UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
What She Hit on Cerro Summit
A black blur to Miriam’s dim right, bounding from the gray sage, a massive shadow hurdling the guardrail, panning white through her high beams. She’s driving fifty maybe, at least forty-five, using the whole road
Miriam is mesmerized. She squeals. No breaking or swerving. It’s a soggy collision, a wet rumble through the nose of her Toyota Tacoma. It’s almost sweet, a cold voltage up and down her legs, her waist, her spine. She moans, and it seems minutes pass before she can stop moaning enough to lay down the brake.
Lurching, rubber crying, the pickup trembles to a halt. Through a mist of skid smoke, the creature’s tossed into her headlights. Miriam blinks at this black lump straddling the two solid yellow lines, and Mark, her student, her lover, in the passenger seat, grunts once, like he’s been punched.
Miriam doesn’t look over at him. She waits. Soon, he whispers, “Oh God—I’m alright. Are you … alright?”
She’s still fumbling her right foot, trying to press the brake right through the floorboards. “I’m—yes. I’m fine.” She shuts her eyes to clear her mind, but her thighs are cramping one to the other, clench, clench.
“Really?” Mark breathes.
Resting her chin on the steering wheel, Miriam opens her eyes as wide as she can. Her back tightens and aches. Her lids narrow. She doesn’t want to look at this thing, not right at it, but she can’t help it. The animal’s fur is blue and then it’s brown and then it’s just black again. Black and huge, she thinks, and bigger than a man. It flops and rolls, incandescent in the high beams, making cow sounds. She whispers, “That’s too fast for a fucking cow.”
Mark grips the dashboard with both hands. “That’s a dog. Shit, Miriam—” his voice breaks, “we smacked a big fucking—a gigantic fucking dog—”
Dog, dog. She mumbles the word but it doesn’t fit.
Mark exhales three or four times, rhythmically.
“Exactly,” he hisses, rocking ever so slightly in the passenger seat. “Look how big the poor son of a bitch is!”
Miriam looks at Mark now; he’s frozen in mid-rock and moving his lips without sound. She thinks about those lips, about kissing them, about how they felt so small and almost says that, almost hisses it, bitterly, but instead she says that it wasn’t her fault. “It hit us,” she says. “It hit us.”
Mark doesn’t respond, but she hears the cow sounds again and drags her eyes front center. The thing twitches violently once, then again. Belly-flopping over, it weakly picks itself up onto three legs and arches its back as high as her truck hood. Then it shivers, like shaking water, and something like a belch pushes up Miriam’s throat.
“It’s almost,” Mark says, “almost … like a werewolf or something.”
Miriam’s foot slips off the clutch and the truck dies. The dashboard lights—ENGINE, OIL—seem bloody, seeping. She’s leaving. She’s floating away, sucked away from the scene in the little television box of the truck cab.
“Hey, we’re rolling,” Mark says.
No, she’s drifting backwards. None of this has happened yet. The accident, Mark, the hushed and violent sunset, their quiet dinner booth—
“Miriam! Hey, snap out of it!”
She yanks the emergency break and she’s back. The animal sways. She can see it clearly now, ten feet away, and knows what it is: thick belly, enormous, tailless rear end. “Adam,” she says, “that’s a goddamn black bear.”
“Really?” Mark says. “Really? Because you called me Adam.”
She slowly shakes her head. “My god, I’ve lived in Colorado fifteen years, never ever seen one, and then I goddamn mow it down with my goddamn truck—”
“You called me Adam.”
Mark taps his fingers on the dashboard. “It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter.” He stops tapping and leans toward her, squinting. “This matters. Let’s deal with—wait, are you alright? Your neck or your back?” He reaches for the dome light, but she says don’t.
“Why not? What if you’re bleeding?”
“I’m not bleeding. And if we turn it on, the bear can maybe see us.”
Mark doesn’t turn on the light, but keeps his arm up like he’s deciding if he should touch her or not.
Miriam thighs clench again and she leans against her door, but his hand doesn’t come. She watches him lower it and asks if he’s fine. He nods and begins rocking again, moving his head like he’s at a concert. Shoveling his face forward, he works his nose closer and closer to the windshield, “Shit,” he says. “Wow, shit, well….”
