The Place: A Story by Sara Fetherolf

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THE PLACE



THE PLACE


Editor-in-Chief

Leslie Jill Patterson Fiction Editor

Marcus Burke Nonfiction Editor

Elena Passarello Managing Editors

The Long Story 2022

Jacob Hall Sara Ryan Maeve Kirk Brook McClurg

Associate Editors: Timilehin Alake, Divya Alamuri, Emma Aylor, William Brown, McKenan Bundy, Jay Culmone, Tyler Fleser, Jennessa Hester, Taylor Johnson, Ermerson Kurdi, Victoria Larriva, Marcos Damián León, William Littlejohn-Oram, Jennifer Loyd, Josh Luckenbach, Courtney Ludwick, Linda Masi, Bibiana Ossai, Zachary Ostraff, Manish Pandey, Catherine Ragsdale, Sam Rebelein, Nicolas Rivera, Hannah Russell-Campos, and Emalee Smith. Copyright © 2022 Iron Horse Literary Review. All rights reserved. Iron Horse Literary Review is a national journal of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. IHLR publishes three print issues and three electronic issues per year, at Texas Tech University, through the support of the TTU President’s Office, Provost’s Office, Graduate College, College of Arts & Sciences, and English Department. For more information, visit www.ironhorsereview.com.


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he deer looked dead. Lucy couldn’t be sure, though. In the haze of her heartbeat after the accident, she stood before it, wondering if she should poke it or something to check. But she didn’t want to get that close, especially if it turned out to be not dead. Do deer bite? All animals bite when they’re scared enough, don’t they? Lucy got back in her car, which was still running. The tape had finished and was making a soft slipping noise as it struggled to turn to the opposite side. The whole world was tilting slightly to the right, she noticed, confused—then saw she’d swerved her right wheels into the gravel alongside the road, trying to avoid the deer. To her side stretched a blank and meadowy space owned by no one, offering its dead leaves and late-season dandelions to the night sky. She knew the place. The deer must have been recently grazing there. They often did. Lucy put her hands on the wheel and watched the twin beams of her headlights, where mosquitos and tiny moths moshed in those pools of genuine imitation moonlight. Her breath slipped and sputtered like a tape trying to turn itself over—an after-effect of the panic from careening into something big and animal, which was still there, not moving, behind her in the road. She hated that she was shaking. She hated anything that made her feel helpless. She wanted a cigarette, and she wanted to leave. Even if she rolled all the windows down, her mom would notice the smell when she got home. So she would have to sit outside the car again, with the deer that was probably dead but might get up and bite. She got a little closer to it this time. It lay on its side, sprawled with its head against the asphalt, tilted at a weird angle. There were all kinds of good reasons she probably shouldn’t get close: besides a scared animal biting, there could be diseases—bacteria and things—right? And a new suspicion started

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seeping in that if it wasn’t dead, she was supposed to do something—put it out of its misery—wasn’t she? She lit her cigarette. She walked toward it, slow enough, she hoped, that it wouldn’t be afraid of her if it were still alive. She stopped near its back haunches. With the toe of her boot, delicately, she nudged a leg. Please please please. It didn’t move.

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on’t worry about the car,” said her mom. “Worry about karma.” The car’s hood had a crumple in it like a discarded grocery list, and the left headlight was cracked. Lucy was worried her mom would want to start going to doctor visits again, and then the car would need to be functional. But she knew how that conversation would go. “I hope it’ll get me to work is all,” said Lucy. “You can walk if you need to.” That was true. It wasn’t too bad a walk. Lucy contemplated being carless. It would be winter soon. She could take the shortcut to the A&P and home again. She could wear a beanie and knit gloves and not be too uncomfortable, even when it dropped below freezing. If she wanted to go farther, she could get rides from Nick in his old wide-set Buick or from Amber whenever she borrowed a car from her parents. Still, Lucy couldn’t picture how she would live with no car. In her mind, the past summer was a long blur of back roads. It was Ani DiFranco tapes and trying to get lost enough so that she didn’t know how to get back even though she’d lived here all her life and knew perfectly well how the roads webbed together—little farm roads and county highways, swervy one-lanebridge roads with ghost stories attached to them, and potholed lanes that ran between the river and the train tracks and washed out when it rained. It was a comfort to be on them. Between. She looked around the living room, at the hoard of gossip magazines, stained blankets, the TV, the dirty mugs and the shelves of crystals—candycolored and luminous in the lamplight—and then at her mom, who seemed to get skinnier every time Lucy looked away, as if all her insides were being wadded up like a used napkin. Lucy couldn’t imagine being here all winter, waiting for rides. I’d have to kill myself, she thought, and registered some sur-

