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Fiction

Abandonware

The deer came back over and over to places it didn’t understand. The deer hated the lamp at the end of the pier. The deer wanted to die.

• • • •

Some kids do that—they imprint on empty objects, they give them stories and opinions and a will, until they feel half-inhabited even to grownups, who have to pretend that they care how Chrissy’s blanket feels about things for so long that one day when Chrissy’s at school they step on the blanket and apologize.

I did it with anything, when I was young; my toys were always in the middle of some intense plot that nobody outside could understand. It was because nobody felt for them like I did, my mother said, like it was something to be proud of. But understanding and empathy are different. I could do one without the other.

Rhodey the Rhodesian Rhinoceros had been hurt by terrible things Pioneer Barbie had said in fits of anger. I knew how deeply her words cut him, but I had no feelings about it; it was just how things were.

Pioneer Barbie was acutely aware that I had wanted an American Girl doll for my birthday and she was the much cheaper compromise my parents had agreed on without asking me. If they’d had the money she would be Kirsten and not an impostor, and if they’d just asked me which Barbie I liked then she’d be Medieval Barbie, who had a velvet dress and ruled a kingdom and was unconcerned with what the girls at school said about girls who brought Pioneer Barbie in for show and tell instead of a real American Girl.

Rhodey had gotten caught in the tangle of Pioneer Barbie’s low self-esteem, and it wasn’t fair, but nothing is really fair; Pioneer Barbie and I knew that already, and if Rhodey didn’t, then it was time he learned.

Don’t think I hated Rhodey. I never did. I gave him life and feelings, the same as the rest. It’s just that cruelty was something I saw no reason to spare them just because they only had me to turn to.

He outlasted her, though. It’s hard to play with Pioneer Barbie after you learn about what the pioneers did, and one day she had a black evening gown and her hair was brushed out of the little Western ringlets into a ponytail held by a clip that kept popping open, and her name was Kass because that was the name of the girl on East Side High who wore black.

Kass got along better with Rhodey than Pioneer Barbie had. (She was easier to talk to; Kass hadn’t committed any atrocities on her way across the plains.) Rhodey fell in love with her for a while, but she told him he was just distracting her from her career. They had a fight about that, too. Some kids are real suckers for pretending something has life when it doesn’t.

Anyway, the deer.

• • • •

I didn’t know anything about Vanished and Gone. When I first saw the deer I thought I’d been hacked.

I found the Sparks Investigations forum eventually, once I’d watched the feed for a few hundred hours and caught enough background dialogue about killing private investigator and ex-detective Emerson Sparks.

What I had wasn’t the game; this had been made inside it, somehow, but that was all. In the game, you have options. You can act. You can stop it. You couldn’t change a thing about Fallow; you couldn’t even pause playback. It was just the deer.

I watched the feed for eight hours that first night, until it was dawn and my eyes hurt too much to keep going. I kept it open on my laptop the next day until I fell asleep. At some point I started taking notes. Not because I liked it; because I was afraid.

• • • •

Vanished and Gone is set in 1956 LA, and you’re a PI hired to find a missing heiress who ran away with the movie star who turns up dead in the first scene.

The game has so many variables that it’s hard to trace what happens after that. You can choose Emerson Sparks’ gender before you play, and the gender of your ex-lover; you can choose if the dead movie star was a man or a woman. The heiress is non-negotiable.

You can choose whether you trust the cops, or the old rich guy who hired you to find his daughter, or your informant, or your ex-lover the nightclub musician who saw the heiress on the night in question and will get killed if you cross the wrong people. (If you choose the woman, she sings. The guy plays the trumpet.)

You win the game if you trust the right people, find the heiress, save your lover’s life, and expose the crooked Chief of Police who was trying to rig the mayoral election in favor of the guy who hired you. No one’s ever won.

