A Blood Mountain Wilderness Story
The mountains are flush with color as we make the drive north. Frost creeps across the glass. I turn on the heat, but the old RV takes time to warm. From the passenger’s seat, Jude huddles in a blanket. Andy sleeps quietly in the back.
“How far north are we headed?”
“Just a half hour past Dahlonega.”
Jude glances out the window. The leaves are brittle and dry from a summer that was full of heat and sun but rare showers. Even the trees are burnt. The clouds hang low, obscuring the mountain peaks around us. The whole area is quiet and still in a way I didn’t expect it to be.
Jude isn’t used to mountains, or to cold. She grew up six hours southwest of here, in a poor Alabama town with less than three hundred residents. The first time she saw mountains was when we flew into San Francisco. She kept looking down at the Sierra Nevadas and back at me like she’d never seen anything so beautiful in her life.
“Do you think it’ll be okay for him?” she asks.
I glance in the rear-view mirror. Andy doesn’t love the RV loveseat, but it’s the only place where he can sleep with a seatbelt on. His preferred perch is the small space above our heads, where he likes to sleep snuggled up against a body pillow.
“It’s so… remote.”
“Remote is good,” I tell her. “It’s people you should be worried about. People are dangerous.”
I can feel her staring at me, but she doesn’t say anything else.
We camp in a spot under some fir trees, which stretch dozens of feet above us. The view is partially obscured, but through the branches, the Blood Mountain Wilderness spreads like blue waves in the afternoon light.
Andy awakens in a foul mood, weeping quietly before Jude gives him something to eat and the attitude slips away. We decide to go for a small hike while Jude sets up. I get him into his coat, which still bears a stain from the last time we went camping. He ties up his boots – a new trick his teachers have been working on with him.
Andy likes to hike in front of me. I prefer this, so I can keep an eye on him. For a seven-year-old, he’s a great hiker. He’s quiet and aware of his surroundings. He stops rarely, usually only to look at a bug or leaf. “Kat,” he tells me. “Look. A Chinese mantis.”
We both stop, stooping on the dirt path, our noses close to the grass and weeds. A large praying mantis rests in a bush, delicate and slim. “The babies are probably somewhere close by,” I say.
Andy sits down in the dirt to watch the mantis. I give him space, wandering around the area to look for any edible plants. I’m at the edge of the path, as far away from Andy as I dare, when a twig breaks nearby. I stop, searching the path. My hand goes automatically to my hunting knife.
The sound comes again from further in the woods. I peer into the thick pocket of trees. At first, there’s no movement. Then, I spot it. A deer. It rests in between some peeling birches about twenty feet away. It’s a strange looking animal. Bigger than normal and with what look like at least two broken legs. The joints bend in the opposite direction. The eyes are too far forward on its face. It shouldn’t be this close. Wild deer are highly sensitive to tourists.
“What is it?”
I jump at Andy’s voice. When I look back into the thicket, the deer is gone.
Jude makes sloppy joes for dinner. We eat outside around a fire I’ve hastily thrown together. The weather is cold but not unbearable. Still, when the sun goes down, we retreat into the RV and turn on the electric fireplace. I check the windows and doors, pulling the curtains and locking everything up. Andy secludes himself in his bunk. Jude and I set up in the queen bed in the back to watch a movie.
Her perfume lingers in the space, smelling of anise and coffee. The heat from the fireplace balloons near the front of the RV, keeping Andy warm, but leaving the bedroom cool. I pull Jude closer to me, her silk pajamas smoothing against my skin.
We’re halfway into the movie when I hear a strange sound outside. It’s not normal, at least not for this area. It’s almost like a coyote cackling, but with a clicking noise that feels unnatural. It comes twice before disappearing.
Jude turns my chin, so we’re face to face. “You’re nervous,” she says.
I exhale, my breath brushing at a strand of her hair. “I’m still unsettled.”
She pulls me closer, running her hand down my spine. Her nails send prickles across my skin. My wounds have healed, but I have scars from the attack. Most of the time, I take sleeping pills to get through the night. The therapist says it will pass with time, but it’s been three months already, and I’m starting to think this sense of terror might be never ending.
Jude pulls me into her, and we kiss. I forget about the strange sounds, the deer, and the attack. It’s just me and her, the warmth of her body and the scent that lingers on her skin. This is always where I’ve felt safest, tucked into her in our own space.
My hands are reaching lower when a thumping sound interrupts us, and then footsteps. Andy. A moment later, he appears in the doorway. “There’s something outside.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
Jude and I rise. She goes to him first, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and pulling him into her. I stuff my feet into my slippers, fighting the small prickle of panic pressing at my neck. “Where did you see it?”
