The Deer – Editor’s Pick

Dense fog weaves between scarred eucalyptus trees that line the golf course. The muted, early sun permeating through tangled branches above and illuminating the mist snaking at my knees creates something stirring and dreamlike. But the bone-chilling wet grass sticking to my bare feet and clumping in between my toes grounds me. I’m awake.

This six-in-the-morning version of the world is still except for me—frantic walking, uneven breathing, cutting across the 15th hole of the most prestigious golf course on the California coast wearing a silk pajama set. At least a fleeting shred of sanity made me tie a fleece robe around myself before barreling out the front door.

I think about the call I received at four thirty this morning. The annoyance in my voice when I answered—eye mask shoved on my forehead, layers of Italian sateen sheets still pulled up to my chin. My choking gasp as the voice on the other end of the line changed my life in one sentence, sucked all the air out of me like a vacuum through the receiver. How the world started to swirl then. How it’s still swirling now—reality and rumination blended beyond distinction. I feel my stomach convulse but I manage to keep the vomit down this time—my throat still burning from earlier bile.

A coyote suddenly appears in my path, revealed by an opening in the fog. His glowing eyes like headlights pinning me still. I feel every bit the deer. The weak pray. The dumb animal that thought I’d be safe here.

Three years ago, Lance and I surprised the girls with a new puppy we adopted from the local animal shelter who rescued a litter from Tijuana, Mexico. We named her Tutu. The Hillside Heights Tribune ran a story on the front page about Tutu’s hard life prior to her adoption—found in a storm drain off a highway—and how she’d won the lottery being adopted by the Whithers Family here in beautiful Hillside Heights where she’d live like a princess, pampered by Mr. and Mrs. Whithers and their three adorable young girls. The paper even sent a photographer to our house. I bought the girls matching crushed velvet dresses from Bloomingdales and we spent an hour striking poses with Tutu in our backyard. Our polished and powdered smiling family with little white, fluffy Tutu, the view of the bright green golf course and the indigo waves of the Pacific popping in the background. I thought, look at me and Tutu surviving our rough upbringings, coming out on top with a beautiful life like this. Of course, I wasn’t found in a drain in TJ, but a depleted children’s home in Huron isn’t that far off.

Two weeks after the story ran in the community paper, coyotes mangled Tutu in our backyard leaving shreds of her skin, smears of blood and intestines, and tufts of fur on our pool deck. Some nights I still wake up sweating from a reoccurring dream of Tutu running free and happy and alive along the streets of Mexico.

The sleek animal sniffs the air between us and my disorientation turns to unleashed anger as I flare my nostrils, open my eyes wide and scream at the creature before me, curling my lips and showing my teeth like the wild street animal that I am.


I jolt at the sound of a human voice and turn to see two men in khakis and white hats approaching with golf bags slung over their backs. I tilt my head at them unbelievingly. That they’re here. That I’m here, in the middle of the golf course. That I’m barefoot and in pajamas.

I swallow and look back towards the coyote. He’s gone. Had I imagined him? I look back towards the men, hoping they’ve vanished too, but they’ve only gotten close enough for me to recall names that match their shiny red faces. Bill Waters and Daniel Trousky. Fuck.

“I thought that was you, but it’s hard to see with this fog. Out for an early morning run?” Bill asks as his eyes sweep me up and down, politely unflinching at the robe but lingering much too long at my bare feet.

“Yes…I should continue.” It’s all I can say. There is no explanation for this. Well, there is, but I will not be sharing it with two of Lance’s golfing buddies right now.

Bill screws his eyebrows up in confusion as I continue past them on the green without another word.

“Oh hey, Heidi, tell Lance to call when he’s back in town. The bastard took my money out here last week and I want revenge,” Daniel shouts after me, his words teasing.

Lance was out here gamble-golfing last week? And now…

I don’t look back. I just raise a hand in acknowledgement and continue, grateful I’ll be hidden by the fog again in a few seconds, although I know by noon today everyone in Hillside Heights will know that Heidi Whithers was out exercising in her unmentionables with no shoes like a mad woman.

Lance loved this neighborhood from the moment we drove through the gates twelve years ago. The ancient trees. The big lots. A fantastic K-8th grade school. The award-winning golf course didn’t hurt. It felt elegant but grounded. West coast country, as described by our real estate agent. If you bought a house here, you had the kind of wealth that didn’t need proving. Women wore high-fashioned brands like Chanel and Hermes but not the crap with the logos – the real stuff from the Paris runways.

