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Theo’s ankle is broken. As a company member for the Houston Ballet, she’d committed to no drinking, no dating, no sugar, no less than eight hours of sleep, and no danger in all six years of her dancing career. After being passed over for lead in the summer production, instead of calling friends or her father to console her, she’d gone out drinking with a Hinge date, a finance bro, her first date in three years, and got blackout drunk and fell down a flight of stairs at an upper-class bar in central Houston she couldn’t afford, but her date certainly could. She’d woken up in a hospital. No date, and no career. Her ankle opened, bones re-set, muscles and fascia torn. After infection, surgery, infection, surgery, Theo was released from the hospital.
Her family’s Alabama cabin had been empty for three months when Theo moved in. June, muggy and hot. It was a vast stretch of land that held little more than a pond, tall trees, a field seeded and sown for hunting deer, a boat, and a fishing cabin. One long dirt driveway leading in and out from the gate.
Before Theo, it was her father’s home. Before that, the sight of a crime scene investigation for her mother’s suicide. Before that, the family fishing cabin. Before that, an empty piece of land for sale.
Theo moved in on June 3rd and spent the first month cleaning, painting, installing Wi-Fi, and scrubbing, the second month wallowing, smoking cigarettes and playing online poker, and the third month cleaning, painting, scrubbing. All months were spent ignoring the lock box and the gun inside the lock box that were stored under the only bed: the gun used only once, the gun Theo refused to touch, move, or look at. She lived off the money she’d saved since she was a teenager, slowly whittling down the $15,000 overseen by her watchful eye and Excel spreadsheet budget.
Theo is currently in month four, repairs. This includes replacing the busted kitchen window and the busted front door, retiling the kitchen backsplash, sanding and polishing the hardwood floors, replacing the mattresses, getting traps for the bear tracks she’s found around the house, and buying a reserve of gasoline for the fishing boat. What is supposed to follow: month five – ankle out of boot, physical therapy via Zoom; month six – begin ballet training from home, also via Zoom; month seven – return to Houston, ready for March auditions. The likelihood of her returning to the same caliber of dancer she was before is impossible – her sort of injury assures early retirement and a diminished career, certainly – but she was twenty-six and wasn’t interested in any other life, certainly not one in Alabama. The cabin was meant to be temporary.
It’s a forty-five minute drive back to the cabin from the nearest Walmart, which doubled as a gun store, drug store, and assorted car parts store. As she drives over the bumps and divots in the drive, a buck with one antler jumps in front of the car. Theo slams on the brakes, hits her head on the steering wheel, curses, swerves enough to avoid the deer, swerves again to avoid a tree. She stops the truck in the middle of the dirt road. She palms her forehead, an egg already forming, and stares at the deer. Half of its rack is missing, and it’s staring at her like she made a mistake. It’s odd to see deer in the middle of the day, odd to see one so still after it nearly got obliterated by her F250. Theo honks, and the deer wanders away, unharmed. Her foot, in the boot, throbs from the sudden impact of slamming the brakes.
“Jesus fucking Christ.” She drives the rest of the way to the house, parks, turns off the truck, wiggles her way off the seat and lowers herself slowly onto her left leg, avoiding her booted foot.
She unloads the groceries from the bed of the truck, stacking the plastic bags on the dilapidated but pristine countertops. She makes some ramen, low-sodium chicken flavored, and sits on the porch, watching, until sundown. The half-eaten bowl develops a congealed film. There are no animal sounds, no bird calls, and Theo notices.
Theo’s ankle has been broken for three months when she lays the bear trap. It’s difficult enough to do, let alone with right leg in a boot, and the man who sold the trap to her had asked if she’d need help. More accurately, he’d asked Theo if she wanted him to come home with her to grab a drink, and that setting up the trap would “cost extra.” When she’d ignored his comment, he’d licked his teeth and said, “Really, though, it’s hard to set up.”
Theo wedges the bear trap open and places it next to the most vulnerable part of the house – the kitchen. Anytime she cooks, the smell of oil, fresh fish, and spice vacuums out the window with the massive pane of glass missing, something that let out more heat and smell than it let in fresh air. It had been fine enough in the summer – she’d put some mesh over the hole. But during the fall in Alabama, there was equal chance of freezing to death overnight or waking up in a swarm of mosquitoes and sweat.