Players on the forum didn’t think that was as awful as I did. They told each other a true noir had to be unsolvable because that was half the point of the genre—the understanding that the world wins. The other half of the point was apparently to wander around 1956 Los Angeles in a game with so little directive and so much detail that you can, if you want, read the newspapers. There were three dozen screenshots just of newspapers.

But this isn’t a game where time stops. If the heiress is being held hostage by the mob, she’ll die while you’re reading the horse races; the police frame you for it if you take the time to look through the Post. Everything marches forward whether you do something or not.

(Who could stand it, I thought. All those options, and failure at the end of every one.)

The deer appears in the game only once. You can accept an invitation to hunt in the woods outside town with old Mr. Harrington, the rich guy who hired you, and the deer leads you to a T-strap pump in the woods near the highway, if you follow it long enough. If you follow it too long you get shot.

How did the deer do all this, I typed on the forum thread about the hunting trip; I wrote out the link to Fallow when it wouldn’t copy and paste from my window.

The Captcha word was PIONEER.

I never posted it.

• • • •

Nothing makes the deer happy. Not people, not wide spaces, not the woods.

A deer should recognize home. This one can’t. It will charge out of the woods, across the highway (dying three times in a row as cars hit it), wander onto the lawn of some movie mogul who’s having a cocktail party, and pace on the flower beds until you want to scream.

The deer is obscene in artificial places, far enough away from the camera that we see the loneliness of its whole body against stores and beaches and wall-high posters of movies that never existed. It’s the color of a dream, mottled with stars, and neon light looks like it’s pressing too hard. The small dark hooves make no noise on the pavement—no one imagined the deer would ever leave home. The antlers are wide and broad as a pair of reaching hands.

The deer turns toward the camera too much—never quite looking at you, but close enough, like it knows it’s being watched. It doesn’t look around for any other reasons; it hardly cares where it’s going.

“It’s learning to jump!” I wrote once, horrifically excited about pixels negotiating other pixels in a randomized encounter over which I had no control.

It wasn’t learning. It died of starvation because it couldn’t figure out how to jump three feet up a retaining wall. It got up again immediately.

Garden steps. A downhill street. Twice it snapped its neck trying to climb into a mob warehouse, crashing boneless as if the loading platform was a hundred yards off the ground and not six feet.

A mile down the way is grass and trees and quiet. The only things in that warehouse are a Crown Vic that belongs to Big Santini Junior, some suspiciously warm lighting for a warehouse that’s supposed to be hard to find, and people that will hunt you as soon as they see you.

The warehouse is so close to nothing. Open dirt leading to the wilderness. Hills. Trees. Cross the nothing, I think, and have the wisdom to go home.

It falls and dies, the stupid piece of shit.

• • • •

My father bought a summer house in Lake Hammond.

He didn’t take pictures in front of the actual house. He knew better than to put stuff like that in public. His old fuck-up daughter might see his profile and ditch her garbage apartment and hitch a ride to Lake Hammond and break into his house and rearrange Paige’s careful interior design so that every piece of furniture faced the lake.

(Paige would think it was gauche to point everyone at the reason they’d bought a house; I don’t really get being subtle when you’re already as bad at it as my dad and Paige.)

Let’s hope the fault line behaves! the caption read, under a picture of him and Paige standing by the shore. No telling who’d taken it. His other children were playing in the lake; the town was a cluster of dollhouses on the far shore, like he’d built the whole place to celebrate his family. Trees surrounded everything. It looked cool there, like there was a breeze. The sun was glinting off the water, and my father was smiling, and I was a ghost.

There was a link under the picture, labeled Fallow, which I clicked because some people just like to be miserable. I expected a tourism site, a real estate broker. It was the deer.

(I thought I had been hacked. After a few minutes, I thought it was some kind of CGI video with a joke at the end. That was so long ago I still thought the deer ended.)

When I went back a week later, eyes stinging from watching it twenty hours a day, the link was missing, and they weren’t in the photo, Paige and my father and his children. It was just the town, unbroken water, the bright empty sun. I’d closed the window with a shaking hand. Haven’t been back since.

