Kris was yelling. “You don’t understand. I saw a buck in my apartment complex. IN MY APARTMENT COMPLEX.”

“Dude. Chill.” Brayden’s voice was flippant, contemptuous. “Deer get in those places all the time.”

“Not like this. It was watching me. It was following me. It’s that deer I hit, I just know it. That little mark on her head that looked like a crown…”

“You’re freaking me out,” said Brayden. “Stop it.”

“What’s that?” cried Kris. “WHAT’S THAT?”

It was the unmistakable echo of cloven hooves at the door.

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People are always making the mistake of either underestimating or over anthropomorphizing animals. The truth is that they understand much about us, much more than we would suspect, but do so in a profoundly different way.

The animals of Huntgren Wood had long known that man was a dangerous predator, one that used a strange and sometimes invisible throwing claw to kill from a great distance. But generations ago they had also noticed that some humans would stalk and go through the motions of hunting but not take a kill. They would raise a strange appendage to their face–like but unlike the one they used to throw claws–and yet nothing would burst forth, only a quiet click audible only to those extremely close.

Prey animals thought this another inscrutable behavior of a predator, much like the way bears would sometimes climb and claw at beehives despite their lack of any real meat. The predators, in turn, felt it was play-hunting of the sort they had engaged in as youngsters fresh from the den–the humans were no doubt practicing stalking a kill before actually taking it, largely because that’s what the predators themselves would have done.

It fell to the birds who lived on the edge of the wood and fed on the strange and miraculous self-replenishing trees near human caves to uncover the true secret. Their love songs incorporated what they had seen and heard, and the birds of Huntgren sang of humans stalking with the strange square hoofs and then retreating to their caves, only to produce strange miniature forests and animals with which they decorated their caves. A curious coyote confirmed the tale with a terrified squirrel, while a bobcat received a detailed and matching account from a housecat it was half-courting, half-stalking.

Each clade of the forest dwellers reacted to the news differently. The predators felt that the humans were stealing their essence, drawing some kind of nourishment from it, and vowed never to be thus captured. The prey, especially the deer, felt that the process was akin to being gathered into the next life, where their traditions held that they were forever safe from predation. They felt there was no harm in the process–perhaps even some good–though they continued to be skittish as it was often difficult to tell a human’s intent from a safe distance. For their part, the birds and squirrels made a game of it, delighting in moving out of the way before the human could bring its capture-box to bear.

And that’s all it was–yet another inscrutable activity by an inscrutable race–until the oldest and grandest stag in the forest began to feel the twin horns of disease and old age and decided that a human capture-box and eternal life on a cave wall would be the only fitting end to his reign.

Inspired by this image.

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The accident victim was by the side of the road, dazed, when the office found him.

“Are you the one who was calling?”

“Yes. Yes, officer, yes.” The victim was clearly disoriented, possibly in shock.

“Calm down, calm down. Are you all right?”

“I…I think so,” said the victim, his breath misting the late fall air.

Close inspection showed a possible broken leg and a bit of foamy blood near the mouth. “No, you took a good hit, son,” said the officer. “Stay calm while we wait for help to get here. Did you get a look at what did it?”

“No, not really,” the victim said. “It came out of nowhere, so fast, there wasn’t time to do anything…”

The officer looked down the road. The signs were all there, telltale marks of a deer-car collision. “Did you see where it ended up?”

Wincing, the victim seemed to think deeply. “I think…I think it ran away.”

From down the road the officer could hear his compatriots arriving. He left the delirious victim for a moment to speak to them.

“Is it another…?” one began.

“Yes,” the officer said. “Another collision. Car came out of nowhere and hit the poor boy.”

“Well, we’ll see what we can do for him,” the officers of the Deer Police EMS Unit said. “But if the car comes back for us, we’ll have to scatter into the woods or freeze so it can’t see us.”

The responding officer nodded wearily, his horns dipping with his head. “Rules of the game,” he sighed. “Rules of the game.

This post is part of the January 2012 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s challenge is a “winter nightmare.”

Making good time despite a late start from my brother’s, I was thinking about what I was going to post for New Year’s on Facebook and LiveJournal. I was thinking how much I’d miss my brother and his crazy kids after spending a week with them. I was even thinking about my priorities at work this coming week.

The one thing I wasn’t even remotely considering was a massive doe jumping directly in front of me.

All I can remember is a flash of brown in the headlights, a terrific crunch, and being showered with shredded glass as the driver’s side window shattered. I must have had the presence of mind to immediately pull over onto the shoulder and park the car, since that’s where I found myself.

