Road Kill

Road Kill
by R. Y. Brockway

I’d been working with Leon for a week when I noticed he had a knack for identifying roadkill.

“’Possum,” he’d call 500 feet before we passed the carcass, or “’coon.” When business took us south, the occasional “’dillo” entered the mix. No matter what it was, he never missed.

I played along for a time, learning how to identify the tell-tale markings of matted fur. But after six months of spider-webbing our way across the map, my taste for the game and Leon’s company began to wane.

Leon’s peculiarities weren’t limited to just roadkill. He was anal about always having to drive—which was fine by me, because he chattered nonstop whenever his hands weren’t busy, complaining endlessly about the engineered decking company that employed us or the shoppers who frequented the big-box hardware stores where we set up displays. His grousing wasn’t limited to the car, either.

On more than one occasion, he’d stop working to lean over and whisper to me, “Hey, Ryan, you see that guy?”

I’d turn to find a man reading a can of weed killer, or a woman navigating a cart through the obstacle strewn aisles.

“Punk thinks he’s better than us.”

It was dumbfounding; those customers barely even registered our existence. But when I’d point that out to Leon, he would only sneer and remind me of the years he held over me both in life and on the road. He knew, he’d say, and in time, so would I.

This irked me to no end, but there was nothing I could do about it. Back home, my wife and newborn son depended on my paycheck. Asking for a new partner was akin to turning in your resignation. So my days became a series of resigned shrugs, and I made sure to keep a novel on hand each time we got in the car so I could bury my nose in its pages while Leon drove.

If he noticed my sudden silence, or how I averted my eyes when he pointed out another victim of the freeway, he never acknowledged it, except to complain about the mountain of paperbacks piling up in the backseat.

I was on a true-crime kick when summer came and business took us through the backcountry of the Carolinas. We’d just finished a job in Greenville, where I’d picked up a new novel to tide me over until we reached Atlanta. I cracked the spine the moment we turned south.

The car’s radio slid between frequencies on scan as we drove, occasionally landing on the notes of a twangy guitar or a preacher expounding on the gospel. For once, there was near-silence in the car, and I settled back into my seat, losing myself in the underbelly of Skid Row for 40 pages before a strange utterance from the driver’s seat drew me back out.

“Now, what in the hell is that?”

I glanced up and spotted the crumpled mass on the side of the road.

“Jesus, Leon, it’s probably been sitting in that ditch for days. Just keep going.”

But we were already slowing down, the car listing to one side as its tires sank into the soft soil of the cotton field.

Leon cut the engine. “I’m going to check it out. You want to come with me?”

I shook my head no. He pulled the keys from the ignition. I groaned in protest, but he ignored me. Shaking my head, I rolled down my window and watched as he picked his way along the wayside toward the dark clump in the overgrown grass.

“Jesus,” I repeated.

I tried to settle back into my book, but the muggy air rising off the cotton field permeated the car and I found myself rereading the same paragraph over and over. After the umpteenth time, I gave up and unbuckled my seatbelt.

A breeze from the east brought some relief from the humidity as I stepped out of the car. Stretching, I watched Leon poke around in the ditch. He scratched his head as he peered downward. This really was too much; we were due at our next appointment in just a few hours.

I cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted, “Leon! Come on, man, we’ve got places to be!”

He turned, but only for a moment. “Get the tire iron!” he called back, taking another step down into the ditch.

Frowning, I swatted at an insect circling my head. The only way I could see to get Leon back in the car was if I assisted him in his morbid fascination. Reluctantly, I fetched the tire iron from the trunk.

There was a cloud of flies undulating over the crumpled remains. Their droning was audible. I covered my mouth but still gagged when I knelt over the ditch to hand Leon the tire iron.

“Jesus, what is that?”

Leon shot me an “I told you so” glare.

A giant wing the length of a man’s arm stuck out at an odd angle from what you might call the body of the thing. Its greasy black feathers bristled in the breeze and for a moment, I thought it might be a large turkey vulture. But that didn’t explain the matted black fur covering the rest of the carcass.