I wish you could save the footage of the deer. It’s important; our memories get so broken.

• • • •

The deer keeps forgetting about cars, about long drops. It never gets more wary of people. Why would you have to, if you’re immortal?

It smashes into the lamp at the pier, though. It will bolt through the dark streets out into the candy lights of the Ferris wheel and the covered arcade, running so fast it’s a blur when it strikes. At first the light was just askew; eventually the pole crumples and the light sizzles out as it hits the water.

(I tried to stop it once—I hit every key I could think of, terrified the electricity would kill it now that the wires were exposed. The deer struck it so hard some of the railing splintered into the water.)

It does so many other things that this might look random, like maybe it’s trying to run to the water and is too stupid to find the beach. But it means to. That run is a straight line—toward something, not away. You wouldn’t know if you weren’t paying attention, but I am.

• • • •

I looked up fallow deer, after I found the feed but before I knew about the game, trying to understand what I was seeing. There really are fallow deer in California. A farmer released some into the wild in the 1940s, and they got a foothold. They’re not meant for it—they look like a fairy tale that got kicked out of home—but I guess they don’t die easy even if they aren’t on your computer, walking out of the sea they just drowned in.

• • • •

My boss calls me one morning, too early for work hours. At first I don’t understand the problem. I’ve been filing my reports; I’ve been filing more, even, since I started pulling twenty-hour days.

When I open the most recent one, it’s notes about the deer, which is my own fault, I guess.

The next one is notes about the deer; the next one is notes about the deer. There are notes about things the deer hasn’t even done. It got into the Observatory, apparently, which seems like a pretty neat trick from something that can’t climb stairs.

Six oranges, the next report starts. It’s all foods. I didn’t know the deer could eat.

• • • •

Only three people on the Sparks Investigations forum ever found Josephine Harrington alive. In one ending, she threw herself in front of her father’s gun so Sparks could escape and warn the mayor of the plot on his life. In the other two, she’d been behind it all the whole time. Sparks died, and she became a movie star. It was too much for Vanished and Gone to make her the mayor, I guess.

It was months before I saw Detective Sparks in Fallow, standing in the alley behind the Gray Derby Club, smoking a cigarette and scraping tears away with one hand. The deer balked at the trench coat and turned around.

I stayed up all night, typing how can it know who that is into a search bar, never pressing enter.

• • • •

If the deer stands underwater too long, it starts to sink into the sediment. Up to the knees. Up to the chest. It dies, probably—drowning over and over—except it doesn’t breathe so it’s hard to tell. Eventually it gives up dying and wanders out; at some point there’s nothing left to do but walk forward.

One night it ran down a woman carrying groceries. Staved her head in. Food went everywhere. (Six oranges.)

Once, an old woman at a bus depot reached out to touch it. It ran all the way to the sea and drowned itself.

It must know. It remembers nothing, but this much it must know. Sometimes it hesitates like it doesn’t want to, but once it walks towards the water it never stops.

• • • •

Things that people in 1956 Los Angeles have said to each other as an invisible deer wanders past them and can’t do a thing about it:

—“Where were you the night Lee Parker died?”

—“If you knew the snake eyes from a full house, you might make the grade—” “How dare you! I’ve lost fortunes in better places than this!”

—“We’re not looking for trouble.” “Then you’d better close your eyes.”

—“You’re boring me, girlie.” “Feeling’s mutual, Detective.”

—“Christine,” once, and I look up and try to go back—it’s a common name, I know that, I know that, but it had sounded so close, like someone had said it directly into the mic, into my ear, and no one was nearby—the deer was wandering derelict houses—had I missed a person half-alive in one of these rotting-out homes, begging for someone who wasn’t coming?

—“Where do you think you’re going?”