“The kitchen window.”
I leave them there and head into the kitchen. It still smells vaguely of the hamburger meat Jude cooked earlier. Everything is dark. I leave the lights off, pulling back the curtains to peer through the glass into the night. The moon is covered by clouds. I scan along the tree line. I can see where the fire was, but not much else besides the vague outline of the trees and scrubs.
I’m about to tell him there’s nothing there when I spot a pair of glowing eyes near a tree. They stare unblinkingly at the RV. It sends a chill down my body. I flick the lights on inside and the kitchen is illuminated. When I look back at the tree, the eyes are gone.
“It’s just a raccoon or something,” I tell Andy. “It can’t get inside. We’re safe.”
That night, I dream of the boys at the bar. I dream of their fists against my face and the smell of their body odor pressing up against me. I dream everyone in the bar is watching, but nobody steps in to help. I call and call, but nobody cares. Jude is gone; I don’t know where. They beat me and beat me and then they hit me so hard something snaps, and I wake up in a cold sweat, my hands trembling.
The morning comes in a blaze of light, burning the fog away for a clear view of the mountains. I cook bacon and toast inside the RV while the temperature is still low. Andy lingers next to me, keeping his hand on my hip, something he hasn’t done since he was in preschool. “Did you have bad dreams?” I ask.
“Then what?” I stab at one of the pieces of bacon and hold it out to him. He blows on it, then takes a small bite.
“It’s quiet here,” he says, breathing out the heat.
“Nature can be quiet.”
He chews and swallows, then leans into my side. It’s unusual for him. Even when he’s sick, Andy will only settle for his mother. I’m good for school pickups, playing in the backyard, driving him to and from swim classes. But he is never gentle with me like he is with her. I place my hand on his head and ruffle his dark hair.
“What kind of an animal watches people?” he asks.
I turn the skillet off. The oil pops and bubbles. I stab another piece of bacon and offer it to him. “Usually predators. They watch everything.”
“Deer are predators here?”
“It looked like a deer.”
My body stiffens. I put my dirty cooking utensils in the sink, then turn and sit down on the couch behind us. I pull Andy closer to me. He is still in his pajamas – shark themed. He loves all kind of animals, but especially insects and water creatures. “You saw the animal?” I ask.
“After I went back to bed,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
In the bedroom, Jude finally starts moving around. I can hear her shuffling through the dresser for clean clothes. “I woke up in the middle of the night and it was standing outside the RV.”
I try to fight the panic that spreads through my body, but it’s hard. “Standing?”
“On its hind legs.”
My skin breaks into chills. Jude ushers a soft good morning, then brushes by us in her cotton robe. She kisses Andy on the top of his head and turns to the kitchen counter. “Someone made breakfast?”
Andy moves into her, allowing her to rub the back of his neck. They linger there, the sunlight streaming in through the blinds, illuminating the strands of blonde in Jude’s brown hair. I think about what Andy said. He isn’t a liar. We’ve never caught him in a lie, at least. He likes facts, realities. He doesn’t watch much television. He is only prone to dramatics in the mornings or after a nap if he doesn’t want to get up.
I look up. Jude is staring at me. “I forgot to make your coffee.” I stand. “Let me do that.”
I give her a smile. “Everything is fine.”
The cold burns off into a sixty-degree day with little wind and beautiful views. We unhitch the car and drive around to some of the lookouts before ending the day at a winery on the side of a hill. The grapes spread at an incline, covered in netting in the cool weather.
We return home just as the sun is setting. Jude and Andy settle on the couch, reading one of his insect books. I busy myself at the kitchen counter, mashing together garlic and cayenne pepper, then distilling it with water. I place it all inside a cheap plastic plant sprayer and then head outside. It’s dusk now and the wind has picked up. It creeps in around the collar of my jacket.
I spray the entire area around the RV and car, watching the droplets land on fallen tree limbs and frozen ground. I’m almost finished when I hear movement behind me. I spin to find Jude standing there in her puffer coat, her arms crossed. “What are you doing?”
I lift the spray. “Deer spray.”
“We don’t have a garden here.”
She lingers, watching me. Amusement dances in her eyes. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
I exhale. Jude has always had the uncanny ability to tell when I’m lying. I don’t do it often, only when I’m afraid something might scare her or make her life worse in some way. I omit truths. I try to keep her safe. Even when I was lying on the floor of the bar, I acted like everything was okay because I didn’t want her to be scared. “We saw a deer on our hike the other day. I think it might’ve had chronic wasting disease.”
