The first clue was the hoof print on her blouse.
When Steph padded into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and unshowered, she found Danni eating an apple and watching the news, socked feet dangling over the edge of the couch.
“Babe, have you seen this?” She held out the offending garment.
“Haven’t touched it.”
“You’re not even looking.”
Danni dragged her eyes away from the TV. “Good morning to you too, sweetheart.”
“Sorry, yeah. Morning.” She stooped and planted a kiss on her wife’s cheek. “It looks like a hoof print. Well, like half a hoof print.”
Danni’s phone buzzed; the screen lit up for a moment—not long enough to read the text or the name from upside-down. Neither of them moved.
“Everything okay?” Steph bent again, gentle fingers lifting Danni’s chin.
“Mmhmm.” Crunch, crunch. Jaws working like mandibles.
‘You sleep okay?”
“Okay.” Steph wandered into the kitchen, waited until her face was hidden by the open cupboard door before she said, “D’you think we’ve got stags again?” The crunching noise faltered. She plunged on anyway. “Like, do you think they’re back? It’s not a huge—I mean, we can deal with—”
She stole a look under the cupboard door. Danni swung her legs around, planted her feet on the floor and stared at her wrinkled socks. “I dunno. Maybe they never left.”
Steph selected a box of cereal, brought it down to the counter. Rested her hands on the top of the packet. Careful not to grab, not to grip. “But you went to therapy.”
Her wife didn’t respond, just spun the core of the apple around and around in her fingers. Watched the black pips peek through on one side, flashing faster and faster, until it seemed as if the core was contaminated with one continuous dark line. “Do you know the difference between revolving and rotating?”
Thrown by the conversation swerve, she gave up. “I—No, I don’t think I do.”
Danni got to her feet. “Yeah, me neither.”
Danni didn’t say much else before she left, kissing Steph goodbye and promising to text her later about what they’d have for dinner that evening. She paced the room several times, checking for signs of stags. No prints on the floor that she could see, no fur caught in crevices, no scattered droppings kicked into corners. Satisfied that she’d made a full inspection, she chucked the blouse into the laundry basket and picked out a new outfit. Grey sweater, to match the clouds gathering outside. They said grey was a good office color, along with black and navy. Professional and smart without being too bold or individualistic. A perfect wardrobe for the gal on the go, devoid of personality or thought.
During Steph’s shower, while she wondered whether a splash of red would be considered too gauche, the floorboards on the landing creaked. Scalding water pounded her upturned face as she half-spun, leaving her gasping for breath. She halted the lathering process, hands covered in foam. “Babe? Is that you?” No response. She rinsed her hands, wiped stray citrus suds from her eyelashes. “Sweetheart?”
Nothing. And then, something. Weight—serious weight—thudding over deep pile carpet. She yanked the lever to one side, ignoring the sudden blast of freezing water before the shower trickled to a halt. Stepped out of the cubicle and crept through the bedroom and towards the doorway, leaving a trail of sodden footprints. Eased her body against the door and peered through the crack. Nothing. She yanked open the door. Still nothing. She marched into the hall and stood, hands on hips, dripping. At the top of the stairs, a pair of pajama trousers lay crumpled, one leg descending. A dark U shape, bigger than her whole hand, printed over the repeating pattern of pale pink lobsters. Steph knelt, pressed her fingers into the thick, brushed cotton. Still warm. She sidled back into the bathroom, locking the door behind her.
Bloody stags. It wasn’t going to be like last time. She’d make sure of it.
After lunch, Steph’s boss called her into the conference room and informed her that she’d been assigned the project she’d wanted for ages. She nodded, calmly, casually, thanked him with polite enthusiasm, and waited until she was in the empty toilets before doing a wild, flailing dance. Yes, she mouthed at the mirror, hell yes. She washed her hands to make it look believable, then texted Danni to tell her the news. Sent a second text, moments later, to suggest going out to dinner to celebrate. Her wife sent back multiple gifs, acquiesced to dinner, said it would be her treat. Steph spent the rest of the afternoon walking on air. She didn’t hear from Danni again, but that was okay. Things were looking up.
Their favorite restaurant was tucked into a back alley, flagged only by a small silver sign. Waitstaff flitted between the few tables like hawk-shadows, lithe and fleeting. They were seated at the window, and a lit candle placed between them. Larger candles, the size of Steph’s forearm, clustered together in iron brackets, pinned against the exposed red brickwork like so many bright butterflies. The candles were the only source of light in the room, giving the place the look, if not the feel, of a seance.
Danni insisted on getting a bottle of red wine, and toasting Steph’s new project. The brevity of her pronouncement didn’t go unnoticed, but Steph didn’t want to nitpick. She should make more of an effort to reach out, she decided. After all, if the stags were back—and while she didn’t really want to admit it, it certainly seemed that way—then Danni probably needed some moral support, some validation.
