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Short story: Road Kill

 Copyright 2014, R.F. Sharp


Short Story
Road Kill

There’s some comfort in driving home drunk at night when you’re familiar with the route. And living out in the sticks makes it less likely you’re going to get stopped by the cops or run head-on into another car. Those aren’t the reasons I lived there; it was a no-choice deal. We had nowhere else to go after I lost my last job. Two drunk driving convictions and thirty days in jail meant me, my wife, and our son Michael had to move in with her father Cesar and his third wife after I lost my job. That situation eventually led to my divorce and bankruptcy.

            “So you’re bringing me another trifecta,” my lawyer, whose name really was Errol Flynn, had said, trying to be humorous.

            “A what?” I thought he was talking about the track.

            “Trifecta. Divorce, drunk driving, bankruptcy. They often go hand-in-hand. You’re my fourth this year. Pays the bills.”

            What a jerk. No wonder people hate lawyers. Anyway, I rented a room in an old Spanish style house near Michael. Six years old and he speaks better Spanish than English. Cesar Santiago, an exiled Cuban and my father-in-law, doesn’t allow English to be spoken in his house. I complained to Errol and he said I had bigger fish to fry. Like the divorce custody battle and the upcoming sentencing for my latest DUI.

I blamed my wife Pilar for everything, but most of our troubles were cultural. Cesar is the patriarch, it’s his house we were living in, and I was supposed to kiss his ass. I’m American, so bullshit to that. Then they got a protection order on me so I couldn’t even see Michael unsupervised. I never hit her like they said. I would never do that. Now I can’t even talk to her or see my own son. It was her lawyer pulling the strings. My lawyer was multi-tasking all my other problems so I guess he wasn’t paying attention.

            It was dark when I drove by their house. Lights all on and someone sitting on the stoop, couldn’t tell who. They did that on hot nights. Cesar wouldn’t spring for air conditioning. I veered to the left, over the line in the direction I was looking, then jerked the wheel back. No cars coming so no harm done. I was drunk but not so drunk I couldn’t drive. I pulled out my crushed pack of Marlboro’s, extracted one, straightened it, and pushed in the lighter. It popped out, the end glowing red as I tried to light the cigarette. I dropped the lighter, and it bounced off my knee onto the floor. Damn, didn’t need a fire.  I reached for it, no car lights coming so I fumbled around, found it and burned my finger tips.

Then it happened. A sharp bang on the right front fender. I thought I’d hit a deer or a wild hog. Plenty of them at night. I backed up, but didn’t see anything. Probably knocked it into the swampy drainage canal alongside the road. I sure wasn’t getting out and go searching there for fresh venison in the dark. If it wasn’t the water moccasins or pythons that got you there were lots of gators. Plus it was fifteen feet deep in spots. They pulled a van out of the canal last year that had been missing since the seventies.

A bicycle peeked over the weeds, the front wheel twisted and the frame bent. I hadn’t seen any riders so that couldn’t have been what I had hit.

            Once home I drank a couple more beers and fell asleep watching an old Bruce Willis flick.

            When I awoke late there was no time for a shower. I had finally gotten a job with a landscape company supervising a yard mowing crew. Getting work after doing thirty days isn’t easy so I had to hold onto this one. I had no backup plan or credit. Plus I needed cash for the lawyer so I could get Michael back, or at least manage joint custody.

Jimmy, my landlord, stepped into the kitchen as I was getting my coffee.

            “You hear what went down last night?” He took the pot from me and refilled his cup.

            “What? I came home and went to sleep. Who would I have talked to?”

            “I heard on the radio that a bicyclist was killed by a hit and run driver right down the road.”

            “Anybody we know?” My heart skipped two beats. Had to be me. I turned to the window.

            “No names yet. You know how they talk, ‘pending notice to next of kin’ that kind of crap. I’ll find out.”

            I thought about the bike on the edge of the road, but couldn’t ask Jimmy any more without seeming too interested. I left the coffee and went to my truck. The headlight was broken. No blood or fur. I was sure it wasn’t a deer. What to do? If I turned myself in there would be a blood test. Alcohol would still be in my system and they could extrapolate and figure how drunk I was last night. I learned this from my last trial. This was manslaughter at best and prison for sure. I couldn’t bring the victim back to life so had to cover the best I could.

