It’s Later Than You Think
In the moments before he fell asleep with his foot on the gas, driving a tractor-trailer with no trailer, sometime in late July, 2001, and thirty-four miles from his exit on the I-98, Dea came to think about a time just after his infancy, when he’d visited his great aunt’s farm.
He was supposed to have been, must have been, so young at the time, he wasn’t sure if the memory was invented or not. There was a time he thought his age was all he’d misremembered. But he knew when his great aunt had died, and it wasn’t long after, and there’s only once his mom can ever recall them visiting the farm, while he was alive and she, his great aunt, was also alive, and so it was then, or it wasn’t. The sound of cicadas and the smell of diesel and the muggy air reminded him of it, the memory that might’ve been invented, or not.
His memory starts at the threshold of a barn, empty barn, and there is no light except from starlight and moonlight and an inkling of yellow light from behind the farmhouse’s curtains. In the moon-colored, door-shaped light, Dea can only see stray bits of hay, and no animals, and a dirt floor. (The part about there being no animals aligns with his mom’s account of his great aunt’s life. She’d retired by this point. The land, and everything else, sat empty—all but the farmhouse. The time of day does not. His mom insists they left by sundown. But Dea and his mother have disagreed often on details.) He remembers turning around, looking back toward the house, wondering if he should ask his mom before going further in. He remembers radio towers blinking in the flatlands beyond, past the highway and above the trees, red dots, on and off, quiet. He remembers it very quiet. He doesn’t know what his mom and his great aunt and, maybe, his dad were talking about in the house.
The barn feels bigger once he’s inside. An easterly breeze works its way through the gaps in the woodboards. He looks at the open door and he can see the wear where his great aunt used to grasp the handle. Up until this point, Dea feels as though he thought barns were smaller, more quaint. But this barn looks like an air hangar, a comparison he didn’t have then but that he does have now, on the I-98, in July, 2001.
He notices the hole in the ceiling first, at the very back of the barn. There are streaks of light here and there, but one very large, jagged hole at the very back, like someone had dropped a small wrecking ball through it. Moonlight spills through. He follows the beam of light down and he sees something, it having noticed him before he noticed it.
A deer had found its way inside.
It’d been chewing grass that had grown in the small patch of moonlight, where the barn roof had, Dea supposed, given in, from rain or heavy snow or some other thing, and where he’d, in the decades since, imagined the sun hitting at noon, every day, every year, for the years of his great aunt’s retirement. The deer had been chewing grass, but now it was just staring at him, completely still, panting. The deer looks up at the moon and its glassy eyes look almost fluorescent as they reflect the white light.
It looks sickly, hungry, frail. Dea thinks about how much else ended or left when his great aunt stopped working that farm. Nothing much has—had?—ended in Dea’s life, yet. There’s no one he can’t talk to anymore and no chances that have passed him by and no poor decisions that haven’t blended into the dumb, stupid things every child or adolescent has done for many, many years before Dea was born, and will continue to do for many, many years after he dies. On the I-98, though, he realizes he has, still has, a better mental image of this deer than of the few times he saw his great aunt. She passed invisible to him. He’s never really stopped to look back at photos.
He remembers the deer dashing to the side of him and out the barn door after it turned away from the moon. He remembers being surprised it could still move that quick.
On the I-98, his eyes are fluttering closed.
He thinks about how he wouldn’t tell his mom about it until he was older—and even then, offhandedly—because he didn’t want her to worry about him having seen something so sickly and awful, because she’d been worrying too much already, because he knew they were talking about inheritance in the farmhouse. Or he knew they were talking about something loudly and worrying and with hands-on-head, at least, and he got to fill in some of the gaps later. And he realizes his father probably hadn’t come to the house because he would’ve been too proud to beg.
He doesn’t think it was too big a deal, even if mom did get upset when she learned about it. There’s a moment when the truck turns that he’s weightless.
Dea’s eyes next drift open in a bed with off-white sheets. There are fluorescent lights beaming down on him, and he turns his head to look away.
June Villers is an English and Creative Writing undergraduate at UChicago. They’re a big fan of liminal spaces, CRT televisions, and ghosts.