She’s unable to set one side of the trap, which she assumes will either make it so ineffective as to not trap the bear, or too effective as to amputate it. Theo isn’t interested in killing or maiming the animal, just injuring it enough that it – assuming it’s smart – won’t think to come near her home anymore. Her father’s home, really.
If the house were more sturdy, she might feel less inclined to set up defensive weaponry. But if she was inside the house and the bear decided what was inside was more interesting, the front door would easily snap off its hinges, the windows would pop out of their frames or shatter, more than they already had, and more than one of the walls, both inside and out, were pocked with holes and wiggled in the wind, guaranteeing collapse with the hard body of an eager bear.
Theo never understood why her father moved into the fishing cabin, the place his wife died. Maybe as a way to punish himself. But self-flagellation was more of her mother’s speed, a devout Catholic to Theo’s dad’s lackadaisical Judaism. Theo wondered often, Why not keep the house in Houston that was full of seemingly positive memories? The only answer, logically, was punishment, something Theo was coming to understand. Her father, steeped in the poor choice in wife, a punishment. Theo, steeped in the poor choice of profession, of coping mechanism, of literal step. Theo was beginning to understand that. Her mother’s suicide didn’t take away the memories of the abuse – not for Theo or her father. Or maybe he foresaw his alcoholism returning and knew he’d piss away all his money, and his career, on Jim Beam. Knew that a house couldn’t allow him to maintain that lifestyle, but the fishing cabin in Alabama certainly could.
The house had never been equipped for someone to be living there for more than eight to ten hours a day, one day out of the week, one week out of the summer. Not to mention there was shoddy cell service, in-and-out Wi-Fi, and her father had stopped paying for the landline years ago. If you wanted to contact him, you had to come visit him. It was brilliant – Theo, his only daughter, felt just the right amount of guilt to leave him be for the most part, but visit enough to make him feel cared for. That is how Theo explains why her friends and family haven’t reached out. Why no one has come to see her. Why no one asks, Why not be anywhere else, do anything else? Why no one seems to care. It is the house – its status as a shithole. Not how easy Theo wears isolation, like a second skin.
Before the cabin, Theo wasn’t interested in relationships, only her career. If friendship formed, conveniently, that was fine, but without a purpose served – someone to split cost of living expenses with, for example – she didn’t find need to fill empty space with people. A meal alone: convenient and quiet. A movie alone: personalized and no need to pretend to eat theatre snacks for relatability. Holidays alone: empty streets, long walks, no need to decorate. Her friendships were with ballerinas in the company who gravitated towards similar types of isolation, or to women who tolerated Theo’s disinterest in continuing a relationship out of the performance or rehearsal space. Her father held a similar apathy about relationships, his wife’s suicide didn’t change that, only proved the theory that people weren’t interested in his company. Theo’s mother was the only social creature in their family, and in Theo’s mind, that need for people – for company, compassion, touch, reassurance – was what drove her mother mad. That her mother couldn’t be alone without the need to kill herself proved that relying on others was as silly and dangerous as a loaded gun.
The next morning – half asleep – Theo walks outside, down the steps, and catches her boot on a pile of twigs. Her unbroken foot skitters, and she hops a few steps, barely keeping herself upright. It’s a nest of twigs, a pyramid, sticking up and into the air like it’s ready to be set on fire. Theo looks around, visibly confused, and back down at the pile. No, not a pyramid. The twigs are set up in the shape of a bear trap, raised and jagged on the edges, empty and nested in the center. If she hadn’t had a cast, the twigs would have certainly impaled the bottoms or sides of her feet.
She looks up and around, seeing nothing. Then, across the pond, movement. A deer, the same deer, one antler, limps along the side of the pond, watching her. Theo squints and clicks her tongue, unsure. There’s blood above the deer’s front hoof.
She goes around the side of the house and looks at the trap. The operating side has been sprung, blood and coarse brown hair in its teeth.
Theo goes back to the front of the house, looks across the pond. The deer’s back is turned, walking away, and Theo grimaces, yells out, “Sorry,” sighs, and continues with the morning’s tasks.
As afternoon falls, Theo goes out to fish on the pond during what she figures will be the last bearable day of the year. It’s sunny and crisp, but not windy. She forgoes the engine and rows to the center of the pond.
