Back Road

by James Steele

_

There were no stoplights or stop signs—only farmland and open fields.  The speed limit was 50, although he was doing 65.  This time of night there was no chance that a cop would be awake to catch him speeding.

He took the back road home tonight because he didn’t want to contend with any stoplights.  Even at 10 p.m. there were people on the main roads, and they always wanted to cross the road when he was coming to the intersection.  But the back roads were free of this hassle, especially at night.  You could drive for a good ten miles before encountering another car.

Driving on a back road at night made you feel that you owned the road.  This was your private corridor home and you didn’t have to share it.  No traffic to keep up with, no pedestrians, no stoplights, no hurry.  Just you, the road, the trees and the open farmland all at your own pace.

With no moonlight he existed in a small pocket of illumination that extended about 50 feet ahead of him and ten feet on each side.  Behind him was a dark void that helped him forget the worries of the city and drive forward at his pace, not the pace demanded by arbitrary obligations.  He hoped there would always be back roads.  If they ever became engulfed in cities or suburbs, there would be no sanity for anybody.

There was only one thing to annoy him:  the car in front of him.

Damn him!

With another car blocking his view, he had to share the road now.  This ruined the feeling entirely.  Now instead of being the sole inhabitant of the road, free to drive at his pace, he had this pricking reminder of society—that he was not free, people were everywhere, they all demanded things of him, and there was nothing he could do about it.

He would’ve passed the other car if it had been going slower, but instead it was holding a steady 61.  What annoyed him to no end was that the car sped up and slowed down from time to time, so by the time he was ready to pass it would shoot up to 70 and he’d have to back down.  He could’ve passed anyway since there were no cops around, but he was afraid the other car would just speed up and pass him and it would turn into a game of leapfrog.  That’s not how he wanted to enjoy a casual drive on a back road, so he stayed put about six car-lengths behind the annoying intruder.

They traveled together through the gently curving farmlands, through one of the small towns and alongside a creek.  The road was built with the land, so it turned and bent in all sorts of directions.

They came to a stretch of road built through a dense forest.  There were no bends or twists in it.  Just a straight cut through the woods.  In winter, the bare branches interlocked fingers and held snow off the roads for as long as they could.  This time of year the canopy of tree leaves grew over the pavement, providing a cool passageway of shade.  He always enjoyed driving through this at night.  Too bad that car up ahead was ruining the mood.

He had an idea.  He let his foot off the accelerator, and slowly the other car pulled ahead.  If he waited long enough the other car would be so far ahead he wouldn’t see it.  He slowed to 30 and the car pulled away fast, now a good fifty feet.  He wished he’d thought of this before.  Soon it would be just him and the road, completely alone except for the dim taillights.  He would have the road to himself.  Just a chance to drive at his own pace.  The distance increased to 100 feet.

It was then that the other car’s brake lights came on and swerved into the other lane.  There was a vibration on one side of the vehicle, a slight heave upwards, and the car settled again.  As it straightened into the right lane, it pulled away even faster.

He did not accelerate.  Something told him he should hold his 25 mph.  Less than a minute later his headlights shone on a lump in the road, which was splattered with droplets of wetness.  In the dark there was no color, only patches of darker black.  Another ten feet and it became clear that there was more than just a lump in the road.  There was an animal lying on the dotted line.  A splatter of color-starved blood marked the impact.  It had rolled a few times, leaving a series of streaks until it slid and settled in a pool of darkness.

He pulled over and stopped.  He switched on his hazard lights on the outside chance that there was another car behind him, and pulled the parking brake.  His headlights did not shine on the animal directly, but caught it in a dim halo around the edge.  He sat there for a moment while the car idled and his hazard lights clicked on and off.  He wasn’t sure why he stopped.  Surely the animal must be dead.  After a hit like that it would have to mean instant death, so why did he stop?

And yet…  When he drove by and saw a dead animal on the road, he could only shake his head and say too bad.  When he heard about it happening, he could only shake his head and say it’s too bad things like that happen.  When he was the cause, he tried not to think about it at all.  But now that he saw it happen and he was not the cause, he felt an obligation to do something about it.

He undid his seat belt and opened the door.  He looked behind him for oncoming headlights, and it was a glance into a void.  His eyes were no help seeing the trees.  Only the rustling of the leaves in the cool breeze connected him with an environment.  Ahead of him the headlights illuminated fifty feet and then faded into blackness.  The grim lump on the road was merely a black object that blocked the light.

He closed the door and stood by the car for a moment, never taking his eyes off the animal.  He glanced behind him one more time and walked into the road.  Now that he was closer he could make out the faint redness of blood, but if he looked at it indirectly the color bled into the asphalt again.  The blood streak where the other car hit the animal was massive.  The animal didn’t roll too far, a mere ten feet to its current resting place.  As he approached, his legs cast eerie moving shadows in front of him, making the animal vanish into the night with one step and reappear with the next.  He reached the animal, stepped a little to the side so he wouldn’t block the light, and stooped down.

