Nick Story | Flash Fiction

She was telling her date about something that happened to her stepfather one time while he was tracking an animal through the forest at dusk. The stepfather, an avid hunter, first heard the sound of something moving rapidly through the air; then he felt an inkling of danger right before the arrow pierced his thigh.

“It was a pretty dire moment,” she said, finishing her second glass of wine and ordering another. She then reported that her stepfather’s first thought after being struck and falling to the pine needles concerned just how odd it was that there were so many trees in the world. The arrow, wherever it came from, had found him, despite all the trees. It was unlikely, it seemed to him at the time, that it could have traveled any distance without getting lodged in a trunk, and the unlikeliness of the event was apparent even inside that cloud of pain. Her stepfather was a mile from the car, and it was getting dark. He lay there for a while; a part of him did not want to go on.

In the family lore (she told her bewildered date, who had barely touched his entrée) the deer her stepfather had been hunting doubled back and looked at him there on the ground bleeding, just looked for a real long time at him, as he lay there deliberating whether to go on or not. What was the message from the deer? She could not say for certain, since her stepfather himself was uncertain, but it seemed to be something like it’s no fun, is it? And her date noticed that when she told this part of the story about the deer’s inner monologue, she laughed loudly, a snort that carried all over the restaurant. The couple in ’70s clothes at the next table turned toward them, as did the elegant older waiter, who frowned in a dignified way.

But of course the date could not tell her to quiet down or not to snort. He simply noted that she had not mentioned word one of this stepfather hunting accident or anything like it in their conversations on the app. Those conversations stuck to light subjects like other dates, physical fitness, and their mutual enthusiasm for a rainy British Detective Show. It was not attractive, he didn’t think, to reach for the family lore so soon; he kept his lore inside his mouth with the spaghetti carbonara, which was a little tough to be honest. And hadn’t she said this was her favorite restaurant in town? And what did that say about her?

But she went on, with the assistance of another wine pour from the dignified-but-suffering waiter, about how her stepfather crawled toward the car, over countless roots and fallen leaves and probably thorny brambles in total darkness. Occasionally, he’d try to stand up, but he fell over every time. He’d either have to crawl or not move forward at all. He heard predators moving through the trees, waiting for him to give up. He told her that time extended in this moment, that his trip back to the car seemed to take days when it could not have taken more than a few hours. In this bubble of dilated pain-time he had a chance to wonder how the arrow ended up in his thigh. It was most likely an accident; he had been mistaken for the thing he was hunting. Friendly fire was a hazard of the hunting life. But he considered also that it might have been on purpose. He didn’t think he had any enemies, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have any enemies. And his thoughts became wider and weirder as he lost blood because he was deliriously thinking about Greek Myths and how wasn’t there a Huntress who slayed men with an arrow if they saw her bathing in her sacred grove? He apologized to this lady, yelling at the sky so she could hear him, and somehow in this state-of-mind he made it to his car and to a hospital.

And the thing she wanted to stress to her date was that her stepfather changed his life in accordance with the accident, and the change was noticeable. He had become the kind of person who threw caution to the wind and seized the day and took an active role in shaping his destiny. And the other thing she wanted to impart to the man she had met on the dating app—the tall thin man with expensive eyeglasses, who was somewhat surprised, put-off even, by her choice of first-date anecdote—was that this accident had changed not only her stepfather’s life but her own. It was the scariest moment in his life and, after he told her about it at a young and impressionable age, it became the scariest moment in her own life. She had nightmares about bleeding and crawling and pulling herself over root systems and ground bugs. She felt that she herself had lived that scene too, many times over, struck by a dream arrow, and that, as a result, even though she had been a meek and frightened child, she was now the kind of person who asked for what she wanted, was not afraid to ask. Because, she said, life was short, and the arrow was coming.

He couldn’t think of how to respond to this besides saying that it was all very interesting. She told him that her stepfather had given her the arrow on her 18th birthday as a reminder of life’s sudden changes and the necessity of being pro-active. She said she had the arrow with her.

“Like, metaphorically?”

“Yes, but it’s also in my purse. Wanna see?”

He nodded yes as he was saying no in his head, something he did a lot, actually, that or the opposite, saying no on the outside, (“No, I couldn’t possibly, it’s just who I am”) but screaming yes on the inside, his speech and mind never lining up. So she pulled the arrow out of her purse. It was damaged, stained with dark brown dots. She held it with two hands, smiling. Then she placed it on the tablecloth. He leaned over and examined the arrow closely.

“Touch it if you want to.”

“Madame,” the dignified waiter said sorrowfully, “weapons are not allowed in Chez Denis.”

She put the arrow away and laughed. It was her loudest laugh yet. The whole restaurant looked over. Volume! he almost said. There are other people around!

The date wrapped up and he said he’d call but he did not call her again. And all of this was years ago. But recently he had felt stuck, in a job and a marriage, so stuck that he felt sick to his stomach a lot of the time, and heavy in his heart. He was less than careful crossing the street nowadays and had given up wearing a seatbelt. He leaned over guardrails and freestyled with his medication. He wanted to explain all of this to someone, but there was no tale he could tell. Nothing had ever happened to him. He had formed his life with his own choices, but he felt that he had formed that life out of some inferior material, a material that could not change its shape without breaking. He wanted someone else to make a wild choice for him.

Tonight, as his wife was preparing to have “friends” over for drinks and finger sandwiches, he had placed himself on the sofa for some television show set out West, and watched as the two leads were out in the woods, lost, and his date’s story about her stepfather came back to him. He got a notion to excuse himself from the sofa and put on his coat. He got in the car and drove to what the people coming for the finger sandwiches would call the bad side of town. And he walked around in the dark drizzle, looking gangly and well-heeled and clueless, searching very hard under the glowing lights of the Chinese Food #1 and convenience store marquees. When he came to the entrance of a particular dark alley, he smiled. A dark alley was what he wanted.

He looked into the narrow darkness, past the trash cans and the men sleeping on strips of cardboard, toward a spot he could no longer see and begged, inwardly, for some danger to fly out of the darkness and wound him. He desired this so much that he could almost hear the snap of a bow. Eventually a pedestrian asked him to move out of the way, so he went to a different alley’s entrance, one without any people around to bother him, and stood there and hoped tonight was his night. He was out for a long time, and he didn’t even put up his umbrella when the drizzle turned into a moderate shower.

If his wife or anybody at the office knew he was standing in dark alleys at night, they’d call it recklessness. They’d say he had a death wish, but it was more like a life wish, really. Who would he have been now if he’d been struck by something years earlier? More than he was. Who he was now was less substantial, he felt, than his date, or his date’s stepfather; less substantial even than the hunter who fired the arrow by accident and heard the scream of its victim; the hunter who ran frightened until he reached his car, and who had to make the long drive back to his normal life, the life of a total stranger.