• • • •

It’s five a.m. and the deer is walking past the zoo when I think, “I wonder how Rhodey’s doing,” like he’ll have aged. Like he’ll be bigger if I see him on the street, gray at the temples, have a stuffed animal husband and two travel-size kids like the ones hanging underneath him on the zoo display the day I got him.

When my parents divorced, they took me on a beach trip to prove everything was still friendly, even though Mom slept in the bed with me at the motel because it was already important for us to start distancing ourselves from Dad. He looked heartbroken about it, the first couple of nights. Six months later he had remarried.

(That one stuck; those are the kids he still has. He took them on that same beach trip, about ten years back. The pictures went all over his profile; the boardwalk and the gazebo and the sign for the taffy place. I thumbs-upped a couple of them, so I didn’t run any risk of seeming stung. I worried about looking like someone he could hurt.)

I forgot Rhodey at the motel we stayed in overnight on the drive down. When I saw that he was gone, I felt one swift, terrible pang. Then I realized that I would keep feeling swift terrible pangs if I cared every time I left someone I loved, and so I stopped.

My dad could never even remember Rhodey’s name, so he was struggling to look appropriately sorry, but Mom was furious we’d forgotten him, like it was Rhodey’s feelings that would be hurt if we didn’t go back.

(When she was taken to the hospital for what ended up being her last hours, delirious from pain, she asked me to make sure Christine got there. As the EMTs lowered her out of the ambulance, I scrambled out; when she saw me, she grinned and gripped my hand and told me she knew I’d make it, because she’d told that bitch nurse to call me.)

“He’s important,” my mother spat.

My father said, “I thought the trip was what was important,” and I said, “Stuffed animals are stupid.”

My mom looked at me in the rearview mirror. She looked worried a lot that year. I had already put Kass in the sauce pot with two inches of water in it and gotten her to a low parboil that I’d told Mom, when she found me, was a hot tub.

“Chrissy, honey,” she tried, “won’t you miss him?”

But things die when they leave you. As soon as you realize you can do without someone, they die; you never get back that urgency, that lonely needing-something once it’s gone, and I was old enough to understand that.

I looked at my dad in the rearview and said, “Not as much as he thinks I’ll miss him.”

I had a new stuffed animal before we left the Rehoboth Beach Visitor Orientation Center. It was a purple octopus. I named it Divorce. My dad laughed once, a weird little happy bark, like he was reconsidering leaving if I was going to grow up to be funny.

Divorce never had life. When I got home I put it on the shelf next to Kass and never bothered to introduce her. (Kass had her own problems by then; her dress was melted onto her legs.)

It sat where Rhodey used to be, eyes empty, until things at home sounded like I might end up in a new school because of the custody arrangement. Then I took it to the lawyers’ office and tore it limb from limb where the receptionist could see. She called everyone out of the meeting before I started on the head.

I got to stay at my school. Rhodey would have appreciated my foresight, if he’d been there, but I could never have done that to him, so it’s just as well he left when he did.

• • • •

One time, as it’s racing through the woods towards the hermit mansions in the hills, it runs past a wolf.

If I made a game, the wolves would be immortal, too. Downtown would still be neon, and the rich neighborhoods would siphon all the water from the mountains into the soft green lawns that deer died on, and the wolves would invade. Mob casinos and cocktail parties and grocery mothers would fall under their teeth. The game would end when all the people were dead.

Your job could be to warn people, I guess—to keep them alive as long as possible. But that’s no better than Vanished and Gone; I don’t like games it’s impossible to win. It would make more sense if you were the wolves.

I’d keep the deer. It would live in the woods, far away from Los Angeles, and never know that anything was wrong.

• • • •

Josephine Harrington isn’t in love with Lee Parker, movie star.

People on the forums got really heated about it, like it makes a dead movie star matter more. It doesn’t help that Parker was supposed to play honeypot, but sets Josephine free and faces the mob alone. (“The sort of damn fool thing you only do when you’re in love,” Sparks can say over the body. You don’t have to—you can say three things anywhere you go, all of them change the future—but it’s the one that gets you the choice, later, to die for the lounge singer/sax player who thinks you don’t have what it takes to love someone.)