            Jimmy gave me a ride to work. I said the truck was acting funny. I bought a new headlight in town. There weren’t any witnesses to the accident—I had to stay calm—this  could all work out.

            That afternoon I got off early, begged a ride home, and replaced the broken headlight. Then Errol called. He told me to get to his office now, not later. The police were after me. He said it had to do with the bicyclist and clammed up.

            Errol’s office was in a strip mall on US-1 in Sebastian. Sebastian is a former fishing village now transitioning to a Florida tourist and retirement haven. Most of Errol’s clients were the trifecta kind, plus some speeding tickets and an occasional personal injury case.

            We went to his small conference room. Errol sat, stood, sat again and drummed his fingers on the table top.

            “You’re in the shit this time. What were you thinking?” He tapped his pen on the table like a drumstick.

            “What the hell are you talking about? Why do the cops want me? What’s this about a bicyclist?”  I didn’t see how they could pin the biker on me. Was there a witness after all?

“The bike rider who died was Pilar, your wife.” He paused, searching my face. “They’re calling it premeditated murder. The husband is always first choice as a suspect. A wife is killed, arrest the husband, then sort it out later. Police procedure. They say she drowned. Might have been saved if someone had stopped.”

Tears came to my eyes. This couldn’t be. She had a bike but never rode it except to go to the little Mexican grocery in Fellsmere, and that was a two mile ride in the dark.

“Are you sure it was her?” I didn’t know what else to say. I was shocked; and felt guilty thinking no more divorce case.

“The sheriff is sure.”

“Look, I don’t hate Pilar. I wouldn’t kill her. Her father maybe, but not her. She’s Michael’s mother. Does he know?”

“We have to go to the police. I’ll go with you. It’ll only be worse if they have to come find you. You don’t want things to escalate. There are some good criminal lawyers I can hook you up with.”

I stood and moved toward the door. “I’ll turn myself in. You know I don’t have money so it’ll be the public defender, God help me. Besides, I didn’t do it. Just because I’m her husband doesn’t make me guilty.”

I left, but didn’t go to the police. I took off in the repaired truck. I would deny everything if caught. The canals along the roadway are deep and don’t have railings. It had been dark. And what was she doing riding a bike that time of night? But he was right. I would be presumed guilty and Florida has the death penalty. I aimed the truck away from town. There were places I could go. Work for cash, get off the grid. I travelled back roads and headed inland, through what once had been the Everglades before the swamps were drained. Nothing but palmettos, swamp grass, and citrus groves. When I got situated I’d come back for Michael.

I was only ten miles in when it happened. Three deer were standing in the middle of the sandy road as I rounded a curve too fast. I swerved and slid, my wheel caught the edge of the ditch and the truck flipped into the canal.

Seat belts save lives they say. Maybe, but I was suspended upside down. The dark was complete and impenetrable. The windows were covered in black water. I popped the seat belt and fell to the roof of the truck. The doors were wedged into the mud, wouldn’t open. I could feel and smell the water creeping up my shoulders. It was warm, like a stinking bath. The windows I thought. If I could kick one out I might be able to swim free.

But my shoes were rubber soled. I kicked until the rising water made it impossible. I had maybe two minutes left before the water inched into my nostrils and over my head. There was still about a foot of air space left below the floor of the truck above my head. My only option was to roll a window down and hope there was room to squeeze out and reach the surface. But the water would flow in quickly then, eliminating my little air pocket. I had to choose: die now or die in a few minutes.

That wasn’t how I had seen my life ending. Would they ever find the truck? Or me? Michael would think I had abandoned him. I took deep breaths, trying to oxygenate, then squatted for a quick push through the window once I got it open. The handle was below water. Power windows wouldn’t have worked under water. I reached down, keeping my face in the air pocket and cranked quickly. The water rushed in and I kept cranking as I was engulfed underwater. It had only been seconds I’m sure, but seemed longer. I tried to get through the window. It was soft mud. I forced my hands up through it, pulling mud inside the truck along with stringy roots, then water. I pulled more mud in, making a hole, then put my arms together over my head and through the window. I pushed with my coiled legs and forced my way through the narrow slimy opening, pulling with my arms and kicking and climbing with my feet and legs until I broke through, gulping the cool air and appreciating the sunlight as I splashed to the edge of the canal, then lay there, my head and shoulders on the mucky shoreline while my body remained submerged.

