Deer in the Woods

Two lovers share spooky stories alone in the woods, but begin to question whether their tales are more than fiction.

Deer in the Woods

By Lucy McClellan

It was strikingly dark out, but the July heat served a sense of comfort to the night air. Cicadas chirped, wide awake in the thick silhouette of the foliage, and the sky above was sugar-coated in stars, maybe more than Evie had ever seen. Summer nights had a certain liveliness to them that she forgot about through every other season. It separated them from the still, prototypical nighttime.

Of course, part of the energy came from Tom. He walked slightly ahead of her, thermal and solid, her hand tucked in his. He was guiding her, Evie supposed. He was a leader. Not in an aggressive, demonstrative way, but more in that he knew what was best, and would always show it to her if she asked him to. They’d started their relationship that way. She’d come into The Silver Spork Diner as a confused and nervous bus-girl, and he, who had bussed tables for a year before he became a waiter, had shown her the tricks of the trade.

“Fill the water glasses when they’re about two-thirds empty,” he’d told her. “If you do it before then, you’re a nuisance. If you do it any later, the customers will notice they’re low.”

Evie had taken his advice, and not long after, a four-top of chortling old men had complimented her on her astute water-pouring service. When she’d told Tom, he’d scoffed.

“They’re flirting with you,” he said. If you weren’t a pretty girl, they wouldn’t say shit about your ‘astute service’. Believe me, I never got any compliments like that.”

“You think I’m pretty?” She’d asked.

“Objectively speaking.”

But she’d never been called pretty much before, just “cute”, and the compliment exhilarated her. She didn’t care that he was a little old- er, and different than her, although she’d blushed when relaying her crush to her mother, who she knew remembered Tom as a rebellious kid who had graduated a while back. But she was 18 now, an adult. 18 and 21 felt a lot closer than 14 and 17 had. They were matured now, especially Tom. He was quieter and more controlled than she remembered him being. He asked her out for the first time in person, to dinner, and paid. And he’d walked her to her door afterward and kissed her lightly, saying “Let’s take things slow.” She didn’t necessarily actually want to take things slow, but she appreciated the sentiment. She’d never had a boyfriend before. It didn’t matter; he didn’t need to know that. She was going to college at the end of the summer, but so what? Over a month buffered them from that goodbye, and if they lasted as long then they would figure it out when the time came.

This was their third date. Tom had told her that he wanted something unique this time. When yesterday she’d mentioned staying up late to read The Haunting of Hill House, he turned to her suddenly.

“You like ghost stories?”

“Yeah,” she’d shrugged, caught off guard.

“I know what we’re doing for our third date.”

Tonight, he’d picked her up from home in his dingy blue car with nothing but a canvas backpack in the backseat. They’d driven to the woods near his house and trekked off the path, aimlessly into the trees. Evie wasn’t stupid: she knew all of the reasons not to go wandering off into nowhere with a man she’d known two months. But she felt safe with Tom: dry-humored, thoughtful Tom. Initially, the novelty of a late-night walk in the woods with a man to protect her had been pleasing. Now, though, Evie was growing bored of walking.

“What are we looking for?” she asked finally, swatting a mosquito from her leg. The air was starting to stick to her skin.

Tom squeezed her hand. “Just a clearing to lie down in. There, how’s that?”

The patch of grass and pine needles looked comfortable. Evie nodded. “Looks nice.”

She watched as Tom slid his backpack off of his rounded shoulders. She could just make out his features in the moonlight. He pulled a picnic blanket out of the backpack and rolled it over the grass, kneel- ing down to smooth out the edges. He patted the ground beside him, and Evie plopped herself down eagerly.

“So, ghost stories,” Tom prompted. Evie nodded.

“Yeah. Hey, do you have any snacks in there?” She asked, poking the pack with her toe.

Tom laughed, reaching into the bag and handing her a bag of popcorn. “Of course. And,” he asked, “Do you smoke?”

“Tobacco or weed?”

He pulled a small Ziploc bag of a fibrous substance out of the front pocket. “Weed.”

“Yeah, sure.” Evie spoke casually, even though she’d only smoked twice before, once with her best friend, just to know what it felt like, and the second time taking one hit from a dying joint at a party. Tom pulled a bowl from his pocket and went about filling it. As she squinted to watch him, her body a little tenser than before, Evie heard a soft rustling in the leaves.

“Did you hear that?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s deer. They get really close when I come out here sometimes; it’s awesome.”

“Oh, nice,” Evie said.

“Why don’t you tell the first story while I pack this?”

Her mind was blank, or she supposed just occupied with panic at the prospect of smoking the bowl without Tom realizing what a novice she was. Or perhaps panic at trying to seduce him without seeming inexperienced, or make him love her without realizing how boring she was. But she agreed, wracking her mind for something, anything to fill the next minute. Then, looking at the sharpness of the stars, and thinking of lying under similar ones at girl scout camp ten years ago, it came to her.