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prise at how natural and realistic that sounded in her head. It was the lamplight. It made the room look dim and depressing. It was making her overdramatic. “Nick knows about cars,” Lucy said. “Or at least he pretends he does. I’ll get him to look.” “You should worry more about the karma, babygirl. You killed a living thing.” Her mom shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “You come home with all that negative energy, who do you think it’ll attach to?” Her voice rose a little, although it was always kind of raspy these days. “I’m like a sponge, you know that. Especially at this stage in my healing journey. I’m a sponge for all the energies that get brought into this house. That negative karma is gonna attach itself to me.” Lucy wanted a cigarette. She wondered if the TV was loud enough that she could slip out the back door without her mom hearing the hinges. “I’m sorry,” she said, because what could she say? “Were you driving stoned again? Is that what happened? How did this happen?” “I wasn’t stoned!” She had actually smoked up earlier in the evening, but it took a lot to get her high these days, and she’d felt totally fine by the time she was driving home. “This is bad, Lucy. This is a bad omen. I can’t have bad omens right now following you home and attaching themselves.” There was a trace of the old warm and electric fear in her mom’s voice, the way it had sounded at the beginning of summer when she’d still been seeing the real doctors. For a second, Lucy remembered holding her in the medical center parking lot, sitting on the hood of the car, her mom crying so hard it was like she was taking punches to the gut. I’m scared I’m scared I’m scared. Lucy had sat there, arms around her. It must have only happened

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one time, but it felt like longer—it felt like there were whole months where the trees leafed, the weather got muggy, the thunderstorms came and receded, the river rose and flooded the roads alongside it, and they just sat on the hood of the car, holding each other. Then, abruptly, it stopped. Her mom wiped her hand across her face and snuffled and shuddered. I’m sorry, babygirl. You shouldn’t have to see me like this. You shouldn’t have to be the mom. Lucy had felt then like everything would be okay. She would be the mom for a while, and she didn’t mind, really. She would write down all the appointments and hold her arms around all the fear, and they’d ride it out. It would be hard, but hard in a way that made sense. It was better than her mom’s raspy voice and wadded-napkin face and the flat way she talked about how the love of the universe would cure her. Lucy wasn’t allowed to touch her anymore. Lucy smoked, and she ate crappy fast food, and she worked in that old grocery store that was probably full of asbestos and heavy metals. Lucy was full of toxins, and toxins were what got her mom so sick in the first place, and toxins were what kept her from the pure and true love that would cure her. “It’s my omen, Mom,” said Lucy. She would have to believe in omens, at least for now. It would give her something to fix. “I’ll deal with it. Don’t worry.”

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t’s like—think about Vietnam. They were always stoned over there. At least in the stories and stuff.” Amber passed the bowl into the backseat, and Lucy took it. “They had to be stoned—” Amber went on, exhaling her smoke mid-sentence, “—because it was fucking brutal, you know? When you’re, like, actively being traumatized and stuff, you do what you can to make your brain not break.” “Your point?” said Lucy, passing the bowl over the back of the driver’s seat, to Nick. They were parked by a trailhead, wedged between two big pickups that probably belonged to hunters. No one else was out this time of year. Certainly no cops—not checking this place, anyway. “My point is you shouldn’t feel so guilty about smoking so much. It’s, like, a coping mechanism.” “It’s just I might have seen the deer on time if I had been paying attention.” She didn’t say she should pay more attention to her mom and figuring out what she needed, but it was what she meant. “It’s sad. I mean, the poor deer. But you shouldn’t beat yourself up about getting high. You’re going through some shit.” “Where does that leave you, Amb?” Nick said, poking around in the charred bits still left in the bowl. “What are you going through?” “Nothing, dickhead. I’m just bored, and it’s fun to get high, okay? I’m not the one feeling guilt-ridden about it. And anyway, I pay for the weed most of the time, so you can’t criticize.” Lucy, Nick, and Amber were the only ones left of all the people they had once cared about, the only ones who had stuck around this shitty town. Nick’s parents drank too much, so no one had worried about him when he slacked off during application season, and anyway, he hadn’t had the grades to get into most schools. Lucy had applied to a few places, and had even done the first week of classes at the community college, but then her mom

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was getting worse fast enough that it didn’t seem to matter if she was in school. Amber was different. Amber had made a choice. Amber had a perfectly normal family with both parents well and sane, and she lived in one of the newer developments off Changewater, where a crop of McMansions flashed flatly, set back from the road. Amber was taking a year to work on her portfolio, a year to be in-between. Amber had straight teeth and long straight hair and said wise things like, Of course a shortcut is a little bit dangerous; otherwise, it would just be The Way. Lucy was glad Amber had stayed in town, but she didn’t understand it. I don’t either, Amber had told her. It’s just, I need more time. “It’s kicked,” said Nick. He emptied the charred bottom of the bowl into his palm, and wiped it on his jeans. He rolled down the window. In rushed the cold, clean air and that skittery sunlight that was the best you could expect at the tail end of the year. The fog on Lucy’s window began to recede. She had liked the feeling of being enclosed, safe, the outside world padded by a layer of smoke and breath vapor. The cold air made her feel like it hadn’t worked, like she was still totally sober. Nick started the ignition. “Okay. Now where is this deer?”