I recovered slowly, finally climbing up the steep bank, forgetting about snakes, alligators or anything besides being in the open air and on dry land. I stood exhausted and still heaving deep breaths. I leaned over, my hands on my knees and vomited. I looked back and could see nothing of the truck. I was covered in slimy black mud. When I wiped it from my face I discovered a small leech just beginning to work on my neck and I pulled it off in a panic. There’s something about leeches and snakes that’s unsettling.

There were no other cars on the sandy road. I walked back in the direction I’d come. A nearby clean pond gave me the chance to rinse myself and my clothes and I continued, drying as I walked; hoping I appeared presentable enough to be given a ride.

Had I killed Pilar?  Probably. It would be too much of a coincidence if not and I didn’t believe in coincidence. It didn’t feel good. Didn’t feel real. I wished I had stopped. Maybe I could have saved her. Errol said the funeral was tomorrow but I knew I shouldn’t go. Cesar would probably shoot me. If not, I would certainly be arrested.

The road ahead was straight, of white sand and shell, bordered on the left by the canal and on the right by orange groves. It disappeared into the horizon. The sun beat down and I had no hat. Still no cars in sight.

My friend Rick had been punished by a long and expensive custody case a couple of years ago. Accusations went both ways, the poor kids were a mess. His wife, Anna, couldn’t deal with it. She locked herself in the garage and started the car. He got the kids of course. And the house. He later told me he felt relief, not remorse after her death. I didn’t feel that way. Had we not had to move in with her father I was sure we could have worked things out. But living with him put her under powerful familial pressure with which I couldn’t compete. I had been weak, self pitying, and surrendered to drinking and denial. I should have insisted we move and find our own way. Pilar would have gone with me if I had made her choose. I realized all that too late.

A dust cloud over the road in the distance indicated a vehicle. I was willing to take any ride, even one going the opposite direction so I stood to the side of the road to signal for help. I looked myself over and brushed at my clothes to try to smooth them out. I had shaved that morning so that part was okay. I used my fingers to comb the hair straight back and waited. It was a car, not a truck as I had hoped. As it got closer the occupants were visible. A man and woman in the front and a baby seat in the back. I held my thumb out even though my chances of getting picked up had dipped to nearly zero. The driver had the courtesy to slow down to reduce the dust but didn’t stop. I kept walking.

I decided that I had to go to the funeral. Pilar was my wife. At one time we meant more to each other than life. All those feelings don’t just disappear. And there was Michael. I couldn’t give him up. How could I make this work, get out of this mess and take care of him?

A ride finally came along. Migrant workers in a rusted pickup. I rode in the back with them, speaking my broken Spanish. They dropped me off a few miles from Fellsmere and I walked. There were no police cars around my place so I skirted around the back through a field and went inside. My truck wasn’t there of course and that’s probably what they were looking for. I took a quick shower and changed into clean clothes. I emptied my wallet on the kitchen table and let everything dry. I counted thirty-two dollars, mostly ones; all I had left. And now no truck.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church was on the main road at the edge of town and the funeral would be there in the morning. I would wait and sleep on the roof tonight. That was what I did when it was too hot. Mosquitoes didn’t usually venture that high up and I could catch a breeze. The police weren’t likely to look up there if they came by.

I stayed on the roof in the morning, waiting until the last minute. Timing it so I would have time to get dressed and slip over to the church after everyone was inside. Pay my respects. Maybe get a glimpse of Michael. Fellsmere isn’t a busy town. Its heyday was in the early part of the twentieth century when it was a big agricultural area. But a tremendous flood changed wiped out the development and people moved on. Now there was a movement to revitalize the town. People had moved back and aquaculture was the new industry. Growing fish and shrimp in big tanks. Even so there weren’t many cars were on the roads and few people walking the streets. Most everyone in town would be at the church by the time I got there.

