A tale inspired by local legends…
The Hunting Trip
It was the same hunting trip Robert took each October. The leased nine acres looked the same as every year: tree branches knotted together across a cold Kentucky sky, faded yellow, brown, and orange leaves drying on the ground, wind gusts caught along the ravines, and forgotten rock walls. It was the first time Robert had taken this trip alone. Where there had always been three rifle scopes, and three orange caps, and three homemade lunches were now only one. Robert’s older brother had stopped coming several years ago after his wife claimed him, and this was their father’s first absence since the cancer claimed him that summer.
Robert followed the trail deeper into the woods. He thought he knew it better than the deer by now. He knew once it banked east, he’d come across an open field seated just under sunset. The “sweet spot” his father had called it. If he could make it, then his hunger and the kill would be worth it.
That was easier now. The hunger and the killing. Robert packed an extra power bar for a snack and, well, he’d lost count of how many deer he’d shot and missed since he was eight. Each winter he’d fill his deep freezer with meat and donate what he couldn’t use to the butcher who dried the hide to make hats and dog chews.
The field burned with the fading colors of sunset. It was beautiful. Every year Robert had forgotten just how beautiful this spot could be. He turned to his left, about to comment on the view to his father, but stopped. There was nothing on his left. No matter how strong the memory of his father- orange cap askew over graying hair, middle finger over the rifle trigger since his pointer was missing from a crossbow accident, wrinkles over a kind smile- the spot beside Robert would remain empty. He swallowed down the sadness before it could clutch his heart and settled into a seat in the brush.
It wouldn’t be long before they came out of the woods.
The sun dipped below the ridgeline. The milky stars appeared in the twilight. The power bar gurgled in Robert’s stomach. The field remained empty. This couldn’t be right. This spot always worked. This was the spot they felled their deer every year. Despite the weather reports, despite the migration reports, despite the trail cam footage, this was the sweet spot. Unless Robert’s father took the magic with him.
Robert refused to believe that. He had to. Of all the trips to return empty-handed, this one would not be it. It couldn’t be. Robert raised his scope and scanned the tree line across the field. He discerned the tree trunks, the size of pencils from this distance, from one another and searched for a deer hidden between them.
The scope passed over two large furry legs. Robert remained calmed, knowing something with legs the size of flag poles in a pencil forest would have plenty of meat for winter, and raised the rifle slightly to view the animal. Its pupils stared right back through the lens.
It was a deer, but it was also not.
The eyes were too forward. They found Robert’s eyes behind the scope and held them with an eerie intelligence. The deer’s legs contained too many joints, as if the animal possessed extra knees. Its neck was too long and added to its size. According to the scope, the neck was two feet long, and the entire animal stood six feet tall.
As tall as Robert.
Through the scope, Robert watched the deer walk out of the tree line. It wobbled with each step as if it was just learning to walk. The legs strained under the mass of it. After several steps, Robert was certain the deer was going to collapse, but it kept moving. It kept crossing the field. Robert lowered his rifle, and his breath caught seeing how quickly it covered the distance. He swore the deer had only taken a couple of steps, but it was already halfway across the field.
Halfway toward him.
A hard rock formed in Robert’s stomach, and the hairs on his arms raised. The animal was coming right for him. Its eyes glued onto him like a predator. With each clunky step, Robert forgot to breathe. With each clunky step, Robert’s limbs tightened. With each clunky step, Robert heard something clicking. He thought it was the deer’s too-many joints popping until he saw its elongated muzzle snapping together. Its mouth opened too long, expanding up to its molded ears housing long, pointed teeth.
Drool dripped from the deer’s jaw, and Robert scrambled backward, grabbing at the undergrowth until he found enough purchase to pull himself to his feet. His orange cap fell in his haste, his rifle smacked his shoulder as he ran. The trail he thought he knew so well snarled around him and, without the sunlight to help guide him to the road, panic gripped his throat.
The clicking sound was everywhere. He felt hot breath on his neck. The smell of rotten earth clogged his senses. Branches tried to hold Robert back as he ran faster. A brier bush tore open his pant leg. The top of his sock was sticky with blood when Robert finally broke through the trees. He couldn’t rest; the clicking was growing louder. Robert heard another set of noises: a response?
He pushed forward through the waist-high grasses trying to trip him. He evaded the tangling weeds, but not one of the rocks hidden below. Falling headlong into the field, Robert threw out his arms to protect his face. The rotting smell was stronger here. Scrambling back to his feet, Robert saw the lanky deer thing was now closer than he thought possible.
No. A second deer thing. The one approaching had antlers. In the near-absent light, Robert swore the bone resembled human hands. Seven of them reaching for him.
Robert tore through the last of the grasses and slammed himself into his truck just on the other side of the field. He fumbled with his keys, and they fell to the ground. He bent down to pick them up and, as he rose, he saw it. The Not-Deer. It stood on its hind legs at the front of the truck, its front hooves denting the hood. The hands forming from its antlers twisted and grasped at the air, at the radio antenna, at Robert through the windshield. One of the hands, tinged in red, was missing its pointer finger. The Not-Deer unhinged its jaw full of canines and unleashed a piercing scream.
Robert shoved the keys into the ignition and threw the gear into reverse, the truck making its own hideous sound. His hasty three-point-turn kicked up a cloud of dirt, and the truck sped down the highway. The speedometer lurching past 100 MPH, but Robert still heard the clicking of the Not-Deer.
Seven human hands and two sets of golden eyes gleamed in the rearview.
More About Jordan
Jordan S. Keller is a Cincinnati based author who writes fantasy and science fiction. Her first novel, Wildfire: The Rise of a Hero, is currently on submission.
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