Protected Contact
  Seven Stories by Julie Stielstra
  1  Protected Contact
2  Posthumous
3  Little Deaths
4  Begin with Lilies
5  I Never Saw the Sea
6  The Heron
7  Requeening
  About the Author  |  |  November 2017 Fiction Issue

Little Deaths

Five deer, three hawks, eleven skunks, thirteen possums, twenty seven raccoons and two armadillos so far. Robert didn’t help with the count any more, though occasionally he would soberly ask for the total when they pulled into the driveway at home. Julia especially hated to see the birds, the tawny checkered feathers flickering above a blackened clot of tissue. It seemed such a wrong way for a hawk or an owl to die, broken on a windshield. She wrote them down in the notebook where she recorded gas mileage, oil changes and tire rotations. She did not count cats or dogs. Or coyotes. She couldn’t look at them, thinking of Pinto, the freckled setter in the back seat.

Pinto always came along on the road trips. Robert feared Pinto would pine if they left him behind, and Julia feared that she might too. Pinto was a fine traveling companion, delighted to do anything she planned, and never complained about the food. Julia always asked if the birding guides minded a dog. Binoculars dangling around his neck, Robert trailed along with Pinto. He liked to wander around in the woods and prairies and coastlines, but couldn’t tell you what kind of tree grew on the parkway in front of their house. He had no interest in naming things. He felt it was possessive; Julia felt it was an intimacy.


Julia had planned to get her 400th species on this trip. South Texas held rarities, birds that sneaked across the border from Mexico to fill the gaps in her life list. The Brown Jay was a great bird — big and handsome and loud — and it got her to 398. But the last goddamn day, her knee finally betrayed her. Loaded up on ibuprofen, she had limped after the group, but fell farther and farther behind. Robert, munching a granola bar, caught up to find her sitting on a stone, weeping. Last year — just last year! — in the grasslands, in spite of the weight she’d gained, she’d walked and walked and done fine. What had happened? She hadn’t done anything!

“You should have brought more Advil,” he said. Then he helped her up and they shuffled slowly back. There were several stops to pee on trees: Robert’s new prostate medicine didn’t seem to be working yet. Pinto peed on the same trees.

Pinto whined in the back seat.

“Did you let him out the last stop?” she asked.

“What?” asked Robert. He was searching the radio, pressing the Seek button over and over, flashing through fractious snips of evangelizing, whining, wailing, thumping, and hectoring, twice through the dial. Julia reached over and punched the off button.

“Did you take Pinto out?” she said more loudly.

“Um, no, I didn’t think he needed to go.” Then he brightened. “But I do, so we’ll stop now!”

“Please, Robert, not on the highway! The next exit is just another mile!”

He swerved the car onto the shoulder. Pinto sprang to attention. The car swayed and shuddered in the blast of passing trucks. Julia stayed in the car and added a shattered snapping turtle to the count. Robert hauled Pinto through the raw-edged grass and they both wet down a fence post.

They ended up stopping for gas less than an hour later. When she emerged from the restroom, Robert was still at the wheel, bent over a two-day old newspaper from the stash wedged under the seat. Julia squeegeed the bug guts off the windshield. Back on the highway, she told him again how to set the cruise control.

“I got out a grapefruit,” he said. It immediately fell out of the cupholder where he’d balanced it and rolled under Julia’s feet. “Oops. Would you peel it for me?”

“You couldn’t have peeled your own grapefruit while you were sitting here?” She bit through the horrible rind and began to rip it open with her fingernails. “Where’s the trash bag?”

“Behind the seat, I think,” he said. “Maybe behind the cooler?”

“The hell with your grapefruit,” Julia snapped. She cranked down the window and hurled it out. It gave her a tart pleasure to watch it bounding brightly away. “There. That will make some raccoon very happy,” she said. Pinto bowed his head and squinted his eyes away from her.

“There, now you’ve scared Pinto,” said Robert solemnly. “You didn’t have to waste that grapefruit.” They drove in silence. The dog flicked his eyebrows back and forth between them and chose not to bark at the cattle they were passing.

“Another armadillo,” Robert said. “Doesn’t seem like they’d be that hard to avoid. Are they nocturnal?”

“I don’t know why people can’t be more careful,” Julia said. It began to rain. They split an orange when they changed drivers.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get your birds,” Robert said. Julia shrugged.

“There’ll be more. Maybe I’ll check into the Kirtland Warbler visits in Michigan.”

“I have some glucosamine. Maybe you should start taking some.”

“Maybe I will.”

“I’m going to try to rest a little,” Robert announced.

“Okay. It’s another hour to Ardmore. I think there’s a Motel 6 there,” she said. Robert turned his face into a pillow.

The rain diminished, but bruised clouds still hobbled across the sky. The setting sun cast a sheen across the wet tarmac. Julia slowed the wipers down to an occasional squeaking smear.

The first she knew of the deer was the smack of meat and bone and its writhing gray-brown mass filling the windshield. The glass exploded in a hail of crystals. The car heaved and slewed, swung its hips off the shoulder and the wet earth snatched at the hubcaps. The deer rolled off the hood and jammed beneath the front bumper, paddling its forelegs.

Julia was gasping. “Pinto! Get Pinto!”

“He’s here, I got him, he’s okay,” Robert cried. “Are you okay?”

“I never saw him,” Julia wailed. “I didn’t see him! I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t see him! Oh, God, where is he?”

“Hold Pinto.” Robert handed her the leash. He got out and walked around the car. He got back inside. He looked out the window.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said.

Beneath Julia’s feet, something scraped and banged. She yanked up her feet; her knees hit the steering wheel. She scrabbled mutely at the door handle and twisted sideways out the door.

“Let’s go,” he said. “This way, this way.”

They stood behind the car. It was getting dark. There was a rasping cough under the car. Robert walked away from her and lit up his cell phone. Pinto strained at the leash, whining, towing Julia towards the car.

“Don’t let him!” Robert barked. “Just don’t.” The rain began again.

“Stay right there,” said Robert. He got their raincoats from the trunk, slipping in the wet grass.

At last, white and red and blue lights. They stood haloed in the rain in their green coats with the keening dog. Robert cupped his palm around the back of Julia’s head. With his fingers in her hair, he pressed her wet cheek against his chest as the deputy got out of his car with a rifle in his hand.

  © Julie Stielstra, 2017


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