It comes from the dense shadows to the right of the car, a vaguely familiar form running through the slant of our headlights. The impact is loud and violent in the quiet of the wooded road—a crack and an inhuman scream, the squeal of brakes and the crunch of gravel. A symphony of pain and fear and panic.
As the car comes to a stop, my husband Arden lets out a curse, fuck hissing into the air alongside our heavy breathing and the gentle hum of the radio. My heart beats against my ribs, a caged animal trying to escape. I struggle to recall what we were saying right before the world went sideways.
Remember to breathe, Grace…
“Is it alive?” I whisper, my voice far too loud in the stillness.
Arden says nothing; he opens his door, steps out into the frigid night. I follow. Behind the car, to the side of the road, the rear reddish-orange glow of the brake lights illuminates a shape, on its side and motionless.
The woods press in around us, heavy and ominous. Arden steps away from the car, walks towards the thing we hit. He stops within a few feet of it; tension, a stiff line I can see even from a distance, settles across his shoulders.
He turns back to me, back to the car. “Is the rifle in the trunk?”
My throat goes dry and I nod. “Always.”
A chill runs along my spine, makes me aware of the temperature, the insidious cold that seeps through and settles in slowly. I mindlessly make a list of the things we’ll need to do before winter arrives.
He opens the hatch, pulls out my father’s rifle—a hand-me-down from long ago that I keep in there because living in the middle of nowhere requires a unique set of emergency supplies. I glance beyond him; the thing we hit seems unrecognizable in the deep darkness. My mind wanders to a place of memory; my chest aches, the pain blooming like a broken heart.
“What are you…”
“Get in the car, Grace,” Arden says, slamming the hatch closed. “Cover your ears. Don’t come out.”
And just what does the city boy plan to do with that?
I shake my head, coming back to myself. “No, Arden, wait. Let me.” His eyes go wide. “My dad and I used to hunt,” I say as I walk towards him. I gingerly take the rifle from his shaking hands. His are hands that hold coffee mugs and pencils, not firearms. “I’ve done this before.” I kiss his cheek. “It’ll be okay. I promise.”
I move past him, towards the thing we hit.
The sound of deflated lungs struggling to work hits me as I come closer, a hollow gurgle followed by a soft whine. It’s obviously dying, obviously in pain.
The gift of humanity is mercy, Grace…
Behind me, the car door opens and closes. I imagine Arden sits within, his eyes closed and his hands over his ears. He’ll still hear it, the crack of the rifle, the ringing silence. It never goes away, stays with you. That sound gets added to a list you never see. How long is mine, I wonder as I pull the slide back, lower the muzzle. Wide eyes roll towards me, fear filling the air with sulfur.
“It’ll be okay,” I say.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Release.
The crack of the rifle echoes, then disappears completely. I open the barrel, pop out the spent casing into my hand where it burns gently as I pocket it. From the rearview mirror, Arden watches me with dark eyes as I put the rifle away. He starts the car when I climb into the passenger seat.
“It was a deer,” he says, neither question nor recrimination.
I take his cold hand in mine and stroke my index finger over the ridges of his knuckles, smoothing the perfectly chilled skin. “Of course,” I say.
We all have secrets, Grace…will you keep mine?
He avoids my eyes, nods. We drive on, quiet as the night.