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“We’re about midway there,” David said in response to his daughter’s query. He smiled at her and craned his neck to catch a glimpse of her in the rear-view mirror. She had that same expression she wore often—a somewhat blank stare that David at first had thought, years ago, meant she was thinking fiercely but which now he knew meant she was simply vapid sometimes.
“That’s right. So now we’re closer to it than farther away!” Barbara added, and laughed at her own joke. She always did that, these days. “Have you got enough gas? You didn’t fill up at the last station I saw.”
“Yeah, mom, I have enough. Look: three quarters of a tank.”
“Okay. I just always like to keep the tank full, in case it’s a long way to the next station.” She laughed again, at nothing.
David nodded. She didn’t drive anymore. Her talk about keeping the tank full was a memory. She still thought of herself as recovered from the stroke—she spoke as if any moment now she was going to go back to work and live the same life she had been.
She hadn’t worked in three years.
“What’s mommy doing now?” Jaylynn asked from the backseat with a four-year-old’s suddenness.
“Mommy? Mommy is probably at her work now, hon.”
“Mommy is at her work.” Jaylynn repeated, as if she had known the fact all her life. “When do I have to go back to mommy’s house?”
David could sense pressure from his mother in the passenger seat. She didn’t like to think about the divorce. In some of her less lucid moments, she even seemed to think Jaylynn had sprung fully formed, armed and armored, from David’s head and there never had been any need for Michelle.
Or perhaps she thought that Jaylynn was her child, with David himself, in some sort of macabre reverse-Oedipal arrangement. Ever since he had moved back in with her, he had felt a strange trisecting of his identity. He was his mother’s son, and the father of his mother’s grandchild. But there was also something else there—something he did not care to examine too closely. He had divorced Michelle and moved back to live with the first woman he had ever known. And he knew she appreciated that: she needed to be taken care of since the stroke. But she had also been alone for years and years.
David sighed inwardly. The brief experiment that was his marriage had not worked. He’d tried to leave his mother for another woman, and they had produced a child, even, but she had known that he was never fully hers. The weekend trips to see his mother, the gifts…Michelle had finally had enough, and without fanfare or recrimination, had quietly left one night.
David was stunned out of his reverie by the sight of two glowing marble eyes which appeared suddenly ahead and to the right of his car, reflecting off the headlights for a split second before the thump of impact sent the animal helicoptering way, to vanish out of sight in the darkness of the roadside shoulder.
Barbara gasped and clawed at the dash. Jaylynn didn’t seem to react immediately. David braked hard and pulled over to the right. The car’s tires crunched in the gravel of the shoulder as he stopped the vehicle.
“What happened, Daddy?” Jaylynn’s voice was calm, almost dead.
“I don’t know. I think I hit something. I’m going to go out to check, okay?” He spoke in a soothing voice, to both his daughter and mother.
“David,” Barbara began, her voice midway between nervousness and panic. David silenced her gently.
“It’s all right. I just need to check and see if the car has been damaged, Mom. You guys stay here,” he added, needlessly.
“It’s dark out there.”
“I have a flashlight in the trunk.”
“Be careful, Daddy.”
“I will, sweetheart.” David opened his door and walked to the trunk. The road was not lit: the Olds’ headlights cast the only light, reflecting off the dust that was still settling from his disturbance of the shoulder. He took out his police-style flashlight from the trunk and switched it on, aiming the beam to the rear. What had he hit? A coyote, maybe?
He trudged back away from the car, the flashlight held before him, its beam dancing on the beige surface of the shoulder. He walked perhaps thirty paces when he saw it: a dark red-brown smudge in the gravel. Blood.
He swung the flashlight to the left, into the culvert next to the shoulder. He saw it almost immediately: the carcass of a coyote lying motionless in the ditch. There was a very low wire fence separating the road shoulder from the scrubland beyond, as if somehow one thin strand of wire could keep cars on the road if they wished to leave, or animals on the chaparral if they wished to leave.
David stood on the shoulder for a moment, midway between the safety of the road and the wilderness of the prairie. He glanced back at the Olds: he could se the dome light had been turned on. He could make out the figures of his mother, huge and shapeless in the passenger seat, her bulk overflowing the confines of the chair, and the top of Jaylynn’s head peeking out over her car seat in the rear.
He surveyed the wire fence and found a spot where he could easily step over. The ground was suddenly uneven on this side of the fence. He twisted his ankle on a stone and winced as a sliver-thin needle of pain lanced up his spine for an instant. He recovered his balance and continued towards the coyote’s body.
He kept the flashlight beam on the body as he approached, instead of using the light to find easier footing. He stood over the carcass, and only then did it occur to him he did not understand his own motives for coming out here. He was driving his mother and daughter to the Grand Canyon, but why? What did he hope to see in a gaping hole in the earth? And why had he come out here, to see this dead coyote?
As he watched, he saw the coyote’s abdomen move slightly. The animal was not yet dead. He took an alarmed step back and shone the light on the coyote’s face. Its eyes were closed, and its muzzle was matted with blood. But it was unmistakably alive. The movements of the coyote’s chest were rhythmical and regular. It was breathing.
David regarded the coyote with sympathy. Barely alive. Midway.