Sometimes a golf cart will go speeding by so fast they swear it is a real car. Golfers and their capri’d wives feel the need every so often to press the plastic pedal flush with the floor of the cart, gunning for zero to sixty from the tortured electric motor. The worst is when she and Vanessa are walking on the paved paths that double as sidewalks and they can’t hear the cart coming. The only signal for them to dash off the path to the green on one side or the curb on the other is a hum like a mosquito and maybe the sudden clunk of laughably small wheels hitting a divot. The couples driving the carts don’t even have the courtesy to shout out a warning, waiting until after they’ve almost hit the girls before yelling, boxy cart still whizzing along. Vanessa thinks it might have been safer to stick to the street because at least then they could hear the real cars coming from around the ridiculous suburban curves of the road, some old geezer breaking the speed limit for the first time in his brand new Mercedes that has never seen sixty miles an hour.
But she doesn’t want to go in the street, not even at Vanessa’s insistence, not even with the golf paths a hazard. She will not relate the story, though it might help explain her aversion, of the drive home in the dark. The memory intrudes often enough: headlights brightened a cone in front of her family’s car to a lighter shade of grey on the snake-like two-lane road through the woods and the marsh. She and her brother, Alex, were in the back seat, quiet but conscious of each other. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him looking peripherally back at her, his eyes lit only by the green illumination from the gauges in front of their father. They turned around a blind, sweeping curve. She winked at her brother, opening her eye again to see the green glow. She was distracted by a similar glint outside the car that, in a wet brushstroke like watercolors, drew itself across the road and over the hood. The buck’s blank, terrified face froze in the windshield glass, outlined in neon from the dash, and her father shouted something unintelligible and leveraged his weight against the brake pedal, his body rising from his seat. Noise flooded into her ears, the instantaneous shouts of her mother, her father, her brother, and possibly her own throat in reactionary terror, though she couldn’t tell, and what she thought was the lonely, sad, momentary scream of the deer as its back broke against their speeding truck.
Then they were outside the car, its front end mangled, run off the road, Alex breathing heavily and quickly to disguise his sobs, her mother holding the two of them close with tears streaming down onto their heads. Her father walked back and forth between the deer and the broken car, its unnaturally white airbags deflated and hanging limp out the open doors. He muttered over and over, Oh my God. Fuck, oh my god, while being transferred on 9-1-1. She noticed all of this in retrospect, filling in the details with what most likely happened. Her attention was drawn at the time by the body of the buck that ricocheted off around the curve of the road. Without the lights from the car, she could only see its dark shape, but she imagined it had been looking at her.
Her mother asked her if she was okay, but she didn’t respond, and it set her to crying again, shouting to her father, I think she’s hurt. I think Chelsea’s hurt; please get someone here fast, please. She finally spoke up to ask if they could call the vet too. It’s hurt, she said, pointing out to the dark mass beyond the bend. Oh honey, her mother said, pressing a wet cheek against her hair. Oh honey. It’s not hurt anymore. It’s okay. Alex sat down and asked how they were going to get home.
Sometimes, she says to Vanessa, it’s just better to stay on the golf cart paths. Their curves are slight and visible across the green, and illuminated in the dark by streetlamps.
Alex always says golf is a stupid sport anyhow. He is angry a lot lately, at a lot of things, and golf is something he keeps talking about. She makes the mistake of telling him about the crazy middle-aged men wearing bright polos and sunglasses who assume the path will clear before them, and Alex never lets the subject go. He talks about how he hates all sports, but golf especially. You can hardly call it a sport, he says, when the only physical activities are swinging a club a few times and walking from green to green. And even then, they cut out walking by speeding all over the place in those stupid little carts. No wonder they all have heart attacks and die in their sixties.
She feels compelled to play devil’s advocate. Sometimes they have to drive very quickly to finish a game before dinner, she says. Or maybe the forecast says it will rain and they don’t want to be out and struck by lightning because it took too long to walk.
No one gets struck by lightning, he says, unless you’re being really stupid. If they get hit by lightning, they deserve it for going out and playing a stupid sport where you lift a big metal stick up into the air in an open field. They start to fight, not physically because that would get them both grounded for a long time, but in the way that feels to her like looking for just the right spot to walk through the bushes into the neighbor’s yard where you aren’t supposed to be. They look for just the right spot on each other with every sentence. She hates to be told she is stupid. Alex hates to be told he is weak. They both hate a lot of things, even though Alex is more obvious about it. She thinks it’s because he’s older than her. Older people have had to deal with more things they don’t like.