Leon hefted the tire iron in his hand. “Thing ain’t got a face. Maybe if I turn it over?”

“Leon, I don’t think—” I stopped when he slid the pry end of the tire iron under the largest section of the animal. Viscous strands of semi-translucent mucus seeped from the mass as he lifted it from the ground.

“Kneel down, tell me if you can see anything,” he grunted.

“Leon, no—“

He fixed me with a measuring stare. “Don’t you want to know what it is?”

I looked back at the carcass. The disturbed flies dispersed, their buzzing now a distant hum. I swallowed and climbed down into the ditch. Leon was right; I did want to know. All those crime books had got me going. I couldn’t ignore this mystery.

I got down on all fours. The downy heads of the seeding grass found their way up my shorts and tickled my skin as I pressed my face to the ground.

“I can’t see anything,” I called. “It’s too dark.” I was about to say it was too dead when a familiar shape caught my eye—it appeared to be a small shoe. I inched closer, stretching out my arm. My fingers brushed against the sticky strings of ooze as I reached for the sneaker.

Coughing and gripping my prize by the laces, I crawled back out of the ditch. The shoe was coated with slime, but beneath it, I saw the little white star printed on the ankle of the canvas high-top. A chill ran down my spine. I had a pair just like it when I was a boy.

“What is it?”

In my distraction, I’d forgotten about Leon. I held up the shoe for him to see. It twisted in the air, dangling from its laces. He took a long, hard look at it, his expression twisting into an unpleasant scowl when he recognized what it was.

“Son of a bitch!” Leon let the carcass drop. “It’s a costume or mannequin or something. Someone’s idea of a joke.”

His anger took me off-guard. I thought he’d be proud at the lengths I’d gone to satisfy his curiosity. When a fly descended and landed on his neck, Leon smacked it in his fury. A white handprint blossomed on the red flush creeping up his neckline. He roared, turning on me. The tire iron whistled past my face, just missing my upraised arm. It landed with a thwack against the canvas sneaker, and the laces tore from my fingers. The shoe went sailing end-over-end into the cotton field.

“What the fuck!” I rounded on Leon, preparing to strike back. His face was pale now, his eyes turned inward. I’d never seen him like that before, and it was enough to make me hesitate. “Leon, I don’t think it’s a joke, just a coincidence. I mean, there’s always debris along the road, thrown out a window or fallen from an overloaded cargo carrier.”

He glared at me and I pressed my lips tight, averting my eyes to look back over the cotton field. I could see the broken branches where the sneaker had landed, and in that moment, my stomach dropped. It was an odd thing to find, I had to admit. Leon’s paranoia only added to my own misgivings and memories of insidious goings-on from those detective novels. The shoe had been small, so very small, and how had it ended up under that thing?

A siren and the crackling of tires slowing on the edge of the road broke my contemplation.

“Crap.” I turned just in time to see a cop car roll up beside us.

“You having some trouble, boys?” A state trooper leaned out the window, his mirrored sunglasses catching our reflection, small and distant, in a double image on either side of his nose. “Need me to call you a tow?”

“No, officer,” Leon said. “Just stretching our legs before we get back on our way.”

The trooper peered over his glasses with professional suspicion.

“On your way? Not unless you’ve got two spares instead of the usual one.”

Leon’s head snapped around and I followed his gaze to our car. He cursed loudly as I gaped at the set of deflated tires on the passenger’s side.

We waited as the trooper radioed in the incident. When it was reported back it would be some time before a tow could come, he offered us a ride into town. Leon protested, but in the end, we climbed into the back of the squad car.

The trooper apologized through the wire screen separating us from the driver’s seat.

“Sorry, but in these parts, nothing happens fast. Not much of anything that needs hurrying. I’ll drop you at the Silver Spoon, you can wait there until Barry gets around to fixing you up.”

Leon snorted. I tried to make up for his callousness by thanking the trooper for not leaving us to bake in the sun while we waited for “Barry’s” dubious arrival. I’m not sure Leon agreed. He fidgeted next to me the whole ride, barely speaking a word.

The trooper let us out on a corner. I watched him make a U-turn and head back toward the highway, then I checked my watch. It was just past two. There was no telling when we would be getting back on the road.