She unlatches her tackle box and screams. She drops the box, hard, onto the bottom of the boat, scrambles to the back of the boat. It dips too far into the water, but she leans forward enough to prevent it tipping back and sending her overboard. The contents of the tack box – fishing line, worms, hooks – have scattered across the bottom of the boat. And blood, thick blood – full of hair, matted and clotted – spills out of the box.
Theo kicks the box to the end of the boat, and, heaving, scoops water with her hands from the pond into the boat. This does nothing but cause the watered mess of blood, over minutes of scooping and crying, to rise to her ankles. She kicks on the engine and steers the boat to the dock, bouncing hard against the wood. Theo scrambles out of the boat, ties it to the dock.
She moans and stops. Blood leads from the dock up to the house. She stares at the skids of red, for minutes, unmoving.
Theo looks around the pond. Nothing. To where the injured deer earlier stood. Nothing.
She takes her boot and drags the heel across the marks, but the blood is dried and doesn’t smear. Her eyebrows furrow, and she pushes with her foot harder, but the marks don’t move.
Theo’s mother had seen things, before the end. It’s what she blamed the abuse on. I hit you because I wasn’t in my right mind. Or, Who else would’ve moved the pile of clothes from the couch to the floor? Or, It wasn’t me, it was the illness. Similar iterations. The abuse: Only when Theo’s father was out of town, only when Theo and her mother were at the cabin.
It’s well past midnight. She filed a police report, but the police seemed unsure how to file “tackle box full of blood.” Stalking? Theft? Of what? Theo pulls back up to the house and hops out of her truck. She turns on her phone flashlight and looks around, slowly, and down at the deck, out towards the dock, but the previously bright red marks are gone.
Theo re-enters her home to the entire floor covered with acorns. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” She shuffles into the house and kicks the acorns about like a child in the snow. “Who the fuck is doing this?” She’s more interested in the why. The lack of logicality. Her mother would play similar games. Leave piles of “presents” like a stray cat trying to make Theo its owner. Acorns, twigs, rocks, leaves. An apology. Is that what this was?
She looks behind her, out the open door, at the broken window. The police have sent a squad car to her gate and said they’d keep them there for three nights. The police asked her if she had any enemies. She’d joked about the deer she injured with a bear trap. They suggested a Ring camera.
Theo squints out the window and shuffles through the doorway and into the kitchen, looking outside. She shines her phone flashlight outside. There are six squirrels sitting on the emptying branches, all facing her, all chewing, nuts in their hands.
The front door slams shut, the acorns rattle across the room at the disturbance in the fragile wooden house, and Theo jumps. “Who the fuck is doing this?”
She calls the cop at the top of the drive, and he says he hasn’t seen anything.
It takes her an hour to sweep the acorns out of the house, another two to pull them out of the nooks and crannies. She leaves the door open, and it slams open and closed with the wind. To herself, over and over, “Nothing but the wind.” Theo looks under the bed at the lock box but doesn’t touch it.
She could leave, but what options? Her father, no. Theo had never even visited him in the home. No extended family that mattered. Friendships, sure, of convenience. Theo considers alternatives to staying for the extent of time it takes to wash up her lunch dishes. Then, a firmed-up resolve to interact. She considers it less about continuing her suffering. Rather, an opportunity to “get it.” Both to be her mother, to be on the precipice of what felt like psychosis, and to be a child again, at the whim. It wasn’t lost on Theo, how similar she was to her mother. The eating disorder, the perfectionism, the flimsy grip to outside world. There’s understanding Theo has, at least, that life has presented her with the opportunity for a lesson, and it would be foolish to step away.
That night, Theo opens her laptop and orders cameras to the property. They used to have hunting cameras, and her dad swore that they were still fully operational before she put him in the retirement home, but how could he have known accurately? The stroke crippled his body, but couldn’t it have crippled his previously crystal-clear memory, as well? Couldn’t days have been years? That’s what Theo tells herself when she finds the smashed trail cameras the next morning. Not dead batteries. Destroyed. Little metal pieces, smashed SIM chips, and battery acid smeared across the dying grass.
Theo doesn’t sleep until the cameras arrive. Two nights. She does move the lock box with the gun out from under the bed, using it now for a coffee table.