“Mark,” Miriam says, looking back at the unmoving bear, “we have to kill it.”
He murmurs unintelligibly, nose against the windshield, and then mutters, “It’s freezing out there.”
“We have to kill it if it doesn’t move on its own.”
“No. It’ll kill us—”
“Then what?” she snaps, and she feels her fingers swelling with blood, blood and energy. “Do you have a better idea? Huh?” She squeezes the steering wheel, feeling a sudden desire to claw Mark, and hard, sink her nails into his muscle and see if he’ll shriek and flail. But she knows he won’t; he’s Mark, brooding, wide-eyed Mark.
The disoriented bear bellows long and low. Turning its muzzle to profile, a yellow light flashes across its black eyes. Miriam watches it yawn, a gaping pink. Rolling back its lips, it shows a row of long, gray teeth. “Mark, are you seeing this?”
“Yes! I’m right fucking here!”
Raising its chin, the bear gulps like a fish. Its neck fur slides up and down. Its ears perk. Clamping its jaws shut, it sits back on its haunches like a giant, fat baby, and blinks into the beams.
Mark laughs, softly at first, but it bubbles out of him. “Look at that! Holy shit, Miriam, I think, yeah it’s okay. See? Look at that. These things are tanks, man—we have them in Tennessee, too. Just outside Nashville. They’re tanks. It’s gonna be fine, watch.”
She feels herself nodding, but not because she believes him, and not because she wants to believe him, but because she’s suddenly very cold with adrenaline smoke. It’s that floating backwards feeling again. She nods because she’s reveling in the chemicals, letting the guilt and relief separate themselves and play through her veins.
She ran into a bear. Ha! But it’s the perfectly absurd climax to this whole night. To all this driving secretly to Grand Junction where no one knows her, where her husband isn’t back until tomorrow, where she and Mark had Red Lobster and a movie, and kissed, that was all. Nothing more because there wasn’t anything more and that was so obvious in his hands, all night, in his blunt, boyish fingers on her arm or up the back of her shirt, not possessive in the least, but moving cautiously as if awaiting a scolding.
“Yup,” Mark says, “it’s a tank.” Nose still pressed to the windshield, he says, “I’m glad we didn’t kill it. If we’d killed it we’d have to take it to the Division of Wildlife, I know that much. And they’d ask us questions and everybody in town would know you and I were out together in the middle of the night. Shit, I’m glad we didn’t kill the poor thing.”
“Poor thing,” Miriam echoes, and the bear’s still just sitting there, blinking at them. “You think it sees us? It can’t see us—we got lucky, that’s for sure.” Her clammy hands slide down the sides of the steering wheel. The bumpy smooth plastic, she squeezes it harder. “Okay, move,” she says to the bear. “Go.”
“Move on,” Mark tells it. “Nothing to see here.”
But the bear doesn’t respond. It blinks and blinks, and with each blink Miriam’s heart twitches with something that’s almost sadness, something she hasn’t felt in years. “Well,” she says, breathing deeply, “we still can’t leave. We’ll just let it collect itself and move on then … we’ll go on.”
Mark sits back, crossing his arms. “Yes, we’re not going home until we’re sure,” he says, but his voice is thick now with something like resignation or doubt. “It’s the least we can do, you know? I’m afraid it’s all we can do.”
“Don’t be afraid, Baby,” she says.
Mark laughs uneasily, “I’m not afraid, Baby.”
“Don’t,” she snaps. “Don’t mock me.”
“Fine,” she says, and she wants Mark mad. Wants him fuming, screaming. Why isn’t he pissed off that she hit the bear? What’s wrong with him? She wasn’t paying attention and almost killed them both. She was so careless and hurt something that was just trying to go about its business. He should be fucking infuriated, demanding an apology, why isn’t he—
The truck cab is shrinking. There are no exits. Her fingers play with the door handle and the bear watches her, blinking, blinking like it wants her to step out. “Get up!” she yells. “Move! Go! You dumb fucking animal—”
“Miriam?” Mark’s hand is touching her bare arm. “Want me to drive?”