“Why don’t you go inside and get us a booth?” I said to Leon, nodding in the direction of a neon sign shaped like a giant soup spoon. “I’ll call the boss and let him know we’re gonna be late.”

It was obvious that Leon wasn’t thrilled with the idea. It meant I was taking control. But at the moment, he wasn’t looking too good. His hair was askew, his eyes bloodshot, and there was a red lump rising from where he’d slapped at his neck earlier. He scratched at it with annoyance.

“Yeah, you do that. Too damn hot out here anyways.”

I waited for the diner’s door to close behind him before fishing out my cell phone.

I perused my surroundings as I waited for our boss to answer. The state trooper was right; the town wasn’t much—a short row of two-story brick buildings along a main drag with what I assumed was Barry’s garage at the far end. It was quaint and a bit rundown, but nostalgic in a Mayberry kind of way. The type of place, I was certain, where everyone knew each other.

“Hello?” A gruff voice broke the staticky barrage of rings in my ear.

Shouting over the bad signal, I explained our predicament to the boss. Leon was right about one thing: the home office had no respect for us guys on the road. I found myself agreeing to drive all night to our next stop if that would make things right, just to stop the flow of grievances from the other end of the line.

My boss put me on hold while he looked for the number of a night manager. Patting my pockets for something to write on, I found nothing, so I tore down an old flier that had fallen loose from the light pole closest to me. When our boss came back on the line, I scribbled the digits he rattled off on the back of the rain-stained paper.

Snapping shut my phone, I felt a twinge of Leon’s deep-seated annoyance. It wasn’t fair. I hadn’t done anything wrong. The overwhelming sensation that I deserved better than this, that my life was going nowhere, mingled with the dread of the grousing I would have to endure when I delivered the bad news to Leon.

I leaned my head back and sighed.

All I wanted was to go home, to lie in my own bed for one night and be comforted by my wife and her unrelenting sympathy. If I could just hear her voice, I thought, I might be okay. But when I looked back down at my phone, I saw the reception had gone from a single faint bar to a null void of service.

In frustration, I lashed out at the wall next to me and came away with scraped and bloody knuckles. I sucked at the wound as I made my way to the diner.

“They’re still serving breakfast,” Leon slid me a laminated menu when I took the seat across from him. “What’d you do to your hand?”

“Accident,” I mumbled, feigning interest in the specials. “Boss wants us to drive all night to make up the time.”

Soft chuckling came from across the table instead of the rage and cursing I was expecting.

“What’s so funny?”

Leon picked up the pepper and unscrewed the lid, then screwed it on tighter before shaking it over his eggs. “What’d you expect, Ryan, you think the old bastard would give us a break?”

“No. I—”

Leon exchanged the shaker for his fork. “You know what your problem is, Ryan? You want to deny what’s right in front of you.” He pointed at my bloody knuckles. “You’d be much happier if you just accepted the world for what it is and stopped making excuses for people you barely know.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “Oh, I suppose I’d be better off taking a page from your book and assuming everyone’s out to get me?”

Leon shrugged. “At least I don’t get upset when people act the way I expect them to.”

I balked at his hypocrisy. “You’re telling me—the guy whose head you almost took off with a tire iron—that you don’t get upset? That’s good, Leon, that’s real good.”

He chewed for a moment. “That was different. I was sticking up for us. I don’t like to look like a fool.”

The last of my patience broke and I snorted. “A fool? That’s what you’re worried about? Well you’re no fool, Leon. You’re a loser; that’s what you are. You got no friends, no family. You could disappear and no one would notice.” I pointed at my chest. “All you’ve got is a captive audience to listen to your rails against the world, and half the time, I’m not even listening. You know why? Because it’s all bullshit.”

Leon’s cheeks flushed. I’d gone too far and I knew it.

“Look, I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m hot, I’m tired, and we’ve got a long drive ahead of us. Let’s just eat in peace, okay?”

But Leon was having none of that. He stood, pulled his wallet from his back pocket, and yanked out two twenties.