The cloak of money had still felt baggy and uncomfortable on my bones as I followed our real estate agent through estate after estate answering questions like, do you prefer golf course or ocean views? Seven or eight bathrooms? How could 9,000 square feet of house feel like a home? But Lance was smitten. He had a clear vision of what it would be like to raise our family here, give our kids everything we never had. He made me see all that it could be. A good life. It was what we had always wanted—money. Stability. But when had I grown into this wealthy neighborhood so completely? When had I become the epicenter of it?

Finally, I see the clubhouse as I round the second hole. There are walking trails around the golf course that lead here, but the most direct route from our house is across the green. And today, I need a direct route.

I only realize my feet are numb when the grass gives way to cement at the clubhouse entrance. I finally make it to the two big wooden doors and bend forward, leaning my cheek against the antique wood to catch my breath. My stomach turns violently again, and I focus on simply breathing.

How many times have I opened these club doors over the last twelve years? Ushering our three young girls through them for family dinners after soccer games, laughing with girlfriends during a moms’ night out after a highly dramatized PTA meeting, holding hands with Lance—date night!

Lance and I met freshman year of college and the first time I wasn’t Heidi the runaway in and out of foster homes, but just Heidi the communication major. In college, people didn’t care too much about your past because the future and freedom they’d been waiting for was unfolding all around them. A collective fresh start. A new chapter, as all the professors proclaimed, when you were finally allowed to grasp your own pen in your capable hand and proudly declare: this is how I’m going to write the rest of my life.

I told Lance my parents died in a car crash when I was five and he believed me. I never corrected the story even after we got engaged. Even after three kids and fifteen years of marriage. Some lies are so much better than the truth, you adopt them as reality. That’s why I’ve let Lance keep things from me, too—the off-center investments, the immoral business partners. I’m accustomed to turning a blind eye because I owe him.

It takes all my might to pull myself upright and swing open the right door. Inside, the clubhouse is dark and quiet—how I had hoped it would be this early. I make a beeline for the restaurant at the back. Rich mahogany walls with floral etched baseboards line the hallway. The faded red Persian rugs sprawled beneath me dry my wet feet with each step.

“Hello?” I call into the restaurant as I shield my eyes from the sun that has now cut through the fog and shines violently through floor-to-ceiling windows. Met with only silence, I proceed carefully through the main dining room, towards the bar.

The long marble slab looks dull without the overhead lights illuminating scattered martini glasses and scotch tumblers and I feel an emptiness in the pit of my center. I think of just yesterday when I found Lance belly up here—shoulders slouched, face pale.

“Lance? I thought you left for your business trip this morning?” I had asked.

His eyes were glazed and far away, the alcohol drooping his face and sucking his cheeks inward. The sight of him had triggered a domino of core memories of my mother. It was odd to see Lance in such a state as he was usually a smiley laughing drunk. My mother, on the contrary, drew knives. I instinctively looked at his hands then to make sure there wasn’t a blade.

He darted his eyes around the room cautiously then motioned for me to come closer to him so he could whisper something and when I did, he leaned in so close I could feel his wet quivering lips against my ear. “I’m in some trouble. I might have to disappear for a few weeks.”

Heart thudding in my ears, I pushed his shoulders away from me so I could read his whole face—all the words he wasn’t saying written there in stress lines, dark circles, fear. An unspoken knowingness passed between us then. Two decades of a unity. A pact to thrive. His willingness not to pry into my past even though he sensed the wreckage. My understanding now that something big had gone south and he was all out of options. I was far away from understanding any truths, but the need to run, to disappear because of the alternative. That I understood.

Now, I try opening the swinging half door that keeps unwieldly patrons, perhaps even mad women, out from behind the bar, but I can’t find the latch and I’m all out of patience, so I hoist my right and then left leg over it, smearing the countertop with grass blades as my foot brushes by.

Successfully on the wrong side of things, I feel my mind downshift into a foundational state that’s gritty and familiar. Something like saturated despair or guttural survival. I know I need to be clear headed for the next part but my nerves are vibrating through my veins and my cush lifestyle has poisoned me with comfort. I grab for the Grey Goose on the top shelf and set it on the counter along with a tumbler I pull from a crate beside the sink.

“Mrs. Whithers?”