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ucy thought she knew exactly where the deer was. She could describe the place quite clearly, could get them right to that little spot off the road, where there was gravel and then a clearing and then trees that watched nervously as if they’d been interrupted in the midst of a serious conversation. But it all looked different in daylight. Nick pulled over right where Lucy was sure she had pulled over the night before. “Maybe you didn’t kill it?” Amber suggested. “It looked pretty dead last night.” “Maybe it was stunned. That happens. I’ve heard of that happening. Maybe after you left, it just got up and walked away.” “Maybe.” Lucy couldn’t picture the deer moving again. “Maybe someone already moved it,” Nick said. “If it’s out of the way already, we don’t need to do anything.” “I don’t know,” said Lucy. “I mean, I guess we wouldn’t need to do much. I don’t know. Amber was going to take pictures.” “It’s fine. We can get pictures at the river again. Those turned out good. And it’ll look different when the leaves are almost gone.” Nick started his car. “Wait!” Lucy said. “I still want to find it. I just—I don’t know. I was the one who killed it. I want to make sure it’s okay.” She couldn’t explain about her mom and karma and how the deer had been a bad omen. How many times had she sat in Nick’s car or in Amber’s bedroom or on the big rocks by the river, sobbing about how her mom had gone all superstitious and refused treatment? How often, after that, had she acted bitter and sarcastic, rolling her eyes about how she was losing her only family to new-age bullshit? But the deer felt important. It felt like an omen. She couldn’t help it. Nick turned off the car again. Lucy got out and heard the others do the

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same behind her as she walked toward the place where she had thought the body was. There was something there, Lucy noticed, as they got closer. But it wasn’t a deer, was it? It had looked like nothing when they drove past, or maybe like a few branches that had fallen in the road. It couldn’t be the deer. They were at the place. “Gross,” said Nick. “It’s definitely dead,” said Amber. “It’s—this doesn’t seem right, does it? I hit it just last night.” In front of them was a pile of bones and sun-toughened skin. It sunk into the ground as if it had spent a good six months in that spot. “What’s not right? It’s totally dead, Lucy. Sorry about your karma.” Nick put a sarcastic hand on her shoulder. The sunlight had a strained, skim-milk feel. It was like they were in a huge jar with thick glass sides. Like they were all bugs under observation, and you could only tell because the light wasn’t quite right. Lucy was suddenly aware that she was really, really high. Too high, probably. That weed was a creeper. Maybe none of this would be so strange if she were less high. “It shouldn’t be—do you think it should be this, I don’t know, decomposed? Shouldn’t it still have all its guts and stuff? I just hit it last night.” “Maybe someone came along and butchered it for meat. People do that with roadkill sometimes. I’ve heard of people doing that.” “But why would they leave the skin and stuff? Why would it look all rotted and desiccated and ancient?” “Maybe it just rotted really fast. Like the flies and maggots got to it, you know? Gross.” “In November? It’s like fifty degrees right now. Why would there be flies? I don’t see any flies.”

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“I don’t know, Lucy! You’re the one who’s acting like the expert in, like, dead bodies and the way they rot. You tell us what’s going on.” “I don’t know,” said Lucy, aware that, yes, she was definitely too high. She’d had a picture in her mind of coming upon the deer with its neck crooked, barely beginning to smell. That was why she had wanted to go back right away, before it began to smell too bad. They would move it to a nice resting place completely off the road. She had needed to get high first so she wouldn’t mind moving a body that had been alive not twenty-four hours ago. And she would tell it she was sorry (she’d planned to do this part silently, when Nick and Amber weren’t paying attention), and she would touch the ground beside it and ask the ground to cleanse this death from her aura or however it worked, and she would go home and tell her mom she had done this, that all was well, that she was safe to walk over the threshold again, bringing no death into that place. Instead, it looked like the body would collapse into an armload of dirty bones if she even nudged it with the toe of her boot. “I don’t know,” said Lucy again, doubtfully. “Maybe it is supposed to be this way.” Amber started giggling wildly. “You’re so paranoid. You’re so . . . paranoid. That a dead deer is too dead!” She gasped for breath. There were tears in her eyes. Lucy laughed, too, mostly because she was embarrassed not to. In her head, she started telling herself the story of how she’d gotten here, how Nick had knocked on the door this morning—I saw your car as I was driving past. What the fuck happened?—how they’d picked up Amber, honking in her parents’ driveway until she ran out like a sun-bright bird in her red hoodie—Thank god. I was watching Maury. I am soooo bored you guys—how they had driven across the Delaware to pick up weed from the stoner kid who

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sold eighths out of a dilapidated, mostly unfurnished farmhouse, and how on the way Lucy had explained about the deer and how she felt so bad that she wasn’t sure if she’d killed it, and they had said, Of course, of course, we’ll check it out, we’ll make sure it’s okay. Usually this chronicling worked. If the feeling of strangeness was too strong, or if her brain got stuck on unpleasant things like a rat chewing through a wall—my mom is dying, my mom is exiting her body, my mom is going to cease to exist—she could name all the parts of her day and know she was here, and it was ordinary, and all was as you’d expect it to be. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that in this case something was genuinely, honestly strange. She wished she were less high. A whirring insect sound happened close to her ear, and she jumped and flinched before she realized it was just the shutter on Amber’s camera. “One good thing,” Amber said, “it left a really cool-looking corpse behind.”