“Did you ever hear the one about the yellow ribbon?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“It’s a southern legend, I think. Some people tell it as a black ribbon, but I like yellow.”

“You intrigue me. Let’s hear it.”

“Well,” Evie cleared her throat. How did it start? “Well, there was a boy and a girl, right?”

“Of course.”

“Their names were Sam and Sally. And they had been friends all of their lives, but as long as Sam had known her, Sally had worn this big yellow ribbon around her neck and never once taken it off. And she would never tell him why. He was curious, but he liked her so much that he let it slide. Eventually, he asked her out, and they started dating, and still, she evaded his questions. And she never took it off. Not for sleeping, or sex, (she was careful to keep her voice even here) or anything. When he asked, she would just promise to tell him the story another time. And poor Sam was so head-over-heels that eventually he stopped questioning it.

So they kept dating and got married, and the ribbon stayed, and eventually, Sam just stopped asking altogether. They had happy kids and lucrative careers, and he tried to tell himself that the ribbon was insignificant compared to all of that goodness. But he always wondered. So finally, one day, on their fiftieth anniversary, he was lying in bed next to Sally while she slept, just staring at that ribbon on her wrinkly neck. And finally, his years of self-control ran out, and he pulled the end of the ribbon, just untied it in one swift motion. And uh- and her head fell off.”

The story, which had kept Evie up at night for weeks as a child, felt anti-climactic. Still hunched over the bowl, Tom cocked his head.

“Did she scream?”

“I don’t know,” Evie said, “Maybe.”

She could see him turning to look at her through the dark.

“Okay,” he said, “Good one. I’d never heard that before.” His voice was warm and soft, but she could feel the patronizing tone and felt hopelessly childish.

“Well, what have you got?” she asked, sounding more defensive then she’d intended.

Before answering her, he held the bowl to his lips and inhaled. When he lit it, the embers illuminated his face slightly, enough to see his closed eyelashes. He breathed out, a cloud of stinking smoke that drifted lazily away from them in the summer breeze.

“Have you ever heard about the Soulsuckers?” he asked, passing her the weed.

“I don’t think so,” she said. She handled the bowl clumsily. She tried to hold it in the exact position that he had, fumbling with the lighter and sucking in too urgently. She clamped a cough in her throat as she exhaled, making her eyes sting. She thrust the bowl back into Tom’s fingers.

“Oh,” Tom said, “I’ve got to tell you about the Soulsuckers.” He took another hit, and again, the trees rustled.

“The deer,” Tom said, passing her the bowl. “Maybe if we speak softly they’ll come close enough to see them.”

Evie could feel the smoke settling on her brain. “Okay. Tell me about the Soulsuckers,” she said.

“Here, take this. Okay, so, once upon a time- Don’t laugh! That’s a perfectly valid way to start a story!” Tom said. “Once upon a time, the Eastern forest was inhabited by colonies of these beautiful, reclusive creatures. Imagine silky, tailless monkeys, with glittering eyes and long nails. They lived in dens deep in the woods and kept amongst themselves. They were intelligent but modest. They lived comfortably, but they preferred not to expand their small communities, finding moderation sensible. And they were careful to avoid notice by humans, whom they observed from afar, taking notes and making judgments. They saw discrimination, war, and selfishness, all from a safe distance. They were in agreement that interaction with mankind would bring nothing but trouble, and were content to avoid us. Unfortunately, though, over time, staying under wraps became difficult. Human society was pushing its way into the woods, to tear things down and build them back up again to their own whims. It became clear that if the creatures had to either relocate or be discovered.”

He paused dramatically to take an inhale of smoke and release it.

“After much discussion, the creatures eventually concluded that although humans were messy, they held potential. Humans expressed love and kindness, creativity, and humor. The rational creatures were fascinated by these emotions. They saw potential goodness there. They did not want to spend the rest of their existence evading humankind as it expanded, and they came to the decision to reveal themselves to the humans and to attempt a co-existence.”

Tom’s face was unnervingly ambiguous in the dark, so Evie closed her eyes, feeling the earth beneath her back, and listening to the leaves whisper gossipingly between Tom’s words. Her head felt foggy enough to evaporate. She was beginning to wonder if she had ever actually been high before now. She took another hit.

“As you can imagine,” Tom was continuing, “the discovery of these creatures was huge for humanity. The creatures had community, language, even science. The two groups agreed to participate in an exchange of thought. The creatures showed the humans their own villages, built underground. They tried to teach them how to move almost invisibly, the way that they did. They shared the simple but effective tools that they relied on. But ever-practical, the creatures kept their most valuable skill a secret. In exchange, they accepted human gifts of clothes and jewelry from the humans, mostly out of politeness.

Quietly, the dynamic soured. Neither side saw any use for the others’ offerings, and for the humans, this was a cause for anger. ‘One would expect,’ they muttered amongst themselves, ‘for creatures as strange as these to have something of value to offer us. But no, the best things about them are their eyes and fur.”

“Oh no,” Evie said, barely registering her own voice. Her palms were clammy, and she realized that she was on edge. Tom seemed not to hear. The deer moved in the bushes, but he was too focused to notice.