“Is it dangerous to us?”
“No. But I don’t want them acting erratically around Andy.”
She nods, glancing around at the fireplace, the car. When she exhales, her breath mists.
For two days, we see nothing. Andy and I hike during the mornings after the sun burns off the fog and, in the evenings, we drive around to scenic viewpoints, restaurants, and vineyards. I stash the deer deterrent under the sink.
The night before we’re supposed to leave, I notice the front right tire on the RV is too low to drive on and needs to be refilled. I dig out the air compressor from the RV storage area and leave it in the kitchen to fill in the morning. As the sun sets, I go around locking all the windows and doors like I always do.
“Can’t we let one of the windows open?” Jude asks. “I like the smell of the mountains.”
“It’s too dangerous.”
She sighs and I can tell by the look on her face that we are veering around a fight. “Kat.”
“I can’t,” I say. “Please.”
She stares at me. Andy is stretched out on the couch, his face buried in the book. It’s a new one, something I got him for his most recent birthday. Without saying anything, she rises and walks to the bedroom in the back. I check the door locks one more time, then follow her. She sits on the edge of the bed, her hands clasped in her lap. “I thought you said therapy was helping.”
I want to cry. “I don’t feel safe anywhere anymore,” I tell her. “It takes time.”
“How much time?”
“I don’t know.”
She nods, then reaches out and takes my hand. “You don’t feel safe with me?”
I sit down next to her, slipping my arm around her waist. She’s warm and calm. Since the attack, she’s been acting tired. I thought she was tired of me, but I’m starting to think now that it’s everything else that’s come with it – the heightened paranoia, the nightmares, the long recovery. She says she carries her own guilt about it, that she was in the bathroom while it was happening, that she was too handsy with me at the bar, that maybe if she kept her hands to herself, we wouldn’t have been made. There is so much unspoken between us now. I’m not sure how to deal with it. “In the morning, we’ll let all the windows down and breathe it in during breakfast.”
She pauses, but eventually acquiesces.
I wake up in the middle of the night to Andy shaking me. He has his flashlight in his hand. Panic shoots through my body. “What is it?”
He looks to the window. “The deer is back.”
I rise without thinking, brushing by him. He stays in the room where Jude rises quietly, her footsteps pressing at the floor of the RV. I move into the kitchen space, peeking through the curtains, but I can’t see anything. “Where?”
He points to the ceiling.
I look up. It’s impossible. No deer could get on top of the RV. It’s not strong enough to hold them and it would’ve made a giant ruckus. I’m moving towards the front of the RV when a strange sound stops me. It’s a tapping sound, something heavy and uncoordinated. Then I hear the clicking sound from that first night and my body breaks into goosebumps. I go the window and pull up the curtains, flicking the lights on outside.
There, on the side of the RV, is the deer. It stands on its hind legs, like a dog standing for treats. Its hooves are on the roof. I pound on the window until it notices me and backs away, remaining on its hind legs. Terror thrums through my body. There’s something about the way it’s balanced that makes me feel like this isn’t a deer. It should not be able to hold position like that. Its proportions are wrong. The teeth are too big. The eyes are too close together.
I shut the curtains. My heart pounds. Sweat beads on my forehead. I make my way to the driver’s seat before remembering the tire is too low for us to drive anywhere. The car is parked behind us, in the way. “Fuck.”
Jude enters the kitchen. “What is it?”
She reaches for the curtains before I can do anything and then lets out a tight gasp, covering her mouth. I grab the curtains out of her hand and let them fall. “We need to get to the car.”
“Is this the fucking thing you were spraying for?”
“I was spraying for a deer,” I say. “This is not a deer.”
Andy says something about deer and the genus, but I’m not listening. I go to the bedroom and slide my gun box out from beneath the bed. I enter in the code and take out a small Glock. I got it to fend off people if I had to, but I know this will work on an animal in a pinch. At least, it will buy us time.
“Get your things,” I tell them.
They gather without speaking. I follow suit, placing a small backpack over my shoulders. Jude grabs the car keys, unlocking the car from where she stands. It beeps at us, reassuring. “Is it still out there?” she asks.
I peek through the curtains. The deer is still there. Still on its hind legs. Still staring. “I’m going to honk the horn,” I say. “I’ll go out first and use the gun if I have to.”
“We should call someone.”
“The nearest police station is forty minutes away.”
