THE SOFT ANIMALS by Nathan Willis
THE SOFT ANIMALS
by Nathan Willis
There are four deer in the garage. They’re made of metal and they don’t have heads. Mom’s been sneaking out at night when she thinks I’m asleep. This is what she’s been working on. She wants to take them to the craft show, but she can’t get them in the trailer by herself. They’re too big.
There’s a utility bucket in the corner with the leftover pieces she didn’t use. I tell her I’ll help in the morning and take the bucket.
On my way upstairs, I stop in the dining room, where we keep Dad. Logistically, it just makes the most sense. It’s the only place that’s both out of the way and big enough to facilitate his hospital bed.
The doctors had diagnosed him as unresponsive. He’s connected to hoses that keep him alive. The hoses run through the wall to a box outside the house that dispenses his medications. It’s the size of a refrigerator. It makes a humming noise that reverberates through the neighborhood. All we have to do is change the battery when it beeps.
I shake the bucket until it makes a terrible clattering sound.
I dump the bucket on my bed and shut the door. I push the metal pieces against my skin. I am giving myself the face and antlers of a deer. The metal sticks on its own, so I know I’m doing the right thing.
Mom used to make plush animals. They were little and cute and they had heads. Her mom taught her to make them when she was a kid. Mom gave them names and jobs and created a fictional town for them to live in. She took them to the craft show for years and never sold a single one.
Dad said she should give them away and start over. New animals. A new town. It would be good marketing.
Mom knew better. It didn’t have anything to do with marketing. He hated her animals and he didn’t think she’d be able to start over.
The deer sold before the general public even had a chance to see them. They were bought by other craft vendors who saw us setting up our booth. We would have gone home right then, but we had to stay until the end so the vendors could pick them up.
All day, people stopped to ask about the deer. They said how much they loved them and how they had never seen anything like them before. They wanted to know how much they cost and when we would be back with more. I felt awful about disappointing them, but Mom said this was a good problem to have.
When we finally do get home there are three girls in the front yard. They are teenagers like me. Not old enough to drive but old enough to know the future ahead of us will require sacrifice if we want to make it our own. Their faces are metal, and they have antlers like me as well. They approach Mom and say they are her daughters. They tell her that they want to come home.
The morning that Dad wasn’t there, Mom called the police. They told her there had been a car accident overnight. The driver wasn’t carrying ID, and the car was such a mess, they couldn’t look up the registration. It was still out there, on the stretch of highway that runs next to the twenty-four-hour golf course. We were welcome to check it out to see if it was ours.
Mom’s plush animals were scattered all over the asphalt. Further off, we could see what was left of the car.
Mom notified the police. They told us which hospital Dad had been taken to and informed us that since no one else was at fault, we were responsible for cleaning up the wreckage.
We pushed the car onto the trailer and left the animals.
The New Daughters keep to themselves. At night, they sleep standing up in my room. I taught myself to do the same. It took a week. We face the window by the garage.
The twenty-four-hour golf course has security cameras on its floodlights. They sent Mom a video of the crash in case she needed it for the insurance. We watched it together.
There was a giant deer in the road. It was three stories tall. Dad swerved at the last second, but it wasn’t enough.
He made it out of the car and tried to crawl away on his elbows. The deer lowered its head and pushed an antler against his back until he was still.
Mom said, “Did you see that?”
“The giant deer?”
She shook her head. The giant deer didn’t faze her. She rewound the video. The car hit the deer. Dad got out. The deer held him against the pavement.
She paused it and pointed at the deer’s leg. The impact had torn away skin. We could see inside. It wasn’t bone. It was metal.
That night, Mom started going to the garage.
Mom wants to make more animals so we drive around looking for accidents. We need cars so broken that the metal has become light and malleable. We didn’t think they’d be hard to find, but we never considered that we wouldn’t be the only ones looking.
Every time we leave, the New Daughters gather in the dining room. We see them through the windows as we back out. They hold hands in a circle over Dad. It looks like a ritual.
