This story is by Liisa Walimaa and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
She lies nearly hidden in the white sheets, beseeching me with grey eyes. Fragile in pajamas dotted with yellow ducks.
Last year, I might have sat at her bedside, my head resting on her pillow. Now, a clear plastic curtain and two meters separates us as I sit in a plastic chair in a row of plastic chairs and hold her stuffed toy close to my chest.
I’m here for you, I tell her, eyes to eyes. I’m staying. I pinch the metal nose bridge on my mask. They say I can’t touch you. But I’m staying right here. I’m not going anywhere. Not even for a third of a second to blink.
Sounds haunt the space between us. The shoop of a respirator. A ticking clock. Dripping. Beeping. The hum of the AC.
I stare through her as the ghostly hum transports me to last summer.
Animals don’t just lie in the grass for hours staring into human faces. Help me, she said with her black marble eyes. I can’t tell you what I need, but help me.
I called for help right away. Game and Fish. What’s the location. Thank you. Yes, of course. I’ll wait.
Help is coming. You’re safe. Her ears rotated toward my voice.
I called back after an hour and asked when they would be responding. Bonito and Elm? Yep. I have that. But I don’t have any officers in today. But we called… Mm-hmm. But there are dogs and people and bicycles… Yep. You know, people shouldn’t ever touch a deer. They carry diseases and can hurt humans– I know that, that’s one of the reasons I– especially if they’re stressed. So, what should I do now? Leave it. But she’s– Leave it. Just leave it and go. Have a nice day.
I Googled ‘what to do if…’ Angels of the Forest. Permanently closed. Coconino Wildlife Rescue. Opens in five hours. I left a voice mail. Any help you can give, even a number for someone else I could call…
Those eyes. Those big ears. I know, honey. I’m trying to get you help.
A giant Labrador loped up, dragging a small man. Hi, um, good morning. Don’t worry. She’s friendly. Oh? No, right. It’s just that there’s an injured deer, right there. I pointed with the universally benign four-fingered gesture. And, your dog.… I scruffled the ears of the terrier in my arms. Well, I’m just trying to keep everyone calm.
Two more people, three more dogs, a pair of cyclists in technicolor spandex. When did this trail become a throughway? Good morning. I just want you to be aware of the injured deer. Hi, yeah, right there in the grass. Please. Stay on the path. Keep calm. Yes, someone’s coming.
I lied. No one’s coming. Just leave it, she had said.
Thanks. Bless you, too.
Bless you? People don’t ever know what to say when it comes to death. Yes, we all know she’s going to die. Animals don’t do that. Lying in the grass with imploring eyes. Even my terrier knows it. I put him down and he lay at my feet, his chin on my boots, matching his eyes to hers, his ears to hers.
I won’t leave her. Flagstaff Police Department Non-Emergency. How can I help you? There’s an injured deer on the urban trail. Game and Fish doesn’t have anyone. What is the nature of her injuries? I don’t know. Her legs, maybe. She won’t get up, doesn’t even try. Her head is up, her eyes are open. And her ears are erect. And if someone comes by? She just watches me. Animals usually don’t do that. Please hold.
Thank you for waiting. An officer will respond. It may be a while. Will you still be there? Of course, I mean, I can be. If you need to go and do other things, we understand. No. Yes, I’ll be here. Call us if you need to go.
There’s a deer. In the grass, I said. I put my body between the hiker and the doe. I may be small, but I will create a bubble of protective compassion for her. She won’t chase it, the woman in the hat said, indicating the obese, grizzled Newfoundland waddling behind her. I squatted next to my dog. We’re just trying to keep her calm. The woman peered over me at the deer. On tiptoe. Like she was looking over a fence. They won’t do anything, you know. She spoke with an accent. Swedish? German? She will die. She is dying now. The older dog sniffed my dog’s nose. It wore an aqua collar. Sweet pup, I said. She’s very old, she said.
How long will they be? A runner in orange trainers asked. Are you going to stay? I don’t know, really. But, yes, I’m staying. Bless you.
The police SUVs parked on the bridge above the trail. I waved as the officer got out. Her partner joined her at the muddy stream bed. Should’ve worn boots, he said. I scooped up my dog. Keep everyone calm. You said it was at the duck pond? No, she’s right here. Four fingers, open palm. The doe turned one radar dish ear toward me. Then her eyes. Was her black nose closer to the ground now?
The deer and the officer silently watched me as her partner approached the animal. I looked down at the dog in my arms. The top of his head was red. Are you bleeding? I checked his mouth, his paws. I think it’s you, ma’am. Your nose. I wiped a nostril with my thumb. Oh, I didn’t realize… It must be the altitude.
Ma’am. The second officer spoke for the first time since crossing the mud. It might be ill, or maybe it was hit by a car. We can’t really move the animal. We’re not equipped to. But if I push it a little,… He jabbed the air with his truncheon. It might get up and go. I pinched my nose. Do you have a tissue? It’s bleeding. He patted his pocket. She kept her thumbs in her belt. I used my cuff.
Being a hunter myself, animals usually don’t do that. He pointed with the baton, drew a circle in the air around the deer. So, if it doesn’t get up we’ll just…
No one believed she would get up.
Are you up this way? The first officer pointed to the road with her notebook. No, I walked from the park. I extended three fingers from my pinched nose to suggest the direction. She stepped aside like she was opening a door. You may go now. Age before beauty.
I walked, carrying the dog like a football along my left arm. We crossed the fisherman’s bridge and passed a lichen-covered stone bearing a patinaed plaque. I paused to read the memorial.
Hum. Shoop. Tick. Drip. Beee—
Someone slaps a wall switch.
A single gunshot cracked the air.
Bright light cracks the room open. I blink. I lose eye contact with her as a monochrome aqua commotion erupts around her bed, obscures her yellow ducky pajamas. I squeeze the toy with both hands.
The ducks on the pond scattered, a cacophony of splashes and quacks and flapping wings. My dog struggled to get free.
I had told her help was coming. I didn’t tell her he would poke her. Then shoot her.
Code 10-22: Disregard. Just leave it.
I pressed the terrier close to my chest and tried not to sob. Be calm. It’s ok. We’ll go to the car. My vision blurred. I had told her help was coming. Splotches, bright red against white fur, spread across the dog’s back.
I shoved a wrinkled take-away napkin up my nose and sat in the car, staring through a bug-spattered windscreen at a greyhound lying awkwardly under a picnic table. The image morphed like a Magic Eye poster into the doe. I had told her help was coming.
My dog laid his chin across my thigh. Looked up at me. Through me.
There is a hand, a pat on my knee. Be calm. It’s ok.
Bless you. A tiny hand shakes the creases from a pocket tissue and pokes it toward me. How long have I been crying? Wet black mascara dots the duck’s plush white back.
Was she very old? That accent. Was it Swedish?
She was calm. A man in aqua scrubs speaks from above me. She didn’t suffer. I look up and tears stream past my ears and snot seeps from under my mask. I mop my throat with my sleeve.
No one knows what to say when it comes to death. Thank you for your help? I hand him the duck.
He pushes the plastic curtain aside and shepherds me toward her bedside. Stay as long as you’d like. Call us if you need to go.