Cocooned in darkness, Tommy rested sideways on the backseat, his head on his jacket, balled into a pillow. The car passed silhouetted barns, silos, billboards. His mother smoked as she drove; the two-inch opening of the window sucked the smoke outside. When a truck passed, air whooshed loudly.
During the day’s visit to Uncle Jack, Tommy had ridden Crow. His previous experience riding was limited to a couple of pony rides when he was younger, happy to be led in a circle at a somnolent pace. Today, he’d kicked the old stallion repeatedly, finally spurring him into a lope. They were cir- cling the farmhouse when they ran into the clothesline. The taut wire hit Tommy at the base of his throat and scraped, rippling, to his chin, pushing him back. He grabbed the saddle horn. His neck could have snapped. What if Crow had been galloping? They hadn’t talked about the incident since it had happened, but the scene played on a silent repeat loop in the minds of Tommy and his mother: the invisible wire, the strike, Tommy’s head flung back, Uncle Jack running forward to halt Crow.
She remembered when Tommy had slipped on an icy stairway, striking a step edge so that he was breathless and unable to move. The sudden blow from nowhere. What other blows would there be? She saw the distant red lights of three radio towers. They glowed, isolated; a few lights pulsed. They were always there, on any long drive, a signal of life elsewhere. During the day, they were unseen. How could sound travel great distances through the air? Strange how nighttime brought your attention to other things.
When Tommy’s mother reached out to turn on the radio, she glanced in the rearview mirror. Her son looked peaceful, asleep, stretched along the seat. He’d grown several inches taller in the past year. She didn’t want to wake him up. She crushed out the cigarette. She could open the window further to feel the cool night air, but that might wake Tommy, too. Recently, he’d announced that he now wanted to be called Tom, and she was having trouble remembering to do that. She sighed. At least he hadn’t asked to be called Starman or Tarantula.
Drowsy, she smiled, knowing the road ahead was straight; they would be home soon. A day in the country—she’d thought it would be good for him, but he’d almost broken his neck. She tried to push the scene out of her mind. As the dashed line painted on the highway repeated in the car’s headlights, a Morse code in white and black, her head became heavy. She jerked forward once, twice. She was opening the window when she felt a thump. What was that? She pulled over on the narrow gravel shoulder.
“Why are we stopping?” Tommy asked.
His mother opened the glove box and pulled out a flashlight. She traced a circle of light around the car, checking the tires. Tommy got out and joined her. “A flat?”
A car sped by in the opposite direction. Its headlights illuminated the source of the thump: a raccoon with one of its young in its mouth. Now crushed on the highway.
Tommy pointed to the remains. “Hey, Mom.”
“What?” She followed his pointing hand with the flashlight. As she wavered, and then knelt, the light caught two pairs of red eyes, watching from the side of the road.
“Oh, no.” Tommy’s mother shielded her eyes with one hand as if the dead animals glared. She peered closely to be sure. Yes, they were dead. Tears blurred her eyes as Tommy patted her arm.
“Geez, it’s OK. You didn’t mean to hit it.” He leaned forward. “Look, a baby one, too.” “A kit.”
“Kit. That’s what young raccoons are called.”
“Why’s it in her mouth?”
“She was carrying it across the road.” “Why weren’t they sleeping?”
“Raccoons sleep during the day.” She’d always refused Tommy’s pleas for a pet. He’d promised to do the walking and feeding chores, but she didn’t need the inevitable extra work and expense, and pets had a way of dying. He still had much to learn and sometimes it seemed a burden, learning about the world. So much of being a parent was saying no.
She pressed his face against her to keep him from staring. She swept the flashlight over the shoulder of the road again, but the red eyes had disappeared. “Get back in the car.”
“It’s not like I’ve never seen roadkill before.” She pulled the trunk open. “Don’t say that.” “Why?”
“Because it’s an ugly word.” She found a shoebox and removed it. Then she took his arm and guided him into the backseat.
Kneeling on the seat, Tommy watched his mother scrape the raccoons into the box. She put the lid on it and set it in the ditch alongside the road. She was shivering when she started up the car. “Put your jacket on,” she said.