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hen Lucy came home, her mom’s energy healer was there. Lucy still thought of her as Ms. Blaine, who used to substitute teach at her elementary school. Ms. Blaine had been one of those subs who sat at the teacher’s desk while all the kids did whatever they wanted. Sometimes she’d chatted with the students who sat at the front of the classroom. Grown-up stuff about the dates she had been on or the murder mystery she was reading. Lucy never sat at the front. The sweet, well-behaved girls did that, and even then, Lucy knew they had some hidden advantage over her, that she would never catch up. They were the type of girls who had Lisa Frank stickers and small portable TVs in their neat pink bedrooms. Their mothers brushed and braided their hair every morning. Lucy had hated Ms. Blaine, who didn’t mind kids getting out of their seats and moving around the room, pulling Lucy’s hair and hissing dyke at her where she sat in the back, reading her own chapter books. And she hated Moonstone Shanti, which was the name Ms. Blaine went by now that she was a Medical Psychic and Healer of Karmic Wounds from Past and Present Lifetimes. Now her mom stood in the middle of the living room, and Moonstone was clapping her many-ringed hands into the air all around her, rhythmically. Lucy noticed her mom had gone out of her way to push aside the magazines, dirty tea mugs, and other clutter, and had hung a scarf over the TV. It was depressing, the way she was working so hard to force a miracle with positivity and Moonstone’s theatrics. That morning, Lucy had offered to call and make an appointment for a check-up—Just to see what’s happening. You don’t have to do anything. Just to know what’s happening with the— with it. Lucy didn’t use words like cancer or tumor. Her mom had bristled. Western medicine just sees me as a body. “Have you been smoking? I can smell it,” her mom called to her as she crossed along the edge of the living room.

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Clap clap clap clap. “I don’t know. Sorry,” she mumbled. “You know I can’t have those toxins brought in here!” Lucy got to the stairs and bolted up. Faintly from below, she heard the sound of rhythmic clapping and Moonstone’s voice, dreamier than when she’d been a substitute teacher: “Don’t worry. Clear her from your energy field. Focus back on love.” Lucy turned on the electric desk fan to drown out the sound, even though her bedroom was already cold. Somewhere in the scrubby wooded back roads between this town and the next, a deer corpse was quickly rotting into nothing. Lucy touched her own pulse—clap clap clap—and laid down on the unmade bed. Focus back on love. She hated the word love these days, which felt as cheap and gimmicky as a crystal made of candy-colored glass. But sometimes, secretly, she tried it—focusing on love, letting it settle down on her from above like a smothering creature, creeping to sleep on her chest.

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he next night, they decided to drink at the place where the deer corpse was. Nick had a bottle of cheap Canadian whisky that they took reluctant swigs from. It tasted bad, but they just wanted to be drunk for a while, forget about things. Nick and Amber had each pulled their cars entirely into the gravel and weeds, close enough together that the three of them could sit on the two roofs and share the bottle, knees bent against their chests. After a while, Amber laid a megawatt flashlight against the ground, just so, to get dramatic lighting on the bones, then crouched with her camera. “These shadows are so good,” she said. Did the bones look different than they had yesterday? Lucy could have sworn there had been more flesh on them the last time they’d checked, but she didn’t know anymore if she was right about the way it should look. So she just swallowed the bile-flavored whisky and watched Amber try to get the flashlight to stay propped up at a different angle. “It seems like that deer is decaying weirdly fast,” Nick said. “Yeah,” said Amber. “It’s like, you can almost see it happening. Like one of those time- lapse nature movies.” Lucy felt a little gratified. Also, worried. What did it mean that the deer was practically dissolving right in front of them? “I told you,” she said. “What if it’s a really intense flesh-eating bacteria or something? What if we shouldn’t be around it and breathing it in?” Amber positioned her camera. The shutter whirred through the dark. “I guess we’re all screwed then,” she said. “Anyway, it’ll make good pictures.” Nick took another swig. “You’re always in worst-case scenario mode. Whenever anything happens, you think of the worst thing it could mean.” “No, I don’t,” Lucy said, reflexively, realizing as she said it that Nick was right. She was always thinking about the worst thing that could happen. The omen, the tragedy, the wreck, the bad karma. She felt how she was

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shriveling up around herself, decaying like the deer she’d killed, dry and hollow with all that dread. Lucy suddenly didn’t want to be there anymore. Her stomach twisted and tightened around the bad whisky. She hadn’t bothered to eat dinner, and even a few gulps of the stuff had made her feel weak and dizzy, the edges of the world blending together, the dark beyond their headlights becoming flat and menacing. “I should go home,” she said. “I have to work tomorrow. I should go home early.” “Look, I didn’t mean to piss you off. It’s not a bad thing to be concerned.” “I’m not done here,” said Amber. “I won’t be done for a while, with the lighting and the long exposures.” “Can you just take me home, Nick?” Lucy said. Her voice was louder than she’d meant it to be. She felt the whisky in her gut getting hotter and hotter, turning into panic. “I just need to go home.” Nick looked at Amber. “Do you want to come? Do you want to stay here? It’s just to Lucy’s house.” “I’ll stay,” said Amber. “I’m busy.” She didn’t look up from the janky structure she was trying to make out of three sticks and the flashlight. “Anyway, I don’t want to drive yet. And I can’t leave my dad’s car here.” Her form, crouched over the deer, looked small against the floodlit space as they drove away.