“You go on pretending we’re so different.” He stared down at me, his voice a hoarse whisper. “But we got the same job; we wear the same shirts on our backs. Yeah, maybe I ain’t got no family, but I bet that boy of yours you’re always going on about doesn’t even recognize his own daddy. When’s the last time you saw him, Ryan? Huh? When you can remember that, then we’ll talk about who’s a loser and who’s not.”

He threw down the money and stormed out.

I sat there seething, my mouth twisting as I chewed the words he’d flung at me. Leon would never understand my sacrifice, what I was going through to give my family a leg up. And my son, he was still just a baby. But my blood chilled as I realized it’d been a dozen or more weeks since I’d been home. My boy, who had only been six months old when I accepted this job, would be saying his first words any day now. I thought back to that shoe, and how things can fall by the wayside when you aren’t looking.

“Your friend coming back?”

I looked up and saw a young waitress standing at my table. I looked with dismay at Leon’s barely touched plate of food.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you want to order, or you want to wait?” The waitress popped her gum.

“Just give me whatever he was having.” I’d lost my appetite.

I picked at my food for an hour, certain Leon would come back after he blew off steam. But an hour stretched into two and there was still no sign of him. I regretted leaving my novel back in the car, desperate for something to distract me from the words that had been said. I made do with a copy of the local paper, half-skimming the articles as I glanced at the door and checked my phone to see if to see if I had a message, only to be disappointed.

After three hours, the dinner crowd began to trickle in. I could no longer ignore the fact that Leon probably wouldn’t return on his own, that I’d have to go find him. Hopefully that would be enough to patch things up, and he wouldn’t make me admit he’d been right.

I paid the check and left the waitress Leon’s two twenties for her patience.

My shadow fell long and lean across the cracked sidewalk when I stepped outside. I shielded my eyes from the low-hanging sun and searched the street for Leon. It was empty, as it had been earlier, but parked outside Barry’s garage, there was a rusted old tow truck. Figuring Leon had seen the same thing, I hurried in that direction.

I was pretty irritated by the time I reached the open bays of the garage, expecting to find Leon chatting up the mechanic with no consideration for the fact that I’d been waiting. But when I ducked inside, there was no sign of Leon, just our bug-splattered sedan up on a lift and a bearded man in coveralls rolling a tire over from a rack in the back.

“This your car, fella?”

“You must be Barry.” He nodded and I offered my hand as he stood. “Yeah it’s my—our car. I was hoping my partner would be here already.” I craned my neck to look around.

Barry mopped his brow with a rag. “Haven’t seen anybody since I got in a few minutes ago. Sorry to keep y’all waiting. But you’re lucky, I’ve got your size in stock, won’t take but a jiffy for me to get you back up and running.”

His friendly smile didn’t put me much at ease. I pulled out my cell phone to check the time and to see if my service had miraculously returned.

“You got a phone I could try to call him on?”

Barry hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “You can use the office line if you don’t stay on too long.”

 

I thanked him and found my way inside.

Surprisingly, Leon’s cell rang when I dialed, but after a few short hums, it rolled over to voicemail. I hung up and tried again, receiving the same abrupt message to leave my name and number. I left a voicemail this time: the car is ready, meet me at the garage, we need to put this day behind us.

After I hung up, I felt that maybe I should have apologized more. But what was Leon playing at, making me wait around like this? He already gotten his pound of flesh, that shot he took about the kind of father I was turning into. But this was way beyond his normal shenanigans, and I couldn’t help but feel a little worried. It was getting dark now. What could he be getting up to in a town this small?

I fished out the night manager’s number, figuring I should let him know we still hadn’t left. The call was answered by a robotic voice which insisted on listing the store’s hours and weekly specials before getting to the departmental extensions. I tapped the edge of the scrap of paper on the desk as I waited. Then, out of sheer boredom, I turned it over to glance at the back. When I saw what was printed there, I hung up the phone.

“You get ahold of your friend?”

Startled, I looked up. Barry was standing in the doorway.

“No. I mean—look.” I wiped my lips. “I didn’t realize what I was doing, but I think I destroyed an important poster.”