“And, naturally, as soon as the humans came to this realization, the eyes and fur were what they had to have. They invited the creatures to feast, but when they arrived, the humans skinned them and gouged their crystalline eyes out, leaving nothing but claw, muscle, and bone. Afterward, they wiped out the entire community, bashing in their dens and burying their bodies, so that all that remained to remember the creatures by was their fur and eyes, which soon were broken down into clothes and jewelry.

But what the humans did not know was that the creatures did not cycle through life and death as all other animals on Earth do, but lived on endlessly, eternal spectators. What they did not know was that they had sparked a new sensation in the hearts of the creatures: the thirst for revenge.”

“Cheesy,” Evie said, even though she could feel her hair standing on end. She was too high, but she took another inhale anyway, watching the smoke smudge the night.

“Maybe,” Tom said, “But it’s true. They had planted a seed of deep resentment in the creatures, who before had seen life all but objectively. So, the creatures laid low, and let themselves be buried one by one in shallow graves. And then, one by one, they clawed their way out and reconvened, this time deeper in the woods, to plan. They were nothing but muscle and bone, but they had one asset that the humans had neglected to harvest. Their long, thin, claws. In truth, their claws were the largest reason that they had managed to thrive for so long. Because they were not really true claws so much as needles, designed to extract the desirable from whatever they inject and repurpose it for themselves. In the past, they had mainly used their claws to absorb energy, but they could also harness more intangible forces: love, wisdom, courage. And this way, the creatures always had a surplus of resources and knowledge.

So, although they had never used this ability to harm, taking only what they needed from humans and animals that crossed their path, the time had come to take full advantage of their gifts. By night, they began sneaking out of the underbrush to snatch whatever human prey came their way, sucking some of the goodness out of it, and leaving them gray. Usually, they would take the memory of the abduction as well, leaving their victims confused, to live out the rest of their lives in an angry or depressed haze without knowing why.

But occasionally, just occasionally, they would leave the memory intact. They allowed whispers to be spread that all would hear but few would truly believe. And thus, they became the Soulsuckers, dark, mysterious monsters who lurked in the woods and robbed people of the best parts of themselves. When a person started to go dark or cold, became suddenly cruel or distant, someone would mutter that the Soulsuckers were to blame. Society became a little crueler, and a little dimmer and nearly no one knew why. Soon even the stories all but dwindled, drowned out by the other chaos in the world. But the Soulsuckers kept feasting, and still today, humanity fades and distorts because of them.”

Evie waited, listening to the forest move.

“Is that the whole story?” she asked, finally, when nothing but soft slow breath had been coming from Tom for what felt like a while.

“More or less. Did you like it?”

Evie shrugged. “It was okay.” Her organs were pulsing beneath her skin, and she couldn’t bring herself to look at Tom. Instead, she stared hard into the woods, trying to put a location on the deer. She’d never been this near to one before. She thought she could see the outlines of their antlers amidst the trees. Squinting, she could make out pinpoints of light where the moon reflected off of their eyes.

“There’s a little bit more,” Tom said. “Sometimes, the Soulsuckers would take mercy on their victims. Sometimes, if a person begged, the Soul- suckers would leave a little bit of goodness in exchange for a deal: that the victim would help them find new prey so that they could continue to thrive within the woods.”

She could hear the deer breathing. Imagine their wet noses twitching. In a minute, she would be able to reach out and touch one.

“What are you looking at?” Tom asked quietly.

“The deer,” she said. The silhouettes were advancing. They were nearly in the clearing now. Evie wiped her palms on her shorts.

“Evie…” Tom’s voice was soft. “They’re not deer.”

It was then that they came forward. The not-deer. Walking on two, legs, not four. Their eye sockets were hollow, but a dim light still glowed from within them. They were built of raw muscle and bone. But what Evie’s eyes went to were their fingers. Their claws were unlike any she had ever seen, inches long and wire-thin. She turned to give Tom a look of betrayal.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It was this or they took everything.”

At some point, Evie awoke in the moonlit clearing. The night sky looked exactly the same as it had when she had lain down. Tom was on the blanket next to her watching the stars.

“You fell asleep,” he said mildly.

She could feel herself flush. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. You’re not used to smoking, are you?”

“No,” she admitted. She felt so strange, emptier somehow, and cooler beneath the skin. She wondered if she’d had a bad dream.

“It’s okay,” Tom laughed. “We can turn you into a pro.”

Evie didn’t see any reason why she shouldn’t want such a thing. The hint at a future would have had her dancing inside an hour ago. Now though, she felt strangely unmoved. She realized that her desire for the unknown had left her. The thrill had flickered out.

She pushed her cheeks into a smile with her lips. “I’d like that,” she said.

She did not want to go back home. She did not want to go anywhere. And so, she stayed and hoped that in time, she would feel full again.

Lucy McClellan graduated from UNC in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and English and comparative literature. She is from Durham, North Carolina.