When the Amazon delivery truck drives up the long, winding path that ends in the fishing cabin, the driver gets out of the truck and looks around like he’s lost. Theo comes storming out of the house and grabs the box from him, asks if the cop let him down here. He says, “What cop?” Theo doesn’t offer thanks, and he rolls his eyes, whispers, “God damn,” and purposefully drives through the lawn on his way out.
Theo sets up the six cameras around the house while it’s still daylight. The feed is live, and when it starts to get dark, she pulls the curtains, locks the doors, flips open her laptop, and lights a candle by her bed. The laptop light is bright, but what is being filmed is nothing but pitch black.
Her eyes stay glued to the screen until 5:30am. When she gets up to pee, or drink water, or tape over the broken window panes, or have a quinoa-based cracker and light cream cheese smear, or pace around the cabin, the computer is pressed into her side, eyes still bouncing around the various screens. But at 5:30am, she sits in bed, propped at just the right position, and her eyes slip close, and the sun starts to rise, and she figures anything awful would’ve occurred by now.
Theo wakes two hours later to her house on fire. Or rather, the porch on fire.
There are no fire alarms installed, but the smell of smoke is enough. She jolts out of bed, the computer falls, and she runs to the closed and locked front door, following the smoke billowing between the cracks. She reaches for the doorknob, thinks better, grabs the fire extinguisher out from behind the kitchen sink plumbing, and yanks the door open with an oven mitt.
It’s only the stairs, and there’s no smell of gasoline, only leaves, twigs, and kindling leading from the yard up to the door in various stages of flame. She unlocks the trigger and sprays white foam across the stairs, cursing and screaming at the fire. As the fire and the canister start to peter out, she looks out towards the pond. On the other side of the water are six deer, all standing straight on, watching. One deer stands in front. Its hair is matted, its head twitchy and distressed, and it lifts the injured leg, the one Theo caught in the bear trap.
She yells, “What the fuck do you want from me?” A question her mother asked Theo in these bouts of need. I need food, What the fuck do you want from me. Can you stay with me before I sleep, What the fuck do you want from me. Why can’t you.
One by one, as if obeying choreography, they turn and walk into the woods.
Theo yells, “Hey! Hey!” but they don’t listen.
The burned, completely ruined stairs start to steam as a light morning rain takes over the sky.
When Theo watches the 5:30am-7:45am footage, the time she was asleep, there is nothing but animal bodies – squirrels, birds, racoons, rabbits – standing in front of the cameras. Only the occasional ruffle of feathers or fur or skin give away what breed of pest.
This happens for the next three nights – animals obscuring the camera while she sleeps, or rather, tries to sleep – but no other apparent torments occur. The cops don’t come back to her gate.
Theo begins to speak to herself, asking, “Is this what she saw? Is this what she… Was she right?” Theo never defended herself against her mother’s abuses, but instead, in her mind, she called her mother the worst of names, did the worst of actions: slammed her mother’s hand in the car door, shoved her head into a wall, pushed her through a window, called her a bitch, a cunt, a fucked-up person.
With the stairs ruined and her ankle still mangled, she retrieves her crutches from the back of the truck and begins to use the crutches like an elevator to help her up and down from the deck, watching where she places the metal bases each time they touch grass. But she only leaves the house once in the following week, to check her truck, make sure it’s untouched and still operational. The tires aren’t slashed, the truck starts fine, but there’s honey smeared over the entire inside, coating everything. She sighs, presses the heels of her hands to her eyes, and goes back inside, locks the doors, and orders groceries from Amazon.
But she’s unsure why she even bothers. Amazon stopped delivering to her house. So, she subsists of water, canned food, and crackers, and considers it an efficient way to diet.
If she’d had a camera at the gate, she would see that the gate has been closed, blood has been smeared across the metal poles, and a similar collection of sharpened sticks line up like a spike strip. The box of groceries she ordered on Sunday has been turned over and looted, and the CD player she ordered was stolen by her neighbors after it sat outside the gate for a week.
Theo dismantles the booby-trapped gate – it wasn’t doing her any favors anyways – and calls a priest, a witch, and a hunter to the house. She’s not religious, she’s not a pagan, and she’s an anti-gun vegetarian. They give her varying advice.
