Route 430, a weathered run of highway, twisted through Clymer County like a dark river. Roddy Daniels knew its turns by heart. This was in western New York, where the state made its border with Pennsylvania in a sharp right angle. Roddy had lived here his whole life. Sometimes at night he would drive 430 and close his eyes for short stretches and let the road lead him.

    In late August the temperature dropped. A dense fog gathered in the banks of the road and lay in patches across the fields. Roddy was concentrating hard, doing his best to keep the Chevy half-ton right of the yellow line when he could make it out, though he’d not seen another car for miles. His wife, Linda, sat beside him, staring out the window. They had driven into town to see a war movie full of loud explosions and young men getting killed. In one scene, a group of soldiers, exhausted from that day’s fighting, dug into trenches where men lay dying. All night long the dying men called out names into the dark. Halfway through the movie, Linda had stood up and walked out and so Roddy had followed her wordlessly to the truck. They were already halfway home, the road sliding silently beneath them.

    The moon was a quarter full and free of clouds and it made the fog in the fields glow pale and ghostly. Linda had not said a word since before the movie some two hours earlier.

    “The deer will be out tonight,” Roddy said. “This cold will have them in the fields.” He waited for a response, but Linda only nodded slightly, her long dark hair barely moving.

     

Roddy had grown up in French Creek, a small community several miles from the old farmhouse where he and Linda now lived, and he knew the county as well as anyone. As a boy, he’d walked through the woods for hours, studying tracks until he could tell the difference between a yearling doe and a full grown buck, running his fingers along the smooth imprints their bodies left in their earthen beds, still warm from their slumber. He would scan the treetops for hawk’s nests, and sit for entire afternoons watching the shifting pattern the sunlight made on the forest floor as it spilled through the canopy of trees. When he’d first started bringing Linda here they would take long hikes through these woods and she’d been amazed at the things he’d shown her, the shed antlers laying on the ground like forgotten artifacts, the way a perched great horned owl would swivel its head to watch them walk by. Linda was from the city and had only passed these woods while driving, never stopping to look, or even consider that a world all its own existed somewhere within. Roddy had changed all that, hoping that if he showed her that world she would learn to be happy there, away from the city. And so he had taught her everything he knew from an entire boyhood spent stalking through these forests. But that was before Linda had left and come back, and now Roddy could not remember the last time they’d gone to the woods together.

    Two months earlier, on a Wednesday afternoon, Roddy had returned home from the lumber yard where he worked as an inventory manager to find Linda gone. No warning, no fight the night before, no phone call at work. Just her half of the closet empty, her suitcase missing from the hutch beneath the stairs, and a note on the counter in her hand asking him not to come looking for her. And so he hadn’t, and for forty-two days there had been nothing. Until two weeks ago, when he’d come home to discover her sleeping in bed, the closet full, her suitcase back beneath the stairs. He had not asked her where she’d been. He was too afraid of the answer, and afraid also, every day when he came home from work, that she would be gone again. Now when he opened the front door and stepped into the foyer, his stomach knotted and churned until he found her reading in the kitchen, or watching television in the den with the sound turned down.

     

The wind was blowing hard and Roddy could feel it take hold of the truck as though an invisible hand was trying to push them off the road. He gripped the worn steering wheel tightly. Twenty minutes more and they would be home.

    “What’d you think of the movie?” Roddy asked, regretting the question immediately.

    “It was all right,” Linda said, her voice low. “I guess I just didn’t feel like a movie tonight.” It had been Roddy’s idea to drive into town, to get out of the house. The silence between them had become an oppression, a heavy blanket that covered everything. He had wanted to be somewhere loud. While Linda was gone, he kept the TV going at all hours, let the clock radio on the night stand play continuously. The sounds had been small comfort to him.

    “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t recognize any of the titles.”

    “It’s fine,” Linda said.

    Roddy followed the soft bank of the road past Clyde Benson’s place and then the Holbrook Dairy, with its flat barn parlor where the milking was done, all lit up with fluorescent lights as though there was a fire within. 430 wound on and they followed it.