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t was inevitable, Lucy knew then, that Amber would go missing, the way beautiful and wise girls always do when they live in a place full of horror and don’t see it sitting right there on their chest. So she wasn’t surprised when Nick showed up at her work the next morning, alone. “Have you talked to Amber?” Nick asked. “She ditched me last night.” The store was quiet. It was earlier than Nick usually woke up, unless he had somewhere to be. He must be a little worried, too. “What do you mean ‘ditched’?” “She wasn’t there. When I went back after dropping you off. I didn’t hear from her or anything. She was just . . . gone.” Lucy kept stacking cans on the shelves, steadily. She tried not to sound like she was assuming bad things. When a horrible thing happenened, you had to pretend you were surprised by it, didn’t you? Even if you spent all your time obsessing over tumors and flesh-eating bacteria, you had to pretend to be surprised when something actually happened. Otherwise how could anyone stand to live in this world, admitting they had already guessed all its horribleness? “Should we call her house?” “That’s why I came here. Her parents still act weird when I call. Like they think I’m a love interest.” Amber and Nick had dated briefly when they were too young for it to mean much to either of them. Amber complained about how her parents still asked about him, saying they would always support her, but wouldn’t it be better to find someone with a good future ahead of him? It wasn’t that weird for Amber to have disappeared last night. By the time Nick had gotten Lucy back to her house, she was feeling a lot better—was wishing, even, that she’d stayed in the woods. Her mom would be sleeping already. It would be quiet inside. So she’d suggested she and Nick smoke a bowl in the driveway before he left, and somehow that led to cigarettes on

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the porch (sneakily blowing the smoke away from the house so that it wouldn’t sift in through the window screens to alert her mom), and then to watching infomercials on the couch, giggling at the cheesy way each product was hailed as the second coming. In other words, Nick hadn’t exactly been quick to return to Amber. In fact, she was probably pissed about it. And she’d had that big flashlight, and enough time to sober up and get home. Stop assuming horrible things, Lucy told herself as she stood in the corner of the warehouse, dialing Amber’s number on the old wall-mounted rotary. She felt guilty now because if Amber turned out to be ax-murdered, Lucy would have made it happen by assuming the worst. Amber’s mom picked up. “Sloane residence.” “Hi, this is Lucy. Amber’s friend.” “Hey there, Lucy. I’m about to leave for work. Can I give you Amber’s number?” “I—she’s not home?” “Not for another few weeks. She’ll be back over the holidays. I’m sure she’d like to see you then.” Amber’s mom sounded distracted. “She’s, um, fine though?” Lucy wasn’t sure how to ask the question without sounding crazy. Increasingly, it seemed obvious to her that Amber would turn out to be fine all along. “Yes, doing very well. She’ll appreciate you called, I’m sure, but I’m in a rush right now, sweetie. Do you want the number?”

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f something horrible had happened, Lucy couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. It was more subtle than getting murdered in the woods and harder to wrap her head around. The phone number Amber’s mother had given her had a New York area code. The young woman who’d picked up said she was Amber’s roommate. Amber was in class, and then would probably go straight to the studio. It’s almost finals. We’re all kind of stressed. But I can tell her you called? “That’s okay,” Lucy had said, wondering if she could have possibly gotten the wrong Amber. Maybe she had spoken to the mother of a different Amber Sloane, who was going to art school in the city, and then to the roommate of that different Amber, who was studious and responsible, someone who went to class and then worked all day on her finals. But Lucy knew that the first number she had called was the one she’d memorized years ago—Amber’s number, the one she always called when she wanted to speak to her friend. She didn’t see how it could be wrong. So later that afternoon, as she watched Nick wrangle open the freshly crumpled hood of her car, she found it oddly comforting. It proved she wasn’t crazy, that she had hit a deer only a few nights ago. Nick examined the insides as best he could, to see if anything looked damaged. “She must have enrolled without telling us,” he said. “She must have been in school all along.” “But . . . how? I never remember her not being home when we’d come over. And she always seemed so bored. Wouldn’t she have told us if she was going to school?” Nick tried to slam the hood down again, but it bounced back open, refusing to latch. “Anyway you have to live there to go to school there,” Lucy went on. “You have to go to classes and stuff. There’s a studio to work in.” She’d

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been impressed with the casual way the roommate had introduced the fact of the studio, which seemed to come from a different kind of world—expensive and serious, a place where real art happened. She wondered if Amber still smoked so much pot, and somehow doubted it. Amber had been right about how it was like being away at war; getting high was just a way to ride out the time here in this place. “Maybe she got a late start. Maybe they let her do make-up work,” said Nick, who, Lucy was starting to suspect, didn’t know the first thing about how college admissions worked. Nick was the type who made sandals out of duct tape and carved a pipe from a deep yellow piece of wood he’d found near the river. He would save the end-pieces of the big blocks of cheese from the deli he worked at, rescue the day-old bagels from going in the garbage, and make melted cheese sandwiches for all three of them on the rusted and filthy grill on his parents’ porch. In other words, he was the type that was good at surviving by using what he had, and Lucy knew he expected everyone else could do the same. “It has to be the place,” said Lucy. Nick was fiddling with the hood latch, which made a sound like an unloaded gun as he clicked it. “Hmm?” “The place,” said Lucy. “The place. The place I hit the deer. You saw it— time goes, I don’t know, fast there. The deer was there, and then it rotted away in a few days. Amber was there, and now she’s moved on. She’s grown up. She’s in school, like she wanted to be all along.” “Amber’s family has money,” said Nick. “They probably paid her way in.” “Amber’s family isn’t that rich, not compared to the other people who go to schools like that. Compared to us, she’s got advantages, but she’d still have to work fucking hard to get into that school.” A flash of something like pride. She wished she’d seen all of Amber’s hard work.