The priest doesn’t sense demonic presence, and he suggests she say ten Hail Marys and reconnect to her Catholic roots. He leaves her a bible and some wafers and she asks him to check again, check the house and the pond, is there nothing wrong? And he looks at her with concern, takes another scan of her unkempt hair and unclean clothes. It’s obvious in his eyes that the concern about possession might just be the mental break of a deranged woman who spends too much time alone. He gives her the address of his church and tells her to come by mass on Sunday, 10:30am, and to stick around for the women’s bible study.
The hunter, a family friend, takes one look at the steps and one look at Theo trembling in the doorway and tells her, no, he won’t teach her how to shoot the gun in her lock box, but yes, he’ll teach her gun safety and how to not accidentally kill herself, and no, he hasn’t heard of a deer enacting revenge, and no, he doesn’t think animals are smart enough to torture a woman off her property.
Theo invites him inside but doesn’t offer him any of her limited food. She brings him to the bedroom and points to the box. He adjusts his Ace Hardware baseball cap, rubs his black beard, and suggests animal traps, cameras, and a sharpened knife, but even that last piece of advice he gives warily.
He says, “You’re sure someone hasn’t got it out for you?” And she says, “No, I’m certain.” He replies, “You should tell your pops about this.” And she says, “Sure.”
Theo unlocks the box, and he picks up the revolver. The smell of metal and dust. “There’s no safety on this thing, so… Just keep the bullets out of it, okay?” He shows her how to load and unload, pauses for a moment, and then shows her how to hold, aim, cock. “You should hold it and try,” he says.
Theo looks at the gun, her eyes glaze over, and she says, “No, no, this was a mistake, I’m sorry.”
He neatly places the bullets back in their box and the gun in its holster, and leaves. She closes, but doesn’t lock the box.
The witch is the most helpful. Jill is wearing purple linens that swallow what is likely a narrow form. Small animal teeth dangle from her ears, and she smells like almond oil and grass. She sniffs the air and peels bark off the trees and looks at the places where the bloody hoof marks used to be. She asks, “It was bear tracks first?” Yes. “And then the deer?” Yes. “Hm.” She asks to see the tackle box and hums when she sees the blood stains at the bottom of the boat. She refuses to come inside the house and says, “Oh, I can get all I need from out here, don’t worry.”
Theo tells her about the bear trap, the injured deer with one antler, the fire.
Jill asks, “Any deaths on the property you know about?”
“My mother. She killed herself. When I was seventeen. She was ill.”
“How?” Jill folds her arms across her chest and leans in. “Ill how?”
“A gun. Shot herself on the porch.”
“Was she depressed?”
“My parents always just said ill, I dunno. They didn’t like doctors, psychologists. My mother was really conservative, I dunno.”
Theo looks around, looks to Jill’s empty arms. “Don’t you need to cleanse the house? With sage?”
The witch laughs and tilts her head, looking at Theo with pity. “This isn’t a ghost or demon, honey. This is personal. This is revenge. Maybe your mother, some unfinished business. Or…” She snaps her fingers, gets excited. “This is the land, the nature, the animals, at least. They’re unhappy, maybe you did something to encite them, and it seems you fell right into a trap.”
Theo licks across her teeth and drops her head back, leaning hard against the doorframe.
“I put out a bear trap, and a deer stepped in it, got injured… And a deer ‘laid a trap’ for me, as revenge for injuring it? You’re kidding.”
“You said it, not me.”
“Hm…” Again, Jill leans to and fro, pursing her lips like she can taste the answer on her tongue. Her hairy brown eyebrows lift. “Sometimes… Sometimes angry and vengeful demons, spirits, ghosts, whatever you want to call it… Banshees, golems, lycanthrope, dybbuk… They infiltrate lesser beings, animals and the like. It’s not unheard of, wives’ tales of mystical creatures. The Natives know all about it, learn to revere and pay homage and the like.”
Theo asks, “Are you Native?”
“No.” The woman looks offended.
“I don’t know any Natives,” Theo says.
“Neither do I.”
“Great.” Theo stares at the witch, who shrugs and throws up her arms. “Do you not have any advice, then? ’Cause it sounds like you’re telling me my dead mom is haunting me through the vehicle of a maimed deer.”
The witch laughs and says, “Move away.”
“Give up? Just… Not try and understand why this is happening? I don’t… Even if… I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“Uh, yeah. I hear you, really, but yeah, move away.”