“Don’t touch me.”
His hand is gone. “Whoa. Sorry.” His tone’s hurt, but he’s not hurt. He’s relieved; he’s got to be, to not have to coddle her, right? What’s wrong with him? He’s just a boy. He’s no different from her other students, just slower. An idiot. She confused introspection with idiocy. That’s it. And he’s afraid of her. It’s so clear now. Terrified. Adam’s never been terrified of her; it’s the other way around. She licks her lips and deliberately softens her voice. “Mark, I didn’t mean it like—I mean, how can you drive? We can’t go out there, can’t walk around—”
“Yeah, at least it can’t get to us,” he interrupts, talking fast and locking his door. “No joke, sometimes these things go crazy. Their brains get rattled. Like grizzlies in Alaska you have to shoot them ten times in the face because just one or two bullets only makes them insane.” He checks the lock again and then leans back, crosses his arms. “Yep,” he says to himself. “Yep.”
Miriam doesn’t lock her door. The fingers of her hidden left hand still play with the tension in the handle. “Move,” she pleads, and this time it does. Plopped in its comic sitting position, it swims its long neck and yawns again. The long canines give Miriam a sharp thrill in her stomach thinking the creature might fling itself at her, jaws frothing, shaking the truck, claws on the windshield like diamond-cutters. Adam’s going to ask what happened to trunk hood, the grill, the fender. When he sees she’s fine, she’s not bleeding, it’ll be all about the truck.
Mark laughs again, that uneasy laugh, and says, “What did I say? Look at those teeth. You might want to lock your door.”
“Don’t tell me what to do. It’s not funny.”
“God, I didn’t say it was. Maybe protect yourself. That’s not why I’m laughing—God….”
The bear makes a loud coughing sound. It rolls its shoulders forward and drops its head. “What was that?” Mark says. “Did you see that? Hear that? Something’s definitely happening to it. For our own safety maybe we should drive away and just come back in ten minutes.”
Pressing her chest to the wheel, Miriam squints and yawns. She shakes her head. The adrenaline is gone—she’s suddenly exhausted. Leave and come back in ten minutes? Leave to where? This is what happens, Adam tells her. He says she’s wonderful in the mornings, so full of hope, so brave, but at night she’s wasted and bent on playing devil’s advocate. He’s always asking, “Why can’t you be hopeful at night? What’s so bad about night? What’s so bad about a little optimism?” She can’t tell him it’s something as simple as the dark windows in their bright house. That the night makes her feel like she’s being studied and nothing she can doing is real. She can’t tell him that it’s as simple as those dark windows making her feel she’s merely been cast as his second wife. That when he says he made all his mistakes in his first marriage and that’s his gift to her, she only hears a voice in her whispering that gifts are supposed to be surprises.
Enough. Miriam sits up and straightens her back. Her knee hits the steering wheel and her arm flexes mechanically, popping the door open. Cold rushes in and the dome light momentarily blinds her.
“What are you doing?” Mark shouts. “Shut it! Shut it, shut the damn door! It’s looking at us! With the light on it can see.”
Miriam yanks the door shut. It’s dark again, warmth creeping back over her skin.
“Fuck,” Mark tapping his feet on the floorboards, “are you trying to kill yourself?”
“Relax,” Miriam sighs, “it was an accident.” She nods at the bear. “Look, it didn’t even move. It’s not even blinking now. Its eyes are shut.”
Mark is silent for a moment, running his hands through his hair. He drops them to his lap and says, “Well, if it’s just sleeping—shit, we could be here, just waiting, for hours.”
“What,” she whispers, “do you want me to do about it?”
“I’m just saying, don’t you need to be home by, like, morning?”