Someone had screenshots of the time they took Mr. Harrington up on the hunting invitation and got inside the house. Josephine had no photos in her room, not even of her dead mother. There was a Photoplay cover of the movie star sitting on her desk, though. The player captioned it Secret Love—PROOF!!!

But that’s not love. That’s something you leave on your desk to let your father know that you know what he’s trying to pull. You have to be careful with fathers; you can never let them think they’ve won.

The thing is, I’ve seen screenshots of Josephine’s body. She’s in slacks. The date was at the Gray Derby—a game that shows you the beads at every throat isn’t going to set up an heiress for a supper club date with Lee Parker and put her in pants by mistake.

When the movie star took her out under false pretenses, Josephine Harrington knew. Josephine Harrington was ready to run.

Sometimes people think you love something when you’re just sending a message; that’s their mistake, not yours.

• • • •

After cancer got Mom, I sold the house and what was inside to pay what it cost her to die. All I kept were the books: classics for when someone came over so it looked like she was in the middle of Persuasion, and the mysteries she kept by the bed, so well-read the covers fell off.

I can walk to the house in ninety minutes. They’ve fixed the cracked pavers that were supposed to be a driveway but just cut into Mom’s tires so she called me from the parkway and made me come change them three separate times. In the window of the room where she lost her mind, there are sheer white curtains now.

Not the room where she died—she died in the hospital, angry about it and not knowing why, a long tail of pain that sucked her memories so that when I told her I was taking her to the hospital she yelled at me (thick-mouthed, exhausted, giving in) to shut up and call Christine.

When I asked why, she’d blinked, burst into tears; she didn’t know. I was relieved. If she’d said Christine would never let this happen, I wouldn’t have known what to do.

I drove behind the ambulance, and didn’t see the deer until I’d already hit it, that endless second between the deer and the crunch of the car buckling, it’s why I needed her car for so long after—

No, wait, that isn’t what happened; I’m a piece of shit but I went with my mother, and I hopped out and pretended I’d just arrived and she was so happy to see me. I went with my mother. I would have gone with my mother.

(Memories are only half-inhabited, anyway; I was with her or I wasn’t, there was a deer that I murdered because I was crying too hard to see, or I sat in an ambulance that smelled like baby wipes and pretended she was still my mother. She’s dead and no memory is going to do anything now. You can only walk forward.

I’m just tired. I’ve been staring at the screen too long.)

• • • •

Los Angeles is huge. The deer runs over and over into the hills, the pier, that fucking empty beach, but the city sprawls out a hundred miles square. There’s the giant observatory it hasn’t even found yet. There has to be more. The deer’s losing its mind.

Not that the deer has a mind; it’s died on two dozen flights of stairs. It’s just that if you’re going to pretend something is random, at some point you have to hit other outcomes. New things. Otherwise it’s like school, when every teacher says partners are randomly chosen but you’re always assigned Travis, who no one else likes because he always feels like he’s looking for something to hit. Not me—that’s why people assigned him to me, I guess, but it was always fine. He was just nervous and hated life. He shot himself senior year.

That’s who called me in the game, I realize. Who said my name so close. Travis.

• • • •

My landlord asks me to move out. Monies owed.

Dad’s house is more than an hour outside town. Too short. I’m never ready to see him with Paige and the kids, happy. But I’ve gotten better at working on him since I was a kid; you can get a flicker of guilt if you pick your moment and say “Mom” or “alone” or “microwave dinner.”

Dinner is chicken and salad that the children help with because Paige thinks it’s important to have them invested in making food so they’ll be adventurous eaters. I’ve forgotten the name of one of the kids and have to wait for Paige to say it. (It’s Chrissy.)