The witch waves a goodbye, reminds Theo of her Venmo handle, and climbs into her shiny silver electric truck, and bumps along the dirt road and out of sight, blasting Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams.
A few days pass without incident. Theo searches various platforms – Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, TikTok, Instagram – with varying success. She looks up the key words: possession, deer, hunted by demon, haunted by demon, haunted by mother, murderer, signs of serial killers, can you control animals, stories of animals controlled by humans, animals enacting revenge, mystical animals, abuse, symptoms of abuse, symptoms of psychosis, pain, cycles of pain, how to escape cycles of pain–
“I don’t get why you don’t just move.”
After two weeks of no incidents, Theo manages to leave her home and walk to the part of the property, the highest point, to make some phone calls. She first tried to call her father and friends through the computer, through Wi-Fi, but each time, it disconnects. The lock box is still unlocked, but now back under the bed.
She calls her father first, who insists that nothing like this has happened before, that no one knows about the house, that it couldn’t possibly be someone looking to torment her, or him for that matter. “You know how our family is, T.” Polite, perfect, polished. Without enemies. Without strife. “You know, dear, if you don’t feel safe, you can always keep the gun by your bed at night.”
Theo clears her throat and says, “Dad.”
“Yeah?” He coughs a bit, and there’s a shifting of body against furniture.
“Why do you think Mom killed herself?”
“We need to talk about it.”
“We really don’t.”
“We do, Dad. She was always so thin, always counting her calories, always tracking and obsessing, talking about how she never looked like this before she was pregnant, and whenever we came to the cabin, it would always get worse, and I have this memory of her saying to you, right before we left for the cabin…”
Her father is silent, like he’s waiting for her to confirm what he knows, what he wants Theo to forget.
“Mom said, ‘Theo stole my body from me. I hate her for that. I hate her.’ Her illness, what was it? Was–”
“Theo…” Her dad sighs. “Sometimes people just aren’t well, and there’s no explanation, no correct diagnosis.”
But that, too, feels incomplete.
Theo calls her best friend from Houston the next day. Tiffany also doesn’t understand why Theo would stay, which helps Theo realize that she doesn’t know, either. The only thing motivating her to stay is the possibility that she’ll figure it out, understand the abuse, be able to do something… Did it require atonement? The idea of injuring, maiming, seeking equal revenge on the deer isn’t the driving factor of sticking around. Now, it’s to understand.
“When did all this stuff start to go down?” Tiffany asks. There’s music playing in the background of the phone call, voices, and Theo knows Tiffany likely just got out of practice and is busy unwrapping her pointe shoes, massaging her feet. Tiff and Theo were always the last ones in the studio – they both had their own set of keys in the end, mainly because the Artistic Director got tired of waiting for them to leave.
“Right after I caught that deer in the trap,” Theo says. “Injured it, not caught it.”
“Sure. You said it was barely injured?”
“Yeah, but… I dunno, that’s the only thing that happened that could… Everything was fine before that.”
“Tit for tat.”
“Equal suffering,” Tiffany says. “’Cause listen, Theo, I gotta go, but I think you’ve gone fucking crazy being in the country that long. That much quiet and nature after living in the city your whole life is turning you psychotic. But if you’re asking me to go along with your delusion, if I was trying to get revenge on someone, I’d want to see them suffer as much as I had. So, maybe this deer just wants you to suffer. I sound fucking crazy. Jesus.”
Theo hangs up the phone and returns to the house.
She locks the doors and sits on the kitchen floor, cradling a knife to her chest. “I’ll do it,” she says, and then, “Tit for tat.”
Theo stares at her boot, tilts her head.
She unwraps the boot, recoils at the smell of her leg, and takes a few minutes to prod the withered skin and wasted muscle and brittle bone. She washes the ankle in the kitchen sink – she hasn’t showered in weeks, hot water is out – and pats the leg and foot dry with a dish towel.
She gets on her computer and orders one bear trap to the house. When it doesn’t arrive, she orders five more. When those don’t arrive, she calls Amazon and asks why her packages aren’t being delivered. They tell her to look at her account – that there are pictures describing the interrupted service. She looks at the images: six Amazon boxes sitting at the top of her gate, ripped open, bear traps littered in front of the still bloodied and heavily twig-ladden barricade.
