A short story by Laura A. Freymiller
He hit the dog almost without knowing it. He might have driven on had it not been for Charlene’s screams from the seat beside him.
“What? What?” he shouted.
“Out there!” she said, pointing a trembling finger. So, Sid pulled the rented Jeep to the side of the road and got out.
The dog was panting still, incredibly, its tongue hot, red and pink, its stomach splashed across the hard-packed dirt road.
“The most dangerous things in Australia,” Sid remembered the rental agent saying back in Sydney, “are the roads. You hit the edge wrong, it’s raining, you’re a goner.”
It had sounded quaint in Sydney. Everything had sounded quaint: the roads and the honeymoon and the whole rest of their lives together. Driving up the coast to Brisbane and then scuba-diving on the Great Barrier Reef. But that was before and this was now and the dog was dying on the road in front of him.
“Do we bury it?” Charlene had gotten out of the Jeep now. She was walking hesitantly towards him, her high heels wobbling. “Can we find its owner? Maybe it will live.”
This last came out plaintive, and Sid almost hated her for it.
“It’s not going to live,” he said coldly.
It was a dull yellow dog, the same color as the miles and miles of countryside they’d been passing through. Flies the size of pennies were landing dark and angry where the tire had burst through. Sid wondered where the flies had come from in all that great distance.
Australia was bigger than he’d imagined. Sure, there were kangaroos, but there were kangaroos in the zoos back home. This was a country, a continent of heat and desolation. He felt the sweat beading at the back of his knees and under his wide-brimmed hat.
“Your adventure hat,” Charlene had called it when they were packing. It had seemed cute then. Now it sickened him. He noticed that the key was still in the Jeep and the doors were standing wide open. The air-conditioning that had been blasting since they left civilization was now streaming out into the strange December summer.
“Go close the doors,” Sid said. It came out an order, and he could feel Charlene silently adding it to the count. Only eight days married and they already had a count.
“I’ll move the body,” Sid said.
“It could be diseased,” Charlene said.
“I’ll move the body,” Sid said already walking towards the dog.
It wasn’t as heavy as he thought. By now the life had run out of it and its eyes were dull. The flies swarmed his hands and arms. He hoped they wouldn’t bite, unlike everything else in the damned country. When he reached the edge of the road, there was a trail of blood thick and dark as oil running behind him. He pulled back and threw the body as far as he could. Flies flew up like a black cloud on the wind and settled again a few yards from the road.
Sid felt his arms go slack from the heat. It was only once he was back in the Jeep, the radio turned up, and the AC pummeling him in the face that he noticed the red stain on his shirt sleeve.
Charlene was beautiful. Everything he’d ever dreamed of in a girlfriend, and then, in a wife. She had long blonde hair, the kind you’d expect on models or pornstars, but not on real honest-to-goodness women. Her body was firm in the right places and soft in the others, as was her mind. She was a smart woman and he loved her for that, but she was also, in many ways, a child. She took spiders outside on napkins. She talked to fish in the aquariums. She was obsessed with babies, even the ugly ones.
He knew it would only be a matter of time before they produced offspring of their own. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to see copies of himself, his own face smiling up at him. He wondered whether he’d like them.
They had met in grad school. Which was better, he supposed, than his brother, Josh, who had met his girlfriend on Tinder. Their mother hadn’t understood when Josh explained.
Sid and Charlene’s first date had been awful. They could laugh about it now. Charlene thought Sid was stuffy, and Sid thought Charlene was a ditz. They had agreed to a second date only because they had found each other physically attractive.
Love blossoms in the most adverse of circumstances and with the most inauspicious of beginnings. So had theirs grown from such humble roots until neither could imagine a future without the other. If that wasn’t a sign, Sid didn’t know what was.
Sure, there had been other girls before her, especially in college when he still had his athlete’s body. There had even been one woman in the early stages of dating Charlene. But Charlene was the clear winner if only through her persistence.
They had been married in a church more out of tradition than any real belief system. Her father had died when she was twelve, so her grandfather walked her down the aisle. She had wanted for a time to walk down the aisle unaccompanied, but Sid thought it better to bow to custom.
Her vows had been simple and sweet. “I will love you now and forever.”
His vows had been copied out of a book he found in Barnes and Noble.
And then they were off to Australia.
“Did you see any farms nearby?” Charlene asked a few miles down the road. She had been silent since the dog.
“No,” he said, “why?”
“Just wondering if there was an owner,” Charlene said.
“It didn’t have a collar,” Sid said. He didn’t actually remember, but he was feeling tired. The weight of the dog was hanging over their honeymoon in a way he didn’t particularly appreciate.