“Do you remember asking me the difference between revolving and rotating?”
Danni hesitated. “Not sure.”
“You did. This morning. Don’t you remember?” Steph frowned. “I was just going to tell you, I looked it up.”
“Uh huh.” Her wife tapped the wine glass, dragged one crimson teardrop from the lip, all the way down to the black tablecloth, where it was immediately absorbed by the fabric.
Steph pushed down a stab of irritation. “It’s quite interesting, actually. An object which turns around an internal axis is referred to as rotating, but an object circling an external axis is a revolution.” She recited this perfectly, having practiced it several times in the car, and was disappointed by the lack of reaction.
“That’s cool.” Her wife’s voice was toneless. She picked up her glass, then put it back down again without drinking. Her lips were oddly bright in the soft lighting, crawling around words as if they were the only living thing on the desolate, pale moon of her face. “Seems like the wrong way round, though, doesn’t it?”
Steph frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I dunno. Just—a revolution sounds bigger, more personal. A rotation sounds mechanical. There’s no room for emotions. Don’t you think?”
“I mean, maybe. I don’t know.”
“Never mind.” Danni picked up her menu. “What do you fancy?”
They made it through the rest of dinner without incident, sticking to safe subjects. When they got home, Danni downed a couple of paracetamol and slouched off to bed early. At dinner she’d hardly touched her wine; she’d eaten her steak with zeal but she’d left most of her dessert, which wasn’t like her at all. Steph curled up in front of the TV for a bit, mindlessly flicking through channels, then gave up and went to bed. Danni was already asleep, chest rising and falling in deep, even breaths, almost-but-not-quite snoring.
Her thoughts dived like startled fish, down into the chill ocean of slumber. A phone vibrated, unanswered. Confused, Steph fumbled around in the darkness, clicked the bedside lamp to no avail. Stretching towards the curtain, she yanked it aside; a bolt of moonlight jagged into the room, bright as a floodlight. The space beside her was empty. Her wife stood at the foot of the bed, head weighed down by a crown of antlers. Blood trickled from each point, down her temples and neck, dripped onto stark collarbones, pooled in the taut dips between muscle and bone. Her face stood half in shadow, but Steph knew if she reached out, her fingers would meet cold, slick fur.
“Seriously? Why are you letting them do this?” she asked. “Didn’t we go through enough last time?”
Danni’s head snapped up. “Letting them?”
“Fight it, for fuck’s sake! Fight back!”
Danni reached up, touched a finger to the uppermost point. Pressed hard, until the antlers creaked. Blood trickled downwards until her hand was wreathed in carmine beads. Her pupils were huge; Steph could see her own self reflected in them, pale and inadequate. “Fight them,” her wife repeated. “What do you think I’m doing?”
Steph jolted awake. Beside her, on a white, unstained pillow, her wife slept on, undisturbed. A tiny crease in the shape of a consummate V beautified the dip between her eyebrows. She leaned over and kissed it. Danni shifted, stretched, arched fingers questing for the keystone hem of her t-shirt. They curled into each other; Steph swallowed the thick scent of sleep until her heart had stopped pounding.
Over breakfast, Steph fumbled through several mental options, decided on one opening gambit, then completely flubbed it when Danni’s phone lit up. “Who’s texting you so early?” She meant it to be flippant, but her tone came out needle-sharp, pinning awkwardness into the space between them, sewing the seam shut.
“Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that.” Danni swallowed. “The thing is, right, my cousin’s getting married.”
“Oh? Which cousin?”
Silence, spreading over the table like cold butter, clumping awkwardly. “Were you invited?”
“Yeah. He’s alright. He’s not really like the others.”
“And will your parents be there?
Weight shifting on the gravel outside. Hooves scraping against rock. A huff of breath, steaming against the corner of the window, fogging up the glass. Beads of condensation formed; lonely islands, connected by shallow, temporary mist. Danni rubbed the back of her neck, not meeting Steph’s eyes. “It’s complicated, babe.”
Steph got up, threw her spoon into the sink. Leaned over the basin, pressed her cheek against the window. Whatever had been there had slunk from view, stepped neatly out of her line of vision. That didn’t mean it wasn’t still there, lurking. “Am I invited too?”
“It’s a binary answer, Danni.”
Her wife leaned back from the table. “You know it’s not that easy.”
“I thought we were—” she wanted to say past this, but it came out, “better than this.”
“Better? How do you mean?” Danni’s eyebrows, kissing.
