Traffic’s backed up on the 102. We all edge forward, brake, and wait, together but alone. There’s probably an accident up ahead. Another damaged car, another dead animal. I’ve only gone forty clicks, and the roadkill’s marked my progress like highway signs. Mostly deer, their heads at unnatural angles and their torsos blasted apart.
Rain falls in sheets and wind whips it sideways—gusts so strong they threaten to pick up my rust-rimmed Cavalier like it’s a dinky, even though it’s weighed down by everything I own. The truck in front of me has its tailgate open to accommodate a heavy load, covered in green garbage bags and a crisscross of ropes. The rain pelts the emerald plastic.
If I squint and use my imagination, the mound becomes a grassy knoll with ample water features. Pastoral. All Sound of Music and shit. But I let my eyes refocus and see the reality. These are not the Bavarian Alps. These are not brooks laughing as they trip over stones. And I am certainly not Julie Andrews. It’s just trash bags and buckets of cold, driving rain, and I’m just a drain on society, starting over, again, at 38.
I hum the opening bars of “The Hills are Alive” and tap percussion on the steering wheel, willing the traffic to move. I always hum when I’m anxious. Can’t help it. I can hear Harold now. Can’t you just sit still and be fucking quiet for once?
The bags in the box of the truck are coming loose in the wind. They’re the only thing moving around here, shuddering despite the haphazard collection of restraints.
“If you can’t tie knots, tie lots, Katie Bean,” Harold said to me once.
We were packing for a camping trip, and I was trying to attach my sleeping bag to the bottom of my backpack. He slid his body behind mine and reached around me, tying a perfect noose knot on each end of the bundle. Then, he interlaced our fingers. Our bodies nested like two spoons in a cutlery drawer. He kissed my neck just above the bruise left by his thumb the last time he choked me out.
We had a great trip, roasting marshmallows and laughing, admiring wildlife on hikes. Peaks and valleys, like the Alps.
A strong gust rips one of the garbage bags from the load ahead. It sails away, revealing two hooves and a tangled mat of tail hair. A dead horse, probably on its way to the dog food factory in Truro. My first thought is that it’s a message from Harold, but he doesn’t even know I’ve left yet. No, this is the universe speaking. Go back or you’re dead meat. I twist a lock of my hair into a rope and gnaw at the end, another nervous tic Harold hated.
The minutes crawl by with no movement. I’ve hummed every song I can think of, twice, and almost chewed myself a new haircut. Mercifully, we begin to inch forward. I put another kilometer between me and Harold, and then another. What will he do when he finds out?
I gassed up at the Enfield Big Stop, using twelve bucks I’d been hiding in my sock drawer. I ditched my cell phone in the bin by the pumps and pulled out, bound for Truro, the self-proclaimed hub of Nova Scotia.
The town has illusions of grandeur, but their transition house has a room free. I couldn’t go to the one in Halifax. I’d always be waiting for Harold to find me, for the axe to fall and cleave me in two, like the junks of wood on that camping trip.
We pick up speed and the cars around me space out. The accident must be cleaned up, the deer hauled to the side of the road, awaiting pickup from Transportation and Works. The breathing room and momentum feel good. I unclench my jaw, lower my shoulders, and relax back into my seat. I hadn’t realized how taut I’d become, like the horse hairs in a violin bow, tightened just shy of the breaking point.
The horse becomes a speck in the distance, then disappears altogether. But of course, that’s not the last of the dead animals. This is the 102 after all, the roadkill superhighway of Canada. There’s a porcupine only identifiable by the quills. Ribbons of its entrails decorate the roadside for some macabre party. There’s a gull with its wings splayed, looking ready to take flight. The only signs of death are a stain of blood and its glasslike eyes.
I’d never seen anything like it before when I moved up from Newfoundland. The only roadkill there is a scattered rabbit, or an even rarer moose. It’s hard to have dead bodies when the conditions don’t support life in the first place. The only wildlife, introduced as a food source a hundred years ago.
Once, I was with my father, and we came upon a moose-vehicle accident back home. After making sure the passengers were okay, he grabbed his serrated knife from the glovebox and started hacking away at the corpse. He peeled back the hide, unwrapping the meat like a Christmas present.
“It’s a fresh kill, Kate! I’ll cut around the damage and it’ll still fill the freezer. Come and give your old man a hand.”
His eyes were shiny with a primal excitement. His hands were slick with dark red blood. It streaked his forehead where he had wiped his brow. Harold got that same look sometimes when he got going on me.
I have had that look myself, mixing red velvet cake batter with my mother. I would lick the beaters and streak my hands and face that same deep red, eyes gleaming in that same delighted way. Blood isn’t as unsettling as you would expect.
A dead raccoon catches my eye, muscles stiffened by rigor mortis, midriff bloated with intestinal gasses. It’s squeezing its little eyes and fists closed, bracing for the impact. I felt that same tension every day for the past three years, always prepared for a blow that may or may not come, although usually, it did.
Did. Past tense. A smile tugs at the edges of my lips.
I try to shake the morbid thoughts of roadkill and beatings from my brain. Let’s go over the game plan again. I’ll unpack my paltry collection of belongings at the shelter. Then I’ll drive to a dealership and get a couple of hundred bucks for the car and walk back. This faded red shitbox would be a flare in the sea of black and white SUVs and I can’t afford it anyways. I was out of the house by ten, which should give me two hours before he’s home for lunch and knows I’m gone.
That is unless a neighbor texts him a question. Where’s Katie off to with a car full of garbage bags? You guys didn’t break up, did you? Maybe that’s paranoid, I don’t know. But I can imagine their shock when they find out. You were such a cute couple. You looked so happy on Facebook. Yeah, on our shared account that I could only use under Harold’s watchful eye. Besides, we were happy—at first. It’s just that my retractable leash kept getting shorter.
We met on Tinder and after a couple of weeks, I called my mother, bubbling over with excitement. She said it sounded too good to be true. A good guy with a good job? Back rubs, and nice dinners? A man like that would already be scooped up and married.
I pointed out that I wasn’t married. Wasn’t I a catch? The line went silent.
I’m so lost in this new train of thought that I don’t see the live coyote on the road, right in my path. Its face is buried in the chest cavity of a fox. I don’t have time to stop but I’ve got to try.
I stomp the brakes to the floor. They screech like wild animals. The rear of the Cavalier fishtails over the buildup of water, in rhythm with the windshield wiper’s frantic time signature. The trash bags containing my life lurch forward, hitting the headrests, and lodging between the front seats. My breath comes in ragged gasps.
But I missed her. I saved her. There’s one less kill on the 102 today.
Our eyes locked before she turned and bolted into the brush. To see a coyote in broad daylight like that is rare. She must have been desperate.
I pull over and flick on my hazards, taking deep breaths. The traffic rushes past. The rain lashes down. The world carries on around me, but I take a moment, tip my head back, and howl.
It might be my imagination, but I hear the coyote in the distance, joining in. We’re both free; we’re both safe—at least for now.
Lindsey Harrington is a Nova Scotian writer with Newfoundland roots, and a proud member of the Off Topic community. She’s currently querying a short story collection about breakups, and a memoir about being childfree—find out more at www.lindseyharrington.com.