The always-amazing Martha Lewis Hicks is a freelance writer, poet, former health/fitness blogger, and aspiring novelist. Her work has appeared in various literary journals such as The Southeast Review, QWF, The Watermark and Microfiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories. She received a Writer’s Digest Poetry Award and has been a finalist for publication in Glimmer Train. She grew up near Princeton, New Jersey and has lived in Massachusetts for the past 28 years.
You are driving. No kids, dogs, or adults other than yourself to clutter up your air space for six hours. The ride is supposed to give you time to think, though now that you have the time, you realize that finding a useful thought is like looking for an old dollar bill in a pile of dead leaves. So you turn up the music loud and go.
Your thirtieth high school reunion is this weekend and you are driving from the south shore of Massachusetts to New Jersey, speeding in fact; toward what, or away from what, you are not certain. After hours of hauling ass through mind-numbing Connecticut, you run up against the inevitable jam on the Cross Bronx Expressway. You could have avoided this trouble by taking a different route. There was a time when you knew by heart all the alternate roads to get yourself back home, but it’s been too long since you used that name for the place you’re headed. Your GPS is dogmatic and insists there is only one way to travel, so you stay the course.
When you finally reach your hometown, there is a swirl of disquiet in the pit of your stomach. You feel untethered. If your childhood home were still your home in any sense of the word, you’d park your car under the craggy elm tree, the roots of which buckle the pavement in your parents’ old driveway. You’d dig the house key from its old hiding place in the jar under the pile of rocks--the key you could find blind, as you did many times when you coasted into the driveway, long past curfew with the headlights off, hoping like hell the dogs didn’t rouse your parents to come and witness the splendor that was you, you with your jacket on inside out, you missing a shoe, you with the smell of cigarettes, weed, and beer lingering in your hair.
But decades have rolled off since then. Your parents and the key are long gone, the contents of your mother’s junk drawers rotting in the bottom of a landfill somewhere in the swamps of Jersey. Though you still walk among the living, you are, in fact, a shade in a town that’s no longer as you remembered it and that no longer has a place for you because your place is somewhere else. So you check into the industrial-park hotel on the highway where the screaming tires of speeding tractor-trailers wither your spirit.
On the way to the party, your GPS guides you along the sort of bucolic backcountry roads that people who aren’t from New Jersey don’t believe exist here. Along these roads, dusk settles over air redolent with ripening grass and budding lilacs. Open fields bordered by weathered fences and rambling stonewalls back up to ancient stands of trees. New leaves hang heavy in the muggy night air. Soon you recognize this drive as the route your mother steered you too many times to count—to and from school, to friends’ houses, your riding stable—gripping the wheel and peppering you with the buckshot of her wisdom. A familiar song plays on the radio and soon the feeling of nostalgia goes from pleasant yearning to something like trying to get a clean breath in a burning building—close to smothering, but not quite.
You roll down the window. You roll it up again. You think about how hard it is to say goodbye to someone who won’t admit she’s leaving. You think about turning back.
At the end of a long stretch of road, you make a left into a residential neighborhood. When you come around the corner, you see a thing that causes you to stop short. Parting the gathering shadows, your headlights fall on three deer--a mother and two juvenile--stretching their necks to reach the young blossoms of a lilac bush. Your heart, you realize, is hammering in your chest because the last time you saw something like this was the day you returned to your parents’ house after your mother’s funeral to find three such deer standing on the front lawn in the snow. Then, as now, the scene stopped you short because it felt like some sort of a cosmic communiqué, a message sent by your mother to remind you of the triangulation between her, your sister, and you--the better parts, anyway.
Not that your father isn’t important, but the geometry of familial relationships can be broken down into separate equations. You’re pretty sure this one is the way your mother saw things at the end of her life, this bond between mother and her two children. You know this because your own two daughters have drawn the same triangle on your heart.
The sight of these three deer feels like a version of the words you and your mother could never share, because she would never admit she was dying. This sign seems like the real reason you’ve traveled here. You throw the car into park, put on your flashers, and text your sister, because she is the only one left who would comprehend the meaning of three deer in a field.
At the reunion, you refrain from drinking alcohol because your guts feel slippery and you’d rather they not spill out just here, just now. You overcompensate by drinking too much iced tea laced with ginseng and the result is that you feel a little too intense, a little too crystal clear and mildly frantic, like those startled deer. As the night progresses and the crackling of your mind persists, you come to understand that no matter how well anyone in your regular, adult life thinks they know you, they don’t know you the way these people do, the ones who blundered together with you through the boggy trenches of late childhood and adolescence. That is something you will have to reckon with later.
As the night stretches on, the air cools, humidity dissipates, and the bullfrogs gloat from the shallows of a nearby pond. A light rain begins to fall, but the reunion guests, hovering in conspiratorial clusters, don’t seem to mind. You stand back for a moment, survey the group and realize that, collectively and separately, your peers have come into their own. Those with something to prove have either done so or gotten over it. Life is hard and it’s made you all seem to have put your priorities in order. You’ve summited the peaks of middle age and are poised to begin the descent, with all its incumbent horrors and humiliations. But for now, as a group, you are bolted down to your essential selves. You get each other. It feels that way, anyway, in the moment.
It’s almost midnight. It’s time to say your goodbyes and make your exit. You don’t know what will happen between now and the next five years, and so you try to freeze each person in your mind just as they are right here, before the trip down the mountain.
Pulling away into the night, you drive along blind because the GPS can’t seem to lock onto a satellite. As you make random turns trying to retrace the route that brought you here, the darkness is deep, and your sense of direction is poor from relying too much on this gadget. You find yourself traveling down a gravel road that you don’t remember and, coming around a bend, you once again startle a group of deer ambling across the road. They scamper into the tall grass, ears pricked and tails flying. You can’t believe such a thing has happened twice in the same night, so you inch along, scanning the shadows like a tense skipper patrolling the banks of the Mekong Delta. Glowing sets of eyes peer out from the tall grass. Down a hill and across a small bridge, you come to a clearing and see a dozen or more of them. And further along, several more. It occurs to you that the three deer you saw earlier were not some sort of magical spirit totem of your long lost mother, but rather evidence that the deer population in Central New Jersey has, quite simply, exploded.
This knowledge leaves you alone with your fear of what is to come. You are trembling. You were looking for profundities from a herd of ruminant mammals. And so you park there for another moment with your face in your hands. You realize that you no longer know this place, you barely know yourself, and you don’t belong here.
A truck runs up the gravel road behind you and it passes, dragging a crimson cloud of stone dust in its tail-lights. The dust settles as the lights disappear around the bend, leaving you in darkness. Except, not really, because you notice for the first time that the sky is lousy with stars like you've never seen before. You open the sunroof to look straight up at the constellations, but all you can see are triangles, again and again, stretching out over the night sky.