Even with the wind whistling through the open window, Keith struggled to stay awake after a day spent drinking in the sun, the empty road chewing up his headlights.
Keith jerked when Dee placed a hand on his leg. “We had a good day, right?”
“Mint.” He glanced in the mirror at Dee’s best friend, her face glowing in the light of her phone. “Alicia, what’d you think?”
“That water was ridiculously cold. I’m still half frozen.”
What could Keith say that wouldn’t be about her raised skin, droplets rolling off her bronzed flesh, sparkling like so much shattered glass? “Yeah, that’s Maine for you. Before my dad died, we always rented a cabin near Sebago. Crazy cold.”
Dee gave him a quick squeeze. “Your dad would be proud.”
“I’d like to believe that.”
“He would. I’m sure of it.”
Keith opened his eyes as wide as they’d go, not that it helped. He should have stopped at one of the places still open.
Catching a whiff of Alicia’s sunblock, he realized they never should have come up here in the first place. Spending the day with Alicia four-fifths naked, what had he been thinking?
Dee wasn’t bad, but she was no Alicia. What was, and what would never be.
Realizing he’d drifted over the line, Keith steered the Chevy back into his lane. Maybe they should have stayed the night, got a fresh start in the morning.
Alicia sleeping in the cabin or the room next door, Keith imagining he could hear her soft breaths.
“Ladies, don’t hesitate to scream if you see something open. Coffee. Soda. Chocolate.” Open. What could be open? They were on a road so desolate that only the GPS knew of its existence. “I’ll take the caffeine in whatever shape or form it’s available.”
“You said you were fine to drive.” Dee leaned forward as if to look into his eyes. “If you’re too tired, I’ll take over, and you can nap in the back.”
Keith shook his head. “I’m good. Just thinking ahead.”
“Change your mind, you know where I am.” Dee settled in her seat.
Keith hit something, the steering wheel jerking in his hands as the car tried to escape.
“What was that?” Dee staying in her seat only because of her restraints.
“I think I hit a deer.”
Dee twisted to look past Alicia. “Or a moose. There have been warnings.” Dee touched his arm. “We should go back.”
“I can’t go back.” Heart pounding, Keith wanted only to push the accelerator through the floor.
Alicia chiming in from the rear: “Of course you can.”
Keith shook his head. “Unless one of you has been hiding a veterinary degree from me, there’s no point. No point at all.”
“Go back and you’d know.” Alicia sat forward, her breath on his ear. “You’d know for certain.”
“I am certain I hit something. Deer, moose, raccoon. What difference does it make?”
“You could have hit a person.”
“Out here?” Keith pried a hand from the wheel to wave at the darkness. “Look where we are. The last hour, I haven’t so much as seen a single sign of life.”
“We passed a car by the side of the road.”
Keith glared at the mirror. “No we didn’t.”
“Yes. We did.”
“Listen, I’m the one watching the road. I wouldn’t have missed an abandoned car.”
“The ‘deer’ seemed to catch you by surprise.”
Dee spun in her seat. “Alicia!”
Keith raised a hand. “I can take care of this. First of all, deer move fast. That’s why they post warnings. Second of all, there was no car, there was no person, and there is no reason to make something out of nothing.”
“We hit a deer. So it’s not nothing. But the car’s still functioning, and if we don’t stop we’ll be home in three hours and forty-two minutes, giving me two hours before the alarm goes off.”
Alicia shifted. “I don’t have any signal.”
“You don’t need signal. I hit a deer.”
“You hope you hit a deer.”
“No, I don’t.” Keith found he couldn’t let up on the gas. The very idea of slowing, of executing a three-point turn, seemed foreign, impossible, dumb. “I’m the kind of person who slams on the brakes to miss a squirrel that’s probably halfway up a tree by the time I stop.”
Dee hugged his arm. “It was just an accident. It’s not your fault.”
The needle held true to the mark indicating sixty-five, the spine of a homing pigeon returning to the cote.
Swearing in exasperation, Alicia continued, “How am I supposed to call 911 if I don’t have any signal?”
“You’re not calling 911 because there’s nothing to report. They’re not sending someone out in the middle of the night to pick up a dead deer.”
“You don’t know it was a deer.”
“You don’t know that it wasn’t, Alicia. It could have been a deer. Or a moose.”
“If it were a moose, we’d be dead.”
Dee sighed. “Keith is right. Nobody would be out walking on this road.”
They must have passed a sizable body of water because now the road was obscured by fog, pressing in on them. Keith gripped the wheel and squinted. Probably a swamp. Wasn’t Maine famous for bugs the size of vultures?
“We still should let someone know.” Alicia’s frown plain from her tone.
“It’s dark. I hit a deer. End of story.”
“Stories don’t end. We drag them behind us.”
In the rearview mirror, Keith could see Alicia, holding her phone high, moving it left and right, swaying to the music of tires on the roadway. “You’re not going to find any signal, but that’s okay. There’s nobody we need to call.”
“The deer might be lying on the road. It’s a safety issue.”
“We’re the only car out here, and the body will probably be gone by morning, some bear hunting for breakfast.”
Alicia leaned forward, “Keith, we need to call someone.”