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“I thought you didn’t believe in mystical stuff.” Nick took a Swiss Army knife out of his pocket and began using the blade to force the hood latch into place. “I . . . don’t believe in mystical stuff,” Lucy said. She paused, considering whether that had ever been true. She certainly didn’t believe you could cure cancer with fresh juice and keeping a black tourmaline in your pocket. And she had only sort of believed the deer was a bad omen she carried home with her— at least, she didn’t believe it the way her mother did, thinking any unlucky mistake could poison your whole life. But the magic of the place was different. It wasn’t universal life energies or crystal healing ceremonies, which seemed more like a pretty way to talk about hope and the fragility of life than a replacement for a real doctor. It was different because it was the way life had worked all along, Lucy thought, although she’d only now realized it. Time didn’t move the same for everyone. Stand in one spot, you spend the rest of your life waiting for the next horribleness. Find a different spot, you snap forward. Your life resumes. Nick tried to slam the hood again. This time the latch caught. “Look at that. Closed. Now at least you can drive it around until the next time you need an oil change.”

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ucy didn’t care about the next time the car would need an oil change. She didn’t care about needing to walk to work and bum rides forever. The car just needed to run the next time her mom wanted to get in it. It was coming. When Lucy got home late from her closing shift, her mom was still awake, a brittle pile of inhales and exhales on the far side of the sofa. Lucy sat down far enough away that she hoped the faint smell of smoke on her clothes wouldn’t carry. “Are you okay?” Her mom hated this kind of question, so Lucy hadn’t asked it in a long time. “I had a long session with Moonstone today. I’m tired.” The TV was muted, but her mom and Lucy both turned toward it now, watching a news anchor shape his mouth around language. “I’m so tired,” her mom repeated, softer. “Are you in pain?” Yes, the silence in the room said. “I could make an appointment,” said Lucy. “I bet I could get you in tomorrow.” She clenched her teeth, knowing she was about to hear about the scourge of Western medicine and how healing comes from the love you carry within. But her mom said nothing. She said nothing for so long that Lucy thought maybe she wasn’t going to respond at all. “You were there, babygirl. You heard what they said. They can’t get rid of it. They can’t do anything. I’m not going to go back just to hear the ways it’s spreading. What’s the point?” Lucy watched vowels and consonants fall silently from the news anchor’s mouth like rows of well-trained soldiers. She hadn’t heard the doctors say that. Or rather, she had heard it, but she hadn’t believed. If they could just go back, if they could check again. . . .

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“I thought maybe there was some other way to get better,” her mom said. “I thought maybe I could induce a miracle. I don’t know. It was worth a shot.” The walls seemed to hum with all the muted language that was gathering at the edges of that room. “There are pills,” Lucy said, suddenly remembering that there had been, all along, pills the doctors had prescribed for when the pain got too bad. She had stopped at the drug store and filled the prescription herself, right after her mom’s last clinic visit. How could she have forgotten that? “I know,” her mom said. “But I’m still not ready for that. Not yet.”

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et out of the car,” said Lucy. “Are you crazy?” said Nick. “You’ll be fine. You’ll be happier, if I’m right about this place. Or you can just walk to the highway and hitch home.” Lucy started to roll up her window. They’d had them down to air the pot smoke out of the car after driving the back roads and sharing a bowl. It was Lucy’s car; she’d said she wanted to check if it still drove okay. She had only sort of planned to leave Nick like this. She’d spent maybe about a week working it over in her head, knowing there was something wrong with her, that there had to be something sharp-bladed and cruel deep inside her to do something like this. But she had to know what would happen if someone else stayed behind in the place where the deer was. Were its miraculous time-jump properties reliable? Could they happen again? In the beam of her broken headlight, she could see a few mossy scraps of bone that had been a living deer once upon a very short time ago, before it had had the misfortune of stepping in front of Lucy’s car. “Lucy, this is fucking nuts. I know you’re upset about your mom and everything, but you can’t do this to people. You can’t ditch me in the middle of the woods.” “I know. I know I can’t. I’m sorry. But . . . I am. Can’t you please just go along with it? You’ll be better off. You’ll move on. I promise. Or I’ll turn out to be wrong, and you’ll walk to the highway.” Nick kept looking at her, eyebrows raised. She knew she was being unreasonable, but it still stung, somehow, to see how he was treating her like she’d lost her mind. “I’m not moving this car until you go.” They watched a trail of fog drift through the headlights and away. “Please, Nick. Just go. Please.”