“Look at the road,” she says, raising her voice, using her classroom voice, her lecture voice. “Just look at it and before you talk about going home. What do you see? What don’t you see?” Mark’s in Miriam’s Religions of The World course. He’s the unsuspecting contender, the lanky track star in the hooded sweatshirt pointing out the Taoism in all the other religions. Stoically and slowly, he flusters his defensive peers. Miriam had her own Taoism phase, once, right before she met Adam, back when she was searching, when she could sit alone for hours and hours, doing nothing, reading, eating, without guilt. And then it all became redundant. Look at anything closely enough and you’ll find what you were looking for. You’ll find what you were looking for was an excuse to be passive, to be normal, to drift along, the raja yogi seeks something that is nothing, the Jews suffer to not suffer. Buddha’s dukkha, or afflictions, were due to selfishness, but isn’t the want to not suffer the most selfish act of all?
“Look at the road,” Miriam says. “Really, where’s the blood, where are the gashes, the compound fractures?”
Mark says, “Yeah, there’s no blood. But what about internal injuries?”
“Exactly,” she whispers, and her voice almost catches with emotion, “so black and huge. Look at its claws, black too. How are we supposed to know?”
“We can never know unless it really moves.”
But Miriam’s not listening, she’s droning, lost in her head. “How? How? With its head down like that it looks so innocent. It’s a cried out baby … it’s a narcoleptic grandpa.”
Mark snaps his fingers. “Shit. Miriam, totally. You think it’s just playing sleep? Like a skunk? Like waiting for us to get out of the car and—”
“It’s a step up, you know.”
“Shut up,” she snaps. “Don’t be stupid. This isn’t the time. Why are you talking so fast? You never talk this fast.”
“Excuse me?” He looks at her now, but she doesn’t turn to him. “Fine, you don’t have to be a—”
“Oh, do not call me a bitch. You will walk. I will leave you right here.”
Mark shakes his head and grinds his teeth.
Again, Miriam rests her chin on the wheel. Suddenly she’s aware of her stomach pushing tight against the waist of her jeans, the stick of sweat under her breasts. She’s not young. She squints at the bear and wonders how old it is, if it’s a male or a female? Even if she found out, it wouldn’t change the bear. A rose by another name … “You know,” she hears Mark mumble, “I can tell your husband. I can tell the school?”
A laugh bursts out of her and she can’t help it.
“It’s not funny,” he says. “I had a wonderful night with you—”
She laughs and laughs, her chin bouncing on the wheel.
A low, sad whine moves up Mark’s throat, and he moans, “This is bullshit—”
She looks over and stops laughing. Is he crying? He is. He’s gritting his teeth and looking at his hands. “Stop it,” she says.
“Fuck you. The bear’s dying. We shouldn’t talk about us. We’re so selfish. Fine, you’re right. We have to kill it even if it kills us. It’s our fault. Or it’s your fault—but I don’t care … I mean, I do. Really, shit, this is so sad.” He sinks down low in the seat.
“Yeah, sure,” Miriam says. “Do you have a gun? Do you? Even back at your house?” She knows he doesn’t. She knows he’s anti-gun, anti-meat, anti-Christianity, anti-religion, anti-group philosophy, anti-anti. “Do you, Mark? Do you have a gun? Do you know how to use a gun? How are you going to kill it?”
“You know I don’t have a gun.”
“Adam has guns,” she says coldly. “He has maybe twenty guns—”
“Shit! I’m not your husband. Will you stop it? I get your fucking point!”
“I don’t have a point,” She shrugs, and again she feels a laugh moving up her windpipe. “Look in the glove box. There’s a .38 in the glove box.”
Mark inhales sharply. “Really?”
His hand pauses in front of the glove box before opening it. She looks over. He opens it and a dim light blinks on. There’s no gun.
“You’re fucking with me?” Mark says.
“No, I’m just fucking you,” Miriam snaps. There was a gun. For two years there was a gun, but she remembers now that she took it out because Adam told her to keep it in there, told her it made him feel better. That was the only reason she took out.
“We’re not fucking,” Mark says, slapping the glove box shut. The sound is too loud for the little cab. “I haven’t had sex with you. I won’t have sex with you. You’re married. This was wrong but I’ve learned from my mistake. Okay?”