I sat there, staring at the broken glass and what I could see of the mangled fender, listening to hooves on asphalt somewhere behind me. I actually had to take a deep breath, look at myself in the rearview mirror, and say–as calmly as I could muster–“That just happened.”

All those previous concerns were wiped away, replaced with just two notions: “I’m lucky to be alive” and “What am I going to do now?”

The 911 dispatcher might have been surprised at how calm I sounded, but I think that was just shock talking. While waiting for the police, I found myself focused on the glass. It was everywhere, in bite-sized yet razor-sharp chunks: on my seat, in my clothes, in my shoes, in half-a-dozen tiny cuts on my hands and back. Methodically, I picked the stray pieces up with my gloves and threw them out the window.

Guess I really needed something to focus on, something that I could control in a situation that was otherwise pure chaos.

The night guy at the Knights Inn was bemused but sympathetic when he saw a mangled Honda dragging bits of bumper pull in escorted by a county sheriff’s car. I had to keep telling myself that I could handle this, that I was an adult, that this was just another kind of reference question and as a librarian I had to do was find an answer.

I returned to the Honda and managed to cut away most of the really mangled portions of the bumper and wheel well, which was easier than it sounds due to the car being mostly plastic. Duct tape and a garbage bag served to keep out the wind and the dew until the next morning.

Not knowing how the day would turn out, I went to the motel office for their “continental breakfast”: a loaf of bread and a toaster, a rack of Little Debbie cinnamon buns, two boxes of cereal, and one pitcher each of milk and orange juice in a minifridge–all tucked away in a dark corner of the motel lobby. I took two of everything, and sat in a rickety chair pulled up to a cheap pressboard table, watching the sun rise out the window and friends post jubilant New Year’s photos on Facebook.

It’s been a long time since I felt that pathetic, or that alone.

Lord knows what those people must have thought, seeing me hacking away at a clear plastic storage tub lid with a hacksaw and shears in the Wal-Mart parking lot the next morning at 9am. It took me an hour to get the plastic cut to size and taped in place. It seemed to hold well enough, and the car seemed to run all right.

Then the window came off entirely a few miles down the road.

I was able to grab it in time to hold it on and pull over to the shoulder, but three-quarters of the tape had come off, and freeway traffic was whizzing by at 70-80mph, to say nothing of the chill wind and light rain. Made sitting in the motel lobby seem like paradise, to be honest. Desperately, I reattached the window with latticed strips of duct tape, one over another, and damn if that roadside patch job on I-70 didn’t see me through to Memphis.

I skipped lunch, skipped dinner, and drove the entire ten hours with nothing but snacks, cinnamon rolls, and Red Bull. The stereo still worked; perhaps in the spirit of danger and adventure I keyed in the complete Indiana Jones series to see me home.

Almost kissed the pavement at home when I finally limped in.

Fired up my old Escort to serve as a stopgap, went for a few quick essentials at the store…only to find as I pulled out that the Escort’s brake pedal had gone completely slack. Worse, the emergency brake, which hasn’t worked well for some time, completely failed too.

Luckily traffic was light on the way back, and I was able to coast home at low speed. I refilled the reservoir with fresh brake fluid, only to find that there was still no pressure and that the fluid was leaking out of the line. I immediately set out for the tire and brake place across the street–carefully, using park, my hazard blinkers, and what little braking power there was judiciously.

The mechanic said the problem was irreparable. My Escort’s brake line has rusted through, and with the car now eighteen years old and eligible to vote or be drafted in time of national emergency, the spare parts aren’t made anymore. I drove–well, coasted–the Escort home and took stock. Two cars, both with working engines, both crippled by other problems. It’s such a cruel coincidence I would have laughed if I hadn’t been crying.

Happy New Year indeed…

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Alpha Echo
Diana Rajchel
Ralph Pines

Trish’s train of through was broken as movement in the underbrush gave way to a frightened dash across the path. A doe emerged from the lightly wooded ravine, and glanced around. Upon seeing the threatening form of a biped approaching, the doe gingerly stepped back into the forest’s edge.

“How did you manage to get out here?” Trish whispered. The wooded area was a tiny oasis in an urban sprawl, cut off from the nearest state forest by a dozen ribbons of highway.

She waved at it, which seemed silly in retrospect–how is an animal supposed to interpret a gesture like that?–but made perfect sense at the time. The doe bobbed its head; Trish knew better than to interpret the gesture as a response, but couldn’t help herself.

The creature remained there, peering out of the brush, until abruptly melting into the forest once more, without leaving so much as a sign of its passing.