    “What would you say to a drink?” Roddy asked. A cinder block roadhouse with a dirt parking lot in back sat off the road.  It was the only bar for miles.

    “How about another night?” Linda said. “Couldn’t we stop another night?”

    “We’ll save it for another time,” Roddy said, and he hoped that they would.

     

What Roddy had always loved most about Linda was her unpredictability. Early in their courtship she  surprised him at work with a picnic lunch. They found a spot in the pasture that bordered the lumber yard, and when they finished eating Linda pushed him down and climbed above him. She held his head to the Earth with her kisses, and they made love there for the first time, hidden in the tall grass not one hundred yards from where he worked. Roddy felt then and for months afterwards, that the stagnant normalcy of his life had been suddenly and intoxicatingly disrupted by a force much stronger than himself. Linda, who took him into town to meet her friends at a bar and then serenaded him with karaoke while he beamed, his cheeks turning as bright red as currants. Linda, who called him one afternoon to help her move, and once the bed of his truck was full, when he asked where he was taking her,  gave him directions to his house. Linda, who wore a sun dress and no shoes on their wedding day, whose every arrival and movement was as unexpected as lightning from a clear sky, who in three years never ceased to surprise him. Linda, whose thoughts were as mysterious to him now as a foreign tongue, who somewhere along the way stopped loving him or this place or both since they were the same, and who  left him alone for six weeks without so much as a phone call.

     

430 dipped down between two low-lying pastures where the fog was thicker yet. Soon they would reach the turn off for West Mina Lane, and from there it was a straight shot to the farmhouse, hidden from the road by a stand of hemlocks. Roddy thought of how the rest of the night would go, the ritual of preparing for bed, slowly undressing and then climbing beneath the covers where he would lie next to Linda, perfectly still and silent, aware even of the sound of his own breathing. Thinking of it emptied him out.

    They came to a thick pocket of fog, but Roddy knew the road ran straight here and he kept the wheel steady. He turned toward Linda, her profile a silhouette against the fields that stretched beyond the window. Arriving home had become the worst part of his day, the uncertainty of walking in and wondering if he would find her there. Every moment felt like waiting. “Linda,” he said, but she kept staring straight ahead, her eyes focused on something outside.

    “Roddy,” she said, and when she did the sound of it struck him. It had been so long since she’d said his name. A shadow flashed from the corner of his eye before they felt a solid thump as the front of the truck collided with something on the road’s shoulder. He hit the brakes, the high pitched squeal of rubber sliding over asphalt, and when the truck had ground to a halt, Roddy pulled over clear off the road.

    “What the hell was that?” he asked. The bitter odor of burnt rubber filled the truck’s interior. Roddy switched on the hazard lights.

    “I don’t know,” Linda said. “It came out of the field.” She looked at him, the startled expression on her face turning angry. “You weren’t watching the road,” she said.

    “I didn’t see anything,” Roddy said, and she turned away again.

    Cornfields stretched away on either side of the road amid the now thinning fog. In the distance Roddy could make out a grain silo against the dark night sky. He checked the rearview, the road empty. He put the Chevy in drive and pulled around in a U-turn until they faced the direction they’d come from. Driving slowly along the shoulder, they went on that way until they saw a dark figure lying on the opposite side of the road. The truck’s headlights illuminated the form.  It was too small to be a deer. Roddy left the headlights on, opened the truck’s door and stepped out. The cold bit at his skin. He’d forgotten his fleece at home. He crossed his arms over his chest and walked with his head down against the wind. He heard the passenger door open and then shut and then the sound of Linda walking behind him.

    A dog lay dying on the shoulder of the road, a large brown animal, a male dog, but not of distinguishable breed, a thick stream of blood running from its mouth to the road. It kept trying to lift its head and when it did, Roddy could see that the ear closest to the pavement had been scraped off. Its front legs were immobile, but its back legs kicked at the air slowly, mechanically, as though they were no longer under the animal’s control. The dog’s midsection was caved in, the ribs giving way where the truck’s bumper had struck. The dog did not belong to any of Roddy’s neighbors. He’d never seen it before.

