It felt like Jimmy’d walked up and punched him in the back. Jeremiah staggered forward, the sound of the gunshot ringing in his ears as a fine spray of blood erupted from his chest. His legs went weak. Glancing back toward the truck, he saw Jimmy lowering the hunting rifle from his shoulder.
“Why?” he whispered. Jimmy didn’t seem to hear him.
Ahead, though the moonlit clearing where they’d been stalking deer, the shadow of a massive buck raised its head. Strangely it hadn’t bolted at the sound of the shot. Footsteps crunched across dead leaves, and then Jimmy stood over him, face impassive.
“Why?” Jeremiah asked again. The word ended in a ragged cough, and he tasted blood. The pain was immense; it felt like he was drowning. Even if his hunting buddy didn’t shoot him again, he didn’t have long to live. Deer shot through the lungs generally didn’t survive long either.
“I couldn’t let you have Annabelle.”
“She chose me.” The world swam. An immense weight sank across his shoulders, crushing him toward the ground. He’d be just another fallen leaf soon, brown, drained of life, and slowly decaying.
“And now that she can’t have you, she’ll choose me.”
Jeremiah shivered at the cold tone of his friend’s voice, at the deadness in the man’s eyes. Had Jimmy always been like this? How’d he missed it?
Across the clearing, the golden harvest moon slid free of a passing cloud. The buck was still standing motionless, head raised, crowned with the biggest rack Jeremiah’d ever seen. It felt like the animal was staring right at him. The moon’s light seemed to become caught in the buck’s rack and eyes, an arc of faerie fire above two glowing orbs.
“Hurry up and die already. You always did take forever to do anything,” Jimmy griped, prodding him with the barrel of his rifle.
Then man up and finish what you started, Jeremiah wanted to say, but it seemed like the moon buck was trying to tell him something.
“It won’t work,” he said instead, suddenly sure of it. “Annabelle won’t believe you.”
“Fuck you!” Jimmy cracked him across the face with the butt of his rifle, and Jeremiah crashed to the ground. He lay sandwiched between the pain and the damp earth, waiting for a gunshot that never came.
Footsteps rustled away. Minutes dragged by in agony, and then a truck door slammed in the distance. The engine started, whining as Jimmy turned the truck around, and then faded away.
Jeremiah remembered his father’s insistence that he always make a clean kill, and that he track the buck down and finish it off cleanly if he failed on the first shot. Suddenly he appreciated that. Jimmy’s pa never made much of messy kills or lost game. ‘Lesser creatures,’ he called them.
Lesser creatures, indeed.
Annabelle’s face came to him, and the sound of her laugh. He wished he’d hugged her goodbye before he left; wished he held her close and told her how much he loved her. Now the last memory she’d have of him would be a peck on the cheek as he rushed out the door to meet Jimmy. He hated that.
He wished he hadn’t gone.
The soft rustle of leaves made him open his eyes. The buck stood over him, the moon caught in its antlers. It regarded him with one wide, bright eye, then bent down and nosed his face.
Jeremiah remembered Uncle Charlie kneeling over the last deer he’d shot, saying thank you to the animal that had given its life to feed their family. He’d explained that this was his way of giving the deer its last rights. It was being respectful.
“This noble creature gave its life for us,” Uncle Charlie said. “I breathe in its last breathe so it can live on through me.”
The forest had grown very dark, and his body very heavy. The moon shone down through a tangle of branches like white antlers, and a warm breeze that smelled like deer and fresh grass wafted over his face. As Jeremiah breathed his last breath, the moon buck breathed in.