The shadows creep deeply along the ruts in the road and swallow the trees up whole as night falls. We stand beside my car, Harry and me, shivering, wishing it was really spring.
My mom says the mountains are hazing; that’s what she calls it when the buds on the trees make the forest on the ridge look purple. When the magnolia in the neighbor’s yard started to bloom last weekend, Dad said the world really had gone to shit. There would be a late frost and kill everything.
“Everything’s upside down these days,” he said. He hunched over his computer, tuning the rest of us out. His style.
Maybe tonight it will frost. It’s cold enough or feels like it anyway.
Harry says, “You sure this is the place?”
He’s trembling and I put an arm around him. “This is where I saw him last time.”
We just have to wait.
Harry is patient and kind. He would follow a friend anywhere rather than let them go in alone. Luckily this doesn’t seem too dangerous. I’d never want to see Harry hurt. We’ve been friends since grade school. He helped me skip school when I had my first period so no one would see the blood on my jeans. My mom and dad were out of town on business and I didn’t want to tell my teacher or the secretaries in the principal’s office. They’re all terrible. Harry never said anything about it afterward to me or anyone else. He is good like no one I know.
The wind picks up on the mountainside, rustling the leaves on the ground, bringing a whiff of warm earth and new life. There are soft disruptions in the shadows, nothing too loud, just squirrels scrambling around. A few cries from birds. My mom would probably know their names.
“That’s a tufted titmouse,” she might say. “You can tell by the liquid notes.”
She was a nerd before it was cool, she likes to say. I always pretend it’s a good joke because I feel sorry for her. Humor is not her strength.
Then on the ridge above us, silhouetted against the indigo twilight, I see the stag man as clearly as I did the last time. Tonight I’m not high, though; I made sure we’re clean and sober. My mouth goes dry, but I give Harry’s arm a squeeze. I want him to look but not to say anything. His hair brushes my cheek as he tilts his head to study the ridge. I feel him stiffen against me.
So I am not crazy.
The stag man isn’t tall, but his antlers make him seem like a beautiful dancer out of a strange ballet. His legs taper down to a pair of hooves. It makes him stand unnaturally, his butt stuck out a little more than normal, his shoulders thrown back, too. It really is kind of like a dancer or this kid in school who everyone was calling gay a year before he came out. Danny. He always walked like that. It made some of the other guys look when they caught him out of the corner of their eye, then scowl and turn away, like they were tricked into it. I know I saw that happen at least three times and it made me laugh every time.
But this isn’t Danny and I’m not laughing.
“I can’t believe it,” Harry whispers.
“Are you scared?”
“No. I don’t think so. Are you?”
I’m not scared. I wasn’t scared the first time, either. He doesn’t seem threatening. He just looks sad, his head turning now and again to study the woods. Now his head tilts toward us and while I’m not scared, I still find my stomach turning to jelly under his gaze.
The stag man turns his whole body toward us now, his hooves scratching the moist spring earth, one of them rasping along a vein of stone so we can hear the sound of it. Now his face is in shadow, his antlers and his lean, square shoulders trimmed in dim silver light. If he approaches us, he will remain faceless until he is right on top of us, but out cheeks and brows, our noses and chins will carry those dim silver highlights. He’ll read us and see inside us maybe a little, the way no one else in ours lives ever can. I don’t know why I think this. I’m just tired of trying to make myself clear to older people who always turn my words and my thoughts upside down.
It doesn’t make any sense that I think he’ll understand, but it makes no sense that he even exists either. Harry and I link hands like we always have when we’re about to be swallowed up by mystery. With his nails biting into my palm, our breath curls up around our faces, and we wait without breathing as the stag man closes the distance.