The buck had only one antler, and we both expected imbalance to be the thing that drowned him.
He had entered the river gracefully, like a bather would, or Ophelia. We watched as the water rose and robed itself around his chest, persuading him into the current. At first the undertow worked to his advantage, and he was pulled swiftly toward the island — soon, however, his head began to tilt. His cheek fell to the side and his antler skinned the surface. Small ripples of breath radiated from the spot his lips met the water.
I’d spotted the buck before Corky, who had been busy watching the reed patch my sister and his brother had snuck off to earlier. When I reached into his backpack for binoculars, Corky turned.
“What’s that?” he asked, squinting at the buck. “Is it going toward the island?”
The shoreline of the island opposite us was wooded, though a shuttered house was visible behind tangled leaves and branches. The house, blue and speckled, was owned by the mother of my sister’s friend. The woman, a florist, had moved there after her daughter married — eloped, actually, and without so much as a bouquet. Though our siblings often took us to the river when they were supposed to be “babysitting,” in all our time in that spot, Corky and I had yet to see the woman. The only sign of her came when the wind shifted from the east, and with it, a faint smell of roses.
Corky leaned close to me, and I hoped he wouldn’t notice the hair on my arm. He wanted me to pass the binoculars, which I did, though by now the current had dragged the animal directly into our line of vision. Even if I’d wanted to, I wouldn’t have been able to save him. I was never a swimmer. Last time I was in water, I’d capsized a canoe. It was at camp, and the captain of the capture-the-flag team had invited me on the water at night to see silver fish jump for no-see-’ems. When he tried to kiss me, I started rocking. Our canoe rolled over, and he pounded at the lake as I floated on my back, watching the moon.
“Is it escaping something?” Corky asked, sweeping the binoculars toward our side of the shore. The riverbank had always reminded me of a shadowed bed, hills formed by the raise of a knee. Corky’s gaze lingered a bit by the reeds, then continued, resting at my feet.
When I told her about the canoe incident, my sister couldn’t believe I didn’t want to kiss the captain. She was four years older than Corky and I and an expert in love. She liked to lay in bed with one arm over her head, flashing an armpit smooth as an avocado, and explain why dating should be seasonal — a rule she broke when she started seeing Corky’s brother. Corky’s brother was her excuse to climb out of windows. Just as storms were rolling in, she’d lower herself onto the oak limb. Branches whipped and her hair flapped like a shipwreck. Afterward I always took her place in the window, watching purple skies and waiting for Corky. Over the noise of sirens he’d arrive, soaked, hurriedly leaning his bike against the garage and hoisting himself onto the lowest arm of the tree.
On those nights, sometimes Corky and I would go out on our own. Last time, it was to the abandoned florist shop. In the rain, we pushed over trash cans and found the alley back entrance. Corky’s eyelashes collected drops while he concentrated on picking the lock. When we got inside, we found pots cracked on the floor, spilling dirt like ash. The air smelled like mold spores. The edges of everything looked burned. The scene made me feel like maybe the earth did better with humans after all.
“Maybe it’s trying to find a doe? Or its fawn?” I asked, watching the buck splash.
Corky put down the binoculars. I wondered if he’d glimpsed my sister with his brother. Corky didn’t like to talk about the fact that our siblings were dating. He’d always had a huge crush on my sister, and she’d fanned his love in the way she did with everyone’s. He stuttered whenever she was around, and she’d smile at him for it. He’d pick flowers and crush them absentmindedly between his fingers, and she’d use that as an excuse to put two hands around his as though in some kind of blessing.
“No. I doubt it has a family. He’d be swimming harder if he had something to lose.” Corky flicked at dirt caked in the sole of his shoes. “Hey, can I ask you something?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Did your sister ever mention anything about those flowers?”
In the abandoned florist shop, Corky had searched through the rubble and come up with an armful of the freshest red roses he could find. When we went back to his house, he wrapped the flowers in a brown paper bag, like a butcher would a cut of steak. He showed up in my sister’s room and knocked on the door. When there was no answer, he left the bouquet in a ray of sunlight on her bedspread.
“No,” I said. In truth, Corky’s brother had taken credit for them. After she got off the phone with him, my sister asked me to leave. As I was closing the door, I saw her pick at the petals, scattering them over her sheets like small wounds. “Maybe she didn’t know they were from you.”
Corky didn’t look up. There was a dandelion pressed into the pattern of his sole. My sister liked to do all sorts of things with dandelions when Corky or his brother were around. Tie a stem into a knot with her tongue. Pout her lips and breathe the cottony head into a bomb.
“They’ll break up when she goes to college,” he said. “She’s too good for him.”
“I doubt that’s going to happen.”
Corky looked. “What do you mean?”
“Well, she’s not going.”
“She decided it wasn’t the right place for her.”
“She’s staying here? Why?” Corky asked, his eyes flickering over my shoulder. I turned around, only to see my sister and his brother approaching from the reeds. My sister was wearing a short skirt that cut off before her knees, both of which were bruised with grass stains.
“Well,” I said. “She’s going to have a baby.”
This is a fact I’d known before I found her hugging her knees on the windowsill. This is something I’d known since the night she called her friend who had eloped and, while I sat outside the door, I realized they were talking like grown-ups.
When they reached us, my sister slung her arm around me and tousled Corky’s hair. “Hey, you guys,” she said.
Corky, hair ruffled, stared at his brother. I turned away. On the island, a woman was kneeling in at the shore, bent over the motionless deer. She took off her gardening gloves and put both hands around its antler, stroking it. When I turned back, it was to see Corky’s whole body shivering, as though he’d just come out of the river.