“No one’s getting arrested.”
“Coach called the cops.”
Dad shook his head. He slowed the car down to a crawl on the dark road. He licked his lips and then made a clicking noise with his mouth. I could almost see his mind sluggishly working, considering what was next.
“Do you want me to take you to your mom’s,” he said.
It didn’t matter what I said. By the end of the night I knew I’d be there. “I think so.”
“That’s fair,” he said.
Dad turned from the main road onto a back road that cut through the woods. It wasn’t exactly a shortcut, but at least no one would be on this road this late at night. Snow stuck to the road. There weren’t even parallel black streaks of recent vehicles. A salt truck would come through eventually.
For a long time neither of us spoke. It wasn’t that living with Emily, Gina, and Mom had become any more palatable. Maybe if Dad dropped me off, we could forgo the courts until Dad was more stable.
Dad turned on the radio, flicked from station to station and turned it off. Snow pummeled the earth in moth-sized flakes. He sped up.
“Do you still love me?” he asked.
“What?” I said.
He swallowed hard. “Never mind.”
The digital clock beamed 8:53. It felt much later.
I wanted to tell him that I loved him, but we so rarely talked about it that I couldn’t bring myself to say the word. I said, “Yeah Dad, I do.”
“I don’t feel like anyone loves me anymore. And I can’t stop thinking about if anyone ever did.” His voice wavered, and his grip on the steering wheel looked like it would crush the plastic, foam, and vinyl, making it ooze out of his hands like squeezing a ball of fresh mozzarella.
Everything crept into focus—the mess of it all. Was this sober honesty or drunk neediness? Before, I thought he was emotionless, stoic even, but now he sounded more like Emily on a bad day. If he’d really felt like that, I felt bad for Mom. It must have been so hard not just being married to a man but to someone this insecure.
I said, “I know Emily does. I bet Mom still does too in a way.”
I wondered if everything that happened since the separation was secondary to his suppressed question about whether any part of the family, the marriage, was ever real to her. I pitied him and wanted more time. All we had left was fading seconds before an arrest or whatever came next, so I promised myself I’d stay until the end.
“I want to go home tonight. Our home,” I said.
Dad’s grip on the steering wheel loosened. He looked at me wet-eyed. He made an illegal u-turn, swerving, and tires slipping on the snow and ice-greased road.
As we regained speed (five, ten, fifteen over the thirty), I said, “Slow down.” I braced myself for a new patch of black ice, but the Cherokee kept traction.
Full crying, he said, “You know, you mean everything to me, right? I know what people say about me—”
“Slow down, Dad.”
Black and white, darkness and snow slid past us. Black nameless trees crowded the road, as Dad sped away from aloneness, large and small, escaping even if just for the night. Black and white, shadows burst from the tree line, a pack of white-tail deer.
My ears rang before I felt any pain. Neck hurt, but my fingers worked. Not broken. Did my blisters pop? Something bloody. Nose? Lip? The seatbelt cut into my shoulder. Car horn jammed on. As I wiped them away, I marveled at the windshield spider-webbed across all four corners: how did it crush but not shatter?
“Dad,” I said as I massaged my neck.
His head hung in an impossible angle as if it could roll off. I thought I saw the forehead bone, leaking blood covered it. He hadn’t been wearing his seatbelt.
I clamored out of the car. Through the passenger-side door, I struggled to drag Dad’s weight to the tree line. Each inch took all I could muster, until finally I had him in the grass. I sat against an oak, but he slid over onto his side.
I thought I would cry but puked instead.
“It’s alright, Dad,” I said. “Everything’s okay.”
Dad lay there, snow falling on his unblinking eyes. Things like this never actually happened. I’d awaken any minute.
The front of the Cherokee was a mess of bent metal and broken glass. Crumbled at the foot of the bumper, the deer was a furry mass of colors in the headlights. The snow dyed green with leaking coolant met with deer blood and turned an awful dark khaki brown.
The deer let out a sickening, throaty yelp. It tried to stand on broken legs and collapsed, bones piercing brown fur. A buck: barely antlered. All that blood from a toddler.
I looked around frantically. “What am I supposed to do?”
Dad said, You’ll have to put it down, Eliot.
It was never the kind of thing Dad would ask of me, still a kid. But it needed to be done. I remembered back when I was a kid, we had a mouse in the walls. I checked the trap in the morning, and I found the mouse alive, back broken. When I told Dad, he said he’d stop the suffering. On the back porch, he crushed the mouse with a brick. Emily watched, but I closed my eyes before he brought down the brick. Afterwards, I locked the door so no one would see me cry.
I’m not sure. Look in the car.
Even though I was pretty sure that the car wouldn’t explode (there wasn’t even smoke), I approached cautiously, steering clear of the deer. I ruffled through the back seat. “Did you have a pocket knife or something?” I asked. In the glove compartment I only found pens and the bottle. “There’s nothing here.”
Check the back, Dad said.
I climbed into the backseat. “I don’t see anything.”
The tire iron. The one I broke the window with.
In the darkness I found the cloth loop to lift up the seat cushions. Underneath I found it. The iron felt heavy and rough.
I took it over to Dad and held it out to him. Blood so dark that it looked black haloed his head. I can’t do it for you.
“I can’t either.” I’d never killed anything before. Just thinking about hurting the deer made me want to cry, but I fought it, hard.
It’s in pain.
The rough metal in my hand felt as dense as a black hole. I took small deliberate steps towards the deer—practically a fawn. Up close, I noticed the gruesome details that the night hid: a heap of sinew, fur, muscle, bone, and blood, pools of blood. Wishing it were true, I said to the deer, “It’s okay. It’s going to be fine.”
It blinked big, dark eyes at me. Every breath looked like agony. It tried to rise again on legs snapped like Popsicle sticks but immediately collapsed. It lay on its side looking at me.
As I raised the iron above my head, I felt weak and dizzy. It was as if I were floating somewhere outside all of this, watching myself from a bird’s eye view.
I said, “You’re going to be all right.”
Using every bit of strength I could find, I brought the tire iron down on the fawn’s head with a dull thud. That head looked so delicate, like you could crush it with a hug, but the bar bounced off with sickening reverberations, like hitting a tree with an aluminum bat. The deer thrashed and yelped like a child. I swung again. Again. And again. Every blow took everything I had each time. Slowly cracking the skull, popping an eye out of its socket with a whoosh. It stopped thrashing but still swayed in spasms, until finally the head caved in with the sound of squashing rotten fruit.
I dropped the iron—wet with blood and yellow with something goopy—on the road beside the fawn.
I sat beside Dad. I brushed a layer of snow from his face.
I filled my mouth with snow. “Holy fuck.” I said the words without thinking.
You did the right thing, Dad said.
I didn’t say anything.
Trust me. Right now, that deer is happy alone in the baby blue nothing.
Sitting in the red snow, a haze of headlights built indistinctly on the horizon, darkness fading to light blue above the tree line—any moment some car or other would find me and carnage. The blood spread.
Brendan Stephens is currently in the Creative Writing and Literature PhD program at the University of Houston. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Southeast Review, Carolina Quarterly and elsewhere. He is a reader and volunteer for Gulf Coast.