The studio above their garage is very decorated—some of it even looks like stuff my dad picked, not just Paige exploding. Dad paints up there, he says at dinner, like he wants me to be happy he’s doing something beautiful but also like he wants to remind me I’m interrupting.

“That’s great,” I say, “I’ll start looking for new places tonight,” and he sighs like that wasn’t what he meant even as Paige hesitates a second before she says I can stay as long as I need.

The deer’s wandering Hollywood Boulevard when I get back to my room. There are flies everywhere. Strange that you can hear flies and rustling paper but not its footfalls. If you weren’t watching you wouldn’t know the deer was there.

(There’s a hospital somewhere in town. The deer never gets near it; because of Mom, probably.)

• • • •

Every so often, the deer pauses on the train tracks as a whistle sounds far away, as if it wants to die and it’s wondering if that would do it. It’s waited, all night sometimes; the train never comes.

Is that what it’s waiting for? Does it even notice the world? Does it have some memory of Josephine Harrington in the woods outside the Snake Eyes Motel, looking it in the eye as she drops one shoe in the dirt to confuse the cops? If I tapped the screen, would it look me in the eye? If that woman in the bus stop had touched it—pressed her palm to those ribs that never move—would it have known, or would it just be dreaming of the bottom of the sea?

• • • •

The next morning, early, I come down for the spare coffeemaker. I don’t want to be in the family kitchen in the mornings like I’m trying too hard.

Chrissy’s already up, drawing, a Pop-Tart abandoned beside her. When she sees me, she frowns—children should be wary of adults just on principle, but she looks at me the way I used to look at Pioneer Barbie. Smart kid.

“You’re not staying for a long time, right?”

“Nope.”

She nods and goes back to her work. After long enough that silence seems rude, I ask, “What are you drawing?”

She doesn’t look up. “Rhodey,” she says.

• • • •

I throw my stuff into the backseat and start driving, a straight line. When the car breaks down, I live there.

I dream a lot about the deer standing in the ocean until the silt ate it whole.

• • • •

Dad manages to get one last thing in common with Mom. He tells me about the cancer in the winter, in a voicemail it takes me two weeks to listen to. Before I can get my courage up to go back to that house with its other Chrissy and see him, he’s gone.

Paige invites me to the funeral, inside a card that reads: Those who really love us are never really gone, and we can feel them with us our whole life long.

Whatever you think is best, she’s written at the bottom, in a different pen so I would know she just couldn’t leave it alone. I’m sure he’d respect your wishes.

• • • •

The deer’s walking past an amphitheater, when I finally get up the nerve to look at Fallow. It’s twilight; there’s a band rehearsing, the same few bars played over and over, echoing faintly off the empty seats.

When the deer gets to the boardwalk, it pauses. There are still people, even in the almost-dark. It looks unhappy. It tries to climb into one of the vintage beach cabins ass-first; no dice.

“Just tryin’ to keep on, friend,” someone calls, out of sight. He sounds like my father, but the deer doesn’t turn. It stands and looks almost at me, but not quite.

I hope it can’t see me. I don’t want it to try.

It drops onto the beach (dies, gets up). It’s the color of the sand—you barely see it, except for the scoop of antlers. Birds cast shadows across it, and the sunbathers go home, but still it doesn’t move. It’s watching the ocean; the tide is coming in.

The deer is going to go into the water. It should run, it should trample everyone to death rather than go back, but it came here. It already knows.

It moves across the beach without leaving footprints; the water laps closer and closer to the hooves that make no sound.

Eventually it stops. It knows I’m there. At the edge of the water, it hesitates.

Someone behind it is calling my name.

Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine by Ellen Wright

Genevieve Valentine is the author of the novels Mechanique, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Persona, and Icon. She has also written the comics Catwoman for DC and Xena: Warrior Princess for Dynamite. Her nonfiction and criticism has appeared at NPR.org, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, and the AV Club. Her love of bad movies is evergreen; you can read about it at genevievevalentine.com.