“Just,” she struggled, “I thought we’d grown. I thought—” Another huff on the window, russet fur in her peripheral vision. Steph spun, but the stag was already out of sight. “And these bloody things! Christ, they’re everywhere now. I thought you were being careful. We agreed, after last ti—”
“I was careful! I mean, I am.” Danni picked at a thread on her sleeve. “I’m trying my best, okay?”
Steph yanked a drawer open, rooted around for scissors. “Here, let me.”
Danni held out her arm. She snipped off the offending thread and held it up, but her wife didn’t reach for it. It hung in the air between them, dark and rigid. Not a thread, she realized, but an eyelash. A long, Disney-esque curve. A herbivore’s eyelash.
Danni’s throat bobbed. “I’m trying,” she repeated, leaning forward.
Steph laid the eyelash down on the table. It curved like a scythe, harvesting the space between them. “I know you are. Please, don’t shut me out.”
“I’m sorry.” Her wife pressed closer, pushed her head against the curve of Steph’s shoulder. “Give me time. I’m working on it.”
Heavy tread on the driveway, growing more distant. Steph dropped a kiss into her wife’s hair. “I know you are.”
That evening, while Steph brushed her teeth in the bathroom, Danni’s phone vibrated. She heard quick footsteps, then a door closing. Murmuring, soft at first then growing agitated. Antlers scraping along the wallpaper in the bedroom. She spat, ran the tap. Watched the swirl of white bleed down the plughole. Counted to twenty then stepped out of the bathroom.
The bedroom was empty, the door swinging open to reveal her wife, phone in hand, drained and pale.
“You okay?” Steph shrugged out of her cardigan. Stupid question.
Danni threw her phone across the room.
“I’ll take that as a no. Come here.” She opened her arms.
“I’m going for a run.”
“At this time of night?”
“Yeah. I just—I can’t. I need to run. I can’t be here right now.”
“Can you at least take your—” Danni was already gone from view, thundering downstairs like a herd of baby elephants. “Phone,” Steph finished, and sighed. She listened until the front door closed, picked up the phone, examined it for cracks—none that she could see—then slid between the sheets and lay there, closed book clutched in a clenched fist. Instead of reading, she googled deer. Bizarrely, there were different names for different genders and ages—a hind was a female deer, at least two years old, or more archaically, a servant. Hind used as an adjective meant the rear of an animal. Everything in the past, like hindsight. Except things rarely stayed dead and buried, she decided; sooner or later they clawed themselves up, through the soft soil of subconscious minds. Locked horns with shame. Rutted with egos. Produced infant foibles.
Danni returned home hours later, woke Steph with icy feet wriggling against her sleep-warmed calves. Her wife smelled like new frost—sharp and fragile.
“You know the most interesting thing about stags?” Danni breathed.
“Before the velvet rubs off the antlers, it’s linked to blood vessels. Makes them sensitive to the touch.” Danni paused. “Do you understand?”
“Mmm.” Steph’s thoughts were black threads, spun too-tightly together, and sleep claimed her before she could unpick any of them.
She woke to the sound of clattering in the kitchen. Fearing the worst, she fled downstairs, ignoring the chill through her thin pajamas. Danni slammed a cup down on the counter and glared at the kettle as if the whistling personally offended her.
“Morning,” Steph ventured.
“Babe? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Danni snapped. “Can’t you leave me alone for two minutes?” She threw up her hands in exasperation and stomped out the door, abandoning the empty mug.
Baffled and stung, Steph proceeded through her morning routine mechanically, even forgot to pick up her usual Starbucks order on the way to work. The hurt osmosed down into her throat, beat a steady yellow rhythm under her collarbones. Mid-morning, she ignored Danni’s apologetic text and instead focused on finishing her portion of the quarterly report. Stuck with sludgy free coffee, dispensed in small plastic cups from the office machines, she accidentally spilled a few drops onto her shirt. Only then did she notice a hoof print, more distinct than the last, curving over the breast pocket of her pink button-down shirt.
Her boss paused in the aisle, gesturing her aside for a quick check-in prior to their team meeting. She scooped her stuff up and followed him into the corridor.
“Caught a mistake on the last client’s purchase order, Steph.” he said, carefully not looking down at her blouse. “That’s not like you. Everything okay at home?”
“Sorry.” Mortified, she attempted a smile.
“Stag trouble, by any chance?”
She hesitated. “Yeah.” Her fingers pressed into the thin cardboard folder, imprinting her irritation in five distinct starbursts.
He lowered his voice. “Listen, I don’t want to step out of line here, but like… Have you tried looking at them? I mean, like, really looking at them, together?”
She blinked. “What?”
“Try it,” he said, sidling away. “Trust me. It worked for us.”
