FICTION: The Deer by John D. Ashton

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The deer inched cautiously to the waters edge, surveying the immediate area as dusk began to descend over the land. It held its ground on a large moss-covered boulder that was half-submerged in the narrow stream, staring down with its emotionless jet-black eyes, studying its own impressive reflection, completely unaware that it was living on borrowed time.

Positioned just over two hundred yards away, an eager eye watched attentively through a rifle scope. Sean had waited patiently in the same spot for almost an hour, lying flat in a tight space between an oak tree and an enormous pear-shaped boulder. He had not moved in all the time he had been there, the cold October breeze barely registering with him, his mind only focused on securing a clean kill.

He’d been coming out regularly to this woodland for the last two years since his sixteenth birthday, hunting rabbit, birds and deer. Parties of men were often out here hunting for deer, most of them with guides, but Sean had always preferred to go it alone, minimising the chances of spooking his targets. Besides, the solitude in these tranquil parts of the countryside gave him the freedom to think, clearing his mind of the sludge that normal everyday life brought with it.

He watched as the stag lowered its head to the flowing water. You’re a big fella.Your antlers are going to make an impressive display for someone, not to mention a nice sum of money for my back pocket.

A gust of wind swept across the land, snapping off a twig from the oak tree, launching it into the side of his face. He winced, although the impact didn’t hurt, merely taking him by surprise. It clung to the side of his head, caught in his black woolly hat, flicking with annoyance against his cold cheek. Ignoring it was going to be impossible. He didn’t want to move, not even minimally, but he knew that his impatience was going to get the better of him sooner or later. He cautiously lifted his hand up and pulled the twig away, keeping his sight fixed on the red deer.

He stretched, bending his index finger a few times, before switching off the safety and placing his finger against the trigger. Licking his dry lips, he took a deep breath, held it, all but ready to the take the shot, feeling his senses slow as if in state of hypnosis.

A beat. Then the click of a safety being switched off behind him. He knew someone was there with a weapon, the sound of it was undeniable, but how had he not heard their footsteps approaching him?

‘I wouldn’t pull that trigger, boy,’ said a deep male voice.

Sean didn’t respond, opting to gradually release his finger from the trigger. He licked his lips again, then clenched his teeth together, keeping his eyes fixed firmly ahead on the deer. Four words sped through his mind like an out-of-control train, filling him with fear: I’m going to die.

‘Stay exactly where you are and don’t make a move,’ instructed the man. ‘You move an inch and I’ll blow your brains out, just like you were going to do to that beautiful stag down there.’

Sean’s mind unfortunately offered only one train of thought: I’m going to die,  I’m going to die, I’m going to die.

‘I see that you’re using .243 Winchester. Good choice of calibre, boy, which means that you and I have something in common as that’s what I prefer to use. Personally, I’ve never understood the need to go any higher for hunting, but each to their own.’

Sean remained silent, concentrating solely on what the stranger had called him – boy – which brought with it a horde of memories, all of them bad.

When he had turned five years old, his father had run away with another woman, leaving his poor mother in the position of looking after him and his six year old sister by herself. Growing up without a steady father figure had been difficult, giving him that predictable chip on the shoulder, but he had made it this far through life without causing too many problems for his mother. The only real lasting memories he held onto from the time when his father had been around were the neglect and constant lack of support, but most of all, he remembered always be referred to as boy. Never by his name, it was always boy, uttered only in the tone of disapproval.

‘What you thinking about, boy?’ asked the man, his voice containing a hint of curiosity. ‘If you’re thinking about turning around and pointing that rifle at me, well, you should think again.’ He paused for a moment. ‘No, you keep nice and still, but don’t forget to watch that deer, he could run off at any second if he gets spooked.’

Sean was about to respond, then thought better of it. What could he possibly say to this stranger that would get him out of this situation? Hey, let me go, I’ll spare the deer and not mention this to a soul, scouts honour! Somehow he doubted that – or anything – would work in his favour. No, keeping his mouth shut tight was the best option he had for now.

He felt himself shaking from the mixture of the biting cold that he had so easily managed dismiss before, and the paralysing fear that was increasing with every passing second.

The stag continued to drink from the water, the tips of its highly branched antlers dipping into the stream, oblivious to the confrontation that was taking place just over two hundred yards away.

‘What you doing out here all alone, boy? You think you’re some kind of lone ranger? Nah, I reckon that rifle belongs to your old man and you just took it to get back at him for something.’