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Nick blew out a breath and grabbed the hair over his forehead, clearly trying to figure out how to talk her down from this madness. But all he said was, “Seriously?” Nick never got angry. That was something Lucy had always liked about him. Even-tempered, her mom had called him once when they still spent a lot of time hanging out at Lucy’s house. Lucy’s dad, in that long-ago time when he’d existed, had not been at all even-tempered. She’d always felt like her friendship with Nick was a kind of redemption, proof that men could be good and kind. Now she wondered if it had ever been that simple. Maybe there were just people who were kind, like Nick and like her mom, and people who took advantage of that, like her dad once had and like Lucy was doing now. She hated herself, but said it again: “Please, Nick.” “Look, this thing with your mom is making you act crazy. I know that’s what it is. You’re going to see later how crazy this is.” “This thing with my mom? This—what—this dying thing, you mean?” She had never said the word out loud before, not in this context. The silence around it was like the silence after an explosion. Her heart raced. “What do you want, Lucy?” Nick sounded exhausted when he finally spoke. “What do you need?” It was so good to be asked, Lucy felt a choke of tears. She knew then she could say anything, anything, and he would probably do it. That word— dying—that word had been a magical passphrase between them. She could say, I need to cry into your flannel for hours. She could say, I need to find more weed or a drink or something stronger than either of those things, and I need to forget this is happening. She could say, Stay with me, god, please, just promise to stick around. Everyone is leaving one way or another. But she’d thought it through. She’d decided ahead of time that she was cruel, beyond caring, and that she needed Nick with all his kindness to be

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a sacrifice. Anyway, she didn’t want to cry, not now. She wanted to know what was real and not real. She wanted to understand if there was such a thing as a miracle, even if the miracle was as plain and sad and simple as time passing. So she gritted herself around the tears rising upward. And she said—she was proud of how calm it sounded—“I really just need for you to get out of the car.”

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hen Lucy got home from leaving Nick, her mom was on the couch. Lucy couldn’t tell if she was sleeping or not. She fixed a glass of tap water and put it on a dinner plate, along with the bottle of pills, which she’d left on the counter after her mom’s last dose. She made a piece of dry wheat toast and spooned strawberry yogurt into a coffee mug. Her mom had eaten this exact meal when she’d brought it to her last night. She hoped it would happen again, as she carried the plate into the living room and her mom shifted on the couch to sit up and receive it. “Thanks, Lucy.” It was a relief these days, that she was awake.

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aybe it was because this time she’d been expecting something to happen, but Lucy could feel the change with Nick. She could feel how even though she’d seen him just last night, she also hadn’t talked to Nick in a long time. Maybe it was a little bit because she hadn’t expected Nick to move on the way she had expected it from Amber. She had thought they’d stay trapped here together. He showed up right at the end of her shift, standing by the automatic doors, lifting his hand out of his pocket and into an awkward wave. “Hey, stranger,” said Lucy, which felt like the appropriate thing to say, even though it sounded so weird and cliché, not like how she would have talked to Nick yesterday. He looked tired or maybe just thinner in the cheeks. He was bearded now, but not in a Rip Van Winkle way—the beard was groomed well and suited him. “Hey,” he said. They stepped outside together. The temperature had dropped overnight. Lucy pulled on her cheap knit gloves and rubbed her hands a few times before taking out her pack of cigarettes. She lit up. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have left you there. I’m sorry.” Nick shrugged, as if to say, It happens. She supposed it had been a long time for him since she’d left him in the woods. Maybe he’d gotten over it. “How long has it been?” she asked him. She wondered what it was like for him, to have shot forward to the future. Nick shrugged again. “We just sort of . . . fell out of touch, you know? I didn’t plan on it.” “But how long?” said Lucy, desperate now for specifics. “How long since I left you in the woods?”

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“Look, Lucy, I don’t want you to worry about that. It was a weird night,” Nick said. “That’s why I wanted to come by. I was thinking about it. I didn’t want you to think we stopped talking because of that night.” It made sense that Nick wouldn’t have noticed he’d moved forward in time. It made sense it would be more obvious to her, from this side of things. Still, she wished she had a cleaner understanding of how it worked. “Well, I’m glad you’re here now,” Lucy said. Then again, maybe time never worked cleanly. People change overnight and you still know them, until they change in a way where you don’t know them anymore. It made sense in its way. “Listen, I’m out of work for the day. Do you have any weed?” Nick’s hands were in his pockets again. He looked awkward. “Lucy, I’m sober now. I’m doing the steps and stuff. I thought maybe you would have heard about that.” “Oh.” “I mean it doesn’t bother me if you do it,” he said, sounding apologetic. “It was just, like, getting to be too much.” “You always seemed fine to me.” “We were high and drunk every night,” he said. “You know about my family. You know it was only a matter of time until it became a problem.” Lucy knew. Of course Nick would read the signs of an addiction. Of course he would stop himself short before it got really bad. Nick was practical. He made and he fixed things. Lucy exhaled, the tobacco smoke indistinguishable from her own warm breath. “Good for you,” she said, meaning it but not really feeling it. “Thanks. I mean, if you ever wanted to—I mean I would go to meetings with you.”