An empty sheriff’s cruiser was parked in the shade of a moss covered live oak. Other cars and trucks were parked nose to tail along the drive and the parking lot was half full. I steeled myself and walked up the steps to the church, genuflecting and then sitting unnoticed in the last row. The casket was open at the front near the altar. It was draped in white with a large spray of white roses. I couldn’t see Pilar from my seat. Roses were her favorite. Her family was in the front two rows. Michael must have been in the front row but he was small so I couldn’t see him over the back of the pews.

As the service ended those in the front filed from their seats and approached the casket. Her family. I should have been first in line. I teared up, then stood and walked forward. Cesar was holding Michael’s hand as they stood looking at Pilar. I didn’t want to cause a scene. Just a say a short prayer, kiss Michael, and leave if they let me. I walked further, past a sheriff’s deputy on the aisle. I was waiting to be grabbed. For someone to cry out. To be thrown to the ground and put in handcuffs. Or be beaten. I didn’t care.

I reached Cesar and touched his shoulder. He turned. He had been weeping.

“Cesar,” I said.

He flung his arms around me, a bear hug, the crowd murmured, Michael looked up and rushed over, clinging to my leg.

Cesar began sobbing loudly. People patted my back. Expressing sympathy. I was stunned and picked up Michael, crushing him to me, kissing his forehead. I was not being blamed.

“They found him,” Cesar said, looking up into my eyes. “The malparido that killed our Pilar has been discovered and has turned himself in. Gracias a Dios you came back.”

Relief is what I felt at that moment. Relief that I had Michael back. And had reconciled with Pilar’s family, who were, after all, Michael’s family. I wouldn’t want that changed. Pilar was gone. I would miss her but was not to blame—and I had my life back.

Perhaps thanks to her.



            A  roadblock detoured the long line of vehicles heading north on M-52 toward the Village of Chelsea and its local hospital. Few were allowed to pass, the rest were shunted by a deputy to a side road back to the freeway.

            Far back in the line of cars, campers and motor homes, Mary Thurgood idled in a rusting Ford pickup, tapping her wrist on the steering wheel in time to the Christian station on the radio. A gray-complexioned man of about eighty sat beside her, his shoulders wrapped in a red sweater even though it was mid-summer.

            The trip was a last-ditch effort for a cure for her father, 'Bud' Benson. Bud's real name was Connie, and though it had been a perfectly respectable name in Kentucky where he was born he found it was considered feminine in the north and quit using it. Bud was bald, not from any genetic predisposition but from radiation and chemotherapy. The tumors were spread throughout his body. They made lumps all over him like someone had slid marbles of different sizes under his skin. One or two months at the most, the doctors said.

            When the news reports came out about the Chelsea miracles, Mary had been skeptical. But the before and after pictures of the child whose third degree burns had been erased instantly and the first-hand report of a blind woman whose sight was restored finally convinced her.

            "I hope we didn't come all this way for nuthin." His voice was soft and his eyes were closed. “All these folks want the same thing as me, I guess. To get healed by the Healer’s magic touch.”

            She rolled down her window as they neared a policeman waving cars to the right down a side road. He motioned for her to keep going but she stopped.

            "Move along lady. You have to have a pass to get into town."

            “My father’s dying. We have to get into the hospital. See the Healer.”

            “This hospital’s closed. Sorry. I can’t help you. All these other folks have the same story. It’s not up to me who gets in to see him. I can call you an ambulance for another hospital.”

            Mary declined and turned off with the rest of them down Jackson Street.  At the first intersection she turned left to try and find another way into the village. She noticed a few other cars following her. All the main roads into town would be blocked off. At Bud's insistence she finally pulled into an old cemetery which she figured must border the edge of town.

            "It might not seem right, but I gotta piss and I'm gonna hafta do it on somebody's grave," he said as he stepped carefully out of the truck. He still had the sweater around his shoulders when he disappeared around the side of the small fieldstone mausoleum next to the truck. Mary turned the radio back up as she waited for him.

            They were both hungry. She had seen long lines outside the restaurants on the outskirts of town. The few motels were filled and campers lined the sides of the roads. People desperate for a miracle were camping in nearby farm fields, waiting and out of options. Mary hoped for that one chance in a million that somehow Buddy might get to see the Healer, Donald Pierce.