The rifle had originally belonged to his father, but after he’d done a runner and left his family behind, what possessions didn’t get thrown out were hauled up into the loft to be forgotten. Two years ago, while snooping around, Sean had come across an old wooden crate that his mother eventually had told him contained several items that had belonged to his father. Curious to see the contents, he had held off the initial urge to open it, until the desire nagged at him like a constant itch. When he opened the crate, the first thing that caught his attention was the rifle. He had only ever seen guns in the movies, never in real life. The impulse to destroy everything inside the crate was quickly eradicated, as the moment he set eyes on the rifle he just had to have it, as if it was calling to him. He couldn’t explain it.

‘Come on, son, you can admit it. A real man can admit to his mistakes, or when he’s wrong. Holding onto that gun doesn’t make you a man, you’re just lying to yourself if you think that’s the case. You’re just a fraud, a faker, but if you can just nod your head, then we’ll both know that you are, in fact, a real man.’

Who is this guy? Sean thought, shuddering. After a long hesitation, he nodded reluctantly. The truth was, he did feel like a faker, posing with his father’s gun, taking the lives of innocent animals, thinking that he was in control of his destiny. However, his destiny was now in the hands of a complete stranger, which would be extinguished with the simple squeeze of a trigger if he saw fit. In a moment of clarity, he remembered all of the animals he had killed, feeling remorse, not because of his predicament, but because he knew it was wrong. That he was wrong. It was the antithesis of what his vision originally was, to destroy the weapon in anger solely because it had once belonged to his father.

‘There, you see, that wasn’t so hard to man up, was it?’ said the man with a kind of wonder. ‘You should be proud of yourself. I’m proud of you, which speaks volumes of the act you’ve done when you think that a complete stranger such as myself can be proud of you. Well done, boy.’

Stop calling me that, you bastard. The one name that I hate been called and you keep throwing it around like it’s going out of fashion!

‘You still keeping an eye on that deer down there?’

Sean nodded in reply.

‘What do you suppose it’s thinking? Wait, don’t bother answering that, it was a rhetorical question, but then, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really expect you to say anything.’ The man snorted. ‘You’re not much of a talker, are you? Let me guess, you don’t want to scare the deer away? I’m chatting away merrily, so you may as well join in with the conversation, boy. Get some things off your chest if you fancy it, I’m a good listener.’

Sean bit his bottom lip. He didn’t know what to say to the man. What was there to say in all honesty? The answer seemed to be nothing, and considering that this guy not only had a gun on him, but had called him boy, gave him no valid reasons whatsoever to engage in a conversation. If he was going to die in these woods then he wouldn’t give this crazy bastard the satisfaction of having a conversation, which he seemed intent on having. To hell with him.

‘No comment, huh?’ The man’s voice was calm, never giving away any sign of emotion. ‘Well, that’s fair enough, I guess. I’ve never had a gun pointed at the back of my head, so I can’t really say how I’d react, but if it makes you clam up and keep quiet, well, I’ll believe that’s how it is, boy.’

I wouldn’t say anything to you regardless. Sean felt his right hand going into a spasm.

‘Whoa, what did I say to you not two minutes ago about not moving, huh? I swear, son, if you make a move for your rifle it’ll be the last move you ever make, do you understand me?’

Sean wanted to aggressively bombard the guy with every swear word known to mankind, wise to the fact that he would never physically stand a chance of getting at him, leaving words as his only form of attack, yet he held his tongue firm. Part of him thought that if he played this smart, kept his mouth shut and allowed the guy to speak his piece, then God willing he would get out of this alive. He had never prayed before in his life, yet he found himself doing so now, silently asking God to protect him from this maniac that stood behind him. He nodded his head in reply once again.

‘That’s a good lad. So, what do you think you’re gaining from killing these poor animals out here in this wood, boy? You think it’s some kind of sport, like all those pompous rich pricks reckon it is? Nah, I know you don’t believe that for one second. You’re not one of those arseholes, I can tell that just from looking at you.’

The only arsehole around here is you, Sean thought, but saying nothing. He ached to abuse this man who held him at gunpoint, to verbally tear him a new one, yet a small part of him refused to play game, not wanting to even set eyes on the stranger. If he couldn’t see him, then it made this whole situation less real, at least as far as that small part of him was concerned.

The wind picked up, blowing a batch of dry leaves into Sean’s face, but he didn’t flinch, keeping a watchful eye on the deer as it continued to drink from the stream. The light was now beginning to fade fast, but he doubted that he would have to worry about finding his way back to his car in the dark, as an entirely different kind of darkness would soon greet him.