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“I’m fine,” Lucy said. She could tell he didn’t want her to feel ashamed about the invitation, and she was trying hard to play along. She didn’t feel ashamed. She just needed it a while longer, anything that numbed. “I don’t think I have a problem, really. It’s just, you know, with my mom right now. It’s just a bad time.” He sighed. “How’s your mom doing?” “Fine. No—I mean, the same. Worse, I guess. I don’t know.” “I’m sorry.” She dropped the cigarette butt and stomped on it, exhaling the last drag. “What does that even mean, Nick? Sorry for what?” “That—” She could see him fumbling for what words she’d be able to hear. She saw the disappointed look when he realized there weren’t any. “I need to get home,” she said, turning toward the shortcut.

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aybe it was her, Lucy thought. Maybe it was her own will and fear and weakness that was keeping everything frozen, making it impossible for anyone to move on. She had held Amber and Nick in that glass jar with her, begging just one more day and then just one more and one more from this town, these back roads, the betweenspaces that she knew so well she could move through them stoned and half-conscious. Meanwhile, the place in the woods was running at regular time. It was a portal back to normal speed, a rip created in a moment when she’d panicked and dropped her constant beg to the universe to please slow down a while. In the seconds when she’d hit the deer, she’d dropped the spell she was weaving without knowing she was, a sticky-glue spell to keep change from coming. Not fixing, but delaying—it was the best she could muster to keep her world intact.

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ately, the pills worked too well. Her mom hardly stayed awake anymore, on the couch with the TV playing the same reruns. Lucy sat with her, not really watching, but trying to relax her grip around time. It was like a clenched muscle in her jaw; it was something she had held so tight for so long that she couldn’t remember how to make it release. “I’m scared,” her mom murmured. “I know,” Lucy said. “Me too.” “I’m scared,” her mom said. “Me too.” On the TV, a live studio audience whispered among themselves. “Is it time to go to the doctor?” said Lucy. “If I take you somewhere right now, will you go?” No answer. Eventually, Lucy stood up. She got her mom’s coat from the hook by the door and brought it to her. “I’m going to start the car so it’s warm for you.” She sat idling in the driveway, waiting for the heat to start working. Then she would wait for her mom to come out the door, wearing a coat that had become far too big for her. Then her mom would get in the car for the first time in whoknew-how-long. Then Lucy would start driving. Then, a blank. All she knew was somewhere in the woods there was a place where a miracle had happened: time had been fixed, had latched back into place. Lucy squeezed the steering wheel like it was a hand that could squeeze back, eyes on the lit doorway. Any minute now, her mom would walk through it. They would go.

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Sara Fetherolf (she/they) is a poet, essayist, storyteller, and librettist, whose work has appeared in Muzzle, Indiana Review, The California Journal of Poetics, and Plath Profiles, among others. They hold an MFA degree from Hunter College and are currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at University of Southern California, where they serve as poetry editor for Gold Line Press. Their debut poetry collection, Via Combusta, is forthcoming from New American Press in October 2022. She lives in Long Beach. Fetherolf notes that as the title suggests, “The Place” is a place-driven story: “I have always felt that while characters and events are easy to imagine into existence, I cannot fake setting. I need to set stories in places I know. ‘The Place’ is set in the area of western New Jersey where I spent my teenage and young adult years. The area is a weird spiderweb of suburban small towns, with long stretches of wooded back roads connecting them. Roadkill is common in this area, and whitetail deer are particularly common among roadkill; the big empty yards of expensive housing developments are perfect grazing land, so the deer have managed to overpopulate an area where many other woodland creatures have been displaced. They wander in front of oncoming cars quite frequently, especially around dusk when they tend to blend into the grayish air around them. When I lived in this area, I would routinely drive past deer corpses, and I thought it was odd how no one seemed to think anything of it. For a long time, I wanted to write a story where someone hits a deer and it ends up mattering—some series of fateful occurrences is set off by a death that is usually routine. “My friends and I used to drive around those back roads looking for what we called ‘time warps,’ or areas where time felt wobbly, as if it were moving faster or slower than it’s supposed to. It is easy to find such places if it is late at night, you are the only car on the road, and you have even a whiff of imagination. So I had it in my head that I wanted to write a story where the events begin with a car hitting a deer, and then it occurred to me that I

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also wanted it to be an origin story for one of those time warps. From there, it was easy to imagine the young woman who hit the deer, maybe just a decade or so before I drove those roads myself. I could picture the specific kind of suspended grief that she would have to be living in to have the psychic energy to tear open the fabric of time by accident, and that is how ‘The Place’ came to be. I am delighted and honored that the piece has found a home in Iron Horse Literary Review.”

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Iron Horse Literary Review would like to thank its supporters, without whose generous help we could not publish Iron Horse successfully. In particular, we would like to thank our benefactors and equestrian donors. If you would like to join our network of friends, please contact us at ihlr.mail@gmail.com for information on the various levels of support. Benefactors ($300) Wendell Aycock Lon and Carol Baugh Beverly and George Cox Richard Crider Sam Dragga Madonne Miner in memory of Charles Patterson Gordon Weaver Equestrian ($3,000 and above) TTU English Department, Interim Chair William Wenthe TTU College of Arts & Sciences, Interim Dean Brian Still TTU Graduate School, Dean Mark Sheridan TTU Provost’s Office, Provost Ronald L. Hendrick TTU President’s Office, President Lawrence Schovanec