by Kathleen Latham
Maya caught the briefest glimpse of the creature—gray and ragged in the sideways glance of her headlights—before she felt the sickening bump under her left-side tires. First the front, then the back. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, god.”
Her foot went from gas to brake and back again, wavering with uncertainty. She had hit something. A raccoon, maybe. Or possum. Matted fur. Pointed snout.
There was nowhere to pull over, just thick woods on either side, the trees silent and judgmental, the road before her bleeding into blackness. It was so dark. Why did he have to live where it was so dark?
Her car hurtled forward without instruction. Around a bend and away.
She replayed the flash of snout. The unforgiving weight of the car.
It wasn’t a dog, was it? She imagined someone’s pet lying helpless in the road, and her shock splintered into panic. “Oh, god,” she repeated, her breath quickening.
Stop, she told herself. Back up. But even as the idea wormed its way into her head, she pressed forward, automatically taking the turn onto Zach’s street. Lights appeared, then houses with wide lawns, and it was like tumbling out of the woods, lost and disoriented, leaving someone behind. A keening sound filled the car, and for a moment, she thought that whatever she had hit was being dragged beneath the undercarriage. But it was her, she realized. Her voice, her cry. She pulled into Zach’s black-ribbon driveway, relief coming like a breath. He would know what to do. He always knew what to do.
She turned the car off. Sat in the silence. Forced herself out on shaky legs, terrified she’d find blood and guts splattered across the fender. Something stuck in the wheel bed. A shock of fur.
There was nothing.
She peered down the road, half-expecting to see yellow eyes in the far-off dark.
She had felt it, she thought, clutching her stomach.
Zach was watching TV when she came in, the hockey game on low. He stood as soon as he saw her face.
She told him quickly, stumbling over grief and guilt.
“Hey,” he said, rubbing her arms as if to warm her, “look at me. It was an accident, yeah?”
But all she could say was, “What have I done?” over and over. A snowball of emotion picking up speed.
Zach studied her face. Took the keys from her clenched fist, gently, like she was holding a gun.
“We’ll go look,” he said. “How’s that?”
“It’s too late,” she insisted, but the idea calmed her. She let him usher her back outside.
He helped her into the passenger seat as if she were ill. “Things like this happen,” he murmured.
“It’s not your fault.”
Whose fault is it? she wanted to ask, but the question got stuck in her head. Ricocheted.
They coasted slowly down the street. Took the wide arc onto High Rock, the cones of their headlights briefly illuminating the deep pine on either side. Already the creature was transforming itself in her memory. Turning malicious and feral. With sharp, pointy teeth and black, curling claws. The dark night pushed against the road.
“There,” she said, pointing.
Zach came to a stop, but the road was empty. No tufts of fur. No streaks of blood.
Maya looked around, searched her memory. Nodded.
“Maybe it crawled off,” he said. He threw the car into park, got out. Left it running in the middle of the road, door open. Walked to the edge of the woods and looked around.
A fresh set of fears bombarded her—cars racing around the bend, creatures bursting from the trees—but Zach stood calmly in the glow of the headlights, hands on his hips. The longer he stood there, the more alone she felt. It was simple for him, she realized. Being told a thing had occurred wasn’t enough. He needed to feel it, hear it, see it, or it hadn’t happened. The serrated songs of crickets pulsed through the open door, and Maya’s heart matched their pitch.
Zach got back in the car, bringing the scent of night with him. “Nothing there,” he shrugged. They drove up and down a few more times to make sure. “We good?”
The horrible bump, bump replayed itself in her mind. “I felt it,” she said, shaking her head.
Zach looked out at the empty road, the clean, black pavement. “Well, whatever it was, it’s gone now.”
Maya turned away and stared into the darkness. For a moment, she thought she glimpsed a shock of gray among the trees, but it was only her reflection. Her earlier panic had lodged beneath her ribs like a dull knife. She held still to avoid its jab.
“Hey,” he said carefully. “Maybe you should—”
“I killed it,” she insisted quietly, watching him. Even in the dim light of the dashboard, she saw his eyes drop to her belly then skitter away.
He didn’t answer at first. Didn’t breathe. She watched him grapple with how to respond. “Look,” he finally said. “Things like this …”
He reached for her hand, but she balled her fingers into fists.
“Okay,” he said quietly, putting his own hands back on the steering wheel as if she had spoken.
“Okay.” He took his foot off the brake, inching them forward. “It’s done, that’s all I’m saying.”
It doesn’t feel done, Maya thought. It feels the opposite of done.
She wondered what he had been about to say. Things like this … what? Follow? Linger? Bleed into your darkest moments?
She stared into the blackness. Imagined flash of fur. Wild eye.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, and Maya was sure he believed it.
She could have told him, though.
How it was still out there.
Lurking in the shadows. Gnashing its teeth.
Waiting to jump in the road, again and again.
* * *
Kathleen Latham’s work has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, Fictive Dream, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, and Flash Fiction Magazine, among others. She lives outside of Boston, MA with her husband and an ornery cat and can be found online at KathleenLatham.com or on social media as @lathamwithapen.