“We can call about it when we get to the hotel,” he said. The matter would be forgotten by then, he hoped.
“I suppose,” she said.
He took her hand from where it lay clenched on her knee. He pressed it to his lips. She smiled faintly and continued to stare out at the road.
Eucalyptus trees wove by in endless uniformity. Sid decided he loathed the country and everything in it.
They reached a small town near six o’clock, a very American time to eat dinner, Sid knew, but still they were hungry. They found the restaurant most likely to cater to tourists.
“Welcome to the Outback Steakhouse,” their waitress began. “My name is Abby and I’ll be taking care of you all tonight. Any drinks to start you off?”
“Just water for me,” Charlene said.
“What beers do you have?” Sid asked. Charlene gave him one of her looks. They still had several hours before the hotel, and he had agreed to drive that day. But it was only a beer, and he needed it. He ignored Charlene and pretended to listen as Abby patiently prattled off a list of beers. He ordered the one that sounded least like piss.
“What a day,” he said when Abby had walked away. She was cute, her hair bobbed short and an intriguing tattoo that started just above her knee.
“Sure,” Charlene said.
“What? Are you mad?” Sid asked.
“If you have to ask-” Charlene started.
“It’s not my fault,” Sid said.
“Who said it was your fault?”
“Why are you acting like I’m some kind of villain?”
“I’m not. But it would be nice if you showed some kind of emotion.”
“What would it help if I cried?”
“Look, Charl, I’m torn up. I’m real fucked up about this dead dog, are you happy?”
“It’s not just that, and you know it.”
“Come on, Sid, don’t play stupid.”
“Listen to the pot calling the kettle black.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Charlene’s forehead crinkled a sign of real danger. It had crinkled like that when she found out about the other woman years ago. Instead of feeling afraid, though, Sid almost smiled. It felt good to get a rise out of her, this perfect woman he had married, this angel of a creature. In their years together he could count the number of arguments he’d won on a single hand. That persistence again.
He recalled in particular when he had wanted to drive across the country for a month, she hadn’t said no, but she hadn’t said yes either and the end he hadn’t gone simply because of the strength of her will. She never even raised her voice. He admired her for that power.
“Are you ready to order?” Abby had appeared again. Sid saw that her teeth were slightly crooked. He wondered how old she was.
“I think we’re going to need another minute,” Charlene said not taking her eyes off him. Sid felt certain they would not be having sex that evening, which should be illegal on a honeymoon, he thought.
“What about it, Abby?” Sid asked before she could turn away. “What’s your favorite?”
“Oh, gosh,” Abby said with actual surprise. “I don’t know. I guess I like the coconut shrimp pretty well.”
“Two plates of the coconut shrimp,” Sid said grandly, and began to hand Abby the menus.
“Actually,” Charlene said, “I’d just like the house salad.”
“Two plates for me, then,” Sid said.
“Okay,” Abby said. She smiled uncertainly, flashing her crooked teeth again.
“Why are you such an asshole?” Charlene hissed.
“It’s a free country,” Sid said. “You’re the one who married me.”
Charlene just shook her head.
The coconut shrimp was sticky and overly sweet. Sid ate both plates even though it made him feel sick. He left an outrageous tip and a smiley face on the bill. He tried to catch Abby’s eye as they were walking out, but she was greeting another table.
Charlene put in her headphones when they got to the hotel. It was a fancy place. Too fancy for their budget, but it was only for a night. In the heady stages of planning the honeymoon this was to be their night of luxury, an escape from the otherwise narrow limits of their life. But that would not be the case tonight.
Sid opened the minibar and took out the whiskey. It was nice to know no matter what continent they were on, every minibar came stocked with at least one bottle of Johnny Walker.
Charlene stared at him from the bed. He poured a shot and swallowed it.
How had it all gone wrong? Had it been the flight when she saw him checking out the stewardess? Or in the rental agency when he made a joke about dying of cancer rather than living in Australia? She was still sensitive about her dead father.
It could have been before that, though, the times when she looked at him as if she were seeing something she’d never quite seen before, as if some part of her understood what he was deep down.
He knew what he was deep down. He had known it since he was a child. His mother had told him over and over again.
And when he was in high school, the first girl he ever had sex with. When he held her down and she closed her eyes and he wanted to stop and couldn’t all at the same time. Knowing himself and running from it, frozen in a constant state of loathing.
Until Charlene had told him she loved him. This beautiful perfect woman who loved him and shouldn’t. Who knew him and loved him anyway. A woman he could never fully comprehend. A woman who he loved and despised.
