It was hard for Max to walk at first. He was sure his ankles would snap under his weight. But that bastard Dr. Klinger said he would be fine and needed to exercise. The doctor would protest being called names.
“I saved your life, young man,” he might say. His woolly eyebrows would escape up under his bushy grey hair, that tangle that spilled forward each time he raked it back.
What would Max say in return? He might say that his life wasn’t saved, that he could have lived perfectly well as an amputee. They could have outfitted him with those blades like the Olympian who smashed through his bathroom door and killed his wife. He would rather have metal arcs spanning the distance between his knees and the ground.
“But you had to be shown. The board had to finally see my vision, that bunch of number-crunching neanderthals. The accident happening on your way from my lab was providential, as my grandmother used to say. It was serendipitous. You coming out unscathed except for the hamburger meat that was your old feet. Meanwhile the deer beaten to a pulp but those feet as perfect as they ever were.”
The doctor might put a hand to his chest piously. “If anything I should be thanked.”
Max had thought a lot about his trip to the doctor in the last three weeks. His employer had sent him out to announce formally that they were cutting funding to the doctor’s program. There had been too many liberalities taken with his study of interspecies genetic co-modification. When the doctor sent them a white mouse with the red wings of a Cardinal at Christmas, the board was deeply disturbed, if briefly entertained, watching the creature fly up and down the length of the boardroom table, snatching up bits of cheese off the lunch platter while hovering inches above the surface.
“But what would the press say if they saw this…thing?” the CEO asked.
There was a brief conversation, voices rising in anger at times, before they all fell silent to hear the chair speak.
“It will have to be incinerated.”
So it was done. For good measure, they collected everyone’s cell phones and scanned them to make sure no one had taken a video. Each person in the room signed a nondisclosure again, although from the beginning of the project, they had already signed dozens of amended and updated versions of the same.
Somehow it fell to Max to break the news to the doctor. It felt wrong from the beginning. He was the youngest member of the board and some would say his greatest qualification was being a blood relation to the CEO. It was a fool’s errand, to say the least.
The doctor had wept when he received the news. But then he had pulled himself together, offered Max a lunch, as the journey from the remote lab to the nearest town was some distance, and the long roads twisting and still etched with winter ice. All he remembered about the drive back to town were high banks of white snow on either side. Then the stag, standing there in the middle. If he hadn’t felt so tired after lunch, if it hadn’t been so hard to keep his eyes open. In the weeks he spent lying in bed, he had plenty of time to catalog his regrets.
He should have headed back before lunch, when he was still buzzing from the thermos of coffee that kept him company on the ride in.
He should have refused the task; his uncle would hardly fire him for it.
He should have stayed in college and finished his MBA instead of being seduced by an offer for an immediate and easy windfall.
He should have studied dance, as he wanted to when he was sixteen, instead of being shamed out of it by his father.
He should have died in that boating accident at five instead of his cousin Katie. It always came to this; it was an illogical regret. He had had many joyful moments in life between that summer day when the water off the Cape turned maroon all around them and the morning he woke up to find he had hooves instead of feet. All the same, he couldn’t escape the thought that this was a long overdue payment for a debt he owed the universe. Somehow he had cheated that day, getting to walk away unscathed.
On the fortieth day after the car accident, the doctor insisted he walk. It was hard to do because the small area of his new feet allowed him little wiggle room for balance. He found he wanted to spill forward.
“Well, that’s enough for today,” Dr. Klinger said. “The tenons are still knitting and I’d hate to see you snap them in a fall. I could kill the pain with morphine for your sake, but seeing my handiwork undone would be most unpleasant.”
As Max began to fall asleep, the doctor stroked his brow fondly.
“You really are a miracle. You’re the most beautiful creature ever designed by man. You just don’t see it yet.”
“I’ll never be able to balance on these deer feet,” Max said drowsily. The physical therapy was exhausting. Or else they were feeding him something in his IV to lower the veil. His eyes fluttered closed and he forgot as soon as he saw it that one of the doctor’s assistants was wheeling in a cart on which were perched a strangely familiar set of antlers. Eight points. Then Max could not open his eyes any longer.
“I think I know how to solve the problem of balance,” he heard the doctor say.
Then a voice, “Isn’t that what everyone wants?”
It may have been his own.