Theo puts on both tennis shoes for the first time since spring and walks the mile to the gate. Her ankle is sore and swollen by the time she makes it, but she clears away the twigs, re-opens the gate, and takes the bear traps in a wheelbarrow back to the house. She leaves five of the traps in the wheelbarrow by the side of the house. She collects the cameras and turns each of them off, also leaving them in the wheelbarrow.
After climbing onto the porch, she sets up one of the bear traps next to her and waits.
When the sun starts to set, she feels the shift in presence. The woods get quiet, the rustling in the leaves stop. At this point, she enters her house, washes her face and hands with a dust-covered bar of soap, drinks a murky glass of water, and lights three candles that she brings outside and sets up around the bear trap. She goes back inside, grabs a sharp knife, and sits back on the porch, front door closed.
The leaves again begin rustling, but this time with the movement of animals.
It’s the feeling of a group, a mob, gathering out of sight.
Theo stands, holds onto the porch railing, and hovers her foot above the bear trap. A flicker from the candles, the smell of old, generic soap. She whispers, “Tit for tat.”
She turns her head, and out of the corner of her eye, watches as the one-antlered deer limps to the front of the tree line.
“This is what you want?” Theo yells. “This is it, isn’t it?” She waves the knife at the deer, a light grip around the blade.
The deer blinks and licks the air with its tongue, once. Sweat drips into Theo’s eyes; the flame makes her blink. Her grip on the knife gets stronger. It’s defense; it’s self-mutilation. A release from the pain by an induced cut, a fissure. That was closure. Because there were never enough answers to Why.
“I’ll fucking do it. I will!” Theo’s voice trembles, and her limp, pale, pruned ankle trembles over the metal.
The deer waits, and without looking, without–
Theo screams, grips the knife by the blade, and steps into the trap.
When Theo wakes up, she’s shivering. Her nose is coated in cold sweat. The porch is as she left it. She blacked out and fainted when the trap shut around her calve, and the more she awakens, the more she understands the pain.
It’s still dusk, the animals have vanished, and the bear trap that should’ve been around latched to her is gone. Her ankle is bloodied, massive and twisted, but she laughs, laughs, screams, rolls onto her back and screams more, feverish and sweating, pale and hysterical.
“Is that all it took to get you to leave me alone? Eye for a fucking eye?”
She laughs until she sobs, she sobs until she’s silent, and despite the pain, the flood of relief and the massive weight of no sleep for weeks on end slide her into a dull, lifeless stupor.
Theo wakes again in the middle of the night, the pain in her ankle a horrible tether, the weight of it heavy against the chipped wood. She blinks her eyes open and sees the porch ceiling, the lights blinding for a moment. She smiles, relieved, grateful for the return of sanity, normalcy, the familiarity of pain righting wrongs, until she looks closer. Her contact lenses decalcify and refocus. A dozen birds watch from the ceiling, blinking their small, beaded eyes. When Theo fully wakes and reaches a hand to cover her face from the light, to cry, the birds take off in a swarm towards the pond. Theo turns her head and looks, and as tears mingle with the sweat from the pain, she screams.
Along the walkway to her boat, to her pond, thirty-two bear traps. And between those traps, thirty-two deer, sitting, watching, waiting for her to stir. By the boat, standing, the one-antlered dear. Its hair, matted, grey, patched and clumped.
She closes her eyes, more tears fall, and her lips wobble, holding in a sob.
“But I’ve done it,” she says, quiet. “I’ve done everything I can. I’ve ruined… I don’t understand.”
The deer stand, one by one, until they form a chess board of deer to trap, black to white, flesh to metal. Deer with antlers, does; others are smaller, pawns, babies, fawns.
“I don’t want to play.” Theo cries. “Please, don’t make me play any longer.”
The deer wait, but Theo doesn’t move. When she turns her head away and closes her eyes, she hears the snap of traps, but no sounds of pain. With each snap, she winces, she suppresses a cry.
She turns to her left side, away from the deer, towards the house, and begins to pull herself towards the front door, the broken ankle dragging behind her. The front door is open now, and Theo bites her lip and holds in any further sound as she crosses the threshold, dragging herself to the place she’d forgotten, and then chosen to avoid, since the phone call with her father. She pulls herself with her nails, then her palms, then her elbows, to the box under her bed. There are marks in the dust where she slid the box only a few days earlier. She unlocks the box with a numbered code and looks down at the revolver.