We find a car in the grocery store parking lot. There is no single point of impact. There is equal damage on every side. It’s in the perfect condition for molding and sticking. We already have it on the trailer when Mom sees why no one else had touched it. The bodies were still inside. An elderly couple was slumped over in the backseat, their arms wrapped around each other.
We put them in shopping carts, wheel them inside, and leave them in the breakfast aisle.
We cover the trailer with a tarp and take it home. As we back it into the garage, we hear a single, short beep. It’s a warning from the machine. The battery in Dad’s medicine box will need to be replaced soon.
That night, the New Daughters are too excited to sleep. They begin telling a story that will continue for many nights. Each night they tell it in concert, correcting each other as they go. The story is from my dad’s memories. The New Daughters move backward through his life until they get to something they don’t want to tell. A fearful glance passes between them and they go quiet.
The New Daughters tell Mom that they need metal bodies. They are overdue. They are owed. They have tears in their eyes and she knows that they are right.
She tells them she has been working on another project. It’s a surprise, and there is not enough metal left for their bodies. She wants this for them so badly. They just have to wait until we find more metal.
The New Daughters don’t understand.
That night as we stand in my room and look at the garage, they whisper about how they have had to wait too long already, and how far they’re willing to go to get what should already be theirs.
I don’t want to be a part of what happens next. I think about Dad. I close my eyes and try to make myself unresponsive, but I can feel their hands pulling at my face. Then they pry with their antlers. The metal doesn’t give, but the skin underneath begins to split. Blood seeps up between the pieces. The New Daughters give up and go to the garage. It’s locked so they break the door open. Inside, I hear them throw Mom’s project against the walls and the floor. I hear it break into smaller and smaller pieces until they are so small the New Daughters can use them for something else.
In the morning, the New Daughters are at the kitchen table. They say nothing about the night before. The skin on their arms and necks is swollen and irritated.
I warn Mom that if the metal from the grocery store car wouldn’t stick to them, nothing will, but she already knows. She saw the same thing I did. She is worried about what they’ll do the next time it doesn’t work, or the time after that. Things like this only ever get worse.
I ask Mom if she knows where Dad was taking her animals. She doesn’t. She didn’t think there was anything out that way but woods. That’s what she was always told when she was growing up. She told me the same thing. That’s what everyone is told. That it’s nothing but woods and it’s dangerous and to never go any farther than the golf course.
I tell the New Daughters that if they want metal bodies, they need to get on the trailer. They nod and load themselves in without protest.
We get to the end of our street and hear a beep. Then another. It doesn’t stop. It’s the battery.
Mom doesn’t turn around. She gets on the highway. We drive over the soft animals and pass the twenty-four-hour golf course.
The highway becomes a state route, then a road, and then a parking lot in front of an abandoned airplane hangar.
The New Daughters hop off the trailer, and we go inside. The floor is broken into large squares and walkways, marked off with wide, red tape. Each square is piled high with personal and household items that aren’t old enough to be junk and too new to be donations. These are all things that are missing. These are all things that have been taken from someone.
While we’re there, people arrive with items in boxes and plastic grocery bags. They look around for a particular square, leave what they’ve brought, then go. There is an order to things here that we don’t understand.
The New Daughters wander around picking at the piles. The same instinct that told them they need metal bodies is telling them that something here belongs to them. They just have to find it. They are too preoccupied to notice when we leave without them.
At home, the beeping has stopped, and Dad is gone. We don’t call anyone. We move his hospital bed and the medicine box to the garage. We break them down into parts that we organize in piles on the floor.
We are going to rebuild Mom’s surprise project, which wasn’t an animal at all. It was a sculpture of me, with my face the way it used to be. She doesn’t want me to forget who I was before the accident. Before I knew about all of the things that would be taken from us.
Now that it’s not a surprise anymore, Mom wants me to make this one myself. She fills my hands with metal then folds them together in her own. I close my eyes and we stay like this for a moment. It feels like something is transferring between us and when it stops, she lets go. I open my eyes and I begin working the pieces together.
Nathan Willis is a writer from Ohio. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Split Lip, Passages North, XRAY, and Necessary Fiction, among others. He can be found online at nathan-willis.com and on Twitter at @Nathan1280.