I looked back down at the half-torn piece of paper and grimaced. The picture was grainy, but you could still make out the boy’s mischievous grin, the word “missing,” and a name that was still legible despite the water stains: Elliott Daniels.

I handed it to Barry and his eyebrows rose.

“Oh, this. I thought we’d taken all of these down.” He shook his head. “You don’t need to worry about this.”

“Why not? Did they find him?” God, please let him say yes.

“Oh, they found him alright. Hiding out in a fort him and his friends built back in the woods. Had a fight with his mom and thought he’d give her a little scare. We’ve been having a rash of adolescent mischief lately. Sorry you had to fall victim to it a second time.”

I must have looked dumbfounded, because he handed back the slip of paper rather sheepishly.

“Look, I’m not going to charge you for my labor, just the tires. I’d hate for a stranger to get the wrong impression about our town. I’ll make sure the hoodlums who slashed your tires are dealt with.”

I swallowed, my stomach turning sour as what he said sank in. Slashed tires? Had Leon been right? Had today’s events all stemmed from some kid’s idea of a practical joke?

My head was still reeling when I settled the bill. I didn’t think twice when Barry handed me the keys. It wasn’t until I was out in the parking lot, about to unlock the car, that I realized something was wrong. Leon had pulled the keys from the ignition when we stopped on the highway. How had Barry gotten ahold of them?

I turned on my heel, determined to get to the bottom of this, but I found that the windows of the garage had gone dark. There was no sign of Barry or his tow truck.

I tried to convince myself that there was some reasonable explanation. Maybe Barry had slipped out a back door. Maybe someone else came to get the truck. But when I opened the car door and sat down in the driver’s seat, I couldn’t help but think that maybe Leon had also been right when he told me in the diner that I needed to stop making excuses for people I barely knew. There was something about this town, this day, that didn’t sit right. The sooner it was all behind me, the better.

But I couldn’t leave without Leon.

I slid the driver’s seat forward and started the engine. The iron lampposts flicked on as I turned out on to the main street, their garish light making the shadows of the darkened storefronts even more ominous. I checked each one as I passed. No Leon. Only the Silver Spoon appeared to be inhabited. Through the plate-glass window, I could see the same waitress who’d served me lunch, leaning against the counter. She was absentmindedly twirling something in her hand as she stared off into space. It took me a second before I recognized it as a flyswatter.

I turned off the main road and began searching the side streets.

Twilight sank into true night, and still I couldn’t find him. I was about to turn back on to the main street, head back to the diner, and ask if I could use their phone, when my pocket vibrated and trilled. I slammed on the breaks, afraid that if I moved another inch I’d lose the signal.

“Ryan?” Leon’s voice crackled over the earpiece and for once, I was happy to hear it.

“Leon, where are you? Do you have any idea what time it is?”

“Ryan—” A hiss of static broke the connection.

I realized he couldn’t hear me so I listened for some clue to his whereabouts.

“Ryan, are you there? I need you to come get me.”

I wasn’t sure, but there seemed to be some sound in the background. No, not in the background, there was something different about Leon’s voice. Was he sobbing?

“Leon!” I shouted. “Leon!”

There was heavy breathing on Leon’s end. “Please, you have to—I’m on the high—by that—Please, oh God—”

The line went dead.

I laid on the gas, ignoring the posted speed limit. The new tires squealed as I turned back onto the main street and tore up the road in the direction of the highway. Dark fields whizzed by in my peripheral vision, as questions about how and why Leon had made it back to the highway raced through my head.

There was no traffic when I turned off the bypass. I slowed to the safest crawl I thought possible, searching in the narrow beam of the headlights for someone stranded on the shoulder. But the shadows of night loomed in all around me, rising like mist from the surrounding fields, making it impossible to see anything but the dotted yellow line of the road ahead.

Twenty minutes later, I reached the next turnoff. I pulled over and stared at the sign for a moment as I contemplated how I was going to find Leon in these conditions. I glanced at the dashboard, and the amber glow of the clock caught my eye as it rolled over to ten o’clock. That didn’t make sense. It was just past sunset when I left town. How could I have lost so much time? I pounded the steering wheel in frustration as I spun the car around.