Theo loads the gun with six painstaking bullets and sets the loaded gun next to her on the floor. She hasn’t shot a gun.
She lays on her back, sweating her shirt damp. She hasn’t eaten a proper meal in weeks and can’t remember the last water she had.
She holds the gun to her chest and then cradles the barrel next to her cheek like a stuffed animal. She pets the trigger but shakes her head.
Theo uses the muzzle of the gun to help her stand, and wobbles to one foot. Her broken ankle dangles. She pants through the pain, her chest heaving. Her crutches are missing from beside her bed.
She lumbers to the front of the house, leans against the doorframe, and aims the gun out into the horde of deer. Each of the traps have been triggered, but the deer haven’t moved from their designations, as if stuck, as if waiting for her response, for her move. The one-antlered deer stands in the same place, unmoved.
And what would happen, if she continued to play the game? It was obvious, now, that satisfaction, justice, was not of interest. She was now their entertainment, their collective toy, and they weren’t interested in letting such an easy mark go. Had it been that dull before? Had it been another who fell prey to this? As that was what she’d let herself be, wasn’t it. An easy target.
“Get…” Theo whispers. “Get away.”
The deer start to step over the traps, walking towards her with slow, tentative steps.
“No.” She shakes her head and blinks, trying to clear her vision. “Go.” She cocks the hammer and aims, in general, towards the herd. Then she takes the gun to her chin, hovers.
Two tears, eyes open. She gasps, exhale.
And points, again, at the deer.
Her entire body trembles, the finger on the trigger the only stillness, and she tries to breathe like her father taught her all those years ago, how panic subsides when you breathe deep and free, but she can only see her teenaged, pleading face, an angry mother, a bloodied gun, a morgue with a stranger, her father floating on the boat, an apology, words and hatred that sat between her brow, always, a promise to do better, a possibility that it could stop if only Theo did better, that it could all stop so easily if someone else just decided to be good to her, to be kind, finally, to be healed–
They continue, one step, one step, as a group.
“Please,” she says, sweat dripping into her eyes. She’s starting to feel dizzy, the vision around the edges of her eyes slips in like butter.
“I will shoot.” She closes her eyes and peels them back open, firms the gun in her hand, then both hands.
Theo stares, she decides. There’s nothing between her, inside her now. Because it can’t get worse than this. If this is hell, this rock bottom… She understands now.
She steps firmly onto her broken ankle and takes a proper stance. The gun points, an extension of her hand, her finger.
“You know I will shoot.”
The deer stop as one, watch her and the gun.
“I will shoot.”
The deer – the one with no visible scar on its ankle, no blood, with eyes clear, with fur damp and cut from self-mutilation, one antler – watches as the trembling gun stops shaking, watches as Theo pushes herself off the doorframe and shuffles, awkwardly and with great pains, towards the edge of the patio.
“I will kill you and feel no different.”
The deer backs up, slowly. The herd scatters, light on their feet.
Theo fires, the shot misdirected, and the gas tank of the boat explodes.
The first deer runs, leaps into the woods, no sign of injury.
Left behind: its only antler.
Theo’s neighbors have gotten used to her screaming, but the gunshots and explosions are new. They’re the last people to do so, and they would never admit it to family, but they call the cops.
When four cop cars, an ambulance, and a fire truck arrive to the gate, there’s nothing encumbering them. No sticks, no packages, no lock, no blood, no obstruction.
They drive up to the fishing cabin, which is now on fire. From the boat to the dock to the gravel path up to the house, a string of flame.
Theo stands, gun loose in her hand, a half-dozen casings laid around her like an offering, watching the house crumble.
Emily Unwin (she/her) is a queer writer who splits her time between the American Southeast and the United Kingdom. In 2023, Emily was endorsed by Arts Council England to live and work in the UK under the Global Talent Visa, with Exceptional Promise in Literature. She’s the co-founder of Finley Light Factory and tacky! Magazine, recipient of the AAAC grant. Emily has published or is forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, Polyester Zine, Salty Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, and Rogue Agent, among others. She's been a finalist for the Gigantic Sequins flash fiction prize, the Get Artistic grant, and the Perennial Press Chapbook Award. She is represented by Joanna Volpe and Jordan Hill at New Leaf Literary.