It was a red fox.

He could make out the fur color and tail now.  It had a nasty gash in its left side from which an enormous amount of blood still poured.  He couldn’t see any deeper than the surface, but he guessed if it were daylight he would be able to see the muscle.  Both its front and hind legs were shattered, hanging onto it at unnatural angles like a wooden puppet tossed aside.  Because of this, he could clearly see the fox was female.

And her chest was rising and falling.

He gasped and bent lower.  Without thinking he put his hand in front of the fox’s mouth.

He felt breath.

And it was surprisingly strong.

“…you’re alive.  Oh God, you’re still alive!”

At the sound of his voice the fox raised her head and looked straight at him.  He recoiled slightly.  She faced him perpendicularly to the light, so half her face was covered in darkness but both eyes glowed yellow.  He held her gaze.  There was enormous pain in those eyes.  She seemed to be accusing him.  Shouting and cursing him.  So horrible was that stare that he felt he had to tell her that he was not the one who caused this, and he opened his mouth and almost said it.  At the last second he stopped himself, realizing the futility.

She tried to roll over and stand up, and as she did she yelped.  Realizing she couldn’t move her legs caused her to thrash.  She rocked around in place, trying desperately to roll over and run away.  This caused her even more pain, and she thrashed and squealed even more.  Her shrill screams held him still.

She squealed and panted, trying to roll over, spilling more blood on the road, her shattered limbs shaking like pieces of wood strung together.  Every breath she took was painful.  The very subconscious activities to sustain life were now the cause of her pain, completely contradicting everything she must have known.  The confusion made her thrash, bark and scream even more.

“No!  Hold still!  Stop!” he said.  When she did not, he put a hand on her and tried to calm her down.  She reached back and bit his hand.  Even this seemed to be painful for her, but she kept trying to defend herself.

“Don’t struggle!  I’m not going to hurt you!”

Her bites on his hand were without strength, mere gestures of desperation.  She gave up and thrashed more, trying to escape the pain, but could only roll back and forth in the pool of blood.  She barked and screamed in frustration.  Her high, painful yelps hurt him so he felt every shot of agony as she tried to move her shattered body.  He could barely see.  His eyes had welled up with tears.

“Calm down!”  He stroked her back gently.  She repeatedly bit his hand, but more and more it was becoming automatic instead of intentional.  As he stroked her, he didn’t touch a dry spot.  Her fur was wet and sticky with blood.  Everywhere.  For just an instant his kindergarten lesson of never touching wild animals almost made him pull his hand away, but her cries kept it there.

Then she stopped biting and struggling entirely and just stared up at him.  There was no accusation in her eyes anymore.  Gradually she stopped thrashing and her screams became whines.  This was worse, for now her eyes seemed to say I accept that you’ve killed me and I’m ready to die.

This hurt worse than her screams had.  Tears burst from the corners of his eyes.  “No!  No, it wasn’t me!  I swear it wasn’t me!”

Then why are you here?

“I…” he stroked her back harder.  Her breathing was short and choppy now.  Every breath made her wince and whine, and her eyes screamed in pain.

“I…  I want to help.”

His other hand overcame its fear of getting involved and reached around.  He slid his hands underneath her, drawing a few more panicky breaths from her and a weak attempt at escape.  Evenly, he picked her up.  To his relief she did not struggle, and her broken legs did not move.  He stood up and cradled her back to his chest so her legs would hang freely.  He hoped she was in so much pain already she wouldn’t notice any more.  He was vaguely aware that he shouldn’t be doing this, but leaving her in the road was no better.

He felt blood on his forearms.  There must be blood soaking his shirt, pants, shoes, but he didn’t care.  He had to get this fox to the vet.  He turned around and carefully walked back to the car.  She was silent except for short whines and gurgled, jerky breathing.  The headlights illuminated her wounds, and the hazard lights strobed dabs of yellow over her.  The other car had ripped her open.  He could see her ribs.  Pieces had cracked loose and lay in her chest cavity.  Some had broken off entirely and were somewhere on the side of the road.

He planned to open the passenger door, rest her against the seat, turn around and drive back into town.  He’d drop her at the animal shelter; maybe they could do something…

He stared deeper into her wound.  He glanced at her legs.  He looked at her face, supported by his forearm.

…it was 10 o’clock at night.  The city was twenty miles away.  Everyone was asleep.  No one had any idea this was happening!  He was the only witness, and he had nothing to do with it.

Was there anyplace else he could take her?  A human hospital?—no, even farther away.  His house?—no, what good would that do?

Her breath caught for a moment.  It stopped his heart.  He held her closer.  Then her breathing released and resumed.

“…there must be a reason I’m here.  I can’t be here for nothing.”

He loved animals.  He wanted to own a dog, but his landlord wouldn’t allow it.  He had been surrounded by animals all his childhood and he liked them better than some people he had to deal with.  In fact, he had wanted to be a vet.  He had wanted to get up close to animals in the wild all his life.  His presence here must mean something!  He can’t have witnessed this for nothing!  There had to be a reason he was here!

