The deer flies through the air almost elegantly as it ricochets off the hood of the car, its long, slender legs stretching out like a dancer’s. Time stands still as fur and flesh rotate around the still point of the deer’s eye, focusing on Jonah through the windshield with a look of pure terror. Then, as if time were completely irrelevant to begin with, everything speeds up, the deer landing with what Jonah can only imagine is a sickening splat against the pavement as the car continues down the stretch of road like nothing has happened, Jonah staring in shock at a small patch of fur-covered skin caught in the hood, flapping in the wind.
Jonah pulls off onto the shoulder and rests his head against the steering wheel, his whole body juddering with the force of his heartbeat. There is a fine spray of blood across the windshield, and he turns on the wipers, watching as they sluice indifferently through the gore, leaving red streaks across the glass. He turns to Brie in the passenger seat. “What do we do?” he asks.
She looks at him, and her face is a blur of freckles and skin and eyelashes. The sound of her voice doesn’t come from her lips, but instead originates from somewhere deep within Jonah’s subconscious.
“My dad’s going to kill you.”
At work Jonah takes the lunch his mother has made him and scrapes it into the garbage. Nancy works at a health food store and tries to make him eat quinoa and tofu, drink puke-green smoothies with omega-3 supplements. But Jonah has only been working at the call centre for two weeks, ever since he got fired from his job working security at the mall, and he doesn’t want to be known as “that loser with the disgusting lunches” again. He’d much rather just eat chips from the vending machine, or chicken from the KFC next door. He has just finished rinsing out the Tupperware in the sink when Matt, who has the desk next to Jonah’s, comes in and immediately pulls his hoodie up over his nose.
“Dude,” he says, scrunching up his face. “What is that smell? Is that you?”
“What smell?” asks Jonah.
“You don’t smell that, dude?” Matt is small in all the places he is supposed to be, the same way that Jonah is not. He looks like the kind of guy who uses the body wash from those commercials where the girls all chase you. Everyone likes him—or, at least, they pretend to.
“Oh, yeah, totally,” says Jonah. “What is that?” Then he adds, “Dude?”
“You Virgos, such sweet talkers,” Brie says.
Jonah lives in Nancy’s attic, his choice of storey solely based on his reluctance to become a cliché. The attic is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, but at least when people call him “that loser who lives in his mother’s basement” he has some basis for rebuttal. In his attic room, Jonah paints Warhammer figurines and sometimes makes up D&D campaigns even though he doesn’t have anyone to play with. He chats online with his friend Vikram, who lives in California and who he met on a Japanese manga message board, or with one of the women he pays money to have describe their lingerie to him while he jerks off. All of these things he imagines Matt can see just from looking at him, his prodigious shortcomings written on his face as plainly and indelibly as the JOJO DESMOND scrawled in Sharpie by Nancy across the bottom of the Tupperware he holds in his doughy hands.
“Hey, Savannah,” Matt says to a pretty brunette with short hair who has just walked in. “Five bucks to go stick your head in that garbage can and tell me what smells.”
“Fuck you,” says Savannah, and bites into an apple.
Matt shrugs. “Chicks,” he says, looking at Jonah.
“Totally,” says Jonah. He tucks the Tupperware under his arm, making sure to cover up the writing, the one thing he knows he can actually hide.
Jonah hasn’t seen Brie since the mall. Back then, he would be in her store every day, checking up on things, asking if she had seen any suspicious activity—and then, later, if she had seen any good movies lately, or if she was going to spend the summer in town, or how things were going with her grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or some other kind of old person disease. But he reads on Brie’s Facebook page that she has gone back to running outside, so Jonah has gone back to joining Nancy on Saturday mornings at the marina, sitting on a bench and listening to his iPod while she does tai chi.
“You should try it sometime,” Nancy says the first week, pulling back her greying curls into a ponytail. “It might help you restore some balance in your life.”
“I have balance,” Jonah says. He stands in front of the bench on one foot and puts his arms out to either side.
“Be careful,” Nancy says, touching his hand. “You have a low centre of gravity.”
Jonah extends his leg, grinning. “Oh, and you’d just let me fall?” As soon as he says it, he loses his balance, and grabs onto Nancy to stop himself from tipping forward. “Whoops,” he says, sitting back down with a thud.
Nancy sits down next to him and wraps her arms around him, nuzzles into his shoulder, like she has been doing for the past 27 years, the cartilage in her delicate nose pressing into his soft flesh. “Oh, my Jojo, what am I going to do with you?” she says.