I pulled out my phone, put it on speaker, and listened with growing dread as Leon’s number continued to ring. I flicked the high beams off-and-on hoping it might catch Leon’s attention. My ears thundered with the gushing of my own blood as it pounded through my veins. The hairs on my arms bristled as my mind leapt to the seedy plots in all those true-crime novels I’d devoured in more innocent moments on the road.

There was still no sign of Leon.

Frustration pushed its way toward panic. A part of me screamed to throw in the towel, to quit that very instant and head home to my wife and son. But I couldn’t do it. Leon was miserable company and I only just tolerated him, but he was my partner. We’d suffered together, and I knew despite our harsh words, he would never leave me behind. I was all he had.

I laid on the accelerator and the engine growled to life. Moths flicked through the high beams as I picked up speed.

I rolled down my window. “Leon!” I screamed, honking the horn. “Leon! Come on, man, where are you?” My voice died into the darkness of the cotton fields.

I was approaching the turnoff for the town again when suddenly my headlights caught a dark mass in front of me. I hit the brakes, but it was too late. There was a sickening thud as the thing I hit rolled up the hood of the car and crashed into the windshield.

Shock gripped me as the thing tumbled to the pavement. I could just make it out through the web of shattered glass. The form was too big to be a man, but in the spotlight of my headlights, I could see it was still alive. Its broken wings shuddered uselessly as it heaved, and a phosphorous green glow pulsated from beneath its crumpled form. The light grew and died in time to the trilling of my phone. When I retrieved it from down between my feet and closed the cover, the light beneath the creature went out. I would have to get out and look to be sure.

The door alarm chimed behind me as I crept along the asphalt. My shadow reached the crumpled form long before I did. When it fell across the matted black fur of the body, the shuddering ceased.

“Hello?” My voice cracked in my throat.

I stepped closer. When I stretched out my arm, words escaped in a garbled growl from beneath the black fur.

“Stay back.”

“Are—are you alright?”

“Stay back!”

The voice was clear this time.

“Leon! God, Leon! What have they done to you?” I rushed forward, dropping to my knees. My hands hovered over the massive wings, unsure of where I should place them. “How do I get this thing off you?”

The wings shook as sobs emanated from beneath the fur.

“Leon, tell me what to do.” I rested a tentative palm on the joint of the wing. The feathers were damp, and when I pulled my hand away, I saw my fingers were coated with amber goo. “Oh God,” I whispered. “Leon, I think you’re bleeding. We need to get you to a hospital.”

I went to help him up, but as I reached his body he began to convulse. I scuttled backward as he lumbered to his feet, the wings stretching outward.

My scream stuck in my throat when I looked to where his face should be—a swarm of wriggling iridescent flies crawled over each other as their hissing increased to a buzz.

“Go! Run!” Leon’s voice gurgled as he tried to shout. Awkwardly, the form stumbled toward me and the voice changed to a whining drone. “What are you looking at?!”

I scrambled to my feet and bolted toward the car. I dove head first into the driver’s seat, slamming the door behind me. In the fractured windshield, I saw the thing writhing in the middle of the road, thrashing this way and that, as if it were battling some unseen foe. I revved the engine and hesitated as the undulating mask that was Leon’s face went still. The iridescent bodies parted, revealing a glimpse of pink skin and human eyes that begged for salvation.

I threw the car into drive and slammed my foot on the gas. The tires squealed, and once again there was a sickening thud as the thing bounced off the bumper. I didn’t look back as I sped away, the car fishtailing until I regained control. I couldn’t look again.

Tears flowed hot and free until I reached the next exit and turned the car in the direction that would take me home. All I could hope was that the battered sedan would hold out until daylight, until I reached some semblance of civilization. I felt a tickle on my fingertips. I looked down, and by the light of the dashboard, saw a fly crest the knuckles of my right hand where it gripped the steering wheel. I slapped at it and nearly lost control of the car. A minute later, I looked again and saw that a red bump had formed.


Copyright © 2015 R. Y. Brockway