Leah recited the names silently as she raced around the dark country lanes, her eyes on the road and her foot heavy on the accelerator. She wasn’t so much dashing through the snow as speeding through the sleet, the narrow verges either side blurred smudges of dark slush, the road shining wet. She knew the roads well, and she knew the dangers, and so she knew she was travelling way too fast. She kept her foot down anyway. There was satisfaction to be heard in each hard corner – the swish of mud and slush under the tyres. The wipers were squeaking back and forth and she used them to mark a rhythm in her head.
… Vix-en, Com-et, Cu-pid…
She hated Christmas, fucking hated it, though she tried not to. This year she’d bought everything he said, had prepped the turkey and forgone the ‘cranberry shit’, bought beers instead of wine, put up a fake tree instead of a real one, even though it was her who cleaned up ‘the crap’ that fell from a dying pine. And still they couldn’t make it through the holiday without arguing. Christmas Eve, and here she was careening her way around the countryside when she should have been at home with her husband and daughter.
… Donner, Blitzen…
Thunder and lightning.
Leah hadn’t ‘named the reindeer’ for years. It had been a tactic of her mother’s. “Name the reindeer, honey,” she’d say, and Leah would close her eyes to think and cover her ears to block out the sound of mum and dad arguing, mouthing the names silently so as not to disturb them as they cried and shouted.
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen. And then again from the beginning: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer…
She took a corner so tight that the car rocked and she was thrown sideways into the door before taking a sharp dig in the hips from the gear stick. The wheels threw up muddy puddles and old snow before finding grip again. This was what she did now instead of naming reindeer: she drove.
The rain was falling in silver sheets, diagonal lines held in the beams of the headlights. Leah cranked the window down so the cold and wet could keep her alert, could keep her mind off of what had happened at home. She used some of the rain water to wipe crusts of blood from her nostrils.
Ahead, in the rain-lashed dark, Leah glimpsed a movement. It bounded in from the right, quick, springing out of the trees, too fast for her to see until it stopped and even then she had difficulty because of how it shimmered. A shape of rain more dense than that which fell around it, a silvered deer swelling in size as the rain gave it substance. It glistened wet with what had made it, diagonal lines blurring and brightening in the headlights. It stared at her with empty sockets, cavities of night where no rain sparkled.
Leah slammed both feet to the brake pedal but the wheels locked and she aquaplaned. She struck the deer but all it did was burst into a spray that washed up the bonnet and windscreen, only to be tossed aside by the wipers as she passed through.
When her view cleared, she found the rain had stopped. The change was as sudden as the impact had been; it was simply no longer raining.
Ahead, a parked car was flashing hazard lights.
Leah resisted the urge to wrench the wheel, knowing it would put her into the trees. Instead, she pumped at the brakes again, coming to a halt abrupt enough to test the strength of her seatbelt. She felt her nose run and wiped at it with her sleeve. It was bleeding again.
“Fucking Rudolph,” she said to the rear view mirror, cleaning herself. She sat panting through her mouth in time with the flashing amber lights of the parked vehicle.
It looked abandoned.
Leah put on her own hazard lights but did not leave the car. She moved it slowly forward, looking inside the other one as she passed. There was no one, just an open box on the passenger seat. She looked beyond the car but saw only a fallen fence and the dark between the trees. She checked the other side.
A body hung from a tree. It twitched and jerked.
Leah pulled herself out of the car and into the cold. The body lurched and twisted as she approached and she saw that it wasn’t what she had supposed: it was a deer. It had been strung up by its hind legs. The snow below was dark with blood. The smell was overpowering, rich and pungent with the odour of offal and excrement, all of which had been trodden into the ground around it.
Leah retched, bending to vomit, and saw hot tangles of entrails steaming in the cool night air. A pair of boots stepped into them and she flinched upright again as a man emerged from behind the carcass. He held a knife in one bloody fist.
Leah didn’t scream but a hushed exhalation clouded the air between them.
The man raised his other hand to her, the one without the knife. He showed her his palm and spread fingers. “Sorry!” he said. “Sorry.”
Leah took a single step back, but that was all. The deer, no longer tugged by the actions of the man’s blade, only twisted on its rope. Its stomach had been opened up. Much of it had been scraped out, a chunky puddle staining the ground. Its throat gaped open and the limp head was bloody with what had drained from it. Under the tree, the rain had done little to wash it clean.
“It’s okay,” said the man. “If you’re not the one who killed it, it’s okay. The law says so.”
Leah realised this man was carving up road kill.
“You didn’t hit it,” she said.
Leah knew a lie when a man told one.
“It was an accident?”
“Yeah,” he said. “An accident.”
Leah looked at the hollowed body.
“Can you do me next?” she said.
The man, wiping his hands on a rag, stopped to say, “What?”
Leah shook her head.
“Look, Miss, you won’t tell anyone will you?”
But she was already leaving him. Slowly. Calmly. Back in the car she spared him a final glance. In his blood-stained coat, with a sack of something wet at his feet, he looked like some ghastly Father Christmas, but Leah could only stare into the ragged darkness of the deer’s opened body. She wanted to climb inside and pull the skin closed around her.
“Merry Christmas,” the man said.
The rain came again as soon as Leah started the engine and she drove away into it without looking back. She would look ahead, and keep her eyes open for more deer – they were more common around here than people thought, and accidents happened – but it was hard to watch for them with her eyes full of tears.
When she did see them, they were running ahead of the car. Eight of them, shining with a ghost light of their own. Each was a shifting shape of rain that never diminished, a silvery shimmer in the headlights. She couldn’t tell if they were running from her as she drove, or taking her with them into the night, and all the while she was driving away from what she knew, she didn’t care.
WRITTEN BY RAY CLULEY
ILLUSTRATED BY LEE DAVIS
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