Jonah is hit with a sudden, sharp image of Brie in a sundress stripped off to the waist, straps pooling around her hips, purring “What am I going to do with you?” He can actually smell the lemony scent of her skin, her hot breath on his neck, rummy and sour; he can see the light blue fabric of her dress, delicate eyelets marching in a line along the curve of her pale thigh. They are sitting in a lamp-lit room on the edge of a bed covered with a pink striped duvet, pink flowers dancing across the wallpaper behind them. There is the faint sound of a party coming from beyond the room, music and voices and laughter, but there on the bed all he can hear is the whisper of Brie’s hand running through his hair, his own breath coming in quick, staccato gasps.
Then she is gone, and Jonah is sitting on a bench at the marina with Nancy’s arms around him and an erection pushing against the zipper of his jeans. He wrestles himself out of her hug and lurches to his feet, pulling his duster tight around his waist. When he closes his eyes, he sees pink stripes lashed across the insides of his eyelids, pulsing to the faint thrum of his heartbeat.
The next Saturday Jonah waits again for Brie on his bench at the marina, Nancy and her classmates all moving slowly and silently through the space behind him. But all he sees are a flock of Canada geese, flying in unison, their wings dipping low towards the water, and in his mind sees Brie brushing her teeth while humming “Yellow Submarine,” dropping a splotch of toothpaste onto the front of a Montreal Canadiens t-shirt.
“I think I’m having someone else’s memories,” Jonah types to Vikram, later.
“Maybe they’re your own repressed memories,” Vikram types back. “Have you tried therapy?” Vikram is all about therapy, ever since his parents split up last year. It’s been tough on him, but he is only 13, he has time to get over it.
“Is it normal for repressed memories to be good?”
“No, those are fantasies,” Vikram types. “Start watching more porn, they’ll probably go away.”
When Jonah was young, he used to daydream about rescuing Nancy from aliens or zombies or sometimes Spiderman, who he was inexplicably afraid of. Now that he is older, his fantasies about women always revolve around them being held up at gunpoint, or being kidnapped by terrorists, or being trapped in a burning building, with Jonah the hero racing in and saving them at the last second. These things with Brie, they aren’t fantasies—they are everyday life, and they happened. To someone.
Jonah’s screen flashes and he sees that Vikram has sent him a link to a website featuring Big Busty Bored Housewives with Vibrators. He wonders if there is anyone out there who really knows him at all.
Tuesday is KFC day, and so there are a dozen people in the lunchroom at work when Jonah goes in to dump out his lunch. He stands there awkwardly for a moment, unsure of what to do. “Have some chicken,” says Savannah, waving her hand towards the bucket. Jonah tucks his Safeway bag full of health crap under his arm and reaches for a piece. The shape of the drumstick in his hand brings back a memory—because that’s what it is, a memory—of Brie’s bare calves draped across his lap as she reads him his horoscope. “Let your instincts point you in the right direction, and don’t hesitate to follow where they lead,” she says. She lowers the paper, raises her eyebrows coyly. “What direction are your instincts leading you in?”
“Which direction are you in?” he asks, and Brie shakes her head, arching her back against the arm of the couch they are sitting on, orange and itchy, in someone’s basement where they are trying to escape the heat. Jonah can feel the dampness of the room, smells something that reminds him of old Christmas decorations.
“You Virgos, such sweet talkers,” Brie says.
“I’m not a Virgo,” Jonah says out loud, and he is back in the lunchroom leaning against the counter and holding the drumstick. Everyone is staring at him.
“Could have fooled me,” Matt says. A few people laugh. Jonah laughs too, thinking maybe it’s better that way.
Back at his desk, Jonah thinks about how it would make sense if he were part of some kind of secret memory implantation experiment, maybe by the government, maybe something to do with his previous access to surveillance equipment at the mall. He dumps the contents of his Safeway bag into the bottom drawer of his desk, and the top of the Tupperware pops off, spraying curried lentil soup across a stack of folders like a stream of baby diarrhea. Jonah closes the drawer with his foot and logs back into his computer.
Nancy invites a man to dinner, something she has done on and off since Jonah’s father died five years ago. This man, Ray, is thin and pale and exceptionally tall, a shiny bald head inside a ring of white hair pulled back into a ponytail. Ray is an art therapist, Nancy has informed him, prompting Jonah to ask why art would need therapy, in turn prompting Nancy to tell Jonah to stop being such a smartass.
They all stand around the kitchen island while Nancy makes tapenade. “I hear you’re in the customer service industry,” Ray says to Jonah over the roar of the food processor. “A noble profession, to be sure.”
“I answer phones,” says Jonah.
Ray nods knowingly, looking at Jonah as though he has just said something incredibly profound. “I’m sure you answer more than phones,” he says, pressing his fingers together under his chin.
“Nope,” says Jonah, rolling an olive across the countertop. “Just fucking phones, okay.” The noise stops as soon as he says it, and “fucking phones okay” echoes through the kitchen in the ensuing silence.
