The Electric Coast Highway carved a winding path through the scrubby foothills of the Ninguna Mountains, a slick black river in a gray haze of mesquite under the stark light of a staring moon. The desert was illuminated in that queer, liminal shadow-day that occurs only when the moon is at its peak, so bright the world seems nearly awake – but not necessarily alive. We see a mirror image, a photo negative of the waking world, the same shapes in ghastly relief – the warm red cliffsides cast bone white, the wicked fingers of the ocotillo clawing, stone gray, at the vast, yawning weight of the starry sky. The world is in counterpoint, and one questions whether it is better or worse to be able to see what walks in the dark.
Dan Harding snapped off the drone of NPR as it trailed to a muffled crackle, reception lost between the hunched backs of the low mountains. He might pick up the signal again once he crossed Acacia Flats, but it had been starting to put him to sleep, and he had yet to find a local radio station that he actually liked. Just as well, anyway: there was a wire loose somewhere in his stereo, and it had recently developed a habit of turning off and on by itself whenever that wire was jiggled, sometimes radically changing volume after a particularly ambitious bump. He’d had the crap scared out of him a couple of times that way, turning on the engine and suddenly finding some shitty pop-country band blowing out the bass in his speakers. He’d have to have it looked at eventually, but there was always something more important, always just one more thing you needed to pour your paycheck into, and eventually you just learned to deal with the little inconveniences. Eventually they became part of life, and you didn’t even remember they were there until you brought home somebody new and they asked you why your car was such a piece of shit. By that time, you’d stopped noticing the smell.
Christ, he was tired. It was a little after three in the morning, although he couldn’t have spoken to it exactly – the dash clock was slow, too – and the pounding migraine that had been working on him all day had finally driven him to give up the ghost at work. He could get away with not power-washing the mats or getting down on his knees to really scrub the floors. The handy thing about working hard was that on the days you just couldn’t, most people were liable to let it slide, and if they wouldn’t, you had a list a foot long as to why they should step the fuck off. Pretty cynical way to look at diligence as a character trait – turned it from a virtue into something more like cool practicality – but it had served him well so far, and the relief of being able to just go home nearly counterbalanced the pain he was in. Nearly.
A mangled lump of fur on the shoulder flashed by in the moment between blinks, a snapshot presented to his mind in retrospect – javelina, it looked like. Poor thing. He hated seeing roadkill, particularly identifiable roadkill, and he was more than aware of how odd it was that he felt so little liking or even empathy for human beings, yet experienced a lousy clenching in his gut at the idea that a wild pig had been killed. He couldn’t help it: animals touched something in him that he guarded too jealously to allow it to grow, and he attended the notion that he had never run over an animal in his life with an absurd blend of pride and anxiety.
He had come close, once. Coming back from a late night in Garden City, watching the elliptical swatch of highway illuminated by his brights with the dozy half-awareness of road hypnosis, he had spotted it just in time to swerve out of the way. It had been a raccoon, sitting up awkwardly on its forelegs in the middle of the road, and like the dead javelina, he had only seen it in a single, crystal-clear moment, processed seconds after he had already driven by. In that moment, he saw the raccoon swaying dumbly back and forth, head bobbing from side to side, and he saw that its back was broken. It couldn’t have moved even if it had been able to break the horrifying, idiot confusion that had stolen its mind.
He had immediately regretted not hitting it and ending the ordeal, knowing it would lie where it was until some other motorist finished the job – or worse, until predation did so instead. The idea that it might have lain there and died of exposure if neither of these things happened was worst of all, and his fingers clenched around the steering wheel in time with his gut as he thought about it. Laying there as the sun crept higher, as the heat grew more intense, baking on the asphalt, unable to understand what had happened to it, to comprehend the true horror of what was going to-
He didn’t see the board which had fallen into the road, but he felt the thump as he went over it, and he was one image and half a concept into the worry that his tires might have been damaged when his radio clicked back on, and Bob Boilen started howling All Things Considered with roughly the concussive force of a foghorn. Dan shrieked, slamming down reflexively on the brakes, and as he began to skid he was afforded one crystal clear image of a deer mid-bound, another snapshot in the mind with front legs tucked demurely into its chest and rear legs stretched out behind.
For that one second he saw it, and he yanked on the wheel, and then his front bumper buckled the deer’s legs and flipped it over the hood, where it caved in the windshield with a sick crunch. He veered off the road, and when he felt his front tires drop into the shallow ditch off the shoulder the deer was flung into the air by the break in momentum. In the moment before his airbag blew he saw it twirl like an absurdly amusing ragdoll, then hit the asphalt with a sad, wet, wretched thump that he could not hear but imagined with perfect clarity.
Then his airbag did blow, momentarily blotting out anything but the pain of friction and force, and when he tumbled out of the car his nose was gouting blood, lending a damp quality to a string of epithets that would have had his mother positively spitting. He yanked off his flannel shirt and balled it against his face, dropping onto his rear and leaning back against the uneven yaw of his thoroughly trashed car. Bumper, hood, windshield, tires, and that was just what he could take stock of at a glance – who knew what was wrong on the inside.
He was, in a word, fucked.