Then Stuart and Vanessa are dropped off. She and Alex pair off with their friends and retreat to their rooms on opposite sides of the house, Vanessa following her past the stairs and the living room to her room at the end of the hall. Her room is the same eggshell blue it’s been since her parents brought her home from the maternity ward twelve years ago. They never let her change it when she wanted it to be pink, but then she came to enjoy it more, and now boasts of it to her friends at school, all of whom have succeeded in convincing their parents to repaint. The windows are always open with the screens up, even in the spring when the humidity rolls in and causes her bookshelf to creak and expand and yellow the pages on it prematurely.
Sometimes she and Vanessa sit on her bed and pull books from the shelf and read them to each other. They both claim it’s random, but they always come back to the same books, the ones that are the best to read out loud. It’s more about placing themselves in the story than about not knowing what will happen and surprising each other. That’s why she always ends up with To Kill a Mockingbird. Her parents didn’t want her to read it when she was so young; they said to wait until high school when it would be assigned anyway, to stick with Nancy Drew and Harry Potter and the mysteries of young adults. It’s too serious, they said. Alex thinks so too.
She wishes Alex could be more like Jem, a brother whose fights she knew wouldn’t leave lasting impressions, who she knew would be there more often than not, to whom sibling rivalry was a playful part of growing up. She loves Scout and her bravery and their survival in an environment so different from hers, where nothing is a golf cart narrowly missing, mowing down children, and nothing is a pristinely kept series of greens and lawns pretending to be horizon fields. The thick almost-summer pouring through the window helps her trick herself into believing that maybe beyond the backyard is not an invisible fence and someone else’s crab grass, but the dirt road past the Radley place to the schoolyard. She wants her parents to be like Atticus, but they are just themselves: the nondescript parents she has always known. They drop their kids off at school each morning and go their separate ways to work, one to an office advising companies how best to focus their marketing strategies, the other to a company’s marketing department office.
She tells Vanessa she wants justice and knowledge. Brave and bold but quiet parents, not trying to get into their kids’ lives so much as guide them along from the background. Parents that would only step out of the passive protector to put on a suit and defend the weak in court, and then roll up the suit’s sleeves and shoot a rabid dog like a soldier. Vanessa says marketing was very important; without it we wouldn’t have any idea what people were doing in the world, or how times have changed. If your parents were Atticus Finch, people here would still be lynching each other, she says.
Sometimes there are deer out on the lawn at night, and she calls Vanessa over to the window to look at them. The lights on the opposite house are turned out, so the only source is from her bedroom, framing their faces. It glints off the deer’s eyes. She thinks it makes them look like they’re coming out of the dark, deep forest to see what is on the other side. They come past the trees onto the lawn and freeze at the sight of her house and the streets and houses beyond it. Alex says that they don’t understand what is happening out of their habitat. Things like houses and lights and roads don’t make sense to them, he says. We put roads through the forest and they don’t understand that the road means they’re walled in, that if they try to cross they’ll get shoved into the grille of a truck. She covers her ears and sings Miss Mary Mack loudly. It’s his least favorite song. He knows what he’s doing and so does she. She doesn’t want to think about broken deer flung back into the forest they tried to leave.
On Sunday mornings, she wakes up early to go to the lagoon and watch the herons. The lagoons are so small, nothing like the salt marshes surrounding the development and extending toward the ocean. But, big stilt-legged birds like lagoons as much as anywhere else before people get up to get an early start on nine holes. She doesn’t sit too close to the edge of the water though because she’s nervous about the alligators. When Alex points this out to her and laughs, she claims to be an expert on finding them when they’re pretending to be logs. You can see it in their eyes, she says, and gestures to them, outlining the lone alligator’s face. You can tell they’re watching you. She knows her brother knows she is right, but he still warns her to keep away from the shore. There might be snakes in the reeds, he says. You don’t want a cottonmouth to jump out and bite you, because they will. He grabs her suddenly by the arm and pinches, and she jumps, startled, before pushing him away. I don’t have to watch out for them. If I’m lucky, the herons will come and eat them and I’ll see one flying away with a big brown snake in its beak, she says.
They can’t get every single one, he says. She scooches further up the bank and looks out across the water to the still bird, its feathers shining grey in the orange morning sunlight. It doesn’t move for almost ten minutes, then suddenly it alights and is gone over the trees.
Sometimes she abandons the path altogether, daring Alex to follow her between tall, thin pines through the needle-covered forest floor. He tells her that it’s not a real forest, but she likes to think of it like that, and calls it the woods every time. They’re not supposed to be in those thin patches of growth between the paths, not unless they’re groundskeepers or landscapers. She ran into a man once, in a blue jumpsuit and hat with a reflector vest. He yelled to her from the other side of the treeline, said that she should get back onto the path so that she wouldn’t get lost, but she moved closer to him. You’ll scare away all the animals in that orange vest, she said. He shouldered his weedwhacker and pushed his protective goggles up onto his hat. The jacket is so that no one thinks that I’m an animal, in case I get hurt or need help, he said. She was quiet, and he directed her back towards the path. Now Miss, you should stay on the paths. If you get lost or hurt, people might not see you. She turned to him and put her hands on her hips, glaring up at his stubble-covered chin. I won’t get lost. I can see the golf course from everywhere in the woods.