She nods. “Sure, okay.” Mark’s mad now and now she doesn’t want him to be. What’s wrong with her? Maybe it is just pessimism? But pessimism and realism, what’s the difference? Oh, god, she wants to put her chin on her chest and close her eyes. Why won’t the bear move? When did Adam say he’d be home? Was it a business meeting? Was it a new client? A new prospect for The New Adam? Four years with The New Adam. One second they had no clue of the other’s existence and the next … six years and counting. In grad school he wore combat boots while the other guys tried to act grown-up. It was a Tuesday at the campus bookstore and she immediately noticed his nose was bent and his forehead sunburned. He said he’d been shooting. She said, take me. He did, all the time. They shot all kinds of guns, .38’s, AK’s, 12 gauges, .45’s, an arsenal you can only buy with permits and all that kind of blue-collar know-how. She was very into it for a while; it made her feel so different than she was in the rest of her life, her Nietzsche, her Thelonious Monk, and suddenly she wants to tell Mark about it, about Adam driving county roads and how she’d lean out the passenger window of his faded yellow Scout and shoot signs. I used to shoot signs! We’d go to thrift stores and buy old computers to explode and maim. Was it even Adam that turned me on? Now I can’t stand sleeping next to him, his talking in his sleep, his cologne—but where can I go? Not outside, not past the windows.
“Should we … um,” Mark says, and his voice is different now, like he’s trying to make it deeper, “ah, we could hit it, you know, again?”
“Run over it?” she says. “What?” she shouts. “Mark, it’s fucking five-hundred pounds!”
Mark’s hand flies over and smacks the horn.
“Don’t,” she snaps. She can smell her own acrid perspiration, and her face burns. He reaches over again and lays on it this time until she knocks his arm away. “Stop it!” But when the horn stops, the bear snaps its head up and stares at them. It blinks and then it looks up, up at the stars, and then back and, in slow motion, its entire body follows, tumbling over, all four paws in a trust fall to the highway’s arms where it freezes, locked like this, an upside down table.
“Honk,” Mark says. “See, just honk more.”
“Shut up!” Miriam makes a fist and gives one sharp honk. With astonishing agility and speed, the animal flips onto its stomach, up on its feet, and races out of the truck beams.
Mark crosses his arms. “There—”
“It’s off the highway,” she says, “sure, it’s off the highway and we can’t see it but it’s still our responsibility.” They stare at the empty asphalt. After a minute, Miriam says, “Or maybe not. I’m wondering how long that entire episode just took. What do you think? Let’s go home, huh?”
“Damnit, Miriam,” Mark says, “I’m not stupid. I know it’s not better. The thing’s probably gonna die, probably gonna die slowly. See?” He points at the road. “See, there’s black … a black spot on the asphalt.”
Why didn’t she see that? Right there in front of her. She wags her head. “Yes. Yes.” She wags and wags, and then starts to cry. Tears by the thousands. They burn her lower eyelids, filling her nose and throat with a heavy bitterness, and she feels so, so stupid. “It’s bleeding,” she sobs. “Dying—”
“And we can’t let it suffer.”
“It’s too late.”
Mark makes a clicking sound with his teeth. Popping open the glove box, he takes out a small flashlight. He opens the door and cold rushes in. With the dome light on, Miriam can see the blood has left his face.
“I deserve this,” he says, and shuts the door.
In her dark, she watches him walk to the front of the truck. Hunkering down over the black puddle, he touches it with two fingers and he shakes his head. He looks up then, over the wrinkle hood, and lifts the bloodied hand. Miriam knows, with the high beams, there’s no way he can see her. She lifts her right arm to the dome light, but lets it drop. Mark’s looking at her, right at her, and his hand falls to his side. He flips on the flashlight and suddenly she wants to drag him back into the truck. How can he know what he’s doing? How can he do anything? He’s just one person alone out there.
Miriam watches him step out of the beams and disappear. She can’t lock her door. She can’t start the truck.Nate Liederbach is working on his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Utah. His work has appeared in, among other journals, Pindeldyboz, Georgetown Review, Mississippi Review, Permafrost, Oregon Quarterly, Blue Earth Review, and Quarterly West. He is the author of Doing a Bit of Bleeding (Ghost Road Press).
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