‘You got daddy issues?’ the man asked in a mocking tone. ‘Yeah, I can see that you do from the way your body just tensed up at the question. It’s okay, boy, you’ll get over it. Maybe.’

Sean flexed his fingers, wanting to curl his hands into tight fists and smash them into this guy’s face. Nothing would give him greater pleasure.

‘Don’t ignore what I’m saying to you, don’t try and go off exercising your own set of values or making hasty decisions, like wanting to turn around and attack me, because those judgements can, and will, end badly for you, son. As in game over. Let’s face it, I could relieve you of the burden of your wasteful life, but what would be the point in that? See, you now find yourself in the position of that innocent deer that you had in your sights, except for the simple fact that you know you have a gun aimed at your head. How does it feel to know that? Is it forcing you to repent on certain things, perhaps making you curse yourself for missed opportunities? Would it be better to be totally oblivious like that deer, enjoying the peacefulness while sipping the cold refreshing water, before having your head blown off? Talk to me, boy.’

Go to hell, thought Sean, his hands scraping up dirt and small twigs as they now curled into fists, his knuckles turning white. His head was spinning with a thousand thoughts and emotions, clouding his judgement, but he doubted he would have to worry about it for much longer. In a way, it would be a blessing, feeling as though his brain was not far off from exploding.

‘Your body must be going numb from not moving for so long,’ stated the man. ‘Christ, it’s getting cold. Are you cold, boy?’

Sean remained still and silent, but thought: Say it once more, just once more, you bastard. I know you’re pushing for a reaction. Say it just one more time and I’ll give you the reaction you crave.

‘I asked you if you were cold? What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?’

His blood was boiling, yet to his own amazement, he refrained from exploding. Perhaps this was the calm before the storm? He knew that one was coming, brewing deep down inside, working its way to the surface, waiting to be unleashed in a fit of primal rage.

‘Well,’ said the man, ‘I’d start speaking if I were you, because this is your final chance, boy. Surely you’ve got something to say about that rifle of yours. Oh yeah, sorry, it belongs to your old man, doesn’t it? What do you reckon he’ll say when he finds out you’ve got his rifle? My guess is he’ll be more pissed off by that than the news of your death. What do you reckon, boy?’

Now was the time to break his silence. Still keeping a watchful eye on the deer, he said, ‘My dad’s not around, so he wouldn’t have anything to say on the matter, you stupid bastard. This rifle is mine, but do you want to know something?’

‘Share while you still can,’ encouraged the man.

Sean could feel his voice breaking. ‘I only use this because it makes me feel like I’m working through something, kind of like therapy, you know? I don’t take pride in shooting all of the animals in these woods and taking their lives away from them, and I know it doesn’t make me any more of a man, but at least I can admit it now. How proud are you of me now?’

‘Very proud, you’ve come a long way in the last few minutes, boy.’

‘Stop calling me that!’ Sean screamed, grabbing his rifle and flipping over onto his back as quickly as he could, the adrenaline surging through his veins.

There was nobody there. He was all alone, except for a single large crow that flew into the darkening sky from a branch high above, spooked by his sudden outburst. Sean looked up, feeling disoriented, his mouth making a perfect O shape. He watched the bird fly away, slowly blending in against the inky blackness that was covering the land like a blanket.

When he was absolutely certain that the man was not around he turned over to observe the deer, but was not surprised to see that it had departed the area, no doubt scared off when he had yelled at the man.

Sean sighed, licked his dry lips, then scanned the area around him slowly, allowing his heart rate to ease. Nothing. He was alone. At the back of his mind he began to wonder if he had been alone all along, that there never had been a man behind him. No, impossible, he had heard the click of the gun that was pointed at him, not to mention listening to the guy talk endlessly at him.

He reached across and grabbed his backpack, which was next to the large pear-shaped boulder, slinging it across his shoulder. He swallowed hard, wiping cold sweat away from his face, before trudging back to his car.

The following morning, Sean disposed of his father’s rifle, feeling a sense of liberation. He never would hunt again.

John D. Ashton

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John D. Ashton is the author of fantasy novel Crystal Castle. His second novel, Hunter, a dark drama/thriller with a supernatural element, is due out in late 2017. He is currently working on his third novel. Born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, he spends a lot of his spare time travelling, seeking out new creative ideas.

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