“Jojo,” Nancy says quietly. She puts her hand on his shoulder. There is no memory of Brie this time, just Nancy, standing in that underground parking garage with Jonah’s old supervisor, promising that Jonah wouldn’t come back to the mall if the girl didn’t pursue the restraining order. The two of them looking over at Jonah, leaning against a concrete pillar with his hands in his pocket, his duster hanging open around his soft, womanly hips. No knight in shining armour, just a creep in a dirty Minecraft t-shirt waiting for his mom to take him to East Side Mario’s, as if all-you-can-eat pasta and breadsticks could make everything all right again. All of this coming to him now like a hot rush of adrenaline to his cheeks, bright red in the kitchen as Ray and Nancy watch him back out of the room, tripping over his feet and cursing his stupid low centre of gravity.
Safe upstairs, he wonders if there really is someone out there whose memories he has stolen, and if it’s true, why that guy couldn’t have taken Jonah’s memories in return, the prick.
The next Saturday, Jonah finally sees Brie. She is running, little earbuds pinched into her ears, ponytail bouncing behind her. He has to run to catch up with her, feeling like a pervert huffing and puffing past the playground, wheezing along behind her until he is close enough to tap her shoulder.
She pulls the earbuds out of her ears, keeps jogging on the spot. “Oh,” she says. “Hi.”
“I waved,” he says, trying not to sound out of breath. He can feel sweat pooling under his collar, bleeding out of his armpits. “I guess you didn’t see me.”
“Nope,” she says. She toys with the earbuds. She is beautiful, with flushed cheeks and no makeup, her bright blue sports bra. She looks sinewy, strong, like he could pluck on any of her exposed tendons and it would sound out with a twang.
“So, uh, crazy running into you like this, right?” he says. Brie just looks past him at the lake, at the boat masts rising out of the morning mist, at nothing. “How have you been?”
She rolls her eyes. “What’s up, Jonah?” she asks.
“Nothing,” he says. “I just…” She puts one earbud back into her ear. “Wait, Brie, hey,” he says. “Do you remember that time we hit a deer in your father’s car?” The words just appear, and he grabs onto them, like a man tumbling down a cliff grabs onto a passing branch.
She blinks, the other earbud suspended in the air just outside of her other ear. She has the volume turned up so loudly that Jonah can hear the music. Taylor Swift. He didn’t know she liked her.
“Jonah,” Brie says, finally. “That wasn’t you. I just told you about that.”
“No you didn’t,” says Jonah, suddenly knowing she did.
“I’m going now,” Brie says. “Please don’t follow me.”
She jams the earbud into her ear. Out of desperation, Jonah shouts, “Brie! Which direction are you?”
Brie doesn’t say anything, she just pushes past him, and Jonah feels his feet separating from the earth, feels the sky changing position above him. And although at first he thinks his fall must be metaphorical, when his knees hit the grass he realizes it is not. He looks up and sees Nancy watching him, her head cocked to one side, her mouth formed into a perfect O. Jonah has seen that look before, that look of poorly disguised pity. But he has never seen it on his mother before.
Et tu, Nancy, he thinks, before he rocks forward from his knees onto his hands, then spread-eagles across the grass, cheek to earth.
Something is happening at work. Matt is on the other side of the office, talking quietly to one of the managers, Todd, who keeps looking at Jonah. Jonah tries to concentrate on what the customer is saying, but he can feel his palms begin to sweat, his voice begin to crack. When he hangs up, Todd comes over and asks him to log out of his computer and step away from his desk.
Jonah stands in the middle of the aisle while Todd opens his desk drawers, one by one. When he gets to the bottom one he takes a step back, letting the drawer hang out like a tongue. The spilled lentil soup is still in there, as is the quinoa salad from the next day, and the tempeh patties from the day after, and the baked kale chips and hummus from the day after that. There are even a few KFC chicken bones thrown in there from when Jonah snuck some pieces back to his desk, and some stale potato chips that he had found in the bottom of his bag. All fermenting into a brown, putrid soup.
Everyone around his desk gets to their feet, clamping their hands over their faces, making small grunting noises, backing away from what certainly must be some sort of catastrophic biological warfare. Todd’s face has turned a pale shade of green, and two desks over, Savannah retches into her garbage can. On the other side of the room, Jonah sees Matt standing with a girl he doesn’t recognize, and they are laughing, without sound, their faces scrunched up with the effort of containing it.
When the smell hits Jonah, he closes his eyes and suddenly he is standing on the side of the highway, staring down at the deer. The car is still running somewhere down the road, Brie leaning out the window calling after him to come back, just leave it for fuck’s sake, there’s nothing he can do. Jonah kneels down next to the deer—twitching, bleeding, but not quite dead. He places his hand where he imagines its heart to be, somewhere beneath the coarse fur, the shattered ribcage, and holds his palm against it until he feels the deer’s pulse begin to weaken, and finally fade away to nothing.