Did he hit the dog on the road on purpose? He couldn’t remember.
He took another gulp of whiskey.
It was hot in the room, they were on the top floor with thirteen rooms of heat accumulating, pressing up from beneath. Pressing. Neither of them moved to turn on the air conditioning. Sid couldn’t tell if they were in a state of war or not.
At last when he’d finished his whiskey he moved to the bed. He struggled to remove his shirt and then his shorts. He crawled onto the bed and over to Charlene.
He placed his head in her lap, and she gently ran her hands through his hair. She took out her headphones. A point of submission.
“Don’t leave me,” he mumbled.
“Never,” she said.
He buried his face in her goodness.
Once there was a world that made sense. Green trees and an office to work in, classes to take and Charlene to marry. Once there was a world in order and a life of progress and potential. Then there was waking up and there was Australia a great desert surrounded by the greater wasteland of the ocean. What was life but an island surrounded by the greater ocean of death?
Sid woke up the next morning with a headache. The air conditioning had been turned on in the night. Charlene was gone. The keys of the Jeep were on the bedside table.
He waited until noon, checking his phone every five minutes. At noon he took the elevator down to the lobby, left a message at the front desk and got in the Jeep. He started driving north towards Brisbane.
Sid sang songs to himself. “We Are the Champions” played on the radio. Kangaroos fought in the distance. He sped through farms, past green fields and palm trees. Children playing in the front lawns. At one point he met the coast and whipped past cliffs falling down to the spray of salt water.
Sid forgot for a time that he was married and that he had no idea where his wife was. He might have been in college again, on one of his many solitary road trips. From Massachussetts to Idaho from Florida to Maine from Texas to California. Life could continue on a moving plane the same as it could continue in the static. He could run away faster in a car. He always could. Since he first learned how to drive.
At around four Charlene called.
“Where the fuck are you?” she asked.
“Almost to Brisbane,” he said.
“What?” she said.
“What?” he said back.
Charlene started cursing.
“Calm down,” Sid said. “You left. So, I left. It’s as simple as that. Just take a bus and meet me.”
“Fuck you,” Charlene said. Her voice slurred slightly.
“Are you drunk?” Sid asked.
“No,” Charlene said.
Sid started laughing. “This is the first time I’ve heard you drunk in years.”
“Fuck you,” Charlene said. She started crying. “He’s dead,” she said. “Just like that.”
“Who’s dead?” Sid asked.
“You know,” Charlene said between sobs. “I know you meant to do it.”
“Do what?” Sid asked.
“It died like a dog,” she said. “Just like a dog.”
“It was a dog,” Sid said.
“Not the dog,” Charlene said. “Before—when you said—the baby.”
“There never was a baby,” Sid said. “You told me there wasn’t a baby.”
“There was a baby,” Charlene said.
Things slowed down. Outside the sun pulsed in slow motion. He felt the sweat accumulating on his neck and when it finally ran, it ran cold.
“Come back.” Charlene said, “Pick me up.”
Sid hung up.
It hadn’t been a conversation as much as a feeling.
“If I were pregnant,” she had said.
“Are you pregnant?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“Well, I know what we’d do,” he said.
“Yes,” he said.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “It might be different if I really were pregnant.”
“You’re not, though, are you?”
“No,” she said, “I’m not. But if I were—”
“You know what we’d do,” he said, “I mean right now. If you were pregnant right now. It wouldn’t be the right time. Not just for us, but for the baby. You know? Timing matters.”
“Yes,” she said, “timing matters.”
She looked at him then, as if seeing past his skin, past his flesh, past his bones, to the pulsing darkness that lived inside him. And did she feel that same pulsing darkness within her?
“Are you pregnant?” he’d asked.
“No,” she’d said.
He drove back with a feeling that his head was being held in a vice. He couldn’t shake it. His pulse pounded. He was angry, he knew, but he couldn’t tell at who or what exactly.
It started to drizzle halfway there. The road slickened to a dark gray. Sid didn’t slow down.
It was his fault and it wasn’t. He cared and he didn’t. He would divorce her and run away to start a new life. People did it all the time. It didn’t matter in the end. Whether she’d killed the thing or not.
Sid wiped his forehead with his sleeve. It was the same shirt he’d been wearing yesterday. He hadn’t changed that morning. A dark stain stared up at him.
It wasn’t his fault. None of it. Could he change what he was, what he had always been? Could he see past the smear of rain on the windshield? Could he see anything coming down the road towards him?
So how could it be helped?