Jude hesitates, looking at the door. Her hair is tangled and loose. She’s in her favorite pajamas and a long coat, her lips pursed tightly. Looking at her, even now with everything we’ve been through, sends a swell of warmth through my body. “Andy, baby,” she says. “We have to go quick and not stop.”
The night is quiet as I reach over the driver’s seat and send a series of loud honks into the area. No animal in its right mind would hang around after that, but still, when I unlock the front door, I spot the deer by the birch tree next to the fireplace. Still on its hind legs. Probably over a dozen feet tall. “Go,” I say to Jude.
Jude was in the bathroom when the fight broke out. The bar was too loud for anyone to hear them yelling at me. They kicked me there on the floor, just feet away from other patrons. I could see the shoes of the people getting drinks on the other corner of the bar. The girl was wearing red heels, not unlike Jude’s heels. She was only in the bathroom, but in that moment, it felt like we were miles apart, so far we could never truly get back together, no matter what.
Jude and Andy make immediately for the car. The deer doesn’t move, while around us, the night is completely silent. There are no sounds at all – no bugs hissing, no birds, not even the cackle of a raccoon.
Jude takes the passenger’s seat. Once Andy is in the back, I lock us in, then turn on the headlights. The area is illuminated – the deer is gone. “Where is it?” Jude asks.
“Hopefully far away.”
I put the car in reverse and back out of the spot. We jostle down a bumpy, dirt road until we reach the paved one that will lead us back down the mountain and into the valley. We drive until coming to a straight stretch in the road when something appears ahead of us. I slow. It’s dark, and I can’t make out what it is. When we get close enough that the lights touch it, I stop. It’s the deer. It stands on all fours this time, its hind legs viciously dented. “Kat…” Jude says.
I put the car in reverse and slam on the gas.
“It’s chasing us,” she says. Her voice is tight.
My pulse hammers in my throat. Andy starts crying, which adds to my tension.
“Kat, it’s catching up.”
To the right, I spot a pull-off for runaway trucks. I switch from gas to breaks, then yank the wheel so we back into it. I make the turn so quickly that the animal can’t slow in time, and it passes us. Steam rises in the headlights. We’re quiet. I roll down the window, readying the Glock.
“Are you gonna shoot it?” Jude asks.
Andy continues crying in the backseat and out of the corner of my eye, I watch as she turns to comfort him. I keep focused on the road. My hand shakes. It’s not the best set up. If it gets in front of the car, I’ll have to get out to get a good shot.
We wait. Eventually, Andy quiets. I’m about to put the car in drive and head back down the mountain when the clicking sound returns. I steady my arm on the window. The deer emerges from my left. I aim, imagining it as the boys in the bar. Their stink of Axe cologne, tight pants, and slicked back hair. I couldn’t protect myself then, but now I’ll never be taken advantage of again.
There are fifteen rounds in the Glock. I let ten loose into its body. They’re louder than I expected, and they shake my wrist. But they do the trick. They embed into its neck and chest and finally its head. It comes to a stop about six feet from the car. I glance down at it. Blood mars the fur.
I shift into drive and pull out of the spot, leaving it alone on the gravel. My hands are still trembling as I straighten the car out on the road. After a few moments, Jude reaches out and touches my hand. “Hey,” she says. “I’m here.”
She grips. I know in this moment that she will never let me be scared alone again.
Two days later, I return to the mountainside with my uncle and cousin to retrieve the RV. The sun is shining, and the wind is low. I stare at the mountain as we ascend, pointing to turns in the road until we reach the RV. It’s all intact, just like I left it. I fill up the tire and check the body. There are some small dents on the top, where the deer’s hooves were. I try to move along like normal.
“You alright on your own?” my uncle calls from his car.
“I’ll follow you back down,” I call.
He nods and watches me get back inside. The engine hums beneath my feet. I back out of the space slowly, then turn onto the road. I drive until I get to the pull off where I turned off that night. I slow, then turn in. The deer body is missing. The sheriff told me it was gone when he arrived, but that there were blood stains. I asked him how likely it would be that someone could’ve taken it for meat.
“Unlikely,” he told me. “Especially if it had CWD.”
I park and get out of the RV, making my way over to the gravel. I kneel and look down at the ground, running my hands over the pebbles. Some of them are still stained with the blood. I trace them to the grass where the tree line begins.
This is what happened to the boys, too. They just disappeared into the night. For forty hours before they were found, I walked around wondering if they’d find me again. If they’d show up out of the blue to finish the job they started, and if I’d be ready for them, or if I’d let them hurt me again.
I look into the woods. The trees sway quietly in the breeze.
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Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Original narrative & well developed characters