Where could he go?  What could he do?

He stood still in front of the headlights and gazed into the poor creature’s gaping wound.  She stared mindlessly at nothing.  Her quick, shallow breath against his wrist reminded him that she was supposed to be dead.  Instantly.  She shouldn’t have been forced to suffer like this, but now she had to live through all this pain.

A tear rolled down his face and fell from his nose.  It landed in the fox’s fur.  He wanted to run!  He wanted to shout to everyone in the world to help this fox, don’t let her die!  But nothing happened.  He knew where he was.  A back road.  She had to die in misery.  And he had to suffer the pain of knowing that she was going to die in his arms.

He cried and slowly sank to his knees.  He sat cross-legged and gently laid the fox in his lap, supporting her head with his arm.  He was not thinking anymore.  All human knowledge had burned away, and now he really did exist only in this pocket of light.  No forest.  No road.  No humanity.

As he cradled her in his lap he began to stroke the underside of her jaw with his fingers.  His other hand rubbed her stomach.  It was runny with blood, but he didn’t notice.  He massaged her gently, hoping he wasn’t causing her more pain, hoping he was doing something to help.  Her breathing gradually calmed so it didn’t catch so often.  Her head leaned into his fingers.  He imagined that if she were a cat she would be purring.

Then she stirred.  She sniffed the air in rapid bursts and tried to move her head.  He would’ve stopped her, but his hands were under her.  He hoped she wouldn’t struggle.  He hoped she wouldn’t try to get away.  That would be the most damning thing she could do to him.  It would condemn him because he tried to help—all efforts and non-efforts were equal.

But she did not struggle.  Nor did she yelp.  In an effort that must’ve caused her great pain, she turned her head and looked up at him.  Her eyes were no longer screaming.  Her face was no longer angry.  He saw an unmistakable expression.

Sorrow.

But not the sorrow of dying.  A sorrow of total helplessness.  He could see it from her side as though the look in her eyes told the story.  She had done nothing to deserve this.  Had done nothing out of the ordinary to be here.  If she had waited another second before crossing, she would be running free right now.  If she had trotted a little faster, she would have crossed seconds before the car hit her.  She should not have lived through it, but she had—only to die miserably instead of instantly.

The driver of that car had done nothing wrong.  There was no malicious intent.  No reason.  He probably wasn’t even sure if he hit the animal on the road.  He would go home and go to sleep as though nothing had happened.

She looked through his eyes which told the story.  He, who was now cradling her as close to his body as he could, just happened to be behind that car.  Just so happened to be going slow enough to stop and investigate.  If he had passed that other car, he might’ve been the one to hit her, and would’ve driven away not knowing what he left behind.  For all his desire to help her and the perfect chain of coincidences that put him here, all he could do was hold her.

He sobbed for her.  A stream of tears rolled off his nose.

She whined for him.  Her breath caught.

They were dying, and they both knew it.

The man and the fox knew they understood each other.

He lowered himself down to her face and kissed her on the cheek.  He massaged her chin and her side.  He occasionally touched broken bones, but she didn’t mind.  It was the most soothing touch she ever felt.

He felt her tongue on his cheek.  She smeared blood-streaked saliva on his face, but he didn’t mind.  It was the most precious touch he had ever felt.

As her breaths shortened, as her pulse weakened, and as her movement stopped, he stroked her gently and kept his face nuzzled up to hers.  It was all he could do to show how very, very sorry he was.

As his pulse quickened with grief, as his tears became uncontrollable, she kissed him.  It was all she could do to comfort and reassure him that she did not blame him at all.

 _

James Steele

7 responses to “Back Road

  1. So completely believable, and perfectly done.

  2. Beautiful, just beautiful…being an animal lover myself I can feel the intensity of the story…

  3. Mark Donovan

    This is probably one of the saddest and truest things I have ever read. There is no way that you can have a friend die in your arms, without the distinct feeling that you are both dying. And when it is a furry friend, who cannot communicate in human speech, it is our fervent wish that we could clearly know that we are not to blame…that we may go on with the permission of the one we leave behind.

    And yet, the helplessness. No matter whether we have the luxury of modern medicine at our beck, or whether we are in the state of nature, death inexorably comes, and we bow as we must, heads hung in the shame of our impotence.

    This story, as gruesomely immediate as it was spiritually connected, resonates with me at the deepest level, awakening memories long put to sleep lest they cause waking nightmares. And yet, it is a strange comfort to know that my experience is neither unique nor remarkable, and that there are others that not only share my pain but my worldview.

    Thank you for this cathartic experience.

    -Mark Donovan.

  4. Brian LaForge

    Powerful. You just made this grown man cry.
    Brian LaForge

  5. Jason Hottel

    I am going to get my beloved pet and cry.

    Thank you

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