I am freshly twenty-one when I learn how loud the snapping of bones can be. It has something to do with the pressure and density, a sudden crumbling of hardened material in a vice grip that builds like an explosion. The soundwaves shoot through the muscle and skin and hair like an activated landmine, spraying the area with serrated auditory shrapnel. It is the loudest thing I heard in the moment—above the impact or screeching tires or sudden gasp—and it echoed in my head like a never-ending cave scream. Anna tells me later that it’s what made her cry.
The drive from Seattle to Portland is both poorly-lit and thickly-populated with wildlife. The road meanders with the drifting Pacific Northwest feel of a stoner’s slow saunter making for wide, loping turns and a divider line that is difficult to follow with the high beams of a car. I would claim this stretch of highway is more prone to accidents, but I haven’t found the numbers to back that up yet. You’ll just have to trust me.
I would like to say that I never saw the deer coming, but that would only be partially true. We were busy commenting on Anna’s podcast playing, tired from our trip, thinking we were more clever than we were, believing those empty roads would remain just that. I hit the brakes a second short and refused to swerve—the thought of my decade-old car spinning out, rolling, colliding with a tree was enough to keep the wheel straight. Instead, we listened to the sound of femurs, joints, fragile ribs crunching against my bumper with the small and selfish thought of that it was better I didn’t swerve, better the deer than us.
We sat frozen in the car for a long time, long enough for my foot to start cramping from pressing down on the brake. The podcast was still playing, the voices of semi-funny comedians sounding far away, and even though she was crying, Anna reached over and turned on the hazard lights when I reached to put the car in park.
This isn’t the first time Anna has heard bones snap in real time. She would later tell me of her junior year of high school when she watched a boy slip from the third-story all the way to the ground floor. He had toppled over the railing in a freak accident of lost balance and landed on a table that collapsed like an eggshell beneath his weight. He would spend a week in the ICU before regaining consciousness, but in that interim, Anna and all the other witnesses had been ushered into councilors’ offices in a knee-jerk reaction to suppress trauma. She only talked to the adults for a few minutes—she didn’t have the right words. How do you describe the sound of a body caving in on itself?
In the time we sat still in shock, no other cars passed by. We watched the yellow hazard lights blink in front of us, the deer out of sight, and tried to ignore that the headlights had a red glow from splattered blood. I would like to believe the deer died instantly because by the time we were brave enough to look, it wasn’t breathing, lying at angles that didn’t make sense, its eyes turned away from us in a visage of shame.
The question of what to do with a body.
When I hit the deer, I am still twenty-one so I refuse to cry in public because I am a boy and while boys can cry, I refused to be one of them. Staring at the deer, I should have cried. I wanted to, but I just choked myself instead. Two months earlier, my father had died just as suddenly as the deer—a heart attack on some mid-week morning lying next to my mother in a room they had shared since before I was born. At the funeral, I sobbed in a back room alone because I couldn’t comprehend that my mother was now left to a bedroom too big for one person. I wondered if this deer had been a part of a herd.
Anna had to turn away—the broken body and silence of it all made her shake. Instead she looked at my red-webbed bumper and said we would need to wipe off the headlights somehow. I thought about the month following my father’s death and how my mother tried everything she could to change and reclaim her space. She got a smaller bed and moved all of his clothes from their shared closet to my unused room. She switched the rug and painted the cream walls a soft shade of purple with an urgency that was breathless. My family has a tendency to subdue and erase before we can begin to cope—the older I get, the more I understand. It had to be a different room, it couldn’t be the same bed, rug, walls she had watched her best friend slip away with an EMT declaring time of death.
Without looking at it, Anna kept repeating we needed to do something with the body, that it was wrong to just leave it here for the coyotes. I was still refusing to cry but couldn’t look away, still thinking about my mother and her purple paint, trying to believe that I am more than a mass of meat and bones, that someone would pause with discomfort at the thought of abandoning me on the roadside.
“We stay with the body, or have bad dreams,” are words from an essay I hadn’t read in years, suddenly scratching at me like an innate social code. Words that said if we are raised right, if we are in essence a “good” person, then we don’t leave a body to the elements and the scavengers. It is the basest, most primitive sense of morality. It is riding in the ambulance even though you know he’s not coming back. It is the desperation to not leave those behind.
We hang on and refuse to let go until we must.
Despite the darkened roads and encroaching trees, Anna and I still had service. We had to look up who we needed to call and a few minutes later we were on the phone with the police. Don’t worry, they said in a way that was too nonchalant. These things happen all the time.
From the same site that told us who to call, we learned what usually happened to the body. The carcass, the site called it. The cadaver, the specimen, John and Jane Doe scientists and researchers call a body. In most cases, the deer will be thrown into an incinerator—a mass of meat and bones reduced to ash, scattered or disposed of somewhere and somehow, the site didn’t bother to specify.
My family prefers cremation—we have an aversion to corpses and open caskets to the degree we choose to be burnt and condensed to particles suitable for an urn or box. My grandmother, my aunt, my father—no one wanted a grave, instead they asked for a place on the mantle, the bookshelf, the old TV stand. It’s the concept of anchoring yourself to your home in a way that is so quintessentially American, asking your loved ones to not let go, to keep you close in a way where photographs are not enough, a need that can only be fulfilled by the remnants of your physical body.
Anna and I stayed with the body for a long time but didn’t get back in the car. To do that would feel wrong in a way that I still can’t describe. We wiped down the headlights with an old beach towel I found in the trunk and waited for red and blue police lights to appear. I didn’t want to leave the deer—it’s future as unclaimed ashes weighed on me in an illogical fear of untethered desertion.
I thought about my father neatly-placed on the TV stand in an oak box. I thought about holding on and letting go. I thought about my mother finally being able to do something with his clothes—she called me and my sister because she couldn’t do it alone. She couldn’t sift through his ties and shirts and shoes in a bedroom that was too big for one person. My sister and I came to her and stayed.
Anna and I leaned on one another, waiting for the red and blue lights. In the glow of the hazards, we sat down and chose to stay. Because we should, because we had to, because we refused to be abandoned on the roadside.
 From Joan Didion’s “On Morality”
Harrison Pyros is an English and Economics student at UC Santa Barbara. He is originally from Los Angeles, but spent time all up and down the west coast, including the Pacific Northwest. His writing focuses on satire, social commentary, and quiet dramas, and his previous work has appeared in The Santa Clara Review, The Ilanot Review, The Roadrunner Review, and elsewhere. His work can be found at harrisonpyros.com.