There’s a cloud in the room that the boy knows as ‘vapour’, knows it in the way he knows his emotions, knows it in the way you know your name. There is a deep green carpet that smells like his father, always slightly damp, and a dartboard on one wall. There are three darts in the board, at the 7, 18, and 14 marks. The numbers aren’t important. Don’t grow too attached to the numbers.
The boy is in a chair almost deep enough to lie down in, high enough that from behind there’s no boy at all, only a chair and some potential. He kicks his legs back and forth, and looks through the vapour, or tries to. It’s difficult. It’s not particularly thick, but he gets the sense it doesn’t want to be looked through, that it congregates more thickly on whichever spot his eyes alight for too long. With a start, both you and he notice two cars in the room, one grey, one red. It’s unclear whether they’re set dressing or something integral to his feelings, which are thus:
The room is familiar, as is the vapour, as are the vehicles. He’s played darts on the board. There should be two doors, one on either side of the room, either of which might grant him his freedom, but neither of them exist. His breathing comes short, though the vapour doesn’t threaten his lungs — he’s just afraid. He’s unsure how old he is, but knows he’s been afraid a long time. He gets the sense his fear might be older than his body, something inherited like a walking stick, or a footstool. He would like to be alone in the room, but he’s not. There’s a deer in another chair, facing him. Its legs are crossed in the manner of a man watching an elementary school pageant. Deers are unable to grin, but it certainly broadcasts an air of mirth.
A Whitetail Deer’s antlers are one of the fastest growing tissues known to humankind, it says. Did you know that?
It lights a cigarette, and tells the boy to shush. Don’t tell anyone about this, all right? The cigarette?
You shouldn’t smoke-
The deer’s right. The boy’s holding a cigarette, half-smoked. In high school, the boy would cadge cigarettes by asking for twos from his peers — to split the cigarette in half, and let him have the bottom. If that failed, he’d ask for labels, the bitter, choking, tar-filled death drag on the cigarette that did nothing but make his eyes ache.
If he remembers high school he must be older than he thought before. Maybe the description I gave you was wrong? Or maybe, simply, he’s ageing; the chair no longer seems so big. For a moment he panics at how quickly time may be moving.
Can I leave? the boy says.
Goodness, the deer says. No.
The boy ages no further. He watches his hands for symptoms of atrophy, uses them as a weather gauge for decay. Neither he nor the deer eats, though at one point the boy felt a hunger that scooped between his ribs like a spoon through ice cream. Since then, he’s begun to realize that food is unimportant in the room. He hasn’t stood up since he arrived. He tries, and the deer shakes its head.
If you stand, I’ll gore you.
The boy looks at him mutely, cigarette caught mid-air between his lips and its foster home in the Budweiser ashtray.
That’s why I’m here, the deer says. I watch the boys in the room and keep them in their place until it’s time they go.
When can I go?
Whenever you can stand without me goring you. If you leave before then, I’ll gore you. Do you see?
The boy asks more questions as the indecipherable time passes. He repeats them often. Retaining information feels like trapping smoke in an upright glass. It floats out before his hands have a chance to cup themselves over the rim.
The Boy: What is the vapour?
The Deer: I’m not a vapour specialist. I’m a watch-deer.
The Boy: Do all boys have vapour?
The Deer: I couldn’t tell you. Deer-boy confidentiality.
The Boy: You’ve done this before?
The Deer: A thousand times.
The Boy: Then what is my name?
The Deer: I don’t know.
The Boy: Then what is your name?
The Deer: The Deer.
The Boy: Do I have a family?
The Deer: No. Absolutely you don’t. With the utmost certainty I can say, you are every kind of orphan.
The Boy: Then what is my name?
The Deer: Thud. Pockets.
The Boy: Are those names?
This is what the deer looks like:
Its coat is a lustrous tan-red, like the forehead of a swede at the end of summer. White fur borders dewy eyes, and encroaches on its throat. There are antlers, and a tail. Among the threat of its violence are the littered beauties, the fallen ornaments of its past lives that echo a sense of hiraeth. The boy isn’t sure why he knows that word. He isn’t sure why he knows any words at all.
Are you homesick? the boy asks.
The deer has lit two cigarettes at once, takes a drag of one after the other like a dance of medieval torches. The smoke is no match for the vapour that surrounds them both. It dissipates on contact like water sizzling on a stove. The deer cocks its head and drops its ears. They hang at 180 degrees.
No, the deer says.
Am I? the boy asks.
The deer curls its upper lip. Its an odd sight. The boy runs two fingers along his mouth to remind himself that he’s no deer, no buck, but something else altogether. He’s forgetting what that might be. The word human bounces around his head, kicking up memories like papers swept up on a breeze. He wonders what a human might be. With the wondering comes the question, Did he deserve to be one?
The boy eyes the dartboard. He remembers the game surprisingly well. He has the feeling he may have sat on one of the larger objects in the room, the red one, with the wheels. He’s forgotten its name, or its purpose, but sees himself, who he assumes he was, sitting on the front of the object drinking from a bottle, its surface dipping slightly under his weight. The desire to flee the room fills him so suddenly that he distrusts the notion.
I’d like to leave, he says.
Of course you would.
If I do, he says. Without you goring me. What happens?
I will wait for the next boy, the deer says. It crushes a cigarette packet between two grey hooves. Who must be coming soon. Do you notice the vapour?
I might as well ask you if you notice the air you’re breathing. The boy had given up on noticing the vapour some time before, some time being the only correct estimation. It remains a cloying, secretive veil surrounding a boy, a deer, two objects in which they sit, and two objects which are larger, grey, and red.
The Boy: No. I don’t notice it.
The Deer: It will disappear soon. Reshape itself for the next boy. It might be anything at all honestly.
The Boy: What will happen to me then?
The Deer: I don’t care. I don’t care enough to know. I’m the deer who watches you from my chair, in your chair, until something happens and I’m finished watching. Beyond that I’m nothing at all.
The Boy: And what am I?
The Deer: Terrified.
The Boy: What is that?
The Deer: You’re piss-your-pants frightened.
The Boy: What is that?
The Deer: You’re an absence. An absence of an absence.
The Boy: I don’t-
The Deer: I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care.
The Boy: I want to leave this place.
The Deer: Then stand and leave. Piss your pants and stand and leave and be nothing at all in a somewhere else place.
(The boy puts one hand on either arm of the chair, remembers his knees, and prepares to stand. Whether his legs will hold his weight is the wrong kind of question. The audience gasps at his wobble, his hollow cheeks, the cavernous sockets engulfing blue eyes corroded by penitent smoke. The deer watches, ears laid back, hair raised, ramrod stiff as a battering ram. Lights in the room go far too high. The audience, irritated, curses. Each smells of piss, and cigarette smoke, bleeds from a wound, or wounds, or simply through porous flesh.)
I may gore you if you stand up.
You might, the boy says. Yes.
Sam Asher is an alcoholic born and partly raised in the Middle-East, now living in New York. He loves translating English -language fiction into Arabic, and being terrible at social media. Find his work in Amazing Stories, Daily SF, and the Gateway Review.