            A picture of him being hurried away in the hospital cafeteria had been in all the newspapers. You could not really see his face, what with the bandages and all but she knew what he looked like. Internet news photos showed him as a young businessman. He had been in some kind of accident and now had powers, they said. She believed Pierce was touched by God, like the saints. They had been able to perform miracles, hadn't they? Her father called her a Bible thumper, though she wasn’t a member of any church. She carried her Bible with her and read it fervently. If she did not succeed in Chelsea it would be because God did not intend it.

            Bud came back around the building, walking with his head down as he zipped his pants. The one-lane cemetery path wound through the hundreds of upright tombstones which were laid out in irregular rows among the trees. Most were old limestone with the names and dates nearly indecipherable from the action of the elements on the soft rock. The road was too narrow to turn around so she drove toward the back of the cemetery to follow the narrow lane around and back out.

            She saw the low rusted iron gate built into the fence just as she was making the turn to go toward the road.

            It was evidently a disused entrance from the village to the cemetery from long ago. The roadway on the other side was overgrown but there were still two clear parallel tracks pounded down by tires from the past. It led off and disappeared into the woods. Toward the village.

            She backed up and pointed the truck toward it. The engine idled roughly as she examined the gate. Bud said nothing, lost in his own misery. The gate was covered by vines. There was a rusted chain and padlock securing it. Fieldstone pillars supported each side. She engaged the four wheel drive, gunned the engine and accelerated. “Hold on, Daddy.” The padlock held but the gate burst away from the ancient hinges. It flattened under the truck and Mary kept going, bounced over it and proceeded down the weed choked pathway.

            They drove about a hundred yards, emerging between two old houses and over a curb onto a paved residential street. Mary wound through the neighborhood, looking for signs of the hospital grounds but trying to avoid the town center. Cars were parked everywhere. She could see people sleeping in some of them. There were family groups sitting on the lawn extensions eating picnic type meals. Many of the yards had big "No Trespassing" signs posted by the curb.

            She stopped and asked the way to the hospital from a young couple leaning against a car. The woman had a crying infant wrapped in a pink blanket against the cool air. The man was sipping from a can of beer.

            “It’s south of here, but you can’t get in. They put up an eight foot fence all around the hospital. But we’re waiting it out. They have to let us see him sometime.”

            Mary drove on, turning toward downtown, determined to find a way get to Pierce.


            Donald Pierce walked through the woods in his white hospital robe. He wasn’t supposed to be outside without supervision but needed a bit of freedom. Weeks of recovery and numerous surgeries had left him weak.

            The healing power had revealed itself in the hospital cafeteria two weeks ago. She was a young girl covered in red and white splotchy scars, the victim of fire. He smiled at her and she smiled back, touching his hand. Slowly, like spreading lava, from the top of her head down, her skin began returning to its normal rich creamy brown. She stared, open mouthed. Her mother grabbed her, screaming, “Oh my god. Oh my God. Praise the Lord, that man has cured my baby.”

            Donald moved through the cafeteria, touching those who reached out to him. Wheelchairs were pushed aside, people cried and laughed. All he touched were cured.

            Now the government was planning on taking him into “protective custody” for study. He was a virtual prisoner, everyone claiming priority over him. The doctors said his powers had something to do with the brain injury he suffered. The pineal body had been nicked and was producing some kind of super brain hormone.

            He walked toward the security fence. Hundreds of people were gathered on the other side, waiting to see him, he knew. He decided to touch a few. Hoping to heal them. The crowd noticed him coming and began hurrying to the fence line. It became a stampede.

            He saw a woman helping an old man in a red sweater. The people behind jockeyed for position, fighting for a spot in front. The woman tried to hold them back but the mass of people crushed into them. The old man’s face pressed into the chain link until the skin split, gushing blood. Donald raised his arms to ask for calm, the sleeves of his white robe like outspread wings. The throng roared, the fence yawed, then collapsed. The weak, young, and sick were trampled by the others. Donald was overwhelmed. He touched some, but was grabbed, pushed, pulled. They tore at his robe, fell on top of him and each other. More came as a tidal rush.

            The Healer died under the weight of the many.

            And the crowd dissipated.

            And the cured stayed cured.

            And the world changed.

            People once again believed in miracles—and were reminded of the frailty of man.

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