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art by Melissa Mead

Totemkill

Sean Vivier lives in an artists' co-op in central Connecticut. He makes a living as a staff member at a Sudbury school and as a line dance instructor.
Grant drove. Mel had the back seat and Hart took shotgun.
Mel snorted. "Sign looks like a coat-of-arms."
"What's that?" Grant asked.
"That road sign. Stag Rampant, Sable on Or."
Grant had a smile in his voice, if rebuke in his words. "I'm pretty sure that means deer crossing."
"Would be cooler if it were a knight's kite shield. All I'm saying."
Grant snorted, but Hart played along. "You know, a stag is my totem animal."
"Oh, and how do you know that?" Grant asked. "A lot of vision quests to become a man when your great grandparents are French Canadian?"
"I took an online quiz."
"Well, if the internet said so...."
Grant was looking at him rather than the road. Hart felt his body thrown forward as the car came to a sudden and irrevocable stop. The car grew silent while everyone took stock. Hart realized there was safety glass in his lap.
"Everyone okay?" Mel asked.
"Neck hurts a little," said Grant. "But I'll live. You?"
"I'm fine. Hart?"
Hart looked past the shattered windshield to the deer's body on the crumpled hood with its twisted neck, backlit by the one intact headlight. The tines of its antlers had crossed over the plane of the windshield and onto the dashboard.
He barely breathed. "I'm going to die."
Hart let Mel rest her head on his shoulder in the hospital. The doctors had assured them that Grant was fine, that it was only whiplash. But they'd seen the medics take him away on a flatboard with a neck brace and it didn't stop them from worry.
Hart also had another concern. They'd killed his totem. You don't walk away from that. It's a sign.
He looked again at Mel. He'd always thought he'd have time to win her heart. There was never any real time table or set of benchmarks. It was always Later. Now he had no more time.
His finger went to her chin, and he moved her confused face to his own. Their lips touched for a moment before she pulled away.
"Wh-what are you doing?"
"I've wanted to do that for a long time."
Her entire body pulled away from him. "Hart... we're friends."
"The healthiest relationships start with friendship."
"But... we're the Three Amigos. That's all we're going to be."
Hart grimaced and nodded. "At least I can say I kissed you before I died."
Mel's eyes dropped. They darted every which way, until she scooped her coat from her chair. "I should go home. I don't want my mom to worry."
Hart stopped packing when he recognized Mel's ringtone.
"Hello?"
"Hey, Hart. It's Mel. I, um... what's this Grant tells me about you moving to Manhattan?"
He held the phone with his shoulder to fold another shirt. "Yeah. I am. Making the most of the time I have left."
"So, what? You're just dropping out of college with a semester to go?"
"No. Doing an internship at a literary agency, hoping it can land me a job as an agent. I've always wanted to be in a creative field. I may not write the Great American Novel, but I can represent it."
There was a long silence on her end. "I'll miss you."
His own silence. "I know."
"I gotta go home. It was nice dancing with you, though."
"Ah. Do you really have to?"
"Fraid so. I have to work tomorrow." He turned, then stopped. How long did he have left, really? He turned back around. "But you're welcome to join me."
He found Mel on his apartment building's doorstep. She'd matured, both in figure and in bearing. She looked nice.
"Happy 30th, Slugger," she said.
He came forward and fell into a hug. "What are you doing here?"
"Giving you a one-woman surprise party, of course. Bet you never thought you'd last this long."
He snickered. "You came all the way to New York just to see me?"
"No, silly. I moved here for my job."
"I've missed you."
"I know."
He held her quite a bit longer. Then he pulled away and came back in for a kiss. This time, she let him.
"We should get married," Mel said.
Hart cradled her in one arm, his laptop in another. "I don't want to leave you a widow."
She slapped his shoulder. "Your totem isn't going to avenge himself from the grave. It was a dead deer, that's it. Besides, we're in our mid-thirties. This is when kids start getting born with fins."
"With fins?"
"It's science. Look it up."
"I don't want to leave orphans, either."
She sighed. "Look. I want you and I want to have kids with you for however little or long I have you."
He removed his arm from around her and typed in a blur on the computer. She watched and pouted.
"There," he said. "Two tickets to Vegas. Why wait?"
"You may be over the hill," said Mel, "but at least you've got a really nice house."
Hart blushed. "I just backed the right author, that's all."
"You ready to drop this totem revenge nonsense yet?"
"It's not nonsense."
"You should take advantage of your time with me while you have it, kids."
"Ah, Grampa, you say that every year!"
Even with the help of a machine, every breath was torture. Mel watched him, tears in her eyes. She still wore the gold necklace he'd given her for their fiftieth anniversary.
"I'm going to miss you," she said, as she stroked his face.
"I know," he managed despite the struggle. Then he couldn't get the breath to come back in. He wanted to tell her that he loved her, that he had no regrets, and that he'd told her so about the vengeful totem's curse. But the pain and the pressure overwhelmed him, until everything grew darker and number. Darker and number.
He'd been right all along.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, September 28th, 2011


During my graduate year at UConn's School of Education, I had to drive on a regular basis between my internship in East Hartford and the Storrs campus. On I-384, there's a prominent deer crossing sign. Between that and an independent study on magical realism and a boring commute, I imagined the opening of Totemkill. Six years later, I figured out the ending.

- Sean Vivier

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