1. Road Trip

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"Poor, poor thing," said my mom.

The deer lay across the double-yellow, its stomach blown out like a bad tire and steaming in the cool country air. That steam should have told me right then that what we were staring at was fresh, hot off the platter, but the thought didn't cross my mind. Not until the deer lifted its head, and Jesus Christ, it wasn't dead, it was dying, the deer was ripped in half and it was still dying.

My dad squeezed the steering wheel.

My mom sat back in her seat.

For the first time in hours, for the first time since we left Reno, my brother looked up from his book reader. He had cranked the brightness on the stupid thing, and the backlight lit up every inch of his nerd face, mapped it all out, the pimples and the glasses and the soft, chap-stick coated lips. "Why're we stopped? We there?"

"No, you dumb shit."

The deer dropped its head onto the ground, dropped it hard, and I heard the sound without actually hearing it, thump, like someone's fist coming down on a table. Juices trickled darkly from the creature's still body. Something inside of me unclenched. I let out a slow breath, and then up went the deer's head, up, ears crumpled, nose dripping, and my heart started to pound, heavy, loud, a subwoofer inside my chest.

"I'm going to run it over," said my dad.

My mom jerked. "What?"

"It's the right thing to do. It's the only thing to do."

Everyone fell silent. Part of me was aware that we were just sitting there, out in the open on a twisting road late at night, but another part, a bigger part, was shooting energy down my limbs, crackling my skin with electricity. I clenched the football in my lap, and as the car started to roll forward, I felt myself out on the field, running, the hot sweet smell of grass, the flash of jerseys, the smack of padded bodies.

The engine growled. The deer's black marble eyes reflected headlights.

My mom cried out, "Don't, please don't!"

I braced for a bump, a crunch. Dad flicked the wheel and the car coasted along, smooth. As we rounded the bend, I looked into the rearview mirror and saw the deer where we had left it, its head rising and falling, rising and falling.

We went on, winding through the twists and curves, the moon sliced by tree branches and served down onto the road in slivers. My dad had begun to drive faster, something I wouldn't have noticed had it not been for my mom. She didn't say a word, but she didn't need to. When you know someone, really know someone, you only have to be near them to hear them. They don't even have to make a sound. There are some people you're just tuned to, like a radio station, and right then my mom was broadcasting anxiety loud and clear. At every bend her breath stopped, her body stiffened, her jaws clenched.

I couldn't take it. I had to distract myself. My brother poked his book reader, re-brightening the screen, and I snatched it from his hands.

"Joel," he said. "Give it back."

I held it out between us, waved it back and forth, smiling.

Max started to reach and then thought better of it. He was an idiot, but he wasn't dumb, my brother. "Dad. Tell him to give my book back."

"Give Max his book back."

"I'm just looking out for him. Reading in the dark like this could mess up his eyes."

"Like you care about my eyes."

"Sure I do. All four of them."

My brother's hand shot out. I pulled mine back.

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