    “My God,” Linda said, startling Roddy. He’d forgotten she was behind him. “You weren’t looking,” she said. “You should have been paying attention. My God.”

    Roddy knelt down and reached toward the dog and when he did it tried to snap at him, but it was hardly a threat, the animal’s jaws opening and closing slowly as it labored for breath. “Easy,” Roddy said and laid his hand softly on the dog’s side. The animal whined and Roddy lifted his hand. Slowly, and with as much care as he could muster, he parted the matted hair that covered the dog’s neck. There was no collar. Blood continued to ooze from the dog’s mouth,from some injury deep within that Roddy knew could not be mended. He stood and looked at Linda who was now crying silently, hugging her chest as she swayed. Even crying, she was beautiful, her skin almost luminescent under the night sky. He looked back  at the dying animal.

    “You have to do something,” Linda said. “We can’t just leave him like this. He’s in agony.”

    Roddy lifted his gaze and stared at her. ‘Agony.’ In all the time they’d been together, he’d never heard her use the word, and it sounded strange now. He understood  that it existed for her only as an idea, an approximation of pain.

    Roddy walked back across the road. When he reached the truck he opened the door and the interior light snapped on. Across the roof of the cab, near the rear window, was the gun rack which held the Browning Bolt Action. Roddy stepped onto the running board, pulled the driver’s seat forward and carefully unfastened the rifle from the rack. Once he had it down he laid it across the rear seats. Then he took a loaded box magazine from his hunting pack and slipped it into the back pocket of his jeans.

    Roddy had gone hunting for as long as he could remember. He started as a kid,  shooting squirrels and other small game using a hand-me-down .22. For years he’d gone to the camp in Kane where his father and uncles stayed during deer season. Linda had never approved and asked only that he not talk about it around her, one more thing they did not discuss.

    Roddy took the rifle carefully from the rear seats and shut the truck door. He pulled the bolt upward and back and checked the breech. He lowered the rifle and ran the fingers of his free hand over the smooth finish of the walnut stock. He removed the magazine from his back pocket and clicked it into place below the breech. Then he pushed the bolt forward and closed it. He slung the worn leather strap over his shoulder with the barrel of the rifle pointed at the ground, and walked back across the road.

    The dog was still trying to lift its head, his eyes rolling loosely for a moment before locking on Roddy, though the dog seemed to stare at something beyond him. With the dog’s every breath, Roddy heard the gurgling of blood. For a moment he measured his breaths slowly until they matched those of the dying animal. Linda was still crying. She’d taken a step back from the dog when he’d returned.

    “Why are you waiting?” she said between sobs. “Can’t you see he’s suffering?”

    Roddy lifted the gun from his shoulder and switched off the safety. He pressed the recoil into his shoulder and aimed the barrel at the dog’s chest. His breathing was still in rhythm with the dog’s and he inhaled and pressed his finger lightly against the trigger. The wind rushed through the adjacent cornfield and passed over them like a baptism. Roddy heard Linda crying behind him, her sobs quiet and even.  He stopped what he was about to do and lowered the rifle. With the barrel pointed at the ground he turned and took a step toward Linda. Her hands were at her sides and with his free hand he lifted them both, one at a time, and placed the rifle in them. Linda held the gun awkwardly, letting the stock slide down into the crook of her elbow, almost cradling the barrel.

    “Here,” Roddy said, “you do it.” He turned and crossed the road. When he reached the truck, he climbed into the cab and shut the door behind him. Then he turned to face Linda and waited to see what she would do.

     






Eugene Cross teaches creative writing in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Narrative, Story Quarterly, Callaloo, Hobart, and Guernica, among others. He received an MFA in fiction from The University of Pittsburgh.









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Eugene Cross

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