The voice startles me and burning heat shoots through my limbs causing my hand to jerk, sending the tumbler flying from the counter and shattering beside my feet. I survey the broken pieces below and see a bright red stream trickling from a gash on my middle toe.

Lance always had a weak stomach and a sharp mind. Blood, vomit, snot—I was responsible for dealing with these things. I scrubbed Tutu off our imported limestone pool deck, for fuck’s sake. But what he lacked in durability, he made up for with smarts. Making money came easy to him. He could always see a clear path to wealth. Investments. Partnerships. Plans. I never asked if it was all above board even though I had my suspicions it probably wasn’t. Some lies are so much better than the truth.

Peeling my eyes away from the jagged glass, I look up and meet eyes with the club’s morning restaurant manager who knows my coffee order, knows my youngest daughter has an allergy to peanuts, knows Lance hates olives, always saves the table by the fireplace for our family during holiday brunches.

“Peter. I’m sorry.” It’s all I can muster as I grab another tumbler from the crate and begin pouring the vodka.

“Is everything OK, Mrs. Whithers?” All the color in Peter’s face has faded giving off a ghoulish translucency to his skin that creates a shiver down my back.

My eyes stay fixed on Peter’s as I hold the heavy pour of Grey Goose in my hand. Even his pleading twenty-something-year-old puppy dog eyes can’t deter me from gulping down the liquid and pouring myself another. Peter opens his mouth to say something else, but the words don’t come—he’s visibly shaken.

I want to explain. But I can’t tell him that I don’t keep alcohol in my house anymore because I started turning to it too readily throughout the day and addiction runs thick in my blood. I can’t tell him that I need something to dull my panic so badly that I left my daughters at home in their beds to march down the center of the golf course and find liquor that I know is stocked here. I can’t tell him what it feels like to live inside my body now that I heard what the voice on the other end of the phone said to me just hours ago.

I drink the second glass of vodka and then set it down gently on the marble top, all my senses frazzled, my eyes flooding. I consider my options. It’s been so easy to live as the woman I’ve become here—the PTA President, co-captain of the A team tennis league, host of the swankiest holiday soiree in town, platinum donor at the children’s charity ball. How naturally I grew into my cloak of wealth, filled it out completely, a real plump bitch. How painless it’s been to hide under layers of Gucci and diamonds and Botox, shielded from the perilous outside world by money. Untouchable, until now.

I feel a switch. An old self resurrected maybe. All these prickly pieces of myself I buried in deep internal graves break through the surface now. Without blinking, I dig my bare foot further into the glass below like I’m putting out a cigarette. Rivers of blood flow out in every direction. I need to remember how to feel uncomfortable.

Thirty years ago, at 12 years old, with a puffy black eye gifted from my mother’s latest boyfriend, I packed an old Jansport backpack with two pairs of clothes and a light-up yo-yo and snuck out the window in the middle of the night. No plan, no direction except away from darkness. It felt safer living on the streets than my childhood home. I walked until the blisters on my feet oozed, slept tucked under park benches, or wedged under stairways, then woke up the next morning and walked some more.

I feel that same resilience stirring in me now. I don’t know what’s coming—police investigations, unhinged business partners—but I will protect us. I will forge a path. I can play the dumb wife who didn’t know anything. Haven’t I been playing her all along?

“Peter.” I don’t know if it’s the forceful directness or the uncut horror in my tone, but he stands taller and clenches his jaw, bracing as I pin him with my eyes. I’m no longer the deer. “Lance is dead.” Each syllable falls around me like a bomb and I place my hand on the counter to steady myself. The policeman’s words from this morning’s phone call echo through my body. Shot in the head with a single bullet. Murder.

Peter gasps and falls to his knees with his hand on his heart. His outward display of weakness only exemplifies my new internal strength and I push my shoulders back and cock my chin up. The alcohol coursing through me has now calmed my craze and creates and an eerie steadiness that settles in my bones. I grab the bottle of vodka and tuck it under my arm, walk over to Peter—my foot streaking blood with each step—and place a hand on his shoulder. And without another word, I leave the same way I came, except now, everything looks different.


Kristin Helms is the author of Grace + Oak: Inspiration in Poetry and Photographs from Dover Publications (2020). Her essay, Unraveled and Awake, was selected as one of the most compelling essays for the San Diego Library’s Decameron Project and chosen to be performed by an actor from Write Out Loud. Kristin’s fiction is forthcoming in Creation Literary Magazine and her non-fiction has been published in Literary Mama, Motherly, and HuffPost.