Sometimes she wishes she would get lost, if only to see what real woods looked like from the inside. She imagines they are not so thinly and neatly covered in trees, that they are like in books, thick and impenetrable except by a skilled set of eyes, feet, and hands that know their way through the underbrush. She thinks maybe she can take Alex, Vanessa, and Stuart along, and they will explore the places far away from beige-sided houses and twig-free lawns. The woods are like a city, a metropolis, she has read; tall and close and densely populated, but you have to know where to look to see anything in particular. It’s like walking downtown, she thinks, and you see all the buildings and shops and it feels like a city, but you don’t know where to stop, what places to try out. Like window-shopping. In theory, she can guide herself into that space, rather than simply through it, and in that world they are free of golf carts and their unpredictable but always-visible paved paths. The deer there aren’t neatly arranged like bushes but appear unexpectedly and disappear the same way, in a flash. She thinks of the buck’s eye and shudders and apologizes.
One time she relates the story of the crash to her brother, thinking maybe he thinks about it just as much as her. Maybe he tries not to think about it just as much as her. He says he hardly remembers it, only that the truck was wrecked, but she can see in his eyes, he saw it too, the harsh green glow. He says she has no idea how it felt then, if it felt anything at all, it was just another confused animal that didn’t understand its new boundaries. She wishes that the animals did understand so they would stop. Maybe there could be a time every day when no one would drive by, and they would be trained to know that’s when it was safe. But then they would be trained, and then what would be the point.
Then isn’t a deer sort of an opposite road? she asks him. Deer don’t know what a road is, but when we drive across where they are we’re trying to cross too. Do we know what the deer are? Alex doesn’t respond. She is upset that he thinks she is stupid.
One Sunday evening they walk as a family, the four of them, out along the paths between the houses and organized patches of pine trees and long, sharp-leaved bushes. The sun is deceptively high in the beginning of May, and it sinks faster than any of them notice when the evening breeze rolls in, bringing with it the dusk buzz of the crickets and gnats and mosquitoes. Her parents move hand-in-hand, slowly, several feet behind her. Alex is up front, moving quickly when she catches up and then slowing just a little too much when he is sufficiently ahead. She secretly quickens her pace to catch up to her brother, knowing partly that it will coax him to move again, but also because he doesn’t need to be that far in front of her. She turns to look across the golf course and stops, pointing. Deer, she says. A whole family. Far on the other end of the green, against the treeline, a group of four deer are stopped and waiting, their heads attentive in her direction, seeing her the moment she saw them. Her parents move up behind her and look as well, and she whispers over her shoulder to Alex to come quick, before they leave. They are in a line, posed similarly of their own accord, that automatic response to the slightest motion that she has seen so many times from her bedroom window. The buck is the biggest, ten points she thinks. He is too far away for her to count, but he is so large that he must be, the intricacy of the antlers still tied in her mind with some notion of experience, a wisdom of the woods that they possess even in their blindness to roads and golf courses and the artificially planned, wooded medians between.
Just as Alex comes back to meet them, the deer scatter, melting into the trees. What a beautiful family, her mother says. Good job, Chelsea, for spotting them. I never would have seen them all the way on that other side. Alex is upset that he didn’t get a good look at them; she can tell from his silence. She says it’s nice that there weren’t any crazy people on golf carts driving past to scare them away. Her father laughs. Alex still thinks golf is stupid.
As they move closer to home, Alex walks ahead again. The sun, now down, colors his light hair orange, like a lamp glowing after it is just turned on. She runs to catch up to him, matching her pace to his by watching their white shoes move in time on the pavement. He is still silent. She looks to him, and he looks back. They both laugh, the challenge communicated in an instant, and they are off, dashing in the direction of their house while their parents stand back. She thinks for a moment, and then veers from the path across the green median, over the curb, and onto the slow winding street, making a shorter course towards home. Her mother shouts for them to be careful. Alex responds that they will in the midst of calling his sister out for cheating, her head start only apparent in his second-place status. And then she is out of sight around the corner.
Sometimes she wishes she could be a heron, standing still in the water one second and in flight on wide grey wings the next. Sometimes she wishes she could be a deer, able to push through the underbrush with natural ease, at home in the real woods, not understanding the unbridgeable gap of the road.
Robert Schuster’s work has been published in From the Depths as the Fiction Open First Runner-Up, as well as in The Magnolia Review, Black Market Re-View, and Blast Furnace. He works as a high school English and Creative Writing teacher, and he lives with his fiancé in Charlottesville, Virginia.