Evening, an unfamiliar mountain road. There could be nothing strange about a deer darting in front a car. But for it to happen three times in the course of a several miles when it hadn’t happened three times in their combined lives—that was unnerving. As though things weren’t already tense enough, having to get all the way over the mountain and into town by morning.
Then the sign by the side of the road, crude, hand painted, materializing out of the fog or foliage half-way up the mountain: “Bridge Out.”
“Bridge out,” she said.
“I saw the sign.”
“We need to turn around.”
“We need to find another route.”
“There is no other route,” he said.
“But the bridge is out.”
“It’s just a sign,” he said.
Her anger was instantaneous. “Of course there’s another route.”
His anger complied. “There’s only one bridge on this whole fucking mountain. If we turn around…”
“Apparently there aren’t any bridges on this fucking mountain.”
“It’s just a sign.”
“Why would they put up a ‘bridge out’ sign if the bridge wasn’t…”
And then in the dim light a brown blotch, the first deer, fleeing something, he guessed as his senses flared, late, useless. Its wiggling tail vibrated into invisibility. Time didn’t slow, but it filled up like a stretched bladder: thing, doe, distance, speed, relative speed, flight, pursuer?, fuck this, fuck, this, fuck fuck fuck.
And in all that, no time to hit the brakes, not even to ease up on the gas. That’s how fast it happened. The white flag of her tail flirting off into the woods like a rescinded surrender. And that worthless burst of adrenaline coursing through all the veins in both their bodies. There it is.
“Slow down,” she said, “slow down,” she drew out the vowels. “And then turn the hell around.”
“Where? Where would I do that?”
Besides, he could think of plenty of reasons to put up a hand-painted “bridge out” sign for a bridge that wasn’t in fact out. But none of them mattered and he didn’t say them.
“This road is the only chance we have to make it by morning.” He dared a few more miles per hour.
“The sooner we turn around, the sooner we get there.”
“We’ve been on this road for hours.”
“The bridge is out. There’s no bridge.”
“If we get there late…”
“We won’t get there at all.”
Again, he didn’t respond. Just stared hard at the dirt road, the crooked line of weeds between the dirt stripes. Little rocks plinked against the undercarriage.
“So, you’re just going to, what? jump the ravine?”
“It’s just a sign.”
“Or maybe you think this car will sprout wings?”
“You’re not listening.”
“I’m not listening?”
“It’s just a sign.”
“And there’s another one.”
This one wasn’t hand painted: an orange diamond on a portable stand at a rare point in the road wide enough to fit it: DANGER BRIDGE OUT.
“Anyone could have put that there.”
But there was no one on God’s earth who knew they were crossing this mountain on this road tonight, no one who knew they had to be there before sunrise tomorrow. No one with a reason to put a “Bridge Out” sign up for a bridge that wasn’t out.
“Out is a relative term.”
“No, it’s not. ‘Danger’ is a relative term.”
“‘Out’ is a term you put on a bridge that’s dangerous.”
“‘Out’ means you can’t cross it. Turn the fuck around.”
He went a little faster. Another deer appeared, a buck with a huge set of antlers. The car fishtailed when he slammed on the brakes. The buck parabolaed down the uphill side of the road. Rocks cascaded down the slope. The deer stopped in the ragged stripe of grass and weeds between the ruts. It stood there, just stood there, staring, staring straight into the sharp headlights like a man with too much macho taking on a dare. There were plenty of places on this road where that much fishtail would have tipped them into the ravine like those pebbles, where the car, even if it stayed upright, even if the engine still ran, could not have made it back to the road. Ending everything. And the stock-still deer stood watching.
“Why is it just standing there?” He laid into the horn.
“They do that. It’s hoping you don’t see it.”
“Assuming. Acting as though.”
The terms you have to use are all inappropriate.
There was nowhere to do it.
“Just drive toward it, slowly. It won’t let you hit it. We can look for a place.”
He did. It ran away like the last one, with less sense of fleeing danger than you might think: a brisk jog, fading into the woods.
“Now turn around—up there. You have room.”
“There was a place half a mile back.”
I hadn’t seen it.
“You weren’t looking for it.”
“Do you really want me to drive in reverse for half a mile on this road?”
“If you can’t do it, I can.” The patter of the pebbles tossed at the body was like rain on a house. “I should be driving anyway.”
“What does that mean?”
“Never mind. Just let me drive.”
He scanned the cone of the headlights for trouble. “We’re fine.”
“You’re going to get us killed.”
“There’s no bridge.”
Silence then, as thick as silence can get, just the sound of flung pebbles, the engine, the flow of air across the sealed windows.
There weren’t a lot of options. She stared at his hands on the steering wheel.
“Speed up,” she said.
He slowed down.
“The faster you get there, the sooner we turn around.”
He pressed the gas.
“Maybe there’s enough time. We can’t be sure, can we. How far is it to bridge.”
“It can’t be far.”
There were no more signs. Or maybe everything was a sign. The road deteriorated. The weeds in the center stripe grew higher. Rocks appeared in the road almost too big to drive over. And then the third deer. Old, startled, sick. It limped down the road in the direction of the bridge like it was leading them. Just their luck if it died there and he had to get out and roll it down he mountain. He honked; he raced the engine. He flashed the lights. He opened the window and stuck his head out and screamed at it. It ambled.
Probably blind. Probably deaf.
“Or too sick to give a shit,” she said.
“I’m going to push it.”
And he edged up to the white tail. Just about put the bumper to it. It trotted a step or two. He pushed the bumper against its flank, gently as he could. Fucking deer. It left the road then, down the ravine.
They were free. There were no more impediments. He hit the gas hard. He sped toward the bridge.