“Why? To tell them I hit a deer? A raccoon? A chipmunk? What about the bugs splattered on the windshield? Don’t they deserve to be reported? You want to write their obituary?”
“Keith, maybe Alicia’s right. What if there’s damage to your car? Won’t the insurance company make you fill out forms and stuff?”
“A deer. That’s all they need to know. They aren’t going to ask for DNA.”
Alicia whispered, “You hope it’s a deer.”
“I hate the idea of hitting a deer. I hope it was a weasel, a rabid skunk. Something nobody’s going to miss.”
“I didn’t smell skunk.”
“Besides, the car’s running just fine.” Keith motioned out ahead. “I don’t think there’s any damage.”
“You won’t know for sure until you stop and look.”
He let go of the steering wheel. “We’re still aligned.”
Half-hearted: “There might be scratches.”
Keith grabbed the wheel again, his fingers finding the sweat they’d left behind. “We’ll be out of Maine soon.”
“It’s not too late.”
Keith could no more lift his foot off the pedal than he could wish himself away. “I’m pretty sure I saw an antler fly by the window. I’m pretty sure I saw a hoof.”
“A hoof?” Alicia, incredulous.
“Just let it go. Okay? I hit a deer. It’s over.”
Dee blotted tears before blowing her nose. “It was an accident.”
“Stop saying that. I know it was an accident. I was here.”
“Don’t take your frustrations out on me. I wasn’t even talking when it happened.”
“Sorry. It’s just … unbelievable.”
Alicia started in again. “You could make an anonymous call.”
“From one of our cell phones?” Keith swore. “And how many times do I have to say that what I hit was a deer? I’m the one staring out the window. I know what I saw.”
Alicia flung her arm into the air. “Then why did you hit the animal?”
“Just ask Dee. It was an accident.”
“Don’t be a jerk.”
“Sorry.” Despite the lack of visibility, Keith wanted to increase speed until he was moving fast enough to fly, traveling back in time if possible.
“This isn’t easy for any of us, Keith. Just because I’m not in the driver seat…”
“Dee, I’m sorry. Sorry about all of this.”
“I knew we should have gone to the Cape.”
“Maybe Keith could have run over a lobster.”
Dee spun. “Alicia!”
But Keith only laughed. He couldn’t help himself. And soon Alicia was drowning out his laughter with her own, and even Dee, facing forward now, chuckled. “A lobster.”
Keith laughed until it hurt, convulsing with laughter, roaring until he hit a wall, the others having already sobered. “What do you mean you knew?”
“Not that we were going to hit a deer, but Maine is so far.”
“You didn’t say word one.”
“You seemed intent.”
In the back, Alicia started brushing her hair, her motions filling the air with spearmint. Or wintergreen. Anyway, Keith thought she smelled like a Life Saver.
“Dee, if you didn’t want to go to Maine, you should have said something.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to go. I had fun.” Dee rubbed Keith’s knee. “It was a good day. I’m not saying I knew this would happen.”
“I probably ran over a branch. Half the state is tree.”
“Or a kid gone missing, wandering through the woods, scared and crying for mommy.”
“Alicia, you are starting to piss me off. I didn’t hit any kid.”
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot. Now the story is you hit a branch. I can understand you mistaking branches for antlers, but how do you explain seeing a hoof?”
“Stop. Seriously. I’ve had just about enough.”
Alicia spoke slowly as if afraid he might not understand. “How can you be sure if you don’t go back?”
“Going back won’t change a thing.” Keith’s arms rigid, his touch on the steering wheel felt wrong, and so he placed a hand on Dee’s. “An accident, that’s all it was. I probably could have been more careful, driven slower, but in the end, accidents happen. The deer was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now it’s probably dead.”
Dee withdrew her hand to wipe her eyes.
Keith focused on the road ahead. A sign in the headlights. Slow for an upcoming curve.
He relented, raising his foot so the car could slow.
At some point back there, they’d emerged from the fog.
Keith noticed the stars as if for the first time, so brittle and bright, so sharp.
He flicked on the high beams.
“Hey Keith. Why did the deer cross the road?”
“Not funny, Alicia.”
“Actually, there are two correct answers, just in case the person you’re asking makes a lucky guess.”
“Do me a favor and keep your thoughts to yourself.”
Alicia laughed, a hysterical edge to her voice. “Why did the deer cross the road? Because the deer didn’t realize it was a human being. And if you can’t use that one, the deer crossed the road because it thought it was a branch.”
“What I said was, keep your thoughts to yourself.”
“What I said was to turn back.”
“Yeah, well you’re not in charge.” Keith forced himself not to slam his foot against the gas.
“And who said you were? There’re three of us in this here car. That makes three of us who are involved in what happened. Do you believe you automatically get the last word just because you’re driving?”
“I’ll tell you why I get the last word, Alicia. I’ll tell you why.”
His father, whose car was totaled by a drunk driver, would not be proud of him. His father, who preached personal responsibility above all else, would have gone back.
What he’d seen fly by the window was a hand.
Keith released a single sob before regaining control. “I get the last word, Alicia, because I’m the one going to jail.”
BIO: Stephen D. Rogers is the author of SHOT TO DEATH and more than 900 shorter works. His website, www.StephenDRogers.com, includes a list of new and upcoming titles as well as other timely information.