When Steph pulled into the driveway that evening, she turned the radio off and sat there for a moment, watching the windows. The curtains didn’t move. She got out of the car and paced the length of the house until she found a pile of scat. It was bigger than the ones they’d found before. The deer were growing in size and number. Gaining maturity. Danni arrived home just as Steph slid a frozen pizza into the oven. “Hey, babe. Look, about this morning—”
“Never mind all that. Will you do something for me?”
“Sure.” Her wife pressed her lips together, blew a puff of air out. “What is it? Want me to pick up something better for dinner?”
“Humor me.” She held out her hand.
The kitchen door was open. Hooves clicked on polished wooden floor beds in the living room beyond. “I want to look at them.”
Danni accepted the offered hand, cold fingers like pebbles suspended in ice from some long forgotten epoch. “I don’t know if we should—”
“What harm could it do to look? I mean, I’d rather know what we’re up against. Wouldn’t you?”
They inched forwards, holding their breath, and peered around the corner together. A stag stood placidly on the rug, black nose glistened like wet tarmac, jaws grinding from side to side. Broad flanks steamed in the air, coarse red fur shockingly out of place amongst their minimalist white IKEA furniture. A teal cushion tassel dangled from its mouth; the cushions were one of the few splashes of color in an otherwise muted room. All four hooves were muddy and damp, wet streaks reaching as far up as its knobbly knees. A powerful beast, but a delicate one. The thighs were thick, bunched, ready to run at a moment’s notice, supported by skinny little calves. His antlers were scarlet. Velvet hung from them in bloody strips. Beside him, three hinds—black-eyed, model-gaunt—glanced across the room, settling on nothing, seeing nothing. Their bellies were barrel-round, unembraceable; perhaps full of fawn, perhaps recently emptied of life. Growth wasn’t always a forward motion, after all.
“What do we say to them?” Without waiting for an answer she stepped forwards. “Hello.”
She’d thought they’d square up to her, or perhaps run. She hadn’t been expecting them to leap forwards, to start circling at speed, building up to a thunderous cacophony of hooves and snorts and brays. She let go of Danni’s hand, flinging her arms over her head to protect her face. “Holy shit! What’s happening? Make it stop!”
“I don’t know how!” Danni screamed.
The deer were all around them, kicking out at chest height—leaving dinner-plate sized holes in the wall. Steph grabbed for her wife, got her by the sleeve of her shirt, yanked her closer. Pressed tightly when Danni tried to squirm away. Used her elbows to create a safe space. They stood in the eye of the storm; russet fur whipping by in a cyclone, forcing them together.
Danni’s cheeks were wet. “I get it,” Steph yelled, reached out to wipe the tears away, not pausing even when her wife flinched. “I understand.”
“It’s not your battle to fight.”
“We’re a team,” Steph insisted, her voice nearly a scream. “If being with you means living with them, then that’s what I’ll do. They’re part of you. I shouldn’t have tried to—I was out of line.” She paused, dragged in a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I love you. If you need to have them around, then that’s all there is to it.” Her throat was raw. “We’ll weather these wounds together. I promise.”
Danni collapsed against her, weeping. The stag stopped, antlers gouging a wide, arced scratch over the wallpaper, tearing it to shreds. It lowered its massive head, bowing, fetid breath pluming through flared nostrils. The hinds had disappeared, leaving only the hart; in the next moment, the beast stepped backwards out of sight.
Alone, they stood in silence, leaning on each other for support. Steph waited until Danni’s sobs had faded into occasional hiccups, before leading her upstairs. She took her wife’s clothes off, helped her into pajamas, and tucked her into bed. Danni reached for her. “Wait, don’t leave me.” Her hair stuck up in all directions, making her look like a half-blown dandelion.
Steph smiled, pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’ll be back in a minute. I promise.”
Downstairs, she foraged through the cutlery drawer for a sharp knife. Plucked a green apple from the bowl on the kitchen table. Cut it into neat, even slices, which she lined up on the edge of the kitchen table. Large eyes, the color of the abyss, watched her through the window, topped by twitching ears. She laid the knife down on the counter and opened the door. She stepped backwards, into the shadow of the living room doorway, and watched as a furry muzzle poked around the corner. The head stayed low, ready to charge again. They’d never like her, but maybe they could learn to tolerate her.
This story previously appeared in Fusion Fragment
Edited by Marie Ginga
Lindz McLeod is a queer, working-class, Scottish writer and editor who dabbles in the surreal. Her prose has been published by Apex, Catapult, Pseudopod, The Razor, and many more. Her work includes the short story collection TURDUCKEN (reprinted, 2023) and her debut novel BEAST (Brigids Gate Press, 2023). She is a full member of the SFWA, a Rogue Mentor to six talented mentees, and is represented by Laura Zats at Headwater Literary Management.